Which of these six leadership hacks are you using?

One day I will get around to creating a Hype Cycle (à la Gartner) for management and leadership buzzwords. Somewhere in between blockchain and tiger team you will find leadership hacking.

I don't always use jargon, but when I do it is crisp and disruptiveLeadership Hacks are Cliché but Effective

No, I’m not talking about the guy that learned all the languages while blowing hard boiled eggs out of their shells (no hyperlinks: if you don’t get that reference already, I’m not going to torture you with finding out). Leadership hacks are those subtle yet amazing techniques that aren’t written down in Drucker, or HBR, or Military Doctrine. These are the six techniques that I’ve observed in the real world over my first couple decades of professional experience:

  1. The Compelling Event: to prompt action (or a decision) by a certain date. Also known as “pencils down.” Why it works? In a multi-tasking, oversubscribed world, this technique prevents the modern version of Parkinson’s Law from taking hold: that every task expands to fill the time allotted.
  2. The Three Legged Race: to get two team members to confront their differences and appreciate their complementary strengths. Long-term version also called “two in a box.” Why it works? Often we fall into the trap of confirmation bias when we can keep people, or issues, at arm’s length. By forcing close collaboration, this can be overcome.
  3. The Yes, And …: Remove the word no from your vocabulary. Just like in improv comedy, to succeed you need to encourage participation and contributions, and work on redirecting creative energy towards the goal. You might be pleasantly surprised by new thinking that arises. Why it works? Gives your team the chance to provide the solutions (and receive the praise) while you constantly reframe and reframe.
  4. The Pre-Project Press Release: Begin with the end in mind. At the start of a project (or software development cycle), write the press release that you want to cross the wire when the project ends. Why it works? Visualization is a time-honored technique in athletics, performing arts, and business. Resist the urge to run off quickly to take action without planning the critical steps by working backwards from the goal.
  5. The On-site Off-site: Take a team into a conference room full-time for a full day (or week) to reach the depth of focus required for a true breakthrough in thinking. Oh, and also actually finish a task that they start. Why it works? Our work days have been fractured into thinner and thinner slices of focus by technology and projects running concurrently.
  6. The Weekly Digest: Send your manager, your team, or your customers a digest of important and interesting highlights from your work week. Include graphics and short summaries linked to longer items or attachments for easy digestion. The best Weekly Digests are a mixture of what matters to the reader with the topics that the author wants them to keep front-of-mind, written in a style that is lighthearted and enjoyable to read. Why it works? We can’t rely on others to communicate the ideas that are most important to our own success. In the hundreds (thousands?) of emails that people receive weekly, it’s easy to miss something important. Sending a digest email at the same time each week makes it a predictable, and in the best cases eagerly anticipated, summary. Take the time to advocate on your own behalf. Or, in a more Orwellian sense, ensure that you are the one to document history on your own terms.

Which of these have you used successfully? What would you add to this list? Leave a comment and let us all know!

The post Which of These Six Leadership Hacks are You Using? appeared originally on Leadertainment.com

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.

Executive Churn: It’s Not Me, It’s You

After enough seemingly random events, it’s natural for the human brain to start looking for patterns (just ask Daniel Kahneman). So when I recently heard news that one of my executive team was leaving the company to pursue the inevitable “other opportunities,” I started to wonder:

  • how did I manage to accept an offer with another company with an unstable leadership team?
  • where did my post-offer diligence break down?
  • what other blind spots do I have that are hiding major risks about this company?
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Is there a revolving door in your company’s executive suite?

Then a surge of awareness kicked in, and I realized that my self-orientation was causing a perilous bias in my view of the situation. ELC-Mercer data from 2013 put C-Suite turnover among Fortune 500 companies at 7.4%, in 2015 Crist|Kolder put CFO turnover at 10.9%, and in 2015 PwC measured the turnover rate for CEOs as 16.6% in the largest 2,500 companies globally. So after a couple years at the same company, seeing one or two executives walk does not seem like a rare and exceptional event, or necessarily precede a corporate apocalypse.

And why does executive churn even matter? For a few reasons, at least:

  • the remaining execs will have to pick up the extra work left by the open seat
  • the instability of the team may spark a power struggle and additional executive vacancies
  • uncertainty among analysts and investors could spark a period of volatility and decline in the stock price, further devaluing the long term options for the remaining execs and increasing the risk that they walk away

Of course understanding why the executive team is leaving, and how extensive of a search the Board and CEO are doing in order to restore a balanced, effective and aligned executive team, are important questions to answer in order to understand whether the executive churn at your shop is in-line with the industry average, or a precursor to an epic corporate meltdown. So here are a few questions to consider when estimating the executive churn risk at your business, whether you are evaluating an offer of employment or already an employee:

  • how long has each executive been in place, and how does this compare to the median tenure?
  • how aligned is each executive’s experience with the go-forward strategy for the company?
  • which executive’s “work-life balance” is increasing the risk of burnout? Warning signs include execs who live in a city other than the corporate HQ and commute more than 2 days per week, or those who are temporarily filling open division or functional leadership roles in addition to their core responsibilities.
  • is there a defined executive succession plan in place?
  • have there been significant corporate turbulence that increases the succession risk for your company’s executives? For example: merger & acquisition activity, entering or exiting markets, or significant upward or downward movement of the stock price.

There is a certain balance to be struck between staying focused to be successful in your own role, and staying aware about existential risks for the company that could threaten your career stability, regardless of your own performance. Everyone has their own risk tolerance, and hopefully the questions above will help you make decisions to find a place in an organization where you can thrive.

image credit: Alamy via dailymail.co.uk

 

Two ways to build trust in a new manager relationship

Like many things in life, these options could be summarized as: the easy way, or the hard way. And I am not going to post the link to the Boondocks clip. You’ll have to find it yourself.

There's the easy way, and ...
There’s the easy way, and …

Manager relationships are…relationships. Establishing trust is essential for both parties to feel valued, engaged, and satisfied. Getting to that point in a short period of time, without triggering tears or rage, is essential for the long-term health of any relationship. And it doesn’t happen by accident. This post focuses on the employee-manager relationship; feel free to abstract these concepts to other relationships at your own risk.

Building trust requires establishing a mutually agreed level of autonomy for the employee under the guidance of the manager in two key dimensions:

  • time span of discretion: what is the longest duration task for which the employee can take complete accountability? Viewed another way, how long is the manager willing to wait for a status update?
  • delegated decision authority: which decisions can the employee make without consulting and or informing the manager?

Time Span of Discretion

Credit for this term goes to Eliot Jaques, whose book The Requisite Organization is underrepresented in the modern leader’s library. I will warn you that it is not a casual read; be aware that the large conceptual rewards packed into this book require a large investment of attention. With that disclaimer out of the way, the idea from the book that I’m highlighting here is about what duration task the employee has the trust of the manager to execute independently. Does the manager want to see a daily task list and a midday status update? In this case the time span of discretion is somewhere between 4-10 hours. At the other end of the scale, CEOs often embark on multi-year global transformation programs with the hands-off support of their Boards, often requiring quarterly status reports at a maximum.

Delegated Decision Authority

The best metaphor from this concept that I’ve encountered is the Decision Tree from Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations. Just as a tree’s roots, trunk, branches, and leaves have different weighting on the future health of the tree, the levels of decision making have different weighting on the future health of the organization (or the career of the decision maker). I’ve summarized the concept in the table below:

decision tree table

For example, the pair might decide that any decisions around hiring, firing, or promotion are Trunk decisions. Which vendor to choose for the trade show giveaways is a Leaf decision. And so forth.

Now that we’ve defined the two essential components to establishing trust, let’s address the original question of HOW to get there:

  • The Easy Way: proactive, implicit, inductive. Sit down with the other party and discuss, before any specific events occur, what level of decision making authority will be delegated and what is the time bound of discretion. Establish the boundaries of the relationship before they are tested. In another context, how do you learn your way around a new city? Look at a map before you leave the house, ask your neighbors which parts of town to avoid.
  • The Hard Way: reactive, explicit, deductive. Jump into it, wait for things to happen and then talk about whether the events fit within the desired boundaries of the relationship. This approach to learning the new city is to wait for sunset and then wander out the front door with some cash in your front pocket and hope you make it back in one piece.

My intent in writing this piece is to raise your awareness of what will help define trust in your manger relationships and how you are going about establishing it. You can choose to take the hard way without judgement; just be aware of the potential bumps and bruises you might encounter along the way.

Thanks to Dan Schultz for inspiring this post. Questions or feedback? Leave a comment!

Hold on, were you just trying to delegate?

Let’s go back to the basics here folks. Whether you have 3 months or 3 decades of leadership experience, an essential skill to keep your team effective and engaged is delegation. A wise man once said “delegation is about deciding what you don’t do, and prioritization is about deciding what no one does.”

Cliche aside, the skill required in effective delegation is assigning tasks to your team members that achieve leverage and learning. Terry Pearce has a classic (i.e., VHS!) training video about leadership speaking in which he tells the story of dropping off his daughter at college: the main message about delegation is that unless it hurts, you haven’t delegated a large enough task. But what does this look like on a graph, you ask?

Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team
Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team

The ideal level of delegation gives the team member enough autonomy to achieve a task that requires a slight “stretch” of skill (i.e., learning) to complete at the required level of quality. Yes, the manager could have completed the same task at a higher quality level (per unit time), but the free time created in the organization allows the manager to take on a higher complexity task that, presumably, no one else below him or her in the team could achieve. This is what I mean by leverage.

Locating this curve for each employee/manager combination requires self-awareness and feedback on both sides. The team member needs to raise awareness of his or her skill level, and the manager needs to raise awareness of his or her level of control or autonomy with delegated tasks. From the manager’s perspective, you must be willing to sacrifice control for the sake of leverage and learning, without setting your team up for failure. Staying too far to the left is demeaning and stifling for your team. Too far to the right, and you will assign tasks that my former (rugby loving) manager would call a “hospital pass:” drop it and your team loses, catch it and you’ll get knocked out.

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the left on the curve include:

  • you ask a team member to circulate a document for feedback among a group, and then scold him or her for sending an email to that group before letting you proofread it
  • you ask a team member to facilitate a meeting, and then chime in after every one of his or her comments with a “clarification”
  • your team members have asked (directly or indirectly) for more responsibility and authority to set direction in achieving the team’s goals

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the right on the curve include:

  • many of the tasks you assign need to be reworked at the last minute
  • few team members volunteer for tasks on offer because they are intimidated by the complexity of the task or the risk of failure

So, I challenge you to use this post as a prompt to reassess your ability to delegate. Have a conversation with your team members to reach alignment on where you are on the curve. Find low-risk ways for your team members to fail constructively, and watch the benefits of learning and leverage accumulate.

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.

Capability models, performance management, and knowledge management: how they all fit together

Often the day-to-day demands of work prevent us from stepping back and seeing how the big pieces fit together. While you might not have the same ecstatic reaction of this guy discovering a rainbow in his backyard, hopefully this post will help you have an even better answer to “what does this mean” (if you can make it to 1:17 in the clip).

Capability (competency) model, performance management, knowledge management: many of these terms get interchanged, however, in my experience I have seen distinct and specific applications for the processes as businesses work to maximize their return on investment in human capital. Below the diagram is a quick definition of the terms with links for more information.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  1. Business Strategy: While Michael Porter has a longer answer, Jack Welch defines strategy (in his book Winning) as “making clear cut choices on how to compete.” In a previous post, I compiled the 9 Critical Questions on Strategy.
  2. Organizational Design: just as form follows function in art and nature (but not chickens), an organization’s structure should follow its strategy. Jaques takes a scientific yet pragmatic approach in Requisite Organization.
  3. Capability Model: while purists will prefer to use the term “competency” to emphasize demonstrated abilities (rather than future potential), in either case a model, such as SHRM’s, provides a framework for a hierarchy of skills that can be developed and applied at various levels of the organization.
  4. Role Definitions: each role (remember, each position can have multiple roles, just like a father can be a cook, landscaper and coach) needs a definition of its responsibilities and scope
  5. Role-based Capability Model: Combine 3 with 4, and you get an inventory of the capabilities (competencies) required to be successful in each role. This is an essential input to the processes below. Do not pass go, do not collect $89 (after taxes).
  6. Four related processes to improve an organization’s return on human capital
    1. Talent Intake: defining the requirements for each role will empower your recruiting organization to provide a better slate of candidates for vacancies, and help new hires get up to speed and contributing within the first phase of the talent cycle.
    2. Knowledge Management: a central repository for standards, policies, procedures, and other specific “tribal knowledge” accumulated with experience in any organization. A top-notch knowledge management system combines the “push” of compliance with the “pull” of recognition for contributors and highly accessible content (like wikipedia and TED).
    3. Performance Management: while a recent duel of data fit models has caught a lot of buzz, an effective performance management process gives employees meaningful, actionable feedback on their performance vs expectations in role, and allows the organization’s leadership to identify high-performing, high-capability players and put plans in place to address staff who are under-performing. Performance review surveys are typically more complicated than they need to be, and the best ones I’ve seen capture 360-feedback quarterly.
    4. Capability Development: programs combine training and succession planning to close development gaps identified in any of the above processes. Training can be delivered through self-study, online learning, classroom based training, and on the job coaching.

While none of these definitions go deep enough to be applicable on their own, hopefully differentiating between the terms with a few resources for further research will be a good start to helping your team go “all the way across the sky.”

What did I leave out? What other approaches have you seen work also? Leave a comment and let us know.

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.

Should the “squeaky wheel” on your team get extra attention?

One of the hardest leadership decisions to make is how to carve up discretionary time for coaching direct reports — we all know there is more work to do than time in the week to do it.

Got a few minutes?

If you don’t make this decision actively, by default it will be made for you, by your direct reports, sounding something like:

  • “A few of my friends are applying to graduate school, and I’ve been thinking about it too. Do you have some time this afternoon for me to run some questions past you?”
  • “I know my last performance review wasn’t great, it’s just that I don’t feel that the projects I’m doing are really…taking me anywhere. Can we talk?”

And then over the next 20 minutes (or 2 hours), you dig deep and show your best motivational, inspiring, empathetic, and visionary leadership self to the no-longer-disenfranchised Sally Staffer who bounds back through the cubicle farm to work. Exhausted, and a little relieved, you turn back to your sales proposal or whatever it was you were doing that is actually going to put money in Sally’s paycheck this month.

Meanwhile, that all-star you hired six months ago–what was her name again?–has finished up another project, early, and it’s better work than you were turning out after two years on the job. Why doesn’t she ever stop by your desk? What would an hour of your inspirational best do to her, and the company’s, performance? Or is she already interviewing with your competitor because she’s not getting the senior development time she rightly deserves?

Leaders who don’t take charge of the discretionary development time are destined to spend it with the “squeaky wheels” who are marginally committed and mediocre performers, living out a world predicted by the Peter Principle. Many versions of talent management / performance management matrices are available to help you to understand where each of your employees stand.

Cornell’s Talent Management Matrix compares current performance and future potential.

All the matrices have a current, quantitative axis (e.g., performance rating) and a forward-looking, qualitative axis (e.g., capability, commitment). Your discretionary development time should go first into the top right corner containing the best performers today that have the highest potential for the future. Michael Beer’s book talks about getting the whole organization to High Commitment, High Performance. The ones in the lower left corner should be actively managed out of the business.

Yes, invest time to understand the motivations, interests, and development hurdles of the folks in the other corners: you will both learn something from the conversations, and the business and your career-long network of talent will be better for it. But when you are the one setting the agenda and dividing up your scarce time, it won’t be taken up by the “squeaky wheels” at the expense of the A-players quietly giving their best.