The entrance to companies with the industry experience fetish. You have to know the secret password to unlock the chain.

The entrance to companies with the “industry experience” fetish.

Many job postings list “industry experience preferred/required/strongly preferred/a must” or endless other variations of the theme.

I tend to view these blurbs with skepticism. In certain cases, industry experience can be a valid differentiator, particularly when the organization posting the ad needs someone to step in right away and hit the ground running.

On the other hand, I think some companies use it as a defense mechanism to hide lazy thinking and narrow-mindedness.

Everyone thinks their industry is special, unique and different. I’ve never met anyone in any industry who didn’t tell me that their business was incredibly complex and difficult to learn. This is always an exaggeration. Some industries have more rules, some use unusual language to describe their activities and some are in relatively new fields where there are no rules. None of that makes an industry more complex. The claim that their industry is uniquely challenging is something that people often use to make themselves feel important. They also use it in collaboration with others to form an exclusive club, and exclusive clubs always want to keep out the riff-raff and the people who don’t know the secret knock or have the secret decoder ring.

I base my argument on three key facts:

  1. I am no Einstein.
  2. I do not have a business degree. My degrees are in English (BA) and Public Administration with an OD emphasis (MPA).
  3. In consulting and in-house roles, I have worked successfully in all of the following industries: Health Care (clinical and medical devices), Manufacturing, Logistics, Energy, Environmental Services, Computers, Telecommunications, Software, Semiconductors, Wireless, Government, Higher Education, Military, Trucking, Internet, Food Services, Financial Services, Nonprofits, Social Services, Real Estate, Advertising, Business Analytics, Publishing, Entertainment, Employment Services, Construction and Precision Instruments.

So, if I am not imbued with any magical powers, how have I managed to accomplish something that most employment ads assume is impossible? Simple:

  • When I go into any company—even if I’ve worked in the industry before—I adopt the attitude that I am entering a foreign country where I know neither the language nor the customs. I listen, I ask questions and most importantly, I make no assumptions that my previous experience has any relevance to this experience. I will bring my experience into the conversation only when I have proof that it is relevant.
  • I’m not afraid to learn new things. Even though I’m the consultant and supposed to be “the expert,” I’m there to learn first, teach second.
  • I don’t let them intimidate me with buzzwords. If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language in school and you go to a country that speaks that language, you’ll have a moment of terror when you have your first encounter and find out that you can’t understand a word they’re saying and that you are completely unintelligible to them. What happens then? You get anxious, fearful, start beating yourself up for having had the arrogance to believe that you could master the language . . . and wind up forgetting everything you do know and disabling your ability to listen and learn.

To put it simply, it’s not industry experience that matters, it’s learning ability. Anyone can learn the essentials of any business in a relatively short period of time with an open mind. The advantage of hiring outside the industry are enormous. You get new perspectives on old problems and different ways of thinking. You get people who are unlikely to be bored because they’re learning new things. You’re more likely to get excitement and motivation from people who want to prove themselves as opposed to people who have been there, done that.

This brings us to the fundamental danger of insisting on an industry experience requirement. If all you’re doing is hiring people who think like you and talk like you, how are you ever going to innovate, deal with change, or create a learning culture? How do you expect your company to grow when all you’re doing is recycling old ideas? Why on earth would you want to duplicate the practices of a closed, stagnant culture like North Korea?

When I worked in health care (as closed an industry as there is), I knew we were making progress in our culture change efforts when one of our best leaders, a clinical professional with multiple certifications and a long career in health care, called me about recruiting front desk staff for the clinics. “You know, I’ve been thinking. I don’t want anyone with health care experience. I can teach them what they need to know. What I want are people who are good with people and who have had customer service training at some of the companies known for great customer service. The candidates I get from health care don’t really connect with people. They seem bored.”

Bless her heart. To be fair, health care has more limitations than most other industries because you can only hire physicians, nurses and technologists from within the health care mindset. This is a major reason why health care is so slow to change and why a colleague of mine who recently entered the industry described it as “going back in a time machine twenty years.” It’s not going to get any better in health care until they remove that “health care industry experience preferred” tag from their employment ads for non-clinical positions. The sheer weight of custom and accepted practice needs a strong counterweight if the industry is to join the rest of us in the present day.

My feeling is that the industry experience requirement is overrated and sometimes dangerous. It reflects lazy thinking on the part of HR and hiring managers who don’t take the time to clarify what they really need. Sometimes it’s used to avoid the possibility of hiring someone who will challenge the status quo, and in that case limits the ability of an organization to diversify its thinking. Focusing instead on interviewing for the critical competencies of learning ability and flexible thinking will get you far better results than simply hiring people who may know your buzzwords but may have stopped learning long ago.

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There are excuses . . . and then there are reasons. When it comes to helping a leader to delegate more frequently and effectively, both may come in to play. We’ll look at excuses first, then go into some of the more complex causes of failure to delegate.

Traditionally there have been three primary excuses that leaders have used to explain the failure to delegate, all of which can easily be dismissed in single paragraphs:

  • “They won’t do it as well as I would.”
  • “It will take more time to manage it, so I’m better off doing it myself.”
  • “My people are overloaded already, so why give them more work?”

“They won’t do it as well as I would.”

While that may be true sometimes, it’s just as likely that they will do it better! A person taking on a new task brings new perspectives to the work. They’re not stuck in the old paradigm or ways of doing things. In most cases, greater responsibility is a positive motivator that leads people to put more effort, energy and care into their work. If a leader is crystal clear about the desired outcome and stays in touch through regular (but not excessive) check-ins, this obstacle will likely prove to be more myth than truth.

“It will take more time to manage it, so I’m better off doing it myself.”

In the short run, perhaps. But when you consider that each task a leader chooses not to delegate is another task that won’t be subtracted from their workload, the person most likely to suffer is the leader. Failing to delegate compromises leader effectiveness and restrains leadership capacity.

“My people are overloaded already, so why give them more work?”

There are times when people feel overloaded because they have too much work, but it is also true that complaints about “overload” are really complaints about “I’m doing too much work that I don’t like to do.” When a job allows a person to fully utilize their talents, it usually winds up being fun and exciting for them—not an extra burden.

These excuses often mask deeper causes. The real reasons leaders don’t delegate present more of a challenge:

  • Organizational Culture: The leader works in a control-driven organization that expects leaders to be hands-on and hands-in. Leaders in such organizations who are not aware of every little detail of every trivial activity that goes on in their bailiwick can be subject to public humiliation. The need to CYA trumps the responsibility to delegate and empower people.
  • Ball Hog Syndrome: The leader is a control freak or has a hero complex that drives them to get in there and do it all. We call them “ball hogs” in basketball.
  • Personal Insecurity: The leader is insecure and feels threatened by the potential of his or her direct reports.

An individual leader will have a very difficult time changing an organizational culture of top-down control, so the choice a leader faces if he or she firmly believes in delegation is to either leave or “delegate by stealth.” To accomplish the stealth strategy successfully, the leader needs to have great relationships with his/her direct reports to be able to say, “Look. We work in a political organization where I have to cover my behind from time to time. This means I may ask you for more details about what you’re doing than you or I would like. I want you to know that this is not a trust issue, I’m just engaging in classic CYA.” This is not an optimum strategy, but can buy a leader some time to find another job while still leading in accordance with his/her values.

A ball hog is a more difficult problem. I don’t believe a ball hog can be helped through traditional coaching; the tendency to want to be the center of attention is too ingrained. I also believe that having the ball hog’s boss take the ball hog to the woodshed is counter-productive because it will simply reaffirm the ball hog’s belief in power and control. The only way a ball hog will change is by experiencing a failure so complete that he or she will be forced to re-examine and re-construct the self. That’s when you bring in the coach, because now he or she will need and appreciate the guidance.

The personally insecure leader can be helped through professional coaching. It has to be professional coaching so that the leader can explore causes of insecurity in a confidential setting. While there are leaders who are excellent coaches, personal insecurity is a difficult topic to discuss with anyone at work, but especially difficult to discuss with the person who establishes the expectations you’re supposed to meet. A professional has no position power and is much more likely to have the training and education in psychology and human communication needed to help the insecure leader overcome his or her fears of letting go.

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business team

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be a first-hand witness to events that clearly demonstrated how not to do things.

While finishing up my graduate work, I was making a living in the Corporate OD group at a company that was once a major player in the technology field. Although I was somewhere near the bottom of the hierarchy as the trainer of first-line supervisory development programs, I did get to interact with some of the gurus at the top, a few of whom later went to work for Tom Peters and other big names in the field. The point of interaction involved the implementation of a company-wide quality program, a major change initiative (to say the least).

As the change process moved forward, it became clear that a major obstacle stood in the way: The HR Department. They refused to change the performance review system to incorporate the tenets of the new quality program. They rejected the suggestion to review the compensation program to ensure it was aligned with the messages we wanted to embed in the culture. The HR Department even refused to send their people to the mandatory quality training classes, choosing not to participate in the program at all. Nearly every other department in the company had specific plans to incorporate the principles of the new quality program into their internal processes, but the HR Department stubbornly declined to participate.

Why? The truth is was that the HR VP and the OD VP couldn’t stand each other. They spent as much time taking potshots at each other and engaging in political gamesmanship as they did on the work they were hired to do. Combine that with a hands-off CEO who found conflict terribly unpleasant, and you have a sure-fire recipe for organizational dysfunction.

The quality program was implemented with great fanfare, but never really took hold. Without HR’s support, key systems were never changed to support the initiative, creating a whole lot of noise in a communication channel that needed complete clarity. People felt the company was sending out mixed messages, and many started to believe that the company really wasn’t serious about quality. People became cynical and began referring to the quality program as “flavor-of-the-month.”

This experience led me to the firm belief in the value of the complete integration of all human-side functions: HR, OD and Training. All of these functions share the same goal: helping to create a great place to work. All of these functions need to communicate the same philosophy, the same values and the same messages about what the organization is trying to achieve and why. Even more importantly, these functions need to resolve any obvious or underlying conflicts to avoid sending out mixed messages, and the easiest way to do that is to unite the functions under a leader who is fully committed to building common ground and helping people to learn from the different perspectives on the team.

In my three stints as top HR leader, this was always one of my goals, and I ran into the same obstacles every time. Training and OD people often resist being associated with HR because HR has the reputation as The Department of You Can’t Do That! OD people in particular tend not to want to get their hands dirty with such pedestrian issues as compensation and benefits, and some of the more snooty OD people view HR people as “less than” in terms of education and intellect. For their part, HR professionals receive very little real education in change management, organizational development and learning theory, and the education they do receive in these fields is fairly superficial.

So, the first thing you need to do is . . . educate them all! Show the HR people that their initiatives would be much more successful if they approached them as change-and-learning initiatives instead of program roll-outs. Show the OD people that many core messages and values emanate from HR, from the wording of policies to the priorities of the sales compensation program, and those messages must be considered as a factor in any careful analysis of the culture. Show the training people that both HR and OD need their expertise in both direct message delivery and in developing teaching skills that make learning an exciting experience. In other words, you have to convince them that they have much to learn from each other and that collaboration will lead to better outcomes for all.

Once you educate them on the philosophy, the next step is to put them together on a project so they can learn from each other and use those learnings to improve the outcome. Benefits is a great place to demonstrate this because it covers all the bases (and if you don’t think that revamping your health plan in today’s environment constitutes a major change-and-learning initiative, you’re crazy). Benefit design choices are loaded with messages about how the company views its relationship with its employees (OD); the complexity of choices and the shift to consumer-driven health care requires education (training); and the plan must remain competitive with a very dynamic market (HR). Cut OD out of the loop and you could wind up with a benefits plan message that contradicts the messages of your culture change initiative, weakening the effectiveness of both initiatives and creating unnecessary cynicism. Leave out the educational component of benefits and you create a legion of frustrated and confused people who will likely conclude that the company is not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, thus damaging the trust that is needed to support most HR and OD activities.

You’ll find an equally powerful opportunity in HR policies. Seriously!

At one company, we implemented a massive leadership development program based on a message of personal responsibility. Since you can’t expect people to build personal responsibility unless you allow them to make choices and experience the consequences, we encouraged leaders to manage people by giving them choices rather than imposing solutions. Somewhere in the middle of the initial program roll-out, one of the HR people, who was in the midst of expanding her skill set to include OD and Training, pointed out that our policies were sending a contradictory message. They were telling leaders and employees what they had to do instead of giving them choices.

I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of that, but I got over it pretty quickly.

Following her lead and bringing in other members of the team, we went through the 150-page policy manual and stripped out every sentence that denied people choices except where the law required us to deny choices. The policy manual shrunk from 150 to 14 pages (!) and the slimmed-down version passed the requisite attorney review. When we published our modest little volume, it sent a clear message that we were serious about personal responsibility, and both managers and employees responded very favorably. The combination of empowering leaders and employees to resolve their own problems reduced our employee relations workload considerably, and we went four years without a single lawsuit or discrimination charge.

The power of these three functions working together is considerable. Focusing these groups towards the common goal of workplace improvement increases the likelihood that improvement will actually take place. While it’s possible to build collaboration between different departments, my experience tells me you get more through organizational integration. With everyone on the same team, you have a better chance to increase cross-specialty learning, unite people behind a shared vision and create stronger initiatives characterized by clear, consistent messages.

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Instructional designers and training professionals use some common models and philosophies to design learning experiences for adults. ADDIE is the one that corporate professionals know; Bloom’s Taxonomy is found more often in classic educational institutions.

There are significant problems with both approaches. They completely ignore the artistic considerations that make any training program worth sitting through and the design process fun. The thinking behind both is linear instead of holistic. The structure of both emphasizes categorization and definition, which creates a great deal of stress in those whose Myers-Briggs type falls clearly on the feeling, intuitive and perception poles instead of the thinking, sensing, judging poles.

As one of those types (ENFP), I find working with either ADDIE or Bloom to be a time-consuming, tedious drag. Yes, I think needs analysis is important (the first ADDIE step), but the truth is many people don’t know what they need and neither does anyone else in the organization. Training objectives (Bloom’s big contribution and a part of phase two in ADDIE) are important, and yes, I care about what people will learn by the end of a class, but I also care how people feel at the end of a class and whether or not they had a good time.

In a world where people now have access to very compelling entertainment on the iPhones they peek at during training sessions, you had better make sure that you give them a good time.

I also want to raise consciousness whenever I do a leadership program, a goal that eludes the behavioral emphasis of the classic approaches. I want people to meet the behavioral objectives and I want to give them plenty to think about after the class is over.

The process I use is non-linear and hard to structure in a series of steps. Sometimes it begins with a needs analysis, but one that is far more open-ended than the one you use in ADDIE. ADDIE assumes that people know or can divine the “desired behavioral outcome,” but any study of successful leaders will tell you that there are many possible “behavioral outcomes” that can be effective, depending on the circumstances. In fact, I want there to be many possible behavioral outcomes because the act of leadership is never effective unless it is genuine, and you can’t engage in genuine behavior unless you personalize it.

Once I figure out what the people in an organization really need, I immerse myself in the topic from as many angles as possible. Using the subject of leadership as an example, I might re-read the obvious choices like The Leadership Challenge, Principle-Centered Leadership and Now Discover Your Strengths and the like, but I’d also find different biographies of famous leaders throughout history and assimilate those lessons into my thinking. I’d also check business and political sites for current material on successful and unsuccessful manifestations of leadership. The point of doing this is that if I’m going to be in a room with twelve intelligent adults for several hours, I better know my stuff and that knowledge has to go deeper than the model I’m presenting . . . because no one’s reality ever fits perfectly into any model. This immersion is equally important in the design stage, for it adds a richness and depth that I’d miss through a linear approach.

Once I’m ready to design, my approach is more like music composition than classic instructional design. I identify the key themes and make sure those themes are echoed throughout the program. I pay due attention to the techniques of build-up, modulating highs and lows and resolution of tension: the core elements that make music interesting and memorable. All of this happens while I’m simultaneously working with slides, exercises, multiple forms of media and engaging in a back-and-forth internal dialogue with the objectives I’m trying to achieve. While I never stray far from the objectives, I’m always open to the possibility that the objectives can be improved as I go and find more powerful ways to express the intent of the program.

The end result I’m trying to achieve is shared engagement in the world of leadership. It’s important for me to be passionate about helping leaders and it’s important that the participants feel that passion. My “process” may not be the standard approach to training design, but it has worked for me and for the participants in the programs I have designed . . . many of whom still call me years later to bounce around ideas and discuss leadership challenges.

Kouzes and Posner said, “No one can teach you how to lead. You have to write your own book on leadership.” I feel the same way about training design. Don’t limit yourself to what the experts define as proper design procedure. You have a heart, a mind and imagination that you can put to good use for the people you serve.

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Early in my career, I learned the importance of walking the talk: doing what you say you’re going to do.

So, in approaching a new assignment to design a leadership development program (like the one I’m working on now), I have to admit it would be very easy simply to copy from the dozens of other leadership development programs that I have developed. If I did that, though, I wouldn’t be walking my talk. My fundamental theory of organizational development states that every culture is unique and therefore every program has to be designed from scratch. While I may go back and look at what I have done before, I detach myself from the analysis and evaluate everything as if it were fresh information.

Because unless I can answer the question, “Will it fit in this culture?” in the affirmative, I have to find another way.

The first step of my design process is what I teach other trainers: immerse yourself in the subject. Lately I’ve been in heavy immersion, reading biographies of famous leaders, reviewing the great books on leadership, writing down stories from the recent past that involve leaders doing great things for their people and their organizations. Immersion accomplishes two things. First, it gives me a wealth of information that I can access when facing a group of savvy leaders who ask lots of questions from unexpected perspectives. Second, it helps me find the right language for the best possible training objectives for this particular program.

Instructional designers may tell you to start with the objectives, but I don’t know how you do that without immersing yourself in the available knowledge and in the culture of the organization you are serving.

Still, I have to admit that there are certain leadership models and practices that I return to because they contain wisdom that applies to many cultures and, most importantly, allow the leader enough freedom to personalize the approach involved. These will not work in every culture in every stage of organizational development, but they contain essential information that can make every leader more effective:

  • Dr. Paul Hersey’s Situational Leadership™ has been around for years and remains a vibrant, practical theory of leadership. The key to Situational Leadership™ is balancing flexibility with consistency by matching one’s leadership approach to the readiness level of the follower. The consistency comes from responding to specific indicators with a specific behavioral response; the flexibility comes from adjusting that response as the follower’s readiness level changes. What I like best about Situational Leadership™ is that it’s all about finding the leadership approach that will be the most helpful to that follower at that particular moment. For more information on the theory and certification, go to The Center for Leadership Studies website.
  • Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge is a research-based approach that identifies five leadership practices common to successful leaders: Challenging the Process, Inspiring a Shared Vision, Modeling the Way, Enabling Others to Act and Encouraging the Heart. The authors also identified what followers expect from leaders, what they call The Credibility Factor. People expect leaders to be honest, competent, forward-looking and inspiring. These practices and factors are anything but dogma; the authors encourage each leader to find their own way of manifesting leadership. The latest edition of The Leadership Challenge is available on Amazon.
  • The third source I recommend is Now Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. While this is not a book about leadership per se, all leaders need to discover their personal strengths and encourage others to discover theirs if they are to get the best out of their people. As Buckingham put in a speech he gave a few years ago, “A great manager turns one person’s talent into performance.” Within that statement are several insights: that each person working for you is unique; that each person working for you has untapped potential; and that each person working for you deserves your time and attention. The book is also available on Amazon.

So, which am I using in my current program? The one that will work best in this particular situation is The Leadership Challenge, but I will be integrating that information with knowledge from many other sources, some of which would fall into the category of “unexpected.” These include Keith Johnstone (who writes about improvisational theatre), Jennifer James (a cultural anthropologist), Robert Morrow (novelist and author of Ringing True) and a few of my own theories that should resonate in this culture.

There are two takeaways from this post. First, for those of you reading this who do not have access to leadership development programs in your organization, I want you to know that the answers to many of your questions and solutions to many of your leadership problems are available to you in the sources I mentioned. Second, no matter what leadership model you choose to anchor the design of your leadership development program, don’t choose it because you love it or you know it—choose it because it’s the best possible fit for the culture you’re serving.

And if you don’t find anything that fits . . . design your own model. If you really take the time to know an organizational culture, you will find certain values, visions and practices that might work better than anything you can get off the shelf.

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