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The bare essence of professionalism

The bare essence of professionalism is reliably doing real work on the right things, and doing it well.

Geoff Wilson

One of the benefits of my position as a management adviser is that I get to see a lot of different management and leadership styles. And I get to see them from all perspectives: executive, buyer, seller, consultant, adviser, subordinate, and superior to name a few.

As I think about the most effective people I know–that is to say the most effective professionals I know–I have realized over time that the key to enduring professional success tends to be a simple word: reliability.  The funny thing about reliability is that it is timeless.  It doesn’t depend on your experience level, it doesn’t depend on your topical expertise, it doesn’t depend on your role. It simply depends on your dependability.

Why do I write this?  Because I get to see the outfall of unreliable professionals all the time. These are the consultants who talk a big game but who don’t do real work to back it up (the “one-hit wonders” of the consulting profession).  These are the managers who set aggressive, unreachable deadlines for themselves and therefore can’t be counted on to deliver.  These are the employees who never met a deadline they couldn’t silently stretch or break–while their leaders silently watch them fail because why bother?

These are the professionals who look and feel like they have something better to do than work on your problem or the task at hand.

The essence of professionalism can be encapsulated in a timeless quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This particular quotation was the favorite of a beloved football coach of mine, and it’s one that has informed my ideals for a very long time.  It goes like this:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

That means if you are called on to deliver the next M&A deal for your company, you think Michelangelo. It means if you are a mid-career manager who suddenly has to step in and own the financial model, you think Beethoven. And it means that if you are a seasoned professional who suddenly has to create that pitch deck when nobody else is available, you don’t think about how you no longer have those skills or how you are better than this work–you think Shakespeare.

In short, the professional mindset is one that doesn’t get bogged down in what work is “beneath” him or her.  It’s the one that finds the work and figures out a way to do it for real.  It’s comfort in doing the little things that build to a big thing. And it’s being known for reliably applying that comfort. It’s reliably doing real work on the right things and doing it well.

That, my friends, is the bare essence of professionalism.

It’s an ideal that I always aspire to.

What do you think?  What would you add as the essence of professionalism?

 

Don’t tell me what you believe…show me where you invest.

In a world of punditry, knowing where people invest will show what they believe.

Geoff Wilson

Where is the most compelling evidence of what you really believe (as opposed to what you say you do)?

It’s in what you own.

More specifically, it’s in where you invest.

Even back to biblical times, it was understood that “where your treasure is, your heart will be also.”  That’s Matthew 6:21 (NIV).  Where you put your resources reflects what you believe.  This is not a new or original concept, but it’s a very important one.

In this age, I’d suggest a couple of alterations to the concept.  First, treasure today is as much about time as it is money or assets.  Second, because we have so many ways of telling people what we believe (the POTUS likes Twitter), and because we can often conceal where we invest time and money, knowing where others actually place their values can be a challenge.

And that’s the point of this post: Where you invest shows more about what you believe than what you say does.  The inconsistency is apparent in “easy” cases like the CEO who says innovation is important but who cuts the R&D budget incessantly; I call this easy because everybody can see it.  Where things really get interesting is when you see normally concealed things like the leaders of tech companies not letting their kids use the tech they have helped to develop (cases of this have come out with respect to Apple, Facebook, and others).

That shows what they really believe.

So the next time you are confronted with a leader who says they believe in something, do a little bit of poking around to see where the budget is allocated and where time is allocated.  You will often find that what they say doesn’t match what they invest in–like they say they believe in putting the customer first but haven’t talked to a customer in a year.

Talk is cheap.

Oh, and like anything else, this can apply to you. Maybe get your own house in order as well.

Don’t tell me what you believe, show me where you invest.  That will tell me what you believe.

What do you think? 

What the fear of missing out does to your business strategy

You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

Geoff Wilson

What does a smart strategist do with resources?

Most would say that “strategy” in and of itself depends on focusing the investment of resources against valuable ends. But what happens when you have too many possible directions to go with your resources?  Or, worse yet, what happens if you are afraid to focus on a critical few ends?

What if you suffer from an all too human factor:  the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO for short?

Here’s what happens:  Your fear of missing out exacts a price on your focus because every opportunity you pursue comes with a little bit of distraction.  Call it the fixed cost of opportunity pursuit: The need to organize, plan, and simply think about any given opportunity just to start it up.

To illustrate, assume that you have 100% of your mind to allocate.  Now imagine that any given opportunity you pursue comes with a 5% fixed “mind cost” of addressing it.  If that’s the case, then addressing three opportunities leaves 85% of your time after the fixed cost (or nearly 30% of your attention per opportunity) to truly develop them. But pursuing five leaves 75% (or about 15% per opportunity) and pursuing ten?  That leaves half your time to dedicate and only 5% to pursue each opportunity.  And so it goes: The fixed cost of opportunity pursuit, even if it’s small, devours valuable development time.  But while the cost of pursuit may be linear, the price you pay per pursuit in terms of dilution is essentially exponential.

And, no, you can’t escape the fixed cost, because it’s more than organizational.  Even left fully alone, you have to contend with your own brain, which incurs a cost when shifting gears.  That’s why multi-tasking is a dangerous thing.  Your brain simply can’t filter out all the noise between the many focus areas.

The impact to your organization is easily as bad. You see this all the time: the organizational costs imposed on opportunity pursuit.  They might look like project reviews, justifications, planning meetings, and deployment program reviews, and in some organizations, these exceedingly hungry mandates devour more of the managers’ time than actually pursuing opportunities.

Admit it…you’ve seen this happen.  And, all too often, it’s because of the fear of missing out: ol’ FOMO.

But what drives the fear of missing out?  In almost all instances it’s confidence. You don’t know enough about a critical few things, so you spread your bets around…only in doing so, you don’t simply allocate resources, you simultaneously dilute them.  In gambling terms, you play with scared money; you impose a fear tax. In the process, you often create a lot of really small initiatives that don’t go very far or make much difference. Refer to this article from a few years ago about killing these “gerbils” in your plans.  In simple terms, the fear of missing out leads you to this: You don’t want to miss an opportunity, and that means you might miss them all.

So what is the point of all this?  It’s pretty basic, actually. Challenge yourself to focus on the critical few things that matter. If you don’t have the confidence to do so, invest the time to build it.  Challenge your organization to do the same.  That’s what a smart strategist does with resources.

What do you think?  Are you diluting your focus out of fear?  

 

Why ghosting may be the most unforgivable professional sin

There are professional ways to end a relationship, and silent indifference is not one of them.

Geoff Wilson

I was amused (appalled?) yesterday by a trend on LinkedIn that noted how the supply/demand balance had shifted so much in talent markets that people are resorting to “ghosting” at work.

Ghosting, a dating term that means ending a relationship by suddenly and without notice ending all communications, manifests itself in the workplace by people quitting without giving notice, or not showing up on their scheduled first day of work, or no-showing for interviews.  And it’s certainly a direct reflection on any candidate’s professionalism when they stop communicating or simply don’t show up.

Which brings to mind a thought for those of us in the professional realm: Ghosting is never the right way to end things.  No matter how busy you are, how important you are, or how indifferent you are to the other person or company, it’s always professional to invest a moment of your time in achieving closure.

I spend a portion of my time, as does anyone with a firm like mine, developing relationships and ideas for service; I usually do this alongside a very busy executive who has a need for help. The process of developing ideas and investing in new relationships is a significant investment of time and mind share, but it’s part of the trade.  In the years I have been doing this, four instances of ghosting stand out; these are the executives who go through the motions of scoping and idea generation, solicit a proposal, and then drop off the face of the earth. They are the cultivators of free information and free options for service. It bears saying that I am not referring to lost proposals: You win some and you lose some.  I am referring to proposals that have gone into a black hole, never to be acknowledged as residing in this universe.

Invariably, the ghosting executives wonder why people don’t enjoy working with them.  And, when there is some future outreach, there is always the “I was so busy” trope.  This usually comes from a busy executive who doesn’t stop to think that perhaps those around him who are responding to his requests are equally busy.  That excuse is chuckle-worthy.

Now, I must say that I write this as someone who values closure.  I especially value it when there has been mutual investment around a topic–no matter the context.  I once sat through a lunch discussion with the most dishonest person I ever met after a being a part of a series of negotiations with her; and I did it just to close things out–I can still taste the bile from that one.  Yeah, I’d say I enjoy closing the book…ending the discussion…getting to “yes” or “no” as the case may be.

So, why the moment on ghosting? Because life is longer than we like to admit.  You’re too busy to say “no” to that proposal, or to politely decline that next phone call, or to ensure that you have cancelled your attendance at that next interview?  Just remember that lapses in professionalism have a nasty habit of coming home to roost, and lapses that result in wasted time and lost value are among the worst. Ghosting may, in fact, be the most unforgivable professional sin.

What do you think?  Have you been ghosted in a professional setting?  

 

Really smart people try to do too much, and that makes them look stupid

Why the proliferation of initiatives does not make you look smart, motivated, or aggressive.

Geoff Wilson

“I have too much on my plate.”

You probably hear that from people occasionally, but you rarely if ever actually hear it from the highest performing people.  And that’s the problem this post is about: When smart people try to do too much, it makes them look stupid.

If anything, one old management adage is “if you want something done, give it to the busiest person in your organization.”  Why?  Because, well, the busy people are the ones who are always finding a way to get things done.  And there’s a ton to like about that platitude.

But, as with all platitudes, there’s a ton of insight left on the cutting room floor. If you want something done, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated.  Sure.

But if you really want something done well, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated and then help them manage their workload appropriately. Smart, motivated people have a really hard time saying no to things.  And smart, motivated people often have a view of others that leads them to think others should be as smart and motivated as they are (and therefore have all the capacity they have).  This leads the smart, motivated, and overcommitted leader to proliferate initiatives ad nauseam.  

And that reality leads to big problems as you promote your smart, motivated people up the chain.  The problems look like executives who take on too much, and consequently ask their organizations to take on too much.  It looks like endless lists of initiatives, all running concurrently.   It looks like a mess of execution because everybody is scrambling to do too much.

And finally, it looks like really smart, motivated people experiencing failure as leaders because of the very virtues that got them to their leadership role in the first place.  Being smart and motivated leads some managers to take on too much, which leads to point failures in execution or in organizational leadership, which leads to the manager looking stupid.

The solution if this is your peccadillo?  Find that sounding board who will help you focus on the critical few things that matter and drive the organization to them.  Unfortunately, in an age where “more is better,” all too often those sounding boards have the same incentives as you do as a manager: To recommend more and bigger, not less and better.  If you can find an adviser or mentor who helps you know when to slow down and focus on fewer things, you’re already ahead of the game.

What do you think?  How do you find a way to ensure you don’t take on too much? 

 

Old CEOs and bold CEOs

A recent HBR articles hints that those who make it to CEO fastest aren’t always the best case studies.

Geoff Wilson

Perusing the business press recently I came across an article on the Harvard Business Review website by a couple of partners at talent advisory firm ghSmart.  I’m partial to a lot of the tools and techniques that Geoff Smart and his firm have developed over time. And, I have found that management teams I work with who employ those techniques generally improve their approach to talent evaluation and elevation. This one left me…wanting, however.

The article is titled “The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study.” In it, the two authors outline how pedigree isn’t really all that for those who rise to the CEO role the fastest.  These so-called “CEO Sprinters”–the people who get to be CEO faster than the average time-to-office of 24 years–get there by taking big risks. The authors’ insight into these “sprinters” amounts to this:

“We discovered a striking finding: Sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top.”

And to follow that up, the article outlines three archetypal “bold” moves: jumping to a much smaller role or company, jumping on a much larger role than they were nominally prepared for, and inheriting and sorting out a big mess.  It’s very tough to call that a blinding insight. I would go so far as to call it a dangerous one because it ignores all the potential outcomes of such risk taking.

The reason it’s dangerous goes all the way back to an old saying in the aviation world that goes something like this:

“There are old pilots and there are bold pilots…but very few old, bold pilots.”

That is to say, that for every CEO who is lauded for the career-making “bold” (risky) move to something smaller/bigger/messier before it was time, there is likely a vast number of mid-career managers sitting around wondering why they took that kind of risk.

In other words, when we evaluate CEO Sprinters for what made them successful, and point to bold moves, we have to account for the risk inherent to such bold moves and for all the “sprinters” who never made it. Or else, we are just evaluating a gamble.  We aren’t evaluating a skill.  That’s, after all, what a great–truly seasoned–CEO does in real life.  They don’t take bold leaps willy nilly. They evaluate risks and returns…and make decisions accordingly.

I liken the HBR article referenced to a never-written article on how to play winning blackjack that points to how the “big winners” in blackjack made very large bets at very opportune moments.  Sure they did.  But a lot of people who followed that strategy–in fact if you believe in statistics almost all who follow that strategy–lose…bigtime.

If you are reading this post and thinking about your career “catapults,” I’ll encourage you to think about taking calculated risks, not gambles. That means that the core insights of the HBR article are, in fact, pretty cool; but they need a healthier dose of realism to be actionable.

So, don’t just look at anecdotal CEOs who have “made it” as role models for how to make it. Just because your CEO made his name be moving his family to Myanmar and turning around a manufacturing plant there doesn’t mean that the path to CEO is through malaria and dengue.

He might have survived a really stupid career move.  Sure, you can make it to CEO quickly by making a series of risky, possibly stupid, but lucky career moves…but you won’t necessarily stay there long.

And, that’s just it: survivorship bias is endemic to evaluating those sitting in such rare roles. You might say that there are old CEOs, and there are bold CEOs, but very few old, bold CEOs.

What do you think? 

Are you a micromanager? Oh, I hope so…sometimes

Micromanagement is a bad thing…until it’s not.

Geoff Wilson

Micromanagement has a really bad reputation.  But, is it deserved?

The term conjures mental images of a manager standing over the shoulder of a subordinate, hand on the subordinate’s mouse, clicking on a graphic to put it in the right place NOW.  Or, you imagine a manager who constantly lays out task lists and methods of doing the tasks for every member of the team.  Or, you see the manager who questions every decision of his subordinates. Why did  you spend $15.09 on pens last month?

Micromanagement as a term elicits the image of a bad manager.  And while that reputation is in some ways well earned, I think that the truth of the matter is that “micromanagement” can actually be a smear used by frustrated subordinates against managers who actually care.

Here’s why:

A great manager understands the needs of her people.  I’ve used the skill / will matrix in the past, with its management imperatives.  It gives a good indication how to handle different employee skill and will (that is, drive or energy) profiles. Here it is.

See that lower left quadrant that says “direct” for low skill, low will people?  That’s the “micromanage” quadrant.  In other words, whatever you call it, a good manager knows when it’s time to lock in and direct, micromanage, task, or otherwise be all-up-in-the-grill of a subordinate who is either (1) untrusted or (2) not up to an existing, critical task.

Anecdotally, I have seen far more trouble conjured up by managers who didn’t know how to lock in on task when the time comes.  So-called players’ coaches are great when it comes to ensuring “happiness,” but it’s the rare players’ coach who can be a players’ coach with every player and still be successful.

This post comes from the question of a colleague on my own style of management…and whether I’m a micromanager.  The only answer I could dig up was “not generally, but specifically, possibly, yes.”  I’m a big believer in allowing talented people to run and only adjusting course.  I’m also a believer in being very specific with inexperienced people.  Where the pain comes in is when a “talented” or “experienced” person gets a lot of rope and tangles himself with it, and I follow up with a whopping dollop of micromanagement.  That hurts, because it’s a clear signal that the person wasn’t up to the task, and I was asleep at the switch.

In other words, you may dislike micromanagement, but it’s a pretty darned good indication of how your talent is regarded and how much trust you have from your manager.  Before smearing your manager with the term, consider whether your manager is simply a mission-oriented manager who had  to micromanage you.

What do you think?  Is “micromanager” a justifiable epithet or simply another management hat of an effective leader?

Two ways to grow in the new year

If you want to grow this year, do these two things.

I confess, this entire new year thing has gotten ahead of me this year.  I thought it was December and now it’s January.

The new year comes with a sense of renewal.  It comes with a sense of burying all that was “bad” last year and focusing on what we want to succeed at this year.  Only, I think that for most of us that is a totally broken approach to growth–whether growing a business or growing a career or growing a skill-set.  We tend to set resolutions that we know we will break. We stretch only to settle back into our old habits before long.

So what is a person to do in order to win in 2018 (which is right now)?

I’ll offer two things that work for me, and that I think can work for most any executive out there.

First:  Focus on the strengths that you can deploy today.  Sure, sure…you know how to find your strengths. You probably have a winning smile and a wonderful personality, but what if nobody is looking or listening?  You have a problem.  You have the same problem if you have a great product in the pipeline that won’t get out until Q3.  It doesn’t matter that you have the perfect strength “coming.”  What you do with what you have today is what matters. So, focus on what you can do…right now.

Second:  Listen to your weaknesses. This is extremely hard for most executives to do–especially those who have mastered the spin of their “greatest weakness” being simply a strength in disguise (you know the ones: they always have an answer for how their weakness isn’t really a weakness). Like it or not, most executives (not you, but people you know) got where they are by sidestepping their weaknesses, not by confronting them head on.  I’m not saying “shore up your weaknesses,” I’m saying listen to them.  Find ways to grow from what you learn about your weak supply chain, or your weak sales force, or your (personally) weak communication skills.

Building on your deployable strengths and learning from your present weaknesses might just be your recipe for “better” this year…which means better right now.

Just to show that none of this is new (you didn’t really think it was, anyway), I’ll leave you with a fantastic lyric that implores you to focus on these two objectives. It’s a piece of the song Anthem by the late Leonard Cohen.  Take a moment to read it:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

As you blast into this year, think about the bells you can still ring–now. Forget about the perfect strength–focus on what you have today. And, perhaps most importantly, find the light that comes through the cracks in your armor by listening to your weaknesses.

That’s how the light gets in.

Happy new year!

Strategy like an immigrant

Strategy has to be a synthesis of old and new.

I spent the weekend with my daughter walking around New York City.  The city is a great one. It is, at its best, a fantastic combination of culture, ethnicity, language, foods, and styles.  While walking the Lower East Side, a thought come to mind, and I’ll do my best to develop it in 500 words or less.

U.S. political leaders like to romanticize the United States of America as a “nation of immigrants.”  We have heard this platitude so many times over the past several decades (JFK first published his book by the same name in 1958) that it has attained a sort of knee-jerk validity in everyday discourse.  Our guide on a short walking tour loved to allude to this notion.

But, the notion is actually very wrong.  And we are worse off for using it.  I’ll try to articulate my simple version of the truth, and what it means for any American business leader.

Here it goes:

We are, at our worst, a nation of conquerors.

We are, at our best, a nation of builders…a nation of synthesizers.

Our country is built on conquest. You may not like that notion but it doesn’t make it less true. Our most pervasive mindsets are built on conquest. Our most polar political ideals are based on “mine” and “not yours.”  Almost since the founding of the country, we have reveled in ideals of “winning” meant only as “doing it our way.”

But, what makes us great is synthesis.  When it comes to what really made our country great, it’s building from introduced parts.  It’s assimilation in the best sense of the word. It’s not merely coexistence or “tolerance” (a fantastically risky word), but symbiosis.  It’s immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side patronizing immigrant Chinese restaurants during the high holidays…if you will.

To be a little more tongue in cheek, it’s Mexican Pizza.

So, we have to build with full recognition that we have the conqueror’s ethos that permeates our country.

What’s the message here for a blog on business strategy?

It’s this:  In your business today, you have a way of doing things.  You have systems, processes, approaches, value propositions, cultural elements, and memes (in the traditional sense of the word) that drive your business.  Your strategy can be to either “conquer” or to “build.”  You can either take “who you are” and “what you do” and apply it to all situations old and new; or you can search for piece parts to assimilate and synthesize into a higher order of success.

This might mean forgetting some of what you knew.

It might mean inviting in new perspectives (and actually listening to them).

It might even mean looking at competitors you’d previously want to conquer as potential collaborators.

If you do strategy like an immigrant, you do strategy as synthesis.  You make better out of a few pieces of really good.

Now, I’m going to go have a bagel with ham and cheese.

 

 

I learned this from my worst bosses…

Even the worst bosses teach you things.  Here are a few from my experience.

Have you ever had a bad boss?  I don’t mean somebody you just didn’t click with, I mean a really bad boss.  They didn’t have to be a bad person (though they might be).  They just might not have been competent bosses.

That ringing a bell yet?

The cool thing about a bad boss is that short exposure to one can actually make you a better leader.  Seeing what “bad” is is almost as valuable as seeing what “great” is when it comes to leadership. I’ve learned a few lessons from bad bosses.  Here are some that are the lessons that come to mind.

Never throw things.  I once had a boss whose tantrums were epic.  You just waited for something to hit the floor or wall.  I had another boss who already had a bad reputation and who “playfully” threw something at a person who asked him a question, only to be thought of as attacking the person physically.  In both cases the intimidation factor wasn’t good for team morale.  If you must express your displeasure physically, consider clenching your teeth or at least throwing things in the privacy of your home.

Never use physical means to stifle a conversation. I once had a boss who would raise his hand into people’s faces when he thought they should stop talking.  He might as well have just turned his back on them. Needless to say he was an ineffective leader.  If you must cause someone to stop talking, consider thoughtfully asking a question directed to another person in the room instead.

Never start a feedback conversation with a speech about why you are right. Feedback is about giving and taking.  I once had a boss who thought it smart to start any feedback conversation with a preface that sounded like “I have a lot of experience on these issues and you do not, so let me give you some feedback.”  Talk about killing the give and take…Consider offering the feedback and the rationale for it, instead of your resume.

Never go passive on topics of compensation or promotion. I once had a boss who was very busy.  They were too busy to discuss HR matters.  That led to very long times between discussions of critical compensation issues. If you want to lose your team, ignore them when they bring up comp issues.  It’s ok to say “no” to the discussion, but not to ignore it.

Never play games with your subordinates. I once had a boss whose go to question when a subordinate brought a problem to them was “what have you tried to do so far?”  That is a fine question; but it was used as a sort of lever to get to a “more work” answer vs. a “I’ll help you solve the problem” answer.  The subordinate could say “I’ve tried A, B, C, and D” and the boss would answer with “well, let’s not talk until you’ve tried X, Y, and Z as well.”  While this may sound helpful, it actually was utterly demoralizing because the staff new raising any issue only resulted in more work vs. possible solutions.  Consider offering feedback and support on what has been tried vs. just assigning more work.

Now, to be clear, these lessons are a bit nuanced.  I’m also in no way innocent of them. I’ve thrown things a time or two (no, I’m not proud of it). These are also items that are somewhere between great manager who does everything right and psychopath boss. If I’ve had a boss who slept with a subordinate and cheated financially, do I really need to list that as “what not to do?”

How about you?  Do you have any “bad boss” stories that come with lessons?  Consider sharing them.