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Leading Rookie Talent: The Tight Rope and the Safety Net

Leading Forum
Is it possible that we are actually at our best when we are least qualified for the job?

In my research studying the situations and types of leaders that bring out the best in people, I’ve noticed a counterintuitive but persistent theme: people tend to do their best work when they are out of their comfort zone, doing something important and difficult – often for the very first time. When we are stretched to our limits (and often beyond), we are forced to focus, and we learn fast – a mode I call “rookie smarts.”

Working high above ones skill level can feel like a tight rope act – these new performers feel the tension and know that all eyes are on them. It is inevitable that they will wobble and perhaps even fall off at some point. The best leaders and mentors must not only place someone up on the tightrope; they must also be there to catch them when they fall.

BTS, a global consulting firm, developed a highly effective system for launching and securing rookie talent on high-stakes projects. Vice president and partner Dan Parisi said, “Our job is to move people from left to right, up a learning curve. When there’s a steep learning curve, you need to build a safety net under it.” On every project, one person, such as the account manager, is the designated safety net. When veteran consultants or project managers assume this role, it is their job to launch the junior talent and be their safety net. When they see a struggling team member, they intervene without usurping control and then put the rookie back on the tightrope.

How can managers intervene without usurping control and avoid the resentment that can come from public recognition of the protégé’s false steps? No one likes falling off the tightrope, landing on her back, and needing to be “saved” by the boss. Here’s how BTS uses safety nets to launch people, not deflate them:
  1. Make it truly safe. They’ve figured out that the best safety nets aren’t managers, but rather senior colleagues and project managers who oversee the client engagements rather than directly manage staff.
  2. Make it a benefit. They’ve popularized the term “safety net” across the company. Instead of being seen as a punishment, the safety net is viewed as a service, a benefit to which a more junior colleague is entitled and can ask for.
  3. Keep the nets in place. The senior partners and project managers are given a very large span of control (essentially running a three-ring circus). This means that the senior leaders have just enough time to offer meaningful coaching and mentoring, but not enough time to micromanage their rising talent.
  4. Progressively lower the nets. When someone is a complete rookie, the rope may be set low and the net set high. But as rookies gain experience and have success, the manager can raise the rope and lower the net without rookies even knowing the parameters have changed.

  5. A stretch assignment – working high on a tight rope – can be terrifying, both to walk and to watch. But with the dual promise of top performance and professional growth, smart leaders see constructing these challenging assignments as one of their most critical roles. They’ve learned to get comfortable asking others to be uncomfortable.

    Leaving our comfortable perch is never easy. Many of us go kicking and screaming. Those who venture out can feel the exhilaration of top performance. They might also feel their manager’s reassuring pat on their shoulder, followed by a gentle push.

    More in this Series:
      Leading Rookie Talent: A Sizing Guide for Stretch Assignments
      Leading Rookie Talent: Helping New Recruits Hit the Target

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    Liz Wiseman is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. You can connect with her at @LizWiseman.

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    Posted by Michael McKinney at 01:12 AM
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Leading Rookie Talent: Helping New Recruits Hit the Target

Leading Forum
Are your new employees loose canons or heat-seeking missiles?

In a rapidly changing world, experience can be a curse. Strategies can grow stale and innovation can stop. Being new, naïve, and even clueless, can be an asset.

Rookies – people of any age who are new to a task – aren’t weighed down with old assumptions and are more likely to explore new possibilities. Lacking knowledge of their own, they seek out and mobilize a network of experts – my research found they consult with five times more experts than experienced people do. Because they are unsure of themselves they take small, calculated steps and move fast, so they can get feedback. Their lean and agile way of working is extraordinarily valuable in dynamic environments where yesterday’s best practices don’t apply.

So, if rookies are really so valuable, should managers turn them loose and let them go?

Rookies work fast, but sometimes they run in the wrong direction and get to the wrong answer quickly. Too often a wide-open terrain can leave them wandering aimlessly. A commanding officer in the U.S. Navy said, “Rookies are all thrust and no vector.” They’re full of energy and willing to do the work, but they need to be pointed in the right direction.

To provide clear direction, start by doing what you would do for your more experienced staffers—clarify what needs to be accomplished and why it’s important. But, take it further, providing a clear target and the rules of engagement.
  1. Define the problem. Give them an intriguing puzzle to solve. Activate their hungry search for answers with a clearly defined question. For example: “How can we simplify our website so return customers can place an order in six clicks?”

  2. Define the completion criteria. Having never played this game before, they are at risk of undershooting or overshooting the goal line. Let them know what “done” looks like. For example, tell them, “Your job is complete when you’ve had a sample group of diverse clients purchase the product through a test site and received a positive evaluation from all of them.”

  3. Establish parameters. Studies by Patricia Stokes have shown that people tend to be more creative when they are given constraints. The lack of constraints makes it easy to rely on what worked in the past. Conversely, constraints increase the challenge level and force us to think in new ways. With the guardrails sets, let them know that they can go as fast as they want, as long as they don’t veer off course. For example, “You can change the layout of the pages, but stay within the company’s visual style guide.”

  4. Get them connected. Direct them to the experts who can provide guidance. Don’t just give them permission to consult, challenge them to talk with at least five experts before taking action.

While rookies need clear direction, they also need space to explore, experiment and even make mistakes. So once you’ve help them lock onto a target, make sure they have a practice field to build their skills.

You can create a space for experimentation by defining two categories of work: 1) those tasks where success has to be ensured and 2) those where failure can be recovered from. This second realm becomes your safety range—a safe space for you, your team or newcomers to struggle and potentially fail without harming your stakeholders or their business. Within this space, identify a project where you or your colleagues can take a risk and then in a series of small, calculated steps, iterate until the solution hits the mark. You might even offer the assurance, “In this space, if you totally blow it, I’ve got you covered.”

Not only are your rookies capable of doing amazing work themselves, they may just be the spark that unleashes a wave of rookie thinking across your entire team – even with your most experienced staff. But for them to make their mark, they need leaders who know when to rein them in and when to unleash them. So when you release these emerging titans, make sure they are charging for the right target.

Watch for my next guest post where we’ll explore how to provide your rookie talent both a tight rope to perform on and a safety net in case they stumble.

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Liz Wiseman is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. You can connect with her at @LizWiseman.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 05:33 AM
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Leading Rookie Talent: A Sizing Guide for Stretch Assignments

Leading Forum
Rookies: Bumbling newbies that require copious management? Or underutilized top performers that need to be turned loose?

While we often think of newcomers (be they young employees or experienced staff from another arena) as empty vessels that need to be filled up, my research shows that being a rookie – facing a new problem or a challenge for the first time – can provoke top performance. In the realm of knowledge work, rookies tend to outperform those with experience, especially when it comes to innovation and speed.

Why? Because they aren’t encumbered with previous knowledge and resources. And, they are hungry. Needing to close a knowledge gap quickly, hyper-learning kicks in, causing them to seek out guidance, experiment and get rapid feedback. They work lean and agile, the smart way all professionals should be working in the current, constantly changing environment. When cycles spin fast and knowledge doesn’t stand still, many leaders never face the same problem twice. In this environment, the ability to learn is far more critical than one’s accumulated knowledge.

While rookies are more capable than we might think, they still need leadership and guidance.

For starters, they need the right sized challenge – one that is big enough to really stretch them, but not so big as to break them. When the learning gap is too big, people can easily become overwhelmed and simply let go (or break down). However, when the challenge is too small, people never engage.

How do you create the right sized stretch challenge?

When someone is in a rookie assignment, err on the side of making the first challenge doable—make it a constructive “micro-challenge,” one with enough tension to create movement and with just the right mix of relevance, difficulty and opportunity for recognition. For more junior staff, carve off a project that can be completed within two weeks, so the rookie gets immediate feedback and recognition.

When Jen Lamorena, eBay’s manager of college recruiting, brought on her own new hire, Jen gave her an important project – create and execute a social media strategy to support the firm’s initiative to recruit top university talent. The newly hired employee appeared to go into a spin cycle and sent out a few distress signals. Jen didn’t step in and micromanage, she scoped out a micro-challenge – create a video. With this clear starting place, the new staffer began making connections and mobilizing resources and within two weeks had produced an astonishingly great video that built the confidence she needed to tackle the larger campaign.

When establishing the degree of stretch, leaders must also consider what is at stake and reconcile the tension between letting people learn and protecting others from their potential mistakes. While I was teaching a leadership seminar at a hospital for Yale Medical School, several physician-leaders who oversee residency programs voiced an intriguing frustration. While they wanted to give the resident physicians space and freedom to do their best work, the life-and-death nature of their work forced them to micromanage and bark orders. They insisted that there was no room for learning when someone is flatlining on the operating table. I agreed and asked, “What percentage of your time is spent in these situations?” They suggested it was probably 3-5 percent of their time. Yes, these critical situations aren’t rookie moments. But the other 95-97 percent of the time just might be.

Along with a micro-challenge, rookies need micro-feedback—a steady stream of information to help them course-correct and stay on track. The best feedback comes in small doses and quick bursts, typically delivered in drive-by fashion rather than formal meetings. The newer someone is to a task, the more feedback they need and the more they need you to recognize and reflect what they are doing right.

When people are at the bottom of a learning curve, start small and build a series of wins. Then offer fast bursts of feedback and shots in the spotlight to fuel them up the steepest part of the learning curve.


When leaders offer a right-sized challenge, they spawn a success cycle. As the newcomer contributes quickly, they build confidence and are ready for an even bigger challenge. With the right leadership, they’ll become perpetual rookies, living and working permanently on the steep side of a learning curve.

Watch for my next guest post where we’ll explore how to provide your rookie talent the right combination of freedom and direction.
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Liz Wiseman is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. You can connect with her at @LizWiseman.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 11:32 PM
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First Look: Leadership Books for October 2014

Here's a look at some of the best leadership books to be released in October.

  The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
  MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership by John Baldoni
  The Moment You Can't Ignore: When Big Trouble Leads to a Great Future by Malachi O'Connor and Barry Dornfeld
  Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative by Scott Eblin
  Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work by Liz Wiseman

Innovators MOXIE Moment You Cant Ignore Overworked and Overwhelmed Rookie Smarts

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Build your leadership library with these specials on over 100 titles. All titles are at least 40% off the list price and are available only in limited quantities.

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“No two persons ever read the same book.”
— Edmund Wilson

Posted by Michael McKinney at 03:25 PM
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LeadershipNow 140: September 2014 Compilation


twitter Here are a selection of tweets from September 2014 that you might have missed:
See more on twitter Twitter.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 10:00 AM
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