Archive for December, 2010

CEO for a day: thoughts on talent retention.

Workplace Generational Transitioning

For 12 years, I’ve been involved in thinking about attracting and retaining employees, and workplace generational transitioning.  This has been a common thread from early in my career when I was a business manager, to the role I fulfilled with a consulting firm advising a major Atlanta corporation on workplace “generation gaps,” to my excitement at today’s entrepreneurial youth culture.  The representatives of that culture are interested in constant innovation.  They’re ideally suited to times best summarized by that old Rochefoucauld quote: “the only thing constant in life is change.”  Imagine a group of workers who embrace change, rather than hide from it.

I mentioned workplace generational transitioning.  Ten years ago, when we were advising leaders of the Baby Boomer generation on how to team with and learn from Generation X, and vice versa, we couldn’t predict at least two recessions (2001, 2008+).  The impact of the recessions is that fewer Baby Boomers are heading for the door right at “retirement age,” or taking early retirement.  [Source note: unfortunately, I haven’t seen any recent studies on the average age of CEOs.  The last study I saw was from the late ’00s and featured CEOs in their mid 50s.]

So that bought the executives in major companies a bit more time, whether they wanted it or not.  Have they been using that time wisely?  I’m not so sure.  I believe this major company in Atlanta was ahead of its time, because I didn’t see similar courses offered at another corporation close to my heart until years and years later.  Think of your few favorite Fortune 500 companies.  Whether you’re a young gun or a member of the old guard, you have to admit that those companies matter right now.  But will they succeed at attracting and retaining young talent, while simultaneously passing along the knowledge and life lessons of the older employees?  It’s probable that many of them are perceived, internally and externally, as being too big to fail.  And we have recent experience in how that works out.

Innovators seek new opportunities

Hiring and retaining innovators is job one.  Silicon Valley provides a great example that we can see playing out in front of our eyes in real-time:  the culture, the level of talent, the influx of ideas, and the influx of capital in that part of California is an accelerant.  Here’s what we see:

  • Prized talent has numerous choices of workplaces and roles in the ecosystem
  • The mega-corporations in the ecosystem (for example: Google, Facebook) are either concerned about losing top talent, or eager to never lose their talent edge (1) (2) (3)
  • These companies offer special advantages to retain talent.  For example, they offer to allow employees to run their own micro-companies (startups) using their employer’s money and resources.
  • Even when offered every conceivable advantage, some employees still leave: they want different projects, or they want to start their own companies. (4)

Though Silicon Valley is an accelerated case and primarily represents a certain set of talent, this same cycle will play out in other major corporations, in most departments within those companies.

An innovator — that is, someone who not only has respect for a big idea, but acts on it and gets things done — will always be interested in a new challenge.  This innovator might ride the wave of available small funding (government-guaranteed small business loans, or venture capital), and start her own company.  Or she might seek out opportunities with a competitor who makes talent acquisition and retention a bigger priority than her current company.

In this study, two things are certain.  The first: a time of planning for mass retirement of an older generation is the wrong time to be losing young talent.

CEO for a day

The second thing that is certain is that companies need to be proactive about finding ways to retain employees who are committed to innovation.  In 2009, Facebook started a “startup incubator” to encourage the development of nascent tech companies.  In 2010, Google pondered setting up its own internal startup incubator to ensure its employees could remain with Google while pursuing their dreams of being Founders.  In 2011, Facebook will purchase approximately 15 small tech companies for their talent. (5)

If you’re a decision maker or employee at a company, no matter how large or small, I’m convinced that your company needs to do something very similar.  And if you’re a student, you need to look for this in your next company.  Enough with low-level corporate titles.  In major corporations, Fred the Engineer might work for two years to become Fred the Engineer II.  If you can’t let your employees found their own internal startups, then your company needs to make each innovator feel like the CEO, Founder, COO or Chairman of the Board of a specific role or project.

To that end, I offer a bigger idea that ensures employee engagement and retains talent.  Let’s have major companies commit to a program to put someone into any C-suite role they want for a day.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll say most people would want to be CEO for a day.

The company would somehow select a group of innovative employees to compete for a specific time period, for example, for a fiscal quarter.  Perhaps the winner is chosen by performance reviews, amount of money saved on a project, amount of time ahead of schedule on a project.  Whatever the case, when our innovative winner is chosen, she gets to truly step into her dream role.

Let the “real” CEO play an advisory role for that day.  But let the winning innovator truly take the lead on some decisions.  A breakfast meeting with other C-suite executives.  A photo op or television appearance scheduled to promote the program as a whole, where the CEO for a day proudly describes what she’s doing on that day.  Let her set part of the agenda to be a focus on one particular pet project, where she is empowered to call or meet with any employees to move things forward.

The day will be over far too soon, but the innovator will never forget it, and it will drive her even more.   The innovator will probably learn how tough the CEO role can be.  (Ev Williams of Twitter said it was a “sucky job.”) (6)

Simultaneously, the CEO and other C-level executives will learn something about innovation, guaranteed.  These senior managers will be exposed to passion about a particular project that they might have otherwise have ignored.   They will have helped bridge generational gaps between all of the participants.  They could repeat the program as often as once per quarter, and the waiting list to participate would always be full.

CEO for a day is only one idea.  It’s a paltry contribution to a discussion that needs to be happening every day among management at companies all over the world.  But I think it’s a positive idea, and I’d certainly love to read about it in the news every quarter.


Response to Nicholas Deleon re: Wikileaks

Look at Matt Drudge, freaking out over Wikileaks’ so-called “insurance policy” against Julian Assange’s arrest. READY TO LAUNCH “DOOMSDAY FILES,” Drudge screams. (Red font, too. All we need is a siren.gif and we’re in full meltdown mode.) And Doomsday for whom, exactly? I mean, as of today, all Wikileaks has done is to make available a number of documents that were already available to some 3 million Americans. So if this information is already available to 3 million of our fellow citizens, why not us? Is it wrong for the citizens of a republic to know what’s being done in their name around the world…

Fox News says that Assange has “warn[ed] that any government that tries to curtail his activities risks triggering a new deluge of state and commercial secrets.” That’s been taken to mean that, should he be arrested, Assange will release the encryption key, thereby unlocking insurance.aes256 forever.

At which point, we’re led to believe, the Sun will disappear, throwing the Earth and all the other planets of the solar system into the far reaches of outerspace.

Nicholas Deleon, “Does Wikileaks Represent The End Of Internet History?

This is not a black and white world.  I don’t believe there’s a black and white answer to whether Wikileaks is good for the United States, good for the Internet, or represents positive global change.

In fact, one of the reasons it’s so hard to firmly take Wikileaks’ “side,” if you will, is this insurance policy Mr. Deleon mentions.  He uses the phrase “the Sun will disappear” to mock the hyperbole of those who don’t want those documents leaked.  Of course, his sarcasm is well-placed: the Sun will not disappear.  The planets will not be out of alignment.

But, what if the insurance policy contains the real names of all covert intelligence agents worldwide, or some sensitive information about susceptibility of the US military to harm?  What if it contains some Secret Service information about the routines of the President or Vice President of the United States?  Or nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons information, which could be extremely useful to those who wish to inflict harm to as many people as possible?

The Sun may not disappear, but are we now saying there is no line that cannot be crossed, just because the Internet is supposed to be a free source of information?  Or worse, are we celebrating it?

Mr. Deleon uses as justification that 3,000,000 people in the US had access to prior Wikileaks documents already (although, as I’ve mentioned, we don’t know what the insurance policy comprises).  That logic is laughable.  One percent of one country has access to “secret” clearance information, and each one of those people had to pass a background check and/or some other vetting to obtain that clearance.

More than anything else, it’s certain that Wikileaks represents a seminal moment in the history of the Internet. Closing your eyes, stomping your feed and wishing it would all just go away, is completely ludicrous.


No, “stomping [our] feet and wishing it would all just go away” is not an answer, and I’m not sure who ever suggested that it was.  Again, it’s not a black and white world. But I believe it’s ludicrous to justify Wikileaks from the viewpoint that that every person with access to the Internet should be able to see anything that normally requires a clearance.

That naturally leads to the argument that perhaps we don’t need any clearances.  Perhaps we should not trust any of the people we elect, or any of our military leaders, when they say that something should be kept secret and not placed on an open site for all to see.  To be allowed into our police forces, into our military, or into the ranks of the folks who protect the President, one has to undergo psychological testing and criminal background checks.  Then, we ask those folks to keep some things secret, to keep us — in their view — as safe as possible.  Personally, I believe this is a necessary fact of life.  Some seem willing to let this slide on the Internet in the name of open access, or the lack of trustworthiness of our alleged protectors.

Sure, we may live in a world of truly open access to any information, and change our whole view of entrusting some people to keep secrets.  Or if we don’t now, we may soon.  If a person we elect shouldn’t be able to decide that something’s secret, then none of us can.  By my reading of that fundamental question that Wikileaks has forced on us, we may be one step closer to anarchy.

I’m not “closing [my] eyes,” but I’m not throwing a party to celebrate it either.

President Obama should declare ANWR a National Monument

The determination of the powerful oil lobby to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), “the country’s largest and most untamed refuge,” (source later) has bothered me for many, many years.  When you look at a list of our country’s NWRs, they’re really the last rugged, unspoiled places in the country.  For example, in Georgia, we have the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR).  Perhaps 8 years ago, I imagined how horrifying it would be if companies were allowed to bring equipment in to drill in ONWR, or otherwise disrupt the wilderness to recover some limited quantities of finite resources.

That’s why I’ve been determined to protect ANWR, which one day I’ll hopefully be lucky enough to see.  I don’t know if you realized this, but President Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to protect ANWR forever.  He could declare it a National Monument, which would make it impossible for companies to ever drill there.

Here is more information from today’s newspaper about the choice the President could make.  And here is a page with information on previous Presidents and the National Monuments they created.  The history of National Monuments dates back to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who was extremely committed to setting aside unspoiled public land for future generations.

It’s interesting that Alaska has a unique culture where oil exploration is encouraged, even by many of its citizens.  But that culture has had a devastating impact on some of Alaska’s land already.  Many reading this will remember the horrible Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Prince William Sound, AK.  And just a few years ago, in 2006, more than 200,000 gallons of oil were spilled in Prudhoe Bay, AK; that event was called “massive.”

As a National Wildlife Refuge, the ANWR land already belongs to all the people of this great country. It doesn’t belong just to the people of Alaska, and it certainly shouldn’t be controlled by any corporate interests.  It’s time that we urge the President to take further steps to ensure that this part of Alaska can never be ruined.

Please join more than 80 members of Congress, 170 scientists, 300 businesses and organizations, and 20+ religious organizations and write to the President about protecting ANWR.  I strongly believe the White House needs actual letters, not emails, on this critical issue.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

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