Avoid Costly Training Mistakes

A survey by The Economist of over 1100 Millennial employees and 150 managers revealed that 91% of Millennials felt they would spend less than three years in a job before moving on.  Noted author, David Burstein, wrote that it is possible that the Millennial generation will have had 14 jobs by the time they are 38 years of age. This attitude will challenge manufacturers and other technology organizations with extensive training programs and depend on employee retention to grow intellectual property and “know how.”

As noted in an earlier blog titled “Overcoming Obstacles to a Younger Workforce,” a clear business strategy and managerial transparency are essential for attracting younger workers. Commitment to executing the strategy, developing employees, and showing how employees support the strategy are critical to retaining them. Having spent most of their lives in a down economy, Millennials evaluate their opportunity for advancement and employer’s commitment to their development more carefully than their elders did. Communicating a clear career path strengthens employee engagement.

When developing a training strategy, it is important to consider how teaching methods have changed over the last couple decades. As a Boomer, I was very comfortable sitting in a lecture hall building a vast reservoir of knowledge before attempting to solve a real problem. Feedback on how I was doing was limited to two, perhaps three, examinations during the semester. Today learning is more focused on problem solving skills and assumes that all the knowledge details can be grabbed as needed off the Internet.  Students are accustomed to two-way feedback all through the learning process.

My suggestions for a positive employee development program include:

  • Structured Orientation – Graduates today starting their first or second job expect some training and orientation. Many organizations lack a resource to plan how an employee is brought into the company. I know from my own experience, there are costs associated with skipping or skimping on orientation.
  • Challenge – Younger workers are more schooled in critical thinking than my generation. There is value to assigning trainees a “real” problem and let them figure it out. Younger workers learn better with on-the-job training. “Spoon feeding” information risks losing the trainee’s engagement.
  • Autonomy – Self-paced training based on interactive technology has many advantages. Letting trainees control the pace assures that they won’t get bored and makes it possible to receive the instant gratification they wish for.
  • Structure the Training Path – The greater the correlation between skill proficiency and compensation, the better. Breaking training into small increments is cost effective for the employer and makes it easier to point to the next step in the employee’s development.
  • Appreciate and Encourage – Young workers are accustomed to receiving far more encouragement and monitoring than older managers are accustomed to delivering. In flat organizations, managers might want to assign peer mentors to trainees if the manager cannot allocate the time.

This may seem counterintuitive, but Don Tapscott wrote that, for managers unclear on how to best train the Millennial generation, task them with the problem. They will appreciate the collaboration and you will be pleasantly surprised by what you receive.  Please share your training successes!

Overcoming Obstacles to a Younger Workforce

I hBINDear many employers in Connecticut voice concern about their aging workforce and their desire to attract younger employees. More often, these comments are prompted by anxiety over the eminent retirement of key employees. But I wonder if these employers appreciate the extent to which the “Net Generation” will transform the workplace.  I recently read that the most desired recruiting prospects in the Millennial Generation will have five full-time jobs before the age of 27. Much of the turnover stems from dissatisfaction with today’s corporate cultures.

I use the acronym, BIND, to summarize the key adaptions that will make companies more desirable to the Millennial Generation:

Balance: Millennials feel strongly about maintaining a healthy balance between work, family, and friends.  Companies will profit from understanding how to make flexible hours and work rules mesh with their business model. Employers need to make the effort to create a work environment that fosters comradery and acceptance.

Innovate: Young people today are schooled to be better at critical thinking and innovation than their parents and, especially, grandparents. Organizations are missing big opportunities if they don’t harness those skills and put them to work for the organization. It’s important for Baby Boomer Bosses to never confuse laziness with boredom. These minds need to be challenged.

Net-Centered: Whereas Baby Boomers appreciate the Internet as a great source of information, Millennials have moved beyond that to share their activity and understand how people in their network can help each other. Millennials are born collaborators and do not revere hierarchical authority like previous generations. As Millennials are network-savvy, companies need to be more proficient and mindful about the information and image they convey on the network.  The image needs to be fresh and invigorating.

Development: Unlike Generation X, Millennials are very open to coaching and guidance from their “more experienced” colleagues. To survive coming talent shortages, companies will need to take a more progressive stance on career advancement. At least part of the attraction with companies like Facebook and Google is their ability to create a position around an employee’s strengths. While Millennials are great team players, companies will need to intentionally invest in developing leadership and managerial skills to replace the retiring Baby Boomers in time.

My last comment is for those employers. Retaining young talent will require managers to collect timely feedback and measure employee satisfaction. Do you do this measurement today?

Is There Really a Choice?

I recently witnessed a discussion panel with two venture capitalists arguing whether identifying an attractive market or assembling a credible executive team was more important in gaining funding for a new venture. Both parties agreed that both elements are mandatory for entrepreneurial success. Yet, both had it in their mind to pick one over the other.  Similarly, I’ve seen managers argue about whether to improve process or personnel. Sadly, many executives fail when they pick one path when there really isn’t a choice being presented.

Having too narrowed a focus is usually the culprit for leaders acting on these faux choices. A business is system that includes people, structure, process, strategies, and incentives. What managers sometimes forget is that acting on any one of these elements will have an impact on all the other elements. In a down economy, managers can obsess on cost and cash flow. Enacting cost reductions without accounting for employees’ reaction will have undesirable consequences. A leader’s insensitivity to employee attitudes or belief that they lack the time and resources to manage all the proper elements can lead an organization down the same rat hole. Studies estimate that only 16% of employees are engaged. This means that in a 20-person company, only three people understand the organizational goal, understand their role, and are enthusiastic about achieving the goal.

Managers can avoid these pitfalls with a complete strategy that addresses not only markets and products, but organizational needs as well. Please share your comments if you’ve witnessed a business strategy that had unintended consequences.

In Pursuit of a Follower

Some of the most vexing management challenges I’ve faced involve leading enduring cultural change. Anyone who has attempted to change a complacent, hostile, or defeated culture will understand the difficulty of this endeavor. I was recently treated to a viewing of Derek Sivers’ video, First Follower: Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy. The video illustrates the dynamics of creating a movement by showing a young man dancing away from a crowd at a concert. After a time, the dancer is joined by first one dancer and then a second. Upon seeing three people enjoying a dance, a crowd of people join in and the movement is launched. As the title of Sivers’ video suggests, the key player in any movement is not the initiator. Rather it is the first follower who must take the greatest risk and exercise the courage to follow.

Sivers makes two key points: the leader must be easy to follow and the leader must accept the first follower as a peer. The non-verbal elements of dancing clearly illustrate the movement concept. Leading in a workplace environment can be far less obvious and predictable. Before the ease of following a change can even be considered, one needs to be certain the lines of authority affected by the change and the performance incentives of the organization are supportive of the change. Either of these elements can thwart an organization’s ability to change. The ease of following a change can be broken down into how the organization perceives the change and the confidence those followers have in being able to execute the change.

The ability of followers to perceive value is closely tied to the clarity of shared goals, strategy, and system understanding. Even if an organization has a formal strategy, executives are often so pressed to create the strategy that they fail to give adequate attention to communicating the strategy. The messiest perception issue is whether the organizational values are compatible with what the individuals of the organization value and want. Organizations need to mitigate value differences as they often dilute the capability of the organization or lead to a top-down decision to replace members of the organization. Either consequence will diminish short-term results.  

Followers’ confidence in being able to perform the change is more often about trust rather than knowledge and skills. Sivers commented that the initiator needs to accept the first follower as a peer. In a business, a manager must grant followers time and attention to align expectations and collaborate on implementation. My experience is that patience is essential and that the desired change must be communicated over and over before followers will grasp the change. And most important, the manager must recognize and appreciate the courage of the first follower.

These are just some of the approaches to bringing about change. Please comment on your experiences with leading change. 

Staying In for the Long Haul

Last month I discussed managing organizational anxiety. It appears that the Sequester is a certainty and the odds makers in Vegas are turning their attention to whether the Federal government will shut down on March 28th.  One would hope that the ideological divide between our political parties will dissipate as the electorate slips through the five stages of loss.  (I think I’m stuck in depression…)

Accepting or not, there are trends that will be with us in the long-term and businesses had best learn how to cope with change. Managers need to become more innovative in addressing:

  • How to retain and develop a talented workforce
  • Managing the consumption and procurement of natural resources and energy
  • Coping with increasing taxation and regulations
  • Remaining competitive in global markets with global supply chains
  • Nurturing employee innovation and engagement to invent new products and services

While this list can seem daunting, the rewards for those who plan and succeed will be great. Sustainability Planning is a vital element of a company’s management process. These plans identify which of the externalities listed above pose the greatest threat to an organization’s future and allocate resource to action plans that assure competitive advantage and sustainability. Sustainability has many parallels with the Quality Movement of the 1980’s. Like Quality, well-reasoned sustainability measures generate cash in the short-term and profitability in the long-term. I’m happy to field questions on this topic and please comment on any successes you have had with sustainability initiatives.

Making Resolutions: Passion or Procrastination?

As 2012 comes to a close, we brace ourselves for the media highlight reels and the perfunctory New Year’s Resolutions. So often when I talk to people about resolutions, I see rolling eyeballs and shaking heads.  At least one of the reasons that resolutions are abandoned so quickly is that people don’t know how to make them. The same can be said for business executives and how they set annual goals.

Have–Do–Be or Be–Do–Have? The first question to ask when setting a goal is, “Is this goal about having something or doing something?” The New Year’s crowd will often say they want weight loss or more money. Businesses will report they want more revenue, more customers, and better quality. The problem is that these goals do not identify any action. My experience is that the New Age axiom of “Be-Do-Have” is the progression that leads to personal and organizational transformation.  Statements like “I will be fit” or “I will be more visible in the market” or “I will be more competitive” provide clarity and open possibilities for innovative action.

Is it your passion? Passionless goals and resolutions dissolve quickly. Ask yourself what are the aspects about your vocation and your life that REALLY get you excited. On the personal side, it might be travel, quality time with the family, access to education, or creative expression. For a business it might be surprising a customer by exceeding their expectations, innovation breakthroughs, or growing a more participatory culture. Successful executives are mindful of both personal and organizational passions and are certain to feature them in vision statements.

Is it specific and obtainable? It’s fine to “think big” and challenge an organization. But if you leave it up to the organization to find the way forward, you won’t find the cooperation to get the job done. I suggest taking a lofty goal and break it up into identifiable milestones. Above all, be certain who are responsible, what will be done, and when will it be complete.

What’s in the way? I’ve observed that the “secret sauce” for goal success is how obstacles are handled. There is enormous value in clarifying obstacles as long as it is handled with the understanding it cannot impact the commitment to the goal. In toxic cultures, discussing obstacles can be interpreted as weakness, complaining, or even bring into question one’s competence. In a healthy organization, managers identify discussions about obstacles as an opportunity to coax the organization to try something it’s never tried before. As an aside, guiding the transformation of a culture to tackle this issue is one of my passions. 

Mandates, Going FORWARD, and other Games

The results are in, the votes have been tallied, and, after a long, ugly election year, not much has changed. The partisan split in our government suggests policies will continue to be crisis-driven and reactive to economic challenges. Business owners are complaining about the threat of new taxes and other imagined catastrophes brought by our political gridlock. Still, I believe the future remains bright for those who can keep a cool head and spot the opportunities.

While changing markets and economies are demanding that business plans and strategies to be updated, business leaders often overlook the personal changes they will need to undergo in order to lead a change. The four factors that cause leaders to avoid change are fear, ego, conflict avoidance, and complacency. As we develop plans for the next year, it is wise for leaders to review the beliefs and assumptions underpinning the plan and do a “gut check” on the emotions tied to those beliefs. Perhaps some risks can be identified that can be managed and worth taking.

I have been saddened by the news of General Petraeus’s resignation from the CIA. His fall from grace cannot negate the fact that he has been a great leader and public servant. It is ironic that the November 12th Time Magazine published Paula Broadwell’s “Patraeus’s Rules for Living.” I’d like to paraphrase and pass on some of the rules that are relevant for business leaders today:

  • Lead by example. Your performance level will greatly influence the performance of the organization.
  • Provide a vision. Combine clear and achievable “big ideas” with strategic concepts and communicate it widely.
  • Be humble. “Listen and Learn.”
  • Leaders should be thoughtful but decisive. Take input from subordinates, evaluate actions and contingencies, and accept 80% solutions. Be prepared to make the call “when all eyes turn to you.”

As always, I would appreciate your thoughts. 

Can Executives Change?

I came across this question on a web site blog for executives that focus on management practices. My first reaction was, “Sure.”  I read some of the responses to the question and found they all support the idea that executives can change, but I saw words like fortitude, will power, and vision come up repeatedly. Mind you, these are all appropriate words but the responses seemed glib when I consider how difficult change really is. The answer to this question is not so obvious. I’m seeing executives today who would rather give up and move on than reinvent themselves and their organization. A change of venue is not necessarily the same as changing yourself.

While I have found successful executives lead their organizations for the greater good, I believe that there must be a strong personal motivator for them to effect a change. Most executives, particularly those schooled in leading by example, feel vulnerable when learning new skills with an undeterminable learning curve. Change is easier to achieve when a valued life goal is at stake. When I ask executives why they have taken on significant change initiatives, I rarely get the Sir Edmund Hillary response, “Because it’s there.” They usually have something more specific in mind.

I believe there are three success factors involved in change: a clear set of life goals, a sense of awareness that lets one question if the familiar ways are still the best way, and formation of a circle of trusted supporters that can help guide the change. Ideally, this circle of supporters will include people both inside and outside the executive’s organization.  When it comes to change, I prefer the other Sir Edmund Hillary quote; “I am a lucky man. I have had a dream and it has come true, and that is not a thing that happens often to men.”