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Don’t ignore your job’s expiration date (Review of Whitney Johnson’s Build an ‘A’ Team

a teamThis review first ran in the April 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Build An “A” Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve

By Whitney JohnsonWhitney Johnson

Harvard Business Review Press

$36.50

Every job has an expiration date.

We ignore it at our peril. Yes, the living is easy once we’ve scaled our learning curves and we’ve settled into our comfort zone.

We’re fully competent but at risk of becoming bored out of our minds and completely disengaged.

We can convince ourselves that mailing it in and coasting to retirement is doable. But the people we work with and for aren’t so easily fooled.

So if you’re wondering whether a change would do you good, the answer is an empathetic yes (and I speak from experience).

We need to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us.

According to Whitney Johnson, a CEO advisor and author of Build An ‘A’ Team, we should start looking for a new challenge around the four-year mark in our jobs.

For the first six months in a new role, we’re learning the ropes. It can be a steep, frustrating, exhausting and disorienting climb.

But then we hit a tipping point around the six-month mark. We reach peak productivity in what Johnson calls the sweet spot middle.

After four years in most jobs, we’ve reached the peak of our learning curves. We’ve mastered pretty much every task. We’re competent and confident. We can work on autopilot.

As a leader, it’s tempting to ignore expiration dates with highly skilled and experienced veterans who are well into their mastery phase. They require minimal adult supervision and there are few if any surprises.

You may also prefer to hire only new recruits who’ve already done whatever job you need doing and who’ll bring years or decades of experience to your team.

But your high performers will eventually turn into bored and restless low performers.  Some will be self-aware enough to pull themselves out of their comfort zones and look for new challenges.

“Nearly every human being is on the lookout for growth opportunities. If a person can’t grow with a company, they will grow away from it.”

Losing institutional memory when a veteran employee leaves an organization hurts. This is why it’s critical for managers to preemptively offer up new challenges or move high performers into new roles and onto new teams, where there’ll be new responsibilities and new learning curves.

Johnson says the most productive and innovative teams have an optimal mix of employees, with 15 per cent starting out on their learning curves, 70 per cent in the sweet spot middle and the remaining 15 per cent in the mastery phase and willing to take on a mentorship role.

“One of the most powerful ways that managers can foster innovation in their teams and engagement in their people is to keep them moving to new learning curves before they get bored,” says Johnson.

She recommends a three-step process for leaders who need a new game plan for anyone at the top of their learning curve. Applaud their achievements. Identify a new learning curve. And then deliver on helping them make a successful jump.

“Taking charge around the who, what, when, where and how of these leaps is critical. Should your people proactively lobby for a jump to a new curve when they reach the top? Yes. But remember, it’s a lot harder for them to come to you and say ‘I’m at the top of my curve, I need to try something new’ than you think it is. The boss holds most of the cards in this situation, and an employee may feel that asking to jump is tantamount to asking for a push into unemployment.”

As a leader, you hold the power and have a choice to make. “Is the top of the curve a place where people decide to leave because they know there’s nothing more? Is it a spot where they outlive their usefulness and become organizational deadweight? Or, is it the launching pad for even greater effectiveness?”

Don’t put off having conversations about what’s next for team members who’ve maxed out on their current learning curves. Pretending there isn’t an expiration date with their jobs is a failure of leadership. They’ll either start mailing it in or start sending out resumes.

“You can leave them in place and watch them suffer a gradual, even precipitous decline in productivity; you can watch them abruptly depart for a warmer professional climate. Or you can find a new learning curve for them to climb.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

Feedback is a gift and other lies we tell ourselves at work (book review)

liesThis review first in the April 6th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Nine Lies About Work – A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World

By Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Harvard Business Review Press

$39

Thanks for your feedback.

Now it’s our turn.

Your feedback is not a gift. Or it’s a gift we didn’t ask for and can’t return.

Truth be told, we don’t want unsolicited advice and constructive criticism. We don’t need to be fixed, rated, ranked, saved from ourselves or shown the error of our ways.

Your intentions may be good but your feedback won’t put a pep in our step or kick our productivity into higher gear.

“People don’t need feedback,” say Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of Nine Lies About Work. “They need attention, and moreover, attention to what they do best. And they become more engaged and therefore more productive when we give it to them.”

Ask people on high performing teams if they’re recognized for excellent work and they’ll strongly agree.

The Gallup Organization looked at what drives employee engagement.  To put yourself in the running for worst manager of the year honours, don’t give any feedback to the people you lead. For every engaged employee, you’ll have 20 who’ve checked out.

A leader who gives negative feedback will have two engaged employees for every one who’s disengaged, according to Gallup.

And the leader who gives positive feedback gets 20 highly engaged employees for every one who’s disengaged. That’s the starting line-up you need for a winning team.

So what’s the best way to be positive with your feedback?

Tell us how you feel when our outstanding work catches your attention and makes an impression.

“For a team member, nothing is more believable, and thus more powerful, than your sharing what you saw from her and how it made you feel. Or what it made you think. Or what it caused you to realize. Or how and where you will now rely on her. These are your reactions, and when you share them with specificity, and with detail, you aren’t judging her or rating her or fixing her. You are simply reflecting to her the unique ‘dent’ she just made in the world, as seen through one person’s eyes – yours.”

But won’t accentuating the positive trip up your responsibility as a leader to have difficult yet necessary conversations with underperforming employees?

The need to shore up shortcomings is another of the lies we tell ourselves at work, say Buckingham and Goodall.

Instead of highlighting areas for improvement, focus instead on our strengths. These are the activities that make us feel strong. We eagerly anticipate doing them. We lose track of time when we do them. And we feel fulfilled after we’ve done them.

“We can’t always explain why, but some activities seem to contain ingredients that breathe life into us, that lift us up out of ourselves to reveal something finer, more resilient and more creative.”

Our strengths offer the greatest opportunity for our continued learning and growth and yield the greatest immediate and long-term returns for higher productivity.

According to Buckingham and Goodall, the best leaders leverage the unique strengths of each person on their team. You may not meet all 30 of your organization’s core competencies but you’ll excel in a few. The other members on your team will do the same and together, you’ll achieve great things. Diversity of strengths will be your team’s most valuable asset.

“Define the outcomes you want from your team and its members, and then look for each person’s strength signs to figure out how each person can reach those outcomes most efficiently, most amazingly, most creatively, and most joyfully. The moment you realize you’re in the outcomes business, is the moment you turn each person’s uniqueness from a bug into a feature.”

Give a copy of this book to everyone in your organization who’s leading a team and make it essential reading.  As Buckingham and Goodall point out, corporate culture is overrated because we don’t truly care which organizations we work for. But we do care deeply about the team we belong to. We’ll stay with a great team in a lousy organization but bolt from a lousy team in a great organization.  And that’s why deciding who leads teams is the single most important decision your organization will make. Choose wisely and then help your team leaders debunk the nine lies we tell ourselves about work.

THE NINE LIES ABOUT WORK AND THE TRUTH

Lie – People care which company they work for. Truth – It’s all about the team we work on within our organization.

Lie – The best plan wins. Truth – It’s the best intelligence – the most accurate, real-time data – that wins. Smart organizations invest in intelligence-gathering systems.

Lie – The best companies cascade goals. Truth – The best companies cascade meaning. People don’t need to be told what to do, they want to be told why.

Lie – The best people are well-rounded. Truth – The best people play to their unique strengths.

Lie – People need feedback. Truth – People want attention given in a safe and nonjudgmental environment.

Lie – People can reliably rate other people. Truth – the unique personality of whoever’s doing the rating has an outsized and highly subjective influence on whoever’s being rated.

Lie – People have potential. Truth – People have momentum.

Lie – Work-life balance matters most. Truth – Love-in-work is matters most.

Lie – Leadership is a thing. Truth – How followers feel is more important than the qualities in a leader. “We follow people who are really good at something that matters to us,” say Buckingham and Goodall.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.