Ever heard of blockers? I picked up on the phrase during my tenure as head of HR and Administration at a large S&P 500 corporation. A blocker in that context was a person who stood in the way of another’s progression. For those outside the corporate world this may seem odd so here’s the scoop. Every year the CEO, the head of HR (yours truly), and all business unit presidents would discuss the ‘talent’ (read: employees) who held the title director or higher. In our world that numbered more than 400 people.
For every employee in this group we would talk about his/her likely next job or a good target job given skills sets and developmental goals. Blockers were those who stood in the way of this intended progression. Here’s the rub: it was easy to create opportunity for someone if their boss was moving up into another role. It was more difficult if that person, a blocker, was stalled. Yesterday I spoke to a professional colleague who is contemplating transition. After the conversation I asked myself….what role do blockers play in women’s transition?
“I realize that he isn’t a supporter of mine,” my friend shared. Her boss, relatively new to his post, has begun a process of re-architecting the department, an exercise that will create a few new senior level jobs. My friend isn’t sure she has his support for any of these new roles. What to do? Did I mention that she is a high performer who has been tapped to run organization-wide strategic initiatives? This accolade was bestowed on her in addition to her day job. Ever been there?
I have to share with you a very funny story which helps me think through this blocking business. In the early 90’s I went on a 10-day Mountaineering Course with Colorado Outward Bound. We were a dozen adults ranging in age from 28 to 56. We had a contour map and two guides, an extra in case one had to hike out to seek assistance. Think pre– cell phone era. The guides slept in a tent. We shared a tarp…all part of the experience. Did I mention that I had never camped before? Anyway, we were to get ourselves up and over the Continental Divide in 10-days carrying all of our food and supplies. No resupply. I designed this little adventure as part of my cleanse following two years at the Harvard Business School.
One day one of our two guides ran into camp apoplectic. He found Cream of Wheat hurdled behind a shrub just beyond our campground. Our protocol was to use a strainer to wash out all cooking items so that only water got into streams….all solids were bagged with trash and carried out by us.
We quickly found out that the culprit for this shady action was a 56-year-old chain-smoking litigator from New Orleans. He had hit a wall at breakfast that morning and felt compelled to chuck his morning sustenance. I still chuckle at his overly simplistic act of defiance.
The guides weren’t smiling. The entire group was called to debrief this infraction. From my standpoint this was a small glitch involving biodegradable matter. Or, so I’ve always been told by the kind folks at Nabisco & Kraft Foods. It wasn’t like we were leaving a trail of plastic Poland Springs water bottles behind. One guide, however, saw the incident as a blow to his own and the organization’s sense of values. Few of us shared his perspective but we certainly understood it once he explained it to us.
This incident convinced me that I can never be sure of what someone else is thinking….despite my confidence to the contrary. In a million years I would never have taken Mr. Louisiana‘s gaffe as a personal affront to the values of the great outdoors. Understand that the offended guide was the same person who throughout our trip knocked down cairns which are courtesy markings left by other hikers to mark a trail. Despite this centuries old back country pursuit…he viewed cairns as unnatural. Quirky guy, right?
My advice, if you can call it that, to my friend was two-fold. It was intended to step in front of her adopting his, ‘I’m not right for this position’ attitude before understanding it. By the way other details she shared put her blocker squarely in the quirky category just like my Outward Bound cairn-crashing guide.
Advice #1…do you understand what is going to make your boss successful? Can you assist in this pursuit while advancing your own agenda? By the way, this success factor rarely has anything to do with what you see written on your annual goals let alone your boss’s.
Advice #2…seek to understand. Ask why…to the point of exhaustion! My friend wasn’t really sure why her boss didn’t support her for any of the new roles. Why? Why are these new roles important? Why didn’t he see her fitting into these new roles? Why? Why? Get my point?
What advice would you give?
I have battle scars from several dances with blockers. I guess I’ve resigned myself to believe that there will always be blockers but how I experience them can be very different. To a one I’d describe them as being incredibly limited in their capacity to leverage other people. In the calm space of my rear view mirror their behavior looks more threatened than threatening….Have you ever experienced this?
Do me a favor the next time one of your friends is facing a potential shut down due to a quirky blocker….. send her a box of Creme of Wheat and remind her to ask the why’s. Her self-worth and sense of humor will thank you.
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