Archive for April, 2015

We are all so many things…

Sometimes ideas for this blog come from the strangest places. It might be a lightning-struck tree that sparks thoughts of fragility, or time spent weeding flower beds that germinates reflections on care and mindfulness. Wherever we look, something always emerges.

Today, it’s a photograph. This one:

The flying fish is an odd, odd creature, and not just because of the way it lives in two worlds. Each of the more than sixty species are structured precisely to their purpose, able to propel themselves out of the water for brief periods before returning. They are attracted to light—a trait easily anthropomorphized as spiritual—and exhibit behaviors both regal (as in the broad and noble “wingspan”) and frivolous (as in the curlicued trailing wake).  Too, they are excellent swimmers, gaining speeds of nearly forty miles per hour on their way to breaking the surface.

This living in two worlds—and adapting perfectly to each one—reminds me that each of us also lives in multiple worlds. We have home lives and work lives, family lives and friendship lives. We wear personas for each, shifting easily (most of the time), moving from metaphorical water to air and back to water.

What does this mean for us as leaders?

It’s easy to develop a profile of those with whom you work, to cast them in bas relief as employee, or team member, or contributor. Such roles are important, providing a sense of definition and the accompanying responsibilities and expectations that come with it. However, it is often too easy to forget that the people we work with are so much more than just that one definition, that each of them, like the flying fish, can leap and dive among roles, can be more than employee, or team member, or contributor.

Each person we manage arrives to work each day, quickly shifting from sea to sky. We lead them through the air, guiding them through eight hours before they slowly shift back to the sea. It’s also worth remembering that each lives a life of more than just one role, and that they bring with them each day the cares, concerns, emotions, and upheavals of all the worlds they inhabit. As leaders, we do well to remember the complexity of each person, noting how they shift, how they participate, and how they live.

And how they fly.

Comments


Changing Thoughts

Change is hard.

I know that all of us in the Leadership and HR fields write about it endlessly, offering sometimes facile reminders like “The only constant in life is that everything changes,” or “To improve is to change.” And those clichés—well-worn because they’re true—are certainly worth remembering.

But we know, deep down, that it’s not quite that simple.

We often write about change as it happens to others: our employees, our teammates, our family members and friends. It’s easy, then, to offer simple advice because, after all, it’s happening to someone else. But when it happens to you, then you remember the truth of just what change really is.

Change is hard.

Try to remember the last time a big change occurred in your life. Perhaps it was a relocation from a place you had lived for many years to a place much less familiar. Or maybe it was a job change, and the trepidation that came from walking in that first day, not knowing anyone at all and suddenly realizing that you were now surrounded by relative strangers with whom you were about to spend eight or more hours a day, every day. Or maybe it was a sadder, more personal event, like the occasion when your first-born left for college and you realized that a voice, a pattern of footsteps, which had become part of you had now wrenched free.

If you’re like the rest of us, then it didn’t much matter whether someone offered you a timeless homily, didn’t matter if someone suggested you plan out what you would do next. If you’re like the rest of us then a big change hit you in the gut, sparked a viscerally emotional response. That was what needed to be dealt with before you could move forward—the feelings sparked by a major change in your life.

I sometimes wonder whether we, as consultants, as professionals, as experts, take the few needed moments to recall that when we help our organizations deal with change, there are very real people dealing with those changes, and most of those people are not thinking about denial and bartering, or Bridges’ famous model, or the precise ways in which communications are flowing from one group to the other. What most of them are probably thinking about—and quite justifiably—are What does this mean to me? and Will anyone listen to me? and What comes next?

We’ve all immersed ourselves in the how of helping organizations cope with change. We need, equally, to remember the how of helping people cope with change. In fact the latter, I would argue, is far more important, for it’s the people that create our organizations. It is always crucial—in any “change project”—that we take the time to talk to people, to find out what they are feeling, to let them know that it’s okay, and to help them through it. Only then can organizations effectively manage change.

Comments


Leading Leaders Can be Harder Than it Looks

At some point in the not-to-distant future, Renee and I will likely have the honor of becoming grandparents. (Children heading to the altar, after all, anticipates a certain inevitability!) Thinking about it brings up some interesting questions: What kind of grandparents will we be? Are we supposed to have any role in discipline—in managing our grandchild’s development?  And how will we manage the delicate balancing act of being both loving and firm, yet still make sure that we don’t interfere with role of the child’s parents? After all, don’t we know best? Haven’t we’ve had a lot of practice raising our own kids?

Put another way, the question is this: How do we learn to let others take over for things we’ve done ourselves for so many years?

In our coaching and consulting we run across all types of changing situations—everything from departmental or organizational restructurings, to acquisitions, to shifts in senior leadership. One of the situations that has some very unique and important challenges, however, is the situation in which someone is managing managers for the first time.

Managing direct reports can be difficult (though nearly always rewarding!), but someone with that responsibility is directly involved in nearly every facet of subordinate work. At the other end of the spectrum, members of senior leadership teams predominately immerse themselves in strategy, finance, and higher-level operations, often having very little “touch” with the kind of day-to-day working activities that make up the majority of most employees’ work. The second tier manager (often carrying the title of Senior Manager or Director), however, exists in a strange amalgamation of the two. On the one hand accountability for a group’s or department’s success is very clearly part of the job; yet on the other hand, a Senior Manager or Director is expected to see things from a higher, more holistic view, to take into account not only the workaday tasks, but the bigger picture.

Invariably what we find in such situations is an individual challenged to take a step back and to let his or her direct reports manage their employees as they see fit, while still insuring that those people two tiers below (i.e., “skip-level” reports) still feel part of the larger mission. They must fight the urge to micromanage but still recognize that they have a responsibility to lead and provide direction while maintaining employee engagement, morale, and productivity.

So how is a second-level manager supposed to work with the rest of the group? In our estimation there are three key points to remember:

  1. The second-level manager should focus on his or her direct reports, and on the development of skills that make those people better managers of their own staff members.
  2. The second-level manager should craft clear and measurable goals for his or her direct reports, insuring that they are outcome-based rather than task-based, and then review the goals of others to make sure they are aligned with the group’s overall responsibilities.
  3. The second-level manager should strive to have strong relationships with everyone at skip-level, but should always refer important conversations back to an individual’s direct manager. In other words, second-level managers should never undercut the authority of the managers working for them.

In much the same way that a grandparent needs to be there for the grandkids without undercutting the authority of the child’s parents, so, too, must a second-tier manager learn the skills necessary to empower their own direct reports to manage, while still maintaining a strong sense of mission and group energy. With the proper guidance, coaching, and development, a person’s first experience as a second-level manager can be the kind of success that promises further management growth in the coming years.

Comments


Is “Conventional Wisdom” Wrong About Millennials?

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. We find our comfort zones and are wont to stay there.

One of the elements of any comfort zone is our reliance, to some degree, on the concept of “conventional wisdom,” sets of tried-and-true beliefs and aphorisms that help guide the way we make decisions and manage risks. One example is the saying that working hard is the path to success. It may not always be true, of course, but it certainly makes success more likely, and so is useful. Another is that education leads to a higher standard of living, an equally useful tidbit, as are many others.

Such conventional wisdom often serves us well, but not always.

Sometimes conventional wisdom can be annoyingly, devastatingly wrong. One has only to remember that there was a time when the conventional wisdom had most people believing that the earth was flat. As Mark from marksdailyapple.com writes, conventional wisdom can be “a lumbering beast: slow to move, but difficult to alter course once its big bullish head is set on moving in a certain direction. It’s the pigheaded, stubborn curmudgeon yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn.” And often that’s true.

Why all this preface? It’s because we came across an article recently that challenges a very specific conventional wisdom—this one about millennials.

We’ve all gotten quite comfortable with the generational nomenclature by now. We recognize our GenXers and our Boomers and our Millennials. Theories have been written about generational differences, and we’ve incorporated a lot of that thinking into the way we hire, develop, and lead. In many ways we’ve internalized “conventional wisdom” about these generational classifications.

Now, a new study is asking that we take a hard look at what we think we know.

The study, conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value (and reported in this month’s HR Magazine) reports that Millennials are much more like the rest of us than conventional wisdom suggests:

  • Millennials’ career goals are nearly the same as those reported by GenXers and Boomers, focusing on financial security and seniority to the same degrees as these other categories.
  • Millennials do not live in a world where “everyone gets a trophy,” nor do they expect it. What they want is transparency and a chance to be heard.
  • Millennials are much more interested in face-to-face interactions than supposed; though they are more versatile in virtual situations than older workers, they don’t always prefer it.

There are a few other example in the article as well, but the point is less about the specifics and more about this point: As leaders and HR experts, we must challenge our pre-conceived notions, challenge the “conventional wisdom” in order to create the best environment for our employees. This study brings home the importance of that message. All is not always as it seems.

Comments