3 posts categorized "September 2014"

September 25, 2014

What It Means To Be Creative At Work

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If you've attended a conference or visited the business section of a bookstore recently, you've likely been encouraged to bring your creativity to work.  There are dozens of books out, promising help you get unstuck and start your creative juices flowing.  Almost half of the lectures involve a discussion on the pressing need to be innovative and creative to survive.  A recent piece on this in the New Yorker (Creativity Creep) quotes a 2010 IBM study of 1500 executives to identified creativity as the #1 attribute they valued in employees.  

It makes sense, actually.  The business world is more complicated and turbulent than ever, putting pressure on everyone to "think outside the box."  This reminds me of all the marketing and branding books that came out at the turn of the 21st century, along with the proclamation that "Everyone is in the marketing department now!"  The best of those books (The End of Marketing As We Know It) finally defined marketing functionally, which empowered readers to actually become effective at it. 

We are at that point with the business creativity boom.  We know we need to be creative.  What most people aren't clear on is as to exactly what the heck 'being creative' means in a business context.  I'm writing a new book on creativity in the sales process and doing quite a bit of research along the way.  I've been looking for a very practical definition of creativity that applies to professional life.  And I think I've found a good one. 

In The Handbook of Creativity, Cornell professor Robert Sternberg offered a crystal clear business-centric definitinon of creativity: "The ability to produce work that is both novel (unexpected) as well as appropriate to the situation (useful)."  While other creativity experts argue that any new idea should be deemed creative, I like Sternberg's framing of the concept.  Like any other piece of business acumen, the proof is in the pudding. 

If you are creative at work, you produce the unexpected, the new...but it solves the problem and doesn't produce complications.  Notice I didn't say that creativity required completely original ideas as there is no such thing.  It's all about approaches that are unexpected.  

The reason we need to produce unexpected work (processes, products, ideas) is because people quickly develop tolerance to our expected approaches (often termed "best practices").  Think of the joke that you laughed at the first time you heard it, chuckled a little the second time you heard it and then didn't even respond the third time you heard it.  That's how a prospecting or closing technique plays out with customers.  That's how products become stale with customers, creating opportunities for incumbents to be disrupted with a fresh approach.  

The opposite of creative thinking is reproductive thinking.  This is where you use a conventional approach to reproduce success.  Your tried-and-true products yields customer delight.  Your conventional sales tactics yield revenues.  In the past, best practices had a long shelf life.  Companies could hatch them quicker than customers grew tired of them.  But those days are long gone.  To be successful, we have to take it upon ourself to produce the solution and not just rinse-and-repeat.  

What does it take to produce unexpected work that is appropriate to the problem at hand? Sternberg points out that creative work stems from ordinary thought processes that happen to produce extraordinary results.  It's not divine inspriation or genius thought processes.  Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile describes creativity as the "Confluence of intrinsic motivation, domain-relevant knowledge and creativity-relevant skills." That's it.  

If you care enough, learn enough and develop chops relevant to the problem space, you can produce creative work.  You can solve the problems that stand between you and success.  Creativity requires a lot of hard work on your part, and it starts with a clear understanding of your product, your customer and the processes that drive your business.  If you have the motivation to do all of this work, the fresh and useful ideas will emerge.  

In the end, regardless of your desires or effort, you'll need to be objective about the efficacy of your ideas.  You need to be able to test them for usefulness and be ready to jettison the out-of-the-box-never-been-done-before ideas that don't solve the problem.  They aren't creative.  They are merely imaginative and that's not what the CEOs in IBM's study were looking for in their talents. 

To borrow from designer Tim Gunn's lexicon, "Be the new, but make it work!"


September 09, 2014

Why Stars Don't Always Make Good Leaders

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Quick, name a Hall Of Fame player that was also a head coach.  It's quite rare, actually. but if you take this test on a company's sales or product group, the answer would be different.  We often graduate the rock stars of business to middle management and beyond.  That's the bench strength program of the average organization. 

Too often, though, the Peter Principle applies as the new manager struggles to make the leap from Rock Star to Director.  Why?  Because most stars are deeply scripted to focus on their personal improvement above all, so they can outwit and outlast.  Many stars are also good team players, but that's more about the give-and-take of strategy than it is coaching.  

Occasionally a star player exhibit's otherish tendencies, and that's when and only when they should be promoted to coach the team (manage a group).  Michael Jordan, who should know, once said: "It's one thing to get better and better, it's another to make everyone around you better." 

To offer a football analogy (It's Fall, after all), that's why so many of the top coaches in history were not rock star players: Bill Belichick, Tom Landry, Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, etc.  Sure, they all played football in college, but they were not Pro Bowl caliber.  Why were they selected to lead others? In every case, they were spotted as having two key coaching talents early on: They lifted up others' performance and had a high football IQ. 

That's what should drive our management assignments.  We should learn to ignore the individual performance and zero in on that leadersish style, combined with a strong sense of the business.  When Jordan talks about the ability to "make everyone else better," he's talking about the ability to deliver the following: 

  • Education - The practice of gathering, distilling and sharing insights.  Great managers are well researched, candid and enthused when others learn from them.    
  • Enforcement - The willingness to challenge those that stray off course.  They enforce the culture and best-practices of the organization without fear of losing popularity. 
  • Encouragement - The tendency to be the first of the scene to cheer for someone who's made a great play.  When a team mate is down, they are there to pick them up and focus them on the next play.  They find a way to balance empathy with an eye on the potential that lies ahead. 
  • Esprit de corps - The ability to lift an entire team's spirit up, even in the most adverse situations.  The great manager fulfills what Napoleon Bonaparte described as the leader's role: "To define reality, then give hope." 

Marcus Buckingham, co-author of the management classic First Break All the Rules, directly applies this thinking to cube-farm living.  He once told me that the superstars soar with their strengths, while the average performers struggle to conquer their weaknesses.  The superstar manger, on the other hand, it the one that focuses the superstar on his or her strength to begin with.   

Here's the takeaway for leaders and HR professionals: Before you promote that superstar to the next level, question his or her leadership strengths.  You might be robbing the system of several more years of top production, just to fill a mangement role with a strong resume.  What you are looking for will not usually show up on paper, which means your ability to pick managers is going to be driven by your eagle-eye on others' ability to lift up others rather than break records. 


September 04, 2014

If I Was the Opening Keynote At Your Convention, Here's What I Would Talk About

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Over the last decade, I've had the opportunity to be the opening keynote speaker at over 300 conferences, meetings and conventions around the world.  Agents at speaker bureaus instinctively knew to recommend me when a meeting planner was "looking for someone to set the tone for our event."  Instead of defining my current vocation as professional speaker, I think of myself as a Conference Kickoff Specialist.  

Why me? I have enthusiasm, offer business-action content and have the right message (from Love Is the Killer App).  I find a way to validate the theme of the event and highly customize my keynote address to connect with speakers or sessions to follow over the course of the event.  Besides, I'm not afraid to speak at 8am, even to non-morning people. 

I've been studying the art of the Opening General Session for several years now, and have a perspective about them.  First, it's important to understand the purpose of conferences and conventions: They are the engine of innovation and human connections for an organization or industry.  In just a few days, you can create hundreds of friendly collisions, which lead to new ideas and robust relationships.  This is why they exist, even when times are tough.

If that's the charter, then what is the role of the Opening General Session? It encourages attendees to share knowledge with each other.  It sets the stage with a theme, objectives for the event (often learning oriented) and if successful, generates a thirst to learn and teach.  The session should also encourage networking and if possible, give insights on how to make meaningful connections.  If the session drives these two activities (Knowledge sharing and Networking), then the event will drive real value that lasts long after the buffet food is digested and surveys are completed.  

If you look up the definition of keynote, you'll find my role in that session: A prevailing tone or central theme, typically one set or introduced at the beginning of a conference.  

What would I likely talk about if I was the keynote speaker at your Opening General Session?  

  • Learners Are Leaders - The landscape at work and in the market is changing fast.  It rewards learners and punishes coasters, who try and get by on yesterday's education.  Some of the smartest and most successful people I've worked for (e.g. Mark Cuban) are first and foremost students with a voracious appetite to learn.  For them, a conference would be a feeding frenzy of intelligence.  Attend sessions, walk the trade show floor and open your mind up to learn. 
  • Knowledge Is Only Power If We Share It - Information silos kill organizations. They bottle up all the learning and dribble it out politically.  This is how legacy companies get passed by when times change and startups show up...with a culture of sharing not protecting. 
  • If You Share Ideas, You Gain Insights - When we use conference time to share ideas, learnings and research with each other, we enter a virtuous cycle of learning.  The more we invest in sharing with others, the more we receive from them.  The reciprocity habit is ingrained in our psyche: When someone gives you a tip, you try and give one back.  
  • We Are Only As Strong As Our Collective Know How - Sure, times change, but the learning organization benefits the most from the disruption.  If parts of our organization or industry aren't current in their thinking, bad things can happen for everyone involved.  It's the struggling division or company that drags down the whole, and often, their problem is a lack of intellectual capital. 
  • Your Network Is Your Net Worth - Our professional connections are our greatest resource at work.  When we build up a rich network of smart, generous and tenacious people, there's nothing we can't tackle.  On a personal level, your network offers you everything you need from mentorship to encouragement to resources.  
  • Networking Is About Giving, Not Gaining - The best networkers in history were highly generous.  They leveraged every interaction into an opportunity to identify opportunities to connect people that "should meet".  They expected nothing in return, other than follow up on the part of those they connected.  Their networks grew exponentially as a result.  
  • You Are Not Your Title, Following Or Wealth - You live a story about the difference that you made.  At work, it most comes down to educating others (including clients) and problem solving.  You will do this best if you believe that there's enough to go around, enough to share.  If you want to make a name for yourself, take this opportunity to introduce yourself around the event and find your way to make your mark.  

Example: Here's a clip from my keynote address at the opening general session for the Association of College and Technical Educators.  My goal was to get them hungry for the rest of the program content and eager to connect with each other.  

I'd love to open your next conference or convention. Please suggest me to your meeting planner or speaker bureau agent.  For more information, contact me