Sunday, February 28, 2010

Leadership Development for “The Little Guys”

I received the following comments on my recent “Best Companies for Leadership” post:

“The list of things that make these great companies for leadership development is impressive. How do you apply these lessons to small business. A staff of five or eight or even 25? The opportunity for promotion and growth may be limited. Lateral moves don't really exist. I'd love help to implement great leadership development with small staff companies.”

“Yeah, there are lessons to be learned, but the small business experience is extremely different than that of the large corporations. I guess the little guys need to take what they can and come up w/ alternatives for the rest!”

Great question! Yes, the small business experience is different – but that doesn’t mean that there are not opportunities for leadership development. In fact, I’d argue that there are just as many opportunities – they’re just different.

Let’s start out by reviewing how successful leaders develop. Back in the 1970s, CCL published its landmark study on executive development, which resulted in the best selling book “The Lessons of Experience”. Since then, just about every best practice company and practitioner has built their leadership development practices on this foundation.

CCL asked 1000s of successful executives how they learned the most important lessons that had the biggest impact on their success as a leader. I’ve conducted this exercise with hundreds of groups of leaders, and the answers always fall into the following buckets:

1. Job changes
2. Challenging, stretch assignments (without changing jobs)
3. Other people (good & bad managers, mentors, coaches)
4. Hardships (learning from trauma, failure)
5. Other (programs, books, etc…)

The programs that big companies like GM, Proctor & Gamble, and 3M use to develop their leaders are basically designed to provide their emerging leaders with as many of these high impact developmental opportunities as possible. Sure, they add a lot of bells and whistles, but there’s very little they do that a leader at a small company can’t do for themselves.

I think the biggest difference is your company isn’t going to spoon-feed you. You’re going to have to be in charge of your own leadership development – and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

So how can you take charge of your own leadership development if you work for one of “the little guys”? Let’s test each component of the CCL development within a small company context:

1. Job changes.
Yes, there may be more opportunities to change jobs in a large company. Big multi-nationals are like a job market in themselves, especially if you’re learning agile and willing to relocate. However, in a small company start-up, you might have the opportunity to create your own job that doesn’t yet exist. You might start off as the only salesperson – then become the first sales manager – and then start up a marketing department.

The other way to look at development through job changes in a small company is to actually change companies. You can look for jobs that provide new opportunities in scope and scale, new locations, new products, and new challenges (i.e., start-up to turnaround).

2. Challenging, stretch assignments (without changing jobs)
The types of challenges that have the most impact on a leader’s development are the same in any size company or culture. Dealing with employee performance issues, taking on new assignments that you’ve never done before, learning different aspects of your business or industry, or volunteering for a non-profit outside of work are all examples. All of these challenges have the potential to enable a leader to “earn their scars”. I would argue that there may be more danger of getting stuck in an overly narrow rut in a large company than there is in a small company, where the responsibilities are broader and everyone is expected to pitch in.

3. Other people (good & bad managers, mentors, coaches)
Again, it can just as easy to become isolated in a large company as it can in a small company. Small company leaders will most likely look outside of their company for role models, mentors, coaches, and professional and community networks. Social networking has opened up a whole universe of networking and best practice sharing possibilities. It’s similar to the impact eBay had on the little guy’s ability to sell to the entire world.

When it comes to the booming business of coaching, a lot of the executive coaches I know get a lot of their clients from small businesses.

4. Hardships (learning from trauma, failure)
No differences here – we’re always going to faced with the possibility of the death of a loved one, divorce, illness, losing a job, etc… regardless of company size.

Resilient people have the ability to turn these hardships in opportunities to reflect and grow.

5. Other (programs, books, etc…)
All right, I’ll bet this is where you’re thinking the deck is stacked against the little guy company. Well, not really. Many of the leading executive education programs are made up of participants from small companies. If you can’t afford one of these expensive programs, there are probably plenty of lower cost open-enrollment leadership development programs in your own community.

Again, this is where the internet has leveled the playing field. The quality of distance learning programs has improved dramatically. You can even get a degree in leadership or management completely online.

And let’s not forget blogs like this one and thousands of other websites, newsletters, books, and periodicals. My email subscribers are from big and small companies, and everything in between.

So no, if you work for a small company, you don’t have to settle for table scraps. There are plenty of opportunities for leadership development, you might just have to be a little more proactive and creative.

What are some of the other differences between big company and small company leadership development?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brain Exercise: The Top 10 TED Talks

Do you ever just take the time to learn about something that may have nothing to do with your immediate job or personal life?

I never used to. I’ve never been a learner for the sake of learning. I naturally want to gravitate towards what’s “practical” and highly relevant.

If you’re like that too, you may be missing out. Some of the most innovative ideas come from seemingly unrelated fields.

A lot of leaders want to be “more strategic”. Being strategic involves recognizing patterns, making sense out of seemingly unrelated information, and being able to step back and see the forest from the trees. It requires a little knowledge about a lot of things.

This has little to do with IQ, and it’s not some innate trait. It’s a skill that can be developed with deliberate practice.

As a part of my development goal to be practice “possibility thinking”, I’m going to take the time to view the top 10 TED most popular talks.

For those not familiar with TED (from the TED website):

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with the annual TED Conference in Long Beach, California, and the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford UK, TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Program, the new TEDx community program, this year's TEDIndia Conference and the annual TED Prize.

I’d encourage you to give it a try. Book mark this site, or the TED site, and set a goal to view one TED talk per week. Each one is about 5-20 minutes.
However, instead of “listening for agreement or disagreement” (evaluating), force yourself to listen for possibilities. Suspend your judgment and try to expand your worldview.

Who knows, you might just solve that nagging problem that you just haven’t been able to crack.

The *Top 10 TED Talks (My comments in parenthesis):
1. Johnny Lee demos Wii Remote hacks
Building sophisticated educational tools out of cheap parts, Johnny Lee demos his cool Wii Remote hacks, which turn the $40 video game controller into a digital whiteboard, a touchscreen and a head-mounted 3-D viewer.

2. David Gallo shows underwater astonishments (Incredible underwater footage!)
David Gallo shows jaw-dropping footage of amazing sea creatures, including a color-shifting cuttlefish, a perfectly camouflaged octopus, and a Times Square's worth of neon light displays from fish who live in the blackest depths of the ocean.

3. Blaise Aguera y Arcas demos Photosynth
Blaise Aguera y Arcas leads a dazzling demo of Photosynth, software that could transform the way we look at digital images. Using still photos culled from the Web, Photosynth builds breathtaking dreamscapes and lets us navigate them.

4. Tony Robbins asks why we do what we do
Tony Robbins discusses the "invisible forces" that motivate everyone's actions -- and high-fives Al Gore in the front row.

5. Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity (a lot of good lessons for trainers here too - any funny. i.e“If a man speaks his mind in a forest and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?”
Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

6. Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight (this one is amazing!)
Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness -- shut down one by one. An astonishing story.

7. Arthur Benjamin does "Mathemagic" (who knew math could be so much fun)
In a lively show, mathemagician Arthur Benjamin races a team of calculators to figure out 3-digit squares, solves another massive mental equation and guesses a few birthdays. How does he do it? He’ll tell you.

8. Jeff Han demos his breakthrough touchscreen
Jeff Han shows off a cheap, scalable multi-touch and pressure-sensitive computer screen interface that may spell the end of point-and-click.

9. Hans Rosling shows the best stats you've ever seen (talk about changing your worldview)
You've never seen data presented like this. With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, statistics guru Hans Rosling debunks myths about the so-called "developing world."

10. Kevin Kelly tells technology's epic story
In this wide-ranging, thought-provoking talk from TEDxAmsterdam, Kevin Kelly muses on what technology means in our lives -- from its impact at the personal level to its place in the cosmos.

*Note – the real #10 on the TED list is Al Gore talking about climate change. I substituted the Recent Kevin Kelly talk (similar topic, much better). Apologies to all you al Gore fans, but there’s a limit to my ability to listen and suspend judgment. (-:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nielsen Closes Training Magazine - the End of an Era

Wow, this news comes as a shock. Nielsen Business Media told employees this week that it is shutting down Training magazine and its companion Web site,, according to a Nielsen Co. spokesperson.

The March issue will be the publication's last. The move includes the elimination of 11 positions, the spokesperson said.

Nielsen Co. is exiting the trade publishing business; in addition to closing some publications, it is selling others. The company recently sold Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter to e5 Global Media.

I've been a reader of Training Magazine since I've worked in this field. It’s always been one of the most well respected trade journals in the training business. They also sponsor the prestigious Training Top 125 Award, which recognizes the companies for training in the world. I was just in San Diego on February 1 to accept my own company’s’ award.

I guess it’s a sign of the times. The end of an era.

Thanks Training, for all that you’ve given our profession. I wish the staff, including Julie, Joyce, and Marjorie, all the best.

We’ll have to look to other organizations to recognize and learn from the leaders in training, including ASTD’s BEST awards, and CLO’s Learning in Practice awards.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bloomberg Group Study Identifies Best Companies for Leadership

See press release below from Hay Group announcing the latest Best Companies for Leadership study. There are some interesting findings. See complete list at the end.

I don’t know about you, but I like these annual awards. The cynics might say they’re a lot of PR and questionable criteria or methods.
I’ve found them to be pretty accurate.
Based on the networking I do, it seems like the ones that really have their act together around leadership development are consistently on these lists.

For example, I just talked to the head of leadership development at 3M. They’re on this list and #1 on the Fortune/Hewitt list. Their CEO is committed to leadership development, they invest a lot of time and money, and they’re using every best practice in the book. The companies on these lists are serious about leadership development and damn good at it.

I just want to learn from them and help my company (and Great Leadership readers) get better.

Top leadership companies continued to make people development a priority during the recession

PHILADELPHIA, PA February 17, 2010 – Hay Group, a global management consulting firm, and Bloomberg released today the Best Companies for Leadership Study and Top 20 list. For the first time, Bloomberg partnered with Hay Group on its annual study, which ranks the best companies for leadership and examines how those companies develop leaders. General Electric ranked as the top company for leadership, followed by Southwest Airlines, 3M Company, Procter & Gamble and Accenture.

The Top 20 companies continued to make leadership development a priority over the past year, in spite of the economy. Employees at these companies were asked to what degree in the last 12 months the urgency to develop leaders in the organization had increased -- the Top 20 indicated an 8.8 percent decrease, compared to a 13.8 percent decrease for all respondents.

"The Top 20 Best Companies for Leadership not only entered the recession with strong leadership in place, they maintained their commitment to preparing and retaining leaders – and are highly committed to developing leaders within their ranks," said Rick Lash, Director in Hay Group's Leadership and Talent Practice and co-leader of the Best Companies for Leadership Study. "The study also revealed a shift over the past year in what these companies value in leaders. ‘Strategic thinking’ and ‘inspiring leadership’ are the most valued qualities in leaders this year, indicating that businesses are starting to dig out from the turmoil and are thinking more about their future long-term growth again."

The study also identifies a variety of factors that make the Top 20 Best Companies for Leadership stand out when it comes to identifying and developing great leaders. Ninety percent of respondents in the Top 20 agree that all employees at their company have the opportunity to develop and practice the capabilities needed to lead others, compared to 67 percent of all respondents. Nearly all of the respondents in the Top 20 (85 percent) said that employees are expected to lead, regardless if they have a formal leadership position, compared with 57 percent of all respondents. In addition, 86 percent of respondents in the Top 20 said that employees are encouraged to learn in areas outside their expertise, compared with 66 percent of all respondents.

“Rapid changes in the world are impacting how organizations do business, and as a result, the old rules of how organizations select, develop and retain good leaders have been turned upside down causing the future of leadership to look very different,” said John Larrere, National Director of Hay Group's Leadership and Talent Practice and co-leader of the Best Companies for Leadership Study. “For organizations to succeed, they will need to understand what key leadership elements are paramount in driving their organization toward growth. It’s more than just getting people to produce the right outcomes. It’s about getting them to be passionate about their work and grooming them to handle the challenges ahead. The Best Companies for Leadership have already figured this out.”

Among other study findings:

- 94 percent of respondents in the Top 20 actively manage a pool of successors for mission critical roles, compared with 69 percent of all respondents
- 80 percent of respondents in the Top 20 noted that people stay at the organization primarily for growth opportunities, compared with 61 percent of all respondents
- 95 percent of respondents in the Top 20 use corporate social responsibility to recruit employees, compared with 60 percent of all respondents
- 66 percent of respondents in the Top 20 have a high proportion of women in senior leadership, compared with 37 percent of all respondents
- 91 percent of respondents in the Top 20 make it easy for people to work from home, compared with 46 percent of all respondents
- 87 percent of respondents in the Top 20 have a sufficient number of internal candidates ready to assume open leadership positions, compared with 54 percent of all respondents


11 IBM
15 ABB

About the Bloomberg Group Best Companies for Leadership Study:
Hay Group has researched the Best Companies for Leadership since 2005. The 2009 survey included responses from 1,869 individuals from 1,109 organizations worldwide. The survey was based on the organization’s response to an online questionnaire and peer nominations. Respondents that completed the survey were from 98 countries, with 45% from North America, 27% from Europe/Middle East, 16% from Asia, 6% from South America, 3% from the Pacific, and 2% from Africa.

About Hay Group:
Hay Group is a global management consulting firm that works with leaders to transform strategy into reality. We develop talent, organize people to be more effective and motivate them to perform at their best. Our focus is on making change happen and helping people and organizations realize their potential.
We have over 2600 employees working in 85 offices in 47 countries. Our clients are from the private, public and not-for-profit sectors, across every major industry, and represent diverse business challenges. For over 60 years, we have been renowned for the quality of our research and the intellectual rigor of our work. We transform research into actionable insights. We give our clients breakthrough perspectives on their organization, and we do it in the most efficient way to achieve the desired results. For more information please contact your local Hay Group office at

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Leadership “Lessons” from Undercover Boss: Episode 2

OK, I admit it, I fell for it. After watching the first episode of the new CBS reality show Undercover Boss, I thought the show was going to provide some entertaining yet valuble lessons in leadership.

The first episode delivered. Larry O'Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management, was so darn likeable and believable. There were rich, transferable leadership lessons worth writing about. I even defended the show – well, I mostly defended O’Donnell – against critics Wally Bock, Bret Simmons, and others.

As it turns out, according to this follow-up interview with BNET, the show actually did drive lasting, positive changes at WM. So I had high hopes for the next installment.

Well, in case you missed it, the second episode was a complete train wreck. To all of you that watched that show as a result of my recommendation, please accept my humble apologies. Sorry, Steve - I owe you an hour of your life back. Leadership lessons? Sure, I can still come up with a few, but I doubt they’re anything CBS or Hooters would be too happy with.

I’m going to give it one more chance – next week features the CEO of 7-Eleven. But if it’s anything close to as bad as the last one, I’m through with it.

Here’s my recap and leadership “lessons” from episode 2:

Coby Brooks, President and CEO of "Hooters", went undercover in his own company. After watching the show and reading about it afterwards, I’m still not sure why.

According to the show, Coby reluctantly inherited the company from his late father. He was show riding a motorcycle, aboard the corporate jet (“working hard”), and showing up at some Hooters promotions.

By going undercover at a few of his stores, he was shocked to discover that:

1. Employees in the kitchen work REALLY hard.

2. Some people find Hooters to be degrading to woman. “I’d be OK with my daughters working here”, he said.

3. One of his store managers, "Jimbo,", held leering "inspections" of the staff and forced the girls to eat a plate of beans without using their hands to determine who could go home first. Brooks thought those actions were "inappropriate" and made Jimbo say he was sorry.

4. One of his single Mom store managers worked REALLY hard, multi-taked, with little time off. Coby had to clean up a spill on the floor,

5. He went to the Naturally Fresh factory in Atlanta (for the first time since he was a teenager), where his dad, who founded the enterprise, used to have an office. There, he learned morale was poor and that employees who had never met him, and referred to him only as "the son," couldn’t stand him.

Coby was so shaken by the whole experience that he:
1. Donated $50,000 to one of the manager’s favorite charities
2. Paid for a vacation for the single Mom
3. Started a PR campaign to convince the public that Hooters really does a lot of nice things and “empowers” woman.

So there you have it. I'm sure you've been moved to tears just reading about it. All is now well in Hooter nation.

And what could we possibly learn about leadership as a result of this probably mostly staged, superficial fairy tale about a clueless, spoiled CEO? Not much, but fortunately, we all too often end up learning some of our most memorable leadership lessons from some of the worst examples. So for that, we thank you CBS.

Leadership Lessons from Hooter’s Coby Brooks:

The Value of Good Succession Planning:

1. When it comes to succession planning, you need to groom and prepare your successor for the job. That means working in the kitchen, running a restaurant, and earning your scars. You also need to verify that your potential successor even wants the job. Dropping a title, or business, on an unprepared reluctant successor is a recipe for disaster for your business. You’re also not doing your successor any favors. Preparation to run a business should involve a series of planned, structured passages. Each passage builds skills and perspective and helps prepare your for the next level.

2. Successors should not be hand-picked and handled a job just because they are family. CEOs should be selected from a slate of highly qualified candidates. It should be a compitition, not a coronation.

The Importance of Company Values

3. Company “values” are nothing but useless words on a plaque unless they are backed up with action. Even if the bean eating contest was staged by the producers of CBS, the manager and Brooks should have never allowed it. It made their employees and manager look like idiots. If it wasn’t staged, then Jimbo should have been fired on the spot. If that’s what they’re willing to film, I can only imagine how employees are really treated.

4. You can’t buy respect from your employees or customers. You don’t just leave a big, fat tip or put up a billboard and be done with it. Respect needs to be earned through substantial actions and authentic commitment (see Larry O’Donnell).

I welcome your comments. Unless you claim to be a Hooter girl and want to stick up for Coby or Jimbo.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Career Advice Part 5: The Best Career Advice You Will Ever Get

This is the final part of a 5 part career advice series. The others were:

1. Don’t Settle

2. Never Stop Learning

3. Lateral Moves

4. You Have to Ask

Throughout this series, I’ve tried to incorporate advice that I’ve received and used from a variety of sources including former managers and mentors, with a little best practice research sprinkled in. I hope you enjoyed the series.
I have to say I found dispensing with career advice to be a bit uncomfortable. It’s different when I’m advising as a mentor – someone is asking for my advice, so I have permission. In a blog, it’s going out to 1000s of readers, whether they want it or not. Plus, it can be misunderstood or taken out of context.

As an example, another blog picked up my post on “Don’t Settle”, and used the headline “Job Making You Miserable: Quit!”. Needless to say, that managed to tick off at least one reader of that blog…

“Really?? Quit? That's really good advice...NOT! In this economy with so many unemployed, unfortunately people are having to take jobs they would never have before. BILLS HAVE TO BE PAID Mr McCarthy. “

Ouch. Just for clarification, I NEVER said “quit your job”.

Anyway, I’m sure it won’t be the last time I’ll be dishing out advice, but for now, I'm looking forward to getting back to leadership development. (-:

This final piece of advice comes from Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s leading executive coaches and experts in the field of leadership development. Regular readers of this blog know I reference Marshall quite a bit – I’ve probably learned more about leadership development from him than any other source.

Marshall uses this exercise in many of his programs. When I first heard it, it really hit home for me - it had a profound impact. Since then, I’ve been using a version of it in my own programs (giving full credit of course). No matter how many times I’ve used it, I still can’t help but get emotional. I’ll always have at least one participant come up to me afterwards or send me a note about how much of a wake-up call the exercise was for them.

So here it is, The Best Career Advice You Will Ever Get

(adapted from “The Best Coaching Advice You Will Ever Get”, By Marshall Goldsmith, originally published in Business Week)

Please take out a pen and paper before you read this, and give it a try. If you don’t have time, come back later when you have about 5 minutes to give it your full attention.

You are now about to receive the best career advice that you will ever get in this—or perhaps any other—lifetime! You are about to receive advice from a very wise old person. Listen very carefully to what this wise old person says.

First, take a deep breath. Take a deeper breath. Now, imagine that you are 95 years old and you are just about to die. Here comes your last breath. But before you take your last breath, you are being given a wonderful, beautiful gift: the ability to travel back in time and talk with the person who is reading this blog. The 95-year-old you has been given the chance to help the you of today to have a great career and, much more important, to have a great life.

The 95-year-old you knows what was really important and what wasn't; what really mattered and what didn't; what really counted and what didn't count at all. What advice does the wise "old you" have for the you reading this blog? Take your time. Jot down the answers on two levels: personal advice and professional advice. And once you have written down these words, take them to heart.

In the world of performance appraisals, this may well be the one that matters most. At the end of life, if the old you thinks that you did the right thing, you probably did. If the old you thinks that you screwed up, you probably did. At the end of life, you don't have to impress anyone else—just that person you see in the mirror.

A friend of Marshall’s actually had the opportunity to talk with old people who were facing death and to ask them what advice they would have had for themselves. Their answers were filled with wisdom. One recurring theme was to take the time to reflect on life and find happiness and meaning now. A frequent comment from old people runs along the lines of: "I got so wrapped up in looking at what I didn't have that I missed what I did have. I had almost everything. I wish I had taken more time to appreciate it."

The great Western disease of "I will be happy when…" is sweeping the world. You know the symptoms. You start thinking: I will be happy when I get that…BMW…that promotion…that status…that money. The only way to cure the disease is to find happiness and meaning now.

A second theme from old folks was friends and family. You may work for a wonderful company and believe that your contribution is very important. But when you are 95 and you look around your death bed, very few of your fellow employees will be waving goodbye! Your friends and family will probably be the only people who care.

Don't get so lost in pleasing the people who don't care that you neglect the people who do.

Another recurring theme was to follow your dreams. Older people who tried to achieve their dreams were happier with their lives. None of us will ever achieve all of our dreams. If we do, we will just make up new ones! If we go for it, we can at least say at the end, "I tried!" instead of, "Why didn't I at least try?"

In conducting research for one of his books, his co-author and Marshall interviewed more than 200 high-potential leaders from around the world. A key question that we asked was: "If you stay in this company, why are you going to stay?"

The top three answers:

1. "I am finding meaning and happiness now. The work is exciting, and I love what I am doing."

2. "I like the people here. They are my friends. This feels like a team—like a family. I might make more money if I left, but I don't want to leave the people here."

3. "I can follow my dreams. This organization is giving me the chance to grow and do what I really want to do in life."

When his friend asked people who were on their death beds what really mattered in life, and when he asked young, high-potential leaders what really mattered at work, they heard about the same thing.

If you want to make a new beginning in life—look ahead to the end. Then decide what to do.

How about you? What did the old “you” tell the "you of today"? Please leave a comment with your real or humorous advice (oh oh, I may regret opening that door).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Career Advice Part 4: You Have to Ask For it

There are very talented people in the world of work that always get recruited, get promotion offers, are wooed by recruiters, get picked for all of the sexy assignments, and never, ever even have to ask. They are constantly being offered opportunities because they are remarkable. Their biggest challenge is sorting through all the offers and being in such high demand.

These are the true superstars, the “A” players, the prodigies.

I was never one of those people.

And I’ll bet you’re not either. The reality is, very few people are. They are the top 1% in any given profession – the rest of us make up the other 99%.

If you’re one of those top 1%, superstar A players, then this post is not for you. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and good things will continue to fall into your lap. Heck, I’m not even jealous. Being in the talent management profession, I work with rising stars all the time. They’re a pleasure to work with, and it’s rewarding to help accelerate their development.

However – for the rest of us – here’s my advice: if you want it, chances are, you’re going to have to ask for it.

I learned this at an early age. I was never the best at sports or school – but I did tend to fall into the next quartile, somewhere in the top 25%. It was usually enough to get my foot in the door and compete.

When I first started working, I had heard that if you work hard, do a good job, and have a good attitude, then good things will happen. I soon discovered that while those qualities were indeed important, good things usually came to those who also asked.

Looking back over my own career, every significant milestone was a result of asking for it. I wrote a business case than landed me my first promotion to manager. I contacted a recruiter and talked my way into an interview at my next company. I asked for my next promotion. I nominated myself for a prestigious executive development program. If I’m left off an important list, I’ll work harder and ask to be included next time.

I’ve tried to explain this to my kids as they’re learning their early workplace lessons. If you want a better shift – different days off – less hours – more hours – more money – more vacation – more responsibility – less responsibility – whatever… you’re got to ask for it. I can guarantee you that most managers – even the good ones – aren’t sitting around trying to read your mind and come up with ways to make you happy.

Perhaps to the readers of this blog – who tend to be a little more motivated than the average bear – this is too obvious. I have to tell you though; I’ve run into people from all walks of life that think it’s impolite, beneath them, inappropriate, selfish, or unnecessary to have to ask for anything at work. I think some of them would rather stew about it and be a victim – maybe it’s easier.

Here’s a classic example: Most companies have some kind of job posting system in order to make sure everybody has a shot at open positions. I’ve known a lot of people that refuse to post for a job – even through they really want it. They feel that it’s the hiring manager’s, or their own manager’s responsibility to seek them out and encourage them to post. Then, after the position is filled, they’ll carry a chip on their shoulder for years to come.

The concept of workplace “asking” doesn’t just apply to job opportunities, promotions, and raises.

When was the last time you felt you should have been invited to an important meeting but weren’t? Did you do anything about it? The next time it happens, and you really think there’s a compelling reason for you to be there, then contact the meeting leader and state your case. You may find it was just an oversight. Or, perhaps no one knew about your expertise or the role you could play. Worst case, you’re told no. At least you’ll know why and it shows you care about your job.

How about training and travel? Again, I’ve seen available budget go unused because of a lack of requests. Then, these same people will turn around and complain about a lack of development opportunities.

Tired of that old computer always crashing? How about asking for a new one? Again, I've seen employees just suffer in silence and never even tell their manager, let alone ask for a repalcement.

When it comes to leadership, some leaders get more support, resources, and opportunites simply because they have the courage to ask. In fact, they are often relentless - it's hard to say no to them. The rest will sit back and cry foul or favortism,  get frustrated, yet not do anything about it.

In most cases, you’ll have nothing to lose by asking. However, in order for the “ask for it” advice to work, you still have to meet the pre-requisite criteria: you have to work hard, be good at what you do, and have a good attitude. If you’re not, then asking will come across as clueless and/or obnoxious. Being a good employee earns you the right to ask away and increases your odds of getting a "yes".

Give it a try. Start with something small. Go on, just ask for it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Leadership Lessons from Undercover Boss: Episode 1

The first episode of CBS’s new reality show “Undercover Boss” aired Sunday night right after the Superbowl. For those of you that may not have heard, each week the show will feature a CEO that goes “undercover” to find out what everyday life is really like within their own companies.

What a perfect opportunity for Great Leadership lessons and advice!

Each week I’ll provide a link to the synopsis and my own leadership lessons learned that I believe would benefit any leader or aspiring leader (so you won’t have to have watched the show).

The first episode didn’t disappoint. It featured Larry O'Donnell, president and COO of Waste Management.

O'Donnell, who has 45,000 employees, took on five entry-level jobs, which included: sorting trash at a recycling facility, collecting trash in a truck and by hand, working at a landfill and cleaning Port-O-Potty toilets.

Larry set out looking for more ways to increase productivity. “That’s what it’s all about”, he said at the beginning of the show. He ended up learning more than he bargained for.

Here’s the synopsis, or you can watch the full show here.

Leadership Lessons from Undercover Boss: Episode 1

1. Don’t let yourself get isolated from reality.
OK, so the first lesson is a no-brainer, and I assume will be a common theme for each episode. None the less, it’s a common trap for leaders to fall into, and gets worse the higher your position. While you may really be a well-meaning, competent, good-hearted leader, if you’re clueless, many people will assume you’re ruthless. In other words, they won’t give you the benefit of the doubt of just being ignorant – they’ll assume you actually enjoy making their lives miserable.

For an antidote, here’s a post I wrote called “10 more ways to make sure you don’t get isolated from reality as a leader”.

2. Don’t just mandate: explain the “why”.
This is a lesson that just about every senior leader needs to understand and embrace. How many times have you issued a company-wide edict to cut costs or improve productivity, but didn’t take the time to explain the “why” to everyone involved? Yes, it takes extra time, but its well worth the time and effort. Don’t underestimate the loyalty of your workforce or their capacity to grasp the big picture and numbers. They’ll be more on board if you treat them like adults and with respect by explaining the rationale behind your decisions.

3. Engage your workforce
Explaining the why is a great start. It’s even better if you can get your team involved in deciding how to achieve your objectives. Once you’ve explained the importance, they’ll be fired up to contribute. Some leaders don’t even give a target, or number – and their teams come back with even more aggressive goals. In addition to the buy-in and commitment, you’ll also get realistic, workable solutions. You won’t hear anybody saying “Yeah, it’s another one of those corporate things we have to do that don’t make any sense”.

Larry took the opportunity to get the female trash collector who had to pee in a can involved on a task force to make the company more female-friendly.

4. Give managers the tools they need to achieve your objectives.
If left to their own devices, your managers will figure out ways to meet your objectives. However, they may come up with ways that you wouldn’t approve of. The plant manager that was docking workers 2 minutes for every minute they were late is a good example. I felt bad for that guy when he got chewed out on national television. I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing. It may have been the best he could come up with on his own. Instead, he could have been given some training in process improvement, management, or leadership.

5. Get to know your employees.
The employees that Larry worked with for a day all had amazing stories. Don’t we all? I can’t tell you how many managers I know that don’t know the names of their employees children. As a leader, your actions impact the lives of your employees and the communities in which they live in. It’s your obligation to embrace that awesome responsibility, to take a personal interest in the lives of each and every one of your employees.

Here’s the preview for next week’s show:
"Hooters" - When Coby Brooks, President and CEO of "Hooters" goes undercover in his own company, he finds himself struggling to keep up in a fast-paced kitchen and is, later, forced to take immediate action when a restaurant manager steps out of line, on UNDERCOVER BOSS, Sunday, Feb. 14 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

Oh yeah, this should be good.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Career Advice Part 3: Lateral Moves

A lot of career advice these days deals with how to get a job and how to get ahead (promoted). Makes sense, given the current economic conditions.

However, at some point in your career, you will most likely be faced with another kind of career decision – whether to make a lateral move into a role that’s unfamiliar to you.

Before I get into the ins and outs of lateral moves, I need to give you some context as to where my advice is coming from.

My jobs have always been all about talent management. I have to make sure my company has strong leadership capability and a of pipeline emerging leaders ready to move up and fill open positions. When it comes to career management, my primary loyalty is to my company. In other words, I’m not a career counselor, placement specialist, or academic advisor. To use a real estate metaphor - I basically work for the buyers of talent, not the sellers.

One of the tools we use to develop and prepare “high potentials” is cross-functional, lateral, “developmental” job changes. When it comes to developmental impact, nothing else comes even close. Not coaching, training program, books, mentors, or stretch assignments. Carefully orchestrated movement of talent will always give us the biggest bang for our buck.

It’s not always easy trying to convince senior executives that giving up their best talent – or taking someone who doesn’t have years of functional expertise – is a good thing. That is, good for the company in the long run – while not so good for them in the short.

It also sometimes takes a bit of “nudging” to get one of the “hipos” to take a lateral move. Same issue – it’s all about the long term developmental and career benefits. Take a step sideways in order to take a step up.

The reason I wanted to provide that background is that when it comes to this blog, my loyalty is to my readers – you. I know a lot of leaders and aspiring readers follow this blog, and trust my advice. This post’s advice is all about looking out for your best interests, not your companies.

So with that background, here’s what I would consider to be the potential rewards and risks (the stuff your company doesn’t want you to know) of lateral moves, along with summary advice at the end.

Rewards of a lateral, cross-functional job change:

1. You’ll Learn.
In fact, you’ll learn A LOT. And that’s good, as I pointed out in a recent post – good career management is all about learning.

2. You’ll not only learn new functional skills, but you’ll have an opportunity to learn new leadership skills as well. These kinds of job changes can alter your worldview.

3. A lateral move really can be the best path to a promotion (if that’s what you want). For example, in order to be a successful general manager, it’s important to have experience in as many aspects of business as possible. A “stovepipe” career path is too narrow and limited to prepare someone to run a complex business.

4. You’ll have more career options and be more marketable.

5. You’ll expand your network, maybe have more visibility, and possibly develop a broader base of support.

6. There are more opportunities to move sideways than there are to move up. The old climb the ladder “T” career path is a thing of the past. Nowadays, a good career path consists of a series of zig-zag moves – more of a “Z” path.

7. Its an opportunity to prove that you have potential. The research says the biggest predictor of potential is “learning agility”. Success in an new role is a way to measure that ability.

Sounds like a sure thing, right? Well, as we’ve learned about investments and horse racing, there’s no such thing. The higher the reward, the higher the risk.

Risks of a lateral, cross-functional job change:

1. The failure rate is high.
While I don’t have quantifiable research, my experience tells me it’s probably about 50%. From a company perspective, that may be an acceptable attrition rate, because the rewards are so high. However, it’s sure not OK if you’re on the wrong side of the 50%.

2. No matter what they tell you, deep functional expertise is important.
We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that says “you don’t have to be a functional expert to be a great leader”. Well, unfortunately, in most cases, you do. It’s awful darn hard to be in a meeting and be perceived as “strategic” if you don’t have a clue about the details. If you’re going to succeed, you’d better be a real fast learner or already bring some functional expertise to the table. A wise mentor once told me: “Don’t ever take a job in which you’re not at least 40% qualified”.

3. Organizations are not very forgiving.
After about 6 months, everybody soon forgets that this was supposed to be a “developmental assignment” for you and starts getting impatient with a lack of results. No matter what you were told, you’ll be expected to perform and get results sooner than later.

4. You could lose your confidence.
When you’re used to being the expert, not knowing what you’re doing can wreck havoc on your confidence. If not careful, it can end turn into a downward spiral that causes you and others to question your judgment, competence, and even your potential.

5. Without a “lifeline”, you could lose your job.
A “lifeline” is an informal or formal agreement that if things don’t work out, you can retune to your old position. Some may tell you to forgo the lifeline – because it gives you an easy out. While that may be true to some extent, my advice is to at least not burn that bridge behind you.

6. You could be forgotten.
I’ve seen this happen when someone takes a development move to another location. It’s “out of sight, out of mind”. You can lose your visibility. It’s especially dangerous if your sponsor leaves the company, and leaves you stranded on the moon.

Given all of these potential risks, if the right opportunity came up, should you take it? All things considered, I would. Actually, I did, and survived. I experienced every one of these advantages and disadvantages (except losing my job). While it was one of the most painful periods of my career, I sure did grow from the experience, and in the long run, the benefits were well worth it. I would have never gotten my next positions if I didn’t have that valuable experience.

However, they are not for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with staying in your field and developing deep expertise, as long as you continue to be satisfied and marketable. Be aware of the potential benefits and risks, and make the decision that’s right for you. Don’t let anyone (like me) talk you into doing something that you don’t want to do or is not in your best interests.

For additional tips, here’s a post I wrote called “A Guide to Great Development Moves”. I wrote it as a guide for HR managers to assist executives, but most of the advice is applicable to all.

How about you? What’s your experience been with cross-functional lateral moves?

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