It’s Your Career: Learn to Embrace Ambiguity as Opportunity

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

One of the core capabilities of successful senior leaders and individual contributors is their ability to cope with and leverage ambiguity as a tool to create.

While many of us stop or even freeze when faced with unfamiliar situations, others recognize the opportunity to leverage uncertainty as a means to showcase our problem-solving and informal leadership capabilities while solving a vexing workplace challenge.

Instead of viewing the blank page or the empty picture frame in front of you as intimidating and a reason to grind to a halt, recognize that the right reaction is to do something to place words on the page or an image in the frame.

From defining and developing new strategies to creating new roles on your team to being tasked to create a new function and supporting processes critical for the future of the business, there are many tremendous opportunities shrouded in ambiguity, where the right moves will propel you forward.

5 Key Do’s and Don’ts When Faced with Ambiguous Circumstances:

1. Do Work to Internalize the Situation as Opportunity. For some of us, the lack of a template is intimidating and even frightening. While the reaction is understandable, it’s out of sync with the expectations of those around you. Your boss and team members are looking for forward progress and actions that begin to address the inherent problem(s). If solving this were easy, someone would have already taken care of the issue. Know that you’re being measured on incremental progress, not sudden magical answers.

2. Don’t Go to Ground. Your first reaction might be to don the cloak of invisibility and hunker down in search of solving whatever riddle is in front of you. Don’t. By disappearing into silence in search of answering the dilemma on your own, everyone else around you simple notices the disappearing act. Your perception that you have to go away until you have the solution is wrong.

3. Do Actively Build a Network of Contributors. Cultivating a strong advisory or problem-solving network in the workplace is a leadership power tactic. By connecting people with different skill sets in pursuit of solving a vexing issue, you’re improving the odds of success and you’re displaying effective informal leadership skills. Looking at it from another perspective, the most powerful people in a firm are the ones who get things done by bringing diverse talents to bear to solve a problem. It’s the friendly, ethical way to enhance your power and visibility, while doing the same for others who become attached to solving the issue at hand.

4. Don’t Ignore the Need to Make Noise. Silence is not golden in this case. The quieter you are about the work and progress on the initiative, the more you reinforce a perception that nothing is happening. Develop a communication program to keep stakeholders informed of progress, lessons learned and what to expect in the near-term. Also, know that sharing information on small victories reinforces the idea that something positive is happening. Your goal is to buy time and help, and the credibility gained from cultivating an accurate perception of your forward progress is critical.

5. Do Shine the Spotlight on Those Helping You. Nothing turns people off faster than obnoxious self-promotion. On the other hand, you can build goodwill by showcasing how others are helping YOU resolve an issue or create something new. Your team members will appreciate the limelight and you will be attached to the positive progress and the willingness to promote others ahead of your interests. Consider this an investment in your own future when you need to draw upon a broader or different audience for help with the next highly ambiguous situation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Situations ripe with ambiguity can be intimidating or at least unsettling. In reality, they are ripe with opportunity. Instead of focusing on the fear of doing something wrong, recognize that the one thing you can do that is absolutely wrong is to let fear paralyze you into inaction. Engage with others, build a problem-solving network and put those first brushstrokes down on the empty canvas.

Related Post: 5 Common Sense Ideas for Growing Your Power at Work

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 Art’s book: 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.


Guest Post: The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

cover FlexNote from Art: I’m excited to feature author and global leadership strategist and consultant, Jane Hyun, on this highly relevant topic of managing and leading across differences. Jane’s latest book with Audrey S. Lee, Flex–The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, offers a practical and powerful guidebook on this important issue for managers and leaders at all levels.

The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

by Jane Hyun

The face of the global workplace has changed forever. Chances are good that your company is already comprised of workers from around the world as well as multicultural employees in North America; more women are in the workforce (about 50% in the U.S.) than ever before, and millennials are entering the workforce in increasing numbers.  No matter where you are headquartered, you are likely doing business with at least one partner or supplier in another country. Yet, despite this increasing diversity of our workforce, we have yet to unlock the keys to fully leveraging this rich talent pool.

Our Tendency to Minimize Difference:

When it comes to navigating across differences, managers tend not to have the conversation.  We recruit diverse people into our organizations and expect that they too, will figure out the rules. But goodwill and positive intent alone is not sufficient for tapping the potential of your multicultural talent.  Too often we expect that cultural outliers on the team will assimilate into the dominant workplace culture, and figure out the behaviors for getting ahead. Some companies even adopt a “sink or swim” mentality for new employees, and  managers who only see through one cultural lens (their own) force employees outside of the dominant culture to change. As a result, workers from other cultures have to adopt Western notions of acceptable behaviors and mannerisms, even those that clash fundamentally with their cultural values.

Without a more nuanced understanding of the differences between people, as well as tools to bridge the communication gaps, managers will be at a loss to bridge the distance between themselves and those who think differently.

Questions for Self Reflection:

  • How comfortable am I with people who are different from me?
  • What perspectives do my diverse employees bring to our business?
  • Are there management practices that I have been using that may be hindering my team’s development?
  • How have previous diversity training or the stigma of talking about differences impacted me as a leader?

 Talking About Differences is Hard

If left unattended, diversity can negatively affect team cohesion and increase miscommunication and conflict. Having a culturally adaptive leader at the helm can encourage diverse viewpoints in decision-making and give voice to the unique perspectives that will drive innovation and growth for your organization.

But talking about difference can be hard. We become so afraid of making the wrong statements that we end up not initiating the dialogue at all. We need a shared vocabulary for discussing differences in a productive way. The solution? To add “fluent leader” skills to your leadership tool kit. A fluent leader adapts his own leadership style in order to work more effectively with colleagues who are different from himself (culturally, generationally, and across the gender divide). He investigates, without judgment, the differences in order to achieve the optimal result.

Here are the stages that we’ve identified when managing people across differences of culture, generation, and gender:

The Blindsided Leader– To you, no news is good news. You are sometimes blindsided when things don’t always go the way you expect. When direct conflict or difficulty arises from differences, you may avoid it completely.

The Judging Leader – You find individuals who relate differently from you annoying.  You might resent a Millennial employee for over-using social media at work, and prefer that people should relate to each other the old fashioned way, or find that your colleagues in Japan tend to be too indirect. You tolerate some differences, but when push comes to shove, you have the right way of doing things and expect team members to conform to your style.

The Golden Rule Leader-  Diversity training has taught you that it’s probably safest to treat everybody the same. You de-emphasize differences and believe that most people will respond positively if you treat them the way that you would want to be treated.

The Fluent Leader -  You accept and are curious about differences across cultural, gender, and generational lines. Instead of resorting to stereotypes to judge these differences, you explore the differences on a one-to-one level.  You can adapt your style to be more effective with colleagues who are different from you.

 A Fluent Leader Creates Connectivity:

Kristin, a VP of Finance in the publishing industry, exhibited fluent leader traits while working with Rosa, one of the accountants on her team. While other team members actively contributed their ideas during their weekly in-person meetings, Rosa seemed hesitant to speak up, even though her written presentations were excellent. As a result, colleagues from other departments began to perceive her as ineffective and even disengaged. Kristin decided to investigate. She took Rosa to lunch and provided feedback about the impact of her meeting behavior.  Through that conversation, she learned that Rosa had been brought up in a traditional Mexican American family.  You show respect by letting your superior have the floor, and these values were deeply embedded from a young age. Since Kristin often led the weekly meeting, Rosa did not feel it was appropriate to interject. With Kristin’s guidance, Rosa shared her opinion once at the next meeting.  Over the course of the next 5 months she contributed her views gradually more each time, turning around how others perceived her in the organization.

The Wrap-Up:

Hiring diverse teams and then hoping for the best is not sufficient.  Motivating people who have divergent viewpoints and cultural styles requires an active dialogue to unearth optimal strategies for engagement. The fluent leader adapts his approach and management style to meet his team members partway to help bridge the gap between them. He is willing to re-think conventional ways of managing others instead of expecting newcomers to adopt the organizations’ norms. And the leaders who become adept at interacting across differences will ultimately win the global talent war.

Jane Hyun is a global leadership strategist and coach to Fortune 500 companies, MBA programs, and nonprofits. To learn more, visit her website: Hyun Associates.

She is the co-author of the book Flex/The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences (March 25) and the author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. She has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and NPR to discuss leadership, authenticity, and culture. To learn more about Flex, visit the site:


Leadership Caffeine: Use Daily Conversations to Promote Development

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveToo many bosses leave discussions about professional development to one or two occasions during the year, usually syncing them with the annual performance evaluations. Follow this formula and you’re doing your team members and your firm a tremendous disservice.

Rather than keeping professional development talk locked to the calendar, I’m a big fan of frequent “on the fly” conversations that directly support an individual’s developmental needs and goals. Frequent conversations keep the topic front and center and allow you to focus on providing active coaching that transcends a task orientation. And importantly, the regular development discourse helps build trust between you and your co-workers. After all, there’s no higher form of respect you can pay to someone in the workplace than helping them work towards achieving their career aspirations.

6 Ideas to Help Strengthen Your Daily Professional Development Conversations:

1. Establish a Firm Foundation for the Discussions. Start the process by establishing a mutual understanding of your team member’s next step and long-range professional objectives. Armed with an understanding of personal professional goals, you can better assess and coach as well as design opportunities to support development of the needed skills and experiences.

2. Emphasize Strengths Initially. Our first reaction is to typically look at the weaknesses we perceive in an individual and focus our developmental efforts (training, feedback etc) squarely on those items. They’re weaknesses for a reason, and my encouragement is to look at the individual’s strengths and call those out (always with examples!) as they relate to the next step. If someone has shown success in informally guiding teams or serving as a trouble-shooter, those are great places to reinforce positive behaviors and link them to the individual’s position and career aspirations. I love building on strengths rather than preoccupying on weaknesses.

3. Treat this Work Like As If You Were Building an Apprenticeship Program. (You are!) In most environments, the higher one rises on the organizational ladder, the more the issues of leadership, strategy, presence and the ability to cope with uncertainty or ambiguity are relevant. Establish a common vocabulary around these somewhat squishy topics by using examples and encouraging external reading and study. It’s hard to grok professional presence unless you can point to examples, and it’s tough to talk about strategy unless you’ve built a common vocabulary and given it context. Invite the individual to a strategy session, encourage them to read on the topic and then provide opportunities for the individual to contribute to the process. It’s key to design assignments to expose the individual to these various areas of professional growth. Other ideas: identify an opportunity for the individual to informally lead teams or groups (projects are great for this!); offer an opportunity to help work on customer or market facing activities, and expose the individual to complex problem situations. Watch their performance and supply regular feedback during your daily discussions. (Feedback is best served warm.)

4. Yes, You Still Need to Mind the Gaps. While I emphasized focusing on strengths above, good observation over a wide variety of activities in your Apprenticeship Program will offer ample opportunity to identify critical gaps in knowledge or behavior. Ample feedback…always two-way, plus the identification of necessary training fits well in this stage.

5. Use Questions to Teach. Effective coaching is much about asking great, thought-provoking questions. No need to deliver monologues…ask people for their own reactions, perceptions and emotions based on their experiences with different activities. Asking an individual to assess his or her performance for a particularly challenging activity opens up the discussion and coaching opportunities. Reinforce where you perceive they get it, and help them see blindspots. All of this works better when driven by questions.

6. Create Opportunities to Link Daily Performance to Development. One of the great things of leading and supporting the development of others is that we have nearly endless opportunities everyday to observe and support our team members. While everyone is busy, adding a few minutes on to a status update, grabbing a cup of coffee once or twice per week or reaching out with that extra phone call as the week is winding down, are all easily accomplished.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Deliberate development of your team members and teams is much about you cultivating the right presence of mind for this topic and then incorporating it in your regular discussions. There’s no rule against talking early and often about development, and in fact, it’s an ingredient in promoting high performance in your workplace. You have dozens to hundreds of interactions with your team members every week, start using them effectively.

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 Art’s book: 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.


5 Common Sense Ideas for Growing Your Power at Work

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsWhile we often associate the concept of “power” in the workplace as something bestowed by title or gained and maintained through political gamesmanship, you neither require a promotion, nor do you need to plot and claw your way to the next level to grow your power.

In most workplaces there’s an over-abundance of the stuff just lying around waiting for someone to pick it up and apply it. There’s no reason why that someone can’t be you.

First, Some Context on Power at Work:

Power and it’s close cousin, Influence, are not dirty words. Both are components of every organization’s environment and both must be carefully cultivated for you to succeed whether you lead teams or functions or serve as an individual contributor.

Those who leverage power drive the organization forward by making decisions, by developing, or leading key initiatives and by bringing the right resources and expertise to bear for a given challenge.

Nothing significant happens in an organization without the application of power and influence wielded by those who have carefully cultivated these qualities.

5 Ideas to Help You Grow Your Power and Keep Your Integrity Intact:

1. Start simple. Pick a visibly vexing problem and lead the charge to solve it. It’s amazing how many visible workplace problems go unattended. It’s the fire in the garbage can syndrome. Groups look at it, talk about it, wonder about it, but no one seems to do anything about it. That’s your cue!

2. Serve as a Network Connector. Cultivate relationships with peers and higher-ups in functions other than your own. Look for opportunities to bring members of disparate groups together on projects or one of those problem-solving activities you grabbed control of in #1 above. Your knowledge of and access to other resources, particularly people or teams with unique skills is a valuable source of power.

3. Tune in to Your Boss’s Goals and Help Her Achieve Them. Nothing cultivates upward influence like actively supporting and advocating for your boss. Leverage those cross-functional relationships you’re busy developing to push her agenda along. As she succeeds, you succeed.

4. Attach Yourself to High Visibility Projects. There’s nothing particularly shameful or evil about striving to participate in the big projects with senior executive visibility. Do a good job with the first three on this list, and your odds of successfully attaching yourself to the firm’s “Failure is Not an Option” initiatives go up considerably.

5. Make Heroes Out of Your Colleagues and Team Members. Seriously. A grateful network is a powerful network. Help those around you gain visibility and achieve their goals and you’ll gain long-standing support from a growing group of thankful co-workers. Contrary to the many misguided attempts I’ve seen from people who lived to grab the spotlight, I prefer to shine it on those around me making things happen. It never hurts to have a large number of people who are grateful to you for your support.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Jeffrey Pfeffer in his excellent book, Power—Why Some People Have it and Other’s Don’t, offers ample evidence for the importance of cultivating power to lead a happy (and even healthy) work life. Healthy and happy are what it’s all about. Instead of associating growing power as something requiring you to step all over others on your way to the top, try the noble frontal assault on this important workplace asset. You might just be surprised how easy it is to become that person calling the shots, guiding the resources and making things happen across your organization.

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 Art’s book: 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.

Leadership Caffeine—Managing and Developing the Extraordinary

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Let’s face it, some people are graced with an extra gear that the rest of us don’t have. Whether it’s remarkable creativity or ingenuity, or incredible technical skills, it’s exciting to manage and support extraordinary individuals.

It’s also very challenging.

Good managers and leaders tailor their approach for individuals, however, when presented with someone who is light-years beyond their peers in certain areas, many managers stumble and struggle when it comes to daily management and on-going support and development. Here are some suggestions for strengthening your support of these unique individuals.

4 Suggestions for Managing and Developing the Gifted Individuals on Your Team:

1. Remember, you cannot compromise your standards for accountability and fairness. Standards of accountability and fairness must be universal, however, when it comes to supporting development and leveraging the skills of those uniquely gifted, don’t feel compelled to hold these people back. A superstar needs role players to win a championship. Nonetheless, in the eyes of your extended team, the accountabilities must be equal.

2. Beware Enabling the Brilliant Problem-Employee Syndrome. Closely related to the first point on accountability, I’ve viewed many individuals gifted with technical or creative skills who clearly were deficient in the emotional and social intelligence areas. (No intent to generalize here…just to describe personal examples.)

If you encounter one of these challenging characters, be careful not to rationalize or excuse aberrant behavior with something that sounds like, “That’s just Joe. He’s brilliant, but he struggles to participate in groups without running all over people.” I actually lived this and my own rationalization of the behavior hurt the team and my credibility as a manager.  In the end, it hurt the brilliant individual as well. Take action, provide coaching, training and ample heaping helpings of feedback, and put some teeth into the accountability for acceptable behaviors.

3. Carefully Tailor Professional Development to the Individual. While this is a good management practice for everyone on your team, it’s particularly important to customize the education and developmental opportunities for your gifted team members.

Challenge yourself to identify opportunities for this individual to engage with and learn from the leaders in their field. Encourage them to join and actively participate in relevant industry or professional organizations. And instead of reflexively exposing them to the mostly cookie-cutter training offerings provide via HR, provide something unique. In the past, I’ve sent strategists to Harvard to learn from Clay Christensen, engineers to MIT, marketers to Kellogg and emerging leaders to The Center for Creative Leadership. The results were priceless and the costs trivial compared to the returns these people generated.

4. Ramp up and Amp up the Internal Challenges. I love the idea of applying Ram Charan’s perspective on developing senior leaders: expose them to a series of increasingly ambiguous challenges as part of the learning, developing and testing process.

For those great people I’ve managed who have exhibited that extra skills gear, I’ve learned that it’s easy to bore them into depression with mundane tasks and alternatively, it’s easy to lose them to the pursuit of explaining the unifying theory of everything. Instead of holding back or completely letting go, develop together with the individual a series of deliberate projects that grow increasingly challenging and ambiguous. Provide coaching and feedback and when you encounter performance areas that create problems for the individual, add-in developmental support.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

People are our business as leaders and managers, and they make this work remarkably challenging and incredibly rewarding. Supporting the daily work and on-going development of a gifted professional is in some ways much more difficult than dealing with poor performers. It takes balancing the need for equity across your team with the very real need to feed what is often a tremendous hunger to do more, learn more and experience more. Your challenge is to create the environment and pacing to make this work for all involved.

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 Art’s latest book: 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.