What If Your Boss Does Not Invest Time Mentoring You?

If your boss does not invest time in mentoring you, you must take charge of your own success and development. Begin by articulating a vision for your future. Be clear about your values, commitments, passions, goals and aspirations. Don’t merely think about these things. Write them down. The discipline of expressing these ideas in writing is challenging, and it can be frustrating, but it leads to clarity. That foundation then acts as your true north, providing you with a basis for making sound decisions and having high quality conversations with people who can contribute to your success.

Once you have this foundation, use it to seek input from others. If your boss is unavailable, identify other people whose advice might be helpful. Start by asking them for a brief meeting to get their input, perhaps at a nearby coffee shop. Give them your foundation document, and come prepared with a few questions. For instance, ask them what books they’d recommend. Take notes on what they say. Write a brief thank you note, mentioning at least one specific piece of advice.

Depending on your learning style, identify courses, seminars or books that can help you add to your professional knowledge. Join at least one professional association relevant to your career goals. Subscribe to a couple of publications relevant to your career.

Even if your boss is not going to be your mentor, you want to have a great relationship with him and you want his support. Make sure you know what your boss’s goals are, then make your boss’s priorities your own. Clarify his expectations of you and make sure you exceed those expectations.

Finally, I recognize that reporting to a boss who makes time to mentor you might be very important for you. If so, and if you’re not getting this from your boss, you should consider finding a new boss. This might involve seeking a transfer within your current organization, or it might require you to move to a new organization.

The proactive steps mentioned above will empower you to take charge of your own success and development.

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

Larry Sternberg

Who Should You Put In Your Training Program?

In 1979 I went to Atlantic City to serve on the opening team of the Playboy Hotel and Casino. It was a boom town, bustling with activity. Numerous casinos were under construction. The energy and excitement were palpable. It was a heady time. Atlantic City was being reborn.

In conversation with a long-time resident, I learned that in days gone by diving horses had been a major attraction along the once famous boardwalk. A horse and rider would walk up a long ramp to a high platform that extended over the ocean and  jump off. Voluntarily! Diving horse.

Immediately, I became intensely curious about how one trains a horse to do that. My acquaintance said, “Well the horse trainer still lives here, and he’s often at the Good Times bar at 5:30 on weekdays. You could just go over there and ask him.”

Unbelievable. Sometimes life just hands you something good.

I was soon sitting there with the trainer. I wish I could remember his name. This is what he told me:

I don’t actually train them. I find them. I take very young horses to the beach. Some of them just like going into the water. They just go in spontaneously and they like it. The horses that don’t go in, I eliminate. I take the ones who liked the water to a very low pier. Some jump in. The others I eliminate. I take the ones who jumped in to a slightly higher pier. Every once in a while I find a horse who likes jumping off the high platform. Of course at every stage there’s some coaxing, there’s some rewarding. But there’s never any coercion. That’s how it’s done. That’s my secret.”

Years later I was listening to a famous animal trainer who worked with lions and tigers. The interviewer asked how he trained those cats to perform the specific tricks. He replied, “I watch them when they’re very young – watch them when they’re just playing, doing whatever they want. Different cats like doing different things. If a particular cat likes to jump backward, I create a trick that requires him to jump backward. I build the tricks around what they naturally like to do.”

It’s the same with people. If you find out what a person does naturally and likes to do, training in those areas will likely result in rapid growth and increased engagement. If you’re training someone to do something for which he has no affinity (e.g., diving off a high platform or making sales calls) you can make some progress, but it won’t be rapid, it won’t be easy and it will plateau long before his performance could be called excellent. In addition, his engagement will likely go in the wrong direction.

There are plenty of situations in which a person has not tried something, so neither she nor anyone else knows whether she has an affinity for it. In that case, give it a try. But after a while, if progress is slow and labored, if she doesn’t enjoy it, continuing is not good for her or for the organization. Quit wasting your time, effort and money. Find something that’s a better fit for her.

Thanks to Elisa Hillman for suggesting this topic. And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

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

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

11 Surefire Ways To Prevent Learning And Growth

Lately I’m seeing a lot of talk about the importance of developing future leaders. But I’m also seeing a disconnect between what people say and how they behave in the workplace. This post expresses my perspective on this disconnect. Here’s how to prevent learning and growth.

Please note that these items are not in order of importance. They’re merely in the order they occurred to me.

  1. Allow your employees to stay inside their comfort zone. Don’t let them advance too rapidly. Avoid giving them new responsibilities until you’re absolutely sure they will not fail. Go slowly.
  2. Stay inside your own comfort zone. Don’t set goals that require too much stretch. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
  3. Don’t empower employees to exercise initiative to solve a problem or improve your operation. Make sure they have to seek your permission first. You need to know what’s going on, after all. And your judgment is better than theirs.
  4. Make sure things are being done your way. Life is easier that way. If you do let people try things, make it risky for them. Make sure they know that they’ll be held accountable if those new things don’t work out.
  5. Discourage them from challenging the status quo or disagreeing with the opinions of the organization’s leaders (most particularly you). Expressing contrary opinions confuses other employees and undermines alignment.
  6. Don’t involve subordinates in making important decisions. Making those decisions is your job. Involving them just slows things down. Either you’ll have to spend time discussing ill-advised ideas, or even worse, their ideas might be better than yours, in which case why do they need you? Better not to involve them.
  7. Focus on what’s wrong with people rather than what’s right. Everyone has things they should work on. Make people work on their weaknesses. Make sure your coaching focuses on what they’re doing wrong. People need to accept constructive criticism.
  8. Invest most of your coaching time working with your worst performers. Everyone knows that a team is only as strong as its weakest players.
  9. If someone is doing an excellent job, discourage them from seeking a transfer or promotion. You could lose an excellent player, and you’d have to train someone new. It’s best for the business to keep them in that position. And it’s certainly easier for you.
  10. Make sure people know they’re accountable for their own growth and development. Advocate for a “self-development” culture, which relieves you of that responsibility, thus freeing you up to focus on more important aspects of your job.
  11. Make sure people know that if they don’t have a solution, asking for your help does not reflect well on them. You need people who bring you solutions, not problems, right?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. If you’re on the receiving end of these kinds of practices, I’d love to hear how they’ve affected you.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Know What Advice To Take?

This morning I’m thinking about harmony. Not harmony among different people, but the degree of harmony among the statements, decisions and actions of one person. For me, this goes beyond mere consistency, but as always I’m not interested in semantic disputes, so I’ll get to the substance of the topic.

When a leader makes a decision or takes some action, that action is perceived by others against the background of everything else they’ve seen the leader do. And people’s reactions to that behavior are influenced by how well it harmonizes with that background.

For example, years ago we were (appropriately!) excited about the book, “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters. Based on observations of successful managers, Peters described a practice known as “management by walking around”. Many managers changed their behavior by adopting this practice. For some, it harmonized with their management style and really improved their effectiveness. For others, however, it did not harmonize with their character or style. Their visits to people’s work spaces made people uncomfortable and confused.

As part of our quest to grow and improve, we seek advice from a variety of sources, including mentors, teachers, coaches and experts. It’s important to distinguish between two types of advice: 1) individualized advice, and 2) generic, one-size-fits-all advice.

If a coach or mentor has invested the time to get to know you, he or she is much more likely to make recommendations suited to your character and your natural proclivities. Their advice might push you outside your comfort zone, but it will harmonize with your style. Their individualized recommendations make sense for you, but might not make sense for someone else.

You must be more thoughtful about generic advice, such as the advice in this blog. You must decide whether it’s suitable for you. In some cases the answer might be readily apparent. But there will be some cases where the answer is not clear. In those cases I recommend you experiment. You’re in your leadership laboratory every day. If a piece of advice makes sense to you, give it a try. If it works for you keep doing it, and reflect on what you’ve learned. If it doesn’t work for you, quit doing it and reflect on what you’ve learned.

A final thought. One common way we grow involves identifying role models, and doing our best to emulate their behavior. It’s likely you have someone in your life you look up to. You observe their behaviors and you say to yourself, “That’s how a successful person acts, so that’s what I’ll do.” I hope you continue that approach, but don’t mindlessly assume that everything that works for them will work for you. Ask yourself whether a particular behavior harmonizes with your individual style. If you’re not sure, give it a try. Whether it works for you or not, you’re sure to grow.

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

Larry Sternberg

Should You Hire People Who Are Better Than You?

Are you kidding me? Can you believe this is even a topic of discussion in 2015? Recently I became aware that some leaders continue to wonder about this. So here are my thoughts.

The answer is, “Yes,” by the way. But let’s not naively believe that this makes the leader’s life problem-free. Every strategy brings benefits and drawbacks. Would you rather come to work every day dealing with the problems presented by leading a group of mediocre performers, or the problems associated with a group of high-potential people? I prefer the latter.

What problems do high potential people present? The most fundamental challenge for the leader is to answer the following questions:

  • How do I keep this person engaged and excited to come to work?
  • How do I help them explore their potential?
  • How do I help them progress rapidly?
  • How do I avoid feeling threatened by them?
  • How do I keep them from being recruited away?

Most importantly, cultivate close relationships with your high potential players. The closer you are, the more influence you have. The closer you are the more you’ll know about their needs, passions and aspirations. Make it clear that you seek their greatest good. Extend yourself to ensure that their needs are being met, and that they see a very desirable future in your company.

Tell them clearly you see their potential and your goal is to help them progress as rapidly as possible. Make sure you know what they want to learn and help them learn it. Take risks on them. Give them assignments that require them to stretch. While doing this, express your sincere belief and expectation that they’ll perform with excellence. Make sure these assignments enable them to add significant value to the organization.

Empower them to make decisions and try their ideas. Not only will this accelerate their growth, but also it’ll contribute to your growth. You must be willing to learn from them.

Be their champion. Celebrate their successes.

Don’t control them. Lead. Teach. Influence. But don’t control. Accept that they’re going to make some mistakes. If you control them, the outcomes are your outcomes, not theirs. No growth will result. High potential people hate micro management. Even if you disagree with a particular decision, ask yourself, “Does this decision bring the risk of great harm to the organization?” If not, let them proceed despite your misgivings.

If you’re threatened by high potential players, recognize that feeling threatened is only a feeling. It does not have to control your behavior. No matter how you feel, you can choose the right behaviors. It’s not always easy, but it can be done.

Great leaders want high potential players whose performance elevates the entire organization. They want to develop people who will lead the organization to greater heights after they’re gone. This requires recruitment of people who will be better than they are.

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Find The Growth Opportunities During Tough Times?

Nobody looks forward to tough times. But let’s face it. Tough times are inevitable. They’re part of life’s journey. They cause a range of negative emotions and behaviors, including frustration, anger, blaming, finger pointing, and despair – just to name a few. But it’s during tough times that people most need great leadership. And like any life experience, they present growth opportunities for everyone involved. By no means do I think I have the best wisdom on this topic. But I do have some thoughts.

My first thought is something my friend Doug Rath says frequently, “This too will pass.” Great leaders, I think, know this. They know that hanging in there is a necessary strategy. Sometimes a situation calls for unglamorously soldiering on.

But how do you get people to soldier on? Most fundamentally, you must give them hope. Hope is the antidote to despair. And the belief that we can make things better, that we will make things better is a powerful motivator. In my opinion, it’s not about getting people to believe in you, it’s about getting them to believe in themselves.

Discuss your organization’s mission and remind people how your organization is making a difference in the world. Make it eminently clear that you will never give up on the mission and you will never give up on them. Give very clear direction about what the priorities are, what your plan is, and what each person’s role is in executing the plan.

Understand that success is highly motivational, and that even during tough times people are achieving successes. But they often don’t even notice their successes due to the overall situation. Don’t let people focus only on what’s going wrong. Some things are going right. Be intentional about calling out successes. Start every meeting by asking each person to name a recent success. This injects perspective and positivity into the situation.

The next point is most meaningful to me, personally. Use this situation to deepen relationships, including mutual support and loyalty. People who go through tough times together often form a deep and lasting bond. Your organization has the opportunity to become stronger due to this situation. You must nurture this outcome intentionally.

During tough times, people can become crabby and harsh with each other. Finger pointing and blaming can increase. Use your power to disallow this kind of behavior. Deliver this message (in your own words), “We’re better than this!” State your expectation that people choose mutually supportive behaviors. And, of course, you must model this behavior yourself. You all have the opportunity to grow as people.

This final point I learned from Dr. William E. Hall. During difficult, challenging times, talents emerge that would otherwise remain dormant. Be alert to spot these emerging talents. Once that good genie comes out of the box, find ways to use it. Find ways to celebrate these talents and nurture them into the future.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Larry Sternberg

Do You Individualize Your Coaching Practices?

Many leaders used to do the job of the people they’re coaching. And those leaders often were very successful in that job, and they’ve developed the belief that they know THE way to achieve success. Many sales training programs are based on this sort of belief. The limitation of this belief is that trainer or coach is unaware of her own talent. It doesn’t occur to her that others might not be capable of demonstrating the behaviors she’s recommending.

If you’re coaching someone, in any position, remember this: just because you were (or are) capable of doing something, that doesn’t mean that the person you’re coaching possesses those same capabilities. Of course there are some behaviors you can teach. But leaders routinely overestimate their ability to help others demonstrate behaviors that are not aligned with their aptitudes or character traits. Here are some examples. Maybe you’re comfortable with confrontation and he (the coachee) simply is not. Maybe you’re extroverted and he’s introverted. Maybe you have an eye for detail and he simply doesn’t. Or maybe you’re remarkably well organized and he’s not.

Great coaches begin by understanding the individual strengths of each person, and they implement the following principle, which is attributed to Peter Drucker: Build the strengths and make the weaknesses irrelevant.

Don’t worry so much about how you did it. Each person creates success by using his or her unique configuration of strengths. As a coach, you must understand that there are many paths to success. If you want to be a great coach, you must grow beyond helping others understand how you achieved success. You must help them figure out how they are going to achieve success.

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

Larry Sternberg

Will talent management practices create morale issues for employees who are not identified as talented?

This very intriguing question was posted by ANOOPA NARAYANAN, PhD scholar at Cochin University of Science and Technology. I think the answer is, “Yes.” Some talent management practices will create morale issues for some employees. My question is: What should we do about it? As usual, I don’t believe I have THE answer, but here are my thoughts.

I’m going to assume that Ms. Narayanan is referring to a situation in which a select group of employees has been identified as “high potential”, and are enrolled in a program designed to develop future leaders for the organization. Undoubtedly, there is a group of employees who wanted to be selected for that program but were not. In the moment, they’re going to be disappointed, and their morale will suffer.

First, I encourage us all to avoid the thinking (and the statements) that these employees are not talented. I use the word “talent” as a synonym for “aptitude” or “giftedness”. To have a talent for something is to have the potential for excellence in that thing. Often, we label someone as “not talented” because they are in the wrong fit for the gifts they’ve been given. Different careers require different aptitudes. So someone might be enrolled in a culinary arts program, but he or she lacks the aptitude to become a chef. Teachers in the program might say that person is not talented, but really they should say that person is not a talented culinarian. Maybe he has plenty of gifts, but they align with a different career.

I know an individual whose father insisted that he become an executive in the family business. But unfortunately leadership was not his talent. This person was a very talented photographer who was not allowed to pursue that as a career. I assure you, his morale was not good. That’s what happens when you put someone in a job that’s not a good fit.

Earlier in my career I had a top sales rep who wanted to become a sales manager. Upon considering him for that role, we concluded that his talent was selling, not managing people. So we declined the promotion.

Let’s assume we were correct about his lack of potential to be a good manager. What would be the consequences of putting him in that role? First, if he’s not a good manager, the morale of his direct reports will suffer. The performance of his team will suffer. He’ll be under constant stress trying to perform with excellence in a role for which he is not a good fit. That kind of stress contributes to serious health problems and burn out.

His morale did suffer, by the way, when he didn’t get the sales manager job. I tried to retain him, but he found a sales manager job with another organization. I still sleep well about that because giving him the job would have had worse consequences for our organization and for him.

We can mitigate some morale issues if we understand each employee’s talent and ask, “What’s the best fit for someone with those gifts?” Once we understand someone’s talent we have a better chance of putting her in a role where she spends the majority of her time doing things she’s good at and enjoys. When we can put someone in a job that’s the right fit, we’ve created a platform where she can add the most value to the organization, and where she can thrive and grow.

We must provide growth opportunities that go beyond traditional hierarchical promotions. In academia, for instance, individuals can continue to earn degrees that bring them increased status and respect, even though they don’t supervise anyone. Many trades and professions provide similar possibilities for people. We’d all be well served to create additional growth possibilities for our employees so that hierarchical promotions are not their only option.
If we’ve properly identified high potential employees, it makes sense to invest in their growth and development. We have to accept that this will cause some morale problems for those who were not selected. Some might leave. That’s a cost of the program.

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

Larry Sternberg