The Butterfly Effect of a Leader

This blog was originally written for and posted on Linked2Leadership in March, 2011.
Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 6.16.26 AMIt took 30 years, but the scientific community finally embraced Edward Lorenz’ hypothesis that:

A butterfly could flap its wings and set molecules in motion, which would move other molecules of air, in turn moving more molecules of air – eventually capable of starting a hurricane on the other side of the planet.

What Lorenz called the Butterfly Effect became the much more scientific sounding Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions. I prefer Lorenz’ much more poetic & compelling image of a butterfly’s wings setting off a chain of events that leads to a mighty storm.

In a frame on my office wall I keep the following quote, from James C. Hunter’s book The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership.

How we behave as the boss at work today affects what goes on around the dinner table in other people’s homes tonight.

In other words, the actions we take, the words we use, the priorities we set begin the Butterfly Effect in the lives of followers, colleagues, clients and, according to the theory, everyone we encounter.

In his book titled The Butterfly Effect Andy Andrews tells two stories that illustrate the impact of our actions today on generations to come. First, he traces the decision made by a schoolteacher-turned-Civil War commander who quite possibly kept the U.S. from becoming fragmented into multiple nations. Andrews claims that without the Confederate win at Gettysburg the world would not have benefited from the U.S. allegiance that toppled Hitler during WW II.

The second story involves the story of George Washington Carver, in reverse, that led to the development, generations after Carver, of a disease-resistant seed later that does well in arid climates and has consequently provided grain around the globe and saved an estimated 2 billion people. Andrews makes the point that the origin of that discovery can be traced back further and further to decisions that set future events in motion.

Our own impact may or may not be so dramatic. We watch movies such as Freedom Writers, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poet’s Society and other inspirational tales of one person making a difference in the lives of many and our hearts are stirred. But do we consider that we have the ability to do the same thing in the lives of our direct reports, peers and others?

When your name comes up around the dinner table, what is being said about you? If you were a fly on the wall, would you hear statements like, “He always shoots down my ideas and won’t give me a chance” or “She only cares about the bottom line and has to always do things her way”?

Research from Gallup shows that what followers need most from leaders are trust, stability, hope, and compassion (Strengths Based Leadership, 2008). Luthans, Youssef & Avolio (Psychological Capital, 2007) identify efficacy (self-confidence), hope, optimism and resiliency as “psychological capital” that can positively impact the workplace.

Positive butterfly effects from leaders, then, start with intentionally infusing hope, optimism, resiliency, trust and other positive traits into daily encounters with followers. In the midst of chaotic, stressful and sometimes impossible circumstances, leaders can create a legacy that positively influences the outcomes of other people’s lives with a ripple effect that goes on for generations to come.

Dr. Henry Cloud in his book Integrity writes

When a person travels a few years with an organization, or with a partnership, or any other kind of working relationship, he leaves a ‘wake’ behind in these two areas, task and relationship: what did he accomplish and how did he deal with people? And we can tell a lot about that person from the nature of the wake.

If we are going to leave a wake one way or another, why not be intentional about it? Why not choose the direction the molecules of our actions will travel? Why not decide to unleash a tsunami of hope, optimism, resiliency and trust?

   

The Superhighway System of Organizational Reality: A Metaphor for Systems Thinking in Organizations

highwayMerging on to the interstate, blinker flashing and speed accelerating, I glide into my lane, becoming one with my fellow travelers. Some of us are headed toward the same event and will exit in a line, one after the other. Some will keep going and still others will realize they’ve missed their exit and have to reroute. Thanks, President Eisenhower, for championing America’s interstate highway system!

I’ve traveled to cities that seem to consider traffic laws as optional, and lanes are mere suggestions as drivers blare their horns as they dodge through intersections. When we first arrived in Tehran when I was in high school, our taxi driver even took “shortcuts” through parking lots and down alleys. He felt a sense of urgency we hadn’t communicated, almost as if he couldn’t deposit us to our front door fast enough!

Interstate and road design is meant to get us from one place to another in a somewhat orderly and efficient fashion. On ramps and off ramps, connections to and from other arteries, construction zones and speed traps, and changing rates of speed describe the transportation system, and also serve as a fitting metaphor for our workplace systems.

A key principle in human performance technology is systems thinking – an acknowledgement of the multifaceted and simultaneous activities within an organization that turn inputs into outputs through processes and channels. When looking for ways to close performance gaps it’s essential to think about the whole system, expanding the focus to see what might be a symptom of a larger issue.

The London Underground (Tube) system was introduced in the 1860s as a solution to the city’s overly congested streets. Hailing the first underground railway system (1863), greater London now has 270 stations that move travelers to all parts of the city with relative ease. But it wasn’t always this way.

For decades, competing rail companies dug their lines underground, moving people on a fairly straight path from one end of the city to another. Commuters would often have to exit one station from Line A and walk to another line to continue their journey. This made the underground experience almost as inconvenient as the above-ground transport.

Then, in 1933, a new entity was created that merged all of the competitors into a single organization. With this coordinated effort, Tube travel became much more efficient and consistent. The subterranean, geographical map of the Tube system was very difficult to read, until Harry Beck created a simplified (although geographically interpretive) map that was easy to follow.

Having a roadmap to explain and simplify the system is essential. Following the system is also required – from everyone…until a better system is discovered and adopted!

When I visited Beijing in 2012, one of my contacts told me about a traffic jam that lasted for 10 days in August, 2010 (check out the story on Wikipedia). Because of the vast number of automobiles and trucks trying to get in and out of Beijing every day, a schedule is required to avoid snarls. Commuters are allowed to enter the city on specific days, and delivery vehicles cannot enter the city before certain times, usually during the night.

As the story goes, some delivery truck drivers grew impatient and decided to make their way toward the inner city through construction. This caused such a wide-spread pandemonium that some drivers were stuck for up to five days, only able to move .6 miles per day.

We experience similar snarls in our organizations when we don’t follow our own processes. Our systems are only as good as our willingness and ability to follow them, and when individuals or departments insist on forging ahead without consideration for the consequences, the system breaks down completely and we get stuck for long periods of time.

Peter Senge, a thought leader in organizational systems and learning says,

Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system. And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.

To avoid organizational traffic jams, leaders need to keep the whole system in mind and commit to designing and following processes that keep things running smoothly. One department, and one leader, can’t make a decision without considering the impact on up- and down-stream stakeholders. Retrofitting new processes into old systems also causes inefficiency and mayhem. There must be a collaborative effort to co-create and co-repair the system.

When performance falls short of expectations, at the individual, workgroup or organizational levels, there must be a systems approach for discovering the gaps and contributors to those gaps. I often use the example from a call center client, who was addressing a serious problem with average handle time (AHT) for one of its products. Why were employees from one site able to meet the AHT goal while another site chronically fell short?

The assumption was that it came down to employee training and behavior (attitude). A refresher class was needed to remind employees of the steps that would ensure AHT goals were achieved. As employees sat through the refresher, however, my trainer noticed something…the employees were following the steps, but the system had a critical lag that slowed them down.

We can train, coach, and discipline employees when they don’t perform as expected, but we are being unfair when we hold them to impossible performance goals. We have to get a wider frame of reference before we jump in with solutions and make sure we’ve considered all possible contributions to the issue. Yes, training may be needed, but why else is possible? A technology issue? A supervisory problem? A policy that doesn’t make sense?

To understand and benefit from organizational systems we must learn to see through lenses other than our own. As processes are created and revised, decisions are made, or technology implemented, a consideration for the whole system is crucial to success. What impact will a course of action have on…

  • Marketing?
  • Sales?
  • Human resources?
  • Customer service?
  • Information Technology?
  • The community?

Systems thinking doesn’t mean we have to become experts in every area or learn to think like every possible stakeholder, but it does require an awareness that these entities and individuals exist. And we must learn to build social networks outside of our own areas of expertise to leverage the insights and factors bearing on the organization.

Managers are the engineers of workplace systems, creating the traffic flow, the signage, and rest stops that keep organizational drivers safe, focused, and able to navigate to their destination. Peak performance happens in our organizations when we think about the best routes to get our enterprise from Point A to Point B, and consider the many possible scenarios that could interfere with the flow.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Peter Drucker said, Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes. The knowledge within any system is only as powerful as the attention it is given. Pay attention to your systems as you would a map on an unknown interstate before GPS!

   

Servant Leadership By Any Other Name


In the dialogue between Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has the young Juliet proclaim,

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

In other words, call it what you want, but the characteristics of a rose – the aroma, texture, and other aesthetic qualities remain the same even if you choose to call it a greglestick.

Servant leadership, in its modern iteration, was a concept developed by Robert Greenleaf from a mostly a-religious (or at least unspecified) base of knowledge and experience. As Greenleaf observed leadership behaviors within a corporate setting, he identified those actions and mindsets that lead to a lifting up of individuals. He saw the benefits of a society, whether a workgroup, corporate enterprise, or geographic community, that built success through serving one another.

Since Greenleaf’s development of the servant leader principles in the 1970’s, several have built on his original ideas to provide a clearer framework that can be taught and applied in settings as diverse as corporations, educational institutions, churches, and government entities.

The church and some faith-based nonprofits eagerly embrace servant leadership, seeing the roots in the teachings of Jesus Christ. He said, “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) Followers of Christ understand the importance of serving others, and the term servant-leadership is widely accepted. Yet even within some Christian circles, the term carries some baggage, and a search is on to rename it.

The concept of service is not unfamiliar outside the church walls, as military members serve their country and politicians serve their constituents. But when it comes to the boardroom and the cubicle farms of our organizations, the idea of serving one another brings unease (although I can’t tell you how many job applicants say, “I like to help others” as a reason to hire them).

The principles of servant leadership are not necessarily the problem. Professor Larry Spears, who teaches servant leadership at Gonzaga University, lists 10 characteristics of a servant leader:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to the growth of people
  • Building community

Most of these qualities are familiar to us, although terms such as “healing” and “stewardship” seem foreign to our perceptions of what we discuss within our corporations. These unique characteristics, however, are exactly what make the servant leadership approach different from many other leadership models and philosophies.

An even greater step out of the leadership model comfort zone is Kathleen Patterson’s servant leadership model (Regent University), which uses terms like love, humility, and altruism. Similarly, Jeremie Kubicek, author of Leadership is Dead, replaces the term servant leadership with humility-based leadership. Citing baggage that comes with the term servant leadership, Kubicek sees the humility-based leaders as the antithesis of the self-serving and self-protecting leader.

It seems that to truly capture the essence of a type of leadership that promotes the needs of followers, to the extreme that productivity and profit are deemphasized over helping individuals to fully achieve all they are capable of, we may have to get comfortable with calling it what it is. Transformational leadership captures this emphasis on raising others up to their full potential, but the missing link, at least according to Patterson, is the notion that a servant leader serves altruistically, not because it is a means to greater productivity or organizational benefit.

While the title “servant leadership” may not resonate with everyone, especially those prone to a less benevolent style of leadership, I think that’s the point. Those who have seen the value of servant leadership, as Robert Greenleaf did decades ago, and are convinced that it delivers the best organizational and personal outcomes, must dialogue about how to articulate the benefits and principles that go along with it to a skeptical audience.

That being said, perhaps the closest commercialized leadership “model” that embraces the principles of servant leadership is The Leadership Challenge. Based on decades of research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge promotes the care of followers, which sounds a lot like servant leadership. Their principle of Encourage the Heart is based on the belief that, “As a relationship, leadership requires a connection between leaders and their constituents over matters, in the simplest sense, of the heart. It is personal and it is interpersonal.”

The servant leader enjoys serving, and would do it whether it “pays off” or not (that’s the altruistic nature of the model). Some may view this as “soft” or overly-idealistic. But to call service something other than service because it might offend, makes serving others seem optional, sub-par, and unrealistic.

Though others have tried, I’m not sure calling servant leadership by any other name really makes sense. Instead, I see the need to package servant leadership in a way that is clear, compelling, and convincing. Ben Lichtenwalner, who maintains the site www.modernservantleader.com, provides a list of organizations who have applied servant leadership successfully. The list includes well-known companies like AFLAC, 7-Eleven, The Container Store, Herman Miller, and Southwest Airlines, as well as smaller businesses that operate in a limited geography.

So, my suggestion is we move from re-naming servant leadership and focus on promoting it within our organizations and communities. Find out more at…

Modern Servant Leader

Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

Spears Center for Servant Leadership

Regent University Servant Leadership Research Roundtable

   

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.

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

Message to Recruiters: Get a Grip on Candidate Experience

dance-couples-silhouettes--vectorGame or Dance?

There are many metaphors for the hiring process. It can be a game, where candidate and recruiter square off and move strategically across a game board to see who is still standing at the end. Probably the least combative metaphor is of recruiting as a dance, with each side going through their well-rehearsed moves to finish the choreography in synch. In this scenario the goal that both parties want is a beautifully danced number that leads to a job offer (and a position filled from the perspective of the recruiter).

Recruiting Past, Present & Future

Back in the day recruiting (now called talent acquisition) was a manageable process. Companies would post a position in the Sunday paper and on Monday applicants would type up cover letters and resumes on their trusty typewriter, place these items into a manila envelope, and mail them to the address in the add. Or for lower level positions, applicants would begin showing up Monday morning to fill out paper applications (and later electronic applications on PCs in the HR office).

This process naturally meant you had to get the paper on Sunday and spend time combing through the job ads, circling ones you felt qualified for, then going through the very manual process of typing a formal cover letter. Because this was such a cumbersome process, which I don’t think any of us want to go back to, and tended to limit applicants to locals, the flow of applications was manageable.

There was a polite and structured process that people understood. Rejection letters, although often curt and unhelpful even then, were sent out in a timely manner. Waiting for news from a company has always been a painfully slow process, but in the pre-digital age, there was an understanding of how long it should take.

During this era there weren’t many phone interviews, so a series of face-to-face interviews were part of the screening and selection process. Since the rhythm of business was in synch with the technology of the day, a cadence for the hiring process was maintained and communication was simpler. With fewer applicants to manage, employers could maintain a cordial and open communication with an applicant, who typically knew within a couple of days whether they would move on to the next step in the process.

Things are dramatically different today. Almost no one sends a paper resume and cover letter, and if they do, they are asked to go back through the online applicant portal so that they’re “in the system.” The system, then, is where hundreds of possible candidates for a single position upload their credentials into an online database that recruiters can search to find the best matches.

Technology allows recruiters to search through countless online resumes for key words to find individuals who have used those particular key words in their resume. Then it’s a process of elimination, where the recruiter begins de-selecting candidates by taking about 30 seconds to evaluate on computer screens, narrowing it down to under a dozen manageable candidates that they want to screen more formally.

Today’s Talent Acquisition Game

And this is where the game begins. The recruiter makes contact with the candidate, usually by phone, but increasingly by email, and starts the series of moves that will either get the applicant closer to a job offer or trigger a rejection letter (another email).

For most companies, especially larger ones with a well-oiled recruiting process, the steps and applicant typically goes through include 1) Some type of online questionnaire or behavioral/personality assessment; 2) A structured phone interview; 3) A face-to-face interview with the recruiter; 4) A face-to-face interview with the hiring manager and/or group of stakeholders; and, if successful 5) A job offer.

There are variances in this process, of course, depending on the level of the position and the rigor of the company. At any point along the way, the candidate can be eliminated from further consideration.

Some companies do a fairly good job of communicating with candidates throughout the process. The candidate experience is a proactive consideration for these employers who understand that how they treat applicants, especially as they get further in the screening process, impacts their brand image. If a company really wants to control their brand image they will take the candidate experience seriously.

From the candidate experience perspective, these five things make the process painful:

  1. Cumbersome process. I suppose, if the desire is to see who can survive to the end, a cumbersome process brings to the surface those candidates who are most resilient, patient, or desperate! But when our process is needlessly burdensome to the candidate, we really need to rethink what we’re doing and if it adds value to getting the right person into the job. A regular review from the applicants point of view may bring to light unnecessary steps or screening tools that are ineffective.
  2. Slow response times. Recruiters are busy. They have multiple positions to fill and dozens of applicants to screen. It’s understandable that it’s hard to keep applicants in the loop. But that’s when technology is our friend, reminding us how long someone has gone without feedback, or being scheduled for the next appointment, or sent a rejection letter. I know sometimes those delays occur because the recruiter is waiting for a decision from a hiring manager, or waiting for a background check report, or someone is out of the office for the week. The recruiter needs to be an advocate for the candidates, though, reminding everyone in the process that real people are waiting for them to decide or act. Send rejection letters promptly!
  3. Poor communication. We have so many communication tools available today, yet it doesn’t mean our communication has improved! For the person waiting for the phone call or email that determines the future trajectory of their career, lack of communication can mean days (sometimes weeks) on an emotional rollercoaster, wondering if the signs of encouragement from earlier conversations were delusional or empty promises. The key for recruiters is to give realistic timelines, track the time so that you don’t miss the promised deadline, and communicate proactively if something is delaying the process.
  4. Misleading or mixed messages. Sometimes recruiters give hope where there is no hope. They don’t want to let someone down, so they make it sound like things will progress to the next step in the hiring process when, in reality, they probably won’t. I realize there are times when a candidate is good, but maybe not great, and you may decide to take another look at them. The important thing is to see things from the candidate’s perspective and be honest with them. It’s OK to let them know you have other candidates who may be a better fit, but you will let them know within X days/weeks if you will continue to pursue them. And don’t be afraid to cut an interview short and say, You know what, I don’t think this is a good fit. Then at least you can see if any additional credentials or qualifications surface while the person is still in front of you. When you decide to pass on someone, give them 2-3 bullet points to either help them improve or encourage them in some way.
  5. Shoe-horned process. Often our processes are outdated and no longer fit the realities of today’s workplace, or pace. When we have assessments that have nothing to do with the job responsibilities, steps in the process that take more time than the value they create, or were added by an advocate who is no longer with the company, then the candidate experience will suffer and your organization’s brand will be tarnished. Whether a person is hired or not is only part of the issue. For every person hired there are dozens who started the process but were eliminated. How does your organization come across to these would-be employees? What will they say of their experience to future applicants, suppliers, or customers?

The candidate experience is, at best, an afterthought for many organizations. The churn-and-burn nature of talent acquisition leaves applicants feeling bewildered and frustrated, which can erode the brand of the companies they’ve applied to. I think most of us who apply for a position and never get contacted for an interview understand that there are so many competitors for a position that we don’t take it personally. But once a company invites us to the dance, we have expectations. If our toes get stepped on, or we get dumped for another partner, we are bruised.

Get a Grip!

Recruiters, get a grip on the candidate experience! Review the process regularly from the applicant’s point of view. You might even be brave enough to initiate a “voice of the candidate” survey! Listen to feedback and adjust the process to align your needs and objectives with the candidate’s. If your process is dehumanizing, reducing applicants to commodities to be sorted through, then you may be missing the boat when it comes to acquiring the best talent. Talent is not a commodity and the acquisition of talent is not a sport. It’s a way for humans to connect and determine whether one human can help another achieve goals while providing meaningful work. Recruiters need to keep this in mind to optimize the candidate experience in our complex work systems.

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!

3 Essential Elements of Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking

 

After years of talking strategy with business partners I have come to the conclusion that most of us don’t know what strategic thinking really is. Most of what we call strategic thinking is really not that strategic.

 

 

Thinking comes in many forms:

  • Howard Gardner talks about five in his book Five Minds for the Future, and describes at least six kinds of intelligence in his other writings
  • Edward de Bono describes Six Thinking Hats, written specifically for thinking in a business context
  • I have compiled a list of about a dozen or so approaches to thinking.

The Clifton (Gallup) StrengthsFinder identifies strategy as a distinct strength that some of us have, and I know many executives who proudly declare themselves to be strategic thinkers.

STRATEGIC THINKING DEFINED

So how is strategic thinking defined? Maybe if we start there we can better identify whether we are doing it, and how we might do it better. Someone contributed the following definition to Wikipedia:

Strategic thinking is about finding and developing a strategic foresight capacity for an organisation, by exploring all possible organisational futures, and challenging conventional thinking to foster decision making today.

From this definition we can glean the three keys to real strategic thinking, although I want to switch the order around…

CHALLENGE THE STATUS QUO

Strategic thinking requires that we recognize and shelve our entrenched mindsets.  The current state of things is what we have determined needs to change, so we must move away from our regular routines when it comes to solving problems. It’s important to look at things from a new angle, to as ourselves why today’s performance, sales, market share, operational processes, and financial results is unacceptable.

Our minds are amazing in that they create efficiencies that allow us to operate with the least amount of effort. We go through much of our days on auto-pilot and do pretty well by this method. But this acting without thinking can also dig grooves in our minds that are hard to get out of. That’s why habits are so hard to break.

We don’t realize that the habits in our thinking prevent us from innovative solutions to persistent problems. Our normal problem-solving techniques, including brainstorming, are barely scratching the surface of what is possible as far as solutions are concerned. We tend to settle for an incremental shift rather than a break-through, and hope for the best outcome with the least amount of effort.

We say we want change, we believe we are entrepreneurial, but in reality we are tethered to self-limiting patterns of thought. So we must challenge the status quo, meaning that we have to face our limited thinking head-on and push ourselves to see more.

FORESIGHT CAPACITY

I like how thefreedictionary.com defines it – “Perception of the significance and nature of events before they have occurred.”

When we begin to challenge the status quo by becoming more aware of our limited and limiting assumptions, we gain insights into where our thoughts are leading us. We may discover that our current patterns are a vicious circle. When we take our beliefs and actions to the end of their logical progression, they may just lead us back to where we started from rather than to the new horizon we were hoping for.

The capacity to see into the future is not the purview of fortune tellers, but the domain of those committed to actively seeking to give the time and attention necessary to realistically see where a decision is headed.

Because of our brain’s capacity for efficiency, we often give up the benefits of strenuous thought. The rigor required for foresight prevents our well-organized minds from resting and reflecting. The best strategic thinkers are those who can train themselves to really consider the probable results of a number of options with realistic insight.

EXPLORING ALTERNATIVES

Expediency is an enemy of strategic thinking. We want to make quick decisions and move on to the next challenge. We go with our first instinct and dismiss all kinds of alternatives because they do not fit our parameters of possibility.

Saying things like, “that won’t work here”, “it’s too expensive, we’ll never get the budget for it”,“so-and-so will never go along with it,” and many similar statements slam the door on what might just be the breakthrough that turns the organization around. And to be honest, our organizations have created this mindset by reinforcing narrow-mindedness.

Exploring alternatives means not shutting down an idea out-right. The best brain-storming sessions allow ideas to be considered for a longer time. No alternatives are shut out of discussion, but are weighed for the unique merit they bring to the discussion.

The energy and high-level thought that comes from considering multiple options not only increases morale by encouraging people to contribute their wackiest ideas, but actually bring innovative solutions to the surface.

STRATEGIC THINKING UNLEASHED

There is no doubt that our world is getting more complex and that technology has accelerated the pace of organizational life, almost to an unbearable speed. To answer these challenges of more information and the need for better and quicker decisions, we must learn to be better strategic thinkers.

Innovation in-and-of-itself is not sufficient. Entrepreneurship is important, but the quality of our thinking cannot just produce more ideas, or they will quickly fizzle out and die, or get eaten up by the competition. We must go beyond the creative to the wise, which can only be accomplished by challenging the status quo, increasing our capacity for foresight, and improving our ability to explore alternatives.

Todd Conkright is a performance technologist, human capital strategist, and organizational development professional. He helps organizations and individuals mind the gap between what is and what ought to be through analysis of current state and strategic design of processes and practices to achieve what is possible. Todd is owner and chief consultant of Cornerstone Global Training and Performance Solutions in Omaha, Nebraska. Follow Todd on Twitter @GapMinding.

 

Positively Deviant Leadership

I have studied leadership for many years, and can’t count how many books I have collected on the topic. I keep learning new things about how to be an effective, impactful, and influential leader.

You may be familiar with some of the models: transformational leadership, situational leadership, behavioral leadership, servant leadership, and so on.

The term “leadership” is becoming a lot like the word love! You know, we love chocolate and we love our mothers. But one we have affection for, and the other we crave. Big difference, right!?

Similarly, Leadership has lost its meaning because everyone can be a leader, either by having the title or by assuming the role. Studies show that 8 out of 10 Americans consider themselves leaders, or at least aspire to be. It makes me wonder who is following all of those leaders!

We all know from personal experience that some leaders are better than others. We also know that Leadership is something that can fall to neglect. Without a commitment to continue to improve and grow, leadership can lose its impact and influence.

While we may retain the title of leader, we may lose relevance and the power to change things if we put our leadership into autopilot. When we aren’t intentional about our leadership, we can actually cause a lot of damage.

It’s important to focus on who you are as a leader.

Leadership is a stewardship, a responsibility bestowed on us by followers, and we’d better take it seriously.

A challenge that we have in our organizations and our communities is that we tend to focus on problems. We look for where things are broken and we work to fix things. We also tend to be reactive, putting out fires and placing band aids on the symptoms. Oftentimes we have a deficit mindset, which leads to pessimistic and negative thinking.

The word proactive is well-used in our workplaces. It’s a good word, meaning that we act before things go awry, before its too late. The opposite, of course, is reactive, which means that we have already experienced a downturn, an opportunity has been missed, or we are off target. So we try to become proactive, hopefully avoiding the need to react to a crisis.

But there is something even more powerful than being proactive – it’s called positive deviance.

The word deviance comes from two Latin words: de, meaning out of; and via, meaning the way. So you have this idea that the deviant has ventured away from the normal path, most likely to pursue something sinister. But the positive deviant has gone off the beaten path to create a new way, a positive path.

The positive deviant is unorthodox, driven by a passion to make a difference, a compulsion to improve things, to grow and develop. What I want to leave you with tonight is three principles of positively deviant leadership.

The first principle is this: positively deviant leaders imagine better.

They see where things are and they envision something better. They look around them and they aren’t satisfied with what they see. They know it doesn’t have to stay like this, and they believe they have the ability to venture in a new direction.

Do you remember Popeye the Sailor Man? I know he’s in the wrong branch of the armed forces for some of you!

Do you remember when Olive Oyl was being bullied by Brutus and Popeye came along? He got steaming mad, and said “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands it no more!” He gobbled down his spinach and kicked Brutus’s butt!

Positive deviants are the same way! It may be an injustice, it may be a missed opportunity, it may be a better, more life-giving, more enriching way to do something. But they can no longer follow the status quo. They have to do something. And they are willing to step off the path to make it happen. This first principle has to do with attitude and seeing what could be if they stepped up and did something about it.

Positive deviants are all around us. They are the ones who choose to make a way where there seems to be no way. They take the same resources as everyone else has and they use them differently, and they find a way to thrive right next to the fire-fighters, right beside the maintainers of the status quo.

The second principle of positive deviance is this: positive deviants enlist co-conspirators. They Inspire through partnership.

Positive Deviants may initially venture out alone- they may start out as the rock in the middle of the stream around which the current is swirling. They do the research or covertly initiate their plan, but they know that change happens in community, in the social context. Positive leaders begin building a coalition.

They begin looking for others who are looking for a new path, those who see the need to change but may need a little prompting-they need to see some proof that change is possible. That’s where the positive deviants’ pre-work comes in handy. They have something to show that persuades others to come along.

Jerry and Monique Sternin worked for Save the Children. After the war in Vietnam, they were deployed to address the issue of malnutrition that was pervasive throughout Vietnam. It was great while the NGOs were there to distribute rice and nutrition packets, but when a particular program ended, meaning that there was no more food to distribute, malnutrition returned as before. The challenge before the Sternin’s was whether a sustainable nutrition program could be put into place.

It’s a fascinating story, which you can read for yourself in their book, but I want to focus on how they built a coalition to eradicate malnutrition in post-war Vietnam. With a mandate to fix a huge problem in a very short amount of time, the Sternin’s went on a hunt for positive deviants and discovered that among the poorest of the poor families, some children were nourished even though they had the same resource as their neighbors.

Once the Sternin’s and the local leaders that they had partnered with discovered what the positively deviant families were doing differently, which turned out to be adding a few bits of shrimp & crab, and a handful of greens to the regular serving of broth, they had to take what these few were doing to transform the community through collaboration. The point is this: the Sternin’s could not do it alone.

Consider how your network can move your community or your organization toward something that no single person is capable of. What path is awaiting you as a group of positively deviant leaders?

So the second characteristic has to do with relationships and building critical mass that leads to positive change.

The third and final characteristic I want to leave with you is this: positively deviant leaders are forward thinking.

The reality is that what is emerging for the next 20 years doesn’t look like the last 20 years. It’s already become a cliche that the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself! We know that the pace of society, the pace of business, is getting Faster and faster.

But our communitIes are becoming more global. Our competition is not just the business down the street, but the business in Bangalore, the organization in Bogota. So as positive deviants we must anticipate and be able to maneuver at a fast pace.

I heard recently that at least 20 percent of the jobs that will be needed in the next fifteen years don’t even exist today. Between a flattening world and rapid advances in technology, we’re in for an upheaval in how work gets done and who does it, and also the types of products and services that are required. This reality requires a different way of thinking if our communities are going to thrive into the future.

Positive deviants are watchers of the horizon. And they become prophets of future trends and seers of what is to be. Positive deviants energize innovative thinking. They build a strategy to forge a new path…a positive path for the future.

There is so much more to positive deviance. The interesting thing is that it has worked as a mindset and approach at the community development level and healthcare, but the marketplace has been slow to embrace it because we are committed to problem solving and a deficit mindset.

It’s not a panacea – you still have to address problems and evaluate gaps.

To me, the important thing about positively deviant leadership is that it can help us think about our communities and workplaces differently. Positively deviant leadership shifts the frame through which we view challenges and opportunities.

The questions we ask about what is happening around us shapes the kinds of answers we will hear. Positively deviant leaders look for signs of life and hope and fan the flames of possibility instead of looking for systems and programs on life support in an effort to keep them artificially alive.

Consider a positive deviance approach. Think about how you can imagine better and challenge the status quo, build a coalition that moves the group toward life-giving initiatives, and see into the future to create a community, an organization, and a life that builds on strengths and assets.