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My latest article written for CBS.
“Visit the nearest bookstore and you will find uncountable volumes on team building, hiring, and personnel management. Browse the Internet and you will discover scores of articles, blog entries, and other content devoted to the topic. There is a good reason for this amount of attention to the topic. A leader cannot act alone and is only as good as his team. When we talk about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Jack Welch, we mustn’t forget that there are people behind them, a team that supports and enables them.
So, given the abundance of writing on the subject out there, why this article?
The answer is simple: on an average, organizations suck at it — all the books and articles and other knowledge notwithstanding. As a consultant, I see a lot of environments, and the sheer number of teams that have a potential to be absolute stars, but are mediocre at present, is astounding. I would like to inspire the reader and provide some ideas for changing things for the better. I cannot be in every organization all the time to fix the problem, so this is simple way of leveraging the reading audience for maximum result.”
Read the rest of the article: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/tech-manager/?p=1620
At a recent event, a man came over to introduce himself. He explained that he was a project manager and wanted to “pick my brain on something”. I inquired about the kind of projects he typically engaged.
“Oh, system implementations with budgets of $1-2 million.”
It occurred to me at the time that project budget is a useless but commonly used metric. What does it tell us about the size or complexity of projects this gentleman runs? Nothing, for different organizations go about projects differently. Some throw money at it, hire dedicated teams, buy the best equipment, and involve consultants. Others spend as little as possible relying solely on internal resources, adding the project to a list of responsibilities for a few people within the organization. It is meaningless to compare the two projects on a basis of budget because the approach is so diverse.
Furthermore, an argument can be made that the same project carried out on a strict budget is more challenging and speaks to the mastery of the project manager and abilities of his team. After all, which chef is more skilled, the one who prepares a delicious meal from a limited number of ingredients in a field kitchen or the one who whips up the same meal from a fully stocked pantry, in a restaurant kitchen with a crew of helpers?
The question on budgets is often posed in job interviews, but the truth is, you should never base your decision on the answer. This metric has no meaning and should not be used.
The idea of ”going on your own” is attractive to many for the obvious reasons of independence and control over one’s destiny. As businesses shed people today like larch needles after the first frost, many turn to considering consulting seriously.
I went on my own after a successful career of 15 years in corporate IT in 3 countries and walking the classic career path from operator and programmer to executive. For a long time before making the leap, I yearned for the times when I would be running my own business, being my own boss. It finally happened 3 years ago and I’ve never looked back.
Being an independent consultant offers unsurpassed learning opportunities and a variety of assignments (if you can sell your services, that is). While travel is almost always a given, today’s technology has reduced it greatly as collaboration tools and communications become more and more powerful and efficient. Improving the client’s condition is venerable, satisfying and, frankly, well compensated.
Can you make it as an independent consultant?
A few traits are requisite, such as the ability to communicate effectively, the presence and, obviously, the knowledge of the subject matter. Pick up “Getting started in consulting” by Dr Alan Weiss if you are pondering this career path for a great discussion on this and other topics. In this article, I want to point out three important considerations that I believe to be critical; yet they are subtle enough to escape most people’s decision making process.
For the purpose of this discussion, I distinguish between consulting and contracting, the latter being a temporary placement with a client for the duration of a project or a set term. Here, I am talking of the former.
Structure, commitments and priorities
If you are a part of organization, you show up at work in the morning knowing what you are going to do. You have meetings lined up, voicemail light flashing, people popping their heads in your office. Your boss gives you assignments, you, in turn, task your reports. There is a structure created by schedule, commitments and priorities, which tell you how to use your time. This structure “happens” and is far from being of your own doing.
Running your own business means that unless you are besieged with client calls from the onset (a nice problem to have!), you will have time on your hands and no one but you will have to decide how to use it with the best return possible. There will be no structure to speak of, nothing that resembles the one I described above.
It’s a big deal. More than once people told me they wouldn’t be able to succeed in such uncertain setting. Would you?
Coffee, water cooler…
As a corporate woman or man, you may dislike a lot of things that come as a part of the package. Commute, office gossip, your boss who drives you nuts, high-maintenance employees… Wouldn’t it be nice to escape it all?
Sure it will, but if you have been a part of a large outfit for a few years, it is likely that you are used to being a part of something bigger, with its culture, challenges, dynamics and little idiosyncrasies, with the coffee machine and the water cooler and the cafeteria. We are communal animals, after all…
Do not underestimate the significance of these things to your happy self. I have seen many people becoming miserable and even falling into depression because of the lack of belonging. Solo consulting can be lonely and you will have to build these accoutrements yourself: network with fellow consultants, read newspapers, watch news, join associations and, if you have to, buy that coffee machine.
I have done it and so have my colleagues, it is not that hard, yet it does not happen by itself.
Getting things done
Whatever you do today in the corporate world has its boundaries. You may be the head of marketing, which means that you are probably not involved in Operations. You may be a network administrator, building and maintaining networks and completely removed from the sales process. Rarely do you have a staff member who is involved in all aspects of the enterprise, and not just merely involved but actually being a key decision maker in every area.
Guess what, once you are a consultant, you will be running your own business from A to Z, from IT to accounting, from product development to marketing. You don’t have to do your own books or set up your network, in fact, most often you shouldn’t, but you will make all the key decisions across the full spectrum of your little company’s functions.
The most successful consultants I know have an incredible knack of making things happen. For instance, you have decided to create a series of podcasts on your consulting specialties. It is not enough to just think up the concept but you actually have to line up the technology, record it, make it accessible to your audience and market it. The likelihood is that in your corporate life several people would be involved, but now it is all up to you. It can be difficult and you have to have the discipline to stick to it and diligently execute, from the beginning to the end.
As you have read my three points, you may have started questioning your thoughts about going on your own. This is fine and I wrote this short article not to discourage you but to inform. Independent consulting offers incredible experiences and as with every vocation, you have to love what you do to be happy.
This was originally published as a part of my monthly newsletter in February.
Today, many organizations find it necessary to reduce staff counts. In the last month’s newsletter I pointed out that these efforts are often a misguided knee-jerk reaction. Then, I received two emails from the readers saying, in essence, “OK, we got your point, but how do we do it right if we really have to let some people go?”
These points should be helpful.
Vertical or horizontal?
Under adverse economic conditions, organizations most commonly implement “horizontal” layoffs: every department is asked to shed a few per cent of its workforce. This is fine if you have people wandering around and looking for something to do, but on behalf of your organization’s shareholders, I hope this is not the case. The proverbial “tightening of the belt” is harmful, in my opinion, because it slows down and jeopardizes outcomes of, strategically important projects.
The much better way is to assess the organizational portfolio of projects and do one of the following:
- Speed up, strengthen strategically important work (yes, add staff, add executive support, allocate extra funds if necessary).
- Mothball projects that are not essential at this time – meaning that project can be picked up at a later time. Release or reassign project staff, but try to retain people who have deep knowledge of the project and will be instrumental in re-starting it in the future.
- Cancel projects that are no longer valuable. Release or reassign project staff.
Cutting vertically, along project lines, helps the organization to re-focus on projects that are truly strategically important, that propel the company forward and position it as the leader among peers. Horizontal cuts simply strangle, leading to a curious state of organizational coma, when a company, while technically solvent, barely manages to keep its head over the water, unable to move, progress, prosper. It takes years to recover, if at all.
Vertical cuts require strong leadership, strategic thinking, sense of responsibility and an effort. Horizontal cuts are effortless – this is why they are so much more common, unfortunately.
One time or many?
Do it once in one fell swoop. When done, always communicate to the remaining staff that it is over. Nothing impedes people’s performance more than uncertainty over their jobs. Have an open honest discussion about what has happened, encourage opinions and answer any questions that arise. Then, as a group, put it behind and concentrate on new challenges.
A colleague of mine once hired a guy who had been through a year of weekly announcements over the PA system containing names of employees required to assemble in the cafeteria, on each Friday afternoon. There was no communication from the top, people merely disappeared. The morale of employees was in the pits and so was their productivity. I doubt that the company is still around today.
Ensure that those who leave are treated equitably. Here is what I mean:
- Check into the packages offered and other conditions of release. DO NOT simply rely on the HR people to take care of it. The package should never be a bare minimum required by the law.
- Offer references, suggest job search strategies and resources, and show empathy.
- If possible, take the person out for a nice lunch.
- Be genial at all times.
Why am I saying this? Regrettably, it’s a common occurrence that one’s former colleagues are treated worse than war criminals, escorted from premises, prohibited from collecting personal effects, made to sign all sorts of “I-promise-to-never-come-here” forms. This is abhorrent.
Have a plan – what happens when those who have to go are gone? How are their responsibilities going to be divided and absorbed by those left behind? Too often, people are merely told that they have to take on new duties and left to their own devices to figure out what to do.
As a manager, you have to create the sense of direction and certainty, and support your people in doing more with less. Simply dumping new duties on them is nothing short of abdication of managerial responsibilities. Arrange for training and coaching; communicate changes to the rest of the organization; foresee and timely clear roadblocks.
There is nothing pleasant in laying people off. The reality is, each manager will likely have to do it one day.
There are a few things that I am yet to discover in business world:
- an organization which does not call itself a “dynamic environment”
- a strategically valuable HR department
- true diversity in an organization which makes diversity its “strategic priority”
- “talent shortage” (yet there is dire shortage of people capable of spotting and hiring talent)
Good read. I like Malcolm’s style, his curiosity and the gift of looking at ordinary things from an unexpected angle. I have seen him speak several times and he is incredibly intelligent, quick and witty.
In Outliers, Gladwell asserts that success cannot be directly attributed to raw innate talent and it is often a function of hard work and sheer luck. This is not a new argument but he goes a little bit further and says that you need to put in 10,000 hours to become good at anything.
For years, I have been critical of the current hiring practices (see this, for instance) with their propensity to concentrate on irrelevant metrics rather than on the true evaluation of the candidate’s abilitities and attitude. This is not surprising given that hiring decisions are firmly in the hands of the least paid and least knowledgeable people. Hiring the right person is difficult. Hiring someone based on acronyms and certifications is not and can be easily operationalized.
I wonder if Gladwell’s assertion about the requisite 10,000 hours will be taken by the HR people as a confirmation for their modus operandi, looking for candidates with an arbitrarily set number of years of experience in this or that, which such a bad indicator of a person’s value. Guy Kawasaki would never get hired at Apple, as an example, in the hands of those who administer hiring today.
Does it mean that Gladwell’s assertion is wrong?
I don’t think so, and here is why:
- he talks about very high levels of proficiency in complex activities. It does not take 10,000 hours to become good in a new programming language or learn to drive a truck well.
- 10,000 hours in his definition is 10,000 hours of thoughtful practicing, hard work, analyzing mistakes, correcting them and moving on – not 10,000 hours merely sitting in a cubicle.
- we acquire knowledge from a variety of sources – someone growing up in a family of boaters will know a whole lot about boats by the time they are 12, without having a shred of “working experience”
I am pretty certain that Outliers will be cited by HR professionals to support their methods … I am also sure not many of them will read it.