Skip to content

Archive for

A Dilemma: Promote from Within or Import Talent

Colored Light 01Most of the talent management literature I’m familiar with focuses on building internal talent pipelines so that organizations have a ready pool of high-potential people to promote when the time comes. In theory, there are many advantages to filling positions with people who have proven themselves locally, understand the culture, and are “known quantities.”

I suggest that there’s a dilemma here, because no matter how attractive that talent strategy appears to be, sometimes the last person you need in an important position is one who is fully embedded in “who we are” and “what got us here.” As Marshall Goldsmith and many others have pointed out, on an individual level all our experience and learning to date may not be sufficient to make us successful in a rapidly changing environment.

I suggest that only companies as large and diverse as P&G can afford their workforce the variety of experiences required to bring new thinking to new challenges using people who’ve been there awhile. Most organizations just can’t develop–even with a strong talent development program–what it takes to come up with new thinking as demands change. There are times and places when you need to import that talent you need.

What makes this a true dilemma is that importing talent is not easy either–especially in strong cultures that naturally tend to reject unfamiliar DNA. Like most dilemmas, this one persists because there’s not always one best answer. Sometimes, your own people, well developed, are your best bet. Other times you need to go to the market–and even then it’s a challenge for leadership to accommodate the new perspectives they sorely need.

Everything I know about leadership I learned at AT&T? Part One

Colored Light 06My father worked for 40 years at AT&T in what was called the Long Lines department. He joined the company before WWII, served in the Signal Corps, and then returned to AT&T and stayed there until he retired c. 1981. After his passing in 2011, I found In his possessions a small loose-leaf notebook with his name embossed on it, containing a 1952-1953 calendar, work-related notes to himself, circuit diagrams, etc. At the front of this notebook are several preprinted pages headed, “Supervisory Conference Material” and dated September, 1944. Dad became a supervisor in the early 50s, I think, so these pages may represent his “new manager orientation” materials. I’m sharing a selection from these materials in a series of posts–for several reasons:

First, I want to see what’s changed. Are the issues the same or have they changed in ways commensurate with the degree of social change that’s occurred over the past 70 years? Some changes are to be expected: what’s different, and what’s not?

Second, how do these notes compare to the management and leadership literature we see and share today? Are we smarter about leadership/management issues today, or have we lost something?

And third, are there any lessons here for those of us in the leadership, learning, and change business? What can and should we learn from the answers to the first two questions.

To get started, here’s a paragraph that seems to me like a pretty good argument for how hierarchies in organizations are supposed to work, and for how a hierarchy of managers is to think about the work that takes place within and under their spans of control. (Please note that the gender-specific language in this material is objectionable today but typical for the time. Despite my own discomfort, I’ve decided to preserve the original intact as a historical document. Noting every instance with a [sic] might be even more distracting. I ask for your forbearance in responding to the content and not to the form of the material. I will gladly revise this post if someone can recommend a better strategy.)

(Taken from a talk to a supervisory conference at Toledo, Ohio, on September 26, 1944 by Mr. J. M. Desmond, Division Plant Superintendent, Division 6)

When assigning duties or delegating authority in an organization, we also define jobs and assign them to individuals. It is the history of our business that each of us feels that the job he has is mainly his own concern; that in a way it is his personal property for so long as he has that job. This is a natural feeling and is the obvious result of having job pride in the work which forms such a large part of our lives. The men further up in the organization all have that same job pride so that probably the job that any one of us occupies might be said to have a number of owners. Let’s take the job of a Testroom Man or a Section Man. Either one of these men would feel that the job he normally does or the section for which is is responsible is his own. This is a fine feeling to have and to encourage. The
District Line Inspector fels that the sum of all section jobs is his particular job. The sum of all these jobs in the District is the job of the District Plan Superintendent. The district is the highest unit we have devoted to maintenance work as its primary responsibility and the District Superintendent has a great concern for his responsibility and a great pride in the accomplishments within his District. The same thing is true of the Division Superintendent, General Plant Superintendent, General Plant Manager and the staff supervisors; each one takes the same interest in the work in his territory or his specialty and has job pride in exactly the same way as the Testroom Man or the Section Man.

I invite your comments: What has changed and how much? Are we smarter about these issues today? And what lessons can we learn?

A Dilemma: Vote with Your Feet or Stay Put and Speak Up?

Colored Light 07An earlier post referred to the economist Albert Hirschman, as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker review of his recent biography (“Doubt: A Best Practice in Managing Change?” August 8). According to Gladwell, Hirschman’s most famous work posed two options for “dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions.” (If you’ve never encountered one of these, this blog may not be for you.)

The two options are “Exit” and “Voice.” I hope it doesn’t diminish the impact of this dilemma to point out that these basically amount to the familiar “fight or flight”–in reverse order. “Exit” means taking off and putting the dysfunction behind you. “Voice” means staying and working for something better right where you are.

I wonder whether in recent times the progressively shorter tenure most people have in their organizations–I’m told that this is down to four or five years on average, compared to the double-digits that were the norm several decades ago–may be a result of a bias toward “Exit.” I often hear that this shorter tenure is associated with younger generations, and that certainly aligns with what we hear and what we see about attention spans and TMI as a way of being.

Hirschman, however, believed strongly in “Voice.” Not only because this stance conformed with his personal values but because he thought that only if enough people choose this option do our organizations and institutions improve.

Are too many people too quick to vote with their feet? And does this necessarily mean a decline in the quality of our institutions?

What’s the long term impact if leaders implicitly or explicitly welcome “Exit” strategies instead of nurturing those who Stay Put and Speak Up? Aren’t these the fully engaged employees we all say we want more of?

“I know enough for my age already”

My mom once asked a six-year-old neighbor boy, after his first day of kindergarten, what he thought of it:

Mom: So how was your first day of school?

Six-year-old: I guess it was OK, but I’m not going back.

Mom: Why not?

Six-year-old: I know enough for my age already.

Colored Light 29

Our production-line version of schooling* tells us year-by-year whether we have reached the “right” level of knowledge and skills throughout our step-by-step progress through the education system. I wonder whether this doesn’t leave us with the impression that if we’ve completed the grade or passed the test, then we “know enough for our age.”

My question is whether there’s any such thing as knowing enough–at any age. Do we assume that when we’ve received the diploma or the degree, we’re done? What about when we get the corner office or the C-level job. Are we done then?

My guess is that the six-year-old turned out to be a fine citizen and contributor. (This was many years ago.) But I doubt that–unless he eventually got over the idea that one can ever “know enough for his age”–that he made a very good leader. Beware the leader who knows it all, or is done learning. In this age, how can any of us ever know enough?

*See Callahan: Education and the Cult of Efficiency, an older (1964, but still in print) but still relevant history of how the structure of our public schools (public or private, magnet or charter, with few exceptions) evolved during the early years of the 20th century by borrowing concepts from industry at the time. These concepts, as applied to schools, are now taken largely for granted but are worth another look.

A Scenario for Turning a Best Practice into a Not-So-Great Practice

Colored Light 27An organization I’ve heard of wisely seeks best-practice models in order to improve performance in many areas of the business. Representatives of the organization attend conferences, do site visits, or depend on consultants to acquaint them with promising best practices. The members of the organization frequently encounter practices that are significantly different from what they’re used to–which is the purpose of seeking best practices in the first place. I take it for granted that there’s no real improvement without real change.

In assessing practices that might be taken home for use in the original organization, its members “test-fit” the ideas according to “what we think will work best around here.” This is natural; we all do it.

Imagine–as a thought experiment–a group of organizational representatives assessing a list of several potential best practices. I have observed a tendency to import the practices that can most feasibly be implemented, within the original organization’s culture and context. However, the practices that are the easiest fit by definition will create the least change. And it’s not the “least change” that will make a big difference.

It may be that the practices that are the greatest stretch–potentially the hardest to implement “around here”–that would make the difference and help reach the goals set by the exercise in the first place. Yet these, for this organization, are the least likely to be imitated, while the practices that are imported make little difference in the long run.

You tell me: is this typical or just an unfortunate special case?

A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing

Colored Light 11To close out my obsessive series of posts about the perils of substituting superficial learning for the deeper kind that really makes a difference, I refer you to someone who said it all much better in the 18th century. This is Alexander Pope (that’s “A. Pope” for you Davinci Code fans), whose poem on the subject follows:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts ;
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise !
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky ;
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last ;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way ;
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise !

From Calendar Soup to Counterfeit Learning

Calendar Soup refers to a couple of earlier posts on substituting a superficial imitation of personal learning for the real thing (August 29 and September 4).

A more serious metaphor for the organizational and social costs of “imitation learning” is counterfeiting: the production and use of currency that lacks real value. Counterfeiting is attractive to miscreants because it costs less to manufacture fake money than to earn the real thing. Of course, this depends on using the fake stuff unrecognized–in exchange for currency or goods with real value.

One of many reasons that counterfeiting is illegal–as is even the possession of counterfeit money– is that Gresham’s Law applies. This law is sometimes abbreviated to: “The bad drives out the good.” Because counterfeit money costs less to acquire but can be exchanged for the same return as the real thing, people will naturally hold onto (or “hoard”) their good money in favor of using the bad stuff. Over time, only the fake money is in circulation. Those with the real thing–under these conditions–can only lose if they use their stock of real cash in the marketplace, if they have access to the other kind and its use is not constrained in some way.

When leaders in an organizational setting pursue some kind of important learning that promises to move the business forward, they have a choice about how deeply to engage in the new thinking. Think lean/six sigma, change execution management, customer focus, design thinking, any performance improvement methodology, etc. It’s feasible to go to the four-hour executive briefing and, as a result, to think “you’ve got it.” As any Black Belt (for example) knows, that’s not really possible.

Over time such executives can begin to believe that they have adopted lean thinking, or customer relationship management, or the learning organization–when all they have done is encounter the topics and dip a toe or two into the water. There’s nothing wrong with the four-hour executive briefing nor with the need to start small when tackling deep learning. The problem arises when this is taken–either by the executives themselves or by their constituents–as full understanding.

When this happens, the organization pays the price in two ways: first, in underutilization of the new thinking. The senior level can endorse the new way, but if the required shift in thinking is transformational enough endorsement is insufficient. If the new thinking is different enough, then everyone–including the executives–must take it on. The learning can’t simply be delegated to others. Just hiring a lean engineer or a six sigma Black Belt doesn’t change the organization, as many have found.

The second price to be paid–an even larger one in the long run–is that the bad drives out the good. If the executives feel–on the basis of their executive briefing–that they have been there and done that with a new way of thinking or deep learning, then the door to getting deeper into it begins to close for the organization. “We tried six sigma [for example] and it didn’t work” will be the claim, and opportunities to embed the thinking behind six sigma into the DNA of executives and others are now exhausted, at least for awhile.

In terms of organizational learning, Gresham’s Law might be rephrased in a number of ways:

The superficial drives out the deep.

The briefing drives out the real learning.

The imitation drives out the real thing.

Perhaps you can suggest others. Interestingly, Gresham did not originate his eponymous law. It goes back at least to Aristophanes, who in The Frogs made mention of the bad driving out the good in stark terms related directly to leadership:

So with men we know for upright, blameless lives and noble names.

These we spurn for men of brass…

Basketball Teams, Bowling Teams, and Your Teams: Understanding Interdependence

This will be a riff on a metaphor that’s one of my favorites regarding teams–but which I haven’t been able to trace to its source. I welcome any comments about where this metaphor was first introduced and by whom.

In an earlier post, I proposed that the interdependence of team members is an essential element of what makes them a team. Also that building understanding of and appreciation for this interdependence is fundamental to team-building. The level of interdependence among team members, however, varies–a lot. And this has implications for team performance and for team-building.

Consider two five-person athletic teams, one a bowling team and the other a basketball team. It might help to consider these two teams as consisting of the same five individuals. Perhaps they bowl together on Mondays and play basketball together on Thursdays.

Now consider the level of interdependence among the members of this team when they are bowling. They presumably bowl separately, in the sense that only one person is on the lane at a time. One person, ten pins, one ball, two attempts. That’s the structure of bowling. While one person bowls, the involvement of the other member of the teams is limited to emotional and perhaps verbal support. Plus an incentive, maybe, as in a “beer-frame.” There is also an opportunity for coaching and feedback about the approach, the grip, the release, the follow-through, etc.  But when you bowl, you bowl alone. And the team’s score? It’s the simple sum of the scores of the members of the team (perhaps adjusted in league play by a handicap). It would be feasible–but probably against league rules–for members to bowl at different times, even on different days. Need some practice? Go to the lanes alone and roll a few lines. The level of interdependence among the members of the bowling team is minimal. In team play, only the composite–not the individual–score counts. That’s it.

Before you know it, it’s Thursday and time for a few games of roundball at the local gym. Same five players. Consider the level of interdependence in team play now. For one thing, all five players are on the court at the same time while the ball is in play. They play together, not separately. Scoring happens when one person sinks the shot. But in order for that to happen, other team members must do their parts in real time. In-bounding, fast-breaks, passes, and assists are essential to success in the game. Rebounds, dunks, three-pointers, and other individual acts within the game are ALWAYS set up, enabled, or facilitated in some way by the actions of other team members. The score is the team’s score–despite the importance of individual stats. This is not to minimize the contribution of franchise players–but in simple terms could any of them win a game alone?

So what? Business teams can theoretically be placed anywhere along the continuum between the relative low interdependence of bowling teams and the relative high interdependence of basketball teams. I maintain, however, that most business teams today are well along the scale toward the highly interdependent basketball model. That’s a result of increasing complexity and the radical pace of change.

Think about leadership issues like motivation, incentives, goal setting, and feedback. A problem arises when leadership practices that work for bowling teams are applied instead to high-interdependence teams. Attempts to motivate individuals to higher individual performance are fine–but could backfire when it’s the team performance that counts and creates business results. Incentives for individual performance are fine, unless they inadvertently value my score over our score. Stretch goals for individuals can work very well, except that avoidable conflicts arise when I meet mine and you don’t meet yours or we don’t meet ours. Feedback about my performance is essential if I’m to improve, but the feedback should also bear on my contribution to the team if we are to improve together.

Here’s what I think: a bowling-team mentality about leadership practices and team building is not likely to pay off today. More than ever before, we are all in this together.

More on Calendar Soup: One explanation of why we settle for the superficial

In an earlier post (On Serving Calendar Soup at the Leadership Luncheon, August 29, 2013), I offered up Calendar Soup–an image from a children’s book in which the pages from a calendar that show tasty ingredients are boiled into a nutrient-free stew that substitutes for the real thing–as a metaphor for some leaders’ preference for superficial “learning” over the hard work of deep change.

Thanks to finally digging into Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking Fast and Slow, I now have an explanation (on page 35) for why we seem to enjoy Calendar Soup:

A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.

Another serving, anyone?

“Team-Building” depends on what the definition of “team” is . . .

Despite thousands of pages and posts, I hope there is room for yet another definition of what we mean when we talk about “teams.” After all, without agreement on what the thing is, it’s unlikely we’ll be successful in building it. Modesty fails to prevent me from offering my own definition as The Final Answer:

A team is a group of people who depend on each other to accomplish something they all care about.

The salient features of this definition are:

  1. The most obvious one: it’s people (more than just one) and they are associated in some evident or conscious way. (A no-brainer, but bear with me, because it leads to an important diagnostic question.)
  2. The members of the team depend on each other; there is not just mutual interest but true interdependence.
  3. There is something to be done, accomplished, achieved, or completed. Call it a purpose, a goal, or even a mission.
  4. The members of the team care about number three. They’re not just there for the fellowship, fun, or camaraderie–unless that’s explicitly all there is to number three for this group of people.

So your team is having trouble. You’d like to take action to improve the way they function or get along together. Perhaps you engage an internal or external facilitator to do “team-building.” Here’s how this definition might help you: before you spend time and money on trust-falls, group therapy, or motivational tote-bags, do some diagnosis.

First: Do the people you’re concerned about know they’re a team? Especially these days, when widely distributed teams are common, it’s fair to ask whether these people even know that each other exists. Just because they all report to you, have the same job title, are in the same cost center, or are all in Bangladesh does not make them a team.

Second: Do the members of the team require the active cooperation, support, involvement, or participation of each other? “Require” is the operative word. Can any member succeed without the others? If so, I question whether this is a team.

Third: Do the members of the team have a common purpose, goal, or mission that they can name and describe? My thesis is that a common goal of some kind in a sense creates the team–or, if you prefer, enables teaming. From this perspective, team is a verb rather than a noun. While there is no “I” in team, there is necessarily a “why.”

Fourth, and finally: Do the members of the team care about its purpose, mission, or goal? To what extent does each member have and demonstrate commitment?

Based on sound answers to these four questions, you may be ready for “team-building” in one or more of four forms:

If the problem is that the people on the team do not know they’re on a team, team-building means informing them of this fact. This is seldom “the problem” in team-building, so go on from here to the other three elements of this definition before you call the group together for introductions.

If the problem is that the members of the team don’t realize how interdependent they are, then team-building could take the form of exploring and reinforcing these interdependencies. This is different from just getting to know each other; it’s about fully realizing that members depend on each other for success.

If the problem is that the members of the team are fuzzy about why they are a team and/or what they are trying to accomplish, then team-building should consists of clarifying purpose, goals, and mission.

And finally, if the problem is that members do not care about or are not visibly committed to the team’s goals, then building that commitment is the challenge of team-building.

There are many tools and techniques for tackling any and all of these four challenges, widely available from good sources. The trick is to diagnose carefully before leaping into action.

I propose that issues of trust, personal disclosure, cheerleading, camaraderie, fellowship, and many or most issues of interpersonal conflict will take care of themselves if the manager and consultant work together on the four questions I pose as the fundamental elements of team-building.