Why Do We Need Better Succession Planning At All Levels Of The Organization?

Many organizations have a succession planning process for top executives, but they overlook the lower levels. A robust system would identify entry-level employees who have the talent to be great supervisors, supervisors who can become great department heads, and so on. You’d wind up with a vertical slice of high potential future leaders. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t invest much to identify and develop mid-level managers. The goal of this post is to help you realize the magnitude of the opportunity here.

What would happen if everybody in your organization had a great supervisor? I’ll tell what would happen. Engagement and retention would improve, quality and productivity would improve, and customer loyalty would improve. Those outcomes would increase revenue and decrease costs. Investing money identifying and developing great mid-level managers has the potential to deliver a huge ROI.

The success of your mid-level development program will depend more on who you enroll than on the quality of the development experiences. Regrettably, most organizations aren’t very good at identifying people with the potential to become great supervisors and department heads. They rely on performance metrics that have absolutely nothing to do with leadership potential. The most common example is promoting the number one sales rep to sales manager. The ability to close a lot of sales has nothing to do with the ability to manage others. When a person is assuming a brand new set of responsibilities, past performance does not predict future performance.

What if you became world-class at spotting leadership potential in entry-level employees? You can accomplish this with properly designed psychometric assessments. Then you can look an employee in the eye and say, “Don’t go anywhere. You’re the future of our organization. We see your potential and we’re going to invest in you.”

If you commit to this, you’ll gain a reputation for developing people, empowering them to move forward in their careers. You’ll attract more entry-level applicants with leadership potential, thus increasing your pool of possible mid-level leaders. As you identify and develop better supervisors and department heads your pool of potential senior leaders will increase. In addition to the other benefits I’ve mentioned, these leaders will have grown up in your culture. They’ll know what your stand for. They’ll naturally enliven your core values.

Improving your ability to identify and develop mid-level supervisors presents a considerable opportunity to drive the success and growth of your organization. I hope you go for it. If your organization is already doing this, I’d love it if you shared your lessons learned.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Is There An Alternative To The Employee Engagement Survey?

Employee surveys have been around for a long time. The current terminology is “employee engagement survey.” Years ago we called them “employee opinion surveys.” The goal of these surveys is to improve the organization.

The macro process is almost identical in every organization. First, the survey is administered, which involves a campaign from HR to maximize participation. A campaign is necessary because employees generally don’t look forward to participating. The results are analyzed and presented to the company. Managers and executives generally don’t look forward to this step. It’s often painful, but it’s considered necessary for improvement. Then, based on the results, strategies are initiated to improve the organization as measured by the next survey, and then the cycle repeats.

Lately, I’m reading more and more articles pointing out that all this activity isn’t resulting in measurable organizational improvement. This is analogous to the current trend questioning the value of annual performance evaluations. Many organizations are demonstrating the courage to quit doing traditional performance evaluations. Perhaps we should question the value of these very costly employee engagement surveys. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) presents an attractive alternative to the current engagement survey strategy.

Here is a quotation from the Appreciative Inquiry page in Wikipedia: “Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a model for analysis, decision-making and the creation of strategic change, particularly within companies and other organizations. It was developed at Case Western Reserve University‘s department of organizational behavior, starting with a 1987 article by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva.”

Cooperrider and Srivastva recognized that the kinds of questions one asks control the kinds of answers one receives. Engagement survey questions typically focus on what’s wrong, asking employees to think about deficits, deficiencies and problems. This results in a certain snapshot of the culture, and not a very uplifting one. But is it an objective snapshot? What would happen, they wondered, if we asked a qualitatively different set of questions? What kind of snapshot would we get if we asked employees what’s right about the organization? What are our strengths? What are we proud of? What accounts for our most meaningful successes and high points?

Depending on the set of questions, you get two very different snapshots of the organization. To me, it doesn’t make sense to ask which is more accurate. They’re both accurate. To me, the important question is which is more helpful in bringing about meaningful improvement?

Vince Lombardi, legendary coach, answered that question years ago. He rejected the common wisdom that reviewing and analyzing unsuccessful plays was the best way to improve team performance. He realized that it was much more effective to analyze successful plays and think about how to create more of them. He was doing Appreciative Inquiry before there was a name for it.

The goal of this post is to make readers aware of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and to encourage investigation and learning about how the application of AI can contribute to individual and organizational improvement.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.


Larry Sternberg

Are You Starting A New Job?

A new year is a time of new beginnings and many people will soon begin new jobs. Here are a few thoughts about how to do make that transition in the best possible way. My hope is that readers will contribute their thoughts as well.

Avoid making negative or critical statements about your former organization or about the people with whom you worked – even if those statements are factual and justified. This seems obvious to me, but I’m surprised at how frequently this happens. If you do it, you’ll damage your brand and you’ll make it more difficult to build trust with your new associates.

Adopt the mindset of being brutally open-minded (thanks to my associate Brent Proulx for this wonderful phrase). This is an opportunity for learning and growth. Be humble. Allow your biases and beliefs to be challenged. Avoid saying, “This is how we did it at my former organization.” As Steve Covey taught: First listen to understand, then strive to be understood. If you’re sincerely receptive to learning from your associates, they’ll be more receptive to learning from you.

Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by hearsay. Form your opinions about others based on what you personally observe. I remember an individual who joined my company and formed an opinion about person B based entirely on hearsay statements from person A. Person B, by the way, was his supervisor. I counseled him to ignore person A’s statements, but he chose not to. More than a year later he admitted to me that he made a big mistake by allowing A to poison his relationship with his supervisor.

Be aware of a specific form of hearsay, “The boss won’t let us do that,” or some variation of that statement. Way too often, the boss’ position has been misrepresented, or the boss has changed her position. If a particular issue is important to you, verify the claim for yourself.

Be intentional and proactive about developing positive relationships with your new associates. Get to know them and invite them to get to know you. Ask for their help and input. Believe it or not, asking someone for help builds relationship. Nothing is more important than building positive relationships.

Work hard and be relentlessly positive. These are readily observable behaviors. If people in your organization know nothing else about you, they’ll have a good impression.

Beginning a new job in a new organization presents a rare opportunity to polish your personal brand, an opportunity to grow and be your best self more consistently. In the most extreme cases, it could be an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Don’t let it pass. Pursue it with joyful vigor.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Top Posts in 2015

I’ve been asked to share my top ten most viewed posts for 2015. Here they are:

How Do You Shape An Organization’s Culture?

Are You Hiring For Today Or Tomorrow?

Are You at Peace with Your Work/Life Balance?

Will You Please Quit Checking Your Phone Constantly?

How Do You Keep Your Talent Bench Engaged?

Do Your Hiring Criteria Cause You To Overlook Great Candidates?

Are Performance Evaluations Worth the Effort?

Thinking of Bringing Back Former Employees?

Should You Hire People Who Are Better Than You?

How Do You Manage Up?

Thanks for reading. I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.

Larry Sternberg



What Should You Do When You Don’t Get That Promotion?

You’ve worked hard, you’ve sacrificed, you’ve exceeded expectations, but they chose someone else for that promotion you wanted. It’s extremely disappointing. It’s confusing. It’s painful. It truly sucks. What should you do now?

Start by being brutally honest with yourself. Do your best to figure out why. There are so many possible contributing factors, including personality, politics, or diversity, just to name a few. Maybe for whatever reason they made a bad decision. Maybe the person they chose was actually the best choice at this time. But the choice has been made. Move on.

Life is full of adversity. We can’t control what life throws at us. All we can control is how we respond. Although you didn’t ask for this experience, it gives you an opportunity to demonstrate what you’re made of — not only to others, but also to yourself. There’s plenty of talk these days about the importance of grit and resilience. These are extremely important leadership traits.

I believe it’s okay to express some disappointment, but don’t wallow in it. Don’t whine and complain. People want a leader who is optimistic, determined and future focused. Setbacks are inevitable. In every case, you have to choose your response. If you didn’t get that promotion, embrace the experience. Learn from it. Demonstrate your resilience and move on with hope and optimism. That’s the kind of leader people will follow.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your response.


Larry Sternberg

Why Should Employees Have To Pay Their Dues?

“Before he can become a [insert desired role here] he has to pay his dues, just like I did.” Have you heard this point of view? I’ve heard it my entire career. It’s high time to evolve our thinking, to leave this point of view behind.

The phraseology indicates that the dues-paying activities are a sort of penance — nothing more than a cost to the employee of pursuing a particular career goal. If a person isn’t willing to go through this experience they’re not worthy. They don’t want it enough. This reminds me of fraternity initiations.

Many valuable activities are unpleasant. When I was a law student, during class a professor would call on a student, who would stand to answer the professor’s questions. Trust me when I tell you this was no fun at all. It was a withering cross-examination. And I couldn’t see how it contributed to our learning. But it was universally accepted as a right of passage. So one day I asked Professor Gordon why he was doing this. He replied that judges would do this and worse in court, and our professors had three years to get us accustomed to performing with excellence when being treated this way in public.

That explanation made a lot of sense to me. There was a point to the activity. It wasn’t just a right of passage. We weren’t just learning the law; we were learning to be lawyers.

In many cases, a leader wants someone to pay their dues simply because the leader had to do that earlier in his career. That’s a terrible reason. If that’s your justification, break the cycle. Stop it.

If you’re requiring employees to pay their dues before progressing in their careers, I encourage you to answer the question, “Why is this a valuable investment of their time?” And please give a better answer than, “It builds character.” Life is full of character-building experiences. Nobody needs you to manufacture additional ones.

I’d like to distinguish mere “dues paying” activities from starting at the bottom and working one’s way up. Starting at the bottom can deliver great value in terms of learning, empathy and perspective. So I’m very much in favor of making people start at the bottom – if it’s for the right reasons.

If a required assignment is just a right of passage, get rid of it. Find a more valuable way to invest that person’s time. Let’s quit making people pay their dues.

Thanks for reading. As usual, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Can You Improve Your Coaching ROI?

As a leader you’re responsible to help your direct reports improve their performance. A big part of that involves coaching. Unfortunately, the term “coaching” has taken on a negative connotation in many organizations. To mention that a person is receiving “coaching and counseling” is, sadly, not a good thing. That’s because “coaching and counseling” is now a euphemism for “disciplinary action”. This post is not about how to discipline.

Did you compete in sports when you were in school? You expected to receive coaching. You wanted to receive coaching. This post is about that kind of coaching, the kind of coaching that actually helps people improve their performance. Coaching requires an investment of time, effort and money. What practices give you the best ROI?

First, in order to improve someone’s performance you have to understand what you have to work with. Begin by learning the answers to these questions: What are that person’s strengths and weaknesses? What are his or her character traits? What do they naturally do well? Here’s a hint when assessing someone’s potential — there’s a difference between room for improvement and potential for improvement.

Counter intuitively, a person’s greatest potential for improvement lies in building on areas of strength. However, way too often coaching focuses on efforts to improve areas of weakness. Asking a person to perform behaviors they simply don’t have in their repertoire actually makes performance worse. Why? Because aptitude matters, that’s why.

For instance, if a person isn’t good at telling jokes, coaching them to tell a joke at the beginning of a speech won’t improve their performance. In all likelihood they’ll tell it poorly, people won’t laugh and it’ll make things worse. If you’re the coach here, you should ask yourself, “To what end do I want this person to tell a joke? What outcome will that accomplish?” Let’s assume the answer is, “To establish rapport with the audience.” A great coach will help the person identify a different way to establish rapport, an approach that involves behaviors they can do naturally. Find ways to work around weaknesses. Find ways to make weaknesses irrelevant.

Great coaches focus on specific recommendations rather than talking in generalities. For instance, instead of saying, “You have to be a better listener,” a great coach might say, “When the prospect is talking, don’t interrupt. Take notes if you can.”

Great coaches invest more time reviewing successful performances rather than reviewing failures. If you want to learn more about failure, study failure. If you want to learn more about success, study success.

Don’t confine your coaching feedback to annual or semi-annual reviews. Give people frequent, candid feedback. Coaching is an ongoing, every day responsibility. Don’t shy away from tough conversations.

Of course there’s much more to coaching than can be addressed in this brief post. But if you follow these five guidelines you’ll improve your coaching ROI.

  1. Understand what you have to work with. Don’t ask people for behaviors they don’t have in their repertoire.
  2. Focus on building strengths rather than eliminating weaknesses.
  3. Review successful performances to learn how to repeat those performances.
  4. Provide specific rather than general recommendations.
  5. Provide frequent, candid feedback in real time.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg