Art of Managing—How to Respond When the Experiment Goes Wrong

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

Many firms incorporate something in their values statements that encourages experimentation and recognizes the reality of failure in pursuit of learning and growth. The understanding that to succeed you have to fail first is common knowledge for most of us. However, it’s not the words on the values sign that bring life to a culture of experimentation, but rather, it’s the response of senior leadership to the inevitable clunkers that determines how willing people are to take risks and pay the lessons learned forward.

I have more clunkers to my credit than most people would be comfortable admitting publicly. And while the clunkers created sleepless nights and a fair amount of internal anxiety, I take satisfaction not in having politically survived these failures, but rather, in having leveraged those failures for future gains that propelled our teams, products and firms forward. Of course, a bit less pain along the way would have been nice, but I’ve yet to find the path to innovation that doesn’t include some discomfort in the process. Thankfully, the people I worked for had fairly high pain thresholds.

In the most successful firms I’ve been around, the managers actively promote experimentation and learning as core to everyone’s job. Yet, it’s not the words on the wall or even the words that come out of their mouths about experimentation, it’s the actions they take when things go horribly wrong that fosters the effective learning environment. In a number of these firms, this support of learning is so strong it creates the gravitational pull that keeps the top performers in place long-term and not drifting towards competitors.

3 Counter-intuitive (and Effective) Responses to a Failed Initiative:

1. Throw a experimentsparty. Seriously. One of my favorite managers leveraged the occasional project gone horribly wrong scenario with this counter-intuitive tactic. It was his way of pulling the final plug…telling us how much he valued our efforts and charging us up for our next run at something new. For one particular disaster, he sponsored a day at a theme park. While I carefully checked the safety harness on my first roller coaster ride just in case, it was his way of helping us blow off steam. An important note here; the party wasn’t the end of the process, but the beginning of the next phase of learning. After the fun was over, he put us through the paces of rolling up lessons learned and identifying pieces of intellectual property that could be inventoried and used for the future.

2. Invite Some Outsiders to Help You Study Your Failure. While not as fun as the party process described above, this technique of peer review served as a powerful learning tool. We invited a group of uninvolved experts to challenge everything from our assumptions to our decision-making processes and execution approaches. The playback of the project plus the clinical, detached questioning from the outsiders created a powerful environment for reflection and learning. The results were carefully summarized and archived for review prior to our next initiative. In fact, every new project team spent at least a week as part of their forming process reviewing cases from other project teams as a means of sensitizing the members to historic success and failure factors.

3. Make a Case Out of the Failure. No, not a federal case, but an actual working case to be studied by other groups. Closely related to the “outsiders” suggestion above, the team would create their form of a thinly disguised business case and then sit by and listen and learn as other groups assessed the case and proposed different courses of actions. While this might sound onerous or even too academic, the effort that went into creating the case required a detailed review of the assumptions and processes, and everyone gained insights from the experience of watching the new groups work the case and develop their own approaches.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Most managers and most firms work hard to eliminate the odds of misfires and miscues. While I don’t encourage managers to run towards failures, the process of moving forward requires frequent backing up. When it comes to projects or major initiatives, you cannot plan your way to success on paper and expect the plan to unfold as predicted. You have to deal with the messy, sometimes unpredictable nature of people and the inherent challenges in doing something new. Your response at the point of failure is critical to what happens next.

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Art of Managing—In Searching for Talent, Emphasize Potential

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

The article, “21st Century Talent Spotting—Why potential now trumps brains, experience, and competencies,” in the June, 2014 issue of HBR by Claudio Fernandez-Araz, is must reading for every manager concerned about putting the right management and leadership talent in place to grow his/her organization. (And yes, every manager should be concerned about this significant challenge.)

The author builds a case for shifting away from the competency model (core skills and experiences) that has dominated hiring practices for the recent past, to one that emphasizes assessing a candidate’s potential in the form of, “the ability to adapt to ever-changing business environments and grow into challenging new roles.”

Raised Eyebrows and Victories:

I’ve long been a fan of build versus buy or, hire the best athletes when it comes to talent acquisition, although admittedly, my selections have raised some eyebrows in the more traditional HR environments. One hire to help build out a new initiative had no experience whatsoever in the function I was hiring her for, yet she brought a deep understanding of the customers we were pursuing. In this case, the HR executive who not so politely wondered whether I had lost my mind, was professional enough to loop back after I invited him to the interview process, to offer, “Now I get it.” The outcome was excellent, as she quickly provided much needed customer context for our strategy work, while learning the ins and outs of a new discipline.

Another hire that proved to be remarkably valuable was the recruit from the retail world for a technology sales role. There’s not a hiring model in existence that would have led anyone to this individual, however, the attributes he displayed in winning for his firm, team and store in his retail role were so powerful, I had to give him a shot in my world. He is now a Senior Director in one of the world’s largest and most successful software firms.

The Big Five Indicators (Plus Some):

The focus of the author’s model is on assessing five key indicators: the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. (He also appropriately highlights need to gauge intelligence, values and leadership abilities as part of the process.) The emphasis on the five indicators shifts the weighting away from prior experience in the job and places a tremendous emphasis on the ability of the individual to both learn and adapt. The oft-cited assessment philosophy of, the best predictor of future success is prior performance, is significantly diluted in this approach.

Of Risk and Return:

In addition to a number of noteworthy successes in my own too ad-hoc approach to this style of talent assessment, I’ve also misfired on several occasions. In one case, I failed to recognize the true complexities of quickly learning the new role, and the individual struggled to win the confidence and respect of his colleagues. In another, the individual failed to gravitate to the new role at all, preferring to avoid situations where her expertise was less important than her ability to execute on her core position responsibilities. Both were frustrating situations for all parties, and I learned to avoid future gaffes (like these) through better pre-hiring dialogue over a longer time frame and significantly increased exposure to the demands of the very new role for the candidates.

Invest in Potential and Then Push to Stretch:

Fernandes-Araz concludes the article with an emphasis on “Stretch Development” for the high potential hires. In his words, “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens.” The stretch work is also where you find out whether your initial assessment of potential was on or off the mark.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Talent is the difference-maker in this world, and identifying, securing and developing the right talent is arguably the most important task of managers in the enterprise. You don’t fulfill on mission, effectively serve customers or appropriately reward stakeholders without the right people on board…all learning, growing and adapting to market  conditions. If shifting your viewpoint and recruiting approaches off of the like-kind prior experience model will give you a potential boost, it’s worth the risk. Your batting average on hires that stick might slip a bit, but the upside is worth the cost of the experimentation.

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Art of Managing—When People Develop at Their Pace, Not Yours

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

I’ve encountered more than a few managers who have expressed frustration over the pace of development of someone they have marked for future advancement and increased contribution. For many of these managers, it’s a vexing dilemma with no clear solution.

One manager offered: Mary is a talented individual, and I believe she can do more for us. However, she seems to run in the opposite direction from new opportunities and challenges, preferring to stay closer to what she knows.

Another shared: Jason was great as a new employee, and we moved him along quickly by adding new responsibilities and more money. Recently however, it seems like he cannot get out of his own way. The mistakes are piling up and his colleagues are beginning to question his capabilities.

Everyone has a capacity to learn and grow, however, some individuals self-limit their pace based on insecurities and fears. While there are many reasons why otherwise talented individuals resist new opportunities, a few of the most common include: concern about sustaining a high level of performance in an unfamiliar role, discomfort over dealing with people outside of their core area of expertise or, reticence over changing a mission that they’ve long internalized. As a result, it’s possible for people with remarkable skills and potential to become stuck on a personal performance plateau, leaving otherwise conscientious managers flummoxed over what to do. There are no easy or magical answers, however, here are 4 ideas to help support you in this situation.

4 Ideas to Help People Move Beyond Personal Performance Plateaus:

1. First, assess whether your expectations for the individual are realistic. Get some objective input from an outside observer to help ask and answer some important questions. Are your expectations for this individual’s growth realistic? Are you imposing your belief in their abilities on the individual when he/she doesn’t share this same belief? Have you moved the person along too fast and not allowed appropriate acclimation or mastery time? Have you reached a point where additional growth must be supported by additional training, education or coaching?

2. Start a dialog rich in expectation setting and ripe with feedback. Talk openly with the individual about your belief in their potential and share examples. If your high potential is suddenly struggling in a new role, share specific and timely behavioral feedback and work together to find a way to strengthen performance. (It may be training and education, it may be clarification of objectives, and it may just be lack of confidence in tackling the new role.)

For many managers, it’s awkward to start a constructive dialog on performance challenges with someone who has been on the receiving end of nothing but gold stars and praise. It’s important to get beyond this discomfort. There’s never a substitute for honesty and transparency, and this honest and behavioral focused dialog is the foundation for future development efforts.

3. Change your approach to the individual’s development and advancement. Design assignments, not positions to help people acclimate to new challenges. The formality of a potential promotion to responsibilities outside the experience or comfort zones of an individual can trigger a fear and flight response. Mitigate this by exposing high potentials to informal experiences in the new areas. Ask them to contribute to a project team. Assign them to engage people in other functions on an improvement initiative. Create a scenario to shadow managers and other contributors in different areas. And don’t forget about lateral job rotation assignments as a means of exposing someone to new people and experiences before promoting them to the next level. (Note: it often seems like assignment rotation is a lost approach. We don’t practice it enough in most of our organizations, yet it is the best way I know to build well rounded team members. Give it a shot even if it is not widely practiced in your organization.)

4. Recognize that some people just want to perfect their craft, and refocus their development to support the pursuit of mastery in their current vocation. Your belief in a person’s ability to do more is secondary to their core interests. Accept that sometimes it’s not fear or insecurity that holds people in place, but rather a deep interest in what they are doing. At the end of the day, the individual always reserves the right to stay close to a vocation or role they identify with and want to master.

While I encourage you to pursue all of the above, have an honest debate yourself about whether you should reset your expectations. It’s OK to have narrow contributors who are high performers in their preferred domain. Not everyone is interested in leading or even in doing more. In this situation, shift your support to helping them become the best performer they can be in their chosen area and move your sights to someone else for broader leadership and management tasks.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Kudos on your concern for the development and growth of your team members. The worlds needs more of you. Nonetheless, people don’t always respond as you might expect and at the pace you might perceive is appropriate. Handled poorly, you risk derailing a high potential and damaging your management credibility. The best managers learn to adjust and adapt to suit the individual.

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Why Workplace Teams Struggle—And What to Do About It

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

Many workplace teams I observe are not much better than the typical nightmarish college class group project that most of us have lived through at one time or another. The goals are vague, roles are poorly defined, leadership is absent or misdirected and there are varying degrees of enthusiasm for participating, ranging from the loner’s cry of, “Get me out of here!” to the naïve whine of, “Why can’t we all get along?” Oh, and don’t forget that there’s always a few simply along for the ride while others practically kill themselves in an effort to prop up the rest of the team.

Too many of our workplace teams stumble along in search of performance and quality output, while we as managers look on with a mix of horror and disappointment at the slow-motion pile-ups occurring in front of us.

And while we would like to point to senior management teams as best practice examples, those groups are most often “teams” in name only, struggling to get out of the starting gate on anything more than showing up and sharing functional and operating status updates.

At Least 4 Big Reasons Why Our Workplace Teams Struggle:

1. We’re naïve. We ignore the reality that groups of otherwise competent professionals don’t necessarily and naturally combine and produce. 1+1+1+1 should = 5 or more according to the theory, yet without guidance, coaching and structure, breaking even on productivity is a long-shot in most cases.

2. We don’t teach people how to work in groups. And yes, working successfully in and with groups is a learned skill. Sure, all of your team members have been through leadership development programs, but helping individuals develop their own leadership skills doesn’t necessarily translate to performance in a group setting. The skills, practices and behaviors necessary for team success and success on a team are different than those required for leadership success.

3. We don’t coach our teams. This simplest of all steps…ensuring that our key project teams, our senior management teams and other related work groups have valid, objective coaching support is almost summarily ignored in the corporate world.

4. We don’t walk the talk when it comes to teaming. Our values might include the word “team” or “teamwork,” but we don’t teach and reward the behaviors that make teams work.

9 Ideas to Help Strengthen Team Performance in Your Workplace: 

1. Embrace the idea that cultivating high performance teams in the workplace is hard work. Too many of us ignore this reality. Acknowledge this publicly when forming a new group. Share ideas on the challenges and opportunities of group work and leverage the ideas and tools below liberally as part of the teaming process.

2. Extend professional development efforts in your organization beyond individual skills development. Add a “team” track to the work and provide widespread access to this content. From brainstorming to making decisions to learning to adapt based on momentary failures or risks, doing this in a group setting is difficult and merits investment in training.

3. Define behaviors critical for team success and openly discuss and debate those behaviors with any new team you are forming. Codify these behaviors and strive to keep them visible in the process of group work. Individual team members must understand they are accountable to supporting and exhibiting the behaviors spelled out in the values.

4. Encourage teams to examine primary contributors to project or group failure. While it’s fairly intuitive that vague goals, unclear roles and a lack of understanding of the customer are contributors to project stress or failure, many otherwise smart people contribute on groups who step all over those landmines. It’s healthy for people to be challenged to recognize the problems and press the stop button.

5. Challenge teams to define what success looks like in their own terms. This firm definition of success (perhaps shared via a custom scorecard) is priceless context that supports performance.

6. Make a religion out of choosing team leaders right for the situation. Seniority or title are almost never the right reasons to choose someone as a team leader. Choose the individual who offers each unique group the best chance of success.

7. Provide a coach for critical projects. Every team struggles to learn how to talk, debate, brainstorm, decide, provide feedback, learn and of course, execute. A coach is your best chance of helping a group learn how to navigate these challenges.

8. Recognize that teams cycle through phases of storming, norming and performing. Leadership and coaching are essential to help not only with the early-awkward phase of start-up, but also as projects progress and new or unanticipated challenges arise.

9. Get the executives involved. One of the critical contributors to project or group success is an informed, empowered executive serving as a sponsor and resource for a team. The ability of this individual to cut through corporate noise is priceless. A good executive sponsor is part advocate, part coach and part accountability guru, and is present and involved at the right level.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Great teams don’t happen by accident. They are products of very deliberate work to form the environment for success. While our natural tendency on groups is to bypass the squishy front-end of purpose and behaviors definition and get to work, the time spend defining what success looks like is the most valuable time of all. Teach, coach and support your teams for success. Anything less is a formula for individual and group stress and poor performance. It’s time to quit watching the group pile-ups and start building in the values, behaviors and programs that help these teams succeed!

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.

Art of Managing—Sometimes You Have to Slow Down to Go Faster

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

Today’s management literature is filled with references to speed. If we’re following the trends, we’re all growing more “agile” and likely “lean” in the process. We’re working in “sprints” and “bursts,” and of course, we’re “teaming” whenever possible.

Other firms are “reacting aggressively” to competitor moves and one CEO I was talking with described a “blitzkrieg move” (lightning warfare) into a new market segment. Another top executive emphasized wanted his team to be more nimble in response to competitor issues.

All of this motion may be helping our waistlines, dancing moves and cardio health, but I’m not convinced that speed is always the right answer.

Sometimes you just have to slow down to go faster.

4 Key Situations Where Pausing Before Acting Makes Good Business Sense

1. Hiring Key Talent. While you might be critically short of talent in certain areas of your business, this is one area where haste will indeed make waste that you can ill afford to create. Hire slow. Get to know your candidate over time and in multiple settings. Work hard to assess mutual culture fit and involve the candidate with his/her potential team members. The opportunity cost of a poor key hire is too big to let the need for speed govern your actions.

2. Learning to Better Understand Your Customers/Prospects. Surveys, focus groups and executive customer visits are no substitute for taking the time and doing your best imitation of an anthropologist, observing customers or prospects in their natural settings. Watching individuals interact with your offerings or, better yet, trailing them for a period and cultivating a deep understanding of “a day in their life,” is a slower moving, deliberate process that has the potential to gain more insights and ah ha moments than a lifetime of online surveys.

3. Responding to Competitor Moves. While this might seem like the perfect situation to employ instantaneous response, there are many situations where a pause to better understand the move and cultivate a thoughtful, complete response may be in order. If your competitor is playing checkers, you might want to redefine the game as chess. The danger on one hand is being lulled into an unwinnable and ongoing set of tit for tat moves that destroy value for both firms. Also, a good competitor will throw strength against your weakness and if your response is from that perspective, you end up chasing your tail for a long time. Consider a broader response. Use your superior understanding of your customers to redefine your package of offerings. Kick back with something you do very well that is meaningful to your clients and let your competitor chase you. In most cases, simply matching a response is a fool’s game.

4. Restructuring the Team/Organization. This is one that some firms engage in like clockwork, and while organizational design is indeed a competitive tool, it is one to use sparingly and only based on a crystal clear strategy. Too many firms restructure first and then look for the strategy, when the right approach is to do just the opposite. Beware the temptation to simply move boxes on charts and think you are solving something. Most often, you’re not.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I prefer adjusting my team’s cadence to the demands of a situation over an ungoverned pursuit of speed. And yes, sometimes the cadence is fast…quick cycles, sense and respond, but in the circumstances above and many others, good managers see the risks in speed and the gains from slowing to consider the next actions. This coping with speed places huge pressure on top management to clarify strategies and goals and for all members of a firm to strive to connect their work and their pace to the bigger picture. While speed is inherent in our world, sometimes it truly pays great dividends to slow down and assess the situation.

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.