In many ways, this has been the decade of STEM and women’s leadership. There are hundreds of initiatives nationwide supporting increased participation by girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs, and just as many programs and organizations advocating for women leaders.
But there’s a gap between the investment in encouraging technical careers for girls and young women and the ROI in terms of the actual number of women who make it to management-level positions in science, technology, enginnering, or math (STEM), as this chart shows:
Female ‘Engineering Exiles’ – Why Are Women Leaving STEM Fields?
I joined CCL in 2016 after a long career in Silicon Valley, where I worked in technology marketing and product management with software and networking companies. I’ve reported to VPs and CEOs who were engineers, and have always worked closely with engineering teams in defining new products. There’s always been significant representation of women in staff engineer roles, but as their careers progressed, I noticed that very few moved into engineering and technical leadership roles — many women with STEM expertise ended up in marketing and product management positions instead.
These ‘engineering exiles’ were always very successful, combining technical talent with the listening and communication skills required to translate customer needs into product plans, and to work with engineers to design them.
It always left me wondering:
Why do so many women leave technical and engineering career paths?
Why is the quit rate so much higher for women in STEM fields than men?
And what would it take to keep them progressing into technical and engineering leadership roles?
This dilemma came back into focus during my first month at CCL when I met one of these ‘engineering exiles’ (we have many here!), Senior Faculty Kelly Simmons. Kelly was an engineer at Hewlett-Packard early on, but left to build a career in leadership development. And she was interested in seeing how we could tackle this challenge.
She had a strong relationship as a speaker and participant in IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) events, a respected non-profit organization with a similar mission to ours. In 2016, we met with the WIE Silicon Valley chapter to see how we could help our technical sisters. And thus CCL’s Advancing Technical Women program was conceived.
Lean Startup Approach, Accelerating Time to Market
Since Kelly and I are both devotees of design thinking and lean startup methodologies, we formed our own little ‘startup’ and began talking to potential sponsors and participants about some of the leadership tools and concepts that could help technical women overcome the barriers they face in mid-career. Kelly drew on decades of CCL research about women’s issues and leadership in general, bringing in ideas from across CCL globally, including research, faculty, digital products, coaching, and more.
Several of the key concepts were trialed in a 2-hour workshop with 50 women technologists at the IEEE WIE International Leadership Conference. The group was enthusiastic and wanted more, so we were confident we could build a “minimum viable product” (or MVP) and were ready for a pilot.
PayPal agreed to host our first pilot at its beautiful site in San Jose, and many of the Learning & Development and Diversity & Inclusion teams we sought input from were excited to send participants. The first pilot of Advancing Technical Women concluded its successful inaugural run in April 2017, with 25 mid-level women in STEM jobs participating. The second pilot occurred Nov. 1, 2017, again at PayPal, with 35 women from across the U.S., and more pilots followed in early 2018.
Top Takeaways and Changes to Come
Following the pilots, our Evaluation Team surveyed participants, and we conducted more “Lean Startup”-style interviews with program sponsors and engineering managers who sent participants to the program. We received lots of feedback on areas to tweak, expand, and improve our leadership training program for women in STEM careers. A few key takeaways:
Research matters. Technologists are driven to ask questions and demand proof. The fact that ATW content is based on decades of research from CCL and others made it extremely credible to this audience. We watched women’s attitudes change from skeptical to enthusiastic once they understood the research behind program concepts.
It’s a journey. The women in the pilots were able to apply the learnings and tools over the 6-month period and could see tangible benefits over time. Many of them even got promotions or expanded their staffs, and one woman even secured a coveted speaking engagement at a technical conference — and they gave full credit to ATW.
Focus on actions, no fluff. After all, these are engineers! There were specific challenging assignments they had to accomplish in their work environment, along with longer term action plans that really made the learning stick.
Keep the relationships going. The group established a community and network of support that they want to continue. Since most are in male-dominated work environments, this group provides a safe place to brainstorm, test ideas, and practice.
Leveraging Technology Platforms and Tools
Since the first session had an accelerated time to market, we did it on a shoestring, managing participant interactions manually. We later added many more sophisticated features, including an online learning platform that tracks progress and assignments, builds community, and keeps the group engaged throughout the 6 months and beyond.
We’ve also recognized that managing and collaborating often take place more in virtual settings than face-to-face, so we want to reflect that real-world environment. We added a virtual option for the final closing session to teach participants how to be as impactful online as in person.
Leadership Training for Women In STEM: Looking Ahead
In keeping with our mission “To advance the understanding, practice and development of leadership for the benefit of society worldwide,” our goal is to expand the scope of this program for women in STEM more globally. In addition to offering the program throughout the U.S., many of the companies that participated in the pilot have large engineering populations in China and India, where technical women are even more challenged.
We also want to work with women’s leadership organizations to offer the program to their memberships. And we want to bring the Advancing Technical Women program to other technical, “hard skills,” male-dominated professions. CCL has female faculty members who are “exiles” from aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and other industries where this program could be equally valuable.
In our data-intensive, technology driven world, the need for engineering, technical, and scientific professions is growing exponentially. Our research-based approach and heritage in women’s leadership is a perfect fit — and the ATW is a natural extension of our service offerings. We’re looking forward to offering leadership training for women in STEM to make a dent in that “Quit Rate” statistic and help these women become thriving leaders and contributors in these exciting technical fields.
We work closely with many leaders who are running functions or divisions in large organizations. They carry titles such as vice president or senior director and have responsibilities for one or more functions — such as sales, marketing, finance, operations, engineering, technology, legal, and human resources. They run business units and geographic regions. Functional leaders typically manage groups of more than 500 people, have budgets in excess of $500M, and are often on a shortlist to be COO or CEO.
What leadership competencies are most important for success in a functional leadership role? And how well do leaders perform in these critically important areas?
We surveyed nearly 1,000 leaders to find out. From a list of 13 competencies for leading the function, here are the Top 5 that emerged:
Executive communication. Expresses ideas clearly and uses language to build common understanding.
Execution and results. Aligns resources to accomplish key objectives and assigns clear accountability for important objectives. Achieves meaningful accomplishments.
Influence. Inspires and motivates others to take action.
Strategic perspective. Gains perspective and balances the tension between daily tasks and strategic actions that impact the long-term viability of the organization.
Working across boundaries. Works across the organization to build collaborative relationships.
4 Key Competencies Required for Leading a Function or Division | CCL - YouTube
The leaders surveyed rated themselves in terms of their effectiveness in the 13 critical competencies. Bosses, peers, superiors, and direct reports also rated the effectiveness of the leader. Each rater chooses their 7 “most important” competencies for the functional leader’s success in the organization from the list of 13. Then we ranked these competencies from highest to lowest based on how frequently they were selected as most important.
We looked at how the different rater groups responded. There was high agreement among all raters that executive communication, execution and results, influence and strategic perspective are in the top tier.
Not surprisingly, peers and bosses placed more importance on “working across boundaries” than direct reports did (who are themselves mid- to senior-level managers). For peers and bosses, “understanding the enterprise” was also in the Top 7 — for direct reports, “vision” held a top spot.
But functional leaders cannot ignore the lower ranked competencies.
Engagement, understanding the enterprise, vision, innovation, executive presence and approachability, self-awareness, learning agility, and leading globally are still vitally important skills. Based on our experiences with these senior leaders, we see all of the 13 competencies are essential. One main reason — they’re interconnected.
For example, self-awareness is critical to understanding how to improve your influence and executive communication. Second, the importance of a competency is dependent on the current role and the organization. Leading globally, for instance, was lowest on the list overall but was given higher importance in situations where leaders were in global roles in a global organization.
While every competency may not be critical all the time, to be exceptional, functional leaders need to be effective in all 13 areas.
Leaders shape our nation, communities, and organizations.
We need good leaders to help guide us and make the essential large-scale decisions that keep the world moving.
Our society is usually quick to identify a bad leader, but how to identify a good one? What would most people say makes a good leader?
The Characteristics of a Good Leader
Based on our research, we’ve found that great leaders consistently possess these 10 core traits:
Ability to delegate
Sense of humor
Ability to inspire
While many powerful and successful leaders haven’t exhibited all of these character traits, and the definition of a good leader can be quite ambiguous, most good leaders do leverage at least some of these characteristics.
Take someone you view as a great leader. How many of these characteristics do they express?
If the characteristics of a good leader above don’t describe you, don’t panic — there are ways for you to improve upon your leadership capabilities. Many say leaders are born not made, but we feel that’s far from the truth.
As Forum Corp. CEO Andrew Graham explains: “If you do not see these signs in yourself, fear not. It is all about getting… over the neurological hurdles that hold you back from being a great leader.”
Like any craft, leadership requires that you learn from your mistakes and continually work at strengthening your weaknesses. Seek out a mentor that you admire. Jot down the characteristics that you feel makes them a great leader. Then ask yourself, How do I compare?
Chances are, they weren’t always a great leader, so determine what they did along the way to become the leader they are today.
When done correctly, yes: leadership development works. And more than that: it’s essential.
If your organization commits to developing its leaders, you can expect to gain a competitive advantage by improving the bottom line; attracting, developing, and retaining talent; driving strategy execution; and increasing your success when navigating change. It can be hard to measure the value or ROI of a program, especially without clearly defined parameters, but it can be done.
How do we know? Because we’ve studied it.
An extensive analysis of global data proves that leadership development programs can create a measurable impact by:
Making leadership development a learning process rather than an event.
Informing the learning experience with cutting edge, global research.
Tying what participants learn in the classroom to key leadership challenges they face on the job.
At CCL, we implement 2 processes to gather feedback about the quality and impact of our programs, seeking input from both participants and their peers. Based on data from more than 5,000 program participants around the world — as well as 8,765 of their colleagues — we can confidently assert that leadership development works.
Virtually all of the participants surveyed (99%) said they achieved success on their target goals, be it related to communication, self-awareness, implementing change, or other areas.
A whopping 97% also told us 3 other things:
97% said that the program better prepared them for future leadership responsibilities.
97% said that the lessons they learned were relevant to their challenges as leaders.
97% said that colleagues who went through one of our programs were able to translate what they learned into organizational impact, especially when it comes to management capabilities, overall effectiveness, cross-boundary collaboration, and openness to diverse perspectives.
And about 95% also said they were more effective as a leader as a result of our program and that they were able to apply what they learned to their job, meaning that our programs are relevant to their specific experiences. And more than 80% of participants’ colleagues said that the participant was better than other leaders within or outside their organization after going through the program.
These results aren’t automatic, of course. There are plenty of leadership development initiatives or programs that fall short. A lack of senior-level support, expecting large-scale change without aligning a program with business strategy, or overselling the power of a single experience or tool are some of the common pitfalls for leadership development programs.
So the next time you hear someone ask, “Does leadership development really work?” you can tell them yes, it does. If it’s a carefully planned, researched-based programs led by a specialized, ranked institution. In fact, isn’t just likely to work by improving your leaders and organization — the evidence indicates it’s practically a certainty.
360-degree assessments are critical tools that are used in a wide array of leadership development initiatives.
The primary use of these assessments is to provide leaders with feedback on their job performance from multiple perspectives, including the leader’s self-perception and perceptions held by the leader’s direct reports, peers, bosses, and superiors.
This 360-degree feedback is essential for helping leaders identify their strengths and development needs, and to improve their self-awareness. This information also tells leaders what they need to improve in order to take their leadership skills to the next level.
A leader might learn that they’re perceived as inept at delegating work responsibilities. As a result, the leader may set a development goal of delegating a couple relevant tasks per week to each of their direct reports.
Development goals can be quite simple in nature, and if achieved, can have a profound impact on a leader’s performance and on the development and morale of their work team.
Although 360-degree assessments have been widely and effectively used to help leaders with their development efforts for several decades, there are many questions regarding the use of 360s that haven’t been adequately answered. Here are 3 examples:
Are ratings on the 2 primary components of leadership — task and interpersonal skills (such as setting direction and resolving conflict, respectively) — indicative of whether leaders will be perceived as being at risk of career derailment?
Which rating sources (self, direct reports, peers, or supervisors) are most important to pay attention to in a 360-degree feedback report?
Overall, which components of 360-assessment results are most predictive of future career derailment?
A study conducted by researchers at CCL, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and the State University of New York at Binghamton aimed to answer these questions.
Our study found that:
Leaders who had lower ratings on task and interpersonal aspects of leadership were perceived as being at greater risk of derailing in their careers as compared to leaders who had higher ratings of task and interpersonal leadership.
Leaders’ self-ratings of their task and interpersonal leadership skills tend to be poor indicators of whether others perceive them to be at risk of career derailment.
Peer, direct report, and supervisor ratings of task and interpersonal leadership tend to be reasonably good indicators of whether a leader is perceived to be at risk of experiencing career derailment. However, peer ratings of leadership tend to be the best predictor of whether a leader is at risk of derailing.
When discrepancies exist between self- and observer ratings, over-raters (leaders whose self-ratings are higher than their observers’ ratings) tend to be perceived as being more at risk of career derailment than under-raters (leaders whose self-ratings are lower than their observers’ ratings).
Based on these findings, here are the 3 key takeaways from our study:
1.Improving your task and interpersonal leadership skills will likely reduce your risk of experiencing career derailment.
Task leadership includes work responsibilities such as delegating, organizing work, setting a work team’s direction, and taking charge or action when needed. Interpersonal leadership includes things such as praising direct reports for their hard work, mentoring and coaching direct reports, resolving a group’s interpersonal conflict, and negotiating effectively with others.
2.All rating sources in a 360-degree feedback report matter. While leaders should pay attention to self, direct report, peer, and supervisor ratings, they may want to give extra weight or attention to peer ratings of their leadership skill.
3.Self-ratings are especially useful in one important way — they enable leaders to see how they rate themselves on leadership relative to their direct reports, peers, and supervisors. How leaders rate themselves in relation to their raters provides an indication of their perceived risk level of derailing in their careers.
Specifically, if leaders receive higher leadership ratings and their self-ratings are in agreement with their raters’ ratings, they tend to be more self-aware and aren’t very likely to derail in their careers.
On the other hand, if leaders discover that they are over-raters, and thus tend to score themselves higher than their raters, they have a higher risk of career derailment than if they under-rated themselves.
In sum, 360-degree assessments provide valuable feedback to leaders and play a critical role in facilitating leaders’ growth and development over the course of their careers. Despite their effectiveness, however, we must continue to investigate the use of 360s so that we can leverage them even more effectively in leadership development initiatives in the future.
The content of this blog is based on the following publication: Braddy, P. W., Gooty, J., Fleenor, J. W., & Yammarino, F. J. (2014). Leader behaviors and career derailment potential: A multi-analytic method examination of rating source and self-other agreement. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 373-390.
Getting away from the office for professional development is never easy. Travel to an offsite training location is an investment.
But it’s worth it – for your sake and for your organization’s. And you can be confident that the impact of your investment can be measured.
The below infographic tells the story of how the anonymity and safety of our flagship Leadership Development Program (LDP)® offers a chance to get away from the workplace – and then come back, completely transformed and ready to take on the big challenges.
Here’s the data about offsite training at LDP, from the voices of some of our 50,000 alumni:
This infographic sums up how our nearly 50 years of leadership research make this offsite training a life-changing experience that’s worth every minute out of the office.
LDP helps you become a better leader by unearthing your challenges and strengths to highlight who you are…and who you could be. It’s intense. It’s about you. And it’s worth it.
Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity: You may be sick of the concepts the VUCA acronym represents — or simply tired of the acronym itself.
In recent years, many organizations have started liberally using the term as a way to articulate or find a metaphor for describing the changing world in which we live, work, lead, and play. But this is often done without digging into its meaning.
For several years, we’ve been approached by clients not only to design and deliver programs that help their managers lead through the turbulence that characterizes the modern world, but also specifically to avoid using the term VUCA.
We think this is partly because of its military origins and partly because VUCA seems to capture neither what they’re experiencing, nor how to lead through it.
A VUCA Alternative: RUPT
In response, we tapped our own knowledge and research about leading in complexity and developed an acronym that more readily connects the experience of turbulence with the leadership necessary to navigate the turbulence.
The acronym is a word in its own right, but not typically used alone: RUPT. As an acronym, its stands for Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical, and Tangled:
Rapid: The changes we experience come at us quickly. They overlap with each other like waves emerging from different sources crashing in mid-ocean.
Unpredictable: We can analyze, strategize, and predict the future, but then something totally unexpected emerges (rapidly), challenging our assumptions and causing us to reframe our thinking.
Paradoxical: As leaders, we’re so easily lured into believing complex challenges are problems with one right solution, rather than seeing them as polarities that must be leveraged if our teams and organizations are to be effective in both the short and long term. For example, we must innovate for the long term, yet we have current businesses that must be managed both in the short and long term. We might be tempted to choose one or the other, but even for the short term, we really need to do both.
Tangled: Everything is connected to everything else. We hear terms that imply the connectedness of everything, like “the global village.” We live in multiple ecosystems, all of them having internal and external connections that we might overlook in our attempts to strategize and implement strategy effectively.
Rumpere, in Latin, means “to break, to burst.” With the prefix ab-, or “off,” the Latin forms abrumpere, “to break off.” And abruptus is the origin of the English word abrupt.
Rupture is an English word that still retains the literal meaning of “bursting,” as do disrupt and interrupt, all are derived from the same rumpere.
Dis-rupt-tion happens when RUPT is in play and leadership fumbles. Here are 3 possible scenarios:
When an organization isn’t agile, or it over-relies on prediction, to the detriment of adapting.
When the paradoxical tension between rapid adaptation and stable prediction (to name just one of many paradoxical tensions) freezes leadership.
When rapid, unpredictable paradoxes are embedded in “tangled” causes and effect chaotic systems, triggering reactions that are more subjective than linear or logical.
If these RUPT situations sound all too familiar, here are 3 ways you can approach them.
Nurturing and Practicing Learning Agility
Since the turbulence of RUPT is relentless and nothing can be taken for granted, learning agility is essential.
CCL’s George Hallenbeck defines learning agility as: “the ability and willingness to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new and challenging conditions.” Hallenbeck goes on to say: “It is an essential skill for leaders during times of change when both problems and their solutions lack clarity.”
The developmental experiences must be designed around leaders’ actual complex (RUPT) challenges so that they’re equipped with the mindset, skillset, and toolset to handle these and further challenges.
Developing Leadership Across Divides
We’ve researched and developed tools and processes that enable leaders to collaborate effectively across various forms of divides found within and external to their organizations. This enables leaders to create shared direction, alignment, and commitment so that they collaboratively develop innovative solutions to their RUPT challenges through a process of:
Creating safety within their own groups.
Genuinely respecting differences with others.
Developing personal trust with others with whom they need to collaborate.
Building community, and true lasting interdependence.
Leveraging Polarities Inherent in Complex Challenges
When leaders are confronted with complex challenges amidst RUPT, they tend to tap their well-developed problem-solving skills.
Such an approach can add even more complexity. Leaders need to take their thinking to a new level by recognizing seemingly unresolvable challenges not as problems to be solved but as polarities to be leveraged — to develop a mindset shifting from “either/or” thinking and decision-making to “both/and.”
When faced with the complex challenges riddled with competing priorities, a problem-solving approach applied independent of polarity thinking can lead to the worst of both worlds: a move towards the greatest fear associated with each dimension of the challenge rather than the desired and greatest purpose of thinking and acting in terms of polarities.
We often work with high potentials and top talents — people that organizations identify as a crucial component in achieving organizational results.
Top talents are key for organizational transformation and growth, but have you ever thought about the hidden talent in your organization? What if those who weren’t identified as key talent using strict organizational measurements were viewed differently? How much more innovative, effective, strong, and robust could your organization potentially be with a substantial additional amount of top talent?
Carol Dweck, a professor of Stanford University and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains that her research shows that “managers see more leadership potential in their employees when their companies adopt a growth mindset — the belief that talent should be developed in everyone, not viewed as a fixed, innate gift that some have, and others don’t.”
What do organizations with a growth mindset approach do to nurture their top talent, and work to identify hidden potential?
Satya Nedella, the CEO of Microsoft, encourages a growth mindset in every individual in his organization and committed to develop and build “a growth mindset organizational culture” at the company. He believes that adopting a growth mindset — the love for learning, openness, and hard work — is a crucial ingredient for individual and organizational transformation.
Nadella believes that a growth mindset culture defines the soul of the company. The soul of the company reflects on the way people collaborate and treat each other, the way they collectively respond and stay resilient in the face of rapid change, and how invested they are in new innovations. All of these behaviors and actions are the reflection of the company’s identity, which is part of Microsoft’s journey towards transformation. Nadella believes in the collective talent at Microsoft and strongly believes in unleashing everyone’s talent.
Talent development is a process that’s designed to build knowledge, skills, and abilities so that employees can achieve their potential and their organizations can excel and grow. According to the traditional approach on talent development, a company identifies a group of future leaders by measuring key competencies. But what if you decide to adopt a growth mindset, and as a result you believe that everyone has potential, and that talent is neither innate nor static?
Microsoft created a “Talent Talks” program as an additional approach for talent identification.
Each year, the CEO and his senior leadership team meet to review their employees to identify hidden talent. They discuss possibilities for moving people up and across teams, and brainstorm methods of tapping into specific capabilities, as well as extended skills and building experiences for those talents who weren’t included in the traditional, high-potential approach.
Google is also making the shift towards a growth mindset approach to talent, especially in its hiring process. According to Dweck, this shift is showed by hiring more people who lack college degrees, but who have proved that they’re capable, independent learners. That approach follows the belief that talent isn’t static, and that you can actually achieve a lot by hard work and openness for learning.
Zappos, a major shoe retailer, is another example of a company that believes in the importance of a growth mindset and continued learning when it comes to talent development. Zappos maintains a “wishes list” of all its employees. The list is available to everyone in the organization. Employees post things they’re interested in learning and new skills that they’d like to develop, and they’re connected with other people in the organization who have these skills. In that way, Zappos creates a growth mindset culture of openness, love for learning, and development.
Like Microsoft, Google, and Zappos, we strongly believe in a growth mindset approach when it comes to developing leaders at all levels. We think that leaders are made, not born, and believe that everyone can improve, grow, and strive to reach their full potential.
Part of the key to success is learning agility, a fundamental competency at any level. That’s why we teach learning agility in all our leadership programs, from our flagship Leadership Development Program to our Leadership At the Peak program designed for the C-suite. If you’re interested in growing, advancing, and thriving in a changing world, learning agility will be an essential part of your process. And for organizations who want to do the same, a growth mindset could be equally as important.
These challenges are often unforeseen by freelancers when they start their independent careers, so being aware of them helps protect aspiring freelancers from being blindsided. That’s part of the equation for success, but just being prepared isn’t enough. You also need the skills to adapt to and overcome challenges, because they tend to be persistent in nature.
Fortunately, the freelancers we interviewed and surveyed also shared with us their insights about the specific skills that were critical to their success. We’ve highlighted 7 in particular and aligned them to CCL’s Compass competency framework:
Flexibility: Anyone entering the freelance world with the notion that they can “plan their work, and work their plan” is in for a rude awakening. Where you start is without a doubt not where you will end up. And more often than not, the choice to deviate from the path you set won’t be yours. The needs of your customers, and sometimes events beyond your control, will eventually lead you in new directions. Those who stubbornly resist and try to stick to a chosen path set themselves up for frustration and risk falling behind the marketplace. Only a lucky few succeed by “Doing it my way.” On the contrary, most freelancers welcome the opportunity to pursue new paths. As one explained: “I cannot stay in my comfort zone!”
Learning Agility: People who are learning agile excel at gleaning lessons from their experiences. They then take the lessons they’ve learned and adapt them to succeed in new situations. Put another way, they’re talented at knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do. That pretty much sums up the life of a freelancer. One approach favored by learning agile freelancers is to adopt a rapid prototyping mindset. When faced with situations that are initially confusing, they jump right in and start trying out different approaches. By engaging in an ongoing set of small-scale experiences, they get a better sense for what works (and what doesn’t) and develop confidence over time.
Relationship Management: Many are drawn to freelance careers by the opportunities for freedom and being your own boss. But being on your own doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone. Unfortunately, for some, freelancing can be a lonely pursuit. Instead of relying only on yourself, try proactively engaging with others and building a diverse community of relationships. A rich and thriving community can be a source of many things for a freelancer.
Resilience: Just about anyone will tell you that freelancing isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires grit, discipline, stamina, and composure to deal with all the ups-and-downs, uncertainties, and head-spinning changes that come with the territory. Inner strength and calm are necessities even when things are going well. Then there are the inevitable bad times. That’s when resiliency really shows its worth. Resilient freelancers tackle failure head on. They don’t brush it aside or seek to place blame. They look at it as a necessary (albeit painful) part of the process of being successful. By taking a clear look at their actions and opening themselves up to new insights, they seize negative experiences as an opportunity for growth.
Risk-Taking: Being a freelancer is essentially one long exercise in risk-taking. The decision itself to become a freelancer — especially if you’re coming from a more traditional work background — is a risk. No longer are steady paychecks, designated roles. and corporate goals a part of your day-to-day. One veteran freelancer put it this way: “Risk is the biggest thing. You have to be comfortable with that. You can’t get hung up on things like ‘When will I get my next paycheck?’ or ‘Who will I be working with on this project?’” Living the freelance life leaves a lot to chance, but framed differently, it opens the door to taking risks and coming out ahead.
Self-Awareness: A big part of being a successful freelancer is being able to effectively sell yourself and what you have to offer. A key element of selling yourself is projecting authenticity. A big part of being authentic is knowing yourself. For many, becoming a freelancer is a transformative experience. One freelancer observed that, “You need time to figure out who you are when you’re not working full-time for a company.” And given the dynamic nature of their work, many freelancers find that the answer to “Who am I?” is a constantly evolving one that requires constantly taking a fresh look. Savvy freelancers find ways to transform a keen sense of self-awareness into a compelling personal brand.
Tolerating Ambiguity: Life as a freelancer can be like sailing on an open ocean with no land in sight. The rolling waves, the faint horizon, the occasional blanket of fog; it can all make it difficult to determine where you’re going, let alone how to get there. Not surprisingly, some people find themselves paralyzed in the face of uncertainty. Successful freelancers accept it for what it is and try not to waste precious energy fighting it or wishing it away. They tune into the compass they carry inside of them and trust their intuition. They also bring others in to help them chart a path. As one freelancer put it, “No doubt that if you are facing a challenge, someone else has had that same experience and you can learn from it.”
Have you ever noticed how some people in your organization seem better than others at getting traction for their ideas? Sometimes you might find yourself questioning the relevance and brilliance of their ideas compared with your own — yet there they go! What it is they’re doing that makes the difference? What magic sauce have they found? What higher powers have they tapped?
These are things I’ve wondered about through a lifetime of study, exploration, and practice.
Burgelman studied innovation successes and failures in a large U.S.-based technology company over a 6-year period. By adapting and applying his model to study innovation attempts at companies that I’ve worked with, I was able to see what practices enabled or prevented innovation. I looked at innovation at each level of an organization and throughout its trajectory as people moved it — or attempted to move it — from a raw idea or collection of ideas into a valued innovation. This work has informed CCL’s own work on leadership practices that support innovation at each level of leadership from individual employees all the way up to the C-suite.
Innovation is very much about connecting ideas with ideas, ideas with people, and people with people. As innovator Bob Rosenfeld puts it, organizations don’t innovate — people do. Thus, successfully steering your own idea through an organization or helping others do the same is a political process requiring you to connect with and influence key stakeholders at each phase of the process.
When approaching innovation, reflect on these 8 components:
Research: If you’re about to engage in bringing an Idea into action, be sure to talk with a savvy innovator — someone you regard as having successfully championed a new product, tool, program, or service, especially if they’re within your organization. Ask them what made the difference. If they had to do it over, what they would do differently?
Passion: Gauge your own passion around the idea. Are you prepared to go the extra mile with it? Are you prepared to use your own energy, time, and resources to get the idea off the ground?
Ego: Are you really committed to your idea? How much are you prepared to sacrifice, including letting others shape and run with the idea? How much is your own ego wrapped up in the idea? How might that enable or get in the way of its movement forward?
Collaboration: Looking at your network within and external to the organization — including clients, vendors, and professional associates — who do you feel safe sharing your idea with and getting their support? Might you need to expand your network to engage someone more influential in the organization? Who is politically well connected that you can form a relationship and share the idea with? Who might be peers in other parts of the organization, with whom you can form an alliance or team? What is in it for anyone whose support you seek? What can you and your idea do for them?
Connection: What connections can you make with existing projects? What other emerging innovations can you connect with or ride the coattails of? Where in the organization’s strategy and portfolio might your idea fit? Who “owns” the relevant component of the strategy or portfolio? Can you approach them directly? If not, can someone else make the necessary connections?
Relevance: If there is no fit with the current strategy or portfolio, are you aware of anything that’s going on in the world that might provide an early sign of an emerging zeitgeist, encouraging the need for the innovation you have in mind? How might you use this knowledge to energize the potential innovation and influence a shift in the organization’s strategy to accommodate it?
Benefit: The innovation you have in mind has to demonstrate that it’s a solution to a challenge or need. What are your early thoughts about what that need might be? What evidence do you have for that? Who might you feel safe sharing your idea with that can help you articulate the need and the benefits of your solution?
Legacy: Looking way, way ahead if this innovation becomes a roaring success, what will be its legacy to the organization and the world — even if the innovation is not a success in its own right?
By taking the time to consider these elements of innovation at the beginning, you’ll be in a much stronger position to push for your idea and help navigate through the next steps. Before long, your colleagues will be looking to you for advice on how to shepherd something through the innovation process.