Finding Global Talent

During the .com boom 52% of technology and IT start-ups – silicon valley style – were created by foreign-born nationals. 26% of ALL start-ups in the U.S. are created by foreign-born nationals. People from China, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and well…everywhere, have been coming to the U.S. for the promise of an excellent education and the freedom of entrepreneurship.

Yet the U.S. has adopted a policy of sharply curtailing the issuance of H1-b Visas to stay and work in the U.S. Over the past decade the U.S. has reduced the H1-b quota from 195,000 to 65,000, a quota that was exhausted in 2010 before the year even began. By the end of 2009 more people had applied for Visa applications than were available for the entirety of 2010.

President Sebastián Piñera of Chile is offering $40,000 to people who are willing to come to Chile and start a business. Singapore is offering up to 4:1 in matching funds for entrepreneurs who come and create businesses. Meanwhile the U.S. is making it increasingly difficult and onerous to come to the U.S., stay in the U.S., and create new businesses. And so brilliant people are flocking to these inviting countries, as well as simply taking their excellent U.S. educations back to their home countries instead of staying in the U.S. to build jobs, innovation, and economic wealth.

Start Up Visa is trying to help change that.

The Innovation Midwife

AMA Corporate Learning recently surveyed over 1100 senior managers and executives on the topic of leadership succession planning and discovered only 14% described their organization as properly prepared to confront key leadership loss, and over 80% said they were either “somewhat prepared” or “not at all prepared.” In the case of Steve Jobs, confidence appears reasonably high that Tim Cook is prepared to lead Apple through Jobs’ health break. Yet, 14% nationally reflects a pretty sad confidence level in our leadership pipeline.

I’m reminded of the development culture at U.S. Cellular which dictates the both/and equation when it comes to business results. In their culture a defining metric of goal success is both achieving the business objective AND developing people in the process. The goal is considered incomplete if you ink a deal but the people growth component isn’t there. There is a clear expectation that business drivers include the people development part. Because people aren’t assets, they’re well…people. As Jonas Ridderstrale likes to say, “If you are doing your job as a leader you shouldn’t be needed.” What he means is that if you stock the organization with both high-will ecosystems and high-skill individuals and collaborators, you won’t be needed. The point at which the leader makes their most valuable contribution is to be the midwife of innovation. The leader acting as innovation midwife cannot possibly provide the answer or prescribe the insight, since that approach lacks the originality of the democratic process, and isn’t born from the mind of the contributor. In this capacity, the innovation midwife plays inquisitor – asking the kinds of honest probing questions that yield the birth of ideas.

And there’s another role for the midwife – finding the home and support for the idea. At the same time the innovation midwife is coaxing powerful new ideas into the world, she has to also be finding those sponsors and champions within the organization who are willing to nurture, feed and shelter these ideas so they can become big enough to surprise the world. To quote Ridderstrale again, the TBUS (Time Between Unexpected Surprises) is shrinking every day.

Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why

“Play that is directed by the child, not the parent, is the key to cultivating curiosity.” – Todd Kashdan

This evening I was treated to my 7 year old son playing the piano – not the pounding childish make-noise kind, but nor the rote practice kind assigned by music teachers.  And I take nothing from either version of playing the piano – both quite valid in figuring out this instrument. But he worked the piano in a moment of utter focus finding melodies he invented.  It was nothing Mozart-like of a young prodigy, he was simply exploring the piano in a very present and exploring way – finding rhythm and notes on his own.  He’s never had piano lessons beyond watching and listening to my own piano tunes I learned long ago.  It was just simple curiosity about what the piano sounds like.

When we are in a curious state, we ask probing questions, read deeply with intent, manipulate and examine objects, and persist in activities and tasks which we find both challenging and stimulating.  Todd Kashdan has conducted studies with his colleagues which demonstrate that curious people tend to become more curious over time (curiosity breeds curiosity) and ultimately find greater enjoyment and even live longer too.

Study after study reveal that true and lasting competitive advantage comes from having talented and engaged people.  The surest way to wither your sense of engagement is to curb your curiosity.  Curious people are more competent, knowledgeable and expert.  Not only that, curious people have stronger relationships, more physical and mental resilience, and even cultivate a stronger sense of meaning in their lives.

So when we are trying to find more “engagement” in our work, or as a leader cultivate that high level of engagement, there are three clear variables.  First, the right people; then those people in the right seats; and doing what they are good at and love. Those three components to engagement look like this:

  1. Recognition of Role: Everyone must have a clear understanding of what role they play in the larger context of the organization. Demographic studies suggest this demand started in earnest with Gen X, and now Gen Y pretty much refuses to be part of a work environment that isn’t entirely transparent.
  2. Executable Talent: Show up with the skills yo. This is part talent selection, and part talent development. Every organization and leader must create an environment where curiosity and intellectual growth is expected.
  3. Passionate Commitment: Parts 1 and 2 are important but for full engagement, a passionate belief about what the team, the function, and the organization as a whole is trying to do remains paramount.

Two out of three of the above is nice but insufficient. Someone with skills who lacks belief in the mission is a flight risk. The most intolerable might be the prima donna who refuses collaborative efforts. As John Tucci, CEO of EMC says, “I have taken very talented smart people who did not play on a team and shown them the door.”

Understanding context, building skills, and being passionate aren’t easy to have on a consistent and thriving basis but maybe the key is simply to remain curious.

Here’s a tip that really works.  When trying to build new knowledge, or figure out how to connect with someone who might be on the opposite side of your viewpoint, ask a simple open question that mines what they know about.  This works on almost any topic – vegetarianism, the Iraq War, whether we should renew our catering contract, whatever…  Ask something open and probing, for example, “Help me understand why being a vegetarian (buying from a particular vendor….whatever) is the best choice for our community (our company, again whatever the topic).”  If asked in an honest inquiring voice, you are more likely statistically to be viewed as empathetic and even intelligent in your curiosity. Stay open, be curious, enrich your life.

The Red Velvet Rope Policy – Choose your Customers, Find your Vision

When your by-product becomes your product we have lost our vision. Money is a by-product. Your product is what you can give to the world.  
John Hope Bryant

Ever heard of the Red Velvet Rope Policy?  Ask Michael Port about being particular about who you decide to work with.  That is – the practice of aligning your business core competence with the customers you can best serve while simultaneously growing your own capabilities.  It’s about not allowing the customer to wag the company.  So choose carefully who you choose to do business with for both competitive competence building and depth of relationship.

I encountered this in spades yesterday.  We had an interview with Michael Byrne, CEO of Linfox, the largest logistics company in Australia.  Check this out: in about 2003 they made a concerted decision to selectively decommission 2/3 of their customers.  That’s right, they consciously chose to let go about two-thirds of their customers over time, because they didn’t fit the vision of what Linfox intended as its own design, future and core competence.  In some instances customers may have asked Linfox to sacrifice service integrity to ensure delivery of goods, or maybe some customers were trying to redirect Linfox into business areas they didn’t feel they wanted to build market share or product expertise.  They probably suffered dearly for this noble decision right?  Wrong.  They tripled their revenue while gaining significant business capability.

I’m not done.  Linfox is a logistics and freight business – a trucking business.  their primary overhead and environmental impact is around fuel and energy use so it stands to reason that the pursuit of profit and market share might motivate them to marginalize their emissions concerns.  Not so.  They now teach eco-driving for their truck drivers, capture facilities rainwater runoff for re-purposing, build libraries in India, pursue zero emissions, and are leading safety initiatives in Australia instead of waiting for government mandate.  That’s right – these initiatives aren’t to be legally complaint, they are all to do good, while doing good for their business.  The community wins, and the environment wins, all while building the conscionable company – which becomes then the killer talent attractor.  Think about it.  What kind of company do you want to work for?

Leading Global Innovation and New Market Opportunity

So much has been written about Leadership.  We try to find a universal theory.  There is none.  The condition changes.  The context changes.  Some things stand out for that emerging context that most leaders have to pay attention to.  Practice them.  Inspire others, develop others, and multiply others.

– Ram Charan, March 2010

The context is indeed changing, and rapidly. As recently as just 2004 barely 20% of companies had adopted corporate-wide functioning offshoring captive strategies to leverage that promise of low-cost labor sourcing of services and technical expertise to not just Chindia, but Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and other global talent pools.  (Arie Lewin, ORN).  But yet “Emerging countries are no longer content to be sources of cheap hands and low-cost brains. Instead they too are becoming hotbeds of innovation. They are redesigning entire business processes to do things better and faster… Forget about flat – the world of business is turning upside down.” (The Economist, April 2010)

That’s right – EMC learned this lesson years ago when they opened a technical facility in India and immediately offshored/insourced the more rudimentary and mundane tasks that the U.S. engineers didn’t want. You can guess the Indian engineers were frustrated, annoyed, and characteristically weren’t so inclined to give the discretionary, passionate effort to their work to build measurable difference. (Gebauer/Lowman)

So what to do? There are several stances an organization can take in recognition of the ability to globally-source innovation, and leveraging emerging available markets:
Find new audiences: C.K. Prahalad dedicated the last decade or more of his life to the cause of gestating innovative products and services at the Base of the Pyramid and serving through capital mechanisms the largely un/under-served billions at the BoP. Rapid prototype products and services and serve these markets.

Source innovation for your existing audience: It may be more accessible than you think. Consider InnoCentive whose mission is to “harness collective brainpower around the world to solve problems that really matter.” Innocentive operates as as an inverted eBay, offering puzzles and real-world problems from companies around the world with hard cash rewards. Think you can solve how to virtually verify plastic product package sealing? Or provide a metric for how to evaluate the effectiveness of an R&D facility? Or even (yes!) help the Gulf Coast respond effectively to an oil spill problem? Sign up, solve the puzzle and get paid. Some of the best minds around the glove are wrestling with these problems from their homes and offices and work groups and getting rewarded by the companies and people in need.

I know it sounds daunting, but consider this: whether you are a mid-America regional bank manager, or a small business developing killer web apps, you can both leverage the mechanisms of innovation AND find new markets for your existing business. Doing nothing, or sticking to your knitting is not an option. Market niches are temporary, and the world is abundant with talent and opportunity.

To Find Innovation, Start with your own skill, love and purpose

In late 1953 the Swanson brothers had a glut of turkey.  They were turkey wholesalers and had overestimated the market.  So now they had 235 metric tons of turkey riding around the U.S. in refrigerated rail cars and the executive team was wondering what to do.  Can’t you just imagine the CFO showing charts of what it cost to have all those turkeys rolling around on refrigerated rail cars per day?

Gerry Thomas, a sales executive at Swanson, had just seen what Pan American airlines was doing with compartmentalized in-flight food offerings.  He and the executive team at Swanson coupled this notion with Clarence Birdseye’s new flash freezing technique, and then added the catchy product label “TV Dinner” that fit beautifully with the cultural explosion of television.  Their great market opportunity was the eight million moms who were joining the workforce after WWII, who were also enjoying an abundance of electrical home appliances like ovens, refrigerators, freezers, and of course televisions.

Swanson prepared to sell five thousand units the first year.  They sold ten million at .98 cents each.  Big hit, and now you understand how the intersection of technology, inspiration, marketing and resources made it happen.  But does that formula work again today in 2010?  Here’s the difference now:

Resources are scare, not abundant: From water to textiles to lumber, the availability and premium placed on the natural resources we use to create the consumer products and comestibles are in high demand and, in the case of fossil fuels and water particularly, are increasingly precious.

Talent is global, not local: Historically if you had a local workforce that was obedient, diligent, and brought expertise and skill to bear executing on top-driven strategies, you had competitive advantage.  The future is most certainly now in terms of the ability to connect need with a globally-dispersed labor force –  highly talented, motivated, and comparatively cheap by U.S. standards.  And all connected by the cost of the internet, $0.  The skilled talent, regardless of source, is indeed not free, but increasingly anything function that can be routinized, and reduced to if=then equations which bracket to a correct answer, can also be automated.  Consider telemedicine, the in adsentia health care solution to everything from fast, cheap review of MRIs, mammograms, and all manners of diagnostics.  You get an X-Ray in the afternoon in Illinois and the scan is reviewed by a U.S board-certified physician in India, and returned overnight – or even immediately – over the web.

Innovation is democratized, not top-driven: No longer can firms rely on the the wisdom of a handful of insightful strategists at the top of a pyramid, when meanwhile companies like Rabobank or Best Buy are doing a better job of catering to customer need by creating mechanisms to actively listen to, and incorporate the interests of customers, and know-how of line personnel.

People are creative and expressive, not compliant: Pick your muse on this but currently I’ll take Sir Ken Robinson right now, who is on a crusade to persuade people that by pursuing their passions, they will make greater contributions, build community value, and importantly find fulfillment in their endeavors.  In his book, he profiles Matt Groening (created the pitch for The Simpsons on the spot in a meeting), Mick Fleetwood (bailed on high school at 16 to be a jazz drummer in London), Gillian Lynne (deamed an underachiever until enrolled in a dance school), and many others, who eschewed the proper ‘safe’ advice of elders, or were recognized by mentors for who they were, to pursue their passions to great ends.

Technology is still changing: Rapidly too.  Too rapid to adequately understand the implications.  Try this for analogy: “If you’re not shocked by quantum theory, you don’t properly understand it.” – Neils Bohr  Or to wrestle with the power collaborative technologies, try this fun video.

The point is this: You don’t need to be up for the challenge of constantly creating magnificent products and services that the world suddenly realizes it has been missing for fulfillment (think iPad right now).  The iPhone didn’t exist 5 years ago and now you need one.  Think rather, what am I good at, Love to do, and provides purpose and meaning in my life and the lives of others.  Focus on that and you will give meaning and value to the world and to yourself.

Step Up Change Agents

Dream well. You may find yourself there. -Neal Bushoven

“Companies are people” is a popular expression to celebrate that the engine of a company is the people who work there, and it’s success or failure is built on the collaborative, innovative and actionable power of those people.  But remember, a Company is a kind of legalized fiction – a set of codified relationships between shareholders, employees and customers, bound together by contracts – the value of which is predominantly wrapped up in future deliverables – yet to be fulfilled.  Sure enough there is brand, reputation, and pent-up expectation, but the future employee contribution or innovation, the equity value yet to be delivered to the shareholder, and the product or service value to be delivered to the customer, all make up the promise of a Company.

These are much more manageable deliverables than managing the fickleness of people.  People, on the other hand, are people – and susceptible to having babies, or heart-attacks, or mid-life crises, or jumping to the competition, or opening yoga studios, or whatever else strikes their fancy.  A Company’s ability to first: attract and retain the best and brightest, and then: allow them to collaborate in innovative and actionable activities together, is what comprises all those promises codified in the contracts upon which the Company is based.

So let’s look at the people.  The people are “consumed by more fear-based motivation than I’ve seen in my lifetime” said Robert Reich in a presentation today.  There are 77 million baby-boomers working today who were born between 1946 and 1964 and they are:

  • retiring later because their 401K has evaporated (exaggeration – but diminished indeed)
  • more worried about losing their jobs than any time in extant memory
  • unable to borrow yet more from their home equity against diminished home values
  • trying to escape from existing debt load

The result of all is that fear has become a primary motivating force and change agents are becoming more scarce, and yet more valuable than ever, because bold idea makers are shackled by fear.  The biggest barrier to change is past success.  That’s right, when things are good and products and services are moving along at a nice clip, companies encourage more of the same – more of the past successes to fuel growth.  But what if what worked, doesn’t work any longer?  This is when idiosyncratic change agents are most needed. Now more than ever, change agents can be more effective in innovating and bringing new opportunities and actionable ideas because companies are hungry for emergent successes.

The ability to envision how to do new things effectively is now more valuable than ever.

Subtract for Elegance

“Exaggerate the essential; leave the obvious vague.”
– Vincent van Gogh

Years ago Marshall Goldsmith taught me the lesson: stop adding too much value. I’m sure you’ve been in meetings and conversations in which those around the table keep upping the ante in an effort to display their brilliance and impress. This can be fun but sometimes not terribly constructive because there comes a point in which the idea or solution becomes over-engineered in way that is distracting for the customer and burdensome for the provider. The solution becomes inelegant.

Over-engineered coolness! Venetian Blind Sunglasses, 1950

Over-engineered coolness! Venetian Blind Sunglasses, 1950

Matthew May is working to convince companies that sometimes the very best ideas have something missing, are often elegantly simple and even imperfect.  Social media examples include Twitter in which the user community is building upon the architecture and constructing their own rules and functionality.  In-n-out Burger has their own secret menu constructed by their customers.  And Red Hat has created their own version of open source leadership they simply call the Red Hat Way.  A core tenet of the Red Hat Way includes the concept of transparency.  I asked one of their senior leaders what they meant by transparency – did they mean transparency in communication, or in their value chain management, or transparency in their customer business practices?  He said yes, and went on to explain their value system is intentionally non-specific, intentionally open by design.  Red Hat expects every one of their associates to come prepared to not just do their own work, but participate collaboratively in the mission of the company which is, to be the catalyst in the communities of customers, partners, and contributors.  That’s not only an audacious goal, but also a moving target in a constantly changing technology landscape.  And so Red Hat understands that they need to get everyone involved to keep their knees bent, stay open to change and adapt collaboratively to build signature processes, and be the market-changing surprise instead of be surprised by their competition.

CSR as a talent attractor

Paul Comey, VP of Environmental Affairs, Green Mountain Coffee RoastersWe recently sat with Paul Comey, VP of Environmental Affairs for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and he shared some of the responsible practices his organization is engaged in. One of the clear messages from this interview is that, increasingly, people want to work for companies with a conscience. Individuals yearn to contribute within organizations that they believe behave in socially and environmentally positive ways. This has not just talent attraction and retention benefits, but also real hard bottom line benefits as well. Consider the cost to attract, vet, and hire market talent, and factor in the time and internal resources and it’s obvious lots of dollars go into the process. And while most of the top 20 most socially responsible multi-nationals are in Europe, the US isn’t far behind. Most every Fortune 1000 company has aggressively ramped up their CSR initiatives within the past decade to create an actual or perceived public persona of socially responsible behavior. But the buzzwords can often be confounding – sustainable technology, green design, stakeholderStuart Hart CSR buzzword sort engagement, base of the pyramid, cradle to cradle, biomimicry . . . It’s often difficult to parse out what it all means.

Stuart Hart helps sort these in terms of current and future developments and internal and external drivers. Providing context for the buzzword soup can aid critical understanding of the issues and positions organizations are taking today. Stuart Hart, Fred Krupp, Mark Lynas and many many others argue businesses have immense green tech/clean tech market opportunities now that will dwarf the dotcom revolution a decade ago. And if James Hansen is right, we need to move with war time speed in addressing the issues.

Talent is Everywhere

jonas1.jpgTalent! It seems in every professional conversation someone sprinkles in expressions like “attracting talent” or “retaining the talent.” I first heard the expression working in television and film where “the talent” was a reference to the on-camera personality. Talent isn’t rare or in scarce quantities – talented people are everywhere in your organization. They just might not be engaging their talent because they don’t believe in the organization and the mission. Sometimes organizations can get so mired in avoiding risk that it becomes impossible to take risks of positive consequence. Because of course if you want to achieve a zero-failure rate, the fastest way to do that is stop trying. Often companies bureaucratize the process of innovation to the point that “leading” market strategies look less like audacious experimentation and more like rearranging the deck furniture.

Jonas Ridderstrale reminds us that to inspire audacious innovation and allow talented groups and individuals to experiment in market changing ways, we need to build a culture of religion – an environment where talent is engaged because work has meaning. When people feel a collective sense of purpose and mission, engagement goes way up. And when people are fully present and engaged, their true talent surfaces.