About that bus; step in front of it

It’s the workplace question with its own Wiki entry. But there is a far less dramatic, and potential more serious, organizational perspective to consider: what happens when senior talent leaves? In many organizations, the apparent answer is chaos. Nearly two-thirds of companies do not have people ready to backfill key organizational roles. About one-third have no succession plan at all. If only there was some old saying about failing to plan.

John Hancock has a series of ‘what-if’ ads and one is called “The Meeting” where a middle-aged man is called into his boss’ office. In one of the endings, he becomes a statistic but not the one you are thinking about and this is where art imitates life. The fictional character is among the very real people in the 55 – 64 cohort who will launch nearly one-quarter of all new businesses.

These are real people exiting for reasons that have nothing to do with wayward busses: they start companies, they teach, they move to non-profits, they indulge hobbies, or they simply retire. And with each exit, an organization loses decades of institutional knowledge, innumerable customer contacts and relationships, and a part of its culture.

You don’t fix the roof when it is raining. And you don’t start looking for new leaders and managers after the old ones are gone. External pressures tend to guide internal processes – first know where you want to be, then figure out how to get there. Take inventory of who and what your organization is today, and who and what it is likely to be in five years:

  • What will the competitive landscape be and how does your business strategy address it?
  • Will it be easier or harder to find qualified staff to meet those objectives?
  • Will that talent be more or less expensive, available locally or not?

Now assess the roster:

  • How many people are likely to retire/take other jobs in the next five years?
  • Is there a pipeline of replacement talent in place?
  • Who are the likely candidates for mid- to senior-level leadership roles?
  • What must be done to prepare those individuals to that level and how long will that take?

By their own admission, CEOs do a terrible job of succession planning even though they are fully aware of its importance. Maybe it’s because so many organizations focus on the here and now, on this year’s revenue targets, on next year’s product launch; maybe it is the Melba toast quality – dry, process-driven, no immediate reward – of succession planning; maybe it is the result of calling it planning.

Organizations and individuals plan a lot of things, but the value in those things comes from doing them. And that means a succession program, with measurable results because execs love things that can be quantified. Associate a metric with an activity and someone is either doing that activity or answering “why not?”

Being forced to look over the horizon is challenging and may be a shock to the here-and-now psyche, but no leadership team lasts forever, no CEO sits in that chair permanently, and this is not a bad thing. It is the natural progression of the workplace, just as natural as adapting to any foreseeable event, and organizations that are unable to adapt are usually unable to survive.

Ever Screw Up and Hire a Good One?

I ask that question because it is a combination of two others that are much harder than they appear:

  • ever have an applicant who ticked every box but six months later, you are convinced someone switched that person out for the employee you have? You likely have a specific name in mind.
  • ever have an applicant who ticked every box and six months later, is even better than expected? You can probably name that person, too.

Those two questions lead to the obvious follow-up: what did you different in those two instances? In all likelihood, nothing. You followed a hiring script and took your chances. Next time, just put the resumes of the finalists on the wall and toss a dart; you have the same expectation of making a good choice. And until and unless you figure out how to tap into the occupational DNA of both applicants and existing employees, the preceding questions will dog you.

In a past professional life, during the technological Dark Ages (about 1998), I was interviewing the CEO and CMO of a locally-based web hosting company for a television program. The hosting company was on the cusp of a period of explosive growth – and I mean two-time Inc500 growth – as the web went from nebulous concept to business necessity. At one point, the CMO asked me: “what would be the product on your web site?” The instant answer was information since I was in the news business and planned to be stay in it for a while.

Fast forward nearly two decades and the world is a markedly differently place. There is virtually no end to the data that can be assembled, dissected, collated, and interpreted for any organizational function. This includes personnel. Everything you need to know about maximizing the odds of success for employees and/or applicants is within easy reach, but you have to make the effort. Too many companies don’t, and the results are not hard to figure out.

My newest poster child for this phenomenon is a young man I recently met at a networking event who works in the mortgage arm of a major financial institution. As we talked, I asked about his career path. “I want to be in marketing,” he said. Marketing. Is it possible to be any further removed from mortgages? Two questions came to mind: does his employer know and, given its size, would the company even care? My guess is no, probably to both questions, which means he is either looking for another job or he will be.

He’s what a colleague of mine would call an “at-leaster”, someone doing at least enough to meet whatever goals were set out for him in order to retain his job and, quite likely, not one scintilla more. He is the opposite of the current happy word “engagement.” It’s a term that works both ways. A lack of engagement is not just employees who are unhappy, unmotivated, or unproductive, it’s also employers putting people into positions for which they are poorly suited. Go back to the questions at the beginning of this piece. All that money spent to recruit, hire, and train someone when, in reality, all that has been done it to set that person up for failure.

Finding good people is difficult and some of this is due to factors you cannot control. It is also true that the workplace is radically different from the era of forty years and a gold watch. But human nature is relatively constant – even the happiest company in America would be a drag for someone who is in a job that is ill-suited to their interests. When you like doing something, you not only do more of it, you do it with greater focus, increased effort, and heightened intensity. It’s not rocket surgery. If it were, the question in the title would be one nobody asked.

Make Your Training Dollars Go Further

If you are going to invest in training and talent development, and there is a lot of that going on, then it should be with people who are worthy of the investment. In sales training alone, about $20-billion per year is spent. That’s more than the budgets of 22 states.  And yet:

Those turnover metrics can apply to any industry, obviously; I picked sales because a great deal of training focuses on that.  Leadership development is another area and the same questions linger:  have you or has your organization made someone a manager only to learn that the person could not manage?  Are organizational teams or departments hothouses of innovation and collaboration, or toxic environments in which simply getting through the day qualifies as an achievement?

Calculate all the training dollars spent on people who did not work out or who took the information from a coaching or training seminar/workshop that you paid for to another employer.  Add in one last bit of irony:  though the reasons why new hires fail is not a mystery, the outcome is often pre-ordained because organizations do not consider the occupational DNA of the people they hire – what motivates them, in what type of culture will they thrive, are they willing to do the job or will they be searching anew in six months? And then, they hand off those people to trainers and coaches with the implied demand of “make them better.”

Professional development is not magic, it’s work and it generally requires two things of those receiving the training in order to be successful: talent and desire. Even legendary basketball coach John Wooden knew that no one wins without talent, at least not consistently. Putting the wrong person into the wrong job is a fantastic recipe for failure. Every grain of sand cannot be a pearl and if that were possible, then pearls would be worthless.  Organizations know who their top people are; they should also know why top performers are who they are and be able to give that information to coaches and trainers to use as a road map for developing the employees who are toeing the line of excellence but need a slight nudge to cross it. We’re in a specialized world; consultants can customize programs to fit a variety of organizational situations, but they cannot engineer a fix if the company itself is not sure what the problem is.

The second variable is desire, which good coaches can tap into and help individuals to channel. Like dialogue, this is only effective if both sides participate. Not to get bogged down in a tyranny of clichés, but there is a reason sayings like “you can lead a horse to water,…” exist. Some people perceive coaching as an indictment of their performance. “Let me help you” is interpreted as “you’re doing it wrong.”  “Wax on, wax off” only made sense after Daniel understood how Mr. Miyagi integrated it into the bigger picture.

Accepting coaching shows a willingness to admit that you do not know everything and an openness to trying new things. Not everyone has the internal motor for that and not everyone is comfortable putting his/her ego to the side, which leads back to the original hiring questions: just how well do organizations really know the individuals whom they bring on board? If companies are going to spend money on improving organizational performance, they have a far greater likelihood of recouping that investment when the training they buy is used on talented people who have the desire to improve.

The Five Year Fallacy

If people honestly answered the interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?”, would their chances of being hired be better or worse?   There is no shortage of advice on how to best face this question, though the answers can be confusing if not contradictory, here and here, for example. And when a question spawns 170-million Internet entries, it is hard to see it as the magic bullet that separates one candidate from the rest.

Over time, I have become convinced there is one and only one true answer to this question – “I don’t know.” Because you don’t. The question is asked in a vacuum, but no one lives in a vacuum; people live in dynamic environments where the unknown is ever-present. As it is, tens of millions of people are in jobs that may not be around in five years and that’s with technological advancement that is known. What about the forward steps that are still to be realized?

Even the military, which plans so much that it is said to have a strategy for an alien invasion, recognizes plans are great to have. Until their first contact with resistance.

You want a plan? Here it is: take care of the now and the future will work itself out. That’s it.

  • You can control how you perform at work, what type of spouse and parent you are, and whether you take care of your health.
  • You cannot control if the company gets sold, if your job becomes obsolete, or if a parent gets at terminal illness.

Five years ago, I didn’t expect to be doing what I am. Five years prior to that, I did not expect to be entering graduate school. And five year earlier, I was in a career I thought would last until retirement. But life’s funny that way; get too comfortable and the fates toss a banana peel in your path. If you have not experienced the unexpected, you will.

Most of life happens in a Bell curve. There are high achievers, stragglers, and the mass in the middle that one colleague refers to as “the at-leasters.” That means they are doing at least enough to maintain their current standing; some could reach the higher level with a bit of focus and coaching, some are content to just be and are more likely to have dreams than plans but that’s another discussion. The point is, each of these groups is engaged in the present. The future is out there, of course, but it tends to happen to us more than we to it.

When bad things happen, even to good companies and good people, quality individuals are on the loose. Finding good people keeps many an employer up at night. If you are known for doing solid work, for being professional and reliable, then you are far more likely to land upright than someone with a reputation of mailing it in. And if a parent becomes terminally ill, that fast track you imagined being on is going to slow down.

Having goals and dreams is part of the human experience, and I am not going to tell you to chuck them all and live life by the seat of the pants. But you have to have some perspective. You may still do and become everything you aspire to, but it may not come on that timetable that is in your head. Along the way, chances are you will learn something new about yourself and perhaps about what you really want. And that’s what I mean about taking care of the now.

Process vs. Thinking; Process and Thinking

by Alex Lekas

A former colleague of mine used to punctuate every meeting by reminding people to “do the routine things routinely.” That is, pay attention to the little things that, if unattended, have a way of becoming big things. If a customer has a support question, answer it promptly and courteously; if there is a billing issue, resolve it quickly and professionally; and, if someone wants to place an order, get the right stuff to the right address right away.
Routine and process are often treated as the hobgoblins of a dying enterprise, but change for its own sake can be every bit as destructive as the organizational paralysis of “This is how we have always done it.” Routines can be detrimental if people are blinded by them or if management believes people are not smart enough or creative enough to find more efficient ways of doing necessary things. But, routines are also predictable and, when executed properly, they are reliable.
This is not a “change/question everything” screed; if something is not broken, there is no sense in trying to fix it. However, any dynamic organization requires the creative tension of periodically questioning if the current ways are the best ways, even if all this does is reinforce the validity of how things are done. Successful people and companies question their own dogma regularly; it keeps them nimble and aware of changes in the landscape. It allows them to take the macro view and get ahead of shifts in the marketplace. It is how they stay relevant.
Process and routine are not sexy; they are the Melba toast of the workplace. But nothing changes (read: improves) if the organization is fixated on the goal. Sure, more sales, more wins, more market share are well and good, but putting those marks on the wall does nothing toward achieving them. Every NFL team began the year with winning the Super Bowl as its stated goal, even the ones who would be eliminated by the first Sunday in October. But that doesn’t mean the season was lost before it started. Change is a process, too, and improvement requires the recognition of weaknesses followed by steps that address them.
Most of what we do seems defined by goals; far less time is spent on figuring out how to reach them. You want to raise revenue by 14%, you want to cut a few seconds off your time in the mile, or you want to lose 20 pounds. What are you going to do to get there? That’s process. That’s where the work lies. The goal gets you up in the morning and it motivates you to make some sacrifices. But the process is how you achieve it.

Three Keys to Unlocking Answers

No one has ever discovered the answer to anything without first asking a question.  Self-evident, maybe, but not necessarily simple.  There is a difference between asking good questions and bad, between nodding your head responses and actually hearing the answers, and in going down a list of questions and engaging the subject.  Here are three steps to peeling the layers of the onion:

The only dumb question is the one that is not asked

People avoid asking questions for fear of looking stupid, but no one knows everything about everything.  Asking questions is not ignorance, it is empowerment.  You will miss every shot that you do not take and chances are, if you have a question, someone else has that same question in mind, too.  So ask.  Asking questions makes you curious, inquisitive, and interested in learning new things.  Asking questions is the antidote to ignorance, to confusion, and to uncertainty.

Asking questions also stops others from perceiving you as that guy.  You know the one – the self-professed smartest person in the room, the person who not only knows how to do your job better than you do but is also too happy to say so to anyone within earshot.  Where do you go when you believe that you know everything?  To the no-growth zone and when things stop growing, they die.

When you ask probing questions, good information tends to reveal itself if you deploy….

A laser, not a shotgun 

Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.  Questions are an attempt to elicit information, specific information, so they have to be thought out.  Ask questions that cannot be answered in yes/no fashion, ask questions based on the five Ws, and don’t ask questions that presume the answer.  If you know the answer, there is no point in asking the question.  if you are simply looking for confirmation, ask directly, don’t fish for the answer you want.  And if the answer violates your expectations, ask another question.

In addition, learn to be comfortable with silence.  Silence makes most people nervous; they can’t break it fast enough.  Embrace it; silence is often the mark of a good question that has caused the other person to pause and think before responding which means you should get a useful answer.  Silence also shows interest in the conversation because it shows that you…..

Listen to the answers that are elicited

Listening is grossly under-valued; you don’t learn anything by talking.  Just ask any beleaguered spouse about the value of listening.  Or any frazzled parent.  Good questions tend to elicit thoughtful answers, and thoughtful answers almost always contain a nugget that begs for a follow-up question.  If you’re not listening with purpose, then you are missing the opportunity to follow-up.

There is also an important tangential benefit in listening – it tells the other person that you value that individual’s wisdom, experience, and perhaps most important, the person’s time.  By asking for the time, you have already said “I believe you know things that are important, things that I should know about X.”  Don’t waste the opportunity by tossing softballs or looking to confirm your biases.

If you are unclear on an answer, repeat it back.  Not only does this ensure understanding, it also reiterates that you are attentive.  And if a person makes a good point but then veers into an unrelated ramble, don’t be afraid to interject.  Interject, not interrupt, with a question that says “you brought up something interesting a moment ago, let’s go back to that.”

This is not rocket surgery but life is in the details.  Have a conversation, not an interrogation.

The Data You Have but Are Not Using

What if I told you that the information necessary for predicting top performers already exists? For every position. In every organization. And the data is in-house. I see the disbelief in your eyes. Impossible, you say. Making such a determination would require compiling reams of data followed by exhaustive analysis, you say. Perhaps this disbelief is why an in-depth Deloitte study found that close to 90% of HR and business executives believe their leadership pipeline is dry. Nearly 90%. How in the world does this happen?

Every boss can instantly name his/her top performers for any given job.  Almost no boss can tell you why those top performers are top performers.  Because many have never tried to learn the common qualities that separate the top group from the rest of the staff, how those characteristics could be shared with the rest of the class to raise middle-level people to the top rung and, how those qualities can provide a template to use when hiring new employees.  Back to the original question with a follow-up: what if I also told you that companies have the necessary data for determining which employees are likely to be successful leaders?  Because that information already exists, too; and, like the data on what defines top people, it is also already in-house.

A few days ago, I wrote about the value of a user’s guide for each employee, how having a thorough understanding of staff members is helpful in knowing how to manage them and in knowing what to expect from them. But a further look at the Deloitte study reveals not just a disinterest in knowing what makes individuals tick but also a sort of passive disengagement with them. Think about it; if 86% of employers say their leadership pipeline is inadequate and 75% can’t find the people they need, a reasonable person might conclude that a change of tactics is in order.

The Forbes piece cited above spends a lot of time on employee engagement and the author draws the conclusion that the problem is a changed work ethic, one in which individuals expect their jobs to be exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and so forth. People want to matter, though a former colleague had a straight-forward assessment of what defines a job – “jobs exist because there is work to be done.” Nothing sexy or new age or even remotely sentimental about that. An organization has many moving parts; the output represents the sum total of each individual’s input. Which brings me back to the opening point about the data that organizations already have but either don’t know about or have yet to use.

There are diagnostic tools that can provide a good understanding of what separates top performers from run-of-the-mill employees; this is a compilation of the real-world application of those tools. I am hardly the only person in the assessments business. And I don’t mean personality tests that are creating a potential new form of corporate liability. This is about assessments that reveal what individuals value, what motivates them, and what they are interested in doing, information that is already there. So why aren’t employers asking for it? Maybe they see assessments as purely a pre-hiring tool, maybe they are concerned about the cost, or maybe it’s something else. But it seems that if a problem has been recognized, there should be a word for doing nothing about it while expecting the situation to change.