Thursday, August 12, 2010

There'll Be No Cake in Hell!

Quick update:

I was recently in California and stayed with a friend who has a really soft guest bed. I returned home on the warpath and demanded that my husband Ralf remove the 20-year-old army cot we've been sleeping on and replace it with the Sealy mattress we bought while living in California, which I then loaded up with memory foam. He did this and promptly hurt his back, so now he has to go for physical therapy and we're looking for a new bed.

But my topic today is cake. I only mentioned the bed thing because Ralf called me yesterday from the chiropractor to ask if he should pick anything up at the store. I gave him a list then immediately called him back once we hung up to ask him to pick up some cake.

I love cake. My book club once read a book called The Glass Castle, which is a very funny book about child abuse. I know, that sounds all wrong, but everyone turned out OK and it's pretty hilarious. The mother in the story would hide out eating chocolate while her 4 kids had nothing to eat. Everyone in the book club was up in arms about this but I felt a kind of secret sympathy.

Of course, I would never do that just for chocolate, but I have been known to hide out with a piece of cake.

Sadly, Ralf didn't pick up his phone and I didn't get my cake. So I made muffins.

This morning Ralf heard my message asking for cake and (fondly) called me a hormonster.

I said: You could have picked up some cake anyway.

He said: You didn't ask for cake.

Me: You should have known.

Ralf (staring at me across the great gender divide): That is the quintessential woman statement. How on earth should I have known if you didn't tell me?

Me: Because I always want cake.

Ralf (thinking he's joking): Should I just bring cake every time I come home?

I pondered this, wondering if Ralf had inadvertently stumbled upon the answer to all cross-gender misunderstandings.

The title of a bestseller occurred to me as well: Men Are From Mars, Women Like Cake.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reflections on Self-Selection Part II

I recently wrote a post about the importance of giving employees a more active role managing their own talent.

Now I want to talk about how.

Despite the availability of increasingly sophisticated talent management solutions, most companies today leave employee development largely up to manager discretion.

And yet, study after study show we have a management skills gap.

This isn't terribly surprising, given that most companies put people into management roles based on criteria that have little to do with leadership skills and for the most part fail to provide any sort of training or coaching.

There are some great managers out there but that's not really the point.

The point is manager discretion. Here's why:

1) It's human nature to go looking for the next thing.
2) Ideally, you want people to look for the next thing at the same company.
3) If you rely on managers to broker the next thing you're blocking people.

When it comes to talent management, too much focus on management tends to drive away your talent.

It doesn't have to be that way: Imagine a company where employees can explore different career paths and evaluate the development steps they'd need to take to get ready for the next level. Motivated employees can, on their own time and initiative, start moving down a chosen path path and demonstrate regular progress, which is tracked.

Managers are involved in a coaching capacity, rather than a gatekeeping capacity.

Instead of hand-picking a few people, treating them like higher beings for a couple of years and hoping they turn out to be good leaders, internal recruiting at this company starts with people who have already demonstrated a steady commitment to self-development.

At the same time, managers can reward initiative by offering more leadership opportunities on the job. This, too, is tracked and the manager receives recognition for developing his or her team.

Pretty empowering, huh?

And it doesn't have to be high-tech: I once worked at a company where the VP of application development sent an email to the entire department inviting people to apply for several leadership positions and people emailed him back.

This was somewhat unorthodox because decisions like these are usually based on a predefined short list. But it was great for morale - and subsequent support of the new managers - because everyone had a fair shot.

Even the team iguana (if he had been more of a go-getter and literate) could have thrown his hat in the ring. I'm sure that meant a lot to him.

I'm not saying it's easy to put a new way of working in place because it's not.

On the other hand, we know that critical skills are going to be in short supply in the next years. We also know that relying on recruiting alone to acquire key talent is a risky strategy.

And we know that more than half of all employees identified as 'really good' are looking for new jobs because they feel frustrated and blocked in their current jobs.

Today's talent management solutions can track career paths, skills required for job profiles and development plans. Aptitude testing software is also available to help people decide where their interests and abilities coincide. Modern analytics can easily track what people are working on and how effectively they are managed.

So, maybe it's time to move away from top-down talent management in the direction of self-selection (aka, 'empowerment'), alternate career paths and mentoring.

Granted, this requires a lot of work, some investment and a completely new mindset.

But other than that, what's stopping you?

Picture courtesy of

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reflections on Self-Selection Part I

Today I reviewed a whole bunch of slides depicting the employee lifecycle for inscrutable reasons of my own and two things became clear to me:

1) We do more 'to' employees than they are able to do for themselves.

2) This needs to change.

Consider your basic employee lifecycle:

plan -->source --> hire --> on board --> evaluate --> compensate --> develop --> separate

How involved is the employee in each of these steps? Let me guess: Somewhat involved during sourcing, on boarding, evaluation and termination. Minimally involved in the compensation and development decision-making process.

Throughout the entire employee lifecycle, others decide whether the employee has leadership potential, what career development opportunities the employee will have, what rewards they are eligible for, etc.

Essentially, this means that employees 'win' by pleasing others, not by developing their own strengths or pursuing their own interests. Of course, these aren't mutually exclusive and it's certainly good to please others.

The problem is that if employees win primarily by pleasing, conformity quickly becomes your company's most valued asset. Which will only take the company so far.

There's a lot of evidence that autonomy is one of the biggest motivators, which makes sense because people work harder for themselves than for others.

If we want to motivate people to excel instead of just to please, maybe we need to break away from top-down talent management and find ways to make career development, rewards, and leadership opportunities more self-selecting.

In other words, bottoms up.

Picture courtesy of paperglueetc.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Let's Not Overdo This Qualifications Thing...

A recent post over at Steve's HR Technology about jobs that require degrees got me thinking.

I believe that how well someone will do at a job has more to do with who they are than what sort of degree or experience they have.

There are exceptions: If you're going to perform surgery on my brain or represent me in a court of law, I want to see a degree or two after your name and I don't want to be your first client after graduation.

But for a lot of the jobs out there, an understanding of the basics is enough to be going on with.

Let me tell you a story about a time when I talked my way into a job I wasn't qualified to do.

It was while I was in graduate school getting my MA in international management with an emphasis on Japan studies. There was a paid summer marketing internship in Tokyo that I wanted. Paid. Marketing. Tokyo.

I knew it must be mine.

Unfortunately, half the students in my class also knew it must be theirs. Most of them weren't a big threat to me - my grades were good, my Japanese was adequate, I'd already lived and worked in Japan and I'd taken a marketing class.

So, I had what you might call the basic minimum profile.

Only one person was a real threat to me. His grades weren't quite as good as mine, but no one actually cares about grades and his Japanese was friggin' amazing.

I plotted his downfall. Just kidding - he's still a good friend of mine - but I did plan to get that job.

Fortunately, the application required a self-introduction video. I wasn't so arrogant as to think I had the job in the bag when I heard this - because not everyone warms to an overconfident ham - but I knew this was my chance to stand out.

Let's face it, a video is almost always better than a resume with dubious credentials like 'ESL Teacher', 'Graduate Study Body President', 'Senior Aerobics Instructor', 'Writing Skills Tutor' and 'Assistant Financial Aid Clerk.'

I enlisted my teacher for help crafting a modest-yet-compelling introduction. I practiced the heck out of it. I wore my one suit and used copious amounts of product in my hair.

I shined. I exuded reliability. I appeared to speak fluent Japanese. I smelled good (just in case).

And I got the job. That was the first hurdle. The second hurdle was doing the job.

Despite my fluent introduction, my Japanese wasn't good enough to sit in on Japanese focus groups and take notes. We employed some note takers who would turn in their handwritten comments at the end of each focus group but that didn't help me much. I could decipher typed kanji characters with the help of a dictionary but the hand-written notes were way beyond me.

So, that first week I made stuff up. I told Coca-Cola executives their new Fanta drink was too pink (well, it was!). I told the Zegna management team that people found their suits elegant but expensive. I told... well, never mind, it was for the best.

I wasn't flying totally blind, you understand. I'd lived in Japan for 2 years and could read facial expressions and body language and I also understood some of what was said.

But in that first week or so, the guy I beat out for the job would have been a better fit.

Then something changed. In the focus groups, the same sorts of phrases were used over and over. I started being able to recognize and decipher the hand-written kanji characters. My brain adapted and began accepting new types of information.

After 6 weeks, I could fly through 10 hand-written pages of notes, pluck out the salient points and write up a killer executive presentation outlining product and marketing recommdations.

At the end of the summer, after several of my executive presentations had been favorably received by key clients, they offered me a permanent position after graduation. Which I politely declined.

It was a great learning experience but the job just wasn't challenging enough.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

August Leadership Carnival

Check out the August Leadership Carnival: 33 great insights for leaders at!

And why not take it a step further and leave a comment? All of these excellent posts were written to spark a conversation.

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