Is Lean In really gaslighting?

Photo Courtesy of Drew Altizer.

Can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps to overcome an injustice you have faced? It really does depend. There’s a thriving debate about whether women should act as individuals or as part of a collective when fighting for equality. Quartz recently ran an insightful article about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and her related TED talk. While Lean In has received a great deal of critique from all corners, the article in Quartz argues that Sandberg negated systematic discrimination and told women they can personally overcome discrimination by taking individual action.

The Quartz article is titled All Career Advice for Women is a Form of Gaslighting. Gaslighting is when an abuser contradicts your understanding of reality, perhaps telling you the opposite of what you know is true, in a persistent manner that causes you to question your sanity. The key moment is when the abuser says you’re making things up in your head, or that you’re going crazy. If you’re in good shape, you identify that the problem is the abuser and take action. Otherwise, you could endure mistreatment for years. This definition doesn’t really match Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. Sandberg rightfully describes structural issues about how women’s careers are held back by the system, and then proceeds to offer tips to get ahead. It’s individuals engaging with society, and her advice is fair game.

What the Research Says

The Quartz article and a similar overview in Harvard Business Review summarize fresh research from December 2018. (For the full study, see Kim, J. Y., Fitzsimons, G. M., & Kay, A. C. (2018). Lean In messages increase attributions of women’s responsibility for gender inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 974-1001.)

The paper covers six large-sample studies that look at how people judge women’s inequality based on messages they are fed. The main variable is a polarized portrayal of Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. In one sample, researchers only quoted Sandberg’s analysis of systemic discrimination, and people who saw this message came away with the impression that sexism was society’s responsibility and that we need to band together to change the system. In the other sample, they only quoted Sandberg’s advice on what individual women can do to improve their lot in life and get past everyday sexism. In that case people perceived that it was women’s individual responsibility to overcome sexism, and that women themselves are the cause of the sexism.

This notion that women cause sexism is victim-blaming. The researchers attribute this thinking to a kind of mental gymnastics that people indulge in to get past the discomfort that there is injustice in the world. But logically, victim-blaming is malfunctioning thinking. If you take reality seriously you must perceive injustice as it occurs and contribute voice and effort to remedy it.

The academic article is most concerned that people can’t disentangle causation and solution in their own minds:

“Responsibility for the problem, in this model, describes responsibility for the origin of the problem, or causal responsibility. Responsibility for the solution, in contrast, describes responsibility for finding a solution, or control over outcomes. …the two forms of responsibility are conceptually distinct, but will often be correlated.” [Emphasis added]

And indeed the research did find that the two were mixed up together in peoples’ head such that people became individualists or collectivists based on what messages they were fed.

How the Story Evolved Beyond the Research

Then it gets sticky. There are individual reasons why some people thrive and others fail, much as there are systemic factors that change a person’s odds of doing well. Therefore, there is a combination of collective and individual strategies to pursue women’s equality. If a woman is born petite, she can take up kickboxing and stare down physical intimidation. Conversely, if a woman had chosen a career which streamed her into a lower-wage workplace, she could still sign a union card and participate in a group effort that improves her life chances.

Even if people agreed that inequality was societal, that does not prove that all solutions must be collective. Social justice advocates are quick to acknowledge that you need a diversity of tactics to achieve your goals. It is not authoritatively true that individualism and collectivism fall on some great divide, with one being good and the other being bad.   

We all need to aspire to a nuanced view, but that’s not where critics took things. The authors of the Quartz article and the study itself seize on the one-half of the research sample that deliberately skews Sandberg’s message as individualist, asserting that do-it-yourself (DIY) feminism is bad news.

These people are like those tourists that went around Europe taking snapshots of themselves at the locations of the fictional events in The Da Vinci Code. Although there are real individualists out there, in this study Sandberg’s self-loathing misogynistic individualism was an abstraction fabricated for research purposes only. Now, social critics are weighing-in that if choosing between two polar opposites – a fabricated individualism or a fabricated collectivism – women must favour collectivism as “correct.” But the problem is not that causation and solution are actually twinned and people must choose between individualism and collectivism. It’s that if we revert to polarized thinking, individualists tend to win.

How To Actually Become an Executive

There are better sources to turn to if you are trying to get promoted. Elsewhere in the TED Talks, Susan Colantuono delivers a talk entitled The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get. Women are already well-represented in middle-management, the question is why do they not get beyond that. Colantuono found that a good executive must be good at three things:

  1. Use the greatness in you (individual effectiveness)
  2. Engage the greatness in others (leadership)
  3. Achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes (business, strategic, and financial acumen)

The first two items are important for getting into middle management. When women are given career advice it is disproportionately in areas in the first two categories: self-promote, get a mentor, network, and speak up. Corporate talent and performance management systems are highly devoted to engaging the greatness in others, the second of the two competencies. That’s not going to make a difference for this problem.

That is because when assessing executive potential, the third item is valued twice as heavily as each of the other two. Women have truly been kept in the dark that they need to know more about finance and strategy in order to get an executive job. To clarify, society has withheld this information from women (i.e. the causation is collective). However, because each person’s best learning hinges on individual interest and personal goals, women need to determine that this advice is accurate and change their own course as individuals. That is, if becoming an executive is important to them.

The majority of executives (63%) perceive they do not have strategic alignment with everyone rowing in the same direction. Colantuono proposes that one of reasons why there is not strategic alignment is that those women who are half of middle management have not received clear messaging that they need to be “…focused on the business, where it’s headed, and their role in taking it there…” The culprit is not clever-and-efficient sexism, it’s incompetence but with a gendered filter. It’s squarely within the responsibility of men in power to remedy this issue, if they plan on being any good at their day jobs. Boards, CEOs, HR Executives, and individual managers must all change their mindsets in order to turn this around.

In this context it doesn’t seem at all like women have to choose between a collective or individual orientation. Women aspiring to executive roles need to have a clear sense of the collective vision of the organization and figure out how they’re going to lead their team towards that collective purpose. If anything is gaslighting, it is the deliberate misquoting of Sandberg’s work. In her TED talk, Sandberg spends a fair amount of time describing appropriate trade-offs between women’s household collective orientation and their workplace collective orientation. Indeed in May of 2016, a year after her husband died, Sandberg acknowledged that “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right…” She acknowledged this two years before the research that polarized her comments.

Women with busy careers make frequent trade-offs about when they will take care of themselves and when they will take care of the group. It will ever be circumstantial which decisions are the right ones, and which tactics will actually work. Nobody knows this better than the very social justice leaders who foster individual agency when they encourage vulnerable populations to pick up a picket sign and protest.

There is more to your soul than your career

Photo courtesy of Ken Banks from kiwanja.net

Does work give meaning to your life? I sure hope not. Careers, on close examination, are an extremely useless vehicle for delivering a holistic life purpose. If you’re extremely busy you may not have had time to consider this. But it’s healthy to take the idea for a test drive.

Your Career Does Not Define You

This summer I was at the staff BBQ, to which everyone’s family were invited. The husband of one of the senior leaders, whom I had not yet met, was free for conversation. Here’s the hard part. In my late twenties, I read Miss Manners to learn those mainstream social skills not instilled in me by my hippie parents. One obscure item of tact is that it’s not always proper to ask what someone does for a living. People can choose to divulge, but it’s sometimes rude to demand that a first impression is built around one’s current career success. There is more to a person than their career, and demanding their career identity is limiting and possibly demeaning.

So, I asked this man how long he had known his wife. They met in their late teens in the same small town they had both grown up in, and they had been together ever since. Being who I am, I regurgitated the statistic that couples who meet before age 23 have a much higher divorce rate than everyone else. They tend to evolve into their true selves as they mature, usually in contradictory ways. Why were they doing so well?

“We each grew, but together. We made decisions as a couple about how we wanted to change, and we followed that path together, as a team.”

What would it mean if we could simply decide who to become? There are a lot of constraints put upon us by society, telling us that we must be this or that. What if instead of imposing constraints on each other we supported one another’s individual hopes and dreams? If this behaviour were normal, I can’t decide if I would think more about myself or what I could do for others. Is true success mostly about our conversations with friends and family and where we are going as a team?

What is Careerism?

Careers, by contrast, might not be all they’re chalked up to be. According to an article in Quartz by Andrew Taggart from July 2018 entitled The Case Against Careers:

“A career is a first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course, a story that confers a sense of purpose and unity upon specific work experiences (internships, jobs, gigs…) as well as a staid identity (journalist, firefighter, accountant…) …The aim of the career, and therefore of the careerist’s life, is work success.” [Emphasis added]

This is a great definition of career because it spells out some presumptions that are worthy of dispute. For example, if you had a good self-definition would it be work-centric? If your whole life is your spouse and your spouse dies, you lose your identity. If your whole life is fitness and you become disabled, you lose your identity. And if your whole life is your career and it gets derailed, you can’t look to your healthy body and your robust personal relationship to carry you through hard times.

In order to be resilient in a world of constant change, you need several identities in place before adverse events occur. That way you can be four-fifths “complete” when hit by hard times. And real people are weird; they have sincere internal contradictions that make them uncomfortable at times. There are mumsy types sneaking off to roller-derby, health enthusiasts who love their chips, and happily married people who put a little too much effort into looking good at the office. But being weird also turns out to be universal, so it’s fine to get used to this kind of thing. More than anything, we need to value complex thought as the rest of the world becomes contradictory in its own right.

Developing a clear identity gives you resilience that is a solid base from which to be brave, take risks, and shrug off threats from toxic people and a world gone mad. By contrast, a singular focus on the careerist mindset is a path to personal ruin that exposes you to extremely reliable disappointments.

Your career tells your first-person story. But increasingly our workplace effectiveness is determined by how well we dovetail with our superiors, subordinates, and our peers, both inside and outside the organization. Do we help each other, have each other’s back, and speak to one another with a respectful and considerate voice? Your surrounding network is so influential, your existence at work cannot truthfully be a first-person story.

There’s a great TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan who cites research by a scientist named William Muir. Muir ran an experiment that attempted to breed chickens that were top performing in producing eggs. The surprise outcome was that after several generations these “super-chickens” had almost pecked each other to death. Super-chickens as individual performers become excellent by hoarding the best resources and belittling others.

Coops built around super-chickens under-performed the control group of chickens made of equals. Heffernan makes the case that real workplace productivity is increasingly about teams working together with a sense of helping and collaboration. By contrast, the egos and demands of star-performers can cause teams to fail. Back to the definition of career, the first-person story is less important than the story of the team. Careerism is sounding, increasingly, like it’s not so clever.

Why Do Careers Fail to Deliver Ultimate Fulfillment?

Taggart asserts that before the ascent of careerism, humanity was built around higher visions advanced by organized religion. When humanity mostly abandoned religion, this sense of purpose was thrown out as well. Taggart asserts that there is a “vital existential anxiety” in the human experience that cannot be remedied or brought to peace through our career journey.

In order to achieve life meaning, we must seek transcendent experiences, Taggart suggests. The main feature of spirituality (an individual experience) and religion (a group experience) is that they offer transcendence, taking us beyond the day-to-day. But, by its very nature, work is fundamentally mundane. As meager compensation for abandoning transcendent spiritual quests we are given tasks that give us a sense of meaningless work.

In the typical workplace, purpose is undefined and often kept a secret. If purpose gives us our place in the cosmos, organized religion, at least, puts in a good effort. However, work imposes upon us a secret cult of stuffy clothing, buzzwords, and parlour games where we mimic the views of the highest-paid person who has a relative absence of baby-face. If you were not religious, and you had a good plan to replace God, surely you would turn to something lofty and impressive such as science or art or philosophy. To turn up at your workplace on a Sunday when the air is turned off and your friends and family are absent has got to be the Worst. Religion. Ever.

Don’t Scare the Children

Taggart is most bothered that we always ask children what they want to do for a job when they grow up:

“Instead, we should ask our children how, in a fundamental sense, they wish to live; what and for whom they wish to care; … what, or for whom, they’d be willing to die; in what ways they can be open to what life brings them; and how they can, as they lay dying, be so sated with life that they close their eyes free of regrets and resentments and at peace with all that is. …To kill the career—call it the Death of the Career–is to begin to wake up to life.”

It’s been a good thought exercise, but I’ll have to draw the line right there. I won’t be starting any death-talk with children at the staff BBQ. You don’t need to read Miss Manners to know it’s a bad idea to make children cry. And there, but for the grace of God, go I.

How to repurpose leftover turkey and leftover code

Turkey
Turkey.  Photo courtesy of  Jeremy Keith.

As Christmas winds to an end, several households are struggling with a conundrum. What should you do with the leftover turkey?  There are downsides to having this carcass. It hogs fridge space, you will be eating turkey for days, and some people just hate leftovers. I know people who are tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage. But don’t. Leftover turkey is a great opportunity to whip up some butter turkey or turkey noodle casserole.

When there’s nothing left but bones, it’s time to make turkey stock. Boiling down a turkey carcass into stock is one of the great wonders of household management. It’s so well-seasoned you don’t need to add any vegetables.  While the stock simmers, filling your home with great smells, you can accomplish something else, in a season when there’s some time to catch up with friends or wrap up loose ends.

With workforce analytics this kind of thing happens all the time.  Once you get on top of a major headcount puzzle, you will have spreadsheets and a few pages of code that are available for more than one purpose.  Like turkey leftovers, it’s worthwhile to be bold and repurpose them.

My favorite experience was when I built an entire hierarchy of jobs in order to identify when people had been promoted.  In large organizations it can be ambiguous which job movements are upward or downward.  Often, promotions are not categorized as promotions, especially if people change departments, leave and come back, or get a job temporarily prior to being made permanent.

To get past this obstacle we created a simple reference table that identified where someone was in a hierarchical career ladder, assigning a two-digit code to 1,200 job descriptions.  It was hard and tedious work that was entirely for the benefit of the back-engine of our promotions model.  But we eventually got the promotions model to work at a level of high accuracy, after which the client was able to use the information to influence high-level decisions.  That was the full turkey dinner.

Shortly after we finished this promotions model we got new demands for work which took advantage of the back-engine.  Our happiest client was the one who just needed the list of rank indicators for the 1,200 job descriptions.  They needed to send emails to a limited number of high-ranking people, so those people knew about breaking events before their subordinates and would know what to say.  With our organizational complexity and some turnover at the top, it was hard to identify who was senior.  What our client needed was a rules-based way of identifying who should get their emails.  Looking at our rank tables, they were able to choose a small number of rank categories and let the code do the work for them.  In the process they uncovered that one senior executive had been previously overlooked.  Now they were able to get the information out to the right people.

This client got the analytics equivalent of turkey soup.  They just needed the bones from inside the promotions query to be boiled down to create a new, skillfully-repurposed product that met their needs.

Do you have the opportunity to repurpose your own big wins?  That time you got on top of a major health concern, did you also develop healthy habits that improved other parts of your life?  If you overcame a difficult business relationship, did you also learn what your triggers are, and how to regulate them in future?  At the end of a big project, did you go for drinks afterward and end up with a few new friends?

Sometimes it seems like you’re just working hard to make other people happy.  But if you accomplished nothing in the last year except healthy habits, self-awareness, and more meaningful relationships, would you even recognize that this counts as success?

So put on your wool socks, turn the TV to your guilty pleasures, and curl up with that bowl of turkey soup.  It should feel good.  So take a deep breath and enjoy it.

[This is a re-post, with edits, of an article from October 10, 2017]

Stop trusting people who agree with you

Réception, dîner et dansede la présidente commandités par Fisher Scientific Education Dining Services [Musée de la civilisation]
Photo courtesy of CAUBO 2016.

Do you really need to network to get ahead? You might wish you didn’t have to. Sure, the appetizers at those networking events are tasty. But do you really need to spend more time talking with strangers you would never invite for dinner? Yes you do, but mostly you need to imagine a life where you can learn something from anyone.

An interesting debate emerged in August 2017 between two big names, and their arguments deserve a closer look. Adam Grant, who has an exceptional TED podcast called Work Life, proposed that networking wasn’t that big of a deal in achieving career success. Jeffrey Pfeffer, one of my favorite counter-intuitive business authors, respectfully disagreed.

Grant provided several examples of people who worked hard at developing an exceptional talent or creating something novel, who were only then picked up by an established social network. He noted that there are many cases of people trying and failing to use networking to advance their careers in the absence of underlying talent. Those who develop a meaningful contribution are more likely to get noticed. The subsequent networking is a consequence, not a driver.

Pfeffer did a good job of acknowledging that being excellent in more ways than one is important. However, he asserted that there is a major distinction between talented people who are not networked, and those who got networked and achieved career breakthrough afterwards.

Pfeffer and Grant agree on a core point, which is that people should aspire to become intrinsically excellent and then extend that excellence with robust networking. They are just debating what-causes-what. I think that everything causes everything else, and that it’s often ridiculous and pointless to find one thing that’s driving everything. For example, I propose that all of those successfully networked people got a great night’s sleep, and their sleep is the main driver of both the intrinsic talent and the excellent networking. That’s just a little example of how easy it is to choose a single driver of excellence. You can always take it back one step and find one thing that is even more important.

In terms of applying the research to our daily efforts, the key issue is to understand network diversity. As a sociological puzzle, it is strange and disturbing how we’re attracted to people who are just like us, how we expect our friends to like each other, and how we get sucked into tiny little cliques of like-minded people. All of these cliques are confirmation-bias echo-chambers filled with ideas and opportunities that only go in circles.

In an article at Entrepreneur magazine, networking expert Ivan Misner emphasizes the importance of diversity in networking efforts. He describes the experience of his colleague Patti Salvucci who arrived early at a networking event in Boston. She struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who was laying out coffee mugs for the meeting. She noticed his great voice and asked about it. It turns out that he used to be a commentator on CNN and had interviewed several public figures including JFK, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He had downshifted and moved to be closer to his daughter. Later at the event, there was another person who confessed that he wanted to start a radio talk show but had no idea where to start. Salvucci recommended he talk to the gentleman who was helping with the coffee, explaining the back-story. Nice connection!

That story shows new opportunities, but sometimes it’s about new opinions. When I was coming around to the realization that I was an atheist, I had a conversation with a colleague about my expectation that everything can be figured out. She had her own spiritual values, and she pressed me on whether it’s possible to have a deep admiration for the unknown. Pshaw, I said, people who lead society shouldn’t be obliging us to believe in anything that lacks evidence. That was my impulse. But her comment grew on me.

A year later I came back to her and confessed that the reason I always pursue evidence is that I am deeply passionate about the unknown. She was happy to leave-be the unknown, and to experience the joy of being surprised by the unexpected. I wanted to overcome the unknown as an obstacle, as an adventure in the pursuit of research and wisdom. We had two variants of a similar opinion. I had to fess-up that she had a great point, and that she had shaken me from a smugness.

Maintaining your cliques is what keeps you in your place. By contrast, the disruption of the established order is largely achieved by finding unusual connections with people who make you uncomfortable in some way. In order to make new connections in untapped areas, you must be brave and choose discomfort. And while maintaining discomfort during civil conversations, you must be curious about the opinions of those you at first think have it wrong. This important work is impossible to do if you lack humility. If you think you have figured everything out, you need to suspend your disbelief, and consider that others can change you for the better. Ask others where they are coming from, get sincere and uncomfortable, and play with the idea of changing your perspective. It’s hard work, but it’s usually the only way to get away from the tried-and-true.

Sincere networking isn’t one thing. It’s several things; attempting courage, enduring discomfort, developing curiosity, feeling a sense of humility, and changing perspectives. If you do all of that in one day, you’ll sleep heavily that night. And when you wake up in the morning, you might realize that you can accomplish anything.

[This is a repost of an article from May 7, 2018]

Be skeptical about predictions of the future workforce

Happy Elsie. Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae.

How much do we need to think about future job disruption and how it will affect our careers and the lives of our children? Somewhat, but don’t worry about it. There’s a cottage industry of hype and hysteria that grabs your attention and offer foolish solutions that are unrelated to the facts.

The BBC has a great audio article debunking the myth that 65% of future jobs have not yet been invented. Like the good journalists they are, the BBC looked into this “65% of future jobs” statistic and traced it back to the source. They found two authors citing a report that does not exist, at an institute which is reported to have been disbanded, in a jurisdiction (Australia) that doesn’t even recall an institute by that name ever existed. The BBC credits this discovery to blogger Andrew Old who critiques misleading statistics in the education field.

The BBC tried to re-create the 65% figure looking backwards.  Sometimes looking backwards at hard data produces better information than speculative forward-looking estimates. They found that one-third of jobs that exist today didn’t exist a decade ago. That one-third figure includes newly-created jobs where the role had existed somewhere in the labour market but not that position in that particular workplace.

An example would be new teaching jobs created because of population growth; it’s a pre-existing type of job that you could plan your career around, but the positions didn’t exist previously. Job growth allows us to move up in the world, change jurisdictions, sell goods and services to the newly-employed, and engage new labour market entrants coming from graduation, immigration, and returning to work after a break. From this perspective, it’s a very good thing that a large fraction of current jobs didn’t exist a decade prior. I hope this continues.

What Credible Sources Say About Job Disruption

Even still, there may be potential disruptions arising from automation, globalization, and demographic shifts. In an earlier post, I reviewed a McKinsey report that noted 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology. However, 800 million is the maximum range of their forecast, and the mid-point is 400 million jobs. The time period is 12 years, so the forecast is 33 million jobs lost per year globally – small for a planet of 7.6 billion inhabitants.

Of the 400 million jobs affected only 75 million will be eliminated altogether, and the rest will have parts of their work eliminated. For many of the roles that have parts of their work eliminated, workers might become a “bot boss” of a new technology that causes people to be more productive, more valued, and experience greater job security.

In another post I reviewed a paper from the World Economic Forum about forecast job losses relative to forecast new opportunities. There is an abundance of opportunity for people to port their skills from a lost job to a new job. On average, we’re going to be okay.

To clarify, when these reports are created they say one thing, but the headlines exaggerate the findings and sell eyeballs to advertisers. Congratulations, the product is you. But wouldn’t you rather become the protagonist in this outrageous game?

How To Take Advantage of Future Work Opportunities

How do you get one of those great new jobs where you leverage the new technology? At the Young Employers’ Council at Inc.com, a helpful article advises people on How to Prepare for a Career That Does Not Exist. In brief, they assert four takeaways:

  • Develop a broad-based skill set
  • Build a large and robust network
  • Excel at whatever you are doing
  • Stay on top of the news and trends

You need to a broad-based skill set to adapt your way into anything new. When a novel challenge presents itself, it is common that there is not an existing skill to deal with it, so newcomers bring skills from their prior profession. I experienced this myself when I entered workforce analytics, bringing in two decades of experience from the compensation and labour economics fields. In addition to tools for modelling in Excel, I knew a few things about consulting, office politics, and human rights in the workplace, all applicable to the new role. By contrast, I have colleagues who bring insights from industrial psychology, mathematics, and engineering. The mixture keeps it alive, people covering each other’s blind spots. The ability to adapt your skills while working through a series of specializations can really set you up for the future.

But you also need to leverage your core education. Broad-based skill includes creating a hybrid of book learning and applied practical smarts. In a Fast Company article referencing undergraduate internships at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, they emphasize the development of “adjacent” skills that blur the line between classroom and workplace:

“Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, says it’s more important to focus on experiential learning… ‘We cannot teach skills we don’t know exist yet,’ she says. ‘We need a different strategy and make sure they’re becoming lifelong learners,’ she says. [She cites a study finding] that experiential learning reinforces theoretical concepts and leads to superior performance.”

In some postsecondary institutions, the new goal is not to prepare students for their first job, it’s to prepare them from a series of jobs in a string of wins-and-losses, on the presumption that there will be plenty of disruption in the future. This scenario requires an agile mindset, high social intelligence, and a personal history of changing context and perspective. There is a call for employers to develop this new mindset as well, but from a top-down perspective, suggesting that employees quitting for better opportunities is a good sign of a dynamic workplace and that employers should empower themselves to keep tabs on former employees as a valued resource over the longer-term.

Back to the Inc article, I think the habit of excelling at whatever you do is vital because employers see the act of excelling as a stand-alone attribute. If there is a brand-new skill area and the employer wants their organization to become excellent at this skill, they may have no opportunity to find someone who already has the skill, let alone have excellence in it. But they can find someone who had recently become excellent at something adjacent. The spirit of excellence is a superpower that can be applied to the new and unknown.

Critical Analysis of the News is More Important Than Ever

The Inc article’s comment on staying on top of the news is the most thought-provoking. My undergraduate degree is in arts, and I find that arts majors can out-perform others shortly after a major change. We know things have changed in the past, and will do so in future, and that some fads are fleeting while human nature persists. And if you don’t have an arts degree, following the news for a few years can give you a really good proxy for this mindset.

Let’s get back to that dubious figure that 65% of future jobs don’t currently exist. The original source was Dr. Cathy Davidson, founding director of The Futures Initiative at NYC University. She says in another interview she stopped using the 65% figure in 2012. In the BBC interview, when pressed on her figures she doubles-down and says that 100% of jobs have been disrupted by technology. But in my former life in compensation, many jobs – particularly in the trades and service sectors – still have accurate job descriptions from the 1970s. 

Then Davidson asserts that the one thing that has not changed is our education system. But I follow the K-12 sector and over the last few decades have seen a number of impressive changes that are grounded in robust research. My three favourites are the boom in early interventions for special needs children, improved vigilance on preventing bullying, the sophisticated and nuanced use of technology in the classroom, and the shift to experiential learning built around the student’s intrinsic motivation.

Sorry, that was four favourites. You caught that, right? If you didn’t, you need to learn how.

Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

[Repost from December 14, 2017]