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Year in Review - 2016

The theme of creating and sustaining a learning culture in organizations continued to influence most of my blog posts in 2016. David Grebow and I also used our blogs to 2017 introduce the concept of “managing minds” (not hands) and how that contributes to learning in organizations.

As a way of review, I’ve selected five blog posts about a “learning culture” and “managing minds” from 2016 that had the most interest from readers. Here is the title of each post with a short excerpt. Click on the title to go to the full post.

Managers Managing Minds: Their 21rst Century Job

David Grebow and I have been working in the area of corporate education since Moby Dick was a minnow. Long time. We believe companies and managers are at an inflection point. During the previous Industrial Economy we managed hands. We produced things. In this new Knowledge Economy we produce ideas and need to manage minds. The problem is that too many of us are still managing hands. We believe it’s time we changed our basic understanding about what it means to manage people.

How Managers Put Up Barriers to Employee Learning

Organizational barriers to learning are often not as obvious as being given no budget for training, or no training facilities, or no LMS. More often barriers are put up from the subtle ways that managers talk about capability development with their direct reports. For example, below is a conversation between a manager and direct report that was recently overheard in a medical device company. Read the dialogue and then consider the questions at the end.

Aligning Employee Learning with the Organization

Improving employee learning and performance in organizations today means systems change. I wish it were otherwise, but learning is not just a classroom activity anymore, it must be a total system activity that takes into account strategic goals of the organization, the culture of the organization (values, beliefs, artifacts, structure, etc.), external inputs (home life, economy, social network, competition, etc.), and the quality of the learning interventions (formal training, coaching, mentoring, self-directed study, action learning, etc.). Learning that makes a difference occurs when all of these factors are aligned.   

Megan Torrance Talks About Learning in Organizations

I’m always looking for examples of companies that put learning ahead of training. TorranceLearning is one of those companies. They design custom learning experiences for client organizations by starting with the intended results and related performance problems and then, and only then, do they provide employees with the tools, structures, and processes to learn what they need to know and do to be successful.  I had the pleasure recently, along with my Learning to be Great™ business partner, James Stilwell, to interview the founder and CEO of TorranceLearning, Megan Torrance.

21rst Century Organizations Need a Learning Culture

Most companies today have a “training culture”. ATD’s 2016 State of the Industry report concludes:

…the traditional, instructor-led, face-to-face classroom continues to play a crucial role, and it was still the delivery mechanism for 51 percent of learning hours used in 2015.

The percentage would be considerably higher if the ATD study had included all push training, such as elearning programs and attendance at conferences. Which is to say that most learning in organizations is still delivered using formal, structured, leader-centered training methods. In a podcast produced for ATD, I explain why organizations need to change from this “training culture” to a “learning culture”. 



Culture of Learning Research from ATD & i4cp

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) and Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) collaborated on a study of a “culture of learning” in organizations and the impact of that culture on  performance. They define a culture in this way:

A culture of learning, or learning culture, is one in which employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills to improve individual and organizational performance. The importance of the pursuit and application of learning is expressed in organizational values and permeates all aspects of organizational life.

The investigators collected surveys from 832 “talent development leaders” in a wide range of organizations and also interviewed a number of “talent development leaders” from organizations “…recognized for both market performance and excellence in learning and talent development.”

The study’s authors concluded that…

Having a culture of learning is a hallmark of high-performance organizations.Culture of learning infographic

In high-performance organizations, employees share knowledge with their colleagues at a rate four times greater than that of workers in lower-performing firms.

Learning cultures are rooted in the hiring process.

Three learning-culture-supportive practices related to employees are performance standouts:

  • regularly updated personalized development plans for every employee
  • worker accountability for the learning specified in those plans
  • nonfinancial rewards and recognition for employee learning.


Less than a third (31%) of survey respondents indicated that they have a culture of learning either at a “high extent” or “very high extent”. Although it is not entirely clear what this means in practice, it’s probably safe to conclude that most organizations do not have a learning culture.

As with all survey research, some caveats should be considered when interpreting the findings. For one thing, there might be a problem of definition. Many training leaders in companies who say they have a learning culture are mistakenly equating amount of training activity with a learning culture. A training culture is not the same as a learning culture.

Secondly, this is a correlational study (as is typical of most studies of organizations) and, therefore, the evidence is not proof of a causal link between a learning culture and high performance. It might be that the reverse is true. That is, a learning culture exists because the company is very successful. Regardless, the study does confirm that many high perform companies have (or aspire to) a learning culture.

And third, it is doubtful that the respondents are representative of all corporations. The findings are based on relatively small samples of the various sectors of “talent development leaders” in national and global organizations. We can assume that there is significant statistical bias in the sample and significant opinion bias in the respondents.

However, even with these caveats, the findings and conclusions are worth noting. Simply the fact that “a culture of learning” has become a legitimate area of interest and study is encouraging. It’s not that companies have a learning culture; what’s important is that they aspire to create a learning culture. And many of the conclusions of the study lend further credibility to the content of the workshop I’ve been facilitating for ATD for the past two years: Essentials of Developing an Organizational Learning Culture. Sharing knowledge across the organization, individual development plans, accountability for learning, recognition and reward for learning, are all topics we discuss in the workshop. It boils down to this: for organizations to be successful in the global, highly competitive, multigenerational, knowledge economy, they must strive to create and sustain a learning culture.



AT&T Needs a Learning Culture

According to a recent article by Quentin Hardy in the New York Times, AT&T, the $147 billion telecom company with 280,000 Telephoneemployees, is trying to reinvent itself. It is changing from a phone company competing with other telecoms (e.g., Verizon) to a cloud computing company competing with all of the tech giants (e.g., Google). Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, is leading this change through their “Vision 2020.”

Hardy writes:

In 2012, Mr. Stephenson realized, much to his dismay, that his staff was woefully unschooled for the new technology. Vision 2020, as the company calls it, is a program that combines online and classroom-based course work in subjects like digital networking and data science, as well as a look at old skills that can be transferred to new careers.

Stephenson said that employees will have to continue to “retool” themselves. Clearly, he and his executives recognize the need for employee learning and a culture that supports that learning. Stephenson seems to believe that more training is the answer.

I’m afraid their emphasis on formal training is not going to prepare the Company to compete in the fast paced, high tech, global environment that we have today and will continue to have well into the future.Training, whether face-to-face or online, might be part of the answer, but training will never develop the employees the Company needs.

First of all, training is not learning. It’s nice that employees are taking courses from Udacity and in-house trainers. But organizational learning comes from applying new knowledge and skills in practice and then on-the-job, from seeing clearly how those new competencies will help the company, getting feedback, and having the support of their managers. Unless the culture changes substantially where continuous learning is the routine of work and not seen as something you do outside of work, learning will continue to be haphazard and unconnected to results.

Hardy points out one of the barriers to learning in Vision 2020:

In an ambitious corporate education program that started about two years ago, he is offering to pay for classes (at least some of them) to help employees modernize their skills. But there’s a catch: They have to take these classes on their own time and sometimes pay for them with their own money.

Younger AT&T employees are seizing this opportunity that Vision 2020 gives them to upgrade their knowledge and skills. They are grabbing the chance to develop competencies that will make them more valuable to the Company going forward. Older employees are resisting the move away from what they know, hoping to finish their careers with AT&T fixing copper lines and installing fiber optic cable, the work that they’ve always done. Apparently, these employees have learned that simply by avoiding attending training or avoiding applying the training, they can get by. This is "fixed-growth" thinking and is another barrier to creating a learning culture in the company.

Martin Creaner, advisor to Huawei, explained in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton the difficulty of training for today when you don’t know where the business is going. He said:

At one level, of course, you can’t predict what’s going to be a big deal in three- to five-years’ time. You couldn’t have seen Airbnb five years ago, or Uber five years ago, or the success of WhatsApp. So I don’t spend too much time trying to predict where those things are going to go. I suppose I look more at how do you build a flexible environment that’s able to take advantage of what’s going to be really important?

Rather than making more courses available to employees, AT&T should prepare for the future by focusing on creating a “flexible environment” in which employees are always learning. It’s 5G applications today; it will be something faster and more powerful tomorrow. This means not learning only for today, but continuous learning related to the “permanent whitewater” of the communications industry. It means learning intentionally in the many formal and informal ways that people can learn at work.

AT&T needs to create an environment in which continuous learning is valued and supported by managers. In this culture, managers make learning an important part of the job of their direct reports. Employees are held accountable for performance improvement, not just training. They are expected to apply learning on the job in a way that improves their performance and the performance of everyone around them. Work and learning merge into the role of all employees. The Company can’t be successful using a 20th Century method to meet a 21rst Century challenge.



Leadership Lessons From Cordoba Spain

While visiting Spain, I learned that in the 10th and 11th centuries the City of Cordoba was a model of peaceful co-existence among Moslem rulers, Christians, and Jews. All lived, worked, and studied together. It was a time of major advancements in literature, science, and arts. What did they know about collaboration that is so difficult for us?


(Image from Wikipedia)



Nelson Mandela 1918 - 2013
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”



Email and the Ladder of Inference

Email, as well as text messages, Tweets, and Facebook comments, are often misinterpreted. The words might be clear but the tone of the message is not understood. In fact, tone cannot be accurately MP900382638 communicated in these media. The brevity of the sender’s message and limited attention on the part of the receiver result in a kind of communication that is ripe for misconstrued emotion and intensity. This can cause receivers to feel anger, frustration, satisfaction, or joy when none of these feelings were the intent of the sender. The attitude of the sender is assumed, not actual.

With limited data and a bucketful of assumptions, the receiver of one of these messages often quickly climbs the “ladder of inference.” This is a concept first postulated by Chris Argyris that says that we climb up rungs of a mental ladder, going from observable data on the bottom rung to selectively attending to some of that data to attributing our own meaning to the selected data to making assumptions about the other people involved to taking action based on our assumptions about the other people when, in fact, we haven’t tested the accuracy of any of this thinking.

Of course, we can’t be continually checking out every observation and assumption we make. That would paralize us. These are probably adaptive skills that have evolved to help us function in our complex environments. But we can be aware of this thought process and how often we mentally run up that ladder when reading a terse email from a boss or somebody we supervise or when we get a surprising reaction to our messages. We need to be aware of the impact of our e-words on others and the unintentional impact e-words can have on us.

Dave Johnson, writing for CBS MoneyWatch, says this about the tone of email:

Be careful about your tone. It's hard to read tone in an email, which is why emoticons were invented. Be careful not to inject attitude or sarcasm into your replies, and give emails that you think have "an attitude" the benefit of the doubt. Also be really careful when trying to be funny -- it's easy to misinterpret humor in email. Bottom line: No matter how you feel about the people you're communicating with or the contents of the message, go out of your way to always be upbeat and polite.

Sarcasm is particularly difficult to convey in print. It relies on vocal intonation. For example, an email from boss to direct report that says, “don’t work too hard”, could be interpreted in a number of different ways. It could be sarcastic or it could be an admonition to relax. You can’t tell from the message.

Seth Godin offers excellent advice about email. He encourages us to ask ourselves some questions before sending. At least four of these are directly related to tone:

13. “Am I angry? (If so, save as draft and come back to the note in one hour).”

14. “Could I do this note better with a phone call?”

16. “Is there anything in this email I don't want the attorney general, the media or my boss seeing? (If so, hit delete).”

25. “Are there any :-) or other emoticons involved? (If so, reconsider).”

An article in the Boston Globe’s "Job Doc" column explains why phone and face-to-face communication are very different from email:

Tone matters. And email writers often underestimate the tone their writing takes on. When you talk on the phone with a person, they hear inflection and other clues that help transmit the tone of your words. When you speak face-to-face with a person, he has all the visual clues from your facial expressions and body language to help understand the tone of your words. What can be said sarcastically in person, and therefore is understood to be joking, can seem downright rude when just the words are seen on the screen.

Studies have shown that if you write something you think is positive in tone, the recipient will think it is neutral in tone. And when you write a message that you think is neutral in tone, the recipient takes it as negative in tone.

The difficult thing for you, as the writer, is that you don’t hear the tone in your words when you are writing or when you read the words back to yourself silently.

Alina Tugend, in her New York Times article titled, What to Think About Before You Hit ‘Send’, advises that, at times, we need to talk directly to others and not depend on e-words. She writes:

While it may seem particularly old-fashioned, I’ve found that sometimes it’s better to get off the computer and make a phone call. If e-mails are getting too complicated, if the tone seems to be degenerating, if they’re just not getting the job done, call or walk over to that colleague.

If you are even a slight bit worried that an email will be misunderstood, don’t send it. If you are reacting strongly (positive or negative) to what you perceive to be the tone of an email message you received, be aware that you might be climbing the ladder of inference. 




Time To Get Cultured

This article was originally published in The EvoLLLution.

The biggest workplace hurdle to identifying and assessing development and training needs is lack of a Culture-Is-An-Art-300x300 “learning culture.” Organizational culture is defined as the values, assumptions, beliefs, behaviors, and norms of the enterprise, sometimes referred to as the organization’s DNA. Culture influences priorities, decisions, performance management, incentives (praise, reward, promotion, etc.), allocation of time and effort, morale, and engagement. If learning is not valued within the culture of an organization, if learning is not woven into the fabric of the workplace, then learning needs will not be identified and addressed in a way that helps the organization achieve its goals.

In most organizations today the training and development function is marginalized. Responsibility for learning is given to a department (HR, Training, CLO, etc.). Managers assume that anything employees need to learn will be provided by someone else; someone assigned to the training role. Assessment of need typically occurs when there is new equipment, new procedures, or new strategies and the organization’s training professionals are made aware of these changes. Or, in many cases, training and development are opportunistic activities based on no assessment at all, occurring only when the timing and cost of an event fits the availability of an employee. Assessment, when it does occur, is not strategic. It is not aligned with the business goals of the organization and, therefore, has limited value.

In a truly learning culture, learning and performance improvement are valued and supported throughout the organization. In this kind of organization, learning and performance improvement are frequent topics of leaders’ speeches and writing. Employees at all levels are given the time and resources to acquire new knowledge and skills that will contribute to performance improvement. Employees are recognized and rewarded for learning and using that learning to achieve important business results for the organization. Leaders are recognized and rewarded for supporting the learning of their direct reports.

Leaders need to ask themselves, “Does our culture support learning? Do we have every-day processes and procedures in place to ensure that learning and change are embedded in the way we work together? Do our top leaders make continuous learning a priority and communicate this throughout the organization?”

Assessment in this kind of culture identifies what individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole need to learn in order to achieve the goals of the enterprise. Assessment in this kind of culture determines how best to help people attain this knowledge and develop these competencies. Assessment in this kind of culture brings to awareness the support system that will help employees apply their learning on the job and improve their performance. Assessment in this kind of culture gives the organization feedback on its readiness for change.

It is this “learning culture” for which organizations should be striving. The periodic assessment of needs by a training department is not enough. Training events (workshops, courses (classroom or elearning), seminars, conferences, etc.) have never been particularly effective at improving performance by themselves. Estimates are that only 10% to 50% of learners continue to apply new knowledge and skills to their jobs after training. This has been true even while the quality of the content and delivery of training events have improved markedly. Therefore, needs assessment should examine all of the factors in an organization’s culture that are barriers to learning and performance improvement. In this time of economic contraction all resources must be used efficiently and effectively. We need to focus on developing a learning culture, not on deciding which training events to deliver.




Breaking Down Communication Silos

This post is adapted from, Communication in High Performance Organizations: Principles and Best Practices, a Kindle e-book. The book presents scenarios that exemplify common communication Kindle book cover problems in organizations and offers proven solutions to those problems. The scenario in this post is about functional silos. 

People working in organizations often say, “We live in silos and do not communicate very well across these boundaries.” This malady becomes exaggerated when the successful completion of the work depends on the outcome of a cross-functional project. Leaders of cross-functional projects are faced with complex communication and alignment issues beginning with departmental or functional goals that may compete with those of the project, with individual performance goals, with scarce resources, and with language differences. In the following case, Bill Smith and his leadership team are confronted with decreasing customer satisfaction from solutions that were regionally based and no longer meet the demands of growing global markets.   

Bill Smith, VP of Sales at High Tech Inc, and his leadership team, had gathered feedback from customers and concluded that the sales department needed a major reorganization. Customers were complaining that they were no longer receiving the customized solutions they had come to expect from High Tech Inc.  

Originally, the department had been regionally-focused, with U.S., China, and India sales offices providing services to all industries, types, and sizes in their specific regions.  This strategy had been extremely effective during the past ten years as High Tech Inc was perfectly positioned to take full advantage of the rapid regional growth in the computer industry. However, new entrants into the market had increased competition making the old structure no longer effective. 

Based on the customer feedback, Bill and his team determined that there was a clear need for change.  They decided that the structure that would enable High Tech to compete most effectively was to change from five U.S. regionally-focused sales offices and two global offices (China and India) to one centralized office with salespeople dedicated to particular industries and sizes of companies. They also understood the magnitude of this change and potential impact it would have throughout High Tech. To make a change of this size, Bill and his team would need company-wide support.

What should Bill do to gain company-wide support and improve communication between regions? In what ways is this scenario similar to your organization?




Doing Well By Doing Good

Companies can do well (financially) and not do “good”, e.g., businesses that sell products that are bad for one’s health. Companies can do well and also do good, e.g., businesses that, when they are highly profitable, donate some of that profit to their communities. Or companies can do well by "doing good". These are organizations that make “doing good” a central part of their missions and business models. They do things that improve the well-being of their internal customers (employees, vendors, business partners) as well as external customers (buyers of products and services, shareholders).

There is much disagreement about the corporate value of “doing good”. Wally Bock, in his blog, describes the debate in this way:

In general, the debate about how corporations should act is composed of two groups shouting across the divide in their views. One group shouts "corporations must do good" only to be answered with "profit is good" and "corporations owe something to the community," answered by "corporations should serve their shareholders and no one else." Sigh.

However, the evidence is mounting that doing good is a competitive advantage. Companies are finding that this starts with employees. If a company treats its employees poorly, it’s not going to be able to be successful with customers, vendors, and the wider community. Treat your employees with deep caring and customers and profits will follow. The Container Store, is an example of this phenomenon. Interviews on CBS and CNBC tell the story. Kip Tindell, founder and CEO of the storage and home/office organizing store chain and featured leader on the Real Leadership Series blog, says this about his company’s attitude toward employees:

The average retailer embarrassingly enough only invests eight hours in each first-year employee and we invest 272 formal hours of training with each first-year employee.

In the following CBS News video he describes his company's key values such as “conscious capitalism”: 

This kind of “doing good” inside and outside the organization, is what Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer call “shared value”.  They explain “shared value” in this way:

The concept of shared value can be defined as policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates. Shared value creation focuses on identifying and expanding the connections between societal and economic progress.

Another organization that makes “shared value” part of its operating principles is SSM Healthcare, the St. Louis based health care system that has 22,000 employees, 5,800 physicians and nearly 3,900 volunteers. It was the first health-care recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige Award for continuous quality improvement. SSM’s mission is to deliver “exceptional patient care (clinical outcomes, safety, satisfaction), exceptional commitment (from employees and physicians), and exceptional financial performance/growth.” The organization has been recognized by Case Western Reserve University’s World Inquiry’s Innovation Bank for innovations that contribute to both societal and business benefit. In the case of SSM, the innovation is a “School at Work” program developed by Catalyst Learning Company to prepare entry-level workers for advancement and further learning. SSM attributes its success to how it treats its employees, physicians, and patients.

Maybe an organization can survive for a time (even a long time) without caring deeply for its internal and external customers, but it won’t be a satisfying environment in which to work, employee engagement will be minimal, and it will not be sustainable. Any organization, whether for-profit  or nonprofit, needs to decide for itself whether its mission is doing well, doing well and doing good, or doing well by doing good.




Learning Styles: What Do We Know?

An Appalachian Mountain Proverb goes: It’s not what you don’t know that’ll hurt you, it’s what you do knowthat ain’t so.

I thought of this proverb when reading Benedict Carey’s New York Times article, Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. He reports on a survey of learning-styles research that appeared in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The authors found no credible evidence that matching teaching styles with learning styles (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic or right-brain/left-brain) helps people learn more effectively.  They write:

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

Given that attention to learning styles has permeated the field of employee training and development, I think we need to take these findings very seriously. Is the learning-styles emperor naked?  Or, is there still reason to believe that understanding and identifying learning styles has relevance to learning in organizations? 



New Math


This cartoon by John Junson, that first appeared in The Employee Engagement Network site, takes a humorous look at supervisor-employee feedback. But all too often, this is the message that employees hear from their supervisors, regardless of the actual words said. It's the quickest way to discourage employee commitment and involvement in the organization. Any company that wants employees to be engaged and continuously learning, should pay special attention to what supervisors say and what employees hear.


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Retaining Employees in Good Times and Bad

Retaining employees after the economy improves could be a bigger challenge than right-sizing the workforce. Adecco Group, a global provider of HR services, recently conducted another of their workplace surveys and reported the following:  

…the most serious threat to employers in this recession may be its end. The survey indicates every company's greatest asset, its human capital, might be its most tenuous, as employers could see an unprecedented exodus of talent when the job market rebounds. More than half (54%) of employed adults report they are at least somewhat likely to look for new jobs once the economy turns around.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of Adecco’s findings, given that the company doesn’t provide details about how their surveys are conducted, but I think the findings do draw attention to a problem worth considering as the economy begins to improve (We can only hope!).  That is, employees who are nervous about making a change when the economy is so tenuous will bail when things start to improve. And this might be most true for the youngest employees, the 18 to 29 year-olds, as is pointed out by Roberta Matuson on her blog, Generation Integration

Leadership coach and former auto company manager, Bernie Donkerbrook, said to me that the implications of these findings are “huge” for business. Companies have downsized to the point that nearly every person remaining is critical to success. If these employees start leaving just as the economic rebound is occurring, their organizations will have a hard time taking advantage of new Pasturefence opportunities. Recovery will be slowed considerably. And if many of the young seek greener pastures, companies will lose much of their energy and innovative thinking. Of course, as Donkerbrook reminded me, “The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.” What happens when they change jobs only to find that their new situation isn’t any better than their last situation?

 All organizations, nonprofits and government agencies as well as businesses, need to do what they can now to keep their best employees. I’ve posted previously about some of these actions: communicate often; build trust by being transparent about the present and future of the company; listen intently to employees; follow through on promises; and recognize and reward performance. Create a workplace that looks just as green from both sides of the fence.

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Patagonia and the One Percent Solution

Philanthropy can make good business sense. In a Fast Company interview, Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder and outdoorsman, talks about what companies can do to protect the environment. He helped start an alliance of small companies called One Percent for the Planet. Members donate 1% of their sales to nonprofits working on environmental issues. To alliance members this is a business investment. Chouinard said:

You have to get away from the idea that it's philanthropy. I look at it as a cost of doing business. Every business should say, We're polluters, we're using our nonrenewable resources, and therefore we should tax ourselves. Being part of One Percent is also good for business. The six largest companies in One Percent, including Patagonia, are all reporting that we're now having our best years ever. Think of it as a marketing cost. We'll tell a winery, "Okay, your wines are selling for $10. Charge $10.10. Nobody is not going to buy your wine because it's 10 cents more a bottle. In fact, you can add only 6 cents, because you can write off 40% of your donation on taxes." If you're a gas station and your receipt says, thank you for your purchase; 6 cents will go to the environment, I'll bet a lot of people would go out of their way to buy that gas.

As an investment, the One Percent companies should expect the environmental nonprofits to have the same high quality of management and effectiveness that they expect of themselves. The nonprofits should be continually learning how to improve themselves (See: Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations) and use their precious funds wisely. This should be the agreement: businesses will donate to nonprofits that are doing things they care about; nonprofits will work on making their organizations effective and efficient.



What Can We Learn From AIG?

What performance is AIG rewarding? Is that the performance it wants to be rewarding? Yesterday, reported that after much harsh criticism from Senator Max Baucus, Senator Henry Waxman, Representative Elijah Cummings, and presidential candidate Barak Obama, the new CEO of American International Group, Inc. announced the cancellation of recognition and education events like the $440,000 meeting of 100 independent insurance agents at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, California held after AIG received an $85 billion bailout from the U.S. government. The excuse given by people in the finance and insurance industries for these kinds of posh events is that this is how they reward and inform their sales agents and executives, and, they say, “If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

I understand that sales meetings are intended to reward people for their hard work, fire them up to do more selling for the company, and inform them about any strategic and product changes. And I don’t have a problem with a company spending $4400 per person for a week-long meeting…if that meeting gets the results the company needs in order to be successful over the long term. However, from what I understand about the situation, AIG, along with many other financial services companies, has been guilty of greed and excess that was not sustainable and would have resulted in bankruptcy if it had not been bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. It is clear that their sales meetings have been rewarding the wrong behaviors on the part of their agents and executives. If you could build a house of cards in these companies, you were put on a pedestal.

All companies should examine their sales meetings in light of corporate values, goals, and intended results. Are they achieving what is intended? Is this the best way to use resources? If the intent is to reward high producers, then they need to ask if increasing sales is all they care about. Are there other goals, more in line with the values of the organization, for which employees and independent agents should be held accountable? Are there better ways to achieve these goals?



Community of Practice; Practicing Community

A "community of practice" is an excellent vehicle for learning and should be promoted more for the development of both internal and external professionals. Beth Stoner, in her blog, DeltaPossibilities, talks about her experience in a community of practice for organization development (OD) professionals called "Community of Learners" that meets monthly in Troy, Michigan. Stoner has found this to be a powerful learning experience for her own professional growth and that of the others in the group.

Etienne Wenger defines community of practice as "...people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." According to Wenger, these groups have a "...shared domain of interest" and a shared competence in that domain. They engage in discussion and activities together and provide mutual support, although they often work alone. They are practitioners who, over time, share their tools and methods with each other.

Since I became an independent consultant 15 years ago, I have been a member of several different communities of practice. All have provided extremely valuable learning experiences for me. Most powerful, is the inquiry that goes on in these groups. As I bring up a topic, often client related, that is important to me, my community-of-practice colleagues ask questions that help me clarify my thinking so that I can be clear about what I need from them. They offer alternative ways of looking at the situation which gives me greater insight about my own thoughts and feelings and what I might do to be more effective in the situation. It's a wonderful, if a bit unsettling, way to learn.



Mission Possible

Major urban universities are getting serious about collaborating with other institutions and stakeholders to build the local workforce and improve the economic and social vitality of their communities. Of course, universities have always been major employers in their communities and individual faculty and many departments have a long history of projects that help local schools, hospitals, and businesses, but total university commitment to community transformation has been rare. I was privileged to be asked to help facilitate one of the planning sessions at the annual summer meeting of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU). Their mission is to…

… partner with cities and metropolitan regions to prompt transformative investment in these urban areas to: ✦ Develop human capital and create a workforce ready to compete in the new economy of the 21st century, ✦ Revitalize neighborhoods and increase economic development, and ✦ Reduce health disparities and improve community health. USU will achieve this through research, strategic initiatives, and collaborative action.

No doubt the 39 member institutions of the Coalition have the best of intentions. However, they are facing a very difficult challenge given their missions and traditions. Universities, especially the large, research universities, do not embrace collaboration easily. The traditional mission of the academy (i.e., research, publication, grant-getting, teaching, and service to the academy and one’s profession) and its primary activities are not aligned with what it takes to transform communities (i.e., cooperation, teamwork, equity, mutual support, inclusion, systems view of problems, and patience). Faculty are rewarded for individualistic, self-directed, independent, narrow courses of research and teaching. For universities to participate in their communities as equal players who approach problems from a systems perspective, they must make a dramatic shift in mission, values, and practice. This can be done as long as these institutions accept that internal change is needed before they can contribute successfully to change externally.



The Power of Diversity

Diversity in organizations is not just some liberal’s notion of what is the right thing to do. Scott E. Page, University of Michigan professor of complex systems, political science, and economics, has published "The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies." I’ve always believed, based on my own experience (including my own action research) and the research of others, that diverse work teams make better decisions than homogeneous work teams. Page’s book supports this contention. By citing many examples, his own research, and an economic model, he makes a very compelling argument. In an interview in the New York Times, he is quoted as saying:

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

What this means for the workplace is that we need to stop hiring people who think like ourselves and we need to stop using standard criteria for hiring team members. We need to be open to people from different life experiences including ethnicity, gender, socioeconomics, geography, employment, and education. Page’s work lends credence to the notion that diversity, not only has moral and social value, but also has strategic business value.


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Global Leaders of Global Partners

When we think of performance improvement it is usually in reference to one individual or one team or one organization. But this is too limiting. The most important problems in our society cannot be solved by one organization or even one sector. We need to improve the performance of collaborations among companies, governments, and not-for-profit organizations. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and professor in the Harvard Business School, was interviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal regarding True North, a new book he wrote based on a study of 125 leaders from both business and nonprofit sectors. In the interview, he said:

No business organization, even Exxon where I'm on the board, no government, even the United States government, or no non-profit organization, is powerful enough to solve really tough and complex problems like energy and the environment, health care, global poverty, global peace, education. These all require a collaborative approach. I think what we're going to see is leaders who are comfortable dealing in all of those sectors, and know how to bring people together being the most successful in solving tough problems. I think we'll see this globally integrated leader emerging.

Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international non-government organization based in Washington, D.C., is helping to create these kinds of cross-sector partnerships on a global scale. I had the honor of facilitating a workshop at a conference they co-sponsored in Amman, Jordan: “Leveraging Corporate-Community Partnerships for Women’s Progress.” This gave me the opportunity to see first hand how essential partnerships were being formed among corporations (e.g. HSBC Bank), government agencies (e.g., U.S. Department of State), and non-government organizations (e.g., King Hussein Cancer Center) to address some of the most challenging women’s health problems in the Middle East today. But this is going to take a special kind of leadership. We need, as Bill George has highlighted, to prepare leaders who are comfortable in all three sectors and also have the skills and inclination to bring people together and facilitate collaboration to solve society’s problems. Cisco Systems has a leadership development program in which they lend their executives to U.S. nonprofits and NGOs around the world and in so doing help to build the capacity of these leaders to work in different sectors. I hope more companies, government, and non-government organizations, will share their leaders with each other as a way to develop leaders who can help us “…solve the really tough and complex problems...”

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Workforce Readiness

According to a report from a meeting last June of The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management, a major conclusion of these stakeholders is:

The most vital course of action currently needed on workforce readiness is for business, education and community groups to work together toward developing a shared sense of responsibility.

Much easier said than done! In addition to my day job, consulting on human performance improvement, I’m an elected trustee of Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In this role, I’m involved in many efforts to bring together the nonprofit, education, government, and business sectors for the good of the community. My experience is that when these sectors come together the hidden agenda is usually, “What are you going to do for me?” not “What are we all going to do together to achieve workforce readiness?” Yes, of course, these players need a “shared sense of responsibility”, but they also need a shared goal. By this I mean a common purpose that drives all of them in the same direction and for which they need each other. “A shared sense of responsibility” is not this goal. It’s nice to have, but what is really needed is a target that all stakeholders can observe and measure and know when it’s been reached. For example: all able bodied citizens of this community will have competency in teamwork, civic involvement, professionalism, communication, and analytical thinking by the time they are 25 years old. Now, that’s a goal! It doesn’t prescribe what each stakeholder should do, but it does put a stake in the ground. And if the community can attach some rewards to achieving this goal, all the better.

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