Training Isn’t Everything

I’ve worked in the OD field for long enough to know the true value of training. There are specific skills that must be demonstrated to succeed in any type of job, and more often than not employees need to be taught these skills. Sometimes they are technical in nature – think particular software training or “how to” sessions – and other times they are in the more nebulous realm of “professional development,” which includes leadership development. Although training can be invaluable, it is not the fix-all that it is sometimes mistaken to be, especially if not provided effectively. How do you provide the most valuable training possible? The checklist below can help:

Know if it’s a training issue – It is not unlikely for problems that occur within an organization to masquerade as training issues. It’s always easy to say “let’s give them training” and expect it to solve whatever issue is at hand, but sometimes there is more going on in a system than is acknowledged. In order to determine whether training is the right solution, a thorough needs assessment should be given. If training does turn out to be a necessity, the needs assessment will help to ensure the right skills are targeted.

Know when to walk away – As members of the consulting community, we have a responsibility to serve our clients to the best of our abilities, which means being honest about our findings even if the results are not ideal for us from a next-steps perspective (for example if a needs assessment yields that training isn’t the right solution). If you do not acknowledge the cultural realities that may be facing an organization, you could develop the best training in the world and still meet failure. If you sense that this is the case and you’re unable to help affect change at the system-wide level, you’re doing your client a disservice and should reconsider your value-add.

Know what you’re contending with – It is important to be holistic in your approach; be thoughtful about all that’s going on in the organization, what other initiatives a new training could potentially contend with, how people are held accountable, what people’s experiences have been with regard to training in the past, etc. Very often there is a lot that’s going on in an organizational that, if addressed, would solve the perceived “issue”. By being mindful in your assessment of the organization’s culture up front, you’ll be able to determine whether or not it will serve to support or block any new training initiatives that are rolled out.

Know what you’re impacting – While we know that not all training is effective, the only way that we know for sure if a given training initiative is having the intended impact is to measure results based on agreed-upon metrics laid out up front. By developing a robust measurement plan that holds the training accountable, you are much more likely to consider what design elements and content must be incorporated into the program to have the desired effect.

While I’d agree that training absolutely has its place in organizations, the system in which the training lives is paramount. In order for training to be the right solution, it is critically important that it be designed responsibility, and in concert with the organization’s existing realities.

Mining Text to Understand Your Culture Puzzle

It is estimated that 80% of data in the world exists in the form of documents, reviews, blog posts, emails, and articles. Unlike numeric data, text-based data is unstructured, making it more difficult to identify themes and trends across different media. However, in our work we found that text-based data conveys a number of attributes (such as values, beliefs, perceptions, needs, etc.), which cannot be expressed in traditional data sources. For organizations that want to understand their culture, text-based analysis is an often overlooked, but critical piece of the puzzle.

While traditional statistical methods are not as effective with text-based data, there are a number of methods to help us sift through this information. Furthermore, when we couple traditional and text-based analytical approaches, we have a bigger lens to understand our client’s organization.

To give an example, I used Glassdoor.com to understand employee attitudes at a large multinational airline. There were a total of 30 reviews, which were posted from 2008 to 2014. The reviews were from employees at 14 locations in 12 different countries. The reviews included numeric ratings of the overall organization, its culture, career opportunities, work-life balance, senior management, and compensation and benefits. In addition, the reviewers included a summary of the pros and cons of working at the organization.

Using text mining methods, we can sift through the unstructured data to understand overarching themes and attitudes. In the text cloud above, size corresponds to how frequently the word appeared across the reviews. Color corresponds to whether the word was positive (green) or negative (red). While this is one of the more basic approaches, a couple of key concepts emerge. We find words such as “flexible”, “friendly”, “security”, and “interesting” which may indicate that the airline has a friendly working environment and provides a certain degree of job security. On the other hand, there are other words such as “bureaucratic”, “cheap”, “worsening”, and “slow” which may indicate that there are some cumbersome processes within the organization.

This particular approach looks at words in isolation based on their frequency and sentiment; however, we can also look at clusters of words (ngrams) to clarify these themes. The most frequent word clusters include: “low salary”, “quality service”, “management good”, “learning opportunity”, and “great experience”. This may indicate that the overall management is received well, but the overall salary and compensation is low. This latter point might be why a number of reviewers indicated their experience was great but was more of a “learning opportunity,” indicating that they may have moved on to other opportunities. This text mining process saves us and our client’s time, provides an overview of the themes and attitudes, and point our culture overview toward key areas for further exploration.

On the other side of the spectrum, we can look at the scores and ratings to find patterns and themes. The map above shows ratings by location. Color corresponds to the airline’s overall rating, while the size of the dots corresponds to the employees’ attitudes toward the organization’s culture. One interesting pattern is how the ratings were higher in Eastern Europe and South Asia versus Germany, Switzerland, and New York. From one perspective this can be an important indicator of locations where issues might exist; however, for multinational companies it is also important to consider how values, attitudes, and assumptions about the work experience may change from country to country. Employees in Switzerland may have very different expectations than employees in Greece, Russia, or the Philippines. These are important factors to consider when bringing together different people (whether two offices down or two thousand miles away) to address common challenges.

Understanding culture is a lot like a puzzle. There are a lot of pieces. No one piece is exactly the same, and they all fit together in a unique way. Leveraging a variety of data types and data sources point leaders to key pieces that can make the picture come to life. In today’s competitive market, companies need to leverage the full range of tools at their disposal to orient their organizations for long-term success.

Military Leadership: Lessons for Business

Dov Seidman’s recent HuffingtonPost piece got me thinking about my own military experience and its non-basic training for business leadership:

As an organizational psychologist and combat veteran, consulting with corporate and government clients on the topic of organizational culture, I wholeheartedly agree. Military leadership may be perceived as “strict discipline” and “mindless followership” by those who have not experienced it firsthand, but the reality is, in today’s fluid combat environment, our leaders and soldiers must be able to adapt quickly and think on their feet. A core set of guiding principles and values in conjunction with intense training and development has enabled our military forces to adapt to the changing face of combat in impressive ways.

After our victory in WWII, it’s not surprising that the values to hierarchy and command and control would become engrained in the civilian sector as “the right way to do things” and, at the time, they were extremely effective, driving our economy to great heights, creating a strong middle class and creating the most highly educated society in the world. As the world situation evolved and warfare became less “stand toe-to-toe and duke it out” and more decentralized and nebulous, our military organizations had to adapt in ways that changed the face of warfare in dramatic ways.

Blind followership would become less effective as warfare became more dependent on small units operating somewhat independently across long distances. Small unit leaders and their soldiers had to learn how to succeed in very nebulous environments, to accomplish their mission nonetheless. They did this by rightfully training their leaders to lead by a core set of fundamental principles and to do the “right thing at the right time” as LTC Glick stated in the article.

While the military doesn’t need to show profit every month, I would argue that the price they pay for failure is exponentially greater than any for-profit business could ever fathom. Leaders in the civilian world who fail to understand that the world is evolving around them and who attempt to shape the world to fit their ways of working rather than adapting to be most successful certainly run the risk of becoming extinct.

I use the principles that I learned as an officer in the Army every day in my own business with great success. Not only is my team fully capable to working in nebulous situations, they are able to do so while working with ever-changing team structures, designed to best serve the diverse needs of our clients. My team is guided by a clear set of fundamental core principles and ways of operating and they are given an enormous amount of autonomy in HOW they actually accomplish their mission.

If the civilian sector can get past the stereotypes that many hold about the military I would suggest that there are a great many lessons that could be adapted to their work. These lessons have be learned as a result of a great many lessons learned and lives lost and if they are passed off as ‘only applicable in a military context’ I’m afraid that we may be missing some extremely valuable learnings.

Put Away the Winter Boots! (It’s Time for a Change)

When the weather gets warmer, we instinctively shove our hats and gloves into the back of the closet and pull out our sandals. The obvious change in weather or climate is easily felt and clues us in to the reality that the objects we might have needed last week or last month are not going to serve us well today or next month.

Organizational climates evolve in the same way that the weather does, yet we often continue to do the same processes that we did before. We can all think of that mandatory in-person meeting/conference that started back when so and so was in charge but is no longer an effective use of time. Or what about certain policies around working remotely that don’t reflect the current technology at the organization?

These relics from a different climate or season are often continued because no one has noticed that the meeting or policy etc. is no longer serving the organization. Or if it is noticed, those individuals trying to be agents for change often find themselves facing resistance. It is because that meeting or policy is embedded in the organization’s culture, or as we call it, a part of “the way we do things around here.” Changing a culture is hard, yet if we can understand the resistance to the change, it is possible to create opportunities for change. First, however, it is imperative to understand what is working about the meeting or the thing we’re trying to change and where the resistance to that change is coming from.

For example, in the case of trying to cancel an in-person meeting or conference where employees are resistant because they enjoy and feel appreciation through the free food/lodging provided during the meeting, one solution could be to give employees a stipend to buy their own food and/or a vacation bonus and then attend remotely. This continues what’s working (free food/lodging and appreciation) while saving the organization travel time and costs for holding an onsite meeting. Or if people enjoy seeing each other face-to-face but the meeting is not deemed a good use of time perhaps the meeting agenda, leader, frequency or length could be adjusted to increase the likelihood that it is an effective use of everyone’s time.

In short—it’s necessary for your organization to have a level of cultural awareness and a willingness to change when organizational needs are not being achieved and processes could be improved. Just like we wouldn’t want to be caught wearing our snow boots in July, we shouldn’t get stuck continuing to do things at the organization because they met the needs of a previous organizational climate.

Find Your Match: 3 Steps for Building Mutually Beneficial Business Relationships

“Building and leveraging productive partnerships can bring immeasurable value to your business, but it requires careful research, effective communication, and a willingness to compromise.”

In this LinkedIn piece, Chris walks readers through three steps for forming productive and strong strategic partnerships. Read more.

How Leaders Can Fight Impostor Syndrome

Leading at the top of the organization is lonely. According to a recent study called by The School for CEOs, 93% of top leaders require intensive preparation to take over an organization. Technical skill gaps that a leader faces as they take on positions of greater responsibility, such as making decisions about organizational structure and managing various stakeholder groups, often times receive more attention than some of the emotional and psychological hurdles they face. Impostor syndrome, for example, a major phenomenon that many leaders experience as they navigate a more complex landscape often causes people feeling ill-equipped to do the job. This has real performance implications both at a personal level and for the organization.

Leaders that experience impostor syndrome generally feel like a fraud. Often times, the story that replays in their minds is that they are going to be “found out”. In fact they often attribute their success to other factors – “ I was in the right place at the right time” or “I ended up here because I got lucky”. It’s also common to see executives that suffer from impostor syndrome not taking credit for their accomplishments. And if they do, they are usually pretty convinced that they won’t be successful the second time around.

It turns out that execs with impostor syndrome, tend not be vulnerable and this lack of vulnerability inevitably leads to a lack of self-awareness and development . To overcome this, creating a peer support system that can become a trusted network of advisors and serve as a go-to resource can be helpful. Working with an executive coach to look at some of the underlying beliefs and assumptions that are driving certain behaviors and then creating strategies to overcome them can also be of tremendous value. So if you or someone you know is feeling like an impostor, it’s normal and there are things that can be done to address it.

Organizational Culture, Talent Management and Onboarding Across the Generational Divide

Recent articles such as “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” and “The Brutal Ageism of Tech” highlight and reinforce the importance of adhering to some crucial tenets when thinking about organizational culture and onboarding across the generational divide.

1. Your organization’s culture will impact what kind of talent you attract.

Policies for employees are a critical part of your organizational culture, or “the way we do things around here.” For example, guidelines like a minimum vacation allowance rather than a maximum limit, the frequency and energy at organizational happy hours, and the expectations around working hours might attract younger employees. Conversely, policies such as paternity leave, stock options, retirement contributions and a set 9-5 schedule will likely attract an older demographic.

2. This culture you created and the talent you attracted will also impact how you onboard them. If the culture values innovation, trial and error and is moving quickly, and then the onboarding process might involve some shadowing of a colleague, personalized coaching and meeting with some more tenured colleagues for learning about a deeper sense of organizational mission, history, and values. However, if the culture values structure, hierarchical process, consistency and might be in a less of a hurry, a more formal, standardized onboarding process could be necessary to make sure that the new employee will be perform consistently and with clear expectations.

It’s crucial to remember that no culture is necessarily “better” or “worse” nor is there a “better” or “worse” approach to talent management or training. What is critical, however, is to ensure that your organizational culture and onboarding is intentionally designed in such a way to attract and train the talent you need to be successful as an organization. This alignment between culture and talent and training is one often overlooked piece of the puzzle in achieving your organization’s mission and well worth a close look.

Color Your Culture Picture with Data

We live in a world of data. Every day we are inundated with more and more information. In fact, the internet alone is estimated to comprise about 1.2 Zettabytes of information (that’s about 2.6 billion times the size of the average computer hard drive). We use data to help us make decisions in many parts of life from where to go to dinner, what schools to send our kids to, or where to invest. The use of data in business planning and operations is just beginning to take off and is expected to increase exponentially as data storage costs continue to decline.

So what exactly does this have to do with culture? Surprisingly a lot. Organizations regularly collect large sums of data regarding their workforce and operations. Some common types of information include: retention and recruitment numbers, workforce size, sales figures, and customer and supplier orders.

Each of these data points tells a story about what is happening in the organization. The key is to make meaning of this information by identifying connections and correlations between data points. For example, “Big Box” Inc. discovered the following connections following an analysis of its culture and operations:

  • Sales is driven by customer satisfaction, overall safety compliance, and employee retention.
  • Retention is driven by employee satisfaction, employee satisfaction is closely associated with safe work environments and the availability to opportunities to mature skills.
  • Safety compliance is closely linked to the maturity of the processes that govern the company.

By understanding these connections we have a more colorful picture of how the moving pieces are interrelated. Using the example above, our individual data points are now connected in a network of relationships where each individual part impacts the whole. For instance, improving employee retention not only requires us to improve professional development opportunities but also to closely examine the safety of the work environment. That in turn compels us to look closer at our processes and how we use them to manage the organization. To address a specific problem, we have to understand the system and how it functions.

Data isn’t just for business intelligence departments. The wealth of data (both quantitative and qualitative) we can access today makes our understanding of our culture much richer and nuanced. If we can use data to peel through the layers of our culture, leaders are able to address core issues earlier and employees will be more satisfied with their work, and all stakeholders will have the necessary information to tell better stories about where they work and why it matters.

Engaging, Sticky, and Effective

I’ve seen a lot of professionals forget what they’ve learned through training programs. And I’m not talking here about detail and minutia – but about the KEY objectives and takeaways. If they’ve forgotten those, they’ve wasted a lot of time and money. And, those two things are in short supply these days.

Many people turn to Experiential Learning to deliver the “sticky” (Heath Brothers, I’m looking at you), because making things sticky isn’t just important. It is essential. Nigel Rayment wrote a recent Huffington Post piece regarding Experiential Learning that got me thinking:

Given his take, the question becomes: Are your experiential learning programs really learning programs?

Consider Rayment’s criteria:

  • Specific learning outcomes: The outcome of the exercise must be specific and have depth
  • Participants should understand their starting point: no guesswork here…as Covey taught us all, “Begin with the end in mind”
  • Structured learning cycle: experience, discuss, learn, apply, review
  • Interact with the participants: this is a facilitative approach
  • Debriefing is a key: immediate and intentional discussion
  • Structured re-assessment: sustain the impact of the learning, rinse/repeat

If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to all six, there is a danger that your experiential learning programs aren’t achieving the desired results. If that is the case, you’d either have to revise the experiential learning program to meet the criteria, or consider the real possibility that experiential learning isn’t the right answer for this instance. (Option 3 could then potentially be that it is time to vacation…?)

I started using this criterion in my consulting practice,hesitatingly at first, because I feared the worst: that my experiential learning approach might have been engaging, innovative, and TOTALLY without value. Let me report: it has been a great test. Where I thought such a structured approach would inhibit the enjoyment factor and creativity of the designs, it has been just the opposite. Instead, the structure has been liberating, and given me permission to add additional creative wattage. And clients have noticed. The connections to mission, “real” work, daily impact have been tangible for them. First, in the session, and in the weeks to come, I’ve heard positive feedback regarding the effectiveness of the sessions.

Building a ‘Get Ahead to Stay Ahead’ Culture

I was surprised when the cup of coffee I bought the other morning was handed to me in a styrofoam cup. A few months back, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced legislation that would ban all styrofoam containers from the city’s restaurants. The measure still sits in debate, hence my Saturday morning cup of joe’s ability to stay steaming hot on my subway ride up Manhattan’s west side. Mid-train ride I got to thinking about the styrofoam lobby (yes, that exists) and their fight against the ban, which is understandable considering that the country’s most populous city could initiate a domino effect of anti-styrofoam campaigns. Could there be another way? Where is innovation happening?

I’m no scientist, but I have to believe that with the right brains in the right rooms, those styrofoam guys could come up with a new type of packaging that is better for the environment yet still keeps things toasty inside. So why haven’t they?

The most successful companies are the ones who don’t wait until their star starts to set before they begin to think about new ways of doing business. Still, too many wait to innovate until they’re in a crisis situation, and crawling out of that hole is difficult if not impossible.

But what is less obvious about these successful, cutting-edge companies is that all that creativity doesn’t just live in the R&D department, but throughout the organization. The right organizational culture makes it possible for innovation to occur.

As my colleague Ashley recently wrote, innovation requires promotion of risk-taking and acceptance of failure throughout your company. Research also shows that people are more creative when they have a supportive work community, autonomy, projects they perceive as challenging, time and space to focus on those challenges, a mindset friendly to ambiguity and enough wiggle room to try something new – whether that’s creating a new breakthrough product or simply revamping the way the department organizes documents.

gC worked with a client to design a leadership summit last month for one of most important revenue-driving divisions within a global powerhouse company – a division of nearly 1000 people. At the summit, the division leader proudly told the story of a junior employee who had an idea for improving a crucial process. She took the idea to her manager, who elevated it quickly to the top. Her idea is now changing the way the division does business, increasing efficiency and productivity. Imagine if their company’s culture wasn’t flexible enough to incorporate new ideas or even allow space for them to percolate, empowering of its junior (and senior) employees, or willing to try a new way of working while knowing full well it might fail?

As a leader, being open to the ambiguity required for your organization’s culture to stay innovative isn’t easy. But then think, when’s the last time you drank out of styrofoam cup?