Passionate People Can’t Wait

“I just want to succeed in life.” Then you better be passionate about something.

There are few things that satisfy more than doing what you think you were built for. Without getting into life purpose and that challenging exercise, I just want to address passion. Those with it achieve far more than those without it.

I have a pretty high standard for those on my teams, especially for leaders. In addition to subject matter expertise, they must have creativity and be hardworking. Above all though, I favor the passionate. If there is alignment to values, they become unstoppable. It starts early in one’s career.

Don’t Be Boring

When I look at a new grad’s resume, I don’t care about the college portion: the school, the GPA, the classes. It’s easy enough to find people who check those boxes. I want to know what else they did in college. Where did they spend their free time? What projects did they work on? What are the interesting activities and why did they do them?

The same goes for an experienced professional’s resume. Positions and descriptions bore me. Show me the cool stuff they did. Was there something they almost got fired doing. What impossible project succeeded? What do they do outside of work? I want to see what really gets them going. The intersection of passion and talent is incredible.

A Burning Within

The passionate can’t help it. It’s a fire inside of them screaming to do something. The passionate have an unfair advantage. They possess an unrivaled internal engine. You don’t have to get the passionate started for what they believe they’re to do. They figure out a way and do it. They don’t wait for education, job training or permission. They do it because they’re curious and courageous. The passionate change their world.

Passion minimizes the negative by focusing on the possibilities. Obstacles get smaller. Problems are simply issues that have to be solved. Failures are lessons learned.

What do people care about? What do they enjoy doing? What would they do if they didn’t get paid to do it? That’s where the passionate become obvious. Everyone has something. If you don’t see it in someone, there is probably something deeper: it could be job misalignment, troubles in another area of life, current work assignment, competency frustration or depression.

You

If you’ve lost your passion, consider your career trajectory. Change it if you need to. I’m serious. If you don’t have a hobby, get one. Find something that makes you passionate and do that thing. Do it really well. Life will be better and you will feel like you are succeeding.

Longevity Doesn’t Reward The Innovator

Creative professions that innovate like coding, engineering, and design need career turnover to stay fresh. When I see innovator work anniversaries over ten years I feel sad. Over twenty, and I genuinely feel bad for them. If the number of years is thirty or more, I feel sincerely depressed. Note, I am impressed by their loyalty and perseverance but not their creative drive. Longevity is only good when it stays full with learning and growth.

Years ago, people worked for one business their whole life and then retired, frequently with a good, employer-provided pension. Years ago, people used home phones. Years ago, people read newspapers. Years ago, you had to shop in an actual store to buy hobbist gear. Today, there is precious little left of any of those. Innovator corporate monogamy should go the way of the dodo as well.

Here is the truth: big businesses don’t care about their employees. There is no reward or honor for a lifetime of loyalty to a company. The employees are “curmudgeons” or “stuck-in-the-past” or “old-timers” who “just don’t get it.” Although, I hear some version of “people are our biggest asset” all the time, I rarely see evidence of this. I have actually been asked to manage out people near the end of their career.

If a business doesn’t care about you, why do you stay with them? My hypothesis: because you’ve settled. You’re most creative and innovative years are done. You’ve stopped learning. You saw your world as the size of your department or the size of your business. You stopped trying new things because the business didn’t like it. You stopped being a true innovator.

You matter to a business as long as you’re boosting revenue or cutting costs and are getting along with your boss. There is still some humanity and mistakes are occasionally forgiven, but rarely without career impact. Few are the “Jack Welch blows up lab and eventually ends up as GE’s CEO” stories today. Innovators must experiment and be risky.

As an innovator, I am constantly looking for improvements: little to big, incremental to disruptive. An innovator never settles. They never accept the status quo. They never “get used to it.” An innovator pushes. Rules aren’t there to be followed, they’re there to be challenged as opportunity shows itself. Their internal drive frequently forces them to try stuff that gets them in trouble as they push the boundaries. Innovators never settle.

So, when I see an R&D employee celebrating 16 years (like I did on LinkedIn this week), I have to wonder how effective they still are at innovating. One thing is for certain, it’s not as much as it used to be. To me, that’s not something to celebrate, that’s something to mourn.

Don’t get stuck in the rut. If you’re in an innovator role and you’re approaching or past the ten year mark at your current employer, you may need to move on, or find yourself obsolete.

Margin Creates More In Life

margin
Full speed will drain you.

I have been fortunate to be a highly productive individual. I define productivity as output per unit. I can squeeze the maximum output for a given level input from many areas: time, effort, and money. I have had my hand in multiple things simultaneously as well as a few things. In a society where busyness is not just expected but celebrated, productivity, despite technological advances, has dropped. Sure, we can do more now then we could a few years ago, but what we could do relative to what we have is getting worse and worse. Reflecting on my 30 year work career, I have found that margin is crucial to productivity. 

Margin has several definitions. Margin in business is measured as the difference between revenue and expenses and less frequently referred to as profit or net income. Margin is also the amount of white space around the text on the page. The dictionary calls margin a border. In this article, I define margin as the difference between capacity and usage. 

Time and money are the two most abused areas regarding margin. People rarely have extra in either. When margins disappear, problems arise. The slimmer the margin, the less variation is acceptable. Any hiccups get magnified when margins disappear. 

trafficTake traffic as an example. As road capacity is reached, almost anything can drastically slow traffic: roadkill on the side of the road, a car tapping the brakes, bad weather, or an emergency vehicle on the side of the road. Worst case is an accident in the middle the road. Traffic can be stopped for hours! However, as space increases between vehicles, hiccups cause no problems at all. That’s is the power of margin. 

That’s the same in life. The less margin, the more potential for a massive slow down or a complete stop. I am a big advocate for thinking time. You can call it solitude, meditation or whatever; but it’s time where you can process information mentally. What I’ve discovered in the past two years is unprecedented. 

Unlike my high energy, overbooked past, I took a radical turn to huge margin. It has given me a freedom unlike anything I’ve experienced. The two areas were money and time. I took major steps in each to cut the spend/activity in half. 

It was tough at first, of course. It felt highly restrictive and like I was doing anything. However, like the highway at rush hour, my mind–as creative as it is–was being held captive. I didn’t even realize it. Cutting back paid dividends. The added capacity supercharged my life. 

It allowed me to invest time and money not just in the now, but more critically for the future. My innovation productivity took a major leap upward. I thought at a higher and more strategic level than ever before. 

It’s not popular and people think it’s counter-intuitive but margin can help you before more productive than you’ve ever been. We don’t need to continue to advance to get less and less productive. We need to advance and be more productive. We should be able to get the most out of life, not have life take the most out of us. 

Margin. Make some. 

Empower the Middle Manager!

You want innovation? You need the work environment for your innovators to thrive? You need a higher level of output to keep up with or exceed the market? You need to empower your middle managers. Why? They hold a critical key to innovation success: the mass of workers who report to them.

There are amazing companies that don’t need help with innovation. The leaders there are incredible. Financial performance is amazing. They represent to what most aspire; however, this is a very small percentage of businesses. Forbes does the Top 100. Fast Company publishes a list of the Top 50 Most Innovative Companies. That’s a very exclusive club. But not everyone gets press. Let’s say this performance is reserved for the top 10% of businesses. These have all levels of the organization working in lock step with each other. But that’s not where most people work.

That leaves 90% of organizations that don’t have ideal conditions for innovation. I spend the bulk of my time consulting with this group of organizations to help them improve their development capabilities. This post is extremely practical and is not meant to be all inclusive. There is plenty I won’t discuss here. I won’t be talking about the best leaders or the best innovation practices. I will be talking about the 90% and what I see there.

Let’s recognize the three tiers of employees: the executives, middle management and the doers. The sole responsibility of executives responsible for innovation is to create a culture that enables success; that means enabling middle managers, who actually supervise the work being done by the doers.

As you can expect, it’s very different talking to each tier of employee. For the most part, executives seem to be optimistic, middle managers seem to be negative about shifting towards more innovation, and the doers are just trying to get their impossible list of work done.

In bureaucratic companies whose career path forces corporate ladder climbing tactics, the gap between each tier is the widest and the performance is inversely proportional to the gap. I have found the highest level of performance occurs when the gap from middle management to executive narrows. This will empower.

Among the 90%, here is what I have found middle managers think about each tier:

Our Executives

  • Won’t understand the issue
  • Can’t fix the problem
  • Will view me as incompetent

My Employees 

  • Already doing as much as possible
  • Have too many projects to manage
  • At high risk of attrition

Me, the Middle Manager

  • Utterly swamped and hopeless
  • Feeling impact outside of office
  • Proud of work team has done

Middle managers, there actually is hope! Most executives can understand the issue, you just have to present the information in a way that matters to them. What metrics are they measured on? Sell them your proposal based on those. Don’t sugar coat the problem. Tell the whole story, not just your piece of it. Look at the impact to the whole value chain and organization, not your department. Appeal to their strategic initiatives and what makes them look good if your idea is successful. Push them to make a tough decision and don’t let up. Don’t make them look stupid in front of their peers. Talk privately for tougher conversations. This will cause them to empower you more.

Executives, you have to push your managers but you can’t bury your head in the sand and hang out in the ivory tower of the executive offices. You have to get to where the work is being done. You should be communicating with every level of the organization. That means going to the innovation shop floor. Do it regularly. Don’t act entitled or superior. Be one of them. Remove the barriers they share with you, not create new ones. This will empower.

The doers will follow their manager (unless they lose trust in their competency), not the executive. Among the 90%, there is more distrust and animosity toward the executives than there is their manager. The manager holds the keys to their performance. If managers are talking pejoratively about the executives, the executives lose and the company loses. If the manager-executive relationship is amenable, the gap closes and the doer performance is more aligned. 

Try these strategies. It is tough but extremely fulfilling. However managers, if after multiple attempts, your executives are unwilling to get their hands dirty, switch companies. The world is massive. There are firms out their that will appreciate your skills and will give you the opportunity to shine. Innovation demands new thinking and middle managers hold the key to releasing that power.

Stop Asking Your Employees to be Creative

In my early days of studying leadership, one of the most rewarding yet most unsettling things I heard was “work in your strengths.” Leadership guru John Maxwell hammered that concept home time and time again in his books. Being creative is one of those areas. Before my exposure to leadership teaching, I felt I was always taught to work on my weaknesses. I can think way back to when I was and being graded. Penmanship was a subject when I was in school. We were taught first to print and then later to write cursive. My cursive was terrible. No matter how hard I tried, I would never get a good grade.

For years, it was the only class that I never earned an A, yet I stressed about it the most. Ditto for English in high school. Classes that required math or memorization however, I excelled in. I preferred science topics the most as they combined the two in the most intriguing way to me. I played with Legos, built forts in the yard and in the woods and owned a telescope. If an activity or assignment required organization or involved teeny-tiny details, I wanted nothing to do with it. What if I had become an English teacher or a font creator? It probably would have been disastrous. Today, since almost all communication is typed, cursive is obsolete and misspelling is almost impossible (unless you use Siri). Fortunately, I followed what I enjoyed and became an engineer.

However, my weaknesses still nagged me and every performance review hammered the weaknesses home. I fretted and stressed about those weaknesses until I studied leadership in my late 20s. Suddenly I didn’t worry about my weaknesses anymore. I focused purely on my strengths and had people beside me who loved and excelled at the things I did poorly. They were fulfilled and so was I. Together teams I led tackled impossible projects. My career took a new trajectory and I loved it. I felt great. Being saddled with having to fix things or try things that I was weak in was paralyzing. That’s why I cringe when I see articles and posts with tips and tricks on how to “help your employees be more creative.” Not everyone is naturally creative. Sure, each person has some creativity, but you want the people who thrive on creativity. Most people could scrawl a circle with a stick body and represent a person, but some people can create photo-realistic images of people.

When it comes to thinking about new ways to do things, the goal shouldn’t be to make all employees innovative; the goal should be to put innovative employees in positions that define the future. If you’re looking for people for improvement projects, don’t expect all employees think creatively, instead use creative employees on projects that love that type of thinking. Look for the people that think divergently to come up with solutions. Use the convergent thinkers to get the job done. And please, please, don’t ever try to get your entire organization to think creatively, you may just be reminding too many people about that elementary penmanship class.