Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yes, Virginia. Titles do matter.

I've had many conversations on the topic of job titles and their importance in corporate America recently and I wanted to share with you my perspective. For quite some time it's been fashionable to say that titles are unimportant and there are some very good reasons why ignoring titles might be a good thing. But on this topic I need to go against the grain and say that unfortunately titles are very important especially during a job search and I can prove it! Read on.

Generally speaking looking at history there was a long period of time when titles were paramount. This is way back when companies were rigidly hierarchically structured and job descriptions were straightforward and more or less standardized across corporate America. Back when, for example, "Vice President" was rare and meant something about scope of responsibility, influence, experience, organization size and salary. There were strict established protocols regarding engaging your manager's manager or someone else's manager. Organizations of any significant size or success were never very "flat".

Then (my guess) sometime during the recession of the early 1990s, as in any recession, employers needed to find ways of squeezing more productivity from a shrinking and depressed workforce (editor's note: sound familiar?). They couldn't hire more resources or pay their current resources more money. So what did they start doing? Employers did the cheap thing and doubled people's work, gave them raise-less promotions with new fancy titles. Essentially they "enhanced" their titles. This phenomenon is known as title inflation. (editor's note: the linked article claims that title inflation really began back in the 1970s which I can believe. But I also believe it accelerated in the early 1990s. My only proof is anecdotal though.) What title inflation did was devalue ALL job titles except ones where some type of certification is necessary such as Doctor or Lawyer.

Almost in parallel it also became "cool" to be a flat organization. In the working world "hierarchy" automatically meant "bureaucracy" and "inefficiency". To be "flat" equaled being "efficient" which I also don't believe is automatically true at all. 

With everyone running around with fancy titles this title devaluation created the belief system that titles are unimportant and that other things such as salary and job satisfaction are very important. And those are very important but not at the expense of the title. Why? Well I'm not in the recruitment industry but I do know many recruiters. If you ask them most will tell you that  especially in a poor economy when a hiring manager is doing a job search for a particular position, for example "Vice President", they get a deluge of resume responses from candidates that have held that title before why would they bother to consider someone that never held that position even in name? Right there you've been weeded out because of a lack of a title. Additionally a lot of the filtering these days is done by computer via keyword search. You may have the most relevant experience in the world for a particular position but if the recruiter's resume filter doesn't find the words "Vice President" you and your resume won't even get a passing glance. Done and done.

There are exceptions of course. Start up companies are far more flexible at looking beyond titles but mid-size to large companies don't bother. Why should they given the influx of candidates?

Another big exception is networking. If you have a strong, positive connection to a hiring manager that will also likely trump the lack of a title.

But titles do matter. There - I said it. Mind you lots of people I deeply respect, including past mentors, assure me that titles don't matter but I respectfully and humbly (and unfortunately) disagree. It is simply not what I've experienced or am hearing from folks in the field.

So if you are in receipt of a title-enhanced, raise-free promotion or job offer don't be so quick to reject it on that basis alone because it may open doors in your future that would otherwise be shut.

If anyone out there can argue otherwise I'd love to hear it! This is definitely an area where I wish I was wrong.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Interruptions are disastrous!

Jason Fried asks "Where do you go to get something done?"

Apparently most everyone's answer is anywhere but the office!! Why? Because that's where you are constantly interrupted!

Jason is the founder of a web application development company and is passionate about efficiency in the workplace. In the following TEDTalk Jason goes on to illustrate the reasons why interruptions are so disastrous to productivity, creativity and efficiency. He also suggests 3 steps to improve this situation.

And while the talk dings "managers" (rightfully so :) ) I agree with every word. I highly recommend watching his funny and insightful presentation.

So where do YOU go to get something done??

Jason's excellent TEDTalk here.

*Note: after this post was written I found CNN decided to feature this talk on their website as well!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Turnaround Expert - How do you become one?

Professionally I'm known as a "turnaround guy". Time and again I get hired to run or am 'bequeathed' programs and projects and teams that have failed in the past for a variety of reasons. Getting the reputation as a turnaround expert isn't such a bad thing. It implies that you deal well with confrontation from day one, that you are able to establish credibility very quickly and that you are able to inspire and motivate teams of folks who are likely not in a good mood given their recent results.

Below are four straightforward (but not necessarily easy) steps I have taken with much success to change the negative course of a project:
  1. Eliminate bad elements - First thing I do stepping into a failing situation is ask everyone what's not working in their opinion and in their own words. I pay particular attention to complaints that can be directly tied to the poor results attained rather than the "he said/she said" or "blamestorm"* that arises when things aren't going well. Mind you, I don't prevent people from "blamestorming" away (i.e. "it's all the business' fault because they keep changing their minds") because you do gain a lot of contextual and behavioral info. That's valuable too in the short and long term. The key thing here is you must LISTEN to everything that's being said and like a detective work out where the "crimes" are being committed - in other words, where things are going wrong. Sometimes the things that are wrong are the processes or information being used. Those are easy to correct. Other times it's lack of the right amount or kind of resources. That's a bit more difficult to correct quickly. The hardest "bad element" to purge are team members themselves. Sometimes though that is simply necessary because one "unproductive" or "negative" person on a team can easily bring everyone and the project down.
  2. Find out what motivates the team and give it to them - This blog has covered motivation many times because it's such a key ingredient in success. Motivation is a powerful influencer. Find a way to connect a project's success to each team member's needs and desires in some way and you have created a self-fixing engine. Make sure to figure out (and write down notes!!) what each and every person needs out of this project and their jobs. Make a commitment to work on those needs and keep people posted on progress. Perhaps someone needs a little extra time off and another needs to go to a class. Perhaps a third person needs a little monetary incentive at the successful conclusion of a project. Whatever it is take it seriously. What I've found over time though is simply having a manager care enough to ask the team these types of questions is motivation enough.
  3. Fix some 'low hanging fruit' problems quickly - You've probably heard the expression "you need money to make money" well it's equally true that there's nothing that generates success like success! If you can start to turn around small things people in and around the team, including management, will notice. They all start to feel good about these positive changes however small and a "can do" attitude starts catching on. I have seen it myself many times. Small wins snowball into big wins and pretty soon you're done!
  4. Hit the 'reset' button - you've got to get everyone, and I mean everyone, on a project team to hit the 'reset' button. This means each member of the core and extended team letting go of the past. Everyone needs to let go of past behaviors, results, habits and feelings and start anew. (If you can include your internal or external customer on this one too that would be optimal but not always realistic.) This is the most difficult of the 4 steps because people like to hang on to the past for dear life for a variety of reasons sometimes just to cover their own backsides. How to do this? I like to propose a team "amnesty day". From such and such a day forward no one is to refer to the past other than in a factual fashion to get work done. Make people imagine that they are meeting everyone on the team for the first time and that the project didn't exist before that day. This is a cleansing, second chance step that everyone needs once in a while to move forward and be successful.
This list is not meant to be comprehensive as there are many other things to do to turn around a project. This list is also inwardly focused rather than outwardly (i.e. towards the rest of the organization). That's how you turn a project or even yourself around - you start at the core and work outward. I'll have another post discussing more outwardly focused steps at a later date.

I hope this was helpful! If you have other turnaround tips please share! 

*blamestorm - is a pejorative term I've heard at IBM and seems to sum up those set of behaviors quite nicely (i.e. a storm of blame that rains on everyone's parade).