An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage. —
9 Jul 2014
Time creeps up. After five years blogging for Canadian HR Reporter, longer on my own blog and twelve since early ‘retirement’ from being an active SVP HR, it feels like I’ve run the course HR-related topics, hopefully not once too often. My goal has been encouraging people to look at HR strategy for the powerhouse it is and driving toward the tremendous impact I’ve seen it have in what used to be rare situations. I think others are now creating and writing quantities of valuable examples. Anyone who wants to find what’s most effective has lots of sources.
Consequently I’m wrapping up with the intention of finding new endeavors and learning in new fields, with excitement at not entirely knowing what those will be. That’s innovation and leadership – lead yourself first, look for new opportunities, learn constantly. That’s what I most enjoy and am incredibly fortunate to have the freedom to pursue.
Looking at the state of HR, it’s encouraging to see a growing number of organizations, though still far from the majority, where HR is not just ‘at the table’ but actively creating the table with colleagues on senior teams. More CEOs ‘get it’ that ever, taking on the lead HR role, just as they do the lead finance role, the lead marketing role and even occasionally the lead IT role. Being CEO keeps getting bigger, but taking the lead in people areas means finding, coaching and building teams that can help distribute the work that past CEOs attempted to do alone – thinking up every idea, every strategy, making every decision of scale in their organizations.
Slowly senior executives in and on the way to the top job are learning to involve and engage wide-ranging, increasingly diverse talent to draw far wider creativity to what used to be solely their task – taking the organization forward. The proof has been re-calculated and re-confirmed thousands of times now that people collaborating results in innovation and continual innovation results in three to 20 times the financial results. I shouldn’t have to say that again, but until everyone sees it, every example is valuable in reinforcing it. There are lots out there now making the same points.
Within HR itself, the basics remain basic. There are highly complex rules – labour relations, health and safety, human rights, privacy, social media issues – constantly evolving, constantly needing to be learned, modified and kept up with. But more than that the strategic role has evolved from theory and basic understanding that command-and-control leadership is a dead end to operationalizing new approaches at every turn. It’s easy to say collaborative leadership or coaching leadership, but difficult to implement. It isn’t something you can put in place and forget, not a ‘program’ of the month, week or year. It is working every day to make teams more effective and organizations better environments for maximum autonomy, security and, as a result, creative invention.
What disturbs me is to see new techniques in HR appearing, only to be used for age-old incorrect purposes. For example, Big Data and analytics is a growing need, puzzle and opportunity for HR and some are making progress while others simply want to apply it to the oldest question of all – how fast can you get me a body to fill the immediate vacancy I have because I didn’t engage and retain some critical individual. A small business article recently promoted HR ‘strategy’ as ‘recruit, hire, retain’ (at least ‘retain’ is making it into the mix more) and ManpowerGroup advises HR to ‘evolve’ into becoming better marketers and supply & demand managers… so we can fill those difficult vacancies. None of my hesitation over these is meant to suggest recruiting isn’t a valid HR function, but it isn’t the be-all, end-all, nor is it, by itself, the most critical.
We often say to businesses – don’t make earning dollars the prime goal, but rather building a great organization with a product everyone wants and money will follow. In HR the advice translates to don’t make filling that urgent vacancy the prime goal, but building a great organization that people want to enter, want to progress in… and make progressing easy, fun and rewarding so your bench is always full of ‘almost ready now’ candidates for each higher position. It’s the ‘almost-ready’ candidates that try harder, are willing to learn faster and know they must, who will save your bacon in the long run, not the new guys off the street who don’t know and don’t care as much what you stand for but just need a job with a bigger pay cheque. Ideally they’re also looking for a spot that’s more engaging than the last place they had high hopes for, but after a while quite a few cease caring altogether about that because they don’t expect your company to be any different. Counting vacancies and labour pools isn’t as valuable as measuring to find out what works in your culture to engage and get everyone learning and contributing. But creative uses of Big Data are more challenging that playing the basic numbers game.
So, you see, I could rant on and probably will from time to time, here and there (haven’t decided what exactly to do with my personal blog yet). I think of my life path as seven careers. In each case I left completely and moved on – engineering design, math teaching, guidance counselling, union leadership, HR… or at least it’s time to move on from HR, clear the decks, start something quite different, more or less unknown at this point. From each former career the lessons and skills have proven immensely valuable in future ones and I expect this will be no different. From time to time I still tutor math, offer guidance, lead protests, try to design strategies for people and I still enjoy every one of those things, contradictory as they may seem to some. Somewhat sadly I always miss the people, but have great memories. It’s not that we don’t hope to keep in touch, it’s just that new careers mean totally new groups and there aren’t reasons to connect, so we just keep in mind everyone’s still out there doing what they do. And occasionally we do reconnect, at least indirectly, today through names we see on LinkedIn or similar sites. I’ve had a great tine, trust you will continue to as well.
All the best.
2 Jul 2014
Earlier posts on Big Data and Analytics for HR produced some interesting responses – among them a number of pre-packaged program vendors who have put together offerings for HR specifically. These may or may not be a place to start for HR departments with the budget to afford dedicated off-the-shelf solutions. I’m just not sure. What’s clear is you can find quite an array of consultants and products all presenting as best solutions, but if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to achieve, watch out.
In an effort to gain broader clarity on my own thinking, I went back and read more thoroughly a book on prediction that was popular a 18 months ago – The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Its popularity grew considerably when he used his algorithms to predict 49 of 50 states correctly in the 2012 US Presidential election – a man who understands how to pull solid information from Big Data… perhaps.
If there is a central lesson, one I agree with, it is that we often misuse or misconstrue statistics. He does a fairly good job of distinguishing between the types of statistics and, in particular, focuses on Bayes Theorem approaches and describes them simply and usefully I thought, arguing they offer a better method than ‘standard’ stats for trying to dig conclusions out of Big Data. I think it’s an achievement to make this as simple and readable as he does. A longer summary with history appears in Wikipedia and, of course, at Amazon.com where, as usual, I focus on the ‘3-star’ reviews because they tend to give both pros and cons. (The 5-star often are people bowled over at first look and the 1-star are sour types who don’t like much of anything. 3-star writers, on the other hand, often know the subject well enough to offer logical evaluations and tend to spend more time justifying both good and bad points.)
Among comments that stand out from the book: “Companies that really ‘get’ Big Data, like Google, aren’t spending a lot of time in model land. They are running thousands of experiments every year and testing their ideas on real customers.” As usual we need to take such flat statements with grains of salt. Earlier he points out you need to temper the use of pure numbers with theories about what makes the results happen, so you test hypotheses that you think make sense, not just random number crunching. Moreover, ‘thousands’ of experiments is most certainly an exaggeration even for Google, though they recently announced they are conducting a 100-year longitudinal study of work-life balance. Not many of us have resources nor thing we have the time for such undertakings though we can hope lessons learned there will eventually have wider application.
Lots of times the ‘experiments’ referred to require simply looking at different slices of a pile of data that’s been assembled on a wide variety of topics in an organization to find connections and then seeing if the connections hold true over time. The old idea of data warehouse led in that direction – if you could put every piece of data you could collect from anywhere into one big database, then you could extract and compare just about any two or two dozen parameters to look for connections. However, as Silver argues, many of the apparent connections would not bear out as you look further to see if they continue to be related. His point – a great many apparent correlations turn out not real – another few samples will show the correlation breaks down – and that’s even without suggesting there are causes linking the factors. For instance, I recently read and promptly forgot about a company that found their best programmer recruits all happened to know how to draw Manga comics and so made that a criterion for hiring. How big a sample was that, do we think?
He notes the best pattern recognition computer by far is the human brain, which he reports scientists now believe handles about 3 terabytes of data. Massive as this is and terrific as our power to apply much of it flexibly at once to recognize possible patterns, this is only about the amount of data being recorded worldwide each day now. Seeing patterns can seem easy, but samples only a tiny fraction of the material we could potentially examine.
There’s no doubt the 3-star reviewers are right to doubt Silver’s total belief that Bayes theorem is completely superior to other sorts of statistics, but it does suggest some very important ways to think about uses of Big Data. Some suggested books they like better, which could be useful as well (see link above re these). Like them I found some parts of the book likely just plain wrong, though generally interesting.
What’s definitely of most use is his emphasis on learning to think in probabilities that something will or won’t happen or alternatives rather than trying to come up with predictions that are iron clad. His advice – bet the odds, bet the most probable outcomes. This is something that definitely works in HR where we deal with the most unpredictable commodity of all – people. It’s not whether your employees will like a particular benefit, but what percentages will value it highly, moderately or not at all and who will find it downright insulting (paternalistic, intrusive or whatever).
All this reinforces the idea that the best approach to Big Data is to think about a number of questions you hope it might answer and start trying. Pull slices of data and see if potentially useful relationships seems to exist, but don’t assume the first crack at it will answer exactly what you hoped or even be terribly accurate. Continue to look, test, question, refine. Don’t regard it as a one-time system implementation that will finish the issue once and for all. It offers tools to do many things and those will evolve as you try, test and learn and business needs evolve as a result.
25 Jun 2014
Leadership advice always draws attention, so many publications weigh in. One that usually wouldn’t catch my eye appeared in USA Today from a professor at University of Texas at San Antonio about their NBA team. Sometimes reading about different environments raises different thoughts.
The article is a pretty good list of principles gleaned from the team’s approach that I’ve summarized below with some added comments where things might need more thought:
1. Build around your star employees. Fine, build on strengths is well established, but let’s be very clear – not if your stars are prima donnas. Catering to is not the same as building on. Everyone needs to be focused on the common goal, the best overall results and the teamwork needed to get there. If a few key players front the process, we can’t forget the back of the house support either – coaches, marketers, admin people, even facilities and so forth. It isn’t only the visible ‘stars’ but those who are terrific at whatever their roles who need to be built around. A problem with short lists of principles like this tends to be the ‘either/or’ sound they set up giving quick impressions that some may easily interpret to support bad behavior.
1a. Either fire or, better yet, don’t hire prima donnas. I have to add this. It’s worth making a separate point that know-it-alls at any level can destroy teamwork and results fast. To drive home the point one only has to read about the Miami Heat’s struggle to the top, to find better teamwork versus the newcomer teamwork stars of San Antonio. Similar comments have been made about many teams in many sports. Even a small edge with slightly less talented players working as a team makes all the difference.
2. Complement stars with support specialists. Yes, moving in the right direction, but still focused on what’s visible on the court.
3. Identify talent others miss. Now we’re getting places. Some of that talent is right in your operation today as well as discoverable in less than glamorous sources others discount. In other words – don’t just troll competitors and offer higher salaries, though that can be an option occasionally.
4. Prevent employee burnout. Again, not just with stars, but as a broad, basic principle this is very important. Sometimes in sports I think owners and managers burn out faster than anyone, always on deck to face the public, becoming rigid from endless criticism so they fall prey to kneejerk reactions brought on by an excess of limelight. Once again the benefit of being part of a team, having support from others who can share the burdens of decisions might help, though that’s not a typical model at the top of many organizations. We want someone to blame and fail to see this, too, causes burnout.
5. Create opportunities to develop future [star] employees. Amen, too many businesses rely just on the stars continuously and both they and the up-and-coming people who never get a chance suffer.
6.-7. Mix old and young – really better to say ‘diversity’ across a broad range of factors to maximize the best of everyone – which plays into Create shared purpose and interdependence (ie: teamwork, need we say it again?)
8.-9. Constantly renew and recognize humans are unpredictable and thus need continual attention and management.
I can’t agree more with the article’s final sentence: “However, effective human resource management enables basketball teams and businesses to maximize their chances of winning.”
So, did I benefit from skimming one more article in the endless flood about leadership? I believe so. The good ones make me ponder just a bit, even if for just a moment, where I stand on what’s effective. What they leave out or mention secondarily often triggers thoughts that firm up my resolve and suggest slightly new ways to argue the points I think are often lost in the debates about what’s most important.
More and more I’ve come to believe the most overlooked point in leadership literature is this article’s last point – effective human resources management is critical to results and that means constantly paying attention to the unpredictability of human behavior, our individual needs and states of mental and physical health. These can be the very things many managers at all levels, and very often the aggressive ones who fight to the top, want to ignore or actively campaign against.
Dealing with the human side of enterprise can be frustrating, time-consuming and may appear time-wasting to executives in a hurry to get further up the ladder of success either personally or dragging their companies with them. But failing to pay attention or strategize these requirements can devastate an organization and demoralize those in it faster than just about any other type of crisis. That’s a key reason our surveys show so much disengagement.
It’s not like these principles of leadership are especially new, nor are they even especially difficult to carry out well. But they do seem to require constant reminders, reinforcement and clarification so they don’t encourage the wrong behaviors, like focusing on prima donnas rather than the true stars who are often ‘humble,’ to apply an increasingly common descriptor for the most effective leaders. We’re all different and having more ego need is a valid difference. But if you’re truly a star you pretty much get more than your share quite naturally and can afford to be humble. If you’re still ego driven after that – watch out. It may seem a small point to harp on, but one only has to look around, not just in sports, to see examples of where it drives its wedge into otherwise high potential operations.
It’s often been observed that Wayne Gretzky built up an amazing number of assists in addition to personal goals scored. Nothing prevents a star from helping team members at least as much as they help themselves.
18 Jun 2014
Whether mastering Big Data, increasing innovation or simply ‘getting a seat at the table,’ the leadership debate rages on with respect to what works best in HR. A typical blog piece from the Wall Street Journal insists no one should lead HR without, among other things, previous P&L experience. Need we explain that means Profit and Loss, running a money-making operation and paying the bills? Apparently some think this is an unknown for HR leaders. Is it more unknown to them than to the average manager who manages to a budget?
The author points to some rather fuzzy examples that suggest HR leaders need experience elsewhere and bringing outside people into HR would raise its credibility. Once again we hear the refrain that only such individuals know when it’s important to use consultants and engage other managers effectively as opposed to trying to ram theoretical HR programs down the organization’s proverbial throat. It’s an easy stereotype, but do we really think the majority of HR managers had no business training at all and everyone else did?
Part of the problem of many typical blog posts is the need to focus a brief point and do it week after week. Despite this author’s reputation as a world class thinker, I think it helps to have a wider look at the issue, but I understand the pressure to be short, pithy and deliver regularly.
One might better ask why organizations would ever imagine promoting someone who’s spent their entire career in only one single function to a C-level role. Surely any strategic position requires more of an overview as well as less of a one-sided bias. That shouldn’t be news, although we also need to understand there’s more than one way to get ‘outside’ experience. Do we really think it more acceptable for CFO’s to move into their roles and on to CEO positions having served entirely in finance or accounting or manufacturing VPs to make the jump without any experience other than managing shop floors. I doubt it. What we really think is these people move around more where we perceive HR staff as plodding through a single organization or division. Why is that?
We have plenty of examples of blinkered leaders in other functions – the bank crisis, for one. When Enron collapsed it was pointed out many big US corporations had promoted MBAs to their CFO spots because they found Chartered Accountants too narrowly focused to talk effectively to bankers and investors instead of remaining wedded to technical accounting issues. Sound familiar? But the Enron problem arose specifically because no one was paying enough attention to those ‘technical’ accounting issues that keep things legal. Sound familiar for HR, too?
The overall problem is there may not be a perfect job history for someone in a C-level role. Such spots require thinking beyond any one box. A focus that is too technical or not technical enough can equally cause problems. Someone who can find a balance and keep things moving forward isn’t easy to find. Add to that leadership is more than knowledge. MBAs are trained to try to look at problems from wide perspectives, but, as everyone will tell you, that doesn’t automatically make them leaders.
A better overview of leadership development is this from the other side of the world, The Hindu Business Line. The author, another consultant, at least is refreshingly clear that a single business-school program in leadership won’t do the trick of turning out fully formed C-level players. It’s not a huge cultural leap to apply this to organizations globally. Slight differences in terminology don’t prevent this from being useful for understanding stages of development that most managers must traverse to become effective leaders – up to building strong relationships at the top, however one describes them.
We’ve tended to think every leader at the top has to be able to talk financials. But we’ve not required them to talk people-issues… at least until recently. As a result many CEOs haven’t looked into HR ranks for advisers as they have looked into finance ranks. They haven’t seen a necessity for including HR executives in every decision, every meeting, every endeavor from planning stages to execution. They haven’t seen the need to rotate all budding executives as much through people-management challenges as financial turnarounds. They haven’t mentored HR people nearly to the same extent as P&L protégé’s of the moment, so unless an HR person has made a point of serving in a P&L role, chances are they haven’t been exposed to coaching and mentoring from the senior executive level.
We could ask rhetorically if this is because all those CEOs are so much better at people issues they think they don’t need an adviser at their elbow as they do in financial matters? Or they think their P&L leaders will pick up HR management skills by osmosis, but never vice versa. That’s a bit ironic, when first and foremost they want every executive at the top table to be already fully conversant in financials. If that’s the case, why the reliance on money experts joining their meetings? More realistically, isn’t it because they all get together to enjoy speaking a common language of dollars and cents, but would never attempt (or see the need?) to get together and speak a common language of talent management and people leadership as the key to getting the work done?
Who exactly are the blinkered ones? If we really believe HR people need experience in other functions, who’s moving them. Who’s coaching and encouraging them to try other roles? Or do we just assume when you take on an HR role you do so because you have no interest in financials or leadership. And by contrast, who’s mentoring all those P&L budding executives on the people issues they are going to need as organizations undergo continual change and need to innovate far more? It hardly needs repeating that today’s business world is very different from the environment 10 or 30 or 50 years ago. Without people skills front and center, few organizations can expect to thrive henceforth.
11 Jun 2014
Judging by the number of conferences and seminars targeting HR execs and others you have to believe Big Data and Analytics may be making inroads in HR areas. Or do you? Is it all talk?
Another sign, showing it’s real for some – at least one major HR ad appeared widely online in the past weeks for a “Senior Data Quality Partner” for a school board near Washington. The position offered “the responsibility for transforming Human Resources capacity as a data-driven organization.” [The position] “provides oversight, managerial leadership and support to the data quality team and sets the vision and priorities around data quality and data management programs, data collection, analyses, and reporting. The Senior Partner leads the effort to build the use of data as an integral and embedded component of the overall Human Resources culture.” Not many such ads have been common so far as I know. Does your organization have such a role?
The reference to managing a “data quality team” certainly suggests an emphasis on overall HR analytics on a broad scale, something few organizations seem to have embraced so far. It’s likely Big Data will take big coordination and big teamwork to truly deliver value across whole organizations. At least in the short term someone will need to do (and pay for) significant R&D. Of course when 98% of businesses aren’t big, we will hear a lot of concern that such techniques can’t be implemented except where major resources are dedicated, but I think that will prove false in the long run, once the basic ingredients are well understood and can be either copied or adapted.
Right now everyone is starting to puzzle over how and where to apply Big Data approaches. The good news is some findings will be widely applicable without every organization reinventing the math. We know from brain research, for instance, that people can’t truly multi-task in the true sense of actually doing multiple things simultaneously (we can switch back and forth quickly, but we miss things and overall efficiency on any of the tasks drops by as much as half or more). We don’t have to test every brain and every type of task to know this is true of virtually all of us, in all organizations, though, yes, there always is a possibility of exceptions, just as we may find an odd person here or there with a truly photographic memory.
In the HR Big Data realm, Google’s basic statistical proofs of what makes effective leaders and how to train people to wield those skills are pretty universal (try googling Project Oxygen). There may be details worth discovering within each skill set that can be tailored to specific organizations, but most could probably be worked out knowing the overall principles that the research confirmed.
Google’s leadership study is, of course, only one of potentially millions of possible projects or questions we hope Big Data can eventually answer. Every organization will have some unique questions and, even though quite a few will be similar, there will be requirements to test some items via Data on a regular basis specific to your own operations. Hence the skills for this are increasingly necessary and still somewhat a critical puzzle.
Boston Consulting Group (BCG) offered some insights from their experiences advising in this area. It’s important to note their high level ‘must haves’ deal more with people issues than math: 1. Identifying opportunities and 2. building trust (for information sharing), 3. Laying the technical foundation and 4. shaping the organization (since much of the capability will be outside or beyond single business units), 5. Participating in a Big Data ecosystem and 6. Making relationships work. Of all six, only number 3 is technical more than people oriented. Unfortunately the technical skills involved often scare people away from tackling big data projects when, in fact, the people issues are far more challenging. Even when senior executives realize they can hire numbers analysts, many seem afraid to do so, perhaps fearing they will not understand and won’t be able to guide, set objectives and manage such tech experts.
As with all leadership tasks, developing the skills for analyzing Big Data in useful ways is a leap into the unknown. Facing down the unknown is the core of leadership – managing risk, but taking it nonetheless – or nothing will advance beyond what we already know how to do. While all executives think they have leadership skills, many don’t – especially missing those that enable those leaps into uncertain, mistake-prone territory.
Until the path to effective analytics is well-paved and proven, with numerous examples to copy in each industry, it is likely this challenge will remain beyond most operations and organizations. It requires integrating the work of teams from many different disciplines and areas… and that is the new leadership challenge in a nutshell. So don’t expect big results from Big Data to be widespread. But recognize this does represent an area in which organizations that lead in mastering it can gain significant competitive advantages in better results, lower costs and more accurate forecasting with every stakeholder group.
4 Jun 2014
When working on strategy it’s good to stop from time to time and assess whether our processes are actually helping at the front line. One of the most basic HR challenges day to day is still recruiting.
Putting it online, or at least the resume gathering pieces, seemed to offer a tremendous timesaving and benefits for both recruiters and applicants. But how much of that has really panned out? We constantly hear complaints from candidates about poor practices. When coaching job seekers it’s routine to caution them not to waste much time filling in online applications. Their experience is they never hear anything back, not even a confirmation of receipt.
On the company end, things aren’t working a whole lot better. This article about Zappos‘ continuing innovations coincidentally tells the story succinctly. Even with basic online recruiting tools, sorting through 31,000 applications for 450 jobs is no picnic, maybe not even feasible. From the candidates’ side we can hope those who took the time to fill out an online application at least got an electronic acknowledgment. Experience shows most companies don’t even do that. In Zappos’ case we can see why thousands would want to be offered a job considering Zappos will give them several thousand dollars to quit in the first few weeks. What seemed like a good, innovative hiring move on Zappos’ part may have inadvertently helped torpedo their online recruiting.
You don’t have to look far to find people bemoaning the lack of courtesy and feedback the typical online application process provides candidates. Many online systems waste gobs of applicants’ time because they can’t properly read or interpret what’s pasted in or uploaded in resume form. As noted in the article corrections can take more time than simply typing everything in, either way very time consuming processes. Applying this way to more than a few jobs online takes so much time away from the job search process most of us recommend against doing any more than the most applicable job postings. Still that doesn’t stop thousands from gambling. For many it feels easier than networking, but their results are generally poor. Perhaps effective networkers should be grateful that so many are kept from the networking scene by this time wasting activity.
No matter how often I’ve recommended to recruiting departments they should at least implement confirmations so people will know their applications have been received, few have done that. You can see from the second link these aren’t the only complaints that turn off good candidates. One key element of ensuring strategy is effective is to actually participate in its application oneself. You have to wonder how many recruiters have actually tried applying for positions at their own organizations. I found it generally takes only one such experience to turn me off, so I’m sure that a lot of research isn’t required to properly test one’s own system.
Applicants put so much time into filling forms it’s frustrating to see that not only do few get an automated acknowledgement their material was received, but there is nothing after that in virtually all cases. At the very least systems could report things like – “the job is now filled with an outside (or inside, as many suspect) applicant chosen from among xy-thousand applicants” and “your information will be compared against other job vacancies that may arise in the next six months” or whatever. Presuming many companies see no value in even such general reports, they should consider how many people they are annoying by not providing them. With such bare bones information applicants might understand better and not clutter future postings with highly irrelevant attempts. At least they’d be less tempted to think the posting was simply a fishing scam to begin with.
Every HR process needs to be tested for user friendliness before and during its application. To do otherwise is to invite the criticism of HR that we see so frequently. It’s true some of this was worsened by the recent great recession and cost cutting that most companies did, but it’s foolish to blame that and assume great candidates will recognize that and forgive us. As recruiting once again becomes more and more competitive, it’s time to rethink.
A big part of effective strategy is getting the implementation correct. The greatest strategies in the world are useless or worse if people won’t participate or get turned off by them. Part of the growing trend to collaboration has to be to collaborate with potential new hires by providing them with the best experience during all parts of the hiring process.
This sounds like a small point in some respects. Perhaps Zappos doesn’t need to care about 30,000 of the 31,000 applicants. I’m not sure the alternative process they are suggesting will work better without knowing more details, but it also sounds like a lot of work for candidates with dubious results likely. Small point or not, it’s an area where many organizations still have a lot of important work required.
28 May 2014
For those interested in practical examples of highly successful leaders in very different circumstances, two recent books are worth a look – Canadian Chris Hadfield’s on his space career and experiences: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and Ed Catmull’s lessons from his CEO role (under owner Steve Jobs, there’s a challenge) at Pixar in: Creativity, Inc.
Two more different environments and individuals can hardly be imagined – the ‘no mistakes ever’ world of NASA versus the ‘open everything to free innovation by trial and error’ world of Pixar. Together they frame the ultimate puzzle – not just how much freedom you ought to give employees, but what kinds.
Too tight control they may not innovate, too little and they’re lost. The formula for what works best is clearly quite different between the two, yet one can pick out similarities and problems that are common to both, just in different guises. Uncertainty is a key factor that both faced and excelled in.
Hadfield’s book is notable for its unusual emphasis on the value of negative thinking… in a positive way. By thinking about everything that can go wrong – or, as he often puts it literally, “the next thing that can kill me” – he presses on to prepare for every imaginable challenge – hoping that when the unimaginable happens and is less than instantly fatal, he will be able to find a solution. Whatever happens then he is positively surprised – it isn’t the worst. Preparation for the unexpected to avoid it, minimize it or cope with it is number one.
Catmull’s career in some ways is no less hair-raising. Sticking with his dream to do animated films by computer meant tottering to the edge of bankruptcy many times over. He’s thankful Steve Jobs stepped in to risk his entire personal fortune from the early MAC days to fund the dream and ends up writing a rather odd chapter explaining how Jobs really turned into a nice guy, though still a guy with a total emphasis on top quality and a tolerance only for those who could immediately deliver that and stand up for their beliefs in the face of what you’d have to say were nothing short of attacks. This makes Catmull’s book the greater study in contradictions, but you also have to say his orientation to the unexpected is to look for it, in fact dig for it, encourage it and depend on it to help everyone exceed expectations. Either way these guys are fully in tune with uncertainty and its up or downsides.
In leadership style, Catmull himself is as totally committed to continual learning by the leader (oneself) as Hadfield, but for the purpose of creating a fear-free environment for employees so they can critique him and each other in total honesty or, as he carefully argues, with absolute candor – an interesting difference that he makes a good case for. There’s the parallel with Hadfield – a totally positive attitude and environment so everyone can be as negative as possible about what’s wrong (so it will stimulate the creativity to fix it).
What I loved most about both books (though I thought each could be tightened up) is the absolute willingness to starkly paint the major contradictions leaders have to stare down in order to achieve greatest success. There is no either/or in these leaders, but a resounding, all-out both/and. You can’t face the myriad other contradictions of managing well without first coming to terms with maximum positive and maximum negative. How do you remain so positive when bad things happen, mistakes are made and you know you need to think about negatives constantly to develop the creativity to overcome them? Talk about Polarity Management to name another great book that always comes to mind on this topic, a book still relevant and updated today.
Depending on what type of business you’re in, one or the other of these books might seem more worthwhile, but from an organizational point of view Creativity Inc. is the one that hammers home the need to eliminate fear, for bosses to get out of the way of employees and constantly encourage them to speak out freely, to address the many barriers to such freedom which we all sort of know, but often fail to see.
Catmull has spent a long time thinking about how to become a great leader and ends the book with a long list of pithy observations distilled from his earlier anecdotes. Internalizing the gist of those observations through continuous reflection and learning is what he believes made him better. Is Catmull therefore that great a leader? Some say yes for sure (in a story that’s in the book as well as on this HBR blog). Coming from professor Bob Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, this says a lot. Was Steve Jobs a great boss? Catmull’s arguments are summarized in this post. Oddly Jobs might have done something similar in the same situation as Catmull and Sutton describe, but ultimately there’s little doubt which one we’d prefer to work for.
Catmull outlines how he coached improvement and brought a lot of people along, whereas Jobs is notorious for simply winnowing the great mass down to the handful of individuals who could live up to his standards and then live with them (and him). No question we all believe in getting the right people on the bus, but Catmull does a far better job of describing the fact that sometimes you don’t know who the right people will turn out to be, how you can find out and help them become those winners – a skill far more valuable in the long run for those of us who can’t find, pay for and retain the occasional A-player who isn’t a total prima donna or whom you may just never run into. Factoring in uncertainty and unpredictability clearly helped Catmull succeed.
Whatever else can be said, both these leaders had super high goals for themselves first, then for organizations and others and led the way by modeling consistent behaviors, coping positively with all the uncertainties and seizing every opportunity because they kept their eyes on the big goals. Both found teams necessary to further their aims and both found ways to contribute and support those teams rather than attempting to simply give orders.
Both were driven less by money than by inspiring objectives. They worked and were helped by people with similar inspirations that both leaders actively kept in the forefront for their teams. As is still typical of almost all top leaders they recognized the value of team-family, but only secondarily. It’s probably fair to say they both recognized the primacy of those work-life balance issues (Catmull talks very specifically about ensuring his teams kept some balance), but tended to ignore these in their own lives more than they later thought they should have. It seemed to be the one area they didn’t quite walk the talk, but who among us is perfect?
21 May 2014
With the growing emphasis on emotional intelligence as a critical requirement for leaders, we’re poised to see significant improvements in leadership style and skills across the board. It still won’t happen overnight, but as momentum gets going it’s beneficial to ask what we can expect in the long run.
There certainly won’t be a total change to the coaching-style leadership model 100%. People with drive are still going to be in the forefront of who takes lead roles in all organizations and, to whatever extent, controlled or not, drive means a certain amount of wanting others to ‘do it my way.’ We can’t live without that. This is true of coaching-style leaders, too. They just have the added advantage of not only being hard drivers, but sensitive to others, empathetic, self-aware and willing to delegate, empower, trust and tolerate learning through mistakes that has to go with those other elements. Finding the balance is beginning to be recognized as the key.
Currently those with these added skills still represent only about 20% of leaders. The remaining 80% are the drivers who don’t have those skills and operate largely by command-and-control, giving orders and expecting compliance. As the balance shifts we probably don’t need to get anywhere near 100% coaching style anyway. We know from research that the best leadership of teams and organizations is actually more than one leader – as in a previous post – usually a pair, who bring different skills to the task, but trust and listen to each other when one of them has good reasons for exerting the coaching-listening-empowering style or the other has better reasons for pressing the rules-oriented command-and-control approach. Each style fits different needs – needs of the situation, the timing or the people being led.
The good news is that by making the coaching style the ideal or, better yet, the ability to wield both styles, using each when it is appropriate, as most coach-leaders can, we sensitize people who only have one style, usually that’s command-and-control, to think before jumping, to learn some of the basics of coaching style and to realize when it is helpful for them to step back and let someone more skilled in the other approach apply it.
In fact while we are transitioning to a time when more people can actually lead by coaching effectively, the main benefit of the new knowledge that’s spreading about the value of coaching is exactly its impact on the command-and-control types. Until now they’ve had a pretty sizable monopoly on how leadership is carried out and few people to question or contradict them successfully. But as knowledge of the tremendous added value of coaching style spreads, these types will begin to realize they have to at least pay lip service to that value and begin to learn what it is that distinguishes this new type of leader.
As more command types aspire to add coaching skills, they will muddle a bit especially at first, but most of the skills are learnable. Even if you don’t feel them naturally or have a gut feel for their importance, knowing that you need to be able to talk about them, show them off in however limited ways, show feedback from staff that you know and use them – all in order to get the next promotion – that all means the culture of organizations will turn toward recognizing these as primary. Opinions vary on how easy it will be for command leaders to re-orient. More people will be inclined to ‘fake it till they make it’ with these skills, which means they will avoid the bald issuing of orders and enforcing compliance of previous cultures centered around command style. It’s interesting to see even organizations like the US Army promoting performance evaluations that are starting to emphasize values not just results.
In short, we don’t need 100% coaching-style leaders to make organizations far more effective. Probably raising the current 20% to 30 or 40% would be plenty as long as the command types recognize the importance and necessity of including these types in teams and decision-making. The drive in this direction sensitizes everyone whether they wish to be counted in this type or not. That can only be great for staff, for engagement, for innovation and for general improvement in work environment, which hasn’t seen a major innovation since the advent of the 8-hour day (an improvement which is fast disappearing and clearly needs a substitute… like true empathy and respect for others, their lives and their time).
14 May 2014
In the evolving landscape around HR it’s great to see progress on several fronts. Issues we’ve been talking about for years are finally beginning to take root more solidly, or so it would appear – analytics, emotional intelligence (EI) and collaboration to name key items.
At the same time it’s always good to step back and ask ourselves if we’re sure these are actually useful. Are there dangers as well as benefits to pay attention to?
There are two general dangers with any new strategies. First that the buzz-words will take root, but not a real understanding of the issues, so everyone will implement some imitation or an ineffective version of the concepts involved. The end result would be everyone coming to believe this was just a temporary band wagon everyone jumped on only to find it went nowhere.
Second it’s possible that everyone will get so enamored with the ideas they will pursue them beyond common sense to the exclusion of other important issues, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
To get some idea of the spread of the conversations today around EI, it helps to take a look at how much is starting to percolate around us in casual vehicles such as this blog post on talentculture.com. If you click the embedded video you not only get one idea, but at the end it offers up a dozen other clips from Youtube on the subject, some quite different. The range of jargon, interpretations and applications is very wide – from long term researcher Daniel Goleman to Harvard offering a 20 minute segment on how to learn body language to improve your EI skills. We learn that a wide variety of activities such as play as children, fencing and coping with hearing problems all help build understanding of body language skills, which in turn allow us to read emotions, such as whether someone will vote for a particular candidate or not – good demonstration (just a note, you can reset the page by refreshing it and then skip to the end of the embedded video to see what other clips it links to).
Just as with analytics, EI can be called on too often. With analytics a key danger is latching onto whatever we can measure whether it’s useful or not, which creates two problems – we waste time measuring meaningless stuff or we shy away from important areas because we can’t see ways to measure them. A subset of the first is measuring so many factors that individuals have no freedom to innovate because everything is dictated by numbers or the mass of data is just too confusing for anyone to make heads or tails of.
In some ways an addiction to analytics might seem the polar opposite of emotional intelligence for some. Why bother trying to understand people when what we need to do is measure what they want and deliver that? Or some might argue, analytics is the way toward emotional intelligence. If you haven’t got empathy at least you could measure what others want and substitute that information for attempting to figure out their preferences for yourself.
The bottom line, as these LinkedIn writers assert, it isn’t one or the other, but whatever it takes to get good, reflective leaders in place to dig out and use effectively whatever information is available. At some point information or analytics simply isn’t enough. Some self-knowledge, empathy, ability to reflect and anticipate others’ needs is essential. Guesses have to be made and they are far better made by human beings with these skills than without. Is there a danger we’ll emphasize that too much? Always, as with any one view of what leaders need to focus on. Balance is critical, but for now EI seems to be the element in greatest demand because so little has been visible among the majority of senior leaders in the past.
7 May 2014
The past week or so has raised a flurry of articles again about doing away with HR.
Looking for ways to make organizations simpler and easier to navigate and manage is always laudable… but…. Are radical attempts at simplification realistic for everyone or even for these companies in the long term?
First is LRN, a company that not only got rid of HR, but all job titles, org charts and the like. They tell their story inspirationally on their site as a never-ending journey not to get bogged down in rules, but keep their eyes on the larger pictures. We need these idealists. It tends to be the ones in the weeds waiting to hear how to do without HR for cost or vendetta reasons that are more the problem. Testing alternate structures makes sense, though such radical rearrangements as LRN apparently is attempting may be taking more risks than wise as this article points out (not in the headline, but farther down).
Of course even companies that keep their HR are trying different approaches. One that keeps getting brought forward is Netflix. It’s first in an interesting series of videos that appeared recently on Huffington Post focusing largely on their decision to stop tracking paid time off. At first blush this sounds like a ‘why didn’t we think of that’ sort of idea, but one has to remember that all such concepts are culture-specific. If your company has a large number of very hard driving managers who push to get work out, the idea of simply ‘freeing’ (or empowering) employees to decide for themselves what time off they need is potentially a bad idea.
If you take a look at some of the subsequent videos in that series – Sheryl Sandberg telling the Post about the need to fit in family time (Arianna herself appearing later having just published a book, Thrive, along similar lines) and the Dalai Lama, you can see some of the potential downsides. If bosses don’t see the need for vacation it’s a reasonable bet that many staff won’t feel they can use their ‘empowerment.’
Without fairly clear guides such as ‘you get five weeks paid vacation and you take it or lose it’ rule (with HR pushing for ‘take it’), you leave things supposedly entirely to the employee, but also their direct manager. In theory employees may have the choice of when to go, but with a manager breathing down their neck insisting the project can’t wait, that overtime is needed, that you will be judged poor and potentially get yourself fired. And of course you run into the perennial problem that everyone wants July. In fact, in the Netflix piece, another ‘innovation’ is being totally honest with people that they will be fired if they don’t perform to standard. Get the picture?
You’re on your own or “YOYO” means a lot of people won’t risk taking the time off they usually would under a fixed regime if they think that an even worse result awaits them. Perhaps if you’re Netflix, a new culture, with a known CEO and HR leader encouraging ‘empowerment’ you won’t run into problems of unfairness or unfair expectations… initially, but as a company grows, as problems multiply, as managers change, as new CEOs arrive, things may well take on a different flavor.
Another ‘new idea’ most recently adopted by Amazon is to offer to pay employees who want to leave – in their case $2000 escalating to $5000 year by year. Zappos and (again) Netflix offer variations. Amazon is wise to do this to counter recent claims by warehouse staff in particular of bad working conditions. But if you don’t believe you can find other employment, staying and trying to call attention to needed improvements may outweigh your interest in leaving – a couple of thousand dollars won’t last long.
Whole Foods made the news for letting employees look up anyone else’s salary (a boost to fairness in pay). That works well for identical jobs, but even then, geographical/market differences enter the picture. It’s a lot cheaper to live in some areas than others, so fairness, as many note, isn’t always ‘equality’ – it takes measures of cost of living, among others, to explain fully and some employees just won’t accept such explanations (some undoubtedly understand, but still see a hook to press for higher pay). This is especially true for different jobs – a warehouse clerk versus a receiver in a store.
At some point being able to discover pay rates is fine, but you also need a mechanism for explaining differences logically and understandably. I’m the first to say secrecy isn’t the answer either, but simplistic reports that ‘everyone knows what everyone else is paid’ gloss over the challenges that this entails. Simply saying someone is more valuable, as the article suggests, isn’t a good answer for quite a few employees – and if you think line managers (the warehouse manager versus the store manager) can thoroughly and convincingly explain why the other’s employee gets more, think again. This is where HR comes into its own if it’s doing the job well not just telling everyone ‘it’s the policy.’ Transparency and explanation are very helpful, but beyond the reach of many line managers who just don’t have the overview.
We definitely need organizations trying out these new approaches. But we also need some people managing what may go wrong, applying empathetic common sense and adjusting how we approach things rather than just setting the processes in motion and assuming they will thrive. LRN seems to have that idea… or at least their CEO/spokesperson does at this point in their evolution. What about tomorrow?