ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - March 2001


Issue Highlight — Someone To Watch Over Me
- Peter Block discusses how technology and aggressive measuring can damage learning behaviors and the importance of human connection to the education of a child.

 In This Issue...
With A Little Bit Of Luck
Using Both Eyes
In The Face Of Change
Answering A Big "What If?" In Chicago

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Heard on the Street

Return to NFC Index

With A Little Bit Of Luck
How Managers Can Improve Continual Learning and Mentoring

Ellen Wallach’s resume is impressive. Her work spans from teaching psychology, making films, writing and speaking to consulting. For nearly 30 years she has worked with public and private organizations to help them find ways to keep employees happy and productive. She designs mentoring programs, coaches individuals and consults on crisis management, team development and management training. She even finds time to give back to her community—20 percent of her time to be exact.
Wallach loves what she does and tries to help others find the same satisfaction in their jobs. She co-authored “The Job Search Companion,” an organizer and motivator for job seekers, now in its fifth printing. Wallach also worked with Richard N. Bolles, author of the popular, “What Color is Your Parachute?” training career development professionals throughout the United States.
  And she likes dancing too. Over the course of a three-year sabbatical, Wallach explored the lives, careers and transitions of former ballet and modern dancers. Her project, “Life After Performing,” received national attention and appeared in most of the major newspapers in the United States including a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. She has been on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and spoken to groups such as American Electronics Association, U.S. Bank, Seattle Chamber of Commerce and many others.
  Like all of us, Wallach has faced her fair share of challenges to get where she is today. She is lucky and she knows it. Wallach appreciates luck so much that she intensively studied the subject and identified ways for others to take advantage of the many opportunities luck sends their way.
  Most recently she has been helping managers. In response to the demand for individual coaching, Wallach thought of a more cost-effective way for companies to help coach managers: Management Learning Groups.
  In a recent interview with News for a Change, Wallach tells us about Management Learning Groups and discusses the bottom-line benefits of Management Learning Groups and offers some tips on how to make luck work to the best of our advantage.

NFC: How do you begin to help people recognize what they want to learn and then help them learn that in the Management Learning Groups?

Wallach: The first sessions are about the career management process and that begins with an assessment of management skills using feedback, performance appraisal and self-analysis—meaning what skills do you have, where do you want to use them and what’s important to you?

NFC: Is it hard to get managers to recognize that they need to continually increase their skill level and knowledge?

Wallach: For some it is. For some it isn’t. And of course the people that are the most anxious to participate are usually the ones who need it the least. The ones who are involved in their own continuous learning and are aware and appreciative of feedback are usually the ones who have been working on themselves so long and would love to participate. The people who are not as open, who don’t pay as much attention, who don’t reflect on the feedback they get and perhaps don’t use their own experiences and opportunities to grow are the ones who usually don’t participate.

NFC: How do you convince them that they need to?

Wallach: It depends on whether you have a carrot or a stick. My belief is that for those people, at some point, there is enough pain that they’ll pay attention. I do a lot of corporate crisis management, where a manager is not succeeding or a team is not working well together. It’s usually well beyond awful and I’m called in to fix it. Typically what I find is that people ask me for a solution. The first thing I need to do is figure out what the problem is. One of the challenges I have as a consultant, and probably the most important thing I do for my clients, is to help them identify the problem. Once I do that, they can buy into the solution. The big challenge for an internal or external consultant is to figure out what they want and what they need. You give them what they want or you won’t have a job anymore. If you’re a good consultant you’ll convince them that they want what they need.

NFC: What’s the best way to design Management Learning Groups? Who ideally makes up these groups?

Wallach: Homogeneous by level and heterogeneous by function. A lot of the depth in the group, a lot of the wonderful sharing and information, and the richness in the group, comes from the diversity. People begin to see from other people’s perspectives what the organization and the challenges look like. There was some research done years ago that asked, “What’s the biggest problem between people that causes the most arguments?” Sixty-four percent of the people said, “Not seeing each other’s point of view.” There’s a wonderful quote, “We are not victims of the world we see, but how we see the world.” Usually our world-view is very narrow and based on our own perceptions.

NFC: Do the agendas for Management Learning Group meetings include time to discuss what’s on their minds?

Wallach: Yes. And more and more that’s where most of the energy goes. I always have something to talk about. In the beginning one of the managers, an engineer, wanted an agenda. He wanted to know what I was presenting. He wanted structure. And now he doesn’t care. Everything that comes up in the group is food for, “How does this relate to what I do everyday?”

NFC: Does the conversation get off track when people start discussing what’s on their minds?

Wallach: No, that never really happens. Part of my job is to keep the group focused and to make sure that it’s a valuable and worthwhile experience. This is not a group for gossip. This is not a group for complaining. This is really an opportunity to get some help. When people come they have something specific in mind that they need help with and then we talk about it. The last time we met we had someone who was promoting a person. There was a peer group and she promoted one of them. The problem was, “How does this person now supervise the people who used to be their peers?” So it was very focused and very real. And the first question is, “Who’s ever had this experience?” “What’s happened?”

NFC: Do you feel that each individual makes valuable contributions?

Wallach: Everyone contributes. Everyone is there and present 100 percent. I pay enough attention that if they weren’t, I would ask them to participate, I would encourage them, ask them a question or invite their comment. But I don’t have to do that very often. Everyone really participates and answers.

NFC: Are there any formal ways you encourage them to evaluate their own performance in the group?

Wallach: I haven’t asked that. The main thing I see is that everyone contributes and feels a sense of responsibility to everyone that is at the table. My main concern is perceived value: Is this worthwhile? And if one person tends to talk a little more than another, that’s OK.

NFC: Do conflicts ever arise?

Wallach: People’s experiences may be different so they might disagree, but we’ve never had anything that I would call a conflict. We try very hard to be respectful, to be open and supportive and not to be critical. People have really done a good job with that.

NFC: What are some of the tangible, bottom line benefits of the Management Learning Groups?

Wallach: Everyone feels that it’s a worthwhile use of his or her very busy time. The organization is raising the quality of management. The best way to become a good manager early in your career is to hire a good manager. We learn by example. When I was taking psychology and learning about child abuse, I thought to myself that children of abusive parents would never abuse their own children. What I found out was the total opposite: The people who abuse their children were themselves abused as children—that’s how they learned to parent. The same is true with managers. The best way to learn how to be a good manager is to have a good role model. The better managers we have at the senior levels in the organization the more it filters down to other people.
  Also, the organization benefits from having a more cross-functional openness. People understand the organization better and they understand different perspectives. When they’re asked to be on cross-functional teams they get out of the “us vs. them” defensive or territorial stance and become more collaborative. Management Learning Groups are a place for managers who have felt isolated when talking about management. These groups are a way to focus and think about being a good manager every month. They’re a place to get help. Most managers don’t want to call human resources or ask their bosses. For example, if they have to fire someone and they’ve never done it before, this is a place where they can talk about it, where everyone knows what one another’s strengths are. They know two or three people that they can contact during the course of the month and say, “I’ve got to fire someone, what do I do?”

NFC: Our managers are our mentors. Do you think there is a need for formalized mentoring programs—isn’t it something managers should do by virtue of being a manager?

Wallach: Formal mentoring programs help expand your knowledge of the organization. When I design mentoring programs, I first ask, “What kind of mentoring do you need?” Otherwise everybody would choose the top three people in the organization to be their mentor. So you look at what they want out of mentoring. Is it technical skills you want to develop? Is it management skills you want to develop? Is there some knowledge of how to do business with clients? Do you want to meet someone who has had family career issues and has made a good balance? Do you want someone who has decided to be an individual contributor instead of becoming a manager? Maybe that person would be a good mentor for you. So the beginning is to think about all the different ways you can be mentored and then to do an assessment. The assessment can be informal or formal. It may be as informal as, “What kinds of skills do you think you need to develop?” “What kind of mentoring do you feel you need at this point in your career given where you think you’re going in the next 3-5 years?” Or it may be a little more formal: “What kind of performance appraisal have you gotten?” “What kind of feedback have you gotten?” That will help you ascertain what kind of mentoring you should get.

NFC: What if there are no formal mentoring programs in place but the employees want something? How can they talk to their managers and get them to recognize the need for it and get that support?

Wallach: I see that all the time. Generally, when organizations spend money it’s because they believe it will impact the bottom line. So that means looking at what would be the benefit to the organizations—everything gets sold on benefits—if there is concern about turnover or if there is concern about retention. Oftentimes organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars recruiting women and people of color, and then when they do an audit three years out, those people are not there anymore. So the organization is spending a lot of money to recruit but not develop and retain. The more you can do to assess what the problems are and what the benefits would be to the organization, the better job you can do of selling it.

NFC: What types of changes have you seen in the ways training is delivered with the improvements in technology?

Wallach: Well, certainly more online training.

NFC: Is that an improvement? Do you think online training takes away from the real learning experience—the face-to-face interaction and the human contact?

Wallach: I think it’s a compromise. An assumption that is not fully developed with the research is that some people learn in a particular way. There are many people who don’t learn best sitting and listening. I think computer-based learning is terrific. You get it when you need it. One of the most important things is to get the information when you need it. What I need is just-in-time learning and that’s what these Management Learning Groups are about. “I have to take care of it or do it today.” “It’s a real problem right now and this is what I need help with.” Maybe, I took my management class four years ago, I won’t remember any of it. All of the research that’s been done shows that the way people retain the most information is through experience, discussion, discovery and mostly teaching. You never learn anything as well as when you have to teach it to someone else and that’s why the Management Learning Groups were designed that way.

NFC: Technology takes away from some of those elements: experience, discussion.

Wallach: I think particularly skill learning can be done online. You don’t need to be in a classroom to learn how to type or do many other things.

NFC: OK, technology helps us, but so does a little luck. You have studied the impact of luck on success. What are the four different types of luck and how do they impact us?

Wallach: Luck by accident is the first kind of luck. Something happens and you don’t have any control of it. You have blue eyes. You were born in Bosnia—good luck, bad luck. The second kind is luck in retrospect. One woman told me that she was late to her freshman year English class, there was one seat left, she took it and it turned out she married the guy sitting next to her. You didn’t know it was lucky and suddenly it turns out to be lucky and you didn’t know until you looked back. Now, no luck can be controlled, but some luck can be influenced. The two kinds of luck I just discussed cannot be influenced.
  The third kind of luck is luck by opportunity. Something happens and you have to take advantage of it. Someone once told me that she was selling computers and she met someone on a flight who said he was interested. She didn’t think he was sincere. Two weeks later she sent the information and gave a follow-up call. The man said, “I was really interested but I’ve already bought them.” You have to keep your eye open for the opportunity. Luck by opportunity can be influenced.
So can luck by design. For example, you have a car you want to sell. You tell everyone you know, you put the word out, put an ad in the newspaper and you do everything possible to sell it. You know what your goal is—to sell the car—you just don’t know how you’re going to do it. The big skill there of course is networking.

NFC: What are some of the other core skills that go along with these different types of luck?

Wallach: Questioning assumptions is one of them. How do you really see the world in a different way? How do you not become victim of how you see the world? When you think about arguments or disagreements, how many of them have to do with misunderstandings, misassumptions and not seeing the world from the other person’s point of view?
  The second is risk taking. Third, networking—in its fullest extent. People will often say to me, “I need to find a job; I need to get a network.” They’re only about four years too late. Networks are not for when you need them. Networks are exactly that—supportive relationships with people where you continue to help each other.
Another is taking advantage of chance. It happens in everyone’s life, you just have to be looking for it. If all you do is have a goal and you keep your eyes on the goal, then you’ll just watch your feet walk and you’ll miss out on all the opportunities that were there. You need to have a goal but you also need to make your own luck. So it’s like juggling where both pieces work together.

NFC: Can you use these skills to influence or control your luck?

Wallach: You cannot control it, but you can influence it. People can make their own luck. When you look at the people who are the most successful, in whatever way they want to measure success in the world, they’re the people who have taken advantage of opportunity, people who have broad networks of people and connections. They are the people who are willing to take some risks. You look at those skills and you’ll see that’s true.

NFC: You state that your work is to keep your employees happy and productive—that’s a tough job.

Wallach: It really is. But you know companies pay for 100 percent of someone’s time and often they don’t get 100 percent of their energy, even when they’re at work. My job is to help people focus on what they’re being paid to do, and if they’re happy they will. Sometimes they’re not in the right job, then I can help them find the right job—in or out of the organization. Happy employees make happy customers.

NFC: How do you stay motivated?

Wallach: I think a lot of how we replenish ourselves has to do with our attitude about life, how we see the world and how we see ourselves in it. I always look at my career and I ask, “Am I learning?” “Am I making a positive difference in the world?” “Am I having fun?” And ultimately, “Am I living with integrity and intent?” And that’s really how I judge what I’m doing.

The very best jobs are the ones that you make, that fit your skills, interests and motivations. And that’s what mine is, and it keeps changing. There is always something new and exciting.

NFC: From talking to you, I can tell that you love what you do.

Wallach: I do, and everyday is different. I feel like everyday is my birthday. I never know what’s going to happen. I get to meet new people and have new challenges. I get to be creative and I feel very blessed.

March 2001 News for a Change Homepage

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