“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Recently we held a town hall to get feedback from our employees on what’s working and what’s not. Since this was an open forum, we had to be prepared to address both the positives and negatives. It can be difficult to accept critiques, but as a leader you must accept that some negativity is part of the job. So how do you do that?

Learn the difference between constructive and unconstructive criticism: Criticism can sting. In most cases we try our best, and when we aren’t successful, and worse, when someone recognizes that and tells us, it doesn’t feel good. But criticism, when constructive, can be very helpful. It’s how we learn and grow. Perhaps we didn’t even realize what we were doing wrong or how to do it better. When someone brings our attention to the issue, it allows us to improve. That is constructive criticism – well meaning feedback and advice intended to help the person receiving it. For example, “When you present you say ‘um’ often; one technique that can help with that is slowing down as you speak.” On the other hand, unconstructive criticism (and flattery too!) doesn’t provide any meaningful information or advice. You can think of this as the “teenager feedback” – “this sucks!” If it doesn’t answer why, what, how, or what next, it’s likely not constructive. Unfortunately, not much can be done with this criticism. While you can always ask for more information or suggestions, if the person can’t give it to you, you just have to move on.

Know that the loudest person isn’t always the voice of the people: You will never please everyone. It is not possible. That’s why we prioritize and compromise, because unfortunately we can’t have our cake and eat it too. However, just because someone voices their unhappiness, doesn’t mean their unhappiness is representative of the larger group. It’s critical to distinguish between a small group of particularly “loud” individuals and a brave spokesman of the larger group. So how do you hear past the loudest voice?

  • Ask others – If you don’t know, ask. Survey others to see if they agree with the criticism. It is especially valuable to speak with people who you know will be honest with you.
  • Ask for examples – If they can’t give you sound examples, then they might just be blowing steam.
  • Listen to the whispers – Focus on the quieter voices, what are they saying?
  • Be empathetic – Sometimes when someone is complaining they just need someone to acknowledge them. It doesn’t mean you think they are right, it just means you’ve heard them.
  • Ask for suggestions – If someone is willing to bring up an issue, they should be willing to help address it.

It’s true, you aren’t always right: Everyone has to be wrong once in a while. We all make mistakes and leaders are no exception. We may have made a decision based on bad information or with unexpected consequences. It happens. The trick isn’t to always be right, it’s to admit when you’re wrong and work with your employees to create a solution. Your employees will respect your honesty and the initial negativity that may have arisen will quickly dissipate.

Holding an event, like our town hall, is incredibly valuable. Though you may receive some difficult feedback, it gives you the opportunity to hear what issues are most important to your employees and refocus your efforts on those.  I appreciated everyone taking the time to attend and contribute to our town hall. As a leader, criticism will always be a part of your job, but it’s about honing in on the constructive points and making changes that can have a real impact.

This post’s title is a quote by Aristotle.

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Taking on challenges

No one can be 100% prepared for anything. Take parenthood as an example. You could carefully plan when you want to have kids, read all the experts’ books on being a great parent, and spend ample time around kids before ever having your own, but really there is no way to be fully ready to be a parent. Like everything else in life, personal experience has no substitute. That is why, as a professional, you have to experience new things; you have to take on challenges in order to grow your career.

So what stops us from doing that? It is human nature – We are comfortable doing what we know. Both economists and psychologists have discovered that humans are risk averse. More specifically, psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, determined that people are risk averse in choices involving gains, whereas if we know that there is a potential for loss, we are more risk-seeking. In most cases, taking on a challenge professionally doesn’t come with an obvious loss. Typically, no one is telling us to try something new or else be negatively impacted. Of course, there could potentially be gains from trying something new, but we’d rather stick with what we know we are good at.

But taking on new challenges is critical to our career growth. It provides us the opportunity to learn and develop in ways we couldn’t have without that experience. For example, imagine you have just signed up to run a marathon for the first time. This is indeed quite a challenge. It requires training, not something you can do automatically (“Oh, I think I’ll just go run a marathon today!”). It is unlikely you will win or run your personal best time the first go around, but the experience makes you a better runner. You’ve learned things through the experience, such as how fast to run, what to listen to on your ipod, what to eat before and after, what your body feels like during and after a long run, etc. The experience, though challenging, though not automatically successful, has helped you to grow.

There are many ways you can take on challenges at work:

  • Ask your boss what else they need help with.
  • Get involved in activities outside your immediate project.
  • Accept challenges offered to you. Be a “yes” person – especially early on in your career.
  • Follow your interests and passions, even if you aren’t good at them yet.
  • Get to know new people and what they are working on. Have a work dinner coming up? Don’t just sit with the people you work with every day.
  • If you recognize an issue impacting your organization, offer to take it on and create a solution.

The key is to recognize your own stagnation: Are you still learning something new every day? Is the work you do hard anymore? Are you bringing innovative ideas forward? If not, it may be time to take a risk and try something new.

Be challenged, be uncomfortable, make mistakes, fail a little. That’s how you grow and become truly successful in your career. Yes, it does require some risk, venturing from the known, what you are good at, to the unknown, but that is how great leaders develop.

Top Talent Development

Getting, retaining, and growing your top talent isn’t easy, but it is simple. In many ways, it comes down to two things:  igniting passion and good management. Top employees are motivated by challenging work that helps them to fulfill their professional goals. However, even employees who are excited to come to work can be driven away by bad managers. A simple concept, but as I said, not always easy. So, here are a few relatively easy ways leaders can keep and develop their top talent.

Passion

  • Give employees opportunities to be leaders – This has two benefits: First, you will never be able to identify your top talent through micromanagement. They need a chance to succeed and also to fail on their own.  Secondly, ownership increases engagement and commitment.
  • Prevent stagnation – Your top employees need to feel as if they are continually being challenged. Give your employees opportunities to take on new work and special projects. Bring them in to do work that has a larger impact on the organization. These new opportunities will promote innovation and keep your talent learning.
  • Learn your employees’ strengths and interests – I talked about the importance of this and how it plays into employee engagement in a previous post. Collaborative technology gives you a unique opportunity to identify the strengths and interests of your employees beyond their day to day work.
  • Show your employees they are valued – An American Psychological Association survey found that 50% of employees who don’t feel valued at work will look for a new job. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Say thank you more often, ask your employees for their opinions, and implement worthy ideas. Let these small things be part of your daily leadership mantra. 

Management

  • Request 360 degree reviews of managers – Not only should managers review their employees, but employees should review their managers. This feedback can be valuable for improving managers and helping them to identify their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Review retention rates at the management level – Go beyond an organization-wide view, and look at your turnover rates from a department and manager level. If you are seeing a repeat issue in one department, it may be time to look at the management.
  • Implement a mentorship program – Give your employees the opportunity to get the career development advice they want. Mentorship gives employees an additional connection to the organization and can increase the motivation of both parties.
  • Enable your managers – Managers need training too. We can’t expect that everyone inherently knows how to be a people manager. Invest in your managers and their development, because ultimately your managers have the biggest impact on whether or not you keep your top talent.
  • Recognize not everyone should be a manager – While many people can learn to become a better people manager, not everyone is meant to be a manager. There are people who can be great in their technical expertise, who can be great project managers, but who ultimately can’t be people managers, and that’s OK.  The important part is to identify those people who can be great managers and those who can’t.

Managing your top talent can be challenging, but it doesn’t require you to completely change your organization. Start by focusing your efforts on igniting the passions of your employees and developing a successful management team. Do you have any other ideas? Share them in the comments.

Creating Meaning

Daniel Pink said it…

Maslow said it…

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Even Margaret Thatcher said it…

“What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.”

Believing in a purpose motivates us to perform and succeed, and while some jobs may come with an easily defined purpose (think doctors), most do not. As leaders, we must help our employees find meaning in their work. But of course, the question isn’t should you, but how do you create meaning?

Here are a few basics:

  1. Money is not meaning: Money is important, it’s necessary, it relates to worth, but it is not meaning. This includes both the money you pay someone and the money you make as an organization.
  2. Missions should convey meaning: Going back to rule number one, don’t fall into the trap of making your mission about money. You know you’re headed down that path if you use phrases like stockholder value, shares, or maximize. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer do a great job in their Harvard Business Review blog of showing the difference between missions about money and missions with meaning.
  3. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” This includes your employees. As Simon Sinek  said, people need to understand the “why.” Every time you communicate to your employees, you need to explain the why. “We are rolling out this great new product!” – Why, what’s wrong with our existing products? “We are restructuring the organization.”  – Why is this needed? “We are giving you a promotion!” – Why, what did I do? Ok so maybe they won’t ask that last one, but answering it is still important. Understanding the why helps to drive behavior. It gives meaning to your what’s, who’s, and how’s. If you aren’t sure what your employees think, ask! To stay on top of the employee perspective, I hold regular group discussions with employees at different levels to discuss their ideas and issues, and I don’t just have an open door, I live the open door policy.
  4. Create a culture of meaning: A company’s culture (or any type of culture for that matter) is made up of the shared values and practices of the organization. You can influence your culture through the environment, the people, and the work:
    • Create an environment that reflects your values. If, for example, you value innovation, do your employees have the ability to do this, perhaps through collaborative technologies or Innovation Jams?  I recently posted a question about client interaction to my employees in an Ideation Blog to have them submit their ideas and vote on the best suggestions. This was an easy way to create an environment that encourages collaborative, meaningful discussion among our disaggregated employees. It’s important to remember that your environment is more than a physical space and tools like this can make a big difference.
    • Provide work that is meaningful, challenging, and allows for growth. In order to grow, people need new opportunities and the ability to manage their own work. They need to be responsible for their output and rewarded for their successes. One way we have done this is by systematically moving our employees to new projects after a certain time period, thereby bringing fresh perspectives to other projects while developing the individual’s skills.
    • Lead by example. If you want your employees to be dedicated to your customers, you must, in turn, be dedicated to your employees. Show your employees you are committed to their growth and helping them to achieve their goals.

Creating meaning for your employees is really about creating a successful organization. Meaning drives engagement and engagement drives results. Providing purpose starts at the top, but cannot end there. Executives must drive a meaningful mission and strategy, while managers must show the purpose to every day work. Sure, every task isn’t going to fill your employees with the sense of true accomplishment (wow, that Power Point template could save the world!), but they should always know how what they are doing plays into the bigger picture.

Vision Series Part 2 of 4: Developing a Strategy

Now that you’ve created a vision for your organization, you need to develop a strategy to help you attain that vision.  “At general management’s core is strategy: defining a company’s position, making trade-offs, and forging fit among activities,” wrote Michael Porter in the 1996 Harvard Business Review. A vision says, “I’d like to get to point B” and a strategy says, “Follow this path to your destination.” To create a strategy you need to first address the following:

Step 1: Where are we now? Can you imagine giving someone directions if they couldn’t tell you where they were? It would be impossible (turn left?). The same is true of developing a strategy; you can’t do it without understanding where you are starting. Back to Business 101 again: Remember the SWOT analysis, that handy quadrant where you analyze your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? That is precisely what you need to do. Determine how each of these plays into your vision. Does your strength in customer service differentiate you from your competitors; are their gaps in your procurement process that need filling; is there a new market you could enter? These are all questions that need to be answered in order to create the path to your destination.

Step 2: Where do we want to be? Hopefully you have a grasp on where you want to go as a result of creating your vision. A strategy allows you to outline, in detail, your goals, objectives, and means for achieving those. While a vision may focus more on aspirations, goals focus on measurable outcomes. Your goals should be:

  • Quantifiable: By how much do you expect to grow? How many new clients do you want to take on? By what date you expect to achieve the goal? How much will it cost to implement?
  • Achievable: Is it realistic? Is it within the realm of possibility without capsizing your organization or alienating your employees or clients?
  • Owned: Who is responsible for this goal’s success? Who is impacted by this goal?

Your goals may be to fill gaps you realized as a result of your SWOT analysis. They may highlight your key differentiators and strengths or address competitive threats. Think of goals as the stepping-stones on your path to achieving your vision.

Reminder: Strategy is all about balancing risk & reward. Changing requires taking on risk, but it is impossible to grow as an organization (or an individual for that matter) without taking some calculated risks. Great leaders accept risk and do their best to manage it. Developing a strategy is about making choices, often with trade-offs, as Porter noted. You simply can’t do everything all the time, but great leaders and great strategies don’t try to.

A vision without strategy is just an idea, a hope with no means for actualization. By understanding where you are now and where you hope to go, you can create a plan to achieve your vision. Next week, we will discuss communicating your vision and strategy in a way that inspires action and cultivates change.

Vision Series Part 1 of 4: Creating a vision

This month, I’ll be writing a series of blog posts about vision, from the beginning stages of creating a vision to its execution. 

For a minute, let’s go back to Business 101. A vision at its most basic level is no more than a way of conveying an organization’s direction that is often, but not necessarily depicted in a statement. But hopefully we all know that a vision represents much more. When carefully crafted, a vision demonstrates the organization’s values, inspires its people, and resonates with its clients. It is not the “how” we do what we do, but the “why” we do what we do and what we are striving to achieve. For all the leaders out there, this is a very important tool (should you use it correctly).  So how do you create a vision that’s more than just words on a paper?

Know your desired impact – What do you want to do? No, what do you really want to do? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not just to build widgets. The work your organization does presumably is done to have an impact on the world. NASA doesn’t just put people on the moon and collect space rocks. They help us to understand the universe and our own planet in ways that advance medicine, science and engineering and improve our lives overall. That’s the impact. Without taking the time to understand your purpose and desired impact on the world, you can’t create a meaningful vision. NASA’s vision directly addresses this:

“To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

Benefit all humankind? Not bad for space rocks.

Tie it back to your values – An engaging vision, one that captures our hearts, does so because it clearly resonates with our core values. When a group of people discover they share the same values, there is a significant increase in energy, commitment and trust,” wrote Jesse Lyn Stoner in her blog post on creating an enduring vision. At IBM, instead of a traditional vision statement, we have our values:

  • “Dedication to every client’s success
  • Innovation that matters, for our company and for the world
  • Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships”

Values are what your employees and clients relate to and believe in themselves. This is what gives the vision reach. Perhaps you don’t understand everything that IBM does, but you do understand trust and dedication, and you know those are important to you as well.

Make it a team effort – To truly ingrain a vision in a culture, you can’t create it alone.  “The only visions that take hold are shared visions—and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. The best leaders are able to bring their people into the future because they engage in the oldest form of research: They observe the human condition,” wrote James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in their 2009 article in the Harvard Business Magazine. Not only will a diversity of opinions make your vision stronger, it will make it more meaningful to the people you hope will be a part of achieving that vision.

A vision: a direction, a goal, a place you hope to be, is critical to driving a successful organization. It’s not something to rush through; it takes careful thought. Once developed it takes even more care to successfully implement, but more on that to come.

Should we make New Year’s resolutions for work?

As 2012 is coming quickly to a close, many of us are starting to think about what 2013 will bring. A new year often represents to people an opportunity to start anew, a rebirth of sorts. That’s why each year millions of people make New Year’s resolutions – a commitment to doing better in the future. While so many people are familiar with personal resolutions, should we be making work resolutions too?

Work resolutions generally fall into two categories: Improve my own career and life or improve my organization. Here are some examples of each:

Improve my own career and life:

  • Create a career plan for the next five years
  • Seek out a mentor
  • Attend more networking events
  • Take on a new challenge or responsibility
  • Work toward becoming a Subject Matter Expert

Improve my organization:

  • Review focus on the client and new ways of delivering value for them
  • Develop and energize our people through training and knowledge sharing
  • Provide opportunities for employees to connect as a community
  • Revisit the organization vision – does it still fit? Is it translatable to our individuals?
  • Develop ways to recognize employees on a regular basis.

But should we be making them? Work resolutions are not the best way for you to focus on your career or organization development, as it is typically spontaneous and New Year’s resolutions are notorious for getting no attention past January 3rd!  But if the idea of a New Year’s resolution starts your thinking – then go for it!  Take advantage of the time of year that encourages new beginnings and do some serious planning. Ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish next year for both my personal career and business organization?”  For each resolution, develop a plan: how you will do it, by what date and what expected outcome.  Develop a way to measure progress.

Remember though, if you want to make meaningful, lasting changes to your career or organization, you must be continuously working towards these changes; they must be an inherent part of your activities. I don’t mean to say that if you aren’t already doing something, you can’t possibly or shouldn’t start. If you don’t have a long-term plan, it may be time to create one.  The idea of improving one’s self and organization is a daily mantra, a constant practice.  December 31st is a great impetus, just make it last.

Will you be making a new year’s resolution for work? Leave your thoughts in the comments.