To Improve the Leadership Training Experience, Think Like a Marketer

Marketers’ timeless obsession is “getting the right message to the right person, at the right time, through the right channel.” As a consumer who is bombarded by marketing messages on nearly every visible surface during every waking hour, you know intuitively that some messages resonate strongly and most are just background noise. Research backs this up: referrals consistently generate the highest conversion rates, while direct mail, email, phone, and display ads can be hundreds or thousands of times less effective (see Marketo, Marketingcharts, MarketingSherpa for details). When Carla (the happy customer) recommends a widget to Sam (the shopper), Sam is much more likely to make a purchase than if the same brand shows up in Sam’s mailbox or browser.

Why do referrals perform so strongly? Two main reasons:

  • The message is timely and relevant. Sam and Carla know enough about each other for Carla to understand what Sam’s needs are, why her experience with the widget would be meaningful to Sam, and when to bring it up so that Sam will listen and take action. This is the classic “why me, why now” message that sales and marketing experts like Jeb Blount and Mark Roberge reinforce. Perhaps even more importantly, Carla knows what Sam doesn’t need right now and doesn’t waste both of their time pushing irrelevant widgets.
  • The source is trusted and credible. Again this relies on a minimum strength of relationship between Sam and Carla such that Sam is more likely to act on Carla’s advice than another person’s. Right now, we won’t explore the psychological dynamic and value exchange going on between these two, but it’s fascinating stuff that Daniel Pink, Robert Cialdini, and the Heath brothers (among others) have written about in detail.

What does this have to do with leadership training? Let’s assume that the organization’s objective is to accelerate the leadership capabilities of their mid- and senior-level staff. This starts with the necessary and insufficient step of achieving high participation in training activities. So here’s how to map the two marketing principles above to your leadership training challenge.

Segment your leaders based on prior experience

Some training content is about compliance; this is mandatory for everyone. For the rest, each of your staff will have either high or low experience along these dimensions:

  • leadership skills: providing direction, inspiration, coaching/mentoring, etc. to a build a great team
  • management skills: prioritization and “load balancing” to enable a group of resources to complete their work on time, at high quality, and efficiently
  • navigating your company’s HR systems: understanding the processes and tools for talent planning, recruiting, performance management, compensation, etc.

By segmenting your leaders based on these attributes, you will find a better match between audience and content, which makes the message more relevant. Then, by scheduling the training events based on the events in the leaders’ lives (e.g., around hiring, performance review or promotion cycles, etc.) the message will be more timely.

Send the message from a respected, successful leader

Personal trainers who are less fit than their clients won’t stay in business for long. Yet many organizations tolerate leadership training to be run by employees who are not successful leaders, not effective training facilitators, or both. Ensure that the people in your organization who send the call to action for leadership training, and the people who deliver the training events, can “walk the talk.” These might be the senior leaders within your organization’s business lines, or from external non-competitive organizations. This ensures the message comes from a credible, trusted source.

The best marketers and the best leadership trainers have a common motivation: they are passionate about their widgets and believe their customers will be better off with the widget than without. So try thinking like a marketer to improve the outcomes of your company’s leadership training experience.

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Does your job fulfill the career Hierarchy of Needs?

Among the many first world problems readers of this blog will face is the challenge of finding a rewarding career. With apologies to Maslow, I’ve created a hierarchy of needs for careers. You may find this helpful when comparing options to change jobs within a company or between organizations. Remember that just like in other areas of consumer behavior, career decisions are about making trade-offs. Is a shorter commute “worth” doing more PowerPoint slides? Would you give up your dynamic and cohesive team for the chance to make a more tangible positive difference to society? Keep in mind that the items at the top of the pyramid tend to take a longer time to become evident.

My last caveat before explaining the career hierarchy of needs is what you won’t see on the list. Compensation and title/status are not part of this hierarchy for two reasons: first, adequate compensation and title are pre-requisites for any job that an established professional would consider. Second, as authors like Daniel Pink and Andy LaCivita have illustrated, throwing more money at a person in a marginally tolerable role is only a temporary fix.

Hierarchy of Needs for Careers

Hierarchy of Needs mapped to career development
Hierarchy of Needs mapped to career development
  1. (top) Purpose – what difference are we making in the world?
  2. Learning – what skills, knowledge, and experience will you gain?
  3. People – how enjoyable is the company of the team?
  4. Tasks – how fulfilling is the work itself?
  5. (bottom) Work environment – how is the commute, the workplace, the lighting, the snacks?

Try using this set of attributes to plan your next career move, or to start a discussion among your team about how to improve the current environment. If you have feedback about what I’ve omitted, or what doesn’t belong, leave a comment.

Setting goals only works if it’s personal. Four steps to do it effectively

Adapting Tolstoy’s famous opening line about families to business: “every unsuccessful business is unsuccessful in different ways.” One way that I’ve encountered in numerous settings is the disconnect between corporate goals and the work that people do every day. As we’ve come to understand employee motivation more completely over the years through the work of authors like Daniel Pink, being able to tie daily tasks to larger objectives or a shared sense of purpose improves retention and performance.
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But setting corporate goals is a difficult process because, by necessity, they are big. How can we phrase them in a way that is actionable — so that regular Joe and Jane can come to work each morning, do their best, and make a measurable difference? It’s a tough challenge, but surely the most profitable company in the world has this figured out…let’s see what we can learn from ExxonMobil’s goals!

Here are some excerpts taken from the 2011 Corporate Citizenship Report, which highlights performance and goals in six areas. Below are the first statements under “what we plan to do” for each of those areas:

  • Environmental Performance: “Continue to implement recommendations on improving oil spill response capabilities”
  • Managing Climate Change Risks: “Continue to improve energy efficiency by at least 10 percent between 2002 and 2012 across our worldwide refining and chemical operations”
  • Safety, Health, and the Workplace: “Continue to learn from personnel and process safety performance metrics to help achieve our goal that Nobody Gets Hurt”
  • Corporate Governance: “Continue to recruit highly qualified non-employee directors”
  • Economic Development: “Partner with the United Nations Foundation to develop a report examining the most effective investments to advance women’s economic empowerment”
  • Human Rights and Managing Community Impact: “Continue to review existing practices toward making appropriate adjustments relative to expectations under the U.N. Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”

Those are some high level, long term goals, and as the largest company in the world, they should be. But coming to work every day, how many of the 82,000 employees can make a direct contribution to these? The answer is none — not when the individual’s goals are worded this way. The critical step that leaders at all levels, in companies large or small, must take is to translate high-level business goals into aligned, measurable goals within an individual’s span of control.

How to do this? Just like you’d knock down a wasps nest: very carefully and with plenty of preparation. I’ll oversimplify in to these four steps; if you’re interested in a more complete set of instructions, please reach out to some of the folks in my network listed below who do this for a living.

  1. Set your overall organizational goals in specific measurable terms. For example, grow free cash flow at 20% CAGR for the next 3 years.
  2. Decompose the high-level goals into the measurable sub-goals based on how the system works. In the example above, the major levers on free cash flow are profit, net capital expenditure, and net change in working capital. At the next level of detail, the major drivers of profit are revenue and operating expenses; the major drivers of CAPEX are the number of capital projects and the size/schedule of each. Continue to expand out these measurable sub-goals until you reach tangible metrics that can be influenced by leadership teams and individual contributors (things like revenue from specific customers, OEE, and expenses by category).
  3. Measure the gaps and set targets for the detailed goals so that they add up to meet the overall goals. It’s math. This is the easy part compared to the next step.
  4. Have a series of conversations with your leadership teams and individual contributors to agree the targets, improvement projects, and timelines so that people understand the numbers, how they are mutually dependent, and take ownership of the outcome. These conversations can be truly defining moments for organizations.

But don’t take my word for it – seek out the advice of some talented folks who have made goal setting and translation a focus of their careers.

Four ways to prevent employee incentives from destroying value

With the new year comes a new set of business goals and likely a new set of personal performance objectives for your team. If you work in sales, you probably have a new boss, too. With the best of intentions, most organizations I’ve encountered set the incentive structure in a way that leaves company profit on the table and erodes personal initiative. Before your team adopts Homer Simpson’s work ethic, use my 4 tips below to adjust your incentives

Any team will consist of high-, average-, and low-performing individuals. The modern incentive toolkit has two main features: traditional “carrot and stick” incentives that keep everyone accountable, and others tapping into intrinsic motivators that spur your top performers even higher. Daniel Pink describes these as autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And don’t depend on money alone as a reward. While Alfie Kohn takes an extreme view that pay for performance flatly doesn’t work, Michael Sturman’s research shows it is more about careful choice of how and how much you pay (hint: more than the competition).

  1. Create tiered goals to prevent “checking out” – For the core operational tasks in your organization, publish goals well in advance. Set rewards proportional to the minimum acceptable, target, and stretch levels. The metrics you choose for individuals should map clearly to overall business goals.
  2. The best rewards are unexpected yet consistent – Daniel Pink describes this as using “now that” rewards instead of “if, then” rewards. By providing recognition and non-monetary rewards (e.g., free lunch or a nice company fleece) to the people who embody the culture you wish to develop in the team, you will incite more of the same. When those rewards come as a pleasant surprise (but are completely unsurprising in hindsight), you are rewarding your best people for what they “would do anyway.”
  3. Small rewards for everyone, big for the best – Another variant on #1 above is to set a target for the group as a whole and also reward the top performers with a larger prize. This technique works particularly well when you have built a team with what organizational psychologists like David Hekman call high organizational identification and low professional identification. More simply, their sense of “I am Google” is stronger than “I’m an engineer.”
  4. Choose personal improvement areas from a list of company priorities – Lastly, ratchet up the sense of ownership for outcomes by providing choice. For example, provide your team members with the 5 key metrics for the business, and let them choose which 3 they will improve by 10% over last year.

It should be obvious that how you manage to targets matters (look for more on this topic in leadertainment). But carefully setting performance targets can avoid destroying both profit and motivation in your team.

What motivates you? Take the Memory Stick Test

The situation: A scientific researcher has a number of well-reviewed papers in print, but is still looking for “the big break.” One day, cleaning out some drawers in a newly inherited lab space on campus, the scientist finds an unlabeled memory stick. Curious, plugging it in reveals a pristine data set, which immediately  confirms proof of a cure for cancer, but no trace of the owner. The scientist goes on to publish the data under his/her own name and win the Nobel Prize, changing life as we know it.

What motivates you: the work itself or the reward?

The test: who would you prefer to be in this situation, the person who does all the hard work and “solves the problem” but gets no recognition, or the person who gets all the fame and fortune without much regard for the path to the top? You probably have a snap answer…now read the rest of this post and reconsider your answer again at the end. This simple test can increase your self-awareness, and also advance your leadership and coaching when you start conversations by posing the question to your team members.

There are many dimensions of motivation, and leaders can use annual goal setting conversations as a way to understand the unique aspirations and performance triggers of their team members. Public recognition is a reward that inspires some people and embarrasses others. Two great books on the subject of motivation in careers, Drive by Daniel Pink and Peak by Chip Conley, explore these dimensions fully and provide practical advice.

The importance of the Memory Stick Test, however, is to learn who in your team carries a potential integrity risk. Fraudulent misrepresentation and cutting corners to complete a task on time are two points on a scale of short-term thinking that poses a risk to personal and professional success. Treat this perspective as a chance to explore these motivations and coach.

How did you answer the Memory Stick Test? What did you learn from the conversation with your team? Have any other quick conversation starters to explore motivation? Leave a comment, thanks!