Examining The Gains And Losses Of Our Changing Work Environment

(Forbes published this article in the early summer and I am posting it here because the strategies are evergreen.)

Organizational life has changed. Yet even with a global pandemic and a broken economy, the world keeps on “worlding.” In addition to the threat to public health, the disruption to our livelihood and our businesses is challenging many millions of us around the world. We have changed how we work and lead. Our work lives in this liminal space is worth examining. Here are a few observations and recommendations worth noting.

Get On Video Selectively

It’s times like these when we reflect on what we miss the most. Meeting informally is one of those things.

Virtual work has seen leaders taking on extra effort to seek out conversations that would have occurred by happenstance at the coffee machine, the work lounge, around the ping pong tables and in private offices. Now, everyone’s calendars are filled with back-to-back videoconferences on Zoom. Need to address a problem? Schedule a Zoom meeting. Initially, many raved about Zoom calls because they enabled remote video contact, but now, I’ve heard people in my network complain about how exhausting it is to go from Zoom call to Zoom call. It’s a better idea to ask yourself if a voice call is needed, if video needs to be on or if an email should be sent. Use videoconferences selectively. It’s not the only way to make connections among people.

Book Time Of Your Own

One client company of mine instated a 30-minute, meeting-free zone, organization-wide. It was communicated by the CEO, who is doing what can be done in a hurried, emergent environment to ensure people’s well-being. It’s a recognition that in addition to the loss of informal time, we are forfeiting alone time to think.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that we’ve idealized extroversion and teamwork, and this new “groupthink” has left leaders with not nearly enough time to reserve thinking of their own. I see this in my work, too, across all industries. This 30-minute respite is a useful directive and experiment.

Pooling Collective Intelligence Is a Smart Way Forward

A lot has been written about top-down leadership as the most suitable style for urgent situations. Overlooked, though, is the expanded role a more decentralized model of leadership can offer. The emergency situation is exposing and, in some cases, exacerbating company vulnerabilities that require far more mind trust than the senior team can provide.

The same client company I discussed above seized the opportunity to engage its employees in adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are those that can’t be solved by experts. They require courageous creative thinking. Crowdsourcing models such as these develop people’s strategic thinking abilities so that many more can make sizable contributions. And the proposals are far more considered since the crowdsourcing process encourages radical ideas where diverse perspectives are sought out and heard.

Taking on truly transformative ways of working by addressing challenges frees up the senior team to see the big picture by encouraging large-scale transformation and innovation thought through by others. This leaves the senior leaders to fly at 43,000 feet, the altitude at which a commercial passenger airplane flies safely at its maximum speed.

Team Retreats Reimagined

Once considered a luxury for some who viewed off-sites as time away from getting things done (or, at least, many had low expectations of what could be achieved), retreats are now seen as invaluable. And that’s a very good thing. Now, these retreats have urgency driving their agenda. Done remotely, the logistics of navigating time zones isn’t always easy, but it can be done. The previous model of a few full days away is now being replaced by two to three-hour multiday retreat sessions in home offices or people’s living rooms. It’s a recognition that in-person human hours are not the same as Zoom hours. Shorter bursts of meetings are far more productive than one long stretch when you are online.

Work In Unity

Leaders who are clients of mine have also reported less infighting, and fewer impasses caused by intractable disagreements. Not all senior teams are acting harmoniously, no doubt, but early reports of reaching agreement following a rigorous exchange are telling. There’s nothing better for business continuance than when people are driven by a common purpose.

Looking to what’s happening around the world also reveals countries shifting from discordant divisions across political party lines to a unified voice. Canada is showing a common front against the virus even though the ruling government party finds itself in a minority situation. And in Europe, there are calls for unity. There’s even an appeal for a global ceasefire endorsed by the United Nations while the virus rages. In time, we will know if this will have an enduring effect.

What are the long-term effect of these changes, and will they stick when the emergency situation is over? It seems to me that it depends, in part, on how long this lasts. The duration of the crisis, the reason for all the changes we are making at work, will decide for us whether returning to how we did things is even feasible. We want to be deliberate about processes and practices so that we choose wisely what we want to keep, and we discard the bad practices that were bred out of speed and desperation and evolve them so they are better.

A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com. Credit to the beautiful photo goes to Elana Mozhvilo.

Laura Menke Arroyo on Talent Development

Laura Menke Arroyo is 1 of 4 senior leaders who has been invited to speak about people development on a panel at DELL EMC this month. Laura is a senior leader in Market Intelligence (MI) at DELL EMC working at HQ in Round Rock Texas.  She’s known for her talent in market analytics and she is also recognized as a great collaborator and people developer, and I am fortunate to be her executive coach.  There’s another way that Laura stands out.  She is Dell EMC’s first female leader for their combined MI team.

The team’s work is used across the company in many countries to steer company strategy.  People find their work so compelling that it’s natural that everyone wants to get their hands on it.  No surprise in a competitive marketplace where each division wants to improve their results as a contribution to the overall standing of DELL EMC as a whole.  In advance of her time speaking to leaders inside DELL EMC, I’ve invited her to share her views about people development with you.

Sheila: Firstly, thank you for talking with me about talent development Laura.  This is fun isn’t it?  Can you begin by saying something about what you do?

Laura: I’m happy to share what I know with other leaders who read your blog Sheila.  I lead the Dell EMC Market Intelligence Team.  We guide Server, Storage, and Networking revenue to external analyst firms representing a $150B industry.  We standardize quarterly share reporting and provide forward-looking insights of performance, providing insights into the industry as a whole and identifying opportunities of growth.

Sheila: That’s a heavy responsibility, designing and calculating market analytics across geographies and organizations when everyone counts on your team to provide measurements for performance.  The pressure of getting it right I know is immense!  What do you consider when you are hiring talent?

Laura: I personally like to build out teams with varied backgrounds.  Today I have talent from engineering, computer science, marketing, finance, and even one person with a background in archaeology.  While the different perspectives are useful for diverse views, I also encourage members of my team to continue networking in their original field too.  I recently hired a woman engineer as a data scientist and have encouraged her to stay in touch with other women engineers so that she can learn from them what innovations are emerging in her field that could have resonance with what we do.  Working with us in data intelligence will develop her skills in understanding the broader technology market and she’ll gain experience with the latest trending and models for planning and prediction.  With her technical degree in engineering and a better understanding of business and technology trends she’ll benefit from more career opportunities in the future.

Sheila: So you encourage people to stay close to their field so that they will benefit and so will the team.  That’s a great way to learn from their connections in other industries outside your own.  Is there a secret you can share about how you help people get to where they want to go with their career?  

It can’t get any simpler

Laura: I encourage people to speak up and say what they want. It’s easy to say but not everyone does it, and we can’t read each other’s minds.  Take me, for example, when I wasn’t yet a  people manager.  Way back when I wanted to make the leap into management, I had the discussion with my manager and bluntly stated that I was ready to lead.  Then I backed up my declaration with several actions that helped me gain experience to go in that direction.  For example, I set up the first day orientation meetings for Finance, where I was working at the time, securing volunteers from across the organization to make the day valuable, current and relevant.  It is sometimes harder to get folks to do something when they don’t work directly for you. Leading this well was a great transition point to becoming a people manager.

Generating a storied career

Sheila: That was a terrific strategy Laura that clearly paid off. What strategies do you use today to keep development top of mind with your team members?

Laura: We know that talent development is not a one time check-the-box event.  That’s why development is a recurring agenda item for discussion in my 1 on 1’s.  I think of a career as a series of stories that each person is creating.  Thinking of my own career as a series of stories is aspirational. I first ask myself to go back in time and ask:  what are the stories am I most proud of until now in my career? And then I segue to – what stories do I want to tell in the future?  I ask people what they want their story to be.

Sheila: I love that, and you know that I am a big fan of stories.  You and I work together using purposeful stories.  I like how you’ve shaped questions around stories to work with your team on their careers.  What other strategies have you used?

Laura: You need to be deliberate to develop people as your team gets larger.  A focus on a learning culture is vital.  For example, some of our Market Intelligence team members wanted to learn more about strategy and broader communications.  We developed quarterly readouts marrying our team with 4 other teams such as Strategy, Investor Relations, Analyst Relations and Public Communications teams.  All the teams are learning and growing from each other’s skill sets.  It broadens and deepens the linkages in the network of people and makes future career choices available as the teams work with each other.  They can now get insights about what others are working on and appreciate more about how they do their work.  It also expands the possibilities of what’s possible in delivering work where they are right now.

Sheila: I like how you baked development right into how work gets done in this cross-functional way.  DELL EMC has a fast-paced culture and like in many other workplaces, rapid change has become the constant.  How do you keep the lines of communication open in times of change?

Relationships are important.  I get to know the members of the team by spending time with them to understand them better.  Then when times change it is easier and more natural to discuss the changes because I can anticipate their concerns.  I led the 3-Year plan for the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), working with engineers and finance professions across the organization to agree on a single approach, deadlines and the final product for our business strategy.  None of those people worked directly for me, so employing my own leadership skills such as negotiating and influencing were essential. I now know a lot more people and maintain relationships with many of them.  This is also vital to detect any early warning signs of upcoming changes that will impact our team.

Sheila: So that’s how you stay ahead of any surprises. Clever. Have you ever identified a career goal that surprised one of the members of your team?

Laura: Yes, I had a recent hire with a background in computer engineering who was working on some machine learning algorithms for predictive analytics.  I suggested that he could patent the great idea. He didn’t realize this could be part of the role and it excited him to know what he is doing is bigger than the current problem at hand.  The work he’s doing right now could live on to continue to shape decisions going forward. I suggest thinking of the ways to help your people see beyond the present to have greater impact.

What you don’t nurture, you risk losing

Sheila: Nurturing long-term thinking too.  Has there been an incident that has shaped your own philosophy of developing talent?

Laura: As leaders attracting and developing talent, you have to come to terms with the reality that your people may search out for or be tapped for other opportunities.  Recently I had someone leave the company to pursue an MBA at Cornell in order to pursue investment banking opportunities.  I fully supported his decision and even participated in a 360 feedback request from Cornell.  It was a sudden leave, and prior to his departure, I was able to fill the position for cross-over because I had a thick pipeline of talented candidates.  It’s something I learned early on to do.

Sheila: Keeping the pipeline evergreen.

Laura: Yes, exactly. I learned that early as a manager.  When the Integration of Dell and EMC Market Intelligence was moving at full speed, I had just developed the Dell MI team.  With the integration, I needed to shift focus to our new storage line of business.  Having already developed leaders on the team, I was able to bring the new team into the fold and together we were able to take on the challenge of becoming a single voice of industry performance for the Infrastructure Solutions Group.  We combined our analytics and insights into a defined framework for competitive deep dives and insights housed on a combined portal for easy accessibility.

Humpty Dumpty’s lesson to talent

Sheila: A lot was going on at the same time and I can see how you used that to your advantage. Last question for you Laura. How do you identify a high potential team member with lots of headroom?

Well, high potential team members have high energy and optimism.  They seem restless in search of improvement. I see an inquisitive nature and desire to question assumptions and move to make things better.  I lead a complex area with industry disruption.  We are constantly questioning assumptions and are being challenged. We take things apart and put them back together for best results.  So a telltale sign is when someone pulls things apart and can put them back together in a new way.  In my experience, people that show this type of curiosity are a great fit for broad roles across Dell EMC.

Sheila: Thank you Laura. I know that you have much more to say on the topic of people development. I love working with you and am excited as I know you are about speaking on the panel. Thank you for having this exchange!

Laura: This was great! Thanks Sheila. Talk with you next week.


Differentiation: Retail Lux

I’m a flaneur, a florid word that describes an urban explorer who enjoys walking long distances. On my urban pedestrian travels for some time now I’ve noted the number of empty stores in my home city of Toronto that remain without a tenant for long periods. Recently, an IT executive told me just how impressed he was with Amazon Prime’s home delivery service on a Saturday morning after ordering a large portable hard drive for his home use online just the afternoon before. With this sort of convenience becoming commonplace, it’s no wonder that there are fewer stores in our cities so the question becomes what’s coming next?

Water with your book?

With online shopping gaining more popularity I’ve been noticing what stores are doing to compete. The expansion taking place at the commercial real estate intersection of Bloor & Bay signals a trend. The Manulife building is undergoing a $100M renovation. In this challenging retail climate, the owners are delivering more luxury as their solution to how to get people to leave their homes. Some are out to deliver an experience that will draw us in to shop and the bar for novelty is getting higher. Take the Indigo bookstore at the same location, for example. Sitting here on a Saturday morning, the place is busy despite the fact that half of the store is closed for renovations and they are a successful online retailer. I’m curious if people are here for the extra loyalty points that in-person shopping affords from time to time? The piano player certainly adds to the atmosphere. The vanquish of independent retail bookshops is hardly news, but for the large-scale victor here in Canada, Indigo Books, sustaining their lead is what matters now. As with any industry, the colossal disruptor isn’t immune to disruption itself. What we are learning is that when a company stops being the disruptor it gets disrupted.

What’s the concern with retail? Some point to the emergence of the internet and others argue that it’s because of an oversupplied marketplace. Regardless of your view, the pressure is fierce to meet and exceed customer expectations. What’s planned for this bookstore is extraordinary. An ample kitchen for cookbook authors to perform demos, a water bar, early morning access to the Starbucks located in the store, a harvest table for book clubs, book engravings and adult gift wrapping. Wait. A water bar?! Keen to learn more, I enquired with the young woman at the counter about the changes and I was told “It’s because you are a fancy person.” I bristled a little. Ok, I thought to myself, I am? I guess so. Clearly the shopper profile of Indigo at Manulife is fancy folk enjoying fancy digs and unique services. And they want to fancy it up more. Make no mistake, this store isn’t going down this posh road alone. Toronto was ranked in the top 10 cities in the world last year for luxury store openings. The plan is to have the bookstore fit in with the building’s new image as an urban hotspot with lots more new retail shops. (More retail stores!)

As for me, if the featured changes in the bookstore are appealing, I’ll go back to shop. Maybe I’ll stay for a cooking demo or participate in a book club discussion and meet other readers. I won’t forfeit going to my local funky book reseller either, or my local neighbourhood library renovated in the shape of a single family dwelling house (the library’s own response to disruption). And I’ll shop online when I want to. Convenience is important, but not always. I admit that I enjoy it all. I, like the younger demographics after me, mostly like to spend money on experiences I value over products I want to own. That too is part of the presenting challenge for retailers. It won’t be long into the future until we learn if people will enjoy getting excited about interacting with human-sized robots introduced in stores as sales associates and product recommenders to get us out of the house and into the store.


Being the Disruptor/the Disrupted

There on the gallery wall hung the disruptor. A tiny first-generation Apple iPhone that had a fixed-focus camera of 2.0 megapixels, no flash, no USB, little memory and no editing capability. Even a Sunday photographer could plainly see that this was a technical downgrade from the cameras that came before it.

With the rise of the new technology that made a flat digital camera possible, the analogue photography industry faltered, sputtered and then collapsed. The iPhone had won.

It was only seven years since Apple released the iPhone back in 2007 when I brought work groups through a series of guided tours and talks I was giving at an art gallery. I wanted client leaders and teams to experience the innovative disruption that shredded an industry well beyond the classic Kodak case study that makes its way to the pages of just about every MBA curriculum. The images were the evidence and immediate aftershocks of what happened. They made people take notice of the impact of market disruption. They made it real.

Younger viewers were stunned to learn how colossal Kodak had been and how far it had fallen. Mature leaders who joined me from technology companies, luxury goods, financial services, and regulators, felt the weight of responsibility to avoid insularity, risk aversion and poor decision making that doomed Kodak.

How might Kodak’s future have been re-written if it didn’t avoid the digital camera revolution, the technology which was invented by one of its own and then initially ignored by management? It wasn’t the disruptive forces of technology alone that explains why Kodak collapsed. It was their thinking. They didn’t invest enough resources to embrace the new reality and change their business model. Making that shift is what we call pivoting today.

Spotting emerging technology and adapting to it in the right ways isn’t easy, and it can’t be reduced to a single formula. So what practices are there to take on as an individual, leader or a team to do what you can so you don’t avoid the early signs of disruption?

Do a Pre-Mortum

I’m surprised when people tell me that they don’t undertake a full team pre-mortem at the start of a critical work initiative. It offers the opportunity to ask about any challenges that could derail the results. You stop and question assumptions, voice concerns and get alert to pitfalls, and share the lessons from the past. Perhaps most importantly, you are poised to be on guard for disruption by seeking and bringing in brand new information for discussion that may have only recently emerged that could have a sizeable impact in upending your plans.

Market disruption has large consequences on everyone despite our own master plan in what may be a different direction. Strong execution in ever-changing conditions requires a deliberate effort to avoid insularity. Even and especially when it contradicts our plans. Kodak didn’t expect it’s film-based business model to secede to a digital bit player. But it did. The minuscule camera that merged with the convenience of portable phones was enough to disrupt its core business. And the company never recovered because the business model didn’t change. As it turns out, online photo sharing wasn’t a means to sell more home photo printers, the world had changed and printing keepsakes of holidays and other special life moments was no longer what people wanted. They were happy to see them when they wanted on their computer monitors and devices.

What became of the analogue photo industry wasn’t a happy story for many who enjoy high quality images before digital came along. And for enthusiasts and professionals, it was a disaster. I’ll never forget the voice of the photographer whose images were on the gallery walls as he walked a few of us through the exhibit when it first went up on the walls. He asked us to imagine him as a water colourist walking into an art supplies store to shop and then being told that only 3 colours were now available. There were so few materials left in this medium.

The degradation of quality, especially at the start of a disruptive innovation is what you can expect, and certainly has been true with digital photography. In many ways, except for price and service, it can be a race to the bottom. That’s what surprised everyone. The Kodak story looms large decades later as an augury of much more disruption to come.