Lessons from My Reinvention

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Two years ago this month, I did what many others working in corporations dream of doing: I left and created my own job.  I had a good job in a legendary company with numerous benefits:  smart colleagues, abundant resources, good pay and security. But it was clear to me that my growth would come from another place. For many years, my response to the What would you do if you could do anything? question was that I’d start my own business.  In March, 2010, I decided that it was time.  My former employer described my departure as an “early retirement.” I described it as  a “late restart.”

This anniversary is a good occasion to reflect upon what I’ve learned so far in my encore career. A few of these lessons were expected; many were not. The unexpected lessons come from the same source: how differently I must think about my work. I think more like an artist now: experiencing, expressing, creating, and sharing. It’s more about creating abundance than managing deficits; more about the white space and less about the boxes. While I could write a lot about what I’ve learned about running a business in the last two years, those lessons were expected. The principles listed below, representing how I am learning to think differently, were not.

Know Who You Are

I’ve had to shift from what I do to who I am. What’s my purpose? What are my values? How are people better because of me? A deep understanding of my purpose and its value is my most important asset. Everything else springs from there.

Art Is Work

In her Artist series, Julia Cameron explains the metaphor for my practice: Art is Work.  Great art is a product of great discipline. Writers write a set number of pages a day and discard draft after draft. Musicians practice for hours a day to produce a ninety-minute concert. Cameron discards the romantic notion that successful artists are natural talents who sit around waiting for the bolt of inspiration to produce great work. Great work comes from hours of sweat and tears deposited on a regular basis.  I relate to her view. My work product may look effortless, but it is not.

Nurture Champions

Champions are people who understand your field, believe in you, and are generous with their time and support.  They are the people you rely upon for advice, insight, support and perspective. If they are really good, they will help you be better. People advise entrepreneurs to start with a plan. My lesson is to start with a list of champions.

I adore my champions. To Kathy G., Casi, Kathy O., Kevin, Cheryl , Gaye, Stephanie, Rick and just about everyone at MSLOC, thank you for your votes of confidence. They mean more than you will ever know. To Jeff, Keeley and Colleen, thank you for being de facto agents for this blog. Finally, to my dearest Peter, you prove every day that I won the husband lotto. Thank you for your all purpose, all weather support.

Lean Into It

A former colleague and current friend, Zenglo, taught me the Buddhist principle to lean into the challenge. My old instinct was to run away. That looks hard, better do something else. That looks risky, better stay safe. Avoidance makes challenges bigger. Zenglo taught me confrontation makes them smaller.

Julia Cameron suggests an exercise to draw a picture of your fear. I did it. I took out my sketch paper and watercolor markers then drew what my fear looks like. You know what? My fierce fear, the bully that keeps me stuck, looks like a dust bunny! Really. It looks like this little grey fluffy thing with a tiny smile. My fear has a friendly smile! This exercise turned something uncontrollable to something manageable. No dust bunny is going to bring me down.

Invest in Inputs

My most profound lesson regards investing more energy into inputs and less into outcomes. When I measured my success strictly by outcomes, it required an enormous amount of effort in managing the choices of others. This produced a roller coaster ride of highs from a “yes” and lows from a “no.” It also bred resentment towards those who could not recognize my brilliant ideas.

Investing more into inputs means tipping the balance of energy into my work. I can control inputs: my choices, time, curiosity, intellectual rigor, quality of work, attitude and effort. I can get the satisfaction of producing my best possible work. While outcomes are important, those choices belong to someone else. I can’t control whether someone returns my call or message, likes my work or says “yes.”  Ownership and curiosity work in an inverse relationship. Less investment in “why” provides more room to think about “how.”

My reinvention is still a work in progress; these lessons will change as it unfolds. My key insight is that for all of the planning invested in this change, I didn’t anticipate the biggest need: thinking differently. For all of the questions I asked about the business, I didn’t ask enough questions about me. So, find included a list of questions that have guided me to think differently, to create more and worry less.

Personal Growth Questions

Someone recently asked if I would lead differently in my old job after this entrepreneurial adventure. The question surprised me and I didn’t have an answer. I probably would be different, but don’t spend time looking back. Looking ahead is too much fun.

Resources

Julia Cameron has a series of books about the creative process. Two I enjoy:

Cameron, Julia (1992, 2002). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: Penguin/Putnam.

Cameron, Julia (2006). Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance. New York: Penguin/Putnam.

The Portability of Success: Can You Take It With You?

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As the economy wakes from its long winter, expect the “Talent Wars” to heat up. Organizations feel increasingly confident about creating competitive advantage through talent and seek the “superstars” to take them to the next level. Star employees who waited out the economic storm in other organizations are anxious to take the leap. It’s a win- win, right?  Stars get the opportunity to cash in on their accomplishments and re-create their success in new organizations. The new organization gets a market advantage due to the brilliance and capability of their new star.   While it sounds good, raiding stars is often a lose- lose for both the star and the new organization. Why? A single star can’t take critical elements that created their success with them.

The Case to Chase Stars

Knowledge intensive industries, such as finance, law, technology, etc. carry an   assumption that the performance rests within the talent of the individual.  Those who believe knowledge work is fungible view talent as a plug in. If the law is the law, the best lawyer will get the best results.  If code is code, the best engineer will get the breakthroughs.  Because individual attributes are portable, the organization that lands the best knowledge-based talent gets the success that they bring with them. Thus, the case is made to chase stars.  Bring your bag of tricks and come work your magic for us.

The Portability Argument

Research out of Harvard University disputes the notion that talent portability is a quick fix to build organizational capability. Boris Groysberg, Linda Eling- Lee and Ashish Nanda found a near perfect subject for examining the portability of star success: stock research analysts.  The quintessential knowledge workers, research analysts analyze companies in particular industries and make subsequent investment recommendations.  This word requires individual talent and insight, deep knowledge of a particular industry; lots of industry contacts, and a quality reputation built on reliability. All of those attributes travel with the individual, so success should be portable. Groysberg, Eling-Lee and Nanda followed star stock analysts who changed employers, presumably reflecting an attempt by the raiding organization to build an advantage. But it didn’t work. Star analysts that switched institutions had a decline in performance that lasted almost five years. The new organization captured the individual talent, but not the structure that built their success.

What Else Goes Into the Success Mix?

Of course, high performing knowledge workers add value to their organizations. But how?  The best outcome comes from the combination of skilled individual talent and organizational capabilities.  Here’s what high talent knowledge workers can’t take with them when they leave:

1. Knowledge of the “unwritten rules”. This is all of the “how to get work done” knowledge that rests in the organizational white space. Firm insiders accumulate tacit knowledge they utilize for success. What are we really good at? How do I find the best resources? Who is an expert? Groysberg, Eling-Lee and Nanda argue that this accumulation of organizational tacit knowledge explains why improved performance of experts is related to tenure.
2.  Their colleagues. No one gets results alone, not even superstars. When stars switch firms, they lose their internal social network along with the information, support and advice it provides. They lose the collective wisdom of shared experience and the complimentary skills that filled their gaps.
3. Organizational capabilities.  High status organizations have more to offer stars. They have more resources, more opportunities, more visibility and typically, a higher talent level of colleagues. Stars find it difficult to reproduce results when they move to an organization with less industry status.

So What?

Organizations and people successfully match for all kinds of reasons. It’s wise for organizations to seek the best possible talent for openings, just as it is for people to seek the best fit. Everyone deserves to be in the place where they can shine. The danger is falling into the delusion that a single individual, even a superstar, is a hero whose placement alone will provide competitive advantage. Too much of anyone’s success is embedded in organizational and relationship context to expect him or her to readily duplicate old results in a new place.

For individuals, be realistic about what you can or cannot duplicate from your current success.  If you decide a move makes sense, expect to put considerable time into learning how your new organization works, building new relationships and understanding the organization’s capabilities.  Enter with an open mind and show some humility. Regardless of your stellar resume, you will need the grace of others to succeed.

For organizations, hire talent not heroes. It’s unfair to expect anyone to immediately replicate his or her old results in a new place.  Be prepared to invest time, energy and resources to maximize the potential of new hires, even superstars. Above all, attend to current employees during the transition period.  (Perhaps if current employees were attended to all the time, you wouldn’t have to chase stars – but that’s a different post.) Your new stars’ ultimate success will rest on his or her ability to give their best and get the best from others, so start those relationships right.

Success is an amalgamation of individual talent, organizational knowledge, collegial support and institutional capabilities. Remember that removing one element diminishes all.

Reference

Groysberg, B., Lee, L.E.  , Nanda, A. (2008). Can They Take It With Them? The Portability of Star Knowledge Workers’ Performance. Management Science, July 2008. Vol. 54, no. 7. Pp. 1213-1230.

Beyond The Carrot and The Stick: Impact of Culture on People Practices

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“Never try to change culture. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.”

Peter Drucker 

It’s hard to find an organizational mission statement that doesn’t include some reference to people.  People are our most important asset. Our most important customers are our people.  Yet, reliable surveys like Gallup show that employees frequently don’t feel the love.  Organizational leaders grumble that talent management practices don’t deliver results. Why do these stubborn gaps persist through good and bad economic times?

Many variables go into the employer/employee relationship- far too many to cover in a single blog post. My focus will be on just one:  Context is everything in people practices. “One size fits all” strategies – the kind many in global organizations find attractive because they are easier to manage – are frequently trumped by culture.

Examine talent retention strategies as an example. Assume that the organizations that discuss people as their most important asset really mean their strongest performing people are their most important asset. It’s not unfair.  The twin goals of 1) retain and optimize top performers and 2) replace poor performers with better performers are at the heart of many talent management strategies.

Research shows that turnover and performance follow a “U” shaped relationship. Most voluntary turnover occurs at the twin peaks of high performers and low performers. Voluntary turnover is lowest among average performers- at the bottom of the “U”. Why?  High performers are more attractive to alternative employers and, as a result, have more options. Low performers are often more doubtful about their ability to succeed in their organization, and are often more dissatisfied with their job.  The “U” shaped turnover pattern relates to well known talent management strategies, e.g. forced ranking and pay for performance schemes.

What’s the Problem?

Talent management solutions focused on retaining top performers and upgrading poor performers have mixed results, particularly in global organizations.   Interesting research recently out of Cornell University helps to explain why.  Most talent research is based on the 5% of the global workforce in the U.S. and, as a result, has a Western bias. Sturman, Shao and Katz offer that the bias in turnover and retention research misses the cultural context so often at the root of “stay or go” decisions by employees. While they agree that the principal of the “U” shaped relationship between performance and retention is generally true across cultures, the details are very different.  Think of it this way: a global organization wants to keep the top performer in New York and the top performer in Mumbai.  But the cultural factors that influence the “stay or go” decision of each are quite different.

Beyond the Carrot and the Stick

Sturman, Shao and Katz examined data from a large multi national corporation to show how culture can trump intent of global talent management solutions based on North American cultural values. A few examples follow:

Pay for Performance compensation schemes that over- reward high performers and takes away rewards from low performers works best in individualist, performance-oriented cultures, like the U.S.  It works far less well to retain high performers or encourage turnover in low performers in collectivist cultures, like India, with a strong orientation that group effort gets results so rewards should be shared.

Senority is a critical factor in cultures with a high power difference orientation, frequently found in emerging markets Brazil and Russia. High or low performers with significant seniority may be more reluctant to change employers because in doing so they surrender the authority and deference provided by tenure. Seniority is less a factor in turnover decisions in cultures with low power difference orientations, often found in Canada and the U.S.

Voluntary turnover is discouraged in cultures where uncertainty avoidance is valued, such as the Nordic countries and Singapore. High performing employees find it difficult to gain a return on movement and lower performing employees are more difficult to identify, so the overall performance- turnover relationship becomes weaker.

Why Does This Matter?

We tend to think that what’s true for us is true for everyone. In organizations, it’s easier to think what works here will work everywhere. And, if we just explain it often enough, “they” will get it.

We can agree on many things that work across cultures. One is that people truly are an organization’s most important asset. It’s difficult to have that promise come to life when practices fail to recognize that people do not exist in isolation from their culture. It comes to work with them. Human resources and talent management practices flexible enough to compliment cultures, instead of work against them, have a far greater chance for success.

Reference

Sturman, M.C., Shao, L., Katz, J.H. (2012). The Effect of Culture on the Curvilinear Relationship Between Performance and Turnover.  Journal of Applied Psychology, Jan, 2012. Vol. 97, pg 46-62.

A Thank You to My Heroines

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The approach of International Women’s Day, March 8, encourages my reflection about the magnificent women who inspire me to be a better person.

We have so much to celebrate from the lives of incredible women. There is the compassion of Mother Theresa, the indomitable spirit of Margaret Thatcher, the bravery of Benazir Bhutto. In my own life, I celebrate the resolve of my great grandmother, who at age 84, walked several miles round trip from her farm to town determined to cast her vote for the first time.  Her story taught me to never take my rights and responsibilities for granted.

There are so many women to celebrate on this day set aside to appreciate their gifts. But, I believe the best from all of them can be wrapped up in the story of the Women’s Peace Initiative of Liberia. This remarkable coalition of women of all ages, religions and ethnicity, armed only with faith and white T shirts, stood down the war loads and the unrestrained dictator who terrorized their families and communities in a long and brutal civil war. Their story has been captured in the acclaimed documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. An originator and leader of the group, Leymah Gbowee, received the 2011 Nobel Pearce Prize for her leadership and unwavering commitment to the bring peace to her country.

If you ever wonder what you can first do to change yourself then to change the world, set aside an hour to watch the story of these amazingly ordinary women.

Pray The Devil Back to Hell

Your Lessons

So, Leymah, Janet, Asatu, Vaiba, Etty and Etweda, you have taught me how to be a better mother, a better citizen, a better leader and a better person. These are the lessons I take from your story, explained in your own words. I can’t do better.

Have a Purpose Bigger than Yourself. “ We take this stand to secure the future for our children.”

Be the Difference. “ Step out and do the unimaginable.”

You Have All The Power You Need. “With this T Shirt, I am very powerful.”

Use the Command of a Simple Message. “ The Women of Liberia Want Peace Now.”

A Coalition of the Willing Will Overcome an Army of the Compelled. “It’s a showdown. Go get the women!” (My favorite line in the documentary.)

Thank You

To women everywhere who show me the impossible is possible, Happy Women’s Day!

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What Your Boss Should Know About You

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Want employees to be more satisfied with their jobs? Want them to work harder and perform better? Don’t know how to make it happen?

Ask them.

Ask someone about his or her job. Talk to them long enough, and if they work for someone else, expect to hear some disappointment.  This predictable pattern is reflected in the job satisfaction trend in the United States. The Gallup Organization tracks employee reported job satisfaction monthly. It reports that while job satisfaction is still fairly high, with 9 of 10 Americans happy in their jobs, the overall trend has been mostly downward since a 2008 peak. The lowest level recorded was in the summer of 2011, with a modest climb upward climb since then.  (Note: this research is U.S. based.  If someone can suggest global or non U.S. satisfaction research, I’d love to see it for a broader view.)

Gallup uses four questions to measure job satisfaction. These are questions any employer or leader interested in retaining talent should also ask:
1. Do you use strengths in your work every day?
2. Is your supervisor more like a partner?
3. Does your supervisor create an open and trusting work environment?
4. Are you satisfied with your job?

There are many implications for these findings. If you manage someone, they should scream “Hello! Look! Over here!” If someone manages you, they should provoke thinking about what you can do to answer “yes” to each question. The good news is that there is a simple step both manager and employees can take that makes a big difference.

A Common Frustration

In my coaching experience, clients frequently express a frustration that comes from a perception that their unique strengths and experiences are not recognized. They do not use their strengths on the job, and as a result, do not perform to their fullest potential. Recent hires with college or graduate level training complain that leadership experiences gained in internships or volunteer work go underutilized.  More experienced employees complain that wisdom or skills gained through stretch assignments, e.g. ex-pat assignments, are wasted in their current roles. The implied assumption is that their manager knows all about their gifts and doesn’t care. I reframe this assumption as the manager doesn’t care about what they don’t know. And, much of what he or she doesn’t know about is about their employees.

How Can This Be?

Isn’t the critical role of a boss to learn as much as he or she can about the talent of people? It is. However, the perfect storm of rapid churn of employees and managers in assignments, the whirl of demands and the allure of “ good enough” decisions traps managers into the tyranny of the predictable. Predictability trumps development in many decisions.

Invest in The Talent Interview

Fortunately, there is a simple investment with a potential for big payoffs for both managers and employees: The Talent Interview. It is one on one, employee led discussion about the employee. It’s the gift of an hour so each employee can share personal perspectives on their skills, and suggests ways their gifts can be better used on the job. Done well, it addresses each of the questions in the Gallup survey. The employee gets to explore opportunities to use his or her strengths.  The manager gets a partnership role in their development. And, the interview itself lends to the creation of a more open and trusting environment.

How It Works

Talent Interviews are pretty easy. The manager invites each employee to an hour-long meeting to discuss his or her talent and potential contributions. Questions are provided to guide the employee’s thinking and dig into five topic areas:

1. What does the employee view as his or her strengths?
2. What experiences developed these strengths?
3. How does the employee imagine these strengths can be used in his or her job or on the team?
4. What would the employee like to do next?
5. What help can the manager provide to help the employee showcase their strengths?

Your organization may already provide a Talent Interview template. If not, a sample template is enclosed to download.

Talent Interviews

Ground Rules for Talent Interviews

Three simple ground rules maximize the benefits of Talent Interviews:
1. No gripes. It is not the occasion for the employee to complain about the job or the manager to complain about the employee’s performance.
2. This is about skills, not titles.  A Talent Interview is not an oral reading of a C.V.  Employees share what they learned and how, not a list of titles and dates.
3. No promises. The manager uses this occasion to listen, ask questions and develop a deeper understanding of what the employee wants to do.

Invest A Little, Get a Lot

The Talent Interview offers terrific payoffs for both managers and employees. As a manager, it was one of my best investments of time every year. As much as I felt I knew someone, I learned about strengths or potential contributions previously unknown to me. Talent Interviews were filled with pleasant surprises, the ideas people had to develop their strengths and do better work.

A Talent Interview, done well, will encourage understanding, support a performance partnership, and foster connection and trust. It’s worth the hour.