Monday, July 27, 2015

Preparing and Rehearsing for a Meeting with Your Boss

Patti Johnson has written a good Fast Company column titled, "8 Ways to Get the Most out of a Meeting with Your Boss."   Johnson explores how you can prepare effectively for these meetings, as well as how to conduct yourself to get the most out of these interactions.   Here's an excerpt:

Think less about your slides and more about the discussion
I once watched a colleague of mine endlessly tinker with the wording on his PowerPoint slides right up to the moment before his presentation. Of course you need solid content to grab your audience’s attention, but when you’re speaking to senior leaders, you need much more than a striking PowerPoint show. Instead, think of it as a tool for spurring the right conversation.  What decisions will be made during the meeting, and what information will be needed to make them? Pin down those objectives first, then plan your presentation accordingly. And stick to what's essential. Too many slides can signal that you plan to do all the talking or even that you can’t manage your time effectively. 

Focus on your audience, not yourself 
Anticipate the issues your audience cares about most. Put yourself in their shoes, and make a list of potential questions from your listeners' perspective. What do they want to know? Do they want in-depth details or just the headlines? How much time do they want to spend listening to you? If you base your presentation around your audience’s needs and interests, you can align your time and content to fit them.

I think the best part of this advice is that it encourages employees to anticipate how the meeting will unfold.  Putting yourself in the other person's shoes is so crucial.  I would even encourage employees to rehearse how they might respond to certain questions.  You also need to think about timing.  You won't have time to cover everything that you would like to discuss.  That's almost always the case.  So, be clear in advance about what your priorities are.  What must you absolutely cover in the meeting, and what can you defer? 

Friday, July 24, 2015

There is No Optimal Organizational Structure

Many senior executives seem to obsess over organizational structure.   They love to move the boxes and arrows around on organization charts.  Today we are a functional organization; tomorrow we will organize ourselves by product line.  That will solve our problems!  It will make us more customer-focused!  We will improve speed to market!  One year later, they shift to a geographically-focused organization chart.  That will solve our problems!  We need to think globally, but act locally!  We will adapt more effectively to local customs and cultures!   Executives should stop obsessing over the boxes and arrows on those organizational charts.  No "optimal" structure exists.  Each type has its strengths AND its flaws. 

Executives should recall the old adage coined by Rufus Miles, Jr. - a senior government official in the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. Miles coined the phrase, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." In other words, your stance on key issues depends not simply on your own judgments, values, and beliefs.  It also depends on your position within an organization.  Your views will represent the interests and goals of your unit. 

What is the implication of Miles' perspective?  It means that leaders should focus on getting their team members to understand how the structure of an organization often drives its strategy.   They should challenge the executives to consider this important question:  How might we look at this strategic decision differently if we were organized differently?  In other words, are we allowing structure to drive strategy (rather than the other way around)?   Leaders need to encourage team members to stand in each others' shoes.  They need to be able to understand why people in other units, regions, or lines of business have different beliefs, positions, and perspectives.  They need to understand how current structures might be leading to certain biases in decision making.  In the end, no optimal organizational structure exists.  However, the best firms understand the limitations of their particular structure.   The best companies do not allow the organization chart to drive decision making. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Risks for High Potentials If They Switch Jobs

In today's Wall Street Journal, Joann Lublin writes about the "stay or go" decision for high-potential leaders.  These folks often find themselves in demand these days.  Should they stay at the company that has designated them as a high potential and invested in their development, or should they go to a new employer promising better opportunities, faster promotions, and/or a slice of equity?  Lublin identifies several risks associated with moving to a new employer: 

Job-hopping stars usually lose the extra attention to their leadership development needs. “That’s often when they need it the most,” says John Beeson, author of “The Unwritten Rules,” a book about landing executive promotions. “If you jump ship while a high potential, you may never get those issues addressed,” Mr. Beeson warns. “And they can derail your career.”  Departing high potentials also risk burnt bridges with an employer that has invested time and money grooming them. A surprise exit may harm the reputation of internal advocates who fought for their advancement.  “You need to handle those relationships carefully to avoid causing a rift,” recommends Mike Travis, head of Travis & Co., an executive-search firm in Newton, Mass

I would add that high potentials need to assess the "supporting infrastructure" at their prospective employers.  You cannot succeed on your own.   Therefore, you need to ask these five questions:  
  1. How strong will your new team be?  
  2. Are employees throughout the organization highly engaged?   
  3. Will your peers be supportive and collaborative, or will they constantly compete with you?
  4. How effective are the systems that you will need to do your work? 
  5. Will the firm provide you with continued coaching and development?  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Is It Time to Rethink This Standard HR Practice?

This week Forbes contributor Liz Ryan takes on some standard company policies and procedures that she thinks are outdated and counterproductive.   Among them, she criticizes the rule in many firms whereby employees must notify their manager if they wish to apply for another job within the organization.  Here's an except from her article:  

Most large and many medium-sized organizations still have policies in place that require an employee who wants to apply for a different job in the company to get his or her manager’s approval first.  Any person with three functioning brain cells can instantly think of plenty of good reasons why a manager might prevent a qualified and eager employee from moving into another job.  It’s a pain in the neck to replace a key employee. You might want to keep a great person on your team to boost your own chances at getting promoted... HR people working together with your employees should arrange transfer and promotion interviews. If an employee doesn’t get the job he applied for, his or her manager never even needs to know about it. If s/he gets the job, the manager can be brought into the loop at that point.

I'm curious what readers think about Ryan's recommendation.  I can see both sides of this argument.  In many firms, this rule does inhibit employees from pursuing new opportunities at times.  Some managers do horde talent to the detriment of employees' personal development and to the detriment of the organization's effectiveness as a whole.   On the other hand, Ryan's idea puts human resource professionals in an awkward spot. Moreover, it leaves managers - perhaps very good ones - completely in the dark.   Ideally, human resources should be facilitating career development conversations between managers and subordinates, rather than sidestepping supervisors in this manner.  They should be encouraging and facilitating each manager to talk to their people frequently about their goals and aspirations (not just at an annual performance review).  Moreover, human resources should be talking to managers about employee engagement data, so that they can proactively address situations where people may be frustrated on a particular team.  Finally, human resources should be facilitating discussions at more senior levels about key job openings, so that the organization can proactively identify key talent that it may wish to move into a new opportunity.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hiring for Cultural Fit

Many companies hire for cultural fit.  They want to find employees who share their organization's values, and whose behavior and mindset align with the way that decisions are made and work gets done in their firm.  A recent Knowledge@Wharton article argues that companies need to be careful, however, when considering a candidate's cultural fit.

Cultural fit clearly plays a key role in organizational effectiveness. Consider the study by Nancy Rothbard, Gina Dokko, and Steffanie Wilk, published in Organizational Science in 2009.   They found that companies must cope with a key downside when hiring people with relevant experience.  Specifically, they noted that many experienced employees come with "cognitive baggage" that can inhibit them from being effective at their new firm.  However, a candidate's flexibility and cultural fit tended to offset the negative impact of cognitive baggage to some extent.

What's the downside of hiring for cultural fit?  Hidden biases may creep into your decision-making process. You may simply look for people who are similar to you in many ways, i.e. same educational background, socio-economic status, hobbies and interests, etc.  In other words, you focus on fit with your personal interests and values, rather than organizational norms and attributes.  Kellogg Professor Lauren Rivera recently wrote an article for the New York Times about how we might bond with candidates over things that don't really matter when it comes to organizational effectiveness: “Bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit; sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not.”  In other words, people tend to make snap judgments based on who they might like to be friends with rather than who could collaborate with others to drive organizational performance.  

Consider your interviewing process for a moment.   What types of questions are you asking?  How are you assessing candidates?   Is the emphasis on fit with the interviewer's interests and values, or are you truly evaluating cultural fit?  How might you alter your hiring process to emphasize the latter and downplay the former?  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Encouraging Others to Set High Expectations for Themselves

We often hear that great leaders and great teachers establish high expectations for their followers and their students. They set the bar high and challenge others to exceed that target. However, I was struck by some advice in a recent column by Fast Company that challenges this conventional wisdom a bit. Natasha Awasthi wrote a piece titled, "7 Hard-Earned Lessons in Leading a Dysfunctional Team." She talked about taking charge of an under-performing group and turning it around. Awasthi offered this important nugget of advice: "Make them exceed their expectations first (not yours)." She goes on to explain:

"A GPS needs to know where you are and where you want to go before it can give you directions. In a similar vein, before you unveil designs for another individual’s work-life, you must plot their starting point, and their desired destination. Your aim should be to thoughtfully and incrementally build an individual’s confidence in her ability to succeed at tasks seemingly out of her reach."

She makes a great point.  Before we charge people with achieving goals that we have established for them, we sometimes have to prove to them that they can exceed their own expectations.  We need to encourage them to set the bar high and show them that they can succeed at achieving those goals.  In short, we have to encourage others to demand a great deal of themselves.  Then they need to see that that achieving those loftier goals is possible.  If they do it for themselves, rather than for us, we are much more likely to succeed as leaders (and teachers).  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Engaging Your Consumer to Create New Products

Leading companies have become much more adept lately at co-creating new products in close partnership with their customers.  They do so in a number of ways, including intensive ethnographic research, crowdsourcing projects, social media contests, customer advisory councils, etc.  One example of an interesting approach is the "Do Us a Flavor" campaign conducted by the Lays brand of potato chips (owned by Pepsico).  This Knowledge@Wharton article describes the effort.  This excerpt explains how the program worked:

Anyone who had a chip idea in mind could visit Lays’ Facebook page, enter some information about their flavor and be rewarded with a shareable image of “their” bag of chips. The company teamed up with Facebook to turn the “like” button into a vote of “I’d Eat That.” Lays’ Facebook cover photo became a rotating billboard, which featured a new submission every few minutes.  A panel of judges and campaign spokespeople — celebrity chef Michael Symon and actress Eva Longoria — helped narrow the contest to three finalist flavors: sriracha, cheesy garlic bread and chicken and waffles, and then opened the vote for a winner to the public.

14 million people voted in this campaign, and the bags of chips for the three finalists flew off the shelves in a matter of hours.  Of course, the campaign's true value extends well beyond the sales of these new flavors of potato chips.  In my view, the value lies in the learning that is taking place as the campaign unfolds.  The brand managers identify flavors that excite customers, as well as those that clearly do not.   They also learn about the type of people most likely to engage closely with the company via social media.  Perhaps these customers share other important needs and wants along the way.   Moreover, the company engages the customer in a way that may lead to more sales for the brand overall.  They drive traffic to important retail partners, and they give those retailers something new and exciting to merchandise.  Finally, they help the company reach millennials, an important group for whom the brand may otherwise become less relevant amidst many new choices.