Browsing the blog archives for June, 2010.

Lessons in Leadership from China

Geek 5, Leadership

Over at, Shaun Rein blogs regularly on leadership topics – especially related to his work in China.  His commentary is often interesting and insightful.  China has a rapidly growing and changing business climate, and that change requires strong and effective leadership.  China provides an almost experimental space to study leadership in an accelerated fashion.  Rein’s recent article is called:  “What I Learned from a Chinese Billionaire”. 

Rein relates some leadership messages from a billionaire who worked himself out of poverty with no political connections.  It is interesting that the billionaire chooses to remain anonymous – out of fear of being persecuted.  China and capitalism and wealth accumulation have a tenuous tolerance right now.  Social and cultural norms have not kept pace with the business changes.

The first lesson from the Chinese billionaire is to believe in yourself – you are the only one who can stop you.  The second lesson was that sometimes you must respect everyone and sometimes eat humble pie to accomplish your goals.  His third lesson was about sharing wealth – both with business partners and family and strangers.

It is a great article – from a leadership perspective and from a social and cultural perspective.  This story shows us how good leadership can lead to success even in a closed country like China.  In the US, even in the poor economy, we have a lot of opportunity and few restrictions in our actions.   Imagine what we could accomplish if we set our minds to it!

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Coaching: Making the vague more specific

Geek 5, Managing people

Last week I gave some advice to a less experienced manager.  She and I are friends and have worked on projects together in the past.  About a year ago she was promoted into her first role in which she manages people.  Unfortunately she inherited a tough team.  Early on she had to manage a long-time employee out of the business.

Last week, she had to coach someone on performance issues.  She was stressed out from the conversation.    So we talked that through and I think she felt better.  She just needed a friendly ear.

Then we talked about the action plan she was setting up for her direct report.  He was struggling with some tough issues.  They were more about “will” versus “skill”.  Skill issues are easier to fix – they usually require teaching and time.  Will issues are about someone not wanting to do something or not being willing to change.

This direct report, let’s call him Charlie, has solid skills and does his job reasonably well.  However, he is difficult to work with.  He can also be argumentative and closed to other perspectives.  His body language screams when he was unhappy.  Maybe he even has a bit of the cringe factor.  One key problem is that he often ignores input from internal clients about his project work.  He will not incorporate changes if he does not agree with them.

The manager did all of the right things – she had the difficult conversation and and used specific examples.  However, she wasn’t sure how to turn that information into an action plan for fixing the problems.   Similar to advice given about performance reviews, there are some basics about writing good action plans.

In this case it was about being more specific and behavioral.  Originally the plan stated that he needed to be more open to input from internal clients and incoporate their feedback into his work.  The problem was captured but this description was not specific enough to help him understand what he needs to do.

So we worked together until the manager had an idea of what to tell him to do.  In this case the action plan was modified to say that he needed to send an email after content meetings with internal clients.  In the email he will specify what he had heard in the meeting and what changes and work he will do as a result.  He will copy the manager, so she can follow up on progress.

I don’t know how this story will end.  But the manager handled it well with a few tweaks to the action plan.  Charlie has a chance to turn things around and the manager has grown as a leader of people.

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Geek Fun: Geeks versus Unicorns

Favorite posts, Geek Fun

OK, contrary to the title ot this post, it is not actually a smackdown of geeks versus unicorns.  This post is actually about geeks versus lawyers FIGHTING ABOUT unicorns.  Yes, as preposterous as it sounds, this is about geeks and unicorns and lawyers.  Sounds like the start to a bad joke…

It started as a joke – specifically as an April Fools Day prank.  But leave it to lawyers to squash the fun.

There is trouble brewing between the geeks at and some legal eagles.   ThinkGeek is a great site full of off-beat products targeted at, you guessed it, geeks.  I’ve written about them on this blog, and I spend lotsa money with them.

On April Fools Day, ThinkGeek advertised a new product – unicorn meat.  This meat promised to be “an excellent source of sparkles”.  Supposedly dying unicorns were tended to in a hospice run by nuns and fed on candy corn and massaged with Guinness.  After death, they were turned into this delightful, spam-like product. 

But here’s where the trouble starts.  ThinkGeek also labeled this product as “The New White Meat”.  Call out the lawyers!  Sure enough, the National Pork Board sent an official trademark violation and cease and desist letter to ThinkGeek. 

Whew!  Thank goodness that those lawyers earned a lot of money to save us from trademark infringments and unicorn meat!

Check out the original unicorn meat ad and a copy of the legal cease and desist letter here.

On a side note, this story gave me an extra chuckle.  I happen to run another site focused on kid literature called (currently under revision).  This very rare, might I say magical,  intersection of geek news and unicorn news allows me to re-use a post.  Woo Hoo!  That is as rare as a lawyer with a sense of humor.

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The dark side of conscientiousness

Career Challenges, Outside Articles, Random, Uncategorized

Conscientiousness is usually a good trait, but sometimes  it can be tough to be a highly conscientious person.  In this case, we’re discussing the impact of conscientiousness on unemployment and the job search.  

There is a lot of job search advice floating around out there. Check out Career Alltop to find some of it.  This blog does not normally talk about the job search, but I’m diverging for a moment.  In the last post, I made some suggestions for “mixing it up” during a job search to try and get out of a rut.

Anita Bruzzese at On The Job presents an interesting perspective in her post “Could being conscientious make unemployment worse?”.    She discusses how people with strong conscientiousness may have a harder time with unemployment.  They feel more guilt and shame about their circumstances and are more likely to attribute it to a personal failing.  Usually conscientiousness is a good trait.  It helps people get things done and be responsible.  In this case, it might be detrimental. 

In today’s economy a lot of good and talented people are out of work due to no fault of their own.  Conscientiousness might make some folks suffer more than needed due to circumstances out of their control. 

If you are one of those people, keep your head up, your spirits high and do some things to change your approach to finding a new job.

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The Insane Job Search

Random, Uncategorized

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Job searching is not a normal part of this blog, but I feel compelled to comment on it.  I’ve got a dear friend who is out of work right now.  I try to be supportive in her search.  However, I find it increasingly frustrating that she is using traditional job hunting techniques over and over without having any success. 

She has been unemployed for a long stretch – going on 14 months.  She has always been successful in her career as a corporate executive.  She has changed jobs frequently and always moved up the ladder and made more money.  In the past, she has always found new jobs through head hunters and networking.  So that’s what she is trying now.  But she has been trying that approach for 14 months and not gotten an offer.  She waits for the phone to ring and watches television.

The world has changed.  Work and jobs have changed.  After 14 months, it is time for a new approach.

If you are job searching and stuck in a rut, here are some thoughts on different approaches:

1.   Re-set your expectations – you might have to step into a lower level and lower paying job to get in the door with a new company.  Once inside, you can focus on working back up.

2.  Get education or certifications to make your skill set broader and more marketable.

3.  Find consulting or contract jobs to keep yourself engaged and busy and bring in some income.  One of these might lead to a full-time gig.

4.  Do something with your unemployed time.  Volunteer or teach or focus on a hobby.  You need a good story to tell to explain what you’ve done with your time.

5.  Consider going in a whole new direction.  Maybe it is time for a new career direction.  Explore some options.

6.  Consider becoming an entrepreneur.  Start a business.  There are a lot of options online and other places that you could try.  They all take time and energy, but some of them can be done with a small monetary investment.

7.  Expand your networking.  Reach beyond people you already know.  Find new connections on social sites like Linked In or attend conferences in your industry to meet new people.

8. Become active on the discussion boards and blogs related to your field.  You can find these on Linked In and Facebook and and lots of other places.  Read blogs related to your field, leave comments and engage the blogger.  Better yet – start a blog and start establishing yourself as an expert.

In any case, do something.   Mix it up.  Try some new things.  Maybe you’ll get a different outcome.

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Don’t do team building to fix one person

Geek 5, Leadership, Managing people, Uncategorized

As a leader, one of your jobs is to build a strong team.  You need to hire the right people, train them, motivate them and keep them productive and happy.  As stated in the Geek 5, managing people is one of the toughest task that a leader faces.

So what do you do when someone is not performing well?

One poor suggestion is to do team building.  As an Industrial/ Organizational Psychologist working in the Organizational Development area, part of my job is to run team building sessions.  There are a lot of good reasons to do team building such as helping a new team get to know each other, working out process and communication challenges, building trust or getting focused on a big goal. 

When someone comes to me with a request to do team building in their area, I start by asking questions.  What are they hoping to accomplish? What behaviors should change after the session?  What would a successful session look like?

All too often, I get an answer such as “…let me tell you about Joe.”

The story about Joe is that he is not doing a good job.  His performance is poor or he annoys everyone or his behavior is out of control.   The manager and the rest of the team all know Joe is a problem.    The manager does not want to have a tough conversation with Joe, so she suggests team building.

She thinks that after team building Joe will see the error of his ways and shape up.  She wants to use team building to set expectations for the right behavior.

It is a cop out by the manager.  And it won’t work.

Most teams are savvy enough to know when the exercise is really about trying to straighten out Joe.  Plus, team building can’t be successful with a seriously dysfunctional team member.  It will just fragment the team more and cause morale problems with the other employees.

Joe’s manager need to do some good old-fashioned, tough-love feedback and deal with the problem directly.  Once Joe is fixed, the team will probably need a team building session to regain trust.

Don’t cop out.  Find the right solution to the problem.

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Advice from the Top: Jack Welch

Advice from the Top, Leadership

Jack Welch helped create the leadership movement.  He led GE to enormous success during his reign.  Welch always took decisive action and kept moving forward.  Time has shown that some of the techniques that worked for him can be hard to replicate.  In any case, he is a leader worth listening to.

There is an article at MSNBC called “Excerpt: How to be a good leader” which is part of an interview with Jack Welch.  He discusses the transition of moving from a peer to a leader and managing big teams and small ones.  He was trying to answer the questions of: What does a leader really do?

He makes several points that are common to most leadership advice.  For example, leaders have to develop talent and build strong teams.  They are also responsible for setting direction.

Some of his other points are good advice, but not as common to hear.  He talks about the importance of curiosity.  The leader should ask a lot of questions and always be looking for a better solutions.  This helps prevent complacency.

Leader should also model risk-taking and making mistakes.  That creates an environment of trust in which employees are more likely to try new things without fear of punishment.

Welch also discusses the importance of celebrating – and doing it frequently.

Check out the article for more details.

How well do your leaders do these things?  How well do you do them?

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Are you a porpoise or a sunspot?

Geek 5, Managing people, Org savvy, Uncategorized

Are you a porpoise or a sunspot?

Hopefully you are not either one.  Hopefully, if you are a manager, your direct reports are not either.

In previous posts, I’ve described some clever phrases that have emerged from succession planning meetings such as the slime factor and the cringe factor.  Here are two more phrases coined by non-HR folks.:

The porpoise– an employee whose performance goes up and down.  He does not sustain performance improvements after coaching ends.  Once he thinks he isn’t being watched any more, he goes back to bad habits until a new problem re-starts the coaching cycle.

Sunspots – Similar to porpoises, sunspots do best when being watched, but for different reasons.  Sunspots like attention and are constantly seeking positive feedback.  They shine brightly when their work is getting attention.  They grow dim and performance slides backwards when the light is not shining on them.

Managers have to bring porpoises from poor to good and they have to bring sunspots from good to great.  Both porpoises and sunspots require too much energy from the manager – they are high maintenance.  The focus should be on getting them to perform well whether or not they are being watched. 

Descriptions of Gen Y employees indicates that this group will tend toward being sunspots who want accolades for performing normal job responsibilities.  As a manager, focus on delegation and independence to get them working independently.  Otherwise they’ll suck their energy needs out of you.

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Beating the Talent Statistics

Geek 5, Managing people

In a previous post, we discussed an article written by Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt called “How to Keep Your Top Talent” from the May 2010 HBR.  They presented some frightening statistics about the risks of losing high potential employees.   Continuing the conversation, we’ll cover some of the mistakes they discuss in the article. 

Don’t assume engagement

One mistake is to assume that HiPos are highly engaged.  The statistics indicate that many of them are considering leaving and don’t give full effort.  HiPos tend to have out-sized expectations and realize they have lots of employment alternatives.  This can make them edgy and restless.  HiPos are often the first people to be disappointed when the company’s struggles impact compensation and opportunities.  They don’t want to tough it out.  They want to be rewarded and recognized for their contributions.  In these cases, managers and companies need to be creative in offering developmental opportunities and visibility to HiPos to keep them engaged.

HiPos are corporate assets

Another mistake is delegating the development of HiPos to line managers.  Martin and Schmidt argue that HiPos should be managed more centrally.  This allows the HiPos to be developed without a negative financial impact to the department.  It also prevents a line manager from “hoarding” or hiding good talent.   For the most part I agree with this advice.  HiPos should be treated as corporate assets.  However, they also have an operational, line role that needs to be managed by the line manager.  In my view it needs to be a partnership between the line manager and the larger organization.

Check out the article for details on other common mistakes made in dealing with HiPos.

Don’t forget the needs of the organization

It is a good article, but I do take issue with one aspect.  The article gives all of the power to the HiPo and only focuses on what the company can do to satisfy and retain them.  I believe that it needs to be a balance.  There are times when the needs of the organization must trump the needs and desires of the HiPo.  They might need to stay longer in a critical role and not advance as fast as they would like.  They might need to take a pay freeze along with everyone else.    HiPos are usually worth a special development focus.  But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.  Don’t reward one person to the detriment of others.  Keep a balance between retaining HiPos and running the business and treating all employees well.  HiPos alone cannot run a successful company.  If you balance too far in their favor, you could damage your business.

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Geek Fun: 50 Worst Inventions

Geek Fun

For a laugh, check out this article at Time Magazine.  It is “The 50 Worst Inventions“.  The inventions range from some like the Segway that were supposed to change the world (but didn’t) to Clippy the most annoying Microsoft helper in the world.  Some are serious like subprime mortgages and agent orange.

Check it out and decide which is your favorite!

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