Category Archives: Leadership Skills

Random Leadership Orts

It is a Friday afternoon in July, which is a perfect time to jot down those strange little thoughts, mind orts.  These are just a few brief scraps of leadership knowledge/experience that have been floating around my desk for a while.  Not a single one of them is lengthy, but they have merit.

Recognize someone. It only takes seconds, but it can mean a great deal. Even a small thank you to the mail person, or to the parking attendant makes a huge difference for both of you.

Act.  Most of us have an idea that has been lingering, a job we don’t want to do, a task we have been putting off, or even a conversation that we have been dreading.  It gnaws on you.  It takes away from the present.  It erodes your energy.  It makes you grumpy.  It is time to act – do something about it.  It is counterproductive to let it continue to fester in its current state.

Pay it forward.  We have all seen the benefits.  We have had mentors.  We even know how it makes us feel.  Have you ever had a bad day, and when you go buy your cup of coffee – you don’t have the right change – but the person behind you says – here take this nickel?  How does it make you feel?  It changes your entire perspective.  We get into the habit of thinking that to make an impact, it has to be big.  It doesn’t.  Most of the times, it is the little things, like helping a mom pick up something she has dropped when the kids are pulling at her for attention.  Recognizing that your office mate’s coffee is empty and bringing back and extra cup.  Speaking to a young family with children at a restaurant when their children are well behaved.  Sitting with an elderly gentleman and letting them tell you about that time when….  Our society, workplaces, and homes have gotten so wrapped up in electronics, our daily tasks, and other stuff – we have forgotten simple acts of kindness.

Learning is necessary for survival and it isn’t easy.  If you don’t learn, you don’t progress.  Learning is hard work.  You have to be observant.  You have to be open.  You have to accept that you may not be perfect.

– Everyone has their own style, and it may not mesh with yours.  This is something to remember when dealing with others.  This little tidbit is responsible for more miscommunications, disagreements, misunderstandings, and conflicts.  People have always said that you need to see the others perspective or be able to put yourself in their shoes.  You need to understand that we don’t always see the same thing the same way.

– Take some time to reflect, refresh and rejuvenate. This leads to more productivity, fewer errors, and innovation.

A few scraps to get you to thinking before you start preparing for the next week.

What your boss will never tell you….

So, you are early in your career and you are trying to meet all of the expectations of your employer, trying to develop that “balance between work and life”, and are trying to figure out what next.  This is a big juggling act.  You finally feel confident enough in your current position to make contributions and are starting to gain that much needed credibility.  Yet, you have that nagging question – am I doing the right things?

How you answer that question depends on a number of different criteria:

  1. Your personal definition of success
  2. Your vision of your future
  3. The organization’s culture
  4. The organization’s values

If you are like most young professionals, you may not have a clear picture of your definition of success or a vision of your future.  But, by now you may have a clear picture of the jobs or positions you don’t want.  For example:  you may be in product development but you hate to do the marketing studies – may be your skill set is analyzing the data from the marketing studies and putting together a strategy to meet the needs identified.  Or, you may be in the finance department and find that you thoroughly enjoy the budgeting process complete with sales projections and supply sensitivities, but absolutely don’t like trying to figure out cost centers and internal book keeping.

Generally, when people think about their careers and where they want to go – it is easier for them to say what they don’t want to do.  Maybe CEO is not where you want to be with all of the issues surrounding liability, time at work, meetings, stock holder presentations, etc.  Or, maybe you know that you want to have a more conventional day position that allows you time off for the other things that you enjoy.  By knowing what you don’t like, you begin to form a picture of what you do want.    So, the first two criteria are really in your own court and you need to take some time to analyze these aspects.

The other two criteria are dependent upon your work environment – how does your employer measure success and what does your employer look for in its employees?  As human beings, we are designed to pick up on cultural clues.  Think about it – why did they used to call IBM Big Blue?  Or, have you ever looked at the professional “uniform”?  Take a look around your place of work and you can probably tell what department a person works in just by the clothes that they are wearing.  It is part of the culture.

Culture is also communicated through the review process.  Here you are supposed to have a discussion with your superior about how your performance has been during the past review period and what improvements you might be able to make in the future.  This is key to the skills that you are going to have to develop as your employer has value for these.  But, these are not the only skills that you have to have.  You know this because even if you meet all the expectations put down during the review process – there is something that is rewarded and valued that is the difference between you and your peers.  These are the things that your Boss never tells you or your Boss may even discourage you from doing.  Here are some key items:

Networking – both inside and outside your company.  Some individuals think that this is a waste of your time or an example of inefficiency.  Yet, networking provides you with the contacts that help you get things done.  Networking supports innovation, helps to promote communication, and may ultimately be your parachute if something goes wrong such as a buy out, or lay off.  Your network is important to building your skills and reputation.  Use your professional societies and community organizations to build your professional network.  Ironically, what is initially seen as a waste of time may become a rewarded asset.

Participating in professional or community organizations.  Some organizations this is highly encouraged, but in others you may get the question – “Why are you spending time on that, how is it going to benefit the organization?”  Here are the benefits even if the organization has nothing to do with your company’s business.  One – you can learn a number of different leadership skills in a safe environment.  If the project doesn’t quite work out within the community organization, say that fund raiser only raised half of what you expected, what are the consequences?  You get out and try something different.  Two – you get to interact with people, thus learning a number of different communication styles.  Individuals in companies tend to start having “like me syndrome”, they talk the same, they think the same, and they approach problems in the same manner.  You need to have a bit of spice, a different view point, a different way of thinking, and different perspectives to reach good solutions. And finally, working with in your professional or community organizations you improve your network and credibility.

Helping and mentoring others.  Everyone has something that they can do well.  You might be a whiz at creating spreadsheets or presentations.  You may know the short cuts on the phone system.  Or, you may have just the right reference at your finger tips to save a colleague hours and hours of searching.  Sharing these skills are essential to building team.  By sharing where you can, you are developing intangible skills that are also resulting in tangible results for the organization.  You help to promote efficiency and you are building credibility along the way.  Again your Boss may view it as inefficiency in the short run or a slight delay in getting your work accomplished.  But, down the road you will find that you have built a solid foundation for your future projects without being aware of it at the time.

These three activities aren’t measured.  They aren’t documented on a review or goal sheet.  But, without them you will not achieve your vision of where you want to be nor will you have a safety net in the event that something bad occurs.

Lessons learned – from unusual places

As a blogger, instructor, and just a generally curious person; I do a lot of reading from a variety of sources.  One of my favorites is from a public relations (PR) source (yes, you never know when those PR skills are going to come in handy).   Throughout my career, I have been involved in PR efforts more than I ever thought I would. It is truly one of those things they never taught you in school type of revelations.

So, today when I ran across this blog – “Clients are the best teachers: 3 lessons learned”, I clicked and read.  The three lessons were:

The time to act is now.

My company comes first, yours second.

When in doubt, trust your gut.

The writer of the blog was coming from the perspective of a PR consulting firm.  But, the examples that the author uses really hit home with me.  And, with a slight tweak, are three very valuable leadership lessons.

The Time to Act is Now – Or, Make a Decision and Follow-through

My grandfather always said make the decision or someone will make if for you, even if you have to flip a coin.  You have to act, if you don’t someone will act for you and it may not be in your best interest.  Procrastination is a means of not making the decision.  Procrastination or failure to act puts you behind and you are loosing ground to your competitors.  You are not making progress toward your goals.  You are essentially stuck or “dead”.

My company comes first, yours second – My Goals have Priority over Yours

In the consulting world, yes your clients company comes first; you are just a consultant.  But, this is not just in the Company/Client relationship.  Think about yourself as “You, Inc.” to use the phrase from Fast Track Magazine.  The goals of the company or even your boss have priority over yours.  And, these may not fit with your sense of how to do business or your priorities.  This may mean you have to take drastic steps like changing jobs within the organization or outside the organization.  But, the sooner you learn this valuable lesson the better prepared you are for a conflict at some point.

When in doubt, trust your gut – No modification needed.

A lot of times we intuitively know what the best course of action is.  Trust your gut.  There are a variety of reasons why that course of action is correct and you may or may not be able to articulate them at the instant you have that feeling but they are there.  Stand up for your belief.

As you can see – leadership lessons come from everywhere.  To be an effective leader we have to be constantly learning.  And, borrowing or learning from someone else’s lesson is better than making a similar mistake on your own.

Are you focused on the “right” things?

Each day we get up and go about our daily work, but are we really focused on the “right” things.  Or, those things that truly need to be done.  As leaders, we need to be focused on those “right” things and help our colleagues and employees focus on them as well.  But, do we really know what those things are?

Recently, there was a New York Times piece about “Why you hate work“.  This piece documented the results of a 2013 survey of white collar workers about what they felt was lacking in the workplace.  And, the results may surprise you at first but not when you stop and think for a moment.

If you follow the leadership and self help literature, you are likely to say that finding work-life balance, being able to disengage from work, and how to be successful would be right at the top of the list.  But, they aren’t.  In fact, the are close to the bottom of the list.  To be sure, these are still key concerns with over a 40% response rate, and we have to be aware of them.

The top concern listed was a lack of regular time for creative and strategic thinking.  This was closely followed by the ability to focus on one thing at a time.  Again, with a bit of reflection, these should not surprise.  What is this telling us as leaders?

I think it is telling us two very important things.  One, we feel that we are so busy and we are so focused on getting the tasks done, we don’t have the time to sit and think.  And, two, we aren’t focused on the right things because we don’t know what they are.

It is critical for leaders to take time to think, reflect, plan, and analyze.  You hear this in your leadership course under the terms: “Big Rocks” (Covey), set your daily priorities (most time management courses), develop a vision, etc.  But, even then it gets glossed over because most leadership courses are a day or two at most, because we “can’t afford the time away from work.”  Only when you take a longer program, those one to three week courses, do you really hear.  It is important to block out time each day for reflection and you need to have a two to three hour block each week that is yours.  One company referred to it as 10% time, ten percent time of your time should be focused on developing ideas and directions.

Through my career, I saw this 10% time get eroded and ultimately disappear.  Yet, it is probably the most critical time of the week.  You need that time to discern what the right things are.  Leaders have to be able to develop that strategy or direction.  Leaders have to be able to assess what is working and what is not.  With out this time, work doesn’t work.

I believe as leaders, it is time for us to fight to bring back the 10% time. We have to guard it.  We have to build it in to everyone schedules.  This will allow people a chance to focus on key tasks.  It will allow individuals the ability not to have to multitask.  And, it will probably give people a chance to improve how work gets done.  (Have you ever noticed we use inefficient tools because we don’t have the time to learn how to use a new tool that will help us?)

By bringing back the 10% time, I believe that we won’t feel so harried.  And, that some of the other things on the list will also be addressed like:  having the opportunity to do what is most enjoyed, having a level of meaning and significance, and having a connection to the company’s mission.

So, here is my recommendation, schedule an appointment with yourself.  And, don’t schedule it in your office.  Schedule a conference room, go to the library, or a guest office.  (If you stay in your office you are likely to get distracted and not use the time you have given yourself.) And, ask yourself, if I had a magic wand what would I change about how I perform my work?

You will probably discover that while you can’t change it instantly, you now have plan to change.  You can build action plans.  You can put words to what needs to be discussed.  Then next week, schedule that same appointment and reflect on what changed this past week and what needs to be done to continue the change.  Do it again.  I think you will find that after three or four weeks you will see a change and you will be focusing on the “right” things because you know what they are.

 

Remembering & Acknowledging – Essential Skills

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On this Memorial Day, it is fitting to highlight two very important skills of the leader – remembering and acknowledging.  The two images above – may not be immediately recognizable – one is the flag above the Pearl Harbor Memorial taken on a December Day and the other is the reflection of the Washington Monument on the Vietnam Memorial.  Both Memorials are in remembrance of those who gave the ultimate price for our freedoms.

Yet, as leaders; we sometimes get to busy to make those essential acknowledgements.  We don’t remember those who have come before.  We need to recognize those individuals.  We need to thank them.  The names on these memorials – tell only a part of the story.  Behind each name, there are those whose lives they touched – parents, family, children, teachers, friends, …  They too were impacted by the events that took place.

So, take time today and reflect.  Is there someone that you should be acknowledging?

Mistakes, Failures, and the “Bad Things” that Happen

We all make them.  We all have the “oops” moment.  We all have that inner voice that says “that was the wrong way to have handled that.”  As no one is perfect.  Mistakes, miscues, errors, failures, and other perceived bad things happen.  Yet, one of your best skills and ultimately your success uses these “uh oh” moments to learn and adapt.  And, your “uh oh” may turnout to be the best thing that ever happened.

It is said that the only things that are guaranteed in life are death and taxes.  I would like to add – that one will make mistakes.  In fact there are cultures, like the Navaho, that say if the “perfect rug is ever woven, the world will come to an end.”  Thus, mistakes are taken as signs and are even built in to the weave.  Sometimes, failures turn out to be bigger successes than what was trying to be achieved in the first place – take for example the Post-It (TM) and Teflon (TM) – these were experiments gone bad.

Yet, we seem to still focus on the “dark cloud” view of mistakes and not the “silver lining.”  These errors are how we learn and grow.  I have always said – that you learn much more from your errors, failures, and mistakes than you ever could by just succeeding.  As parents and teachers – while it is hard to do – you have to let the “learner” make mistakes (provided they don’t get into serious trouble). If you don’t – how will they ever truly learn.

We are now living in a Society – that tries to remove the “bad things.” It tries to abolish failure – everyone has to succeed.  This is such a great dis-service to creating strong individuals.

Think about it.  Pick one of your personal achievements.  Didn’t you have to overcome some adversity?  Didn’t you make an error, or misstep along the way?  Was there someone who said – there is no way you can do that – and you had to prove them wrong?  Did it take time?  My guess is that you would have to say yes to most of the questions above for it to make your list of achievements.

As leaders our job is to guide.  In order to make tomorrow’s leaders we have to let individuals make errors – again provided that they do not result in total catastrophe.  We can’t remove the consequences of errors either.

If we remove the consequences of the error – we have removed the learning as well.  Individuals have to learn how to accept their own mistakes, own them and learn from them.  This is what helps us grow.

The ultimate trick is to find the balance between learning, finding the “silver lining” and benefiting from the error and not creating a catastrophe.  By understanding our own mistakes – we can learn from others – without necessarily making the same mistake (this helps in the preventing of the catastrophe).  As leaders – knowing what “safe” mistakes are is essential.  For example – making an error in a presentation to the work group is one thing – making that same error in a presentation to stockholders is another matter.

We as individuals have to become comfortable with admitting our mistakes.  We have to work to put things “right”.  We have to make amends.  Hiding our errors is hurtful – not only to us and our organizations but may be a catastrophe down the road.  Our “uh ohs” need to come out in the open – so that everyone can learn from them.  When we can laugh about them down the road – we know that we have learned and have found that “silver lining”.

 

To “Power Point” or Not to “Power Point” – That is a fundamental question

Communication happens in a variety of settings.  For leaders, the venues in which we communicate are varied.  They may be one-on-one interactions, a classroom or learning situations, meetings, lectures, and presentations  to general audiences.  For those large venues, there is a key question – do I use “Power Point” or slides – or not?

Anymore there is an expectation that “Power Point” will be a key element of the presentation.  In our multimedia society – we have come to expect our speakers to present in a multimedia fashion – but is it truly necessary? And what happens if there is a technical glitch?  (We have all seen what happens if you happen to be in the political spotlight – you are likely to become late night comedy fodder.)

So – do you use Power Point or not?  The answer of course is not as simple as yes or no.  It depends.  It depends on – the audience, the type of information to be conveyed, and the ultimate point you want to make.  Of course you are going to use slides to convey technical information like graphs, and diagrams – particularly if you are speaking to investors.  But, what about the Garden Club or the Community Action Group or to the Boy Scout Troop – your choice may be very different.

I have the opportunity to speak about science to a variety of audiences – some I use a set of slides with maps, photos, and diagrams and others I leave the slides at home and bring simple props – ping pong balls, balloons, glasses of water, silverware, etc.  It depends on the points I am trying to make and my audience.  Which type of talk do you think people remember most?  It is the one where I use my simple props.

By over using multimedia presentation materials – we as communicators have become very lazy.  It is easy to throw a Power Point presentation together.  When we do this we tend to leave out those intangible things – excitement, inspiration, creativity, and engagement.  Our audiences are not as engaged.  We fail to make a personal connection.  We don’t actively involve them in the vision we are trying to convey.

Here is an experiment for you.  It has been said that writing for radio takes a very special talent and that many screen writers were unable to write for the radio dramas and comedies of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s.  Get a hold of an old radio drama or listen to one on satellite radio.  Think about how you interact with that particular program and compare it to how you interact with a television or video program of the same genre.  Which one held your attention more?  Which one stimulated you more?

Think about this experiment the next time you have to give that presentation.  How can you engage your audience?  What tools can you use to make it more memorable?  You may find that you are going to leave the “Power Point” behind – or just use it to point out the emergency exits.

“Hope is not a strategy”

This phrase has quickly become cliche’.  But have you ever really thought about, what it is saying?  First let’s look at the entire quote:  “Because ‘change’ is not a destination, just as ‘hope’ is not a strategy.”  This quote was made in a speech by Mayor R. Giuliani in 2008.  Of course it was political in nature, but it has been picked up in the day-to-day business lexicon and is now used at those annual “pick-me up” meetings, stockholder addresses, and in those routine development meetings.  So, let’s use this bit of political sarcasm as a bit of leadership acumen and reflect on exactly what and how we can use it to our personal advantage.

As with most profound statements there is reality, truth and depth.  This is the case here as well.  Let’s take the two parts of the quote – “change is not a destination” and “hope is not a strategy” and examine them.  Both are essentially factual statements.  If you look for Change, USA in Google Maps – you find there is no such location (there is a Change’, France – but I am sure it is not pronounced the same way.)  And, certainly it is clearly understood that the Mayor was not referring to a physical place.  Those of us in the business world know that change is difficult and requires a great deal of planning and work.  So, change for change sake is not worth the resources required nor will it work without a clear vision and destination in mind.  Change is a process, it is used to achieve a goal.  But the goal must be clear, and the benefits must be understood by all if it is to be successful.  People by their vary nature are resistant to change.  “Who moved my Cheese” is an excellent book (and a quick read) if you want to explore the philosophy behind change and how people react to it.

How about the second part of the quote – the one that is getting frequent use?  “Hope is not a strategy.”  A strategy is defined as the science or art of employing/implementing plans or methods to obtain a specific goal or outcome.  For most of us, a strategy has become more of a process by which various action items are framed to achieve a specific goal.  For example:  if the company or organization wants to be the “premiere provider of great stuff”, the strategy is the specific action steps outlined by the organization’s planning group or development team that have been decided based on the available resources (or missing resources) that need to be achieved in order to get to that state (as it was defined by the organization).  Thus, the strategy becomes the guide book for a period of time used to achieve a goal.

So, clearly “hope” is not a strategy as it lacks substance.  It lacks framework.  It does not have actionable parts.  There is nothing to build upon.  It is ephemeral.

Think about all that motivational training you have had over the years.  Those goal setting instructions.  The feel good speeches.  All of them have something in common – they tell you that you can’t achieve your goal without having some sort of plan.  But, what they don’t tell you is “how to define your goal”.   Sure, they say – think about where you want to be in five or  ten years. However, if you are like most people there are two problems with this: 1) you don’t have a clue what the options are and 2) you haven’t even figured out what you want to be when you grow up.

Here is where the word “hope” helps.  If you recall from your Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the box, she let out all kinds of evils, dreads, and despair.  Yet, there was one thing in the box that could counteract these things – hope.  Have you ever looked at the definition of hope?  It is not very concise nor does it truly convey its meaning.  Hope is defined as a feeling that what is wanted can be had.  Not very helpful, yet we all know what hope is.

So, how does hope help?  Think about your hopes.  You may hope that you are going to find a cure for cancer, or hope that you will live comfortably until you are 110 years old, or hope to climb Mt. Everest.  These “hopes” define your aspirations.  They let you dream for the stars.  They are not grounded in the framework of your current situation.  They change your thinking and allow you to define the future.

Hope allows us to see possibilities.  Hope allows us to visualize. Paints the picture – you have to do the rest, set the goals, and develop the plans to get you there. No, “hope is not a strategy” but it helps define the destination.

‘Tis the Season

December is a time of transition, chaos, stress, etc.  For some businesses – it means year end closings, annual reviews, paperwork, summaries, and goal setting.  For many educational institutions – it means finals, short terms and preparation for the spring session.  For families – it means holidays, family reunions, celebrations, etc.  In general your home life, work life and personal life takes on a surreal appearance.  Time is compressed or expanded to fit the particular situation and you really begin to feel like you live in a different dimension.

This of course results in irritability, stress, competition, forgetfulness, frustration, and maybe a little joy and wonder.  It is a difficult balancing act.  And, this of course doesn’t even figure in the political correctness police.  So, as a leader just how do you handle the various priorities and demands?

My first tip is – don’t wait to the last minute.  If you find yourself in this predicament this year.  Make it a top priority for next year or one of your New Year Resolutions, to not have a year-end pile up.  If you know that the accounts for the year have to be closed on Dec. 31 – start working on getting things lined up in October.  If year-end performance reviews are due in December, think about putting in check-in times throughout the year so these are short and unsurprising meetings.  Set timelines to get the year-end reports started early, so you only have to add in the last few numbers in December.  Make your year-end deadline Thanksgiving, so all you have to do is a bit of clean-up and you can have December to begin to focus on January instead.

OK – it is too late for that – what else can you do?

  • Be understanding – Most everyone is in a similar situation as you are.  Take the time to be polite, smile, and provide a word of encouragement.  Sometimes that is all that is necessary to make a person feel better.
  • Use your favorite stress buster – Go for a walk, enjoy the sights, take a deep breath.  I am sure that you have a stress buster that is your go to.  Use it – getting flustered only makes matters worse.
  • Do something nice for someone else – Studies are finding that this may be more beneficial than we know.  Even just helping someone pick up items that were dropped or pushing the button to the elevator when their hands are full helps both you and the person being helped.  It may be just the pick-me/you up that is needed.
  • Keep your sense of humor – Look for the irony, or humor in the situation.  You may even be able to laugh at yourself.
  • Use words like “please”, “thank you”, and “your welcome”. Manners count.
  • Get some rest.

Leadership begins with yourself.  You will be amazed at how these little things may change the entire atmosphere of your office, home or store.

And Winter is suddenly upon us…

Most of the U.S. is about to be gripped by winter weather throwing us headlong into the winter season, whether we like it or not.  These weather changes force most of us to change our normal routines, and may even have greater impacts like canceling events, trips, and completing specific tasks.  Yes, Mother Nature sometimes has to come out and announce that we aren’t always in charge.

 

For leaders, we can use this as a learning experience – finding leadership principals in a place where you least expect them and maybe even provide you with an opportunity to practice some new and/or rusty skills.  For example:

–          Adaptation – I once had a colleague that said they would never hire a person who did not at least play a video game at some point.  His reasoning was – that you can plan for several possibilities, but the game usually results in an unanticipated or an unexpected change that forces you to adapt.  Winter weather forces us to adapt to changing conditions, availability of resources, and sometimes how we have to accomplish the task. (How are you going to get that project done, if the network is down? Or, you can’t physically make it to the meeting in Chicago?)  As leaders we all have to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.  So, use this time to practice a bit – do you have a Plan B or C or D?

–          Reflection – When you are stuck in the airport due to a flight delay – how do you use that time?  Or, all of a sudden you don’t have to take that trip or go to that meeting – how do you fill the void?  You might take this time to do a bit of reflection.  As leaders, we need to build in time to our schedules to reflect on how things are going. What resources could have been better used?  Do you have the right tools?  Use these unexpected down times – to start practicing the art of reflection.

–          Listening – In the din of all the noise, preparation, and chaos of the season – there are times when the office is empty or you are walking to the car and snow has created a hush.  You might reach into your toolkit and really start listening to the important things.  Because of the noise you may have to really focus – thus you are practicing listening in the extreme.  Similarly when you get the extreme quiet – you need to focus on the individual sounds – again practicing listening at the opposite extreme.  Use this time to sharpen that underutilized skill.

I am sure you can find some other leadership skill opportunities – networking at holiday parties, practicing patience, and renewing a sense of excitement and wonder.  Take this opportunity to look for ways to improve your skills, while dealing with the challenges that life places in front of you.

Enjoy this time – it is a time of awakening and growth.