STEM Alone Won’t Be Enough

May 21, 2017

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.

Social Media’s Impact on Workplace Communication

March 24, 2017

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.

Communicating with Millennials in Mind

March 10, 2017

As the American workplace shifts from being filled with Baby Boomers and Generation Xers to dominated by Millennials, this generational shift also creates a cultural shift—one with younger workers who have different expectations and values than their predecessors. This is not your father’s cubicle.

While technology, globalization, diversity and many other factors continue to impact the modern workplace, Millennials are also directly influencing how, where and when we work.

The U.S. workforce is currently represented by Baby Boomers (27%), Generation Xers (27%) and Millennials (44%) with another 2% represented by those born before Boomers and after Millennials. And this shift to majority Millennials has created a dramatic shift in workplace culture that demands we redefine how to best manage people.

According to Bruce Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking in a white paper titled “The Great Generational Shift,”  this radical shift in numbers is accompanied by a profound transformation

in the norms, values, attitudes, expectations and behaviors of the emerging post-Boomer workforce.

“Today’s generation gap, in contrast, is about much more than a clash of styles and preferences; much more than the creative energy of youth challenging the cautious wisdom of experience; more than the new butting up against the old,” writes Tulgan. “The ‘Generational Shift’ unfolding today is of historic significance, defined by the confluence of macro forces driving change at an extraordinary magnitude and pace.”

This dynamic has made it particularly difficult for managers as they are being asked to do more with less, operate with increasing ambiguity, supervise workers in diverse locations, and rely a lot more on interdependence with other departments and workgroups. All the while, the Millennials they are managing have a different level of expectations than their predecessors.

For example, Millennials may very well expect that:

  • Relationships are less hierarchical and more situational;
  • Learning and training programs are less directed and facilitated with a defined curriculum and specific goal-orientation than they are self-directed, collaborative, on-going, open-ended and multiple sourced;
  • Communication style is less formal and about going through proper channels as it is about being more constant, on-going, high-tech and high touch;
  • Attitude about life and career is less about building a life around their career as it is building a career around the kind of life they want to have;
  • What they are looking for in a manager can be summarized as “Please help me do my job . . . Give me guidance, support and feedback every step of the way;”
  • The performance evaluation should not be annual or semi-annual, but regular and frequent, ideally daily;
  • What Millennials are looking for first and foremost in employment is not so much job security, but flexibility.

While some may complain that these Millennials are too high-maintenance and that we shouldn’t have to bend so far to meet their preferences. The reality is that Millennials are bringing on this cultural shift that is both natural and necessary in order to assimilate their unique contributions in the workplace.

And what makes managers successful in this environment is the ability to deliver clear, consistent and constant communication to these younger workers.

In their research to measure the effectiveness of successful managers, Tulgan and his associates found that all of them had employees who consistently delivered the highest productivity and quality along with higher morale, team spirit and the best business outcomes. And their direct reports were more likely to describe them as “one of the best managers I’ve ever had.”

The common denominator among these successful managers was in the high-quality communication they consistently engaged in with every direct-report in ongoing, content-rich dialogue about the work. And things went best when managers consistently made expectations clear and provided candid feedback for each employee at every step.

This more involved, more present manager may rub some the wrong way, yet for younger workers, it may be exactly what they are looking for in order to be most productive. While some may see it as “telling me how to do my job” Millennials may instead receive it as “give me direction and support as well as immediate feedback so that I can do it on my own.”

And perhaps this deliberate hand-holding is necessary for the younger generation to learn before putting their unique spin on the work and then taking it to new heights.

The manager’s role will continue to evolve but the notion of clear, consistent and constant communication will prove especially effective as our generations continue to shift.

The Value of Thought Diversity

September 29, 2016

As much as we have learned the importance of diversity in the workplace, it is often focused on gender, race and ethnicity. Thought diversity is more subtle, but just as important. That’s because our thoughts are guided by where we focus our attention and, all too often, we seek the comfort of confirmation rather than the anxiety of challenging our assumptions.

This deficit in thought diversity is limiting our overall understanding, undermining the ability to truly connect and collaborate with others, and detrimental to the creativity necessary for solving the most challenging problems.

Think about how:

  • Our family, friends and acquaintances are made up primarily of people who share and reaffirm our individual identity of who we are and what we believe.
  • Our neighbors likely share a socio-economic demographic that continually reinforces our perspectives directly based on our geographic point of reference.
  • Our individual news feeds are chosen to maintain rather than challenge our perspectives on the economy, politics, entertainment, environment, and other subjects.
  • Our social networks are filled with those who align with our unique views and opinions, enabling more “follows,” “likes,” and “shares.”
  • Our entire digital footprint is making it so advertisers can provide us with information tailored to what they believe we want and limit our attention from going elsewhere.
  • Our workplace, though there may be some diversity in race, gender, ethnicity, age, ability and/or sexuality, it may not be a place that encourages diversity of thoughts, opinions or perspectives.

Too often a hiring manager and HR partner—after first singling out candidates who possess the necessary skills and experience—look for the one who fits the corporate culture, which may unfortunately lead to groupthink. This cultural fit may actually undermine the ability to bring about diversity of thought.

In his book The Difference, University of Michigan economist Scott Page describes a unique way to hire people to maximize diversity of thought within an organization. In the study, three candidates interviewed for two vacant positions on a research team. All candidates were asked the same 10 questions: Jeff correctly answered 7 of 10, Rose 6 of 10, and Spencer 5 of 10.

table

Many organizations would hire Jeff and Rose because these two candidates garnered the highest cumulative score. Another reason is that HR managers spend a lot of time and money-making sure that their people all think the same. They value “consistency and efficiency over individual flair.”

If the hiring manager and HR manager, however, spend time examining which questions each candidate answered correctly, they will notice that Spencer, the lowest overall scorer, correctly answered every question that Jeff, the highest scorer, incorrectly answered. As such, Spencer presumably brings a different way of thinking to the organization—and quite possibly more value.

Thought diversity at work is vital as it enables out-of-the-box thinking to bring about creative solutions to 21st century challenges.

Some companies use the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, four-color personality test or other 4-grid assessment in order to identify and differentiate employees as this helps each person to understand the benefits and drawbacks in each type. The larger lesson is that there is wisdom when all four types or colors are represented as it can help bring about diversity in thought to arrive at the best solutions.

Diversity of thought can come in many forms, and it needs to be encouraged in the way organizations both hire and manage their workers.

Thought diversity places the focus on an individual’s mind, which is influenced by his or her experiences, culture, background and personality. It is not rooted in opinions, but in thought processes and problem solving abilities.

The primary benefits of thought diversity include:

  • Reduction in groupthink because different perspectives encourage everyone to bring their own perspective based on their unique background and personality.
  • Creative tension that enables fresh ideas and out-of-the-box thinking, which can sometimes be messy, but ultimately leads to new insights.
  • Increased employee engagement as everyone feels that their opinion and ideas matter, and that they have value in reaching the best solutions.
  • Attracting Millennials who are looking to join those organizations that foster an inclusive culture where they can be most successful.

Thought diversity should be included in every organization’s diversity initiatives. It makes sense when choosing who to hire and it makes sense in how to manage employees. When people are actively encouraged to present different perspectives and ideas to challenge assumptions and the status quo, that’s when you’ll see new insights, innovation, collaboration, and the very best of teamwork.

Tim Duncan: The Selfless Leader

July 15, 2016

Earlier this week a great leader and perhaps the best power forward to ever play in the NBA quietly retired from the game. In his typical understated fashion, Tim Duncan stepped away from the game he played with passion, consistency and unselfishness for 19 years. His presence will be missed beyond south Texas.

Unlike talents such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and many others who receive so much of our collective attention, Duncan played in the relatively small market of San Antonio and didn’t seek out the spotlight he so much deserved.

Duncan’s five NBA titles (including three NBA Finals MVP awards) and two regular season MVP awards along with being selected a record 15 times on the NBA All-Defensive Team secured him as one of the best NBA players of all time. Duncan is also one of only three players to win the Wooden Award, NBA Rookie of the Year, NBA MVP, NBA Finals MVP and NBA All-Star Game MVP, joining Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Rather than taking advantage of all the praise for himself, he spread it around to his teammates and to San Antonio Spurs fans. In this age of Facebook “Likes,” Twitter followers, selfie sticks, and year-long victory tours (e.g., Kobe Bryant), Tim Duncan represents the kind of old-school leader we should be celebrating both on and off the court.

As Duncan explained recently, he took less money from bigger market teams in order to give the Spurs more ammunition to field successful teams. The money had “not ever been a deal for me.”

“Honest truth is I didn’t really know from year to year what people were making,” he said. “I think that was the best perspective to have.”

Tim Duncan’s leadership includes taking personal responsibility, leading by example and growing other leaders.

Leaders Take Responsibility
We live at a time when taking personal responsibility for our actions has become so rare that many people expect teachers and police to serve as parents. Tim Duncan is the kind of leader who demonstrates what Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great as one who looks out the window when things go right and in the mirror when things go wrong. Duncan held himself to a high standard and took responsibility (and blame) when it was warranted.

Leaders Lead by Example
Nothing builds up engagement among the ranks like the leader who is down in the trenches doing the grunt work. Tim Duncan was relentless in making his presence known on both ends of the court. Rather than seek out opportunities to make ESPN’s highlight reel, he did the things that helped his team win. While slam dunks are fun for fans to watch, what’s most important is winning the game and that was always Duncan’s focus.

Leaders Grow Other Leaders
Rather than be threatened by the arrival of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, Duncan demonstrated servant leadership principles by giving away his power to enable the entire team to achieve greatness. Together they won 575 regular-season games and 126 career playoff games—both the most by any trio in NBA history. Despite the fact that the media promotes individual All-Star players who are the face of each NBA team, basketball is ultimately a team game where every member has a role to play and how well they work together determines whether they win or lose.

When Duncan was a young boy, his mother taught his sisters and him the nursery rhyme: “Good, Better, Best. Never let it rest/Until your Good is Better, and your Better is your Best.” He cited his mother as his inspiration and the nursery rhyme as his personal motto. This is how he was able to achieve personal greatness.

Ultimately, what Tim Duncan demonstrated as a leader was to put his team above himself. In the same way a corporate executive should put the needs of employees, customers and shareholders above his or her personal needs (and I believe they should be in that particular order), too often executives begin with themselves and work backwards.

Whether you’re leading a company or a basketball team, the best leadership should be measured on overall performance of the organization. Tim Duncan’s leadership demonstrated consistency, competency and quality execution. He should be a model for all of us.

Perhaps Duncan put it best when he summed up his career: “It was just about being in the right situation with the right bunch of guys and getting it done.”

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/24887901@N04/14261831767″>2014 NBA Champions</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Virtually Connected Yet Digitally Distracted

May 13, 2016

Our reliance on smartphones not only enables us to connect with each other at any time and any place, it has also changed the nature of our connections in a profound way. Because we have a phone that connects us to our families, friends, bosses, co-workers, acquaintances, and just about everything else, it has almost become an extension of our bodies.

I remember I used to get so upset while waiting in line for something because when I finally got to the front, the clerk took a phone call and provided immediate service to that person instead of me. Once alerted to this, everyone began calling while they were waiting in line.

Today, two people can be having a very serious conversation, yet when someone’s phone beeps with a text or other alert, the conversation is interrupted (whether or not someone looks) and no longer are the two fully engaged. Our connections are no longer as in-depth because research has shown that even having a phone within sight keeps people from venturing as deep. Knowing that at any moment what you say can be interrupted, keeps you from making yourself vulnerable.

According to Sherry Turkle, author of the new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, this age of technological innovation enables us to always communicate, yet we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We have become distracted so much that we can’t be with others without turning to our phones. Research found that each of us look at our phones on average every 6.5 minutes. I suspect it’s an even lower number with younger people.

Rather than be fully present with the person physically before us, we are choosing to stay loosely connected to those in our wider circle for fear we may miss out on something or not respond quickly enough to their request. Why have we become such slaves to our technology?

“Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” writes Turkle. We choose to connect minimally with lots of people at the expense of losing the ability to connect deeply with someone. And this decrease in real conversation is leading to a serious lack of empathy.

How does this translate to the workplace?

Ben Waber and Alex Pentland from the MIT Media Lab developed a tool called a “sociometric badge” that allows researchers to track employees’ movements as well as a range of measures about their conversations: who they talk to, for how long, on what topic, with what pace of speech, with what tone of voice, and how often they interrupt each other. This badge can analyze intimate aspects of conversation such as body language, interest and excitement, and the amount of influence people have on each other.

This helped quantify what was previously unquantifiable and the results were as follows:

  • Face-to-face conversation leads to higher productivity and is also associated with reduced stress;
  • Call centers are more productive when people take breaks together;
  • Software teams produce programs with fewer bugs when they talk more;
  • The conversation effect doesn’t work the same way for online encounters.

“We think of productivity as . . . sitting in front of the computer and banging out emails, scheduling things; and that’s what makes us productive, but it’s not,” Waber says. What makes you productive is “your interactions with other people—you know, you give them new ideas, you get new ideas from them; and . . . if you even make five people a little bit more productive every day, those conversations are worth it.”

It’s hard to think of a meeting where people aren’t looking at their phones at the expense of conversation and paying attention. We have all accepted this practice because it is a sign of multitasking, which is still widely viewed as a good thing. I suspect there will be a renaissance of unitasking in the same way that mindfulness is gaining momentum. You can’t multitask and be mindful.

Perhaps our current fascination with smartphones is due to their still being relatively new and one day we will see them simply as the tools that they are meant to be. The phone will then be put back in our pocket or purse until we see the need to access it when we are good and ready for it. And while smartwatches and other wearables are on the market to further distract us, I hope we don’t forget that in the end it is the individuals in our lives who matter most. And fully connecting with each of them is much more meaningful than virtually connecting with many others.

Five Essentials of Meeting Facilitation

April 28, 2016

Sometimes seeing something done poorly makes me better appreciate why things should be done a certain way. This was the case when I witnessed a recent meeting facilitation.

I had an opportunity to learn from a committee meeting where I was merely a spectator—not the facilitator or a participant. It gave me a unique perspective to simply observe from afar. I was on the balcony rather than the dance floor. Watching the meeting evolve, I found myself continually second-guessing the facilitator’s methods.

The meeting itself had about 20 committee participants, a co-facilitator and a number of community members joining in at various times without clear distinction of who was and who was not on the committee. Discussions were often derailed into areas far off-topic and not drawn back to the area of concern. Several times the facilitator asked open-ended questions to the entire group as to what they wanted to do next. The group was mostly unresponsive.

When one committee participant voiced a concern over a conflict that had begun between him and another participant at a previous meeting, his comment was essentially dismissed and went unresolved.

Though the meeting lasted nearly three hours, I came away feeling like very little had been accomplished. The minutes distributed later confirmed my conclusion.

The definition of facilitate is “to make easy or less difficult.” To do this, a facilitator must have a number of qualities and skills to make progress on achieving objectives with a group of people. These include intuition, experience leading groups, keen power of observation, ability to pay attention to what’s said and—perhaps more importantly—what’s left unsaid.

And good facilitation should include these five essentials:

  1. Design & Plan
    Before the meeting, a facilitator must design and plan the structure for the meeting: what, why, where, when and how. This is not something that can come from a template, but is determined for the individual group and the specific issues they are working on. The agenda should be determined very carefully along with timeframes allotted to each item; the agenda should be distributed to participants well in advance of the meeting. And the layout of the chairs should be such that everyone can see and be seen by everyone else.
  1. Control & Guide
    While the meeting is taking place, the facilitator must be able to balance the needs of progressing through the agenda while making substantive progress on individual items. It is vital that everyone’s voice is heard and therefore the facilitator needs to monitor those who are talking too much and those talking too little or not at all. The facilitator should also keep conversations from straying too far off topic and ensure that important items are placed in the “parking lot” for later consideration. It’s also important to know when the group is at an impasse and needs to move on. Think traffic cop with an interest in the final destination.
  1. Ask Good Questions
    The art of asking good questions is perhaps the most important quality of a facilitator. A good question requires good listening and discernment for what is unclear or missing from the discussion. One question might be, after first summarizing all that has been said on a specific topic and then articulating a conclusion from it, ask the group if they agree with this conclusion. If yes, be sure to record it. If no, seek to gain further clarity and repeat.
  1. Cultivate Constructive Conflict
    In Bruce Tuchman’s model for team development (forming, storming, norming and performing), it is the storming phase where conflict shows up and it is essential to allow for and even encourage it. When conflict is discouraged or repressed, a group cannot expect to norm and perform. A facilitator must be courageous by leaning into conflict as it will ultimately strengthen the group and lead to better decision making. If the facilitator fails to do this, members of the group will not feel safe to disagree leading to groupthink and poorer decisions.
  1. Record & Make Actions
    It is vitally important for the facilitator to either take notes or appoint someone to do so, and distribute them well in advance of the next meeting. If important statements and decisions from the meeting aren’t recorded, very little action will be taken when it is completed. And participants are likely to take away very different impressions for what was said and what was decided. The facilitator must also ensure that those who were appointed action items are held accountable for completing them.

Another thing I like to do when facilitating larger groups is to break into small groups for brainstorming sessions. This enables those who may feel somewhat intimidated or less confident speaking up in front of an entire group to share their ideas and opinions. It also is less likely to lead to groupthink as multiple ideas can be gathered separately and then later debated on their merits against other ideas.

Good facilitation is all too rare, but when done well it can be tremendously fascinating to be a part of. A good facilitator can make accomplishing objectives easier. A good facilitator can lead to better group decision-making. And a good facilitator keeps track of time, conversations, conflict, emotions, and the facilitation includes the above five essentials.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/98826299@N00/6577067557″>Presenting on Adult Bullying in the Workplace</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Millennials as Managers

February 4, 2016

Millennials now represent the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. These digital natives are often described as confident and tolerant as well as entitled and narcissistic. What does this mean in terms of their effectiveness as managers in the workplace?

Stereotypes of the 54 million working Millennials include: lack of experience, immaturity, no long-term vision, too focused on their next career step, and they struggle with people skills. These were no doubt similar to the stereotypes associated with Generation X, Baby Boomers and even Traditionalists when they first entered the workforce.

People born into each generation are roughly sorted as: Traditionalists or Silent Generation (1927-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1963), Generation X (1964-1979) and Millennials or Generation Y (1980-1999). The values and work ethic of each can vary immensely.

Every generation seems to have an opinion about those who follow or preceded them. Baby Boomers were born at a time when the economy was booming after World War II. No surprise then that those of Generation X often describe Baby Boomers as optimistic and workaholics. And Boomers describe Gen Xers as skeptical and self-reliant.

Typically, the previous generation believes the up and coming generation has it so much easier than they did, though it could be argued just the opposite.

The reality is that the members of each generation continue to evolve both as individuals and as a group. And all the generations need to learn to coexist—rather than discount each others’ differences, find ways to complement these unique perspectives.

Like the generations that preceded them, Millennials face challenges in being seen as competent managers of other people. In their book Millennials Who Manage, Chip Espinoza and Joel Schwarzbart conducted research to determine the biggest challenges Millennials face in the workplace. These challenges are listed from most to least frequently mentioned.

  • Lack of experience
  • Not being taken seriously
  • Not getting respect
  • Being perceived as “entitled”
  • Lack of patience
  • Getting helpful feedback
  • Understanding expectations
  • Miscommunication with older workers
  • Rigid processes
  • Proving value
  • Understanding corporate culture

Though this is a long list, it hasn’t prohibited Millennials from becoming competent workers and effective managers. In fact, as the Traditionalist and Baby Boomer generations move further into retirement, Millennials will be taking on more and more management opportunities.

So what can Millennials do to further overcome these challenges and become better at managing people older and more experienced than themselves?

Espinoza and Schwarzbart provide a number of recommendations. Though I can see all of these being useful in any management scenario, they may be especially suitable for Millennials managing workers who are older and more experienced. When managing workers older than themselves, Millennials should:

  • Know What They Don’t Like
    Demotivating factors are not necessarily the opposite of motivating factors. For example, a demotivating factor could be a manager who micromanages others, which may very well trump a number of motivating factors meant to encourage engagement.
  • Understand What Does Motivate Them
    Though it’s dangerous to link everyone within a certain generational category, keep in mind that what motivates one employee is not true for all others. For instance, a Gen X employee may more likely have an independent streak and be not nearly as interested in team building events as Baby Boomers or Millennials.
  • Seek Their Input, Learn from Them, and Encourage Mentoring
    The lack of experience in Millennial managers can be offset somewhat by showing reverence to the wisdom of other generations. This doesn’t mean capitulating authority as the boss, but simply encouraging a dialogue for you to learn and others to feel respected and valued in their respective roles.
  • Communicate
    An open channel for communication is essential in any successful business. Though Millennials may seek more frequent feedback than other generations, it is important to maintain a regular practice of give and take rather than await the dreaded and oftentimes detrimental annual performance review.
  • Be a Leader, but Don’t Overdo the “Boss” Thing
    Just because you have the job title, doesn’t mean you can bully others or force your employees to do their work effectively. True leadership is your ability to inspire and influence others so people you manage choose to follow your direction.

A multigenerational workplace has many challenges, and yet every generation seems to be especially challenged by both effectively listening and sharing information. Perhaps these two areas are where the focus for growth and learning can be best accomplished.

And when you think about listening and sharing information, it’s clear that trust is inherent in both. Perhaps building trust among the generations will see the widest and most effective intervention for helping them all to work together better.

As a Millennial manager, you have the opportunity to effectively lead your team by making a concerted effort to foster trusting relationships where listening and sharing information is both modeled and rewarded. Appeal to all the generations and be the change agent to lead us in the 21st Century.

Raise Employee Engagement via Encouragement

September 8, 2015

Despite his best efforts, your employee misses a critical deadline and an important business outcome is in doubt. How do you respond?

This situation is something every manager or leader faces at some point.

Will your response depend on the individual employee or on how well you have been informed throughout the process?

Obviously, many factors weigh into your response, but your gut reaction is to either attack the person or attack the problem. And these two reactions can result in very different outcomes.

Those who attack the person may find that this employee can never adequately escape from your perspective that he has let you down. And this can be detrimental to both the employee and the organization.

Those who attack the problem may find that this can keep the employee from taking it personally and hopefully learn from the experience. It can also nurture the relationship you have with the employee and likely raise his engagement going forward.

Encouragement can raise employee engagement like nothing else. I’m not suggesting you say only nice things, but you can choose to encourage the positive and let the negative speak for itself.

Throughout much of business, there tends to be a laser focus on problem solving, which is to seek out what is wrong and find a way to fix it. A counter notion is appreciative inquiry, which is about focusing on what the organization is doing well in certain areas and find a way to replicate it in others.

Too many organizations focus exclusively on problem fixing that never relieve the employee or the organization from creating the problems. That’s because it is all too easy to find problems and fix them without really changing anything to keep them from happening in the first place.

Appreciative inquiry, on the other hand, is about recognizing what results in positive outcomes and spreading it around the organization. Often used to bring about strategic change, appreciative inquiry offers an alternative perspective that encourages rather than discourages, that builds up rather than knocks down, that spreads rather than eliminates.

In a recent front page New York Times article, this notion of positivity was focused on the Seattle Seahawks. Led by head coach Pete Carroll, the football team is having a great deal of success in part because he encourages his players rather than beats them up over miscues.

Remaining positive despite interceptions, dropped passes, missed tackles and even game losses has been instrumental to getting the most out of so many of the Seahawks’ late round draft picks and undrafted players. It has certainly played a part in their back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and expectations for returning again this year.

In the same way this positive philosophy is rare in the National Football League, it is also rare in business. That needs to change if an organization wants to be about collaboration, innovation, continual learning and success.

Collaboration requires trust that an individual will not be attacked for doing his or her best—unless, of course, this becomes a pattern rather than an exception. Collaboration requires taking risks and making ourselves vulnerable. That cannot happen if we’re running scared of making mistakes for fear of reprisals.

Innovation means trying new things and coloring outside the lines in order to find solutions. This won’t happen if we are avoiding experimentation for fear of personal repercussions. Out-of-the-box thinking can’t be based on fear, but requires a nurturing atmosphere to foster creativity.

Continual learning is required for organizations to thrive in the 21st century. This means constantly attacking what (not who) is wrong and find ways to fix or do it better. It requires allowing for mistakes, miscues and failures in order to find the best sustainable solutions.

Success is a road paved with failure goes the old saying. There can be no success if we don’t acknowledge our failures, learn from them, and move forward. Acknowledging these failures can be done in a positive light that encourages participants to own up to their part or negative where people hide or blame others.

Author and management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways the make the system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

If this is not focusing on positive rather than negative, I don’t know what is.

Next time your employee makes a mistake, misses a deadline, or falls short despite his or her best efforts, use encouragement. You will find that, in the long run, this will bring about better performance and raise overall engagement.

Owning Up to Bias

April 16, 2015

Back when I was studying journalism in college, we were instructed to strive for objectivity. Our professors made it clear that because we are human and have unique perspectives, we were always going to skew a story in a particular direction. Regardless, the goal was to be unbiased.

The Fourth Estate had a lot more respect in those days.

Today, of course, journalism is no longer expected to be without an agenda. Opinion has somehow replaced fact as sacrosanct. In the age of the Internet and social media in particular, we can all choose to have our information (or infotainment) skewed just the way we like it to further reinforce our perspectives rather than challenge and expand them.

This limits our ability to find creative solutions to problems, work together cooperatively, and to make progress in business, politics and our communities.

Bias exists all around us otherwise we would see just as many women and people of color in leadership positions in business and politics. We also wouldn’t see such a disproportionate number of Black men detained, incarcerated and killed.

Two significant events regarding women occurred this week: 1) April 14, 2015 marked Equal Pay Day, or the date symbolizing how far into the new year the average American woman would have to work to earn what the average American man did in the previous year; 2) Hillary Clinton declared herself to be a candidate for President of the United States of America.

In a recent survey by Pew Research Center on “Women and Leadership,” some 80% of men and women said neither men nor women have leadership styles that make them more successful in business. In fact, about a third of adults (31%) said top female executives may be more honest and ethical than male executives.

Nevertheless, few women reach the top. Just twenty years ago no female CEOs ran Fortune 500 companies; today, 26 or 5% are run by women. In corporate boardrooms, things are a bit better as women represented just 10% of board members in 1995 and today about 17%.

Pew’s survey found respondents say they believe male executives are better than women at assuming risk, yet women are better at compromise. According to the study, men and women may believe female leaders are just as qualified as their male peers, but certain stigmas persist. Even in 2014, some 50% of women and 35% of men agree that many businesses aren’t ready to hire women for top executive positions.

The survey also revealed that 38% of all adults say they hope the U.S. will elect a female president in their lifetime, and 57% say it doesn’t matter to them.

The unending reports of African American men and boys fatally shot by police officers since the tragic event in Ferguson, Missouri last year is a reminder that we as a nation are still facing racism in law enforcement. And this week while visiting our nation’s capitol, I was constantly reminded of how slavery is a continual backdrop to our country’s history, and something we have yet to come to terms with.

Research into unconscious bias reveals that white referees call more fouls on African American NBA basketball players than on white players. And Black referees call more fouls on white basketball players than they do on Black players.

Though we live in a land of so-called equal opportunity where anyone can grow up to lead a company or become commander in chief, the reality is very different. Our bias is unconscious and it is ever present. Facing this and owning up to it is necessary before we can overcome it.

In a new book by Howard J. Ross called Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, the author provides a formula for how to disengage from bias.

  1. Recognize that bias is a normal part of the human experience
  2. Develop the capacity for self-observation
  3. Practice constructive uncertainty by using PAUSE
  • Pay attention to what’s happening beneath the judgments and assessments
  • Acknowledge your own reactions, interpretations, and judgments
  • Understand the other possible reactions, interpretations, and judgments that may be possible
  • Search for the most constructive, empowering, or productive way to deal with situation
  • Execute your action plan
  1. Explore awkwardness or discomfort
  2. Engage with people in groups you may not know very well, or about whom you harbor biases
  3. Get feedback and data

Whether in business, politics or in our communities, it is up to each of us to admit that we are biased. It is not something we can escape from, but only something we can acknowledge and continually be aware of. This means questioning our perspectives and recognizing that the way we see things may not be as objective as we’d like to believe it is.

Emotional Health for High Performing Teams

February 19, 2015

Why is it when we put together a group of highly capable individuals to form a team, this “whole” doesn’t necessarily exceed the sum of its parts?

Obviously, teams won’t always exceed the collective contributions of the individuals, and sometimes these teams can backfire and produce even less.

“It is relatively easy to find talent; it is hard to form teams,” wrote David Brooks in The New York Times. “In hiring I suspect most companies and organizations pay too much attention to the former and too little to the latter.”

Selecting talented individuals without consideration for how they interact with others is a risky proposition, since so much of what we do in organizations is done in collaboration with other people.

“The key to success is not found in the individual members, but in the quality of the space between them,” according to Brooks.

This space between members has to do with emotions, and individuals must be emotionally healthy to work together properly. As I’ve written about in previous posts, one’s emotional intelligence is vital to workplace success.

In fact, Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, found that 67% of all competencies deemed essential for high performance were related to emotional intelligence. Furthermore, one’s emotional intelligence mattered twice as much as one’s technical knowledge or IQ for this high performance.

This emotional intelligence is magnified on teams since the effectiveness of team performance relies so heavily on the interaction between team members.

Effective teams are those with trust, open and effective communication, respect among members, a common goal, and interdependence. These are foundational in fostering healthy conflict, collaboration, cooperation and creativity to find innovative solutions to challenges.

Getting to this solid foundation requires the emotional health of each individual because our ability to self-reflect, self-regulate and empathize with others determines to what degree we are able to work together effectively.

Instead of using familiar and workplace-safe words such as “empowerment” and “team-based” and “motivation,” I think it’s time we accept that our feelings are not something we lock away in our private lives or keep at home during the day. Our emotions—both the positive and negative—are with us everyday and everywhere we go.

Accepting and honoring these emotions does not mean no longer acting professional or giving up all rational thought. Instead, it means embracing the gift these feelings provide us in order to work effectively with others and be more productive.

Fear, anger, frustration and other negative feelings can undermine group dynamics. For teams to function at a high level it is therefore important to shift these and harness optimal emotions such as joy, passion, even excitement to provide energy and enthusiasm.

The most optimal emotions can stimulate innovation and productivity because they enhance the competencies of quickness, flexibility, resilience, and the ability to deal with complexity, according to Jackie Barretta, author of Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance. These optimal emotions can then transform any team into a high-performance engine where people function with sharper minds, find creative solutions and everyone operates at their peak.

This does not mean faking positive emotions in order to overcome negative ones. You need to remain congruent with your feelings. But it does mean paying attention to those negative feelings that may be hampering your team.

In her book, Barretta provides a “Fear Release Guide” to reduce fear and negativity. Many of these techniques rely on a high level of trust for team members to feel comfortable sharing their emotions with other teammates, and this is key in order to shift to optimal emotions.

When that fear and anxiety are replaced with joy and playfulness, a team finds it easier to dream up elegant solutions to satisfy customers and deliver long-term value. Barretta defines positive emotions as heartfelt emotions that you can actually feel by the way people speak about their job, their team and their company.

Heartfelt emotions can dramatically impact our ability to interrelate with others, and learning how to navigate them in ourselves as well as those around us can greatly influence our success on teams.

Researchers at HeartMath used sensitive magnetometers to find that the electromagnetic field emitted by our hearts actually extends beyond our physical body to those around us. We automatically and unconsciously sense the heart fields of other people. And this provides valuable information for how well or poorly we function as a part of a team.

If your team is not currently functioning at a high level, perhaps it’s time to take an emotional assessment. What is the predominant feeling in the room? Maybe it’s time to shift away from fear, anxiety or frustration in order to improve your team’s effectiveness.

Better Group Decision-Making without Groupthink

February 6, 2015

As social beings, throughout human history, we make things happen primarily in groups rather than as individuals. Whether inside a business, government agency, school board, religious organization or any other group, you most likely interact with others in order to decide what to do.

There is good reason for this: groups can often make better decisions than individuals on their own. A collective wisdom results when people work together to find the best solution to a problem.

However, we all know and have been part of a group where the decision turned out badly. This is often the result of groupthink, where the desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making.

Under certain conditions, determining a solution via statistical methodology may be preferable than through deliberation. James Surowiecki, in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, found that the average answer is often accurate, where accuracy is measured by reference to objective facts.

The average of a group of people judging the number of beans in a jar, for example, is almost always better than the judgments of the individuals alone. In one experiment, a group of 56 students were asked about a jar that held 850 beans. The group estimate was 871, and was more accurate than all but one of the students.

According to Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hassie in their new book Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, group decisions can go wrong for many reasons because they can:

  • Amplify rather than correct individual errors in judgment;
  • Fall victim to cascade effects with members following what others say or do;
  • Become polarized by adopting more extreme positions than the ones they started with;
  • Emphasize what everybody knows instead of focusing on critical information that only a few people know.

One of the central themes of their book is the importance of diversity, not in terms demographics, but with ideas and perspectives. This cognitive diversity can come about only when leaders choose to create the right kind of culture and hire the right kind of people.

Group decision-making often fails to produce good results because leaders tend to mix the divergent function (diversity of ideas) and consensus-seeking function. Both divergent and consensus functions are necessary, but are best when implemented separately. Sunstein and Hassie recommend eight potential approaches that can reduce the failure of group decision-making:

  1. Inquisitive and self-silencing. This requires leaders to listen to everyone before revealing their own perspective. The leader should be inquisitive and allow the opportunity for new ideas to emerge instead of seeking confirmation on where they stand.
  2. Priming critical thinking. This priming is about triggering some association or thought in a way to affect people’s choices and behaviors. When people are motivated to arrive at the right solution through critical thinking, they are far more likely to reveal what they know rather than guard this information until they have the complete solution. Leaders can help by simply saying: “Okay, now tell me something I need to know.”
  3. Rewarding group success. When people are rewarded only when the group is right, they are far more likely to reveal what they know. Restructure incentives so the group truly functions collaboratively. Identification with the group’s success means people are more likely to reveal their ideas regardless of whether this fits the party line.
  4. The role of roles. Having specialists representing diverse areas of expertise can be helpful because they each feel empowered to speak up. In government, “equities,” which, when working well, can result in people providing important information and perspectives that reflect their own role. Whether in the public or private sector, leaders should ensure people are assigned different tasks and roles in order to improve group decision-making.
  5. Perspective changing. Sometimes when a group ends up going down a path that doesn’t seem so good, it may be worth asking: “If we were to bring in new leadership, what would it do?” This simple question can sometimes break through the traps that keep groups from moving in the right direction.
  6. Speak of the devil. By deliberately assigning someone the role to play devil’s advocate, a leader can count on this person to challenge the status quo. In addition, the one assuming this role is then able to avoid the pressure that comes from rejecting the dominant position with the group, since they are being asked to do exactly that.
  7. Red Teaming. This is a contrarian team that operates similarly to devil’s advocates in that they attempt to poke holes in the primary team’s idea. They can be used to test worst-case scenarios and are common in the military and government. Private sector companies may outsource this function to “white-hat hackers,” who are paid to penetrate corporate firewalls or hack into security systems. Law firms use them with mock juries before going to trial.
  8. The Delphi Method. This is a formal process for aggregating the views of group members, and can be viewed as a version of averaging that enlists social learning. It’s beneficial because a) it ensures initial anonymity of all members, b) they are each given an opportunity to offer feedback on each other’s views, and c) the judgments of members are gathered again with statistical aggregation. The anonymity both in the beginning and end helps minimize the reputational pressure and reduces self-silencing.

Each of these has its merits, but none would be used in every scenario. The point is to look beyond the way your group currently makes decisions to determine which of the above might used to modify your deliberation in order to ensure better outcomes.

Focus on Employees Before Customers

April 25, 2014

In my experience, the best companies put their employees ahead of their customers. This may seem counter to what most companies want to convey to the marketplace, but the ultimate value of products and services shine through if the people designing, producing and delivering them are served well.

Think of Google, Zappos , Netflix, Costco and, at least until recently, Southwest Airlines who continually focus on the relationships with their employees.

“Everybody talks about building a relationship with your customer,” says Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry and soon to take on Apple’s retail business. “I think you build one with your employees first.”

Employees who feel cared for are far more likely to serve customers well than those who are not. This is because employees are the most important element when it comes to improving productivity and increasing profitability.

In The Executive Checklist: A Guide for Setting Direction and Managing Change by James M. Kerr, the author provides a framework to reach enterprise-wide transformation.

All the expected items are in this checklist, but my focus is on the people side, which he discusses in two sections: Chapter 4 Engage Staff—The way to gain support and accelerate success, and Chapter 8 Transform Staff—The people part of enterprise-wide change.

Staff Engagement Checklist:

  • Decide to Engage – This is a continuous program and includes executive sponsorship, engagement strategy, communication framework and program administration.
  • Promote the New Culture – Outreach and promotion are essential with messaging that is consistent and on-point for both internal and external audiences.
  • Inspire Early Adopters – Reaching out and empowering those who clearly adopt the proposed changes will help engage other employees. This can encourage change from the bottom up as well as top down.
  • Plan for Generation Y – These workers can be more difficult to engage and not easily managed through conventional means. Consider ideas such as redefining job titles, enable a free agent market, promote location independence, and provide lifestyle benefits.
  • Include Inclusion – Embrace diversity to ensure everyone feels their ideas and input are welcome. Ensure that your management team and board of directors exemplify your commitment to this.
  • Tie Engagements to Measurement & Reward Programs – Incentivize the commitment people make to the engagement. Develop an awards program that can reward them for their efforts.

Employee engagement is vital to increasing trust and building better relationships that can increase productivity. It can inspire employees to bring their best selves to the workplace and result in more positive customer interactions.

Staff transformation is another area that can leverage the employee focus into organization-wide results.

Staff Transformation Checklist:

  • Shape the Program for Continuous Execution – This means training on skills and behaviors consistent with the vision and business strategy. It includes what Kerr calls the pillars of training, measurement and reward.
  • Place Emphasis on Softer Skills and Bigger Pictures – Enhancing communication, building trust, and encouraging teamwork can greatly influence cooperation and collaboration. A greater understanding of the vision and strategy can stir creativity and innovation.
  • Commit to Shared Training – The employee and employer should jointly take part in determining what training is needed as well as where and how it can be obtained. Both should have skin in the game for this training to be effective.
  • Weave Measurement into the Execution Environment – When performance metrics are produced as a byproduct of doing the work, the process can be adjusted in real time and not wait until after completion.
  • Measure for Desired Outcomes – Aligning performance measurement with desired objectives is more likely to bring about higher quality changes faster.
  • Reward Results – Reward and compensation packages should track directly with results and not merely effort made or hours invested.
  • Reimagine Incentives – Extrinsic nonmonetary rewards such as tickets to theatre or sporting events, gift cards, preferred parking spots, etc. go a long way to motivating your staff.
  • Build a Creative Team of Personnel – Encourage your staff to be more creative through cross-functional work teams, out-of-the-box thinking, and a visually stimulating workplace environment.

This staff transformation is all about a management structure that trains, measures and rewards people for delivering results. When you directly tie your people’s efforts to the outcomes desired, you can transform your staff.

These transformation efforts need to be deliberate, well planned and guided by the strategy of the organization.

“It is vital part of rejuvenating the current execution culture, while enabling the achievement of desired outcomes,” Kerr writes. “Organizations change as people change.”

When organizations put their employees ahead of their customers not just in words but in actions, this will translate into higher productivity and profitability. Customers will follow.

Intention: Vital to Effective Action

March 17, 2014

“He who has a why can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

We all know intention without action leads to nothing, but what about action without intention? When we focus on accomplishing something before fully considering the purpose behind it, the action can be a wasted effort.

Your intention is important because you gain clarity of purpose prior to the action you take. The extra time taken to clarify why you are doing something can be the difference between acting for the sake of being busy versus actually accomplishing something important.

Intentions are important for any size decision and in any part of our lives.

At work this can be as big as restructuring a large company’s workforce, which requires a great deal of forethought and communication on the intention behind the change. Providing a clear and compelling message on the intention behind the restructure can greatly help facilitate this change effort.

A middle manager looking to complete a project that requires active support of others across the organization may struggle without stating her intention. Clearly identifying and communicating the intention behind the action you want enables you to get assistance from others regardless of their own priorities. And if you can tie the intent of your project to the organization’s overall goals, you are much more likely to gain others’ support.

Getting people to follow and help you in your efforts to accomplish something are greatly increased when you begin with the intention for why you are taking action.

In his book “Start with Why,” author Simon Sinek says that those who start with a clear and compelling why never manipulate others, but instead inspire them. People then follow not because they have to, but because they want to.

This notion of a compelling why is very much grounded in intention. Your why to inspire yourself and others needs to be grounded in how well you have thought out and articulated your intention.

So how can you learn to be more intentional prior to your actions?

Here’s a few ways (big and small) each of us can more likely accomplish whatever it is we want to achieve. It doesn’t take a huge investment in time or money.

It does, however, involve consciously being intentional. It involves actively putting forth what it is you want so others know about it. Whether at work or anywhere in our lives, being intentional will lead to getting more of what you want.

Here’s a few ways to encourage more intentionality into your life:

  • Use your turn signal. I don’t mean after reaching the intersection when the driver of the car behind you no longer has an opportunity to get into another lane. I mean giving the other driver a full half-block warning (which is the law, by the way) to make a fully informed decision with regard to your intention. Hopefully, this will catch on with others.
  • Speak to others directly. This means making it crystal clear what you want from the other person when speaking to him or her. Don’t talk around what’s on your mind, but instead speak from your heart, be honest and be direct. If you often hear people say “what are you trying to say,” then this is for you.
  • Begin with the end in mind. As Stephen R. Covey says in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” all things are created twice. And the mental or first creation needs to precede the physical or second creation. Know where you’re going before you start your engine.
  • Be true to your word. Say what you do and do what you say. Your intentions will only be effective if you regularly act on what you say you will do. By stating your intention, you are proclaiming to yourself and others what you will act upon. Hold yourself accountable for this.

This begs the question: Why do we so often hold others accountable for their lack of acting on intentions, but we rationalize away our own failure to act? This seems in line with John Wallen, who said we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others on their impact on us.

Surely discipline plays a role. Consistent behavior requires that we hold ourselves accountable for following through on our intentions. If this is a problem, begin by simply noticing when you are not following through with your intentions and the rationale you provide for this. Is there a theme? What does this reveal about you?

Executing effective action requires the intention behind it is clear to everyone involved or impacted by it. Whether you are trying to carry out a huge project in your organization or simply making a left hand turn, signal your intention to enhance your effectiveness at taking action.

 

 

7 Tips for Effective Conference Calls

March 2, 2014

Today’s workplace means people are more geographically dispersed and this greatly compromises our ability to communicate well. There’s also an increased need to collaborate and this can be especially challenging when working in different locations.

The ubiquitous conference call has quickly become the norm when it comes to meetings and makes for unique challenges in for them to be effective. So much of our communication is non-verbal (eye contact, body language, etc.), and we need to take this into account when speaking and listening in conference calls.

In the same ways that emails can be easily misinterpreted, so too can the things that are said and unsaid in conference calls. You can’t simply speak and listen the way you would in face-to-face meetings.

Even with the popularity of videoconferencing tools such as NetMeeting, GoToMeeting, Google+ hangouts and others, the voice-only conference call is still used in most cases.

Determining first whether or not to hold a conference call should take a few things into consideration: 1) What is the purpose of the call? 2) Who needs to be on the call? 3) Will a voice-only call be effective and appropriate given the purpose or should a face-to-face meeting or videoconferencing be employed instead?

Like any meeting, certain ground rules should be considered: 1) start on time (don’t wait for stragglers as it only encourages them), 2) have an agenda and stick to it, 3) keep minutes of the meeting and follow up with action items, 4) end on time or earlier if you’re finished.

Conference calls require additional rules to make them most effective. These include:

  1. Lead the call effectively. Take charge by explaining who you are and the purpose for the meeting within the first two minutes. Establishing leadership with your voice only means you often need to over communicate and be more careful with your word choice.
  2. Get everyone involved. Engage everyone from the start by giving them a chance to speak up by introducing themselves. Call on those who are not speaking up during the call to keep everyone engaged.
  3. Share the floor. Unless you are presenting something, as the leader you should ensure you don’t hog the floor. Give everyone an equal opportunity to share their perspective. If there are many people on the call or new people, have everyone identify themselves when they begin to speak.
  4. Avoid distractions. Ensure that everyone finds a quiet space for the call and uses a landline if at all possible. Use the mute button strategically. Be careful not to shuffle papers, tap pens, and turn off other electronic devices. Anything that could be considered rude in face-to-face meetings should be avoided during a conference call.
  5. Don’t multitask. Close email so you’re not tempted to play catch up on other things. If you find yourself doing something other than focusing on who is speaking and the meeting at hand, perhaps you should not be on the call. As a leader, ensure that the meeting remains focused so no one’s time is wasted.
  6. Provide time for questions. Give a five-minute warning before the end of the call so everyone has an opportunity to question or ask for clarification on anything.
  7. End the call effectively. Thank them for their participation. Indicate when minutes will be coming as well as any follow up that needs to happen. Provide the time and date for the next meeting as necessary.

Another thing you might consider: some people can be perceived as negative or disagreeable and may want or need to improve this perception among coworkers. To do this during a conference call, consider the use of a mirror during the call. This can greatly help regulate your tone of voice as you will be influenced by how you look when you’re speaking. Most of us will not deliberately look negative or disagreeable when looking into a mirror and this will be reflected in our tone.

Like any meeting, conference calls need to be run well so people stay engaged and the meeting remains an effective use of everyone’s time. Leading a conference call means you need to be hypersensitive because you have so few ways to monitor meeting attendees beyond what you hear them say.

Keep in mind these seven tips for conference calls and you’ll find them to be more effective and a useful method for meeting with others.

Microsoft’s New CEO Signals Radical Shift

February 4, 2014

Though Wall Street may not thoroughly rally around Satya Nadella to succeed Steve Ballmer as CEO at Microsoft, I believe this so-called “safe choice” is a compelling one because it signals a radical shift in management style at the company.

Nadella is described as smart, persuasive and likeable. He’s also known as a great communicator and collaborator. These are not attributes used very often to describe Ballmer or Bill Gates.

But that doesn’t mean Nadella is a slacker when it comes to technological expertise and business acumen.

He comes to the job with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s degree in computer science and a master’s in business administration. He cut his teeth as an engineer at Sun Microsystems. And in his 22 years at Microsoft, Nadella led Microsoft Office, the research and development of online services including Bing, and finally servers and tools, which was renamed the cloud and enterprise group.

It appears that he also has the soft skills to be especially successful in this leadership position, and those who worked with Nadella confirm that he is the right choice.

“The reason why I have mountains of respect for Satya is that he’s first and foremost a great and sincere and honest human being,” said Bill Hilf, who worked under Nadella at Microsoft. “It’s a weird thing to say, but that’s a rare thing at Microsoft, because you have so many hardcore technologists who have risen up through the ranks,” explained Hilf in a recent Wired magazine article.

I suspect that Nadella, 46, will not only bring back technical expertise to the CEO role, but also a calm, considerate and collaborative perspective in dealing with the board, executive staff and all 130,000 employees.

“He is very inclusive,” continued Hilf. “He brings people in and gets them excited to work on stuff, and that’s what I think his magic is — his authenticity and the way he is able to inspire people and not just push them. He can inspire them to do great work and get them motivated and excited.”

When I hear leaders described as authentic, inspiring, motivational, and collaborative, I see the potential for greatness.

With this move, Microsoft has signaled radical changes that I believe will enable the company to move forward. Among these radical changes:

  • New CEO Nadella is a native Indian who reads poetry for relaxation and is known for his collaborative rather than combative management style.
  • New chairman of the board John Thompson, the former CEO of Symantec was the first black man to head a technology company and, in 2009, was considered Obama’s choice to fill the commerce secretary post.
  • New role for Gates as technology advisor, who says he will be spending as much as a third of his time meeting with product and technology groups.
  • Newly appointed CFO Amy Hood, formerly of Goldman Sachs and at Microsoft since 2002, is the company’s first woman in this position.

Microsoft is at a pivotal spot in this post-PC era where they need to capitalize on the need to focus more on mobile computing and the cloud. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are seen as the leaders in many of these areas so Nadella has his work cut out for him.

It will be especially interesting to see how well he is able to implement change with both Ballmer and Gates still serving as directors on the board.

“He has proven not only that he understands the Microsoft culture, but that he can change it in very big ways,” says James Staten, a vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research.

Nadella has stated that he finds relaxation in reading poetry by both Indian and American poets. “It’s like code,” he says. “You’re trying to take something that can be described in many, many sentences and pages of prose, but you can convert it into a couple lines of poetry and you still get the essence, so it’s that compression.”

The best code, Nadella says, is poetry.

Moving forward, we’ll see how well this fondness for poetry and more collaborative management style translates into further innovation and greater shareholder value.

Great Leadership Requires Asking Questions

November 27, 2013

So often we look to leaders to provide answers to the most challenging problems we face whether in politics or business. In fact, great leaders are those who instead ask the right questions and engage others to arrive at the best answers together.

The media overly promotes a single businessman, politician or sports star as responsible for overall success. As a result, it’s hard to think of Apple without Steve Jobs, J.P. Morgan Chase without Jamie Dimon, and the current Denver Broncos without Payton Manning.

We tend to therefore associate the success of any group as overly reliant on those who lead them. Leaders are vital, of course, but the best are those who inspire others and share leadership to arrive at the most creative solutions.

Leaders play a pivotal role yet achieving success is predicated on getting more from the individuals they lead. This means engaging everyone to contribute fully because the best solutions come when the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

A recent Forbes magazine article discussed the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman, and quoted the author as writing that the best multipliers “are leaders who bring out intelligence in others and get the best ideas and work out of the people they lead. ”

One of the trappings of leadership is thinking you have to have all the answers and that it is entirely up to you to provide people with the right answers. This is narrow-minded and it is detrimental to multiplier thinking.

“When a leader asks the questions,” says Wiseman, “they channel the energy and intelligence of their team on the challenge at hand, and they shift the burden of thinking onto others.”

Instead of looking to answer the big and important questions on his or her own, the multiplier asks provocative questions of the group and encourages them to work on it together. This engages employees like nothing else and no longer has them sitting on the sidelines awaiting the answer from their leader.

In his book Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker J. Palmer, he writes:

“The great gift we receive on the inner journey is the certain knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. Not only are there other acts in town, but some of them from time to time are even better than ours! On this inner journey we learn that we do not have too carry the whole load, that we can be empowered by sharing the load with others, and that sometimes we are even free to lay our part of the load down. On the inner journey we learn that co-creation leaves us free to do only what we are called and able to do, and to trust the rest to other hands. With that learning, we become leaders who cast less shadow and more light.”

Leaders who encourage this co-creation demonstrate humility in the face of the attention attributed entirely to them.

Jim Collins stated that great leaders are those who look out the window when things are going right, and in the mirror when things are not going right. It is this strength of character that enables great leaders to ignore the limelight society wants to throw upon them and instead diffuse it by sharing the glory with others with success and taking responsibility with failure.

This takes courage and patience. It takes resilience and persistence. And ultimately it takes trust that the individuals you lead have the ability to reach the best solutions collectively.

These best solutions require the best questions and a collective approach to reaching the answers.

Valuing Diverse Personality Types in Workgroups

September 10, 2013

Today’s workgroups are made up of people from a variety of cultures, ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. They also include different personalities.

High performing workgroups are those that embrace and leverage these personality differences in order to achieve outstanding results.

In my line of work I use many diagnostic tools and assessments to help evaluate clients in the environment where they work. These can be useful as they provide valuable insight into how individuals differ from the people they work with most closely.

Each of these tools and assessments typically involve a four square grid where people are placed in one specific quadrant. Yes, they put people into boxes, but more importantly, they provide a common vocabulary in order to converse about what it means to be different.

Not better or worse, just different in how we think, respond and operate in the world.

This common vocabulary can then enable better understanding and ultimately movement with regard to changing behavior to help improve communication, engagement, collaboration, and overall efficiency in the workplace.

Whether using the popular Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, Keirsey Temperament Sorter, DISC profile or any number of tools, the fundamental principle of all models basically provide four types of personalities—expressive, analytical, driven and social.

Each personality type is valuable to the success of a team. All of them are vital to getting things done. And the team’s leader can come from any of them.

Most importantly, it is the dynamic interplay between these four types that make a team of people truly creative in finding and implementing effective solutions.

You can find examples of these four personality types in every workplace, even popular television shows. Think of Seinfeld where Kramer is the expressive, burst in to rooms, big personality; George is the analytical, wanting to know all aspects of a situation before making a decision to act; Elaine is the driven, assertive person who can never find a man smart enough and rich enough; Jerry is the social, friendly guy who brings together and maintains the cohesiveness of the group.

After first identifying our own type and realizing the gifts and challenges it provides, next comes understanding the value of the other types and appreciating how they can also contribute to team results.

Jim Collins, author of the best-selling Good to Great, says it’s not only important to get the right people on the bus, but to get each of them in the right seat on the bus.

Without making too much of an over generalization, different personality types lend themselves to different work. Those who are the analytical type may not be happy or successful in a traditional sales or public relations position. An expressive or social type may find a research position far too confining.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

A workgroup must take into account how the work is shared among diverse personality types. Just because one person has a certain job title or job function doesn’t mean he or she should be confined to that specific work. Let your team members determine how best to accomplish the work.

For any whole to be greater than the sum of its parts requires maximizing the potential of each individual and leveraging the efficiencies found in true collaboration.

In their book Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results, Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan write “extraordinary groups cultivate a positive mind-set about differences, choosing to see them as intriguing, informative, and essential—rather than irritating, divisive or threatening.”

Bellman and Ryan found in their research of extraordinary groups that this ability to express and work with these differences as critical to their success. Holding these differences in a way all individuals can move forward together rather than pulling the group apart is a core distinction between an ordinary and an extraordinary group.

To enable more creative and innovative solutions to business problems requires utilizing the creative potential of diverse personalities in workgroups. This means not only welcoming and respecting our differences, but also learning to collaborate with and maximizing the collective wisdom found in this mix.

Talkin’ Bout Our Generations

August 22, 2013

Every generation seems to believe they had it much harder than the one that follows them. The reality is that each generation has its own set of values and unique circumstances that make it not better or worse, but simply different from others.

Understanding and accepting these differences as well as dealing with them effectively can help you better manage the relationships in your career.

Today’s workplace can include people from four distinct generations. These include: Traditionalists (1927-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1963), Generation X (1964-1979) and Millennials (1980-1999). The values and work ethic of each can vary immensely.

Traditionalists, having suffered through the Great Depression directly or indirectly, may be risk averse, closed minded and inflexible. On the other hand, traditionalists can also be defined as respectful, disciplined and loyal.

Boomers, born following the end of World War II, are often characterized as egotistical, driven, and power-hungry workaholics. They may also be seen as optimistic, competitive and collaborative.

Generation Xers, who came about when women began entering the workplace on par with men, are often stereotyped as slackers, cold and cynical. Their assets include being independent, creative, entrepreneurial and pragmatic.

Millennials, or Generation Y as they are sometimes called, are often viewed as impatient, entitled and disrespectful. However, they can also be considered hopeful, tech-savvy, fast-paced and collaborative.

What does this mean for today’s workplace environment?

“In order to remain relevant and maintain a leading edge in today’s marketplace, we must start by seeking to improve our intergenerational effectiveness,” says Anna Liotta, author of Unlocking Generational Codes: Understanding what makes the generations tick and what ticks them off. “It’s not personal, it’s generational.”

Liotta, a Seattle-based consultant and speaker, suggests there are five basic elements influencing and shaping decisions, actions and reactions of each generation.

These elements are what she calls Generational CODES representing Communication, Orientation, Discipline, Environment and Success. All of these elements are viewed differently by each generation and to navigate our relationships requires we understand how they differ from us.

Where there was once a traditionalist executive overseeing the work of boomer directors responsible for generation x managers, we now are seeing this ladder of progression turned on its side. Many things have upset the paradigm, including technology, telecommuting and the increasing pace of change in the workplace.

Traditionalists have mostly left the working world, yet still represent nearly 8% of the U.S. workforce. Baby boomers are retiring at an extremely rapid pace and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2015 there will be more millennials than boomers in the workplace.

What will this influx of millennials mean to our evolving workplace environment? It is likely to influence it in dramatic ways.

Just as the United States has become more racially diverse, so too will the workplace—Hispanics represent 20% of all millennials. As technology innovations have changed every aspect of our lives, these “digital native” millennials will expect technical devices, the internet and social media as necessary pieces for getting their jobs done. Millennials want to revise the career ladder for achieving success into more of a scaffolding approach, which is based less on hierarchy and more on equality.

You can also expect that with more millennials in the workplace, it is likely to become more social and more fun. Many will not see a nine-to-five, Monday through Friday schedule as desirable and instead look for jobs with more flexibility for getting work done. The line between work and free time is much more permeable for them.

Millennials also may not see their jobs as primarily about a paycheck, but about making a difference and making a valuable contribution. They will want to find meaning in their lives and this includes what they do for a living.

There are many differences in perspective between millennials and those who came before them, but perhaps it is their interest in partnership as opposed to ownership that distinguishes them more than anything. This generation was taught to work on group projects in school, exercise teamwork on the soccer field with trophies for all, and generally to think in terms of shared responsibility rather than direct ownership.

The main characteristics that will come to define the management style of millennial managers are collaborative, flexible, transparent, casual and balanced, according to Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin, authors of Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management. “Millennial managers are not going to do something the way it’s always been done just because it’s always been done that way—especially if it doesn’t make sense to them.”

Modern-day management and the values of millennials will shift our thinking towards:

  • consensus building and collaboration
  • looking out to find information
  • seeking ideas from anyone or anywhere—including the bottom
  • being a leader people want to follow
  • adjusting management styles to fit different people
  • helping employees grow and develop
  • engaging and empowering
  • listening, understanding, and working together
  • making mistakes is okay
  • thinking differently is encouraged

Everyone needs to be patient and appreciate the different approach each member of the four generations brings to the workplace. The idea of collaboration is shared among baby boomers and millennials, while traditionalists and generation xers can both appreciate pragmatism in getting things done.

But just as it takes different types of personalities to form a strong work team, so too can many different age workers make for a more dynamic and creative workplace.

Evolving Role of the Middle Manager

August 9, 2013
“I would rather have a first-class manager running a second-rate business than a second-rate manager running a first-rate business.” — Jack E. Reichert

Middle managers are essential to business, but their role is being questioned in this new business era.

Last year nearly 11 million employees identified themselves as middle managers. This represents 7.6% of the total U.S. workforce, which has recently been on the rise but may begin to slow in the future.

The Wall Street Journal recently did a series called “Managing in the Middle” on the role middle managers serve in organizations—a role that is evolving to meet the challenges of the faster pace of change, technology and a new work ethic.

They profiled a high tech company with nearly 40 employees, who only recently promoted an employee to become their first manager. As reported in this article, “. . . at startups, where speed and autonomy are prized above all else, managers are often dismissed as archaic, or worse, dead weight.” Some firms dislike the term “manager” so much that they instead refer to them as “leader” or “person primarily responsible” (PPR).

This lack of respect for managers may be due to an evolving work ethic inspired by the Millennial generation of workers. Rather than be managed by someone else, these young, digital natives like to be empowered to get things done without a chain of command or corporate bureaucracy standing the way.

Some might argue that unregulated individual contributors cannot possibly know all the different ways decisions on elements of a project may negatively impact the project as a whole, other projects or the entire organization. And there can be no cost consolidation or process innovation if someone isn’t looking at the intimate details of how projects can work together better.

Middle managers now need to do more of the work as well as supervising others. In many cases, it is the supervising part of the manager’s job that is least likely to be measured and evaluated, and as a result this gets the least attention.

Supervising others has always been a complex task requiring many so-called “soft skills” that enable one to effectively lead others while also navigating the political environment within the organization. This includes being able to effectively manage not only downward, but also upwards and across the organization.

The challenge is that middle managers are not always given the tools needed to succeed as most are promoted to management positions based on their work as individual contributors. In many cases they achieved some technical expertise and this gave way to a promotion that didn’t always include management training or mentoring on the additional skills managers need.

Some common responsibilities for middle managers across industries are:

  • managing day to day operations
  • firefighting and troubleshooting
  • addressing ill-defined problems
  • developing others (as well as themselves)
  • championing innovation and facilitating change

All of these things still matter, but how has the manager’s role changed over the years? Here are a few examples:

It used to be that the middle manager position was the only pathway to career advancement. A middle manager learned to take on greater responsibility and supervise other people because this is how he or she could demonstrate leadership qualities while delivering quality products or services.

Employees now demonstrate their skills and abilities as individual contributors while working collaboratively with others. They need to take on a more strategic perspective to see beyond their own scope of work and how this impacts others and the organization as a whole.

In the past a middle manager needed to hold individual employees responsible for completing quality work on time. This was done through various forms of direction and measurements, and then communicated at annual performance reviews if at all.

Now individual employees need to hold themselves accountable for their part on the project, and to communicate with other team members to ensure the work is done well and delivered in the right timeframe.

It used to be that middle managers were Baby Boomers or Generation Xers who managed others in their generation or younger folks. This maintained a hierarchy and made it clear who was in charge with deeply-held respect for this authority.

Now in many organizations, middle managers are just as likely to be of the Millennial generation and managing those their own age as well as those older than themselves. Respect is something that is assumed equally up, down and across the organization in a more casual environment.

The role of the middle manager will continue to evolve. And it’s up to those in these positions to embrace these changes in order to thrive. This means continual learning, collaborating, communicating, mentoring and accepting the ambiguity of the position.

Though this quote is attributed anonymously, I think it is particularly poignant. “If you want to manage somebody, manage yourself. Do that well and you’ll be ready to stop managing and start leading.” Exactly!

Fostering Innovation in the Workplace

May 15, 2013

Today there is a great deal of talk about the need for more employee collaboration. This is because collaboration can lead to creative solutions and is directly tied to innovation.

Though we often attribute innovative ideas to a single person, rarely do these ideas occur in isolation. Finding novel solutions to problems or creating new market opportunities requires people sharing and discovering through direct and open interaction with others.

The physical environment can certainly play a role in encouraging innovation. Here are some examples of what organizations are currently doing.

  • Google is designing their new corporate headquarters to maximize casual employee conversations, which is exactly how they came up with innovations like Gmail and Street View.
  • Zappos created a new headquarters and deliberately provided employees with smaller workspaces and break rooms, not only to save money, but to encourage people to physically bump into each other. They hope this will lead to more spontaneous and productive interactions.
  • Many companies are also providing common work areas that enable employees to mingle and chat with the hope that more ideas will result.
  • National Public Radio has “Serendipity Days” where employees from different departments come together to deliberately think about new ideas and projects over a two-day period. The focus is on getting employees to work with people who they wouldn’t normally work with as a way to alter their current thinking and broaden perspective.
  • Some companies are asking employees to swap jobs for a few months in order to better understand each other’s work, and also seek different approaches to existing ways of doing things.
  • Yahoo recently put a ban on telecommuting as way to encourage incidental encounters in hallways and the cafeteria that would likely not occur if these employees worked from home.

Clearly these physical interventions may create an environment where people can collaborate and innovate together, but innovation also requires getting the right people together and having a culture that encourages the innovating process.

Here are some ideas on how organizations can encourage innovation:

  1. Hire the right people. Look for a cultural fit as well as passion in the people you hire. Don’t underestimate the importance of emotional intelligence, which is vital for effective relationships, but may not show up on resumes. Seek out curious people who look beyond presenting problems and find sustainable solutions.
  2. Foster a team approach. Don’t let an individual’s desire for career advancement override the team’s ability to succeed. Remember the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
  3. Enable brainstorming time. This means not shooting down what may appear at first to be a bad idea. Real innovation occurs when people are free to ask stupid questions, challenge assumptions, and try out what hasn’t been done before.
  4. Encourage risk taking. True creativity requires the opportunity to make mistakes and not be penalized for it. This means organizations must not only tolerate mistakes or false starts, but encourage them as the natural process for reaching innovative success.
  5. Foster a playful environment. Innovation demands that people follow their interests and play with ideas that may fall outside traditional thinking. While this may at times appear silly and unproductive, it is the exact environment where ideas can grow.
  6. Welcome diversity and conflicting opinions. Many organizations are conflict avoidant; they are also less likely to be innovative. That’s because coming up with new ideas is often messy and requires people to see and hear what is beyond their current point of view. Stay in the mess in order to let the best ideas surface.

Outside the workplace, there are organizations like Maker Faire that encourage innovation. “Maker Faire features innovation and experimentation across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, performance and craft.” In other words, it encourages people from many disciplines to take something old and make something new.

Regardless of the industry, organizations that provide products or services need to continually innovate in order to gain or maintain a competitive edge. Fostering an environment that encourages collaboration with a corporate culture and policies that support it can enable this innovation to occur.

 

What Business Can Learn from Finland’s Education Reform

February 25, 2013

Finland’s success in school reform provides valuable lessons that can be applied to the way we conduct business in the United States. Business reform is a lot easier than education reform, yet requires the same steadfast focus on results.

As everyone in the U.S. is well aware, we have a crisis in education. We are failing our children because they are dropping out of high school at an alarming rate. Those who do graduate from high school struggle to afford the extremely high cost of going to college. And we fail many of those who do graduate from college because they are unable to find jobs they are qualified to do.

This is a huge problem with no easy solution.

In Pasi Shalberg’s Finnish Lessons, he describes how and why Finland was able to combat a mediocre educational system and, after 30 years of school reform, Finnish students now regularly score highest among all other nations in reading, mathematics and science.

Some may attribute this to the Finnish government spending more on education. But it turns out that while public expenditure on all educational institutions in Finland was 5.6% of GDP, it was 7.6% of GDP in the U.S. over the same period in 2007. Many factors contribute to educational success, and clearly money is only a part of the equation.

For example, teachers in Finland are highly respected professionals rivaling only doctors, according to many surveys. As a result, teaching is a very competitive field to get into and only the very best become teachers. Compared with their peers in other countries, Finnish teachers actually spend less time teaching and their students spend less time studying both inside and outside of the classroom. Yet Finland now has the most educated citizens in the world.

Back in the mid-1970s when Finland first decided to do something about its educational system, it focused on outside-the-box thinking. They didn’t simply look to those countries that were doing better than them and adopt their strategies. Instead, they took into consideration their unique culture, and adopted a vision that embraced inclusiveness and creativity.

The Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is the unofficial educational agenda created in the 1980s that relies on a set of assumptions to improve education systems. It has been adopted by many countries including the U.S., but Finland decided to look beyond this in order to achieve even better results.

Below are key elements of the GERM in comparison with Finnish education policies since the early 1990s.

GERM Finnish Way
Standardized teaching & learning Customized teaching & learning
Focus on literacy & numeracy Focus on creative learning
Teach prescribed curriculum Encourage risk-taking
Borrow market-oriented reform ideas Learn from the past and own innovations
Test-based accountability & control Shared responsibility & trust

Many may argue that the U.S. education system could never adopt these types of changes for a variety of reasons. Perhaps this is true, but that doesn’t mean we should not consider overhauling what we have for what we need. Incremental changes like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top may at best chip away at the problems, but could also make things worse because they are not focused on the fundamental changes required for necessary reform.

In business, of course, there is greater flexibility in terms of how a company functions and treats its employees. And in our free market economy, customers can ultimately determine whether that business succeeds or fails.

However, many things from Finland’s educational reform that countered the GERM agenda can be applied to our business procedures. These include:

1)      Break from standardized business models to more customized and creative ones.

2)      Do not focus first on profits, but instead on customer satisfaction.

3)      Move from traditional means of productivity to the encouragement of risk-taking opportunities.

4)      Rather than copy the methods of others, choose to learn from the successes and failures of others and then forge a new path based on your own innovations.

5)      Move from command and control leadership to shared responsibility and foster greater trust in each other.

Nokia is a leading mobile communications company founded and based in Finland and it rose at the same time as the Finnish school reform movement. An executive from this company explains the connection between Finland’s educational system and business.

“If we hire a youngster who doesn’t know all the mathematics or physics that is needed to work here, we have colleagues here who can easily teach those things. But if we get somebody who doesn’t know how to work with other people, how to think differently or how to create original ideas and somebody who is afraid of making a mistake, there is nothing we can do here. Do what you have to do to keep our education system up-to-date but don’t take away creativity and open-mindedness that we now have in our schools.”

The Finnish term sisu loosely translates as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. But there is also an element of maintaining action despite adversity. This means staying the course, and looking out for the long term benefits even if it means failing to achieve more immediate revenue goals.

I think business leaders in America should adopt sisu in doing what is necessary to reform aspects of how we move forward in business.

And many companies are already practicing this with customized product and service delivery, encouraging creativity and innovation, sharing responsibility and fostering trust. These are the companies that will most likely survive and thrive going forward.

In the same way our educators need a new and improved model for how we help our students learn, so too do our business leaders in order to raise productivity, expand markets, and compete at a high level in the 21st century.

Rethinking the Role of Manager

December 4, 2012

Does your boss often get in the way of helping you be more productive? This is not entirely his or her fault as many organizational structures are based on an outdated incentive mentality that can actually be detrimental in today’s workplace.

The workplace has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Secretaries are scarce, the metallic sound of office machinery is replaced by electronic tones of pagers and cell phones, and—rather than conversing around the water cooler—we are more likely to be texting or using social networks as a way to interact with others.

How we manage other people, however, has remained the same.

The role of manager varies depending on the industry and nature of the work, but when it comes to supervising others, there is very often conflict and disharmony.

In a recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “The Value of Bosses” by Edward P. Lazear, Kathryn L. Shaw and Christopher T. Stanton, supervisors were found to have an enormous impact—good or bad—on productivity.

Among their findings, nearly 75% of all employees say their boss is the worst and most stressful part of their job. And 65% of employees say they would take a new boss over a pay raise.

The same study determined it is not what these bosses do, but what they don’t do that makes them so bad. This includes 1) failing to inspire; 2) accepting mediocrity; 3) lacking clear vision and direction; 4) inability to be collaborate and be a team player; 5) failing to walk the talk.

It turns out that the best bosses are actually teachers, and the report stated that teaching accounts for 67% of a boss’s effect on employees’ productivity.

What if your manager was focused on teaching and encouraging your intrinsic motivation to enable you to be more productive and happier in the process?

Too often motivation throughout many companies is based on the carrot and stick approach. For all but a very few types of manufacturing jobs or those requiring mechanical skills, however, this approach has been scientifically proven not to work. In fact, it can actually be detrimental to productivity.

So why is there so much time and money spent on extrinsic incentives in order to get employees to work harder? Extrinsic incentives include things like a high salary, bonus, stock options, and generous benefits, which are often what attract employees in the first place. However, it is the intrinsic incentives such as interesting work, flexible time on when and where to do the work, ROWE or results only work ethic, 20% time to follow interests, etc. that keep employees motivated and highly productive.

According to author Daniel Pink, intrinsic motivation is absolutely required and his model includes three essential elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the urge to direct our own lives; mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters; and purpose is the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves.

Workers today face challenges that require right-brained, creative, and/or conceptual thinking. This “outside the box” thinking cannot be incentivized through conventional external means, but instead requires internal motivation.

Intrinsic nature means the job’s core responsibilities and you’re being paid to do something you find satisfying, says Timothy Judge, Mendoza’s Franklin D. Schurz Professor of Management.

After conducting a hundred job-satisfaction studies, Judge says he’s never found one where the intrinsic nature of the work itself wasn’t the most important predictor of overall job satisfaction.

So what if a manager’s role was not to incentivize, scold, or threaten those he or she manages, but instead to teach, inspire, and support the employee’s need for autonomy, mastery and purpose? This new role for manager would look a lot more like a coach, mentor or teacher who is in service of raising the level of productivity of others.

In this way the workplace could be less hostile and more cooperative, less competitive and more collaborative. Managers could contribute to the workplace environment in a way that creates higher employee engagement and greater productivity. And that would be good for any organization.

Group Accountability for Effective Teamwork

November 19, 2012

Effective teamwork depends on many things. At a minimum, it requires capable people working together cooperatively to achieve a common goal.

According to author Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, truly cohesive teams trust one another, engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas, commit to decisions and plans of action, hold one another accountable for delivering those plans, and focus on achieving collective results.

Effective teamwork ultimately requires practicing a small set of principles over a long period of time, says Lencioni. “Success is not a matter of mastering subtle, sophisticated theory, but rather of embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.”

Unlike individual accountability, which I’ve written about in previous posts, group accountability is about the willingness of all team members to call each other on performance or behaviors that are detrimental to the team. This requires a great deal of trust and commitment, and it also requires courage.

Holding one another accountable can actually demonstrate respect as well as maintain high expectations for everyone. This peer pressure encourages everyone to take part in achieving the team’s goals through shared leadership, which I believe is vital to successful teams.

Teams that avoid holding one other accountable:

  • Create resentment among team members who have different standards of performance
  • Encourage mediocrity
  • Miss deadlines and key deliverables
  • Place an undue burden on the team leader as the sole source of discipline

Teams that do hold one another accountable:

  • Ensure that poor performers feel pressure to improve
  • Identify potential problems quickly by questioning one another’s approaches without hesitation
  • Establish respect among team members who are held to the same high standards
  • Avoid excessive bureaucracy around performance management and corrective action

In addition to a foundation of trust and commitment, clarity around individual roles and responsibilities in relation to the team’s goals is vital for group accountability to occur. There can be no ambiguity and every member must know exactly what is required in order to achieve the group’s goals.

It is helpful to encourage group accountability behavior so individuals feel more comfortable speaking up with regard to each other’s performance level. Providing specific feedback on witnessed behavior demonstrating group accountability during meetings can go a long way toward encouraging others.

Keep the focus on achieving team goals and not individual accomplishments. In fact, rewarding individuals can actually be counterproductive and often undermine group goals. In the same way a basketball team suffers if players refuse to play as a team, so too do workgroups when individual performance is praised above the group’s achievement of goals. This is not to say individuals shouldn’t be rewarded, however, if their accomplishments are singled out too frequently then group goals may become secondary.

Ultimately, there should be both an internal and external focus on accountability. Each person must be internally focused with full accountability for his or her own goals. And to be an effective group member, there must also be an external attention focused on accountability for the group in order to meet its goals.

This external focus on accountability requires holding each other to the same standard you hold for yourself, helping each other stay focused on the task necessary to achieve the group’s goals, and challenging each other to raise their level of performance.

As Lencioni says, effective teamwork is simply about embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence. And group accountability is one way to ensure your team can raise its performance and reach its goals.