Learning To Be Effective – comments on Kelley’s How To Be a Star At Work

Learning to be an effective manager is almost entirely a self-guided learning enterprise. Almost no business schools even approach the topic despite the hundreds of courses they offer on almost every functional aspect of management ((see Henry Mintzberg, Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development, 1st ed. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004) for more on this.))

No Significant Differences between Stars and Average in Intelligence, Problem-solving or Technical Skills

So it was with some anticipation that I read through Robert E. Kelley’s  How to Be a Star at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed (Three Rivers Press, 1999).  This book is based on research at Bell Labs in the 1980s, and 3M a bit later, on the differences between “stars” and average managers.  . Learning to be an effective manager is a multi-disciplinary-multi-modal effort. Clearly an important step is to understand what constitutes the approaches, practices, and skills of an effective manager. How To Be a Star at Work - KelleyBased on work with hundreds of managers, Kelley found that there was no significant difference between “star” and average managers in their raw intelligence, problem solving skills, and technical skill attributes.This may seem surprising until you remember that accomplishing real results in the business world is not a based on individual performance but on the collective efforts of a whole organization. There are almost no significant business problems (or technical ones, too) that can be solved by a single individual. In fact, it is the job of a manager to bring together all of the resources required to achieve real results, focus them on the task and push, pull, inveigle, cajole, lead, or any other verb that describes the persuading that goes on to organize groups in action to achieve real results. Viewed from this perspective it seems less surprising that being a “star” manager has more to do with attributes other than raw intelligence, problem-solving, and technical knowledge.

Better Strategies and Skills in nine areas

What Kelley did find was that the stars has better strategies and skills in nine areas:

  1. Initiative – working the white spaces of the organization
  2. Networking – knowing who knows what in the company’
  3. Self-management – managing your whole life at work
  4. Getting the big picture
  5. Followership – checking your ego at the door and leading in assists
  6. Teamwork
  7. Leadership – doing small-“l” leadership in a big”L”world
  8. Organizational savvy
  9. Show-and-Tell: persuading your audience with the right message

There is some overlap among these nine strategies. For instance Followership, Teamwork, and Small “l” leadership are clearly interdependent ideas. But I do not want to quible here. If you compare this list with the attributes of high performance organizations you will find useful correlations and synergies.

This book is widely available through your local library and from bookstores local and online.

Podcast – How to Hire a Part-time CFO

Five steps to hiring a part-time CFO to simplify your life.


This podcast lasts for 8 minutes 49 seconds.

A written format is available here.

How to Hire a Part-time CFO

In my earlier article, Seven Reasons to Add a CFO – part-time or full – to Your Team, I discussed the reasons to add a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to your team. If you have not read that article you should do so before reading this one.

The first step in the hiring process is to define the job you want filled. What specific results should the CFO produce for you and your company? Are you concerned about running out of cash because you have taken on a big project but will not get paid until completion? You worry about having enough cash on a regular basis. You are not certain that the bookkeeping is being done in an efficient and rigorous manner? What else of a financial character concerns you? Is your CPA driving you crazy with questions or suggestions that you do not entirely understand?

Make a list. Look back at the seven reasons I gave in my earlier article and see if this don’t provoke some additions to your list of worries. When you have completed your list, these are the problems, largely, that the CFO should solve.

Do not spend too much time thinking about exactly which functional skills are required to produce these results. It is the job of candidate CFOs to demonstrate to you that they have solved problems like yours and produced the required results. You are not hiring a trainee or development project, you are hiring an experienced CFO.

A few concrete skills and experiences you should look for.

First, your CFO must know how to get their hands dirty. This means they must have active skills to build spreadsheets and extract information from financial software systems and paper documents. Second, they must know how to present this to you in a clear, actionable format. A key task for them is to get financial information about company performance into your hands in a timely fashion and in a format that leads to making decisions. Third, preferably they will have experience in your industry so that they can set the analysis within the context your business lives in. Fourth, they should have worked as part of a team so that they have the skills to present the financial “score” clearly and then engage in a dialogue with the other management team members to help drive the business forward in a coherent fashion. At the level of the CFO, finance is not an isolated function, rather, it plays an integral role in managing the ongoing business and developing new strategies. Continue reading

Too Much Information – learn to control those interruptors

A continuing hot topic here is the surge of interruptions that consume our work day (and evenings, too).

I have talked about this earlier in these postings, Seize Your Time – gaining control over Too Much Information and Multitasking, Too Much Information, Interruptions, and High Performance

Many people see their emails, instant messaging, Twittering, Blackberries and iPhone (to mention just a few interrupters) as beasts that they must satisfy instantaneously and continuously. Everything is in real time.

The first question to be asked is, “Do all of these interruptions really have equal claim on my time?” If you work in a customer service call center, then truly that ringing phone does have claim on your next free moment. But, in reality customer inquiries can be filtered and sorted for action as appropriate.

A second point to be considered is how inefficient and unreliable all of these little interruptions make us. Despite all of the blather about “multitasking”, human beings really can only do one thing at a time. When we are “multitasking, we are really performing a whole series of tasks sequentially. The brain is expending lots of energy and taking extra time to keep track of which tasks are in queue and what the status is of the last one we worked on and the next one we pick up. Worse, in most ways, is the fact that all of this is making us perform at a lower quality level. All of the back and forthing introduces errors and the interruptions are preventing us from really devoting enough time to energize our creativity and problem solving aptitudes.

Multitasking is a fraudulent idea.

Lets take a line of thought about emails and see if we can develop some actions that you can take that will bring at least this interrupter under your control.

Look over the emails you have received over the last day to week. How many of these really required instant action –  did the sender expect you to be sitting at your computer waiting for the email gong to put you into action? Did the sender really think that they were emailing to the equivalent of a customer service center where they could expect that someone would immediately read their email and respond? What would have been a reasonable response time for these emails? Today? End of Business Tomorrow? Do all of the emails requiring response in less than a day come from a predictable set of people? If so, do they really need this, or is it just a bad habit that you have encouraged? Perhaps, you can set some new expectations for them.

But, lets say there are some people who require responses in less than a day. Set up an email filter (“Smart Folder” in the Apple MAC world) where these emails will automatically be sorted. Now when you go to your email application, you only need to look at that folder. Everything else can wait until one of your regularly scheduled trips to the email box.

And that brings us to the next step. Set up a schedule for checking and responding to email. For most, first thing in the morning and at the end of the day will do it. Then, you have to stick with it. For me the challenge is my iPod Touch. I carry it around in my pocket and there is an enormous temptation to take it out and look at my emails.

Take this one step with emails. Don’t worry about all those other interrupters. Rome was not built in a day and you will not change your multitasking habits over night. Prove that you can gain control over just your emails. See what the results are. Then, you can move on to the others.

Remember, time is the one resource you have that can not be bought or inventoried. To be productive and sucessful you must make the best use of this most valuable asset.

Successful Intelligence – R. J. Sternberg – book review

Successful Intelligence: how practical and creative intelligence determine success in life by Robert J. Sternberg (NY: Penguin Putnam, 1997)

(download a PDF of this book review whitepaper)

Throughout my life I have been interested in intelligence, mine and that of others. From early years at Taft School where I was regularly described as a “gross underachiever” to later in my work life when I began to understand that “smarts” came in all shapes and sizes, intelligence has been an interesting issue. Who has it and how can you figure out what kind each person has?

Successful Intelligence (SI) presents an interesting addition to my own practical knowledge of intelligence and a further jumping-off point from Howard Gardner’s efforts in Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences.

The preface gives away the whole story. Let me quote a bit:

“Successful intelligence is the kind of intelligence used to achieve important goals. People who succeed, whether by their own standards or by other people’s, are those who have managed to acquire, develop, and apply a full range of intellectual skills, rather than merely relying on the inert intelligence that schools so value. These individuals may or may not succeed on conventional test, but they have something in common that is much more important than high test scores. They know their strengths; they know their weaknesses. They capitalize on their strengths; they compensate for or correct their weaknesses. That’s it.” (bold in text) (p. 12)

So, this is quite an invigorating start! Intelligence is something we use in day-to-day life.

The first half of SI takes up a review and critique of traditional efforts to define and measure human intelligence. For those of us who followed the uproar over The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994) or have otherwise been exposed to critiques of standard approaches to intelligence, skip quickly to Part III “Successful Intelligence Is What Counts”.

SI posits three key elements of successful intelligence:

  • analytical
  • creative, and
  • practical intelligence

Analytical intelligence focuses on problem solving. SI discusses this under the following headings:

  • Problem recognition
  • Problem definition
  • Formulating a strategy for problem solving
  • Representing information
  • Allocating resources
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Well-structured and ill-structured problems
  • means-ends analysis
  • working forward
  • working backward
  • generating and testing
  • Mental sets and fixation
  • Decision Making
  • economic models
  • utility models
  • game theory
  • satisficing

Creative intelligence focuses on finding good problems. Here SI struggles to develop a coherent and satisfying definition for creative intelligence by posing an “investment theory of creativity”. Unfortunately, this discussion struggles with a metaphor standing in as a definition: “Creatively intelligent people are like investors. They buy low and sell high.” This line of argument leads to the following notion of what creativity is about:

“In the investment view of creativity, then, the creative person buys low – comes up with an idea that is likely to be rejected and derided. That person then attempts to convince other people of the value of the idea and thus increase the perceived value of the investment. If he has finally convinced others of its value, the creative person sells high – leaves the idea to others and moves on to the next unpopular idea.” (p.190-191)

From my perspective and experiences in the business world, this gives much too much importance to the Don Quixote aspects of the process. What exactly is the “investment” here? Is it really true that creative people set out to be “rejected”? (Perhaps, some reading in the literature of innovation in industry might be helpful here. Although these are looking at the problem of creativity from a more macro level, Eric von Hippel’s Sources of Innovation and Everret Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations might shed some light on creativity.)

Leaving aside my quibbles about the difficulties SI has with defining creative intelligence, this chapter closes with a set of observations about how to develop creative intelligence. The section headings provide a good slice though these (paraphrased here):

Successfully intelligent people:

  • actively seek out, and later become, role models
  • question assumptions and encourage others to do so
  • allow themselves and others to make mistakes
  • take sensible risks and encourage others to do the same
  • seek out for themselves and others tasks that allow for creativity
  • actively define and redefine problems, and help others to do so.
  • seek rewards for, and themselves reward, creativity
  • allow themselves and others the time to think creatively
  • tolerate ambiguity and encourage tolerance of ambiguity in others
  • understand the obstacles creative people must face and overcome
  • are willing to grow
  • recognize the importance of the person-environment fit

The discussion of practical intelligence is altogether too brief because too much of this chapter is taken up with further efforts to debunk various standing notions of the connection between standard views of intelligence and real world success.

Practical problems are characterized by, among other things, an apparent absence of the exact information necessary for solution and also by their relevance to everyday experience.” This leads to a discussion of the roll of “tacit” knowledge. BUT, SI’s use of the word “tacit” bears little resemblance to either my own usage or a dictionary definition (in this case my usage and the dictionary are in good synch).

“What, exactly, is tacit knowledge? It has three characteristic features. First, tacit knowledge is about knowing how – about doing. It is procedural in nature. Second, it is relevant to the attainment of goals people value, not the kind of academic drivel without practical value that teachers sometimes try to stuff in students’ heads. And, third, it is typically acquired with little help from others.” (p. 236)

Now, if we strip out SI’s confusing use of the word “tacit” (perhaps you may want to substitute “practical” or “worldly”), we now have a statement about that body of knowledge that one gains through the actions, association,and activities of day-to-day life – the world of knowledge accumulated through work, hobbies, social interactions and play. Go back and reread the paragraph quoted above. Excise “tacit” and substitute “worldly”. Now we can see what SI is trying to say. I have more than a small quibble with SI’s third feature. In my experience, most of my “worldly” knowledge was directly or indirectly gathered from the people around me. This usually occurred in an expressly “helping” mode.

Although SI is hardly a comprehensive or mature statement of exactly what successful intelligence is or how we can encourage its development, it at least moves the discussion of intelligence onto a plane where we can think of intelligence as a poly-dimensional entity. This gets us beyond the intellectually barren territory of IQ and other such nonsense. Further, SI helps to move us towards notions that can support practical thinking and policy making to support increasing the body of successful intelligence in all human beings.

Viewing this from my personal perspective as a business manager, I could not help but note the immense surface overlap between SI’s description of successful intelligence and many of the underlying principles ascribed to high-performance organizations. Here, for example, are statements (bolded in the SI text) from the discussion of Problem Solving:

“Successfully intelligent people don’t wait for problems to hit them over the head. They recognize their existence before they get out of hand and begin the process of solving them.“(p. 158)

“Successfully intelligent people define problems correctly and thereby solve those problems that really confront them, rather than extraneous ones. In this way, the same problems don’t keep coming back into their lives. They also make the effort to decide which problems are worth solving, in the first place, and which aren’t.” (p. 160-161)

“Successfully intelligent people carefully formulate strategies for problem solving. In particular, they focus on long-range planning rather than rushing in and then later having to rethink their strategies.” (p. 163)

“Successfully intelligent people represent information about a problem as accurately as possible, with a focus on how they can use that information effectively.” (p.165)

“Successfully intelligent people think carefully about allocating resources, for both the short term and the long term. They consider the risk-reward ratios and then choose allocations that they believe will maximize their return.” (p. 169)

“Successfully intelligent people do not always make the correct decisions, but they monitor and evaluate their decisions and then correct their errors as they discover them.” (p. 170-171)

Now, if you substitute the words “successful companies” or “successful organizations” for “successfully intelligent people, you will get a set of useful statements about high-performance organizations. Hmmmm…

(download a PDF of this book review whitepaper)

Managing for Weakness – a mis-management myth

Managers spend a lot of time worrying about the weaknesses of their employees. “If only I could get her to perform better we would have a really great team.” And countless more along that line. Companies have performance evaluation systems that focus attention on how employees should overcome their weaknesses by additional training, supervision and mentoring, and, above all, more work on self-improvement by the employee. Perhaps this focus on weakness flows from an educational system that has always been more attuned to the “Cs” and “Ds” and what must be done to raise those scores, rather than building on the strengths. Our focus on overcoming weakness is reflected in a saying like, “You can become anything you want to be, if you just try hard enough.”

In the management world, Peter Drucker, the great god-father of modern management, spoke clearly about this matter way back in 1966 in his still prescient and useful little book, The Effective Executive (still in print). “The effective executive fills positions and promotes on the basis of what a man can do. He does not make staffing decisions to minimize weaknesses but to maximize strength…. Performance can only be built on strengths. What matters most is the ability to do the assignment. Strong People always have strong weaknesses too. ”

More recently, others have also come to see that when it comes to both people and organizations the only way to build for results is to build on strengths. One example of this is the work of the Gallup Organization and Marcus Buckingham and Donald D. Clifton in Now, Discover your Strengths ( (Free Press, New York 2001) and Tom Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0 (Gallup Press, New York 2007).

Focusing on strengths engages the best attributes, skills, and experiences. Focusing on strengths engages people where they have the most passion, energy and success. Focusing on strengths focuses on the activities that people have already demonstrated results. Focusing on strengths creates a positive relationship because you a talking about activities that the employee is good at and has the best chance of producing good results. Managers should focus their attention on how to be sure that every person is working on their strengths as much as possible.

There is another reason for this focus on strengths, it removes a crutch that managers use to avoid taking complete responsibility for their performance and the performance of the organization – the myth of lousy personnel – “If I only had better people, I could get my organization to really perform.” More on this at another moment.