Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blaming the Victim

Several themes threaded their way through the discussions that surrounded this blog. Two main themes reoccurred – business has the right to make as much money as possible for their stakeholders and people who become very highly qualified (over qualified) should realize that might be becoming less relevant as they become more skillful… and that everyone needs to be ready to re-career several times in their lives. Notice that the implication is that once one is skillful in one area, it’s time to ‘give that up’ and take on a whole new career simply because others see you as being over-qualified. That, like the bell jars in photo, individuals become outmoded, useless, and, therefore, disposable.

Taken together these positions create a unique form of “blame the victim”.

Peter Senge of the Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization sets Personal Mastery as one of the key disciples of a Learning Organization. The website recaps Senge’s Personal Mastery principle as follows. I want to quote this exactly because it provides a dramatic counterpoint to the idea that anyone can be over-qualified and, in some way, reinforces the observation that people pursuing personal mastery may never see themselves as over-qualified, at all; that this perspective is uniquely the perspective of the “other” person – the leader, human resources specialist, the organizations.

Personal mastery. ‘Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs’ (Senge 1990: 139). Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively’ (ibid.: 7). It goes beyond competence and skills, although it involves them. It goes beyond spiritual opening, although it involves spiritual growth (ibid.: 141). Mastery is seen as a special kind of proficiency. It is not about dominance, but rather about calling. Vision is vocation rather than simply just a good idea.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward’. (Senge 1990: 142)

On the one hand we have organizations that feel the need to remove this expertise and individual driven toward continual learning from their team because individuals who pursue personal mastery have become “too expensive” to keep on hand and because, as some point, they are perceived as no longer moving up in the organization and must, therefore, be seen as moving out.

On the other hand, we have the individual for whom personal mastery is a continual quest where the journey is reward. When they see an organization moving in a direction that they are not moving, they look elsewhere for challenges that match their personal mastery. Or, if they see alignment with their current organization, they stay put and continue their mastery journey in the context of their current organization… until that organization dumps them for lack of upward mobility.

In the end, we have leaders and organizations who blame the individual for not realizing that their continued development of advanced skills – that personal mastery –is not what the organization wanted, when what the organization wanted was younger and cheaper resources in whom it could invest in developing the same basic skills over and over again.

This brings us nicely to Senge’s archetypes for repetitive organizational issues. Two that apply here are the Shifting the Burden (i.e., blaming) archetype and the Growth and Underinvestment archetype. The second is subtle. Organizations believe that they are investing in their growth when they focus those investments of new hires and novices. This investment is necessary, valuable and important. However, by never learning how to invest in the master performer, they build in a limitation to their growth.

Senge, along with many other leaders in organizational development, is promoting organizational sustainability in the conference, Leading and Learning for Sustainability. Another view of organizational sustainability is the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), which is attempting to move organizations away from the intense focus on this quarter’s financial bottom line and the need for today’s financial investors to earn huge rewards at the expense of future investors. The new focus in on balancing financial rewards with environmental and social factors. It’s about time.

In the mean time, if you are among the highly qualified, watch your back. If your organization earns a great deal of their money on the backs of their newest hires, you may quickly be among the over-qualified (and looking for work in a new career… or just for a new employer who might value you enough to pay a wage that reflects your mastery.)

On this note, I think that I’ll move from the focus on the “over-qualified” to personal mastery and how we could be identifying mastery in meaningful ways.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Trajectories Or Where is the Over-Qualified Employee's Career Headed?

In digging around LinkedIn’s questions, I discovered a thread from 2008-2009 where people specializing in Human Resources discussed the issue of hiring the over-qualified. The long and short of the discussion boiled down to trajectories -- whether the "over-qualified" person's trajectory was good for the organization.

This was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I had met the concept of career trajectories several years earlier. It looks so right – on paper – and it felt so wrong. It took me a while to discover the missing element… the fatal flaw.

As I remember it, the career trajectories model goes like this:

What’s missing?

How would you classify the person who has hit the top of their career progression and is delivering above average quality – good to superior work with speed, flexibility and quality, while also supporting the team, mentoring others, and tackling difficult problems and projects? Where is their trajectory designation?

Let's start at the beginning....

It is common wisdom that organizations spend 3 - 6 or more months bringing new employees up to speed. That plus the hiring and on-boarding processes equals the Inward Trajectory.

As the individual build skill and as time passes most individuals move up… some more quickly than others… some move higher up than others. This is the Upward Trajectory.

At some point, many individuals realize that they have developed as far as they can in their current role and seek alternatives within the organization. This is the Lateral Trajectory.

If these individuals do not find lateral alternatives, they leave and seek other career opportunities. Of course, in leaving, they take with them the knowledge and experience they gain while working for this organization. In choosing to leave, they automatically place themselves on the Moving Out Trajectory.

When an employee feels that there are no career options in-house and starts shopping around the competition or seeking new career alternatives, they have started themselves on the Moving Out Trajectory.

Another Moving Out Trajectory appears when employees are not succeeding. This might be personal or health issues that appear over time. It might be that the work changed and the employee did not. It might be that the individual’s work was never more that acceptable and, over time, has not improved and may even have declined. The ubiquitous “performance plan” is the organizational way to CYA and ensure that they demonstrate their commitment to giving this employee a helping hand before giving them the boot.

Interestingly, it is possible to start on the Inward Trajectory, discover that there is a mismatch between the person, the work and the environment/culture/team that causes the individual to just not ever succeed. Here, individuals shift quickly from an Inward Trajectory to Moving Out Trajectory. This is the classic purpose for the first 3-6 month trial period. It happens and no one involved enjoys this period whether that is employee or supervisor or HR; it’s just plain no fun. However, if it is not managed, the organization ends up with an employee who is not quite making it for years and years. While they may have gained years of longevity with the organization and may have seniority, they are not the highly-qualified senior employee. These are very different species (the classic “dead wood” that every new manager wants to remove… and seldom can).

Look at the model one more time. Do these trajectories cover all the options? If not, what is missing?

The vast majority of workers, that’s who!

To some extent we all continue with an upward trajectory as we gain experience and skill. However, at some point, we all come to the top of our field. We may never be “the top” individual acclaimed by the world as “the expert” in the field. However, at some point we are the person or one of a small group of individuals in our organization with the most experience (not the same as years) and knowledge. We have become the go-to person for solving problems, getting things done quickly and well, tackling the unusual and difficult work tasks, projects, etc. If we love this work and are not interested in moving into management, we have hit a ceiling. What trajectory is this?

One that is not shown... the Master Trajectory.

I would submit that this is the Master Trajectory… as in… this person is master in their field, loves the field and continues to learn and develop within that field. They are growing in all directions building skills that create new connections with the organization, developing new relationships inside and outside the organization, enjoying mentoring and coaching, picking up special projects and working on the most difficult problems that require a unique breadth of experience.

This trajectory has been ignored and even devalued. Yet, this is the employee that most organizations work years to develop… and then ignore, devalue, and even release from employment simply because they are the highest paid individuals in their field who are not managers.

Many HR experts and organizational leaders say that this employee is too expensive to retain.
  • Where’s the expense?
    • In-house training? They continue to receive training as new tools and methods roll out. However, they also are often the subject experts who help build the new training, support it by delivering it, write or proof the documentation, and support the tool changes on-the-job as mentors or team leads. (Value-added services at no additional cost to the organization.)
    • External training and/or college degree program funding? To the extent that an organization provides funds for external training, these individuals are probably lined up to take advantage of these opportunities. They love their work and want to improve. To the extent that the organization does not support external learning opportunities, these individuals are funding their own. Again, they love the work and continue to want to learn and grow.
    • Professional organizations and networks? Yes, this group probably is working the professional networking opportunities, writing for professional magazines, making presentations, and asking their organization to co-fund this effort, to the extent that this possible. Typically, this cost is very small.
    • Technology? There are two paths here… two different ways that organizations fund technology for highly-experienced individuals. First is one that we have already seen, the times when the organization does provide them with the newest technologies depending on them to dive in and learn it, figure out how to apply it to their work and then support transition and training. Alternatively, these individual may be the last to get the new equipment and tools (a) because they are most experienced with that equipment and someone needs to continue to work with it, and (b) it is less expensive to train new employees directly into the newest technology rather than training them on first an older technology and then again on the new technology. (Notice that we now have an excuse for designating the experienced employee as “downward” mobile because they have not been trained in the new technology, when they have been given a role of supporting an old technology not because they can not do the new or are not willing to move to it but because someone else needs that training first.)
    • Salary and benefits? Their salaries are the highest among the “line staff” (i.e., non-management) with top-of-the line benefits that come with years of longevity and investment in the company to receive tenure or vested investment options. Yes, they are expensive… but less expensive that 80% of the organization’s management and executive staff. However, most non-management roles have a salary cap. Therefore, at some point, the highly-experienced employee’s earning potential flattens out. Therefore, they are often seen as the Dead-End Trajectory rather than as Mastery Trajectory.

Yes, that trajectory implies that once one has hit the ceiling (note that this is actually a financial ceiling rather than a skill/expertise ceiling), then one automatically bounces into the Moving Out Trajectory.

Personally, I find this a rather pessimistic view of work. It creates the assumption that once individuals can no longer earn role-level promotions (promotions from whatever the entry level role designation is to higher and higher designations), they have exceeded their capacity to grow with the organization and, therefore, need to be moved out of the organization. That it is wasteful for the organization to keep on individuals who are not changing roles (moving into management, moving laterally, or moving upward on their role career ladder).

I suspect that this Dead-End Trajectory mindset that is causing the loss of significant experience and skill from the organizations as their most highly-qualified individuals are encoruaged to leave. And, as a consequence, this trajectory makes many highly skilled individuals available on the recruiting market at a significant discount. For those organizations that can see beyond the fact that another organization “released” them and look at these resources as potential skill gains that could be bringing into their organization.

I also suspect that this loss is more expensive that just the loss of knowledge and less cost-effective than the dollar-for-dollar difference in salaries between a new hire at the entry level and retaining that experienced employee at the top of their salary scale.

This isn’t my field. Someone with experience in this area needs to do a study and define the costs… or at least create a model that helps organizations see the true financial cost of this transaction. But I may try my hand at modeling the costs here -- later.

Meanwhile, consider your own career…

What’s your trajectory? Do you define your career trajectory differently than your superiors do? Than your HR department does? If so, you may be among the “highly-qualified”, “over-qualified”, and possibly, the unemployed and unemployable.

The Performance PI

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Gift By Any Other Name Is...

Manna From Heaven... a rainbow of unexplored opportunities...

Consider this scenario: We arrive with several friends or family members at an inexpensive family restaurant that sits next door to a very expensive one. An ambulance is pulling away from the area between the two restaurants. A sad-faced, red-eyed young couple is standing arm-in-arm watching it drive away. As you approach the area, one of them turns to us saying, “My father died on the way in our birthday celebration for him. We can’t stand the thought of dinner tonight. Here’s the gift-card we were going to use to pay for the meal. Please enjoy your dinner on us.” They hand over an envelope stiff with a gift card shape.

Do we take it? Do we ask how much was on the gift card? Do we look, first, before accepting?

Let’s say that we accepted this unexpected gift, thank the couple and offer our condolences. They leave, sadly. Before approaching our original goal, we decide to open the envelope to see what actually is inside. What, we wonder, might be the value of that card? What will we do to find its value, if that's not specified on the face of the card? Does it matter?

After a dramatic moment of fiddling with the envelope and extracting the card, we find that card is for the more expensive restaurant and that there is no price on the front. Now, what? We can, of course, walk into the expensive restaurant and say, “I seem to have forgotten the value of this card, can you find out for me?” That might be embarrassing to do… and we might not be dressed appropriately, which could results in us being asked to leave… or not, as the case may be.

Having accepted the gift, will we use it in spite of embarrassment and possible glitches?


In a number of discussion groups on LinkedIn where the topic was the excess capacity inherent in the over-qualified employee, the majority of respondents promoted the viewpoint that excess capacity was an opportunity in disguise – a gift that needed to be used appropriately. Some even went so far as to point out some organizations might be missing a true blessing when they worry about potential negative impact of hiring top-notch experience in a depressed market or lay off experience employees in 2:1 moves that hire two less expensive employees while laying off one experienced one. It might be that these experienced resources represent a form of manna from heaven. They could, in fact, be that gift card beyond belief.

Yes, when hiring, there is also a potential that these highly experienced individuals will get bored or that someone will offer them a better a job (has anyone done a study to determine whether there is a greater likelihood of this with someone 40+ or 25-40?).

It’s also possible that, once inside our organization, they’ll go to the head of class and step up to a much higher job leaving us with the lower-level position to fill – again… but with an easy fill on the more difficult-to-fill position.

Or, heaven forbid, they might take our jobs. (How much do we really believe in competition? If we do, then we hire knowing we’ll compete against some very experienced talent and, win or lose, learn something.)

The discussion groups pointed out that, in the mean time, there is an opportunity to harvest some of talent. Even if we don’t know what to do with the talent, it offers an opportunity to negotiate something extra for which we had not planned on paying. Find out what these unique talents could be doing, had done somewhere else, or would have liked the opportunity to do somewhere else. Or, try offering them the chance to take some of work load off our plate for six months in return for our backing for a promotion or salary increase… or whatever incentive might be of value to them.

Nowadays, some people would actually prefer reduced work weeks, time for personal travel, work-at-home a portion of the week, or… Well, it might surprise us all what is important to someone who has been doing the same work for awhile. They may love the work and want more or they may want a different life-balance. One never knows until they ask.

Then there are all the developmental opportunities. Many discussion group members talked about:
• Using experienced talent to grow the skills of the less experienced employees (coach and mentor front-line skills, which may be different than coaching and mentoring future leadership)
• Giving back to the profession by encouraging these people to write and present at conferences in our company’s name
• Giving back to the community by encouraging these people to take on philanthropic projects or lead corporate philanthropic drives
• Giving career talks about opportunities in their fields to schools and colleges
• Farming their services out to our customers, potential customers or others who might need those talents. This may need to be done at a rate that is not the traditional consultant rate for advanced experience ($150+ per hour) but at something more than the employee’s average hourly salary.

Other options might include:
• Putting highly experienced people through the same on-boarding training that we give our newest employees as retraining or cross-training. This might mean a significant salary reduction for these employees or it may be that the organization can justify a more modest reduction that if these experienced employees can demonstrate superior skills in the new work.
• Giving an experienced individual a complex problem and asking them to innovate new solutions or, since innovation is not in everyone’s genes, asking them to research the problem and options and report back
• Bringing together a groups of highly experienced employees (who are not in leadership roles) to brainstorm new products, services, markets, etc. Choosing one and developing it out in a special demonstration
• Find out what special projects they would like to do on behalf of the organization and fund a trial phase of that project
It’s our choice – risk the embarrassment and discomfort of working with someone whose skills probably exceed our own or… give it a go and learn something unexpected.

Any of these also provides an incentive or motivation for the less experienced to continue to grow their experience in order to get access to these opportunities.

Maybe, the individual in front of us does not represent the planned growth of your organization and should be rejected for that very reason…

… but, then, it may be that your company has no higher aspirations and no interest in growing in new ways. If so, rejecting this gift is appropriate.

If not… well….

I wonder what Aladdin would have done with the genie, if he were a corporate manager or recruiter today? So many genies are wandering around our workplaces with gifts to hand out. So many treasures are not being accepted. Such waste of beautiful rainbow and wasted rainbows mean that we never have the chance to collect that pot o' gold..

The Performance PI