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Alicia Blain

Corporate Trends

In today’s USA Today, an article titled:  College offers scholarship for Twitter ‘essay’   written by Luke Kerr-Dineen and Natalie DiBlasio caught my attention.  The University of Iowa held a contest worth $37,000 – the price of a full scholarship to their business school – for prospective students to submit a Twitter entry in place of a second essay.  That means that students would have to get pretty creative with 140 words in order to win the contest.

I thought that was a great example of the type of experimentation that is needed today in both universities and corporations.  As usual, the article highlighted the voice of some detractors that were not in agreement with the experiment.  I find that to be the typical reaction that plagues the leadership in many organizations today.  It’s the need to hold on to the “tried and true” instead of the “trial and error”.

Is it just me or does anyone else question  the intensive focus that is placed on the essay part of the college/MBA applicaiton process by most parents today.  Every one of my Boomer friends who has had a child apply for college has been intimately involved in the application process. Some of them more so than their children. Some have hired professional writers and editors to “review” (read redo) the essays their children prepare.  Most have spent countless hours perfecting the essays.  As Jodi Schafer, the University of Iowa’s director of MBA admission says, this intense focus on the essays has made them “unoriginal and often highly edited”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Doing something creative like the University of Iowa’s MBA program  is doing has 2 advantages:

  1. It gets people comfortable with trial and error.  The University of Iowa had no idea whether this experiment would work or not but you can be assured that going through it will give them a ton of ideas and ways to perfect it the next time or do something different.  They didn’t let the risk of failure stop them.  More universities and companies need to adopt that way of thinking if innovation is going to thrive in the future.
  2. It utilizes 21st Century tools.  Instead of relying on contest tools that were used in the past, the University decided to use the twentysomethings tool of choice to challenge them. After all, these are the tools this generation is comfortable with and will undoubtedly keep using as they get older.  As organizations bring in twentysomethings and begin to tackle the challenge of grooming them to be 21st Century leaders, they will need to get creative in how to employ these tools.  Shutting them down and prohibiting their use may not be the optimum reaction to effectively embracing innovation in the form of new tools.

It’s refreshing to read about how some universities are finding creative ways to deal with the challenge of adapting to the 21st Century.   The article highlighted other creative ways organizations are using social media in contests to help students find funding alternatives for college. It’s a win-win for both the students and the organizations that choose the scary path of experimentation.

What about you?  What new ideas are you trying in the workplace today?  Are you holding on to the tried and true or venturing into the trial and error?  Take a page from the University of Iowa: don’t just think outside the box.  Throw it out and see what new idea takes its place.

“I’ll have to run that by my senior management”. 

When you hear that, you’ve just heard Yea-But #4:  To seek management approval before the pursuit of an idea.

Really? Seriously?  I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard leaders say that when someone in their team or from the outside pitches an idea he or she thinks is worth pursuing.  Now I can understand if the person is a new or first level manager but these are VPs in charge of multi-million dollar budgets with a team of people reporting to them?  They’ve got to check in with their boss?

When I hear that response I always think to myself  “Why does your boss need you when you have to check in with him for every little thing”.  But usually something else is going on.  The person, let’s just call him or her the VP,  getting pitched the idea is not comfortable with the idea.  Instead of digging deeper & trying to better understand the idea & the intended results, the person just finds it easier to blow off the idea by saying it has to get vetted by the boss. 

The VP is hoping the person pitching the idea will just back off & forget the whole thing so he doesn’t have to even talk to his boss about it.  Most the time he gets his wish.  Everyone knows that getting another management layer involved in a decision will complicate & slow down the process.

That is what the VP is counting on.  He doesn’t care that he looks like an ineffective leader by relinquishing his authority to the higher ups.  He doesn’t care that he may be squashing a great idea from taking root & blossoming to a great product or service for the company.   The nurturing & growth of ideas puts more work on a VPs plate.  It also puts him at risk of failure.  What if the idea is a dud?  What if a lot of time is invested & it goes no where?  What’s going to happen to his bonus & raise then? 

Although admittedly the pursuit of ideas is a toss up in terms of success, it rarely happens in vain.  All is not wasted & in fact usually, a lot is gained.  The team gets to try out different techniques & theories, they learn from what goes right & even more by what goes wrong.  They are engaged in the idea & seeing where it goes.  Engaged employees mean happy employees that are learning & contributing to the company. Experimenting with new ideas raises the bar in their performance because they see what’s truly possible when they try something new, something that pushes them out of their comfort zone.

But none of that can happen if the VP doesn’t choose to get uncomfortable first.  If he cops out & uses the “gotta run it the boss” card, all is lost.  Another idea is not allowed to take root.  How many times does this happen in our existing corporate environment on a daily, weekly, yearly basis?  A lot!  But we don’t even realize it. Yeah-But  #1 – being too busy  is so engrained in the way we work that it’s hard for anything to penetrate it.  Often we push back on new ideas without even thinking about what we’re doing or the consequences.

That resistance keeps innovation from sprouting & weaving its way into the very fabric of the organization.  The day to day grind, the push to meet deliverables & focus on reactive activities never lets innovation shine through.  On the rare occasion that it does, it’s not allowed to flourish by any means.

How many times have you relinquished your authority to your boss to avoid the pursuit of any idea presented by people in or outside of your team?  How many times have you delved deeper to an idea being pitched to you to see if it had any legs?  How many times do you take the easy way out so you don’t have to get uncomfortable?

We are all guilty of passing the buck to our boss to get out of doing something on some occasion.  The problem occurs when we make it a habit & refuse to take ownership & live up to the position & authority we have been given.

Apparently I’m not the only one who has been asking this question lately.  In reading the latest online copy of the McKinsey Quarterly, Olivier Sibony, a Director in McKinsey’s Paris office interviews Dan Ariely and they imbed the video of the interview in the online copy.  The name of the article is “Dan Ariely on Irrationality in the Workplace“ .  Dan Ariely is a Duke University professor and best-selling author who has written a couple of books on the subject of irrationality.  I like the way McKinsey divides the interview into sections & gives a quote from Dan Ariely as a highlight of what is contained in each section.  As I hovered over each section, the very first quote immediately caught my attention.  Dan Ariely said ” I am baffled by why companies don’t do more experiments”.

It was as if this Duke professor had read my mind.   I’ve been baffled by this for quite some time now.  Over the last few years I’ve been working with clients & speaking on the topic of harnessing the talent of Gen Yers in the workplace.  As part of that, I share my C.A.R.E. System of Leadership with corporate leaders.  What the C.A.R.E. system does is it offers a proven methodology that leaders can immediately implement to help them understand, value & harness the Gen Y talent that is sitting untapped right under their nose.  The system also provides techniques to help leaders modify outdated leadership practices that they’ve held on to. The last component of the system is the “E” which stands for Experiment.  This is where I show leaders how to introduce & nurture experimentation in their teams. 

After witnessing it first hand with myself and seeing it with my peers & then later with my clients,  I see that leaders clearly don’t focus on trying new things & experimenting with new ideas & concepts. As I struggled to understand the baffling group we call Gen Y,  I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to shift my thinking & do things differently than I had in the past.  But it was hard for me to do that at first. But slowly & surely I did. One of side benefits of trying was getting comfortable saying “Why not?  Let’s try it”  At first, I fought it.  Things had worked just fine for me in the past so why shouldn’t it work going forward?  Well, the reality is that the going forward bore little resemblance to the past & staying stuck in the past wasn’t getting us anywhere different.  As I slowly got comfortable trying new things, I realized just how stuck I had been & how ineffective it was to just keep doing the same old thing.

Infusing a spirit of experimentation into my management style & into my team made a significant impact to our productivity and innovation .  Giving employees permission to try out ideas & remove the stigma of failure,  freed them to bring up ideas or issues they saw from their unique point of reference.  The team was allowed to carve out time to test ideas & try out different techniques to see if they worked.  With time, I realized that we had created an idea incubator in the team.  It worked very similar to how venture capitalists work with startups.  Venture capitalists understand that not all ideas will bear fruit & make millions of dollars.  But they know the importance of seeding ideas & nurturing them with funding to see what happens.  Nine ideas may flop and not go anywhere but that tenth idea is a home run & will make them millions.

The same thing happens when you infuse experimentation within a corporate setting.  There were many ideas that we tried out that didn’t work but we learned a tremendous amount from them & we were able to apply that knowledge on other projects.  Then there were the 5 to 6 great ideas we developed over the course of a few years that were gold.  They not only contributed positively to the team’s bottom line but they put us ahead of other corproate regions & similar departments.  Over the years, my team proudly delivered many “firsts” for our region. We were the team others called on for advice or help.  Others were baffled by our ability to do what we did with a relatively small team. They couldn’t replicate our track record because they never realized that they had to embrace the unfamiliar and unknown to find the innovative solutions.  They had to break out of their comfort zones & try what had not been tried before even if it meant failing from time to time.

In my next blog, I’ll go over the top 5 reasons why corporate leaders DON’T experiment.

In the meantime, what can you do today to take a baby step into your discomfort zone?

It’s been a while since I added to this series that looks at the trends in corporate America that I think are pointing to its inability to retain top talent in the future. The third trend that threatens to keep corporate mediocrity alive & flourishing is the fact that better alternatives to corporate now exist.

Those alternatives haven’t existed for that long.  You could argue that anyone who wasn’t satisfied with corporate has always had the choice to leave & open up their own business.  That’s true and many people have left corporate to do that very thing. But in recent years, the availability of options to do that have skyrocketed.  The Internet has blown away many of the barriers to entry in industries that were once dominated by large corporations. Social media tools like Facebook and You Tube give small business owners direct access to markets they simply could not penetrate years ago.  Internet marketing has made millionaires of startups who have taken their products & messages directly to consumers.

Even more interesting are the number of startups that are blossoming all over the world especially in lesser developed nations.  This shows the tremendous power that technology is putting in the hands of ordinary people with a dream & a purpose & desire to make money.  

Then you have a pretty stable & robust venture capital industry that is helping fuel startups all over the world.  In the past, access to capital has always been difficult for an individual that was tired of working for a corporation yet had a dream he or she wanted to pursue.  Without capital,  a dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.  These days individuals have more funding options available to pursue their own business and many of them are doing so.  With corporatons laying off millions of people in this recent recession, many individuals, especially Baby Boomers, are looking at self-employment options especially since the chances of corporations re-hiring them in the future are slim to none.

Finally, you have the Millennials.  Over the past few months, I have been conducting a series of Gen Y Interviews that I call Millennial Musings.  The reason for the interviews is that I wanted to get a pulse on how Gen Yers felt about their corporate experience.  The oldest members of the group are now in their 30s so they have had a good taste of what working for a corporation is like.  To my surprise, over 80% of the Gen Yers I’ve interviewed  thus far are extremely dissapointed with their corporate experience.  Many of them have left corporate and have either chosen smaller companies or have started their own businesses. 

But here’s the really interesting trend I’ve seen with the Gen Yers that have opted to start their own business.  Many of them are teaming up with their laid off Boomer parents & starting a family business.  Now that’s a twist that has not been seen before.  The Boomer parents are bringing their tremendous experience & body of  knowledge while their Gen Y children bring their tech savviness, passion & collaborative networks.  The combination is proving to be quite powerful & profitable. As one of my Gen Y interviewees remarked   ”Why would I want to work for some corporate boss who is a jerk when I can work with my parents who are cool”  It’s always refreshing to see how well Gen Yers get along with their parents & how at such a young age, they are throwing out the box & coming up with creative ways to succeed in their own business instead of trading hours for dollars in a corporate job.

The alternatives to working for a corporation have indeed expanded and are providing all generations with viable & certainly attainable options that don’t include corporate.  Newspapers, magazines & blogs are filled with stories of how very talented individuals who were laid off by their corporations after years of service have stopped looking for a corporate job & pursued their own businesses & are thriving. This is good talent that is now lost to a corporation forever.  In many cases, their Gen Y children, underwhelmed by their corporate experience are joining them outside the corporation & are contributing to that success.

In the final installment of this series, we will look at Trend #4, the Millennials.  My favorite of them all.

The great thing about people knowing about my interest in Gen Y is that they always send me anything they come across that relates to the generation.  A colleague of mine recently sent me this video below of a TED talk in Australia.  You all know how I love TED and TEDx and often encourage leaders to use some of the great TED footage to spark interesting conversations & ideas within their teams.

This particular TED talk is given by a Gen Yer called Rachel Botsman.  Rachel has been fascinated by the topic of collaboration which as a Gen Yer doesn’t surprise me.  But in particular, she is looking at the trends that are evolving related to collaboration and consumption which she is calling collaborative consumption.  It’s a fascinating look at some of the ways that technology is radically shaping the 21st Century in ways we can’t even fathom. 

According to Rachel, her generation is not as interested as Baby Boomers in owning “stuff”.  They are  more interested in the experience that the “stuff” provides.  She gives many examples of what she means.  Here’s a simple one:  a DVD.  In the past, people were focused on buying a DVD so they could have a copy of their favorite movie or show to watch as their convenience.  Today, young people are more interested in the experience the DVD provides them than actually owning the DVD itself.  In fact, they’d prefer not to own it at all and just have access when needed.

Watch the video & see what I mean:

To me, this is another great example of how Gen Yers are wired & how differently they see things when compared to Baby Boomers. What they value, how they think, even how they come up with ideas is totally distinctive.  I’ve seen this firsthand as I have observed Gen Yers intently over these past 8 years.  This is one of the major reasons I work with corporate leaders to get them to understand that trying to mold Gen Yers into the existing corporate structure is a big mistake.  The leaders and organizations that do that are leaving money & talent on the table.  

All the societal, technological, & global forces that came together to shape the lives of Gen Yers from a very early age manifest themselves in how differently they see the world & in how they think.  Trying to make them conform to a corporate structure that was created in a past that is very different than what we face today is a recipe for failure.  More importantly, we are not serving these next generation leaders. We are not helping to prepare them to be effective leaders in a world that resembles what they are used to much more than what we are used to as Baby Boomers.  Because we are not always comfortable in their world, we often choose to ignore it and stick to what is comfortable to us. But is that fair to Gen Y?  How do we ensure the leadership of corporations in the 21st Century is the best it can be if we don’t challenge our leadership comfort zones and pay attention to the next generation?

In addition to being our future leaders, Gen Yers will be a huge consumer force when they all reach adulthood.  We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of how their unique experiences will shape their interest in all types of products in the future – from gadgets, to clothes to cars.  The sooner we as leaders learn to appreciate their unique perspectives as employees currently working in our organizations today, the sooner we will get to understand them as consumers & be prepared to meet their needs in the future. 

So what are you doing today to leverage the unique mindset of the Millennials in your team?  What are you doing to unleash creative ideas that can lead to innovation down the line?  Remember the future will look more like the world the Millennials have grown up in than the one you are comfortable in.  It might be a good idea to start to C.A.R.E. about what that Gen Yworld looks like.

Isn’t that a great question?  Well I didn’t think of it myself.  I heard it from one of today’s leadership gurus – Mr. John C. Maxwell.  I was in my car Saturday morning heading off to attend a workshop & as I do when I’m in my car, I slipped in an educational CD.  Driving is a great time for me  to absorb information because I am ususally by myself & can give the person talking on the CD my full attention.  It also helps me focus on something other than the horrific traffic that seems to plague South Florida 24/7.

This particular CD was from one of my favorite monthly series. It was the December edition of Success Magazine’s wonderful complimentary ( yes, it’s free!) CD hosted by its publisher, Darren Hardy.  I’ve raved about Success Magazine & their CDs before so I’ll refrain from gushing again.  In every one of their CDs, there’s a segment with John C. Maxwell where he shares his leadership insights. In December’s CD, Mr. Maxwell was talking about how important it was for people to start or initiate something in order to be successful. He then went on to explain all the reasons why it was important to get going on something. The first place he recommended we start was with ourselves. According to him, starting with yourself gives you experience, confidence, integrity and influence.

It was when he was describing how starting helps you gain experience that he caught my attention with the analogy of leaders being either travel agents or tour guides.  What a great analogy.  I perked up right away.  Basically, Mr. Maxwell explained that travel agents typically send you places they’ve never been themselves.  They arm you with brochures and maps and other information to get you ready for your trip. But tour guides do something else.  They take you by the hand & show you where they’ve been.  That enriches your experience because they have the inside track & can share little known secrets about the location you are visiting that makes it special.

The concept of being a travel agent vs. a tour guide leader resonated with me because of what I see happening in corporate America these days as it relates to our newest entrants, the Millennials.  I think many leaders would say that they are trying to be the tour guide for this new generation of workers but that Millennials are refusing to listen to the advice they, as leaders, have garnered from years of corporate experience.  It is true that the many years of working for a corporation is certainly valuable and leaders should be tour guides by all means.  But what happens if, as a tour guide, you haven’t visited a particular destination in years?

Although you may still know your way around & are still familiar with the old landmarks, etc., there may be new things that have sprung up in that location that you don’t know or aren’t familiar with – new restaurants, new neighborhoods, etc.   For tour guides to be effective & relevant to their customers, they need to stay current with what’s going on in the destinations they are experts in.  If not , they run the risk of becoming more like travel agents as time passes.  So it would appear that a pre-requisite for someone to continue being a relevant tour guide would be for them to keep up to date with the destinations & the clients they serve, to be frequent travelers themselves so they don’t lose touch with the latest trends & happenings in the destinations for which they provide tour services.

The same applies to leadership.  Although those of us with years of corporate management experience can be great tour guides, we can only be so if we stay relevant to the employees we are leading today and not just those that we led yesterday.  Many things have taken place in the young lives of Millennials that make them very unfamiliar to us as employees & as people.  They grew up very differently than most of us did & that impacts how they perceive work, the world & those around them.  If we don’t understand & accept this unfamilarity, we won’t be very good tour guides because just like the destination tour guides,  our skills & knowledge will become outdated. That puts us at a disadvantage and could make us irrelevant to our ”customer base”, the Millennials.

On the other hand, if we let them,  Millennials can be our  tour guides into the world of work in the 21st Century.  I’ve said many times that the future will look more like what Millennials are used to than what we are used to as current corporate leaders. That means we need to get to know them better, figure them out, live in their world & harness the goldmine that is waiting to be found.  If we are  not careful, our status as tour guides can quickly downgrade to that of a travel agent.  That would not be a good thing at this critical juncture.  Millennials need our guidance & direction.  We just need to provide it in ways that are meaningful to them and not just to us.

In my C.A.R.E. Sytem of Leadership,  I show leaders how to maintain their tour guide status in these changing times so that they are not downgraded to travel agent.  I show them how to shadow Millennials to see how they think & work, how to break down silos by bringing Millennials from different teams to collaborate together, how to leverage Millennials’ social media & tech savviness for strategic advantage.   I show leaders how to get comfortable being uncomfortable and experimenting with new techniques & practices.  As leaders, it is imperative that we make adjustments to our way of leading & thinking to stay relevant to the workforce of the 21st Century.

So what about you?  What are you doing today to maintain your tour guide status?  Are you at risk of becoming a travel agent?

Sometimes you take a look at something and you can’t help but say “You’ve come a long way, baby!” That’s what I said recently when I saw the slideshow that Benj Edwards put together on CIO Magazine titled “A brief history of computer displays“.  They go way back in time to the 1940′s to show the various computer interfaces that have been used over the years.  Seeing some of the displays has brought back many memories of working back in the day.

Three of the displays, in particular, caught my eye.  The first one were the early mainframe computers.  In the 3rd or 4th slide , they show a mainframe computer & a keypunch next to it.  Believe it or not, we used to have a keypunch machine in our apartment in Astoria, NY in the early 1960′s.  Why you might ask?  Well, my dad was a computer programmar.  He was one of those people who saw early on how computers could change the world & he wanted to be a part of it.  He was working as a computer programmer at the time for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital.  Back in the day, it was just called Memorial Hospital. He was given a fairly high profile project which was to move all the billing for Memorial Hospital onto the new IBM mainframes at the time.  Millions of dollars on the line – no pressure! 

My dad worked day & night on this project and luckily for him, he had a perfect assistant to help him get the project out.  The assistant was my mom.  As it turns out, my  mom was a keypunch operator & was able to key in all the code my dad was creating for the project.  My dad had a keypunch machine brought in from work to our apartment.  I remember stacks of keypunch cards that my mom fed into the key punch machine that would make these markings as she typed on a keyboard.  I remember a drum where she would wrap a special card with special instructions for a particular run.  I remember  the loud sound that keypunch machine made when my mom entered the information and the cards started to get punched.  I also remember how fast my mom was entering the information that looked like gibberish.  Well, after a lot of hard work & testing, my dad’s project was a huge success.  So huge, that the head of Memorial Hospital personally congratulated him on the great work.  As a matter of personal pride, my dad’s billing system was so effective & so good that Memorial Hospital kept the system for many, many years. Such a smarty, my dad was!

The second display that caught my eye was the dumb terminal.  Believe it or not, that is what I worked on when I first started working at Citicorp after college.  The mainframe guys would have us enter & test stuff on those clunky terminals.  All this information would get entered & then we would have to go to the computer room, ask a computer operator that worked on the other side of a glass window to get us a computer printout of what we had just entered.  I remember the printouts were in that lined computer paper & even back then I remember thinking how  much paper we were wasting. Those dumb terminals were the only semblance of technology allowed for us, the mere “users”.  Otherwise, we had pen & paper.  No PCs until the mid 1980′s f0r us.

The 3rd display that caught my eye was the teletype.  Another unbelievable tid bit.  Again going back to my early corporate days in Citicorp,  every month the monthly financials were sent to the corporate office by our accounting people via a telex machine.  Yes, you read that right – a telex machine.  Someone would sit there for hours, typing away on this telex that would spew little holes on a long, narrow piece of paper.  When that narrow piece of paper was passed through a special machine, you would see words begin to get typed on triple part paper.  You would actually see your month end financials printed on the paper.  One of the copies would be sent to corporate as a backup to what they already send via telex.  Because you see, those holes being created by the machine – the telex itself –  was updating the mainframe somewhere in one of Citicorp’s data centers.  The accounting folks would keep the second part of the triple part paper & I forget who got the third.  This was in the early 80′s. 

When you look through this slideshow, try to think back & picture where you worked & what was going on in your life when those displays were in their heyday.  As I did that, I have to say it brought back some great memories, especially the one about my dad.   Who knows what great memories it will bring back for  you.

Why don’t you share the slides with your Millennial kids & tell them stories of you back in the day.  They will probably be shocked to see what technology looked like but I’m sure they will appreciate what they have today.  I know I do.

Happy Friday, everybody!

A few weeks ago I went on a rather lengthy discussion on the first of four trends that worry me regarding corporate America’s ability to retain top talent in the 21st Century.  It was the poor leadership that exists in most corporations today.  To me, that is the most worrisome trend because poor leadership is entrenched in most organizations & very difficult to remove.  The second trend that threatens to keep mediocrity alive & flourishing is corporate’s fascination with Clinging to Outdated Prinicples.

There are some leadership priniciples, techniques & ways of doing things that may have worked in the past when the world was a much simpler, less sophisticated place but they don’t any longer.  A perfect example of this is the old command and control philosophy of leading.  You would think by now that organizations and their leaders were smarter than to use that technique but you’d be wrong.  There is still an amazingly large cohort of leaders that forget we are no longer working in the Industrial Age where the workers were mostly uneducated and the brass had all the answers and all the control.  “Not no more”  as one of my Millennial employees used to say.  Those days are long gone yet there are leaders and managers that still cling to those beliefs.  One of the last bosses I reported to in corporate was someone with that outdated style.  Talk about a turn off & a motivation killer. 

Today as I work with clients I still walk into corporate teams & see the command & control very much in play.  Most of the times the leaders employing the outdated style are Veterans or Boomers.  Although I have seen some Xers exhibit these tendencies, for the most part they have thankfully steered clear of that ineffective technique.  My question when I see these leaders is why are they still allowed to lead that way?  Why doesn’t HR or their boss take steps to eliminate the ineffective behavior?  Most of the times, it has to do with the person’s boss not wanting to deal with the issue or being of the same ilk.  So it’s allowed to take root & grow to the detriment of the team. Very sad & very disheartening. You will always see a team lose interest in peak performance when managed by these command & control freaks.  What I find interesting is that these people never see themselves that way.  In their rose colored glasses they think they are great bosses because they have everyone under “control”.  If they only knew that they have run their team to the ground & are getting only mediocre results from them.

Just like command and control, there remains other equally ineffective principles that simply don’t work when managing a technically savvy, knowledge based workforce.  One of them is the idea of the hierarchy that exists in most corporate structures.   Although in the past it has been a highly efficient way to run large corporations, in most situations I have witnessed,  hierarchies lead to silos.  If you work for a particular department, there rarely is an incentive for you to work across departments unless you are working on a project that involves another team & affects your team’s results.  Even then, there is usually a lot of friction and misunderstandings across teams. 

If you work for a particular team, then you only worry about the chain of command in your team.  Period.  Many times there is no interest to work or even get to know people in other teams.  Now the management team in most organizations will tell you that there are no silos and that cross functional teams work well together but again, when you look behind the curtain, that is simply not true. Silos exist everywhere in organizations and they are bad.  They get in the way of collaboration and in turn, innovation.  I can’t tell how many times I’ve run into needless duplication of effort within organizations because team #1 had no idea that team #2 was working on the same project or something similar.  If they had communicated better & joined forces, imagine the time and money that would have been saved.  Also, think of  the ideas that could have been discussed and tried out when people with different perspectives on something came together.

Hierarchies also lead to having too many chiefs & too much bureaucracy.  I laugh everytime I hear a new title being bandied about in a corporation.  To me, it just means another silo is being created and more bureaucracy with it.  It never means more innovation or productivity even though that’s what they say the new “chief”  will do.  The problem is that many times, the chiefs don’t play well in the sandbox & that makes the Indians mimic their behavior. The Chief Marketing Officer thinks she knows more about digital media than the Chief Information Officer who thinks he knows more about financial systems than the Chief Financial Officer who thinks she knows more about  the operations than the Chief Operating Officer who thinks he knows more about the risk faced by the organization than the Chief Risk Officer and…  You get the picture.  To many chiefs.  Now it would be logical to think that the chief of them all – the Chief Executive Officer – would ensure the other chiefs all played nice in the sandbox & worked cohesively toward a common goal.  But alas, no. Unfortunately, the chief of chiefs has his hands full trying to keep the real bigshots- the Board of Directors – happy.

As the 21st Century begins its second decade, it sure would be nice to let go of some of those old outdated principles & experiment with some new techniques.  A few of the more savvy organizations are already beginning to do that and I applaud them.  They are the ones that will stay ahead & drive much needed change & innovation in the future.  But there are still too few organizations doing that.  We need many more to shake things up.

The bureaucracy that has been allowed to thrive in corporations  & the office politics that go with it have done much to damage motivation and engagement in the workforce.  These outdated principles have not kept up with the fast pace of change and the way people want to work and contribute in their jobs. Employees become disenchanted, frustrated and upset.  While many leave in search of a better place, many have no choice but to stay but they check out.  They no longer have skin in the game & they no longer contribute new ideas or new ways of doing things.  They just go through the motions and by doing so mediocrity gets imbedded a little deeper into the fabric of the organization as a result.

Coming up: Trend #3 – Better Alternatives outside the corporation

As the holiday hibernation period sets in, many of us begin to take some  much needed time off.  In case you are stuck at the mall, waiting in a long line to pay for your purchases, you may be looking for a way to distract yourself so you don’t scream with frustration. 

If you enjoy reading articles on management or leadership, I have just the thing.  I came across an article in strategy+business titled “ 15 Years, 50 Classics“  written by Art Kleiner.  In celebration of their 15th anniversary, the magazine editors went back in time (appropriate for a BIMD mention) and identified the top 50 articles (the Classics) that have had the most impact in their 15 year run.

Believe it or not, many of the articles written as far back as 1995 still have relevancy even though the world, and the US,  were very different back then (no Google, no YouTube or Twitter, no China or India as major global players).  You have a wide selection of topics to pick so you’ll only scratch the surface while you’re on line.  Between Christmas and New Year’s, as things begin to calm down a bit, you may find yourself with some time to go back in time and catch up.

Who knows?  Maybe one of the articles will resonate with you and give you some ideas to experiment with in 2011.  New Year’s Resolution?  Done…

Happy reading and happy Friday, everybody…

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately given some of the trends I’ve seen unfold on the corporate front over the last few years.  Let me start out by saying that I have always been an advocate of having a corporate career.  I worked in corporate for over 25 years and for most of those years I felt it was the right place for me. Since then, a lot of things have occurred in the corporate arena that have made me ask whether I would feel the same about embarking on a corporate career today if I were in my 20′s or 30′s. To be totally honest, my enthusiasm to start a corporate career today would be tepid at best. 

For me, there are 4 strong trends that point to why corporations today are at risk of attracting only mediocre talent in the 21st Century.  I will be exploring each of the 4 reasons in separate blogs over the next few days.  Let’s look at Trend #1 now. 

  1. Poor Leadership:  Having both worked in corporate and having interacted with countless corporate executives, I have seen first hand how corporations have lowered their expectations in identifying and retaining outstanding leaders to run their business units and their companies.  Most corporations pay huge sums of money to consultants to help them identify and come up with methodologies or matrices on how to identify their top performers or “High Potential or HIPOs” as they are called.  It’s nice to be able to show something to their Board of Directors or to the outside world demonstrating that they are focused on tapping the very best performers for their leadership pipeline. But when you peek behind the curtain the reality is very different as most corporate employees can attest.  I’m sure most leadership consultants will attest to that as well as they see how their customized methodologies & frameworks are rarely utilized by their corporate clients.

 The reality is that most organizations promote people to positions of leadership that simply are not qualified to be in  those        positions.  Most of the time, there is no clear, consistent criteria applied to identifying people that demonstrate top leadership qualities.  In my experience I have seen the opposite: people promoted to leadership positions for all the wrong reasons.  Here are the top 4:

  1. The person is very good at the particular work they do (e.g. good at sales, good in finance, good tech person) but has never shown any ability to lead the people that do that particular work .
  2. The person’s boss is not a particularly effective leader himself and therefore makes an equally ineffective promotional decision.
  3. The person has been in one position for a very long time and the next step is a manager position. The person is pushing his or her boss for a promotion.  The person can usually point out other employees in similar situations who have been promoted.  Again, because no consistent criteria is used to identify solid leadership potential, the person usually succeeds in getting the promotion.  The corporation rolled the leadership dice once again and only time will tell whether that person was qualified to be in a leadership position.
  4. The person’s boss is “encouraged” to promote this person to a leadership position by those in higher positions in the corporate chain.  I’ve seen this happen a lot and it’s so bad for morale. This is where the boss being pressured to do this must take a firm stand with his or her superior. It only needs to happen once. 

Let me give an example here. Over the years as a boss myself, I was put in that very situation several times by different bosses.  My response each and every time was the same and I always took very hard line.  This was always my response: “You put me in this position because you trusted my ability to run my team which includes the selection of qualified individuals for promotional consideration.  If I allow you do the selection for me, I will lose the trust of my team to make decisions and it shows a lack of trust on your part for me to make the decision.  If you truly want me to do this,  I will go ahead and do it but you must know that I will begin to look for another job immediately.  Not having your trust nor the trust of my team in making decisions makes it very difficult for me to lead and I have no alternative but to remove myself from the process. ”  This has worked every time and the “request” was never made again.

      5.  The person’s boss is ineffective and relies heavily on that person to run the team.  The person is tired of doing this without recognition and wants a promotion.  The boss, fearful that the person will leave, relents and promotes him or her. I’ve seen this happen too often as well.  This clearly shows that the organization has no clue about the effectiveness of it’s current leaders if an ineffective boss has been allowed to stay in a position of leadership for so long.  If the person asking for the promotion is a good leader, then that will be good for the team. If not, it’s another example of bad leadership decisions made.  Rolling the dice again.

The end result of this list above is that it sends a bad  message to employees and they begin to lose trust in their bosses and in their leaders.  After all, if any or all of the conditions listed above are allowed to happen on such a critical component as leadership, what other similar things are taking place in the organization?  People begin to get disillusioned especially those that can truly be effective leaders who are not being identified or given the chance to prove themselves.  With time, the true High Performers either leave the organization or just give up and no longer try to do their best work. 

I see the latter happening a lot in corporations today and it’s troubling to me. But it’s understandable, right?  Why should someone continue to do their very best when they don’t get recognized for it or are overlooked for a position they are qualified and it’s given to someone who simply doesn’t deserve it?  Whether the high performer leaves, or he or she stops giving their best, the organization loses because they are not getting top performance out of their employees.  Mediocrity sets is and so does indifference.  Bad combination to have in a global, competitive 21st Century marketplace. 

Do you see any of these 5 reasons play out in your organization?  What do you think about them?

Coming Up: Trend #2  – “Clinging to Outdated Principles“.

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