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Make Your Declaration of “In-dependence”!

Let’s face it: We all like to be independent. We like to know that we can take care of ourselves, that we can handle a crisis, that we can “rise above.”  And that’s a good thing. Nobody, after all, likes to be around people who can’t manage to take care of themselves.

But what about at work? Is this drive for autonomy really best for everybody?

Unless you work just for yourself, we argue that it’s NOT a great thing to be so completely self-sufficient. In fact, we think organizations are better off when people engage meaningfully with each other. That means we need to balance our urge to be independent with an acceptance that we are “in-dependence” with others. We need others and they need us.

How, exactly?

We exist in a network of “mutual relationships,” in which we others provide things that help us do our jobs, and we do the same for them. It could be as simple as providing data or a report, or as complex as completing job descriptions and capital expenditure budgets. But it’s always true. Always. No matter what the case, we do our work for a purpose, and that necessarily implies that someone else needs what we provide.  Even in the most basic organizational structure—something like an assembly line, for example—the person to your left gives something to you and the person to your right gets something from you. It’s a fundamental business axiom.

We believe that it’s time to think differently about how we value autonomy and independence as virtues for their own sake. It’s time to consider that what we should really value—and reward—is the ability to understand, respect, and balance our needs at work with the needs of others. Only when both are considered can an organization thrive.

Curious to learn more? We have a white paper on the topic which you can request here.


A New View of Working Relationships: Part Three—Knowledge Sharing

Last week we introduced the idea of customer—supplier relationships at work, relationships based on the idea that everyone both gets and gives important things to others.

This idea of customer—supplier relationships is a fundamental foundation for taking a new view of working relationships, one of five such foundations we have identified. We introduce the second one today, and it is this:

We must relearn how to share.

We don’t much share at work, really share. Our knowledge is valuable to us: it protects our job, makes us feel important, and creates respect in others. But for companies to work really well, knowledge sharing is critical. And we’ve forgotten how to do it. Why? Because it’s been trained out of us.

Even before you reached kindergarten, it’s likely that you had some exposure to the “rightness” of sharing. Perhaps you had a sibling or a cousin close in age that you played with frequently. If so, your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles probably all told you more than a few times that you needed to “play nice” with someone or to let “your little sister take a turn.” Sharing is what we were taught to do, what we were expected to do and what we needed to do. Sharing, we were told in many different ways, is a cultural norm.

But then we graduated from kindergarten into the mainstream environments of our elementary grades, and slowly the ideas of sharing and independence slip into competition, as if you can’t really do one and also the other. And it’s this dichotomy that continues into our adult lives and into the workplace. But how does it happen?

It begins very early, during the time we transition from a sharing-based play/learn environment to a more learning-centric environment in school. As we move through the grades, each progressive world we are led to relies more on individual measurement, usually in the form of grades. We are tested on what we learn, study, and know for ourselves. And slowly, as we move through our school years, what used to be sharing is given a new name: cheating.

For those of us who go on to college, that training becomes even more intense. Despite the study groups and the joint projects, despite the way students may take notes for each other in order to skip a class or two, there is now an even stronger emphasis on independence, on that individualized grade. Now, in college, you’re not just going to be graded on what you know, you’re also going to be graded on what other people don’t know. It’s called the curve, and it means, simply, this: To score well, to get a good grade, you must be better than the average within your class. Inherently that means that you must know more than other people around you in order to truly succeed.

And so there we all stood at one time or another: on the threshold of our working lives, degree in hand, gladdened (or not) by how we’ve scored throughout twelve or sixteen or twenty classroom-filled years, and ready to move forward into hopefully fulfilling and interesting careers. Eventually we find that door and begin, bringing with us all the training and learning worked into us over the entirety of our educated lives. And one of those things we’ve learned, that is now practically bred into us, is how not to share.

But sharing our knowledge with others (and having them share theirs with us) is a critical component for creating the customer—supplier environment we want and need for our organizations. As leaders we must learn to recognize the importance of encouraging and enabling sharing whenever and wherever we can.

Photo courtesy of: otnaydur / 123RF Stock Photo


A New View of Working Relationships: Part Two—Customers and Suppliers

In last week’s introduction to this series on Working Relationships, we threw darts at the myth that people at work know exactly what they need and how to get it. This simple dictum—a kind of “conventional wisdom—is simply untrue. People generally don’t know what they need, and so part of what we want to do when improving our working relationships is to surface exactly what we do need—and to understand why.

We begin shedding light on the conventional wisdom by first introducing some ideas about being a customer and being a supplier.

From the moment we get up in the morning we are, in one way or another, a customer. You may have your morning coffee while watching the local news, in which case you are a customer of your local cable company (on whom you depend to provide the signal), the owners of the channel you’re watching, and those who put on the broadcast itself. If you channel-surf from the news to, say, a sports or business station, then you become customers of those services and companies as well. Perhaps you stop to get gas on your way to work, in which case you’re a customer of Shell, perhaps, or Sunoco, and if you then take a toll road to the office, you’re again a customer—this time of your state’s transportation department.

The list is endless, and not just in a metaphorical way. From now until your very last day on earth, you will be a customer: dry cleaning, dentistry, movie theater, super-market, electronic store, plumber, airline, bookstore, hair salon, hockey team, university, emergency road service, doctor, manicurist…. There is not a day—not a single day—in which you can (or should) avoid this role.

Yet we never speak in these terms at work. We talk about having customers—those individuals and organizations to which our company sales products and services—but we don’t often think of ourselves as customers of each other, customers inside the company. We don’t imagine that the engineering department, for example, is a customer of the finance department when, in fact, engineering can’t do a thing—can’t purchase materials or hire staff or maintain equipment—unless the finance department approves the engineering budget.

Being a customer is almost like second nature to most of us; given that we have so many customer experiences—every single day, in fact—it should come as no surprise that it’s pretty easy for most of us. In fact, most of the time we probably don’t think of it directly, we simply expect certain things to be provided to us, and to be provided in ways that are easy, that cause neither difficulty nor confrontation. And most of our customer interactions are like that—we walk into some place (or log on some site) with a set of expectations and most times those expectations are met. So used to adequate (one might almost say “invisible”) service, we acknowledge it only in the most automatic ways—a “thank you” and a smile at most.

But for every time we’re a customer, someone, it’s worth remembering, is acting as a supplier, giving something to us. And it stands to reason that we are also suppliers, often and every day. We’re probably much less aware of it, but we provide things to others constantly, mostly without even realizing it.

At work this supplier role takes on very significant meaning, yet it’s a role we almost never acknowledge. Too often we complete work we’re “supposed to” complete, yet never really understand what it’s for or how it’s used.

If you think about it, there is a fundamental relationship between person-as-customer and person-as-supplier. There must be, or else why would any product, service, or work ever happen?

Next week: Defining the “Customer—Supplier Relationship”

Images Courtesy of: stuartphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
and lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo


A New View of Working Relationships: Part One-Introduction

There are certain stories we all carry around with us, certain common cultural memes that resonate. For example, we’ve all probably learned that if you show up first, work hard, and recognize your opportunities you’ll likely be rewarded, because “the early bird catches the worm.” Or that consistent effort pays off because “slow and steady wins the race.” Similarly we’ve learned a host of values and mores, all guiding us toward ways we should behave.

These stories persist into our working lives; we carry them with us wherever we go, and that includes into our organizations and into the relationships we have with others in those organizations.

But as often as these stories are true, they are also misleading. We know, for example, that it isn’t always the early bird that gets the worm, because what really pays off is to “work smarter, not harder.” We also know that the sudden burst of inspiration can lead to innovation and growth for a company—along with instant “overnight” success for those who haven’t just worked slowly and steadily hoping to win the race.

One of the most pervasive myths that we find in working with organizations is the idea that everybody knows what they need to succeed, to get their jobs done. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you: “I need so-and-so to give me this-or-that.” And it will be spoken with such surety that no one will ever question that what people say they need is precisely what they do in fact need.

But, as it turns out, it isn’t.

When the company succeeds, so too can the individuals within it. But for that has to happen there needs to be a foundational understanding between and among the people who do the work, the people who actually are the company.

It starts with understanding need, but in a way that hasn’t been truly addressed before, in a way that recognizes that needs must be surfaced quite clearly, then negotiated and agreed to, almost as if they are an internal contract between parts of the company and the individuals within those parts.

We call this the development of mutual relationships, relationships that are based on fulfilling needs for each other in the context of performing actual work tasks.

And it’s entirely new.

Over the next few weeks we plan to introduce a variety of these new concepts—concepts that will change the way you think about relationships at work.

UP NEXT: What it means to NEED things…


Succession Planning–Part 3: How It’s Done

In our Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on succession planning, we’ve discussed why you should have a plan and what you might think about when you start to put that plan together. In today’s post we want to talk a little bit about how to actually get things done.

First, think carefully about when you need succession. Understand the events that could create such a situation. There are more cases than you think. Sometimes people retire, and sometimes they leave when you’re not prepared for it. There are the now-and-then extended absences, like during parental leave, sabbatical, or disability. And then there are always those sudden events, like when a key employee wins the lottery and decides to move to an island in the South Seas.

Once you understand when you might need succession, then you’re ready to build that plan. As a quick reminder, we suggested that the major parts of your plan include:

  • Hiring solid people
  • Matching ‘em up to your succession needs
  • Developing these people in a thoughtful way, and
  • Providing coaching and mentoring

So how do you hire the best? First, be patient; there are many, many decently qualified candidates, but remember that you’re not out to “fill a slot,” but to improve the organization. Have a clear set of requirements. Don’t let short-term business needs trump long-term talent needs. Set the bar high. It’s important to create a culture of “only the best,” one where managers and staff alike come to expect the best—and learn how to identify such people when they meet them. Consider investing in some training for your managers so that they know how to interview. The better they are, the better will be your company’s hiring decisions.

Make sure that you assess your jobs. Which ones really need successors? (Hint—it’s probably fewer than you think—many just need some good knowledge-capture and knowledge-transfer planning.) For those that do need succession, define the roles carefully and, importantly, figure out the kinds of personal and professional capabilities that lead to success in those roles. Use simple tools to keep track of these positions.

Now do the same with your best people. Don’t just assess their skills, assess the whole person. Are they the type of people who will rise to the challenge? Who love learning and growth? Who aspire to career advancement? Not everyone does, after all, but those who do should be mapped to the roles that you think they can fill—if not now, then within a year or two. (Remember, we said this was a long-term planning process!)

Use straightforward tools to figure out who should be in the plan. You can triage using a simple model to create a short list of “high potential” candidates.  You want people you can trust, and people who can trust others. You want people who sit in the upper right of the “9 Box,” people in whom you see potential, but who are also good—even exceptional—performers today.

Then map: this is simple, but not easy. The biggest danger is not being intensely critical of all your decisions. Put decision makers—including managers and senior managers—into a room and have them both advocate and challenge the decisions as you make them. It’s crucial to get this right, because you’re about to invest time, energy—and money—into the people who end up on these charts! Remember, this isn’t just putting names next to job descriptions—this is planning your company’s FUTURE!  And while we don’t have a crystal ball, we do have our own intelligence. Now’s the time to make the very best HR decisions you can!

And once you’ve done that, then what? Develop, train, coach, and mentor.  This means finding both formal and informal mechanisms for developing not only job skills, but leadership skills. That means working simultaneously on increasing capabilities in all spheres: practical, interpersonal, professional, creative, logical, and more.  The best way to do this, of course, is to have both training programs and mentoring programs in your company, and then to augment these programs with assessment-based coaching. (More on that topic another time.)

Then lather, rinse and repeat! The beauty of a program like this one is that when you hire and develop the best people you possibly can, they, in turn, recognize the value in hiring and developing the best people they possibly can. The result? A “virtuous cycle” of continuous improvement.

What do you think? How is the succession planning program going in your organization?

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Succession Planning–Part 2: Getting Started

In our last post we shared with you the reasons why Succession Planning is not just a nice to have, but very, very important to your company’s long-term growth and success. And yet, too many companies remain stalled, not knowing how to get started with a robust, effective program. In this post we share with you a simple model for how to do exactly that. Then, in our next installment, we’ll discuss the details of how to implement that model.

First, a word about models.  Models are generally good things to have—they give you a picture, and a common language that provides both power and simplicity. But it’s also important to remember that there are lots of models out there, and each may have something to offer. So we suggest that, when looking at various models (including ours), you look for ones with flexibility. Only a flexible model will allow you and your company to be flexible as well—which means allowing you to build the type of program that works best for you.  One size, we’ve found, doesn’t fit all….

In our model, we recommend that you focus on a few simple steps. If they seem obvious, it’s because (for the most part) they are. The trick is to execute on them regularly and systematically.  Here they are:

  1. Hire solid people. Your succession plan will only be as good as the people who are in it, so hire A players—the more of them the better. Don’t settle. Hire only the best.
  2. Have a plan for when you need succession, and then assess the importance of your positions and the capabilities of your people. Recognize that it’s a long-term plan, one that should serve your company for years.
  3. Match ‘em up. Figure out where the knowledge and talent is and where you need it, then put them together.
  4. Develop these people in a thoughtful way. Think long-term, and don’t forget that the more you invest in people, the more likely they are to stick around for that next step in their career paths (rather than going off to a competitor!)
  5. Provide coaching and mentoring so that they learn what they need to learn—not just about the job they’re likely to take over, but about the company as a whole, as well as how to manage others.

If you and your team execute well, then you’ll create a virtuous cycle: the best people, properly developed, will understand the value of top performers and they, with confidence, will hire more of them, creating a domino effect of succession candidates.

Check back for Part 3 in this series, where we discuss how you can do just that.


Succession Planning–Part 1: It’s IMPORTANT!

First, a little bit of reality: Many of us remember stories about the old days, back when you could count on your employees working diligently for 35 or 40 years and then retiring with a nice pension. They’d show up day after day, confident that the company would always be there for them and that they, in turn, would always be there for the company. They’d move through their careers, stepping slowly up the ladder while the wheels of industry turned.

But it hasn’t been that way for quite a while now. We’ve had recessions and layoffs and waves of hiring, all coming and going in a mysterious cyclicality that we pretend to understand and attempt to predict, all with middling results. And to top it off we’ve got entirely new generations of employees who appear to have graduated with degrees in how to befuddle us. These Xs and Ys and Millennials (and whatever comes next) sometimes seem like aliens from another planet dropped loosely into our workforce. (And those groups—all of whom have differing expectations of what employers should provide them, now amount to more than half of our country’s currently employed population.)

Meanwhile, staffing requirements ebb and flow. New skills are needed every time you turn around. And the people around you—the ones that make your company hum—well, they come and go, too. These days you have to be prepared. You need to know that the best people will want to stay and that the skills and knowledge they have remain, too—even if some of the specific people don’t.

That means you need to plan for what happens when people leave, and over the next couple of blog posts we’d like to share with you some of the best ways to do that.

Succession planning is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have. And it’s not something you do now and then—it’s a program, something you build into your company’s DNA, something you manage. The American Management Association recognizes this truth, calling succession management “A management development program that is integrated with strategic business initiatives and that guides an organization in identifying, developing, and retaining employees with the potential to fill key leadership positions.”

And everybody seems to agree that it’s important; a recent survey from SHRM, The Society for Human Resources Management, found that succession management was the #1 issue of concern for HR departments. Yet for some reason, not enough companies are actually doing anything about it. The AMA study found that very few actually had a comprehensive, integrated program—only 8% of all companies out there…

If you’re one of the 92% who would like to build a solid succession program, there are some simple ways to get started. We’ll look at some of these in our next posting.

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Stranger than Friction…

It’s possible to be too nice.

In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s quite common, especially in business settings. People get together for some purpose—maybe it’s an operating committee, or a project team, or a group within a department—and they start to play with ideas on how to solve problems or achieve goals. Then they start to plan, operationalize, and execute.

If that’s what’s happening in your organization, then please pay attention; you’ve missed an important step in the process: Friction.

Yes, I know it sounds strange, but without some friction—what is often called “constructive conflict”—it’s hard to know if the best ideas have surfaced and been thoroughly vetted.

Margaret Heffernan, a business executive and author, in her TED Talk Dare to Disagree, talks about the ways in which conflict avoidance can create blind spots that hinder progress. The best team members, leaders, and partners aren’t “echo chambers,” she says, and the best organizations allow people to disagree—sometimes strongly.  Note, though, that disagreement doesn’t mean incivility, and there is—quite obviously—no room for false logic or ad hominen attacks. However, without healthy conflict you and the teams you lead may be missing out on the better part of themselves—the part that challenges assumptions, works through (rather than burying) difficult issues, and produces innovative ideas that emerge, phoenix-like, suddenly and with bursts of energy.

So how do you promote and harness constructive conflict? In their study How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight, researchers Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, and Bourgeois concluded that there are six tactics commonly used by teams that exercise healthy conflict:

  • They work with more, rather than less, information
  • They develop multiple alternatives to enrich debate
  • They establish (or have) common goals
  • They make an effort to inject humor into the workplace
  • They maintain a balanced corporate structure
  • They resolve issues without forcing consensus

To these, we would add a few “baseline” characteristics:

  • There must first be a foundation of trust across the team members. As Patrick Lencioni, author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team points out, “Remember teamwork begins by building trust.” He goes on to add that “Great teams do not hold back with one another…They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”
  • Agree to argue, debate, and disagree constructively. This may seem simplistic, but the first step towards any technique’s effectiveness is to gain agreement on using it in the first place.
  • Trust your gut, but don’t depend on it. The “gut feelings” you have about something may be your experience giving you direction. Discuss what your gut tells you, but don’t let it make decisions for you!  Always, always validate with data.
  • Gain agreement that everyone will hold everyone else accountable for participating honestly, and for supporting the final decisions.

The use of these tactics promotes collaboration and creativity—all of which leads to better teams with better leaders. And that, of course, is what we want!


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3 Ways to Retain your Employees (Hint: It’s about Learning…)

We used to think that people leave their jobs because they weren’t earning enough, that “cash was king.” Turns out that’s not the case. Not anymore.

According to Diane Stafford, a business, economics, and workplace writer with The Kansas City Star, The biggest reason people leave their jobs today is that they’re not learning enough. She cites a recent study published by The Harvard Business Review which says that:

Multiple studies find that today’s younger workers have absolutely no intention of sticking around if they don’t feel like they’re learning, growing and being valued in a job. Beth N. Carvin, a consultant who has spent 12 years researching exit interviews, finds that a loss of training opportunities and a lack of mentors in the workplace are two of the biggest reasons why young workers leave. “Companies need to recognize that these young workers are very mobile,” Carvin said. “They have to understand that they want a personal and clearly articulated career path.”

The loss of such talent will ultimately hurt any company’s bottom line, not only because of the potential “brain drain,” but also because of the high costs of recruiting, hiring, and training replacements. Maintaining and sustaining performance, therefore, should be a key goal for your business. Retaining and providing opportunity for learning for your top talent, especially those who will potentially grow to lead your business in the future, should be a top goal.

Here are 3 important ways to create a learning-centric environment that will encourage your top, fresh talent to stick around:

  1. Provide opportunity to learn new things. Often. There’s nothing more deadening to a thirty-year-old (or younger) employee than to be stuck doing the same job the same way day in and day out. Mix it up a bit, even for entry-level folks. Is there a new project or program being talked about? Is there a new planning group bouncing around interesting ideas? Bring in the new, raw talent to be part of these forming conversations. Inevitably, you’ll find a perspective you had’nt considered, a viewpoint you hadn’t realized might be important. They’ll surprise you with what they know and what they contribute every time.
  2. Encourage mistakes and reward do-overs. Really! Nobody (not even those of us who are more “seasoned”) learns anything unless we try something once, perhaps fail, and try it again in a different way. Unless you are in the business of brain surgery, I’m guessing that there’s plenty of runway for your folks to take on new challenges and go with it. Again, the outcome will probably surprise you. More than once I’ve seen someone come up with a new way of doing things—something I hadn’t thought of—that increased everyone’s productivity.
  3. Ask them, and often try what they suggest. Initiate your conversations with a “beginner’s mind”, staying completely neutral and having no hidden agenda or preconceived outcome in mind. Be curious about what they think and where they’d go with a problem. Then, try what they come up with. This sends a powerful message that you are listening and that you respect creative opinions. This is the vortex of learning, both for you as a leader and for your workers. When you come out the other end, you’ll both be surprised at the learning that has occurred.

American author and poet Christopher Morley once said that “there are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning and yearning.” It’s no accident that “learning” is first on the list, for without it the others are much less likely to happen. We, as managers and leaders, are in a unique position to encourage that learning in our younger staff members and, as a consequence, strengthen our organizations overall. These three ideas are just the beginning; I’m sure many of you have your own ideas as well. Please share them in the comments below.


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