Sunday, October 31, 2010

Where are Your Blockers?

Those of you who know me are well aware that I waste far too much time each fall watching college football. I make no apologies...I love it. Like any sports fan, I enjoy sports analogies. So, couple that with my passion to share insights and help others navigate their careers, well you know where I am headed.

One of the many great things about my current job is that I get to speak with each and every newly minted Information Warfare Officer as they begin their journey in our Information Warfare Basic Course (IWBC). The last time I addressed the group, I spoke of "Things I Did Not Learn In The Basic Course." Since then, I have enjoyed individual sessions with young Sailors and in one recent session a young man made it a point to personally acknowledge that he alone was responsible for his career. There was a time when I truly believed that to be the case for everyone, but I no longer see it that way.

Just like football where the league is filled with great running backs, the workplace is filled with tremendous talent (at least that is the case where I work). When all running backs have similar physical attributes and are equally adept at finding the open field, more often than not, the difference in outcome is determined by the blockers they have in front of them. Though few of us in the workplace have the physical attributes of a collegiate running back (I personally know of none), we do usually start our respective careers on equal footing with similar levels of both ability and potential. What makes the difference for most of us is the number of people we give reason to block for us along the way. I say "give reason" because not everyone is willing to go out of their way to create opportunities for those running in their wake. As someone who takes great pride in blocking for others, my default is to help another gain yardage. That said, the level of effort I use after initial contact varies on the attributes of the individual for whom I am blocking. There are some for whom I call in additional blockers; there are some who, when they fumble the ball, I stop to pick it up and put it back in their hands; and there are still others whom I help to tackle (Commitment to the Institution).

I guess all I am trying to say is that as individuals we need to do our part to give others reason to help us to reach career goals. And as we begin to find ourselves in positions to mentor others, we should be deliberate in our levels of support. We must consider our responsibility to look out for our best and brightest, to force everyone to reach toward their potential in the process, and to ensure we demonstrate a commitment to the insitution by providing off-ramps for those who aren't meeting the mark.

WE are responsible for our careers and, yes, WE are dependent on many others to help us achieve our goals and reach our potential. The best running back rarely has the most yards, the most touchdowns or wins the Heisman, but it's the running back behind the best line that may very well have all three.

Build your line, run hard and block for those in your wake!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Focus on Shortcomings and Watch Strengths Atrophy

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending my second grade son's parent-teacher conference. When considering the standards of measure our school has chosen, I left the hour long session feeling very good about the school, the teacher and my son's performance. I use the preceding caveat because I recognize that it is the measures we choose that drive our behavior and give us reason to claim success or acknowledge failure. As you might guess, I don't think much of these particular metrics, the ones chosen to measure academic success, nor do I truly believe that all children of the same age should be measured against the same standard. It is this single standard, assembly line mentality that stifles creativity, conditions our children to become extrinsically motivated (if we parents haven't already started them on this path), and attempts to produce cookie cutter young adults. Though I am passionate on that subject, I wanted to focus on the aspect of the conversation that most resonated with me: the typically held philosophy that it is more important to focus on the weaknesses than build upon our strengths.

I am a firm believer that we should focus on leveraging our strengths while knowing ourselves well enough to acknowledge our areas for improvement. The specifics regarding my son are not important, but if you know me and my wife you might guess that his penmanship is lacking and he is not overly communicative in public settings (evidently inherited traits). At the same time, his other attributes are well above average (again, when measured against the accepted standard). Rather than tell us that we should build upon his interest and ability in math with more challenging work or introduce books that would continue to build upon what is apparently a relatively strong vocabulary, we hear from the teacher that we need to focus our attention on helping him to write more legibly and develop his written communication skills. The two things that not surprisingly, he dislikes most.

Coincidentally, my mid-term counseling at work was this week and I was pleased to have my supervisor take a different approach. She documented my strengths, acknowledged my areas for improvement and encouraged me to do two things:

- Focus on leveraging my strengths
- Find ways to leverage the strengths of others to complement my weaknesses

Why is it that our academic culture (at least in K-12) is so different than our real world culture? Is it the theory that childhood, including schooling and home-life, is a time to prepare one for life? If that is the case, why is it that we promote such an incongruent mindset? (I argue that childhood IS life and not a preparation period, but I digress.) Why do we frown upon failure, focus on developing skillsets we don't necessarily enjoy (which correlate strongly to doing well), and attempt to build carbon copy kids? Have we not learned from our country's success in the computer industry led by people who are not afraid to fail, focus on doing what they love, and celebrate individuality? Is it any surprise that a good portion of our leaders in the industry in which we lead the world were not particularly good students (at least when using our traditional measure)?

My son is in school by his choice. He was unschooled last year but decided that his time riding the bus, playing with friends at recess, and sharing stories at lunchtime at school are worth sitting in a classroom for the majority of the day. Using traditional second grade metrics, I have seen him perform admirably. At the same time, I have witnessed the thirst for knowledge he once had dissipate. He is quickly becoming the very student I was: a student focused on the grades and not the learning, a child focused on the social aspects of school and not the education. I have come to the conclusion that traditional school is often times a wasted youth. The metrics we choose are the very reason the products of traditional US schooling are not faring as well as our foreign counterparts. Life is about choice (even for a seven year old) and I hope that he soon chooses to return to a life that celebrated individuality, yearned to quench a continual thirst for knowledge and focused on fully exploring strengths, passions and potential. Until then, we will be focusing on penmanship and written communication, the two things he despises the most.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Diversity Box

Earlier this week a colleague was kind enough to share some very insightful feedback on a selection process in which few have meaningful visibility. Within his feedback, I was struck by a statement regarding the role of diversity in the selection process. Though he was very careful to clarify diversity had no meaningful impact in the selection, when it came to checking a box in the application regarding the self-reporting of one's race/ethnicity, he did "Recommend against "Declined to Respond" option." The reason why I gave that statement so much consideration is because I see it as yet another disconnect between our actions and the desired effect. We acknowledge that the diversity we seek is diversity of thought, but the process through which we are choosing to get there is based on a rather significant assumption. That assumption is people who look different, think different.

Over the years, I have met people who look nothing like me, yet think much like me. At the same time, I have met many people who looked a lot like me (poor souls), yet thought very differently. Three weeks ago I had the privilege of addressing our most recent Information Warfare Basic Course graduates. Not surprisingly the audience was predominately white males with a few women and otherwise diverse students sprinkled throughout...all there on their own merit. As part of my talk I spoke on this very subject...Diversity of Thought. While doing so, I acknowledged that we by and large looked the same and began canvassing the group. Raise your hands if you are...

A liberal arts major?
An engineer?
A product of USNA? OCS? STA-21?
A Lateral Transfer?
Prior enlisted? Information Dominance Corps Rate? Other Rate?

There were a few other categories, but I think you get the point. Turns out the audience was pretty diverse after all, but by a completely different set of metrics. That said, there is no way to measure "Diversity of Thought" given any of our selection processes (everything is selection by proxy with no personal interface between the selection authority and the candidate). In fact, over time we appear to do our best to promote a cookie cutter mindset where over time we funnel our best and brightest through similar carer paths where we "benefit" from similar experiences, grow similar knowledge, skills and abilities and make our way towards a singular mindset. So yes, we can ensure we have diverse physical characteristics, but clearly don't seem to be overly interested in ensuring diversity of thought. Despite the fact that the diversity measures I used when addressing the class were deliberate upon their selection to our wardroom (that was my last job, so I had a good idea about the educational/experiential diversity before I asked for a show if hands), so will be the migration towards a singular mindset as their careers progress. It appears that regardless of what you bring to the table, as you near the head of the table the variance in individual thought will diminish. We will make sure of that!

We continue to say we are blind to race, ethnicity and gender but we want people to check a voluntary box? I respect the opinions of my colleagues and this person in particular. Even so, I will never advise a Sailor as to how or whether to check a diversity box.