Four Keys to Influencing Up the Org Chart

(Getting the boss’s attention when you know something you wish they did too)

I led a training session recently for a group of production and operations supervisors from a mid-size global firm. Our topic for the day was teams and trust, and our focus was on optimal functioning for work teams that they managed. They described, however, a scenario that is all too familiar: their new leader (less than a year) was clueless about how to run the operation. Hired for his lean manufacturing experience, he suggested skipping over some critical aspects of the operation to save time. Based on these “efficiencies” he suggested the product would be defective, even unsafe, and would require hours of rework.

For nearly a year these supervisors, with an average tenure of 15 years, had tried to explain the process to their boss. He took notes, smiled and nodded as though he was in agreement, then went away and disregarded not just their advice and experience, but the scientific facts of the process.

We had a long discussion about how they could influence the boss to do the right thing, to listen to them and heed their warnings. They were frustrated and disillusioned. Some of their peers had already left the organization, taking with them decades of experience. We needed to figure out a way to stop the exodus of talent and have a meaningful impact up the organizational chart.

Whether we want to share a new idea or fix a broken process, influencing up the organization chart is an important skill for everyone in the chain of command.

The best managers, of course, want to hear from people – they welcome new ideas, challenges to the process, and suggestions for adopting technology to make work easier, cheaper, or faster. But not all bosses are open to others’ ideas.

I’m reading Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings. He describes three kinds of people that we encounter in life:

  • Wise
  • Foolish
  • Evil

If you’ve ever read the Old Testament book of Proverbs, these designations will be pretty familiar to you. For instance, Proverbs 3:35 says, “The wise inherit honor, but fools get only shame.” Proverbs 6 talks about the evil person who “plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict.”

Influencing a wise boss is easy, because they are open to feedback, want to learn, and don’t get defensive when you challenge their ideas. The wise person has understanding and discernment, an ability to take in information and objectively and skillfully accept the facts without feeling challenged.

A foolish boss listens, but takes not action. They nod and smile, but lack the motivation, resolve, or interest to make things better. They may be prideful or lacking in judgment. The foolish person is often insecure, which leads them to hoard information and shut down any ideas that did not originate with them.

The evil person covets control and power, acting like a puppet-master to direct the outcomes that put them at an advantage over others. They are untrustworthy, deceptive and, often, disagreeable. They may tell you what you want to hear, but will use the information to put you in your place later. Though rare, bosses like this exist – I know from experience!

Whether you want to upward-influence a wise, foolish, or evil boss, there are some keys to help you succeed:

Know Your Stuff. The best way to influence others is to be seen as an expert. Subject-matter expertise opens many doors and allows you to be an internal consultant. Don’t settle on past knowledge – actively pursue professional development and educate yourself on new technologies and trends in your field.

The wise manager will readily accept your insights and suggestions because they trust your experience and know-how. Do your homework, though, since a really wise person may probe to get the full picture.

The foolish manager will require some careful planning. Since they resist influence due to their self-protective nature, you will need a heavy dose of humility to sell the idea as theirs. They may feel threatened by your expertise, so you have to be careful that your know-how doesn’t come across as know-it-all.

Learn to read people. Emotional intelligence is extremely important in trying to upward-influence. Learn to read social cues and understand personalities and what motivates the person you want to influence. You don’t have to give someone a formal assessment to get insight into what makes them tick. Knowing motivations is perhaps the most useful awareness when it comes to influencing.

Take a look at their work space and listen to what they talk about. Is it all work and know play? Is it centered on family, friends and relationships? How do they learn best – reading, hearing, or hands-on?

We sometimes use our own preferences when we’re trying to influence others, which is not very effective. Get to know the person you want to influence and you’ll be seen as credible and trustworthy. Your wise boss will appreciate your insights, the foolish boss will probably be surprised you understand them so well, and the evil manager may watch you a little more closely to see if you have ulterior motives.

Choose your words carefully. Once you’re able to read people you can much more easily decide how to talk with them. Words are important, as is the way you deliver them.

Our attitude impacts the words we use and the way we say them. If we are angry, we’ll sound it. If we’re fearful of how the other person will react, we’ll sound timid and unsure.

If you have done your homework to become a subject matter expert, and have some insights into what motivates the person you want to influence, you can come across as confident and smart. Make a case for your idea or suggestion, always keeping in mind the point of view of the other person. Use terms that make sense to them, speak to what is important to them (quality, the bottom line, customer service, etc.). Clearly show how your idea will help achieve their goals. Make your pitch compelling, interesting, factual, and wise. Don’t make it an information dump, but do give some materials and bullet points that they can refer back to later.

Be patient and persistent. This last key is the hardest one to apply. When we have an idea or suggestion, especially when we see an urgent need to change the current course, we find it hard to wait patiently for the boss to weigh the merits of your case. They may not have the same level of pain or concern as you.

Give them time to consider, realizing that they probably have greater insight into the big picture and may need to do their own upward-influencing to get the ear (and budget) of their boss.

Don’t dump and run! Follow up within a week after the initial conversation, possibly adding some additional information, answering questions, and asking when they think a decision will be made. Don’t be a pest, and accept their decision graciously.

What if They Don’t Change Their Mind?

You may do a great job of presenting your case but still not influence your boss to adopt your suggestion or change their mind. Ask them for some feedback so that you can understand their thinking and decision-making process. They may or may not have a good reason for saying no, but their response may give you insights that will help you in the future.

You have a choice whether to accept their decision and move on, determine to try again with a different tactic, or decide to move on because of the critical consequences you see for not changing the current course. Just as a salesperson has to make a lot of presentations before they get a buyer, someone who wants to influence upwardly must be OK with a little rejection.

Influence is the primary task of leadership, and when we are able to influence up the organizational chart we show that leadership can happen at any level and go in any direction. It takes skill to influence others, since we are breaking them out of a particular way of thinking. Our minds are not easily changed, but when we show our expertise, tap into the other person’s interests, frame our case well, and are persistent and patient, we greatly improve the odds of winning someone over to our way of thinking.

Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Second Edition (Paperback)

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

OD-Jobs: Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

building togetherWhat is Organizational Development?

Organizational Development, or OD, is hard to define. Ask a dozen people and you’ll get 15 answers! To most professionals, OD encompasses change management, organizational culture, leadership development, and organization structure. I’ve worked in organizations that use the term organizational development as an aggrandized term for training.

OD practitioners will argue that their work centers on planned change efforts intended to improve productivity through cultural initiatives such as employee engagement, process improvement and effective performance management. The international Organization Development Network defines OD as

an effort (1) planned, (2) organization-wide, and (3) managed from the top, to (4) increase organization effectiveness and health through (5) planned interventions in the organizations “processes,” using behavioral-science knowledge.

Matt Minahan, current board co-chair of ODN, defines the field a little more clearly…

“Organization Development is a body of knowledge and practice that enhances organizational performance and individual development, viewing the organization as a complex system of systems that exist within a larger system, each of which has its own attributes and degrees of alignment. OD interventions in these systems are inclusive methodologies and approaches to strategic planning, organization design, leadership development, change management, performance management, coaching, diversity, and work/life balance.”

Organizational Development is Everyone’s Job

When this list is viewed in light of the day-to-day operations within an organization, it is possible to see how everyone in the organization carries the responsibility of OD. Since we are all part of the complex system that makes up the organization, our role is to either maintain or influence to ensure forward momentum and effective operation.

As an individual contributor I participate in organizational development by either complying with processes or challenging them to ensure they are effective. I manage my performance, respond to coaching, and openly communicate ideas and concerns.

If I actively contribute and challenge in a sincere and positive manner, I expect to be heard and valued as a member of the system. This requires a management philosophy that not only seeks out staff participation, but is not threatened by unsolicited feedback that questions management decisions. This level of transparency and vulnerability is possible when humility permeates the organization. This, of course, is easier said than done, since we have a strong tendency to self-promotion and self-protection, both of which make it difficult to accept criticism without defensiveness.

Culture Shift is Happening

I believe organizations are gradually learning that there is a great benefit to employing the whole person, not just the part of the individual that aligns with the job description they were hired to fill. A whole-person mindset in an organization allows for full engagement, nurturing innovation, and sharing ownership of the organization’s success at all levels.

When individuals are fully engaged, they look for ways to improve, they lead change efforts rather than waiting to be told what to do, and they feel like what they are doing is significant. While I see things moving in this direction, I know it is a difficult transformation. The forces that are pushing for this type of change encounter resistance from the forces of power and control.

Organizational Development Utopia

I have identified a few things that an organization can do to build the type of full-engagement culture where everyone takes responsibility for organizational development.

First, I believe it takes a process of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I know these concepts are not associated with corporate culture, but they should be. Management needs to come clean about how they have focused more on outcomes than people. Employees have been used, abused, and threatened into performance. At best, this has resulted in either mediocrity or short-lived peaks followed by valleys of burnout and performance rebellion. Employees must confess that they have often withheld their best thoughts and energy in response to their perceptions of management manipulation.

Second, organizations have to rethink processes, especially the conduits of communication. Ruts and grooves are formed over time as the same path is taken over and over again, but our desire for order and predictability may be leading us to a grave, not a garden of opportunity. We must regularly evaluate how we’re doing things and listen to voices of the processes, our people, and the customer and be open to rethinking our strategies.

Third, organizations must forego expediency for wisdom. Executives pride themselves on making quick decisions, believing that their experience and knowledge alone ensure their decisions are the best. But no amount of experience can take in the sage advice of stakeholders up and down stream. Sustainability and maturity come through listening and wisdom, not expeditious control.

Fourth, build on successes and use an asset-based mindset. We like to be seen as problem solvers. With hammers in hand, we hunt for nails that need to be pounded back into place, but maybe that’s not the most productive use of our time. Instead, perhaps the more beneficial approach is to take the time to look at the abundance we’ve created as an organization and focus our attention on harvesting more of that success. In other words, we can choose to see our workplaces as rife with fires to be extinguished, or places of great wealth that needs to be invested.

Finally, creating a fully-engaged workforce requires investment in developing skills, in expanding the world for team members. Tunnel vision occurs when we fail to look beyond our own workplace to see what is going on beyond our virtual walls. Employees should be actively involved in professional organizations and accountable for introducing new ideas into the organization.

I have labeled these five cultural imperatives as utopian because, as optimistic as I am, I know about human nature. When things are going well we will commit to a positive plan of action, building teams and putting money into developing people in our organizations. But as soon as challenges, like a major economic crisis, come our way, we throw development out the window and adopt a command and control management style.

Our half-hearted commitment to doing the right thing perpetuates mediocre organizational life where positive development and effective leadership are hit and miss. This inconsistency causes confusion, disillusionment, and self-limiting behaviors. We can’t afford this approach any more. As companies like Google, SAS, Zappos, QuickTrip, TD Industries and W.L. Gore have discovered, it’s possible to focus on people and profits at the same time. A concentration on one does not preclude the development of the other. It takes enlightened executives willing to forego business as usual to create a culture of full engagement and mutual ownership for organizational development.

Rethinking Job Descriptions

A Useful Tool Gone Bad?

There’s little doubt that some sort of job description is important. They help organizations articulate the purpose of a position and how the work is to be accomplished. They spell out the competencies, experience, and other requirements necessary to succeed, and give the person doing that job a sense of what they should be focusing on.

For some, a job description identifies the boundaries of a position. Individuals like to know what they should and should not do, and like to be able to say, “it’s not my job.” Employers, of course, have gotten around this boxing in by adding the ubiquitous phrase, “and other duties as assigned.”

Thinking Upside Down – Person First, Then Description

But what if employers flipped job descriptions on their heads? What if, instead of using these expedient documents to create an exhaustive list of tasks, duties and responsibilities, job descriptions became generalized documents that allow for interpretation based on individual strengths and organizational needs?

Human Resources professionals like to create standardized, documented procedures to reduce variability and mitigate risk. That way we can keep people accountable and easily address deviance from the norm through our structured disciplinary processes.

But this obsession with conformity and repeatability has a serious negative consequence: it squashes the creativity and resourcefulness of employees and fails to tap into their unique strengths and interests.

When we attempt to turn an individual into a walking embodiment of their job description, we lose the advantage of the whole person. The whole person may not be a perfect fit for the job description, but if we exchange rigidity with flexibility, the whole person will rise to the occasion and surpass any goals of a job description.

It’s a scary thing to let go of structure. We like to predict outcomes by identifying the right inputs. The good news is we don’t have to completely eliminate structure to create a culture where people are allowed to apply a greater percentage of their abilities, ideas, and strengths.

As our workplaces evolve and adapt to new realities, new understandings, new ways of getting things done, employers have to tap into the vast reserves of wisdom, innovation, and productivity that go to waste every day because we have limited people through our processes and practices.

How to Give (and Receive) Performance Reviews

performance_reviewAll over the world supervisors are gearing up for their least favorite time of the year. Sometime between January and March employers involve their organizations in a time of reflection, evaluation, and planning. Well, that probably sounds too altruistic. In reality, the annual performance review process is painful, unproductive, and a downright waste of time.

Reviewers often fail to keep adequate records to evaluate well and seem to be surprised that reviews have snuck up on them again at the exact same time as last year! How did that happen?! As they continue to put out fires and keep operations moving forward, they have to carve out time to think about the past. It seems like a fruitless effort, but it’s a requirement, one in which the outcome often determines the merit increases of their staff.

Merit increases have their own challenges, since “management” allots a specific dollar amount or percentage to each manager, which they have to figure out how to divvy up to their team. This often means juggling performance scores so that the budget isn’t exceeded. What a mess!

So what can supervisors and managers do to make the most of performance reviews? Here are three things to keep in mind if you’ve once again been surprised by the review cycle and have to get them done in a hurry.

  1. Adjust your mindset about reviews. Know why you are giving them, and consider what the benefits are of performance reviews. If you can modify your attitude toward evaluations and begin seeing them as an opportunity to recognize people for what they’ve done well and coach those who are struggling in certain areas, you will become more objective and solutions-minded as you prepare to write the evaluation.
  2. Focus on the purpose, not the process. When you view the performance evaluation process as a once-a-year pain-in-the neck you will likely approach the process (and your staff) negatively. But if you have made performance management a part of your everyday leadership, the annual review is just one step in the process.
  3. Make it a dialogue, not a monologue. Because supervisors often rush through the process to meet the deadline for annual reviews, they present the performance review as a monologue, checking off the score and a brief explanation as they make their way down the page. This one-way street approach denies the humanity of the employee who has little room to participate in their own performance review until the end when the supervisor says, “any questions?”

These three things will set you on a path to making performance appraisals more positive, productive, and purposeful – and hopefully a lot less painful!

If you’re on the other side of the desk, receiving a performance review that is less than dynamic and obviously rushed, here are some things that you can do to get the most out of the process:

  1. Set YOUR tone. Because you expect this years’ review meeting to be just as meaningless and frustrating as last years’, you are shut off to any other possibility. Whether your manager is taking the process seriously or not, you can set the tone by approaching the meeting with an attitude of discovery and a chance to have some positive face-to-face time with your boss.
  2. Ask questions. Don’t let your manager get away with their typical monologue of essentially reading the review verbatim, hardly making eye contact. If they aren’t coming up for breath, interject a question mid-stream. Don’t waste this opportunity to find out more about why they rated you the way they did. Make your questions positive, not attacking or defensive.
  3. Prepare! Since your boss may not have kept the best records and may be judging you based on your most recent performance or with lots of generalities, bring examples of your work. Take time to prepare a timeline of the past 12 months and what you were able to accomplish in that time. What were your successes? How did you provide value? And when did you drop the ball? Be prepared to talk about lessons learned and renewed focus.

Annual performance reviews are often forced upon the workforce, but individual managers and employees can make them better. Performance evaluation doesn’t have to be a dreadful, migraine-inducing endeavor. Really! It all depends on how you approach it – the mindset you bring with you and the preparation you undertake. Your organization may have a stupid process that seems like a departure from the day-to-day culture, but you can choose to make the most of it whether you are the giver or receiver of performance feedback.

Here’s hoping you exceed expectations!

Powers of Observation, Maybe Not So Elementary…But Essential!

‘You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.’ Sherlock Holmes -A Scandal in Bohemia

I was in line at Starbucks one morning and witnessed a team of Starbucks execs talking about the store. My guess is that it was a regional manager working with a couple of new store managers. The leader asked his colleagues “what do you see?” Over the next several minutes his colleagues identified several things that stood out as either positive or negative. One saw display racks that were in need of attention, another noticed the rapport of the drive-thru attendant. Over the course of about 5 minutes a whole list was generated.

I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, and especially enjoy the BBC’s modern-day adaptations of familiar Holmes & Watson cases and the new CBS series Elementary. Although fictional, Sherlock Holmes makes me think. I wonder what clues are right in front of me that I miss for lack of keen observation. Short of carrying around a magnifying glass and a handy side-kick, what can I do to hone my powers of observation to solve perplexing riddles in my workplace?

Our powers of observation seem a bit rusty these days. With smartphones stuck in our palms we barely look up to see where we are going, much less what is really happening around us. We enter the workplace and often go straight to another screen. In meetings we multitask and doodle, missing the world of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that could unleash piles of possibility.

We need to learn to look beyond the headline, below the surface, behind the curtain. We need to develop our powers of observation and become active participants in the world around us. We need to become performance sleuths, investigators of management mysteries, and hounds on the trail of opportunity.

Here are a few ideas to prime the pump of observation:

  1. Stop. When you enter a room or start on a task, pause for a minute and look around. What do you see? Who is there and what mood do you sense? What are the artifacts that define the space and set the tone? What clues, warnings, or heralds of hope are present in the room?
  2. Use your five senses. We initially take in information using the senses of taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch. Go through the senses and take note of things that come to mind. Maybe you can’t identify something for all five senses, but try. The process may unlock new ways of seeing things.
  3. Tap into intuition. Beyond our senses lies intuition, that internal feeling that is wrapped in emotion and potential. While our senses tell us what is, our intuition tells us what might be, what could be. As you observe your surroundings, relationships, and patterns of behavior, listen to your “sixth sense” that wants you to consider something more abstract.
  4. Look for patterns. As you go about your day, write down your routine. What habits are present? What do you do without thinking? What patterns exist in your interactions with others?
  5. Shift. Try doing something different and notice how you and those around you react. Is the shift embraced or resisted? Does it lead to further observations about how engrained behaviors and mindsets have led to particular outcomes?
  6. Ask Questions. Dig beneath the surface. Ask new questions – ones that haven’t been asked before. Think like a detective, but with a positive spin. Look for areas where things are better than expected and ask, “how did we get here? How did this great thing happen?”
  7. Lead others. As you gain experience in picking up clues, identifying limiting behaviors, and seeing new possibilities, teach others to do the same. See what happens when you start a meeting by asking everyone to identify what they see.

I secretly long to be like Sherlock Holmes, without the peculiarly irritating personality quirks. I want to solve cases that have perplexed and debilitated organizations. Professor Moriarty is Holmes’ nemesis – the equally smart mastermind who keeps the sleuth on his toes. Moriarty is the deviant to Holmes’ positive deviance. While not always personified, and typically not intentional, our workplaces are staffed with Moriarty’s and we must develop our powers of observation to expose and eradicate them.

Sherlock Holmes

Investment-Based Performance Improvement

I am a certified performance technologist (CPT). What in the world does that mean? According to the International Society for Performance Improvement, a CPT has proven the ability to apply the ten competencies of human performance improvement in a way that makes a positive performance difference to an organization. Don’t worry, this post is not going to be a shameless self-promotion. I want to focus on my approach to performance improvement and how I’ve shifted my focus from ambition to investment.

First, an overview of the competencies of human performance improvement (HPI):

The 10 Standards of Performance Technology, which are based on four principles and following a systematic process to improve performance, ensure that the Certified Performance Technologist has conducted his or her work in a manner that includes the following:

  • Focus on results and help clients focus on results.
  • Look at situations systemically taking into consideration the larger context including competing pressures, resource constraints, and anticipated change.
  • Add value in how you do the work and through the work itself.
  • Utilize partnerships or collaborate with clients and other experts as required.
  • Systematic assessment of the need or opportunity.
  • Systematic analysis of the work and workplace to identify the cause or factors that      limit performance.
  • Systematic design of the solution or specification of the requirements of the      solution.
  • Systematic development of all or some of the solution and its elements.
  • Systematic implementation of the solution.
  • Systematic evaluation of the process and the results.

Performance improvement, when done with these standards in mind, can be a powerful tool in any organization.  Any time an individual or work group applies a systematic, intentional process to making things better, the results can be like compounding interest in a savings account, leading to great gains over time. The practice of performance technology is a focused effort to innovate solutions to systemic challenges.

Why Your Approach to Performance Improvement Matters

I want to contrast ambition-based performance improvement and investment-based performance improvement.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives three definitions for Ambition:

  1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power b: desire to achieve a particular end
  2. the object of ambition <her ambition is to start her own business>
  3. a desire for activity or exertion <felt sick and had no ambition>

All of these uses of the word ambition center around an individual trying to get his or her way. Ambition is self-promoting. The original usage applied to those going around town to solicit votes for election. So if I initiate a performance improvement effort from an ambitious mindset, I am first looking at my own rank, power, and ability to influence others to my way of thinking.

Investing, on the other hand, focuses on what I can give to another, making them the center of attention rather than myself. Here’s what Merriam-Webster provides as definitions for Invest:

  1. [Medieval Latin investire, from Latin, to clothe] a: to array in the symbols of office or honor b: to furnish with power or authority c: to grant someone control or authority over : vest
  2. to cover completely : envelop
  3. clothe, adorn
  4. [Middle French investir, from Old Italian investire, from Latin, to surround]: to surround with troops or ships so as to prevent escape or entry
  5. to endow with a quality : infuse

I like the picture that we get from the first usage above: to array in the symbols of office or honor. It ties to the idea of empowerment and equipping people with the tools and structures to succeed in their work. I am a strong believer in servant leadership, which fits perfectly with an investment-based performance improvement methodology.

Investment-based performance improvement has four distinct characteristics:

  1. Humility
  2. Humor
  3. Harmony
  4. Honor

These 4 H’s, when used in conjunction with the competencies of performance technology, create an environment where individuals work collectively for the good of the organization while building one another up.

Let’s take a look at each of the characteristics.

Humility.

We don’t talk much about humility in the workplace. Our western culture views humility as a weakness, something that gets in the way of ambition. Many view humility as unrealistic in the cut-throat world of the marketplace where it’s “eat or be eaten.” But humility is making a resurgence in the marketplace. Good guys (and gals) really can finish first.

Humility breaks down barriers of communication, disarms individuals from protecting their territory, and allows us to listen. When we are driven by ambition, we cannot hear what is being said because we are always looking to promote ourselves and our solutions. But with humility I can truly listen, truly desire to hear, and see where the insight emerges, even if it doesn’t originate with me.

Humor.

It may seem odd to make humor a characteristic of investing, but it makes such a big difference that it warrants an honored place as an essential element in working with others toward common goals. When I say humor, I am not talking about sarcasm, jokes, or laughing at the mistakes or shortcomings of others. Instead, humor as an investment gives us perspective. It is the ability to look at a ridiculous situation and see it as it is – a case of human reality at its finest and most sublime.

Many of us have lost our sense of humor in the workplace. We have become cynics or comics, but have no good humor that allows things to slide. We are quickly offended, proud of our fast retorts, and use humor to tear others down to make ourselves look better. But humor as an investment intentionally laughs at challenges, sees the irony and chooses to smile instead of lash out, and promotes light-heartedness over criticism or caustic remarks.

Harmony.

Harmony embraces diversity, especially cognitive diversity where we bring together different perspectives, unique insights, and approaches to situations that may be foreign to our own experience or preference. Harmony as a performance investment looks to blend ideas from multiple sources into one beautiful arrangement that is infinitely more than anyone single individual could accomplish.

To create a harmonious workplace requires that we look at each individual and learn to appreciate what they bring to the party. We have a tendency within our human nature to look for homogeneity – we immediately seek out those who are like us. It makes us feel comfortable, part of the group. But diversity is all around us, and we must promote harmony through building rapport with those who see things differently, looking for areas of agreement, but mostly striving to appreciate their point of view and working to integrate the best from all sources.

Honor.

The final characteristic of investment-based performance improvement is honor. Honor and harmony are kindred spirits, since honoring someone can lead to harmony. But I keep honor as a distinct characteristic because of its importance as a mindset toward other people. Honor has to do with “a showing of usually merited respect.” When we honor someone, we hold them in high regard. We see them as a person of value, worthy of investment.

In another sense of the word, we consider it an honor to work with certain people, or to be recognized by them. When it comes to investing in someone else, to make their ability to perform at their peak level, we should consider it an honor. That person may be on a different level in a corporate hierarchy, but if we choose to see it as a privilege to assist them in their success, our ambition takes a back seat.

Investment-based performance improvement, using the 4 H’s as the philosophical starting point, sparks a positive change in the workplace. Whether a certified performance technologist, a supervisor working with a team of customer service reps, or vice president of national sales, you are making an investment in the lives of others. Ambition has its place, but when our ambition centers on our own power, glory, and advancement we quickly become blind to how investing in the performance of others raises all of us to a higher level. When you raise others up, you go a little higher yourself, but then you realize that isn’t really what it’s all about after all.

For more about Human Performance Technology and the Certified Performance Technologist designation, visit the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). If you decide to join, make sure you list me as the one who referred you!

Fundamentals of Performance Improvement: A Guide to Improving People, Process, and Performance

Project Management Skills Should be Required for Everyone!

Project Management Lifecycle

An organization I work with recently switched to a new email server. The plan was that at the flick of a switch everything would migrate to the new server and in less than five minutes everyone would be up and running. A week later the mess is still being cleaned up.

Very few IT projects that I’ve participated in have been implemented without some unexpected glitch. In fact, I think the mantra of many in IT is “expect the unexpected.” The point being, as optimistic as one might be, it’s a good idea to think about what could go wrong and plan accordingly. And just as importantly, communicate accordingly.

In the scenario I described above, even if the switch would have worked and the system was up within minutes, there was additional set-up that every user needed to complete to activate the system. No one anticipated this. No email message with self-service instructions was provided, so the IT staff has had to work individually with everyone in the organization to get them set up.

Unfortunately, situations like this happen all the time.  We get focused on the core task and forget what is happening up and down stream. As a college professor I believe a critical skill that every college graduate must learn is basic project management. The project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) focuses on five key processes:

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and Controlling
  5. Closing

There are also nine areas of knowledge that are central to managing any type of project:

PMBOK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not everyone who leads a project will need to be concerned with every aspect of these nine areas of knowledge. However, a basic education in project management will promote the acquisition of a project management mindset that identifies areas of risk, possible derailments, and contingency plans. When employees are taught to anticipate what might happen, whether in customer interactions or technology implementations, communication can help control the process and curtail the need for inefficient crisis management if things go wrong.

The key to managing any project is asking the right questions before the project moves an inch. Here are a few that apply to almost all projects, and should be asked by everyone whether they are managing the project or not.

  1. What, exactly, is changing? What will be different when we’re done?
  2. What might go wrong? What will happen if things go awry? What makes for a good project implementation?
  3. What is my role? Do I need to communicate information down the line?
  4. Do I have critical information or concerns that I need to share with someone in charge?
  5. What assumptions am I making about the project?
  6. Are there others who may be affected by the project who don’t know as much as I do? What might I need to share with them?
  7. What could be done to make the project as smooth as possible?
  8. Would it help to create a FAQ document? A job aid or quick reference guide? What would help me do my job easier – that’s usually important to everyone.
  9. What has been communicated about the project? Is it sufficient? If someone walked in off the street could they make sense of what was happening?
  10. What are my co-workers most likely to ask questions (or grumble) about?

Failure to effectively manage projects results in inefficiency, including re-work or additional work, and causes hours of grumbling among staff. A little pre-planning and an extra communication effort can make a huge difference in the execution of a project. Going back to my original example, if the questions above were given any consideration, a whole week of stress, confusion, and reduced productivity could have been avoided.

The One-Page Project Manager: Communicate and Manage Any Project With a Single Sheet of Paper

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Absolute Beginner's Guide to Project Management (2nd Edition)
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Making the Pieces Fit: Right Person-Right Job-Right Organization

A couple of years ago, when I was managing a group of trainers for a large financial services firm, I needed to backfill a position when a trainer was promoted within the company. We lacked internal bench strength, so following the culture of promotion from within wasn’t a viable option. I would have to hire externally. Personally, I welcomed this opportunity because I felt we needed some “new blood” in our organization.

As I sorted through dozens of resumes and began narrowing down the candidates, there was one individual who stood out to me as unique. What he lacked in industry experience I was confident he could overcome with his ambitious, unconventional perspective. I wanted to shake up the rest of the trainers, and I was committed to hiring a diverse team to broaden the perspectives of the group and encourage them to learn from one another.

So I ignored the concerns of a couple of people I had invited to participate in the interview process and went with my gut. What I learned is that sometimes your gut needs to listen to the guts of others!

Jerry was probably the worst hire I have ever made! Almost from the beginning, when he was a participant in the training class, he began stirring things up, but not in the exciting, positive way I had envisioned. Over the next two years I coached and disciplined him until it was obvious we needed to sever the relationship altogether.

What I now know is that company fit is a two-way street. An article published in 2005 by researchers at the University of Iowa (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman & Johnson, Personnel Psychology, 2005) addresses Person-Environment fit. Fit can be considered from various angles, such as person-supervisor fit, person-organization fit, person-workgroup fit, and so on.

Recruiters and hiring managers may have some instinctive knowledge, and maybe even some formal training, in screening individuals for organizational fit. There is a desire to find out if someone will be a good fit for the culture as well as provide the necessary skills and experience to do the job. Often, though, organizations do what I did with Jerry – they fail to look at things from multiple perspectives, so they miss things that could become a problem down the road.

The most useful person-environment factors to consider are vocation fit, job fit, organization fit, and workgroup fit.

Vocation Fit

Remember the career interest inventory you took your senior year in high school? Your results showed a laundry list of possibly occupations based on what you selected as most and least desirable in the assessment. I think some of mine included funeral director, teacher, librarian and zookeeper. Often there is little personal counseling that goes along with these assessments so you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you might want to be when you grow up!

We assume that individuals have figured this out before they start applying for jobs, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked why someone wants a particular job and they respond with “I really like to help people.” That’s great! But why help people through this job? Why does it satisfy you? Why is this career of choice? I ask my college students what they plan to do after graduation and most of them say “get a job.” Minimal effort seems to be put into discovering strengths, passions, interests, and vocational fit.

Job Fit

Assuming the individual has made a thoughtful vocational choice, the next step is to consider job fit. My wife used to laugh at me early in our marriage when I would look through the want ads and circle jobs (yeah – remember the days when you had to get the Sunday paper to find out who was hiring?!) that I didn’t have the credentials for but was convinced I would be a perfect choice for! Or I would apply for jobs at companies that I would not enjoy working in.

As job seekers we get into the desperation trap of “I just need a job – any job – and I’ll keep looking if its not the best one.” With bills piling up we quickly jettison the idea that we need a job where we can thrive – we’re just trying to survive. We become overly optimistic and let the dollars guide us.

The opposite happens with organizations and hiring managers. I’ve made desperate hiring decisions just to fill a position quickly, then regretted it later. In the call center world we called it “butts in seats.” In retail we had a similar approach – the “fog a mirror” test. The assumption is that its better to have someone…anyone…than no-one. Some industries just come to expect a certain amount of turnover.

But have you noticed the difference between the fast-food associate that is a good fit and the one who isn’t? They are in the right vocation – customer service – and in the right job. They smile, interact, and do their work with pride. In some ways its harder to measure this as people climb the ladder. They have the experience, skills, and credentials. But do they fit with your job?

Organization Fit

There are a few ways to look at organization fit. First, is there values alignment? Job seekers have to find out if what they believe about life and work meshes with what the company believes about life and work. Do they produce products and services that we think are harmful in some way? I once worked for a company that provided customer service for companies that sold adult videos, psychic readings, and online gambling sites. I didn’t know that until after I started working for the company, and it gave me some heartburn to be associated with such a company.

My first human resources job was for a century-old food manufacturing company that was hiring their first HR Manager in the company’s history. It took them at least two years to pull the trigger on posting the job. The average tenure of the executive team was about 20 years, so most of them started with the company right out of college and never left. As a young, ambitious, and out-of-the-box HR Manager, I was in for an awakening! I had a blast going in and setting up a new department, having the autonomy to create priorities and projects. But after about three years I had done all I could do because my desire for progressive programs did not fit the culture. They needed someone who would maintain what I had set in place.

As organizations become more active supporters of a variety of causes, from gay rights to immigration reform to global warming, job seekers have to do their homework to decide whether they fit with such an organization. It requires asking specific questions about values, priorities, and practices. Read articles about the company to see what may be below the surface of the company web site.

Workgroup Fit

At the workgroup level both the job seeker and the employer need to evaluate whether there is a good fit with a particular team. I’ve worked in large organizations that are a conglomeration of multiple sub-cultures. If the workgroup is in a location apart from corporate headquarters, how is the culture different? Is there dysfunction, infighting, or an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to working with other departments?

When I worked for a regional department store chain I was in one of the premier stores in a large mall in a large city. I would visit our stores in smaller cities and the culture within the store was completely different. There is a different talent pool, with smaller towns typically having less turnover. I’ve often found that the less turnover there is, the more likely the workgroup is receptive to change and new ideas. This isn’t always the case, but it’s important to check out.

Over a ten-year career in retail I worked in or managed virtually every department. As a 20-something male, I was assigned to manage a cosmetics department of 30 women for a couple of years. What an experience that was. Talk about a challenging workgroup fit!  Why my boss thought this was a good position for me, I don’t know. And why I accepted it shows that I didn’t give much thought to workgroup fit!

Evaluating Fit is Everyone’s Job

Job seekers and employers both have a responsibility to evaluate fit. At the highest organizational levels processes need to be in place to ensure values and priorities are clearly communicated at every level and location of the organization. Human resource policies and practices need to promote evaluation of fit, with hiring managers receiving training on how to screen at the four levels of fitness.

With high unemployment and fierce competition for jobs it will be difficult for job seekers to honestly evaluate fit, especially at the organization and workgroup levels. Individuals will accept positions out of desperation, blindly hoping that they can push through the discomfort they may have with the workplace. It won’t take long for things to surface and productivity will likely suffer. Co-workers will be affected and HR will be called in to help fix the situation.

We will continue to see tension within our workplaces from a failure to consider fit from employer and employee angles. Misalignment of skills, values, personalities and priorities cause friction and misunderstanding. As an HR Manager I frequently had discussions with hiring managers over whether it was better to keep a position open longer, taking a risk with productivity, or to keep searching for the right person. It’s difficult in the moment, because there are lines of customers waiting to be helped, or projects put on hold, or machines running at less-than-capacity. But in the end, the productivity and positive ripple effects for the workgroup and organization when the right person is in the job typically outweigh the less-than-stellar outcomes of a poor fit.

Suggested Resources

Who: The A Method for Hiring

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Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time

Order Match: A Systematic, Sane Process for Hiring the Right Person Every Time from the Minding the Gap Bookstore

What Color Is Your Parachute? 2012: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

Order What Color is Your Parachute? 2012 from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type

Order Do What You Are from the Minding the Gap Bookstore!

 

 

Twenty Minutes a Day

My last blog post was months ago. I have started to write a couple of times, but could never finish and publish. I was buried beneath my to-do list, and couldn’t seem to get caught up.

Then a client asked me to deliver training to help their executive team figure out how to accomplish the organization’s strategic goals when everyone seemed to be struggling to keep up with the daily grind.

As I began to put the lesson together, I realized I had to figure this issue out for myself!

I just graded papers for my Managing Organizational Change class, where more than half the students wrote about procrastination and time management for a project on personal change. I empathize with their struggle to find balance and set priorities so that assignments get done on time. Students often think their situation is unique, trying to have a social life, make money, and stay on top of their school work.

Instead of offering a reprieve, adulthood only complicates things. Juggling family, work, volunteer work, and hopefully some diversions from the monotony of daily routine keep us from making time for all of our good intentions, our strategic goals, those “some day” projects we never seem to get to.

My to-do list is not likely to shrink much in the near future, although I’m working that angle to see where I can cut out meetings, networking that does not add value, and commitments that I should probably back out of or defer. I am becoming much more diligent in reviewing my calendar to eliminate things that keep me from what is essential or most important.

A regular calendar audit is useful to make sure you don’t allow things to creep onto your schedule without a good reason.

But what I have discovered recently is that I can make progress on my strategic goals, be they personal or professional, with a commitment of only 20 minutes a day. That’s about how long it takes to write a short blog message, read (or write) part of a chapter in a book, research a new topic, or set up a tracking system.

For those things that will take longer, I’m learning to break the tasks down into twenty-minute increments and scheduling the time when I’m at my peak focus and energy, and least likely to get distracted by my to-do list.

Even if I don’t get as far as I want as fast as I want, I will still be able to see progress. Those strategic dreams will begin to take shape. Little by little I will see things take shape and can celebrate the small victories as long-term goals are no longer pipe dreams.

Twenty minutes a day, every day, seems pretty doable!

Bouncing Back (and Beyond): The Emotional Side of Economic Recovery for Employees

Cover of "Psychological Capital: Developi...

Cover via Amazon

As the economy begins its slow climb out of the pit of recession, workplaces have a lot of messes to clean up, especially the emotional debris caused by the economic tsunami the washed over the global marketplace these past 2-3 years. Companies slashed workforces and raised performance expectations in an attempt to ride out the storm, some barely keeping their heads above water. But what was the emotional toll and what do organizations need to do to help employees bounce back to pre-crisis levels of wellbeing?

Even before the recession was in full swing, when the pundits were still debating what title to put on the economic crisis that was beginning to raise its ugly head, a study by Towers Watson showed that “nearly half of U.S. employers say stress caused by working long hours is affecting business performance.”  Yet only about 5% were trying to do anything about it. And as the economic crisis became a beast of recession, one can only imagine that things didn’t improve!

It’s important for employers to consider what their employees have been through these past three years.  Did they face foreclosure? Did a spouse lose a job? Did they have to take on a second job just to make ends meet? Were there constant threats of layoffs and spending freezes and drastic cost-cutting measures that made it difficult for them to do their jobs? And did you keep giving them more work to do because you were feeling the stress of trying to keep the business afloat as you faced your own financial tsunami?

The good news is that we are resilient.

There are some practical steps employers can take to help employees bounce back, and hopefully go beyond where they were prior to the crisis.

Empathize. Put yourself in their shoes and gain some understanding of the stress they’ve faced. Very few individuals have come through the recession without being impacted in some way. Talk to your employees about what they’ve experienced and what their level of optimism is for the future. Find some common ground and let them see you as “real.”

Re-establish Trust. Employees may distrust employers, especially if they feel they have been treated unfairly. If you had to make drastic cuts and reduce hours, expenditures and support, talk with employees about priorities as you can begin loosening up the purse strings. Ask them for input on what essential resources are needed and how they might be funded. Collaborate with them and empower them to have some control over their work.

Give them Hope. Share with them how they fit into the organization’s future. Consider courses or conferences that may build their skills. Share your dreams for the future of the enterprise and how you see them being a part of the future success of the organization. Give them insight into exciting developments or plans. Don’t give false hope, however, or you’ll erode trust quickly.

Sustain their Wellbeing. Employee engagement grows as employers focus on initiatives that help employees find meaning in their work, balance all aspects of their lives, and minimize their stress. Gallup identifies “Five Essential Elements” of Wellbeing as Career, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community. What can you do as an employer to contribute to these areas of wellbeing so that your staff is energized, engaged and ready to help you succeed?

If you really want to make the most of the economic recovery, the key as an employer is to consider the emotional recovery of your employees. According to professor Fred Luthans & his colleagues (Psychological Capital, 2007),

“Today’s organizational participants need to not only survive, cope, and recover, but also to thrive and flourish through the inevitable difficulties and uncertainties that they face and to do so faster than their competition.”

They describe a process of “proactive resiliency” that helps individuals and organizations “overcome, steer through, bounce back, and reach out to pursue new knowledge and experiences, deeper relationships with others, and finding meaning in life.”

Employers are encouraged to reflect on adversities and setbacks and use them as a springboard for growth and development. Celebrate together that you’ve gotten through the difficulties and are now ready to take on the future together. This process can ultimately improve performance and lead to net gains for your business. Employees will gain job satisfaction and increase engagement as hope, trust and confidence create a positive spiral of increased resiliency.