In a coaching session recently I blurted out something that I thought meaningful for top talents and would-be leaders. “Turn on your headlight”. I was coaching a very smart talent and he is in the top talent pool – grooming up to lead a division of few hundreds people. Let’s just call him Saiful.
A prolific sales person cum product manager, he tops the sales chart for months this year. Last year he won the top sales awards. The clients love him. Without him, his company will lose easily 50% of sales target. He manages the sales department right now and he is very likely to be the best candidate for the divisional head. There is only one challenge, he prefers to be by himself.
His communication has always been one-to-one. Seldom one-to-group (department level) and rarely group-to-group (department to department). As a result people have heard of him but don’t really know him. The top management felt for the divisional head they need someone that are able to do more of one-to-group and more importantly group-to-group. Groups alignment is very important to ensure sustainable revenues.
His feedback to me was “it is me to be by myself”, “I am not the drama type that love the limelight” and “I prefer to be the background person”. My feedforward to him (suggestion) was, turn on your headlight. It is an analogy.
When we drive on a runway at night usually there will be street lights. We speed up at 110 – 140 km/h with a good vision of what’s in front of us and we could pretty well read up the signages and signboards. But we usually turn on the head light right? Why did we do that since the street lights are already there? The headlights are not for us, the headlights are turned on because we would like others to see us.
Can you imagine someone driving behind you with his / her car headlights off? What comes to mind? Will you pay any attention to it? Turn on your headlights by reaching out to others.
Some months ago I ran a short survey on Professional Growth and Development. It was a “lazy” survey where I just published it without much promotion. I wish to only have respondents that are interested to answer the survey. I gave small token in discount vouchers but the desire and “giving back mindset” by the respondents were amazing. They answered because they wanted to share their thoughts. Big hand to them. Running for 1 month, the survey gathered 130 respondents.
The main objective of the survey is to find out factors that contributing to successful Professional Growth and Development for executives and managers. I have yet to published this survey with more details. I only decided to give you some highlights that captured my lazy mind.
Here are some insights on the factors contributing to Professional Growth and Development:
1. Tertiary Education Works
Almost 70% of the respondents confessed that their tertiary education – basic degree help them to gain entry level position. You see, all we need is to enter somewhere first. That’s the goal for a start. This applies to top bracket university graduates as well, if you fail to secure entry level position in the next 6-18 months after graduation, you are going to meet some difficulties (not the end of the world though, just some difficulties).
I recently met several graduates in a workshop that have graduated from 8-26 months from local university. They took science courses such as biomedical, engineering and chemistry. They said they found the job offering mismatched their tertiary education experience hence they ignored those offers. I gave them some advise and asked each of them to write me an essay of any topic they like and together with their CV. I gave them a week and only one reminder, that was before we part ways. One week later, only 1 graduate came back and her essay was solid. She was a graduate with chemistry background.
I told her that while her degree is in science, she could easily adapt to other roles – to gain entry level position. She said, she wasn’t aware that we can “switch”, but that I don’t really want to discuss here. So now she is ready to take up entry level position – to gain experience.
2. Mentors and Coaches? Go Find Them Now!
Next, around 80% of the respondents said that they owed their professional growth and development to mentors and coaches. These people include their managers, bosses, supervisors, leaders, colleagues, nemesis, trainers and friends. These “helpers” come internally and externally on need basis. In other words, these professionals get helped. Somebody took interest of them and shape them to become successful. I believe this is true. I am personally a product of mentors and coaches. I wish to share someone’s else story here.
Have you heard of Asafa Powell? He is a Jamaican sprinter – colleague to Usain Bolt. Asafa broke the Olympic record of 100 metre in Athens Olympic in 2005. He clocked in 9.77 at Olympic stadium. The more interesting story, 3 years before that Asafa was just another Jamaican teenager trying to find a place to train himself. He has been training by himself, unlike Usain Bolt that already in sports school since young. Asafa was lucky, a guy named Stephen Francis found him and gave him the opportunity to train and be coached in his camp. Three years later, Asafa was an Olympic champ.
The above stories resonated well to many successful people. This is also true with Sir Jony Ive, the Chief Designer of Apple Corp. While Ive was already an accomplished designer from young, it was Jobs that gave Ive the opportunity to flourish further and harness his creative giants inside him. Ive thrived and build many great products including iPod, iPhone, iPad and so on. You may refer to Ive’s biography – Jony Ive, The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Product by Leander Kahney.
Some respondents also highlighted that parents too helped them in manoeuvring successfully in their professional journey. However, the percentage is rather small, 10-15%.
3. Hard Work and Persistence, This Goes Without Saying
As many as 95% of my proud achievers respondents said they work really hard to get to where they are now. They gave examples such as having to take up professional certification, stretched assignments, late night meetings and hectic schedule. However, their persistence paid off handsomely because they are now have become professional and live a great life.
While going through this, they also admitted experiencing some breakdowns and frustrations. Taking it positive, go slower at times and having strong support from loved ones boosted their morale to go further.
The drive home the point, from this insights it is clear to all of us that while most of us may have the innate ability and super resources to work hard, we shouldn’t discount the other 2 factors i.e. tertiary education and mentors and coaches.
Firstly, get good grades if you can. If you can’t or you are not qualified into tertiary education it is ok. Now you need to find mentors and coaches to learn about the workings of life. You need to learn about the trade. Yes you may be strong, why not waste your energy for something else? Go find mentors and coaches.
It is ok to ask for help because no one knows everything. Right? For young executives and graduates, my advise is to always be mindful of people that could become your guidance. Be willing to have interest in people and talk to them. For the seniors, reach out to the young because they actually are curious whether your seriousness is towards them or to someone else! 🙂
Someday I wish to read your story and when I looked back I thanked you for allowing me to be part of it. “The thing is, it’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.” – Jony Ive
Innovation is a tricky business. It is tricky because you are NOT going to get it right the first time. Yes, it upsets a lot of people in the quality and production departments. It boils the blood of the financial controllers and accountants. Innovation also going to frustrate your marketing department because of the changing consumers mind. Typical change management framework and processes might have to change, as well.
On the flip side, innovation has hues of greatstuffs. It enlarges the possibilities that you initially thought a constraint. It motivates your sales people to try something out of the box. It triggers your vice president’s thinking to reimagine the service you provide to new customers segment. Innovation celebrates fail early and fail often (of new things) because persistence will always take us to greener path. Innovation generates new revenue streams and give you the confidence that things are not so bad after all.It gives breath of fresh air to get unstuck in mind-numbing headquarters strategy presentation that has become so out of touch from the customers. Innovation unleashes the creative potential within us all. Innovation offers window for behavioral change in all organization around the world.
There are many ways that we can innovate – from the very basic and chaos creativity skill such as “randomness – just think of something great” or “just throw stuffs there and see what happen” to the most complex and quantifiable research on creativity. One technique that I wish to share is using design thinking method. There are several versions of the method, the one I have competence and experience is from the d.school Stanford University and Hasso-Platner Institute (click here to know more). I have been a practitioner and great fan of innovation and creativity tools, but design thinking transcended all other tools.
Design thinking helps uncover something that was unknown. What you are doing is rediscovering what you already have. It enlarges our capacity to imagine, be creative and build upon big ideas. Creative energy is one of our most precious resources – said Tom Kelley in his book, PDF – Creative Confidence. Using design thinking, we can address a wide variety of business, personal, customer, social and complex challenges in creative new ways, said David Kelley (Tom’s brother) of IDEO.
The CEO of ideacouture, Idris Mootee in his book, Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation said that design thinking is “disruptive and provocative by nature because it promotes new ways of looking at problems”. I find this very true. I had one client who attended my workshop on design thinking said she never thought that it is possible to look at the problem in this new way before this.
Jessica runs an insurance company and the “customers” that they always have in mind is the new subscriber of their insurance. However, in the course of the design thinking workshop she jumped out and said I have been focusing on my customer all wrong. My actual customers are the claimants. That’s where the “pain points” stuff happen. No wonder she said, that sales have been dwindling because in the market their actual customers have been very unhappy about her company.
Another example I came across is from entrepreneur development centre. They have been running programs after programs to build entrepreneurs. As part of the program, the entrepreneurs were later can offer services to the centre. So its a great deal and worth going through the program. However, after some time there are less people attending and the entrepreneurs somewhat hesitant to offer their services. This is unusual. They dig deeper using design thinking method during the workshop. Apparently the issue stemmed from the account department. The entrepreneurs were paid very late (more than 6 months) and when they get paid using cheques, there are always errors and misprints. As an entrepreneur myself, cash flow is king. They “fired” the entrepreneur development centre as their customers.
In a book, Stories of What Works – Solving Problems Using Design Thinking published by Columbia Business School, there was one story from Dublin that captured my attention. A story about public old folks centre. This centre provide shelter and subsidized food for senior citizens. While most of the senior citizens enjoyed meeting new friends with enlarged social circle, the food served there wasn’t to their liking. Same old same old. Fortunately, after some time the centre decided to do something innovative and brought in a team of design thinkers. The project is called the The Good Kitchen. (video below)
One anecdotes that stand out to me was the design thinking team found out that all the “cooks” were “chefs”. These are real chefs that had superb experience working on cruises, 5-star hotels and can cook really well. However, when the management decided to be “overly efficient” with the ingredients they buy and “strategically plan” the menu for months ahead, the chefs said “not much we can do”. Besides, the chefs can no longer do food styling, seasoning and other details hence the bland and boring food. After rounds of workshops with the stakeholders – municipality, mayor, senior citizens and so on, they decided to make small change with big impact. They changed title “cooks” to “chefs” to reflect the actual experiences and skills. This boosted morale and dignity of the senior citizens. They dressed the chefs well and they started to redesign the menu offerings. In short, they re-imagined the kind of food service that is more apt and caring to the senior citizens.
One final story is from a high school counsellor. His school has been doing a lot (which school doesn’t ?!) to find ways to discipline the students. They have tried many ways including some forms of corporal punishment but somehow it makes things worse. How much more corporal punishment needed? As a counsellor, he knows this won’t work.
During the design thinking workshop, an idea sparked. He prototyped the idea instantly in class and he received outstanding reviews from his colleagues in the workshop. His idea was to ask every student on their wishes of how to make the school better and harmony so everybody is safe with each other. He told me later, at the initial actual implementation he said the students were surprised by the change of “regime” but they contributed anyway. Simple things are being implemented for example, the students wish the teachers could smile more. Next, extend the lights out at 11 pm instead of 10 pm because most of them prefer to do homework at dormitory instead of study room. Another, weekend outing to start earlier at 8 am instead of 10 am so the students can spend more time with their family and friends outside the school. Simple stuffs that worked. The students are happier and less discipline issues occurred, somehow.