Monday, December 22, 2014

Beware of Instant Affinity

Most people learn early in their lives that, in general, the things that are the hardest to obtain also hold the most value.  Why are rocks so cheap while diamonds are so expensive?

I remember a story that I heard as a child - maybe it was an anecdote.  In it, a man was describing his efforts to get rid of an old, but serviceable clothes dryer.  He had set it out in his front yard with a sign that said, "Clothes Dryer, old but still in great shape.  Free to the first taker."  After several days there were no takers.  The man thought about the situation for a while and wrote up a new sign to replace the one he had first put on the dryer.  In less than an hour he had three people come by to try and get the machine, of which he was quickly rid.  Can you guess what the new sign said?  He had changed the wording from the first pass to say, "Clothes Dryer, old but still in great shape.  Only $75!"  It wasn't until he described it as having value that others were able to see the same thing.

Many of us are leaders who also have the requisite power and authority over large IT and departmental budgets.  Consequently, each of us attracts the attention of vendors, partners, and salespeople who want our business.  Although not unique to just the United States, many of us see a behavior from these individuals that is aimed towards getting us to quickly commit to some type of sales transaction or relationship.  So what is this behavior to which I refer?  Before naming it, let me describe several ways it manifests.

Situation One:  You receive a phone call from someone who wants to do business with you.  Within three minutes of the call the person is discussing sports, family, politics, or some other very informal topic with you.  And it's not just the topics, but the tone that the person uses is the same or very similar to what you'd expect from a close friend.  They act like they've known you for years and if they're very good, you feel a sense of comfort with the person that would otherwise seem out of place with a stranger.

Situation Two:  You receive a written communication, usually an email, from someone in a sales or relationship building role.  If possible, they've shortened your name and/or personalized it.  If you are a "Robert", you become "Bob".  If you're an Annabelle you might be referred to as "Anna" or "Belle".  The communication reads like a letter from one friend to another.  There isn't really an introduction per se, just something that gets to the point in an informal way with an implicit expectation that you will respond.

Situation Three:  Imagine the first two scenarios, only this time it's in person.

What I've been describing is Instant Affinity.  There are many reasons to beware of instant affinity with anyone.  If your life has taken you to different places around the world, you will know that most cultures outside of the United States do not facilitate or promote this concept.  I have many stories about the ritualistic formalities that I have observed in Asia, Africa, Latin, America, and some places in Europe.  In order to spare you all of them I'll just cover my experience in Japan.

In the 1990s I was spearheading the efforts of a U.S.-based company to open up operations and sales in and around Tokyo.  The goal was to establish a complete office set-up and be conducting business in less than six months.  From a technical perspective, we got everything in place before the deadline.  However, after a year of operating the company was forced to close the offices and leave Japan.  You might ask "why?" or what happened.  The answer is simple - in Japan people will not do business with others unless they know them in some personal and intimate way.  It doesn't matter if you have the best product(s) in the world.  If you have not taken time to build relationships with your customers and sometimes even your suppliers, good luck with your efforts in that region.  Just showing up and doing business with the belief that "Instant Affinity" will carry you through is a risky proposition indeed.

As a leader, relationships are important to your success.  In fact, this is so much so that I can easily say that any leader without strong relationships with others is just passing through the role - not there to stay.  While I am not advocating that you can or should only do business with those that you know well, I am strongly suggesting that you look to form deep, long-lasting relationships with your key partners.  It is these connections that will help you through the hard times as well as the good.

Why did the tea ceremony develop in Asia?  Why did the handshake originate in Ancient Greece?  Why do Latin Americans kiss your cheek when meeting in person?  Why is business so personal in the Middle East?

Over time, most human civilizations have developed ways to prohibit "Instant Affinity".  Beware relationships that are granted or received too easily...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pay to Play; Work for Free

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to get people to do the hardest work for free?  If you're a manager, you already know how difficult it is to get talented, motivated people to come work for you (or your company).  Finding the right mixture of pay and benefits already plays a large part in getting people to do work.  In the companies where I've worked, I cannot remember or find a single example where people did their jobs for free.  (Unpaid internships don't count)

So, is it possible to get people to do really tough jobs not only for free, but to also pay you for the privilege of being able to donate their own blood, sweat, and tears?  The answer is "yes", you can do this through several different approaches.

The first method that I know of is highly impractical.  In fact, I wouldn't recommend it unless you are part of an evil machine "hive collective".  I'm referring to the concept behind the highly popular Matrix movies that starred Keanu Reeves during the last decade.  In the movies (spoiler alert), all of humankind had been put into stasis cubes that kept them alive but comatose.  The evil machines created a fake world where each person had a role to play.  However, while their minds were inside of the "Matrix", in the real world the machines were using the bio-electrical energy of the peoples' physical bodies to power their civilization.

Moving from fantasy to reality, an actual industry has slowly trained people to pay real-world money in order to go to work for free.  Can you guess which industry that might be?  If you own an XBox or Playstation, you already know that it is the video game industry.  This year (2014), one of the most anticipated games in history came out for sale in September.  Called "Destiny", it is built around the concept of an ever evolving world where each person is a "Guardian".  The role of each Guardian is to constantly patrol the worlds of the solar system striving ever to push back the darkness (yes, that is a near quote).

What is interesting about Destiny is that each person who plays must perform what most people would refer to as "work" in order to advance.  That is, the players have to report online at specific times, carry out mandated tasks, interact with friend (aka "co-workers"), and meet deadlines.  Much of this activity is monotonous at times, similar to  being in an actual office environment.  People grumble about it and refer to the repetitive work that they must do as "the grind".  Yet, the average amount of time spent in the game by each player, every day, is three hours!  On the weekends, that number goes up to four hours per day.  Why would people pay for a product that essentially makes them work for free?

Then answer is, "Because it's fun."

There you have it.  If you can make a job fun, issues such as work conditions, pay, location, and many others stop being so important.  Many of us have heard that one of the biggest reasons employees leave their jobs, other than poor managers, is that they are seeking meaningful work.  Might that also mean work that is fun?

Bungie, the company that makes the game Destiny, is not the first company to discover this little bit of insight.  I cannot trace the origins of the "fun-i-fication" of work, but there is a great site called "The Fun Factory" that describes and illustrates how the concept can be put into practice.  They have a number of examples of how making things like climbing stairs actually be more appealing than using adjacent escalators.  There are also examples from companies like Volkswagen about how they are introducing the concept of "fun" into their businesses in order to get more employee engagement.

Now that you've read this post, here is the takeaway:  A great way to engage the hearts and minds of your employees and co-workers is to find ways to make their roles more entertaining and thus more engaging.  By introducing a little "fun" into the daily activities of your work group, you will be guaranteed to get much more willing productivity from your people.  The old adage is true - "Time flies when you are having fun."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mis(sed) Communications

Most of us have at one time or another heard a variation of the following phrase: "Over 90% of all communication is non-verbal."  While we usually hear this said as a way to get us to spend more time in person with others, there is another more subtle message buried within. (keep reading)

I have traveled to six continents in my life and have been able to experience life where English was not spoken or understood.  After a certain number of experiences in these conditions I compared what I had seen with my brother.  He had spent time in Army as a Korean language specialist up on that wonderful strip of dirt known as the "DMZ". (He called it a speed bump for the North Korean army)  My brother told me that he had been taught by his instructors that peoples of all nations tend towards the same behaviors when they cannot communicate with others.  He told me that the natural human inclination is to "dehumanize" or see people as "lesser" if they do not speak your language.

Back to the subtle message from the first paragraph.  The primary reason to speak with people (both talking the same language) in person is that it is difficult to (a) be misunderstood when face to face and (b) be treated discourteously.  Yes, it still happens but it is much more rare for someone to be rude to you in person.  That's just evolutionary behavior in practice.

Let's now think about the business environment.  How many times has one of the following happened to you?
  • You sit in close proximity, if not directly adjacent to someone who sends you an email when they could literally just turn and verbalize the same thing
  • You call someone and receive an email or text in response
  • Either you receive an instant message from a colleague or vice versa
  • You get into an (angrily) escalating email "flame" war with a colleague
  • Someone sends you a direct voicemail instead of calling you the "traditional" way
These behaviors and more happen every day in almost every company of size.  For the younger generations (Y and now millennials), texting and instant messaging have become the de facto way of communication both in and outside of the office.

Different groups of people have experienced and overcome the challenges of communicating to people who aren't there in person.  In the radio business, the use of sound effects, music, and other non-verbal audio artifacts are used.  Video games have morphed from the days of pure text into the use of graphics, sounds, and now "haptics", which are tactile feedback devices.  Newer generation console controllers vibrate and do other things - what the entertainment industry refers to as "4D effects".

The Chinese language, "hanzi", is the third oldest major active language in the world (behind #2 Doric Greek and #1 Hebrew).  It is a marvelous language because it incorporates sound, visual, and context.  This is something the ancient Egyptians tried, but were never quite able to get the context portion advanced enough to make it a world-presence.  The sound and graphic parts are obvious, but the characters in hanzi also have specific meanings tied to "how" they are used.  If you don't believe me, try comparing Mandarin to Cantonese.  They both use the same hanzi characters but the meanings are *much* different.

Today, with English, the language is evolving enough that there are several successful attempts underway to include graphics and context.  This process is being accomplished through the use of the "emoji" character keyboard.  Can you understand what I'm saying here, solely in emoji?:


It's absolutely critical for you to be an effective communicator if your desires include being a great leader who has upward career mobility.  Whenever possible, communicate in person or at the very least, by telephone or video conference.  Don't be that person who only communicates by email, text, or voicemail.  The faster and more effective you can communicate, the more you can get done.  The natural consequence for you will be a higher status coupled with the belief that you are, or can be, a superior leader.

Friday, November 7, 2014

IT Designed for Perfection

In my conversations with people about how to create the best IT organizations, many times the topics devolve into talks about "best practices".  We have all read the advice from experts about how it is possible to create "high performing organizations" that are "process driven".  Many people still believe to this day wholeheartedly that a recipe exists, if only it could be found, that would show CIOs how to provide perfect service to everyone.

So, do you believe that perfection can be created by human hands, hearts, and minds?

Over the years I have come to believe that perfection in not only unachievable, but is entirely undesirable.  Because the world is always in a perpetual mode of change, so to are people.  More and more I have come to believe in the "design-to-fit" philosophy.  To illustrate what I'm saying, look at the quote below from the first (Episode 4) Star Wars movie:

Luke Skywalker: [on first seeing the Millenium Falcon] What a piece of junk!
Han Solo: She'll make point five past lightspeed. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid. I've made a lot of special modifications myself.

Luke Skywalker, the hero of the movie, was looking for transport off the world of Tatooine.  Upon seeing Han Solo's ship he was less than impressed.  But Solo pointed out that even though his ship was not "perfect", it was perfectly designed for the task at hand.

In today's business climate those that run IT organizations are always resource constrained.  By now, most business people know that information technology is a critical component of the success of a modern company.  Therefore, they always need more from their IT organization than it can produce.  Sometimes the limitations are money; other times the personnel are just not there to accomplish the work.  Whatever the conditions may be, an IT organization cannot be all things to all people, all the time.  Like Han Solo making the most of his ship with the money (credits) he has, the IT organization must be designed so that it can handle the most important work first, the rest of the work second, and for everything else left over there must be good outsourcing partners to pick up the slack.

These days you will hear about how important emotional and relational intelligence skills are for CIOs and IT leaders.  This fact is axiomatic because the management of expectations of IT is now firmly baked into the job CIO job description.  When everybody wants you, now, and there is no middle ground between functional and not-functional (it either works or it doesn't!) in the eyes of the customer, relationship management will be the determining factor in a person's ongoing success.

The point of this blog is to let you know that just like the rest of the world, perfection is not a viable goal for IT.  Rather than believe the hype, no amount of processes or practices can cover all possibilities.  Anytime you read about someone claiming to have done just that it is time to pick up different reading material.

So how do I personally approach the concept of getting my organization to be ever closing in on "world class".  If you've read my previous blogs, you'll know the answer.  While I do consider best practices and processes important, I spend time finding excellent people, which means that I find people who are problem solving machines.  It is monumentally hard to find great talent but it is that and not design/process/practices that will get you as close to perfection as you'll ever be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All the Money In the World

Now that I've entered my third decade in the business world the time occasionally comes for me to pause and reflect.  I was pondering the question of what makes one life "better lived" than another.  I know, pretty heavy stuff.  From there I started to think about what makes one job, one career more desirable than another.

I have to admit that my thoughts were starting to go in circles.  After all, there isn't an obvious true universal definition of "better" because personal perspective is always the final arbiter.

Then I saw an article about the richest people in the world for the current year - 2014.  It will come as no surprise that Bill Gates remains at the top of the (Forbes) list with a net worth of $81 Billion.  Thinking about that amount of money, which is truly staggering, I wondered if being (or becoming) rich was the ultimate measure of having a great life or a great career.  For many people that I know, money is the ultimate, intrinsic measure of success and worth.  In my life I've seen people do just about anything to get it, keep it, and grow it.  So is wealth the ultimate measure of success, the thing for which we should all strive?

Let's take a look at several pictures of Bill Gates.  I'm guessing that they were taken more than three decades apart.  Do the two pictures look different?  Of course they do!  In one, Gates is a young man and in the other is approximately 35 years later.  What do you see?

In case you haven't guessed, in the lower picture Gates looks like an old man.  While it's no crime to be old or "older", it's apparent that having $81 Billion does not seem to slow down the aging process.  No, even though the axiom "It's better to be rich than poor" still holds true,  money won't buy a longer life.  It will buy comfort but it's not even guaranteed to buy happiness.  Even though it's coincidental (or not), who looks happier in the photos - young Gates or old(er) Gates?

We could explore a lot of other avenues to investigate different things that would make for a better life and career.  However, in the interests of time I will get directly to my point.  What is it that makes a person's life and career rewarding and worth living?  Almost universally, the answer is MEANINGFUL WORK.

From my own perspective and those of my close friends and family, the best way to be fulfilled is to do things that make a difference.  In watching people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, I've noticed that those people who stay busy and do things that have meaning to others tend to enjoy benefits that range from better health and mobility to greater peace of mind.  Conversely, people who worked at jobs they hated for 30 (40?) years and then retired to the couch always to seem to fare much more poorly.

As a case in point, during the last decade I worked for seven years at a company that prided itself on having long tenured employees.  (Let me make a disclaimer here that I think having the ability or "luxury" to work at one company for an entire career is a noble, albeit fading privilege.)  The problem with the people at this company was that many of them were not happy in their work.  Yes, they had job security but in many cases they were just bored.  I actually had people in my organization that had spent over 30 years in the same job as data center operators.  In other words, these people had sat in the same chair, in the same cold data center, for over 30 years watching screens on which almost nothing ever happened.  Few of them could be classified as cheerful.  This company put out a monthly newsletter that showed employees, their years of service if an anniversary was pending, who had just joined, and who was just about to retire.  Very, very often I would see a person retire after 30+ years at the company and then see their death announcement 6-18 months later. 

Yes, everyone needs good pay, respect, and a clear definition of their work.  But if you want to be a truly great leader, the best thing you can do is constantly strive to give people meaningful work.  Doing something that makes a difference will generate more employee satisfaction than anything else for which you can imagine.

The same thing holds true for you.  You should strive to constantly put yourself in places where you are surrounded by opportunities to do interesting things with unique and stimulating people.  If you can do that for yourself, you will have found the secret to a great career and long life.  If you can do the same for your people, you will never want for talented resources.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Love 'Em...BUT...Leave 'Em

I have alluded over time and several blogs to what I consider the changing nature of IT labor and careers.  What has been becoming apparent to me over the past 10 years is that skilled IT workers are moving more and more towards becoming consultants and contractors.  I promise to cover this topic again in (near) future posts, but for now I see the evidence pointing to this trend continuing.

With the obvious reward for contractors being money, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the new breed of IT workers will be highly mercenary.  That isn't really a bad thing if you view them in the same light as plumbers, lawyers, and surgeons.  Each of those professions is predicated on the correct assumption that people will always have somewhat random, but predictable problems that must be solved by highly skilled individuals.  If you have a flooded basement, you call the plumber who comes and resolves your issue for a premium price.  The same thing holds true for lawyers and surgeons.  When you need them, they are available to help you.  But at the same time you pay handsomely for the services they offer.  Both sides are happy with this type of exchange because it is limited in time and scope.  Neither the plumber, lawyer, or surgeon tends to stick around after the problem is solved.

For IT contractors, the ability to work in this stark of manner is still somewhat of an evolving process.  I saw this with a caveat that it probably pertains more to contractors above the age of 30 than below.  Unlike the other professions that have been operating in the contracting mode for decades, IT is still in the process of transition.  And this transition is leading to a certain type of dysfunction that I want to talk about.

Being the head of an IT organization I have the opportunity to view contractors coming and going all of the time.  What I have observed in many cases is the following.  The longer a contractor stays with the company, especially when they are performing the same type of work, the more they begin to identify with the company in the same manner as an employee.  Here are a couple of qualifiers to further define these individuals:
  1. As mentioned above, they tend to be older than 30 and in many cases are closer to 40 years old and higher.  The contractors at 30 years old and below don't want to stick around after the scoped work is done.
  2. They are usually more likely to be 1099 or corp-to-corp contractors.  In other words, they are freelancers that don't have a larger organization out looking for their next gig.
  3. They are not new to IT.  In fact, they probably began their careers as employees, unlike their younger counterparts who were never "part of the system".
  4. They are ambitious and typically work hard to develop relationships with senior leadership outside of the IT organization.
The points above are not, in themselves, bad qualities.  But what happens is that rather than focus on getting the originally scoped work done and then moving on to the next lucrative project, the contractors begin to attempt an "entrenchment".   I have seen this happen over the course of months and sometime over the course of years.

Because the nature of contracting is that, by definition it is temporary, the end result comes in one of two forms.  The first is that the contractor is hired on as an employee.  No need for worry after that because the "entrenchment" behaviors led to permanent employment.  But, the other result is that the work comes to an end and the contractor is let go.  I can't tell you how many times I have seen contractors leave "kicking and screaming".  They can't believe after all their hard work and "loyalty" that the company would send them packing.

Ironic, isn't it?  Have you seen that reaction from a contractor in your organization when it was time for them to go?

So there are two takeaways from this post - one for contractors and one for the managers who employ them.

For Contractors -- Your whole job function is to solve problems for an organization that cannot do so for itself.  Charge a premium price for your work.  After all, you would not be required if the company could handle the problem on its own.  Embrace the fact that you are a hired gun and enjoy the fact that you can make a great deal of money while not having to engage in the political or interpersonal struggles that exist within the organization.  Then, when you are finished get out.  There is nothing to say that you cannot go back at a future point.  By leaving you perpetuate the belief that you are in demand, which you almost surely are anyway.  Revel in your ability to go where you want, work for who you want, and get paid between 2x and 5x as much as your FTE counterparts.

For Managers -- Realize before you ever hire them that contractors are problem solvers whose work should always have a beginning, middle, and end.  Do NOT view them as a crutch or a way to ameliorate design flaws within your organizational structure.  You will be paying them a premium (if they are capable) so put a lot of thought into exactly what you want them to do and then make sure that remains their focus.  When the problem is solved, move them out.  For all the reasons above, when the work is done it is time for them to move on.  To do anything less risks the health, growth, and morale of your team.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Newton's 3rd Law of Management

Hello everyone.  It's been a few months since my last blog post so I'm happy to be back and communicating with you.  I haven't been idle during this time, at least in my mind.  Needless to say, I have quite a number of topics to cover between now and the end of the year.   Hopefully I will make your wait worth it.

Today I want to talk about the invisible repercussions, both good and bad, of the decisions we make as leaders and figures of authority.  Since anything interesting needs a good label or title, I like to refer to this subject as "Newton's 3rd Law of Management".

For point of reference, Isaac Newton's 3rd Law, which is as famous as science gets, reads in simplified form: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

So how does Newtonian physics concepts apply to management?  Think of it this way.  Each day, all of us, all managers, make decisions that affect our teams, companies, and ultimately our people.  When we do things, the effects are positive to some people, neutral to many, and negative to others.   Think of these events as ripples in a pond, much like you would see in this short YouTube video.  The video provides a unique point of view because, upon first glance, you just see the ripples flowing outwards.  But if you take a closer look you'll see them strike the bank, or circular edge of the pond.  At that point the ripples are actually coming back to the point of origin!

So the question is how or why does this apply to you or to any of us?  Think of it this way.  If you make a great decision the results of that will carry from you out into the organization.  By creating a positive effect, what you send out will come back and wash over you.  Some people call this effect "creating corporate karma" or "generating good will".

Now conversely, if you do "evil" things, that too will ripple out well beyond the original act or point of origin.  As an example, let's take a look at the following situation.  One of your subordinates or even a colleague does something to frustrate or anger you.  Acting on those feelings, you go and confront the individual in question.  Imagine that you are standing in a hallway or break room screaming your lungs out or just saying unkind words.  Obviously the other person is going to react to you in some type of negative way, but additionally your actions will begin to radiate outwards.  Rest assured that at some point you will pay some type of price for the way you acted.

The example above is easy to use because these types of things happen everywhere.  I can safely say that most organizations have some lore about a "screamer", or someone that has built a reputation for verbally mistreating people.  Rather than stay with a trite example, I want to talk about the real danger to a manager who creates negative ripples.  You see, most of us have to make decisions about very sensitive things, which can affect the very lives of the people that work for and with us.  It's important to keep this in mind because nothing that any of us does that stays secret.

I am not saying that every detail of what we do eventually becomes known.  But in general, our intent, whether for the positive or negative, always radiates out far from us, the center of origin.  Inevitably the ripples of our actions meet the metaphysical shore bank where they rebound back towards us.  Whatever you send outwards will most often come right back at you.  When you push outwards, the organization will push back towards you.  It is part of the essence of human nature.

Be a leader that resonates strength and determination yet acts with prudence and mercy.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Myth of Loyalty

There is no such thing as loyalty.

Let us take a moment to ponder that statement and let it sink in.

When I have this conversation with people, as you would expect I get a whole myriad of responses.  Some people think I'm crazy, some look confused, and others just nod sagely.  This topic is not one for light conversation because it goes against centuries, if not millennia of closely held beliefs.

Because every controversial position needs a caveat, let's get a few out of the way.  When we talk about loyalty, we are not confusing it with any of the following:
  • Love
  • Fidelity
  • Fanaticism
  • Fear
In a marriage, two people can stay together out of love but not be loyal to one another.  A person can stay a "fan" of a sports team (that's for you, my Cubs) and spend a lot of money on their products, but that's not loyalty either.  You could safely attribute these actions to obsession, but not loyalty.

Over the years, companies have spent millions, if not billions, of dollars on maintaining and building loyalty.  Internally, firms launch programs designed to establish and enhance the loyalty of their employees.  Externally, the same is done in the name of retaining customers.  If you watch commercials, you will see that there are programs called "Loyalty Rewards" and incentives with names like "Loyalty Cash".

Throughout history we have a multitude of stories about loyalty.  Whether you read about Alexander the Great and his Companions or the Japanese soldiers' dedication to Emperor Hirohito during World War 2, we have many examples of the supposed existence of loyalty.  We can even look to popular fiction to see the popularity of the idea.  Just read "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas ("All for One and One for All!") or one of the many fables about King Arthur and The Knights of Round Table. 

Given all of that, I will say it again.  There is no such thing as loyalty.  What we label as "Loyalty" is actually a much more simple, hard-wired aspect of humanity called self interest. There is a whole branch of study devoted to this topic called "Psychological egoism".  Here is a quick excerpt from the description on Wikpedia linked to above:

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. 
A specific form of psychological egoism is psychological hedonism, the view that the ultimate motive for all voluntary human action is the desire to experience pleasure or to avoid pain.

So let's cut past all of the psycho-babble and get to the point.  As leaders, our success is intricately tied not only to hiring good people but to retaining and engaging them as well.  The sooner you get past the concept of trying to build loyalty, the sooner you can get to know your people.  Take the time to really understand what motivates them.  Ultimately, learn what actually comprises their individual self interest and target your management strategies to maximize those things that people value the most

Your people might like or even love you, but try not paying them for a month.  Will they stick around?  Odds are highly in favor of them not.  The fact is that your people stay with you (and the company) because they are in a situation that they deem to meet their needs, ie. self-interest. 

It is no secret that the companies which perform the highest on the yearly rankings of "Best Places to Work" already realize this concept.  In these organizations, you will see many of the same perks: flex time, telecommuting, on-site child care, work assignment flexibility, comfortable and convenient campuses, and a focus on education.  Even if you are not in a position to provide all of these benefits, as leaders and executives you assuredly have more power than you think.  For me, personally, the one benefit that I can give consistently is the opportunity for people to get training.  In the IT world, that "perk" has an incredible power to satisfy employees.

When you stop thinking about abstract ideas like loyalty and focus on concrete things such as personal need, you can become a much more effective leader.  It's really simple in the end: Learn what makes each of your people tick and then give that to them.  At least as much as you can.  I guarantee that you will be surprised at the positive results.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"The Talent Triangle"--Now on Kindle

For the past several years I have talked occasionally in this blog about the difficulties inherent in making truly great hiring decisions.  Like most of you in leadership positions, I have made (ultimately) poor decisions in the selection of people to fill my organizations.  Some of my more painful selections were made for various reasons:

  • The person went to my alma mater
  • I "liked" the way the person communicated in the interview
  • I could see potential - what could be but isn't yet - and was certain the person would "blossom" under my leadership
  • The candidate was a really great individual contributor and I felt it was time for them to take on more responsbility
  • The person had all the skill sets that I needed but not the motivation.  I believed that I could be the one to motivate the individual to a higher level of importance.
Of course the list goes on, but you get my point. 

Over time I got better at making good and even great hiring selections.  Yet, I never had a process that was scientifically based in a way that would make me confident that I could predictably be successful in my hiring practices.  Predictably I would make great hires and then, at random, someone I thought was a great fit during the interviews turned out to be a really poor employee.  I needed to find a way towards more precision, a way to eliminate or at least greatly reduce the chances of selecting a "dud".

That's when I began to understand that each person has four dimensions that all play a part in determining how and if they can fill a role.  Building on the work of world renowned experts from across the globe, I constructed a model that describes how all of these pieces work together.

In "The Talent Triangle" you will get a complete description of how the model works, with in-depth definitions of each dimension.  You'll learn how to evaluate people in a way that will shed a whole new light on who & what they are and how they operate. 

After reading the book you will be armed with a tool that will allow you to make great hires, time after time after time.  You will still use your intuition, but the model will show you how and when to apply feeling and when to rely on hard science.

You can find "The Talent Triangle" HERE on Amazon Kindle. 

I love feedback so please do take a moment when you've finished to write a quick review on the Amazon site.  No matter what you think, I want to hear it!  Your feedback is what keeps writers at their keyboards so you have my thanks in advance.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Selling Water At A Profit

There is a lot to be said for the value of a good, repeatable process.  As a matter of fact, a lot HAS been said about it if the real and virtual bookshelves of Barnes & Noble and Amazon are any indicator.  But in "real life", what does it actually mean to have a "good and repeatable process"?  How does that translate in dollars and cents for your business?

Before answering directly, let's start with this question.  Suppose you're thirsty: If person A offered you a cup of water for 50 cents and person B offered you a cup with the same amount of water for $3, which would you pick?  The obvious answer is that you would go for the cup that costs 50 cents.  Yet, in practice, numerous statistics show that many of us would opt for the $3 cup.  More on that in just a minute.

It is no secret that in the competitive world of bottled water, very often the highest priced brands (Perrier, Vittel, Voss) are perceived as being the healthiest, or "best" varieties.  Yet at the chemical level, their isn't any discernible difference between those brands and the Walmart bulk variety.  Marketing plays a large part in the success of a bottled water product, but there is more to it than that.

Let us now take a look at the world's best soda (some of you call it "pop").  If you wanted to find the best soda in the world, where would you go?  By the statistics and just pure carbonated taste, most of you, including me, would be heading off to McDonald's.  Yes, this assertion might be debated, but I'm standing on pretty solid ground as evidenced by this fact and especially HERE.

Even though McDonald's and the other companies above are selling water, they do it in such a way as to command a huge premium.  All of these companies offer products that are essentially just water, but at prices that would seem ludicrous without something else in play.  That "something else" is the good (great?) and sustainable business processes that are used to ensure that the seemingly generic products are truly superior, if not unique.

Along these same lines, we couldn't leave this discussion without bringing Starbucks into the mix.  Here is another company that sells flavored water (coffee, tea) at a huge premium.  As I was researching Starbucks for this post, I ran across a very interesting Master's thesis by Lauren Roby (Liberty University, 2011).  If you want to read it, fine, but if not here is the point that she makes and I echo:

Starbucks makes it's money by having business processes that lead to consistent, comprehensive quality control on every beverage it makes.  But going further, Starbucks extends their production process to include the construction of a certain ambiance for the customer.  The "feeling" you get when entering a Starbucks location is that, by being there, you are part of an elite group of people.  From the music, lighting, and furniture you just sense that this place is a cut above others.  

Because the business processes of Starbucks control both what you consume and how/where you do it, psychologically you don't have any qualms about paying $5.50 for a 30 cent drink.

The value of well designed and implemented business process can be immense.  Try asking your grandparents or someone from the Silent Generation if they would be willing to pay more than "four bits" (50 cents to the rest of us) for a cup of coffee.  They will most likely answer, "No", but only because they grew up with very stark ways of obtaining products like water and coffee.  The world doesn't work that way any more.

Done the right way, with the right approach, you truly can sell water for a profit. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Meet the New Boss; Same As the Old Boss?

Over the weekend I read a news article on employee engagement.  It claimed that based on surveys conducted in Q1/2014, roughly three quarters of all workers in the United States were either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged"  Three Quarters, as in 75%

Frustratingly, I could not find that same article, but it turned out not to be important.  Just about three years ago there was a similar article that claimed about 74% of American workers were "passive job seekers".  So, in three years, not much has apparently changed.  Being ever skeptical, I went in search of other data that could either debunk or corroborate these numbers.  One of the things I found was a very detailed study published in 2013 by Gallup, entitled "State of the American Workplace".  On page 12 of the downloadable .pdf, embedded in a number of interesting charts and graphs, was a similar number.  Gallup stated that about 70% of American workers are disengaged and that this fact is causing a massive drag on the economy.

As many of you read what I've just said, these numbers will probably resonate with you on some level.  Statistically, three out of four of all of you are dealing with some level of disharmony with your employer.  But why?

I normally do not like to pull block quotes from other sources as material for this blog.  However, I read something in Forbes online that did a great job of summarizing the point that I'd like to make.  Here it is:

Creating a high performance work environment is a complex problem. We have to communicate a mission and values, train managers and leaders to live these values, and then carefully select the right people who fit. And once people join, we have to continuously improve, redesign, and tweak the work environment to make it modern, humane, and enjoyable.

As I have stated in past blogs, in order for a team to really "click", or work together, it must share the same values.  Don't believe it?  Think, then, what happens when six people are given an assignment and just one of the individuals does not pull his or her own weight.  Pretty soon, the whole group gets tired of carrying the slack and most everyone becomes apathetic.
Let's take a look at what it means to be "modern".  The Baby Boomer and X generations were taught values like "Respect you elders" and "Know your place".  The Y and Millennial generations don't work that way.  I overheard a Gen Y'er say this quote the other day about a non-performing boss: "I don't care what title he <the Boss> holds.  If he acts like a tool then I'll treat him like a tool."  The takeaway from this statement is that, unlike with past generations in bygone decades, today the world is moving from valuing titles to valuing results.  That's just the modern way of doing things.

On the subject of being humane, things have changed as well.  As we see reflected in the political climate and even popular culture of today, the United States (and 1st world) has become a "kinder and gentler" place.  To that end, what do you do as a leader when someone makes a mistake?  Do you drop the hammer or do you make it a teachable moment?  When dealing with correcting behavior,  people are less and less tolerant of naked force in favor of a more collaborative approach.

As leaders, we must realize that employee engagement starts with us.  That doesn't mean that we can reprogram people to be more happy or more "plugged in" all by ourselves.  But at the same time, we have to modify our styles so that we can be:
  • More approachable
  • More tolerant of different approaches to accomplishing work
  • More appreciative of risk taking
  • More understanding that, unlike the days of our parents, people can and will walk away from us if we are tyrants
I am most definitely not advocating a weak approach to leadership or an acceptance of sub-par work.  What I am saying is that our people are often only as engaged as we let them be.  If you want to be better and hence more effective at leading them, you have to be more a part of them.  And they must be more a part of you as well.

As organizations shrink in the name of efficiency and necessity,  the distance between leaders and the people who work under them must also shrink.  It is no coincidence that the more engaged your people are the more you will be as well. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Original Ultimate Warrior

These days there are a lot of titles, stereotypes and labels that we have created to define people of all walks of life.  For instance, by the title of this post you may think I'm going to write about the recently deceased, world famous wrestler (I'm not).  No, what I want to talk about is a person whose name we all know.  But before I get to the actual name, let me set the stage.

Imagine many of the great minds of the past 300 years.  (I will talk mostly of people from the Western world since I am much more familiar in that area.)  Let's start with Sir Isaac Newton.  Much of modern physics, optics, mechanics, and gravity are based on his work.  We have Marie Curie, who pioneered work into the fields of radiation and nuclear science.  She was also instrumental in developing the X-ray machine, which I can personally appreciate after all of my sports injuries.  There is, of course, Albert Einstein whose contributions need no attribution nor do those of Stephen Hawking.  From the perspective of the human mind, we can look to Sigmund Freud as the progenitor of quite a bit of modern psychology.

Today in the United States we have many bright minds from all over the world who congregate at places like Stanford, MIT, and Johns Hopkins.  Typically, if you are a genius, either in hard science or philosophy, there is an institution dedicated to your particular talents.  It is the modern way within the world to concentrate great thinkers together in order to advance science in whatever form it takes.

Yet, when we incorporate thinking from all parts of the world, dating from 3000 years in the past until today, we come away with a composite of what makes a person truly complete.  Simply stated, in order to achieve full potential, a person must be completely whole - at least according to shared philosophy.  The composite looks thus:

For every human being, there are three components.  As the composite graphic shows, those components are Body, Mind, and Spirit.  Let me briefly describe each of them.

Body - The world is a physical place.  In order to fully engage within it a person must have the ability to tangibly interact with the environment.  This means you must be physically sound because there are daily "Body" challenges that must be overcome.  If you're hungry right now, you know what I mean.

Mind - Every day the world presents us with problems that can be solved.  You must use your powers of intellect and reasoning in order to meet these challenges.  Imagine that you're hungry but the refrigerator door is stuck.  There IS a solution to open it - you just need to figure out how.

Spirit - Many people mistake this component as being religious.  The meaning of the Spirit component is found in problems that have no clear solution.  Imagine that your friend or colleague is upset with you for a reason unknown.  Spirit addresses the problems which have no clear definition and possibly no solution, that we must nevertheless overcome.

Now let's take a look at the great minds I listed previously.  All of them, despite their importance to humankind, exist(ed) almost exclusively in one domain.  Quite obviously, Newton and Einstein were thinkers, which would put their achievements in the "Mind" component.  Freud with his study of human behavior was probably working mostly in "Spirit" with some time spent in "Mind".  Curie, with her work on radiation was operating in the "Mind" realm but I could argue that the X-Ray machine was a "Body" component.

Given the greats we've covered, has there ever been someone who operated in all three components?  The answer is yes - but who?  Surprisingly, even though most people know little about him, the person I have in mind is SOCRATES.  Over the course of his 71 years he did things in all three areas that few people, excepting for maybe Leonardo Da Vinci and Aristotle, have come close to duplicating.  Let me prove it to you.

Body - Socrates was born the son of a stone mason and practiced that trade with his own hands.  If that wasn't enough, Socrates was a true warrior.  He fought as a 'hoplite', or a soldier in the Athenian heavy spear infantry.  Socrates didn't just carry a weapon, he actually fought in the front battle lines and earned distinctions for valor in three separate conflicts (Potidaea, Amphipolis (against the mighty Spartan general Brasidas), and Delium).  In fact, the legendary Athenian general Alcibiades credited Socrates with actually saving his life at Potidaea.  Could you imagine a modern-day intellectual fighting shield-to-shield, spear-to-spear in a phalanx battle line with blood, gore, smoke, and the sounds of men and beasts dying all around?  I can't either.

Mind - Socrates pioneered a problem solving process that we have come to know in modern times as "The Scientific Method".  This approach is the basis for almost every approach to solving a discreet problem by allowing a person to methodically tackle the elements of an issue and solve them in logical order.

Spirit - Socrates is unarguably one of the greatest philosophers of all time.  He is the driving force behind the definition and study of ethics in the modern day.  He is also responsible for the concept of the "Social Contract".  This is a huge topic, but a social contract is essentially the basis for the legitimacy granted by governed people to their government so that it may create and enforce laws that regulate society.  Finally, Socrates developed the "Socratic Method", which is a method to teach critical thinking and a way to attack problems that have no clear structure or solution.

When you think of what it actually means to be an "Ultimate Warrior", wouldn't you agree that Socrates could serve as the definition of the term?