Filed under: Why Most Corporations Homogenize Remarkable People
Last week I gave a talk at the AMD Women’s Forum about Professional Destiny in Business and igniting passion in the workplace. How is this done–especially in larger organizations? The answer is that great productivity and passion at work always starts with people. Always. It begins with identifying your gifts. And if you’re a leader, it also begins with identifying the gifts of others and putting them to good use.
In the first installments of this “Homogenization” series, I’ve written about the problems of marginalizing vs. empowering people and the difference between “spiky” and well-rounded skills. Let’s go a step further and discuss why matching people to their unique talents is so important.
Studies have shown that up to 80% of workers feel that they are not being allowed to use their strengths on a daily basis at work. Why is that? In my experience, I’ve found that there are usually three main reasons:
- Many employees are not aware of their natural gifts or strengths. They are not clear on what sets them apart from others and consequently they are unaware of the types of work that fits them best.
- Organizations don’t pay enough attention to the difference between natural gifts and acquired skills and experience. They pay too much attention to credentials (resumes and fancy degrees), which are a good indicator of intelligence, but not a great indicator of a natural gift (such as seeing new opportunities or building customer trust).
- Many leaders do not have the insight or inclination to identify and match people with their greatest strengths. This is especially true if the strength is not immediately identified as part of the established job description.
In Professional Destiny, I give an example of a helpful exercise to help you identify your gifts. It involves getting crystal clear on the things you love to do, the things you’re naturally good at (sometimes these are the same, sometimes they’re not) and the things you loathe to do, and should avoid altogether. Once you’re clear, initiate conversations with manager and see how you can maximize your time doing what you do best. If you’re a leader, do this exercise with your team.
In essence, many managers homogenize remarkable people because they fundamentally believe that employees are interchangeable parts. They believe that skills and credentials are more important than natural gifts and that with the right training or attitude almost any person can be adapted to any position. The mistake in this logic is that it leaves out the passion factor and employees eventually begin to disengage. Their attitude can change to the “I’m just doing my job” factor. When people are passionate about their work, they are more loyal, innovative and driven to achieve remarkable things. Companies sometimes forget that it’s the people who first and foremost determine whether an organization is great or not. Not the other way around.
June 22, 2010
I realize this might be a bit controversial, but I feel compelled to make an observation about companies who spend millions upon millions of dollars to bring in outside management consulting “experts.” The problem is, left untended, these expensive experts can easily homogenize just about everything and quickly sap the creative lifeblood right out of a company.
Homogenization in the workplace often happens in the name of efficiency (danger, danger!) when a company-wide mandate, usually to address a lowest common denominator problem, takes priority over individual greatness, experimentation and diversity of approach. It’s a killer to creativity and a company’s ability to make remarkable breakthroughs.
True, there are some situations that warrant the hiring of an external management consultant. For example, a company may identify a problem and determine that it doesn’t have the specific knowledge and skills in-house to solve it. To permanently hire the right people would be prohibitively expensive, so hiring consultants with proven expertise for the short-term can be a huge benefit.
The typical profile of a Bain, Accenture or McKinsey management consultant is someone who excels academically and graduates from one of the top ten business schools. While this is a pretty good guarantee of intelligence, it is not a guarantee of insight or vision. There’s a big difference. What these consultants do best is apply basic business sense from an outsider’s perspective.
The problem is that their goal is often widespread efficiency—and this left unchecked can easily turn into homogenization. For example a Fortune 100 company now struggling with innovation, paid millions of dollars to a management consulting firm for advice that led them to implement an inflexible “Span of Control” policy. Following the consulting firm’s recommendation, the company implemented a policy across the board requiring managers at a certain level to each have a minimum of eight direct reports.
This does help flatten the organization and reduce levels of hierarchy. However, time after time I would see brilliant individuals hit a wall because getting promoted and making more money meant taking on significant management responsibilities. But what if their skills were “spiky”? What if their gift was mastery of a specific subject and they functioned best as an individual contributor? Is it worth trading someone’s unique and valuable brilliance in order to fit into the “system”? (See earlier posts I’ve written about the unfortunate problem of homogenization in the workplace, “spiky” skills, and empowerment or lack thereof!).
The danger with the taking these recommendations as Gospel, and implementing them across the board, is that they often lead to a “broad brush” approach that kills creativity, stifles people’s gifts and shuts down the career path for spiky contributors.
So before you jump on the ever-popular management consultant bandwagon, remember that these nicely paid experts tend to do well with broad-brush recommendations, but can quickly stifle the ability to do anything truly unique. If you want your company to be inventive and shake up the world, save your money, look within and never, ever homogenize!
January 26, 2010
In earlier posts, I’ve written about the unfortunate problem of homogenization in the workplace when corporations fail to recognize the natural gifts of their employees, or try to round out their “spiky” skills. Now, it’s time to tackle another favorite subject – empowerment (or lack thereof!). As I’ve said before, homogenization is good for milk, but not for people. It’s a killer to creativity and a person’s ability to produce remarkable results. And it doesn’t help the company much either.
“Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant. Strategy equals execution. All the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day… Good leaders understand something else: an obsessive routine in carrying out the details begets conformity and complacency, which in turn dulls everyone’s mind. That is why even as they pay attention to details, they continually encourage people to challenge the process.” – Colin Powell, excerpt from 18 Principles of Leadership.
Have you ever been hired into a position because of your ability to think strategically, your remarkable leadership skills and/or your repeated prior success in a similar role, only to have the rug pulled out from under you six months down the road? That’s when you hear the dreaded words “this is the way it’s done, your role is to just execute.” Ughhh. If you’re anything like me, this is an instant energy and enthusiasm sapper. I shut down. I lose my desire to go above and beyond. Whatever insight, or creative approach to solving a problem I have, instantly retreats. I become less motivated, and my mind and contribution are dulled. I’ve often joked that if I’m not empowered I quickly eject myself, or get ejected, from a company. There’s no faking it… it just doesn’t work. Perhaps I’m extreme, but I’ve seen it happen all too often in the sea of cubicles around me. Another name for this is marginalization and its definition is “to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position.” I’m sure you’ll agree, this is not what we aspire to be. It’s not very motivating. And unmotivated employees do not produce the best results.
I know many articles have been written on this subject, but in the name of simplicity, I’ll reduce it to two fundamental ideas:
- Empowerment invites people to step up—and keeps them sharp.
- Homogenization or marginalization sucks the creativity and commitment right out of people—and keeps them dull.
An organization of people primed to give their best is an organization that maintains a competitive edge and stands above the rest. Best of all, people want to work there. A great leader will strive to keep people sharp and will focus on three things:
- Let people make their own decisions within their area of responsibility. Be generous unless a specific experience with the person indicates otherwise.
- Give them the ability to affect change.
- Allow people to gain the knowledge, skill sets and training to thrive and grow professionally.
The moment a capable person loses the ability to make a decision related to their area of responsibility and experience, they begin to disengage and their contribution becomes less. Yet, the opportunity to exercise personal discretion and complete meaningful work keeps employees engaged. When employees are engaged, great things can happen. You get the best of their minds and they work harder because they are motivated. Breakthroughs occur. It also makes them more resilient to setbacks.
If you hire a capable person, let them stay capable. Bring out the best in them, don’t shut them down. Remember empowerment increases people’s skills and contribution—homogenization shrinks them.
November 11, 2009
As I wrote in the first post of the “Business Best Practices” series, a person’s gift may be “spiky.” Meaning they are incredibly good at one, two or three things as opposed to being well-rounded in many things. What exactly does this mean?
Well, there may be someone who is brilliant in one specific area, let’s say marketing, and that’s exactly what they want to do. It’s their passion. Now suppose this person works for a typical, large organization—it’s quite possible that he or she may skyrocket up the corporate ladder for a period of time. Then comes the danger point—the potential homogenization. This person’s boss may recognize the incredible talent and put them on a leadership fast-track. To do this, the misguided leader may insist that the world-class marketer become well rounded (uh oh!) and highly develop other skills, say operational expertise and management expertise. In many cases, but not all, becoming well-rounded is quite uninteresting to the marketer and their unbelievable gift becomes marginalized. They spend their time on things like reciting operational statistics and creating PowerPoint presentations and pretty soon 60% of their time is spent outside their brilliant gift of marketing.
This concept of spiky skills applies outside of the corporate world and is quite noticeable in sports. For example, no one would ever think of telling Tom Brady or Peyton Manning (and I’m not even a football fan!) to play a defense position and develop more well-rounded skills. The key is to encourage them do what they do best and build a team around them.
My argument is if someone is spiky, and wants to stay spiky, let them. Be glad for the gift they have and value it. Help develop their skills in other areas just enough to keep them “in the game” and let their brilliance flourish. Build an organization of people who are the very best at what they do. If you are a world-class leader, your gift will be innovative organizational thinking and knowing how to maximize the talent you have. Just one warning… it may require new, non-homogenized job descriptions!
September 8, 2009
Most corporations don’t practice the principles of Professional Destiny. That is, they don’t actively seek out the gifts of their employees and adjust their responsibilities to ensure that they thrive. The focus needs to be on maximizing people’s strengths, not spending the majority of time developing an individual’s weaknesses. As I wrote in Professional Destiny, a person’s gift may be “spiky.” Meaning they are incredibly good at one, two or three things as opposed to being well-rounded in many things. Weaknesses should be acknowledged and developed just enough so that they don’t hold a person back or get in the way of progress. But beyond that, there is a diminishing rate of return on the effort spent in trying to strengthen them. The focus on improving weaknesses should only be “to keep you in the game.” The things that an individual and the company are good at, are where to focus. It will pay off in both employee satisfaction and company performance.
It takes a very enlightened leader to pull off a personalized approach within a corporate framework. They must see the gifts of the individuals and match those gifts to a position (that may not quite fall in the standardized “job description”) and within the structure of the organization. It requires the leader to think out of the box, take risks and figure out how to pull it all together. It is in no way a cookie-cutter approach. Most companies stifle this type of flexibility.
As companies grow, they begin to focus on standardization and the force the homogenization of their people. They stifle creative thinking and alienate people from their gifts. As I have found through my years in the corporate world, few people are inspired to do their best work when they are forced into a box. When people are fully engaged and use their natural gifts, they do their best work. And, when people do their best work, companies achieve breakthrough results.
Perhaps we should all remember that homogenization is best for milk, not for people!
August 18, 2009