Tuesday, November 29, 2011

To Better the Best

Is there a point in your career when it’s no longer wise to seek professional development?

About ten months ago, a new employer recruited “Brian,” a senior executive. By their own account, it was a long, expensive search for a tough-to-fill, key role. In place for a month, Brian approached the head of HR to request an executive coach for support as he assimilated into the complex, matrixed multinational. The HR head rebuffed, “I thought you were qualified when we hired you.” Three weeks ago, Brian called me. He had just accepted a job offer from a higher tier competitor, which included one year of executive coaching in addition to other generous terms.

We’re accustomed to professionally developing High Potentials.  Progressive organizations dangle it as a perk for which up-and-comers vie.  Yet, it’s hard to deny there’s a point where we view this differently. At a certain career stage or role, we expect the incumbent to have already “arrived.” What would you think of your CFO wanting to learn more finance?  Your General Counsel seeking confirmation about the law?  How about the CEO requesting leadership coaching?

In a recent piece for The New Yorker entitled Personal Best, physician and bestselling author Atul Gawande challenges the successful and accomplished to engage a coach to improve some area of professional performance. Already deeply experienced and highly skilled, Gawande describes how he engaged a retired surgeon from his residency to further hone his specialized technical skills in endocrine surgery. In the comprehensive and nuanced article, he admirably and unflinchingly self-discloses some cases where he underperformed. He goes on to describe how the coaching led him to performance improvements.
When it comes to supporting senior executives with their leadership and team effectiveness skills, I can vouch for two consistent success predictors. The first is whether the “coachee” will be – like Gawande – unsentimentally open about his or her performance. The second is whether the coachee’s key constituencies can handle it. Gawande describes the awkwardness of explaining a coach’s presence to his surgical team and to a patient awaiting anesthesia.  Wait, you mean my expert isn’t the expert?

Gawande cites Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal to point out the inherent irony. There’s no surprise when the world’s elite athletes work closely with a coach. We’d be shocked to hear otherwise. Yet, some institutions – like Brian’s former employer – expect their top performers fully baked. I find this as unrealistic on Mahogany Row as it is on the 50-yard line at Giants Stadium. That’s because we all benefit from some scrutiny to adhere to form, prevent bad outcomes and prepare for future challenges.

Maybe it’s time for organizations to take material steps to destigmatize executive-level performance improvement mechanisms. Build a rigorous program, announce it to the world, measure the results and publish for all to see.  Create pull by providing the support first to the highest achieving, most widely acclaimed performers.  Brand it as a perquisite; not remediation.  Let’s encourage unselfconscious lifelong learning in our institutions.

What do you fear more: death or public speaking?

A few years ago a survey revealed that if offered the choice between death or speaking in front of an audience, more people preferred the former to the latter!

Well known direct marketing guru, Drayton Bird knows all about this – he has spoken in 50 countries and has generated £250,000 in revenue in doing so.

He says …”When I started I was more frightened than you could ever be. It took tranquillisers and drink to summon up the guts to face an audience.”

Yet it's hard to really get ahead without being able to speak or make presentations. And most of us will use PowerPoint.

Somebody has now done research that shows PowerPoint presentations do more harm than good - and can put people to sleep.

This was written by someone else who sounds quite pleased with himself:

"We've all heard the phrase 'death by PowerPoint' - that numbing feeling the brain suffers as confusing slide after confusing slide follow one another. I have to do a lot of public speaking, and am one of those lucky people who think on their feet, without being afflicted by blind panic. But I couldn't help feeling that the good feedback I got from audiences wasn't just because I was a brilliant speaker. I'm not.

"The common factor between my own presentations and others which were far better informed, researched and presented, was that they used PowerPoint and I didn't. Eventually, it dawned on me that PowerPoint really does ruin a good speech."

I doubt whether any of us will give up using PowerPoint, but understanding the reasons why PowerPoint presentations fail might help us make our next presentation a bit better:

1.    The audience is torn between looking at you and looking at the slide.
2.    If you have lots of words on the slide, they'll look more at them than at you.
3.    Words are not as interesting or as memorable as pictures.
4.    Most speakers start by talking about themselves or their firms - deeply boring to the audience (just as it is in copy or websites).
5.    By the time they do start talking about benefits, the audience has given up.
6.    Most presentations lack a logical structure - and are too long.
7.    People worry more about style - delivery - than on content: what the audience will be able to do better as a result.

So what can we learn from this?

•    Plan presentations with the end objective in mind – in other words, worry more about the results of the presentation than the presentation itself
•    Words and pictures working together are more memorable than words alone and
•    Use PowerPoint as a great "crib-sheet" for you by using the notes function.