Monday, August 9, 2010

My letter to UHCE's clients

Every year I write a letter to our corporate training clients.  I'd like to share this year's letter here.

Surf over to your favorite news website or tune your television or radio to a news channel and you are bound to hear something about the state of our economy.  Are we on the upswing?  Will there be another dip?  Among the cacophony of wild speculation about the future and stories of our present situation there is a much quieter discussion going on.  It is the discussion of what our workplace looks like now and will look like as we move forward and beyond this current downturn.  Articles are popping up in scholarly journals and other publications on leadership and organizational development.  Read any of them and you will most likely see one word over and over again: flattening.

While most of what we know about the future of our economy is wild speculation we do know that organizations are flattening and will continue to do so regardless of the economic circumstances.  This flattening is creating a dynamic shift in the traditional career path.  I’m reminded of the book Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dal.  In the end our hero Charlie, his Grandfather step into an elevator only to find that instead of just going up, this elevator goes sideways, forwards and backwards as well.  This is similar to what has happened to career paths. Instead of straight up we have career paths that go all different directions. 

This has left many training professionals scratching their heads and employees frustrated with a company culture that grooms everyone for the next step up only to find the next step has been eliminated, collapsed, or never vacated.  This challenge is only going to grow as we enter a period of recovery. 

I believe the key for training professionals within organizations is to begin working to develop a more holistic training plan that is geared not to prepare someone for a promotion but to create a well rounded and agile employee group that is prepared to work in all types of situations, teams and projects.  This belief is supported by a recent study by Forbes and IBM where they asked executives from top global companies what they felt their greatest organization need was.  The top of the list: the need to create organizations that value and allow innovation and the need for greater organizational agility.  These traits are not the product of heavily managed organizations.  They are the product of organizations that value the core principal of leadership: self-knowledge.  By developing leaders at all levels organizations will be better able to deal with flattening and the demands of any economic climate.

University of Houston Continuing Education is here to help you.  We have faculty members who are on the forefront of this organization shift.  As your trusted training partner we are proud to not only offer you training but also our expertise and knowledge about our current and future workplace.  I hope that you find the attached brochure informative and I look forward to contacting you very soon about how U of H can help you and your organization.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Your Gen X Employee: How to Make Winning Matter

A donkey is a powerful animal.  They are able to pull a lot of weight and mostly do it with little complaint.  However, there are times when a donkey will sit down and not budge.  They start braying loudly and just sit.  It is unexplainable.  To many Boomers and GenY folks this is exactly what seems to happen to their GenXer colleagues.  In this blog series I hope to help shed some light on why we GenXers appear to do this and what you can do to keep your GenX workforce  moving forward.

How to Make Winning Matter

I sat in a staff appreciation breakfast listening to the Chancellor of my university speak.  I was so full of angst I almost didn’t have an appetite.  Things have been tough here as budget cuts have affected me directly in a lot of crappy ways.  I was looking for her to acknowledge that she was asking a lot of us, that she wants to treat us better, that it wont be this way forever.  She said nothing of the sort.  All she said was, “I realize there are challenges, I’m not blind to them.”  Hard to believe. 

What did she talk about?  Winning.  Her message was “we are winning.”  She implored us to talk positively about the university in the community, to tell people all the things we are doing that make us winners and to be proud.  By this point you could look around the room and identify the GenXers.  They were either leaving or turned back to their tables talking and eating.  Meanwhile all the baby boomers are looking at the stage beaming.  Why?  Do GenXers not care about winning?  The answer is, no, not for winning’s sake.

If you work with GenXers and you’re scratching your head as to why they don’t seem to give a damn like you do listen up.  We can care.  We will care if you help us.  As I listened to the chancellor talk about all the ways we were winning and how important it was the only question I had was “so what?”  I should work to make her a winner so she can get an extra $100,000.00 a year at her next job she’s going to head off to as soon as she can?  How does that help me?   If you can answer that question for your GenXer employees they’ll go to the moon and back for you with a smile on their face.  

Baby boomers all believe that one day they'll be CEO too.  It's Ronald Reagan's promise: if you let the rich people get richer then think of how rich you'll get once you make it to.  You won't all be CEOs.  We know this, we've accepted it.  If you find yourself talking about winning and you see a GenXer crossing their arms and staring at the ceiling don’t start drawing conclusions.  Understand that we are stuck behind a blockade of baby boomers, we’re earning less than you did, and we are expected to do more.  Cut us some slack and take a minute to show us how meeting these goals will benefit us.  Be as specific as possible and, this is very important, do not make promises you can’t keep.  Once you break our trust you’ve proven that you're just another corporate laky.  We'll forgive you but we'll never trust you.  

We want to win too, but not just for winning's sake.  You need to tie organizational success to our own.  Tell us what will be different for us.  Avoid the boomer mentality of "when you become vice president you'll have x."  We don't see that as a possibility because you're never going to retire.  The workplace for us is not what it was for you.  We know this and you know it.  Admit it.  Don't be ambigous.  "I'll see what I can do for you" or "there is a possibility" are not going to do it.  Finally, if you can't do anything for us or are not willing to then just be honest about it.  We'll respect you.   

I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how having a winning football team will benefit me.   Because they don't I assume they can't.  

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Case For Professional Development

A few years ago I came across two authors, Julie Coats and William Draves.  They have a book called “Nine-Shift”, in it they discuss the end of the post industrial era and a shift into an “electronic age” of sorts.  One of the things they talk about is how the work force will change dramatically between 2005 and 2015.  So far they have been right, the workforce is changing dramatically in many ways.  Prior to the recession the change was gradual, however, economic slow downs have a way of greatly accelerating changes in the work place, I believe this is true with the most recent recession.  As the economy begins to slowly improve we continue to hear the words “job-less” recovery.  Basically what that means is that the jobs that were lost as the labor market contracted in the last recession will mostly not be replaced.  Why?  The way we work is changing and, I would argue on the back side of this recession it has changed dramatically.  No one is really talking about it just yet.  To understand this change we must first look at the labor market prior to the recession.
Even before the recession began we were seeing shifts in the way people worked.  Things like “flex time” and “telecommuting” were being widely adopted by organizations (albeit in a very narrowly applied way).  By and large we were operating in the same work structure as our great grandparents did at the turn of the century;  9-5 (then 8 to 5) with an hour for lunch.  We had very clear and consistent lines of authority.  This structure provides a very clear pathway for personal career growth.  This has served us well in a manufacturing-based economy.  Yet as we move away from a manufacturing based economy it is slowly becoming irrelevant.  The process of learning the work, then slowly acquiring more and more responsibility until you ultimately reached the executive office or hit retirement age is no longer working.  As we move from an economy that manufactures thing to an economy of ideas and knowledge that are then manufactured by labor forces in other countries  the way we work and how we progress down our career paths has changed as well.  
Demographics are also playing a significant roll in changing the way we work.  Our organizations are basically choking on high earning baby boomers who have been promoted mostly under the old work structure.  Years of service and social promotion have played a large roll in creating this highly inflated upper management structure.  Beneath these baby boomers is a much smaller group called Generation X.  These 30-40 year olds are stuck behind the baby boomers who are staying in the work force longer and are, in many ways occupying unnecessary positions.  Many of the X’ers have entered the workforce under the old structure as well.  They are also the greatest force for the changes coming in the way we work.
Beneath the X’ers is another large group of workers called Generation Y.  They get along swimmingly with the baby boomers and many of them will be promoted along side or past the Gen  X’er’s as boomers eventually retire from the work force, especially in organizations that try to retain their old work structure.  They have a high degree of respect for the boomers and while they are not averse to new working arrangements they also see value in the “old ways” that the X’er does not.  
Prior to the recession we heard stories of Gen Xers bailing out of the corporate world feeling as if they had no place or did not want to wait in line behind a bunch of boomers whose conspicuous consumption lifestyles were going to prevent them from retiring. It is often a key indicator of major shifts in the way work when the middle generation, those who feel they are ready to take on leadership begin to strike out on their own endeavors and Gen Xer’s have done so in many ways with great success.  Companies like Amazon, Zappos, Google are all thriving even in the downturn.  Corporations suddenly woke up to the fact that there was going to be an experience deficit in their organization as boomers left their roles for the smaller Gen X cohort.  To answer this organizations have instituted development programs for their younger work forces (mostly Gen Y) while still ultimately suppressing the wages of everyone that was not a baby boomer and had not “earned it” yet.  The silver lining lay in the belief that over-promoted ranks of baby boomers were going leave open and vacant a lot of necessary positions and as organizations work to fill in those positions individuals with the skill sets to fill them will have amazing leverage.  That was until the recession.  The recession combined with a work structure that is not sustainable in a non-manufacturing economy has lead to lay offs in the highest ranks of our organizations.  By and large these positions will not be filled again.  The old work structure isn’t gone, but the change has accelerated.  The charred remains of the post-war social promotion structure are still being clung to by many organizations.  However, many organizations have moved on to greener pastures and ultimately any organization that wishes to survive is going to have to give up the old castle.  Even after our economic downturn lead to a large contraction there is still going to be a severe skill deficit in the workplace.  We are already hearing a lot about the post recession work place.  Organizations are “flattening” in order to shift more functional responsibility to their bloated management ranks in order to keep those positions relevant as a matter of self preservation. This flattening also creates a need for new skills at the lower levels and almost eliminates the traditional paths of advancement.  
The old work place model could be imagined as a pyramid.   At the top is the CEO at the narrowest point then the model expands through ranks of executive, senior, mid-level, frontline managers and finally front line employees with the front line being the largest group.  If you were to take each level and divide their required skills into two groups: technical expertise and people expertise you'd see that most of the work groups require technical expertise.  It is only at the executive level the "people expertise" begins to play a significant role.  Thus, "people skills" were the purview of the executive suite.  In the old work model the cultivation and expansion of technical expertise was the key to upward movement.  It was only the highest ranks of the organization that technical expertise was not a key requirement.  This supports an experiential or time model of promotion and is a left over of the days when an individual entered the workforce in one organization and stayed there for an entire career.  
What I believe the workforce is trending towards and, in-fact, already looks like in many organizations is a diamond.  Most organizations have a huge (and mostly irrelevant) chunk of baby boomers in upper management.  We are seeing this chunk of people reduced somewhat.  In the future as baby boomers leave the workforce or change the way that they work this area will begin to shrink, as it does the organization will begin to collapse duties and this collapsing will lead to flattening.  What does this mean for those people looking for movement?  It’s not going to happen the way it used to.  As our workforce flattens the distance between the functional workforce and the C-suite will decrease as the over swollen management ranks are cleared out.  For those who entered the workforce and are expecting the old path to a high paying leadership position it just is not going to happen.  
With the old pathways no longer viable (or at best, a slim margin of success) how does the mid-career and entry level professional achieve the position and earning potential of their predecessors?  I believe the answer lies in re-orienting our professional development priorities.  The potential of promotion through technical expertise has always been finite.  I believe today that the potential is fully realized much earlier than ever before. Now it is essential for professionals to develop their people skills earlier and to a greater degree than before.  As organizations flatten and re-orient their workforce around projects and knowledge centers it is the people who can work in the most diverse range circumstances and the largest range of group dynamics that will be of the highest perceived value and therefore a priority to retain by the organization.  Ability to work with, motivate, and lead in a variety of work groups and circumstances is not a technical skill.  And, until recently, it was learned on the job over long periods of time.  This luxury is no longer available in a flat organization.  Technical expertise is enough to carry you forward professionally for a few years, maybe a decade.  I would argue that in this new work place the mediocre technician with highly effective people skills will go farther and acquire more than the most talented technician with no people skills.  Understanding how people work, how to lead them, motivate them and achieve results is no longer the purview of the executive suite.  In the flat organization it is a task everyone must master.  
When we set out the create the EmPower Leadership Program at U of H our team knew that we had to create a program that met these needs.  Leadership programs, in general, still primarily serve the old workforce model.  How to get your boss to agree with you so they’ll approve the things you want and how to get your employees to work from 8-5 and all do the same thing.  That world, though still prevalent, is steadily losing ground.  Leadership now is much more about helping individuals, teams, and, at some level the organization, tie internal motivators to organizational objectives.   Individuals who not only understand this but are effective practitioners can, I believe, expect to go very far.  For this reason, development of people skills and social intelligence based leadership training must play a significant role in career development.  
At an organizational level we have already seen the companies that get this starting to take a lion’s share of the talent.  This trend will only continue especially as experience hiring begins to pick up as post recession growth begins to occur.  Articles about “recruitment hit-lists” are starting to pop up in literature on organizational development as a major threat to retention at organizations who have not yet realized the need for re-orienting their workforce focus.  As Tamara Erickson says in her book “What’s Next Gen X”: “Bodies and hands are just not enough; hearts and minds are essential too.”