Thursday, August 21, 2014


A couple of weeks ago I received a notification that someone had commented on a Women of HR post I wrote several years ago.  I had completely forgotten about this post but reading through it again I was reminded that things have a funny way of working out for the best...
If we had a crystal ball, life would be grand. But, because we don’t, we often find ourselves at the mercy of hindsight. Hindsight being 20/20, what is one setback you faced in your career that ended up being a blessing in disguise?
Years ago, I was an HR product manager for a large global software company.  Back in those days at my company, the title ‘product manager’ meant you managed both functional and technical teams.
Then we got a new VP and the entire application development team was reorganized, which tends to happen when you get a new VP.  A decision was made to split the functional and technical teams under two different managers across all products.
I had to make a difficult choice: functional or technical?  My manager encouraged me to choose technical so I’d still report to him but he got moved to another group and I ended up on the functional team.  I enjoyed the design work but missed managing a global team and wanted to do more traveling and fixed my sights on Europe – but how to get someone to pay me to work there? 
I heard about a pan-European role in sales support and finagled introductions to people who could help me get on the short list.  I contrived a few ‘accidental’ meetings and did my best to make an impression.
My persistence paid off and I was offered my dream job as a European product consultant, living in Germany and traveling as needed.  I finished my outstanding product designs, quit my job and started getting ready for an international move. 
Then disaster struck: the hiring manager retracted the offer, opting to go with someone already living in Europe. My tart rejoinder that he could have decided this before I quit my job fell on deaf ears. “Give me a job in Europe,” I demanded of the cosmic forces that make things work out . . . when they feel like it.
Amazingly, about a week later I got an email from a German sales manager offering me a job in technical sales support in Munich.  A bit less money, but it got me over there so I promptly accepted.  But fate intervened once more: when I arrived I found that my new manager had been re-organized and now managed a part of a product I’d never worked with.  So, I had to learn a new language and a new product before I could add any value.
I was starting to feel vexed with fate and new VPs.
The sad truth is that you can’t learn fluent German in a couple of weeks so I was basically useless.  My new boss was very nice about it – and apologetic that the job he’d offered me to begin with no longer existed – but there it was. 
Fortunately, the consulting group desperately needed product experts on a large project.  The German consulting manager told me in blunt terms that with my product skills I could still be of some use as a consultant. Who could resist an offer like that?
So finally, after two reorganizations, a disappearing job offer, an international move and a professional face plant, I was living where I wanted to live and doing a job I was good at. The lesson here is that the road to what you want isn’t always straight and it’s easy to get distracted by what you think you want.
It’s important to know what really matters to you and keep moving toward it, even if you have to make detours or compromises on the way. If you do, things have a funny way of working out for the best.
Photo credit iStockphoto

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Way We Win

On a flight home from San Francisco I watched the movie Ender's Game, which is one of my favorite sci fi books.  Actually, it's one of my favorite books, period.

Two things struck me during the movie:
  1. I really, really, really want to play laser tag in zero gee.  Really.
  2. Most of us are not part of a controlled leadership experiment where highly trained psychologists throw hard stuff your way to see how you cope before sending you off to battle school - sadly, there's no grand design.
As I watched Ender's Game for the second time... what?  OK, yes, I watched it twice.  It was that or Gravity, which as far as I can tell is about Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space helmuts the whole time.

 Anyway, it struck me that Ender has a lot to teach us about great leadership:
  1. Everyone is part of the team - When Ender gets his own platoon Bernard - a bully - asks him, 'Why am I here? You don't even like me.'  Ender responds: 'I'm planning to turn this 'toon into a team that never loses and I think you can help me do that.'
  2. Leaders don't know everything - When introducing himself to his new squadron Ender specifically invites feedback, saying, 'I can't be expected to know everything.  If anyone has a better idea I want to hear it.'
  3. Winners don't follow the pack - Ender assigns bunks with senior platoon leaders near the door.  When one of the team points out the other teams have more junior folks near the door, Ender says, 'I don't plan to do things like other platoon leaders.'
  4. Make others look good - When the battle tactics instructor chastises Ender's class for not comprehending the basic fundamentals of rocket science, she asks Ender to work a problem for the class.  He defers to two other classmates, saying they know the topic better than himself.
  5. If you can't be Ender, be Petra - Petra is Ender's earliest supporter and  offers to work with him despite his nasty squad leader Bonzo's rule that he can't participate in training exercises. She is one of the few trainees perceptive enough to notice high command is grooming Ender.   She is motived by possible future gain but also by genuine kindness, a winning combination that launches her to second-in-command.
  6. Change the game - When high command sends Ender's team into a practice battle against two other platoons, Ender forstalls complaints by pointing out there are not rules in war.  He then wins the battle by completely changing how the game is played. 
  7. How you win matters - I won't spoil the ending but suffice it to say, there are boundaries that should not be crossed in war or business. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Racing Along the Electric Highway

I recently had an opportunity to hear Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of Tesla, speak to a select German audience of journalists and Tesla owners.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the person who took this picture was the 6’4’’ guy standing in front of me, forcing me to peek around him at the great man. 

Tesla offers a modern example of how human ingenuity can turn a well-established market on its ear.  Contrary to popular belief, people don’t actually want cars.  What they want is convenient mobility and - if they can afford it - a status symbol. 

Tesla’s CEO also recognizes an important truth about people: Most will not lift a finger to save the environment - let alone give up their beloved SUV - just because it may be better for the world.  It’s not that people are inherently bad or hate polar bears but convenience and comfort will always trump high ideals. 

And let’s face it, owning an electric car is not at present as convenient as owning a gas guzzler.  You have to wait ages to get your Tesla.  You can’t charge it at a regular gas station.  There’s only one Tesla service station in all of Germany.

So what do you do if you want to reinvent the mobility market but you can’t - yet - compete on convenience or price? 
  • You make it a status symbol to get the early adopters, knowing that once you get enough swing mass you can focus on other market segments. 
  • You have really cool shops with hip and polite young sales reps who have clearly drunk the Tesla Kool-aid. 
  • You team up with family friendly franchises like McDonald’s to establish convenient charging stations. 
  • You invest in R&D to come up with faster ways to charge than filling a gas tank, such as battery changing stations. 

Most importantly, you show people how the world can be a better place with little or no inconvenience to themselves, whereby any minor inconvenience incurred initially is offset by cool early adopter status.  That, my friends, is how you change the world.

And sure enough, that's pretty much what Tesla is doing, building their own electric highway to bring a new generation of mobility to the masses.  Right now the plan is 10,000 cars on the German roads by 2015, which is a small drop in the bucket compared to the overall German automotive market.  However, if this business model is successful we’ll see electric car adoption spike dramatically over the next decade. 

For you doubters, remember how quickly the iPad took off: quickly passing status symbol status to become a mainstream business tool, inspiring a promising niche business in computing accessories and forever changing how laptop manufacturers and software vendors design their products.

The world is at a critical juncture right now, where established business models persist in trying to hold out against the rising tide of distributed human ingenuity.  This isn't touchie feelie 'power to the people' claptrap, it's a modern business reality.  And it's happening all around us:

  • Business leaders cling to the status quo as social networks democratize the leadership function. 
  • Utilities conglomerates lobby for enormous energy projects that will take decades to get off the ground while private citizens get on with putting solar panels on their homes. 
  • Movie studio executives, venture capitalists and other folks who that have traditionally controlled which ideas make it to market are being sidestepped by the likes of Kickstarter and the Maker Movement.  

And while established car manufacturers make teeny, tiny incremental improvements to reduce gas consumption, visionaries like Elon Musk are reinventing the market.  Whether he succeeds or fails, the mobility industry - among others - will never be the same.

OK, it's just a car but as I listened to Elon Musk's vision for the future it really hit me that the fires of creation are burning brightly, fueled by social platforms, ubiquitous information and enormous technical possibility.   Everything, simply everything, about business as we know it is going to change over the next ten years.

Tomorrow's leaders will be people who partner with others to change the world in a climate where worth is measured not by what you know, but what you share. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Truth About Talent

I just finished reviewing a new i4cp research report The People-Profit Chain: A Model for Increasing Market Performance by up to 3x.   It's chock full of metrics, best practices and practical tips on how to connect the dots between people practices and market performance.

You can learn more over at Compensation Cafe: The People-Profit Chain.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What Animates Me

My kids love the movie Despicable Me, even my two year old, who recently demanded his own minion.

To be honest, I wasn't all that crazy about the movie when I finally got around to watching it.  But Despicable Me 2 is a whole 'nother story because.... apparently, I'm in it!!

That's right, I've been animated as a feisty character named Lucy Wilde.  Finally my dramatic talent has been recognized! 

You don't believe me?  I didn't either at first but check out the evidence:

We are clearly the same person:

I mean, we even have the same scarf!!!
But it's the video that clinches it:

Anyway, I give Despicable Me 2 two thumbs up and a ju jitsu slash krav maga karate chop for action, humor and great character work.  If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend it. 

And if you know me, prepare to be slightly freaked out!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Like a Dog Chewing on a Toffee

One of my most admired colleagues, whose advice carries the weight of an edict with me, asked me to write a post about working with ambiguity.  She believed it would be cathartic for me personally but she also felt that sharing my experience working through ambiguity could be beneficial to others.

“Everywhere I look,” she said, “I see people struggling to move forward and add value without understanding what they should be doing or what’s going to happen next.  I think you can be a beacon in the dark.” 

(OK, so I added that last bit.  Her words were more along the lines of, ‘I think you may be able to contribute to this topic.’)

Ambiguity is a state of un-clarity or two opposing emotions.  Anyone who enjoys the fabulous BBC comedy Red Dwarf is familiar with Kryton the robot’s description of ambiguity: “I’ve been practicing ‘ambiguity’ but I look like a dog chewing on a toffee.” 

Ambiguity at work can take many forms: an unclear role, lack of feedback about your performance, a situation where people act friendly but aren't really, a workplace bully who picks on you and disparages your work, etc. 

Unfortunately, these are all common scenarios in the workplace that detract from cross-functional alignment, cooperation and team spirit but knowing this doesn’t help because it may or may not change. 

Let me be very clear here: Complaining or feeling sorry for yourself won’t help, although confiding in someone you trust may bring new perspective to the situation.  Putting your head in the sand also won’t help because it won’t move you forward.  And unfortunately, doing great work won’t help because ambiguity is typically a leadership rather than a performance problem. 

The only things you control are how you respond to the situation and how you behave toward others.  And as it happens, that’s a lot.

I don’t claim to personify grace under fire but like you I’ve had my share of difficult work situations.  Along the way I’ve picked up a few tips that keep me focused and moving forward and here they are:

  • Be patient - Change is always in the air and this too shall pass. Jobs change. Toxic colleagues come and go.  Mind you, things may also get worse rather than better but you don’t control that so why dwell on it.
  • Be open - Your world is full of people, ideas and opportunities.  Don’t get so caught up in your situation that you miss them.  If you close your eyes and sit very still you can feel the potential in the air.  Have lunch with someone and talk about teaming up on a project.  Strike up a conversation on the train.  Be aware of what’s going on around you.
  • Be kind - Don’t make a difficult situation more difficult by responding with resentment or unkindness.  Both good and bad behavior are contagious so act like someone you’d enjoy working with.
  • Be helpful - Helping others gives you meaning in the workplace and can also expose you to new friends, ideas, skills and opportunities.
  • Be grateful - Try to forget the people or circumstances who are making your life difficult right now and raise a glass to those who have helped you along the way.  Maybe you can return the favor.
  • Be creative - Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Don’t do what people expect.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Mind you, unless you’re Steve Jobs this probably won’t help your career but the world is rarely changed by successful people.  (Note: I work in marketing where creativity and experimentation are somewhat tolerated.  This advice obviously does not apply to brain surgeons, nuclear energy plant safety inspectors, etc.)
  • Be prepared - It is infinitely easier to deal with ambiguity if you have options.  And if you are open, creative, and patient you will always have options.
  • Be moving - Because ambiguity pulls you in two directions it can be difficult to move and yet, that is what you must do.  If you stop moving you’ll get stuck and be a sitting target for other people’s plans for you, or lack thereof.
  • Be still - There comes a time when the best action to take is no action.  By all means try new things and play your best hand but you can’t control everything that impacts you.  Knowing when to let go and float with the current is perhaps the most important lesson there is.

That’s it.  That’s all my hard-earned wisdom.  Try it and let me know how it works out for you. 

And remember, you’re not alone.  Everyone around you struggles with uncertainty every day.  Cut them - and yourself - some slack.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The New 'R' in HR

So here's an idea.  Write down your company's top 3 business goals and see if you can find any common themes.

I’m guessing what they all have in common is a need to respond to change with new business strategies.  (Uncanny, I know.)

Let’s take a quick look at some of the changes that are probably impacting your business strategy:

Consumer technology has changed the face of business.
  • The mobile device is today’s desktop.
  • People shop with their phones.
  • Everyone’s talking ‘SMAC’ (social, mobile, analytics, cloud)
Social technology has inspired new ways of working.
  • People expect an intuitive, personalized experience.
  • They’re mobile and connected.
  • They want to share ideas and information.
Modern business is global and ultracompetitive.
  • Companies must adapt their strategies faster than ever before.
  • The most important product is service.
  • Human resources is about building relationships.
The companies that are ahead of the curve on all this change are the companies that are able to innovate quickly.  For example:
  • Pharmaceutical companies must innovate to compete with cheaper generic brands.  
  • Retailers must innovate to reach online consumers. 
  • Manufacturers must innovate to streamline processes and reinvent the supply chain. 
  • Financial services companies must innovate to rebuild consumer trust. 
  • Management consultants must find ways to differentiate their services in a networked world where information is freely available.
Companies that fail to innovate will quickly find themselves falling behind.  And innovation is no longer limited to product R&D but impacts every aspect of service delivery.

If innovation matters to the business, it’s mission critical to create a culture of innovation.  There is plenty of literature about how to do this but it really comes down to encouraging experimentation and collaboration. 

A personal story that illustrates the importance of collaboration: My 9-year-old daughter just ran into my office for help with a geometry problem.  I could see the answer but not how to show the work so I made random suggestions until she experienced a cognitive leap and found the answer herself.  She was amazed that she got the answer with me - even though I didn’t have the answer - but hadn’t been able to figure it out on her own. 'That’s the power of collaboration,’ I explained.  She frowned so I tried again.   ‘Sometimes working with someone else helps.’ 

In today’s social economy, relationships matter to the business more than individuals because business innovation springs from collaboration and a feeling of connection to the organisation.  HR’s remit in the social economy is to remove barriers to collaboration with new technologies, organisational models and ways of working.

In other words, instead of human resources think 'human relationships'.
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