Merit Career Development Blog | Entries from October 2014

Growing Today's Strategic Leaders

Growing Today's Strategic LeadersIn an ever-changing business environment, leaders need to be nimble, scanning the horizon for opportunities, adjusting their strategy, and involving employees in the process.

How does your organization develop and create a strategy to make the business successful? Traditionally, the top of the pyramid created the strategy, and everyone fell in line. But in today’s fast-paced business environment, leaders need to build strategies that respond to external changes. They need to collect data from every source possible, including employees, who often have key information about customers, the market, and internal systems. And they need to create strategies that make sense, are simple to communicate and make it easy for employees to develop tactics to support the strategy.

As leadership styles continue to evolve in a changing workplace, strategic leadership is shedding its top-down strategy in favor of teamwork and cooperation. In order to adapt, business leaders need to refocus their strategies to incorporate the perspectives and ambitions of the employees that will be part of the plan, according to the book “Becoming a Strategic Leader: Your Role in Your Organization’s Enduring Success,” published in part in Training magazine.

“Too often, leaders assume that once they have the direction figured out, everyone should just align with it,” authors Richard Hughes, Katherine Colarelli Beatty and David Dinwoodie write. “While they may not say it exactly, the fact that human emotions, needs, beliefs, and desires are part of the change equation is often frustrating for those in leadership roles.”

Chief learning officers and team leaders should work together to incorporate employees and company culture into the leadership strategy. This helps avoid the disruptions and frustrations that employees can cause to a single-vision plan, Hughes, Beatty and Dinwoodie explain.

Beyond developing a more holistic leadership strategy for business leaders, there are two other important skills that can create successful, effective leadership:

1. Learn to Anticipate

Ever-changing business climates make trend anticipation one of the most critical skills for a strategic leadership plan today. In the article, “Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills” by Paul J.H. Schoemaker, Steve Krupp, and Samantha Howland in the Harvard Business Review, the authors note several examples in which companies like Coors or Lego failed to see the long-term trends of lower calorie beer and electronic toys in their respective industries.

To be successful, a business must anticipate the changes that might impact its strategy when opportunities or obstacles arise. Part of developing leadership skills should include identifying and capitalizing on signals from both “inside and outside the organization,” according to Schoemaker, Krupp and Howland.

2. Focus on the Day-to-Day Questions

A modern strategic leader can’t make every decision him- or herself. In a changing market, the organization’s employees are on the front line, and need to respond in the moment. This underscores the importance of seeking regular and frequent input from your staff and designing your strategy to include the decisions your employees will make each day, reports Forbes. Employees’ actions determine the implementation of the strategy, so if the plan isn’t actionable, they won’t be able to comply with the strategy and may interfere with goals.

As Time magazine explains, the best way to be a successful strategic leader is to execute your vision. If you or your employees cannot understand or embrace your vision, your strategy needs more clarity or an adjustment. Often, this requires simplicity. “The most powerful strategies are often the simplest, because the simplest strategies are the ones most likely to be flawlessly executed,” CEO of The IT Transformation Institute Charles Araujo told Time.

Executive leadership training can assist a business in developing an effective strategic leader with the consideration, foresight and realism needed in the modern workplace. How will you grow your strategic leaders? For proven executive leadership training information from Merit, contact Jim Wynne at jwynne@meritcd.com or visit our website.

What Can Go Wrong: Managing Project Risk

What Can Go Wrong: Managing Project RiskProject managers can set themselves up for failure by not properly planning for risk. Overly optimistic proposals run over budget, past deadlines and through resources if there isn’t a comprehensive plan for mitigating and responding to expected risk.

John Juzbasich, D.Ed., a risk management expert who has taught courses both in the U.S. and internationally, says that too many project managers underestimate risk because they don’t think about what can go wrong at each step. They don’t recognize the variety, number or prevalence of risk.

For example, Juzbasich recalls an exceptional project leader in one of his courses. This woman, who had an M.D. and Ph.D. worked in the pharmaceutical industry and was in charge of a project with 50 steps. Juzbasich told her that even if she was 99 percent effective at completing the earliest steps, she would have an increasingly higher risk of failure with each ensuing one. With so many balls in the air and so many more potential risks, her effectiveness would decrease. In fact, after completing all 50 steps, her effectiveness had dropped to about 60 percent.

Why Risk Management Training is Important

To be successful in the face of numerous unknown and unpredictable risks, project leaders need to plan for emergencies and unexpected disruptions within their budgets and timelines. Juzbasich explains that there are a variety of techniques and methods that project leaders can use for risk management.

For example, the fishbone—or Ishikawa—diagram helps determine risk by analyzing a problem and pinpointing possible causes. Breaking each possible problem down to its most preventable and actionable sources, the diagram can be used for dealing with current challenges or discovering potential causes of a feared issue.

Juzbasich also uses scenario planning, the Socratic method and seven other techniques for teaching risk management. Although these techniques are familiar to most project leaders, Juzbasich finds that few people actually employ them or fully understand how they can be beneficial. So, he only spends part of the first day of his course explaining the techniques. The rest of the time is used for putting these techniques into practice.

Real World Applications

The purpose of Juzbasich’s course isn’t to learn the techniques—it’s to practice them for future real-world use on actual projects. Risk management techniques are useless if project leaders aren’t able to take them to their team or upper management and present a solution.

Juzbasich points to an example from one of his courses: The class broke into small groups and each worked on one class attendee’s actual project issue. From there, the entire class tackled this issue and employed Juzbasich’s techniques to find solutions. That group member then took the information to her upper management. Her superiors adopted the solution, saving the large project and benefiting her company.

“What we had done during class, and as a team, worked on her situation. She was then immediately able to apply it to a work environment,” Juzbasich explains. “It isn’t theoretical at all. It’s truly hands-on learning. It benefited the overall company as well as her team because of the work we did that day. It was cool to make a difference in one day. That told me we were doing something right.”

Making Real Connections in a Virtual, Global Training Environment (V4)

Coordinating virtual instructor-led training courses can be challenging when participants are literally signing in from around the world. Timing and coordination are hurdles, but one of the most common barriers to learning is simple communication.

According to Jim Spaulding, Ed.D., technical instructor at Merit Career Development, managers can make training come alive through calculated decisions. With international employees, trainers can facilitate connections and communication through personal experiences, stories and insight.

Bringing Classmates Together

The immediate benefit of virtual training is obvious: global reach. But that geographic range necessitates fluid communication for effective learning. Conversation is much more than just discussing ideas among peers. By talking with one another, participants create meaning out of the information being presented and can glean valuable conclusions from the data.

Additionally, Spaulding recommends that instructors encourage sharing pertinent personal stories and insights throughout the lesson. Integrating participants’ perspectives as much as possible can help form connections between students, which can lead to deeper and more practical discussions. Generally speaking, when learning is couched in stories, participants learn better. Even digressing into interesting off-topic conversations can tie the class together and allow participants to be more engaged.

Making real connections in online international training environments can make the difference between wasted resources or effective learning that translates back to the workplace and creates viable business solutions.

Review a course list or contact Merit today for more information.

3 Tips for Creating a Successful Communication Plan

3 Tips for Creating a Successful Communication PlanA communication plan is an essential tool for project managers to plan for resources, establish deadlines and reduce the likelihood of costly surprises. Project managers can use communication plans to create goals, set expectations, allow room for criticism and enable a dialogue for all stakeholders.

Although communication plans are important, not all project management training focuses enough on the critical skill of creating a reliable plan. Improve your effective communication skills and follow these three tips next time you develop a plan for a major project.

1. Identify All Stakeholders and Their Influence Levels

When you establish a communication plan, the first step is to assemble your stakeholder team and assess what members’ roles will be and how they can be most effective. Because stakeholder teams are made up of people from various departments or even separate companies, there are numerous barriers to communication. An effective plan removes these barriers, establishing clear lines for discussion among project members.

In order to make more effective use of time and resources, analyze the influence level of each stakeholder and plan accordingly. For example, a meeting without a decision maker present may end up wasting resources and the time of those who attend. Conversely, meetings should not be set for high-level stakeholders when only minor details are discussed and their presence is unnecessary.

2. Select an Appropriate Method of Communication for All Stakeholders

A common cause of miscommunication is the multiple channels used in today’s workplace. Business communication can take place via email, over the phone, through texts or on video chats. When you create your plan, set a clear mode of communication so that no records are lost and key stakeholders aren’t left out of conversations. Video chats are often the best for keeping remote stakeholders engaged with the rest of the team, but email can help by providing a clear record. Help your team decide on the modes that work best for them.

3. Establish the Frequency and Level of Detail

A communication plan should plainly and unequivocally lay out the times and dates that members are expected to meet, talk or present data. Meetings held too often may lead to reduced attendance, while meetings held too infrequently may create gaps in communication and loss of productivity.

The level of detail required for each should be established beforehand, so that everyone is on the same page and prepared, leading to less wasted time. Regis College also points out that communication plans that improve productivity also contribute to lower resource costs because work is more efficient.

How to Harness Creativity from Your Team Without Wasting Time

How to Harness Creativity from Your Team Without Wasting TimeWhen project managers are focused on approaching deadlines and meeting specific goals, it can be easy for team creativity to take a back seat. But allowing room for creativity can result in numerous benefits for the project, like innovative problem-solving techniques, better ideas for the client, or managerial skills that can aid the project manager in completing the project.

As a project manager, it’s your role to balance the time it takes to foster creative thinking to get the optimal results without delaying your timeline. Here are a few tips for encouraging creative thought without wasting time and resources.

Eliminate Common Reasons for Lack of Innovation

Innovation is vital to all businesses. Leaders often adopt the technological and creative innovations from industry leaders or consultants but hesitate to encourage real creativity and innovation in their own organizations. Employees can be restricted in their creative abilities by the culture of an organization, rules and regulations, or their role expectations.

As Chief Learning Officer Magazine explains, many leaders who appreciate innovation may still accidentally suffocate creativity in their own business. The magazine points to a few of the most common ways that businesses unknowingly stifle innovation.

  • Don’t think about the “big idea” – Because too many leaders are looking for the next “big idea,” they miss the numerous small ideas that can offer a better competitive advantage than one big one. Other businesses copy big ideas quickly, but small innovations can make a significant impact on a daily basis.
  • Focus on creativity, not control – Too many businesses are focused on control and approval, which can limit employees working on fringe ideas that could advance the company. Siloing employees in different departments and restricting budgets can hurt the kinds of small cooperation that encourage new ideas. CLO suggests removing some bureaucratic restrictions to allow for more idea-driven work.
  • Don’t limit who can be creative – By assigning only some employees creative tasks, you may get some creativity, but you’re missing out on all of the other employees’ ideas. A widespread culture of creativity can be far more successful.

Instill Creative Discipline

The way to innovation isn’t through letting team members sit around all day thinking. Fruitful creativity requires just as much effort as meeting deadlines. In his book “Creative, Efficient, and Effective Project Management,” Ralph Kliem explains that people frequently underestimate the importance of discipline in creativity. Kliem points out that creativity must be expressed sparingly to keep ideas fresh, and thoughts must be fleshed out so that they’re understandable and logical to others.

As a project manager, strive to create a structured and disciplined routine that fosters creativity within the boundaries of a schedule. Build it into your communication plans and meeting schedules.

Foster Curiosity

Curiosity is often the beginning of innovation. Tomas Chamorro-Premmuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at University College London explains in a Harvard Business Review article that the curiosity quotient (CQ) can be as important as the intelligence quotient when it comes to complex situations. People with higher CQs are able to take a more nuanced approach to ideas and problems, and are much more invested in learning. Helping a team member explore this curiosity can lead to different viewpoints, creative ideas, and a true investment in the project.