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Maximizing Your Employability

September 15, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

Remaining Highly Marketable in Any Economy

Knowledge has been described as the only source of sustainable competitive advantage in an information economy. Since knowledge is the primary product of knowledge workers, it is also the primary source of their employability.

Our research has uncovered five different ways that one can add value to an organization and thereby become an employee of choice in any economy:

Stage One—Acquiring Knowledge. People in this stage learn how to access and use the existing knowledge of the organization in order to complete their assigned work. They acquire the knowledge (i.e., theories, models, rules, principles, policies, processes and information) necessary to make effective decisions and take appropriate action.

Stage Two—Applying Knowledge. People in this stage use the knowledge of the company (i.e., theories, models, rules, principles, policies, processes and information) to independently plan and complete important tasks — without having to defer decisions about their work to others.

Stage Three—Creating Knowledge. People in this stage identify gaps in the organization’s existing knowledge base and create new knowledge to address both new and old challenges. They find creative new ways to solve previously unsolved problems and invent potential new products, work processes, tools, technologies, etc.

Stage Four— Sharing Knowledge. By sharing their knowledge and experience, Stage Four contributors help others acquire and apply knowledge toward making effective decisions and taking appropriate action. They also help ensure that the work of the group is integrated so the value of the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.

Stage Five—Leveraging Knowledge. Stage Five contributors create a cultural and strategic context that shapes the minute-by-minute decisions and actions of people throughout the organization. They exert significant influence on the decisions that define what the organization does, how the organization does its work, and how it competes in the marketplace. One task of this stage is to make knowledge more widely accessible by transforming personal knowledge into expert systems, structures, processes, policies, norms and strategies.

Assessing Knowledge Worker Employability

One critical element of our research involved asking managers to force-rank their knowledge workers based on “the value of each worker’s contribution to the organization over the past 12 months.” We then asked managers to identify the stages in which each employee was consistently contributing and correlated these stages with the ranking data. Exhibit 1 summarizes the results and shows the strong connection between the five stages of the knowledge worker and perceived contribution.

The three most important patterns that can be identified in Exhibit 1 are:

  1. The increase in perceived value as people master additional stages. (Only 15 percent of those identified as making primarily Stage One contributions were ranked above the 50th percentile. Ninety-four percent of those identified as contributing primarily in Stage Five were ranked above the 50th percentile.)
  2. The small difference in the average age of people contributing in the different stages.
  3. The large jump in perceived value between Applying (Stage Two) and Creating (Stage Three).

Furthermore, we learned that while some knowledge workers focus on contributing only in one or two of these stages, the most highly valued knowledge workers usually perform in several of the stages simultaneously. To remain highly marketable, one has to move beyond the Applying Stage on the continuum. Only Creating, Sharing or Leveraging Knowledge consistently deliver competitive advantage for the individual.


We also found people performing in each of the five stages regardless of position. In other words, we found managers who were heavily focused on Applying Knowledge and technical professionals who were Leveraging Knowledge. Based on our findings, it appears that the tasks of the knowledge worker and the learning organization are one and the same: to become adept at acquiring, applying, creating, sharing and leveraging knowledge in ways that will enhance the organization’s competitiveness.

In our research we also asked managers to answer two questions about their team members:

  1. Who on your team would you least want to lose? and,
  2. Who on your team would you have the most difficulty replacing?

These two questions usually elicited the same list of names. The people identified were those who, in addition to fulfilling their Stage One and Two responsibilities (Acquiring and Applying Knowledge), were finding ways to contribute in Stages Three, Four or Five (Creating, Sharing or Leveraging Knowledge).

Some engineers, when first introduced to the model, question whether managers really do value Stages Three, Four and Five more than Stage Two. They ask, “Do managers put their money where their mouths are?” Our research confirms that they do. When we controlled for factors such as education, age and tenure, we found that each stage was associated with a 10 percent increment in pay. That means that a 30 year-old Stage Three (Creating Knowledge) electrical engineer with a BS degree and 7 years’ company experience will earn an average of 10% more than an electrical engineer with the same education and experience who has not expanded beyond Stages One and Two (Acquiring and Applying Knowledge). Similarly, a Stage Five (Leveraging Knowledge) electrical engineer will earn 30 to 35 percent more than an equally educated and experienced engineer in Stage Two (Applying Knowledge).

In order to thrive in an information economy, organizations need contributions in all five of the stages. And as competition intensifies, Stages Three, Four and Five become increasingly important. The five stages model, called the Contribution Continuum, provides a framework for analyzing and building one’s personal employability. One does not have to contribute in all fives stages to be highly employable, but remember: Although Stages One and Two are essential to your employability, they are not sufficient. Since almost everyone will in due course learn to contribute in Stages One and Two, these first two stages do not usually differentiate top performers. Stages Three, Four and Five are the differentiators and therefore the path to maximum employability.

Authors: Nigel Bristow—President, Targeted Learning and Michael-John Bristow—Associate, Targeted Learning

This article, and many other tools to career success, can be found in Beyond Job Satisfaction Fieldbook, on sale now.

Beyond Constructive Criticism

August 11, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

“It’s a great sign of respect to me if someone feels I’m strong enough and capable enough and objective enough to tell me when I’ve done or said something stupid. It’s only those who regard me as delicate, sensitive, weak or fragile who will not dare to disagree with me.”

—Abraham Maslow

In essence, Maslow tells us that honest criticism is the highest form of praise. He says that you’re an adult; you can handle the truth and you have the capacity to grow.

Henry David Thoreau observed, “People don’t give you their most effective criticism until you provoke them. Severe truth is expressed with some bitterness.” Because most people avoid conflict and want to be liked, they tend to tell you the unvarnished truth only when they are frustrated or downright angry. As a consequence, the truth will not always come across tactfully. Remember, the next time you get candid feedback from someone who appears angry or frustrated, be grateful for those emotions. Without them, the giver may never have found the courage to level with you.

We recently conducted a significant study in which we correlated people’s pay with their attitudes toward feedback. We found that those who were open to criticism in any form—who didn’t put preconditions on it, who didn’t say people had to be constructive or polite—earned significantly more money than those who said they were open to criticism as long as it was “constructive.”

One reason for this correlation is that people who are open to the gift of criticism, no matter how it’s wrapped, get more unfiltered information. With better information, they make better decisions. Better decisions lead to better work results and more satisfied customers. And in organizations that pay for performance, having more satisfied customers leads to higher pay.

The problem with making openness to criticism conditional upon it being “constructive” is that only the receiver gets to define what “constructive” means. Despite the best of intentions, tact and skill on the part of the feedback giver, if the receiver doesn’t like what they hear, they simply label the feedback “unconstructive.” The recipient then claims to have a legitimate reason to dismiss it.

What a weak excuse. In our experience, the person who says he is open to criticism as long as it’s constructive really doesn’t want any criticism at all.

The Key to Extraordinary Achievement

August 4, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

Targeted Intensive Practice Part II

Targeted intensive practice involves a long-term commitment to a process of continuous improvement that will drive extraordinary achievement. This process involves five steps:

Step1: Set Goals. High achievers are continuously setting very specific short-term goals that are beyond their current grasp. Implicit in this first step is the belief that failure is a necessary part of the learning process.

Step 2: Plan. High achievers identify the specific steps that are necessary for them to achieve their goals, and who they need to help them reach their goals. The assumption is that greatness is never achieved alone.

Step 3: Act. High achievers implement their plans with an intensity and focus that demands all their faculties. This is what is often referred to as “practice.”

Step 4: Review. High achievers rigorously review their actions and outcomes against their plans and goals, noting gaps and opportunities for improvement. Feedback from others is a critical part of this review process.

Step 5: Revise. If the goal is not achieved, then the plan is revised and the cycle is repeated. As soon as that goal is achieved, the bar is raised and another goal is set.

How did Benjamin Franklin become the best-selling author of his generation? How did Mozart become one of the greatest composers of all time? How did Michelangelo sculpt and paint himself into immortality? You got it. Targeted intensive practice over an extended period of time.

Think of talents as muscles rather than as fixed, innate abilities possessed by a lucky few. Just as muscles grow by having greater demands placed on them, so too our talents and mental capacities grow when we push ourselves to do difficult things.

Extraordinary innate ability is not the source of our greatness. Rather, greatness is the result of a long-term commitment to targeted intensive practice. We are the masters of our destiny – not our genes.

For those who are familiar with the principles we teach in our career development workshops, we would like to say a little more about talents. Superior talent only determines who will show the greatest promise during the first year in a new field of endeavor. Without passion, people with superior talent fail to push themselves and are soon overtaken. Only those who have a genuine passion for their craft have the self-discipline and drive necessary to continue to pursue the process of targeted intensive practice for a decade or more. In our estimate, extraordinary achievement is 80% passion and 20% talent. This means that people of modest talent and extraordinary passion can achieve extraordinary things, while those with extraordinary talent but limited passion fail to live up to their early promise. Michelangelo was not trying to be modest when he said, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”


Pride and Prejudice: The Roots of Disaster

August 4, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

On January 22, 1879, the British army suffered its greatest defeat ever at the hands of an army equipped with primitive weapons. A British battalion, furnished with artillery and modern Martini-Henry rifles, was effectively wiped out by a Zulu force armed only with short stabbing spears, clubs and cowhide shields. The engagement came to be known as the Battle of Isandlwana.

On the morning of the 20th, two days before that fateful battle, the British arrived at Isandlwana and set up a forward camp. The British commander, Lord Chelmsford, decided that there was no need to entrench his forces or even take the rudimentary defensive step of circling the wagons.

Early on the 22nd the British dispatched a scouting party who stumbled on a Zulu force of about 20,000 sitting in total silence. The Zulus went immediately on the offensive. An officer arriving from another battalion gave the following account of the last stage of the battle from his safe vantage point atop a nearby hill:

“In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns [artillery pieces] fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times—a pause, and then a flash-flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the [British] tents had disappeared.” (F.E. Colenso, History of the Zulu War and its Origin, London, 1880.)

As the sun set that day, only 50 British soldiers out of 1,500 escaped with their lives.

How did an army equipped with artillery and rifles capable of firing ten rounds a minute lose to an army equipped with clubs and stabbing spears? Even if the British were appalling marksmen—which they were not—and their bullets found their targets only one time in ten, they had the firepower necessary to inflict over 1,000 casualties a minute.

On the surface, this British disaster was the result of two poor decisions. First, the British failed to establish an adequate initial defense. Second, as was typical for the British at the time, they chose to fight in a linear formation—a disastrous decision which made it easier for the Zulu warriors to utilize their speed and numerical superiority to outflank and overwhelm the British. (Ian Knight, Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory, Osprey, 2002.)

The more fundamental reason, however, was the failure of the British officers to seek and heed the input of their local scouts. The scouts, British subjects of European descent, had lived on the South African frontier for most—or all—of their lives. They understood the Zulu military strategies and their strengths. They knew the battle tactics that earlier settlers had used to defeat Zulu armies that sometimes outnumbered them more than twenty to one. The British officers, on the other hand, grossly underestimated the discipline, motivation, speed, stealth and superb leadership of the Zulu army.

Unfortunately for the British, they saw the colonial scouts as ill-mannered, poorly-educated drunks. A sense of superiority rendered the British officers incapable of accepting feedback from these less refined, less educated subordinates.

It’s unlikely that you will ever have to risk your life in war. Nevertheless, the lessons of Isandlwana remain indispensable to your career and your business. How often, in organizations across the globe, do individuals and groups make disastrous mistakes because their egos prevent them from accepting feedback from those who are different from them, or from those who occupy positions of lower status or power? It is easy to learn from the criticism of people we hold in high esteem and from those who are skilled communicators. What takes real skill and wisdom is to profit from the counsel of those we don’t admire, the rough and tumble “scouts” in our own lives. As noted by Publilius Syrus, “Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.”

Perception vs. Reality

July 28, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

What Matters More, Perception or Reality?

“Our theories determine what we see.”
—Albert Einstein


A participant in one of our feedback workshops shared this story:

“I’m by nature very introverted, which has created some difficulties for me in my career. The most serious problem surfaced a year or so after I was promoted to management. As with many managers at technical companies, I was promoted not because of my superior interpersonal or leadership skills, but because I had the best technical skills.

“After becoming a manager, I continued to do what I did best, which was to solve technical problems. And I avoided things that made me feel uncomfortable, which included interacting with people on an informal and personal basis. One day I received feedback from some direct reports. They essentially said, ‘You’re unapproachable and elitist. You think you’re better than us.’

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought they must be describing someone else. If anything, I’ve often felt inferior to others, particularly those who seemed so comfortable in social settings. Instead of seeing my behavior for what it was—evidence of my shy and introverted nature—they interpreted it as evidence that I thought I was better than them. Because the feedback was based on misperceptions, I thought it wasn’t valid and was therefore inclined to dismiss it. But eventually I came to see that although their view of me was based on a misperception, it was that view that was undermining our relationship and their willingness to give me their best efforts. The gift to me was discovering that people didn’t react to me based on who I was—shy and introverted— but based on their perception of who I was—aloof and elitist.

“I have often heard the phrase, ‘Perception is reality,’ but not until this happened did I understand what that really meant. Their perceptions of me were creating the reality of an ineffective team. If I wanted a different reality, one that involved an effective and collaborative team, I would have to change those perceptions. That would require me to get out of my comfort zone, spend more time interacting with team members, and sometimes talking about personal interests. I will never be a charismatic leader, but because of that feedback I’m a much more effective manager.”

What we can learn from this case is that subjective perceptions, even when they’re inaccurate, are more powerful in shaping behavior than so-called objective facts. In order to save his career, this leader had to discard the erroneous notion that facts trump perceptions and realize that perception is reality.

Personal Feedback Competition

July 26, 2010 by Targeted Learning | add new comment

We are excited to launch our “Personal Feedback Competition”! You have now read the most effective feedback experiences of the authors, Nigel and Michael-John, found on our blog. We would now like to hear your most memorable (powerful, influential, embarrassing, etc.) experiences with feedback.

Post your experiences on our Facebook fan page wall and in two weeks, on August 9th at 12:00pm, the competition will end and the authors will pick their top three choices for the best feedback received. The winners will received a signed copy of our upcoming release of “Where’s the Gift?”. We look forward to hearing from you.

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