Just One Thing—Push Beyond “M” for Mediocrity

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. Use them in good health and great performance!

Why do we fail with our initiatives (projects, strategy, leadership) in the workplace so regularly when the causes of failure are well documented and the practices to minimize the chances of failure so well identified?

A student exploring project risk management was perplexed when she compared the data on project failures to the literature on risk management, only to see that the causes of failure and ideas for reducing risk were clearly identified over and over again in a nearly endless stream of articles.

I see this same situation play out repeatedly in leadership and strategy work.

The formula for leading effectively isn’t a secret kept locked in a vault with the combination known only to two people. In fact, the principles have been understood for a few millennia. And for us today in our firms, the behaviors of miserable managers and lousy leader are well understood and at last count, there were seemingly 4 quintillion resources offering input, training and help on how to lead effectively.

For strategy, too many of these programs fail not just because they were poor ideas (usually not the case), but rather because the process of execution broke down. People fail to coordinate the work necessary to properly and effectively bridge ideas to execution. While not to minimize the complexity of executing on strategy, the issues of communication, coordination, feedback, adaptation and so forth are fairly easy to grok.

Finally, when I work with people and teams in troubled organizations, I always figuratively scratch my head over the juxtaposition of relatively smart people who understand what is going wrong with the reality that few are doing anything about it.

It’s as if we have a default gear labeled “M” for mediocrity in our organizations and in ourselves. It’s the acceptance of this gear inside organizations along with the perpetuation of practices that reinforce “M” that governs our consistent and repeated sub-par performance.

However, not everyone or every team is held back by the tractor-beam pull of mediocrity.

In troubled organizations, I look for the individuals who fight back and rail against the tyranny of something that screams less than excellent. These people fight mediocrity with all of their energy and while they are often laboring in relative isolation, I strive to place them in positions of power for getting things done. From leading change initiatives to managing projects to owning big chunks of the coordination of strategy execution, these individuals have an extra gear or two beyond “M” that allows them to move people and teams faster and more effectively than the norm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For all of us, we have a choice to make. We can either be part of the problem or we can push ourselves to shift out of “M” and fix what’s broken and quit perpetuating the mistakes that give rise to the same advice over and over and over again. The choice is yours on what gear governs your performance. But be careful, once you shift away from mediocrity, the side effects are quite rewarding. You feel great about yourself and your work and someone somewhere who chooses people to be successful will want to create a whole new set of opportunities for you.

Is it time for you to shift out of “M” and fix what you know is broken?

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Level-Up™#4—Six Lessons to Help Grow Your Power at Work

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting your professional development on the road to senior management.

Ask and answer a simple question: “How did the three most powerful people in your firm (without a “C” in their titles) arrive at their current positions?”

In most cases, the answer is the same: they “got stuff done” and they did it by drawing upon the skills and energy of others.

That’s it. No backs stabbed…no fingers stepped on during the race up the ladder. They grew their power by identifying the vexing problems that needed solving and they figured out how to get the best and brightest around them to help develop and implement the solutions.

While the formula is easy to decode, the art and act of growing your power in an organization requires you to focus your efforts on a few key activities.

Consider the Case of Bob:

Bob joined a major software firm as a front-line manager in the support organization. The firm was just entering what would become a period of remarkable growth and there were more challenges and stress points than there were people to deal with them. Bob recognized this situation as an opportunity and very quickly established an understanding of the top priorities of his direct manager and worked to help her succeed with those challenges.

Bob’s manager quickly developed confidence in his ability to solve larger issues and she assigned him to lead a number of visible strategic initiatives (projects). Bob recognizing the size of the challenges and the need for help from across the organization worked tirelessly to extend his network of contacts and to draw upon this network for resources. And Bob did everything in his power to ensure that these were career enhancing opportunities for his colleagues. In particular, he worked hard to give visibility to team members and to dispense credit and accolades widely. He made certain to shine the spotlight on others at all times.

As the successes piled up and Bob was given the opportunity to lead ever-larger boundary spanning initiatives, his powerful network continued to supply the know-how necessary to successfully complete the initiatives. Bob’s reputation with his senior executives as someone who knew how to lead teams and execute on the key issues put him on a fast promotion path. His reputation with his colleagues as a leader worth following helped his cause. Bob maneuvered from the role of manager to the role of a VP within 4 years…a meteoric rise by this firm’s standards. Importantly, Bob could still look at himself in the mirror and be comfortable that no backs were stabbed and no fingers stepped on as he raced up the ladder. To the contrary, he carried people with him.

I love this story for all of the lessons it offers to us as we strive to help our firms and to grow in our careers.

6. Lessons from Bob to Help You Grow Your Power:

1. Rethink your view on power. It’s not about the bigger office, better parking spot and invitation to meetings in mahogany furnished conference rooms. It’s all about you developing the freedom to work on the issues that matter while helping others in the process. It’s the freedom to act.

2. Calibrate your priorities with the priorities of your boss. In coaching situations, I ask participants to describe their boss’s priorities. In too many situations, the boss doesn’t tell and the employee doesn’t ask. That’s a problem you should fix today.

3. Learn to connect networks! Power resides in your access to talent. The most powerful people in your firm are those who can tap knowledge, insights and support from a variety of sources depending upon the situation. The work of growing power and contributing more to your firm cannot be achieved by remaining in your silo. Not only do you need to expand your network across your firm (and industry), but you need to learn to connect disparate networks to solve the big issues.

4. Mind the gap! The real meaty issues are the ones that exist in the gray areas between the silos. Every firm has a variety of big challenges that exist somewhere between functions. Learn to pick those up and draw upon your extended network(s) to tackle them.

5. Power is there for the taking. Again, I’m not emphasizing a dark view to power. What’s there for the taking are problems that require solutions. I’ve observed cultures where I’m certain if there was a garbage can on fire in the corner, people would notice it and talk about it and wonder whether it would get any worse…but since it wasn’t their responsibility, do nothing to put it out. Those are your opportunities! Seize them.

6. Shine the spotlight liberally on others. Remember…your goal is to gain the freedom to work on issues that matter while helping others at the same time. It’s never about you. You must give liberally to get power.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The formula for growing your power is simple. The work is noble and good. Get it right and you’ll learn to enjoy being the one who determines what gets done in your organization. After all, those who have the power decide what’s important. After a fair amount of time of people telling you what to do, it’s infinitely more enjoyable to decide what to do.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

It’s Your Career—Priceless Perspectives of Experience

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 strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

During the past few years, I’ve talked to many 40 and 50-something professionals on how their perspectives and attitudes on personal and career issues have changed over time. Their insights are instructive and inspirational. Enjoy!

On Confidence:

  • The sky is not falling no matter how big the problem is we will find a way to deal with it.
  • I’m fearless on taking risks, because I know I’ll find a way to navigate through it and learn a great deal in the process.
  • While the world has changed, people haven’t. If you’re good in working with and through others, there’s no problem that cannot be solved, no matter how new and unique it is.

On Failing:

  • I’ve failed more times than I can count on my way to succeeding in my career. While it’s never the goal, it is a fact of life for anyone striving to achieve something.
  • I long ago learned not to sweat the small stuff that made me a raving lunatic of a manager when I was younger. It turns out that most of our issues are small stuff.

On Striving:

  • Success isn’t a solo sport. Others choose us to be successful and others help us along our journey to success.
  • It’s a lot more about the work and the impact of the work on others than it is about the pay or the title.
  • At the height of what I thought would be success…title and money, I was miserable. I had to learn to redefine success was for me, and it wasn’t title or money.

On Leadership:

  • It used to be about what I wanted. Now it’s about what they need.
  • To lead, I teach.
  • I take more chances on people I truly believe in, regardless of the conventional wisdom around me. The individual is my responsibility, not some other executive’s.
  • I give my trust instead of requiring people to earn it. It saves a great deal of time and eliminates the games.

 On Effectiveness:

  • I flail less, fail faster, teach more and help more and I’m more effective than I’ve ever been in my career.
  • My need to conquer the world in the next quarter has given way to the reality that people and teams evolve at their own pace, not the pace in my mind.
  • I used to be driven by fear. Fear of job loss. Fear of the boss lurking behind me. That stifled my creativity. I finally found my performance gear when I quit worrying about both of those things.

On the Future:

  • My best work is still ahead of me.
  • Every day is a great new adventure. Even the tough stuff feels more like fun than it used to.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’ve got a few miles on you, take heart that you’ve earned the right to draw upon wisdom gained over time. If you’re just starting out, re-read these quotes and strive to realize them just a bit faster than the rest of us. You’ll be happy you did.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

It’s Your Career—Strengthening Your Perceptual Acuity

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 strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

In my first post in this series, The Importance of Exercising Your Core-4 Professional Muscle Groups, I suggested that much like your physical core muscles there are 4 major professional skill sets that serve an analogous and important purpose in your life. Your leadership skills, your perceptual acuity, your operational acuity and your professional presence are all core skills that provide stability and support in growth, change or difficult circumstances, and like your physical core, these require on-going development and strengthening. This post offers some starter-suggestions for strengthening your perceptual acuity.

The ability to see around corners or, see over the horizon, are two phrases that relate directly to the idea of perceptual acuity. While we’re barred by physical faculties from literally achieving those feats of optical gymnastics, as professionals, we are accountable for attempting to translate the external noise from our customers, our competitors, the new developments in technology and the many other forces propelling our world and our industries and then making decisions to either exploit opportunities or mitigate risks.

Those who do this successfully…great strategists, product managers, management teams, entrepreneurs and innovators of all kinds, strive to see patterns and opportunities where the rest of us might see randomness. The emerging new products or services, winning strategies with positions in new or under-served markets or, new ways of more efficiently delivering on long-standing tasks, are all outcomes of being able to translate noise in the environment into insights and then actions. Of course, it’s hard work and it’s easy to be wrong. Risky yes, but essential for our organizations and for us in our careers.

Perceptual Acuity in Action:

One of the best product managers I’ve yet worked with was tremendous at integrating the insights he gained from customer input and competitor moves to propose and bring to market hit products. He was our competitive advantage in large part due to his remarkable perceptual acuity. When he left, we replaced him, but we never replaced the value he brought to us and to our customers. We continued to develop products, but they were either innovations for innovation’s sake (driven by technology) or, me-too type offerings in response to competitors. We lost our mojo.

Many of the innovations in our world…from Best Buy’s Geek Squad to car-sharing services like ZipCar to innovations in old, tired industries such as shoe retailing (think: Zappos), were conceived because someone or some group translated changing social, technological or consumer circumstances into a solution that customers discovered was incredibly helpful.

On a more personal level, we all face the challenging reality that the functions we perform and the tools we use will change dramatically over time. Estimates suggest that my children will change careers up to 7 times during their professional lives. I’m on career number 3 or 4 depending upon how you define career change. Our ability to tune our perceptual acuity to imminent changes will allow us to prepare and be proactive about our career changes, versus the uncomfortable reactive approach that too many have opted for by default.

5 Exercises to Help You Begin Strengthening Your Perceptual Acuity:

1. Become a Social Anthropologist—Start Scanning:

In my first post in this series, I suggested a short assignment as preparation for this topic. I encouraged you to spend some time just glancing through publications that you do not ordinarily encounter. I kept the list down to a few…Fast Company, INC, HBR blogs…the Management Innovation Exchange website etc., and I encouraged you to simply look for firms doing interesting things with new products or services…or even their own management practices. Read, observe and note.

I read far and wide every single day…now subscribing to a wide variety and significant volume of publications (all digital for easy portability during air or train travel) and I find one or two fascinating ideas worthy of potentially considering or adapting to my own environment or to a clients situation with every round of reading. From business practices to ideas to improve teamwork, or areas where my firm’s offerings might apply in solving a problem, this scanning work is essential and highly productive…not to mention profitable for my firms.

John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing fame describes his habit of reading (or looking at) People Magazine as a means of tapping in to emerging social trends. And while you might not personally care who’s doing what to whom in Hollywood, John’s approach allows him to see emerging trends that he and his clients can connect to their own businesses. The insight gleaned in People might be a few degrees of separation from someone’s business, but remember, we’re looking for patterns in the noise. No one said there would be a map to winning new strategies or product innovations. (Remember, this is hard, creative work.)

Your Action: send your team off on an idea scavenger hunt in places different than your traditional stomping grounds of industry publications or tradeshows and challenge them to connect their observations to insights and possible actions.

2. Becoming a Social Anthropologist, Part 2: Observing:

One of the great habits of my very perceptive product manager described above was his approach to gaining customer insights. He was happy to talk with customers and ask questions, but most of his insights were gleaned from watching customers in their environment.

Our focus was on providing automation software and systems in production oriented retail environments (think: fast food) and this individual was incredibly insightful at translating the way people worked into ideas that could simplify and streamline processes, reduce costs and free-up labor to serve customers. He never would have gained the ideas for new products or systems simply by talking with clients.

Your Action: send your team out to your customers, but ensure that you gain ample time simply to observe. Again, you are looking for insights that translate to ideas and actions.

 3. Get Outside of the Jar:

My friend, Mike Maddock, Chairman of the innovation consulting firm, Maddock-Douglas, taught me to make certain to shift my view of the world from inside looking out. His constant reminder that you cannot see what’s on the label from inside the jar, has stimulated a wide-range of research work for my business, including calling upon experts of all varieties in dissimilar businesses who are dealing with or have solved similar challenges to those my firm is dealing with. While the feedback required a degree of analogic thinking and interpretation, the insights proved priceless.

Your Action: seek a trainer or practiced researcher for this one. (fyi, the team at Maddock Douglas is great at this.) Strive to identify individuals who deal with similar challenges but in very different industries. Let your researcher guide you through the process of gaining insights and feedback on how they view your problem and perhaps how they’ve solved it.

4. Starting Simple with Your Team—Use P.E.S.T.E.L.

This funny sounding acronym stands for: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal, and is a handy tool for teams taking their first steps in looking beyond their business and industry at what’s happening in the larger world that might impact them. One client leads the P.E.S.T.E.L. discussion with her team quarterly as part of their strategy review/refresh and asks the participants up to a month ahead of time to start scanning for trends and issues under each of those categories. During the live discussion, they review the items in detail and then focus very specifically on answering the question: What does this mean for us? (This is one of the most powerful, often unanswered questions you can introduce to your team.)

Your Action: introduce this simple technique into your team’s work. It doesn’t have to be part of a strategy process…it can simply serve as a tool to jump-start idea development.

5. Move Beyond Your Traditional Network(s) to Gain Insights:

Much like the theme of “getting out of the jar,” seeking opportunities to engage with professionals from very different industries (and cultures) is an excellent way to learn and to extend your thinking.

Theories of social networking suggest that the more diverse your networks are…and the better you are at connecting and engaging with these networks, the stronger you will be in gaining insights and access to know-how. Industry associations are important, but for this exercise, they’re less valuable than other professional settings. Ideally, you seek out groups where you can share issues and perceptions and have people do the same from their unique vantage points. CEOs do this frequently with networking groups that put them together with non-competitive CEOs…and the insights many report gleaning from these types of interactions are priceless.

Your Action: identify professional or networking organizations that are outside of your core industry and choose one or two to join. Ideally, search for a smaller group of professionals with similar challenges (e.g. product managers or marketing executives) or, a group of professionals who align around a desire to both give and gain (think: Mastermind group). Another action might be to enroll in an executive or professional education initiative where you come together with people from many different groups to focus on professional development. Remember to view these as opportunities to extend your network post session!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Strengthening your core professional skill of perceptual acuity is essential to helping you “see around corners” or “over the horizon” in your business and your career. Like physical exercise, it takes deliberate action. And much like physical exercise, it takes discipline to sustain the activity and leverage the outcomes. In a world where even change is changing, you must be looking, listening and translating the observations and insights by answering, “What does this mean for me/us?”

A great resource with a dedicated chapter on strengthening your perceptual acuity is Ram Charan’s, The Attacker’s Advantage.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

The Importance of Exercising Your Core-4 Professional Muscle Groups

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 strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

Our core body muscles groups…those muscles in your pelvis, lower back and abdomen all work in harmony to provide stability and to help propel us through our daily lives. A strong core is critical to long-term fitness health and stability, while a weak core leaves us susceptible to muscle injuries, lower back pain and other muscle-related maladies.

For the past seven months I’ve been involved in a rigorous physical regimen…a midlife makeover of sorts and for as much as I would gravitate to what my trainer calls the “mirror muscle” exercises, he has pushed me hard to balance my work and to ensure proper focus on my core muscles. The results for me have been transformational.

Much like our physical core, there’s a set of professional core muscles that require on-going exercise and development for optimum health.

Your Core-4 Professional Muscle Groups:

1. How we lead others…our leadership skills.

2. How effectively we translate noise and issues in the external world into patterns and then decisions and actions—our perceptual acuity.

3. How we present and handle ourselves in a variety of circumstances—our professional presence.

4. How well we’ve mastered the art and science of running our businesses—our operational acuity.

As we advance in our careers and strive for that next level of responsibility, our Core-4 professional muscles provide stability and support for our efforts and they help us propel through the issues in our businesses with confidence, character and energy.

For individuals living through what I term a Level-Up experience—a new role filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, the Core-4 professional muscles are what you will draw upon to navigate the new challenges in front of you.

When these Professional Muscles Atrophy, they Set Artificial Limits on Our Advancement:

I frequently encounter professionals who need help reviving or developing one or more of these professional muscle groupings as part of strengthening their own performance and/or striving to get to a new level of responsibility in their careers. In many cases, one or more of these under-developed professional skill sets serve as limiting factors in a person’s advancement.

  • A project manager had outstanding technical skills yet struggled to win the hearts and minds of her teams. The feedback on her was that she viewed people as resources to plug in where needed and her command and control style was off-putting to many. It was not viewed as a good day when someone was assigned to one of her projects. As she adapted her style to take on a more personal-professional approach, her team performance and post-project reviews both increased.
  • A great product manager striving for a promotion to vice-president was perceived by colleagues and senior managers as cold and aloof. While his business acumen and success in identifying offerings were undeniable, the presence factors worked against him at promotion time in a big way. Through video feedback he was able to see how others perceived him and coaching helped him strengthen his presence with staff and executive audiences. Once the presence improved, the barriers to promotion melted and he earned that VP slot.
  • A tactically excellent promotions manager was perceived as topped out because of his weakness in contributing to strategy work. A blend of education/training and strong coaching on looking externally and translating competitor and customer issues into ideas and opportunities for his firm helped strengthen his perceptual acuity and supported his rise to a new and broader opportunity.
  • A star on the factory floor was viewed as an excellent candidate to move into a broader operating role, however, his limited understanding of how other parts of the business functioned was viewed as a barrier. A blend of external education and internal assignment rotation helped round out his understanding of individual functions and how they connected, and several years later, he’s a star in a much more expansive operating role.

All of the individuals in these examples benefited from a great boss interested in helping them develop and grow. And all required development in one or more of the Core-4 professional muscle groups. While we’re not always fortunate enough to have that great boss…or in my case, that great physical trainer, every one of us is accountable to ourselves for spending time in our “professional gyms” and strengthening those critical components of our successful success.

Are You a Professional Couch Potato?

How hard are you working on developing your Core-4 professional muscle groups?

Much like the mid-life spread that too many of us fall victim to, it’s easy to let these muscles atrophy. When meeting prospective new coaching clients, I look and listen for how they spend their time developing themselves. What are they reading? What are they writing? Who do they engage with in social media? Are they pushing themselves by taking on new experiences in the workplace? Have they invested their own time and money on strengthening their skills?

It’s common for me to find mid-career professionals who have spent years metaphorically sitting on the couch doing nothing to exercise those critical muscle groups. Yes, work-life balance, children, family obligations are all facts of life for most of us as we move towards mid-career, however, ignoring the needs of your professional self for development is akin to ignoring the need to exercise and stay fit.

The next few “It’s Your Career” posts will offer you some practical guidance to help you assess your own Core-4 conditioning program and to identify and begin strengthening in those areas. And while having a trainer to guide your efforts, you still need to do all of the hard work.

Ready to hit the professional gym?

Here’s Your Warm-Up:

Our next post in this series will focus on one of the most overlooked of the Core 4…strengthening professional acuity. While the term is a bit odd, this focuses squarely on helping you improve your critical and strategic thinking. In preparation, invest some time scanning different business publications (FastCompany, INC, Forbes, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review) or their respective websites and look for examples of firms doing interesting things with technology, design or their business approaches. Take a few notes and we’ll put these to work in our next post.