Category Archives: leadership

Quick thoughts on leadership, impact, and finding my own path

I was talking to a friend about leadership, succession, and impact. In particular, my friend was curious about how to grow more leaders. I realized some things about how my parents made big differences and about how I want to grow.

Succession is hard. Big companies spend millions on leadership programs, have huge, motivated talent pools to draw on, and even turn to external recruitment, and it’s still uncommon to have a successful transition or a long-lived company. It’s even tougher in the nonprofit and volunteer worlds.

I wonder if going sideways can help work around the succession challenge. Instead of hoping for the right intersection of same time, same place, same Bat channel (an interested, capable, available potential leader turning up when you want to start grooming one and sticking around until the right time), what about the franchising approach instead?

I realized that this is one of the things my parents did, and that’s how they managed to do so much. They didn’t count on any one initiative staying around for the long term. My dad probably would have gotten impatient and bored anyway. Instead, they got the hang of quickly starting things up, and they inspired people to start similar efforts. After the first few projects, happy sponsors and relationships made the next ones easier and easier. My dad could just share a crazy idea on Facebook and people would sign up to help make it happen. Professionally, my parents cared about teaching both the art and the business of photography, and having workshops open even to active competitors.

This approach is probably out of scope from most leadership programs that focus on succession planning because they assume you need a specific thing to continue, but franchising is the closest business analogy, I think. It might be a good way to increase impact through a wider reach. It could be like:

  • Getting more out of the stuff you’re already doing: My dad was media-savvy. He could imagine the pictures and news articles that would come out of a project, and he was great at lining those up. Something similar (or partnering with someone who thinks about that sort of stuff) could increase the visibility and impact of things you’re already doing some making people feel good about the projects too.
  • Getting better at sharing the cool stuff you’re doing and the initiatives you’re involved in: pictures and stories on social media could let people find out about stuff, explore things you’re into, get updates, etc. Similar to the previous point, but more personal.
  • Accelerating your startup for ideas: people to talk to, channels for sharing ideas, ways to get people involved, templates, etc.
  • Getting better at sharing lessons learned, questions, and artifacts
  • Automating, simplifying and documenting processes so that people with less experience can do better work: Can be very useful for both your initiatives and other people’s, and it’s good for both direct succession and franchising. This is definitely my focus, and it’s awesome for expanding reach over space and time (even without active attention). My mom focuses on this too, although she often struggles with adoption. The E-Myth book might be relevant here.

Figuring out swarms might be an interesting challenge: how to quickly gather people around a particular project, and how to help other people with their own. There’s a lot that to practice even without a candidate successor, so that might be one way to keep growing.

At the moment, I’m focusing on:

  • automating/simplifying/documenting: Perfect timing! I need to make things simple enough so that a child can do it, and there happens to be one handy for testing. I also personally benefit from automating and simplifying things enough to fit into the snippets of discretionary time I have, and documenting things so that I can declutter my brain and make the most of scattered moments.
  • getting better at sharing lessons learned, questions, and artifacts: Hooray for blogging! I’m getting better at writing on my phone while A- sleeps on top of me (like right now), and I’ll figure out how to mix drawing back in, too. I’m probably never going to feel comfortable using the “expert” voice. I like the “Here’s what I’m figuring out, and here’s what I’m thinking about next” sort of approach. There are so many ways forward, and it’s fun to think of everything as a grand experiment.

We were talking about the 2×2 matrix of size of impact versus number of people affected. My friend said many people focus on the “big impact, lots of people” quadrant. I think I like the “small impact, few people” quadrant, which perfectly characterizes things like my Emacs stuff and my consulting. I like small fixes and improvements. I scale up by trying to help things stay fixed/improved and available even when I’m not actively thinking about them, which is why coding and writing fit me well. If I can get even better at making and sharing those little improvements, and making them findable when other people want them, that sounds like a good path for growing. I also like connecting the dots between ideas, which is another example of a small contribution that can have a larger effect.

The long-term impact could be mostly about the ripples from people I’ve helped (like the way I get to learn more about cool things to do with Emacs by people who tell me I helped them get curious about it a long time ago! :) ) and maybe maybe maybe someday, books worthy of being part of the Great Conversation / archive of human knowledge.

I probably won’t do anything as awesome as my dad’s advocacies, but I think this path of sharing little ideas, experiments, and lessons learned – this path could work for me. :) If it happens to resonate with you and you want to pass along lessons learned or share the things you’re figuring out, that would be great!

Braindump: What I learned from our virtual leadership conversation

Around 20 people joined us for a conversation about Smarter Leaders, which was organized by Jack Mason in the IBM Virtual Analytics Center. Rawn Shah and I gave introductory remarks, and then we facilitated small-group discussions. I focused on the need for smarter leaders at every level and what we could do to help people develop as leaders.

What did I learn?

We know what can help: identifying characteristics of effective leaders, focusing on leadership instead of technology, collecting and sharing success stories, compiling a cookbook that focuses on needs instead of toolsÖ That part is just a matter of doing it, and there are lots of programs already underway.

Is it going to be enough, or are there other things we can do to break through? If it took e-mail ten or so years to become part of the corporate culture and enable all sorts of opportunities, can we wait that long for connected leadership to become part of the way we work?

We tend to have a culture of waiting for permission instead of experimenting (and asking for forgiveness if needed). This means that lots of people are waiting for their managers and executives to participate in this.

Me, Iím all for people taking responsibility for leadership at any level. We might not make big decisions, but we can still make a difference.

What am I going to do based on what I learned?

Iím going to take a look at the characteristics that describe IBMers at their best. Iím going to figure out how to develop those characteristics myself, and how other people can develop them.

Iím passionate about helping individual contributors build and demonstrate leadership. Iím neither a manager nor an executive, and I donít want to wait for everyone at the top to ďget itĒ before the benefits can trickle down to everyone else. So Iím going to keep poking this idea of leadership until more people can identify with it and ask themselves, ďHow can I be a smarter leader?Ē.

What are you going to do to spread be the word about smarter leaders? =)

What worked well? What could we improve further?

  • I really liked being able to help bring together all these interesting people. It was like going to a real-life conference.
  • I finished my part in time (short talk!). =) I forgot some of the points I wanted to make, but it was okay because Iíd already shared them in my blog post.
  • I did a good job of picking on people to get the ball rolling, and the conversation can get even better if I can figure out how to bring more people into the conversation.

  • Small-group virtual facilitation needs to be tweaked further. I felt conscious about people being outside my vision, so I turned my avatar around, but it still felt strange to have my back to a speaker. We didnít organize ourselves into a circle because it wouldíve taken time to position people, and the spatial audio mightíve been weak. I like the way that our Second Life meeting environments sometimes have auto-expanding chairs.
  • My audio was clipping because the sound was set too loud. I should definitely do more audio tests before the sessions.
  • My sketches turned out pretty well on the screen of the Virtual Analytics Center. =) Simple and easy to see from any part of the auditorium.
  • The auditorium turned out to be too small to accommodate breakout groups. One of the breakout rooms had audio running, and we couldnít figure out how to turn it off. The big gathering area was a good place to have a discussion, though. Teleporting buttons would be a great way to get people from one place to the other without wasting time navigating. (Ooh, teleporting buttons with visual feedback for intuitive load-balancingÖ)
  • The indicators for who was currently speaking made large conversations so much easier. I want that on all of my teleconferences. =)
  • Text chat still beats speaking in turn when it comes to getting lots of stuff out. Itís odd to mix it in, though. It feels a little weirder than having an active backchannel during a phone conference. I think itís because you can see people, so you feel more of an urge to talk to them instead of typing.
  • The web.alive folks definitely need to add a way to save the text chat!
  • The virtual environment can capture all sorts of interesting data. I wonder what kind of research can come out of thisÖ

Lots of good stuff!

Stitching together a semi-rotational program; training is not the limiting factor


At an external networking event a few years ago, I talked to an up-and-coming MBA grad who told me about the rotational program he was in. He was scheduled to spend one year in one department, one year in another, and so on. I envied how he was being groomed.

Deliberately moving through different departments helps you build a wide base of experience and a diverse network. The formality of the program means that the frequent job shifts wonít be taken against you, as they might in an organization that values depth and specialization. Management development programs like that are essential for cultivating people with a broad understanding of the organization. Without sponsors or organizational backing, most people would find it difficult to shift from one part of the organization to the other.

Rotational programs and other leadership development initiatives tend to be offered only to high-potential people, where high potential is not only based on performance, but also velocity. When I was starting at IBM, my eldest sister advised me to find the fast track, get on it, and stay on it. While not entirely following her adviceóIíd pick coaching people on collaboration over working tons of overtime on well-understood projects, even though the first doesnít show up on my metrics and the second doesnítóIíve also nudged my manager about some of the development programs Iíve seen. Iíve volunteered for things like the Technical Leadership Exchange and the Take Two womenís leadership program. I read as much as I can, as widely as I can. I learn from people all over IBM.

Envy is a surprisingly useful driver as long as you donít let it consume you. This reminds me of the invitation-only web development course I heard about when I was in high school. I wasnít invitedóme! and Iíd done well in our programming competitions!óso I talked my way into it. It reminds me of how I envied the courses that students in other universities got to take, so I read through the online course materials and learned whatever I could on my own.

Itís not about the world being unfair, and itís not about other people receiving opportunities that you have to make for yourself. Itís about looking around and saying, ďHey, thatís a great idea. How can I borrow part of that idea and make something for myself?Ē

Back to rotational programs. I donít know what fields need to be set in my record for me to show up on HRís radar (in a good way), but Iím not going to worry about that. I donít have to wait for permission to learn as much as I can from other parts of this huge organization. I probably have the perfect starting point, actually. During my graduate studies, I learned about research. In Global Business Services, Iíve learned about development and consulting. In my Innovation Discovery engagements, I’m learning about marketing and sales. From our clients and experts, I learn about strategy, operations and finance. I help people in communications and learning and IT. I can take free online courses in almost any area. I donít have the depth that comes from everyday delivery, responsibilities, and war stories, but Iím learning from people who do.

This matters because thereís tremendous value in being able to break down silos and work across organizational boundaries. The more we can reach out and tap the talent throughout IBM and the world, the more powerfully we can work. If we can learn from different parts of the organization without a formal rotational program, then that broader understanding becomes available to anyone who wants it. If we can influence and inspire without formal authority, then other people can learn emergent leadership too. If we can figure out this different way of working, we can share it with other organizations and influence the world.

I donít have an executive sponsor or an HR program shaping my career path, but I have many mentors and role models, including some who take a chance on me and give me opportunities beyond my level. Thatís enough to make a difference. The limiting factor here isnít training. Itís my time and energy. Thereís so much more to learn.

If youíre waiting for trainingóor an organizational blessingólook around and see what you can do with what you have. You donít need a rotational program or a classroom course. Think about whatís really limiting you, and find out what you can do about it.

Thanks to David Ing for nudging me to think about this!

Women and technical leadership

Iíve read enough books to understand that when it comes to rapid career growth, family, and personal happiness, I canít have it all, at least not all at the same time. I collect role models and goals anyway, just in case it turns out to be possible.

I think about the choices I make and try to project the consequences decades down the line. Do I look for a role in a growth market, and can our relationship thrive despite the distance? Do I focus on becoming an individual contributor, or do I prepare for people management? Do I focus on Canada or find a global role?

This profile of senior technical women from the Anita Borg institute helped me understand a little bit more of the road ahead. For example, if three out of four senior technical women have a partner or spouse who also works full-time, then maybe W- and I can balance our careers. If half of the single senior technical women surveyed have children, then people can lead even in a difficult situation like that. If senior technical women are more concerned with professional development than with work-life practices, that tells me that work-life practices and the need for flexibility probably wonít be limiting factors. Senior women in management roles think more about new opportunities outside or inside the company than senior women in technical contributor roles think of these things, so senior women in management may be at a higher risk of turnover. This reminds me of a mentorís advice to stay technical, because strong technical contributions are a way to stabilize your position.

A recent IBM feature highlighted a few female IBM Fellows, the highest technical rank in the company. Iíd met a couple of them already, thanks to my passion for collaboration and Web 2.0. Iím glad to work with a company that cares about diversity, and Iím looking forward to learning from everyoneís inspiration.

From the ground up: Helping our organizations work smarter

IBMís latest Smart Work study is about how outperforming organizations have adopted smarter work practices much more than most organizations have. It has a lot of useful insights from CEOs and case studies. Reading it, I thought: This is written for executives. What do the results mean for us on the ground? How can we help our organizations work smarter, even if weíre not in leadership positions? Ultimately, cultural change doesnít come from just CEOs or consultants Ė it comes from what we do every day.

The study showed that top-performing companies focus on:

  • People: quickly building skills and collaborating outside traditional boundaries
  • Processes: automatically reconfiguring processes and enabling collaboration in processes
  • Information: integrating data sources and using real-time information for making decisions

What can we learn from that, how can we challenge ourselves, and what are some ways we can get started?


How can we learn more, and how can we help others learn?

  • Mentor others and be mentored.
  • Share what youíre learning in blog posts, wikis, and other resources.
  • Help out in communities and discussion forums.

How can we reach out to people outside our departments and outside our organizations?

  • Talk to your customers, and make it possible for everyone to have that kind of contact.
  • Ask people outside your team for help and insight.
  • Look for relevant teams and coordinate with them.
  • Build your own rotational program.
  • Learn from everyone, including partners, competitors, non-clients!


How can we make our teamís processes more flexible and responsive?

  • Find out how people ďwork aroundĒ processes right now. Instead of punishing them, make the processes more adaptable.
  • Figure out what information you need to choose which process to use. Get that information faster.

How can we build collaboration into the way we work and the tools we use?

  • Learn about collaboration tools. Experiment. Make a habit of using them.
  • Give feedback on tools. Tell people what works, what doesnít, and what could be even better.


What real-time information could help us make better decisions, and how can we get it?

  • Identify the information you need in order to better understand whatís going on.
  • Talk to other people and figure out what your blind spots are.
  • Speed things up. Simplify processes or put in tools to collect data automatically.

How can we combine information to give us a better view of the big picture?

  • Figure out the kinds of information you combine manually. Invest in making a tool that shows you the big picture, like a dashboard.
  • Make it easier for other people to find and use your information.

No matter where we are in the hierarchy, we can help our organizations work smarter. What are you doing to build a smarter planet?