note to self: play bigger

It’s difficult to get to middle age without learning a few things. Of course, I often forget the lessons and sometimes have to learn them over (and over) again. Now is one of those times and I find myself (re)learning several things at once. Maybe you can relate.

First is a growing sense of mortality. Though I’ve yet to die, evidence suggests that I will at some point and time is precious. Anything I’m wanting to contribute to the world before shuffling off the ol’ mortal coil better get done sooner than later.

Second, is that comfort zones are complete and insidious [FILL IN YOUR OWN FAVORITE NSFW DESCRIPTOR HERE]. Our brains are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain and there’re a whole lot of ancient mental circuitry dedicated to preventing physical or psychological discomfort. That’s good when it prevents us from doing something potentially fatal. The problem is, the deep down scared-of-lightening-and-loud-noises part of the brain can’t distinguish between true threats to our well-being and the risk, discomfort, and pain required to learn and improve.

My most important lesson has been simply this:…

Read the whole post over at Performance I Create.

permission to be great

asking for permissionOver the past couple of years I’ve attended several conferences aimed at innovating, evolving, or just plain reinventing the field of Human Resources. There is one theme speakers and participants have highlighted over and over again: Quit waiting for permission. Figure out what needs to be done and just go do it.

At first I nodded along, thinking, “Yeah! HR needs to get its act together. Stand up and make some noise. C’mon people!” Then I was surprised when the message really hit home. They were talking about me! I resisted it, of course, but it was true. Like everyone else on the planet, I like to believe I do a good job. No, that’s not quite right. I like to believe I do an outstanding job. How could it be? Maybe you can relate.

Read the rest over at Performance I Create.

is learning about performance?

Sukh Pabial (@sukhpabial) over at Thinking About Learning (he writes good stuff – check him out) raised an important question the other day: Is learning about performance? As one who continually states that increasing performance is the only purpose of training, learning and development, etc. I liked his question. I say it so often and am so convinced of it that his question made me stop and think a bit about my own beliefs.

I do believe the immediate purpose of training is to either create additional skills or knowledge OR to help a person better use the skills and knowledge they already have. Why? Why take time away from the job to learn? Why spend the money, time, and energy? Why pour resources into learning? Because we expect the additional skills and knowledge will help people do a better job and get better results. Technical skills improve performance with tasks and soft skills improve performance with other humans (highly relevant for everyone who’s not a hermit). Even compliance training – safety, anti-harassment, regulations, etc. – aims to improve performance or at least prevent performance from dropping (death, dismemberment, lawsuits, or imprisonment all tend to have a negative effect on individual and company performance).

Put another way: if learning and development doesn’t increase performance through increased or better use of knowledge and skills, then what is the purpose?

When we develop learning events or provide learning resources we work hard to make the information as understandable, relevant, and real-world as possible. We design in the best ways for participants retain and integrate the ideas into their lives and jobs. Why? The more they retain and use, the more they can use on the job, and the better their performance. If knowledge retention and use didn’t lead to better on the job performance why would we spend time worrying about it? Deeper knowledge for the sake of deeper knowledge is nice but doesn’t help the individual excel in their job and doesn’t drive the company forward. I, like many, simply love to learn new things. Learning is a huge value for me and I could happily drain many a day on google, Wikipedia, and in the library. As an employee, my company cares most about the learning that might help me in my job (versus, say, mountain biking), BUT it has a huge interest in me being knowledgeable, competent, and continually improving in my role.

The good news is that I can help others improve their performance across a wide variety of jobs and even industries. I don’t know much about most jobs or industries, but unless I’m training technical skills, I don’t have to. I just have to know enough to be able to apply real world context. For example, with only slight changes, a class on conflict resolution could apply to a manager, customer services representative, sales person, negotiator, line worker, etc. It’s really hard to imagine a job where conflict resolution (or any important soft skill) wouldn’t improve performance – even if that person isn’t directly evaluated on conflict resolution.

It is the manager’s (and employee’s) job to evaluate performance – I can’t do that for them. But when they identify areas that need to be improved either because of low performance or to increase performance as a part of their career path I can help provide the resources and learning experiences that help them develop and use the necessary skills and knowledge. Just as I’m not involved in evaluating their on the job performance, I also can learn and implement it for them. The sole purpose of training and development is to increase performance but the employee and manager play a massive role in it.

I’ll take the discussion a step further. Not only do I deeply believe that the purpose of development is to improve performance (however that’s defined), but I believe development is a source of ongoing competitive advantage.

  • A company must have talent. It can choose to buy talent or develop talent or both. But it does need talent.
  • High performing people are required to create a high performing company. It’s hard to imagine any situation where we could create exceptional results far and above the competition using indifferent, unskilled people who lack the necessary knowledge.
  • We cannot improve a company’s performance without first improving individual performance. Sure, we can slash costs, buy new technology, acquire other companies, but those tend to be short term gains (measured very narrowly) or impossible to do without dealing with the messy human side of it (bringing us back to development).
  • We often struggle to measure the dollar benefit of development and spend much time discussing the ROI of training. Training is an easy cost to cut and is often the first to go when times get tough. Which is funny because I doubt any professional sports teams spend much time discussing the ROI of practice, training, and developing their players. Would a low performing team ever decide that the best way to improve their performance is to STOP coaching and improving their players? Put another way, we can easily measure the cost of training and tend to focus on that because it is difficult to measure the total benefits of development. The problem is we can’t measure the costs of NOT training. (Hat tip to Zig Ziglar for that thought.) And as the old saying goes: The only thing worse than training someone and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.

Is learning about performance? In my mind, absolutely. There are many, many side benefits to learning and development, but if we’re not helping people create the knowledge and skills they need to do better at their jobs and if we’re not helping the company perform better by helping individuals and teams perform better, what are we doing?

What thinks you?

above the line HR

There are two basic approaches to Human Resources: above the line and below the line. The line has nothing to do with ethics, transparency, or straightforwardness. The line is simply the no man’s land between the two philosophies. The line represents: Things Are Ok.

If we talk about health and wellness, some consider a lack of disease to be healthy. Others insist that health and wellness is something more than not being sick: it’s vitality, energy, radiant well-being. The line between the two represents being ok. The first approach fixes things if they drop below the line – illness or injury – the second sees the line of being ok as a starting point and strives to move far beyond the line to increase wellness.

HR can be viewed the same way. One approach exists to prevent things from breaking (don’t get sued!) and fix them when they do. It’s a reactive approach that assumes that as long as the company is compliant with laws and regulations – as long as it doesn’t get “sick” – HR has done its job well.

The above the line approach sees this as the starting point. Yes, you should keep it legal and prevent leaders and employees from doing terminally stupid things – but that’s the bare minimum expectation. Above the line HR does more than prevents illness, it sees the opportunity to help the company excel much like a trainer helps athletes improve. A trainer doesn’t just keep the athlete from being sick, they push to create maximum wellness and physical performance. The trainer can’t do it for the athlete, but brings knowledge, process, and discipline to the athlete’s efforts. AND maximizing physical performance also means super disciplined nutrition, preventative care, and top notch medical attention – all of which prevent illness and injury. The above the line approach naturally addresses below the line concerns because it can’t improve performance unless it prevents and mitigates health setbacks.

Above the line HR is the same way. To help the company (athlete) get the most performance, it has to be really sharp and proactive about making decisions and taking actions and providing the training, tools, and processes that minimize the need for below the line approaches. For example, few, if any, “illegal” interview questions provide any information that leads to identifying high performance employees, so why ask them? Performance is performance whether it’s male, female, white, black, yellow, blue, or green, in a wheelchair, left handed, believes in nine gods or none at all, etc., etc., etc. Kneejerk management decisions that often get companies in trouble are avoided, prevented, or mitigated not just to prevent trouble but because stupid decisions get in the way of people being at their best and hurt the engagement and commitment of the most talented employees (the ones you want to keep around). The athlete may go against the trainer’s advice, but does so balancing the potential consequences rather than out of ignorance or narrow perspective. Likewise, HR can’t make business decisions for leaders but can do everything in its power to ensure leaders are making informed and (hopefully) better decisions.

Who has a bigger impact on your personal vitality – the doctor you see only when sick or the physical trainer and nutritionist you consult with regularly? If HR is not “at the table” (sorry, I hate that expression), chances are it’s because they are viewed as the doctor that only gets visited after the fact to cure illness and injury. Staying below the line ensures minimum influence and impact.

Two approaches. One keeps the company from not getting sick, the other pushes for maximum health and performance. One prevents bad, the other strives to create the most good possible. They are similar in wanting to protect the company’s health but very different in philosophy, approach, and outcomes.

Above the line, below the line. What thinks you?

born to lose or striving to win?

“Once a team has learned to lose – has accepted it as a standard – the only solution is to start over and replace the entire team.” That was the advice given by an entrepreneur I met several years ago who often purchased struggling small businesses and turned them around.

It seemed counterproductive and, well, cold. Giving up all that experience and organizational knowledge could be a substantial loss. Plus, we’ve all experienced situations where even one person joining or leaving a team could make a significant difference in the culture and expectations of the team. Why not replace just the one or two?

From his perspective, he didn’t know which one or two it would be when he bought a failing business. Rather than trying to coach and nudge the expectations higher, it was quicker, easier, and cheaper to just set the performance bar high right from the start with a brand new team.

More importantly, he wasn’t talking about teams that had endured a few setbacks and were striving to turn things around. He was referring to teams riddled with apathy, just going through the motions. The teams that had suffered setbacks and stopped trying or had maybe never been held accountable in the first place were the ones he wasn’t willing to try to turn around.

If you’re on or leading a low performing team right now, are you rallying for a comeback or accepting your fate? Are you clear on expectations, following up, and holding accountable or hoping things turn around? Are your high performers (including you) patching the holes and making improvements or looking to escape a sinking ship. Do you identify and solve problems, simply find and admire them, or spend time worrying about problems that never were and may never be? Is the team focused on what it can control or fixated on everything it can’t?

If someone bought your business today, would your team be seen as an asset to be retained or a roadblock to be replaced?

These aren’t easy questions and there aren’t easy answers.

Your thoughts?