December 2017
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TD Magazine

Karie Willyerd

Friday, December 1, 2017

Senior Vice President, Customer Education, SAP


Fort Collins, Colorado

Karie Willyerd has been recognized with more than 40 awards in the areas of learning and development and talent development, including the ATD Distinguished Contribution to Talent Development Award. Along with Barbara Mistick, Willyerd is co-author of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow's Workplace; and, with Jeanne Meister, of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today.

What most excites you about the world of work in the next three to five years?

There's a lot of things I'm excited about. One, I feel that humans are going to get to use more of the creative, innovative aspects of their skills and talents at work, with automation, computerization, and digitalization taking away some of those mundane things that we have to do every day or every week. We used to talk about the knowledge worker and now I wonder if we'll be talking about the creative worker.

A second thing that I'm excited about is just the ease at which we'll be able to do work in the future. So many things that we take for granted that we have to do now, things that just aren't linked, that we'll be able to count on technology for in the future. For example, being able to ask our phone to find time instead of manually having to look through everything and find the time to schedule an appointment. Simple, little things like that are going to increase our productivity.

We're also going to have a lot more flexibility at work. I'm already a remote worker and have been for a number of years, but the number of people who are going to be able to live anywhere and who will have a better work-life balance in the future will increase. Some workers will choose to be back with their parents as they age or will choose to live in a more affordable part of the country as they're raising children. This is going to be that much easier as we move into the future.

Employees need to take control of their own development. How does that change the dynamic for talent development pros—conversations with the C-suite or with employees themselves?

In most surveys that are done with C-level folks, one of the top three to five concerns that seem to be recurring year after year is their talent. So, it's not that we need to work hard to make that become an issue for our executives. It is an issue. The question is, have we proposed the right solutions to help them address that concern? If that's already a concern and we keep on doing the same thing the same way, we are at insanity. We need a different solution.

There seems to be an itch that we're not scratching, it's the unease that executives have about whether they really have the talent they need in the near future. One of the things that we need to be doing is stratifying our talent strategies. In other words, for our highest potentials on a track for high-level roles, we might have different strategies for how we deal with their development, at any level in the organization. At SAP we call these individuals catalysts. You'll get special opportunities for development if you're identified as a catalyst in any given year.

As talent development professionals, we should have a self-service tool so that everyone has the opportunity to develop. Sometimes it's really seductive when you're in a talent development role to focus only on either, A, the things the executives are asking for or, B, things that you know the executives will want because it's largely aimed at them. Part of being a really good TD pro is to make sure you're thinking about talent across the organization—but maybe not with the same level of intensity and investment at every level of the organization.

We're hearing more and more about personalized learning. In fact, you write about mass customizing talent development. It sounds daunting. Can you talk about how that works?

I think we are on the verge—and maybe this goes back to the first question as well—of an incredible breakthrough in intelligent search. This intelligent search is going to know more and more about you, and will dish up the content that you need.

The old way of thinking about this is that everybody needs to fill out a profile, and the more detail they provide, the better, because then we can put together an algorithm that will include some customization. This might include, for example, your job role, and then we could have a learning map that would match to that job.

But now, if you're using Google or Apple or whatever, you get a phone call and your phone will suggest who might be calling based on an email they've sent, even though you've never called them before. Or my Outlook now suggests that I look up a profile on LinkedIn for my next appointment. There are these linkages that are starting to happen.

What's going to come out in the next one to two years is a way for us to incorporate advanced search features into our learning systems that will help make really great recommendations to people, not only about learning maps but content. And not just any content, but the right kind of content without somebody having to go through a list of 50 subjects, which has always been intimidating.

That's always been the daunting thing, how much work we would have to get people to do for us so that we would know who they were and what they needed. Now I think "search" is going to help bypass it.

What advice can you offer for securing a reverse mentor?

I've done research and have had quite a few discussions with people about the mentoring topic. The interesting thing was that when I interviewed pairs of people who were reverse mentors, each person called the other one "the person I'm mentoring."

Even though the more senior person was supposed to be the protégé, he or she would call the person who was mentoring them the person they were mentoring. It wasn't just language confusion. What happens is you get into a mutual mentoring relationship. So, one of the best ways to secure a reverse mentor is to offer the power of a mutual mentoring relationship.

One company that did reverse mentoring relationships found that it was the best diversity development program they'd ever put in place because once the protégé—the senior executive—realized how talented some of the younger folks were, they helped to promote them to new roles and new opportunities. So think of reverse mentoring as mutual mentoring because there's kind of a quid pro quo to it.

The second thing, and I heard this when I worked with a Fortune 5 company in helping them establish a reverse mentoring program, is that the mentors don't want to be considered mentors just because they know how to tweet or use Instagram or whatever it might be. [They say,] "Don't think of me just as your 'get you up-to-date on social media person.'" Instead, realize that the younger person has insights about how their generation buys, how executives come across in the organization to people of their age and their experience levels, and so forth.

Being open to how someone can mentor you makes them feel more valued, it's a more enticing thing. It's as if somebody came to me and said, "I want you to mentor me because I want to learn how to write a blog for Harvard Business Review." Well, that's a really narrow subject area. It really limits the process, the relationship. I would say for reverse mentoring, don't limit it to what you think the other person can offer. Let their talent emerge and see what insights they can give you.

You also say that weak ties—those individuals who you are connected with but who aren't your closest friends or closest associates—can lend insight and help your career more than your closest friends and colleagues. How?

A lot of this is based on the original work of the sociologist Mark Granovetter, who talked about the importance of weak ties. There's a number of reasons why weak ties are important. One, imagine that you need to get a job, or get access to some information, or you're trying to connect to something that you're not easily connected to. Our temptation is to go to those who are closest to us, our tightest friends and family, neighbors, and so on. But those people tend to be connected to one another as well.

If you really want to reach outside of your existing domain, to get a job or to hear about opportunities that other people don't know about, then you have to reach out to your weak ties. That is, those people who don't necessarily pop to mind as your most immediate friends and family, but who will likely return a phone call or respond to an e-mail.


The interesting thing in the era of social media is that we can have not just hundreds, but thousands of those people who are weak ties, our LinkedIn connections or Facebook friends. But most research shows that you really can only groom about the size of a tribe, about 150 people. As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to think about who are those 150 people who are just beyond your immediate circle, and send them a note every year, just once a year. If you do that—and this is based on research—it helps ensure that you keep that connection. Even if it's to say "congratulations" on LinkedIn when that person has a work anniversary or changes jobs, that's basically enough to do it, at a minimum.

The other reason, beyond weak ties knowing of opportunities that you don't know about, is that they don't put you in as strong of a box as the people who are closest to you do. When I was in my late 50s and decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur, the people who were closest to me thought that was kind of crazy and that I should take another big C-level talent job. It was the people who were a little distant from my network who'd been entrepreneurs, who could see the connection to what I wanted to do, that were actually the most supportive and helpful. Sometimes it's just so that you can reach people who don't put you in a box.

Career paths are changing. We're no longer just continuing to go up the career ladder; we're moving to the side and even down at times. Sometimes we may not get the support from our loved ones or managers to make such a move. So you have advice for those situations?

There's very few companies in which there's a clear career ladder that you climb. And even if you did for the first few steps, you often hit a low ceiling. In other words, you might be in finance and climb the first few rungs on the ladder in accounts receivable, but if you haven't started to cut across to other parts of finance to get a broader set of experiences, you'll hit a point where maybe the highest you can go is the director of accounts receivable. You're never going to be considered for the controller or the CFO.

One of the ways to help people understand what it takes to build a career is the importance of experiences and that these experiences are not always about the next step. It could be about two steps away. You have to be thinking, "How can I make sure I don't tap out?" I find that the most heartbreaking thing in talking with people about their careers is that they're really, really talented but they've only followed that narrowest ladder right in front of them to a point that there's not another step up for them.

I had a conversation about this with an F-16 pilot who had a mandatory retirement age that was really quite young. He said, "I don't know what I'm going to do next." He hadn't planned it all because he was doing what he loved until the point where he couldn't do it anymore, and he still had a long career in front of him. So if we only aim for the very next step, we're going to hit a cap. The strategic advice is to help other people see that you need to collect a set of experiences to get where you want to go.

Relative to managers, my best piece of advice is that we all get to decide who we want to work for. Sometimes we feel like we're victims in that, but we do have choices. If we have a horrible manager who we don't think is going to go away, who's not developing people, and who clings to them, then look for another job in the organization or outside the organization. This is one of the principles we put in our book: "It's all on you." Most people realize that now, that today it really is on us to ask for the experiences, to design the experiences we want, and to work with our manager. But if our manager isn't willing, work with other people to get the set of experiences you need.

You talk about developing yourself by surrounding yourself with smart people, people who bring out the best in you--you call it five to thrive. Tell us about one of your five to thrive?

One of the people on my list is someone who first was a colleague, who then turned into a friend, and the relationship has endured over years. The thing that has really made it possible for this relationship to endure is that we are very honest with each other. We're both women working in high levels of organizations. She just sold the company that she was the CEO of. You know, the higher you go professionally, the less feedback you get. And we are really good at giving each other feedback and advice in a kind and loving way. So I think that's why she's on my list. I can count on her for feedback and experienced advice.

And she's smart, she's funny, and there's always a commitment to try to figure out how to work a way around a problem. She'll call me on it when I'm really not working in my own best interest about the way I'm looking at a problem. Sometimes it's difficult to do that, and we need people in our lives who will—and can—help us.

My spouse, for example, was a research scientist. He then retired and decided to give back, and he's now a high school French teacher. The world of business that I work in is really foreign to him. It's not that I couldn't have those kind of conversations with him, but it's a whole different language, it's like me trying to speak French.

It's someone who knows the world in which you operate and really understands, who can help you make the best decisions. So, one of my five has helped me make different decisions than I would have made if I was just thinking it through on my own.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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