Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Gaming and In-house training

Employers who fail to make their workplace interesting to employees are missing out on a huge fund of enthusiasm and talent.

Let's imagine a 19-year-old new recruit working in a call centre. He nods off during training sessions, gets incredibly bored with the different processes and procedures, and provides indifferent service to clients.

Why is this? Doesn't he know that his attitude and conduct affect the customers, which affects his department, which in turn affects his pay? No he doesn't. 19-year-olds tend not to have the life experience for such abstract concepts to be meaningful.

But... when this 19-year-old recruit gets home, he boots up the computer, or Playstation, or XBox. He then performs tasks to achieve objectives, using controls. It's altogether quite similar to his job. Yet he does this voluntarily, and even purchases his own software and hardware.

What's the difference?

The game makers have clearly defined their goals and objectives, as well as penalties and rewards. And "clearly defined" doesn't mean oversimplified; some games have a dazzling level of complex key performance indicators, all interacting with each other to affect the final outcome.

I didn't really take this seriously until I started researching game demos - and got out my old copy of Star Trek: Bridge Commander. They all provide great experiences, clear goals that you know when you've met them.

So why don't workplaces design their jobs the way the rising tide of game-makers do? I'd love to speak to anyone who's working in this field.

Pre-Christmas Career Changes

It's a hard time for over a thousand Air New Zealand engineers whose jobs are being offshored. Perfect timing, don't you think? Why do redundancies always seem to happen around Christmas time?

The engineers' plight is this: most of them have highly specialised jobs (I imagine). They can either follow the work overseas, or try to adapt their large commercial aircraft engineering skills to other industries, such as small aviation or automotive engineering.

Yet still, New Zealand is suffering a shortage of vital skills in the workforce. There's a fundamental mismatch of skills to jobs available; we have immigrant nuclear scientists delivering junk mail to make ends meet. Not too many nuclear facilities here in New Zealand.

So a growth area in New Zealand, it seems, would be retraining - taking your transferable skills and adapting them to a new area, or developing completely new skill sets.

I'm doing a kind of career change at the moment, too. It's not because of redundancy, more a case of me maturing and discovering a bit more of who I am. And yet it doesn't sound that much of a change: from freelance copywriter to freelance screenwriter. But the change has been harder than it at first seemed.

As a freelance copywriter/journalist, my focus has been on providing a service, if necessary an ad-agency style service involving lots of project management as well as the writing. This has all come about from necessity, because people wanted it, and not because I was crash-hot at it.

As an aspiring screenwriter, however, I have the opportunity to focus on writing. Which is both a blessing and a challenge. A blessing because the other job rarely affords the opportunity for real focus; a challenge because it's easy to 'multi-task' without actually achieving much.

The most important thing is that screenwriting seems a better "fit" for my personality and ambition. It's also something that I can see my whole life pointing towards - the kind of thing I wanted to be when I grew up.

Having said all this, and made it public here, I'm aware that it's a very gradual change process; that I'll need to continue with the copywriting and journalism while I learn more about the screenwriting side of things, because in New Zealand, there aren't too many trainee jobs going in the writing-for-TV-or-movies industry. This is a long haul project.

Other career change resources

I haven't read it all, but What Color Is Your Parachute has some good exercises for discovering just what your "transferable skills" are.

The trick comes from not defining your skills by industry, but by what you actually do. This can help break down mental barriers and introduce you to possibilities you'd previously ignored.

If you have slightly less time but still want very specific career change help, Changing Careers is very helpful. It gives you lots of exercises to define where you want to go, and what you have to offer future employers or collaborators.

Changing Careers is also a very good read for employers who care about making their workplace an engaging place to be for each employee. These days, every employer should be interested in that.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Words and actions

This is from Down and Dirty Pictures : Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, the rather large book by Peter Biskind I'm reading at the moment. It's about movies, but this quote here about Robert Redford is applicable to all kinds of people who find themselves in the position of a leader:

"...For some of the board [of Sundance], Redford's 'Ordinary Bob' routine was wearing thin. Says one who worked closely with the star, 'He wants to be seen as part of a group, but he's also the kind. There are lots of subtle ways he'll let you know that: the way he walks out on the middle of your presentation, the way he writes a note while somebody else is speaking, the way he doesn't say anything for half an hour, then talks for forty-five minutes, and then leaves, as if that's the last word. Bob used to say, 'This is not Robert Redford's Sundance, this is all of you.' We appreciated the intention of the remark, but we all knew it was bullshit."

When you're in a position to lead, remember, people are watching you very, very closely.

Michael Collins and learning

I watched Michael Collins again last night for the first time since its release in 1996. A really enjoyable tale, but tinged with a kind of sadness when you remember this is based on a true story. I'm glad my Irish ancestors left their homeland before the 20th century.

What struck me most this second time around is that here is a leader who is willing to learn and change his mind.

Some people see changing one's mind as a sign of weakness, "flip-flopping" etc. But I see it differently ...

When you change your mind for a good reason, you're in a stronger position than ever. Why? Because you can understand what you used to believe - in Michael Collins' case, that killing was justified in the struggle for Irish independence - and you can also understand what you've come to believe - that violence is self-perpetuating and not worth it.

Michael Collins provides a wonderfully complex setting - a crucible - for our character to develop in. Even though director Neil Jordan took some liberties with history, for the most part the setting here is real.

Michael Collins is a good one to watch along with Braveheart, Ghandi and Malcolm X. All very similar stories about how leaders took on a very similar task in radically different ways.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christmas gift book review: The Economist Business Miscellany

Okay, so it's not really about leadership, but the Economist's Business Miscellany is quite fun, and can make you sound very smart at dinner parties (not that I go to a lot of those).

It's a real "did-you-know" sort of book, with sections about the origins of well-known brand names, when companies started (including Japan's Kongo Gumi construction company, established 578 AD!), "leading lies on CVs", and a searching section on "bad boys - and one bad girl".

There's some really good stuff here too, like summaries of the teachings of leading management thinkers. If you're looking to start learning management informally, or at least sound like you know what you're talking about, the lists in this book will give you a good starting point to go find out some more.

In short, you'll close Business Miscellany feeling like you know the top layer of everything there is to be known about the business world today.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"Creativity and persistence are synonymous."

"Just as a dog guards a bone safely between its paws when not actively chewing it, creative people nurture an idea even when not actively thinking about it… Creativity does not result from mysterious visions that come in dreams, or from fortuitous circumstances. Creativity and persistence are synonymous. Constantly thinking about the problem, consciously and unconsciously, maximizes the possibility that a chance occurrence is likely to be useful in solving it." – Dr. Richard Cytowic, neurologist

Brilliant! Read more at Roy Williams' Monday Morning Memo

Monday, December 12, 2005

Book Review: Nelson's Way - Leadership Lessons from the Great Commander

I had this kind of book in mind when I started the Leadership Issues blog. Nelson's Way takes the life story of a renowned leader and deconstructs it, looking with a keen eye at lessons that can be extracted for us in our daily lives.

The authors avoid the temptation to praise everything Nelson did and say "you should do this". Instead, we get a warts-and-all look at Nelson's life, from his great victories to his dubious dabbling in Neapolitan politics - and compare our own style of leadership with his.

Particularly good are the (quite searching) questions at the end of each chapter, as well as modern reflections on Nelson's style from leaders in the military, business and academia.

Nelson's Way does a great job at helping you understand the complicated naval world of the late 1700s and early 1800s. This is no mean feat, and the two authors' strong interest in naval history no doubt helps this (I've found that the more familiar people are with a topic, the more clearly they can explain it, without getting bogged down in unneccessary details - if they're good communicators).

While the book follows Nelson's career chronologically, it's also arranged thematically, with plenty of reiteration and exploration of key concepts. One key theme that comes up repeatedly is Nelson's "frontline" style of leadership. He was acutely aware of the PR value of his actions, as well as being a glutton for glory.

The book asks a question: are you the "frontline" hero type of leader that Nelson was? Or are you a quiet, in-the-background kind of leader? There's no right answer, and this book helps you understand the issues around either option.

While many people separate leadership and management, Nelson's Way shows that one person can very successfully combine the two. He performed glorious feats which inspired a nation; he also made sure there was enough fresh lemon juice for his men.

If you want to combine a rollicking naval story with some searching questions for yourself, check out Nelson's Way.