Putting a Stake in the Ground

March 22, 2010

Sometimes you just have to take a position to move things forward. I see many teams and organizations get paralyzed by indecision, conscious stalling and/or lack of clarity.

I am certainly the king of “it depends” and “context matters” and am a serial deferrer to buy time for more data to come in. I also would stipulate that sometimes, waiting is the most effective strategy. But sometimes, you have to force the issue.

Let’s first discuss how we can force the issue and then get into when and why.

Universal Answer- How

In almost all of these cases, the “answer” is proposing a straw model(s) for people to debate. The point is to put something reasonable in print for people to respond to. In can be high-level and conceptual, or very detailed and well thought out. Whatever works for the context you are in. The point is to commit it to a form that people can understand and meaningfully debate.

You are doing several things in this process.

1 – Summarizing what you believe to be “the current understanding”. This requires synthesis and thought on your part.

2 – Framing clear discussion points for stakeholders. Whether in the form of a proposal, documented assumptions, alternate scenarios etc., you are allowing others to get the “digested” thinking. This advances discussion more quickly.

3 – Controlling the agenda. Remember that he/she who commits thoughts to print first frames the discussion.

4 – Increasing communication efficiency – The discussion will much more quickly move to clarification and debate when people understand what you are saying. No need to waste time on multiple rounds of clarification if you are clear.

You can position the straw model as your thinking, or distance yourself from it as appropriate. (You still need to e politically astute). Either way, you are driving discussion and action.

The key is often to embed a failsafe trigger that will “go off” if someone doesn’t respond. From a negotiations standpoint the idea is to create a sense of urgency. So document your idea/position and publish it. Could be an email to group, a power point proposal or clear position on white board in a meeting.

Now let’s explore a few times when forcing the issue makes sense. What follows is an unscientific list of situations that I see a need for “stakes in the ground”.

When to apply 

You are on a timeline

In this situation, you often have no other choice. Whether the issue is major or minor, there isn’t time to waste. This is particularly true for consultants. We are always “on the clock”, with time equaling either billable hours or engagement profitability. For better or for worse, clients also know you will be gone by a certain date. Often the issue is as much attention from relevant stakeholders as it is resistance. You are competing for their attention and mental bandwidth.

Example – A team of mine recently did a nice job of managing a client situation by writing a very detailed list of assumptions and actions they were going to take in conducting quantitative analysis of a large and complicated data set based on those assumptions with a due date. They also pointed out the cost if their assumptions were wrong and a timeline for responding.

The result was important (and timely) clarifications, as well as enhanced team credibility due to the detail and rigor of their efforts. Any less effort and we all would have been spinning our wheels for weeks more. They had been struggling to get clarity and finally realized that pe

You want to expose potential disconnects/create a shared understanding

What does this even mean? Here, you think that everyone is not on the same page and the point is to take a position to reveal others’ understanding of the issue. This can be particularly important in cross-functional or cross-organizational discussions.

 One example is that people may not mean the same thing even when they are using the same terms. “Terms of Art” is a phrase used to describe the actual definition of a technical or functionally specific term. For example, organizations often differ from classical functional boundaries. What does “supply chain” mean at your firm? What’s in “operations”? It’s crucial that you reach common operational definitions for these terms to ensure common understanding.

Other examples include:

  • Surfacing assumptions that are so deep, no one even thought to discuss them.
  • Highlighting areas believed to be commonly agreed, but more detail or specificity reveals that the devil is in the details and maybe there wasn’t as much agreement as thought.

You need to make people publicly take a position

This one is more political. Often people are trying to avoid taking a position on politically difficult topics. If you can maneuver them into a position where they have to be specific in their objections, then you can document their issues and potentially push them into a corner if you can address all their objections. You then expose their motivations if they continue to resist/object when their concerns have been addressed.

As always, I struggle with being MECE, but these are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know if you can think of others.

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Bode Miller is Very Zen – Self Evaluation and Pride

February 20, 2010

I was struck this week by the Winter Olympics. Athletes spend the better part of their young lives training for these events, some of which you get one shot and it takes less than 2 minutes. You couldn’t blame a person who had a shot at winning for being focused on their result.

So I was struck by Bode Miller’s comments after his down hill bronze-medal run. I am paraphrasing here (can’t find precise quote), but his comment was something like “When I finished, I closed my eyes and thought ‘am I happy with that run?’ and I was. Then I looked at the time.” He was going to be OK with the “result” on the scoreboard having self-assessed the run as a success.

To me, that demonstrates a level of personal and professional maturity that I wish for people. I encourage people to develop their own sense of what “excellent” performance looks like for them. We are so often externally motivated that you can get too hung up on the result and lose a sense of perspective. You can also lose track of what you can control vs. externalities that are beyond you.

In an interview I was reading today, Miller notes that he looks back on many of his crashes and DNFs (did-not-finish) with affection.  Based on his break-neck style, I assume this comes from the spirit of “I was going for it and didn’t get it, but went down swinging”.  So this week on the downhill he determined that he let it rip down the hill and his place was his place, but he did his best.

A former boss liked to point out a 2X2 matrix with “result” as one axis with “good/bad” as the two options and “process” as the other, also with “good/bad”. So the resulting payout grid had 4 options. His point was often that the “good process/bad result” was generally a better one over the long term than the “bad process/good result” one. The rationale being that good process you can control and doing the right things will generally lead to better outcomes. You can do things poorly in the short term and get a decent result, but that’s probably not sustainable. It also helps point out that you can’t control everything, so control what you can.

This ties back to what I was saying about Miller. He trained relentlessly and wanted to go fast. He pushed himself, risking potential crashes to be fast. He also impressed with his willingness to risk all. He wasn’t holding back. Fearless, he went for it. Having gotten to the bottom, he reflected on his own self-assessment of “process” before he checked to see “result”. The result was excellent (note – not 1st place), but he was personally satisfied first.

If you can develop an internal sense of excellence and be sure to satisfy yourself first, you can deflect a lot of heart ache along the way. If all you care about is the outcome – you’ll be very invested in a lot of things beyond your control.

Nobody likes to lose or not do well, but it’s a competitive world. Sometimes you do your best and the other person is better. Sometimes you win.  Internal pride and sense of perspective will help you perform well and weather difficult results when they occasionally occur.


Managing Personal Career Risk

September 6, 2009

Several conversations I’ve had in the last week made me want to capture some thoughts on how I think about risk in your career decisions. So many decisions come down to some version of “what’s the upside” versus “what’s the downside”? I’ll run through a few concepts I try to impart and then use an example or two to illustrate how differently things can play out from the same situation. This post builds on a few ideas I laid out in an earlier one entitled “Career Choices”.

How do you perceive risk?

One lesson from my grad school experience (Yes – I actually learned something!) was a simple psychological one. Our professor challenged us to think about the question “how comfortable are you with different types and amounts of risk?”

He then loosely categorized personalities as:

  • “risk averse” (ie: any loss is painful. Will settle for more certain outcomes)
  • “risk neutral” (ie: ambivalent about risk and thus able to weigh both upside and downside and go with best choice.
  • “risk seeking” (ie: willing to bear tremendous losses in search of big gains.)

Personally, I’m risk neutral. I’ve been willing to take some creative fliers in my career and make big changes, but always felt they were calculated risks with limited downside. Or least bearable downside. I’ll discuss one example later.

So, how comfortable are you with risk in your career and what works for you? A few questions that I ask people (and myself) when faced with significant decisions include:

(Note: Major assumption for this is that you have gone through some thinking about what you want. I have written about this in prior posts and will try not to repeat myself here. )

  • What can you/can’t you live with? Some things may have great aspects, but some of the tradeoffs simply won’t work. Simple examples could be “great job, but pays half of what we need to be viable” or “Perfect position, but I can’t re-locate right now.”
  • How bad is the worst case? If you completely blow it, how bad is it really? There’s a big difference between “I move back into Mom & Dad’s basement for a few months” and “I lose the house and can’t cover the kids’ private school tuition.”
  • How big/exciting is the best case? If everything works out, how cool is the upside? If the upside is your life-long dream, it may trump all other considerations.
  • What’s you’re most likely outcome? In a probabilistic world we all know you can’t count on a specific outcome, but given what you know what do you think is likely?
  • How many of the outcomes are attractive (or at least acceptable)? Again getting at probabilities.

So let me pose two examples that I see quite often. The first is a student coming out of school with several choices available to them and the second is a mid-career professional (in this case me) debating a move.

Soon to be graduate

This candidate has a good job offer at a stable, respected company. They are also pursuing several very competitive and prestigious positions. They have an “exploding offer” from their summer employer, meaning that they will have to decide on the “bird in hand” before they have any input on the prestigious “birds in the bush”.

So what do you do?

Well, it depends. I’ll paint two different scenarios that I think are entirely reasonable based on your risk profile.

Scenario 1: The good offer I have now is OK, but I just can’t see myself doing that for the next 2-3 years. The work is too easy for me and as a result I think I will stagnate.  I’m going to roll the dice and see how the more exciting path works out.

In this case, my push back includes:  “Do you really understand the position?”, “Can you make the position more than it is on paper?” “Are you OK if other alternatives don’t play out as you hope?”

Scenario 2: The good offer I have is OK, but not my dream job. There are other roles I am more excited about, but I can see myself in this job.

Here my pushback is focused on probabilities and comfort level with getting to the end of recruiting and having no offer. I’ll also ask whether they have explored the position and can they make it more than it is.

After I grill people and make them play out the scenarios they have to make a choice. In the last several years I have seen people go both ways and think that they are usually making a good choice for themselves. It comes back to how good or bad will you feel based on where you land on the payout matrix. If you are comfortable taking the risk and the offer in hand makes you depressed then turn it down in good conscience. But if you can’t bear the thought of not having something, then take the offer and focus on being excellent at it and making it more than it is by going beyond the role.

The point is to be thoughtful about your own sense of self and career. Own the decision and then move on and make the most out of whatever path you take. My point to students coming out of school is that they are so early in their careers that almost any choice they make that authentically reflects their values will work out. They have nearly infinite time to adjust.

Mid career

So now you have more mileage and have accumulated commitments; family, house, expectations…

I’ll give an example from my own experience. In a prior life at 3M I had an opportunity to leave a stable, prestigious position that I enjoyed for a different position within 3M that I felt was more entrepreneurial. It also was treated within the HR system as a “project” which meant it wasn’t tied to an existing product P&L. That means if the project doesn’t go well, you’re on the “unassigned list” and on your way out the door unless something unusual happens.

My prospective boss was someone I knew and respected and he’s still a good friend today. I was frank and said I knew the risks, but was really interested in the autonomy and the specific industry so I was committed to making the move even if it didn’t work out in the end. He told me something to the effect of,” don’t worry. If this doesn’t work out we’ll find something for you. “ I told him I appreciated the sentiment, but we both knew full well that neither of us could control the outcome if things didn’t go well.

At the time I had two kids and a mortgage. I weighed my personal goals, career aspirations etc. against the downside risk fairly carefully. I decided that the risk of NOT taking it was larger. You only get so many good pitches to swing at and this seemed like a great one. I felt fairly confident I could find another job in the Minneapolis market in 3-6 months and had a sufficient cash cushion for longer than that.

In the end it went well for me, but had it not I was OK with the downside. And for me personally staying where I was had more risk because I get complacent if I’m not stretching myself. I also got to move to China briefly, travel globally and learn a ton. So the potential payouts were well in my favor and the downside risk seemed acceptable.

As evidence that it can go wrong, a similar venture started at the same time in the same business didn’t go as well and a number of people were “unassigned”. Many found internal positions, but many didn’t. It can go either way. Often for reasons entirely beyond your control.

Closing Thoughts…

Let me offer a few platitudes that are mostly true in my experience.

If you can’t take simple risks, like being daring in a class assignment in school, how will you ever take them when you leave? I would challenge you to be more daring, but we are who we are. It’s OK to be OK with what you have. As a student of mine pointed out just today, not everyone wants to be a leader or run everything. That’s an important realization. Just don’t expect the benefits of running everything if you’ve made choices to settle for less.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a tangible opportunity is very valuable. It gives you a platform to perform on and earn invitations to bigger things. No one will know how good you are if no one sees you work. I think people become too enamored with “the hardest thing to get” and prestige. There are lots of ways to achieve your goals, don’t get too locked into only one path. I also think people fail to adequately explore or understand the “cool” things they want assuming the coolness will overcome the difficulties and hardships. As a friend of mine once put it, “The grass is always greener, but all lawns have to be mowed!”

Don’t worry too much about individual choices. Most things will work themselves out in the long run if you are patient and diligent. Much success comes from “mistakes”.

Don’t have regrets. I don’t know many people who regret things they did. But I know A LOT of people who regret things they didn’t do. The Marines call this making “errors of commission” (ie: proactively learning). These are usually good mistakes. You learn. “Errors of omission” are things you didn’t bother to do or take action on. Bad. Passivity leads to victimhood. Also, sometimes the risk is not taking a risk.  This can cut both ways though.

Calibrate the consequences. Losing the house is different than losing 6 months early in your career. Scale of potential mistake is a big deal. I don’t mean to minimize it. This is why its so important to understand your own comfort with risks.

Timing is everything. When can you afford to take risks?

So think through what matters to you and come to terms with your comfort level with career risks.

Related posts:

On making career choices: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/career-choices/

Starting transitions: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/exploring-interests/

It’s your career: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/19/its-your-career/

Dreams: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/dreams/


The Good Life

August 26, 2009

A good friend of mine who works here in the Carlson School’s career center sent me a link to a nice video parable titled “The Good Life” last week as we were preparing for the 1st year MBA class to arrive. I shared it during what we call our Career Leadership Academy as a part of my presentation on career planning.

 The basic premise of the video and what I tried to convey to the new MBAs was to figure out what actually matters to YOU. Focus on your own goals and priorities. There are lots of ways to get to certain goals. It just might be (as in the parable) that you already have a lot of it. Or not…but decide for yourself.

Anyway, I thought it was a nice reminder of balance, perspective and wisdom.

 

I thought


The Importance of Perceived Control

June 17, 2009

There is an emerging body of research suggesting that a sense of control is fundamental to human happiness and contentment. Here’s a link to an interesting piece from Leonard Mlodinow, a Caltech professor and writer. The post is focused on the good (and bad) effects of this need and how it can play out. He also cites some academic references for further reading.


Career Choices

June 6, 2009

I’m often faced with an advice seeker who is very clearly either stuck in an infinite loop trying to figure out how to not make a personal choice in order to extend their period to make that choice (the deferrer) or is in a hurry to make a rash choice to move to something “better” than what they have now (the jumper). Both tendencies are destructive. I’ll comment on both and offer some advice on how to be Goldilocks (& get it just right).

Jumpers. Early career and aspirational people are often trying to get someone to define the path to “certain” success for them. They will network aggressively, seek influential mentors and generally invest a lot of time in trying to get the right answer. In addition, they tend to get very invested in what progress (both in position and pay) their peers are making. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact I strongly encourage networking and mentoring.

The problem comes when people mistake the path for the journey. Each person’s path was based on their specific skills, opportunities and choices. Everyone will offer you advice with good intentions. What you can’t always understand or see in their advice are the subtle, implicit assumptions and deeper experiences underlying them. You have to actually go do things to really learn them. So don’t underestimate the value of genuine learning and development.

For pay and status jumpers, make sure you understand what you are getting into and what you are giving up. Don’t leave a position you are really growing in with support from management for a “bag of beans”. I see a lot of people jump for 10%. Your future is worth more than 10%! If it’s truly “better” then it ought to clearly align with your career and development goals.

Deferrers. Many of us always want the “perfect” position. We also tend to want to be able to wait for enough information to come in to make a better, more data driven decision. Unfortunately this is often more of a crutch to avoid taking a decision than it is a responsible strategy for improving decisions.

The problem comes when it’s used to delay decision making in the belief that there is only one path or a “perfect” job and neglects doing hard and good work to earn the success sought. There is no one path and you can massively over-think the planning.

My buddy’s “fallacy of infinite possibilities” rule is essentially that time wasted or deferred is making choices passively. Some doors close simply because you waited too long. A corollary is that the waiting is often in vain as you haven’t pro-actively engaged in choosing your own path. Essentially, you’re letting things happen to you. In this case, you are missing paths you aren’t even aware of because you aren’t moving or progressing.

So what to do? My personal observation is that most people are both more passive and too active in their career management than I would advise. Here’s my advice:

First – Be thoughtful about what you want. I’ve written about this in prior posts. Do you seek life balance, interesting work, high compensation etc.? What are your goals and how do you prioritize them?

Second – Work on implementing your dreams. Do all the things active professionals should do: networking, seeking mentors and advice, building your skills…A dream that you aren’t working on is a pipe dream.

Third – Recognize that there is no “perfect.” Too many people focus on “one step” moves when their desired position is logically a multi-step jump. Ask yourself when some new opportunity comes up “is this moving me in the right direction?” If yes, consider it even if it’s not perfect.

In my experience, many of the non-obvious opportunities turned out to be the best ones. I see many early career professionals agonizing over decisions that in the long run aren’t as momentous as they seem. This is not to say don’t think about it, just don’t lose perspective or get paralyzed.

Fourth – Be patient (but not too patient). You need to actually develop expertise in things. If you always jump around, you are not doing this. Weigh how much you are developing in a current role (skills, leadership and specific subject matter knowledge) before jumping to a new one for a few more dollars or a job grade bump. Make moves for the right personal reasons.

Many exciting career opportunities are “emergent”. They weren’t predictable or knowable to you before they came about. For example, my job didn’t exist until it was created. I don’t mean the position, I mean the job. The combination teaching, consulting, mentoring responsibilities I have as Professional Director for the Consulting Enterprise is relatively rare. However, I knew I liked teaching and consulting, stayed engaged in the school, pursued positions at my prior employers that related to these interests and so was well positioned when the opportunity came up.

My final advice: be true to yourself and make purposeful moves that build in your chosen direction.

As always – I’d love to chat or write about specific cases, so please feel free to follow up with me.


Always be nice to gatekeepers and staff…

April 11, 2009

…or you don’t get through the gate.

 

I am continually amazed by some people’s lack of both pragmatism and grace in various business situations. One of the most obvious ones is dealing with individuals who are obviously “gatekeepers”. To me a gatekeeper is anyone who is clearly standing between you and an individual or group you want/need access to.

 

Why should I care?

 

In my undergraduate management class we talk about “power” and its sources. They include things like hierarchical position, control over information, network of allies and several other attributes. A gatekeeper almost always wields a deceptively large amount of power and influence for several reasons that relate to these power bases.

 

First, they are often very close to the principal in question. If they are their admin or adjutant they are typically intimately aware of their boss’s goals, needs, opinions etc. This person is usually personally chosen by the executive and has the executive’s interests at heart. Their success is bound up in their boss’ (at least at some level). They have “referred hierarchical authority” from their boss.

 

Second, because they aren’t a senior executive (or at least are less senior than the boss), they are more accessible and thus are privy to scuttlebutt and gossip their boss may not be. This puts them at the center of information networks with “insider knowledge”.

 

Third, due to both these things bosses often put a great deal of value on their assistant’s view of others. Why? These folks see others in less formal or guarded settings than the boss does. Most of us can control ourselves in obvious power situations where a superior is watching us. How you act when no one is looking is much more revealing. Gatekeepers tend to have a better view of this aspect of us. I have seen people lose six figure opportunities over subtle office issues around how candidate treated staff in situations the hiring manager didn’t see, but heard about.

 

Fourth, these people are often the ones charged with creating order in their bosses hectic worlds. Most senior execs are out of control and the admin manages this as best they can. They can lock down a calendar and completely deny you simply based on schedule and (your lack of) priority.

 

In my experience, a bad run in with an admin or exec assistant can actually be more damaging than a bad run in with the boss. Why. I can forgive you jousting with me, I might even give you credit for standing up for yourself if professionally done. Treat my assistant badly and you’re just a bully. Same as going after my son or daughter. No quarter will be given. View the offer as gone if you were an intern or the promotion off the board later in your career.

 

Conversely, being favored can yield special access, quiet behind doors praise, special knowledge of information others (even senior execs) don’t have access too. This can be as simple as getting 5 minutes to brief the exec on an idea while others are rebuffed. But this access is precious.

 

How do I develop support?

 

So, given the importance of gatekeepers, how do I develop rapport and influence without coming across as craven and just a brown-noser? This is just a specific case of applying concepts on building support from my earlier post. Read here for general guidance.

 

My point in this post is to focus your attention on how important gatekeepers are in the general scheme of things.  In many cases, simply treating them nicely (not even going above and beyond) will go a long way. Showing interest in someone whose whole job is to serve someone else who is the center of attention can be very comforting. You’ll be surprised at how much people will tell you if you simply demonstrate respect and make time to hear about their day.

 

In the end, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.