Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Start Off Big

One of the most often heard requests for advice I get is from leaders who are trying to establish or grow a development organization. This makes sense because building an organization that can effectively deliver technology solutions isn't just hard, it is one of the most difficult types of organizations that exist.

Especially with the entrepreneurial types a common approach is try to do things on the cheap. They try and get the lowest cost resource who can do just the minimum type of work they think they need to get their idea of the ground. They think if they just had a guy who could do X, they'd figure out all the rest. And couldn’t that resource somehow grow into someone who can do X and Y? As if acquiring good technology talent is like finding a great pitcher. Not even close.

Finding a player for a team brings together skills of the various team members based on who they are now. Bringing together a world-class technology team is about finding people who will become fundamentally different when they are successful. You cannot see them for who they are, or even who they will become as they grow. You need contributors who perform in certain ways when things are failing, when needs aren't being met, when you are clearly not having success. You need contributors who won't necessarily compensate for the weakness of others to drive to success, but leverage those weaknesses to change the business or the circumstances. It's not always about success, sometimes it is about managing the failures. It isn't always about finding someone who can be successful, but identifying someone who will tolerate and grow even when objectives aren't being met.

These are hard truths but let me come at it from a different angle.

If you found someone who could very easily do what you need to do today to make the system run smoothly, they would likely be bored tomorrow once the system is running smoothly. They wouldn't necessarily have the motivation to seek the optimum solution, the unreasonably good approach to the circumstance. You don't want someone who knows your problem and only your problem and has done it a thousand times and will do it a thousand more. This person is a technician. They are a commodity and you should bring them in only for point-in-time consultations. Otherwise, they'll be bored and they won't think outside the box.

Finding someone who clearly hasn't done what you need and is willing to try something new is risky but might be worth a shot. The upside is you get someone who is willing to grow and learn. This is always valuable but brings with it some chance of failure. After all, they might not be successful in the direction they choose to take. You can mitigate the risk if you have some expertise available to stop them from going off the rails, but if you had that expertise already you wouldn't be in the position of seeking someone new.

What you want is someone who has done something similar, who can bring the lessons in their successes and failures to bear in the problem-space you find yourself. They can challenge the status quo, but recognize that most new things are variations on the patterns that have gone before. You want them over-qualified for the job so they learn the trivia of the circumstance and challenges the assumptions and your execution. But you want them demonstrable capable of adapting to the change as the solutions mature from idea to sustainment.

So like a good real-estate investor friend of mine once told me, go for the house just a little more than you can afford. You'll have to really work at it in the short-term, but very quickly you'll grow into it. You'll pay more for the big gun when you start off, but if he's good he'll have your organization growing very quickly and then you'll need someone with his experience to manage the technicians you will bring in as well as the young bucks who will need mentoring.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pushing and Shoving

Building a team isn't something you do every day. Choosing what kind of leader you want to be absolutely is something you need to do each and every day, many times a day in fact.

As we interact with our people and amongst ourselves we are continually faced the challenge of how hard to push them and how much to compensate for the realities of a market, industry, location, or culture. In the end, I believe that not pushing people to excel is actually hurting them and the organizations we support.

If you allow people to repeatedly come up against the wall and back down, you are depriving them of the opportunity to grow and stretch. To get better, to add more value, to do more than the ordinary. If we aren't setting an expectation that walls are something they go over, that no challenge is insurmountable, then we allow them to fade into mediocrity. It is a slippery slope. One made more I feel by the way in which we evaluate and give feedback.

As a consultant I've been privileged to work inside and alongside employees from literally dozens of corporations. From Fortune 100's with thousand of employees, to small finance companies that made billions of dollars with only a few hundred employees. In every organization I've worked in, for, or alongside of there same basic model was followed. For the most part individual performance is ignored until some arbitrary review cycle in which supposedly all the good and bad was dumped into a morass of feedback that was tied in some convoluted way to compensation or promotion. This process involved everyone dredging up events and commentary from the months prior in a flurry of anxiety trying to capture some meaningful thread to rationalize decisions about who is performing that were mostly already decided. Once the process was complete, everyone tucked the papers in a desk and safely ignored them until the next arbitrary cycle kicked off again to repeat the insanity. Of course, I'm sure in your unique/special organization this is entirely different and everyone just loves and thrives under your evaluation process.

This model of ineffectiveness is perpetuated at least in part because of our inability to provide routine feedback and challenge our people and each other in a more interactive fashion. Why on earth should we be having a conversation about my performance three months ago, if I'm effectively delivering enormously critical objectives right at this moment? If I screwed up yesterday, why on earth are you going to wait multiple months to help coach me on how to be better? It's really quite absurd when you think about it.

As leaders it is our responsibility to ensure all our employees have an opportunity to take on new challenges, knowing full well that the likelihood of missing the mark is ever-present. If we allow our employees to think that not meeting a challenge is a bad thing, we give them permission to rise to each challenge and face them head-on. Don't get me wrong, not delivering on expectations shouldn't be the norm. But neither should we operate out of fear. In the same way, willingness to take on challenges should be the norm, and the ability to exceed them regularly should be especially rewarded. We all need to try, we can't always win. Everyone gets points for trying, everyone should win sometimes. Some should get more points for winning more frequently or overcoming bigger hurdles, but not making a good try should be grounds for dismissal.

Each day you go through as a leader that you aren't giving your people feedback is a day you are letting them down. Don't steal their opportunities to improve. Don't deny the competent ones room to grow because the incompetent ones don't get corrected. One of the hardest parts of leadership isn't just knowing who to push for growth, it's also being willing to give some of them a shove. . .right out the door.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Sometimes Growing Is Hard

I was reviewing some notes about a company I worked for quite some time ago. This organization was struggling with several issues including retention of their most creative and capable resources. At one particular leadership meeting I heard the message of helping people grow repeated multiple times. However, what I never heard was a desire to train. We spoke often about helping people to learn, but very little was said about how to improve the ways in which they were taught.

At several opportune moments I interjected that perhaps we needed more formal training. That we needed a model to deliberately and consistently teach each level of the organization what we expected them to know. It was met with head-on disapproval. If we spend time teaching, we impact productivity. If we make the learning and evaluation more rigid then it would discourage creativity and individual development. What a bunch of nonsense. Oh, I get that there is a very real cost to training and teaching. I understand that with a guideline and criteria against which people can be judged there will inevitably be those who cannot measure up. Which means difficult decisions and even harder conversations.

What about our culture of individualism, self-improvement, and the environment of empowerment we try so hard to foster? I fail to see the relevance. How many times have I seen leaders with the passion and desire to be better, but lacking the skills or ability. Countless. Why do we feel that just because want to allow people to figure out how to be mentors, how to be leaders, how to encourage improvement and quality, we must also refuse to give them tools to d that effectively. Why do we fail to give them criteria or a standard by which to measure this growth?

To build a world-class organization you need to provide specific tools and training so that the people we expect to lead have the ability to match their passion. They need to be measured on multiple aspects of their leadership and held accountable for their ability to improve and grow others, not just delivering tactical objectives. Those who need more help should be able to get it. Those with the desire to be leaders need to be equipped to be leaders. It is not acceptable to simply assume that the smart middle-management will be successful at supporting an environment or a culture where people encourage each other. It takes iron to sharpen iron. Sometimes you have to be trained to do the things you want to do.

Friday, October 05, 2012

And Now We Dance

It started with a conversation on how to accomplish some tactical
needs. Like a ton of bricks it hit me in one timeless moment. The
world has spun.

The typical circumstance I'm faced with is how I can help people tactically fix their problems or accomplish some time-boxed goal. Sometimes this requires that I help people become better at what they do. But my impact always has a clock; there is always a time limit. My influence is typically predicated on the underlying assumption that I won't be around very long. That any habits or new ways of thinking will probably only continue for the limited duration of my watchful gaze. But that is all changed now.

I have people to invest in. My first priority is helping the people in my organization to be better. To grow the people while we accomplish our objectives. When your timeline changes, then your measures of success can change. When your measure of success changes, your strategy and therefore your tactics will also change. And by extension the conversations will change.

If you know me at all, you know how deeply in my psyche the desire to see others become better is rooted. Helping others seek improvement without judgement is hard. It is a struggle to be consistently encouraging and accepting while simultaneously striving daily to champion quality and excellence. Acceptance of reality so easily slips into complacency. And to my knowledge no one has ever called me complacent. But then we all have gifts. One of my very few just happens to be juggling multiple conflicting agendas simultaneously. Living for the now, richly reveling in the present, and the relentless pursuit of excellence don't always play nicely. And that's why my heart skipped a bit mid-conversation. The fantastical realization that this role is uniquely suited to my particular strengths.

It's one thing to believe I can do a job. There have been many undertakings and opportunities in which I knew with certainty I could be successful. It is another thing entirely to confront with eyes-open a circumstance that was seemingly crafted just for me. To feel a resonance from the marrow of my bones that I've been brought to this role and it has been fashioned for me alone. That my wonderful diversity, like a perfect puzzle piece finally fit in place, might actually be home.

I'm looking forward to the growth. To becoming better as I flex those muscles so often underused and under-appreciated until now. I'm ecstatic and excited and impatient and so many other things. But one thing I'm not is nervous. Because this is going to be awesome.

Just you watch.