Friday, September 23, 2016

WD-40: Building a Culture of Learning Maniacs

Bill Taylor has written a terrific article for Harvard Business Review about what he learned from studying WD-40 and its CEO, Garry Ridge.  Taylor explains that many managers at established firms struggle with the "paradox of expertise."  By that, he means that the more experienced and knowledgeable you are in a particular field or industry, the more challenging it can be to see emerging trends, opportunities, and developments in that domain.  You become trapped by conventional wisdom, well-established rules of thumb, and implicit assumptions.   How do you overcome the paradox of expertise?  Taylor argues that you must become an insatiable learner.  As an example, he turns to Ridge and the culture he has created at WD-40.   The company has a long track record of success with an iconic brand.  One could easily see how such a firm could become complacent.  Ridge knew that the paradox of expertise could become his organization's undoing.  He set out to create a powerful learning culture.  Taylor explains:

Indeed, Ridge is so serious about the commitment to learning that he insists everyone at the company takes the “WD-40 Maniac Pledge,” a solemn vow to become, in his words, a “learning maniac”:

I am responsible for taking action, asking questions, getting answers, and making decisions. I won’t wait for someone to tell me. If I need to know, I’m responsible for asking. I have no right to be offended that I didn’t “get this sooner.” If I’m doing something others should know about, I’m responsible for telling them.


Ridge even sends a subtle message to employees with each email that he writes. According to Taylor, his electronic signature contains a phrase often attributed to the great Italian artist and sculptor, Michelangelo: "Ancora imparo." In English, that means, "I am still learning." People used the phrase in the 16th century to describe how one could and should continue to learn in old age just as he or she did as a child.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to Network Effectively

We all know that having tons of LinkedIn connections does not make you an effective networker.  The quantity of connections does not serve as the primary driver of networking efficacy.  The nature of those connections matters.  Researchers have compared two types of networkers for years.  First, there are those that engage intensely in a closed network.  They connect with others who share similar knowledge, expertise, and experience.  In short, they stick to their silo.  They aim to deepen their expertise in a particular field.  Second, there are the brokers.  These people are good at bridging among pools of people with different expertise.  They help connect people in different closed networks.   Brokers are incredibly important.  

Who is the more effective networker - the person who builds connections with others to deepen their expertise in a particular area or the broker who bridges multiple silos?  Ronald S. Burt and Jennifer Merluzzi have discovered that "network oscillation" actually proves to be the most effective networking strategy.  They studied 350 investment bankers at one particular financial services firm, and they tracked them over four years.  Here's an excerpt from a University of Chicago story about their research:  

The short answer: the most-successful people take advantage of both systems—sometimes they broker, and other times they dive into closed networks. In fact, without this movement back and forth, their networks give them no advantage at all... Analyzing salary and bonus packages as well as year-end performance surveys proved revealing for Burt and Merluzzi. Bankers who were able to move between brokering and working in closed networks during the year reaped the greatest rewards. These individuals formed ties across the organization, gaining access to new projects and opportunities. But once they found an opportunity, they quit brokering and engaged deeply in their new project. When that project ended, they once again tapped into their broad network of contacts at the firm to find the next interesting project. Swinging between working intensely on a project and networking more widely did have a cost: these bankers sometimes saw their reputations suffer while they were on the bench. But the hit was temporary. And the compensation data show that these oscillating bankers made the most money over time.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why People Leave Their Jobs

Bravetta Hassell of Chief Learning Officer magazine has a good article this month titled, "Employees Really Do Leave Managers.  Use L&D to Change That."  Here is an excerpt:

When it comes down to it, having free snacks in the employee break room, for example, isn’t as important as having a manager who appreciates his employees.  According to the report, “The Human Touch for Tech Talent: Employee Retention Could Be as Simple as ‘Thank You’,” employee responses to questions about what attracted them to a company and what kept them there say as much. The survey showed that 60 percent of employees said when analyzing a job offer, knowing whether staff feel appreciated by managers matters. Variables like how fast a person could move up in the company or how they’d be evaluated for raises were of lesser concern. Other highlights from the survey included:
  • 33 percent of respondents want to know their manager always has their back compared to 22 percent of people who valued having a clearly defined career path, and 17 percent of respondents who found it important to receive regular performance feedback.
  • 32 percent of respondents who looked back at ‘worst boss’ experiences said that person never gave credit where it was due.
  • 28 percent of respondents to the same questions said that person rarely gave verbal praise or support.
What can learning and development professionals do about these findings?   According to Hassell, they can rethink the types of capabilities that they focus on during professional development  programs and initiatives.  These findings suggest a renewed emphasis on how to delegate effectively, how to recognize employees for their work, how to celebrate team successes, and how to maintain an open and ongoing dialogue with subordinates.  

Friday, September 09, 2016

The Path to Becoming a CEO: The Long and Winding Road

The New York Times published the findings of a fascinating new study by LinkedIn regarding the path to becoming a CEO.   They examined 459,000 people who had worked as management consultants at one point in their career.  They tried to discern some patterns regarding how and why some people reached the position of CEO of a company during their careers.  Here is how Neil Irwin described the findings in his article in today's New York Times:

To get a job as a top executive, new evidence shows, it helps greatly to have experience in as many of a business’s functional areas as possible. A person who burrows down for years in, say, the finance department stands less of a chance of reaching a top executive job than a corporate finance specialist who has also spent time in, say, marketing. Or engineering. Or both of those, plus others. However, there is still such a thing as too much variety: Switching industries has a negative correlation with corporate success, which may speak to the importance of building relationships and experience within an industry. Switching between companies within an industry neither helps nor hurts in making it to a top job. These are some of the big findings in a new study of 459,000 onetime management consultants by the social network LinkedIn. Experience in one additional functional area improved a person’s odds of becoming a senior executive as much as three years of extra experience. And working in four different functions had nearly the same impact as getting an M.B.A. from a top­ five program.

The results do not surprise me.  You need to master a diverse range of skills to become an effective CEO.  You have to understand the different functions and disciplines within a firm.  Therefore, accumulating a range of experiences tends to be helpful if you wish to become a chief executive.  It also speaks to the importance of being a successful lifelong learner.  You can't just build upon the expertise you have.  You must take risks and venture into domains about which you are not an expert, and be willing to learn quickly.  

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Great Advice for Those with Creative Ideas

Matthew Jones has written a neat column for Fast Company titled, "5 Ways You Can Improve Your Organization (Without Sacrificing Creativity)." Most importantly, he recommends setting some priorities. He suggests that individuals, "Stop taking on more projects." Similarly, he writes, "Don't attach yourself to every great idea." In other words, know when to say no. You may have tons of creative ideas, but there are only so many that you can develop and implement at any given point in time. You may be asked to participate in lots of exciting projects, but you have to know your limits. Jones argues, "Most individuals will find that their creativity will plummet when trying to take on too many tasks at the same time."   I think it's terrific advice, because innovation ultimately is about more than creating a new concept or idea.  It's about creating AND implementing that new idea.  Taking on too many tasks at once reduces the probability that you will transition from creative thinker to effective innovator.  

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Advice for First-Year College Students

It's that time of year... here's a blog post from several years ago regarding advice for first-year college students.  


1. Pick your faculty, not just your courses. Ten years from now, it won't matter much if you took "18th Century French History" or "Cognitive Psychology" in your freshmen year, but you will remember the faculty member who made a huge difference in your life. Seek out the professors who care the most, who have a passion for teaching, and who are willing to spend time outside the classroom with students. Building those relationships early in your college career, and finding good mentors, can have a huge impact. 

2. Be smart about personal finance. Think carefully about how you manage your money. The habits you cultivate at 18 years of age will last a lifetime. Have a great time, but don't take on unnecessary debt and don't spend carelessly. 

3. Redefine how you study. For many students, studying means reading or re-reading the textbook and their notes from class. I would encourage you to think differently about studying. As you prepare for an exam, sit down with all your class materials, and write out a detailed review of the entire course. Then, boil that review down to just 1 or 2 pages. Then, boil it down again to just a few note cards. That process of having to synthesize and integrate all your learning in writing will have much more impact than a few extra hours spent re-reading the same tired words from a textbook.  Then, most importantly, quiz yourself!  Forcing yourself to retrieve knowledge from your memory will be extremely helpful as you prepare for tests.  

4. Seek out your own space. Don't count on studying in your dorm room. Far too much distraction exists in the dorm room. Find a spot on campus in which you are comfortable, and in which you can focus. For many, it will be a spot in the library. However, there may be other locations as well. If you do go to the library, don't sit in a high traffic area where you will constantly be approached by friends. 

5. Care for your whole self - mind, body, and soul. Don't just focus on academics. Stay in physical shape, take care of your spiritual well-being, and be mindful of your stress level. 

6. Read constantly about world events. You might think I'm crazy. After all, you will have tons of assigned reading in your courses. Who has time for more reading? Actually, staying abreast of current events in world affairs, business, science, and the like will be very helpful in your college career. As you read, you can and should try to make connections to what you are learning in class. By applying what you are learning in class as you read about world events, you will engage in much deeper learning. The lessons will sink in much more effectively. 

7. Thank your parents. Be sure to express appreciation early and often to your parents and other family members who are supporting you throughout your college experience. Be mindful of the sacrifices that your parents are making for you. Don't dismiss the fact that it may be emotionally difficult for them to see you leave home. Surely, you should seek out and affirm your independence from your parents, but don't trample on your parents' feelings as you do so.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Seven Characteristics of Successful Innovators

I was asked recently to share my definition of innovation as well as the characteristics of successful innovators.  Here is my response.

Innovation: the process of creating and implementing an idea that generates significant positive change. 

What are the characteristics of successful innovators?

1. Intellectual curiosity - a deep and persistent desire to learn new things, explore beyond one’s base of expertise, to read broadly, and to ask excellent questions

2. Growth mindset – a belief that abilities are not fixed traits, but instead can always be improved.

3. Collaboration – You must be able to work with others, because the "lone genius" theory of innovation is a myth.

4. Integrative thinking – Roger Martin argues integrative thinkers “have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.”

5. Connectors – the ability to draw unique connections among seemingly unrelated concepts from different fields.

6. Grit – perseverance and passion in pursuit of long-term goals

7. Tolerance for failure – willingness to experiment and prototype, accept feedback, adapt quickly, and cut your losses when appropriate.