STEM Alone Won’t Be Enough

In education today there is a focus to deliver qualified graduates to take on careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Not only is this where the opportunities are today and likely in the future, but there is a tremendous shortage of qualified Americans to fill the number of STEM jobs currently available.

But a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a STEM field alone may not be enough. That’s because the ability to thrive in the workplace is more often dependent on interpersonal skills that have nothing to do with STEM. These soft skills may include things like cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy.

“Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be what I would call stempathy jobs,” writes Thomas L. Friedman in his book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in a World of Accelerations. “These are jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills—to blend calculus with human (or animal) psychology, to hold a conversation with Watson to make a cancer diagnosis and hold the hand of a patient to deliver it, to have a robot milk your cows but also to properly care for those cows in need of extra care with a gentle touch.”

These social skills may have been taught or modeled at home, yet are sorely missing in many workers with STEM careers. Whether people have forgotten these skills or simply choose to no longer demonstrate them in the workplace, it is a problem.

As a consultant and coach working with a variety of people in STEM organizations, I can attest that it is not technical competency or business aptitude that is often missing in many workers. In fact, it is the interpersonal skills that are often frustrating directs, coworkers and supervisors, and hampering the careers of these professionals.

According to a 2013 research study by Oxford’s Martin School, 47 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades.

“Nobody cares what you know, because the Google machine knows everything,” Friedman said. The future, he argues, is about what we can do with what we know. It is our humanity and our empathy that make us uniquely different from computers.

This humanity is something we should embrace and use to our advantage rather than downplay as insignificant. It is also the very best way to protect your livelihood from being shortcut by a computer taking over your job.

Showing up in the workplace not only with our technical expertise, but also with compassion for one another is important in order to thrive individually and collectively. This means actively demonstrating cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy. Only in this way can STEM professionals truly reach their full potential.

Three Steps to Effectively Using 360 Feedback

If you are lucky enough to receive a 360-degree feedback survey to help you grow in your effectiveness within an organization, it’s vitally important that you do something with the results.

Constructive feedback from peers, direct reports, and bosses enable you to confirm and capitalize on your strengths and to neutralize your weaknesses in order to become a more effective leader. When taken seriously, this feedback can be especially instructive and help you reach your potential.

All too often, however, the data collected is read and then promptly put away in a file cabinet where it’s forgotten. This contributes to what is often viewed as a waste in leadership development programs.

A 2012 Study found that American companies spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development. Much of this is wasted because there is too much attention spent on gathering data or delivering information (e.g., classroom settings) and not nearly enough in planning and executing continuous improvement and accountability.

Critics may say 360 feedback surveys are not objective and therefore may not be reliable. While it’s true that the responses are subjective to the person doing the scoring, this doesn’t mean the results are not relevant or reliable. When 15 to 20 of your colleagues agree that you have a difficult time delegating, these subjective opinions are, in fact, a valid indicator of your workplace behavior.

The data collected can sometimes turn out to be contradictory, but this too can be instructive. If, for example, your direct reports all agree you are stellar at influencing and persuading, but your CEO says otherwise, it doesn’t mean you should discount the CEO’s perspective. It means that when presenting in front of the CEO you may not be as confident, comfortable or effective as when you’re presenting to your staff.

Ideally, all of your colleagues and direct reports would voice their perspective on your strengths and weaker areas in a direct and constructive manner. But we don’t live and work in this ideal world. The survey can often be a useful way to begin a conversation.

The information you receive in results of a 360 survey can often confirm what you already know and, more importantly, contradict or surprise what you thought you knew. This should be taken and used instructively to help you to grow. Constructive feedback is not always easy to hear and often requires a coach or manager to help you develop a plan for your learning as well as hold you accountable to it.

In my experience analyzing and delivering feedback from such surveys, most of my clients find the information accurate or at least can find a kernel of truth in the responses they receive. In this way, the individual is often able to see and accept what may have previously been a blind spot for them.

In many cases, the client seeing a behavioral attribute rated particularly low by so many colleagues can help motivate him or her to make changes. This is where the guidance of a coach or manager can be especially useful in helping to navigate a successful path to growth.

The most effective process to build on the feedback is to 1) Create goals specifically around weaker areas; 2) Develop a plan for how to accomplish such goals; 3) Have someone hold you accountable for achieving the goals.

  1. SMART Goals By taking the low scoring areas and building SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound) goals around them, the individual has something to work on. Writing this down and keeping it front and center keeps it actionable.
  2. Development Plan Once the goals are written, the next important step is to develop a plan for how to go about achieving them. Such a plan should document the necessary resources, knowledge and skills, mindsets, settings in which to practice new behaviors, and the specific individuals you will rely on for support and review.
  3. Accountability Few of us are disciplined enough to achieve such behavioral goals without another person holding us accountable. This is where the person’s manager (Chairman of the board in the case of a CEO) comes in. By being completely transparent with a Development Plan, the person’s boss can then encourage, support, direct and, most importantly, hold the individual accountable for the achievement of such goals.

Like any leadership development program, a 360-feedback survey is only helpful when it is combined with follow-up action. And the best way to learn anything new is not simply by reading, but by putting into action what has been learned. This can be especially challenging with regard to behavioral skills and therefore requires the three steps highlighted above.

Know thyself by taking the 360 feedback as a measure of where you are perceived to be today. Then take the appropriate steps to move this learning into actionable steps to implement behavioral changes necessary to become a better leader.

March for Workplace Health & Viability

The March for Science will be held in Washington, D.C. and more than 500 communities around the world on April 22, 2017. This coincides with Earth Day and it’s hard to believe that in the 21st Century there is even a need to demonstrate support for something so fundamental as the planet we live on and the very foundation of principles which have enabled us to thrive.

“Science should neither serve special interests nor be rejected based on personal convictions,” as stated on the organization’s website. “At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers. It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.”

With the recent downfall of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly due to the disclosure of a series of sexual harassment allegations against him, perhaps some of his viewers may be more skeptical of the moral superiority of popular talking heads such as him. Maybe they will rethink whether tuning in to hear one person’s opinions will lead them to the truth better than research-based proven scientific facts. As much as we may want easy answers to complex issues, they won’t come from any one pundit, commentator or so-called analyst.

We live at a time when we celebrate science fiction more than science. Although Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series is making inroads, it’s the fictional Star Wars, The Avengers and The Hunger Games where people spend their hard earned money and precious leisure time. As a nation we honor the achievements of athletes, musicians and actors far more than we do those of scientists, mathematicians and physicists. And they are paid a lot more as a result.

The fact is we over value entertainment and under value education. No wonder so many children when asked what they want to be when they grow up no longer say a doctor or fireman, they say they want to be rich and they want to be famous.

Actor Jim Carrey once said: “I think everybody should get rich and famous, and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

In the workplace we see the effects of this focus on shortcuts and quick fixes in the form of growth at the expense of actual value. According to a 2013 McKinsey survey, more than half of corporate executives said they would pass on a viable project “if it would cause the company to even marginally miss its quarterly earnings target.” These leaders are so afraid of shareholders that they dismiss what they believe to be in the best long-term interests of the company’s profitability because they are measured simply quarter to quarter.

This is crazy, of course, and it is not sustainable. Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, says this is a tornado of technological improvements that has spun our economic model out of control and humanity as a whole is trapped by the consequences.

As an example, Rushkoff writes about robotic ad-viewing programs or bots that are now used by some unscrupulous companies to raise their pay-per-click advertising revenue. These bots are often run secretly on our computers in the form of malware and, as a result, advertisers were projected to lose $6.3 billion in pay-per-click fees to imaginary viewers in 2015.

The irony is that these malware robots watch ads that are monitored by automated tracking software tailoring every advertising message to suit the malbots’ automated habits inside this personalization of a feedback loop. No human eyeballs may ever see or respond to the ads. No value is created and yet billions of dollars are made.

While many corporations are focused on short-term growth and profitability at the expense of long-term and sustained value, their employees are contributing to this as well.

Employees contribute to this, when they seek to:

  • Accomplish individual objectives though they may be in conflict with the collective goals of the workgroup or company.
  • Look busy multitasking rather than move important things forward by taking on the challenges of critical thinking.
  • Efficiently empty our email inbox rather than doing what’s more important yet may not yield tangible results as quickly.
  • Ask for promotions based on how we match up to our colleagues rather than on our own competence and capability.
  • Simply follow along and remain “under the radar” rather than push back and risk retribution when we know better.
  • Respond to constant disruptions with the dopamine hit of “likes” on social media instead of staying focused on the laborious job-related task in front of us.

The workplace should be one where all workers seek to provide sustainable value. CEOs and employees should all be motivated and compensated for delivering products and services that meet or exceed customer expectations. Rather than focus on short-term profitability, the goal should be long-term value. In this scenario, shareholders will continue to receive their return on investment, yet over a longer period of time. Think Berkshire Hathaway rather than Facebook.

Our current economic model for publicly traded companies that demands quarterly profits at the expense of longer term viability may no longer be relevant. Instead, we need to focus on doing what’s right rather than what’s expedient.

And we cannot rely on pundits in the political or financial realms to provide us with quick and easy answers. Instead, we should seek the continually evolving, research-based, peer-reviewed nature of scientific experimentation to understand how to improve our workplace and our economy. March for science. March for truth. March for workplace health and viability.

One Boomer’s Advice to Millennials

With the Millennial Generation now representing nearly 45% of the U.S. workforce, it’s clear we are experiencing a huge cultural shift. And while these younger workers may report to other Millennials, Generation Xers or Baby Boomers, there are certain protocols they should consider as they navigate their careers.

The Baby Boomer generation was largely responsible for launching the technological age we now take for granted. This required that Boomers continually adapted to change in order to stay relevant as the workplace became more technologically mechanized.

Millennials, on the other hand, don’t know life without computers and the Internet. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also need to continually adapt to change. In fact, it may be that their generation has experienced and will continue to experience more and more rapid change than those who preceded them.

Adapting to change should ultimately be seen as a way of being. This is not only true with regard to technological skills, but also business processes and the skills of interpersonal relationships, leadership development, and other soft skills. Lifelong learning requires maintaining curiosity and a beginner’s mind.

With that, I offer a few thoughts on what may be helpful to Millennials as they navigate the workplace not only with outgoing Baby Boomers, but also Generation Xers and their fellow Millennials.

Communication
Communicating effectively requires choosing the appropriate medium and using the correct message. Don’t assume that an emoji-ridden text message will be appropriate when in fact a face-to-face conversation is necessary. And a true conversation requires listening as well as speaking. It demands your full attention to be most effective. While everyone lists “excellent communication skills” on the resume, very few people are truly excellent at it. Make it a practice to continually hone your ability to write, speak and listen effectively.

Collaboration
Unlike previous generations, Millennials have been taught from early on to work and learn in groups. Collaboration is especially valuable in today’s workplace because most of the work is completed by groups of people. These groups are also more diverse and your ability to get along with your coworkers will determine how effective the group is at accomplishing its goals. This will require shared respect, trust, and effective communication. Make it a practice to continually learn how to navigate these relationships effectively.

Accountability
The modern workplace requires more self-reliance and therefore it’s important for you to take responsibility for your career. Accept that no one is going to determine your success or failure more than you are. While you will likely always have a boss, it is up to you to determine the level of direction and support you need in order to succeed at what you do. You need to take responsibility for continually communicating this to your boss. And understand that though you may be used to and feel you require constant feedback for how you’re doing, that may not be a priority or general practice of your boss. Be accountable for what you need to do your job and to advance your career.

Finally, as I’ve learned in my nearly 40 years of work, it is vitally important to stay authentic and live your values. There may be a time when you will need to make a change because where you work or what you do comes in conflict with who you are. Life is short and therefore you should do whatever you need to do to align who you are with what you do. And remember: Love people and use things. Because the opposite never works.

Social Media’s Impact on Workplace Communication

The Internet age has led to enormous changes in the way we communicate in virtually every aspect of our lives. Social media lets us connect with others in a way that was previously unheard of. With a smart phone in hand, we can now access anyone and anything around the world at any time.

But do these technology innovations mean we are experiencing improved communication?

Wael Ghonim, aka the “Google guy,” who used Facebook to help launch the revolution against the Egyptian government in 2011, said that “if you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.” Years later he explained that while the Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.”

In his TED Talk, Ghonim discussed five critical challenges facing today’s social media in the political arena. He explained the most critical of these is that our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posting over discussions, and shallow comments over deep conversations.

“It’s as if we agreed to talk at each other instead of talking with each other,” Ghonim said.

While emailing, texting, posting, blogging, and tweeting enable us to send out messages, they don’t necessarily enable the opportunity for give-and-take conversations. Today’s social media doesn’t encourage meaningful dialogue where we engage enough to bring about greater understanding. It’s still, for the most part, one-way communication: sender to receiver.

Not that this is necessarily bad in and of itself, but it is limited and may undermine our ability to truly connect and understand one another.

Workplace Communication
Today’s social media experiences can’t help but spill over from our personal and political lives into the workplace, and this is where I am concerned. Without the exchange of meaningful dialogue, we are unable to maximize our ability to collaboratively solve problems and innovate with new products and services. Sending messages only in one direction isn’t effective communication.

This degradation in communicating can show up every aspect of our lives, including the workplace. Examples include:

  • Failure to actively listening when the other person is speaking
  • Being too concerned with what we want to say rather than fully hearing and understanding what the other person says, and what is left unspoken
  • Not ensuring our overall physical behavior that includes tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. are congruent with and supportive of our message
  • Not making our intention clear so there is no misunderstanding in what we say
  • Using the wrong medium to communicate our message (e.g., using email instead of face-to-face; using the phone when video conferencing would be better; using text messaging instead of a phone call, etc.)
  • Demonstrating that we are listening, yet not ensuring the other person is feeling heard

Some research suggests that only 7 percent of communication is conveyed by the spoken words. The other 93 percent is conveyed by tone, inflexion, and other elements of voice as well as by body language, movements, eye contact, etc. When communicating is conducted by any other method than face-to-face, a serious drop-off in understanding and learning will result.

Knowing how little the words alone can enable true communication should be a warning sign that the medium really does impact the effectiveness of the message.

Workgroup Effectiveness
Researchers from Google’s Project Aristotle concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google teams. They determined that the right norms could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if all the individual members were exceptionally bright.

The two behaviors all good teams generally shared were: 1) members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” and 2) members had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ or they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.

This means the group norms of taking turns speaking and listening with empathy were the most important factors for improving team outcomes. These are also fundamental to successful communication.

While social media continues to influence every aspect of our lives, it’s important to remember the limitations of it with regard to effective communication. In the workplace, this means choosing the right medium to convey the message, ensuring there is an appropriate feedback loop, and responding to the feedback in a way that results in true understanding.

With that, I encourage your thoughts on social media’s impact in your workplace.