Project’s End: The Career Progress Dilemma

In more than one project, there’s been lots of happy talk about people’s future roles in the organization. Yet everyone knew that some colleagues simply wouldn’t have a place after the project, including themselves.

Beyond the formal career path discussions — if such things exist in your firm — I suggest that one should be very clear about the fact that this is a project. It’s incumbent on the project team to think about “what’s next?”. My experience is that while project may not lead to something within one’s own company, what it can lead to may be even better. As long as firms are clear about this potential trade-off, they’ll be able to recruit a better mix of colleagues to the project team.

To that end, I was struck by the Alliance approach suggested by two principals of LinkedIn itself: Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. Follow this link to an Econ Talk podcast and further information. A longish quote (Ben, I believe) from the podcast transcript will give you flavor of their argument:

[A]ctually I think one of the themes we are navigating here in The Alliance is both trying to get employees to sign up for an inspiring company mission. At the same time, you the company are trying to understand what that employee’s personal mission or vision is in their own life. And trying to define it toward the view that it’s both of those missions at once. Right? So it’s no longer: Subsume yourself toward corporate mission–rather than: Hey, maybe your long-term vision is you want to start your own company someday. Or you are really interested in some other field in addition to this field. So you are going to sign up for a tour because you care about our mission, sure. You really care about your mission. And we’re going to make sure that this tour of duty helps you get closer to being able to fulfill that mission. But it’s that recognition of the fact that there may be some difference. And that you are only looking for sufficient alignment, for a specific tour of duty.

Adapted from a LinkedIn comment regarding this post by Don McAlister.

New Study on Organization Change Management Failure

[The study delivers] a tough, but needed, message. HR leaders get thrown under the bus for these projects too often, which leads them to reach for visible, but ineffective, change implementation tactics.

To that end, I really like the point about realism re: expectations. Many change initiatives are heavy on marketing-style communications, which are easy to produce and point to as a tangible work product. But they’re often only one-way messages about how great the Brave New World will be. A multi-layered stakeholder management approach is a lot tougher, requires sustained effort over time, and has less-tangible payback.

Ultimately, function and process leaders need to own the change initiatives for their areas, which is why CEO ownership and involvement — again, sustained over time — is so critical. Line managers and staff won’t respond if it’s just a speech, new PowerPoint templates, and a monthly newsletter. They will wait until the change project is noticed, measured, and rewarded by the leadership team.

Adapted from my comment on a LinkedIn post re: this Forbes article from Victor Lipman: “New Study Explores Why Change Management Fails – And How To (Perhaps) Succeed“.

Stakeholder management matrix in pictures

Sometimes it’s useful to see how we’re seen… (HT DamnLOL.com via @ahorvet link).

image

Seth Godin on the “New Normal”

We’re getting out from under here so I’m digging through my own stack of stuff.  It has been exceedingly hard to post, but I’ve tried not to skimp on my reading.  That’s the least I can do to stay connected.

I’ve linked to Seth Godin a number of times, and not just because of his marketing chops.  Seth’s best posts tie complex phenomena directly to the choices we make with our personal and professional lives.  His post “The forever recession (and the coming revolution)” challenges us to recognize that much of the angst of the “New Normal” is driven by one’s perspective:

Stressful? Of course it is. No one is trained in how to do this, in how to initiate, to visualize, to solve interesting problems and then deliver. Some see the new work as a hodgepodge of little projects, a pale imitation of a ‘real’ job. Others realize that this is a platform for a kind of art, a far more level playing field in which owning a factory isn’t a birthright for a tiny minority but something that hundreds of millions of people have the chance to do.

If we project managers cannot thrive in the “New Normal”, than no one can.

Asking vendors partnership-promoting questions

As I closed my Q&A with Gary Cohen, I asked about working with oursourced resources.   Service and technology providers are integral parts of many projects, but too often I see them treated like arms-length vendors rather than true partners. 

  • Crossderry: What kind of questions should we ask consultants and vendors to reinforce to them — and to other stakeholders — that we are all in this together?
  • Gary Cohen: To encourage partnership with consultants, I recommend asking the following questions:
    * What risks are there to you if the project fails?
    * What opportunity costs are you giving up in order for us to work together?
    * What would like to hear me say to you a month after the project has been completed? What praise, in other words, would signify the optimal outcome?
    * What might prevent you from hearing that praise?
    * What can I do to help you achieve the optimal outcome?

Help others answer “their” questions

Placing yourself in another’s shoes is one of the most effective ways to confront reality.  I particularly like  Gary Cohen‘s take on how you can use the right questions to not only express empathy, but to also increase accountability (from my Q&A with Gary, author of JUST ASK LEADERSHIP: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions.

  • Crossderry:  I like the distinction you’ve made between questions that answer “your” questions — i.e., questions where you own the decision — and asking questions that help others answer “their” questions.  Can you talk more about such questions and how they can be used to reinforce accountability?
  • Gary Cohen: One of the most important questions leaders can ask is, “Whose decision is it?” When leaders allow job descriptions to determine decision-makers, not rank, decisions are usually made by the most informed party, and everyone must take ownership of their work. Blame and credit are easy to assess, in these instances. If, on the other hand, leaders make others’ decisions, they take away accountability from coworkers. Blame and credit are harder to assess, and it takes longer for new leaders to emerge because there’s less incentive to take ownership of their work.

Whose “truth” are you after?

Continuing my Q&A with Gary Cohen, author of JUST ASK LEADERSHIP: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions

  • Crossderry: Coming from the other direction, how can senior leadership make it safe to ask and answer questions openly and honestly? Put another way, what distinguishes an organization that cultivates “approval-seeking” from an organization that rewards “truth-seeking”?
  • Gary Cohen: While leaders should seek to cultivate a “truth-seeking” culture over one that’s “approval-seeking,” they must be mindful of whose truth they’re after. Too often leaders express disapproval when their coworkers don’t arrive at the answers they hoped to get. This disapproval prompts coworkers to fish for the truth/answer their leaders prefer. In this way, “truth-seeking” becomes “approval-seeking” in disguise. Continue reading

Using questions “within” your personality

What in the wide world of sports is goin' on here?

The second topic in my Q&A with Gary Cohen, author of JUST ASK LEADERSHIP: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions, focused on personal transformation.  His answer was not quite what I expected, for he rejected my assumption that transformation would needed as  “a matter of course.”

  • Crossderry:  Of course, so many of us will be moving through different firms and roles that change will be a constant in our careers.  Any suggestions for making personal transformation a “core competence” that we leverage as a matter of course?
  • Gary Cohen: Well-designed questions will enable you to learn as much as you can about each firm, role, and set of coworkers, as quickly as possible. Questions signal a desire to learn from and work with others, not compete and contest. If you’re an exceptional question-asker, wholesale personal transformation may not be necessary to successfully navigate each and every career change.

“Just Ask” Leadership

Just Ask Leadership Fail

I finally have a few minutes — semi-snowbound here in Evansville — to catch up on old posting themes.  Earlier this year I had a chance to do a Q&A with Gary Cohen, author of JUST ASK LEADERSHIP: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions.  Gary is a serial and successful entrepreneur — ACI Telecentrics was his major liquidity event I believe — and he’s currently partner and cofounder of CO2Partners, LLC, operating as an executive coach and consultant.  

The book is based on a fundamental insight: As leaders advance, they tend to ask fewer questions and provide more answers. Which is exactly backwards according to Cohen: “Leadership is about allowing others the chance to flourish and you do that by asking questions.”

Luckily, I had the chance to ask Gary a few questions myself.  I’ve been struck by the fact that many Crossderry readers are relatively new managers in technology-driven industries. They’re coming from roles where they were rewarded for knowing answers, not asking questions.   So I asked Gary: “What do new leaders need to unlearn before they try to use question-based leadership?”

Toddlers and young children are bursting with questions: Where does the water from the faucet come from? Where does it go? Why? Questions are the entry point of most significant learning–because they generally indicate an investment in the answer. But parents and teachers can’t or don’t entertain every question from every child and every student. Continue reading

HR and Commitment-phobia

Josh Liebner, Gershon Mader, and I ended up on an interesting tangent about the role of human resources in driving strategic commitment (previous posts here and here).  Both authors shared my frustration about HR’s inertia when it comes to transformation efforts.  In no small measure, this frustration comes from believing that HR should be in a unique position to drive change because they often know “what is really going on” or “what people really believe/think”.

We kept coming back to one question:  Does the human resources field attract people who can’t or don’t want to lead?  Our answer was “too often” and the discussion identified three drivers:

  1. The reputation of HR as a leadership backwater is an on-going barrier to attracting risk-taking leaders.  Many people recognize that HR could be more, but ultimately…
  2. The transactional nature of many core HR functions shapes its own org design.  What parts of HR must be done?  Well, they are the compliance, recruiting, and benefits administration functions.  Therefore, there is something about the work that attracts…
  3. Gatekeepers.  Compliance-heavy functions require formal and structured lines of authority, which are quite easy to hide behind or to substitute for business decisions.

This last point highlights the position that HR has gotten itself into: gatekeeping may give it formal authority, but strategic imperatives don’t respect formal authority.  Emergent and adaptive systems will almost always find workarounds.

To that end, Josh and Gershon both suggested that a coaching and mentoring model is the best way for HR to engage in strategy.  This approach leverages the strength of HR — knowing the lay of the land — with a softer, less rules-bound style.  Acknowledging and shaping emergent behavior will be more fruitful than trying to ban or control it.

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