Wednesday Jan 18, 2012

The Lesson of the Cookie

My family went out for Chinese food the other night, and the end of the dinner brought fortune cookies (my kids’ favorite part). When I opened my fortune cookie, the fortune said:

It is never a shame to learn from others.

Wow! Given that my background is in learning, my job focuses on learning, and I’m an avid believer in lifetime learning, this was a great fortune to receive. It also made me wonder why someone might feel shame in learning.

Delving back into my past jobs, I thought about two vastly different managers. The first manager was one who came into our department knowing nothing about the work that was being done – he was brought in for “his managerial skills.” Instead of taking time to learn what worked and what didn’t, he proceeded to tell all of us how things were going to be done. I was asked to do some research, and when I gave this manager the research results, he became angry that I spent time doing the research. I know – it confused me also!

The second manager that I thought about was in a situation where multiple companies had been purchased in a short timeframe, and we needed to integrate those companies as quickly and as efficiently as possible. This manager, when asked about specific topics in meetings, would turn to a staff member and say “I hired you for your expertise in this area. What are your suggestions?” Let me repeat – in meetings that staff and executives attended, this manager would admit he didn’t know the answer and ask the “expert” for his or her opinion.

Both of these managers were considered leaders on the corporate org chart, but which one was considered a leader by the employees? (This is a rhetorical question, by the way).

As a consultant, I had plenty of customer questions that I couldn’t answer. Using some great advice from my mom, my response was always, “I don’t know, but I'll get an answer for you by tomorrow.” Before the next day, I was online trying to learn from my fellow consultant so I could have an answer for my client. Surprisingly, I had many clients who told me that I was the only consultant they ever hired who admitted they didn’t know an answer – and those clients were all impressed that I was willing to learn.

Sometimes as leaders (whether of teams or projects), we think that we have to have an answer for everything lest we be perceived as lacking knowledge. We can’t graciously accept “teaching” from people because we’re “the boss.” In reality, we make a better leader if we’re able to admit that we don’t have all the answers and learn from those people who might be smarter than we are. In the words of the cookie…it is never a shame to learn from others.

Friday Sep 12, 2008

Just a Bunch of Engineers?

I recently finished a class on Crucial Conversations (Sun employees can view the internal class schedule) and was impressed with the content of the class.  It helps you identify conversations that are or will become sticking points in achieving success and lets you practice techniques in turning around the conversation to achieve a meaningful outcome for all people involved.

During the class, one of the concepts that we talked about was labeling people - HR folks, those engineers, bean counters - you get the picture.  In a side conversation, one of the people in class made the comment that they (specifically not specifying "he" or "she") really liked these kinds of classes, but their team was a bunch of technical guys - is that a label I hear?- and wouldn't like this kind of class at all.

What?  Wouldn't like to know how to recognize difficult conversations and walk into those conversations with confidence and a game plan for success? As Vizzini would say - Inconceivable!  Are technical people really so far removed from real life that they never have conversations?  With anyone?  (I'm being a little sarcastic simply because my husband is one of those "technical" people).

If you read my About section, you'll notice that I manage employee learning for the United States.  So, I'm curious - all you "technical people" out there at Sun - are you really interested in only technical courses, or are you interested in other classes that add to your repertoire of business skills?  If you are interested in other business skills, which ones are most important to you?

Tuesday Aug 26, 2008

Are You Accountable for Your Learning?

“I don't care if you create the best training in the world.  If it doesn't change behavior, it doesn't do me any good.”

These words were spoken to me by an executive vice president at an undisclosed company.  I wanted to argue that if the training was the “best in the world,” it would actually be designed to change behavior and would undoubtedly cost more to create and evaluate than he was willing to fund (which, by the way, was $0).

The comment got me thinking, though.  How many of us expect to have a learning path handed to us and be told “This is what you need to do and how you need to do it?"  If you check off the boxes, will you be successful?  I doubt it.

On the other hand, how many of us spend time researching topics that interest us, engaging in communities at work or on the web around those topics, and explore options that will allow us to continually expand our knowledge.  What is it that makes this person completely different from the person who wants the checklist?  And, perhaps more importantly, how can we encourage or enable the checklist person to be more of an explorer?  Further, are there characteristics of each that should be emulated?

I am convinced that learning does not have to take place in a classroom.  There are a variety of sources – free seminars (or webinars), social networking sites, interest groups at work, programs through professional organizations, blogs, etc. - that will allow us to learn and develop as individuals, co-workers and general human beings.  We as individuals, though, need to be responsible and accountable for our learning.  Yes, a classroom may be appropriate for some things.  Heck, even a checklist is appropriate at times.

Challenge yourself to be responsible for your learning and accountable to yourself for expanding your knowledge.  My bet is that you'll be more engaged in what you're doing and more valuable to your employer.  Yes, we may be able to create the best training in the world, but it's up to each individual to consume and internalize what's out there.

Thursday Aug 21, 2008

30 Ways to Foil Development Plan Dread

Yes, it's that time of year.  Again.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it (not that you have a choice) is to create your annual development plan.  Surprisingly (said with a lot of sarcasm), most people create their annual development plan about two or three days before their annual review.  Somehow, that seems a bit wrong!

Unfortunately, I think this happens because most people look at a development plan as just another thing to do and just some more boxes to check off at the end of the year.  How many times have you thought "I don't have a clue what class I want to go to this year.  Heck, I don't even want to go to a class this year.  Who needs a development plan anyway?"  

Here's a thought:  It doesn't have to be this way!!

If you read my previous post, you read about the two questions - what do you want to do with your life, and what can you offer the world that nobody else can?  If you read the manifesto in its entirety, you may have even looked at your 1-year, 5-year and lifetime goals.  If that's the case, use your need to create a development plan to re-evaluate those goals and make sure you're on track with what you want to achieve.

Employee development doesn't have to be just attending a class and checking a box at the end of the year.  Check out this list of 30 ideas for development activities.  You might just find something that is interesting to you!  

  1. Attend a local, regional or national conference. Be sure to bring your findings back to your team. MANAGERS: Make sure you provide the opportunity for sharing to occur.
  2. Present at a local, regional or national conference.
  3. If your company has an internal conference (user groups, engineering conference, etc), apply to present at that.  Actually present if accepted.
  4. Complete a course at your local university or at an online university.
  5. Finish your undergraduate or masters degree.
  6. Write an article for a professional publication or organization.  Be sure to check the submission requirements for the publication!
  7. Join a professional organization and attend a local chapter meeting or seminar.
  8. Attend a seminar or workshop offered outside of your company.
  9. Teach a TOI (transfer of information), Lunch & Learn or something similar for your team or another team in your organization.
  10. Create a video on a topic of your expertise and post it to your internal platform (Sun employees can use the Sun Learning Exchange)
  11. Review 2-3 journals or magazines every month to monitor industry trends.  You can access many journals through EBSCO Host - commonly available in public libraries with your library card.
  12. Read Harvard Business Review or California Management Review to understand business trends.  Both of these can be accessed through EBSCO Host as well.
  13. Pick out a top business book - read it and discuss it with your manager.  This would be a great opportunity to take your manager out for a cup of coffee to get his or her undivided attention.
  14. Select a technical book to review.  Discuss it with your team, your manager, or your mentor.
  15. Mentor another person.
  16. Ask someone to be your mentor.
  17. Volunteer on the board or a committee of a professional organization
  18. Google free webinar <insert topic> and see if there's a free webinar that interests you.  Attend and share what you learned with your team.
  19. Start a blog to share your thoughts with others.
  20. Participate in an online community - respond to a blog, start a group on LinkedIn or Facebook, etc.
  21. Attend an instructor led class offered through your company.
  22. Attend a web-based class offered through your company.
  23. Engage with local colleges to be a guest speaker or host a workshop on campus.
  24. Participate in Sun Technology Fairs at local campuses.  (Okay, this is really targeted toward Sun employees, but, hey, that's what I am!  You could adapt this to "participate in career fairs (or something similar) at your local colleges).
  25. Look for volunteer opportunities with state and local government agencies to provide IT help.
  26. Plan a technology fair, science fair or something similar for your company.  Recruit people to present and share ideas.
  27. Join an open source project and get involved in the product development, forums, or aliases.
  28. If you have a Masters degree, check with a local university or college about becoming an adjunct professor (sometimes called a contract or network instructor).
  29. Volunteer to teach computer skills (or your area of expertise) at a Senior Citizens Center.
  30. Ask your local school districts if they offer any kind of special event around kids and technology.  Volunteer at that event.
  31. BONUS 1: Coordinate an internal conference where best practices can be shared for a team within your company - a sales conference for sales people; an IT conference for your technical team, etc.
  32. BONUS 2: Volunteer to teach a class at a local Recreation Center or Community Center.
  33. BONUS 3: Apply to teach classes for a continuing education program (typically offered through local universities or community colleges).

Okay, so I gave you a list of 33 when the title promised 30.  Sorry about that, but once I go started, I just couldn't stop.  Consider it a gift!  :)

As you can see, there are many more options for "development" than just attending a class.  If you have other ideas that should be added to this list, please leave a comment in order to share with everyone else.  Hey, then you can add #20 to your plan!

Happy planning! 

Tuesday Aug 19, 2008

Just Do It!

Apologies to Nike, but they were not the first to use the phrase “Just do it!” It's a phrase I heard often growing up as I had an older brother who wasn't afraid to double and triple-dog dare me.

It's a phrase one of my Russian gymnastics coaches used to get me to do the tumbling pass that scared me. Although, Boris made it sound more like “DOOOOT!”

It's a phrase I heard when I was standing at the end of a diving board after my swimming instructor said the diving board was just like the vault in gymnastics. Just for the record, you run a lot faster and harder for the vault than you need to for the diving board. Yea, you get the picture – the dive was pretty; the ending wasn't!

And it's now a phrase I'm hearing as I contemplate jumping into that bigger pool of blogging. So why bother? I think that I might have something meaningful to contribute to the conversation around the importance of learning to improve yourself, those around around you and your organization or company. The scary part is that you'll be the judge of that – not me. So, let's get started, shall we?


This time around, I'm hitting the topic of personal improvement.

Last week I found a manifesto with a catchy title: A Brief Guide to World Domination (and other important goals) – How to Live a Remarkable Life in a Conventional World. Who wouldn't want to read that? Chris Guillebeau, the author, believes that you can achieve remarkable personal goals, help others at the same time, and do so in a way that challenges conventional belief that mediocrity is good enough.

In doing so, Chris puts forth two challenging questions:
1) What do you really want to get out of life?
2) What else can you offer the world that no one else can?

I found myself nodding in agreement as Chris talked about setting 1-year, 5-year and lifetime goals and how they can help define the answer to question one. I found myself agreeing as Chris introduced examples of people who were really living a remarkable life and helping others at the same time – Randy Pausch, professor extraordinaire ; Sam Thompson, ultra marathon runner, and Matt and Jessica Flanery, founders of

The overriding message in the manifesto is that you don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to. Other people will tell you that “it” (whatever your “it” is) can't be done, or that you need more experience, or that you need (fill in the blank). These are the gatekeepers – the people who want you to remain conventional and unremarkable. You can listen to these people, or you can listen to yourself.

Chris does provide 11 tips on remaining unremarkably average. Four of my favorites are:

  • Accept what people tell you at face value
  • Don't question authority
  • Don't stand out or draw attention to yourself
  • Jump through hoops; Check off boxes 
If you're still with me, you're probably intrigued by this manifesto as well. I guess that means you have an inner desire to be remarkable and a bit unconventional. Read the manifesto, answer the questions, complete the Ideal World exercise. Determine what it is you need to do to live a remarkable life.

What you choose isn't the most important thing – what's important is that you pick something and then just do it.


Sandy's ideas about learning, organizational & personal improvement and other stuff.

I work on Oracle's Leadership Development team, but all thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely my own!


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