Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What if I do all this and I fail?

In the last few days, no fewer than 5 people said, in response to my asking them what is keeping them from doing the work they say they need to do to reach the goals they set for themselves, "what if I do all this and I fail?" Now, I've heard this before; most successful people fear failure. However, what is new here is the "all this" part -- it isn't just "what if I fail" but "what if I fail after I've expended tremendous effort or time."

To each I responded, "and then what? What happens if you did all this and failed."

Common response, "then it would have been a waste of energy/effort/time."

And I'm thinking how is this wasted time different from the time wasted watching tv., posting to facebook, etc.? But I don't say this because such a comment would take them to a different place -- defense or shame -- than where they need to go.

Me: "Ok, then what. You wasted some effort or time, so . . . "

Common responses:
1) So, then I would have failed. If I don't try then I can always hold out hope that if I were willing to spend the effort I might succeed. Whereas if I fail, I'll know the truth is I can't do it. Then, I might not try anything like it again.

2) I'd burn out from all the work. I need to conserve my energy.

3) I wouldn't have fun and if I didn't have fun then my life would be really sad.

In the context of my discussions with these folks -- one of helping them develop the capacity to solve their own problems -- I didn't want to lecture them from my perspective and values on these three responses. For the purposes of this blog, though, I want to ask my readers: what do you think about these three responses? If you were to give advice to these folks, what would it be?

Finally, while the "fear of failure" concern comes up frequently in my coaching work, I'd never heard concerns 2 and 3 before. Both were from people under age 25. Is this a new generation thing? Is there some new fear of over-exertion and lack of fun?

Monday, March 21, 2011

What is meaningful to you at work?

Overhead from an 8th grader's mom: I can't get my son to do any schoolwork. "Why bother, mom", he tells his mother, "I already got into the high school I want to go to."

Well what did she think? Clearly she's taught him that the goal of middle school is to get into a competitive high school. Does she not know that the goal of high school will be to get into a competitive college, then a competitive graduate school. Gee mom, I wonder what he'll do the last semester of high school and college? Learn? Doubt it.

My 7th grader said to me, "I'd rather be in an incredibly difficult chemistry class, working really heard to earn a C but actually learning something, than sitting in this easy class taking my A for doing nothing."

And I felt both pride and a little prickle of fear: if he goes for those high-level classes taught by the self-described "tough graders" maybe he won't get into the top colleges when all the other kids are grabbing the easy A's. On the other hand, he won't feel like a fraud when he does get in: he'll know how hard he worked and he'll know what he learned.

What happens at work? Do we work for the next promotion? Then what? At some point in the vast majority of careers, there is no higher place on that org chart we're going to reach. We either need to start our own business or decide that the work itself is meaningful.

What is meaningful and important to you at work? What do you think is meaningful and important to your children in school?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

We are teachers all the time

If you want your team to treat each other with respect, treat everyone with respect. If you want your team to make ethical decisions, make ethical decisions yourself. But be sure the people you're trying to inspire think of you as "like them" in some way. We are all influenced by the behavior of others: if we feel an affinity with you, we'll behave more like you. If we don't, we just might do the opposite. If you hold yourself apart, you may not have the influence you expect to have.

Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely "gave groups of college students from Carnegie Mellon University a series of math problems and paid them based on how many they solved correctly in five minutes." Gino explains in an HBR article, "We hired an actor who made it clear to the other participants that cheating was possible. The actor was asked to wear a plain t-shirt in one condition, and a t-shirt of a rival university in another. When the actor appeared to be a member of the students' community, participants were more likely to cheat than when the actor appeared to be a member of another group. The actor was setting the norm for whether cheating was acceptable."

What you do is reflected in the actions of others.

What does your team see you do? Do you pad your expense account? Do you order more expensive meals at a business lunch than you would order if lunch were on your own dime? Do you squeeze the supplier you know needs the sale just because you can? What does your team learn?

What do your children see you do? Do you take home pads of paper from the office? Do you sneak your short 13-year-old in to movies with a "12 & under discount"? Are you making little cheats on your taxes? What do your children learn?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trust is critical to any successful team

As Peirre Beaudoin tells McKinsey Quarterly, "if you want to make a change . . . You need the people who are willing to make themselves vulnerable, the people who are willing to learn, to work in teams, to promote the leadership skills that we agree are important."

Trust is the willingness to make oneself vulnerable to another based on one's belief in that other's good intentions and/or competency. Bombardier's successful change effort was moved forward because leaders were willing to accept that vulnerability. He goes on to say that those who couldn't do so were let go, even if they had been top performers. They simply no longer fit the culture.

The company had been one where no one was willing to tell hard truths; things were always "great". Silos were powerful, information sharing was poor. To become a culture where privately held information could bubble up from all levels, leaders had to learn to trust one another. How successful has that turnaround been?

  1. "The level of engagement in employee surveys has climbed more than 15 percent since 2004" -- this in a recession!
  2. "recently named the third most admired and trusted brand in Canada in a survey of consumers; the survey also ranked our workplace second most admired.4"
and for those of you who find #'s 1 and 2 too "soft" how about some hard financial data: Bombardier went :from an EBIT3 margin of 2 or 3 percent to 8 percent, a $500 million improvement."

Ultimately, change takes hard work and a lot of internal trust. Two "soft" things Bombardier has achieved.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Don't underestimate the power of early wins

As John Kotter teaches, if you want to create change in your organization you have to provide opportunities for early wins and then use those early wins to build momentum. In an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Pierre Beaudoin, CEO of Bombardier explains how they used early wins to persuade those who weren't convinced: "We started by identifying discrete projects that were small enough to show the organization fairly quickly that if we accepted change, we could succeed. There were five or six. Once these were working, we could take the doubters to see them, and the employees who had been involved in the successes could talk to the others. We believed that if we could involve about 30 percent of the organization that transformed in this way, the ideas would catch on in the whole organization."

When working toward a major change such as that implemented by Bombardier, the organization must have specific, measurable, relevant, timelined and achievable yet challenging goals. Achievable so that you feel confident you'll get those early wins, yet challenging or your detractors will say, "of course they achieved that goal; it was easy."

Groups, and therefore organizations, find themselves in upward, virtuous spirals or downward vicious spirals. An early win can be the push upward. An early loss does not have to push downward; leaders must be quick to identify and communicate what went wrong and plan to overcome the challenge. Then, as the saying goes, try, try again. Create a new stretch goal, and ensure success on which you can build momentum.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Need a little tiger management too!

Okay dammit, lead from the front already.

Perhaps I've pushed this lead from behind concept too much? Last night my grad students "climbed Everest" (via Harvard B. School Publishing's simulation). Because I assign roles in advance of class, leaders are predetermined (the teams don't get to choose their leaders).

Unlike my undergrad leaders, who seemed to completely lack the ability to lead from behind and yanked their team up the mountain whether they wanted to go or not (some team members have hidden goals to stay at lower camps -- a setup in the simulation), the leaders last night seemed to be working so hard to be nice, neither got a single member to the top!

These students attended my management course and are now in a more advanced leadership course. In the management course I taught them to listen to and coach their teams. But I thought I balanced that with meeting organization and personal goals. One has to listen: honor direct reports' goals while ensuring surfacing hidden information. Then one must make a decision or, if using a participative management style, ensure the team makes the decision based on fully-available information and with full awareness and understanding that some individual goals will not be met. By struggling to ensure each teammember met his individual goals, neither leader came close to meeting group goals.

What about you? Have you figured out how to be the right mix of tiger and participative manager?