Pondering Greatness and deliberate practice

baseballWas watching an excellent Charlie Rose last night where he interviewed Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin on their books about Talent, Performance and Achievement.  Some excellent thoughts came through:

  1. IQ doesn’t make much difference to your performance.  After about 120 IQ points,  it no longer gives you that much of an advantage.  This probably rings true for most of us, as I think we can all name someone who clearly has a high IQ but is not be the most effective person overall.
  2. Natural talent is mostly a myth.  There is such a thing as natural talents, they are necessary but not sufficient for greatness.   People who are great at their craft are not great exclusively due to natural talent. 
  3. Deliberate practice is the key.  Those who do better, are those who are always looking to improve.  Those who push themselves to learn more and perfect their craft.  Trying harder really does make the biggest difference. 
  4. You need a lot of practice to be at the top of your craft, 10k hours  (approx 10 years) at least .   The more the better and after the ten year mark you seem to hit a stride (that I would guess is both about expertise acquired AND commitment to improvement) that begins your path to greatness

Of all that I pondered from this program, number four was the most interesting for me.  In thinking of my own career in Talent, I often wonder if I’ve been doing this too long, if maybe there is not enough left for me to learn and moving on might be the right strategy.  With this new insight I realize that I’m between 25 and 30k hours into this field, really just hitting my stride.  Instead, my time would be best spent continuing to put deliberate practice to work into this field perfecting my craft.

So as I look to 2009 I plan to challenge myself with deliberate practice by

  • reading more — staying aware of the progress in our space. 
  • sharing more — blogs, twitter, conversations, etc. 
  • growing more — working on communication strategies to help others benefit from those 30k hours, taking on some new skills, etc.

That’s my list, what did I leave off?  Help coach me toward greatness readers.

Managing a global workforce


When I hear talk about hand wringing about flex hours and how do you keep people focused when working from home I must admit I don’t get it.  That’s not to say I don’t understand the comments, I do, it’s just that I have been working with a remote/global workforce so long I’m not sure I really remember what it was like to wonder how to make it work.  My first India + US HQ + Random other location work team was in 1995.  Back in the good old days when connectivity between India and the US was dicey at best.  We did, however, have email. 

Of all the companies that I’ve worked for I have to say that Oracle has this mastered better than anywhere I’ve seen.  Global workforce is not the exception, it’s the only rule (at least in development).  My own situation is having a boss in the UK and staff in several US locations, 2 India locations and Australia.  My peers teams are even more distributed.  If you are new to a global workforce here are some tips I’ve gathered over the years you might find helpful.

  1. Communication skills are a competency that you can no longer consider optional or nice to have.  This is especially impactful for engineering teams where personalities might find this challenging and education often downplays the need.
  2. Webconference tools are used every day.  At Oracle we are lucky to have our own tools for this, but if you don’t, you need to get favorable pricing for usage, since rarely do I attend a meeting where a webconference is not used.
  3. Technology helps a lot.  VoIP, record/playback, Forums, Wikis, Microblogging, Social Networking.  You name it, we need it.  Making it possible for interactions that happen via technology can be used (and reused) is critical to spanning the globe.
  4. Flexibility is critical.  Every team has to share the load of precious “real time” communication.  Supporting split shifts and shifting work schedules for early morning and/or late evening meetings is a part of life.  This is not just working from home, it’s starting meetings from home at 9pm.  A full scale cultural norm shift of what it means to be working is required.
  5. Timezone awareness is not optional.  Knowing that Friday afternoon is the weekend in Australia is something you just have to know.  Having a good tool to keep you in sync (I’ve been using iGoogle’s widget these days) and having someone on your team to remind you when daylight savings gets everyone off for a few weeks, can make or break critical deadlines.
  6. Nothing is more critical than relationships.  Using travel wisely and focusing on relationship building will make all the difference when times are tough.  If you are just a random name or email account you are easily ignored.  If you are a known person you will have a hope of rising above the noise when you need help from a teammate in a different part of the world
  7. Surprisingly a photoshop competency on the team is useful.  How else would you ever get a full team photo?

Working globally is not something that every industry is going to embrace, at least not at the level that we have here.  I will tell you that the insight, value, collaboration, joy and experience that you have with a diverse and global workforce is the best of the best.   While the hype will tell you that around the clock productivity is the benefit, I would argue that around the world talent trumps that by a long shot.

Thoughts on coaching and feedback

coach  We talk a lot about how effective performance management requires regular coaching and feedback.  As luck would have it, I have been giving and receiving said feedback lately and so I’ve been thinking about what makes for good feedback.   

I think the most critical element of effective coaching is intention.  When you share feedback with an individual do you do it with honest intentions?  Do you want that feedback to be heard?  If so, you need to consider how it will be received.  Often times, the most important feedback is delivered in a way that it is of little or no use to the person who receives it.    This is the worst possible outcome for all involved.  The person receiving the feedback is hurt and now feels betrayed by the person giving the feedback and the person giving the feedback considers herself in a no win situation so avoids ever doing it again. 

To help you avoid these pitfalls, I thought I’d offer some suggestions  for your consideration.   The next time you need to give feedback I recommend you:

  • Evaluate your intention – are you giving feedback to help the person grow?  If so, can you present it in a way that your intention is clear?  You are not attempting to tell someone that they have something in their teeth to make them feel badly, you are doing it avoid having them feel badly.  Building up a relationship of trust with the person and helping them understand your intention, will help them hear you.   If they can’t hear you there was little value in providing the feedback.


  • Share your thinking – giving the person the broader context of your thinking can really help them understand what you are saying and put it to use.  If you just tell someone “don’t do this anymore” you often trigger their defense mechanism.  Natural skepticism can kick in such that they might disregard your feedback, justifying to themselves that, you might just be wrong.    Explaining why a certain behavior might be sabotoging their broader goals (and giving examples), will help them understand and digest the feedback in a way that moves them closer to addressing the issue.


  • Balance the feedback — only pointing out flaws can give the recipient a “mother-in-law” bias against your views.  If you are always pointing out what is wrong with someone, they are inclined to think that there is no pleasing you anyway.  Again, not a reaction that will cause someone to be open to taking action on your suggestions


  • Don’t forget to say the good stuff – do not take it as a given that the person receiving the feedback knows what you appreciate about them.   Even if they do, I know of no person who wouldn’t enjoy having it repeated.  Feedback is more helpful when it’s positive anyway.

Lastly, I would encourage you to do more feedback.  For your peers, for your management, for your employees.  Like anything else we get better with practice, so please do make coaching and feedback part of your personal style.  When good feedback happens, everyone benefits.

The silver lining, A RIF story

silverlining Another addition of my apparent series entitled “tales of Meg’s wacky career in tech“.   This is the story of the first Reduction in Force (RIF) I got to see up close and personal.  The whole process of this RIF really changed me. 

For my first job I worked for a small start-up ERP software company that was growing rapidly on the initial client/server wave.  This company was all the good things about a start-up, friendly people, shared vision, enthusiastic workforce, an excellent place to start a career.   We were always having trouble hiring enough people to meet the demand of our sales, I had seen nothing but growth in the three years I had been there.  And then one day things changed.  We hit a technology wall that slowed sales.  As an entry level employee, I had no idea that trouble was coming. 

I found out about the RIF about a week before anyone else, as my [now] husband was responsible for helping to compile “the list”.  This was beyond awkward for me, since I knew some names but not all and most were my friends.  I also knew that the list was being made with very scarce information as to who knew what.  I was outraged.  I was horrified.  I was terrified.  I felt personally guilty wondering if I should just quit myself. 

On the big day, as I found out the extent of the list, I considered the whole thing terribly unjust.  Living in a relatively small town I knew this was going to have huge impacts as people would have to move away to find comparable work.

I am actually grateful to have had this RIF early in my career, as I learned so much as a result.  It took away my innocence, but it also caused me to wake up and realize how things work.  At the end of the day, I was employed to serve a function for the business, as long as the service I provided was seen as a value, I would continue to have a job.  If business conditions were to change such that they had to re-evaluate my value, they would not think twice to do that.   No one, no matter how great, is going to be worth sacrificing the company to keep.

I learned that it was my responsibility to understand the business.  It is never enough to focus only on my own tasks, I needed to make sure that I was seen as someone adding value overall.    I had to take seriously where I fit in the organization and how my company was impacted by the larger economic factors at play.  Never again did I trust my entire career blindly on the business judgement of a senior leader.  I learned to chose my participation (and length of service) in companies, based upon the results of the business.

In the end, I also found out something I would have never guessed at the time.  Every person who was let go landed on their feet.  They moved on, they got different jobs, the RIF became a story in their professional career but it did not define them

Over the course of the next year, my professional network grew from a single company to hundreds of companies as all my former colleagues found new jobs.  I am not suggesting that a RIF doesn’t suck, it does.  But good things can result from them as well, especially if you use the experience as an opportunity for your own growth.

Hiring tip: hire happy people

happy So someone just did a study to prove what we all know to be true.  Happiness is contagious.  Ergo, I make the other obvious leap for you, if you have the opportunity, hire someone who is happy.

Happy people tend to be better off in myriad ways, including being more creative, productive and healthy.

I can tell you from experience, that having people who are positive and happy on your team can help you out when things get tough.    While you are at it, foster an environment that helps people stay happy.

For those of you who are looking for a job, I suggest you find your happy place and decide to be that positive influence for the team.  If you are happy everyone benefits

Time to take one for the team and have a Happy Holiday!

Use it or lose it

floppy While attempting to fix a network issue at home* we stumbled upon a box of old floppy disks.  We realized that this box of important data, was not at all usable, as we had nothing that could read a floppy. 

This got me thinking a lot about how things work today.  We live in a time where planned obsolescence is not a theory, it is the driver of our economy.

It’s true for your music, it’s true for your video, it’s true for your data and it is even more true for your professional skills

Your expert proficiencies in Harvard Graphics, Lotus 123 and Wordperfect are excellent examples, critical job skills change very quickly.  It really is a world of future shock

We talk a lot about the role of the company to foster a corporate culture of learning and that’s great, but in the end we each need to take control of our own career.  The only way to succeed professionally is to commit to continuous learning.

So what is your plan in the new year to broaden your professional skills?  How are you going to stretch yourself and learn something new?  In this world it is less about what you learn and more about the process of learning.   You need to exercise your ability to learn or it will just keep getting harder.   I really mean it, everything is harder when you decide it is hard to learn new things.  Think about your grandparents who refused to use a cellphone or a VCR.  That is what you will become if you give up on your ability to learn new skills.

When I think of critical skills for critical jobs top of my list are those who are quick learners (and fun to work with).   A commitment to learning (note: I didn’t say an increase in attendance in training, I am talking learning here) is the best thing you can do for your career. 

Real learning takes practice.   How are you investing in yourself and how are you going to practice what you have learned?

We are coming to the end of another year, what is your plan in 2009?


* +1 Apple and AT&T DSL support,  -1 Linksys and Microsoft, -3 critical hours at the Bear household as we attempted to pretend we had IT Administrator skilz, talk about stretching outside of your comfort zone.

The leadership cop-out, the employee hot potato


Dan was talking this week about how real leaders do the right thing, even (or especially) when it means that you have to let a poor performer go.   You all know that I’m a big believer in job fit.  Finding a role that leverages your strengths is critical for success.  For some, finding the right role can be a process of trial and error, using our failures to course correct is a part of personal growth.  Sometimes coaching and role adjustment can turn a lack-luster performer into a star.   But we all know that there are times when the problem is not just job fit, it is job attitude.

When an individual has a negative attitude you are dealing with a cancer that impacts the whole team.  It is the job of the manager to resolve the situation quickly and fairly.  Too often, weak managers resolve their situation by creating an employee hot potato.  These disgruntled employees find themselves sharing (and often compounding) their negative attitudes across multiple groups as they bounce from manager to manager, each too weak to take action.

Moving performance problems around the organization is one of the worse kinds of management cop-outs. It is not honest for the individual and it is not good for the company.  It is not leadership, it’s cowardly.

I am well aware that the process of resolving performance problems takes considered thought and diligence.  Even when attempting to do the right thing, it is often not black and white.   We all want to make sure we have given enough chances to the employee and have done our best to coach them to improvement.  I would not want anyone to take this process lightly.  I would just like to encourage you all to make sure you are honest with yourselves that you are not perpetuating performance problems in other groups, because you are too lazy to deal with them yourself.

If you are not sure, get help from your HR team.  HR professionals can support you through the tough job of coaching the team member to acceptable performance or terminating.  It is the role of HR to make sure that the process is fair for the employee, the impacted team and the company.

Repeat after me, no more employee hot potatoes!