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In this season of politics and the pervasive media coverage of the current campaigns, it occurred to me how different campaigning in the corporate world is from what I see on the political campaign trail. Jack Welch provided an excellent description of “campaigning” in the corporate world (How to Get Elected Boss by Jack and Suzy Welch, BusinessWeek Online, May 15 2006). In short, you can think of it as persuading your colleagues and employees to buy-in to your vision. It is a part of successful leadership and it is very different from what appears to be effective political campaigning during an election year:

Style vs. Content – As illustrated by the first presidential debate as well as the numerous adds on both sides, it appears that how emphatic, even aggressive, one is on the campaign trail tends to determine effectiveness. In corporate leadership, one’s style does help to develop the culture of the organization but it is the results you achieve that pack the biggest punch. “Good to Great” leaders (http://www.jimcollins.com/books.html) tend to be less flamboyant and even shun the limelight but provide great results.

Platitudes vs. Clarity – In corporate leadership, your goal is to motivate and generate support for your corporate strategy. This tends to require clarity of vision. This can obviously be beneficial for political leadership too but it does not seem to be very important during the political campaign; perhaps because the issues are too complex, the audience too broad, the time frames too short, and the message is often distorted in the public media. And in corporations, those who we are trying to persuade have other options; they can find another job. Moving to another country is a bit more difficult.

Confrontation vs. Collaboration – It seems that being confrontational in today’s political (and media) environment is what the public demands. Perhaps that is entertainment. Great corporate leaders seem to be much more selective in their use of confrontation, perhaps because they know that in today’s business environment you are just as likely to establish a partnership with another organization as you are to compete with them. Sure, the highly confrontational corporate leaders exist and make the news but they are in the minority.

Popularity vs. Respect – Campaigning seems to be a popularity contest and that’s not what leadership or management is all about. Superficial popularity is in direct contrast to the respect and motivation that is needed in today’s corporations from the top leadership. It seems you strive to earn respect in the corporate environment and to be liked on the campaign trail.

Provoking vs. Motivating – Provoking someone to make a choice on a given day is quite different from motivating someone to come in to work eight hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year and give their best to the organization. We consistently hear that voters are voting against one candidate rather than for the other. This “lesser of two evils” mentality is consistent with the negative campaigning and confrontational approach we see in political campaigns much more pervasively than in corporate leadership.

Negativity vs. Encouragement – One of the major differences in campaigning is the tendency for personal attacks during the political process. It seems that we are motivated to vote against someone by the negative rhetoric that we hear about them. In corporate leadership, personal negative rhetoric is generally of little use in the long-term motivation of our employees.

Look at the first term in each of the comparisons above. In the corporate world one is likely to lose a job using these approaches rather than motivate followers. Make no mistake; I have great respect for some of our political leaders. What I’m talking about here is campaigning, not running the country. Of course, there is leadership required in the political arena and politics required in the corporate world. But I can imagine that we have lost many potentially great political leaders because they could not (or would not) make the distinction between leading and campaigning. What we hear in the media at the moment is the rhetoric of campaigning as opposed to the day-to-day leadership required of the President and Commander-in-Chief. I personally will be happy when it is over, no matter who gets the job.

The topic of networking comes up quite often for our early career alumni and our MEM students. I like to emphasize that networking is about relationships. This means it is about giving and receiving value from another person. It is about sharing information and experiences. It is not about how big your contact database is or how many business cards you have collected. Unless you are just building a distribution list, it is more important to have a limited number of strong relationships than innumerable unknown contacts. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with having different levels of relationships: acquaintances, colleagues and perhaps close friends may be one way to classify them. You probably have parallels in your personal life. In fact, as the relationships get closer, the line between friendship and business relationship can tend to blur (there are dangers to this but I’ll save that for a future post). Building these relationships, even high quality acquaintances, requires that you have a genuine interest in the other person. I have a number of acquaintances who I do not see often, not even once a year, but when we do get together it is wonderful to catch up and hear about what they have been up to and share experiences. I learn a lot from these interactions and I believe it is mutual.

Which brings me to the most frequently asked question I hear from early career alumni and students – How do I bring value to a relationship with someone who has much more experience and responsibility? First a word of caution.  Don’t force the relationship.  Let it evolve naturally and if it does not, then let it go. It is not a task that needs to be accomplished; it is an exploration. So back to the question.  Below is a list derived mostly from students have provided to me at times even when my experience vastly overshadowed theirs (i.e., I was old, they were young!). Sometimes these have led to continued interactions and sometimes to simply an occasional (but enjoyable and fruitful) contact between two acquaintances:

• Articles of interest to your acquaintance
• Information about the school they would not otherwise know if you are both from the same school
• A comment about how their company is perceived by your peer group
• An experience you had with one of their competitors that they might like to hear (obviously this should be an open, public experience, not something the competitor reasonably thought was going to protected or private)
• Information about a person of interest to them you may have read about in the media, especially if it was not broadly publicized and was something they are likely to have missed
• A new product of interest that you observed or even that you tracked down (i.e., from a start-up or university such that they would not have seen it)
• A market of interest they may have missed, for example, in your home country where they do not have significant presence.

With today’s social media and various organizations’ databases, the logistics of keeping up with people is easy but the relationship building is as hard as ever, maybe harder given the demands on our time.  Utilize the social media before you need it and don’t expect the media to build the relationship for you.  (For our MEM alumni, I hope that you take a moment to join our Linked-in group and the MEMPC Linked-in group – but not because you expect it to do your relationship building for you!).

For those of you who are aspiring engineering managers AND music festival fans, this post might be particularly interesting. Hopefully it is of interest to everyone as it illustrates how we can find lessons on business and management everywhere we look.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a very popular festival in the Appalachian Mountains near the town of Floyd, VA. The Appalachians have a long history of music from Blue Grass to Folk to Country (e.g.; see http://www.crookedroadenterprises.com/) and for the past decade have hosted an outdoor music festival called FloydFest (https://www.facebook.com/FloydFestVA#!/FloydFestVA). Those of you who know me probably don’t picture me at an outdoor music festival with 14,000 of my closest friends but several things came together to make this a special opportunity, including; the artists, special interest from members of my family and the location. Thus, despite it being a bit out of character, I attended all three days of the festival (well, a couple of hours each day anyway). Headliner artists included Jackson Browne, Brandi Carlile and Michael Franti making it of interest to even those who are not hardcore music festival fans.

But more to the point, as I attended the festival I realized how many exceptional business and management lessons could be gained from observing the festival and studying its history. FloydFest is particularly interesting because it has grown from a small local venue to a national event with 14,000 attendees, seven different stages for musicians, and VIP tickets costing $600 per person (although I don’t know the exact number of VIP tickets sold, it appeared to be hundreds rather than dozens). Thus, I compiled the list below while sitting on the grass listening to music on a beautiful sunny day in the mountains. These are not new but the context is quite unique:

Develop a portfolio of products – The festival is truly innovative in its vision for the type of music that it provides. A portfolio of artists in at least two different dimensions was presented to the audience; (i) both early career artists and well established artists, and (ii) styles ranging from traditional country to reggae. It struck me that this is a wonderful portfolio but has the potential problem of being interesting to such a diverse audience that making a strong, focused value proposition might be difficult. However, the organizers understood their customers extremely well which brings me to the next point.

Understand and segment your customers – Despite the large diversity in types of music, all of the customers had one general and important trait in common. They wanted to listen to music and be outdoors. The attendees ranged from children to people in their 90’s. (I’m not making that up, one of the musicians brought a ninety-something year old onto the stage to celebrate their birthday). Thus, as long as the organizers delivered an outdoor experience with high quality music, diversifying the types of music offerings is beneficial; enhancing the experience and bringing in more customers. Of course, the organizers must be aware of any correlation between people who like the outdoors and what type of music those people enjoy. As far as I could tell, there were no classical music offerings at the festival.

Know what your customers value – This means know what your customers are willing to pay for! In reality, there were many things about the venue and the festival that were rather primitive and frustrating for those of us who were not regular festival attendees. From the food choices, to the restrooms, to the parking; there were logistics that limited the quality of these services throughout the weekend. On the other hand, the sunsets, beautiful blue sky, and even the downpour which occurred in the middle of the weekend were all unmatched. Couple this with the diversity/quality of artists and the personal feel of the venues and you have delivered great value to your customers. Even the VIP customers obviously feel that these “product specs” are more important than the logistical challenges compared to a nice concert hall with real restrooms!

Organic growth – there is certainly nothing wrong with growth by acquisition or growth by significant external investment. However, the benefits of organic growth are difficult to match in many situations. Organic growth, like the growth experienced by FloydFest from the time it was a one stage local outdoor gathering to the 14,000-person seven-stage extravaganza that currently exists, allowed for knowledge capture, flexible response to the market, and word of mouth advertising to the customer base. There are still no FloydFest signs on the road at the venue – everybody has already talked to someone about where to turn – now that is organic! And again, the organizers know what their customers value; high quality music in the beautiful outdoors (with a diversity of outdoor cultural activities for young and old alike thrown in).

Find synergies in your product lines – one of the most interesting observations about the musical sets was the obvious friendships and partnerships that existed between the artists from different locations and musical genre. Most artists I observed had another artist from the festival come onto the stage as a guest for a song or two at some point during their set. In many cases they described a long and storied friendship. This provides all kinds of benefits such as making the experience unique for the customer, ensuring that the artists themselves have a good experience, and optimizing the efficiency of the “product” by utilizing artists in multiple ways.

And last but not least…..

It’s all about the culture – Every organization has its own culture and what we saw at FloydFest was how that culture can impact customers. There is a “peace, love, joy” culture that has been cultivated from the early days of the festival and this has permeated the environment even as the venue has grown by an order of magnitude. This culture is passed down by word of mouth, PR and direct advertising. It manages the expectations of the customers as well as the performers. It probably encourages some would-be customers to screen themselves out of the event if they do not subscribe to a mellow, things may not be perfect but you will have a great time, environment: a little mud, some poor lighting, too many people in some lines, and some acts starting a bit late are all part of the experience and nothing to get upset about. After all, it’s about making music in the mountains. For the most part, the audience reaction was very consistent with the culture and a good time was had by all.

So the next time you are doing something unrelated to your business, see what lessons you can learn. Many so-called “breakthroughs” come from importing ideas across industries and product areas. It has been said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” (William Gibson). You might learn about the future of your business by some “outside of the box” observations of the others.

A thorn in every manager’s side is the very smart employee who is just not self-motivated, at least not with any consistency.  When they are engaged, they are spectacular and provide brilliance that is not matched by any other employee but when they are not engaged, watch out. They go AWOL, they promise to deliver what you need but don’t make any progress at all by the due date, they are so absent at times you are not sure if they still work for you.  But then, suddenly, they deliver the breakthrough that you needed.  ARGHHH!  You can’t live with them but you can’t live without them (or at least you worry you can’t).  You love them and you hate them. How do you manage such an employee, or if this sounds like you, how do you manage yourself?  After managing employees for more than 25 years, it has only been in the last year or two that I really understood the importance of this problem and the lesson it provides for managing all types of employees.

First, as such an employee’s manager, you probably need to accept that you are not going to fundamentally change this person.  You can minimize the damage they do (maybe) and try to optimize their value but fundamental change is a different story.  The good news is that they might still be very valuable to your organization.  Furthermore, managing this type of employee is just an extreme example of managing any employee.  That is, you need to find out what motivates them and provide as much of that as possible.  In this extreme case, many times what motivates them is the intrinsic project.  Are they excited about the activities and if they are, you get brilliance; if not, you get nothing.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy.  You usually cannot simply ask the employee what motivates them or what they need to be more productive because they don’t really know.  And if they do, many times they are not comfortable telling you.  This is one of the reasons that MBWA is so important – it allows you to get to know your employees and observe, to some extent, what is happening (MBWA = Management by Walking Around).  Perhaps in today’s virtual world where teams are located at far reaches of the globe, it is a combination of MBFA and MBCA (Management by Flying Around and Management by Calling Around).  For those of us early in our management career and who are action-oriented and have a “just do it” mentality, taking the time to do this MBWA can be disconcerting.  We feel that we are not really doing anything.  But if you consider that one of your primary jobs is getting the best from your employees, this may in fact be the most important thing you have to do.  The bottom line is, get to know your employees so you can provide the environment, incentives and activities that motivate them since, although it may sound a bit cliché, everyone is different.

One of the classic mistakes I see young engineering managers make is not understanding how different people really are. They have a tendency to assume that everyone is pretty similar and thus what makes them happy will make their employees happy.  In reality, I have had people working for me who were so incredibly sensitive to feedback that it was best for me to provide a gentle nudge in a particular direction or mention in passing what I might do in their situation rather than make a specific request.  They still beat themselves up that they had not already thought of what I suggested and apologize! On the other hand, I have had employees who would not “get it” despite numerous very direct conversations (at least from my perspective) until I had written them up in a formal reprimand – they simply did not feel they could ever be wrong and did not understand they needed to do what I requested as their manager.  Similarly for the work environment.  Some employees thrive in a bustling, communal, interactive, multitasked environment whereas others require a relatively quiet, uninterrupted atmosphere to do their best work.  And it is your job as manager to know which is which and give them what they need to be most productive, at least to the extent possible.

So this begs the question – “When do I give the employee what they need to be most productive and when do I decide enough is enough?”  Well, first of all, don’t think of it as giving them something extra or a perq simply because they are motivated differently than you are or need a different working environment than you do.  Don’t make it personal even though it is likely to be more effort for you than if they were just like you.  Value diversity.  As the saying goes, if they always agreed with you then one of you is redundant.  So you decide if it is “worth it” just like for other decisions you make – is the net value to the organization positive.  If it takes too much of your time, disrupts other employees or in some other way costs the organization to accommodate the employee, then at some point, it is not worth it and you need to encourage (or require) that the employee finds an organization that is a better fit.  But the collective value of motivating and accommodating different types of employees is quite a powerful force so don’t be too hasty with that decision.  If they are valuable to the organization, try to accommodate their needs and work style and you will gain a loyal employee while benefiting your organization.  I have seen this work time and time again.

So what about the flip side of this discussion?  What if you find yourself at odds with the motivation style and environment of your organization.  If your boss gives hugs and warm wishes whereas you need a threat and kick in the tail to get going.  If you need to be left alone to do your best work but your organization has pep rallies and joint morning calisthenics.  Well, in the extreme (like these examples) it is probably time for you to find an organization which is a better fit.  But if you just need some reasonable accommodations rather than a wholesale change in the organizations culture, it is worth a try even if it is not easy.  If you build trust with your boss, gain credibility with early wins and are clear about you can deliver for the organization, the chances are you will find common ground.  If you can show the value you provide and you can be clear about what helps you deliver that value, most managers will work with you.  But to do this, you need to understand what your manager values and what she needs to do her job too.  If what you need makes it fundamentally harder for her to do her job, then forget it.  Her time is probably stretched much too thin already and you still need to be considering how to make it easier for her, not more difficult.  For example, if you work best with uninterrupted effort so you only want to check email once a day but your boss is must prepare data for her manager every two hours that requires your input, you have a problem. All of this requires significant self-awareness on your part.  If you are a high performer you probably have this awareness and you will adapt to your environment as-needed while still asking for what helps you perform at your best.  If you have an overinflated opinion of your value, which it turns out many underperformers do, it is going to be difficult.  You are not self-aware enough to know you are not self-aware.  There may be a couple of future posts for these topics –  (i) Don’t be Shy but Don’t Whine and (ii) Being Self-Aware Enough to Know You Are Not Self-Aware Enough.

To sum up the current Post, be sure you internalize the significant differences between each of your employees with respect to how they are motivated and the environment that allows them to optimize their performance.  When it comes to obtaining the best from your employees, there is really no substitute for understanding them as individuals.

Every year one of my blog posts is from the speech that I give to our Master of Engineering Management Students at graduation as they embark on the next phase of their careers.  The post below is from our 2012 graduation ceremony that took place a few weeks ago.  As I summarize my speech on this beautiful July 4 holiday, I am humbled by the incredible opportunities that I have each year to meet such exceptional people as our MEM students.  It is hard to imagine that a brief speech or blog post can have much impact at such an auspicious time in their lives but here is my attempt…

Paraphrasing A. Whitney Griswold (great educator and former President of Yale): 

Education is not a quantitative body of knowledge but rather it is a taste for knowledge, a capacity to explore, to question and to perceive.

My hope is that your time here has provided a platform for your future endeavors.  It should have helped you begin to develop your intuition about business, organizations, management and leadership but more importantly, it should provide a base which gives you this capacity to explore and question and ultimately understand.  And this understanding will provide the foundation for your decisions and choices.

The reason this is my hope and I start this brief speech in this way is because; and this is the theme of my speech:

“You can’t predict the future”

It is said: Heroes are ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  They did not know it would happen to them.

“You can’t predict the future”

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm; Winston Churchill.  We don’t generally expect failure but…

“You can’t predict the future”

George Bernard Shaw said:  Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself –

“You can’t predict the future” but you do help create it.

And that is what you are doing here today and for the last 1, 2 or in some cases 3 years; creating your future.  So what are the lessons for us in this simple phrase; “you can’t predict the future”?

  • Validation – First, it validates the excellent, even courageous decision you have made to make the effort and take the time to further your education.  There is no way to better prepare for an unpredictable future than to educate yourself.
  • It’s the planning, not the plan – The planning process, not the plan itself, is what you should focus on as you embark on your journey.  The process requires you to think through your options and prepare yourself for an unpredictable future more than the plan itself.
  • Embrace change – you will make some decisions that you want to change.  Expect that and change as needed when you do.  In my experience, no decisions are stagnant.  It may take time and will certainly take effort but you can change the future even if you cannot predict it.
  • People evolve – When I first graduated with my PhD, there were two things I was sure of:  I did not want to travel and I did not want to give public presentations.  I did not realize that I actually liked travelling and presenting; it was the fear leading up to them that I did not like.  But with a bit of experience and a bit of time, that fear subsided. So test yourself over time, you are not static, don’t expect your preferences and skills to be.
  • Focus on the little things – You cannot predict the future so big decisions are not the issue. They are easy to analyze and get as close as possible to a “good” decision without actually knowing what the future holds.  It is the choices you make every day that really build the platform that determines your life!  How much time do I spend at work, with my family, with myself? What are my priorities? Who do I choose as my confidants? What challenges will I take on today? And the list goes on…
  • Keep your mind open – I constantly hear from Alumni and our industrial advisory board stories about the fortuitous opportunity that came their way.  In fact, it is well beyond that – it includes the unpredictable reaction they had to a project or an assignment.  They go through a large fraction of their career thinking, even telling people – I don’t want to do XYZ.  But lo and behold, they are asked to do it anyway and they love it! Don’t discount opportunities too early.  One of our Pratt alums and a former Officer of a fortune 100 company in charge of their Global Supply Chain of 10’s of thousands of products, tells a great story about his own career.  He did not want to take an overseas assignment.  It was simply something he was sure he would not like.  When told that he was desperately needed in Europe after the passing of a colleague, he reluctantly agreed on the condition it was a short term assignment.  After a year or two, he did not want to come back!  He loved his new location and was ready to stay there for the rest of his career. A decade later, the only way the company got him back to the US was by explaining that he could not become an Officer of the organization and take over the very top job in Global Supply Chain if he did not return to the US!  And of course, without the international experience he obtained, and found he loved, that opportunity would have been unlikely!

Those are just some of the lessons I think we can all learn from the fundamental fact that we do not know what the future holds.  In closing, please remember what Newton Baker said (“The person who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after”) because…

…you simply can’t predict the future

 

 

I have had the pleasure of teaching Innovation Management this semester to our Master of Engineering Management students at Duke; both distance and residential.  The student engagement in the material has been great, making it a lot of fun, including some great analyses of how companies manage innovation (or don’t in some cases!).  For the current post, I asked students to provide their opinions on the top 10 innovation management concepts (an extra credit assignment for the class).  I then choose some of them to share here with a little editing in some cases.  I hope you enjoy them – I did.

1.     Recognize Innovation vs. Invention

This is important because for every great idea that turned into Crocs or Snuggies or Facebook, there are hundreds and thousands that remain just that – great ideas.  The book “Managing Innovation” puts it succinctly, to paraphrase, innovation is invention plus.  It is invention plus implementation, invention plus value extraction, invention plus extra steps.  The invention portion of innovation, whether completely original or incremental, is just the first step in the innovation process.  (Colin R.)

2.     Build a Culture of Innovation

Innovation is not created by a single individual, but rather by a concerted collective effort of the entire organization. 3M and Google are considered temples for innovation as they cultivate their employees to innovate and have set up a framework that supports integration of innovation across the organization.  The company must become an ‘innovation factory’ where employees are challenged to drive a constant but focused flow of ideas through the factory. The company must support innovation at all levels and should be organizationally structured to support innovation, for example, flat organization structures or innovation cells. (Sreecharan C.)  and

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have…it’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it” by Steve Jobs in an interview with Fortune Magazine.  Innovation is increasingly about teamwork and the creative combination of different disciplines and perspectives. (Haoze Z.)

3.     Cultivate Champions

I think the concept of “champions” plays a very big role in a company’s innovation management process regardless of the innovation being sustaining, incremental or disruptive.   Companies need these creative, passionate, risk-seekers to sustain their innovative environment.  Champions can sometimes stick to their ideas irrationally and advocate them without justification, but the value they bring to the innovation process outweighs this problem.  The Stage-Gate process should be utilized to help manage and harness the value of Champions. (Duygu S.)

4.     Fail Early (and Often)

Start with lots of ideas, but have a process that carefully selects and develops the right ones, and gradually reduces risk as projects proceed.  Utilize a “funnel” selection approach by continuing projects that pass pre-determined criteria and dumping those that don’t. Using a stage-gate process ensures that resources are not wasted on projects that cannot meet company targets and guarantees that the right activities are undertaken at the right time. (Doug M.)

5.     Build a Portfolio

In innovation, as in investment, we should seek balance. A matrix-based innovation portfolio is an excellent tool to visualize and understand a company’s range of projects. The use of portfolio management allows a company to spread risks while taking on projects of varying potential reward. (Doug M.)

6.     Practice Open Innovation

Open innovation is a relatively new concept, but due to the many benefits it provides it is currently becoming more popular among innovative companies.  Companies go beyond their boundaries and open up their innovation processes to partners, vendors, customers and sometimes even the general public.  They are no longer limited by their internal workforce.  Previously, every company was responsible for “inventing its own future”, but open innovation can enable industry, academia, government and the public to collaborate and contribute to the innovation process.   (Duygu S.)

7.     Engage in Customer development

Customer development is as important as product development. Steve Blank’s four steps in customer development include —“customer discovery”, “customer validation”, “customer creation” and “business building”. Each should be implemented according to the target industry and company strategy.  Although developed for start-up companies, this concept is equally valuable for large organizations. (Shibo F.)

8.     Sharing is Caring.

If only your company knew what it knows!  Knowledge management is more essential than ever as we deal with increasingly complex projects. How does your company make knowledge sharing easy? Does your company utilize social networks, wikis, blogs, instant messengers, and other communication tools? If not, you’re missing out on opportunities to forever capture and pool knowledge that may otherwise be lost.  (Doug M.)

9.     Enlist Diverse Talents and Backgrounds

Along with experience, in order to have a successful working group, there must be people in the innovation management process who have diverse talents and come from different backgrounds.  This creates a team with different points of view in order to foster a climate of creative friction.  More ideas – in number, subject, and quality – will be generated, which will lead to stronger innovations. (Colin R.)

10.     Ten Concepts Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Let’s face it; this assignment is not very realistic!  There are so many facets to innovation that defining the top ten is not really possible.  Disruptive Innovation, Blue Ocean Strategy, incentives to motivate employees, core rigidities, life cycle concepts and the S curve, technology forecasting, etc., etc. all have an important place in innovation management.  Nonetheless, these important concepts summarized by future innovators for our society is a great start and a fresh view of an important topic.  (Jeff G.)

Footnote:  Special acknowledgement and thanks to the text we used in the course which discusses many of these concepts: “Managing Innovation: Integrating Technological, Market and Organizational Change,” by Joe Tidd and John Bessant.

It is truly a small world! This is true in both space and time.  I have been reminded of this in several ways over the last few months, including:

  • running into MEM alumni in a grocery store and a coffee shop in San Francisco while I was on sabbatical
  • running into an MEM alumnus while leaving a Mall near a workshop I attended in Boston
  • chatting with someone after a presentation I had given and finding they work with colleagues I had written papers with 15 years ago (this one actually happened twice in the last week)
  • meeting the husband of a woman I worked with 20 years ago while she was a masters student

And the list goes on (while on a past trip walking through Hong Kong, while waiting for a flight in the Tokyo airport, etc.!). It’s a small world. Spatially because I can go to cities from Boston to San Francisco and coincidentally run into MEM alumni. Temporally, because I still have connections with students I have not seen in 10 years or colleagues I worked with more than 15 years ago in previous fields. (We had all recently talked about that past work with our new colleagues and have now coincidentally ended up in fields that are once again connected for one reason or another). This is all quite surprising to me. It is a small world.

So why do I bring this up on my engineering management blog? I think it illustrates a couple of important points:

1) Don’t burn any bridges – There will be times in your life when you don’t like your boss or your coworker or even one of your employees. Fine, you don’t need to like them but you do need to treat them with respect. And I don’t mean you need to treat with respect IF they treat you with respect. That’s easy. I mean regardless of how you feel or how they treat you, take the high road. Change something to move away from them but while you are working on what that something is, continue to be professional and respectful. You may be thinking; “even if I run across this person in 10 years, I don’t want anything to do with them so why should I care about burning a bridge?” First, consider that how you treat this person you don’t like will be perceived by others, so any bridge you burn will not be isolated to a single person. Second, people change. And the way you treat this person may even contribute to such a change. So, don’t burn a bridge, you don’t know when you will cross paths with people from your past.

2) Utilize your network – If you make it a habit to develop relationships early in your career, they can last a lifetime. And integrated over that lifetime, they can add immense mutual value. It is not a one way street; you need to be willing to give value, not just receive it, but if you are, there is no predicting when or how you will reap benefits from these relationships. Of course, the intrinsic value of simply connecting with others who have different experiences and perspectives will also be part of that. If you are still in an MEM program, even if it is a distance format, you should be even more aggressive in making connections – it is one of the best times to make connections with people who you have so much in common with. When I have seen former colleagues who I have not connected with in a decade, many times we pick up right where we left off! It is always interesting to inform my upcoming career decisions with their experiences and quite enjoyable too…which brings me to my last point.

3) Have fun! It really is a blast to reconnect with people who you have a shared history with but took a different path. The shared history provides a connection and an experience base that gives you a common language. You quickly and easily expand your knowledge and vicarious experience through such interactions. And there is a good chance that something or someone they know or some experience they have had is just what you need to help with some issue you are facing.

So take time while you are in the early stages of your career. Develop relationships that can last a lifetime and try not to burn any bridges. And if we have worked together in the distant past or you were a student in one of my classes or programs, I hope if you see me on the street in some unlikely place, you will take the opportunity to reconnect or just say hello and exchange a quick update.