Change: Life’s Constant Companion

lifeisfleeting

Life is fleeting, a refrain we’ve heard time and time again.  And it’s true.  Hell, I’ve been alive 46 years and it barely feels like more than 20!  Of course, I try to live life to its fullest as I slide through my fifth decade.  I still play hockey, jump from airplanes, hike and backpack, and stay in fairly good physical shape.  I push myself intellectually, staying abreast in my field of I/O psychology, teaching myself new foreign languages, and reading daily.  And yet, occasionally life with throw you a curve that reemphasizes just how complacent or routine even the most adventurous life can become when we’ve turned on autopilot and are just going through the motions.

pulitzerfacepalm-e1334711507124These past two have been more trying than I can remember in recent times.  My dad was unexpectedly (isn’t it always?) diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent a craniotomy last month.  In response, the family has rallied and demonstrated its strength in supporting him and each other.  It’s really been an inspiring sight, in spite of the circumstances.  And we know there will be plenty more trying times in the weeks and months ahead…such is the unfortunate path of glioblastoma.  But we will persevere.  We must.

It’s when life wallops us that we are given real choices.  We can sink inward, wallowing in self-pity and sorrow, or we can build up our support network and develop skills around vulnerability and help seeking.  We can bury ourselves in our work, or we can set it aside completely, neglecting our responsibilities to others in lieu of our own emotional needs.  We can plod along in a haze of reflection and worry, or we can regroup and respond.

In reality, we can (and typically do) balance all of these to one extent or another.  But doing so, and doing it successfully, takes deliberate attention and efforts.  And it’s good to remind ourselves of the value to swinging back and forth along each pendulum, recognizing the importance of each alternative in its own time and place.

escherAs an ISTP, I’m action-oriented, but reflective in dealing with life’s inevitable changes (and opportunities).  I’m analytical and rational, but often at the expense of fully factoring in emotional reactions and responses of others.  This plays into both how I process and deal with issues impacting me, but knowing my preference in this regard is also helpful in recognizing how my own strategies in life may not be the same as for those around me.

So, how does this all translate into the work world, my own professional life and how I move forward in the midst of this turmoil?

Well, for starters, the situations that have lambasted our family over the past several months are simply life, as unpleasant and unwanted as they may be.  I recognize that we’re not unique in having to wrestle with this realities of life.  But similarly, they provide an excellent chance to reflect and regroup, as a family and certainly individually.

For me, much of this involves ideas and possibilities of change.  Personals that have lambasted our family over the past several months are simply life, as unpleasant and unwanted as they may be.  I recognize that we’re not unique in having to wrestle with this realities of life.  But similarly, they provide an excellent chance to reflect and regroup, as a family and certainly individually.

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For me, much of this involves ideas and possibilities of change, personally and professionally.  But I’ve always embraced change as a good thing, a necessary thing for growth.  So, what changes are afoot?  Well, I’m not entirely prepared to reveal all the intricacies of the possibilities at this point….soon enough, though.  But I have spent much of the past several months thinking about where my career has come and where it’s heading.  I’ve reflected on all the fantastic experiences and opportunities I’ve had professionally over the past 25 years, and there have been many!  And I’ve pondered what the next phase will engender, realizing that in the fleeting moment that we call life, there’s precious little time to devote to pursuits in any area of our lives that lack meaning, purpose, and enrichment.

None of that is to imply that I haven’t always sought those three things in every position I’ve held, and in every hobby I’ve pursued.  I have, to varying degrees.  And whether the future entails continued focus on teaching and research, a return to the corporate world, a transition to non-profit work, more hiking, skydiving, and travel, or some combination of all of these, it will be meaningful.  It will have purpose, both for myself and with a focus on service.  And it will be personally enriching.

And change does not necessarily mean a drastic change of direction, but sometimes a mere tweaking of things in a way that promotes increased impact, enhanced meaning, and reflected resolve.

So, stay tuned for more announcements….I’ve got a number of ideas percolating and in development!

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Stop Engaging Your Workforce, and Simply Lead!

MP900387733Over the past few years, I’ve written more about engagement and efforts by organizational leaders to create engaged cultures than nearly anything else.  There’s a reason for my laser focus on this issue…it’s critical for organizational success, I don’t care what the industry is.  But it’s just so darned misunderstood!

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article entitled “Engagement: It’s Leadership, Not a Program.”  I was pleasantly surprised by the responses I received upon posting, something that reinforces the notion that the topic is of near ubiquitous value in the workplace.  Based on a few of the emails I received about that piece, I want to spend a few minutes expanding the key idea that programmatic fixes to a culture do NOT an engaged workforce make.

To be frank, I’d rather we do away with the term “engagement” altogether.  The concept is awesome!  The implementation of engagement initiative is…well, NOT.

So, if not “engagement,” then what?

I’d suggest that instead of driving engagement, leaders should focus instead (and solely in its place) on something more basic, aligning your culture with your employees….and vice versa.

confusedBut isn’t it the same thing?

Why, yes….yes, it is.

Okay, Trevor, you’re confusing us now…..

{I laugh, a deep, maniacal laugh}

You see, when we word it differently, the focus in our minds shifts from looking for programmatic answers to drive “engagement” to leadership issues (finding, attracting, and developing individuals).  And guess what?  That’s precisely where our minds should be!  And the result of focusing our leadership attention on those areas, instead of jeans days, more potluck social events, or corporate dunk tanks?  Oops, a more engaged workforce, more emotional AND rational commitment by our employees, and quite simply a better place to work.

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When leaders ensure alignment between their own cultural preferences with those of the individuals they hire, develop and retain, engagement stops being about ridiculous HR programs and more about simply the atmosphere and environment best suited for the particular organization.  It’s that simple.  And, I’m serious about that….engagement doesn’t HAVE TO be difficult.  In fact, it shouldn’t be.  If you’re trying REALLY hard to engage your workforce, you’re simply looking at it wrong.

Change! Or Stop Waving the Culture Banner….

Changing-Organizational-CultureAsk anyone who’s interacted with me professionally over the past decade.  I’m a organizational culture advocate, perhaps a fanatic.  Zappos.  Google.  IBM.  Microsoft.  U. S. Army or Navy.  Each one has a unique culture that drives its progress, and at times, holds it back.  Leadership is all about culture.  We all know that, right?

Well, as we settle into the New Year, once again, the blogosphere seems inundated with articles debating, espousing, attacking, or simply doubting organizational culture as a focus aspect for 2014.  Really, it’s been the same thing for the past half-decade.  Culture.  Culture.  Culture.

So, why is it that most organizations aren’t further down that culture change path?  What’s keeping them from transforming their cultures to drive better processes, to become better employers, or to encourage better innovation?

Sigh…..

sigh_gonqxvsdrwbqSigh…..

Double Sigh…..

Okay, people….Here it is, the truth, unfettered, unadulterated, and yes, quite possibly unsolicited. (Few people have accused me of conforming to political correctness or of hesitance to offer my perspectives!)

It makes no difference how badly you may want your culture to change….if you don’t change your leadership.  Your own leadership style.  Your leadership team.  Your entire leadership culture!

So, why is this so difficult?

Well, leadership is a habit, and as we all know, habits are hard to kick.  So, you learned how to lead years ago (or perhaps only to manage, but you’re not going to let that get in your way, are you?). Well, what are you doing different now than you did a year ago?  Two years?  I mean, what leadership practices have you fundamentally shifted.  What have you truly eliminated in your leadership practice, and what have you actively adopted, adapted, and developed?

imagesIn reality, not many leaders can really finger even two or three things about their leadership that they have fundamentally changed.  And why is that?  Because those are the leadership traits that got them to where they are (or that they BELIEVE got them to a level of success they now enjoy).  That’s WHY start-ups have an advantage over established organizations when it comes to creating and sustaining positive organizational cultures aligned with the direction of the organization.

So, let’s just cut to the chase….

If you’ve not made really fundamental changes in your actual, daily leadership practices, stop waving the culture change banner.  It’s not going to happen.  Let’s not kid ourselves, okay?

Madison’s “Brain Drain”: Turn on the Spigot!

brain-drainFor the past several years, there’s been this debate raging in Madison about how to combat the so-called Brain Drain, the exodus of educated, young minds from this university city to (typically) larger, seemingly more vibrant locales like Manhattan, Chicago, and the Bay area on the west coast. Throw a few editorials in the local media into the mix, and you’ve got a non-stop frenzy within the business community. It’s been an interesting dialogue to witness. And it’s been equally thought-provoking.

Now, I don’t have the typical midwestern outlook. Although I was primarily raised here in Wisconsin, I left the Badger state at the age 14 to attend an east coast boarding school, followed by an undergraduate education in a liberal arts oasis nestled against the base of Pikes Peak. From there, I traveled the globe, lived in multiple foreign countries, and on both coasts of the U.S. before “returning home” to America’s Dairyland nine years ago. Mine was far from the traditional tale of the heartland. And it’s from that atypical perspective that I offer this thought….

Maybe we should really be promoting the “brain drain,” not fearing or fighting it. Yep, I said it. We should be encouraging the exodus of young, eager minds from what has been recently listed as one of the Top 5 places to live in the country.

“What?!?!” You say. “Have you lost your mind?”

Nope, I’m dead serious here. So, hear me out…..

Over the past decade (nearly), I have worked at and with numerous Madisonian companies. And there are some really good ones out there. But most are plagued with several real dysfunctions that could be addressed more easily by actually encouraging our university graduates to spread their wings outside of the Capitol city.

us-culture-midwestLet me paint you a fairly accurate and representative picture of midwestern companies…..No, let me start out by describing the typical midwesterner.

As a culture, the midwest is rather provincial, in that sort of quaint, comfortable kind of way. There’s a lot to be said for keeping things just as they are. But, yes, it’s provincial. Midwesterners are, compared to other highly visible areas of the country, such as NYC, somewhat slow-paced. Again, this is the charm that makes so many families happy to settle and raise kids in our heartland cities. It’s pretty safe. There’s much less open socioeconomic differentiation, far less than you experience on either coast. And then there’s the “niceness” of us midwesterners. Everyone’s friendly. More accurately, though, there’s an underlying passive aggressiveness that is often mistaken to be friendliness.

Okay, so that’s an overgeneralization of midwestern culture. But it’s not just the average midwestern citizen. It’s our organizations and companies. They also embrace a similar slow-paced, passive-agressive, provincialism that is not particularly well adept at either rapid change or innovation.  There’s a comfortable culture, but it’s not always a productive one.

bulb-437x300So, let’s go back to this idea of the “brain drain.” Ever wonder why most of the major universities rarely hire the researchers and doctors they produce? You know why that is? It’s the notion of cross-fertilization, both in sending out their “spawn” into the larger community and in bringing new ideas, traditions, cultures, and approaches into their academic halls. It’s a great way of propagating ideas in a way that provides an overall greater wealth of collaborative and innovative thinking.

Now, if we apply this same principal to the “brain drain” problem, it actually ceases to be a problem at all. In fact, it erases the “brain drain” and instead focuses on the larger challenge, in getting bright, eager, engaged, and experienced professionals who have developed in other companies, other cities, and other industries to come to our companies here in Madison.

“So, let’s just let our graduates flee to seemingly ‘greener pastures?’”

Yep, exactly. And you know why? First of all, let’s not ignore the fact that there is allure to the “big cities” that Madison will likely never have to those just finding their way in the work world.  That’s okay.  Let them get out.  Experience more.  See much.  Many of them will realize that when it comes their time to begin families, Madison is a pretty doggone great place to settle.

global_perspectivesAnd those who return will return more worldly, a little more direct, and a little more knowledgeable about how different people, cultures, and industries do things…things from product development to leadership to innovation. Because in an increasingly global business climate, I’m sorry, but those companies that are primarily filled with leadership that has grown up only in our midwestern company and culture will be ill-prepared to compete. And if they can’t compete, they certainly can’t attract top talent from outside the region to help them out of their current, outdated modes of solving problems.

Combatting the “brain drain” may succeed in retaining some of our top talent here in Madison, but at what cost. Continued provincial business practices? Continued economic decline?  Where we lose the “brain drain” is where our companies fail to be attractive to those currently residing outside of Madison.  Many of our best and brightest WILL want to return, but only if there is something of professional worth here.  And provincial people tend toward over-reliant “promote from within” HR and reward systems that place more benefit on loyalty (also a midwestern trait) than on potential impact.  So, in fact, even those who return are often disengaged by a lack of internal opportunity because they opted for the cross-fertilization career path.

Global_PerspectiveSo, let’s start viewing the “Brain Drain” through a more productive and realistic perspective…Instead of spending so much time trying to figure out how to ebb this “brain drain,” let’s set our sights on how to become more attractive to those who haven’t merely grown up here and stayed.  Let’s actively seek out those with other perspectives, from different cultures, and with different solutions to our organizations’ problems.  In the end, that’s the best solution to the intensifying challenges facing this fantastic city.

Scholar-Practitioners: The Evolution of Leaders

images (3)Scholar-Practitioners.  That’s what we’re producing at Edgewood College.  And quite honestly, it’s one of the aspects of our Master of Science in Organizational Development program that sets us apart from many other graduate-level programs.  We’re in what I would refer to as a slowly growing minority of programs that are both recognizing the benefits of this balanced approach to graduate learning and leveraging it to the benefit of our students and their work organizations.

You see, there are lots of high-quality graduate degree programs out there.  MBAs. MPA. Leadership Studies. Strategic Management. Organizational Development.  You name a subset of any organizational, business, or leadership focus, and you can find plenty of top-notch programs, led and taught by high-quality faculty, producing some great minds!

Many of these programs are practitioner-based learning models.  MBA programs have tended to fall into this category traditionally.  And most are excellent at producing broad-minded business administration experts.  MPA (Master in Public Administration) programs are similar.  Their focus is on developing the next generation of public-sector leaders and managers, often along a parallel track to MBA programs.

SocialScientistOn the opposite end of the spectrum are more academically-minded programs, by which I mean those who instill a deep understanding of research and theory in their graduate learners.  These students produce some of the best theoretically-based empirical research each year, and the results of that research educates new tools, techniques and understanding in various industries and sectors.

In many cases, these two camps (the practitioner-based and the scholar-based) are two siloed, with the existing bridge between them being maintain primarily by college faculty.  It’s this group of educators who monitor the research journals and slowly teach new cohorts of graduate learners about the changing trends and tools in their particular fields.

But is that such a bad thing, you might ask?

I’d argue no, it’s not inherently a bad thing.  But it’s not particularly efficient, neither from a theoretical standpoint nor from a process perspective.  To rely on faculty to be driving innovation in organizations is like trying to battle the obesity epidemic by focusing only on kindergarteners.  It may be successful in the long run (I’m not claiming it will be, by the way, but just as an example), but even if it is, it’s going to take a long time to make such a societal shift.

So, what’s a solution (not THE solution, but certainly a part of it)?  Well, instead of having faculty teaching new graduate students about emerging research trends and hoping that teaching translates to the adoption of new techniques and approaches in the working world, why not simply teach graduate students how to evaluate the emerging research themselves and to conduct applied research in a scientifically valid, reliable, and credible fashion?

There’s two keys in this question….

1)   Teach them to fish – Yes, you’ve heard it before….this isn’t really a new concept.  Don’t just tell them what the emerging research shows.  Actually teach them to understand and recognize those trends for themselves.  Teach them to be scholars.

2)   Teach Applied Research – Teaching graduate students the principles of scientific inquiry and the application of those efforts to the real world is critical.  It’s through the application of their research findings that we….Teach them to be practitioners, not in the stale, traditional way, but now in a manner that allows them to better wade through the marketing and hype around new techniques and approaches in their industry, understanding where new tools are empirically sound or merely “well-sold” by those hoping to make a buck off others’ scientific ignorance.

business_school_472605Like I stated earlier, Edgewood College isn’t the only institution taking this approach.  There are a growing number of institutions that have embraced the scholar-practitioner approach to graduate education.  But it’s still a minority in a vast sea of institutions.

As I begin guiding a new cohort of graduate learners through their final Capstone Project research sequence (consisting of three courses and culminating in an independent, applied research project), I’ve been coaching and mentoring students as they select topics and begin developing research questions.  First, I’m spending considerable time talking them “off the ledge,” empathizing with their discomfort to having moved into the uncomfortable realm of first-time researchers.  Any of us who have been through that process ourselves can understand their anxiety.  And second, I’m emphasizing the somewhat unique (and competitively advantageous) expertise that they will be developing as they eventually leave this program with what few others in the workplace have, a graduate-level understanding not just of practical application, but of scientific inquiry and evaluation.

And as someone who spent two decades in the “real world,” being a scholar-practitioner DOES set one apart from the crowd.  Make no mistake about it.  It’s a set of skills much needed in an ever-changing workplace.  It’s leaders with this combination of skills that will help our organizations stay relevant and always evolving.  Now, who wouldn’t want that?!?!?

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Lecture? Not on Your Life!

497_1lecture_hallRemember those student days, 300 joyous students packed into a stuffy and windowless lecture hall.  The professor enters, strolls to the lectern, and begins preaching, I mean, presenting.  Ugh, my stomach is churning with just the thought.

Don’t get my wrong, I enjoy a truly entertaining presentation.  In fact, I absolutely LOVE watching TEDtalks and do it quite frequently.  But what is it that makes TEDtalks more acceptable than traditional lectures?  Well, for starters, they are limited to roughly 15 minutes in length, the amount of time researchers have demonstrated as the higher bound of engaged listening.  But they are also mildly (I emphasize, mildly) more interactive than most academic lectures.

Occasionally, I have students who request that I provide them lectures, instead of the seminar and discussion-based format that make up much of the classes I teach.  Much to their chagrin, I steadfastly refuse these requests, for the following reasons:

  • OneWaySigns-OPTLectures are one-way – I believe adult learning happens most effectively when there is a two-way pathway between facilitator and learner.  In fact, I would argue that it’s really a pathway between learner and Learner, as the facilitator stands to learn just as much from the interaction as the student does.
  • Lectures are about repetition – As a course designer, I spend considerable time reviewing a number of different texts before I select those that I’ll use in the class.  Therefore, I’m comfortable that the information provided is what the students need (and if a textbook doesn’t get at the nuance I would like about a topic, I supplement it with articles that do).  What many students who request lectures or PowerPoint presentations are really seeking is a way around reading the actual texts.
  • Discussions are more effective learning media – As a professor, my time is as precious as my students’, and I need to prioritize those learning activities that I believe will be most beneficial in a limited time period.  Whether online or in-person, I believe the diversity of thought, individual experiences, and perspectives available to be leveraged to discuss the readings and/or other presentation modes for a particular topic results in higher levels of learning.
  • I am always learning – Again, perhaps self-centered, but I’m always looking to learn more about a given topic. (In reality, I do NOT think this is self-centered, as the more I learn, the better I am at challenging and provoking reflection and changes in thoughts, perspective, and behavior in my students).  Lectures do not allow for significant learning on my part, whereas discussions and observation of applied activities do.

A Key to Leadership GrowthThis topic is front and center for me this week, as I’m simultaneously engaged in both evaluating the work of one group of finishing students and launching into another class with a fresh new group.  And I realize my approach is permissible largely because I am interacting entirely (within these two classes) with graduate learners.  Perhaps with a class of first-year undergraduates, my approach my be more pedagogical.  But, then again…likely not.

Don’t Be Afraid To Mix It Up!

startup-founderYou know what I love most about start-up founders?  The endless possibilities they foresee!  It’s refreshing.  It’s exhilarating.  And it’s imperative…but not just for start-ups.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with several leaders of local start-ups here in Madison.  Each is at a different phase with their respective organizations, but all are prescient enough to understand the challenges on their individual horizons.  And for most, the ultimate goal – growth – means needing to take a look at some of the fundamental human resource approaches.

[Trevor enters stage left.]

Regularly, I’m approached by small business owners looking at the (hopeful) upcoming growth curve in their organizations.  Thanks to this blog, my LinkedIn profile, and a very active network, it’s fairly easy for these leaders to seek me out.  They know my views on traditional HR and the corporate tendencies toward policies that breed mediocrity.  My views are a good fit for what they are seeking…innovative ways to maximize the talents in the workforce to make the meteoric leap to success.

“What are you really trying to develop here?” I always ask.

time_10_ideasThe answers vary, usually oscillating between the esoteric, “We’re looking to revolutionize the world,” to the more grounded, “We want the best talent money can buy, without spending the bank.”

Now, all organizations (or at least those who are truly seeking top talent) need to be willing to pay a little for that talent.  But it doesn’t have to be as much as one might think.  Often, a decent salary that’s at least approaching the median compensation value for a similar job elsewhere is a good starting place…but it’s JUST the starting point.  Sign-on bonuses, profit-sharing, and/or a truly well-designed bonus system are also helpful, as are genuine commitments to helping the employees grow in whatever direction will fulfill them personally in their career direction (Yes, even if that means knowing that you’ll possibly lose them down the road).

Remember, when you hire someone, you’re only leasing their commitment.  Too many organizations assume they are buying talent, and they certainly might be.  But, a “bought talent” situation is one in which employees are commoditized and, at best, mediocre in talent, innovation, and productivity.

Anyway, as a result of our session, three of these start-ups put together really awesome strategies for finding, landing, and developing talent moving forward.  The fourth opted for a more traditional route, his decision influenced more by the successes of his father, a retired insurance executive.

10090332-international-business-team-clapping-a-good-presentationNow, I can’t predict with certainty which of these four new and exciting companies will survive and thrive.  But I can say that, if top talent is truly a priority for these executives, and if that top talent will make or break the future of their companies, three of the four start-up leaders have put themselves on the right track.  Their futures are indeed bright, but not because of the specifics of the talent management approach they are implementing.  No, they’re bright because their leaders understand that a future predicated on practices of the past may just not be a road to the kind of future that they envision.  And they’re not afraid to “mix it up a little” to get to that future.

And for that, I applaud them!