Learning as a Journey

A question many of us think about on a regular basis is ‘what do I need to do to continue to be successful?” The definition of success itself is very personal. If you’ve been successful up until now, it could be easy to assume that what made you successful in the past will work in the future. In reality, it’s uncertain what will make us successful in workplaces, markets, careers, and industries that are changing so rapidly.

Change has a way of doing that – creating uncertainty. What do we seek when we feel uncertain? A return to a comfortable degree of certainty again. Certainty helps us feel in control. News flash: at work, we’ll never have 100% certainty. That said, maybe rather than searching for certainty, we should ensure our relevancy.

There is a prescient article in the Wall Street Journal titled “I’m Still Under Construction; Six Tales of Lifelong Learning.” It profiles six very different individuals who are living the idea of life-long learning. It demonstrates that learning can happen in a wide variety of ways and that it pays off in big ways. If you read the article, you’ll see that learning didn’t create more certainty, but it gave them more opportunity and relevancy.

There are some predictions that 30% of today’s skills and knowledge will be obsolete in a few years. Overstated or not, this statistic represents the reality that we need to be thinking about how we are continually preparing ourselves for what’s next. Second news flash: learning isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.

Where is your journey going?

Am I Dressed for This?

Much of the country is experiencing record-breaking, bitter cold this winter.  And yet, some weeks, we’ve had snow storms on one day, with bright sunshine and 50 degrees the next.  In a few months, we’ll be experiencing heat and humidity.  The old saying goes ‘if you wait a minute, the weather will change.” As human beings, we readily adapt to these weather changes. We build a wardrobe for whatever the weather in our area brings – hot, cold, rain, snow, sun, etc. 
 
You could apply that old saying to what happens at work these days – wait a minute, and it will change. As I sat yesterday evening in front of the fire, I was thinking about what kind of wardrobe we are building for ourselves at work so that, when change happens, we have what’s needed to adapt. Are we building an athletic wardrobe so that when we need to reach  across silos we are comfortable and able to move easily?  Do we have our creative hat when we need to approach a challenge in a new and unique way?  Do we have our metaphorical heavy coat so we can get results even when things feel blustery? 

Too often we put on armor to protect ourselves from having to adapt and change.  Wouldn’t a wardrobe with a nice pair of shorts help us to be comfortable when things get heated?  Or a well-tailored coat for when we have to face a cold front?  Or a comfy pair of jeans for when we need to be ready to stretch and reach feel so much better?
 
What are you doing to not only broaden your work wardrobe, but to update it for what’s needed in 2019? How about your teams?  Are they stuck in a snowbank?

Hold Onto Your Hat

Happy new year!!  2018 is in the books and now we’re looking at 350+ new days ahead of us. What will 2019 bring? Hard to say with certainty. With that said, what are some experts saying may be ahead of us in the coming year? Let’s take a look:

Hello Generation Z: For the first time in 2019, Gen Z is entering the workforce in meaningful numbers. For the first time we’ll have 5 generations working side-by-side. What are Gen Z all about? According to Brené Brown, “My experience is that they lean in and lean hard. They are all very different people, but as a group I experience them as curious, hopeful, always learning, painfully attuned to the suffering in the world, and anxious to do something about it.”

AI and machine learning come to workforce management: According to TheWorkforce Institute at Kronos, AI and machine learning will finally be integrated into workforce management practices. It will lessen the burden of admin-heavy tasks for managers and provide predictive analytics to head-off potential issues. Managers will have more information for data-driven decision making and more time to lead. The question in my mind is, are managers prepared and equipped to lead?

Economic uncertainty causing angst: With the behavior of the stock market over the past month, the early signs of trade wars and some economists predicting recession, the economy seems to be full of uncertainty. With uncertainty comes doubt and fear. Even though the great recession started over a decade ago, the scars are still fresh for many.

Leaders will need to handle a potential downturn in ways that sustain trust and guard against over-reaction to any changes it brings. In any scenario, organizations will need to ensure they have the right talent focused on what adds the most value. Effective leadership will be essential. 

What do you think is going to be impacting you this year?

The Leadership Link to Sustained Excellence

Can your organization sustain performance excellence? Recently, McKinseyresearched the link between leadership and organizational health (i.e., the company’s ability to sustain exceptional performance over time). Key findings:

  • 80% of a company’s variance could be explained by the strength of leadership.
  • 57% of companies don’t think their training efforts are developing the leaders they need to meet their strategic priorities.

Too often, they note, leadership development focuses on bringing universal leadership capabilities to a limited number of individuals in the company. Why doesn’t this work? Change is constant. Decision-making needs to be decentralized. Impacts need to be achieved across the organization. Effective leadership needs to be local.

They suggest four principles that closely align with our approach to developing leaders who can thrive in high-change environments.

  • Focus on leadership behaviors most effective for driving performance.McKinsey identified 4 that account for as much as 89% of leadership effectiveness. One is focused on results. The other 3 on people.
  • Identify a critical mass of influencers so that change becomes self-sustaining. This is true for any change. You need to identify your key stakeholders and influencers and make a plan for engaging them.
  • Use neuroscience to create lasting change. Neuroscience helps explain why we resist change and what we can do to create change. It provides insight into motivation, decision making and influence. Leadership development needs to utilize these concepts to help leaders create highly effective and efficient leadership practices.
  • Integrate programs into broader organizational systems and measure impact. Leadership development can’t stand alone. It needs to be aligned to the strategy and integrated into how you hire, enable high performance, reward and recognize.

Leading change is now central to every leader’s role, and the organization’s success.  

It follows that leadership development and change leadership development should not be looked at as separate topics or processes. Change leadership should be fully integrated into training programs, but also into all leadership development strategies, plans and assignments. And every senior leader should be asking themselves:

How ready is my team to lead change?  

What are their change leadership strengths and weaknesses?  

Improve Your Global Mindset and Strategic Thinking

Recently I had the pleasure of talking with a Danish company at their annual meeting in Dubai. It reminded me that some of the most instructive client relationships I have (especially the long-term ones) are those that provide me with a global perspective. It also reminded me of this newsletter article I wrote several years ago…

Some of you may have heard the story of the truck stuck under the bridge and the dilemma of how to get it unstuck. If you don’t know it, I’ll share it at the end of this post.

I thought about that story at a recent professional meeting where the topic was developing a global mindset. All of the speakers had interesting perspectives to share and one in particular made a point that was particularly thought-provoking. His company’s research had shown that experiencing another culture had a significant impact on one’s strategic thinking. He further explained that “experiencing” a culture didn’t mean going there on vacation for a week or two.

It is immersive, longer-term experiences like ex pat assignments or managing global teams where you had to travel to work within their culture. The speaker noted that these assignments have this profound impact because they change your perspectives on the world, how it is organized and how it functions. These different perspectives allow you to be more nuanced in your thinking about how different parts of a whole interact, the variables that impact it, and the implications.

How, then, can someone stretch their perceptions and perspectives and develop their strategic thinking when working globally isn’t a possibility?

Seek out Projects That Involve Global Teams.  It’s not the same as working overseas, but working on projects with global teams is a great start. It will expose you to different ways of thinking, conversing, and decision-making. Regardless of your role, really listen to others.

Regularly interact with people in a different function or area of the company. Marketers and engineers don’t think alike. Operations folks think differently from researchers. See how someone different from you may be experiencing the same organization, issues, etc.

Interact with those outside your industry.  For years, benchmarking was the buzzword when you wanted to get a more strategic perspective and to understand the industry more broadly. The problem is that it is a closed-system approach. Biotechs benchmark other biotechs. Car manufacturers benchmark other car manufacturers. The perspective of someone in a totally different industry about your issue or situation will cause you to think about the variables and interactions more broadly, more strategically. It helps you see the forest for the trees. One of the things that made Steve Jobs so successful at product design was that he thought about products and perspectives he gained from things like digital animation architecture.

Hire people who are different from you. I hesitate to say hire for diversity because too often that is narrowly defined. In addition to the more commonly referenced and important diversity categories, we can hire for diversity of thought, experiences, and education. Also, the US has new populations from other cultures within the country that can be brought onto teams. So, if working globally isn’t possible, the US still has a rich population of people to choose from. Then, regularly ask those you’ve hired for perspective and input on the business issues you are working to address.

Thinking about your daily business interactions expansively will help you develop the broader perspective needed to think more strategically.

So, the story about the truck stuck under the bridge goes like this…  A truck was stuck under a bridge, backing up traffic. The police, fire and tow truck drivers were trying to figure out how to get it out, but they had no workable solution.  A little boy walked up and asked what was going on. The police officer explained the dilemma. The little boy looked at him and said. “Let the air out of the tires.”

Among other things, the story illustrates how important it is to look for and value unique perspectives, especially those outside your typical orbit. Something a more global perspective can provide us.

Bounce Back!

Resilience: The ability to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness

Resilience is key to the short and long-term success of our careers. Over the course of time, we are thrown curveballs that require us to bounce back and show our toughness. Here are 4 ideas for building resilience for yourself and your team:

  • Frame the Situation.  When a situation turns out badly or something negative impacts you, how do you think about it? Is it a blame game? Do you kick yourself for “doing something stupid?” Stop. In every situation multiple elements impact the outcome. While it’s important to consider your own role, look at the various other players and their roles in the setback. Don’t look at them to place blame, but to learn.
  • Ask Questions to Find Understanding.  After assessing what role various people or institutions or situations played, follow up with questions for yourself. What was controllable? What wasn’t? What lessons can I learn? What could be different next time?
  • Take Time. Sometimes, the curveball has some pretty significant impact. Be sure to set aside some time to work through the emotions. Unpack them, label them, and try to understand them.
  • Be Expansive. Resilient people mark the ending of any setback by moving forward. They acknowledge and attend to their feelings, but don’t wallow in self-pity or self-blame. They put what happened in it’s place and take steps to make new things happen. When one door closes, they open others.

If you think about a difficult experience as an opportunity instead of an obstacle you’re more likely to grow from the experience and more likely to bounce back quickly.

Here’s to resilience in a turbulent world!

Pushing Through the Fears that Hold You Back

I came across a great quote yesterday:

“ When you commit, when you really put yourself forward and push through that fear, even though you can’t see through to the other side because it seems so overwhelming, things start to open up for you.” — Matt Pohlson, co-founder of Omaze

It’s part of a short video on Inc.com about dealing with fear. He shares his own experience of getting his MBA, turning down a lucrative offer from McKinsey, jumping into the unknown and starting his company.

The quote really struck me because I think we all get caught up in the fear of what’s on the other side. We get comfortable. Even if we don’t think what’s going on right now is the best, it’s what we know. When faced with the potential of a new situation, we often fill in the blanks with the downsides. We feel like we’ve had a level of success to this point so why mess with a good thing. Or we just don’t think of ourselves as risk takers.

Pohlson noted that we look at people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk and think of them as fearless innovators. Truth is, every game changer has fear. How do they – and how can you—push through it?

Four Steps

Here are four steps to help you deal with the fears that are holding you back:

1. Recognize the emotion. Fear is an emotion just like happiness, anger, frustration, or joy. Stop, breathe and recognize when you are feeling it.

2. Label the emotion. You have more control over an emotion if you can label it. When you label it, you’ve created a frame of reference to work with.

3. Own the emotion. Too often, we try to suppress negative emotions which allows them to have greater impact on us later. Instead, own the emotion. Tell yourself you are afraid and that it is a natural, normal feeling or emotion.

4. Decide how to move forward. Now that you’ve recognized it, labeled it and owned it, you have more control over what to do with that fear. You can put it in a place just like you would other emotions. You can control what you are going to do. As Pohlson, says, now you have the option to push through it and see what’s on the other side. You can reframe it and see the opportunity rather than the loss. You can decide that, the risk is too much for you, and you need to take a different route. Rather than allowing the fear to make the decision for you, the decision is up to you.

These techniques work whether you’re dealing with your reaction to a major organizational change, a personal life event, or a one-off challenge like giving a big speech in front of a new audience. Give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well it can work.

Is Storytelling One of Your Leadership Superpowers?

I’ve been working with some senior leaders recently on using powerful tools like storytelling to engage others in strategy. Just last week, I also saw a headline that Marvel’s most recent movie – Ant Man and the Wasp – opened in 1st place this past weekend. It was their 20th straight #1 opening. Marvel is telling some great stories. How can we, as leaders, start telling some great stories?

A recent article in The Mission identified 20 Storytelling Lessons We Can Learn from Marvel, analyzing what makes them so good at the art of the story. I’m not going to discuss all 20, but but here are three that all leaders can use to make storytelling one of their superpowers.

  • Heroes are not inherently interesting. Only dynamic, flawed characters can connect with dynamic, flawed humans. Too often leaders, especially senior leaders, are viewed by other people in the organization as being different from them. And, too often, these leaders hide the parts of themselves that would make people believe any differently. I’ve facilitated many leadership sessions where a senior leader shares his or her story. The most impactful stories are those where the senior leader opens up and shares the stories of the hardships, the mistakes, the questioning of themselves and the missteps that they have experienced in their lives and careers. And what they did to overcome those challenges that led to success.
  • The world is more than blue sky and green grass. Create a believable universe, not a pretty backdrop. When we tell a story, we may tend to gloss over the parts that aren’t too pretty. We only talk about all the benefits that will come from the company transformation. Just like showing your own human, less than perfect side, you should paint a realistic picture of what your team and your organization faces. “The new organizational structure will position the company to be more successful. AND… yes, it will mean growing pains. Some people will no longer fit into the company’s future, and some people will have to learn new ways of working or report to new managers. And we’ll all have to manage a degree of uncertainty as all the kinks are worked out. We don’t take these steps lightly.  But there is no growth without growing pains.“
  • Avoid info-dumping by maintaining a thread of suspense until the last possible moment. I recently saw a video by Lani Peterson, who is an executive coach and storytelling expert. She explained what happens when we talk facts and figures. She notes that we make sense out of information by turning it into a story and comparing it to other stories we’ve experienced. We, as the listener, have to do all the work. As leaders, if we are focusing on facts and figures – info dumping – rather than weaving a story that builds to a important point, we are not engaging our listeners. Instead, they’re in their own heads, working to figure out how to make sense of what we are telling them. When you’re communicating, don’t rely on Powerpoint or spreadsheets to share where the organization is going or why a particular decision was made. Build a good story that pulls the pieces of the story together, allowing for the big reveal at the end.

If you’re a fan of Iron Man, one of Marvel’s most successful heroes, you probably see all three of these dynamics play out. Marvel gives us a character, Tony Stark (he inhabits the iron suits) who is deeply flawed. Like most people, he struggles with his weaknesses, overcoming them on the way to saving the world. Likewise, Marvel also doesn’t try to paint the good guys’ organizations in the story with an overly flattering brush. Like the heroes, the agencies eventually overcome their own challenges. And finally, like most good stories, there is a feel-good twist at the end. A sense of the heroics of overcoming difficulties both superhuman (defeating an evil empire) and every-day (salvaging a friendship, or coming together as a team) in the service of a greater good.

Spending Time With the Right People at Work?

Now that we’ve reached the middle of the year, it’s a good time to take a step back and assess how we are progressing. Usually, when we do this type of assessment, we look at progress against our business plan, project timelines or other priorities we’ve identified.

I suggest we all take a look at our key work relationships and assess how those are going.  We all know that our work relationships are important for a wide variety of reasons. We also know that these relationships shift over time. Perhaps someone who it wasn’t important to have a good working relationship with in the past is now an important partner. Someone who we worked closely with in the past moved to a new role or division and we don’t really work together anymore. And sometimes, there are people we need to build relationships with but we don’t because they are difficult… or perhaps building a new relationship with them is outside of our comfort zone.

Assess the balance in your network of work relationships and ask:

  • Who are you spending a great deal of time with? 
  • Why do you spend that much time with them – familiarity? The ease of the relationships? Because you need them to get work done? It could be a combination of reasons.
  • Based on what you want to achieve, is that the right amount of time to be spending with them?
  • Who are you spending less time with but should spend more because they are important to success?
  • What needs to happen for you to be able to spend more time building the relationship?  Do you need to spend less time on those relationships that are comfortable but not as important to the work? Do you need to force yourself out of your comfort zone?
  • What’s your plan for building or expanding the relationships you need to work on? Set 2 or 3 goals for making the necessary changes to rebalance your relationships and put them into action now.

Growth by Design

I was having a conversation with a CEO earlier this week. The business is very successful and healthy. But like most CEO’s, he is concerned with growth and what’s next for his company. During our conversation, we talked about taking a step back, what I sometimes call taking in the view from the balcony. This view allows you to see how the different aspects of the business and organization are working together (or against each other) to achieve today’s results. And begs the question… how effectively will our current structure and processes spur that next phase of growth? Taking this view helps you to create growth by design, making it easier to align and integrate purposefully. And it prepares the organization to take that next step.

Growth by Design is our framework for helping clients build an organization that can propel them to the next level. It has three core components.

  • It’s starts with compelling clarity, ensuring alignment of the vision, mission, goals and culture. Every leader and every employee should know at all times exactly what their priorities are and how they fit with the strategy and goals of the organization. A how they both serve the mission.
  • Second, you need to leverage the critical drivers – understanding and instilling the growth imperative, making change agility part of your company’s DNA, and ensuring you have the talent to innovate and execute.
  • Third, the organization needs to build adaptive structures and processes– both business and human resources/talent processes and structures — that meet today’s needs but also prepare the organization for what’s next.

Asking the right questions and finding the best answers will help even the most challenged CEOs and senior teams cut through the fog. Building a compelling strategy for what lies ahead… begins by design.