The Care and Feeding of Superstars and Ninjas

I'm always amused when I read job descriptions looking to hire superstars and ninjas. I know people who refuse to respond to ads like that and I don't blame them, since I think few companies know what to do with these purple unicorns should they find them.

First off, and this is not the purpose of this post so I won't dwell on it, many of these ads ask for too much and offer too little remuneration. 

But what I will discuss is that these overachievers, whatever you call them, require proper care and feeding otherwise they'll be gone before you can blink.

Since these superstars and ninjas tend to be smart, they know their worth and are looking for growth and challenge. If you don't pay them well and don't have a culture and managers that support growth, don't even bother. And that means if your managers are afraid to be outshown by their staff or are micromanagers, they will drive the overachievers away.

Your culture should also be collaborative, open, allow everyone a voice, and let them get work done their own way. The overachievers by definition want to achieve—not play gamesso if you tolerate politics and other negative grandstanding, don't bother either.

The flip side of having someone so competent on staff is that they expect a lot since they give a lot. Give them a chance to contribute and learn and they'll be happy to do what you ask and more. Stifle them with bureaucracy, pettiness, redundancy, or don't allow their input, and they will have no problem walking, despite all the time, money, and resources spent to find and onboard them.

Are you looking for overachievers? If so, can you handle them?

Time Constraints Help with Focus

As per Laura Vanderkam in her book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, most of us don't work as many hours as we think we do. 

To prepare for her book, Laura gathered time logs from 143 women making over $100K and who had at least one child at home under the age of eighteen. When viewed from the weekly 168-hour perspective instead of the weekly 24-hour perspective, they actually were able to spend enough time sleeping and with family, even when working 50 hours or so. As she points out, it's about making trade-offs: it's okay to work longer one day so that you can leave early to make a child's event the next day.

What I found very interesting was the lawyer who had more time when working full-time than when working part-time. Her firm allowed her to return part-time after having her child since they did not want to lose her. After trying this for a while, she decided to go back full-time and found that not only did the extra income help her family and allow her to afford extra support, but it also focused the time she had with her family. So instead of suffering from doing it all, she actually was in a better position mentally and financially and able to better prioritize the time spent with her family.

You've probably heard or read of the study where kids offered too many ice cream flavors could not pick any. Well, sometimes having too many demands on your time without an externally set structure amounts to the same thing. 

I've found myself in a similar situation and reading this anecdoate confirmed it. Since I don't currently have a full-time job and instead work from home on various side projects, I am finding it harder to find free time. It's as if without the structure of that "day job," all the things I could possibly do and should have the time for expand to fill up all my time. And since there is no set time for anything, I am not forced to prioritize the same way I did when working.

Since awareness is the first step, I'll have to give the situation more thought. One possibility is to set "office hours" for each of my projects. 

Have you had to force constraints on your time when there were none? How did you do so?

Recovering from Self Disappointment

We've now all been taught that failure is good and the road to learning. If you go into any B&N or online bookstore and type in failure, you'll get thousands of hits. (B& brought back 4171 results under "failure" for their book category; when I narrowed it down to "business" books, I got 381.)

But what about self disappointment? How do you recover from letting yourself or someone else down? 

Of course we can reframe this as just a type of failure and therefore subject to all those 381 books and the iteration mindset, but it still feels wrong. And you still feel if you've let yourself down, which you have.

I'm not going to pretend there's one answer or one way. What I would do is figure out the why. Why did you disappoint yourself or someone? Did you feel pressured into saying yes when you should have said no? Did you over-commit and/or not communicate your expectations? Did someone not communicate with you or were you mislead as to the scope of the work? Did someone make a mistake? 

If you took on too much or were not clear as to what you were agreeing to, then there is a clear lesson and something you can learn from and not repeat. 

The saddest self disappointments are when you thought you could do something...and could not. When you reached for something you weren't quite ready for or believed in something and just couldn't make it work. Or when you really wanted something, gave it your best, and fell short.

How do you walk away from knowing you weren't good enough? 

It's really hard. You can either choose to learn from it or dwell on it...and you'll probably do some dwelling on it regardless. The key is not to stop there. 

If you tried something new (aka started a business) and it failed, what did you learn? Can you do it better next time? Do you still want to? If you reached for something (aka a job) and didn't get it, what can you do differently next time?

At the end of the day, self disappointment is the worst kind of failure: it's deeply personal. But as many wise people have said, if you learn something from it, it's not truly a failure or a mistake, but an opportunity.

Have you disappointed yourself? How did you react and what did you learn from it?

Your Self as an Evolving Journey

I usually enjoy taking personality tests (as I've written before), since they teach me something more about myself. The last one I took, Everything DiSC Management Profile (for my Leadership class as part of the Jack Welch MBA) taught me how far I've come.

As per DiSC, I'm a DC: Dominant Conscientious. In brief, that means I'm things like results-oriented, strong-willed, and direct on the dominant side and analytical, precise, and systematic on the conscientious side. It also apparently means that I should have difficulty offering support and encouragement to my staff, not be good at delegating, and find it challenging to allow others a say.

The latter part of the assessment astounded me. I'm far from perfect and am actively looking to learn and improve, but I do know that I am as far from that as a leader and manager as I can get. My husband's reaction: I had started out as a DC but had consciously evolved from there. 

I know that I've actively worked on my leadership and management for years now. It started with me not doing what I hated done to me and what I saw not work for others. It then evolved to reading and incorporating what I've read and feedback I received. And my journey and learning continue.

I've also become more of an ambivert and less of an introvert...and spend a lot of time writing about what I've learned. I have evolved into someone I could not have predicted.

I don't know where my journey is leading me or who I will become in five, ten, or fifteen years from now. This part of the journey has been tough. I've had such highs and lows...and the lows have been too frequent and scary, but I am growing and still evolving.

Someone recently asked me on a scale of one to ten, how close I was to being the person I wanted to become. Despite the current rough patch, I said a seven. I am proud of everything that I'm learning, proud of the tough decisions I've made instead of the easier ones that would have left me a lesser version of myself, and hopeful of what is to come. 

Life is a journey and one's identity is ever evolving. It is up to each of us, with every choice we make, to take a step closer to who we were meant to be. 

So on a scale of one to ten, how close are you to being the person you want to be?

Keep It Simple

Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, in their book Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, demonstrate that a few simple rules are the secret to overcoming complexity.

Simple rules are not new. They have been practiced by religions and societies through the ages and are a method to overcome analysis paralysis and other delaying tactics.

As they explain, there are six types of simple rules. Three types are about what to do—boundary, prioritization, and stopping rules—and three types are about doing things better—how-to, coordination, and timing rules.

They then go on to provide a system for creating simple rules that works for both businesses and personal lives:
  1. determine what will move the needle in the right direction;
  2. find and choose a bottleneck to conquer;
  3. and then craft simple rules that will work for the situation.
They also provide many examples of how simple rules have helped countless situations and how to even refine and/or remake simple rules when things change.

People are more likely to remember and follow a few simple rules rather than a long rule book, so if you want things to stick, go the simple rule route. Or if you need to have an emergency plan, devise simple rules everyone will buy into and train everyone on these.

What I found most interesting is that this presents a different way of looking at things I have known about and read about elsewhere. It's basically a method that can help you spend your time more wisely, create new habits, make decisions quicker...or whatever you need them to do.

For example, if you are overwhelmed with where to spend your time—
  • figure out what your goal is (what moves the needle), 
  • what the problem is (the bottleneck), 
  • and then devise rules on what you should and should not do to move beyond it. 
Keeping it simple always works and as the science they share proves, this actually helps with success instead of hindering it. So next time you think you need a long report, presentation, and/or paper to make your point, simplify it.

What area of your life can you apply simple rules to? 

Success Requires Regular Recharging

I just finished writing about how successful leaders need to be aware. An extension of this is that anyone who wants to succeed needs to be self aware.

We all need to recharge. I've written about balance and recharging before, but I unfortunately forgot how important they were because of all the things I'm juggling.

There's only so much you can give without taking the time to care for yourself and recharge. Tom Rath explains this very well in his book, Are You Fully Charged? and shows how important it is to make the time to sleep, exercise, and eat right.

We all have an activity or two that gives back way more than it takes from us—the thing that keeps us going and recharges our soul. For me, it's taking walks and reading.

I had a hard week and by Friday, I was severely depressed and cranky. I always take a walk Friday night since I am finally offline and on my own time, and then come back and read. Everything seemed manageable again after I did these two activities. Yes, the reasons behind the stress were still there, but my outlook had improved so much that I could once again keep going and be optimistic. All because I finally took a long walk and then read. 

For me, walking and reading on a daily basis are obviously as important as eating and sleeping. They feed my soul and allow me to do what I need to do, so the ROI on the time spent is well worth it, regardless of how busy I am. I just have to remind myself of how I felt on Friday before and after these two activities.

Have you had a similar experience? What are the things that recharge you and do you spend enough time on them?

To Give Up or Not To?

How do you know when to give up? Whether it's a business idea, new skill you're trying to learn, or an ailing relationship, when is the correct time to admit defeat and move on? 

Honestly, I don't know and every situation will have a different point of no return.

For the relationship....Well, I could say many things but this blog is about business, not personal/relationship issues, so I won't go there. 

For the skill, as long as you're still enjoying it, keep trying.

For the business idea...that one I'm trying to figure out for myself too. Is it when you stop enjoying the idea or when you're out of pivots? Is it when you're out of time and/or money? Is it never if a part of you believes it has merit and it's just about rebranding/reframing it one more time? 

There have been many authors who discussed both failing and persevering. Seth Godin talked about making it through that pit of despair and how the darkest times proceed that breakthrough.

I had the monthly Actionable Book Club meeting recently and we were talking about my last summary, Do Less, Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World by John R. Bell. Members were debating about whether they agreed with his concept of focusing on your core to succeed and differentiate. This led to a conversation on how to focus and I admitted I was having a hard time doing this between the two side businesses I'm working on, going back for an MBA, and my job search.

Although my circumstances may be extreme, if you've read any of the productivity books I have or countless others, you know time is finite and every choice you make is saying no to something else. So if you can keep telling yourself that there is nothing you rather be doing at this given moment and/or you could not live with the regret of not seeing this through, then keep going.

If your answer is ever different, then it's time to figure out what else you should be doing instead.

Do you agree? How have you handled similar tough calls?

Tipping Point for Entrepreneurs?

I just finished reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Yes, it's been a business classic for a while, but for some reason I just never got around to it.

Basically every idea, product, series, etc. that has taken off like wildfire—or like the epidemic Gladwell calls it—has a tipping point when it first begins to spread. By understanding why this happens, we can potentially create our own tipping points.

The three theories Gladwell puts forth, with many interesting examples to demonstrate them, are—
  1. The Law of the Few: the "who" part of the equation; it takes the special skills of the connector (people broker), maven (idea broker), or salesperson (influencer) to spread ideas to enough people and in such ways that they then spread it to others.
  2. The Stickiness Factor: the "what" part of the equation; making the content of the message memorable is crucial to the tipping point and sometimes a small tweak is all that's necessary to make something "stick."
  3. The Power of Context: the "how" or "where" part of the equation; extenuating circumstances and how/where a message is delivered is as important as the other two factors and sometimes the difference between success and failure.
Some of the examples he shares are 
  1. Sesame Street and Blues Clues, which became successes despite being so different than what psychologists of the time thought should work with pre-schoolers; 
  2. NY crime taking a drastic downturn because subway graffiti and fare-beating were stopped; and
  3. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood becoming a runaway bestseller when the author's first book barely made a blip.
The book was definitely fascinating reading and gave me lots of food for thought, but for an entrepreneur with limited resources to do in-depth testing on how to make my message more sticky or in what context it works best, I haven't figured out how to apply this as of yet. I'll definitely be paying attention to any connectors/mavens/salespeople I come across though.

Have you been able to create your own tipping point? Or have you seen one created and if so, how?

Leadership the Jack Welch Way

In his book Winning, Jack Welch lists his eight leadership principles. 

I won't repeat them here, but as I was reading these for my Jack Welch MBA Leadership class and writing about them, I realized that most of them were about the people.

Yes, part of the principles were about succeeding (e.g., ask probing questions that lead to action, be brave enough to make necessary unpopular decisions, and inspire risk taking and learning) but most where about doing so via your people (e.g., upgrading your staff with constant mentoring and coaching; celebrating their successes; really getting to know them; and establishing trust with candor, transparency, and credit). This from the man known for his bluntness and doing what was necessary to win.

Jack realized that you can't succeed without your staff. As good as you are, unless they are with you—engaged, productive, and happy—you won't get far for long. And therefore a huge part of your job as their leader is to look out for them and bring them along with you.

If and when they are not in the right position and cannot be coached, you move them elsewhere or out with dignity. But you role model and reward the behaviors you want and you give everyone a voice and dignity. 

Both leadership and management are required for success, but leaders inspire and align. Leaders spend time and energy on their people and know that they are the key to their success.

When was the last time your leader inspired you? How did it make you feel?

The Problem with Managing Up

Given how many people write about the difference between "management" and "leadership" (and yes, I too have here), I find it interesting that we are required to "manage" up.

If leadership is to inspire and align, management is to direct and enforce. How is one supposed to then "manage up" to one's supervisor? 

The intent, of course, is to "manage" communication and perception but a good manager does not require this.

Each and every time I've managed staff, whether entry level or directors, I have made it very clear what I expect of them and what they can expect of me. If I am not getting what I need, I ask. I don't make it a game nor do I wait to pounce and find fault. I communicate often and openly, ensuring they have all the information they need to do their jobs well. They know to come to me when they need help and they always get some answer in a timely manner, even if it is "I'll find you as soon as I'm out of this meeting."

I've never asked any of my staff how difficult it was to manage up to me, but honestly, it's not something I've given much thought too—nor that I want them to. I consider it part of my job, not theirs, to be clear on what I need from them so that we all can do our jobs well.

So managing up is not only a misnomer, but part of the problem: we don't need employees worrying about managing up; we need managers communicating better to their employees, with candor and transparency, setting expectations and truly supporting their staff.

Have you had trouble "managing up"? Would more candor and support from your boss have helped?

Employee Rankings: Good or Bad?

I was first introduced to Jack Welch's opinion on employee differentiation, which is what he calls the system of employee rankings, in his book The Real-Life MBA (and wrote about it here). Since I had read bad things about it, especially in how Marissa Mayer rolled it out at Yahoo, I was surprised he was a proponent, but after reading more about it in his book Winning, I'm now thinking twice.

As Jack explains, we're all ranked throughout school—aka, our grades and class placement—and no one calls this cruel. Why then should we stop being ranked once we graduate? 

His system, unlike the "rank and yank" ones, don't have a quota; meaning that it's not that only 10% of the employees can be in the top 20%. It's not about numbers but about performance. Yes, if you break employees down to the top 20%, mid 70%, and bottom 10%, there is generally a standard curve, but you're not forced to keep people out of one of the categories due to a quota. It truly is about performance, encouraging those that can perform, and helping out those that can't. 

The one argument that truly made me think twice was the example of an underperforming employee who's been allowed to stay on too long. My husband told me there's actually a term for this: corporate welfare. As Jack explains, as soon as the company hits a rough patch, these under-performers are the first to go, but they're always taken by surprise since no one has ever been honest with them. And worst, after wasting their lives at a a job that's not a good fit, they are unemployed and older, so have less chance to find a career that will allow them to shine elsewhere. As Jack says, that is the definition of cruel and I have to agree with him.

At the heart of his system of differentiation are the following important tenets:
  1. Employees deserve to know how they're doing and what is needed of them to move up, and to get the proper support and training to do so.
  2. Since training and resources are limited, companies and managers should allocate them to those that can help everyone along, not those that are truly better off elsewhere.
  3. Performance should be rewarded and those that have the potential to move up should be given all the training and support needed to do so.
  4. Those that cannot perform should be given ample time to try and then be moved either elsewhere in the company or out, but always with dignity and respect.
Given that the above is truly about helping both the individual and the company, I really can't find any further objections to this differentiation system.

Yes, it is often misused and abused, but as Jack explains, that is the fault of the leadership team and its implementation, not the system itself. 

What do you think? If such a system were slowly introduced and implemented well, would you be happy with it? How would you feel if you were in the top 20%/middle 70%/lower 10%?

Stay Interviews Prevent Exit Interviews

I can't remember where I came across reference to Hello Stay Interviews, Goodbye Talent Loss: A Manager's Playbook by Beverley Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, but I'm glad I picked it up. It's a short informative book that's easy to skim or read.

Basically, if you take the time to have a stay interview with your staff—meaning asking them targeted questions to figure out what would keep them—you'll never have to worry about replacing them. This is meant to be an ongoing conversation and not a once a year performance review. You really need to connect with your staff and be willing to ask the tough questions, even the ones that you many not be able to fix (e.g., you can't give them a 10% raise). 

The ladies do give recommendations of how to deal with those tough questions, but you won't even get that far unless you first gain your staff's trust. Think about it. If a boss who doesn't give you the time of day suddenly asks if you're happy and/or schedules time to ask weird questions, you may get worried. They share an incident similar to the one I've described where an employee actually thought she was being let go when her boss asked what he thought was a "stay" question. 

Here are some great questions to try, once you've eased your way into this and scheduled uninterrupted time.
  • What will keep you here? What will entice you away?
  • What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning?
  • What makes you hit the snooze button?
  • If you were to win the lottery and resign, what would you miss most about your job?
  • What do you want to learn this year?
  • Does work give you back as much as it takes out of you?
Have you ever had a stay interview? If not, how would it make you feel?

The Horrible State of Employment

Two friends and I were bemoaning the horrible state of unemployment earlier, and the horrible state of how employees can be treated. One just lost out on a job he was ideal for since they were too cheap to pay him his worth; the other is unsure what's next. 

Sound familiar? I have a feeling similar conversations are going on quite frequently. What does this mean for the future of employment and for the next generation?

I grew up hearing that company loyalty no longer existed. My parents were the beginning of that change and they both have several layoffs and restructures under their belts. My husband and I do too.

If I had been able to foretell the future, I would have chosen to go into finance or HR instead of publishing or operations. These are skills that will always be in demand and they can't be totally outsourced. I could have used them in the publishing industry and then more easily transferred them to another. 

I tried to share this lesson with my son but am not sure how much of it stuck. I hope seeing our struggles will have taught him something. 

Another friend was bemoaning having been taught to follow her passion and now having to reinvent herself since her passion wasn't paying the bills. I explained the formula I keep reading about (and wrote about): find the intersection between your interests, your strengths, and what the world will pay for. It won't matter how good you are at something and/or how passionate you are about it if no one will pay you for it.

Where does that leave us? Trying to find that intersection at a company that won't treat us like widgets and with a manager who will help us be engaged and fulfilled. And hope he sticks around.

I've written about training and testing for management as a possible solution to a part of the problem. I've written about Reid Hoffman's proposal in the Alliance and Conscious Capitalism as practiced by The Container Store. The problem is so huge that I don't think there is one solution.

Personally, I'm going to keep beating this drum and make what difference I can, even if it's small. Are you willing to do the same? If each of us takes it on ourselves not to do to others the wrong that has been done to us, maybe together we'll have thrown enough pebbles into that river.