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Broadway musicals and the lessons of succession planning

Recently, the producers of Dear Evan Hansen announced that its Tony Award-winning lead, a ridiculously talented Ben Platt, would be vacating the role on November 19. Platt originated the role through read-throughs, workshops, previews, and finally, a year on Broadway.

The show is a runaway hit, pulling in $1.5M a week and already providing its investors with a complete return on their investment (in a very short period of time for a small theatre on Broadway). While the show seems like it will be fine with a new lead, its continued success is uncertain and there has been no announcement of who will be taking over the lead.

For another show on Broadway, the continued success is known – it will not have any. Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (heretofore known as The Great Comet because that name is just WAY too long) was nominated for 12 Tony Awards (3 more than the big winner Dear Evan Hansen). It starred Josh Groban, he of velvety-voice-with-little-inflection-but-everyone-loves-him fame. It was a rousing good time. It got a huge boost from the Tonys performance.

And then Josh Groban left the show.

Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowa (who originated Hercules Mulligan/James Madison in Hamilton) took over the role. People loved him, he had a wonderful debut. And about 3 weeks into his run, rumors started flying that Mandy Patinkin (Broadway royalty/Inigo Montoya) would take over the role. It was officially announced. And the backlash was loud and accusatory because Oak is black, Mandy is white, and the callousness of the move was jarring. Turns out, Mandy was horrified at what happened, and refused to take the role because of what happened to Oak – Mandy had been told Oak was cool with it…and Oak did not appear to be cool with it. Mandy’s out. Oak refuses to go back.

And now the show is closing less than a year after it opened because they have no “name” lead and advance sales plummeted.

So why would I spend nearly 400 words on the drama of a Broadway show’s missteps?

Because that could be your organization.

If you have talented, charismatic, AMAZING leaders in your organization and you haven’t planned for what happens when they leave, you could be The Great Comet.

Don’t be The Great Comet.

Because I’m an unabashed theatre nerd and have decided to run this metaphor into the ground, here are some lessons about succession planning you can learn from Broadway:

  • It’s not the actor, it’s the show:  If you rely on one person’s performance for your company’s success, you will fail. Make sure the team’s/unit’s/company’s work and systems are strong enough to stand on its own, regardless of who is in charge. You want that leader to enhance, not overtake, the work that is already being done. Hamilton, the cultural juggernaut that will probably play forever and ever, is able to survive cast changes all the time – because the book, music and staging is just SO DAMN GOOD. New cast members join in service to the show, and while you see their spin in the performance, it’s not about them. It’s about the outcome of the show.
  • Acknowledge that the original star can never REALLY be replaced and adapt: Having seen Ben Platt perform live, I am fairly confident that NO ONE will ever play that role to that level ever again. It is astounding. That doesn’t mean the next person will not be good. It just means they won’t be Ben. If they’re smart, they’ll try to find someone who can create the role in their own image, and adapt the show to that person’s strengths. Your company should do the same thing. If the last leader was well loved and well liked, acknowledge that. Then give them the opportunity to build and move on in their own image without changing the script.
  • Consider staggering your exits: If you know you have a cohort of leaders who might be leaving around the same time – whether it’s retirement or a spin-off or something else – you might negotiate with them to stagger their leaving (assuming you like their style). This will allow you to have stability throughout the transition, helping onboard the new leaders while providing consistency for the organization. Hamilton used this approach. Lin Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) announced he was leaving. Then Leslie Odom, Jr. (Burr) left (apparently to do Nationwide commercials). Then others in the lead roles left. But never all at once. It helped preserve the spirit of the show and passed on the cast’s culture to the next actors to join. That could work for you.
  • Have a long-term plan: Everyone leaves a company – whether they quit, get fired, or die. It’s the role of a leader to prep his/her replacement and plan that exit from the day they join. Lin Manuel Miranda has a group of trusted performers that he knows he can turn to take over roles. Javier Munoz was Lin’s understudy and replacement for In the Heights, and the same thing happened in Hamilton. Smooth transition. Who is YOUR Javier Munoz?
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: One of the biggest myths in succession planning is that you pick ONE person to be your replacement and you’re done. This is known as “pre-selection” and will bite you in the ass. You want to be sure that person can actually do the job, so you want to make sure you’re developing them. But even more pressing is the fact that someone who is high-potential enough to be identified as your successor may not want to wait in your shadow until you leave – they could jump to another opportunity. On Broadway, many understudies are working on originating one role while backing up another (like with Dear Evan Hansen’s Colton Ryan). There is no guarantee they’ll be around to take over full time. Or life gets in the way – Javier Munoz has had two health issues (thankfully, he’s okay). The point is, identify a potential pool of successors and develop their skills. It gives the company more options at the time of transition.
  • Communicate appropriately: That whole Mandy/Oak thing? Totally could have been avoided if all the right players met at one point to talk long-term goals, communication strategy, and impact to Oak. People get nervous when their boss changes. Having a good communication plan can help alleviate that. Additionally, if you DO have multiple people who could potentially take the job, think about how you let those who did NOT get the position know. What feedback can you give? What career options can you share? And…are you prepared for the reality that they may leave because of it? Whatever the case might be, the last thing you want to do is have a communication issue that results in NO ONE taking the role.

There you have it – lessons from Broadway on how you might approach succession planning within your organization.

See? The arts DO apply to the “real world.” (Support the arts!!!)

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2017 in culture, Decision Making

 

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Don’t you dare forget… (From #SHRM17)

[This post first appeared on the SHRM Blog on June 19, 2017]

Today saw the beginning of #SHRM17 in New Orleans, where 18,000 HR pros have descended upon the city for learning, fun, and reconnecting with old friends.

The shenanigans kicked off early in the morning with pre-conference workshops, but the sessions began in earnest after lunch, with concurrent sessions and SmartStage speakers. But the main event REALLY kicks off late in the afternoon, with the appearance of Juana Hart and our first keynote of the conference.

You have probably heard of Kat Cole – she worked at Hooters and learned the operations side of the business when the cook disappeared. Her hard work and inherent business sense led to her recommendation to be sent to Australia to launch restaurants there.  She became a Vice President at 26, and then moved over to Cinnabon to become President of the company at the age of 33. Her story is remarkable. She is remarkable.

Ms. Cole’s keynote was impressive – no slides, no teleprompter, just a woman telling her story and the lessons learned along the way. There were so many inspiring tales in the keynote. I have no doubt my fellow SHRM bloggers will cover many of them. There was one in particular, however, that stood out to me.

She had just finished sharing a major mistake she made early on at Cinnabon, and shared how that mistake led to lasting success. And then, she talked about how her mom keeps her grounded. Every day on her birthday, Ms. Cole’s mother sends her a card with the following reminder: Don’t you dare forget where you came from, but don’t ever let it solely define you.

This hit me on a personal level. Everyone carries the memories of where they come from with the through life. These experiences shape who we are and how we approach adversity. Some choose to overcome them and never look back. Others wallow in those experiences, using them as an excuse to stay stuck. Ms. Cole’s message from her mother is striking because it illustrates the power of remembering what got you through adversity, and then using it to move forward.

When we refuse to look back at who we were in the past, we fail to acknowledge the lessons we learned on that path. We don’t honor the person who made it through the wilderness. We pretend it didn’t exist. But that’s not really the case, is it? That person is always looking over our shoulder, whispering in our ear, holding us back or pushing us forward. It would be disingenuous to believe we aren’t still holding on to a part of the past, even as we look towards the future.

So why focus so much on this aspect – especially when it comes within the context of Human Resources? There are two reasons – one external, the other internal.

First, the external – we need to remember that each of the employees and leaders we work with are bringing their pasts to work. We have an opportunity to be that voice that says, “Yes, you ARE that person who dealt with a not-so-great past. But that doesn’t have to be who you are forever.” We can help these people move forward by reminding them of their strengths and working with leadership to recognize when humility and courage come together to make real change.

Second, the internal – HR needs to listen to that advice. For too long, we have wallowed in the belief that we have no influence. That no one will let us do anything. That we have fought like hell to get where we are today and it just doesn’t seem like it’s that far at all. And yet…look at how far we have come. We are no longer “personnel.” We have the ear of our CEOs. We may still struggle at times, but CHRO is a position that actually EXISTS in business – and it didn’t always. We have struggled and we will continue to struggle…but we have so much potential.

So my advice to you, #SHRM17 HR professionals – don’t forget where you came from….but DON’T YOU DARE let that solely define you.

Be more. Do more. Dare more.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2017 in Authenticity, Conference Posts

 

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Gratitude – it might be enough

I am attending the WorkHuman conference in Phoenix, AZ this week. This is the third year in a row I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of this conference, and I like it because its focus is less on “how to” and more on “why.” The conference organizers try to find speakers and keynotes who align with the message of rewards, recognition, and living one’s authentic self – a phrase a few years ago I would have snorted at. Actually…I do still kind of snort because the word is overused, but in today’s world of social media with increasing pressure to put on a good public life while struggling in private, I think the message is valid.

In yesterday’s opening session on the big stage, we watched a Q&A with Chaz Bono, a transgendered individual who knew from an early age he didn’t fit the female body he was born into. His story is rather well documented – being the child of celebrities must have compounded the challenges of dealing with these feelings of “different” – and he was open about the challenges he faced with substance abuse. Chaz shared he was 13 years clean and sober, an impressive accomplishment for anyone.

Chaz has refocused his efforts to make a living as an actor (including a secret project he can’t talk about…mysterious!) but continues to use his celebrity to support people (including kids) who are going through the emotions of transitioning and to help them understand they are not alone.

There were a lot of powerful messages in Chaz Bono’s Q&A, but one stood out to me. He was telling the story of going through his journey to sobriety and shared the advice a mentor gave him. The key to sobriety and not relapsing, this person said, was GRATITUDE. Be grateful for what you have, and you won’t dare relapse.

Now, not all of us struggle with substance abuse. But we are human beings who go through life with one burden or another. We may wallow in self pity. We may think life isn’t fair. We may dream about the next big thing without paying attention to what we have RIGHT NOW.

All of this got me thinking…am I grateful? Do I practice gratitude?

If I’m honest with myself, I would say…sort of. I do have a tendency to dwell on things. As an affirmed introvert, I internalize a lot of things, turning it over and over in my mind, wearing out my thoughts like a well-handled piece of paper. This can be an addictive way to live – stress and anxiety can be comforting because there is little accountability to act on things. And it’s easier to be stressed and anxious when you think you don’t deserve what you have.

On the other hand, I do step back from time to time and recognize that I am incredibly fortunate. I have a well-paying job. I have an amazing husband. I live in a beautiful state. I have the flexibility to make daily choices that millions don’t. So I recognize those things and AM grateful.

I just don’t say it out loud very much.

Therefore, my takeaway from Day One of WorkHuman is to be more vocal about my gratitude; to tell those around me I’m grateful for their presence; to vocalize to those who are struggling that sometimes the ability to draw breath is enough to be grateful for today…and we can figure out the rest tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2017 in Self-Awareness, Uncategorized

 

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Not every hero wears a cape

Sometimes you hear a story about a person that makes you stop in your tracks and think, “Whoa. I could never do what that person is doing.”

Last night, I saw a story on the news about Darius Matsuda, a soon-to-be sophomore in high school who is visiting local middle schools to tell his story about growing up with autism. He shares with the students his experiences – including being forced into a circle with another boy while the others chant “Fight! Fight! Fight!” He explains what it’s like to live with autism – how it impacts your sensitivity to sound, light, and your ability to make friends.

It’s a powerful, personal story, and he’s already told it nine times to kids not that much younger than he is. All in the hopes that kids learn a little compassion for their fellow students, and understand that just because someone is different doesn’t mean they’re lesser than. Darius is going for Eagle Scout, and this is his service project.

This kid is amazing. Talk about putting yourself out there.

I bet that if we look hard enough, we all have someone like Darius around us. Someone with a story to tell, who has learned lessons in their life and are willing to share them. Not because it will help them…but because it will help those who come after them.

These are the heroes in your community and in your workplace. Listen to their stories. Learn their lessons.

Nice work, Darius.

 

If you want to learn more about autism and how to get involved, visit the Autism Society website

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Small talk and the decline of practically everything

There is a lot of chatter out there.

On any given day, millions of ideas are shared via the internet, via Twitter, LinkedIn, articles, this blog, etc. Lots of one liners, jokes, snarky comments; but also inspirational quotes, videos of baby goat yoga, lists of “life hacks” (whatever the hell those really are), etc. In fact, every minute on the internet sees, among other things, a minimum of 2.4 MILLION Google searches, 347,222 tweets on Twitter, and 972,222 Tinder swipes (may you all find love).

This is the age of Big Data [insert dramatic music here].

And yet, most of what is out there is little more than a tasting menu of ideas. It’s a one-way sharing of thoughts, feelings, observations, and/or ego. We dip our toe into the pool of discourse, but we don’t stay too long lest we get dragged into a debate, get attacked by trolls, or – lord forbid – have to participate in an honest-to-god CONVERSATION.

What happened to our ability to sit down and actually talk to people?

In high school and college, people were all about having deep, philosophical conversations about life, death, and everything in between. Yeah, they got pretty annoying sometimes, but it was good practice in identifying where you stood in the world. You were able to frame your argument, consider counterpoints, and share your own counterarguments. It was a great way to apply debate skills and decide what you may or may not believe in.

Granted…I did not have Twitter or Facebook when I was in college. We barely had the internet. #Iamnotold #dammit

Today, communication is built to be quick, witty, and shallow. I actually resisted Twitter for a LONG time because I do not believe 140 characters is enough room to communicate meaningfully. I now accept it for what it is, but still throw it the side-eye now and then because I think it’s part of the problem.

People don’t really talk anymore.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. As an affirmed introvert, I LOVE the fact that I can do so much “communicating” online, in writing, without actually have to see someone face to face. I hate talking on the phone voluntarily. I avoid networking events like the plague. Give me a chance to interact virtually and I will take it every single time. And it probably makes me less effective as a coworker/boss/friend/human being.

It’s easy to just stop typing when you’re not happy with the way a conversation is going. You can just block someone if they get a little too obnoxious. Or you just throw a hashtag out there (#micdrop) and act like you won.

Real world conversations take vulnerability. They take concentration. They take commitment.

I’m going to try to do better at this. I’m going to try and have better conversations with the people I actually see in real life.

This doesn’t mean I won’t be quick, witty, and shallow on the internet. Are you kidding?! That’s way too much fun. I’m just going to…try harder. I hope you do, too.

What’s the worst that could happen?

 
 

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Your zipper is down

May you always have someone in your life who will tell you your zipper is down.

May you have a friend who lets you know there’s cilantro stuck between your teeth.

May you have a significant other who tells you when you are overreacting.

May you have an archenemy who makes you smarter.

May that same archenemy be willing to team up with you against a common foe as needed.

May you have a boss who is brave enough to tell you to stop it, you’re making an idiot of yourself. 

May you have a best friend who gets it when you just text “Blergh.”

May you have a pet who loves you unconditionally…but totally leaves the room when you start yelling at the TV, because who’s got time for that?

May you have a health care provider who reminds you to take care of yourself.

May you have a teacher in your life whom you remember for the best of reasons.

May you have parents whose phone calls you sort of avoid because seriously, you don’t need to talk to me EVERY 3 hours, do you?

May you have all these things and more because it means you’re not alone. It means there are people out there who care enough to point out your faults. There is someone out there who wants to make sure you’re on the right path.

And if you have that, it means you have an obligation to be that person to someone else.

Because everyone needs at least one person who cares enough to tell you that your zipper is down.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2017 in Authenticity, Self-Awareness

 

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“I love me” – a lesson for leaders

At a recent work function, an employee was recognized for her tenure with the organization.

She was introduced, presented with her plaque, and applauded for her service. And then she gave a small speech.

The speech was very much her personality – heartfelt, spontaneous, funny, endearing. But one part stood out over all others.

She began the section by thanking those who helped her in her career. She acknowledged all the support and mentoring she received from those around her. She then talked about all she was able to accomplish, comparing herself to a butterfly. And then she paused, realized how much she was going on and on about herself, giggled, and said, “I love me.”

The crowd laughed. They loved it. It was so “her.”

She laughed along a little bit, then got serious and said, “It took me a long time to be able to say that.”


Imagine being brave enough to stand in front of a room of your peers – and your leadership team – and say those words.

How would your organization react? I mean, really….what would the people in the room say if this happened at your organization?

Would they be supportive? Would they applaud? Or would they politely clap while giving each other knowing glances that this is clearly a “career limiting move”?

For all our humanity in the workplace, we actually kind of suck at dealing with heartfelt emotion. When someone expresses gratitude earnestly in public, it makes us uncomfortable. Why is that? Have we really decided that people AREN’T people that we should pretend we have no emotions? I hate drama as much as the next person, but I also recognize that people bring different parts of their lives to work. Some folks look forward to work as a place to leave the chaos of their life behind. Some people enjoy work for the relationships they’ve developed. Some people overshare (we didn’t need to see videos of your knee surgery, but thanks!). Some people never share at all (it seems like there’s that one person who no one really knows, and it turns out they have something like 12 kids and were in a movie once).

The point is, we as leaders have done a poor job setting a good example about what is an is not okay in the workplace in terms of emotions. Someone probably cried in a VPs office once and it freaked him/her out, and the next thing you know, all the “how to succeed in business” articles started defining professionalism as “no emotion.” That message of “stoicism = strength = success” has been perpetuated for years.

But then came Emotional Intelligence and suddenly we’re all supposed to care about our feelings, and worse than that…THE FEELINGS OF OTHERS. Good lord. We are not equipped for that – especially leaders. We’ve worked hard to HIDE emotions, and promote those who do the same. So what happened? Some leaders went WAY too far the other way, and were all about sharing and caring and wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Which, frankly, makes a LOT of people uncomfortable. And again, emotion became something to make fun of.

We need to find balance, people. We need to find a way for people to BE people without BEING all over the other people who don’t like to BE in public. Leaders have a chance to connect with their people, and help their people connect with other people – in a completely appropriate and professionally supportive way. No, we don’t have to be in each others’ weddings – but recognize some people might. We don’t have to go out to happy hour with our coworkers – but there are a lot of people who do. The best way to promote balance is to watch and learn from people who are successful, but are also unafraid to show emotion. They cry, they vent, they laugh uncontrollably at cat videos. But they still get shit done and they still command respect from those around them.

Back to our story….


After the employee being honored finished her speech, she received a standing ovation. And it reinforced everything that’s good about being yourself at work. About acknowledging the mistakes you made during your career. About being grateful to those who helped you along the way. About the pain of growing up. And about the satisfaction of kicking butt at your job for a long time.

This is a person who had leaders who believed in her. Who pushed her when it looked like she needed pushing. Who encouraged her when she needed encouraging. Who supported her humor, her intelligence, her sass, and her abilities. In short, this is a person who had leaders who allowed her to discover who she was – someone who could finally say, “I love me.”

Leaders – if you can have ONE employee be able to say that, then you have done your job. You have helped someone realize their potential. You enabled instead of dictated. You got the hell out of the way and watched someone flourish because of what was inside them.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2017 in Authenticity, Coaching, Self-Awareness

 

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