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Posts tagged ‘Management’

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 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?

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…