A Simple Question…

In my years as a consultant and working with leaders to develop training I’ve asked a lot of questions: “what is the audience’s previous knowledge level? When and where are you looking to hold the event? Who are the stakeholders?”, etc. But I am always surprised that one simple question stumps most leaders I talk with. And it is this one question that, if left unanswered (or worse, unasked), can hobble an organizations performance improvement efforts. And if you have never asked it, chances are you feel like a hamster running on a big wheel. The Question?

What will people be doing or saying differently as a result of this intervention?

Seems simple enough but each time I ask it, the person across the table sits back and cocks their head to the side and lets out a nice, “hmph.” Usually followed by “that’s a good question” and then a long pause. Some people have even asked if they could get back to me. What surprises me is not so much that they cannot come right back with an answer but that the question itself seems novel. As if a change in behavior was never really even a consideration when picking an intervention.

Now, I won’t lie. Each time I ask this question, I feel particularly brilliant. Not because it is an especially brilliant question but because it reminds me how often people do not begin with the end in mind when it comes to change intervention.¬† They just want something to change without really considering “into what”. Often times it comes out as – “make the pain go away.” Which is really vague and hard to measure. So I considered how to change the dynamic of the conversation.

As a consultant, I have a money-back guarantee in my contracts. That’s right. If I fail to meet your outcome, I will repay you all of my professional fees. And I have had that in my contracts since I started. After all, if you buy a product and it does not work, you expect your money back – why should a professional service be any different. When I first created this clause, my wife was aghast, “What! Are you crazy?! Don’t put that in there!” I believe was her verbatim response. And I have received similar feedback from other consultants. But it is still there.

Why, you might ask, would I provide such a guarantee in the challenging world of organizational development? Because it allows me to have a more realistic conversation about outcomes, accountability, expectations, and responsibility. The clause stipulates that we (the client and I) must both establish the desired outcomes and measurements ahead of time and agree on them as expected outcomes. It allows me to set realistic expectations based on the level of intervention they are choosing. I have had some people ask for the moon and plan for the budgetary and work equivalent of a slingshot to get there. This evens the conversation because now they are accountable for something if they desire real change.

Most importantly it makes organizational leaders really consider what changes they actually want and forces them to realize that changing behavior is not the same as educating someone. Changing behaviors may require incentives, milestones, performance management, managerial practice changes, organizational structure changes, personnel decisions, etc. Behavior change happens over time, and I am not talking about a 45-minute lunch and learn.

Asking the simple question of “what behaviors do you want to be different?” leads you to the beginning of your gap analysis. It also helps you determine how you will judge success or failure. If you do not know what you want to be different or if you are not willing to be accountable to help make that happen, then save your money and figure out how to tolerate things being the same. If you want change, start with the end in mind so at least you know in which direction to go.

BTW: To date, I have not had to pay any client back for my services. Something my wife is incredibly grateful for. ūüôā


Why your leadership development efforts are not netting you more internal promotions…

Paradox Triangle

When perception creates a paradox

There are a number of paradoxes in the modern workplace but one that seems to plague a lot of organizations is leadership development and succession planning not leading to better internal talent or higher retention. And it befuddles HR professionals, senior executives, recruiters, and all employees.

A story (* = fictionalized…kinda)

Ryan* is a 28 yr old IT Jr. Project Specialist and has worked at Vector Resources* for 4 years. Starting as a departmental admin, Ryan proved her ability and moved into the coordinator role after 2 yrs. Since becoming a project coordinator, Ryan has received multiple recognitions from various stakeholders and completed a number of successful projects. She has also taken a few leadership courses and professional development courses as a part of her Individual Development Plan. Now Ryan is looking for her next career step which is to a Project Manager that would include up to two direct reports. ¬†The regional office in New Mexico has an opening for exactly that position. Ryan has long-standing good relationships with the people she would be supervising and they are supportive of her promotion. Ryan’s direct manager feels Ryan would be great in her new role and has acted as an advocate for her promotion as well.

Sounds good, right? She’s got a great track record, recommendations from her boss, colleagues, and recognition from other stakeholders proving her ability to successfully lead projects. Additionally, she knows the company, already has established relationships, understands the strategic vision of Vector Resources, she’s willing to relocate at her own expense, and love’s the company. Seems like a no brainer.

But here is what happens. The position posts internally and Ryan goes through the process and everyone seems to like her…but rather than offer her the job, they decide to post it externally to get some comparisons. EVEN THOUGH SHE IS THE PERFECT CANDIDATE! And here is the kicker, the salary range they are targeting for an external is MORE than they would offer Ryan.

So here is where Ryan sits Рcapable, recommended, ready, internally knowledgable, and accepting of a lower than external market salary because she loves the company.  Yet, here is the message she is getting Рexternal candidates are worth more AND might be more suitable for a role she is already doing. So regardless of the outcome, Ryan is starting to feel unappreciated leading to disengagement and cynicism towards a company she loved.  Not to mention, the time to fill this valuable position is just getting longer and longer with two direct reports having no manager.

Despite all the things going for her, Ryan is subject to two contributing factors that are roadblocks to internal promotions Рher longevity in her position and a concept of internal equity.  Lets look at these individually because they are acting against internal promotions is different ways. One is leadership failure and the other is a cultural failure.

The Paradox of Longevity

Despite the high praise and desire for employee loyalty, it is¬†harmful to your career progression. The culprit to this conundrum is a component of gestalt psychology known as “figure-ground.” ¬†It is a concept of how we perceive things.

Faces or a vase?

Largely illustrated in visual form by optical illusions that show two or more objects depending on how you look at them, the concept of figure ground states that once something emerges from the background as a distinct image, it can no longer be unseen. So while you may see the vase first and then the profiles, you cannot “unsee” the vase.

Old woman or young woman?

How this works against an employee when it comes to longevity in a certain company, and more specifically in a certain position, is people sometimes have difficulty seeing someone as capable of doing something beyond their current position.

Take Ryan’s example, Ryan has been in a non-management role for an extended period of time and as such, the leaders around her (the hiring managers in particular), and unable to see her as a manager. In fact, she may even be told she is not qualified because she does not have management experience, which she will NEVER get in her current non-managerial role.

It is a Catch-22. You aren’t qualified to manage people until you manage people. And if she is not given the position for that reason, what leads her to believe she will ever attain her career goals at her current company. They are in fact sending a message that quitting is the only way for her to further her career.

Seemingly, some organizational leaders are more appreciative of the unknown potential with an external candidate, than with the known capabilities and internal knowledge of an internal candidate. ¬†That is the leadership failure, failure to see your own employees’ potential.

The Cultural Issue

This one is more a fault of systems being designed independent of one another but it becomes a blind spot for many organizations. They pay internal candidates less than external hires. And while the basis of this might be rooted in good financial theory, the human message it sends is, internal experience is worth less than external experience.

The underlying principles at work on this one is from a financial standpoint this practice makes good fiscal sense. An internal will generally accept less for a promotion than an external might demand. But beyond the messages it sends to an internal here is something to consider. The reason an internal would take less is because there is less stress of learning a new organization. It is easier to stay with a company I know for less money, than have to re-establish myself and learn a new role at the same time. The inverse of that is where irony sits. For the external hire, they fully anticipate the stress of learning a new organization and establishing themselves. So in essence, you are paying MORE for someone to learn your organization before they can even bring benefit. You are paying MORE for an external hire’s learning curve before productivity kicks in.

There is also the concept of internal equity that many HR professionals cite saying they do not want to create an expectation of a high raise percentage for internals as they move up. But this tends to be a fallacious argument. It may make sense when it comes to performance or cost of living raises, but it should not apply when the nature of someone’s job changes in accordance to a promotion. The role is worth a certain range and¬†adjusting it simply because someone is an internal candidate is creating a negative culture for internal promotions.

Ultimately, here is the message and culture this practice of basing salary on the internal status and current salary creates: quit and work somewhere else, then come back and we will not only be more eager to hire you, we will pay you more than if you had just been promoted. It encourages the exact thing you are working to prevent. And what is more, you have now taken a sincerely engaged employee and turned them into a cynical job-hopper.

Straighten Things Out

Much of what I encounter in organizational roadblocks to performance are a result of misalignment. Everyone to detours around the roadblock to continue moving forward. In this case, the roadblock is a misaligned compensation philosophy and leadership perception. The detour is exiting people out of your organization only to pay them more to come back.

A major argument I hear from many senior executives is “if we develop people into leaders, they just take that experience to another company.” To which I respond, if that happens more than 50% of the time then you are either not looking at your people with fresh eyes when it comes to potential promotions or your compensation philosophy tells them they would be worth more if they quit.

When leaders start bemoaning the talent shortage and worrying about leadership gaps (such as in this article from Inc.com) it is usually a good idea to start looking at your efforts. If you are not developing your talent, start. But make sure you look the environment you plan to grow them in. You might create great seedling leaders but if you don’t replant them when they need more room or water them as much they deserve…you could find your leadership crop dying off.

Training, Development, and Learning

In this time where talent is getting easier and harder to find (lots of people, hard to find the right ones – ie. the paradox of choice) the need for talent management continues to grow. However, something I see from many organizations and HR leaders is the confusion and the interchangeable use of the words “training”, “development”, and “learning”. One is an event, another is a strategic process, and the latter is an individual experience. Yet many senior level leaders continue to ask for training to answer their development problems…the fly by night training and instructional design contractors (and pretty much EVERY eLearning developer) is all to happy to provide training for a price. And after thousands and sometimes 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars of training design and expensive Learning Management Systems, organizational leaders are not seeing a direct return on their investment in terms of development. And it is killing the credibility of talent management professionals.

Training is like building a house Рyou start and you finish within a pretty narrow timeframe when you think about the larger span it takes to build a city.  Good training relies on a number of qualified people: contractors, architects, sub-contrators, etc. And if you do it right, it is a great addition to your company. But just as building a house does not create an entire community, training does not develop your pool of talent. It is a piece to the puzzle but it is not development. Development of talent is closer to the development of a community. It takes a greater vision to see how all the pieces fit together. You have the houses, sure, but you also want roads, common areas, sanitation, sales and marketing, regulatory affairs, and landscaping.

The “roads” of your organization is how people navigate. If your organization is clogged with politics (think narrow roads with too many cars), misaligned communication structures (roads to nowhere), or broken systems (potholes and ruts); you can’t channel talent and effort in the right direction. People either get lost, frustrated, or just stop. Either way, if the pathways for people to develop are hard to navigate (just like a neighborhood that is confusing) people start to looking to live elsewhere.

The “common areas” of your organization is the culture and how people interact with each other. Without whitespace and freedom for people to move around without constantly bumping into each other, bad things can start to happen in even the prettiest of places. Most employees seek some level of autonomy and room to move independently to some degree. When you ask people to think “outside of the box” for a solution and the only place they can go is into someone else’s “box”, you’re not likely to see a ton of creativity.

Sanitation is your performance management system. How are you getting rid of the stuff your organization doesn’t want and would be better without? Poor performance management, just like bad sanitation, can make a community sick. Even people who are otherwise healthy become infected by toxic and underperforming employees. You have to execute your performance management plan. Holding people accountable is in many ways its own sense of feedback. People want feedback, they want to give feedback, and most of all, they want the employees who are not pulling their weight to either get the feedback they need and adjust their performance, or be shown the door. Poorly executed performance management, similar to missed trash pickup for months, can create a pretty apathetic environment. People stop doing what they should simply because they see that it doesn’t matter.

Sales and Marketing is how you get new people into your community. You have to have a talent acquisition strategy and you need¬†a brand or at least a concept of what you are selling that is bigger than just the location of your community. Without a talented and aligned recruiting team, you’re getting the wrong residents to your company. With the wrong people in your group you risk turning what could be a great place to live into a culture rife with challenges and conflict, not to mention poor performance.

Human Resource Management is your regulatory affairs group. You need to make sure all the permits are filed, all the taxes paid, all the nuts and bolt of invoicing, etc. Human Resource Management is a huge part of your organization and without all the daily transactions taking place (payroll, time tracking, benefits, etc.) you can’t have employees. Keep in mind, however, that human resource management is not the same as human resource development.

The landscaping is exactly what you might think it is; it is the physical climate of your workplace. Do you have art? plants? carpet? tile? etc. Are there drinks in the refrigerator? Do you have a¬†refrigerator? etc. It is the physical appeal of your exterior and interior. It helps create the vibe. While different from the culture, climate can still influence people’s moods so it is something to pay attention to. Does your company look like a nice place to work?

Oh, and learning. That is something individuals do, not something companies do. I cannot make someone learn, I can create an environment that encourages and rewards learning, I can give tools and resources to help people learn, but ultimately, whether someone learns or not is an individual process. I see many employees who are sent to training to correct behavior and they are resistant, combative, cynical, and sometimes toxic to others who want to learn. Learning is not under your control, just as you cannot make someone like where they live. You can create an environment that is makes learning easier and supports it, but it something each individual goes through at their own pace.

And now to my point. Development is how all of these things come together to build a community. And while my analogy is somewhat simplistic, it ¬†illustrates that development is a long-term and continuing process. Training is an event, and usually has a very specific design for a very specific purpose. You build a training class, people come, they leave. Training is a tool in the development process. What are you doing to create a culture that encourages people¬†to do more, try new things, recruit new talent, keep the landscape nice, and keep their “common areas” clean. How are you translating a development strategy into something more than just going to more trainings? ¬†One of the worst things you can do is expect people to be better simply because of training. No matter how great the training is, if people are not allowed and encouraged to do anything different when they get back, then the training was just something they went to and will NEVER translate into different behavior. (read¬†“Dumping the Water Back in the Pond”). How are you creating an environment where people CAN learn, change, and grow?

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” highlights Mastery, or an innate desire to ¬†get better at whatever we are doing, as one of three drivers of human behavior (the other two being Autonomy and Purpose). People want to get better, they want to develop. Good talent professionals create communities and houses and cultures that help people do what they instinctively want to¬†do anyway – develop, grow, learn, and expand. So the question is: are you simply building houses or do you want to develop a community?

Myths of Innovation

As I was reading an article from FastCoDesign.com about the myths of innovation and then a truism (see the article here) something that popped out for me was the importance of risk. It especially hit me during the section on “fast followers.” While I completely agree with the assertions¬†of the article regarding innovation and a number of the myths about it, the ability and willingness for leader to calculate risk and allow for mistakes is crucial to innovation.

I’ve worked a with a number of companies and this is something I see all the time from a number of leaders – a fear of being wrong, and it translates into a culture of followers.

Generation Y and eLearning

ELearning Rooms at UC-BCF

Image via Wikipedia

While it is very true that Generation Y (those born between 1980-1995), also known as “millenials”, grew up with the internet, wikipedia, txting, Facebook, Google, and email, the fact that they are more technologically adept than previous generations does not mean they value eLearning over other forms of training and development. ¬†This may explain why companies are unhappy with results after spending grand amounts of money converting to an eLearning delivery platform. The people just don’t want it as much as other forms of learning.

According to a recent (and on going) study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) set to appear in Issue 6 of the IEDP’s publication, Developing Leaders magazine, different generations tend to react very similarly to how they engage and are motivated to learn. In fact, though GenXers and Millenials respond slightly more favorably to blended learning, CCL’s research indicated “all¬†generations are less motivated to learn through technology-based methods like online¬†learning, simulations and distance learning.

So before you spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars converting to training a la mode;¬†remember, eLearning, class-room based training, on the job training, feedback intensive sessions, etc. are only delivery tools for learning – they are not the learning itself. ¬†If you want to help people learn, make sure you are picking the right tools so you can get the greatest level of impact. If you don’t know which tools to use…hire a training professional.¬†It’s what we do.

Missing the Point

Work is NOT a place...it is an activity

There has been a buzz in the past few months about unlimited PTO, unlimited vacation policies, 4-day work weeks, flexible hours, etc. Companies including NetFlix, Best Buy, SpinWeb, RedFrog Events, WeddingWire, and yes, even the US government  get it: mainstream media and by extension the majority of the American public does not. This is NOT a policy, it is the absence of policy.

The Arguments Against

The primary arguments I hear are these:

  • how will we know people are getting their work done
  • won’t people abuse it
  • how is this impacted by FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), and lastly,
  • how does that work if someone quits or gets terminated

My responses in their simplest form are:

  • “attendance does imply performance”;
  • “no – and please refer back to answer 1”;
  • “it really isn’t”; and,
  • “it works just fine, probably easier (and cheaper) than it does now”

How will you know people are getting their work done?

If you are using attendance to judge people’s performance then I would say you need to focus on your performance management system. ¬†I knew a lot of kids in grade school, middle-school, and high school that got a “perfect attendance award” and had crappy GPAs. Simply because someone if present does not mean they are performing. Furthermore, if you think watching over your employees increases productivity than I would say you either hired the wrong people or you are creating a negative environment for anyone who works for you. ¬†In addition, control breeds counter-control so if people feel monitored heavily, they tend to look for ways to slack when you are not looking.

Won’t people abuse it

Numerous practical applications of this type of work environment show when people are given the freedom of when and where to work, they end up actually working more. The question itself also assumes that having control of your schedule is a perk or a benefit Рthat is not the point.  The point is focusing on what people accomplish or how they meet performance expectations, deadlines, etc. So when you think about it that way, the question is actually irrelevant because it focuses on the wrong thing.  It, again (similar to the 1st question,) assumes that people will not be in their office and therefore not working, which is a false assumption. The problem worth analyzing is not whether or not they are present, but whether or not they are getting their jobs done.

How is this impacted by FLSA?

It isn’t. There is NOTHING in the Fair Labor Standards Act that mentions vacation or time NOT spent in the working. ¬†Here is the major misunderstanding of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as it relates to time and the modern workplace. The FLSA, along with establishing a minimum wage, ¬†outlines which employees are “exempt” from overtime pay after 40 hours/week, and which are “non-exempt” from being paid over-time. The easy piece is for exempt employees, or more commonly referred to as ‘salaried’ or ‘non-hourly.’ For this group of workers, there is zero legal ramifications for this person regardless of time spent working or ‘at work.’ They are paid a fixed amount regardless of whether they work 30 hours per week or 60. For non-exempt, or ‘hourly’ employees, the FLSA say nothing about paying people for time they DO NOT work. The ONLY legal ramifications are when people work OVER 40 hours per week. So the FLSA has nothing to do with vacation or time off, nothing – unless of course you have an earned PTO system where time off is considered an earned benefit…which ends up costing you when an employee leaves…because you still owe them the payment they earned.

How does this work if someone quits or gets terminated?

Here is a wonderful part of this shift. You owe them nothing in terms of earned or granted vacation. If you negotiate a severance package, that is totally different and has nothing to do with PTO or vacation. ¬†According to Hotwire.com, the majority of Americans workers left 6.2 days of vacation unused last year. If you use the median income of a full-time worker of $39,416¬†– that translates into a savings of over $900 for every employee who quits or is terminated, on average. When you have no vacation or PTO policy, no one gets paid for unused vacation or PTO…there is no such thing.

The Point

This is not like bottom-less wings where when your basket gets low, someone gives you a finite number more. This is more like air. Rather than living under a scuba tank where you measure your breath and have a finite amount, you get to breathe normally. In the environments like I mentioned above, the point is there is no basket, or bucket, of PTO or vacation therefore, no concept of unused, owed, or earned time. And more importantly, there is no guilt, judgement, or criticism around how people use their time as long as they are doing their jobs. When you are judged on what you get done rather than how much time you spend in the office, people tend to find efficiencies, work faster, and be more productive.

Don’t try to rewrite the policy, that misses the point. ¬†Eliminate it, shift your employees to focus on what people accomplish as opposed to just being present (see Presenteeism). Simply having people limited to the time they take will not make them produce more, in fact, as has been proven in all the aforementioned companies, productivity increased when they eliminated the vacation calendar and work-day clock. Stop talking about trust as if is something you have no control over – the more policies you have, the lower the trust you have in your employees (convince me otherwise if you disagree – and I am not talking about Quality procedures). Your vacation policy is one you can get rid of. Pay attention to what your employees do, not where they are.

Anyone Can Build a House?

Training is a delicate thing. We have all endured bad training and hopefully some of you have had the benefit of quality training. The difference, training and learning professionals versus subject matter experts (SMEs) or HR generalists. I am not questioning their intellect or skills in what they do, and while all have great intentions, the subtleties of quality training design and facilitation go beyond knowing Adult Learning Principles or the ADDIE method. And sadly, yes, with much fumbling and frustration, anyone can and has designed training. Often resulting in an immediately cynical workforce when it comes to further training. If you want people to engage in your development efforts rather than blithely walk through them (with little or no result) then you need properly educated and qualified learning and development professionals. Saying anyone can design quality training is very similar to saying anyone can build a quality house. Anyone can build a house, really?

Tools are Not the Same as Design

One of the biggest travesties I see in training is the confusion between instructional design and material design. The misconception that delivery tools are the same as delivery design is a gross oversight in many training programs. If you focus is on the delivery tool and not the purpose of the training, then you are likely spending a lot of money and not getting the results you are looking for. Sure, eLearning can increase efficiency in training delivery…but it does not always corollate to an increase in impact. ELearning, social media, PowerPoint, webcasts, etc. are training TOOLS, not training design. The neatest new drill or hammer cannot replace a good blueprint. And just because someone is skilled at using a hammer or drill it does not mean he/she could/should build a house.

Focus on the Result First

If you do not know what you want to be different, then stop and figure it out. I have asked this simple question a hundred times to people requesting training of one sort or another – “what would you like participants to know, do, or think about after this training that they cannot do now?” And I often left with a blank stare and a few seconds of silence. Training is meant to increase knowledge, skills, or shift perceptions…that is it. If you do not know what you want as a result of the training, don’t waste your time or money. Continuing the house metaphor – if you do not know what you want that is different than what you already have, then why would you build a new house? And similarly, be clear on what is accomplishable thru training. ¬†Saying you want people to get along as a result of the training is kind of like telling an architect you want the kids to keep the house cleaner as a result of building a new house. Training cannot make people want to do anything; it cannot make people like¬†anything (or anyone), and it cannot make anyone believe something different. It also ¬†cannot make them accountable – that is YOUR job as a manager.


Contractors know a lot about the overall process of building a house. ¬†They can schedule resources, get workforce mobilized, and manage the building project’s timeline. ¬†But they are not an architect or an engineer. ¬†When it comes to design. Contractors are generalists or project managers. ¬†The have a broad understanding, but most contractors at one point or another outsource a lot (if not all) of the construction work. The same can be said about HR Generalists. HR Generalist are the consumate organizers of HR functions – they make sure people get paid, processed, retain benefits, all while keeping you (the employer) out of employment legal trouble. They have a great broad understanding of the HR functions including training AND often is it best to outsource parts of the work. Be sure to acknowledge your limitations and outsource when necessary.

Plumbers, Electricians, and Carpenters

Masters in these trades are skilled beyond belief. They make the parts of the blueprint come to life. Yet many, though skilled and handy, have a deep knowledge of one or perhaps two areas. They are the subject matter experts. Though, I would not ask a master plumber to design my house, nor electrician, nor carpenter. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are wonderful resources of copious amounts of knowledge and expertise. You call on them when you want to dig deeper or need specific knowledge.  Techincal, finance, or sales SMEs are no different. They are wonderfully skilled at what they do. And interestingly enough, have a lot in common with training professionals.


Architects are the masters of bringing a vision into a physical form and detailing how it needs to be executed. They understand the concepts of flow, sequence, material usability, and innovative concepts. They are design experts both in an artistic form as well as in physical possibility. Training Professionals are the architects when it comes to developing talent. They understand the importance of flow, timing, sequence, design, appropriate materials, and adult learning. They understand the value of SMEs because in many ways they are themselves subject matter experts in the realm of knowledge, learning, and skill transfer.

Foundations of a Company

The inescapable fact of organizations is that without people, companies die. Even if you are the sole proprietor – if you abdicate, your company dies if there is no one to replace you. People are the foundation, walls, floors, aesthetics, HVAC, plumbing, and electricity of your company. Talent development is not arbitrary or accidental just as the quality construction of a purposeful building is not dumb luck. Of course if you are only looking to hang some pictures or build a box, finding someone who can drive a nail and handle a saw might be all you need. But if you are looking to build or rebuild your talent development programs- you might want to talk with a learning architect.