Knowing which side is your bread buttered on

March 14, 2010

I’ve seen lots of people lose site of who the client/boss is. Whether it’s a consulting situation or merely your boss, it’s important to maintain focus on who it’s (relatively) most important to please. Particularly early in their career, professionals can get hung up on what’s “the right” thing  to do, presenting “the right” solution (as if there’s just the one) or naively misunderstanding what gets rewarded and punished. My point is not that idealism is wrong, but rather to keep perspective on priorities and understand “which side your bread is buttered on”.

(Caveat: There is a whole separate set of topics around this on “getting what you want” and “being politically astute”. For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about these things. We’ll focus both on pleasing the boss and understanding the consequences of not pleasing him/her. There are certainly times when we decide to do what we think is appropriate and that has consequences. That’s for another post.)

First, let’s be goal oriented. As reward seeking individuals, we want to do well. This can be defined financially (won another sale, increasing my pay), reputationally (I was praised publicly, increasing my social capital), emotionally (I did good work that was important, increasing my satisfaction) and in many other ways. To get any of these you need influential people to decide you did good work.

So what’s the pecking order of who we need to please? With clear exceptions and understanding that “it depends”, I would propose the following hierarchy:

Level 1 – Your boss. You MUST please your boss. Even if your boss is ineffectual and weak, if they don’t advocate for you you will have a hard time in reviews and salary discussion. Make your boss look good and you are well on your way to good reviews.

Note: I get that some bosses are crappy and treat you poorly. In this case you need to manage a move without pissing them off. Whether you like them or not, you don’t want to turn them into career terrorists for you. Also – getting a reputation as someone who can work with anyone is a plus.

Level 2 – Your boss’ boss and chain of command. Collectively, these executives will have a big influence over your fate and your work presumably directly affects their performance. You want them to A) definitely know who you are and B) have a positive impression. Generally speaking, they will be the ones who decide whether you get other opportunities, not your boss. This is usually because they have greater span of control and more influence.

Note: They have more power, but are second on the list because your boss will still be more immediately relevant in your review, compensation etc. If your boss kills you in a review, you’re dead.

Level 3 – Clients. This could be either internal or external.

I have them third because in any individual interaction, you need to understand your boss’ priorities as you evaluate and prioritize your activities. In the long term if you piss of your clients, you’ll have a short career. I am not saying clients are less important than your chain of command. Without clients, there is not business. What I am saying is that for an early/mid-career professional, never forget who’s in charge.  For example, sometimes you need to aggravate your client to meet a firm goal in the short term.

If you are a consultant working for a client or working cross-functionally on a team outside your department in a large organization, it’s important to understand several things clearly.

First, who is actually paying (or reviewing) you? Stated differently what budget line item is your fee coming from and who is the actual decision maker? Never confuse that with “who do we deal with the most” or “who is assigned as our liaison” etc. Understand where the buck stops.

Second, you need to understand their political position. Are they internally powerful? Are they internally weak? This matters because you want to be smart about navigating a client’s environment. Whether it’s being clever in support of your primary client and their agenda or not overplaying your support because you want to win future work and they aren’t in a position to buy, you need to understand the landscape.

Managing across levels. Sometimes you have to piss someone off. Be strategic and don’t always make it the same person/group. Spread the pain and make sure you “make good” at some other time.

I’ll give a few examples I have seen in my career:

  • Partner tells you to do something that doesn’t appear in your client’s interests.
  • Client staffer (but not your “paying” client) you really like is going to get hosed by a pending decision.
  • Your boss’ boss asks you to do something not in your boss’ best interest.

How would you handle these? There’s no “right” answer, but I’d encourage you to think broadly about how to prioritize and always remember “which side your bread is buttered on”.


Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

Fake it ‘til you make it

September 12, 2009

Something I see a lot of people struggle with in their careers is having the confidence to lead. I hint at this in a number of my posts, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed head on. So here goes.

I was just reading a column in business week (“Acting the Part of a Leader”) by noted leadership author Warren Bennis that struck a few chords for me. Many people I chat with or teach have the mistaken impression (in my opinion) that people they perceive as leaders have tremendous confidence, are particularly wise or have some other higher powers that they aspire to have. They often are looking for “the answer” to how to get there themselves. I am certain I was that way years ago and I guess I still am in some ways.

Based on my own experience and backed by some scholarly research, here’s the secret: Most “leaders” didn’t start out that way. It is in fact achievable if you are willing to work at it, take some risks and be resilient when you get knocked down. In addition, you usually have a limited number of really high pressure situations in which to learn to perform. These situations are often thrust on you by circumstances.

Play the Part

Bennis makes an important point about leaders. They are usually “acting the part” of a leader. I suppose that some people naturally do the right things, but most I can think of (Lincoln, Roosevelt, MacArthur, Churchill, Alexander etc.) were masters of wearing “the mask of command”. They understood the part they were required to play to move people forward.

The same dynamic plays out in smaller groups and day-to-day experiences. Most of us won’t lead the free world or face life and death decision for multitudes. But most of us will face adversity in groups and have the opportunity to lead, even if quietly and not from the front.

I think this takes courage more than confidence – A willingness to “be out there” and maybe be wrong. I encourage people to put themselves out there. If it’s a little bumpy, that’s to be expected.  Confidence grows from experience. Do it more and you’ll get better at it.

I’d also add there’s a big difference between being nervous and showing your anxiety. Being visibly agitated doesn’t instill confidence in anyone. I haven’t met many people who were confident in every situation they face, but those who adapt and are able to project confidence are better able to bring teams along.

You often have to play a role that is difficult for you, but needed by the group to advance. In my own career I can think of many examples. The way you lead a small group of high performers is very different that how you lead a team that is underperforming and on a tight deadline. That’s part of what makes genuine leadership tough. There are common principles, but every situation is different. You need to try and be who you need to be given the context.

 So I guess my take-away is “fake it ‘til you make it”. There’s no reason you can’t be more effective if you work at it.


Sharks Sink

August 30, 2009

…if they stop swimming. I know this because I have 3 children under the age of seven and have become incredibly knowledgeable about sea creatures, dinosaurs and transformers. It turns out that they don’t have swim bladders like most fish. If they stop moving they sink.

I think many people (including me) are a lot like sharks. Some people are content to be in an entirely stable, relatively unchanging situation. That’s wonderful if you are one of those people. I’m not and I know I have a lot of company. For the rest of us, we’re usually looking for some new challenge. It may be personal (learn the guitar) or it could be professional (achieve a career goal), but whatever it is there tends to be something.

Having stipulated that many of us are seekers and often restless in our desire for something new, I want to hit on a challenge I see a lot of people face as they try to achieve these dreams. Many mistake “dreaming” for getting off the couch and making the dream happen.  If you find yourself thinking “I really wish that…(fill in the blank)”, but can’t think of anything you’ve done in the last few weeks to make that wish more likely then you’re not working at it. You’ve stopped swimming and are sinking.

So swim.

I’ve written in the past about exploring interests and beginning transitions. All that advice still holds. It can be as simple as calling a mentor and asking advice. Don’t have one? Then find one by asking for some introductions to people that seem interesting. Most people will give you a little time if you are polite and flexible about their schedule. 

I also think that if you can’t get yourself going on something you should reflect on whether it is either important or useful for you. I tell students of mine that when you’ve been told what to do to achieve some goal and can’t get yourself to do what you KNOW you need to do, then you’ve answered an important question. You must not have wanted it that badly.

Another important outcome of action is wisdom. I am a HUGE believer in active learning. You can read, meditate, think and do all sorts of wonderful mental activities. Ultimately to progress, however, you have to actually do something. Young people tend to undervalue the importance of grinding. Sticking to a problem and following it through is what yields comprehensive knowledge and wisdom.

I see so many want to do a 4 month project on some business topic and then be an “expert”. Guess what? Until you’ve lived through the consequences, struggled with the client impact and had to adjust course based on more data you haven’t really learned. Or at least not the right lessons.

I love this quote from Dr. Frank Crane, a Presbyterian minister and author of a series of essays early in the 20th Century.

“Out of action, action of any sort, there grows a peculiar, useful, everyday wisdom.  Truth is rarely found by the idle.  Nor is it the result of deep and long study.  It is a sort of essence that is secreted from a concrete deed.”

So if you are fully content with where you are, awesome! (I mean it). I am always admiring of people who have found their place. For the rest of us, if you have things you want to get done then you need to swim. Otherwise you’ll sink, falling short of whatever dreams you may have.


I’ve seen this before…

June 27, 2009

Why are some people so good at “seeing” things and how did they get good? In my opinion, “experience” is really just the development of a personal set of cognitive heuristics for dealing with what’s in front of you. In basic terms, you develop a sense of “I’ve seen this before and I have a pretty good idea of how it goes…”

This idea off pattern recognition, evolution, ecosystems and systems thinking has always fascinated me. Back when I was still in school, I can remember the effect the reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and James Moore’s The Death of Competition had on my thinking about business and relationships: the interconnectedness of it all. Some of their thinking is dated and gets a little abstract, but the core ideas, that there are a limited number of truly distinct patterns of interaction out there is a useful one.

This was brought to mind this week as I’m reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (on my favorite new toy – Amazon Kindle DX!). He is a paleontologist describing the evolution of human physiology. Great book, but the relevant point that sparked this post was a series of quotes he made regarding his learning process as a field worker locating and identifying potential fossils.

He starts by describing his essential blindness compared to experienced colleagues. The following are a few quotes that lay out his progression in awareness and thinking:

“Finally, one day, I saw my first piece of tooth glistening in the desert sun. It was sitting in some sandstone rubble, but there it was, plain as day. The enamel had a sheen that no other rock had; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Well, not exactly – I was looking at things like it every day. The difference was this time I finally saw it, saw the distinction between rock & bone. … All of a sudden, the desert floor exploded with bone…as if I were wearing a special new pair of glasses and a spotlight was shining on all the different pieces of bone.”

“ Over time, I began to learn the visual cues for other kinds of bones: long bones, jaw bones and skull parts. Once you see these things, you never lose the ability to find them.”

“Twenty years later, I know that I must go through a similar experience every time I look for fossils someplace new…I’ll struggle for the first few days…The difference is that now I have some confidence that a search image will kick in.”

“One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence.”

This lays out beautifully the progression you see in people’s lives and careers, IF they are paying attention.

The point is that as you get “better” (more observant, more experienced, etc.) you are developing mental heuristics. Your mind is being trained to think in new ways and short cut many steps based on experience, building new pathways in the brain. Malcolm Gladwell coins this “thin-slicing” in Blink.

I see two ways you need to develop and apply this pattern recognition concept. The first is simply getting better at it within a domain. This is essentially what everything above is really about. Develop deep knowledge and you can then get very good at a subset of things.

The second is to me what separates really excellent and creative thinkers and problem solvers from those who aren’t. Can you abstract and generalize patterns and apply them to new venues? Are you good at analogy?

Most problems are not new and many apparently unrelated problems are very often quite similar. This is what Senge gets at in the Fifth Discipline. There are a limited number of system archetypes and components that describe most systems, whether they be human, animal or natural.  

Effective general managers and consultants need both abilities. I have seen people promoted too quickly without broad experience struggle in that they are “learning on the job” at too high a level. Understanding all the moving parts of a $20MM business is easier to learn, but is much more like running a $1BB business than is going from running a $1BB function in a company to running a similar size/budget business. The business owner has more complex networks they are navigating.

Having said that, you will never have all the experience you need. So how do you manage learning curves? Well, being good at analogy and applying prior learning in other areas to a new problem is very effective. If you can’t you’ll struggle…a lot. (Curiosity, drive etc. all help a lot too!)

In my coursework, I try to teach people generic skills around problem solving  that are broadly applicable so they can be flexible in their thinking as we all have different cognitive styles. In part, this is to force people to apply themselves to answering questions themselves. If I tell you something you may or may not remember it, but even if you do you aren’t likely to understand it. If you go figure it out on your own, however, you’re likely to “never lose the ability to see” what you’ve learned as Shubin points out.

So, what’s the “so what?”

1)     Developing experience and expertise is about developing a sense of pattern recognition. This allows you to “see” things more clearly and with less work over time.

2)     You have to struggle through the hard work of developing this ability. It comes from doing. A guide can tell you what to look for and mentor you along the way, but the insight has to be yours or you won’t really own it.

3)     Being able to extend your insights into analogous environments is very powerful. Particularly if you want to be a general manager.


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.


Is the juice worth the squeeze?

April 6, 2009

I’ve always been coached and offered the advice to people to be careful when they take certain actions. Make sure it’s worth it. I recently got a great summary of it when reconnecting with a former boss. He said where he grew up this is called “is the juice worth the squeeze?”

 

In difficult situations, there’s always a temptation to respond impulsively or do what feels good. Whether it’s an email, a “witty” response in a meeting or a significant political position…think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

A common misperception I see people make all too often is that there are no, or limited, consequences to just saying what we think. This is soooo wrong. There’s a great scene in the godfather where Sonny blurts out a disrespectful and revealing comment to Sollozzo. Don Corleone’s dismissal of Sonny is “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.” In this case it ends for Sonny at a toll booth in a hail of bullets. I’ll summarize in saying the juice was definitely not worth the squeeze.

 

Obviously, most of our lives are not as dramatic. Nevertheless there are many opportunities to make a poor choice along the way. I’d encourage you to think through in certain situations WHY you would be responding or acting the way you do. My point here is to separate ethics from ego. A few that come to mind are:

 

1)    Making yourself feel better. This is entirely ego and almost always a bad idea. You’ll feel better for seconds…until you feel worse. The downside is generally worse than the few seconds of cleverness you get to enjoy. Not much upside here. The classic example here is emailing angry. Bad choice.

 

2)    Speaking truth to power regarding a likely poor decision. This is more complicated. Ego and ethics can get co-mingled and both sides can believe they are doing the right thing. My counsel is to think carefully. You are probably more able to be somewhat assertive as you are (hopefully) data driven in your concerns, have a fact base to argue from and are smart enough to frame disagreement impersonally. Just think carefully before speaking.

 

3)    Speaking truth to power regarding an ethical concern. This is where things get stickier. You need to think hard before responding and consider whether you completely understand the situation and the implications of acting. Making a major ethical stand can be heroic…or foolish.

 

First, assess the situation. MAKE SURE you have your facts straight and that you are on firm ground ethically. Lots of things can be gray. Being black and white in a gray world can be problematic. Second, be sure you are willing to leave or be marginalized if things go badly. When you fall on your sword, you are impaled. You may not survive so be sure you understand this.  Third, make sure you have assessed the bigger picture. Could you have a bigger impact by swallowing hard, staying and keeping other things on track?

 

4)    Acting in your own vs. others’ self interest. In the end everyone will know if you take care of yourself over others. Your reputation will suffer. Consider the implications before acting.

 

So think through how to respond in difficult spots. I’ll write my next post on how to handle some of these situations wisely to create scenarios where you can do what you think is right without blowing yourself up.

 

There isn’t a right or wrong answer in these areas. It’s up to you to do what’s right for you. Just think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.