Is Your Professional Development Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

One of my favorite former managers, whom I am now fortunate to call a friend, used to say that “hindsight is the only option in the absence of foresight.” Perhaps that’s the reason I can now look back on the first 1.5 decades of my career and offer some insights about personal development.

In our careers, and perhaps in life, we progress through phases:

  • thinking that we know everything
  • realizing we know very little about anything
  • demonstrating that we know a lot about something (or for the fortunate, a small number of things)
  • accepting that we can never really be certain about anything, while remaining curious about everything
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What is an Executive, you ask? Usually I reserve sidebars like this for comedic asides, but US tax dollars commissioned the Occupational Outlook Handbook (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/top-executives.htm) and I want you to read it. Someone actually went to work over a series of hours to weeks and wrote this sincerely for the benefit of the US Economy. So please stifle all laughter when reading in the presence of public servants.

Previously I have written about specialization and capability development in career progression. In summary, as we follow a single career track our knowledge and proficiency become deeper and narrower, until we jump across to another track. Recently I realized two opposing corollaries to this concept.

The farther we progress on a single career track, two things arise

Pessimist’s view: the number of capabilities that you need to develop in order to advance gets smaller, and the chances that you have to practice or demonstrate them become less frequent. In my first year out of college, I was terrible at everything; pick any one skill and I would have 10 chances a day to practice doing it better (let’s start with “never hitting reply all“). Let’s say you are an executive with 25 years experience in the top decile of your industry, by some generally accepted scorecard. Maybe the thing at the top of your professional development list is “maximizing shareholder value from acquisitions.” Those are going to come along, like, once every 3-5 years? Even if you are in Private Equity or advise on deals you might only be personally responsible for a handful in a year. So the stakes become higher and the at-bats become scarcer. Pretty bleak.

Optimist’s view: your capability profile is positively differentiated from other professionals with equivalent tenure on other tracks, giving you an advantage in “disrupted” organizations. So if you are risk-tolerant enough to jump onto another track after developing significant capabilities, you are likely to find yourself in high demand (and it’s never too early to prepare a transition). Let’s say that on average, across industries, job descriptions for a given equivalent seniority level (e.g., “Vice President”) have 12 qualifications. If you are a top performer in, say, Marketing for a Software firm, and you see that there has been a major disruption in another industry, say, B2C Media or Telecom, you could find yourself in a situation where your skill set is a scarce and valuable asset compared to the incumbents who have been dutifully advancing their proficiency in the set of skills that was most valuable for the previous decade but is now less relevant. Will an executive search committee offer a prominent and strategically important role to an industry outsider in a time of disruption (read: crisis)? That will have to be the subject of another post!

So if you have managed to get this far in the post and are asking yourself, “What does this mean?” Here are is my advice, take it or leave it:

As you advance in your career, stay aware for opportunities to hone your craft, because the most important ones will become less frequent. At the same time, be willing to switch specializations because what is common in one organization could be rare and valuable in another.

There are only 4 jobs in business: which are you pursuing?

Here’s a quick post to summarize a conversation I had a few weeks ago about my own career path (thanks, Michael Schreck). Hopefully, this framework will be useful for other people exploring career development options.

At some point in our careers, we must choose to specialize. For some people this occurs very early, for example entering an apprenticeship at age 16 to learn a skilled trade. Others make this decision after working in the same functional role across industries, or in different functional roles in the same industry, or after a stint in consulting.

So what are you going to specialize in? Let’s simplify by stating that all business roles follow one of four tracks:

  • Fund raisers: These people raise funds to support transactions and investments, typically through private equity funds, hedge funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, or debt/equity offerings. You will succeed in this job if you love building pitch books, are already a famous and massively wealthy investor, and/or are such a fantastic salesperson that you can convince people to part with millions of dollars for the chance to own a sliver of something that won’t exist for years.
  • Deal makers: Once the funds have been raised, it’s time to put the dry powder to use by buying something. While many corporate development teams, venture capital & private equity groups manage deal flow and close transactions on their own, the deal makers that grab the largest share of the spotlight are investment bankers. Spending an unsustainable percentage of your life revising pitch decks is also a hallmark of this career path. but for those who succeed in riding the M&A waves, countless bespoke suits and limited edition watches await.
  • Profit takers: Once the fireworks around the deal have faded, someone’s got to execute the strategy. The owners of any business, ranging from a sole proprietorship to a limited liability company to a corporation, bear the risk of the ongoing operation, and also have the first cut of the retained earnings. [Updated thanks to a helpful comment by Pete Bondi] The owner’s role is to create: new products, services, and content that attract customers and retain competitive advantage. Recent studies show that most CEOs of large corporations have finance backgrounds, and all have had to climb the ladder by succeeding in operational and sales roles, in addition to any functional experience. US tax return data shows that higher earners are more likely to be self-employed, so the appeal of “owning something” can also be quite lucrative.
  • Advisors: After some feedback and discussion about this post, I’ve added a fourth category to include career consultants. Now anyone who has run a consulting business would put themselves in the third category above, but there are plenty of talented people who can lead long, fulfilling careers as non-partner, subject matter experts on the consulting track, without ever participating in the execution of their analyses.

Which path are you on? Why? Are you at an inflection point in your professional development? Sometimes eliminating an alternate path can help increase dedication to the path you’re on – so take a good hard look at the grass on the other side of the fence and make your decision.

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.

Use these metrics to rev your talent engine: Delivery and transition phases

Continuing the series on the four stages of the talent cycle, once the hard work has been done to bring new talent into your organization, it’s time for them to deliver value before transitioning to a new role. These metrics will help ensure a mutually beneficial and productive working relationship between employees and employers.


For the delivery phase of the talent cycle, the two most important aspects to manage are performance and engagement. Although the latest trend is to reject the bell curve (i.e., normal distribution) for a power function, any organization with a team size larger than 2 has to address performance management in both absolute and relative terms. Ensure that your performance management system–which could range from a piece of paper to an enterprise application–can help you answer the following questions in dialogue between leaders and employees:

  • Absolute performance: how is each employee performing relative to his/her potential? What is he/she doing well, and should do more? What is he/she struggling to do, and what support can the company provide? What are the employee’s career goals, and how is his/her current position aligned with them?
  • Relative performance: does the employee “raise the gene pool” of the organization? is the employee negatively impacting the quality and enjoyment of other employee’s work experience? What capabilities can the employee role model for the rest of the team?

Performance reviews (I recommend every 6 months rather than annually, to keep the feedback fresh) naturally lead to transitions. Some employees will be ready for more responsibility and promotion, others no longer fit the organization and need to rotate out. Succession planning and attrition will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Engagement is the most broadly applicable metric, providing insight across all phases of the talent cycle. The most straightforward and pragmatic way to gauge engagement is with a 2 question survey:

  1. How likely are you to recommend working at this company to a friend or colleague? Answer on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most likely.
  2. What one thing would need to change for you to give a higher rating? Open text response.

Gallup’s method to capturing engagement data is another statistically validated, relatively brief (12 questions) survey.

As the modern economy shifts more towards services and technology, managing the talent cycle is an increasingly important skill for leaders to master in order to maintain a competitive advantage. While it will always be a subjective, personal experience, the intent of setting out these metrics across the talent cycle is to help reduce the complexity of the process by introducing some standardization and objectivity.

Use these metrics to rev your Talent Engine: Intake stage

Now that we’ve defined the four stages of the talent cycle as Intake, Development, Delivery, and Transition, it’s time to define the key metrics that will help you manage the first phase. Without getting lost in the philosophical nuances between Drucker’s Management by Objectives and Deming’s systems view, let me try to instill some passion for metrics that spark change with two fortune cookie management quotes:

hiring-funnelSo what are the outcomes you are trying to achieve from the Intake phase of the talent cycle? Anomalies in these metrics will point you to the parts of the system that must change in order to achieve different results.

  • Time to fill open requisition
  • Percent vacancies (open positions divided by total positions)
  • Activity rate and yield for each step in the funnel (see diagram)
  • Yield by channel (i.e., sourcing, agency, referral, inbound application), job function, hiring manager
  • Percent of early exits (involuntary and voluntary terminations before 90 days of employment)
  • Satisfaction: hiring manager, candidate, new hire, recruiter
  • Percent of opt outs (i.e., number of candidates who withdraw at each step in the funnel divided by number of candidates who started that step)
  • Average candidate quality (based on assessments by hiring managers based on required qualifications for each role)

if your applicant tracking system doesn’t generate a dashboard of metrics similar to these, you may have to build your own. Start with a white board and upgrade to Excel or an easily configured database (like Quickbase) once you know what you want to measure, when, and how.

Next up: key metrics for the Development phase of the talent cycle.

What metrics have you used to measure talent intake? which of these are useless? Leave a comment!
image: http://www.sourcecon.com

Get your Talent Engine Revving: the Four Stages

Most leaders would agree that having the right talent on their teams is essential for success, and recently Build Network has confirmed this hunch in a leadership survey. The goal of this post is to provide some structure to the talent cycle and help leaders get the most from their talent by segmenting the tenure of any employee into four phases: Intake, Development, Delivery, and Transition. While similar to the four stroke engine cycle, we’ll try to limit the amount of compression and ignition we put our employees through.


Except for the stereotypical Japanese salarymen, very few employers expect to need more than one hand to count the average tenure of staff. And while the US Department of Labor’s 2012 data showed average tenure across all industries has increased to 4.6 years from 4.4 in 2010, data compiled earlier in 2013 by Payscale showed employers in retail and IT companies should expect closer to 2, as reported by Business Insider. And based on the bankrupt and bailed out companies at the other end of the Payscale list, and the bankrupt and bailed out countries in the OECD data set from 2011, seeing tenure rise above 10 years should be a warning sign (especially when long tenure comes along with unsustainable pension obligations).

So let’s make the math easy and propose you’ll get 2 years of contribution, on average, from your employees. I’m defining the Intake phase as the period from the first touch during recruiting through the first 90 days of employment. Take off the last month before exit for Transition, and we are left with 20 months. So if the goal is to maximize the contribution to the business from each employee, it’s important to “compress” the Development period, which I’m defining as the length of time required for an employee to become fully competent in role.

  1. Intake: starts with first contact with a prospect during recruiting, ends at day 90 of employment. Recruiting, onboarding, and orientation are key processes. Coordination between HR, Facilities, IT, Finance, and hiring managers is essential to establish new employees with high engagement and reduce early exits.
  2. Development: from day 91 through the point at which an employee is fully competent in role. Coaching, training, and peer support will help ensure employees can contribute high quality work, independently, as quickly as possible.
  3. Delivery: could be as short as a few months for organizations with low overall tenure and long intake and development periods.
  4. Transition: allowing for knowledge transfer from an outgoing staffer to the incoming hire. Internal promotions will allow for longer transition periods, but most US employment agreements expect only 2 weeks notice.

An upcoming series of posts (linked in the list above) will look at the key metrics to track in each of these phases of the talent cycle, along with the most important processes to streamline in your organization to ensure your team is happy, developing, and delivering at each phase of the cycle.

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.