As the owner of an executive search firm working with service providers and owners, we’ve been able to observe a variety of organizations both at their most hectic in responding to apparently unending demand, and in times of great challenge.

As the owner of an executive search firm working with service providers and owners, we’ve been able to observe a variety of organizations both at their most hectic in responding to apparently unending demand, and in times of great challenge. From this process, we have been able to determine the kinds of personal attributes that appear to make organizations most successful at this point in our radically changing environment.

For guidance in times of change, I recalled Charles Handy and the sage advice his book Age of Unreason gave us all during the memorable downturn in 1990. You might remember his ability to illustrate the way organizations would work in the future by summoning up the idea of the “Shamrock organization”…a three-lobed organization comprising an integrated team of core employees focused on strategy, a stable of preferred outsourced providers and a group of independent contractors. Looking back, I’d say he was right on the money. I bring this up to underscore the results of this trend: many real estate professionals on the owner side have become service providers: the dramatic change is experienced by all of us regardless of which side of the table we sit on.

In one of his more recent writings Managing the Dream, an article for the influential collection of thought leaders called Managing Change, Handy’s remarks culminate in the importance of recruiting the right people. Here is the pivotal passage that I’d like you to think about:

“Chance happenings, like chaos theory, will trigger chain reactions…the past will be a poor guide to the future…we shall forever be dealing with unanticipated events. Organizations have no choice but to reinvent themselves almost every year. To succeed, they will need individuals who delight in the unknown. The wise organization will devote considerable time to identifying and recruiting such people and then ensuring job satisfaction.”

This thought seems almost prophetic in light of what has recently happened to our country and certainly has stimulated my thinking about people who “delight in the unknown.” What does this mean? I’d like to introduce three ideas as my interpretation of Handy’s phrase based on direct observation in many organizations. There appear to be three basic attributes of the individuals who will make a significant leadership contribution to any firm context today:

1. Organizational competency
2. Bias for co-creation
3. Serial specialization

Whether you are a hiring manager, a job seeker, or someone who continually seeks ways to add value, these ideas might make some sense to you.

The first idea I want to talk about is organizational competency. It is clear that teams get the work of design done. Teams are part of larger groups which are part of organizations. Organizations are complex, unpredictable, and full of surprises. Some people thrive inside them and know how to use organizations to achieve the results they require. Others can be quite competent individuals and may even excel by any standard at the technical part of their jobs. But in our observation, technical skill is not even half of what enables an individual to make a positive contribution.

Being able to “work” an organization—and I don’t mean what people usually think of as “politics”—requires a delicate fusion of:

  • Attitude: applies critical thinking in the context of a positive outlook

  • Skill: demonstrates unquestionable ability applying facts to solve technical problems

  • Perspective: focuses on the forest and the trees at the same time

  • Communication: always thinking “who needs to know about this?”

To use the words of a prominent strategist, Joe Ouye of Gensler, “the soft stuff turns out to be the most important.” Attitude, perspective and communication are the essential partners of skill for an individual to be able to be organizationally competent.

The second idea is bias for co-creation. This notion is the unconscious M.O. of people who are natural collaborators. One of the biggest pitfalls we’ve seen organizations encounter is the notion that they are in the driver’s seat and they will use the information and expertise provided by others to move toward their own solutions. That’s not the way it works in the organizations that … in Handy’s words…reinvent. People who have a bias for co-creation seek information from wherever they can find it and work collaboratively with the source of the information to invent solutions. This attitude is particularly evident in the relationship between service providers and owners.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at a logical way of thinking about imparting knowledge to an organization. Let’s say a corporation is trying to predict its space requirements for North America for the next fiscal year. A way to approach this is to apply a methodology—perhaps a model developed by a Big 5 firm—that that has been tailored for this problem. It is:

Tested
Applied
Refined
Codified
Branded
Endorsed

What’s wrong with this approach? Method-based behavior is the classic hammer in search of a nail: “We have the tool. With our tool, we can fix your problem.” It seems to me that many clients have greatly evolved in the past decade to the point that neither owner organizations nor the brightest consultants have answers on their own. But working together, complex problems can be solved. Service providers who believe that their method will revolutionize the way a specific problem has been solved in the past are almost certainly wrong. Owners who hire consultants to tell them what to do are equally off-base. Rather, people from both sides of the table who are co-creators work together to evolve solutions.

Owners bring organizational culture, history and “rules of engagement” to the table. Service providers bring learnings from multiple observations of similar problems. Those who value information from any source and collaborate in driving toward solutions are more valuable to their organizations. The best illustration I can think of to describe the principal of co-creation is an exercise that a colleague of Marina’s at Cisco engaged in last year. Taking co-creation to new heights, four strategic planning organizations—Gensler, HOK Consulting, SmithGroup Consulting and SpAce— worked together with the Workplace Planning group at Cisco to apply their New World Workplace alternatives officing appraoches to the rapidly expanding campus setting under the direction of Chris Ross, surely a person with a bias for co-creation.

The third and final idea I’d like to surface is the concept of serial specialization. As undergraduates, we all began to realize that we needed to focus on gaining expertise in some area. If you took an advanced degree—law, architecture, business, accounting— you began a long process of knowledge accumulation on the road to building expertise. And it has served you well as you have refined what you learned in the context of years of real life situations. Many people have even added a market specialization: real estate law; corporate campus design; corporate taxation policy. But inside many volatile organizations today, the idea of specialization has become somewhat static. Today, the individuals who make the biggest contributions to their organizations are able to specialize in sequence. They may provide great value for a couple of years in solving a relocation strategy, say, but then they redeploy themselves to meet the greatest need at the time. As Jason Uyeda of EDAW says: “You fight fires. My entire career has been about following the fire.”

To illustrate this, I’d talk about two prominent individuals—one from the owner side and one from the service provider side…and how they use serial specialization to contribute to their organizations.

Both Keith Perske at Sun Microsystems and Jason Uyeda at EDAW are currently adding tremendous value to their respective organizations in ways they could not have envisioned when they were preparing for the world of work. Interestingly, both were trained in design: Keith holds a BArch and Jason, a BLA. Another trait they share is that they have been active in both owner and service provider organizations.

When I talked with Keith about the idea of serial specialization, he asked, “Doesn’t everyone do that?” The answer is “no.” Many people have traditionally felt that that their highest and best use is to be “the” specialist over time for their organizations: the dispositions guy; the CAFM genius; the go-to person for large scale construction management; the specifications guru. But those who contribute in a different and sometimes more valuable way to their organizations actually thrive when they are asked to master new roles. They specialize over time in different ways. This does not mean that they are self-described “generalists” who vaguely apply their talents. Nor do I mean to suggest that an individual can recast himself overnight in a different role. (You can’t imagine the number of resumes we see from brokers who are convinced that their experience qualifies them for any number of highly technical positions: we call these people “hubris-propelled”).

Serial specialization suggests that, through building their expertise, these people have developed the softer skills that make them obvious candidates for reassignment— are able to sift through lots of information; to act on imperfect information; to get to the heart of the matter quickly. That is what Keith Perske has done in the twenty or so years of his career. Jason Uyeda (you – A’ – duh) at EDAW has done the same thing, except that along the way, he added an MBA to his formal training.

These three attributes are what I’d look for if I were seeking “people who delight in change:” organizational competence; co-creation; and serial specialization. Referring back to the Charles Handy-ism: recruiting these kinds of individuals is one of the most important things an organization can do to ensure its health. He believes that owners and managers should focus on making their enterprises into a “preferred organization” so that they can attract these people.

A word about preferred organizations: a “preferred organization” provides opportunity for people who “delight in the unknown.” These are people who are well compensated but for whom compensation is not the reason why they do what they do. They carry significant responsibilities with management level titles, but they are not there because they occupy the top boxes on the org chart. These are people who stay with their organization because it allow them to:

  • Exercise authority

  • Learn from experience

  • Gain satisfaction from results and lessons learned

  • Experience togetherness, despite distance

By the way, the preferred organization for attracting the right people will also be the preferred organization for its clients. It just works that way. You’ll see that being fast is not on the list of the three attributes that define an individual who delights in change. It is, you can be sure, a quality that is assumed about these people. So, in answer to the rhetorical question at the beginning of this article, being fast is not enough.