You Think You’re So Smart: Theories of Hierarchical Competence

I have a few key assumptions and theories that I have used in my work and research, and I just realized that I need to get some of them public, for various reasons.  This is one of those:

Imagine you have just stepped off the plane into a country where everyone and everything looks different than you look and the place you call home.  You’re used to clean; This place is dirty. You are used to prosperity; this place is poor and struggling.  You begin walking across town looking for a bite to eat. As you stroll down the streets, you notice that people tend to be staring at you a little longer than you are comfortable with.  How do you view yourself compared to them? Your abilities, your thinking, your understanding of the world? Continue reading


Out of Reach (and Out of Touch) Leaders

The number one question I am asked when working with mid-levels in leadership development programs is, “Has my manager been through this?”  That’s a sad indictment on the state of leadership within an organization.  Essentially, what employees are saying is that, “Boy, I wish my management lived these values and behaved in this ideal way!”  How is it possible that so many managers can be so clueless and far removed from the realities of the work and the people that they manage? Continue reading

3 Golden Rules for Success in 2011

The Golden Rule

I’ve been thinking about what we can do in 2011 to make our organizations more resilient and more prolific when it comes to building smart social and economic ecosystems. When I started to write this post, I thought that I had found the answer in the “Golden Rule” – the maxim of doing to others what we’d want them to do to us if we were in their shoes.  But as I think about it now, the Golden Rule  just may be the line of thinking that is getting us into trouble.  Often, by building organizations according to what we want, we create systems, processes and relationships that actually stand in the way of our long-term success, rather than facilitating it.

Here are three ways to turn the Golden Rule on its head and produce sustainable, mutually beneficial results.

1. Forget about yourself. Think about this in terms of customer interaction, marketing campaigns and acquisition strategies:  How many are designed more for the marketers than for the customers? I’d like to see a number for that, because I have sat through more pitches and plans and messaging schemes whose major quality check was a “Do you like it?” or “Whaddaya think?” aimed at the management team.  No matter how much industry experience you have, no matter how long you’ve ‘led’ in your organization, the things that drive you in your work are not necessarily the same things that drive your customers to buy your product, service or your leadership. Basing your actions on the assumption that you are the same as your customers is naive, at best.

This same thinking can lead us to erroneously go about leading others at work, home or hobby.  Individuals that embark on leadership practices because they themselves feel good about the implementation of such are missing out on developing the needed characteristics required to accomplish repeated extra-ordinary results. Simply put, you may sit in your castle thinking that you’re loved, all the while the villagers are collecting torches and sharpening their pitch forks.  This is especially poignant in the family.

2. Find out who the real relationship should be with. The reason why the situation mentioned  above is so prevalent in every organization throughout the world is because most of us work in management systems and styles that drive us to focus on our individual customer (the person that is signing off on our performance evaluation and employment) rather than the organization’s customer (the one’s who evaluate our companies with their patronage).  I would venture that the positive momentum of potential in an all-too-many organizations is often critically reduced by the need for the majority of employees to serve “up the chain” in their jobs.  Energy directed up an organizational chart is most certainly lost on already understrength lateral connections with customers.

The reality of work is that our first priority is to keep our jobs, and the income they provide. The customers often get left in the dust, whether they be purchasers of goods or subordinates of a manager. With everyone supporting Adam Smith’s theories, we’re left to wonder who will look up and see the long-term need to sustain the greater organization.

“Determining who the ‘real’ relationship should be with” is more about keeping a conversation going on what’s most important to the organization, than it is about strategizing office politics (a.k.a. covering your rear end).  That said, if you have formal authority, be aware of your current management practices and their potential to subdue the relationships that pay the bills of the place that pays your bills. That will take some practice. Pay attention to what you do and how you do it and how it impacts the entire organizational system.

3. Do unto them what THEY want you to do unto them. This is the third spot where the Golden Rule can mess us up. We’ve all heard, read and probably even said that our customers don’t care about our business, just what we can do for them.  Well, if that’s true, then why are companies executing on sales programs designed to make themselves feel better rather than doing what their customers (and all of us, really) want: building strong relationships of respect by listening to understand (This is exactly what is at the heart of Alan Belniak’s recent post, when he mentions ’empathy’ as a tool to stand out from the competition).

Oh yeah, I know it sounds touchy-feely, but marketers must realize that our current financial crunch is reforming old spending habits, and now-tight budgets will evolve into prudent financial discipline.  The wild west of check-writing is gone. People actually want to know that where they are spending their time and money will pay off. Can you believe it?!

Be interested in your customers – the game is changing.  The future value-center of the organization will not be the catalog lists of merchandise or services, but the relationship-building practices it institutionalizes as part of its culture.  In a networked world, our expanding circle of connections and rekindled ‘friending’ will actually narrow our range of most-trusted relationships, through which we will source the majority of our needs.

What this means to you: You need to keep a job both now and in the future. That means effectively managing the needs of your customers and your organization’s customers. If your boss really wants you to deliver something that might not add value to, or resonate with the ultimate end-user, then find a way to have the conversation about which customers are the top priority and find a process to help you focus on them (and think about the outcomes of that conversation on your long-term work prospects).

What this means to your organization: Most of us are working somewhere where process is more historical than rational.  Sustainable organizations will examine and challenge their own processes and focus continually. Look for opportunities to go lean. Think ‘direct communication’. Set-up systems that prevent ‘boss-worship’ and reward the living of company values.  And, realize that constituents of leaders in organizations ARE your number one customers – if they don’t show up for work, the other customer needs will never get met.

10 Lessons on Business from General Custer

How to Avoid Your Own Last Stand.

With the recent story breaking about the Flag from Custer’s last stand selling at $2.2 million, I found some great “lessons learned” that can help us to avoid his same mistakes, whether it be on a literal battlefield or in the market of competition in business and career.

At the same time, let’s not forget that failure is an integral part of success, when it’s reviewed, digested and used to actually shape future decisions.  I was once told by a successful entrepreneur that the best way to have a successful business is to fail at three others.

So what can we learn from the Battle of the Little Big Horn to help us avoid our own ‘last stand’?  Here is my every day interpretation of 10 reasons why Custer was defeated.

  1. Never act alone.  Leaders never succeed by themselves. Leverage the support, resources and wisdom of those around you.
  2. Avoid professional and organizational fatigue.  There is nothing like driving so hard for an objective, only to achieve a Pyrrhic victory. Remember, man was not made for business, but business was made for man.
  3. Harness the power of focus.  Multitasking is a farce. Don’t spread yourself or your organizational energy too thin.  Focus everything on what’s most important, knock it out, then move on to the next most important goal.
  4. Expect everything – that way you will always get what you expected.  Somewhere, there is a kid with a laptop starting a business that will blow you out of the water if she gets the chance.
  5. Don’t get outnumbered. Keep your networks and circles of influence growing. In this increasingly networked world, you draw instant power from your ability to move thousands through social media.
  6. Don’t ignore the advice of others, especially your customers and constituents. Build your own meta-knowledge.
  7. Never go up against someone named ‘Crazy Horse”. It just sounds suicidal to begin with.
  8. Fight every battle like it’s your last stand. It just might be.
  9. Be determined. No matter the circumstances that face you, remember the Stockdale Paradox.
  10. You can never have too much information; about the customer, about the competition, about the performance of your product or service, about your own people and your own organization.
Don’t underestimate others.

What is ‘Technical Leadership’?

It’s funny, as I look at the functions and places I have worked in my career, and I look at some very successful people I know, the importance of being good on your business feet, communicating well and leading the work efforts of others become the common, recurring skills that seem to sustain an individuals career progression in organizations.  I’ll call these the “People Skills”. Yet most of these people who have stood out, at least the one’s that I know, spent their formal educations on technical subjects, not the people subjects.

I had a great lunchtime conversation with 4 visiting faculty members from MIT.  There is something about being engaged in energetic dialogue with passionate individuals who are also at the top of their field, and in that regard, these guys didn’t let me down at all.

As the conversation progressed, the term “Technical Leadership” emerged as the essence for what their current academic program is striving to prepare graduates for. The good news is, that when they used the term, they were not referring to technical prowess or ability as much as the orientation towards working and growing in organizations of a technical nature and shaping them (or starting them from scratch) while still contributing an engineering skill set.

Given the tendency for universities to focus on theory and leave the application up to the students, I find it interesting that an engineering program from a top school is actually considering the notion that engineers can prepare themselves for a career of being more than an individual contributor.  But it shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, when you consider the number of leaders out there with technical educations.

Firms like Spencer Stuart, that track the demographics of S&P 500 CEOs, have discovered that a large portion of the pool of top corporate executives have undergraduate educations in engineering.  But we all know how linearly, and how literally, engineers think.  How could they come to serve and skillfully manage the needs of the one thing that gets in the way of brilliant engineering projects: People?

Well, for one, the stereotype that all engineers tape their glasses and can’t hold a normal conversation isn’t necessarily that accurate, especially with the four, creative and systems-oriented scholar-practitioners that I was able to learn from today.  The reality is that we all go through an often transformative process of earning a living and the natural development that accompanies career progression.  It turns out that those engineering-founded, super executives actually spent little time in their degree field and still rose to business and management success (which should give most of us a sigh of relief).

Like any degree, engineering was simply a jumping-off point or entry into business which quickly led into other operational fields, the most notable of which are marketing, sales and, of course, finance.  When you look at the stories these careers tell, I think the folks at MIT are on the right track: Technical leadership is both the development of leading technologies and the leadership of technology organizations – both of which are required to produce results that develop the world we inhabit.

The lesson? Even individual contributors, often those brilliant souls who slave individually over a crazy notion that turns out to be pure genius (think post-it notes or waffle irons… hey, I love waffle irons) need to develop the “interpersonal engineering” skills that facilitate the production, application and adoption of their contributions. Check out this pdf from Novations (specifically note the question on slide 2).

What this means to you: Map out both the areas of your technical expertise and the areas of your people expertise and measure each one. Depending on the stage of your career, determine an appropriate balance between the two and then go to work filling in the gaps.  Early in your career, your technical expertise better be high – that’s the entryway into organizations.  Your people skills need to be constantly developed in the areas of interpersonal and team communication and leadership. Mid-career, you need to really sharpen your people skills and begin focusing on the bigger picture of how all the people around you contribute to the success of the organization.  Advanced careers will need to keep their people skills razor-sharp and move their technical expertise to areas of strategic planning and organizational leadership.

What this means to your organization: No matter how well the lab rats are running in their wheels, give them the resources, time and most importantly, encouragement to stretch their project management, project leadership, and people skills. I know, I know… I have met many coders who will go to the grave with the words “just let me code, man!” on their lips. No matter their claims, they are human beings with the stock human development needs that we all come with, and sooner or later, the organization will either benefit from their increased development or stand indicted upon their exit.

Technically leading organizations that maintain sustainable results over time have technically people-proficient and business-savvy leaders.

Throwing Around the Word ‘Leader’

It’s an easy mistake to make: Calling managers “leaders”.  I often find myself correcting my own words in an, “I’m sorry, I mean ‘Management Team'” back-peddle, when I’ve thoughtlessly used the term ‘Leadership Team’.  That’s usually what we refer to them as, right?  The ‘leadership team’?  But what we really mean is the group of managers that meet to make decisions without the rest of us. Does that responsibility for resource allocation and accountability make them leaders? (the debate goes on…)

We often refer to people above us in organizations as “leaders”. Perhaps it’s an expression of hope.  Maybe it’s an affirmation we’re expressing (the whole “thoughts become things” bit). We may want them to lead.  We may want to see some leadership along with their management responsibilities. In fact, I think we long for that, secretly.

What’s interesting is when they refer to themselves as leaders. I have had experience with a few management teams that refer to themselves in front of org chart subordinates as “the leadership team”.  That’s a pat on one’s own back – don’t you think?  I simply can’t resist interjecting an innocent, “You mean the ‘Management‘ team, don’t you?”  I know, some people could really be insulted by that.  For those individuals, I wouldn’t recommend that they open their 360 feedback.

‘Leader’, ‘Manager’ – “What difference does it make?”, you ask?  Well, for one, learning to carefully choose our words might actually help us to communicate better…  Besides that, though, keeping the word ‘leader’ sacred might create a cultural view of the term as earned through behavior and not obtained through promotion.

Think about that as a norm in your organization!  What impact would the simple, intentional selectivity of the usage of one word have on organizational results?