Level-Up #2—Reality Check for the New Vice President

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting the successful identification and development of new executives.

There are few more simultaneously exciting and disorienting experiences in your professional life than your initial promotion to a corporate position as vice president of something.

A Swirl of Emotions:

The promotion feels good personally, because in your mind, it validates your hard work and the sacrifices you made earlier in your career. And it is gratifying that someone or some group thought highly enough of your work and your potential to trust you at this new level. Congratulations!

It’s exciting, because you are confident that now that you have the title and authority that comes with it, and you’ll be able to push through those sweeping changes you know are needed to keep your firm at the top of the industry.

And it’s a bit disorienting, because there’s a lot of “new” involved. Your peers are new. Your routine is new…new meetings to attend, new reports to generate and new goals and assignments from your boss that are a lot fuzzier and more abstract than those you are used to tackling.  A great deal in this new role feels new, but after all, you haven’t made it this far without embracing change. And how tough can it be to succeed at this level? It’s not much different than every other promotion in your career. Or so you think.

And then reality sets in.

4 Hard Facts of Life in Your New Role as Vice President (and a few thoughts on what to do about them):

1. Don’t expect a ticker tape welcoming parade from your new peers. Title offers you admission to but not credibility in the executive ranks. Don’t expect a great deal of start-up help or even attention from the grizzled veterans sitting around the table with similar titles but eons more experience. To them, you’re furniture until proven otherwise.

A key part of early success or avoiding derailment is to prove credible to these brokers of power, influence and resources. Reach out to them individually. Strive to understand their priorities and in particular, their issues/needs vis a vis your resources and functional areas and then deliver help. If they begin to perceive you are serious about being part of the solution, the barriers will crumble and working relationships will form.

2. There is no honeymoon period. OK, I’ll give you until about mid-morning on your first day. After that, it’s, “what have you done for your firm lately?” Moral to the story: if you’re starting in your new role without an understanding of the terrain and challenges as well as the framework for a plan, you’re already behind.

Quickly focus on understanding your priorities. This includes tuning into the metrics your boss uses to evaluate you as well as learning to understand her priorities and goals. It also includes getting to know your new team members and plugging into their world with 3 simple questions: What’s working? What’s not? What do you need me to do to help you/your area with your goals? Remember to do something with the feedback. Quickly.

3. They promoted you because they trust you to make good decisions. Now make some! They might have left out the part about the issues requiring decisions being significantly more ambiguous than in prior roles and the outcomes being much more impactful. Yes, it’s important to be able to select that next market to penetrate or, to choose what products or programs to cut so that you can focus on things that hopefully will bring more value two years from now. Regardless of the ambiguity, you’re on the hook for some good decisions. Now.

It’s time to exercise those decision-making skills I’ve been writing about in at least 924 of my 1,000 plus posts here at Management Excellence. (OK slight exaggeration, but not by much.) Seriously, learn to leverage framing for fun and profit and be careful of the decision traps that bedevil so much human interaction. Learning to make good decisions or, teaching your new team to make decisions is a lot like that fitness program you’ve been thinking about. The view in the mirror doesn’t change unless you do something about it. Read, study and apply the tools of effective decision-making. Teach your teams to talk and frame and debate effectively, and liberally leverage outside perspectives to help or to sanity check. This is the hard work that will either keep you in this role, propel you to the next level or earn a one-way ticket heading in the opposite direction of the C-Suite.

4. Everyone’s waiting to figure out who you are. Seriously, your new team needs to know what you stand for and what your elevation to the lofty new title means for them. As mentioned earlier, your new peers view you as furniture or white noise until you prove yourself and the boss is excited but looking for validation of the decision to move you up. The title is great, the compensation not bad, but the stakes are high.

Accept that you’ve got to prove yourself all over again and get on with the work. The “What’s Working” discussions referenced above, are a great way to break the ice with your team. While it’s tempting to assert yourself in your first executive meetings, my council is to choose your contributions very deliberately and avoid the tendency to sound like a jackass as you share your pent up concerns about how the company is run. Seek first to understand in your new environment and find ways to prove helpful and supportive. The allies you make now will provide the treasure for revolution later on in your tenure.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Congratulations on your new role and welcome to my reality check. You may have just earned the hardest job in the firm. Or, in any firm.

There’s a reality about the role of Vice President in most organizations that isn’t apparent until you occupy the position. You’re sandwiched between the needs and demands of the CEO and the needs and demands of those below you, and they often are at odds with each other. That and the fact that influencing change from your role may well be harder than doing it from the middle of the pack due to the power and politics swirling around the C-Suite, are sobering but real issues for anyone in this role.

Go into your new arrangement with eyes wide open and with the acceptance that the first-time Vice President’s role isn’t a linear extension of your prior role. A beginner’s mind is healthy in this circumstance, coupled with the recognition that you’re on the clock and under scrutiny from above, from the sides and from below. Seek quickly to understand and then leverage your skills for communication and action, all the while forging new alliances and serving a large number of cantankerous constituencies.

It’s simple.

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Just One Thing—Is it Time to Suspend Your Judgment in Hiring?

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!

There’s an interesting article in the May, 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review, entitled, “In Hiring, Algorithms Beat Instinct.”

According to the authors, we would be better served by letting algorithms do the heavy lifting before inserting our own bias-filled and easily distracted selves into the hiring equation.

The authors (Kuncel, Ones and Klieger) suggest, “…that a simple equation outperforms human decisions by at least 25%.” They offer that their findings extend to situations with large pools of candidates and at all levels from front-line to the C-Suite. They further cite our propensity to be thrown off by our cognitive biases, irrelevant data points, arbitrary comments in conversation and candidate compliments as reasons why we might need some objective help in our hiring decisions.

Provocative.

I’m experienced enough and comfortable enough in my own skin to recognize and agonize just a bit over my own hiring gaffes during the course of my career. Two in particular haunt my hiring dreams. In both cases, I would have taken a bullet for the decision on the front-end, only to discover in one case a fatal character flaw and in another, a fatal cultural incompatibility. An extra layer of insurance up front in the form of help from a reliable, predictive test instrument would have been highly valued in identifying and helping rule out these candidates before I made those costly mistakes.

However, (you had to know there was a “however” coming somewhere in this post) I truly struggle with the idea of deferring my up-front candidate pool crunching to an instrument. In particular, I fear missing out on the unique or outlier candidate that might be fairly wide of the algorithm’s parameters.

Many of my most successful hires have come from non-traditional backgrounds with very unique experiences to draw upon in our work. I’ve made a habit of avoiding HR screening of the candidate pool (particularly for strategic roles) in search of people with diverse and non-traditional backgrounds and success in analogous situations. While perhaps it’s a personal oddity of my own practices, I’m more interested in discovering remarkable people than I am in identifying perfect people.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m intrigued by the help that these tools can provide. I’m also leery of suspending judgment and/or relegating my evaluation process to the candidates our screening instruments deem worthy of consideration. Some of the great contributors of my career wouldn’t have made it past HR without a hall pass from me, and I’m not willing or ready to relegate this to a program tuned by someone with a lot less interest, curiosity and drive to discover the next great contributor.

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From the Archives: 5 Priceless Lessons from Amundsen and Scott

Roald AmundsenNote from Art: given the polar-like weather many of us are “enjoying” this week, I thought it was fitting to revisit my earlier Amundsen and Scott post.  These lessons never grow cold!

In preparation for an upcoming presentation, I’ve become a bit obsessed with studying the 1910 expeditions and race between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to 90-degrees South (the South Pole).  The lessons for leaders and managers practically leap off the pages of this classic example of coping with risk, uncertainty and volatility.

This “Heroic Era” of polar exploration was capped off (really bad pun!) by Amundsen and Scott, in what turned into an adventure where Amundsen beat Scott to the pole and safely returned, crew intact. Sadly, Scott and his crew ultimately perished during their attempted return.

I have Jim Collins to thank for this latest management segue, as he draws upon this same race and the comparison and contrast between Amundsen and Scott in his book with Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite them All. (Note: While Collins hooked me, see my suggestions at the end of the post for much deeper reading on the topic.)

The level of preparation that Amundsen and team put into their polar expedition was both monumental and commendable.  All students of project management and management and leadership in general should study this case.  The comparison and contrast between Amundsen’s approach and Scott’s is fascinating and highly relevant to leading initiatives and organizations in today’s turbulent workplace environment.

For the rest of us, here are a few lessons gleaned from my just-started study of this fascinating event.

At Least 5 Key Lessons Gained from Studying Amundsen and Scott:

1. The Conventional Wisdom Isn’t Always Right.  Amundsen’s selection of a previously uncharted path to 90-degrees South was contrary to all of the conventional wisdom of the time.  Long voiced concerns about the stability of the ice in the area kept prior expeditions from considering Amundsen’s starting point. His own painstaking review of the various logs of prior explorers suggested that the geology hadn’t changed much in decades. He decided to take this risk in return for a straighter, shorter (albeit completely unknown) line to his destination. While his choice introduced an element of risk, he viewed the payoff for success as worth it.

How often do you let the conventional wisdom dictate your approach to a complex problem?

2. Focus Means Focus. Amundsen was solely focused on reaching the South Pole. Everything he did…the months of preparation, the customization of his tools…and everything he had done earlier in his life, including, living with the Inuit, led to his preparation for success in the harsh polar environment. Scott had a mixed agenda of exploration and science, and the complexity of doing both contributed in part to his challenges.

It’s always tempting to tag on goals that seem complementary. Beware the dilution and distraction effect. Most of the time we’re best served by clarifying and then laser-focusing on the mission at hand.

 3. Luck Happens-It’s What You Do with It that Counts. In Amundsen’s words: “I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

Scott’s journal was filled with descriptions of bad luck. In reality, the two expeditions faced much of the same lousy weather luck. One succeeded while the other failed. What we do with our luck…good or bad is completely within our control.

 4. Tailor the Tools to the Mission. While Scott and his crew spent the winter months wiling away their time with lectures (to each other) and reading, Amundsen’s team maintained 8-hour days customizing every single piece of equipment to improve their odds of surviving anything. Both expeditions used the same sledges, but Amundsen’s were modified to reduce the weight considerably. Amundsen redesigned his skis and ski bindings, his crates, his critical paraffin containers and everything else with the idea of safety, security, light-weight, ease of use from set-up to stowing all the driving goal. And he took tips from the Inuit on clothing, opting for a style and material that promoted air circulation and helped managed sweating and heat retention/loss.

Too often we expect our technology tools and generic practices to yield great results. Take a page from Amundsen and tailor your tools to the mission in front of you.

 5. Nobility is Nice, but Practicality Wins. Scott and his crew viewed it as noble to man-haul their sledges and gears. Yes, man-haul. Amundsen knew from his time with the Inuit that dogs were superior haulers and that the issue of calories would eventually determine survival or death. Scott grossly miscalculated the calorie burn from man-hauling, and that combined with poor food depot planning (location, contents, fuel) contributed to his team’s demise. It is reported that Amundsen’s team actually gained weight during their successful return trip.

Pride and nobility goeth before the fall. Don’t get caught up in the nobility of your tactics, when there may well be a better, less-elegant approach to save the project, your job or in Scott’s case, his life.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

All of us live and work in a world filled with chaos and turbulence. Our customers feel it, our suppliers know it and our competitors are coping with it as well.

As Collins and Hansen suggest in Great by Choice: “It’s what you do before the storm comes that most determines how well you’ll do when the storm comes. Those who fail to plan and prepare for instability, disruption, and chaos in advance tend to suffer more when their environments shift from stability to turbulence.”

While, “Be like Amundsen” doesn’t have that commercial jingle sound to it, we will all be better off if we incorporate this explorer’s constancy of purpose and unrelenting focus into our personal and professional endeavors.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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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.

Order one or both books for your team. Contact Art.

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Art of Managing-6 Ideas to Help Management Groups Develop as Teams

ArtofManagingFrom long experience and ample client CEO and Board input, the typical state of a management team looks less like a team and more like a group of functional experts who occasionally gather to talk uncomfortably (and shallowly) about the hard issues confronting their organization. The behaviors and integration you might anticipate from a “team” of smart, senior people are often absent from the equation.

Many CEOs agonize over the issue of how to “gain more” from this group of senior managers, and the managers are often equally perplexed, suspecting they should be doing more of something with their functional counterparts.

Team development in any environment is challenging and requires deliberate, focused effort. While there are no silver bullets for turning groups of senior managers into a productive or high-performance team, a bit of expectation adjustment and some focused actions can help you and the group move in the right direction.

6 Ideas to Strengthen Team Development at the Senior Management Level:

1. Don’t expect team performance to be on display at the operations review. The most common forum for senior managers to gather is in the operational review. In reality, this is the one environment where teamwork and collaboration approach irrelevant. Budgets, forecasts and scorecard results dominate the dialog, and they should. However,  a good operations review will uncover issues that merit more detailed group scrutiny. Capture those items under the label of “Team Topics” and pursue them in the forum(s) described below.

2. Adjust your expectations for the senior management team’s role in key decisions. Bob Frisch in his excellent book, “Who’s in the Room-How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them,” helps us understand the realities of senior level decision making, and in Bob’s ample experience, it happens between the CEO and a fluid “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, and not via a group of functional managers who suddenly check their hats at the door and agree to operate for the greater good. Use the team as an input source and adjust your expectations to reflect the reality that senior management teams are better used implementing decisions than making them.

3. Create the forums and format to harness the talents and knowledge of your senior managers. Leave the operating topics for the operations review and create a series of narrowly focused sessions around important topics such as the external world (e.g. How are market forces impacting us and how should we respond?), strategy (generating ideas on how we can create value, better serve customers and beat competitors) and talent (Who are the high potentials? How are we managing succession?)  Identify follow-on homework and group-work to further the discussion and help move topics from ideas to actions. Ensure accountability on homework activities from session to session.

4. Use frequency to reinforce working together-meet just often enough to make the teamwork in #3 real. While most groups are good about connecting on a periodic basis to review operating activities and metrics, many struggle to carve out the time for the discussions suggested in #3. The lack of regular contact outside the world of functional operating activities is a problem and fights team creation. If you’re not spending at least half a day every six weeks and a full day or two every quarter on the big issues in front of you, it’s time to build a calendar and put some rigor and regularity into the schedule with your senior managers.

5. Don’t expect retreats and non-work related activities to substitute for the “butts in seat” focused time required for team development.  You might have a fun experience paddling a canoe with one of your counterparts, but I’ve yet to find any connection between this extra-curricular work and the improvement of team dynamics.

6. Remember and build towards Hackman’s 5 conditions for effective teams. The recently late J. Richard Hackman devoted a career to studying teams and his five conditions for high performance are minimum table stakes for team development. They are: clear and compelling purpose; clear team membership; expert coaching, enabling structures and a supportive organization. In almost every case of the frustrated CEO or perplexed management team member, one or more of those conditions are absent.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’re the CEO, it’s up to you to create the conditions for team development with your senior managers. Use the ideas above as thought-prompters and starting points. If you’re one of the senior managers seeking to support the CEO and cultivate more meaningful work with your peers, offer some ideas to the group. You might just find a grateful CEO and a group of peers hungry to do more for the firm.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

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 leader’s 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.

New Leader Tuesday: Dealing with the Personal Problems of Your Team Members

newleadertuesdaygraphicBe kind, for everyone you meet is waging a great battle. -unknown

One of the occupational challenges of your role as a manager or supervisor is learning how to navigate the personal issues of your team members that seep (or rush) into the workplace.

While many of your coworkers will do a good job maintaining a separation of professional and personal issues, some people seek out sympathetic listeners anywhere they can find them, and you as boss are fair game.  That’s OK, to a point.

Displaying empathy shows that you care. Ensuring that people who are struggling have access to the right help through counseling or the firm’s private support line are all part of your responsibilities as a manager and to maintaining your membership in good standing in the human race. Providing a break for someone to see a doctor, lawyer, counselor is fine as well.

However, beware those individuals who use their personal problems as recurring excuses for chronic poor performance. While they are in the gross minority, it’s a safe bet that you will encounter people who attempt to manipulate you by using their personal issues as a lever.

Your early exceptions and acceptance of misfires and mistakes are capable of snowballing into a different standard for Bob due to his impending divorce or for Mary because of the stress of her son’s arrest, or for Alex because of his mother’s illness.

Over time, performance issues will become blurred by the personal challenges, and your continued accommodation will turn someone’s problem into one that’s now yours.  Not only will you have an employee who is in essence gaming the system, you will have everyone else watching and judging how you handle this situation. Your own credibility as a manager is at stake.

5 Ideas for Navigating the Sticky Personal Problems of Your Employees:

1. Displaying empathy is admirable and encouraged. If someone approaches you with an issue, listen and show genuine understanding and concern.

 2. Don’t practice counseling, law or medicine (or any other profession) without a license! Direct people to company resources (if available) or, encourage them to seek appropriate outside help.

 3. We all need a break once in awhile. Provide reasonable flexibility for people to gain outside help or to attend outside appointments. Encourage the use of vacation and personal days as appropriate.  Beware of this moving from exception to norm, however.

4. Warning! Don’t let personal problems become excuses for sub-par performance. If you see a pattern of poor performance or chronic tardiness developing, don’t hesitate to tackle this issue. Keep it focused on the business and don’t allow the conversation around performance to be redirected back to the personal issues.  Empathy is good. You also have a business to run.

5. Don’t become part of the problem by making excuses for the individual. Everyone is watching. Create one double-standard and your credibility is shot.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Navigating this particularly sticky obstacle requires you to apply the same balanced, fair approach consistently across all team members in all circumstances involving personal issues. Your entire team is watching and judging.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

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 leader’s 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.