Monday, April 28, 2014

Talent: Four "Precious" Traits

Over my almost thirty year career, I have really evolved on the subject of talent. When I had my first leadership assignment at Kraft Foods in the late 1980’s, I had no appreciation for the precious nature of talent. I certainly didn’t understand just how rare it was to have a team of bright, motivated, talented people waking up every day trying to do their best for you (their leader) and the company. Over the decades I have had the pleasure to lead some amazing teams, from those early days at Kraft, across the assignments at Coke and my real honor to lead my current team at Bolthouse Farms. I choose the word “honor” intentionally, feeling truly privileged to have had the chance over the past four years to work alongside such an amazing group of people. Truly honored!

As I reflect on the precious nature of talent, I am struck by a number of “traits” or characteristics that I have found precious over the past three decades, and how rare they are to find in organizations. I have not figured out how to modify current interviewing techniques to better screen for these four “traits” (maybe an idea for future opportunities), I am confident that if WE can recruit talent with more of these characteristics, our organizations will certainly benefit. After discussions with my good friend Cathy who I truly have the pleasure to work with once again, I have boiled these musings into four “precious “ traits:

Appreciative Inquiry

This rare “trait” is where an individual is not just a good questioner, but is open and excited to learn from all around them. So often, people are surrounded by tremendous resources and act like they already “know it all” and not only do they not ask many questions, they certainly aren’t excited about what they might learn. I highlighted this idea in a previous essay (“Selling: The art of the Question”) but it spans all organizational roles or functions. How many times have you come to the end of an interview and opened it up to the candidate to ask any questions on their mind? It’s amazing to me how many of those moments over the years the questions asked are limited (or nonexistent) and certainly not deeply insightful, challenging, or provocative. I often assess candidates more on the quality of their questions versus their answers in an interview. If an individual doesn’t use an interview to ask important questions, it is likely they won’t do so in a hectic, demanding work environment.

Constructive Problem Solver

Every business, every team (and in fact every nation, every family, etc.) will encounter problems over the course of time. Problems are coming, that’s a given! What isn’t certain is how an individual or a team “handles” the challenges when they do hit. Too often individuals freak out, complain, and shut down, certainly a trio of dangerous responses. In the face of challenges, having people that calmly “work the problem”, driving to understand core issues/root causes (see “Appreciative Inquiry” above) then diving into action to make things better is deeply important. While rarely driving to “perfect” answers, having a team of folks driving to solutions to make a problem “better” rather than freaking out and shutting down is often the difference between organizational success or failure.

Advocates and Agents for Growth

Growth is one of those little words that we have used since we were kids, but in the business context it is a powerful, subtle, and often misunderstood concept. My reference here is the “trait” of individuals who are not only looking for and identifying avenues for growth, but are personally diving in and making “growth” happen! How many times have you been in a meeting with really smart indivuals with a ton of ideas on how to “change the trajectory “(i.e., “drive growth”) of a brand or a business but are surprisingly scarce when the real work of making “growth” happen begins. This combination of “Advocate and Agent” is so rare and again precious, that when you find an individual or two who can embody both of these ideas simultaneously, amazing results often follow.

Humbly Optimistic

Here is another combination that is rare to find, but is such a driver of progress in an organization. Having the ability to operate every day, every month, every quarter, …. that we can always make tomorrow better than yesterday; fundamentally waking up every morning looking forward to making the future a bit better than the past is a contagious “trait” in an organization. When you combine it with a strong dose of humility rather than arrogance, tremendous things occur. When you recruit for key leadership roles, especially senior roles of “leaders of leaders”, remember this combination. Organizations today are hugely populated by millennials and the old days of successful command and control leaders are a thing of the past. The younger the organization is, the more I would encourage you to think about this combination “trait” in your leaders, and look for the leaders of tomorrow among your most humble and optimistic strong performers today!

Well I am certain there are many more ideas that I should highlight here today, but these four precious “traits” ring true to me and my experience not only over the past three decades but the last three months. Keep these four ideas in mind as you recruit for talent, or as you do your succession planning inside of your organizations in the future. Try to remember that your organization and your team are fundamentally “precious” in their own right, and that it is an honor for us to have the chance to be leaders in the first place!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Nifty Invention from a Thrifty Dad

My dad, who passed away last fall, was many things across his life. He was a great engineering student, an avid fisherman, a dedicated scout and scoutmaster, a hunter of “indian relics”, and a dedicated gardener to name but a few of his avocations. One thing he was always “famous” for was tinkering in his workshop/garage/basement and coming up with ingenious inventions. When I was a boy, my dad actually built our color TV in our basement from a box of parts and instructions that he had ordered from a company called “Heathkit.” We knew as kids to give the basement a wide berth when his soldering iron was on and he was doing detailed circuit board work!

Over the years his inventions spanned the gamut, from electronic ignitions that he made for our family cars (one of which conked out on a family trip, ha!) to the TV mentioned above, and many creations in between. Whether rigging up a radio to keep the deer out of our garden, or building a car roof rack to carry our family canoe, his creations over the years were always ingenious and practical.

Late in my dad’s life, he suffered with Parkinson’s disease. He endured that menace for over fifteen years, again using his creativity and ingenuity to work through the problems he was challenged with every day. Six or seven years ago my dad underwent the Medtronic “Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)” surgery; a procedure that includes having a number of implants placed into the brain and a “monitor” placed under the skin. While quite an invasive procedure, my dad was fascinated by the technology, and was always “tweeking” it and working with the Medtronic folks on ways to optimize the therapy. I remember a conversation with him a year or two ago when he wanted to hook himself up to one of his osciliscopes (how many dad’s have two osciliscopes??) so he could “self adjust” the electronic settings to his bodies “natural wavelength.” Thankfully the folks in the Neurologists office passed on his suggestion!

A much simpler invention that he was proud of was his “pocket hanging” cane. Because of his disease, my dad used a walking stick/cane for stability over his last few years. He was always looking for a place to put it as he opened doors, went to the bathroom, etc., and thus he came up with another ingenious solution. He built onto the cane, using common hardware, a small wire appendage that he would hook into his pocket, thus holding the cane at his side when he needed to use his hands for other work. He was so proud of this little invention and was wondering about patenting it just weeks before he passed.

I came upon another one of his inventions the other day which I have pictured below. My dad always loved a good cup of coffee and he was well known for being cheap, clearly a son of the depression! Once he discovered that he could buy good coffee in bulk at Sam’s club, he was sold but perplexed on how to keep it fresh once he had opened the package. Using the little vacuum stoppers made for wine bottles, he cut a hole in the lid of a mason jar (more on coffee and mason jars in a future essay) , sealed the stopper into the lid with epoxy, and abracadabra, you have an invention that lets you keep your ground coffee fresh by removing the air from the jar. Simple, clever, and practical! I use it now in my home to hold freshly ground coffee and it works like a charm!!

I often think back on my Dad, remembering little experiences and little stories, and on the whole I remember him very fondly. I miss my dad and I miss his little inventions. He was a regular reader of this blog before he passed, and I think he would be proud and amazed that his little mason jar coffee invention made it into one of the essays!