This career management and workplace productivity post originally appears in my Work In Progress blog for Forbes.com.
I have written before about how big company success stories yield key insights for individual career success. A new business book, Scaling Up Excellence by Stanford University professors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, yields more career planning gems. Though written for an executive audience, it is also a must-read for individual contributors and junior managers on how to spread innovation, best practices, and a success attitude across an organization. There are dozens of useful takeaways and real-life examples in the book, but here are 7 of my favorites:
It’s A Ground War, Not Just An Air War
The title of chapter 1 puts the role of the individual front and center. Rather than trying to infuse change from the top down, the companies most successful in promoting excellence focus on disseminating change via rank-and-file individuals and small groups.
For your own career management, this highlights an opportunity for you to make an impact regardless of title. Are you aware of key initiatives your company is trying to implement? Are you supporting these changes, down to your water cooler talk with colleagues? If you are a manager, are you using individual team members to generate excitement and follow-through for your ideas, or are you trying to monopolizethe message?
Addition and Subtraction
Sutton and Rao point out that scaling up requires doing more of some things, but also doing less of others (i.e., beliefs, rituals or behaviors that worked in the past but no longer for the larger company). They give the example of all-hands meetings, which may have been productive when a company is one size, but become unwieldy after a certain size.
For your own career management, are you holding onto beliefs, rituals or behaviors that worked earlier in your career but now keep you from delegating, taking on more responsibility, or changing your focus to a new, worthier goal?
Hot Causes and Cool Solutions
Wearing a bicycle helmet for safety became a hot cause within a Stanford class when one classmate told her story of an accident that took her over a year to recuperate from. Students heard the facts and statistics about the benefits of riding with a helmet but the emotional story made the issue resonate. At the same time, to change day-to-day behavior, wearing a helmet needed to become a cool thing to do, which it did as students pledged in public to participate.
As a manager, do you rely on facts over stories? Are you inspiring and galvanizing your team? Do you make the solutions or new behaviors you want to see palatable, doable, and cool?
Lean On People Who Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone
Sutton and Rao point out companies who succeed in spreading initiatives rely on people who are least resistant to change, who in fact thrive on doing things differently and “jump at the chance to live the new mindset.”
For your own career management, are you perceived as one of these change enablers? Would you be tapped to help a new initiative? Do you need to raise your positivity and/or diminish your cynicism on the job?
“Big Story” 5-point Meeting Checklist
In addition to broad strategies and paradigms, Sutton and Rao include specific tips to implement right now. One of my favorites is a 5-point checklist that the US Forest Service uses when forest fire crews are handing off shifts:
- Here’s what I think we face
- Here’s what I think we should do
- Here’s why
- Here’st what I think we should keep an eye on
- Now talk to me (i.e., tell me if you a) don’t understand; b) cannot do it, c) see something that I do not.
For your own career management with direct reports, colleagues or even status updates with your boss, you don’t need to be in firefighting to see the value of this concise but comprehensive meeting structure.
Freaky Friday Management Technique
Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz switched the heads of Sales Engineering and Customer Support at one company where the departments were at war. The switch enabled each to quickly and more effectively figure out the disconnects, leading to much improved cooperation.
As a manager, could your team benefit from mixing up collaborations or switching roles altogether? For your own career, you may not be able to leapfrog into a completely different area, but this success story shows the power of deeply understanding functions outside of your own. How well do you know how your business works? Are you too insular in your current focus?
A particularly riveting story in the book was about the 2008 terrorist attack on The Taj Intercontinental Hotel in Mumbai, India. From the general manager through to the telephone operators stayed at their posts during the chaos and protected and tended to guests. This extreme accountability is attributed to a culture of putting the customer “first, last and always.” The company hires for this customer first mindset, trains new employees for 18 months, and rewards based on customer service.
As a manager, are you hiring, training and incentivizing in a way that consistently supports what you’re trying to achieve? For your own career management, are you extremely accountable in your role? Do you go above and beyond? Do you produce in the face of overwhelming challenges?
Scaling Up Excellence is an excellent business book, and I’ve already purchased copies for executives I know who are in rapid growth mode. But as a career coach that also works with aspiring executives and lifetime individual contributors, I was struck by how useful these lessons are for the single person. As you read what it takes for a company to be successful, what is your contribution?