Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Separates the Extremely Successful from the Pack?

Marcie Schorr Hirsch recently posted on this topic for the Harvard Business Review blog. Below is a short excerpt:

Most people dream of succeeding. What success means is highly personal, but as a veteran career coach, I can honestly say that no one has ever come to see me with a goal of anything but success. The vast majority of my clients want "extreme success" — that is, a career that advances them to the most senior echelon of an organization. Obviously there are more people aspiring to those top slots than there are opportunities. Some individuals will make it; many won't. . .

For the complete article, visit the Harvard Business Review.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Confidence is the New Competence

We are ready to go on record as predicting that the next big “must have” trait for executive positions will be ‘confidence.’ We are hearing increasing demand for that quality from our clients: one major law firm recently revised its performance review forms for its attorneys and has substituted ‘confidence’ in place of ‘attention to detail’ in the list of qualities to be assessed in the 2011 version.

Why has confidence become the rising star of executive competencies? And what is the takeaway for those bent on career success? The current workplace is a minefield of uncertainty. Impermanence is the new normal, and anxiety about what the future holds is paralyzing decision-making. In this context, organizations recognize the need for executives who can rally others and get them to align behind a vision or strategic direction. Doing that at any time requires that people believe that an individual is worth following; in turbulent times, engaging others requires gaining their trust even when those being courted are not at all certain about the best path to take. In that situation, employees or clients must believe that an individual will make good choices and lead the enterprise to success before they will opt to follow.

The ability to engender that trust is greatly enhanced by communicating confidence in oneself. In a rapidly shifting, highly complex marketplace, where the best strategic direction may be almost impossible to identify with any certainty, a leader’s character will play a significant role in convincing others to follow. In particular, an individual who demonstrates confidence in her- or himself offers enormous appeal.

How does this translate behaviorally for ambitious careerists? We think that showing confidence is a very delicate balancing act: too little is self-defeating, while too much equates with hubris. To engender confidence, you can’t be the only one who believes in you; on the other hand, you can’t be the only one who doesn’t without looking falsely modest. We recommend that confidence be demonstrated tangentially, rather than head-on. Instead of announcing your confidence level, lead with quiet certainty. Stay calm in the face of challenge: even if you don’t know which way is the right way to go, a cool demeanor suggests that you are confident in your ability to hit whatever curve balls get thrown your way. Don’t feel the need to go it alone; it is actually better to ask others for their wisdom before announcing a course of action for several reasons. You may get valuable advice, you look strong and self-confident if you solicit the thoughts of those around you (especially those whom everyone knows will take an adversarial position,) and you generate natural buy-in when you include others in the early stages of decision-making.

Envision a head-hunter asking you for an example of a time you were perceived as confident in your current role. If you can’t think of several instances right off the top of your head, it’s time to regroup and start making memories! In 2011, confidence counts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Myth of Resiliency (Understanding Employee Engagement--Part III)

Resiliency is a mythical state invented by HR and career counselors to address the crazy state of the work world. In fact, it is a concept whose time never came. Today's employees don't want to be resilient; they want to be gainfully employed. Like parents on the brink of divorce who spout platitudes about how the kids are better off with two happy, but separate parents then in a single household with warring factions, nobody wants to actually ask the kids how they feel. And employee resilience is just as mythical.

Members of today's workforce are not resilient; they just cope because they have to. But they don't have to--or maybe can't--be happy about it. Expecting engagement under the current circumstances is unrealistic and usually results in a charade. Employers clearly want employees to be engaged, and employees know better then to disappoint. So they play along. But that's not engagement, and anyone looking just below the surface sees the anger, anxiety and frustration that employees experience as a result of "living on the edge."

Let's scrap resiliency as a desired state for workers. There's a simple formula for keeping employees engaged: handle them with care. If organizations didn't keep clobbering people with threats of imminent joblessness, rigid work structures and untenable job responsibilities, employees would be more engaged. Engagement is a state that comes from a sense of satisfaction from one's work, a regularly affirmed belief that one's contribution matters and a sense of trust between employers and employees. Unless employees can see those elements in their work situations, they will go to default mode: look busy and keep looking.

Let's Get Engaged (Understanding Employee Engagement--Part II)

In today's workplace, long-term employment has been replaced with a more fluid situation for workers. The new model is one in which employees stay with their employer until the organization severs its connection to pursue the use of fewer or different human resources. This shift has created a new paradigm for the most desirable employee. The worker everyone wants now is resilient, able to be ejected at a moment's notice, land on his/her feet and tackle a job search with frequency. Oh yeah, and can you smile while you're doing that?

But do these employees exist? To our minds, they are the unicorns of human resources. Most people who want to be inside organizations want exactly that: to be inside. Those who are not interested in that scenario go off to pursue alternatives like self-employment, freelancing or contract work. Organizations are naive when they expect engagement from employees who know they are on the precipice of job loss at all times. It's the old hierarchy of needs thing: people who are fearful that they may lose their livelihood are not likely to be channeling their energy toward internalizing their organization's mission. Nor are they embroidering oaths of loyalty to hang on the walls of their cubicles. Instead they are worrying, networking and trying to keep their heads down and stay below the radar lest the grim reaper of unemployment identify them as next in line.

Otherwise Engaged (Understanding Employee Engagement--Part I)

Many of our clients are expressing concern over the issue of employee engagement. It's an amorphous issue, but they suspect that their employees are "enrolled"(to use Peter Senge's term), but not engaged. They are worried that while their people are showing up on time, mouthing the right words and smiling at their jokes, all is not truly well. They want their employees to take their relationship with the organization to the next level; they want them to be committed.

The first step in tackling the challenge of engagement is to understand why it's not happening. Engagement means commitment, and, for most, that means a two-way relationship. Until employers begin to invest in workers in ways that matter to their employees, these employees will not engage. It's not that employees don't want to, but they are otherwise engaged right now: they are engaged in self-protection, a healthy response to an environment in which they rightly believe they have no control over what will happen. They will not bond to an organization when they feel the employment bargain is unfair or when they know that the organization stands to sever that connection without cause at some time. Without question, engagement and secure employment (or an employee-accepted version of that situation) are linked.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Future Perfect

The other day a colleague of ours reminded us about another thing we know is true: expectation is an orphan dimension of management thinking. We were discussing her job and she was saying that, although she really enjoyed her first two years with the company, “Start up mode can only last so long.” We knew exactly what she meant.

When we think of startup mode, what comes to mind are shoestring budgets, scrambling for resources, inventing things as one goes along and uncertainty about the future. But the passion for a shared vision, feelings of being close to the heart of the enterprise and its founder(s) and the excitement of being in on the ground floor of a burgeoning enterprise keeps things together and inspires people to make sacrifices.

Hope for the future is the lifeblood of the start-up. But even in the throes of the start-up honeymoon, as our colleague pointed out, hope cannot be sustained forever without visible signs of progress. If hope is what inspires people to make sacrifices in the present, how can organizations operating in lockdown mode in response to the recession get employees on board? In the face of hiring freezes, salary freezes and cookie freezes (one of our clients has banned the ordering of snacks to accompany meetings) how does a manager frame positive expectations for what’s ahead?

Clearly what’s present in a start-up that is not in most workplace situations today is a sense that there might be a future payout for everyone making the requisite sacrifices. Startups are about building. Organizations that are laying off and retrenching are about loss. It’s a bit like the difference between childcare and eldercare: we know that daily care for our children will get easier while caring for our aging parents will only get more difficult. In one scenario we invest our energies because we have hope; in the other we have only the expectation of loss.

HirschHills advice: Leaders can no longer rely on the guaranteed growth of their organizations to be the wind under their managerial wings. Their employees will not be excited and engaged by the expanding array of new jobs and incentives that characterize times of growth. The responsibility for cultivating employee loyalty and engagement now rests squarely on the shoulders of organizational leaders at all levels. Management by wandering around is out; deliberate management itineraries---including a plan for connecting with every employee to engage and inspire each—is in. Smart leaders will leverage some of the elements of a successful start-up environment: Try to touch everyone; give employees access to you. Ask for input in ways that encourage creative responses; let people in on your thinking while it is still evolving. This openness will be reassuring and will result in your people taking resourceful and innovative approaches to the challenges of today’s workplace. And the sense of inclusion you foster will spur employees to pitch in and work hard to regain a sense of hope and future.

Girls and Boys Just Wanna Have Fun (at Work)

Sure it's a time of tightened belts and even tighter fists at the workplace, but employees still need a bit of stress relief now and then. With budgets for these kinds of initiatives having gone the way of the dinosaurs in many organizations, how can a clever manager give her team some R&R at no or low cost? We've been collecting some of the interesting ideas we have been hearing about and thought they were worth sharing.
Variations on the old standbys are popular: While entertainment in the good old days might have meant a name brand concert for the techies working on cutting edge software, today's version is more like an American Idol production using your organization's own talent. The Wii is another source of do-it-yourself team fun, and game nights---or lunches--featuring favorite board games--Pictionary, anyone?--have also gotten some juices flowing.

Probably the most popular staff kick-back activity is still eating. And while most budgets are not scaled for banquets or open bars, some managers are doing well with iron chef competitions featuring teams from several departments cooking and colleagues cheering (and, ultimately, tasting) the culinary exploits of their buddies. Staff hobbyists---from beer brewers to confectioners--can also be enlisted as experts when their interests have appeal: chocolate tasting, anyone?
Once upon a time, one of our clients had a "fun team"...a bevy of employees who were charged with keeping staff morale high and organizational loyalty even higher. It is certainly not a time for assigning scarce resources to such a venture, but the wise manager and organization will recognize the need to give employees ways to bond and blow off steam together. We'd love to hear your best ideas for good, cheap fun.