August 2011

Chief Learning Officer magazine profiled Susan Burnett, Yahoo’s senior vice president of talent and organization development.  In it Barnett tells of when she asked herself “how learning becomes an engine for business growth, business transformation, not a transactional process.”  Apparently she did not get an answer overnight.

  • At Deloitte she created “a new talent development strategy for the firm, one with an integrated learning and development process to be delivered at Deloitte University.”
  • At Gap, Inc. she “she built the company’s first succession and career development system and refined the leadership pipeline by defining competencies and experiences needed to produce business and personal success at each level in the organization.”
  • “In her last role at HP as chief learning officer, Burnett was responsible for organization effectiveness and pulled together more than 75 training and organization development groups globally from pre-merger Compaq to create a loose federation of employees committed to developing a competitive workforce.”

What is she doing at Yahoo!?

The first plan Burnett put in place at Yahoo! was an internal development program, Leading Yahoos, an organization development and learning initiative for all leaders — a targeted 2,000 employees. The goal is to engage leadership teams in a development experience that increases effectiveness at setting measurable goals and metrics for results, creating a personal leadership brand and a development plan based on feedback, coaching for accountability, leading the new beliefs that will enable breakthroughs and leading alignment up, down and across the organization.

The two things I emphasized in the paragraph above are noteworthy because they align with two of ISPI’s performance standards.  First, because the focus is on results (ISPI’s first performance improvement standard).  Second, the goals are measurable.  ISPI’s tenth performance standard is evaluation of the results.  You can’t evaluate the results if you don’t have a mechanism for measurement.

David Windley, chief human resources officer at Yahoo!, says “The most powerful parts of this program are how we’ve developed team beliefs and an alignment of objectives on how to change the culture and behavior of teams to execute against goals, goals we didn’t have in place before, as a team.”

So, is it working?

Leading Yahoos participants have higher employee engagement scores on career development by 9 percent compared to their peers who have yet to complete the program, by 6 percent for performance and accountability and 5 percent for decision making and manager effectiveness.

The results listed above are an investment in future growth.  To realize the growth potential people must buy into the program.  This requires trust in leadership and in each other.  Apparently Yahoo! stakeholders believe in what Barnett is doing.

Blake Irving, head of products, is using Leading Yahoos to drive the product changes he wants to drive as he develops the vision and design of Yahoo!’s global consumer and advertiser portfolio. The collaboration this brings to his team is imperative to Yahoo!’s success. You drive transformational change through human beings interacting with each other and building trust and confidence in the strategy and new direction.


I saw Paul Ingrassia speak about his book Crash Course yesterday.  The description on Amazon describes the book as “the epic saga of the American automobile industry’s rise and demise, a compelling story of hubris, denial, missed opportunities, and self-inflicted wounds that culminates with the president of the United States ushering two of Detroit’s Big Three car companies—once proud symbols of prosperity—through bankruptcy.”

In his presentation he drew similarities between the automobile bailout of 2009 and the debate over the debt ceiling in 2011.  He points out that both involved enormous debt (brought about by noble intentions), warring factions (labor/management, democrats/republicans), and a focus on fighting instead of solutions.

Mr. Ingrassia identifies the following lessons.

  • In 2009 and 2011 there were/are dangerous levels of debt and denial
  • Solutions require shared sacrifice and tough terms
  • Journalists play an important role – covering success and solutions as well as failure

I would add one more.  There are unpredictable forces at play in the world that are beyond our control.  We have to be prepared to react to the unexpected.  However, there are a great many things that are predictable and we can influence.  We would do well to be on guard and vigilant to engage those things which can be anticipated.

The video below is very similar to what I heard.  His presentation lasts about 30 minutes.  The Q & A adds another 30 minutes.


“Learning effectively necessitates focused, thoughtful discussion and reading, which is impossible in a distracted environment. Interruptions and multitasking are two afflictions that are taking a tremendous toll on employees’ ability to focus, complete tasks, be productive and develop.”

It goes without saying that simply managing information, deciding what merits attention, can seem like a full time job.  Actually focusing on something and acting on it requires something extra.  On top of that you have the pressure of making sense of whatever you determine to be important.

The quote above is from an article that offers some interesting insights on ways learning professionals can help others manage the flow of information.  Below are some excerpts.

According to Cy Wakeman, author of Reality-Based Leadership, learning leaders should have a development plan in place for each of their direct reports and should then delegate with an eye toward each person’s growth potential to allow the employee to foster new skill sets and confidence. They should hold employees accountable for their own development rather than trying to create instances that stimulate work and then spoon feeding their people information. Further, they should bulletproof employees so they can succeed in any circumstances rather than attempting to ensure circumstances are perfect.

When are circumstances ever perfect?  Wise leaders provide opportunities to process information, apply it within the work context, and incorporate it into a framework that will result in professional growth.  In other words, they promote learning.  This is so important because not everything that is worth learning should be delegated to the training department.  The long-term results will be better for everyone.

“Reality-based leaders spend their precious time and energy teaching their employees how to succeed in spite of their circumstances,” Wakeman said. “They work to bullet-proof their people instead of attempting to make their world a cozier place. By focusing on making their people resilient, learning agile and personally accountable, talent becomes immune to the random shocks that come their way. Their engagement actually increases with this approach as they gain the confidence that they can succeed in spite of the facts, not from leaders softening their world.”

Every work day has surprises.  We have very little control over our circumstances.  It is impossible to insulate ourselves from uncertainty.  Instead of trying to create barriers we are better off helping our colleagues manage the daily flow of information.  What is a priority?  What can wait?  What can be delegated?

“Development happens in real time with leaders [who are] mentally present and are challenged, held accountable, receive just-in-time feedback and have opportunity for self-reflection.”

How often does our work life get so frantic that we are not mentally present?  We all know what this looks like.  I’ve been there.  Its usually around a deadline.  My pace quickens.  I don’t have time for conversations.  I eat on the run or skip meals altogether.  I definitely don’t have time to reflect.  Its times like this when I can’t handle surprises.  But they come and must be dealt with.

The article points out that leaders and their direct reports must develop a strategy to manage information flow.  Having a strategy won’t eliminate stress but it will make it easier to function when circumstances are unpredictable and rapidly changing.

I love jazz music.  My favorites are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dave Brubeck.  What makes jazz music unique is its use of syncopation.  Syncopation is “the shifting of the accent to a weak beat or to an off beat.”

Experimentation is a woven into the fabric of jazz music.  As jazz evolved bands experimented by placing the accent on different beats.  The effect can have a dramatic effect.  Below are two examples of the standard St. Louis Blues.

Both are enjoyable in their own way but also reflect the unique personality of the band.  So what is my point?

Dave Brubeck and Sidney Bechet are/were masters of their instruments.  They selected members of their band that complement their skills and were like minded.  Even though their interpretations of the same musical piece varied they both were successful in their execution because they were committed to achieving outstanding results.

I hope you enjoyed the music.

I’ve read my fair share of articles on millenials and feel like I have a good enough understanding of how to work with them.  However, this blog post was a wake up call for me.  Here is an example.

HotSchedules employees, half of whom are millennials, enjoy unlimited paid vacation, and they’re not the only ones to be pampered. Euro RSCG Worldwide PR employees, the majority of whom are members of Gen Y, enjoy company-sponsored rooftop happy hours three days a week, half-day Fridays and time off for volunteer work. Most recently millennials at the PR firm have asked for free food and reimbursement for a personal trainer. The company’s CEO, Marian Salzman, says this is part of hiring millennials – they’ve moved past 9 to 5 and gray flannel suits. Even as a millennial myself, I have to ask, are these companies spoiling Gen Y? (Emphasis mine)

I thought stories like this were over and done with.  I worked in Silicon Valley in the late 90s and remember the perks companies offered to attract top talent.  But money was plentiful then.  This is not going to be a post about how companies can afford to offer these kinds of perks.  If they can afford it, great.  I wish them well.

I want to focus on the last statement in the paragraph above.  A perception of millenials is that they have a sense of entitlement.  Based on this blog post a natural reaction could be, “ya think?”  But a closer examination reveals something deeper.  A desire for flexibility.  I believe this is based on the perceived (and actual) malleability of our culture and how we (millenials and the rest of us) interact with it.  The author of the blog post offers a summary below.

But the millennial style of working can yield success if the boss is willing to remodel the status quo. Gen Y moves as fast as or faster than the market and is eager to change the way business is done. While bottom lines, quarterly reports and profits are important to millennials, brewing change is more important in the Gen Y world.

So how do we balance flexibility with accountability?  In an example from the blog post, “Grooveshark is your everyday office with a conference room, chill room with a ping pong table and a kitchen with a chef that makes breakfast to order every morning . The office is occupied 24 hours per day and scheduling is as flexible as possible as long as teams are working together.”  This clearly fits the culture of the organization.  If you look at the staff of Grooveshark you will notice they are all millenials.  This is comfortable for them and the company is willing to provide perks that attract talent.  What’s in it for the company?  A loyal, dedicated, satisfied team.

Not every company can or should offer these kinds of perks.  Grooveshark is small (about 50 employees) and fairly homogeneous with regard to age (millenials).  Bigger companies with a more diverse staff have to balance the capabilities and preferences of everyone with the needs of the business.

What are my take-aways from this post?  Some of the stereotypes about millenials aren’t completely accurate.  They are willing to work hard and care about the quality of their work.  They also care about things outside of work and expect to have time to pursue other interests.  Every organization has to decide how to accommodate these preferences.  This post provides rich insight into how millenials work.  Give it a read.