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Cutting Back on Training and Development April 21, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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A lot of organizations have been cutting back on employee training and development programs, especially since the start of the recession in 2008-09. I remember my early days at HP in the 1980s when the company supported a wide curriculum of internally-developed courses, and later contracted with professional trainers to deliver specialized material. Those days are long gone. I’m not convinced that the cost savings are really that significant, but this seems to be an easy target during times of expense reductions. The ROI on employee development has always been hard to estimate with any confidence, and “we’re doing OK” with the people and skills we already have. “We don’t need more skills and training, we just need to apply the skills we already have.”

It’s ironic that many of these same organizations continue to invest in their physical assets through maintenance and upgrades but seem reluctant to do the same with their human resources. After all, equipment and facilities can’t leave on their own accord after you’ve improved them, while your trained employees can walk out and maybe join your competitor tomorrow (or, at least that’s the fear). Professional development has largely become the responsibility of the individual employee, and companies implicitly assume they’ll be able to replace anyone who doesn’t like that arrangement.

While there are lot of people available on the job market who can provide needed skills, this is a short-sighted decision that is likely to cost more in the long-term (turnover costs), inhibit opportunities for growth through innovation, and reduce overall performance because of lower morale. However, this is another example of saving hard dollars today in exchange for uncertain benefits in the future, and therefore I don’t see any significant change in the future.

Many employees will continue to take charge of their career growth, and many managers will help them by assigning “development opportunities” and special projects within the constraints of the current business priorities and budget. Some leaders and managers may take the initiative and organize informal brown-bag presentations to share knowledge and experience. I’m encouraged by local partnerships between some companies and local colleges and universities. Students, faculty. and the company can all benefit from summer internships and joint research projects, and employees can be encouraged to enroll in targeted degree or certificate programs with tuition that is at least partially-reimbursed.

The desire to develop and improve skills doesn’t go away just because companies don’t want to spend the money. Companies that find ways to invest in their employees and value their professional growth will surely benefit in ways that they may never be able to measure.


How Important Is Industry Familiarity? April 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
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I’m once again “between jobs” and “in-transition,” and I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at job postings. Every position seems to emphasize the preference or requirement for applicants with industry experience. It’s easy to imagine that many applicants are immediately eliminated from consideration without it.

I understand why familiarity with an industry is valued in a candidate. Different industries are characterized by different combinations of suppliers, internal value delivery systems, channels, competitors, and customers. People who work in the industry understand the relationships between these elements, and that understanding is an important consideration when setting priorities and making decisions. It takes time to learn that in a new job, and people who already have the experience don’t need to go through a learning curve and theoretically can make a more-immediate impact.

Industry familiarity doesn’t seem to be something you can acquire through independent study and observation; you have to actually work in the industry. This means that your preferred candidates are likely going to be people who have worked at your competitors, or possibly your suppliers, channels, or customers, depending on how broadly you define your industry.

This leads to a question I’ve been puzzling over: what are the unique characteristics of an industry that are true differentiators? What really distinguishes one industry from another, and what is the significance of those differences when considering job applicants?

In my career I’ve worked at a defense contractor, several OEMs in the consumer electronics industry, a supplier to the semiconductor manufacturing industry, and most-recently a supplier to the power generation and utilities industries. Different customers, different sales channels, different production volumes, and different quality expectations and regulatory environments. Some of the suppliers were the same, but most were different. Some produced internally, and some outsourced. Some of these companies competed on cost, some on technology. My modest assessment is that I’ve been successful in all of these industries.

Industry experience provides familiarity, but is industry experience an accurate predictor of success in a new job? What skills are really needed to succeed, and how transferable are a person’s skills from one industry to another? Could a unique perspective derived from a diversity of experiences be more valuable than industry familiarity? These are the questions that should be considered when writing a job posting and evaluating applicants.


Hiring, Firing and Net Value February 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In one of my recent positions my manager suggested that I “get rid of” an person in my team who wasn’t meeting expectations, at least in the opinion of my manager. I assumed he meant that I should fire them. I didn’t think that was a good idea, for several reasons. I felt that this person was being asked to do something that was a little outside their job description, and something that was also outside their natural comfort zone of skills and talents. Instead of continuing to force a square peg into a round hole, I re-assigned some responsibilities within the team so that this person could focus on what they did best.

Sure, I could have fired this person, but I prefer to look at these situations from a net value perspective. This person was making a positive contribution to the business. If I fired them, that contribution would be lost, at least until I replaced them with a new hire or transfer. Hiring requires recruiting and interviewing candidates, and then the new person typically goes through a learning curve. It could be months before the business realized a net gain to offset the switching costs, and even then the hiring process does not guarantee a better outcome.

The other consideration was how much of my time every day was spent managing this person, or compensating for their sub-standard performance. It’s certainly possible that what looks like a positive contribution to the business by one person is actually a net drain because of their impact on management and others, including the lost opportunity to spend your time in more productive ways.

In this case I was able to find a lower-cost way to increase this person’s long-term net value without incurring the switching costs. I’m not sure my manager agreed with my logic. I understand that sometimes you do have to “get rid of” someone who is under-performing, but that should be a carefully considered decision, not an emotional reaction to a situation that may not really that bad.

I see the same issues on the hiring side. Let’s assume that all job openings were justified to fill an urgent need for the business (although that’s apparently not always true). As long as that position remains unfilled, the business is suffering to some degree, otherwise why would the position be created in the first place? Of course the hiring manager should be trying to find the best person to fill the position, but the time it takes to find and on-board that person has to be balanced against the cost of not having any person in that position. Can the business afford to keep looking for a better candidate?

Of course this isn’t necessary a bad thing. As time goes by without hiring someone, the business will compensate and adjust for the missing resource, and it’s possible that may ultimately be a net gain. Or, not.


What Happened to HR? February 19, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In 1996 I started a new job at Hewlett-Packard’s facility in Vancouver, Washington. The site at that time was supported by a large HR organization that had about 10-15 full-time staff. In 2001 I transferred to a different HP location with slightly fewer employees, but only about 4 HR professionals. In the years that followed the HR function was transformed from a locally-based, hands-on organization to a self-help model with a handful of regional support staff.

I suspect that most large corporations went through a similar transition in the first decade of the century. Today’s HR organizations seem to be focused on recruiting, hiring and on-boarding; benefits administration; supporting downsizing and other termination events; and generally keeping the company out of legal trouble. It’s becoming hard to remember, but HR used to be a lot more than that, at least at those companies who considered their human resources to be a source of strategic advantage.

Obviously a lot of money was saved by reducing the size of the HR organization, and I’m sure it was assumed that line managers and web-based training could meet the needs of the business, and some things were given  up because they weren’t considered to be all that important. I understand that it’s unlikely that we will ever return to the old days of large HR organizations, but if we expect managers and leaders to pick up the slack, then we should remember what HR used to do and ask whether those things still have value.

I’ve been thinking about all this after finding my notes and readings from a class that I took in HR during my MBA program in the late 1990s. In those days HR was described as a key partner, working side by side with other functional leaders to ensure that policies matched the strategic needs of the business. HR professionals led programs in organizational design and improvement, change management, and competitive benchmarking. They worked with line managers to identify future leaders, and design career development opportunities and succession plans. New managers were provided extra training and support for their transition. Staffing plans were based on a long-term view that considered the specific skills and intellectual capital that the company needed, and the company-wide perspective of HR helped ensure that new initiatives were not starved for resources.

I realize that few companies can afford to keep full-time HR personnel to do all those things. My point is that if we don’t, then either we’re saying that we don’t care about those things, or we expect somebody else to do them. If human resources are important to the company, then line managers and other leaders will have to step up and assume the responsibilities of a virtual HR organization.

The Value of Not Knowing What You’re Doing February 4, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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Occasionally someone will ask me about managing or working with younger people. I’m not sure if they’re wondering how I will relate to people under a certain age, or if I have some stereotypical bias regarding Gen X, or Millennials, or any other generation. My answer has always been that everyone is different and unique, and I don’t consciously make any assumption based on a person’s generation, gender, race, nationality, or any other “classification.” A fair manager treats everyone differently based on their individual skills, talents, needs, and background.

The one thing I can say with confidence about younger people is that they have less experience, simply owing to the fact that they’ve spent less time on Earth. The common wisdom is that these folks benefit from the guidance of a more-experienced manager or colleague who knows what not to do because it’s been tried before. “Don’t waste your time, that doesn’t work.”

Experience certainly has value, but I’m always energized when I work with people who don’t know that “it doesn’t work,” and aren’t constrained by their experiences. Our assumptions should be challenged periodically, and each situation should be analyzed objectively. I don’t want my experience to prevent me from considering alternatives that might be exactly the right thing under these unique circumstances. I want to be open-minded to inputs from people who’ve never been there before and don’t know what they’re doing.


The Skills (Most) Engineers Don’t Learn in College January 9, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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My friend and former colleague Happy Holden recently sent me his list of 25 “soft skills” that engineers don’t learn in college, but that every engineering manager needs to acquire to succeed. Engineers may graduate with a deep understanding of their selected discipline, however their future career path will depend on whether they acquire other critical skills on-the-job. Those that don’t may continue to be useful engineers when they’re given specific assignments, but they will require closer management (which will add cost to their organization), their contribution to business goals will be narrow, and their value will be limited, whether or not they become a manager.

Happy has 25 skills in his list, but I’ve chosen the following 10 as my favorites, in no particular order:

  1. Statistics, specifically inferential statistics. I’ve always been surprised at how few engineers understand the concepts of sample size and significance testing. Too many are willing to accept a single test result as proof.
  2. Problem solving. I’m talking about a systematic approach to problem solving, one that evaluates the current situation and considers more than one possible root cause and solution. In the end, your first instinct may still be the right one, but you should at least evaluate other possibilities.
  3. Technical writing. This is a bit of a lost skill with today’s greater emphasis on verbal communication, texting, and PowerPoint. However, regardless of the medium, understanding and decision making requires clear expression of technical concepts, especially to people who don’t have the same technical background that you do.
  4. Design for manufacturing. Here I’m talking to design engineers who may have a limited understanding of the capabilities of their supply chain, which includes manufacturing processes, variability, and tolerance stack-ups. The best design isn’t very useful until it can be built in the real world.
  5. Managing management time. OK, this is a little subtle. Your manager is busy juggling multiple issues. Exercise good judgment about taking their time, and focus your questions and reports. Even better, learn more about their strategic priorities and working environment, and anticipate what will be important to them.
  6. Project/program management. Obviously this is a required skill for engineers who aspire to become project managers, but all engineers who understand stakeholders, schedule, dependencies, resources, and risks will be able to work more independently, and effectively.
  7. Benchmarking. I’ve always been a fan of benchmarking as a way of identifying new ideas and accelerating their adoption. The part that often gets lost is how the results were achieved, not just the results themselves. Engineers should learn to appreciate and analyze different ways to build a mousetrap.
  8. Engineering economics. The “best” ideas and designs may not be adopted due to financial considerations such as return-on-investment and break-even time. If you can contribute to an evaluation of economic trade-offs, you’re more valuable to the process of decision-making.
  9. Recruiting and interviewing. At some point the organization is going to do some hiring. Those who can participate effectively in the process will have a significant influence on the future of the organization.
  10. Predictive engineering. It’s possible that this is actually taught somewhere, but it tends to be very specific to a product or industry. Building prototypes can be time consuming and expensive. It’s good to be able to assess performance and reliability without having to wait.
My number 11 would be lean manufacturing / JIT / TOC, although that’s a personal favorite that may be less important as firms use more contract manufacturing.

What Kind of Leadership Do You Want For This Job? January 11, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, strategy.
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A few weeks ago I listened to an excellent podcast from Harvard Business Review’s HBR IdeaCast about leadership (http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/11/the-indispensable-unlikely-lea.html), featuring Gautam Makunda, author of “Indispensible: When Leaders Really Matter.” Professor Makunda uses historical examples to illustrate the importance of context in determining how effective a leader will be. While Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were certainly extraordinary leaders, the circumstances helped define their greatness. Different leaders may not have been nearly as effective in those times, but those same leaders might not be effective in different times.

Churchill is a particularly interesting example. Although he had been in government service in senior leadership positions for most of his adult life, and was respected as a brilliant and hard-working minister, he was never seriously considered a leading candidate to become Prime Minister before World War II. He was essentially a last resort after other highly-regarded, experienced, and well-qualified politicians resigned or refused the position.

As it turned out, Churchill’s charisma and iconic presence in the months after Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain was exactly what was needed and certainly helped save the day. However, in the elections immediately following the war Churchill was defeated, and although he would return as PM in the early 1950s he was less effective managing domestic affairs during a period of imperial decline.

Professor Makunda suggests that there are lessons here for companies who are considering candidates for leadership positions. Some positions should be filled by a “safe choice,” a person with deep expertise who came up through the ranks, has accumulated all the “right” experiences, and has been thoroughly vetted in the selection process. The interesting thing about a position that can be filled by a safe choice is that it really doesn’t matter much who you choose from the pool of candidates because they’re all essentially equally qualified. That’s OK when the circumstances are not exceptional or demanding and there’s little downside to choosing the “wrong” person.

However, the safe choice with a conventional background is far less likely to have a significant impact on the organization (positive or negative), particularly during periods of transition, ambiguity, or turmoil. This is when companies might benefit from the perspective of an outsider with new or unconventional ideas, or what Professor Makunda would call an “extreme leader.” The risk is greater because the experience of an extreme leader may not be directly applicable to the open position, but the potential gain is also greater. The company must decide if they’re willing to take that chance.

Predicting Future Success for a Project Manager November 20, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, Project management.
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If you were interviewing people for a project manager job, what criteria would you use to make the decision? What results or characteristics differentiate an above-average project managers from the rest? Today it’s relatively easy to become a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), and that may be a reasonable minimum requirement for many positions, but you would surely also want to hear something about the candidate’s recent achievements.

“Successfully completed the project” doesn’t tell you much since a project may fail or be abandoned for reasons that have nothing to do with the project manager’s performance. Only slightly better is a statement that the project was completed “on-time and under budget.” That sounds good, but it’s easy to claim and usually impossible to verify.

So, what exactly does a project manager do, and how can we tell if they’ve done a good job? Can we isolate the performance of the PM from the rest of the team? What information can we use to assess the probability of the PM’s success in the future?

I think it may be impossible to isolate and quantitatively measure the performance of a PM, primarily because of the many unforeseen and uncontrollable factors that can lead to schedule variances, budget variances, and other high-level measures of a project. Certainly a closely-monitored project with effective risk management and contingency planning may be less susceptible to these factors. However, unless the PM is guilty of failing to incorporate key inputs to the project plan, or failing to plan altogether, it’s not necessarily the fault of the PM if the project doesn’t meet its objectives.

The basic process of project management is pretty straightforward. Any assessment of a PM should include how well they respond to things that are not part of the standard process or the original plan. Can they cite examples of adaptability and creativity when managing the inevitable changes that happen in any project?

The length of the project, the number and variety of stakeholders, and the degree of leverage from previous projects can provide an indication of the project complexity this PM has handled in the past, and what they will be more likely to manage successfully in the future.

I also believe that past failure is better predictor than past success, specifically what the PM has learned from past failures. Certainly I would want to hear about the candidate’s experiences in overcoming obstacles and solving problems, but I also want to know what they learned about avoiding those obstacles and problems in their next project.

Those are three indicators of future success for a PM: adaptability, familiarity with complex projects, and a commitment to learning and continuous improvement based on experience.

Sales Techniques for Better Interviews September 12, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, job search.
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Yesterday I attended a networking meeting for local job seekers that featured a speaker who encouraged the audience to consider a job interview as a sales call, and apply the same techniques used by many successful salespeople (specifically the “Up-Front Contracts” methodology in the popular Sandler Selling System). This reminded me of something I wrote about in an earlier post (see Raising Visibility During a Job Search), when a facilitator at a different networking meeting pointed out that anyone who is looking for a job is absolutely working in sales.

Here are a few of the key messages from this week’s meeting:

1. In most cases the person being interviewed (interviewee) settles into one of two roles, depending on their natural style: either a passive receiver who waits for questions, or a stereotypical salesperson who uses every opportunity to promote themselves. Both are bad. The interviewee needs to take an active role to exert more control over the direction of the interview, but that doesn’t mean aggressively “selling.”

2. Successful salespeople understand that if you look or act like a salesperson, you’re likely to trigger a negative response from the buyer. Spend less time selling and more time gathering information and intelligence. Use the interview as an opportunity to ask questions to learn more about the company’s needs and the process they’re using to fill this position. Why were you invited for this interview? What was it about your background and skills that they found appealing?

3. No matter how much you might want this job, it’s important to avoid becoming emotionally attached to the outcome of the interview process. You have to be comfortable with the possibility (probability?) that the outcome will be a “no.”

4. In fact, the sooner you can learn whether it’s a “no,” the better. This is a tough one for me because I tend to think of “no news” as “good news.” “They haven’t said no yet, so I guess I’m still in the running.” It’s much more likely that they made up their mind before your interview ended, and if it’s a “no,” then it’s better to know and move on.

5. To avoid an open-ended “we’ll get back to you next week” message at the end of the interview, it’s suggested that the interviewee ask two questions: “Is it OK if I tell you that I’m not right for this position at the end of this meeting?” The second is: “Are you OK with telling me that I’m not right for this position at the end of this meeting?” This will reveal the process that’s being used to make the hiring decision. If their process requires some additional internal discussion or meetings with other candidates, put yourself in control of the notification process by asking “When can I contact you to learn the outcome?” instead of making yourself crazy waiting for a phone call.

6. Regarding interview logistics, an interviewee needs a known interval of uninterrupted and private time with the interviewer. That means holding all calls, turning off the phones, and ideally conducting the meeting in a conference room away from the distractions of the interviewer’s office. This may be difficult to manage as the interviewee, but you can at least suggest a change of schedule or venue if interruptions are becoming a problem.

7. Finally, another hard one: if you already know there are soft spots in your qualifications for this job, or concerns about your background that have been raised in the past, proactively raise these issues to communicate self-awareness, defuse a potential problem, and put yourself in control. Again, this is something I understand in principle but might have trouble following in practice. I agree that it’s important to be aware of and objectively assess your weaknesses, but I’m uncomfortable with volunteering this information. I think I would be more comfortable with asking the interviewer what concerns they have about my fitness for the job, and then responding accordingly, drawing from a set of prepared answers.

Good tips, and I look forward to trying these on my next interview. Not sure when that will be.

Not What Are You Worth, What’s the Job Worth? September 7, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
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I think one of the biggest opportunities for second-guessing when you’re unemployed is the answer you give when a recruiter or hiring manager asks the question “What are your salary expectations?” Many people try to figure out what answer will keep them in the running, or at least keep the conversation going. If you aim too high, you may have just eliminated yourself from further consideration. If you aim too low, maybe thinking that you can accept a lower salary because you really want this job, you’re probably under-valuing yourself. You still might not get the job, but if you do, you’ll feel cheated every day you go to work.

The question isn’t “What are you worth?” The question is “What is the job worth?” What is your assessment of the fair market value for this position, based on the published job description and qualifications?

The answer requires some thought, and ideally some research before you’re asked the question. There are online services that can provide some help here, including LinkedIn and Glassdoor. Your own salary history is relevant only if you previously held a position that was approximately the same as this one. Obviously it’s a good starting point, but you should think about how that number should be adjusted based on other considerations.

You have to think about the company’s size and financial position. Start-ups and early-stage companies are unlikely to have the capital to be able to pay mid to high market value.

This one is harder to assess, but what is the strategic importance of this position to the company? In other words, how important is it to the company to get top talent for this position?

You have to consider the geographic location of the position to account for local housing and other cost-of-living expenses which influence local salary benchmarks.

Finally, you have to remember that base salary is only one element of the overall compensation package, and I don’t mean only money. Would you consider a package that includes a greater emphasis on performance-based bonuses, deferred pay, or stock options? Are there non-financial considerations about the job or the company that would make you willing to accept less pay? For example, does the company’s culture match your own style and preferences? Does this job give you the chance to work with new technology, or develop valuable new skills, or be inspired?

If you can answer the question “What are your salary expectations?” by showing that you’ve given it some thought based on the specific combination of job description and company characteristics, you do two things. You show that you’ve done your homework and prepared for the interview, and you can avoid the confidence crisis that comes from over- or under-valuing yourself.

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