Archives For Management

diversity

The tech community has demonstrated that it is at best confused about what type of diversity businesses should aim for, in order to advance well.  It is one thing to curb discrimination, but on the topic of diversity, I think we should be looking for “diversity in perspectives”.  

Diversity has hardly been an easy topic to understand.  For centuries, the human civilization has been trying to deal with just what diversity is and how best to handle it.  So, it is no surprise that it leads to exhaustion as Dick Costolo gets hammered on the lack of women on the Twitter board.  Those who followed the NYTimes article and the less than ideal exchange that happened on Twitter following a harsh comment by @dickc know that the situation is getting so much attention.

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On the topic of “women as minority”, I have very conflicted views.  I’ve written earlier on this topic, advocating that women need to be confident and trust in their abilities to be as good or better as their male counterparts.  So, this question of “should an organization be compelled to have a woman on their board” makes me very uncomfortable.  If you are a woman, would you like to be hired because you are a woman (of course you’d be subject to a minimum bar) or would you like to be hired because there isn’t a better candidate than you for the job?  I’d prefer the latter myself.

For what it’s worth, I think we are hung up on the wrong question!  We are implicitly making this be about discrimination rather than diversity in a meaningful sense.  Have you hired the best candidate you could find for the job?  Of course, there are all kinds of other factors – a reasonable timeline for one – but, in general, if you answered yes to that question, you are done!

Diversity In Perspectives

Now, diversity in perspectives, however, is a completely different thing.  A company like Twitter needs creativity in multiple dimensions.  Arguably, understanding female users is one area.  But, I have a hard time professing that you need a woman to understand female users.  Would you hire a teenager to the board so you can understand teenage users?  Not necessarily.  In a similar manner, the key is that you have a board that can bring in diverse perspectives that are important to your business.  The real problem lies in the fact that most leaders are not necessarily excellent judges of other people’s strengths.  So, it is generally hard for someone to understand who is bringing the right set of perspectives in which area.  How do you know that a male director you just hired understands female users?  It is much easier to believe that hiring a woman will bring that perspective.  All the noise about how Twitter has so many female users and hence desperately needs a woman on the board relate to exactly that!

It is true that it is often difficult for people to understand how their real users behave and what they need.  The solution to this is not that they go find themselves a representative from each segment of their user population.  First of all, there is no guarantee that a 40-year old woman can bring the perspective of a teenage girl.  So, unless you got your segments exactly right, that would not be an ideal fit.  Second, not only do you need the right perspectives from different user segments, you also need these people to be able to connect the dots together and create a cohesive strategy.  Not to mention be able to identify user segments of future relevance.

The bottomline is that diversity in perspectives is what is most important and you need creative people who can understand that they are not necessarily the representative user, can understand the actual users and project their future wants and needs and equally critically, can work together!

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Huffington Post published this theory about why Generation Y people are largely unhappy.  First of all, there is a little debate about what really is Gen X and Gen Y.  The timelines that Huff Post talks about don’t tally with what Wikipedia thinks.  But, I digress.  Really, it talks about two related concepts.  That the relationship between happiness and reality is governed by expectations.

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This is somewhat logical and I can get behind it.  So far, it’s alright.  The second part is that the expectations of Gen Y people are unrealistic!

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So, this is where the problem starts.  It talks about how Gen Y people feel special and want to cut short the hardworking process of progressing in your career and how that’s all messed up.  At the surface, it seems like there is a logic here.  But, when you scratch the surface a little, you realize this is total bullshit.  This writeup went on to invoke reactions such as this one. Okay, that’s one aspect of it – that Gen Y people are left to deal with student loans and insufficient jobs.  While I sympathize with that, that’s not what I’m going to focus on here.

Careers are no longer built in sequential progressions that cause years of hard work to eventually pay off.  That’s one way of looking at it and frankly, that’s a broken way of looking at it any more.  Places that reward just the sheer number of years one has been working hard at a particular level are likely not innovating aggressively.  It is the era where the smarter one and the one that can deliver takes all.  This is why it is not at all uncommon for one to be reporting to a past report of theirs, where someone who is younger had an impact that earned them a faster progression than their older boss has had.

Any more, progression is about impact.  True, it is conceivable that you might have impact early and might end up with a lot of responsibility when you are not ready for it.  That surely happens.  However, it cannot be true any more that you keep progressing just because you are working hard.  The working hard must absolutely translate into impact or it’s of no value.  And not all organizations and managers are good at seeing those two as distinct things.  It takes skill to separate the two.  Hard work can often be misinterpreted for eventual impact and that’s a problem.

Chamath Palihapitiya perfectly articulates this notion in this video.  As he notes, the pedigree you collect via traditional education and methods matters less and less.  What you know and what you can cause to happen matter a lot more.  Some people have a hard time separating experience and maturity from age and impact.  It’s never too early to recognize impact.  If you can sense when impact and maturity go hand in hand and capitalize on that talent, you’ll do well.  That’s what separates the ones that keep innovating from the ones that stagnate.

No, careers are not built with progressive linearity.  Careers are a function of impact and maturity.  And it doesn’t matter what generation you are from.  It only matters that you can think big and deliver big.

Hiring is hard work. Finding the employee that is best skilled in the area of your needs, fits with the culture of the team, works like she owns the product, takes responsibility like it’s hers to win or lose, connects the dots and thinks ahead, is a good mentor and a listener, is a leader that can adapt to changes and cause changes when needed, has a vision and can articulate it, and is so much more, is really hard to find.  Many of us would be lucky if we found half of those qualities in our employees.  Yet, when we are lucky enough to find those gems of employees, many of us forget how to continue motivating them!

ImageThese are your A+ performers.  They may be more capable than you (possibly with less experience, however), who are potentially going to make a fundamental difference to the products and the company as a whole.  They are often self-motivated, need little attention and know exactly when to find you when they need input!  Your competitors want them, badly.  They are smart enough to see through your bullshit and read between the lines.  They are a rare breed!

So, how do you recognize when their motivation drops and how do you keep it up?  Ron Baker’s post on performance appraisals resonated with me quite a bit.  The current appraisal system is just broken – it works for the average employee who does defined tasks, but not for your best performers.  In a follow-up post, Ron makes some very good suggestions on alternative ways of evaluating performance.  Here are some things to realize about motivating the best:

  • It is often not about the money!
    Money can get them in the door, but money won’t keep them.  A seriously under competitive pay might be a problem, but a merely above average pay will not keep them.  Understand this – if it was for the money, they would have left for your competitor by now!
  • Recognize they may be smarter than you!
    Don’t give them management bullshit.  If they can think ahead in abstract terms, they can see through the bullshit even if they don’t tell you so.  Tell them the truth and be genuine when  you say you are trying.  It will go a long way.
  • Genuinely seek out their opinion and use it!
    It does not belittle you to seek input from your employees and act on it.  It tells them you value their input beyond their specific role.
  • When you use their input, give them the recognition!
    When you realize you are using their inputs with your own senior management, give them the recognition and visibility they deserve.  None of the A+ players want to work for a hierarchical organization that masks visibility.  You are going to be better off for it in the long run.
  • Watch for signs of frustration
    Watch for the indirect feedback, the body language, the interactions with the team to spot signs of frustration early.  The best ones know grass is not greener on the other side.  Addressing the frustrations early can help you keep them.

Many of the better companies recognize the pains in hiring and try to do a lot for their good employees.  But rarely do we have managers who can truly keep the motivation of the employees they cannot afford to lose!  As a result, we often see different effects – some leave, some stay with frustration and become A- or B players.  Either way, it is a loss!

It truly makes you a great leader when you recognize that you need to sometimes give up your pride to keep the good ones motivated.  But, that’s what makes exceptional leaders so exceptional – they are not afraid of recognizing and hiring talent that is better then them and finding innovative ways of keeping them!