Thursday, August 23, 2012

Achieve Success from Setbacks: The Secret is being "At Cause"

“I got screwed!”
"…but it wasn't my fault!" Bruce was really upset and voiced his displeasure with the topic at a two-day offsite management training. Bruce was rejecting the premise of an exercise that, in hindsight, taught me the most valuable leadership lesson I have ever learned.

Like many heavily-technical organizations, Oracle Customer Support had a lot of first-time managers who came up from the technical ranks, some of whom were promoted into management based upon their technical "chops" instead of people leadership skills. During the Ray Lane era, Oracle was growing rapidly and saw the value in investing their people in order to drive continued business success by providing training for all managers.

The exercise was simple enough. The facilitators paired us up and asked us to take turns explaining in 5 minutes to our partner about a recent time when we got "screwed" i.e. when we were treated unfairly in the workplace.

Suddenly, things got a lot more interesting. After we told our “story,” the facilitator then instructed us to "Explain the same situation but describe what you did to cause or contribute to the situation." Some people immediately "got it" - they described how they didn't manage up effectively, ignored early warning signs, didn't make sure there was a clear definition of success, or made other mistakes. Other people, like Bruce, rejected the idea that they had any responsibility for what happened to them because they simply could not re-orient their own thinking. They were trapped in a world where everyone had wronged them so they were doomed to spend their time just waiting for the next “unfair” situation to unfold - when the people, the process, or the company would "screw" them again.

"At Cause" or "At Effect"

The facilitators described these two ways of analyzing situations as the difference between being "at cause" or "at effect." If you were "at cause", you looked at historical situations with a focus on your actions - what you did, didn't do, so you could learn from them and do things differently next time to get a more positive outcome. If you approached setback in "at effect" mode, you looked at situations as the unfolding of events and circumstances that were out of your control. When in "at effect" mode, the personal conclusions were to "not work for jerks" or to "not deal with people who play politics" or other defensive rationalizations. Essentially, they missed an invaluable learning lesson.  

When looking at a situation that didn't turn out the way you had hoped, here are the questions to ask to get in "at cause" mode so that you can learn from mistakes, improve future outcomes, and advance your career.
  • "What did I do?" - if you calmly think through a situation after some time has passed, you may very well realize that you did things without intending to that contributed to the problem. For example, early on in my career, I approached some professional conflict situations with a “winner take all” attitude. Instead of looking for compromises or creating “win-win” situations, I acted like a student on the Debate team where the desired outcome was for me to “win” and for someone else to lose. But after reflecting back on those situations and asking myself the question, I recognized the pattern, changed my approach, and was more effective in the workplace.
  • "What didn't I do?" - Often inaction will cause failure. I had lunch with a former colleague recently who was let go from a project management role after only a few months. "Karen" took over a high-visibility project that was already behind schedule. The date had been moved, and she was brought in to make sure things stayed on track this time. But Karen quickly realized that even the new date was unrealistic and that the team couldn't hit the deadline without a significant change to the resource plan. As a newbie, she was afraid to bring bad news to her boss and make others look bad. So she stayed quiet, hoped for the best, and was let go once the news was finally out that another deadline would be missed. The "at effect" view of the situation is that the delay wasn't her fault and she "took the fall" for other people's poor planning and poorer execution. The "at cause" view of the situation is that she hurt herself by not having the courage to raise the issue early. If she had done so, it's possible that the executives could have given her more resources, reset the date, or done other things to help get it back on track. But she didn't give the organization that chance, because she was more comfortable "hoping for a miracle" and avoid delivering bad news than calling out the issue.
  • "What would I do differently next time?" If the first two questions don't yield obvious answers, it's time to take a broader and deeper view of the issue. Sometimes, the answer actually is "I should avoid working in that kind of culture again" or "I should recognize when my manager is a weak sponsor and find a way to move into another team." In other words, sometimes the changes necessary to avoid a repeat situation are not just small tactical adjustments, but fundamental realizations about the environments and teams where you’re most likely to succeed. Coming to understand this made a huge difference in my career choices and progression.

It's easy to spot people who commit to an "at effect" approach and suffer the consequences throughout their careers. They either stay in the same role for years and years because they can't get more opportunity, or they bounce from job to job and have only bad things to say about their prior managers, teams, and companies. Inevitably, they set themselves up for more failure because no one rallies around a finger-pointing complainer who seems to have more than their share of disappointments. In teams and projects, we gravitate towards people who take ownership and focus more on how to achieve team success instead of "blamestorming" or making excuses.

If you can practice taking an “at cause” approach to challenges and setbacks, you’ll find that it becomes very natural over time and it will dramatically improve your ability to learn from prior setbacks and significantly improve your judgment. It’s also a trait that I’ve looked for when I’ve chosen the next wave of leaders in my teams.

If you have experiences or advice on how to learn from mistakes effectively, please share your comments below. If you liked any of the ideas in this post, please use the social media icons to share on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Boost Your EQ – Good Results Alone Won’t Get You Ahead!

Good Riddance…!
“He wouldn’t be welcomed back here again!” 11 months ago I was reconnecting with an SVP at one of the “Big 3” in enterprise SW (I’ll call him “Mike”) and that’s what Mike had to say about a common connection (I’ll call him “Rick”) that he worked with for several years. Apparently, after Rick’s startup had been acquired, he demanded numerous changes to the organizational structure and project prioritization to suit his interests. Then, having delivered no meaningful results he left for another startup, and then another. But only 2 years (and 2 startups) later, Rick landed right back at the same “Big 3” company, again in a VP role.

As shocking as this can be, it’s very common to see high tech executives with spotty records land on their feet. “Where’s the justice?!”, you might ask. Well, what Rick lacked in substance, he more than made up in political savvy and he played “The Game” quite well.

Relationships Trump Results
As you rise the ranks in corporate high tech, relationship skills become even more important than functional competency. Last week, I was discussing this idea with Paul Burrin, a VP at Citrix Online, and he summed it up this way “I've worked in environments where executives with strong relationships could get by with being moderately competent in terms of their functional knowledge and results.” In other words, you’ll surely get fired for incompetence, but it’s your high EQ aka Emotional Quotient (i.e. self-awareness, empathy, and dealing sensitively with other people) that will enable you to effectively climb the corporate ladder and stay in the upper echelon. These “relationships” can take on different forms, spanning from strong relationships built on mutual trust and respect to self-interested, destructive cronyism where individuals put their own needs ahead of the company’s.

Programmers pound out code. Engineering managers make sure their technical staff deliver that code on time with sufficient quality. Directors release products and keep the “factory” running. At this level, you start to deal with cross functional dependencies and this is where things get complex. For example, releasing a product requires coordination with Marketing, Sales, Services and even Finance. Therefore, as a Director you will be judged not only by your VP, but also those with whom you work across the company. And even though everyone is “on the same team,” the natural tensions between different functional organizations will always create situations that require collaboration, compromise, or even conflict - testing your relationships and your ability to preserve them amidst the most challenging situations. And the stakes are highest for professional success and failure at the VP and CxO ranks

Politics, Good or Bad?
Every time the word “politics” is mentioned at one of our corporate workshops or public events, there’s noticeable discomfort in the room. Business is about making money and businesses thrive when smart people struggle to figure out the best way to handle the toughest problems. Corporate politics inevitably play a role in these situations, but there’s no reason that “politics” have to be inherently negative, as many people tend to perceive them.

Perhaps the uneasiness that people have with it is when actions by others conflict with their own value system. I got this cynical definition from one of my clients, a COO of a$150M business, “Politics is people doing things for their own advancement rather than the advancement of the organization.” That definition makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t think it reflects how the best companies behave. But these “bad politics” are a reality in many organizations, putting leaders in a position where their only choices are to:

1.    Compromise their values
2.    Accept “defeat” by a political adversary
3.    Find a new department or company that more closely shares their values.

Having a strong EQ will equip you to deal with and flourish in good and bad politics. Check out what Jeff Russakow, former EVP at Yahoo!, had to say about the importance of EQ.

4 Steps to Boost Your EQ:

Here are some ways that you can build up your people and organizational relationship skills.

  • Embrace Line-Of-Business (LOB) Tensions – when you’re under pressure to get things done, the last thing you want is someone from another part of the business putting road blocks in your way and slowing you down. Instead of getting frustrated and wasting your energy in disagreements and conflict, consider the LOB perspective that person has. LOB tensions are like “checks and balances” for businesses. If everyone is always agreeable, you might be missing something very important. 
  • Reframe your “asks” – It’s much easier to get people to do something for you if there’s a benefit for them. If you are a marketer and trying to roll out a new program or campaign for Sales, tell them how it’s going to help them with bookings, revenue and attaining their quota and NOT about how it’s going to increase market share, demonstrate thought leadership, or improve the inner mechanics of Marketing like web lead conversions, etc. 
  • Focus on Respect, not being Right – In heat of battle, driving your business and beating your competition, consider the longer term implications of how you “throw your weight around.” I was speaking with Moshe Gavrielov, CEO of Xilinx, and he said “As a CEO, it’s more important to focus on respect rather than being right.” His point is that the most successful executives understand how important establishing and maintaining good relationships are for effective leadership. 
  • Keep your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer – Good and bad politics intensify significantly the higher up you go in the organization. You can’t avoid conflict nor the people who may be creating problems for you. It’s worse to be blindsided by them, so find ways to meet with them on a regular basis. Instead of being surprised, you’ll be prepared. Then you are in a better position to proactively manage the situation, minimize damage to your team, and get the focus back on moving the business forward (rather than personal agendas).
Forging strong interpersonal and cross organization relationships is critical for any leader. Your functional, domain expertise is likely what got you where you are today BUT it’s not what will get you to the next level and keep you there. Do yourself a favor and evaluate your EQ compared to your IQ.

What have you done to build up your EQ and cross organizational relationships? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Managers be Warned: You Can't Handle The Truth!

The “Open Door” Policy
I’ve always been an ‘open door’ manager. My team knows that. And they’re salespeople – they’re not the type to be timid with their opinions.” I was talking with a Sales VP who I’ve known for more than 15 years. He’s a very personable and approachable professional and was adamant that he’d be the first to know if there was any discontent in his organization.

“So you haven’t lost any of your top talent in the last year?” I asked. He paused; looking unhappy he said “Well, yes. Three of my strongest athletes moved on in the last year.” I was waiting for the light bulb to go on as I said “You weren’t surprised when they resigned, right? Because they knew they could always come to you if they had an issue. After all, your door was always open.”

Suddenly, he got it. “No they all caught me completely off-guard, and by the time they had accepted other offers, it was too late.

Just because you think your team can talk to you about anything doesn’t mean that they will.

It’s Not About You (Unless It’s About You)
Good leaders make it clear to their teams that they’re not looking for sycophants and “yes people.” They want candid feedback – about the business, the company, and even themselves. Those leaders project a culture of openness where people feel comfortable sharing their perspective even when it isn’t positive.

Why would someone on your team who trusts and respects you as a leader still not give you “the straight scoop” about how they really feel?
  • You can’t do anything about it – “Big issues” are often larger than any single manager or executive. When I was at Siebel Systems in 2002, raises and bonuses had been cancelled for more than a year. During this time was quickly getting traction in the CRM market and competition from SAP and PeopleSoft was getting more intense. Stock options for some employees were literally $100 “under water.” Layoffs had become a quarterly ritual. Innovation was a distant dream because the company was on a burning platform, forced to stabilize its core technology foundation before it could even consider any enhancements. One of my key people resigned over these issues. She knew that I hadn’t caused the problem but more so that I couldn’t fix it.  “Big issues,” cause loyal employees to give up hope - packing up to move on to TNBT (The Next Big Thing) 
  • You won’t do anything about it – If your boss is either:
    • a jerk
    • focused on the wrong things
    • working from a faulty game-plan
    • fear driven
…then he’s probably created a political climate that won’t allow anyone to mention that “The Emperor Has No Clothes” without political punishment. Your team may think that you’re afraid to put issues on the table with executive leadership because you’ll just get labeled a “non-believer” and will become isolated as your own opportunities for influence, promotion, equity, and other rewards vanish into thin air. Your team believes that you’ll “play it safe” and won’t put your own opportunities in the company at risk by raising a voice of dissent.
  • You might actually do something about it – Just because you’re fully aware of a problem, and comfortable voicing it to your manager doesn’t mean you can fully control the “solution” to that problem. I remember when a marketing manager on my team, who worked closely with our Alliances organization, came to me to surface some dysfunction in the working model across the teams. I said, “This is completely fixable and I want to test a potential solution with our CMO.” She was immediately concerned and said “What if she decides that the ‘solution’ is just to move my function out of Marketing and into Alliances? I don’t want that, and it would probably make the problem even worse.” In that moment, she was telling me that she’d rather live with an ongoing headache than risk a radical tops-down solution.
Ultimately, all three of these scenarios boil down to a feeling among your employees that “You can’t handle the truth!” Being open to feedback and communication is great, but it’s totally unrealistic for you to expect everyone to be bold and courageous in raising issues that will put them at risk.

If You Don’t Know About it, You Can’t Manage It
Here are some strategies to uncover concern and misalignment so you can take action before it’s too late.
  • Get anonymous feedback – Find a way to get anonymous feedback. This could be an electronic survey or the old-fashioned “suggestion box” or something in-between. Create a visible way that employees can share negative feedback without fear of consequences. Some of it will be painful to hear, but it will be a lot less painful than when one of the “keepers” in your team says she’s leaving.
  • “Don’t just stand there, DO SOMETHING” – This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. People will only share feedback if there’s some hope of a positive outcome. I remember when an HR admin at a startup company that I had just joined shared the results of last year’s “Employee Satisfaction Survey” with me. The anonymous survey called out a couple of massive dysfunctions in the executive team, including one executive who berated employees and was never open to ideas from his team. I asked “What was done since the survey to acknowledge the feedback or address the issue?” I was horrified when she said “Nothing.” It would have been better not to run the survey at all than to run it and do nothing – which only further aggravated employees for “wasting their time.” That doesn’t mean that every little complaint demands an action from the executive team, but when there’s a widespread issue, ignoring it after it’s been called out dissolves trust in leadership. Taking action will show employees that their feedback matters. And the good news/bad news is that you’ll get more feedback as a result. Confident leaders check their egos at the door and use that feedback to improve. Weak managers use it to identify dissenters and then punish them.
  • Lead by Example – Do you want your direct reports to be comfortable (and brave) enough to come to you with things you might not want to hear? Well, are you willing to do the same with your manager?  What if he’s the CEO?  What about an investor who just put $25M in your company? If there are issues that are negatively impacting the company’s business and you’re not comfortable sharing these with your management, you can’t be surprised that your team wouldn’t share those same issues with you. If you want to foster a culture where feedback is welcomed, then you have to be willing to demonstrate raising feedback that challenges the status quo. Of course, that doesn’t mean bad-mouthing the company or complaining in the break room – that’s not a positive environment for constructive change. But it does mean stepping out of your “safe” zone and taking some risk to drive change that is positive for the business.
How have you provided this kind of feedback to your boss, or tried to gather it from your team? Please share what’s worked for you…

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hidden Treasure: Stop Wasting Your Valuable Re$ource$ and Recover Lost Productivity

Paralyzed by Priorities
“Yes, those are the key priorities,” said my CEO as he nodded during our one-on-one. I was stunned and a little disappointed. The whiteboard was covered with more than 20 projects that were on my team’s plate. I was hoping to get clarity on which ones were mission-critical, which were important, which were nice-to-haves and which were pipedreams - because even working long startup hours, we didn’t have the resources to execute them all at once.

Speed is the unspoken core value of every high-tech startup, and even as I explained the challenge, my CEO was very hesitant to treat any of the listed projects as a “lower priority” for fear of letting things “slow down.” I was struggling to untie this Gordian knot that I’ve since learned exists in many startups.

Among the many pieces of wisdom in J. Allan McCarthy’s book Beyond Genius, Innovation, and Luck: The “Rocket Science” of Building High-Performance Corporations is a creative but proven approach that sidesteps the flaws of traditional planning for startups and large corporations alike. Allan was kind enough to share this method and supporting tools in this guest blog post.

Wasted Time and Money
It’s highly unlikely that your company is using its resources efficiently. Why? The logic on which traditional planning is based is flawed. And, it can introduce huge inefficiencies into the daily operations of a company. On the surface the operational plan might look great and make sense—but if it doesn’t use “sequencing” as the organizing principle, then behind the scenes that same plan is draining productivity by as much as 15% to 27% (1) or more. No kidding.

How much money does a 15% to 27% productivity loss equate to? You can do the math for your company. It could be a few million dollars in an early stage organization to hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity (and related market opportunity) in a large corporation.

The Problem with Traditional Planning 
A traditional planning approach goes something like this:
  1. The company defines its vision and purpose. This is why the organization was formed, where it’s going, and what it will look like when it gets there.
  2. Leadership will also define its mission statement or “What they are striving to achieve”—looking out 18 to 24 months.
  3. Next, a string of high-level objectives are typically identified (let’s call these imperatives). Then the functional leaders (Sales, Engineering, Marketing, R&D, Finance, etc…) identify the work needed to be done, meaning, list the key projects and programs in order to achieve these objectives (let’s call these initiatives).
  4. The Initiatives identified by the functional leaders are then aggregated into a plan. That’s when the fun begins. Bright, motivated leaders debate priorities and make a case for resources. I call this “resource roulette” because at this juncture, resource allocation might as well be gambling since the logic on which it is based is severely flawed.  Why?
When there is a high interdependency between imperatives and initiatives, which is the case in almost every modern-day corporation, then sequence, or the order in which work is performed (like building a house) becomes extraordinarily important. When building a house, a foundation must be built first. There is no debate about this. Next, walls must be erected before plumbing and wiring can be installed. No one would dream of putting on the roof before the walls were built—and in reality it couldn’t be done. When one builds a house, there isn’t debate about priorities. The house is built on the basis of sequence or the logical order in which work needs to be accomplished. And here in-lies the root problem: organizations are very, very complex systems (even start-ups) with a high sequential relationship between imperatives (high level objectives) and initiatives (where the work gets done)—but this sequential relationship isn’t obvious. The “sequence” is further hidden when bright, energetic functional leaders act independently to create their respective plans of work to be performed. Without a sequenced-based plan, the organization is doomed to essentially work against itself as an army of motivated employees pursue goals and objectives that aren’t in unison.

The Power of Sequencing
Let’s review a powerful, numbers-driven example, to illustrate the power of sequencing in the planning process. (See Excel spreadsheet: Sequencing Analysis)

A CTO Group in a large corporation was struggling with their ability to meet general company objectives, made worse by a perceived lack of headcount and funding. The group had 111 employees and an $83M annual budget (excluding R&D capital). Prior to beginning the planning refresh cycle the current plan documents showed: 8 imperatives and 126 initiatives that the 7 CTO Group executives had aggregated from their various departments into a plan.

After refreshing the Mission Statement, we identified 10 imperatives that were needed in order to achieve the Mission. Next, we mapped the 126 existing initiatives to the new Imperative set. See column #1 “New Imperatives Identified in Plan” and column #2 “Existing Initiatives Mapped to Imperatives.” Examine the Initiative count by Imperative. (Note: At this stage you can’t read the actual Imperative description to know if, for example, 32 Initiatives is the correct loading for Imperative #1. We’ll save that discussion for a later time.) To this point Initiatives have been identified and put in motion based on executive debate over priorities. Remember, building a company is like building a house. There is always an inherent sequence that should be the organizing principle on which a plan is based. Now let’s demonstrate the impact of sequencing as the organizing principle of the plan.

Next, the executive team performed a very simple sequencing activity (on the new ten Imperatives) called the Interrelationship Digraph. I've seen companies invest only a few hours of time in this kind of exercise and literally save months of wasted person-hours of effort on out-of-sequence execution. This is a common sequencing tool used for a variety of applications. After sequencing (see lower portion of Excel spreadsheet green and red areas) we learned that Imperatives 8, 5, 4, 3, and 9 (ordered high to low) were the drivers or, keeping with my sequencing metaphor, building the foundation and walls of the house. In other words, these Imperatives needed to be finished (or at least significant progress made) before the lower in sequence Imperatives could be efficiently completed. It turned out that Imperatives 1, 10, 6, 2, and 7 (in this order high to low in sequence) were the followers or the wiring, plumbing and roof of the house. Notice that at this stage there is no debate about priorities! So, for example, it’s very difficult to build a sales plan without a market analysis. This is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, with literally hundreds of initiatives in queue in most companies, it’s very difficult to determine where these might fall in sequence unless there is an explicit mechanism in place to identify it.

Figure 1.1 – CTO Group Sequencing Analysis

Green= Initiatives that are Drivers/Precursors identified in Sequencing
Red=Initiatives that are Results/Followers identified in Sequencing

After completing the sequencing activity this is what we learned:
  1. 63 of the 126 existing Initiatives were cancelled or suspended. These were deemed too low in sequence or simply unnecessary at this point in time.
  2. 22 new Initiatives were added—not in anyone’s queue—and deemed mission critical; 14 of these addressed high in sequence Imperatives.
  3. 32% of the allocated resources (headcount and dollars) were rebalanced from low in sequence Initiatives to high in sequence Initiatives.
  4. The executive team’s confidence level grew and the weekly staff meeting debate ended over headcount and dollars.
  5. The CTO Group executive team’s confidence in plan execution grew significantly. 
  6. Stakeholder confidence and sponsorship increased exponentially. The CTO also presented this plan to the CEO and Board of Directors (CTO had previously been challenged by the BOD on his resource requests). He received accolades for plan composition and transparency. 
Is the organizing principle behind your company’s plan sequence or prioritization? I’ll bet it’s the latter. This means that you’ve got hidden treasure in terms of significant productivity gains awaiting discovery. Now, go get it.

Allan McCarthy

(1) Research performed on 87 companies between 1999 and 2009 pre and post planning process results. Planning process documented in Beyond Genius, Innovation & Luck: The “Rocket Science” of Building High-Performance Corporations, J. Allan McCarthy, November 2011, 4th Edition Publishing, available at

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Take Your "Self" out of "Self-Promotion"

No Way Out
The look on Sam’s face really caught my attention. I wasn’t sure if he was coming down with something, or if he had eaten something bad at lunch. He did not look well. “I have to do it. I know I have to do it. I hate the thought of it, but I know I’ll never get what I deserve if I don’t do it,” said Sam. He wasn’t talking about some brutal new workout program or cleaning the muck out of his rain gutters. He was talking about self-promotion.

I asked what was making him so uncomfortable. He responded, “Well, on one hand, I’ve made a lot of key contributions to the department that seem to go unnoticed. They won’t be visible unless I make them visible. On the other hand, I hate the thought of becoming the new ‘Mark.’” Mark was a notorious self-promoter in Sam’s department. Mark made a big deal out of even small achievements. It had gotten to the point that everyone dreaded his updates in team meetings because it became a predictable laundry list of the “great” things Mark had done that week. And Mark was oblivious to the fact that he was hurting his own credibility, and annoying his coworkers.

A Better Approach
Many high-tech professionals rising up the ranks struggle with this. We’ve all seen our share of “Marks.” In the best case, they’re boring. In the worst case, they’re distracting, obnoxious, and even malicious. But high-tech companies are full of smart, competitive, hard-working people who sometimes go unnoticed. Hoping that your accomplishments “speak for themselves” is a recipe for slow progression, and possibly even a pink-slip.

Here are five suggestions that will increase your visibility without suffering from “Mark-itis":

1. Don’t mistake “Necessary” for “Important” – If you’re working on something that your boss or her boss don’t care about, they also won’t care whether you’re doing it well or not. “Jack” was the Product Marketing Director on my team  who maintained the pricing guidelines for our enterprise software company. He worked hard but was frustrated that the CMO never paid any attention to him or recognized the results of his work. Without question, the price list was necessary – Sales couldn’t quote deals without it. But what was most important to the CMO was positioning, competition, and lead volume. The CMO never woke up in the middle of the night worrying about pricing, and he never ran around the office high-fiving people because of a great change to the pricing guidelines. Jack moved to another Marketing function where his hard work and talent would be “on the radar” with the CMO and his professional “stock” began to rise quickly.

2. Align with your manager on your career development plan (CDP) – Most managers like to promote the achievements of people on their team, which is another good reason to make sure you and your manager are aligned on your CDP. If you and your manager agree that your next step is to become a Senior QA Engineer, and that one of the key components is for you to demonstrate process improvements, it’s highly likely that she’ll  “advertise it” when you deliver. She wants her boss, your peers, and her peers to be aware of your achievements so that when she recommends you for promotion, those same people will think “Of course he’s being promoted. Look at all of the process improvements he’s delivered!

3. Shift from “Me” to “We” – Good news tends to spread virally in high-tech companies. The best way to make it easy for people to advertise your accomplishments is to make it about their accomplishments. Consider these two emails:

Version 1:
From: Mark
To: Sales Team

My social media tactics are paying off! We passed 5,000 views on our blog last month! I've been watching our competition, and I think they're starting to copy my moves. Oh well, I guess it's the "sincerest form of flattery," right? ;-)


Version 2:
From: Sam
To: Sales Team
CC: VP of Engineering, VP of Public Relations

Good news. We passed 5,000 views on our blog last month. Blog traffic is now contributing more than 10% of our Sales leads.

Kudos to the PR and Engineering teams. Our product innovations and steady stream of interesting news are really getting people to “tune in” to our blog. Let’s keep it up!


The second email celebrates a team accomplishment, puts the accomplishment in terms that the audience cares about (Sales cares about leads, not  blog views), and explicitly recognizes the contributions of others. Note the CC: to the heads of PR and Engineering, who will probably forward this good news to their teams (or maybe even to the CEO). “Sam” will be associated with a big success on something he owns (the corporate blog), lots of people will hear about it, and Sam hasn’t annoyed his co-workers with clumsy self-promotion. Score!

4. Focus on results, not your “hard work” – You led the project team through dozens of meetings over 6 months. You worked over the weekend to prepare the project summary. You even canceled a planned vacation when the project started to slip early on. Nobody cares. The right people will know what you did behind the scenes – calling it out just makes you a self-promoter. Quantify the results in the context of your department or company KPIs.

5. Take a long-term view – If you’re worried that celebrating a “team” win will mean that you don’t get enough “credit” for the critical role that you played, you’re missing the point. Career advancement, raises, bonuses, equity grants and other rewards rarely come from one single, heroic achievement. They come from continuous achievement, being a team player, and delivering bigger and bigger wins for the business over time. Being associated with a big win is enough, whether your efforts drove 80% or 20% of the results.  You’ll get the recognition and rewards that your contributions deserve without having to “apportion credit” across the team.
    What strategies have you used to make your contributions more visible? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012

    Get Comfortable with Corporate Politics

    The Proverbial “Love-Hate” Relationship
    Very early in my career, I was a technical support engineer and was pretty good at it. In fact, many colleagues asked me “You’re great with customers. Why aren’t you in Sales?” I would quip “Well, I have to sleep with myself at night.” You see, in my profession, I was dealing with all the problems that bad sales people created e.g. wrong expectations about what the products they sold could actually do. Also, I had a problem with money being the primary driver of my decision making and thereby clouding my vision for what’s best for customers. On the other hand, I also understood that salespeople are “royalty” in the company. They are the ones that take on a lot of risk and deliver the revenues that feed product innovation and ultimately my paycheck. Thus, I had another saying “I love sales people twice a year… when I get my 6-month bonus!” It’s apparent why some salespeople get away with questionable actions.

    In the latter part of my high-tech career, I transitioned into Marketing. I was catching up with Larry, a CMO colleague of mine when he described his “love-hate” relationship with Sales. “When they hit their number, it’s because they are great salespeople. But when they miss their number, it’s because Marketing didn’t deliver the support they needed - air cover, leads, tools and training, competitive intelligence, and more.” Larry also shared a memorable exchange he had when his VP of Sales asked “Why don’t you drop everything and get your whole team to help me make my Q1 number?” Larry responded “Because I have to help you make your 2011 number!”

    CEOs create their leadership team to execute the corporate strategy for the company. Every line of business ("LOB") function has clear goals to ensure the company hits the quarterly and annual plan. But misalignments in priorities frequently manifest in functional and even departmental goals. Although Marketing, Sales, and other departments have a shared commitment to the “corporate plan,” they frequently diverge in how to get there. 

    Typical Line-of-Business Tensions
    Every company has natural tensions between business functions. Here are some examples:
    • Marketing-Sales: Marketing is responsible for both near-term (qualified leads) and long-term (market positioning, thought leadership) initiatives that support Sales, but Sales mostly cares about the immediate-term e.g. “how are you going to help me make my number this quarter?”
    • Sales-Engineering: Sales needs more product features to sell, but Engineering is constrained by resources. They also disagree about which features are most important for customers. And Sales doesn’t primarily care about product quality, unless customers start complaining – causing Sales to waste valuable “selling time” reviewing product issues.
    • Engineering-Services: Engineering frequently wants to release more products faster, and often defines “done” as code-complete, QA-passed.  But Services is very concerned about “whole product” – end-to-end product quality, documentation, installation, usability, supportability, support readiness, etc. Low ratings in any of these categories will eat into Services margins and create customer satisfaction headaches.
    • The list goes on with Finance, IT, HR, etc.

    Corporate Politics – “Love it or Leave it” is Not an Option
    In the same way that the US constitution is designed with the 3 branches (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial), each corporate function along with their natural business tensions are like a built-in “checks and balances.” Getting alignment between business functions is not difficult to achieve provided the right leadership team and process is in place. In this economy, high-tech companies are demanding higher productivity and greater results to catch up to or out-pace their competitors. This puts you and your colleagues under a lot of pressure to perform. When you depend on another business function to get your job done, you don’t have a lot of time or patience for bureaucracy or politics. However, you need to find ways to embrace these tensions or you will spend all your time “fighting the system” vs. getting it to “work for you”.
    1. Build Strong Relationships – Once you get to know someone at a personal level (and vice versa), it’s much easier to work through professional difficulties and disagreements. Developing mutual respect and personal connections among colleagues lays the foundation for constructive business relationships. As a former CMO, I’ve had some of my greatest breakthroughs when I’ve vehemently disagreed with my CTO on our Go-to-Market strategy. But since we were good friends, we were able to respect each other’s position amidst our heated debates and got to a common point of execution. This would not have been possible if we had an antagonistic relationship
    2.  Play Psychologist – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is one of Steven Covey’s famous quotes from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” If you’re able to understand other people’s incentives and objectives then you will have a valuable perspective and greater ability to communicate with them effectively – and only then should you advocate your position. We work extensively with high-tech executives on how to successfully navigate through “Line of Business Tensions” so they’re able to influence decision-makers.
    3. Embrace Conflict – One of our earliest blog posts talked about why avoiding conflict is a bad for your career. It’s certainly easier said than done, but when you are in the heat of conflict, don’t take it personally. Business is business so you should expect that each LOB has their own business interest in mind. A good person with the best intentions may disagree with you and that doesn’t make them a bad person. Get on the same page so you can agree to what can and cannot be done. For example, Marketing execs should work closely with their Sales VPs to map out quarterly programs. You only have a limited Marketing budget and resources so get your Sales VP to agree on what’s most important to her and then lock-in the plan with her. That way when her priorities change (and they will), you can both come back to the mutually agreed upon plan. 
    4.  Stay Focused on the BIG PICTURE – You lose credibility when you’re viewed as a person who acts out of self-interest. The more you demonstrate that you are thinking outside and beyond your own personal interests and LOB function, the more you’ll be viewed as a team player and leader. Earning the trust and respect from other executives will give you more influence on big decisions and will swing those decisions in your favor.

    Distractions and disruptions from corporate politics will sap away your valuable time and energy. Your ability to focus solely on what you have control over is a necessary survival skill. Thriving in a corporate culture where people play fair and by the rules is ideal so that you don’t have to waste time an energy looking “behind your back.” On the other hand, if you are able to master the ability to mitigate and filter out the toxic effects from people who are overtly trying to undermine you, you’ll be able to rise up to the next level… where the political dynamics are most certainly even more intense! More on that in a future blog post….

    What strategies have you used to work through corporate politics? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.

    Thursday, January 5, 2012

    A 2012 Resolution: Keep Your Enemies Close

    “All’s Fair in Love and War”
    “Good news!” is what she said to me on the phone. She timed it while I was traveling, so it would be harder for me to react to what I saw as yet another attempt at professional sabotage. Over the years, I had become very suspicious of her because of “honest mistakes” that either hurt me politically, helped her, or both. This one made it crystal clear. There was no chance this one was a "mistake."

    We’ll call her “Nicole.” Roughly 3 months before, our department had reorganized and our GM decided that Nicole’s favorite direct report (who we’ll call “Martin”) was going to be moved onto my team. Nicole had hired Martin originally, and groomed him for over a year. They had the highest level of respect and loyalty for each other.

    Meanwhile, I had just extended an offer to a very promising young candidate. The “good news,” according to Nicole, was that she had suggested to Martin that the new employee joining my team should report to him (effectively promoting him to Manager), and that Martin was very excited about the plan.

    Nicole’s tone was enthusiastic and friendly on the surface. But she knew that the position she had put me in would be damaging. I could either go along with the plan, in which case Martin would get an effective promotion orchestrated by Nicole, or I could undo the plan, in which case Martin would perceive me as taking away a deserved promotion. Either way, Martin would end up being even more loyal to Nicole (with the promotion) or would be demotivated in his new role (as an individual contributor) because I blocked his promotion. Checkmate.

    This was a huge professional “wake up call” for me – that there were actually people who would set traps to undermine other employees for their own benefit. Because I was responsible for outbound product marketing and Nicole ran inbound product management, avoiding her was not an option. I came to the realization that I was now at the stage of my career where I had to “grow up” or be crushed by the “big boys” (and girls). I had to find a way to work with Nicole.

    Beware of Your Enemy
    Inevitably, everyone in high-tech encounters professional enemies i.e. adversaries that undermine your professional reputation, conflict with your value system, and sound your internal alarm for “fair play” and “justice.”

    As common as personality conflicts are in the workplace, they are the toughest problems to solve because you’d simply prefer not to deal with those types of people on any level whether professional or social. Socially, you can control who you interact with. However, broken professional relationships can be cancerous to your career success:
    • Wasted Time and Energy – it takes a lot of energy to dislike someone. This negative energy is wasted in matters that are counter-productive to the business. It also takes away from your job satisfaction.
    • Lost Productivity – avoiding someone who is on your team or who is part of your natural workstream makes for inefficient work.
    • Stalled Career Advancement and Promotions – it’s easier for your manager to promote you if she knows that there is consistent support throughout the organization. Adversaries can do a lot of damage to your reputation and make it hard for your manager or others to support your promotion.

    On the other hand, if you’re able to work through these differences, you can do a lot of good for yourself in building up key skills as well as your reputation. Managed properly, people will recognize you as:
    • A Team Player - Companies spend millions on “teamwork.” At Oracle in the mid-90s, Ray Lane was adamant in rallying every employee in every function to focus all energies on beating Microsoft instead of fighting each other. If you can be a role model for “teamwork” and create highly functional cross-organization teams, you will significantly increase your chances of getting more responsibility and rising up the ranks.
    • A Leader - Leaders work through differences and come up with solutions. Anyone can point out problems. Great leaders always find a way to work with all types of people and to motivate them to a common cause.
    • Politically Savvy - You simply can’t avoid “Politics,” because “Politics” still exist everywhere and won’t avoid you. Playing good politics is required and it doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values. True North by Bill George provides a great foundation for understanding how your personal values align to your professional goals. People will respect you as someone who understands the game, but doesn’t “play dirty.”

    “Keep Your Friends Close. Keep Your Enemies Closer!”
    By the time HR gets involved, it’s usually a lose-lose situation or at best win-lose i.e. someone will lose. While it’s improbable that you’ll get along equally well with every person in your workplace, it’s also impractical to think that you can turn all adversarial relationships around. Take the first step to improve a bad situation. It’s to your benefit (as the old saying goes) to “…keep your enemies closer.” Here’s how:

    1. Be the bigger person - If you lower yourself to internal infighting, people above, across, and below you will notice. And even if you “defeat” your enemy, people will be hesitant to build strong relationships with you because they don’t want to become your future “victim.” Resist innate behaviors to defend and attack by controlling or better yet disconnecting your emotions. Some of my greatest professional missteps were caused by inability to control my emotional response and reactions.
    2. Stay in frequent, close contact – this gives you an “early warning system” so you can look out for their tactics. Find things in common to talk about. Look for “windows of opportunity” to make small talk. Then build up to non-work related topics, hobbies and shared interests to discuss. If you can find a “real person” within your nemesis that will help you to relate better to him in business situations down the road.  It’s also possible that you can slowly build some trust over time, but don’t be so na├»ve in thinking that given the opportunity he won’t throw you under the bus!
    3. Keep focused on the business - Business is business so don’t make it personal. You will set an example for your team and send a strong message up your management chain if you are committed to put your interpersonal issues aside for the good of the business. It’s useless to worry about things that aren’t in your control. You can’t control what other people do (to you) but you have complete control over what you can do for the business.
    4. Promote your enemy - Most of my executive clients have the greatest difficulty with this part. Finding ways to promote your enemies will clearly demonstrate that you are not competing with them and instead are focused on company success vs. your own personal agenda. This is a very powerful technique to disarm your enemies and demonstrate to the organization that you’re well above petty in-fighting.

    Since then, I’ve faced many more “Nicoles” (and “Nicks”) in my travels as a high-tech exec. At best I’ve been successful in turning difficult relationships into productive, collaborative ones. At worst, I’ve kept my arch enemies at bay - limiting their damage by keeping them on my radar.

    What strategies have you used to work through personal conflict situations? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.