There’s Greatness in this Younger Generation

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth.

In a recent program with experienced managers, the inevitable and mind numbing and stupid topic of how difficult it is to manage the younger workers surfaced and people jumped on this out-of-tune bandwagon like they were giving away free money. Complaints of poor work ethics, preoccupation with devices and not caring swirled around the room like a hurricane. Every generation looks at the differences of the generations coming up behind them and focuses on these differences as negatives. It’s cliché and yes, it’s stupid.

Spend some time reading the current “40 Under 40” issue of Fortune magazine and you will come away energized by the energy, creativity and world changing endeavors and accomplishments of this younger crowd. (And if you’re over 40, it’s reasonable for you to wonder why you’ve been slacking off while these people are changing the world.)

I also loved Fortune Editor Alan Murray’s four takeaways from the “40 Under 40” profiles in the latest issue of the magazine:

  • Bet Big
  • Have a Purpose
  • Failure is a Good Teacher
  • Have Breakfast with Dad

The last one, “Have Breakfast with Dad” was offered by artist, Taylor Swift. As a Dad, it caught my attention. She describes the advice her Dad gave her to “think about your actions,” and translated it into the dilemma faced by a teenager who might prefer sleeping in to taking advantage of this breakfast invitation. “As an 80-year-old looking back, you go to breakfast with your Dad.” Wise woman…and successful!

I spend a great deal of time with people under 40 and a fair number of them in their early to mid-twenties in one of my teaching endeavors…a leadership program for young working professionals pursuing their college degrees that repeats with a new group several times per year. I find their views on the world every bit as energizing as the individuals profiled in Fortune, and working with them as a teacher is truly a privilege.

While my students aren’t the ones who have made millions (yet), they are individuals holding down one or two jobs while serving as parents…sometimes single parents, and attending school. Many are navigating severe illnesses or family tragedies. One remarkable individual recently lost a limb to amputation and never missed a beat in class.

In addition to their fierce tenacity for working through life’s obstacles, I find that most in this youthful group reflect and aspire to Murray’s takeaways above. They are purpose-driven, they have an incredibly mature and refreshing view on what great leadership looks like and they often reflect the views on life and pursuing your passion that Steve Jobs so effectively outlined in his now famous Stanford Commencement address. I wrap up every term with these remarkable individuals just a bit more confident there’s greatness in this younger generation and it’s our job to help it emerge.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’re an experienced manager lamenting the sorry state of the youth in your workplace, I encourage you to look in the mirror. In most cases, you’re the one who needs to change.



The Next Act—Answering The Wake-Up Call

CareerThe Next Act series at Management Excellence is dedicated to helping experienced leaders revitalize and reinvent.

For most of the later career re-inventors I’ve worked with, the wake-up call wasn’t so much a single trigger event as it was a confluence of several issues. A creeping sense of restlessness, a need to feel engaged and even immersed yet again, and a sense of the career-clock winding down are common themes I’ve heard from a variety of professionals. For some, it’s a deep belief that their best work is still ahead of them, just somewhere other than where they’ve been plying their trades. And for others, it’s a life-event…an illness, the loss of a parent or a friend that made them question what they were doing with their time here.

The wake-up call is one that for many is an annoying distraction to be tuned-out. They hit the metaphorical snooze button and wait for a more convenient time to change. After all, change is hard. Uprooting ourselves from a career we’ve labored at for decades is no easy decision or simple task. There’s the loss of status and the loss of security that we trade our time for, otherwise known as the paycheck. Our significant others are comfortable with the lifestyle and nothing creates strain on a relationship like the two parties being out of sync on a major, lifestyle impacting change.

But for some, including myself, the noise was impossible to tune out. No matter how many times I hit the snooze button on massive career change, it would go off again, each time a bit louder in my mind. The loss of multiple family members over the past decade and a medical check-up that sent off a series of red flares were big life-change drivers for me. A remarkable and supportive spouse helped melt my final resistance and I embarked on my own journey into consulting, coaching, teaching and writing.

Blending my own insights, discoveries and mistakes with those generously shared by some of my career re-inventor contemporaries, I’ve compiled a short list of suggestions for anyone considering this dramatic change. Feel free to add to the list with your own suggestions. We all benefit in the process.

9 Tips for Anyone Considering Answering the Career Reinvention Wake-Up Call:

1. Build new skills while you have a steady paycheck. I’ve spent an incredible amount of non-revenue generating time developing new skills. From developing as a graduate management instructor to developing and leading workshops to learning to blog, writing two books and developing as a keynote speaker, I’ve spent untold hours over the past decade practicing. I love the joy of discovery and the slow and eventual development of competence (always aiming for mastery), but it is hard to do this while you are searching for and fulfilling on business.

2. Focus if you can. It helps reduce risk and start-up time if you know where you will apply your energy. One client shifted from corporate to running a not-for-profit focused on a mission important to him. Another bought into a landscaping business. Yet another started his own temporary staffing service in the financial industry. All three of these professionals navigated the transition from their former careers with relative ease.

3. Expect to experiment if you’re not certain where to go. The individual who left to lead a not-for-profit spent time volunteering at several to develop a feeling for the reality of the situation. The new landscaper worked weekends with the seller for awhile and then retained the seller for the season to help out. Thinking of buying a franchise? The best advice I ever heard was, find one 20 miles or more away from your home and get a job there before to decide whether it’s what you imagined it would be. Be deliberate.

4. Find great help fast. I engaged the individual I perceive is the best speaking coach in America to help tune my speaking skills. I started with him thinking I was a good amateur. I quickly realized “good” was liberal. His support has helped me change the game.

5. Get in shape. Seriously. Regardless of what you choose to do, you will need all of the energy you can get and you’ll need a productive way of burning off a whole new set of stress. If the past 30 years in corporate life have blessed you with 30 extra pounds, it’s time to spend a few months shedding that weight, changing your body image and gaining all of the incredible benefits of better physical health. Your current coworkers will marvel at the change and you’ll be feeling physically fantastic when you decide to take the lead.

6. Involve your significant other in the decision process and if possible, venture planning. He or she is an essential stakeholder in you. To a person, the people I’ve talked and worked with on this topic believed that it was essential to involve their other half. In one case where this step was skipped, there was some significant repair work and time required.

7. Do not expect your 30 years of industry contacts to beat a path to your door. This particular issue has proven disappointing for many. You might get lucky and one or several will reach out to support or engage you, but don’t count on it. They don’t know you in the context of your new venture. While this doesn’t mean you cannot market to them, just don’t them to shower you with checks.

8. Don’t preoccupy on infrastructure. Focus on identifying key needs that you can reasonably fulfill with audiences able to pay for you. Focus on building a program to market yourself as an expert. The website doesn’t sell…it’s what’s on the website. You don’t really need an office to start and you sure don’t need staff. Focus on the audience and your value proposition and then focus on ways to find and engage this audience.

9. Do something to move things forward every single day. Nothing helps you overcome resistance better than action. Too many people stew on ideas for too long and fail to do anything about them. If you’re serious about answering the wake-up call, it’s time to get to work.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This step beyond what you’ve done for so many years can be the most exhilarating phase of your career, but it takes hard work and sheer tenacity to pull it off. There are a hundred good reasons why this is a bad idea. There’s only one good reason that it’s a great idea and he or she is looking back at you in the mirror. After all, it’s your career.

Leadership Caffeine™—Role Models from Dangerous Situations

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

I had the great honor of delivering two leadership workshops at the Alabama Jail Association Annual Conference recently, and the experience was for me, fascinating, humbling and incredibly educational. (Yes, teachers do learn from students and instructors from participants!)

I wasn’t certain what to expect from this audience heading into the program. I didn’t know this crowd. In fact, as I remarked to the group, I had successfully managed to avoid meeting them my entire life. Also, beyond a few corporate settings that felt like war zones, I had not spent a great deal of time with individuals immersed daily in dangerous settings.

As it turned out, the audiences in the two programs were fantastic! They were hungry for ideas and insights on strengthening as leaders and they were more active and engaged than most corporate groups I’ve worked with over the years. They worked hard on the cases and activities and they generously shared the challenges of their environment as we discussed ideas and approaches to strengthening leadership effectiveness.

Early in the program, we ran a breakout activity where I asked the participants to share stories in small groups about the individual they point to as the leadership role models in their lives. Digging deeper, I asked them to discuss what it was their role model did that had such a profound influence on them and others. I requested they pick one story from their small group to share with the larger audience. And to a group, they shared stories with identical themes.

The role models were either current or former senior officers from the corrections environment. They inspired by leading by example, living and working by a clear code of values, holding themselves and others accountable for fairness and excellence and to a person, caring deeply about their team members.

One example of a number of the officers turned out to be the mother of another participant in the workshop. To listen to others describe the impact she had as a leader on so many present was visibly humbling for the son.

I listened and soaked up the great stories, and as the participants described the realities of their difficult working environment, it was clear to me that the great skill of effective leaders in dangerous settings was the ability to create a leadership and performance environment that transcended the physical setting and dangerous circumstances.

As part of my preparation for the program, I spent a good deal of time catching up on the leadership studies and stories from dangerous settings. Sadly, we have all too much recent data on this topic, mostly beginning with the reporting of the heroics of the law and fire officials during 9/11 and certainly from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The studies showcase consistent behaviors that define effective leadership in dangerous settings, including:

  • Caring at a personal level
  • Credibility earned by backing words with actions
  • Competence displayed…physically and cognitively, particularly via decision-making
  • Trust given
  • Purpose front and center
  • Accountability uniformly and fairly enforced

The consistent display of these behaviors contributes to forming a working environment that transcends the physical setting. While the audience was quick to highlight the flaws and challenges in their workplaces, they were visibly proud of their membership and of their team members. For all of us operating in the relative safety of corporate walls, there’s more than a few powerful lessons on leading we can gain from those operating in harm’s way. The first lesson is humility.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Effective leaders create the environment for success regardless of physical surroundings. Their behaviors transcend the dangers, and the tough circumstances create the bonds that build trust and loyalty and promote performance. And yet again, we hear that the impact of an effective leader has a ripple effect that transcends the years and generations. If you’re looking for a leadership example to model your own behaviors, perhaps it’s time to look to those leading in harm’s way for a meaningful example.

The Next Act—for Later Career Leaders

Seeking Leadership WisdomThe Next Act series at Management Excellence is dedicated to helping experienced leaders revitalize and reinvent.

Note from Art: with this post, I’m launching a new, on-going feature here at Management Excellence, focused on the issues and needs of later career leaders.

New and emerging leaders are our future. It’s essential to support their development as they take the reins in our challenging world. They are and will remain the focal point of my content here at Management Excellence.

However, there’s an audience whose needs in my opinion are grossly under-served in the career and leadership blogging and writing ecosystem: the later-career (read: over-50) senior leaders and executives.

Having spent a few years living in this demographic, I’ve listened as executive after executive has shared some form of the same set of needs outlined below. While most contemplate these issues in silence, I’ve learned that for many, they’re never far below the surface.

Here are a few of the comments/observations I’ve heard in recent months:

How do I juggle the demands of my role as a senior leader with a need to be more involved in my personal life?

I love to work. It’s not about work-life balance…it’s about doing the work I love. That’s balance for me.

How do I refresh and even transform myself and my career for this last leg of the journey?

How do I spend more time and energy focusing on significance and less on chasing success?

How do I detox from my 30-plus years of corporate life and regain my energy, fitness and sense of adventure?

Somewhere along the way, I lost myself. I want to get “me” back.

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsSomething funny happens on your way through your career and life. You wake up one day and your priorities shift. The goals you chased for so long have largely been achieved. Yesterday’s pursuit of title and compensation seems shallow in hindsight. The traditional career track offers few new options, and yet, you are approaching the peak of your wisdom and experience with so much to give back somewhere to someone.

Oh, and at your last physical, the doctor suggested rather strenuously that you need to drop 30 and start moving or you’re facing a whole new host of problems in the not-too-distant future.

All writing is personal, and there’s no doubt this new and on-going feature is motivated by my own experiences and the experiences of many of my clients and colleagues over the past few years. I had the doctor visit mentioned above and it was considerably worse than described. Nine months later, I’m 40 pounds lighter and in the best shape of my life since I was 18. (My wife agrees.) I’m writing a new book, polishing a keynote and importantly, focusing all of my professional energies on helping great people develop and transform as effective leaders and happy people.

The over-50, experienced and wise crowd will continue to play a critical, meaningful role in this world. While there’s no doubt many traditional career options will be ruled out for this audience (yes, youth is highly valued in a world where ironically, youth plus wisdom will be essential for survival and success), there are remarkable challenges to be undertaken and accomplishments to be earned for those who have traipsed around the block of life for a number of decades.

Often, what’s needed is a nudge or a kick in the seat to help people move beyond a creeping sense of the end of the road and into action. 

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are some remarkable veins of gold to be tapped in mining the needs of the later-career leader. Here’s hoping we build a community of similar adventurers in this new feature and help a good number of great people apply their wisdom in new and meaningful ways. After all, your best work is still ahead of you. You’ve been practicing for it your entire career!

Up next in the series:

  • Change your body, change your mind
  • How to begin exploring options for your next act

17 Ways Your Strategy Process Will Fail

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Strategy processes mostly disappoint. That’s too bad, because there are few activities more essential to an organization’s success and security than getting strategy right.

The output of too many strategy processes ends up as simply the corporate messaging of a firm’s senior managers, with little impact on operations, investments or structure. And sadly, the reasons that strategy efforts fail to deliver value are easy to observe and relatively speaking, fairly easy to avoid with good leadership and effective managerial discipline.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on some common reasons strategy programs break bad. In part 2, we’ll explore the important, “What to do about it” ideas.

At Least 17 Ways Your Strategy Process Will Fail:

1-No shared view of what strategy really is. Few executives (few people) immediately agree on a common definition of strategy. To some, strategy is a refined version of the operating plan. To others, it’s a moonshot. And for still others, it’s the creation of something that never existed. Most processes fail from the word “strategy” simply because there’s no agreement on what the heck it is and what it is supposed to look like.

2-Confusion over who owns strategy. Is it marketing? Is it the CEO? Is it the executive team? No one knows and everyone ends up waiting and pointing.

3-Everyone is at cross-purposes over the vocabulary and key concepts. Much like the many meanings people ascribe to the term “strategy,” the other terms confuse and confound as well. The concepts of mission, vision, value proposition, competitive advantage and the many other terms that swirl around the discipline of strategy mean different things to different people.

4. Management teams fail to function like teams. Most management teams resemble this remark. They’re groups filled with smart people…functional experts with little context for why they need to operate as a team. In fact, most don’t. The work of strategy is a team sport.

5-Strategy is treated like an event, not a continuous process. Too many firms relegate the critical dialog about future directions and opportunities to one or two offsite events every year. It’s a constant dialog, not a one or two-shot activity.

6-Power, politics and the status quo all get in the way. Most executives and senior managers intuitively know that a new strategy begets change…and change threatens structure and resources. There’s a natural gravitational pull of the status quo to preserve power and control over budgets and resources that precludes open, objective consideration of new paths.

7-Expecting template tools to spit out remarkable solutions. There are all manner of methodologies and processes and templates and frameworks, each professing to offer the path to enlightenment. They’re tools…not magic answer generating machines and they often need to be adapted and mixed and matched. Consultants and facilitators  exacerbate this situation by drawing upon the template style they know and not picking and choosing or creating the right tools for the unique situation.

8-Trying to play a long-game on strategic planning in a world that requires sprints, learning and adaptation.

9-Looking to strategy to generate the budget. It’s dangerous to blend the two activities and too many teams fall into this trap.

10-Creeping incrementalism. The work of strategy becomes a simple extension of the current operating plan. Anything outside the status quo is rejected.

11-Maddening myopia. The input and views on the broader world are limited to what the team can see from their conference room window.

12-No one’s involved. The work is held hostage by a few “enlightened” souls.

13-Everyone’s involved. Everyone has an opinion but no one knows how to parse the opinions. The team appears to have no boundaries. It’s everywhere and every one and nowhere and no one all at the same time.

14-The Cowardly Lion rules the day. There’s a courage deficit that reduces well-developed and new ideas to under-funded sidebar initiatives that are often slowly starved to keep supporting the bloated list of initiatives vying for resources with the current state business.

15-Confusing past success and good luck with strategy. The mistaken belief that good results thus far mean we must have a strategy that works often results in a stubborn denial of the need to change in spite of ample evidence to the contrary.

16-A failure to launch. Often, good ideas fall by the wayside due to poor or non-existent execution programs. It’s just assumed that the new strategy work will be adopted in the daily routines of people across functions.

17-Ocean boiling and process fatigue. When the process reads like a late career Michener novel that focuses on Colorado but starts at the formation of the earth and proceeds very, very slowly from there, people give up. (OK, I loved Michener, but his later works required ample patience.) These processes easily become all-consuming and the business of running the business becomes secondary.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the work of assessing opportunities, choosing directions and choosing what not to do is rarely ever easy, too many firms and management teams are shooting themselves in both feet with the above mistakes. The challenge is how to avoid these traps and pitfalls and find a way forward into the murky fog of the future and to come out of the process with something worth doing. I’ll turn this discussion positive in my next post on the topic.