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Alicia Blain

C-Suite


Quote:  “You can’t lead without imagination”  ~  Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Imagination is seriously lacking in today’s corporate environment.  We are knee deep in a status quo that no longer serves us and that in many ways, makes us mediocre.  To change that, we need to spark imagination in all our employees.  But first, we must spark it in ourselves as team leaders. To create the spark you need to embrace experimentation.  I’m not talking about creating a department or a committee to look into experimentation.  I mean changing the way you lead your team so that experimentation is always encouraged and rewarded.  When an idea doesn’t work out, it isn’t perceived as failure but as a learning experience that enriches the team and the lesson learned can be utilized to fuel the next experiment.

Experimentation is the final but core concept in the C.A.R.E. System.  It is what ties it all together. In these posts, I have showcased Starbucks and its CIO to illustrate the key principles behind the C.A.R.E. System.  At the very core of Gillett’s success was his innate acceptance or need to experiment. None of the examples would have been possible if Gillett had not embraced experimentation. Let’s recap all the ways he experimented:

  • When he took on more responsibility in the face of daunting IT problems that needed resolution
  • When he went to work at a Starbucks retail store, not knowing what he’d find or how he would do,
  • When he showed the Executive team a live simulation highlighting the shortcomings of their existing POS system
  • When he proposed the new business unit called Digital Ventures,
  • When he chose an entrepreneur to run the new business unit,
  • When he made IT and Marketing equally responsible for the new business unit
  • When he asked employees for their ideas on making IT better,
  • When he let employees select their IT devices,
  • When he applied his knowledge of networks to help spark solutions in Starbuck’s retail business.

All of these examples illustrate that Gillett was open to experimentation. He may not have been comfortable with all of it but he chose not to play it safe.  At some level, he understood that taking risks was critical to Starbuck’s survival and he, as well as his CEO, faced the challenge and came out ahead.  I’m sure that there were ideas that didn’t work out.  In fact, the article highlights one. Apparently, Gillett is a big gamer or lover of video games. Actually,  he’s a guild master in the online video game called World of Warcraft.  That’s a pretty big deal in the gaming community. Instead of playing down that passion, he  set up a meeting between the executive teams of Starbucks and Blizzard, the owners of World of Warcraft so they could look into the possibility of doing business together.  After all, both companies had a huge fan base and Starbucks needed to find ways to engage customers online the way that Blizzard did. 

At the end, the experiment did not end up in a partnership.  But all was not lost.  The experiment sparked new ideas among the Starbucks executives that led to new offerings for their customers.  Embracing a spirit of experimentation almost always sparks the imagination and that leads to more possibilities for innovation.

For companies to be relevant in the future they must make experimentation a core objective for all departments.  It needs to be nurtured, rewarded and imbedded into the corporate culture.  More importantly, it is a pivotal component if we are to transform the way we lead.  Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce in less than 5 years.  As leaders preparing to pass the baton to the next generation leaders, I believe it is our obligation to embrace change and find new ways to lead.

So you may be wondering what happened to Ben and his direct reports? As I dissected the Starbucks case study, Ben was able to see real world examples of C.A.R.E. in action.  It sparked their curiosity and an eagerness to try new approaches in their organization as Gillett tried to do in his.  Ben, as CIO, made a very important decision that day.  He chose not to play it safe.  He realized the future required new ways of seeing things and new ways of leading.  The Millennials were their new audience not just as employees but as customers. He realized that if transformation was going to happen, it needed to include the Millennials in the workplace.  And he was ready.

I’ll end this series by quoting Seth Godin one last time.  In Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us, Seth writes:

“The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is.”

My questions to you are:  How safe are you playing your role as leader? What one thing can you do today to get you slightly uncomfortable? What one thing can you do to get to know a Millennial in your workplace? 

Like me, you’ll find that staying in your comfort zone as a leader is actually riskier than embracing a little discomfort to prepare for the future. Once you step out of your comfort zone and see all the possibilities that it offers, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner…

Quote: “ I don’t think we have any choice.  I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game.”   ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Connecting with our employees and customers and adapting our mindset gets us ready to play a different game.  But you also need action and to do that you have to be willing to RESHAPE your organization.  To Reshape is the third module in the C.A.R.E. System. To visualize just how you can begin to do that, let’s go to our Starbucks example.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

Here are 3 examples of actionable steps that Gillett took to reshape his IT team and their reputation.

1.     He forced collaboration between teams.  In the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership, we call this “Letting go of Silos”.  Silos are rampant across corporate America and they are innovation and motivation killers for most employees but especially Millennials.  One of the key Millennial characteristics is their collaborative spirit.  They work best in groups and the more you mix up the group the better. Imagine their surprise when they show up for work and see that business units barely interact with one another and they certainly don’t share and collaborate very much. In his pitch for a new business unit, Gillett forced the collaboration of the IT and Marketing teams.  Talk about silos that don’t normally have much in common.  The new unit was called Digital Ventures and Gillett hired an entrepreneur to run it instead of a corporate type. Now that’s playing a different game.

 2.     He let the employees choose their technology and propose new ideas. At a time when so many IT shops are still fighting the consumerization of IT here is a company that allows their employees to select from a wide assortment of technology, from Macs to PCs to smartphones to get work done. To be completely fair, the article did say that Starbucks modeled their Tech Café after the Apple Store. That brings up a good point.  We should always be scouting the market for techniques that work for others and how they can be customized for our specific organizations.  What I liked the most was that they welcomed feedback from the employees on all things concerning IT.  In the C.A.R.E. System, we call that IT Advocacy.  Millennials are the first generation of workers that actually want more technology than what currently exists in the workplace.  No matter what team they work for, they can be invaluable to an IT Dept.  But IT has to take the first step and request their help and then be open to the suggestions given. As IT Advocates, Millennials can be a wonderful test group for any new product, process, or upgrade that the IT Department is considering. If done properly, IT Advocates can be a great extension of the IT Department.  As IT partners, they also create a great fan base for IT in the company.

3.     Applying expertise from an unrelated field to solve a different problem.  Gillett had little retail experience before working at Starbucks and according to the article he had never worked on the scale of a Starbucks.  But he had worked for companies with big networks like Yahoo. Instead of disregarding that experience, he leveraged it to understand the retail giant and apply that seemingly unrelated experience at Starbucks.  Gillett is quoted in the article as saying:  “[…] big Internet, like Yahoo, had solved a lot of the technical challenges that big retail had yet to solve… If you think of all your stores like nodes on a network, and all your resisters as computers rather than cash registers, you can start to manage and deploy […] like Yahoo would a server farm […]”   Many examples exist in business of how breakthrough ideas and products are discovered when a solution that worked in a completely unrelated field is applied to solve a different problem.

 Sometimes, organizations are too narrow-minded in how they view and value experience.  Perhaps an employee in your team has expertise in solving problems in another field that can be the breakthrough idea you need to solve a problem.  You’ll never leverage that unrelated expertise if you don’t know about it or you don’t support it or you don’t find an outlet to try it out.  Experimentation is the subject of our last post in the series and a pivotal one for transformation to occur.

Quote: “What they needed was a leader to bring the organization to a new audience in a new way.”       ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us.

If you’re not quite sure why Millennials are an organization’s “new audience”, I invite you to read through some of my past blogs to get a thorough understanding of this unfamiliar group.  As leaders, we won’t be able to really reach that new audience unless we are willing to create a new way or at the very least question our existing way to see if it will work going forward.

That’s why it’s so important for us to ADAPT and find a new way so our next generation employees are engaged and productive in our teams.  ADAPT is the second module of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership and it’s an important one because it has to do with a leader’s state of mind. ADAPT is all about mindset and getting comfortable testing your boundaries.

So what specific things can we do to ADAPT our leadership style?  Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for ideas.  As the new CIO, Gillett embraced 3 things that got him out of his comfort zone and ready to ADAPT and find a new way to lead his IT team.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

1.     He was curious and courageous. The article quotes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as saying that Gillett “had an insatiable curiosity and wasn’t afraid of pursing big, bold ideas.” Curiosity and courage are key components of the C.A.R.E. System.  To change and adapt to a new way of doing things and of leading is not easy.  You are fighting yourself and those in the organization that want to keep the status quo alive.  Without being inherently curious, asking lots of “why do we do it that way” questions and being willing to fight the good fight, it is very difficult to ADAPT and give your new audience – the Millennials – a new way.

 2.    He asked for even more responsibility.  In early 2009, Gillett has been in Starbucks for just one year and realizes he inherited what can only be termed an IT nightmare. At the same time, Starbuck’s new CEO, Howard Schultz,asks the company executives to give him ideas on how to turn the company around. He urges them to think outside their corporate functions. Does Gillett ignore his boss’ request because he legitimately reasons he already has too much on his plate? No. He goes ahead and pitches an idea for Starbucks to make a venture capital investment in a new business unit designed to push the company’s mobile and online strategy.  That was a gutsy move.  Instead of sticking to what he knew and focusing on just that, Gillett saw a rare opportunity to be part of a transformation at Starbucks.  It required him to take on more than he probably could chew at that time. He got out of his comfort zone and adapted his mindset to take on a strategic challenge and he succeeded. According to the article, since creating the new venture “Starbucks has become a retail leader in mobile payments”. By stretching yourself and getting uncomfortable you push yourself to try new things.  Like a muscle, the more you use it, the more comfortable you become letting go of your status quo.

 3.   He instilled an entrepreneurial spirit into IT.  That’s very rare to see.  IT departments in most large organizations these days are all about following the rules, often playing it safe, and saying a lot of NO in the interest of “security”.  In the next post, we will see examples of what Gillett did that went against these typical IT practices.  The examples were possible because he elected to run IT not so much as a corporate business unit but rather as an entrepreneurial venture. They opened themselves up to try new things.  The focus was to address the needs of its customers – both inside and outside the corporate walls. That ultimately showcased IT as an enabler instead of  a cop.

 In today’s super competitive, global marketplace,  organizations that don’t want to fall behind need to be run by leaders that are open to adapting their frame of mind and leadership frameworks to make way for the future. They need to ADAPT and find new ways for their new audience – the Millennials.

Quote“ If you’re not  uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader”  ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Being uncomfortable is how transformation begins.  When I first started hiring Millennials, I didn’t want to change.  The more they perplexed me, the more I dug my heels in my comfort zone.  It wasn’t until I decided to understand why they perplexed me that the transformation in my leadership style took place and led to the creation of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership. That led to first seeing the potential Millennials brought to the workplace then tapping it then capitalizing on it.

The first step in doing that is to CONNECT.   Many of us who cut our management teeth in the 20th Century approach leadership like this:  I, leader, have a certain leadership style that you, employee, will need to get comfortable with.  It is not my responsibility to figure you out or adapt my style to meet your needs.  You need to conform to my style and work effectively under that style. 

Really?  Do we really want to lead that way?  Does it work for us?  If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that working for a boss that took the time to know us and spend quality time with us are the ones we liked working for and worked the hardest for.  Now more than ever, making a special connection with each of our employees is not only critical but expected.  The more removed we are from our staff, the less effective they will be and that will reflect back to us.  We also minimize our message and our vision.  We need that direct connection to our teams to spread our message and communicate our goals.

So how can you begin to CONNECT?   Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for real world examples. Here’s the link to the Information Week article. 

As the new CIO for Starbucks, one of the first things Stephen Gillett did was connect with the people in the trenches and with Starbuck’s customers.  How did he do that? He shadowed them by actually working in one of the retail stores. This is one of the key components in the C.A.R.E. System.   As a leader you need to spend time with your target audience whether it’s your employees or your customers.  It’s important for 3 reasons:

  1.  You see firsthand how employees work.  You can observe their thinking process as they complete their tasks.  How is that thought process unique and can you leverage it in other areas or functions in your team?  You also see how they do their tasks.  Are there shortcuts that they are taking and are unaware of that help speed up the work? Can those shortcuts be applied in other areas of your operation? Or perhaps they are missing important steps that require more training?  Is there duplication of work that you were not aware of?  No report or spreadsheet analysis will give you that kind of intelligence.
  2. You see if the process works or doesn’t.  In the case of Gillett, as he worked at a Starbucks store, he quickly realized that the point-of –sale (POS) system was broken.  Even though the Starbucks brass knew the limitations of the system they were more focused on growth strategies and opening stores.  They didn’t realize that the limitations of the POS were contributing to problems in opening new stores.
  3. You are able to make better and more intelligent decisions when prioritizing projects based on your firsthand experiences in the trenches.

If shadowing is effective downstream – working directly with your employees and/or customers, it is equally effective upstream – with your executive team.  After spending time shadowing downstream at a Starbucks store, Gillett decided to bring the same experience upstream, to the executive team. He created a Tech Derby which is really a live simulation of a problem showing the pain points and a proposed solution to the problem. The simulation acted as a shadowing opportunity. Through a large-screen display, the executive team, including the CEO, Howard Schultz, shadowed a barista painfully placing an order in the outdated POS system.  They got to see not just hear about how much time was wasted as the baristas had to translate orders so the POS system could capture them. Then, through a mock up of the proposed replacement system, the executive team was able to shadow the new process to see how much faster and more effective it was. 

According to the article, “When they showed both to Schultz, ‘he just turned around and said, When? And whatever you’re going to tell me, it has to be faster’”.  That’s how effective shadowing is and how powerful the concept of Connecting is to introduce change.

Imagine how connecting with your Millennials or others in your team can give you a bird’s eye view to what’s going on in the trenches.  Imagine how many things you’ll be able to discover, uncover and identify that can be game changers to your team and ultimately your organization.  The days when leaders could run teams by just interacting with their direct reports without a strong connection to their team members are disappearing quickly.  The opportunity for innovation and real transformation lie with the ideas and creativity of those closest to the problems your team faces every day.  You need to connect with them to tap and harness that creativity and find innovative solutions.

What examples do you have that illustrate how you CONNECT with your employees?

Recently, I was conducting a workshop with Ben, the CIO of a mid-size company and his direct reports. The CIO was having trouble holding on to his young workforce.  More than that, he really couldn’t figure them out. He brought me so I could help them understand, engage and retain Millennials, those pesky 20-somethings that are now coming into the workplace in droves. Ben’s situation wasn’t unusual. Millennials in the workplace  and what to do with them is a very hot topic these days and a real pain point for CIOs and other leaders.

In the meeting, shared my personal “Millennial” journey as a Senior VP of IT in a Fortune 500 company and how I went from total aggravation with Millennials to complete amazement at the contributions they could make in the workplace under the right conditions.

I explained to the group that I was able to make this transformation by creating a lab and putting Millennials in the workplace under the microscope to observe them intently and understand what made them tick.  In doing so, I quickly realized that the leadership style and approach I had taken with previous generations of employees were simply not effective with the new breed of 20-somethings.  After many experiments – many that worked and some that failed – a pattern began to emerge that clearly showed me that I needed a different framework to get through to these Millennials and capitalize on their unique perspective.  I ultimately called the new framework the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership.  C.A.R.E. stands for Connect, Adapt, Reshape and Experiment.

As I was sharing specific examples of how I began to incorporate C.A.R.E. into my leadership style, Ben, the CIO, raised his hand and asked a great question. 

“Alicia, would it be possible for you to highlight examples of specific steps I can take as a CIO to begin to put your C.A.R.E. System into action. Are there any examples out there of CIOs or organizations that you can point to that can help illustrate the key elements of your C.A.R.E. System.

I couldn’t have asked for a better segue way.  Ben’s question highlights a need we all have to see and drill down on examples that can help us make necessary and oftentimes uncomfortable changes.  The examples help us understand new concepts, demonstrate how the concept was implemented and give us food for thought on how we can incorporate them into our particular work environment.

Ben’s question was refreshing for 2 reasons. The first is that it was a good indicator that he acknowledged that change was necessary.  Unlike many leaders, he didn’t think that holding on to the status quo and old patterns was going to solve the problem.  He was open to trying new things. Secondly, he accepted responsibility for initiating the change and wanted guidance on how to start.

Over the next four posts, I will share with you the real world case study that I used to show Ben and his direct reports how to exemplify how the core concepts of the C.A.R.E. System can be used to effectively lead Millennials in the workplace .

The organization that will be highlighted in the case study is Starbucks and the person spotlighted is Stephen Gillett, its new CIO.

I welcome you to click here to read a recent article in Information Week written by Chris Murphy that spotlights the Starbucks CIO as the Chief of the Year.

 Full disclosure:  I don’t know Stephen Gillett personally other than what I read in the Information Week article and he has never heard about the C.A.R.E. System.  I am using him in the case study because of specific examples of techniques or approaches that were highlighted in the article.  The techniques help me illustrate real world examples of each of the 4 modules in the C.A.R.E. model that I know to be effective when leading next generation workers.

In my next post:  we begin look at the Starbucks case study for techniques on how to Connect – the first module in the C.A.R.E. System

Recently I finished reading Seth Godin’s book, TRIBES: We Need You to Lead Us.  It’s a quick read and I have been recommending it as a must read for corporate leaders as a starting place to challenge our thinking. In each of my posts, I will be quoting from the book to set the tone for us to be open to change.

In Tribes, Seth writes: “And if you insist on playing today’s games by yesterday’s rules, you’re stuck.  Stuck with a stupid strategy.  Because the world has changed.”

Change is a constant and our next generation leaders, the Millennials in the workplace, are counting on us to change and leverage their potential.

Last week, my friend, Gina Carroll, who also happens to be an awesome editor, reminded me that I had never posted the last blog in this series.  My bad.   So here goes.

The last of the disturbing trends that I see that can keep mediocrity alive & well in Corporate America is the resistance to tap into AND harness the talent that Millennials bring to the workplace.  Millennials have been in the workplace for 10 years now and still corporate leaders are having difficulty managing them.  As I work with corporate clients, I see their continued insistence to hold on to entrenched systems that worked in the past.  Having been in their shoes, I totally understand why they want to do that.  They have worked long and hard to get processes and systems in place. There’s a lot invested in corporate SOP (Standard Operating Procedures).  The thought of having to give up the tried and true for the trial and error isn’t something many leaders are enthusiastic about doing.

The problem is that continuing to hold on to the tried and true is a prescription for being left behind.  The Millennials are the messengers of the future. By pulling them into our 20th Century leadership comfort zones all but guarantees that we will miss the boat.  Instead, we should be letting them push us into the 21st Century.  But yet leaders are hesitant to do it.  This creates a Triple Jeopardy situation in the workplace.

1.      Exodus of talent. Talented Gen Yers leave the organization.  Tired and fed up with being hand tied and unable to make a difference, the very best and brightest just opt to leave.  Where is your future leadership pipeline coming from?

2.      Cost. The organization has just wasted time, money & effort on hiring those Gen Yers that subsequently leave.  In addition, the employees that remain have to pick up the slack until another replacement is found.  This further upsets an already overworked group of people.

3.      Rinse & Repeat.  The process of hiring the replacement starts the cycle all over again.  Without a solid plan in place to engage and leverage the talents Millennials bring, there is a high likelihood that the cycle of turnover will repeat itself again.   The organization is perpetuating the problem and falling further behind the innovation curve.

But it doesn’t have to be that way if leaders would be willing to shift their thinking a bit to see 20-somethings as allies instead of aliens.  By being unwilling to let go of the status quo, companies are snubbing their nose at 3 ways Millennials can bring profits, growth and vibrancy to the organization.  Here’s how they do that.

1. By being Solutionists.  20-somethings are wired to get things done. Whether it was the many demands placed on their time as young children, or the video games they play or the need to make sense of a chaotic world, Millennials are focused on solutions and being resourceful in getting to those solutions.

2.  Embracing Real-Time Reality vs. Delayed Action.  You will rarely see a Gen Yer opt to put something on a list so they can get to it later. They tackle the problem on the spot.  They look it up and get it done.  For Boomer leaders, this is uncomfortable and unsettling to see.  We prefer delayed action – let’s put it on our “To-Do” list,  let’s research it some more, let’s meet a few more times to explore the problem, etc., etc.  Millennials are in-tune with the fact that in today’s world, you won’t get to it later.  They never knew a time when there was time to spare.   Summers off to play? Only one after school activity? No volunteering on the weekends? This is all shocking to them because from an early age, their lives were full of activities that required you to be present and engaged and responding to things in real-time.  There is no missed window of opportunity.

3.    Plugging into the Collective.  You can’t beat a 20-something in their ability to tap the collective.   They realize that 2 heads are better than one and 10 are better than 2. They instinctively know to reach out to others in getting things done because the result will be a better product or solution.  Instead of the individual being front & center, it’s the group that works the magic.  The collective is at the root of the solution and the ability to tackle problems real time instead of putting it on the list.

Millennials have the 21st Century mindset imbedded in how they think, act and work. By understanding and leveraging that mindset, leaders can infuse fresh, new ways of doing things going forward.  Millennials are the messengers of the future and it’s vital that organizations retain the best of them.  We will retain them by letting them re-train our automatic defaults.  Those tried and true instinctive reactions we have worked so hard to master will get in the way of our ability to: make decisions in real-time, to test our best practices for future viability, to infuse innovation into our SOP.

If Corporate America is going to be a meaningful player in the future, it has to look inward and let go of a lot of the trash it has built up over the years.  Like Jennifer Hudson says in the Weight Watcher’s commercial ” It’s  a new dawn,  it’s a new day, it’s a new life”  for us as corporate leaders… and yes, embracing it all will also make us  ”feel good”  IF we give ourselves permission to be bold, experiment & try new things.  The Millennials are ready to work with us to forge a new way.  Are we?

Like most Baby Boomers, I am used to getting information with enough detail and relevance that I can use it as needed. Notice I said as needed and not necessarily immediately. In other words, I like my information to be relatively meaty. One of the biggest lessons I learned in my lab when I was a corporate executive was that 20-somethings or Millennials don’t like information delivered the same way I like it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They like it bite-sized, punchy and when needed and not a minute before. Instead of a meal, they want a snack.

That changed the way I communicated with this group in my team. It was also one of the determining factors in transforming the way I led. Since I learned and honed my management techniques and style under the 20th Century model, I was committed to communicating in the same way to all my team members. After all, I didn’t want to be accused of being inconsistent or treating people differently. How many times were we told that “one size fits all” was best when it came to employees? That way there was no confusion or misunderstandings.

Well, in the 21st Century model, when it comes to our newest job entrants and customers, one size fits all simply doesn’t work & is totally ineffective. When it comes to communicating, it’s absolutely necessary to chunk down your message. It’s called “information snacking”. Love the term!

I’m including a video where Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications is talking to Erin Lieberman Moran of the Great Place To Work Institute. By the way, the Great Place to Work Institute is the company that selects the top 100 companies to work for every year and Fortune Magazine reports on the results in their magazine. According to their website, Ragan Communications is the “leading publisher of corporate communications, public relations, and leadership development newsletters”. So both Erin and Mark know a thing or two about communicating in today’s world. Check out what they have to say about information snacking.

Right below that video, I included a video I did a couple of months ago from my Gen Yer on Fire series. The goal of the series is to highlight “the other side of Gen Y.” In other words, the good side of Gen Y that many of us as leaders often overlook. The series shows how Gen Yers are opting out of corporate careers and applying their creativity and hard work in areas they are passionate about.

So here’s Erin and Mark chatting about information snacking :

Here’s my Gen Yer on Fire video with a different but similar slant on information snacking. Oh, yeah, and one more thing: I’m not an actress and you’ll clearly see I don’t play one on the video. I’m just doing what Millennials say to do: live out loud and share my message!

So what about you? What can you do today to provide your 20-somethings with an information snack rather than a meal? I know you can do it !!!

I want to first start out by thanking my colleague, Susan Whitcomb, a wonderful career coach and President of the Career Coach Academy for sending me this article in the Business Insider written by Vivian Giang titled:  ”If You Want to Retain The Best Young Workers, Give Them A Mentor Instead of Cash Bonuses“.  According to the article, in a recent annual Global CEO Survey  conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 20-somethings, also known as Gen Y/Millennials rated training and development way above cash bonuses as their first choice in benefits.

The research that I did this past year validated the results from the survey.  As I interviewed 20-somethings that had been working from one to five years, over 80% had either left a job or were aggressively looking for one.  Why?  All of them were shocked by the reality they faced when they started working.  None of them were prepared for it and all of them wished they had known ahead of time so that perhaps they would have asked better questions during the interview to determine if there was a good fit. But even if they still had to take a job regardless of fit, they all felt that knowing would have helped with a better transition.

What was shock #1 for these Gen Yers?  Having to report to bad bosses and/or not having mentors they could go to.  In my new e-book, New @ Work:  An Insider’s Survival Guide to a Crazy Workplace,  I give new hires some probing questions to ask during an interview so they can determine if their prospective employer embraces mentoring and whether or not their next boss has “horrible boss” characteristics.

In my experience having worked as a corporate executive for over 25 years,  I find that new hires don’t take enough advantage of the interview process.  The interview provides a great opportunity to get to know important things about the organization and the person who will be your boss.  Too often, young interviewees are so concerned about making a good impression that they either don’t ask a lot of questions or ask very predictable ones. 

Interviewers have typically been through hundreds of interviews and usually have heard the same questions being asked over and over again.  A way to stand out is to ask them questions that make them think, that get them out of their comfort zone.  As long as you ask it in a non-threatening manner and from a place of curiosity, the interviewer will most likely remember you from the countless other interviews he or she has had.  In today’s world, young interviewees need to find creative ways to get on the employers radar preferably before the interview but certainly during the interview.

As I was reading the Insider Edition article, I was noticing some of the comments that were  posted.  Many of them appeared to be from Gen Yers who disagreed with the survey results and rated cash bonuses over mentoring.  Although this is understandable in today’s unstable economic times, I believe it ultimately backfires.  It’s a case of being penny wise and pound foolish.

Having had mentors and being a mentor during my long career, I can attest to the huge benefits mentors provide.  They are able to fastrack your career.  They show you where the landmines are located, what to do and not do and how best to stand out and get noticed.  Mentors provide a shortcut to becoming successful at work.  Although that may not be as appealing as a cash bonus in the short term, I can vouch that it has much better financial benefits in the long term. 

Mentoring has allowed me to make strategic moves in my career that have ultimately gotten me  higher increases,  better bonuses and more importantly, positioned me to become a high performer which is the cream of the talent crop in an organization. Cash bonuses could not have done that and eventually, those bonuses would probably shrink without a “Success GPS”  that only a mentor can provide.

In my e-book I give some advice on how to find mentors in or outside an organization if someone finds him or herself working for a bad boss or an organization that doesn’t foster mentoring.  Mentoring is that important to your career whether you are 20-something or 50-something.

When you have a good mentor, the cash will come.  Without one, it’s a rocky road.

Yeah, sounds great BUT we’re not R&D…  I don’t have the luxury of experimenting to see whether or not an idea will fly”  That was the response a corporate colleague of mine gave when I approached him about collaborating on an idea.   It also highlights the last Yeah But of the series – Not my Yob, man.

When it comes down to it, most corporate leaders today are so swamped with their day to day responsibilities that it leaves them little time to do, much less think about, activities that don’t contribute to those specific responsibilities.  They practically freak out when someone approaches them about working on something new.  The response is to always try to get out of it or put the least amount of effort into it.  Their job is to carry out the specific deliverables they committed to delivering this year during the goals setting process.  That’s it & as far as they’re concerned, that’s plenty.

The problem with that type of thinking is that it immediately rules out innovation & experimentation.  New ideas don’t conveniently pop up when you have time on your hands. In fact, I’ve found that they usually manifest themselves when it’s most chaotic, when you are knee deep in a problem & trying to find a solution or a workaround.  Those hectic situations get people focused on thinking creatively for an answer.  The problem is that in the heat of the problem, a lot of the very creative ideas get thrown out because there is no time to put them into action. Instead of holding on to the idea for further investigation, most teams just forget about them. The spark of an idea is allowed to fizzle into obscurity.

Years ago I conducted an experiment as I began to grapple with all 5 Yeah-Buts keeping me from pursuing innovation in my team.  As my team & I were in the throes of solving an issue or finding an answer to a problem, I began to pay attention & look for instances where someone said “I wish we could do xxx” or “Too bad we don’t have time for xxx” or “Does anybody know how to xxx”.  Those phrases carried the spark of a possible great idea.

As I heard these phrases, I began to write them down. Pretty soon I had accumulated a nice list.  Any one of the ideas on the list could potentially lead us to a new product, a new service, a more efficient way of doing things.  The only thing is that we needed to fuel the spark.  That’s what ultimately led to the creation of the Idea Incubator.  With the help of my team, we purposely & purposefully looked at ways we could carve out time to fuel the spark of those ideas.

At first, we could only find small amounts of time & were very selective about the idea (s) we pursued.  What we discovered is that we all really enjoyed that small sliver of time away from the day to day grind to focus on what was possible. That laser focus on the idea gave us incredible momentum & results. Amazingly, one of the results was to really examine our daily activities & where we spent our time.  We all found time wasters in our daily activities. 

But here was the best part.  We quickly acted on eliminating the time wasters.  Why now & not before? Because everyone got a lot of satisfaction from experimenting with the new ideas & helping them take shape.  Everyone was engaged in the process & learning a lot from it.  The goal quickly became to find a way to make the Idea Incubator a part of our daily schedule.  With time, we accomplished that goal & it was a game changer for the team. 

Not all of the ideas we pursued led somewhere but all of them made us learn, challenged our comfort zones & contributed to finding solutions for other ideas.  More importantly, everyone - from Gen Yers to Boomers – was engaged & motivated to come to work.  What I realized as I battled the 5 Yeah-Buts is that I, as the leader of my team, had to find a way to integrate innovation into the daily fabric of the team or else it would never get done.  The reality was that it wasn’t another team’s responsibility to experiment with new ideas.  It was my responsibility as well.

I can’t argue with the fact that completing our day to day activities takes priority if we are to accomplish our annual goals & priorities. But we sacrifice our future if we only focus on the tasks at hand.  Building a framework that allows experimentation  to stand beside the day to day is the key to staying competitive in the future.  Ensuring the company stays innovative & pioneers new ideas is every leaders responsibility & should never be assigned to one department or one function. Our jobs as leaders are to ensure our companies stay competitive,  relevant & financially viable not just today but into the future.

So what about you?  What are you doing today to fight the 5 Yeah-Buts to innovation?  What framework are you building in your team that allows experimentation to thrive alongside the day to day? Remember, it starts with a baby step & it’s up to us to take the first one…

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?

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