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.

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

New Leader Tuesday—3 Questions to Bring Your Future into Focus

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesday at the Management Excellence blog is for anyone getting started (or starting over) on their leadership journey.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership legacy during the early part of my career. No one does. After all, who has time to worry about something so squishy and distant sounding when you’re focused on getting things done? And make no doubt about it, I was laser focused on translating the formula for success in corporate life into my own personal gain.The formula in my mind was preoccupied with driving great results by pushing others.

Yes, my style as a young manager was more muscle and not finesse. I was playing a short-game…minute to minute with little concern for the long-term. And for awhile, the scoreboard was in my favor. I grew my responsibilities, title and income at a rapid rate. And then the wheels began to wobble as people cycled through my teams and off to other areas and even my own satisfaction with what I was doing (and how I was doing it) began to decline.

Thanks to a great mentor, I began to understand that the good short-term results were coming at a high price in terms of morale, burn-out and my own professional reputation. I believe he described me as a “machine,” and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. The connotation was more about being demanding and soulless and less about efficiency. He made me think about my approach and my style and I didn’t have to look far to find evidence that supported his case.

The relationships with my team members were shallow…mostly transaction-based, and the environment was demanding. I was demanding. Perhaps a bit of a minor tyrant. I took pride in my “get it done at all costs” reputation. As it turned out, I was running things like a sports team interested in winning a championship now with little concern for the team members or building a culture of excellence that would sustain the test of time.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he challenged me to think about and then act on the output from three provocative questions. The introspection prompted by these three questions changed the course of my work, my career and likely my life. How will you answer them?

3 Questions to Help You Build a Great Leadership Legacy:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes we are accountable for to our stakeholders, but they’re never the purpose or the drivers. The great quarters and years are like dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement. What I’m most proud of are the many successes of the great people who got their start on my watch. This simple question caused me to pause and then pivot in my thinking about my purpose in leading others.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances. Thinking through this question in the context of great leaders of history (or perhaps your personal history…via family members) is humbling. You recognize how important it was to have vision and then overcome extreme uncertainty and hardship while striving to keep people inspired by the vision. Whether it was the survival of Britain or the retention of the entire Union, neither Churchill nor Lincoln knew how they were going to prevail, they just knew that they had to for the greater good.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day? The environment I had created as a young manager was anything but healthy.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The comment that I was functioning like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of an approach based on my answers to the questions above. I use a question in my keynotes that challenges leaders to offer a pre-post-mortem on their impact on big initiatives. Extend this to your career, and ask: “At the end of your career, what will you want people to say that you did?

It’s time to start doing it.

Study The Top Leader’s Style Before Signing On

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas, guidance and inspiration for your professional pursuits. Use the ideas in great career health!

If you’re interested in gaining critical insights into how things work in a prospective employer, look to the style, values and priorities of a firm’s top leader.

When I meet senior leaders, I listen and look for indicators on clues to what makes them tick. I want to know what they stand for…what makes them breathe…what makes them do what they do.

As a prospective employee, it’s essential to know what you’re signing up for in terms of culture and values and environment. I’ve learned how important it is to go to work for leaders whose values and approaches align closely with my preferences. Get this right and you’ll flourish. Get it wrong and you’ll suffer. Like everything else I’ve ever learned, I had to screw this up once to figure out how to get it right.

Most leaders are fairly transparent about what they stand for, although they vary in depth a great deal.

Some are wired to drive results. They want to move the numbers in the right direction and they focus almost exclusively on the issues of growth. This focus predominates all decisions and metrics and rewards and sets the tone for your daily work.

Some are wired for innovation. Their emphasis is on new and different and they place a premium on surrounding themselves with the best and brightest and creating environments (from gentle to raucous) that they believe promote idea generation. Bring your big ideas, and if don’t love the creative game, you might just get run over.

And still others are simply wired for power. They like being in charge, they’re good at it and for them the focus is on calling the plays and surrounding themselves with people who are good at execution. The environment is command and control and your role is that of soldier. If you struggle to take orders, run the other way.

And then there are the leaders I personally prefer. They have depth. These are the ones who are on a mission to transform lives and firms and the world with their efforts. To them, growth and innovation are outcomes of bringing in other mission-driven professionals and letting them do what they’re great at.

These leaders are driven to transform something for someone and they project this mission in every encounter. You cannot help but understand what they stand for and as a result, what their organizations stand for. The mission is core to who they are and their leader’s soul is always on display. Their organizations run on the energy generated by passion for the mission. It helps to be a dreamer who believes in achieving the impossible in this environment.

There’s no one style that defines these mission-driven energizing leaders. Some of them are servant leaders. They propel people and teams to do their best in pursuit of something remarkable by elevating their team members and focusing all of their energies on enabling them to succeed. Others are visionaries who drive their organizations to remarkable heights almost by sheer force of will. Think Steve Jobs. For the people in these firms, the drive from the leader is rocket fuel.

I get the leaders above…the growth, innovation and power leaders. I love the mission and visionary leaders, but those are personal preferences. I’m most at home in a change-the-world situation. None of them are perfect and not all of them are right for you as a contributor.

The leaders I struggle and will caution you against are what I term the “plain vanilla” leaders. They’re not confident enough to show you their leadership soul, or, worse yet, they haven’t take the time to develop one. They have no discernible mission. They operate at the transaction level, flitting from issue to issue but never breathing life into anything beyond the next few minutes. There’s no substance or depth to these leaders, and to me, they are dull and uninteresting. Be cautious of these characters. Life is too short to spend time in their chaotic and plain environment.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The firm always reflects the leader(s). They establish the cadence and their styles define the environment during their tenure. Strive to understand what makes a firm’s senior leader tick and you’ll have great insight into what life is like this firm. Choose carefully, because a mismatch between your values and style preferences and those of the leader you go to work for is almost always a formula for trouble.

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