Tools • Downloads • Helpful Articles

Tools for Individuals

Leadership Dimensions

Eight dimensions of reality that require relentless diligence to be successful as a leader.

Individual Jump-Start

A three-month plan to start strong in a new role or turn over a new leaf in an established one (formerly "90-Day Plan).

Career Strategy

Understand why you're where you are and what it will take to navigate to your next move.

Tools for Teams

Helpful Book Clubs

Helpful is the perfect book to be read and studied in lockstep with friends and colleagues.

Team Dimensions

Nine areas of focus that help a cohesive, collaborative team coalesce and thrive.

Team Jump Start

How a team that wants to work together can learn how to do so more effectively.

Strategic Planning

Demystifying strategic planning. It's really not that hard and it couldn't be more important.

Jump Start Worksheet (PDF)

The free version of the Three Month Jump-Start Worksheet. (Not editable.)

Helpful — Sample Chapters

The Table of Contents, the Preface, and the first three chapters of Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking

Annual Review and Planning Template

A powerful set of questions that will lead you through a planning process for looking back over the last year and looking forward to the next one. Available as both a PDF document and a Microsoft Word file.

Book Review Template

Book reviews are extremely valuable to authors as well as fellow readers. This handy questionnaire offers a template for writing thoughtful reviews. Just answer the questions and you'll have an excellent, authentic review ready for posting to Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever book reviews are posted.

Jump Start Worksheet (MS Word)

An editable, type-anywhere-you-want version of the Three Month Jump-Start Worksheet.

The Workbook of Helpful Exercises

The workbook companion to Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking.

Recommended Blog Articles

Pictogram of two rowers rowing towards the left

Continuous Improvement: It’s Not Just for Processes Anymore

How do you get better at something? Slowly, steadily, continually…Right?

Continuous Improvement” is a mantra for just about all areas of our businesses and — if we’re ambitious — our lives. Companies make huge investments in everything from lean manufacturing to agile development methodologies knowing that the best way to make things better is through steady and continual improvement. We reengineer our business processes to have feedback loops so we can learn from what we have done and build on those learnings.

Learn. Improve. Repeat.

Pictogram of two rowers rowing towards the left
Public Domain. Source:

It’s a no-brainer, right? The relentless pursuit of perfection, as Lexus would say. Everything is fair game. Nothing is exempt from the beneficent outcomes of continuous improvement…

Well, almost nothing. Amongst the vast array of products, services, and processes that make up our corporate existences, there is one facet of our organizational lives that is surprisingly devoid of this spirit of continuous improvement. For some reason, the way we actually work together — our relationships, the way we communicate, and the way we interact — is rarely targeted for continuous improvement.

Let’s change that.

Human beings are complex. And organizations of ‘n’ people are nth degree complex, with almost countless relationships and interdependencies. It gets complicated really fast. Without deliberate attention to the way we work together, misunderstandings abound and are frequently amplified. In the absence of intent and effort, the way we communicate and the way we work together ends up being based on presumptions and projections from our own styles and preferences. This is a disservice to ourselves, our colleagues, and sells short the potential of our organization. We are missing out on the opportunity to create vibrant1 vibrant: adjective – infused with energy and enthusiasm. organizations and a rich web of mutually beneficial relationships.

Our teams — and the relationships therein — are prime candidates for the lens of continuous improvement. Take every opportunity to discuss and agree upon how you can best work together as a team.

Create a Group Identity: Who do we want to be?

As I mentioned in The Year of the Strong Organization, the first step in creating a vibrant, highly functional team is to have that team agree that they want to work together. Take the time to verbalize your willingness and desire to work together. Try it! Look a colleague in the eye and say, “I want to work with you.”

Once you are committed to working together, the next step is to decide who you want to be as a team. How do you want to be known? How do you want to be seen?

For example, do you, as a team, want to be seen as creative? Caring? Brilliant? Out to change the world? How do you want to be seen?

Build A Better Culture: How do we want to be together?

Once everyone is committed to wanting to work together, the rest is just details in learning how to work together. How do we want to be together?

As with most continuous improvement processes, look for “defects” — those hiccups in relationships or team dynamics that could have been handled better. Talk about it. Seek to understand the other person’s perspective and agree on a way to work together. Learn. Improve. Repeat.

Interpersonal relationships can be delicate. The complex interactions between contrasting styles and preferences can be difficult to diagnose to the untrained eye. Don’t hesitate to bring in a facilitator or a coach who can help fine tune the team dynamics while you focus on building a great team and delighting your customers.

Highly functional organizations — those infused with energy and enthusiasm — are not beyond reach. As Patrick Lencioni says in Five Dysfunction of a Team, “If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

The good news is that you can get everyone rowing in the same direction. Let’s apply the same rigor and passion to the deep, interpersonal connections we have with one another that we apply to inanimate processes. Let’s continuously explore — and improve — how we want to work together.

Do you want to commit to creating better working relationships? Coaching — or even team coaching — may be just the ticket. It’s never too late to become a better leader and build a better team.

Originally published on January 31, 2014 as “Team Dynamics: Learn, Improve, Repeat.” Revised and updated on June 9, 2020.

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The word "Mentor" written in different colored chalk on a chalk board

Mentors are everywhere, if we but know where to look.

Success can be elusive. The building blocks of success are subtle and nuanced. For those who have made it big, the real reasons for their success are rarely the things they remember and write about.

This is where mentors come in.

In our quest for growth, progress, and success, we have this latent desire for someone who will take us under their wing and co-pilot our journey from the mailroom to the corner office. Or, more realistically, we imagine a relationship with a mentor who meets with us once or twice a month over a long period of time and imparts wisdom like a college professor working through a syllabus.

It doesn’t work that way. We are the pilots and navigators of our own careers. 

The good news is that there are plenty of people out there willing to help us along our path if we but know what to ask for. To find a mentor, start by developing a self awareness of what you want to learn next. This is the key. You must have a sense of what you are ready for and what you want to learn.

Then look for people who can help you learn these things. They are all around you. When you find them, ask them for 30 minutes of their time and conduct your version of an informational interview. Ask them questions that get at the subtle and nuanced elements of their success. How did they navigate? What did they do to be successful in this company, in this industry, in this market, in this business? Who do I need to know to be successful — and what do I need to do be ready to meet them?

Wrap up with the granddaddy of all mentor questions: “What would you do if you were in my situation?”

And then keep in touch. Schedule ongoing meetings with this mentor as long as they continue to be helpful. Be sure to reciprocate in any way that you can. You know people and things that could help them be successful as well. Success is a team sport. We all get to play.

Next Steps

Originally published February 28, 2014. Updated June 4, 2020.

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Extraverted Man

Debunking the myth that extraverts make better networkers

The world is awash in myths and bad advice about networking. The most insidious of all might be the myths that involve the notion of extraversion, often prodding those of us of the introvert persuasion to “just be more extraverted.” While it’s absolutely true that you must be visible to be successful, building professional relationships in a meaningful way is infinitely more nuanced than simply being more extraverted.

The bias towards extraversion has helped perpetuate the wasteful idea that networking is about attending events. And with everyone thinking that they must attend more events, networking has somehow become equated with meeting new people. After all, what else do you do when you attend an event? Oy vey.

Limiting your networking to meeting new people might be fine if you have a hobby of collecting business cards, but if your goal is to build a rich professional network of mutually beneficial relationships, you’ll want to look beyond extraversion and events.

As a case in point, consider the well-intended article “How to Network Like an Extrovert (Even if You’re an Introvert).” It is littered with a few of the more egregious variations on this theme: Here are just a few of the mythical gems espoused in the article:

  • “schmoozing requires practice, coaching, and a lot of courage,” assuming that network is about schmoozing and meeting new people.
  • “Choose events and organizations that matter to you,” presumably so that you can be more interesting or engaged or extraverted at such events.
  • “Find the right time … it’s best to network when you’re at your best and can maintain your energy and a positive attitude.”
  • “Practice your skills,” or, in other words, practice being more extraverted.

First of all, what’s extraversion got to do with it?

Extraverted Man

Networking skills are a subset of social skills — and social skills are learned. Neither introverts or extraverts are born with social skills. We learn them. In fact, I have found a slight negative correlation between networking skills and a preference for extraversion. I attribute this to the fact that extraverts — often more comfortable in social situations — often think that they are better networkers. As such, they have not invested the time and energy to learn a rich suite of networking skills.

Introverts and extraverts learn networking skills equally well. Some do. Many do not. Good networking skills are not natural to anyone. They are learned.

Whether or not you have mastered a set of networking skills depends mostly on your upbringing, your emotional maturity, your self-awareness, your aspirations, your ambition, and your deliberate investment in learning networking skills. It has very little to do with your innate preference for introversion and extraversion.

Granted, extraverts have a natural propensity to be congenial and talkative. They connect easily with other people and often have a broad base of acquaintances. Many extraverts are continuously on the lookout for new people and are generous in making introductions.

However, these behaviors are not necessarily “networking.”

What is networking anyway?

Networking is actually much more than stereotypical extroverted behaviors. It’s about creating and nurturing meaningful connections with people. This is where the differences between introverts and extraverts really shine. In Helpful, I define networking as “any activity for you that creates, freshens, or strengthens a relationship.” Conversely, any activity that does not create, freshen, or strengthen a relationship — for you — is not networking for you.

The “for you” is important. Introverts create and nurture relationships very differently. An introvert can no more nurture a relationship the way an extravert does than she can write fluently with her opposite hand. This does not mean that introverts are precluded from meaningful relationships. On the contrary, it means that you lean into your strengths preferences wherever you fall on the I/E spectrum and build relationships in a way that works best for you and the person to whom you are connecting.

There is no “one size fits all” in networking

There is no “one” way to network. And there is certainly no need to be more extraverted to be a better networker. Anything that creates, freshens and strengthens links — for you — is networking. Anything! And any activity that does not create, freshen, or strengthen a link for you is not networking — for you!

Secondly, who said networking is about events?

We have somehow come to equate networking with attending events. I think this has come about because we have also come to think of networking as meeting new people. WTF?

As noted above, networking may be about meeting new people — i.e., creating new relationships — but most of the time it’s about freshening and strengthening the connections you already have with the people you already know. It’s about sharing who and what you know to help other people be successful. It is about the constant exchange of favors and information. Do you really think that these nurturing activities have much to do with attending events — or being extraverted? Neither do I.

My book Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking is a deep dive into everything related to networking. From the fundamental mindset that we touched on in this article to the nuances of using LinkedIn, or the power of networking at work, it is the definitive guide to building and maintaining professional relationships in a meaningful way.

I wish you success.

Originally published November 28, 2013 as “Is it true? Do extraverts make better networkers?” Significantly revised and enhanced November 25, 2019

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How to Craft a Great Résumé / LinkedIn Profile

Hiring managers don’t really care what you’ve done. They may ask about it, but it’s not what they’re trying to figure out. What they care about is what you’ve learned and what you’re ready for. Here’s how to spell those out in your work history.

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 17 of Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking. In Helpful, I go into much more detail around each pass, including a nice soliloquy on turning bad jobs into gold.

What follows is a practical technique for creating or updating the “Work History” and “Summary” sections of your LinkedIn profile. This approach will add depth and substance to an otherwise flat recounting of job descriptions. Your résumé is just a subset of your LinkedIn profile. Use the same technique — and most of the same information — when updating both.

As an aside, how is it that we are still passing around résumés? As far as I can tell, the only reason résumés are still around is because companies insist on a Word document for their cursed applicant-tracking systems. For everyone else, your LinkedIn profile is your résumé.

To Begin — Turn Off Activity Broadcasts


If you have a good network, they will be paying attention to the updates and changes you make to your profile. LinkedIn is very good at broadcasting your activity. However, whenever you will be making a number of updates it is a good idea to avoid inundating your LinkedIn network with a lot of noise.

Head on over to LinkedIn and find the “Privacy & Settings” option under your account settings. Look for “Share job changes, education changes, and work anniversaries from profile” and turn it off. This will prevent people from being notified when you make (numerous) changes to your profile. We’ll turn this back on right before we’re finished.

First Pass: What Have You Done?

We’re going to make these updates in three distinct passes through your job history. Each pass is a different mindset, a different way of thinking about what you have done. Do your best to keep the different phases separate, ideally spread across different days.

The first pass through your profile is to simply review and update what you have done. This is the usual resume stuff. If you think of your profile as a high-rise building, this is the core of steel and concrete upon which we will layer your career.

  • Include company name, job title, and start-month and end-month for each position.
  • Describe the basic elements of your job description.
  • Highlight your responsibilities.
  • Call out your results, the impact you had, the changes you were able to drive.

Again, these are the basic elements of a resume / profile entry. You know how to do this. Finish these updates and walk away for a day.

Unfortunately, this is as far as most people ever get with their profile / resume. We are going to go much further — and, in the process, create a much stronger LinkedIn profile.

Second Pass: What Did You Learn?

After you’ve digested what you have done, sit down and take another pass at each of the entries in your profile. This time you are looking to add some depth and color to what you have done. This time we are going to add what you learned in each role.

What you have learned is actually far more important that what you have done. What you have learned is everything! When an interviewer is asking you questions, they are using the framework of what you have done to try and figure out the depth of what you have learned.

Make it easier for them. Spell out what you have learned right in your profile.

How What You Learn Is Different Than What You Do

Learning is often orthogonal to what you were actually doing. “Orthogonal” — a word I am borrowing from mathematics — means at perpendicular, non-overlapping, uncorrelated, or independent. 

While we may be working on a tough project, what we learned was how to meet tight deadlines, manage a distributed team, or work with a tough boss. These learnings are orthogonal to the actual work. And learning is always retroactive. 

Learning happens when you pause and reflect, when you look back and process what you learned.

Turning Bad Jobs (and old ones) Into Lessons

I once had a client who was fired from his last two jobs. When we sat down and really worked through what happened at each job we discovered that both were a goldmine of learning. We learn the most from challenges, failures, and tough situations. It is essential that you articulate these learnings in your resume and your LinkedIn profile.

Finally, there is no statute of limitations on this learning. You can look back on jobs you did 20 years ago and discover fresh things that you learned. Each job is an almost endless fount of learning, if you will just invest the time and introspection to discover what that learning is — then tell us about it. Put it in your profile. Put it on your resume.

Third Pass: What Are You Ready For Next?

Art Deco style graphic of a woman standing on a mountaintop looking through a telescope.

Many people only consider their past experience when choosing their next job — whether it’s another position internally or at a new company. This is insane. You don’t want to do more of what you’ve already done — you’ll be bored.

You want to find a position based on what you are ready to do

Spell this out in your profile. Recruiters and hiring managers talk about looking for a career progression as they move chronologically through your resume. Make it easy for them. List at least one bullet under each company (or position) describing what you were preparing yourself to do.

If you are lucky, what you were ready for at the end of one job will be what you were doing at the beginning of the next one. It doesn’t always work out this way, and that’s okay. We’re looking for broad trends here.

The summary section at the top of your LinkedIn profile should be what you are ready for now.

Turn Activity Broadcasts Back On — Then Make Two Final Changes

Now that your profile updates are complete, go back to the “Privacy & Settings” in your LinkedIn account and turn activity broadcasts back on.

Now make two more updates to your profile:

  1. Update your profile photo. Make sure you have a relatively recent, professional photo for your profile picture. See this great (short) post by Seth Godin on the Power of a Tiny Picture.
  2. Edit your headline. This is the field directly under your name on your LinkedIn profile.

Your network will be notified of these last few updates. Why? Think about it for a second.

When you receive an email from LinkedIn that someone in your network has updated their profile photo clicking through is irresistible. Well played, LinkedIn.

Next Steps

  • Review my article on why you would want to update your LinkedIn profile. It’s important to you and to the people in your network.
  • Take some time to refresh your profile. Spread the task across a couple of days, as the kind of thinking you do on each pass is very different.
  • Update your profile photo.
  • Check out Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking.
  • Drop me a note when your profile updates are done or leave a link to your profile in the comments. I’d love to see the results.
  • Finally, let me know if you would like some help with your profile — particularly in the areas of what you have learned and what you are ready for. Learning is always retrospective and sometimes you need to talk it through with someone who knows what questions to ask and how to draw out the answers.
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Hand drawn steps with the steps in a hiring decision.

The Evolution of a (Hiring) Decision

Hand drawn steps with the steps in a hiring decision.

From the perspective of the hiring manager, finding the right person to fill a job opening can be an arduous process. It involves many steps, including getting the headcount and budget approved, combing through resumes, contacting potential hires to set up interviews, actually doing the interviews — sometimes several rounds — and then finally negotiating with the best applicant. 

Yet, when we’re on the candidate side of the table, we lose sight of this complexity. Our goal is to get a job and, as they say in baseball, we “swing for the fences” at every step. We say things like “I would love to work here” before we know much at all about the role, the team, the company, or the compensation. We confuse our end game (get a job) with the incremental objective of moving forward in the interview process. We allow our primary goal to blind us to incremental goals.

Drive the Process

The next time you find yourself in the interview process, try synchronizing your goal at each phase with where you are in the hiring process. Consider these steps:

  1. The goal of your cover letter is to get someone to read your resume.
  2. The goal of your resume is to get an initial interview.
  3. Your goal in initial interviews is to get further interviews.
  4. Your goal in later rounds of interviews is to get an offer.

After an offer is on the table — and only after an offer is on the table — is it time to decide if you truly want this job.

Many people misunderstand the nuances of this process and of the decision-making process in general. This is especially true when we are faced with influencing a hiring manager to make the decision to offer us a position. Yet understanding these incremental steps is crucial when trying to convince someone to make a decision in your favor.

The hiring process—like all change initiatives and decisions—is based on two fundamental axioms:

1. No One Makes a Decision in an Instant

All decisions — like all change — are incremental. We often think of decisions as a punctuated moment in time. The moment before the decision the world was one way, and the moment after the decision the world is different.

Except decisions come about that way. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes and in our minds before an external decision is reached. We ease our way into decisions — especially big ones, like the decision to hire someone. Decisions take time to form. Our thinking evolves. Eventually we reach a point in time where we make the decision — we flip the switch and move on.

Good marketing and sales people understand this process. They inch us along in our thinking until we reach that magical point in which we make the decision to buy. It should come as no surprise that hiring managers make hiring decisions in much the same manner.

2. No one makes a decision in a vacuum

We tend to think of decision-makers as lone wolves. “It’s lonely at the top,” as they say. But decisions don’t really work that way either. No one makes a decision in isolation. We all look to others for input, for feedback, for validation — especially for validation. In order to get the decision-maker to make up his mind, you must also convince all the influencers around him that he will turn to for advice or validation. This cadre of influencers is usually quite explicit in the interview process when multiple people are brought in to interview each candidate. Take your time. Focus on impressing and influencing each one.

Back to the hiring manager

Armed with this insight, how should we adapt our approach when we are looking for new career opportunities? Your job in the hiring process is to convince a relatively large number of people (three – six in most companies), over the span of several weeks, that you are the person for the job. How can you help them inch their way toward the decision to hire you? This is no easy task.

However, one thing is for certain: each step is an incremental movement toward the next. Don’t overreach at any given step. Simply use each phase to ease the person forward in the right direction. I’ll say it again:

  1. The goal of your cover letter is to get someone to read your resume. Period.
  2. The goal of your resume is to get an initial interview. Full stop.
  3. Your goal in initial interviews is to get further interviews. That’s all.
  4. Your goal in later rounds of interviews is to get an offer.

When you get to second round of interviews, it’s time to nudge the interviewers in the direction of a decision. Be bold. Don’t be afraid to look the interviewer in the eye as you are getting ready to leave and say, “I would like an offer.” They will often give you a standard retort such as, “we’re interviewing other candidates and we’ll get back to you.” Remain confident and say, “I fully understand. I just want you to know that I would like an offer,” and walk out.1

Understanding the decision-making process that goes into a hiring decision won’t guarantee that you will get a job. But it will increase your odds of getting an offer.

I wish you success.

Related Reading

1For more on how to powerfully close an interview, see the Interview Series from Manager Tools. The series costs $150 and, I dare say it, might be the best $150 you will ever spend on your career.

Originally published November 6 2013. Revised and Update September 18, 2019.

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New Job starting day or date circled on a calendar with a red marker

Got a Job Offer? Your Start Date May Be Earlier Than You Think

New Job starting day or date circled on a calendar with a red marker

Let’s say that you just got a job offer for a position at a new company – and you accepted. Your first day is scheduled three weeks hence. When is your start date?

From your perspective you have a few weeks to wrap up your old job, maybe buy some new clothes, take a few days off in one of those rare windows in which you have absolutely no work to do.

You’ll show up on your first day eager to make a good impression. You’ll be ready to learn and excited to meet your new team. While you have every intention of hitting the ground running, you figure the best approach is to ease yourself into the role. You plan to take a few days — if not a few weeks — to get to know people and get up to speed properly.

For all practical purposes, you think, no one will reasonably expect anything from you until you have been there at least a month.

Why You’re Wrong About Your Start Date

Now think about it from the hiring manager’s perspective. Bringing on a new employee is a lot of work. The reason she went through the corporate rituals of getting the budget approved and opening a headcount was because she has a great need. Someone is in pain, and most likely it’s her.

One or more people on her team are overloaded. The decision to hire someone is the beginning of the relief. Problems remain unsolved. Work is piling up. The decision to hire you is a turning point; already she can begin to see how you are going to take up the work that is causing the pain.

From the moment you accept the offer, the hiring manager, with a sense of relief, begins to mentally load work onto your plate. From that instant forward the hiring manager is — in her mind — offloading responsibilities and expectations onto you. From her perspective, it’s as if you have already started.

The Truth About Your First Day

The day that you walk into your new office for the first time, you are already behind. In most companies your email and calendar accounts will already be created. In some organizations you will already have a backlog of email and meetings. Even if there are no visible signs of a work backlog for you, rest assured that in the mind of the hiring manager, there are already a variety of problems for you to solve and myriad of expectations already on your shoulders.

What to do

  1. Don’t be naive. Pay attention to other people’s expectations of you — both spoken and unspoken — from the moment you accept the written offer.
  2. Have a plan. Be deliberate in your efforts to understand the bigger picture. Get started on drafting a 90-day plan before you arrive on your first day. Pay particular attention to the eight dimensions of success. Finalize the plan with your new boss by the end of the second week.
  3. Hold yourself accountable. Take some time at the end of every week to assess your progress. Use something like the Jump-Start Worksheet to help you be aware of all that is going on in the multiple dimensions of an organization.
  4. Jump-Start your team. If you lead a team, consider sponsoring a Jump-Start Workshop to get the entire team aligned, attuned, and operating at a high level of performance.
  5. Build a network quickly. Understand how the organization works, and how power and influence flow. Use this network to not only understand expectations but to manage them as well.
  6. Show continual and demonstrable progress. Don’t wait until two or three months into the job to start to delivering results. Look for ways to add value as soon as possible. It is paramount to show incremental progress and deliver quick wins within the first few weeks.
  7. Get a coach. The first few months in a new position are insane. There are so many things going on in so many dimensions that it is impossible to make sense of it all without the sage advice and outside perspective of a coach who is experienced in helping people accelerate their onboarding.

Next Steps

Whether it’s with a new company or a new role within your existing organization, new positions are tremendous opportunities to leap forward in your career. Do so wisely.

  • Download a copy of my Jump-Start Worksheet.
  • Read The First 90 Days or Your Next Move by Michael Watkins. Both are excellent resources for starting in a new role with power, grace, and aplomb.
  • Get a coach who is experienced in working with onboarding and rapid acceleration in new roles.

 I wish you success.

Originally published September 8, 2013. Updated and revised July 29, 2019.

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Man in a suit, palm up, gesturing stop.

Good Boss / Bad Boss

At one point in my career, I went from having the worst boss I ever had … to the best boss I ever had. It was the early ’00s and I had just landed at one of the “great places to work” in Silicon Valley.

Man in a suit, palm up, gesturing stop.

Bad Boss was not all that interested in the value I brought to the team. At one point, during a one-on-one meeting with him, I was explaining how I thought we needed a little structure on the team. Process and structure are my thing.

He was having nothing of it. He literally raised his arm and told me to talk to the hand. He explained that “he was not a process guy” and wasn’t interested in my observations and suggestions.

To my detriment, the company took a rigorous approach to performance management. It’s probably no surprise that this boss stack-ranked my performance somewhere in the middle of the pack. Thankfully, bad boss moved on to some other department.

Enter Good Boss — the best boss I’ve ever had. Good Boss not only expected me to bring my A-game every day, but he also actively looked for new opportunities and projects to leverage my talents. He assigned me challenging projects. He put me in front of people who needed to see my potential. He expected me to shine, and he developed me in ways that I did not even know I was ready for. (I’ll never forget the day he introduced me to the influence map1 and began to teach me how power and influence really work in a large organization.) The results were astounding — even to me. The next round of stack-ranking in the performance management process found me near the top of the talent pool. Funny how that works.

I was the same person. I was striving to be successful under both bosses. I was smart and ambitious and doing good work. The difference is that Good Boss was astute enough to understand and see my talents in the context of what the organization needed. He put me in my sweet spot.

Whenever I hear leaders talk about the challenges they have in attracting and retaining talent, I can’t help but think how much of the problem is self-induced — their leadership, their organization, their culture. Performance is contextual. Talent is relative to the environment in which it is being asked to perform. The right team, the right culture, and the right context can result in dormant talent springing into life.

Are you creating the right environment for your talent to shine? Are you creating an environment where the energy that people bring with them to work every morning is amplified rather than dampened? Put your talent in their element. Culture and context matter … a lot.

Originally published March 29, 2013. Updated July 27, 2019.

1I cover the influence map in detail in Chapter 27 of Helpful, complete with exercises on constructing an influence map for orchestrating your next promotion.

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Pictogram of two rowers

Engaged Employees: Rowing? Or Drilling Holes?

Are your employees all rowing in the same direction? Or are some drilling holes in the boat?

Are you one of the few who looks forward to Monday mornings? How about your employees? Are you creating a place where your team is looking forward to bringing their all for another week?

Every few years since the early 2000’s Gallup conducts an annual State of the American Workplace survey. And every time the results are alarmingly similar: only 30% of workers are engaged in any kind of meaningful way; About fifty percent are disengaged; and about 20 are actively disengaged. This distribution has remained surprisingly consistent since their first survey to their latest in 2017.

As defined by Gallup for the report:

Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.

Not engaged employees are essentially checked out. They’re sleepwalking through their workday putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.

Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

Disengaged employees outnumber engaged employees by more than 2:1. To put this in perspective, imagine you have ten people rowing in a boat:

Pictogram of two rowers
  • Three are rowing in the right direction.
  • Five would look like they are rowing but their oars are not touching the water.
  • And the two in the back? They’re drilling holes in the boat!

This is crazy. There is no need for the modern workplace to be so dysfunctional.

How to Get Everyone to Not Only Row, But Row In the Same Direction

Start with good managers.

A good boss is the defining characteristic between job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction, between mediocre and high performance. Train people how to be good managers. Reward people for being good managers. As Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup says in the report, “When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits — nothing.”

Define your culture.

But don’t just define it; articulate it in a thousand different ways. Culture is simply the attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and processes that lead to decisions. Don’t just hire people for ‘fit,’ — clearly define what fit looks like and allow people to adapt to those expectations.

Look for (and utilize) your employee’s strengths.

Expect and encourage people to work toward their strengths and their sweet spot: that magic intersection of who they are, what they’re good at, and what brings value to the organization. According to the report, “Gallup has found that managers who focus on their employees’ strengths can practically eliminate active disengagement and double the average of U.S. workers who are engaged nationwide.”

Want more? Additional resources:

Don’t despair. Engagement comes when people know what to do, know what fitting in looks like, and are working on things that are stretching and developing them. This is not as hard to achieve as it sounds. All it takes is an intention and desire to do so.

Originally published October 2, 2013. Revised and updated July 23, 2019.

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Group Of Business People With Their Hands Together

Diversity in Council … Unity in Command

Alfred Sloan, when he ran General Motors in the 1920s and 1930s, would refuse to make a decision at a meeting if no one could argue a strong case against what was being proposed. He felt that if no one had any objections to what was being decided, it was because they had not thought long and hard enough about the question under consideration.

Jeffrey Pfeffer. Managing With Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations (p. 323)

Diversity in Council*

Alfred Sloan understood that the best ideas — along with the best decisions — are forged in the crucibles of healthy conflict. If there are no objections leading up to a decision, then one of three scenarios are in play:

  1. People just aren’t trying hard enough.
  2. Your team isn’t working on hard enough problems.
  3. Or you have not created a safe place for opposing views to see the light of day.

Clear thinking, innovation, and good decisions depend on diverse perspectives and opposing points of view. The good news is that everyone has an opinion. The bad news is that opinions are often in conflict. Managed well, conflict can be a powerful force.

Healthy conflict can also be a tense arena. People want to be heard. People must be heard. It takes bold leaders to create a safe space where everyone can be heard. And it takes confident followers to speak their mind even when they feel that they hold a minority point of view.

Healthy conflict works best when the team is built on a foundation of trust — and the best way to build trust is to survive a few rounds of healthy conflict. Circular, I know. Go figure! Remember to play hard, and play fair and you’ll begin to see the power of bringing out everyone’s best thinking.

Unity in Command

Healthy conflict is just a means to an end. It’s the preamble. The goal is to make good decisions, and then move on.

Group Of Business People With Their Hands Together

This is where the leadership part really comes in. After ensuring that everyone feels heard — by ensuring everyone is heard — you, as the leader, must choose a way forward. This is not easy — especially after an engaging round of conversation. By design, you have just created a hornet’s nest of healthy conflict. The next step in the decision-making process is to tame that nest and make sure that everyone gets behind a single decision moving forward.

That is, the next step is “unity in command.” Get confirmation from everyone on your team that they will support a single decision. Consensus is not the goal — at least not initially. Everyone does not have to agree with the decision. People can get behind decisions — despite their objections — as long as they feel heard. If you can’t reach this point, then you have not yet reached a decision.

What is a Decision?

It’s tempting to think that because you have made up your mind then the decision is made. However, if certain members of your team continue to pursue alternate paths or espouse alternate directions, then the decision has not yet been made! You may have thought that you made the decision because in your mind it is clear, but you may just have a false start. Back to the round table until everyone can get behind you. That is, until you have unity in command, you do not have a decision.

What’s Next?

Practice drawing out other people’s points of view. If no one on your team or in your meeting has contrasting opinions, then you might not be working on hard enough problems. Or, more likely, you have not created an atmosphere that embraces healthy conflict as part of the decision-making process. Create a safe space for people to verbalize contrary opinions. Appoint someone to be the designated ‘devil’s advocate.’ Hear people out. When everyone has been heard, then unify them behind a decision.

*The phrase “Diversity in council, unity in command” is attributed to Cyrus the Great — self-declared King of the World as far back as 600 BC. Cyrus conquered most of the known world at that time but did not impose his religion onto his conquered lands and did not kill their leaders. He understood the power of listening to, and integrating, many great ideas.

Originally published March 14, 2014. Updated and revised July 21, 2019.

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The question "What is Culture?" written in chalk on a blackboard.

What is Culture Anyway?

When it comes to building great organizations, just about everyone would agree: culture is important. Culture is the heart and soul of an organization. When we hire people, we hire for “fit” into our culture. There are even companies who have Chief Culture Officers. And, of course, there’s the ever-popular trope that Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch.

But what is culture anyway? If it’s so doggone important, how do we know what we’re looking for? And how, perchance, might we shape and build the culture that we want?

So What IS Culture?

Too many people over-complicate this question. Culture is, quite simply, the “personality” of a group.

It is easy to grasp the idea that individuals have personalities. If I asked you to describe the personality of your best friend, you could do it almost without thinking.

It turns out that organizations have personalities too. It works like this: whenever two or more people come together their combined wants, desires, values, and beliefs create an entity akin to a collective mind. Like individuals, a collective mind has a will of its own, a voice of its own, a personality. When only two people are involved, we call that collective mind the relationship. When it’s more than two people, we call it the culture.

You are already familiar with this collective mind. Think about the differences between New York City and New Orleans. Or Germany and the United States. Or the difference between the crowd at a football game and the audience at an opera. It’s easy to see that the personality of the crowd at a football game is quite different from that of the audience of an opera.

Can You Be More Specific?

Sure, culture — the personality of an organization — is simply the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that drive that organization to action. This is a pretty good definition of an individual’s personality as well. If I asked you to describe a friend’s personality you would, no doubt, begin to describe their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

Test this on yourself. Think back to a time when you were hanging out with a group of your friends. What were the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, of that group?

Perhaps you are thinking of a bachelorette party or a time that you went Christmas caroling. Were you rambunctious? Warm-hearted? Did your personality adapt a bit to fit in with the group? See if you can describe the personality — attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors — of that group. Now try describing the “personality” of your current team or organization. What are the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that describe that group?

Why A Useful Definition of Culture Matters

Now that we know what culture is, we have something we can work with.

If you are trying to deliberately build a strong culture — and I hope that you are — you can focus on specific attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that you want to be the norms for that group.

Who are we and how do we want to be seen? What do we believe about ourselves and our customers? What behaviors are acceptable and expected? What processes (i.e., codified behaviors) do we want in place? Influence these things and you are shaping your culture.

On the flip side, if you are searching for a new organization to join, you can anticipate how well you will fit by exploring the attitudes and beliefs of the organizations you’re considering. 

A Few Examples: What’s the Culture At Apple Or Google? 

Here are a few simple examples, derived from observing a couple of the external characteristics of my favorite companies.

AttitudesWe’re really creative.We’re really smart.
BehaviorsMake it perfect. Then launch.A/B test. Launch early, launch often, refine the results.
BeliefsThe customer doesn’t know what they want. We’ll show them what’s possible.Data will tell us what the customer wants.

You get the idea.

What’s next?

  • Start to pay attention to the cultures of the organizations to which you belong. Try to articulate the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of those organizations.
  • Drop me a note in the comments below. Agree or disagree? Let me know some of the more pronounced characteristics of the cultures you have seen.

Originally published January 16, 2014. Revised and updated July 8, 2019.

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