Monday, March 26, 2012

Don’t Ask Permission To Succeed

This past week was a chaotic one for me in my personal life, which meant that it was a difficult professional week also.  But I read one article that made good sense to me – Don’t Ask Permission, Ladies, by Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt, co-authors of Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power (Jossey-Bass, September 2011).

Most of the advice these authors give the women they coach on how to succeed in business rang true for me and my career:

1.  Don’t wait for permission

The authors of Break Your Own Rules say not to wait for a boss to tell you what to do.  I was never one to wait for a boss’ permission.  I typically did what I thought best in my professional life, and hoped it would work out.  Usually, it did.  In fact, the times when I got into the most trouble were when I did what someone else told me to do against my better judgment.

2.  Act like you mean it

Flynn, Heath and Holt advise that women speak honestly and directly, without qualifications.  This suggestion has never been a problem for me – I’ve always been pretty direct with people.  Maybe too direct sometimes, but I didn’t get in much trouble, because I did try to be respectful, even when talking to someone for whom I didn’t have much respect.

3.  Break a few rules

The writers of Break Your Own Rules suggest doing things your way, rather than following the rules.  This is one piece of advice that it took me many years to learn – I’ve always been a “by the book” person.  But I did get to the point in my career where I had to do things my way, because no one was giving me the kind of direction I felt I needed to advance.  The only solution was to make it up as I went along.

4.  Be the best (or best-known) at something

Flynn, Heath and Holt say to develop deep technical skills, or good sales ability, or something else that makes you unique in the workplace.  For me, being a technical expert – being a “go to” person” gave me great satisfaction.  But then I changed careers, and was at a loss on how to stand out until I developed new skills. 

Along with being best known for something, the authors of Break Your Own Rules suggest that you toot your own horn, to let people know what you are good at.  I wasn’t as skilled at that, and I was overlooked sometimes as a result.

5.  Be the dissenter

To be assertive, you also need to take opposing positions sometimes.  But you had better have your arguments lined up to support your opinion.  Along with being direct, I was able to do this reasonably well.  Sometimes, however, your superiors will not go along with your position.  You need to know when to cut your losses and decide whether you are comfortable following a course of action that isn’t your first choice.

6.  Don’t overdo it

The last point Flynn, Heath and Holt make in the article is to be assertive, but not aggressive.  Stand up for yourself, but don’t be mean-spirited.  I think I did all right in that regard.

What about you? Which of these pieces of advice are easy for you, and which are difficult?

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Progress Principle: What Can Managers Do to Make Employees Engaged and Productive?

I recently participated in an American Management Association webinar entitled The Progress Principle: Sparking Employee Engagement and Performance. The presenters were Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, co-authors of a book entitled The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

1. Inner Work Life Drives Performance

Amabile and Kramer conducted a “diary study” of employees in seven different industries, asking them to describe daily their activities and feelings of engagement.  They coupled this diary information with numerical performance data. 
This study found that employees’ inner work life drives performance.  Inner work life consists of employees’ perceptions, emotions and motivations. 

Employees’ inner work life determines whether they are engaged and productive in the workplace. More specifically, positive perceptions, pleasant emotions and intrinsic motivation increases creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.

2.  The Progress Principle:  Progress on Meaningful Work

Amabile and Kramer found that the most important determinant of whether employees have positive feelings about their work is whether they made progress that day on meaningful work – what Amabile and Kramer call “The Progress Principle.”

In the diary study, 76% of employees described making progress on their projects on their best days, when they felt most engaged.  By contrast, over 70% of employees described work-related setbacks on their worst days at work.

3.  The Power of Small Wins

A further finding of the study was that small daily wins in the workplace translate into a big positive impact on people’s inner work life.  Similarly, setbacks on projects in the workplace translate into negative impacts. 

Therefore, it is important for managers to help employees achieve regular forward progress on their work.  Managers should break big projects up into smaller segments with regular milestones, so that employees can feel forward momentum frequently.

4.  What Managers Can Do

Amabile and Kramer found that managers need to provide two types of support to employees to increase the chances of them feeling that they were making progress on meaningful work – project support and people support.

            a.  Project Support (Catalysts)

According to Amabile and Kramer, the catalysts that managers can use to support employees’ progress include:
  • Clear meaningful goals
  • Autonomy
  • Sufficient information and resources
  • Help with their work
  • Learning from problems and successes
  • Open flow of ideas
  • Sufficient time for the work (but not so much as to remove all time pressure)

          b.  People Support (Nourishment)

In addition, managers can support their employees through
  • Respect and recognition
  • Encouragement
  • Emotional support
  • Affiliation and camaraderie
Co-workers are important elements in the workplace, but managers are the most critical link.

5. Daily Journaling

As a writer and journal-keeper myself, it intrigued me that Amabile and Kramer recommended that managers keep a daily progress review detailing what happened in the workplace that day to support and detract from progress.  They suggest that managers ask themselves each day “What one thing can I do tomorrow to foster progress in my employees?

Employees own their own inner work life, but managers can and must support them.  Direct supervisors are the most important link between an employee and their engagement and productivity at work.

What can you do tomorrow to foster engagement among your employees?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge

The first business book I ever bought for myself was Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge, by Geoffrey M. Bellman.  At the time, almost twenty years ago, I was still in a staff job and hadn’t yet become a manager.  Bellman’s messages hit home with me, particularly his starting sentence: “You are not in charge.”

None of us is in charge of every aspect of our lives.  But we can all take charge of far more of our life than we do.

This post outlines Bellman’s model for success when you are in a support role (as we all are in some aspect of our life).  The questions to consider in each section are mine. 

1. Understand the job of helping others succeed. 

Recognize that you are not the person in charge, but appreciate the value and expertise you bring to your organization.  And remember that you are in charge of your life – you are responsible for making decisions that are congruent with your values. 

Consider:  What choices and decisions do you make to align your role with the business and the business with your values?

2. Lead when you are not in a position of authority

Just because you are not in charge does not mean you should not lead.  Your leadership grows out of your belief in yourself, in the people you work with, and in the value your profession brings to the business.  According to Bellman, you lead through vision, intuition, and appropriate risk-taking.  These traits are not limited to line managers – everyone in the business possesses them to some extent. 

Consider:  How do you use your vision, intuition and risk-taking to influence the business?

3. Understand and influence change

There are many models of change dynamics.  Bellman’s is a triangle of (1) who the players are, (2) what the players want, and (3) what the current state is – basically, how the players can get from what is to what they want.  Then Bellman puts YOU in the middle – how can YOU help the players get from where they are to what they want. 

This is a basic model of customer service – which is the function of any staff role.  And most line roles also have customers.

Consider:  What do the people who are your customers want? What is the gap between what they want and the current state? How can you help them get what they want?

# # #
This brief summary doesn’t do justice to Bellman’s book.  It only addresses the first of six parts of his book.

Combine Bellman’s three-part model for success in a staff role (any role where you are not in charge) with the concept of discretionary time I wrote about several weeks ago, and you have a roadmap for taking charge of your life.

Are you interested in learning more about leadership in a staff position?  If so, please let me know in the comments below. 

I’d also appreciate any comments answering one or more of the questions posed in this post.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Work-Life Balance and “Opting Out”

ForbesWoman published a thought-provoking piece on February 28 by Meghan Casserly titled “Why Is ‘Opting Out’ a Bad Word for Women?” 

I published a comment to that article shortly after it was posted, but the issue haunted me all last week.  Here’s what I think at the moment about the notion of women “opting out” of the workplace:

1.  Women choose whether to quit working for pay for many reasons. Usually it is a mix of work and family reasons, and a very difficult decision. 

I managed to continue working in a 60 hour a week professional career throughout the years my children were at home.  When my children were young, I got advice from family, friends and colleagues that it would be easier if I quit my position and took a “nice, part-time job” somewhere.  These comments made me mad, and I stayed through the worst of the sick kid years because I was stubborn.  No one was telling my husband to get a “nice, part-time job,” and I earned as much as he did and liked my job better than he did.

2. Women who receive significant positive reinforcement in the workplace are less likely to opt out.

I stuck it out while my children were at home, but I retired early.  By that point in my career, the psychic and monetary rewards I got from working were less important than the goals I wanted to accomplish in my life outside the workplace.  Had I still been receiving developmental opportunities and not had to deal with so many jerks at the office, I might well have remained.
So, yes, my decision was voluntary, but it was in part based on reduced job satisfaction.  Could my company have kept me?  Probably.  But only by satisfying my terms, which wasn’t going to happen.

3. Women have more choices than men.

Women are viewed negatively in the workplace when they opt out, but men are viewed even more negatively if they take more than a few days or weeks right after a baby is born.  This is just as unfair as the business assumption expressed in the ForbesWoman article that women are more likely to opt out, therefore, businesses don’t have to spend as much to develop them.

4. Both “staying in” and “opting out” are rational decisions, and they are very individual decisions. 

Each person will choose the best path for herself and her family at the moment the decision is made.  While it is human nature to impose our own values on another person’s decision, doing so doesn’t help.

5. Businesses do not accommodate family life.

This is true for both men and women, but in our society women get less push back for “opting out,” though I know many men who also have “opted out.”

It is rational for businesses to invest less in people they don’t think will stick around, but it becomes a chicken and egg problem. Women are less likely to stick around if they do not see the benefit to themselves – and investing in their development is certainly a huge benefit and a way to keep women engaged in the workplace. If businesses don’t invest equally in women as in men, why would women stay?

So are women (and men) making truly “opting out” on a purely voluntary basis, or are they being subtly directed toward the option that is easiest for business? My answer to that varies moment by moment.

The better question is:  How do we instead make work and home life both attractive options for women?

And the best question is:  How to we allow everyone – male and female – to create a rewarding life that balances work and family?