Make Your Network a Career Asset

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Communication_Speech_Bubble_DesignHave you ever wondered about the differentiators for success? Why do two candidates, equally well prepared for success, perform so differently on the job? Or, why a seemingly less prepared candidate delivers more than expected stars? Research suggests that there may be several key differentiators. Among them is one YOU can do something about: How effectively you develop and use your social network for learning.

The use of social networks for learning is not a new idea. A 1985 study studying differentiators between average and star performers at Bell Labs gives us an early hint.  Bell Labs only hired smart people, so brains weren’t an issue. The study examined why some of the smart people delivered exceptional performance and why other smart people were stuck in average. Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon found that Bell’s star performers invested in establishing a diverse set of relationships with experts in related fields. Average performers, on the other hand, limited their relationships to those in similar roles. When they needed help, star performers reached into an expert network that helped them understand a problem from diverse perspectives, while average performers tapped into people who had the same limited line of site.

Lucky for us, the ability to build a diverse expert network today is far easier than in 1985. Experts from almost any imaginable field around the globe are available at our fingertips through numerous social media sites. Interesting thinkers share their observations through blogs. Today, if you want to find and build relationships with experts in almost any field and almost anyplace, you can do it.  The great news is that those of you who build and tend to your networks can expect better job performance. Two recent reports, one from published research and the other from internal company results, support this idea.

In the published report, three researchers from M.I.T. examined results of social learning using investment results.  Yaniv Altshuler, Wei Pan and Sandy Petland, examined investment results from EToro, an online trading platform with a social learning component built in. EToro allows users to use different trading strategies. Users can trade on their own, copy other trades or follow particular traders to review what they do and evaluate their results for ideas. During 2011, Altshuler, Pan and Petland examined over 10 million transactions from this site. Their analysis indicates that traders that achieved the best returns were those who had an original idea, but engaged a focused but diverse network of other traders to evaluate their idea. The best performers did not operate in isolation, nor did they simply “follow the herd” and blindly copy the majority.  The key conclusion is that carefully cultivated networks that can build on ideas with diverse perspectives contribute to success.

Last week, I attended a conference where an executive of a major U.S. based retailer presented results that support the Bell Labs and M.I.T. research. This retailer launched a closed community system (e.g. a private LinkedIn or Facebook) for their retail employees. Employees could connect with colleagues from other stores that they would otherwise not meet. They could source expertise and information not available in their location. Guess what? The best performing sales people did. Those who sold the most high-ticket items used their network for information and insight. Some may argue that this is a chicken and egg challenge. Would the best sales people have been the best sales people without their network? I don’t know. But my experience in talent development suggests that in any occupation, find out what the consistently best in class do to differentiate their performance and try to duplicate those characteristics. In the case of this retailer, the best in class cultivate and engage an expert network- just like at Bell Labs and the EToro traders.

What about you? How do you cultivate a network of people who can give you perspectives and advice? Is your network diverse enough to give you a well-rounded perspective? Does it make a difference?

Reference:

Pentland, A. (2013). Beyond the Echo Chamber. Harvard Business Review, October, 2013.

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I remember the first time my freshman counselor handed me a class schedule. My learning opportunities were neatly arranged in 55-minute periods. It was my responsibility to get to each on time and in order. It seemed like such an ominous challenge for a 14 year old.  In each first class, the teacher handed out the syllabus and books with assignments marked for each class.  This is how real grown ups learn. I was sure of it. I had the computer print out, the syllabus and the class notebooks to prove it.

My model of education and learning was formed at that point, and nothing over the next 12 years of formal education really did anything to change it. Education was packaged. Go to this school, get this professor. Get this professor, get this reading list. On some occasions, even grades had a formula. Want an “A”? Here’s the price. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if the 55-minute periods even changed all that much.

I understand why this model of efficiency worked for institutions. It’s more organized than having people wander randomly into classes, or deciding which classes were necessary by asking students to vote with their feet. And, I still see merits of a curriculum, especially in fields where certification is required. But I’ve since come to believe that the pre packaged, organized model of education suits institutions more than students. For the most part, it taught me how to complete requirements. Not sure it taught me how to direct my own learning, which is too bad, because that’s what I needed to do in that place called “the real world.”

The biggest disruption seems to come from the outside, and so it seems with education. Technology is opening up entirely new opportunities for self-directed learning. Students of all ages, locations and needs have a range of online opportunities available to them.  Some are taught by the leading experts in their field. Many are free or nearly free. If you haven’t checked out a MOOC yet, (massive open online courses) just look to see what’s available. Here’s a place to start. If you want to anything from brush on second language skills to understand finance to discuss the great books, there is a class available for you. For free. You can watch the videos and do the work at midnight or noon.  You can participate in class in a suit from work or in your PJ’s from the couch. All you need to do is participate and learn.

My colleagues at Northwestern University’s MSLOC program have been talking about PLN’s (Personal Learning Networks). I recently joined one to find out what all the buzz is about. In my words, a PLN is a group of people interested in the same topic who connect through a variety of media. People connect and share information through online collaboration site, like Google +, through Twitter and on blogs. When you join a PLN, you set and manage a personal learning goal. It’s your responsibility to use the network to reach your goal, and to help others reach theirs. One of my goals is to understand how PLN’s work, and how they can be adapted to an organizational setting.

Many, many years after I received my first class schedule, I am still learning. The opportunities are far different.  No one decides what I need to know, when I need to know it and where I need to go. This presents the blessing of freedom and the burden of responsibility. No one decides if I study for 10 minutes, 55 minutes or for hours. Because there is no schedule, I might decide not to study at all. Sadly, this is the often the case when I frame learning as something to do when I have the time. I don’t even see the people I learn with, which is really interesting because I often learn so much more from them than the person I sat next to for ten weeks and now can’t remember their name. Instead of neat blocks of designated time, I now have access to 24 hour learning.

As I jump into the brave new frontier of learning, I’m interested in your experience. Have you participated in a MOOC or a Personal Learning Network? What’s your advice to get the most from it?

Commencement Season Musings

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Commencement season is one of my favorite times of the year. I love its spirit of celebration, sense of optimism and the energy of possibility. Who doesn’t get inspired by a well-crafted commencement speech? The vivid descriptions of opportunities and passionate exhortations motivate new graduates and old listeners alike to do just a little better.

My single beef about commencement season and its messages is that the events often fail to connect “the future” with “today.” Too frequently, commencement messages emphasize future achievement at the expense of current reality. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “There are no endings, only additions.”  That’s how greatness is developed; it’s an accumulation of experiences day after day after day.

Once again this year, no one has invited me to be a commencement speaker. Good thing I have a blog to share The Development Sherpa’s advice to new graduates.

Make the Most of Your First Job

The good news is that as a college graduate, you are more likely to get a job. According to The New York Times, college graduates are the only group that has more members employed today than before the recession began. The bad news is that it may not be the job you expected.  The job market is still very tight and employers are still quite picky. Your first post college job may involve more grunt work than glamour.

You may be tempted to blow off your low skilled job as you wait for your “real one.” Don’t.  As discouraged as you may be to be behind a receptionist desk, filing papers or renting cars, you can learn a lot from any job that requires you to deal directly with customers, work with others and work for someone. You can develop the interpersonal skills necessary for that next, better job when it comes along. According to research by Drs. Joyce Hogan and Kimberly Brinkmeyer, strong interpersonal skills are a requirement for 84% of management jobs, the kind you seek. If your job requires effective client contact and collaboration with associates, you are building skills important in future roles. Practice what you’ve studied about working in groups, conflict resolution and communication. If you want to ditch your low wage, low skill “starter” job, do your best and learn from it.

Use Social Media Skills as a Learning Advantage

You are among the most digitally connected generation so far. Make your exceptional social media skills an advantage to your success. My colleagues Keeley Sorotki and Jeff Merrell might encourage you to build a PLN – Personal Learning Network – using your social media skills. Never before has a generation of workers had access to so many world-class thinkers and every day practitioners in their field. Use this access to build your own network to challenge and inspire you, starting now. Don’t wait until you need a network of experts to build one.

Engage With the Broader World

The world is becoming smaller and faster. You’ve probably had splendid opportunities to travel, learn a second (or third) language and study with people from many cultures.  Remain curious about the world. The May, 2013 edition of the Harvard Business Review describes the advantages of the “global elite” and offers suggestions you (yes, you) can use to become one. Keep up your language skills; a adopted language is a “use it or lose it” proposition. Understand current events from around the world, and understand them from different perspectives. Read world history; the way things “were” explains the way things “are.” If you can, travel.  Your dream job will probably never be isolated and insulated from social and political events. Be ready.

Skin Your Knees

When do you skin your knees? When you’re going somewhere. When you run and trip. When you carry the ball and get tackled. When you fall off a bike. You may focus on the fall. Focus instead on the fact you were trying to get somewhere.

When you do the things necessary to build your layers of greatness, you will skin your knees. You will take a risk and slip. You will try something new and fall. You will make a mistake and feel some pain. Of course, you could avoid all this by staying in the same place. But then you won’t achieve the unique greatness that you are meant to achieve. One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Maraboli: “Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving. We get stronger and more resilient.”

Final Words

So, my dear graduates, your greatness doesn’t start “someday.” It starts today. It starts from wherever you are with every day decisions and actions. Don’t waste today dreaming about your opportunities for tomorrow. Be the person you are meant to be. Today.

A Little Bit Better

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For Halloween, I planned to scare myself out of my comfort zone. Development, I claimed,  is all about getting out on the skinny branches reaching for the fruit just beyond our reach. This works because we have to try out new skills; we’ve already gathered everything within our grasp.  It works because the warm glow of doing something we didn’t think we could do encourages us to reach for more. I’ve repeated this argument countless times through my career. On Halloween, I found out that I was partly wrong.

On October 31, I did what I challenged readers of my post to do. Stretch. Try something new. Get better at something. I looked for an opportunity better than my agenda could provide. You see, it was an “easy” day. Phone calls, appointments, project work. Interesting but routine work. No skinny branches to tempt me.

At about mid day, I was like a boxer in the corner of the ring dukes up with no takers.  While growing increasingly irritated at the pace of a service appointment, I wondered what I could do to find a development challenge. What can I do right now that would stretch me? What I could do was not snap at the person doing her best to help me, which would have resulted in her fluster slowing down the pace even more. I could choose to be patient. ( If you don’t think this is enough of a challenge, ask my husband.) I could be pleasant toward someone working hard and doing her best. So, I did. The service was completed. I was happy. She was happy. Hmmm..I can react differently and get a better result. Check.

This challenge wasn’t enough. It was too easy. I wanted the rush of the old marathon running days when I broke through the wall. Driving home, I asked again: What can I do right now that would stretch me? Considering my radio station choices, I selected the opinion oriented news channel that I assiduously avoided. Maybe I could listen to opinions that differed from mine.  For the next hour, I did. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t so bad. Clearly, the views differed than mine but the interviewers seemed prepared and the guests knowledgeable. They weren’t idiots after all -they just had different views. It wasn’t so bad.

The rest of the day was filled with similarly small choices. I completed the tasks, but felt so unsatisfied. Where was the suspense? Where was the sweat? Where was the rush of accomplishment? The next day, it hit me through Drew Dudley’s words. To paraphrase Dudley, he observes we don’t act like leaders because we think leadership must be heroic. It must be hard. So, we overlook the little things leaders do while we are looking for the big things.  We miss all the “little” opportunities for “big” impact.

The same can be said about development. My view of development coming through new experiences is still right. My view that it must be hard is wrong. Getting better by making the right little choices prepares us to make the big, hard ones. That’s what I learned on my not so scary day. What about you?

Plan For Your Success, Not Just Your Career

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“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

Andy Warhol

Part of a useful self-inventory is the periodic exploration of where and how to invest our talent.  Most of us occasionally consider the career question where do I want to be in five years?  We may reflect upon a title (e.g.), Manager, Director, Vice President, a “C” job like COO, CIO, CMO, or CEO. We might think about a new occupation. Or, we may have no idea other than “something else.”

Much of our consideration about what we want to do professionally is external: the job, the organization, and the field.  As you consider options, think about not only your externally focused goals but also internally focused personal development that prepare you for success when you get there. Don’t fall into the trap of  thinking that the best technical skills always win. The difference between success and failure at senior levels often does not come down to the best technical skills, but the ability to grow and change in ways the job requires.

Consider an example.  The best sales person in a group has superb sales skills.  She knows her products inside and out, knows her competitions’ strengths and weaknesses, has a sharp eye for market trends. Her customers appreciate her knowledge of their strategy and goals.  They reward her ability to present customized ideas with increasingly big orders.  Her negotiation skills are top-notch, allowing her to frequently strike win – win outcomes for her company and her customers.  The bottom line is that she’s developed her technical sales skills to be best in class for her group. So, when it comes time to promote the next first line sales manager, she expects be the front-runner.  She believes that her skills and experience as a sales person will carry her to continued success as a sales manager.

Is she right? Will experience in the field, highly developed selling skills and a track record of results be enough to guarantee her success a sales manager? No.

While her skills and experiences will certainly be assets, they  will not be enough because they enabled success in her last job, not her next job. For continued success, she has to shift her development focus to requirements to the job she wants next.  This re-orientation affects everything about her job: her priorities, how she uses her time, the relationships she builds and the resources she uses.  For our sales person to be successful as a sales manager, she will need to learn how to get results with and through others rather than on her own. She can start her development where she is rather than wait for the next job.

What if our sales manager does not transition her developmental perspective? What if, instead, she relies on the strengths developed in her sales job? After all, she was good at those skills and knows what works. Failure to transition opens the door to negative outcomes for our manager, not to mention her direct reports. First, she has to work much harder, as she tries to do her job and those of her reports. Her people may not develop the confidence and ability to develop the skills that made her successful, so she jumps in for them.  Second, she neglects her role as a developer of people when she keeps tasks that might be fun for her instead of delegating them as important learning opportunities for her associates. She gives up time to observe, coach, or build new mentor relationships because she’s busy doing her old job. Finally, she isn’t able to use the manager position to develop a set of skills that would enable her to advance  because she’s attempting to repeat an old experience, not fully participating in the developmental possibilities of the new one.   The consequences of a failure to reset orientation to new requirements include a talented employee who does  not reach her potential,  a team of sales people who miss important opportunities to grow, and an organization that has less capability in their leadership depth.

 

As you consider opportunities for your time and talent, think beyond the external features such as titles, jobs and occupations. Plan for your personal development needs.  Here are some ideas for discovering what’s required beyond technical skills for future roles:

  1. Interview others you admire currently in your target roles. Ask how they spend their time over a typical week.  How much of their time is spent away from purely technical skills, but on influencing, coaching, motivating and engaging with others?
  2. Get some personal feedback on your interpersonal and leadership skills. Perhaps you have access to a 360 process. If not, seek feedback from trusted but candid colleagues.  Learn how they perceive your ability to engage, influence and motivate others. Determine which of these skills you can work on in your current job to get ready for the next one.
  3.  Volunteer for assignments that allow you to practice the orientation shift required for your desired next assignment.  For example, if you are an individual contributor who wants to be a manager, volunteer to train a newly hired employee on your team.  If you are a functional manager who wants to lead a business unit, spend time getting to know services of the functions outside yours that support business leaders.  What do they offer? How are they evaluated? How do they communicate with the business leaders they support?

As you consider your future, identify not only what you want but also how you’ll succeed.  Add a development plan to your career plan. It will not only increase your odds of success for where you are going, but where you are now.

Two good resources for thinking about jobs in your future and the development they require:

Charam, R., Dotter, S. Noel,  J. (2001) The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Watkins, M.D. (2009) Your Next Move: The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

 

The Unexpected Path

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Laurel Bellows is featured on the front page of the business section of  July 16 edition of The Chicago Tribune.  Bellows is the incoming President of the American Bar Association and the article features highlights of her career. I do not have much in common with Ms. Bellows except one thing: Our careers took unexpected paths.

Ms. Bellows explained that as a young trial lawyer, she expected to represent corporate clients. Perhaps she envisioned herself in the sleek, downtown high-rise buildings hammering out deals across mahogany tables, as corporate legal work is often portrayed in the media. But Ms. Bellows career took an unexpected turn because of her first assignments. She was sent to the local court to represent people accused but without representation. Thus she began her career representing prostitutes instead of bankers. ( To readers who just thought “same thing”, don’t go there. Move along.) Her first clients were dressed in “leopard skin clothes and high heels” instead of custom-made suits.

Over 30 years later at the pinnacle of her career, Ms. Bellows reflects upon how this unexpected early assignment influenced her success. She learned that everyone has their own story. She learned to look for individuals and not stereotypes. She understood that her clients had difficult lives, but none were “worthless or valueless.” And, she accepted her role as a fierce advocate, making prosecutors work to prove their case. As a result of this experience, Bellows began a practice built upon working women of all occupations. She expanded by representing women in the financial services industry because her clients felt she understood their stories and had empathy for the issues they faced. She took on tough cases with enthusiasm. Today, Ms. Bellows represents the corporate clients wearing nice clothes in tall buildings. Soon, she will lead the premier professional organization in her industry.

Rocky Trails vs. Smooth Highways

Perhaps we are moving away from the myth that a high-profile career is a straight line between two points.  The paradigm that success starts on a carefully planned and executed “path”  then continues on a straight line up has probably always been the exception.  Yet, discouraged people I’ve talked with thought it was the norm and they were the exception. I will use Ms. Bellows’s story to illustrate a perspective that might help: Many career “paths” of successful people look more like rocky trails than smooth highways.

Premier leadership development organizations, such as the Center for Creative Leadership and Lominger, have research that concludes successful leaders learn the most from unconventional or novel experiences. Leadership guru Michael Watkins advises us to find “career playgrounds” to test our skills and broaden perspectives.Why? One of many important reasons is that unexpected experiences challenge ingrained notions of who we are,  how we work and how we succeed. When we can’t use what we know in the ways we envisioned, we are forced into new solutions. New insights are the gifts from these experiences; we get to keep them after the challenge has passed.

Detours and Destinations

Sadly, unexpected starts, career detours and professional derailment are not concepts but reality for too many of us.  How many people do you know who are not beginning careers in the way they expected or whose progress has been interrupted due to economic forces out of their control? I won’t offer that there is some cosmic reason for their circumstances or the “blessing in disguise” comfort. They deserve far more respect than platitudes. But perhaps Ms. Bellows story can remind them that success begins in many places, and often unexpected ones. And, when they reach the pinnacle of their career, perhaps it will become clear that the detour helped them to reach their destination.

Resources to Read More

Goldsmith, M., Kaye, B. and Shelton, K. (2000). Learning Journeys: Top Management Experts Share Hard-earned Lessons on Becoming Great Leaders and Mentors. Palo- Alto, CA: Davies- Black

Oor, J. E. (2012). Becoming a More Agile Leader: A Guide to Learning From Your Experiences. Lominger Inernational: A Korn Ferry Company.

Watkins, M.D. (2009). Your Next Move:  The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

What George Knew About Leadership Development

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On the eve of the USA’s 236th birthday, some lessons from its humble beginnings are still relevant today.  As a student of leadership, I find the group collaboration and organizational design principles of the Founding Fathers fascinating. Today, I reflect on two leadership development lessons to prepare America’s first President still relevant to organizations today.

Experiences, especially hardship experiences, are the best development for leaders

When George Washington was appointed as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775, he was charged with leading a hastily formed force, poorly prepared and ill equipped, against the best trained and equipped military of the time. As he wrote in January 1776: The reflection upon my current situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour…few know the predicament we are in. Not withstanding the challenges Washington had overcome earlier in life, his appointment as Commander in Chief was undoubtedly his greatest challenge.

We don’t have full insight about what Washington learned about leading the Continental army that prepared him for his role as the first president of the United States.  In lieu of a guest blog featuring George, I’ll offer a few good guesses.  He learned how to relate to the conflicting attitudes and cultures among the thirteen states he led. He learned how to build alliances, especially with Congress. He capitalized on a deep reservoir of good will among his citizens. He deepened his discipline and tolerance for hardship. Did Washington want all of the hardship he encountered? In his own words, no. Washington wrote at a low point: Could I have foreseen what I have and expect to experience, no consideration upon the earth should have induced me to accept this command. Did it prepare him for the Presidency in a way no other could? Absolutely.

The “Born or Made” Debate

Opinions about whether leaders are born or made spark energetic debate. Put me in the leaders are made camp. And, leaders are made mostly from aggregate experiences. People may be born with desirable leadership attributes that provide a head start on their leadership journey, i.e. intelligence, an optimistic disposition, and native curiosity. These gifts can be developed through great education. But does leadership skill matter unless it’s used? How do we know someone can lead until they do? More importantly, how do they know they can lead until they do? Experience, especially difficult ones, put our leadership gifts to the test and turbo charge them with personal meaning.

For anyone interested, The Center for Creative Leadership offers interesting research into the “born” or “made” leadership development debate. http://www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/research/AreLeadersBornOrMade.pdf

 Develop the Talent You Have Instead of Chasing Stars

Washington presented an unlikely resume for appointment as Commander in Chief. His only significant prior military experience was fighting for the British army under General Braddock’s ugly defeat in the French and Indian Wars. Away from the military for 15 years, his passions included architecture, landscape design and the theatre. He had never led anything larger than a regiment, nor led an army into battle. Washington wrote upon his appointment: But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it be remembered…that this day I declare with utmost sincerity that I do not feel myself equal to the command I (am) honored with.

This less than ideal first Commander in Chief had qualities beyond deep military experience that served him well in his new assignment. He was a congressional insider. His political experience and savvy allowed him to navigate competing interests in Congress and among the colonies. He understood how the system worked. His passion for architecture contributed to a keen sense of design and detail. His experience as a surveyor came in handy in drawing battle plans. His love of the theater and acting gave him a model to “act the part of a Commander” when needed to the rag tag troops he led. Congress could have appointed better-trained Generals, but one could argue it was Washington’s intangible traits that contributed most to his success.

Would Your Organization Have Passed on George Washington?

How many organizations today would have passed on General Washington? He had neither the perfect pedigree nor resume for their needs. They would continue their search for the hypothetical star for their high-risk placement.  I can imagine the arguments for this approach: Not George. We’ve never fought a war like this. He’s not ready. Can’t we find someone with a formal education? We need to turn this over to someone with the experience to get it done fastThey would have fallen under the misconception that the unknown star is less of a risk than the unproven talent they know.

Booz and Company recently released research regarding success rates of CEO’s.  It shows while the majority of CEO placements still favor insiders, the rate of external placements continues to increase at a rapid rate. This suggests some feel it’s a safer bet to place someone with previous chief executive experience. Those who want culture change place bets that an outsider will arrive with new thinking and impose it from the top.

Despite the allure of placing a perfect candidate to head the organization, the research from Booz and Company suggests otherwise. Outsider CEO’s are almost twice as likely to be forced out than insiders. Insiders produce greater results as measured by market returns and have a longer tenure. Some cases show they produce more internal change than outsiders. Why? Like General Washington, they know the players. They know the challenge. They know how the system works. They are ready for battle.

See the Booz & Company study on CEO succession at http://www.booz.com/

In closing, I’ll disclose that I don’t believe the USA’s founding fathers got everything right. Their views on slavery, citizenship equity for Blacks and women and the treatment of American Indians caused profound lasting damage. On the other hand, they got many things right. From that, we can still use two vital lessons about developing leaders.

References

All quotes from George Washington’s writings are from:

McCullough, D. (2005). 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster

Five Things I Wish My Commencement Speaker Had Mentioned

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Once again this year, no institution invited me to be a commencement speaker. Good thing I have a blog! It’s the perfect vehicle to list five things I wish my commencement speaker had mentioned.

Continuous learning is your lifelong asset.

One thing that’s common to all careers is that requirements change. Stay relevant through learning. Learning is not limited to formal education. But all learning can be facilitated by cultivating curiosity, establishing the habit of reflection, an openness to new ideas and trying a different way to do things. From cycle after cycle of disruptive change, those most willing to learn are those who thrive. Those stuck in what they once knew wonder what happened.

Happiness and generosity are related.

Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has research to support the view that generosity contributes to the happiness of the giver. Give two people $20.00 with directions to spend it. The one who gives it away to someone who needs it more often reports being happier than the other who buys “stuff.” It doesn’t matter if happier people are more generous or if more generous people are happy- the undeniable relationship also exists in the workplace. Be generous with your support, wisdom and resources. See if what you give away makes you happier at work.

People skills, not technical skills, are your competitive edge.

Technical skills are the price of admission for your job. Hired as programmer?  It’s hard to write code significantly better than the others hired with you. Hired as finance pro? Everyone has access to the same software, spreadsheets and formulas. Those with similar smarts, education and experience will produce technical results that fall in a narrow range. Those with the strongest interpersonal and leadership skills more frequently engage others and thereby produce a greater impact. Technical skills get you in the door. Technical skills supported by strong people skills create your success.

Walk on the edge.

Margaret Wheatley suggests that our optimum experience and development comes when we walk on the edge. You know the edge -the point where you are outside of your comfort zone but not into chaos. Your path is doable, but demands your full attention and effort. Shooting for over the edge encourages chaos, walking far inside of it minimizes your talent. Stay sharp and find the edge.

Make self-awareness your most valuable trait.

Don’t worry so much about your “leadership style.” By the time you read this, your personality preferences are set. Trying to be someone you are not will ultimately be inauthentic and ineffective.  Do put effort into cultivating self-awareness. Self-awareness is like a GPS for leadership navigation. Find ways to take in feedback to know when to tone down or dial up your preferences.  Know when the route to success requires your strengths or someone else’s.

What have you learned that you would add to a commencement address?

To 2012 graduates everywhere, congratulations on your achievement. May this important passage be one of your many successes.

What Bike Rides Teach Us About Life

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Does spring weather remind you of early bike rides as a kid? We learned a lot from those first rides. One of my earlier blog posts reminds us that it’s never to late to hop on and learn.

Remember the first time you rode a two-wheel bike? I do. I even imagined how it would be during all through trial runs with training wheels. I saw myself racing down the street, legs pumping for speed, deftly making turns into circles.  Just like all of the other kids.

The day the training wheels came off was a big day. Heart pumping, palms sweating, I hopped on. I pushed off. I fell down. Hopped on again and got a gracious assist of a push off. The bike was moving. Now what do I do? How do you stop it, again? How do I keep it straight?  How much do I move the handles to turn? The wobbling, shaky 20 ft. ride to the end of the driveway was nothing like what I imagined it to be.

My wounded pride and I got back on the bike the next day, and the day after. Every day until I took for granted that I could hop on a bike and pedal away.

What You Really Learned When You Got on the Bike

My first bike ride, and perhaps yours, is the perfect metaphor for the learning process. It requires stepping up, letting go, trial and error. And falling. Lots of falling and getting back up. Peter Jarvis, professor of adult learning at The University of Georgia, describes the sensations produced by the first bike experience as “disjuncture.” It is the state of disequilibrium in a novel experience that shakes us out of our comfort zone.  It demands our attention. It is the feeling that our current knowledge or previous experiences  (our self “biography”, according to Jarvis) isn’t helping. We become uncomfortable . Disjuncture motivates us to learn so we can close the gap from being uncomfortable to comfortable.

So, we become better with the new thing.  We find our way. We practice. We commit it to memory. We take for granted that we know how to the thing that once made our palms sweat. Part of “take for granted-ness” is good, as we’d be really frustrated learning how to figure out how to speak, read or write every day. But too much “take for granted-ness” puts us in a comfort zone where we don’t do new things. We don’t experience disjuncture. We don’t have to learn. We become, as Jarvis describes, “trapped in the bars of our own minds.”

Even if we could arrange our careers to stay comfortable with what we already know and are good at, those things will change. We can stay in the same job, but it changes as we work with people from different cultures. We can sell the same products, but evolution in user needs will force them to change. We can work for the same company, but it may be sold to new owners. Even the things we try to keep the same will change, creating discomfort from that old friendly source.

The nature of disjuncture is sometimes you go to it and sometimes it comes to you. Reframe it as a friend instead of a threat. It’s the shake out of  “take for granted-ness” that alerts us that things have changed. The good news is that we can change, too. We already know how to learn; recognize shake-ups as the motivation to do it.

Three Ways to Encourage Learning Now

  1. Remind yourself of occasions in your life when you successfully learned something from the beginning; perhaps something that is now strength. When talents become strengths, we sometimes forget that once upon a time we had to learn it, too.
  2. Do the thing you’ve been putting off because it’s unfamiliar, uncertain or unclear. If you can’t do it all, take on the parts you can master.
  3. Find someone for help and encouragement. Perhaps it’s a mentor, a friend or a teacher, but find someone who can show you the way and believe that you can. And when you breakthrough, pay forward his or her favor to someone else.

Remember, we’ll always wobble in the new stuff. But to get better or get to great, just remember how you learned to ride a bike.

Should Your Organization Play By Pick Up Game Rules?

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Remember playground pick up games? Can the enthusiasm of creating games, rounding up players and adapting on the fly become a model for collaboration in organizations? 

The ability to collaborate is an organizational requirement for the 21st century business. More wins happen in the white space working between organizational structures than within dedicated units and teams.  Resources and intellectual capital often span borders. This distributed capital combined with the speed of change and intensity of competition requires organizations to break the chains of reporting relationships and work across as well as up and down. There simply isn’t enough time to re-organize the boxes every time an opportunity arises. As Amy Edmonson writes in her article “Teamwork on the Fly” in the April issue of Harvard Business Review, organizations need to play more like pick up teams and less like carefully managed professional teams.

Why The Effort Is Worth It

Organizations that figure out how to collaborate are well rewarded. In Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results, Morton Hansen (2009) suggests attractive results. Hansen identifies three categories of collaboration benefits: innovation, better sales and better operations. His research suggests organizations that effectively work in the white space realize improved profit growth and asset efficiency, with a resulting healthy boost to return on equity.

What Gets In The Way

The reasons for building collaboration as an organizational competency are inherently obvious, which is why so many try. My guess is that more try than truly succeed. Hansen documents challenges to collaboration that perhaps you have experienced.  Incentive and performance systems that reward based solely upon unit and personal results contribute to organizational hoarding of people and ideas. Knowledge management systems are weak, so people don’t know how to connect with experience and expertise elsewhere. Support mechanisms are not in place to transfer resources across boundaries. These infrastructure challenges are real and must be changed to improve collaboration.

Just Get Better

While the infrastructure barriers to long-term collaboration must be removed for sustained success, those barriers should not excuse failure to get better at working in white space.  Edmonson (2012) shows the way.  Use the pick up team model for flexible, temporary organizations to capture unique opportunities. You don’t need to change infrastructure to play by pick up rules. 

The Pick Up Game Rules

Define the Game. Edmonson calls this “scoping.”  Before organizing the team, define the game. What’s the opportunity? Why do we think we can win? Where are the boundaries? What are we willing to commit? How do we keep score? Some organizations throw smart people together and ask them to “figure it out.” This not only wastes time, but also adds more chaos to an inherently messy proposition. Even in pick up games, the game and the rules are defined before teams are chosen.

Design the Team and Its Support.  Edmonson thinks of this as “scaffolding.” It’s the temporary design that supports the project, but is flexible enough to change as the work changes. What resources does it require? What roles? What knowledge management tools does the team need, at least to start? How are team members switched in and out? Don’t over think this. Unlike intact teams; pick up teams stay together only long enough to win.  But the more of the basic scaffolding the team doesn’t have to figure out, the quicker it can focus on the opportunity.

Pick the Players. Pick up players are talented volunteers. According to Edmonson, the best players are those confident enough to experiment, speak up, listen, reflect and integrate. A team is doomed when parts of the organization are asked to offer a team member as a “tax” and the most expendable member is offered.  The right talent is vital for pick up games, where speed, creativity and collaboration wins.

Practice Some Plays. Pick up games are more chaotic. People have to build trust and mutual understanding in the midst of the “fuzzy front end” of an opportunity. Make it easier by encouraging the team to develop assumptions about how it will work together. What are the interdependent relationships between the team and the rest of the organization? How does the team manage hand offs and communication? How does the team connect to learn? The best way to accelerate pick up team functioning is to experiment, observe, evaluate and adapt practices. Experiment early and deliberately rather than late and accidentally.

Have a Coach.  Pick up teams can be burdened with organizational drama. The right coach is vital to keep the effort focused and members motivated. According to Edmondson, a pick up team leader has the special role of emphasizing purpose, which can get lost in the commotion of white space projects. He or she also needs to provide the emotional support needed for members to freely and quickly test, try and share. Part of the emotional support is to reframe failure from something to be avoided to something that produces progress.

Embrace Messiness. Innovation comes from the creative destruction of boundaries and barriers replaced with something better. Expect the inconvenience of broken processes and the emotional dust ups of destruction. These are the price for a better solution that the old structure could not deliver.

The next prize for your organization may be in the white space. Practice collaboration by playing by pick up game rules. Encourage people to get better at working across and around instead of the comfort zone of up and down. Find the energy from a good short-term game that can help your organization win in the long season.

Resources

Edmondson, A. G. (2012). Teamwork on the Fly. Harvard Business Review, April, 2012. pp. 72- 79.

Hansen, M. T. (2009). Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and reap Big Results. Boston: Harvard Business Press.