Category Archives: Leadership

Are we in for a major disruption?

Just read an article by Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) (Disruption’s Long, Slow, Complex Journey).  And serendipitously had just come across a number of “do you remember” posts – AOL, Blackberry, etc.  Add to this, the business news of the bidding for Yahoo! and the retail trends of the first part of the year, and you start to think that there is a major change coming.  But, the real question is what is it and what is it going to look like?

Here in the United States, we are seeing signs for a major disrupting event.  It could be in how we shop – the big box stores are consolidating, the name brand retailers are shrinking, and how we spend our money is changing.  It could be in how we travel – we are seeing an aversion to lines and there is a change in where we travel.  It could be in how we educate ourselves – the classroom is changing, how we fund education is changing, and our view of what is needed is changing.  We are seeing it all around us – political campaigns are not following the traditional rules, the television executives aren’t making the same types of orders, and how the “experts” to behave with more money in our pockets did not happen.

It is becoming more and more apparent that something is happening.  We just don’t know what it is and the “experts” can’t tell us. So, as leaders we must be able to be flexible and now may be the time to try that something new as it might just be the “next big thing.”

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Dealing with the Tough Decisions

Every day each person makes a number of decisions.  Some of these decisions are easy and don’t usually have life changing consequences, like if I am going to have another cup of coffee or should I wear the blue tie with stripes or the green one with dots.  But, then there are the other decisions that need to be made, the ones where someone is going to be impacted, or someone won’t be happy.

As our society has changed, expectations have changed and handling situations where someone is not going to be “happy” has also changed.  These changes have complicated how leaders make the tough decisions as well as communicating these decisions.   So, how do you handle these types of situations?  How can we help those around us understand the rationale behind the decisions, without the baggage of a potentially socially charged situation?

First – Make the decision

When situations get tough or difficult, it is natural to want to avoid the “messiness.”  There is a tendency to put off the decision that Scarlett O’Hara moment where we say “I’ll deal with that tomorrow.”  Or, we want to wait and see if the situation takes care of itself.  While sometimes this is good, as it allows you to move from a potential “gut reaction” or allows some of the unknowns to become clearer.  The usual result is that the “messiness” just gets worse and worse and the implications of not making the necessary decision compounds.  The key is to make a decision, and then handle the consequences.

Second – Understanding that what is right is not always easy

Giving feedback to someone that they don’t want to hear, “you aren’t performing up to expectations” or “you can’t continue to provide a poor work product” or “you aren’t qualified for this task,” is never easy.  Leaders need to set expectations.  Leaders need to prepare individuals for the tasks that are to come or situations that they will face in the future.  Life comes with disappointments.  Life is full of failure (remember a good batter in baseball is only successful about one-third of the time).

Our society has changed. People are expecting to not have to work as hard for their goals.  They are expecting to be catered to in a number of different ways.  There is a sense well that doesn’t apply to me, because …….. (fill in the blank).  In this sense, leaders need to understand that they need to stand up for what is right:  meeting the expectations, applying the rules fairly and consistently, and doing the job.  The consequences of not holding to these standards are far reaching and ultimately become a death spiral.  A leader can’t make a decision or not take an action just because it resolves a particular situation today, they have to be aware of the long-term consequences.

Third – Understand it isn’t personal

One of the leadership skills that we all need is dealing with conflict.  If you go to a course on how to provide feedback, or how to deal with conflict; one of the skills that are taught is how to handle an argument by not making it about the person, but about the action or your perception of the action.  For example, you have a team member that is not performing or providing the necessary work product on time.  Rather than saying that the person is lazy, or can’t be counted upon; you should point out that the due date was not met and here are the consequences of those actions.  It is not about the person; it is about the actions and the results.

As leaders we have to understand that when we are taking the “hard line” on a decision, i.e. not relaxing a deadline or a standard; it is not because we don’t like the person; it is because we have to do this in order to what is right for everyone.  We also have to remind ourselves that the subsequent reactions of the individual are not really at us, but at the situation and ultimately at themselves because they did not meet their own expectations.

As true leaders, we will face these situations.  We will get negative feedback.  We have to continually assess ourselves to understand whether or not what we are doing is “right.”  But, the one thing that we must do: is make the decision, and handle the consequences in a tactful and considerate manner.  The key is not to let the situation fester; thus destroying the organization, those involved, and ultimately yourself.

Curiosity as a Leadership Trait – How to make sure you keep it.

Watching the world leads to questions.
Watching and observing leads to one to more questions.

There is an old idiom that says “curiosity killed the cat,” which means fundamentally means that inquisitiveness leads one into danger.  According to The Phrase Finder, the first use of the phrase can be attributed to the English Playwright, Ben Johnson, in 1598.  But, what are leaders without curiosity?

Leaders by their very nature are and should be exploring the “what ifs.”  One cannot lead without thinking about how something should be done, or what will result from a specific action.  Thus, if a leader does not have a curious streak, how are the other leadership traits developed? In fact, the archaic meaning of the word curiosity (according to Dictionary.com) is “careful attention to detail” and “desire to know and learn.”  Essentially, one of the key traits attributed to leaders.

Curiosity while there is a potential downside, it can lead one along a dangerous path, is fundamental to our desire to learn and solve problems.  Without asking the “what if” questions, how is one supposed to grow?  How is a business supposed to plan for its future or for potential threats?  How is the next innovation supposed to occur?

These are key questions that leaders ponder each and every day, so it is apparent that leaders have a healthy curiosity streak.  But, what about the downside?  This is also something that leaders have to consider.  Leaders need to think through potential actions to avoid the downside.  You can just open the box, without thinking about what consequences might arise.  Leaders have to look at and examine the potential unknowns.  They have to anticipate some of the consequences, knowing full well that all the consequences may or may not be apparent depending upon the specific situation. It is the unintended consequences that have the biggest potential to get us all into trouble.

So, being curious and acting upon the curiousness that we have as leaders is a careful balancing act.  Leaders need curiosity but need to be deliberate in how we proceed.  Leaders have to look for and consider the potential dangers, not just the potential benefits.  Leaders have to look at more than their next action, they have to think about the subsequent actions due to the intended result (or in how the results are implemented).  Yet, without curiosity; we as individuals and society don’t progress.

Thus, leaders must:

  • Not lose the curiosity that got you to this point
  • Not take things for granted
  • Not stop asking questions

In order, for us to do this, leaders must:

  • Continue to explore – Whether through travel, reading, discussions, etc. as a leader you have to be exposed to different ideas and points of view.  You have to expand your frame of reference.
  • See learning as an opportunity to open the mind – Leaders have to stay abreast of what is happening around them. They have to monitor changes in their chosen fields.  They have to study new ways of applying techniques, and tools.  Learning is a constant in a leader’s daily life.
  • Understand that curiosity is an active process – As a leader, you must actively engage in exploration, actively ask questions, and actively seek to learn. It is not a passive endeavor.

My favorite words are possibilities, opportunities and curiosity.I think if you are curious, you create opportunities, and then if you open the doors, you create possibilities.

Mario Testino, Photographer

Taking Stock of Words

Power of Words

Actions speak louder than words. This is a common idiom used in the development of leadership skills.  Another idiom that is used is “walk the walk.”  As developing leaders (we are all developing leaders whether or not we are a 25 plus year CEO or a new entrepreneur), we have been taught, told, and mentored into believing that it is our actions that are going to help dictate the culture of our organizations.

Yet, it is not only our actions that influence our organizations, our words do as well.  Our own personal language, the body of words and how we use them, conveys much about our personal values, our leadership style, and ourselves.  Thus, as leaders we must assess and evaluate the quality of our own language.  This means that we need to not only look at our vocabulary, the library of words that we use and understand, but in also in how we use that stock of words to express ourselves.

Our language builds culture.  And, it is the culture that sets the unwritten rules of society, and our organizations.  You want to build a culture of inclusiveness?  Think about the words that are used in conversation in meetings:

  • We were discussing in the hall …..
  • Listening, to the hallway conversations……
  • Did you talk with …….

Versus

  • We need to do it this way ……
  • The administration says …..
  • Don’t bring them into this discussion …..

While each of these openings may be appropriate at a particular time, if we are starting a meeting this way the first set frees up an open discussion, while the second set closes the discussion.  Phrasing becomes just as important as what the words mean.

The structure of a sentence, the specific words used, and the setting of the transmission of the words to another individual becomes highly important to the development of the culture and the atmosphere of the organization.  A quick public thank you in a meeting, may have much more value to the organization than a lengthy in office more formal thank you.  A handwritten congratulations on an achievement to a line employee may be as valuable as a bonus at the end of the year.  Even a handshake in the elevator introducing yourself to someone, may be a very valuable exchange conveying the importance of everyone in the organization.

Today as leaders, we hear about the importance of the motivational speech or sending out mass emails about the status of the company or organization to both employees and stakeholders.  We are told by our public relations people that we need to communicate and we assess every word in a press release and in the speech.  But, do we really take time to listen to ourselves.  Are we using precise speech?  Are our words communicating exactly what we are trying to convey?

We need to look at how we speak, write and the methods of communication.  As each of these elements convey meaning and color how our words are consumed by the audience.

Gaining Wisdom through Reflection

Confucius

Wisdom.  It is one of the many words that are used to describe leadership.  Yet, it is typically not something that we as leaders have innately.  Wisdom is something that coalesces from a variety of other aspects of a leader’s education.  Wisdom is derived from book knowledge, observation, experience, and reflection.  Wisdom is as not simple as the abridged definition “the quality or state of being knowledgeable with just judgement.”

As leaders, the easy part of gaining wisdom comes from the many hours of learning our technical craft.  We spend hours gaining the technical skills of our chosen professions: going to class, taking training courses, reading the current literature, etc.  We also have honed our skills of observation: watching other leaders, learning individuals, understanding group dynamics, etc.  But, have we become wise?

This is an interesting question.  Stop and take a moment to visualize a wise person.  What images come immediately to mind?  For some, it is a yogi or a guru sitting atop a mountain.  For some, it is an owl.  For others, it may be a specific person, but that person is generally older, and quiet.  We have a vision of what it takes to be wise or full of wisdom.  Yet, there is no manual or recipe or real guidance document. Sure, you can Google the question “how to become wise,” (and you will get 23,800,000 hits) but these are suggestions and starting points.  There is not a single recipe or set of steps that you can follow that will have you waking up tomorrow as a wise person.  Sure, you may be a bit wiser than you were today but it is never a completed project.  (It is probably a topic that can have some intellectuals researching for years.)

This doesn’t mean that we can’t become wise nor develop wisdom.  All it means is that wisdom comes from our willingness and openness to new experiences, new ideas, and listening to different points of view.  Wisdom is derived from our personal situations, our challenges, and the environment or circumstances that have occurred over time.  Even then, a leader may not become wise as there is still something missing.  The missing item is reflection.

One cannot learn from our experiences and environments without taking the time to reflect and ask questions about them.  How do we begin to listen to another point of view?  We ask questions.  We investigate.  We may still disagree, but we are actively learning how someone else approaches the same situation.  We learn to be active listeners.  Yet, do we listen to ourselves. Do we note our own conflicts? Do we ask ourselves questions?

We have to make time for the reflection.  And, we have to have some way of reflecting.  So, how can you as a leader begin to develop this habit of reflection?  Well, there is a technique that is widely used and for some of us it is something that is a bit of struggle – journaling.  Yes, remember that creative journal that your English composition teacher tried to get you to start?  It may be one method of helping you develop wisdom in your life.  Sure, you have heard of creative writers journaling, but the CEO of a Fortune 500 company?  You probably have even read excerpts from some journals from famous individuals in history like George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson.  But what about J.P. Morgan?  Sure you know that they kept “diaries” of appointments or notes – but did they journal?  We may or may not know.

Why start a journal?  The typical reasons for journaling include:

  • Journals help you articulate thoughts and ideas
  • Journals help you clear the mental clutter
  • Journals help you track your own personal growth
  • Journals promote creativity

You can do a quick search and find a host of other reasons.  But from a straight forward and simplistic perspective – journals allow you the time for reflection.  It is this reflection time that is the important aspect of developing wisdom.

How do you start and what should you write?  The first step is to pick a medium – computer, paper and pen, etc.  Personally, I am fond of the paper and pen method as for me, it is more personal. It is engaging. And, I am interacting with my thoughts.  (Now, I do use a smart pen which does allow me to store my journals electronically.)  But, I have used a number of different media over the years – including some of the new apps.  I have also found that I am much happier keeping everything in the same place, i.e. my daily appointments, to-do lists, and journal all in the same book.  It simplifies things for me and if I have an idea I don’t have to figure out which book to put it in.

What to write?  This is the personal part of the journal and may be highly dependent on the time of day when you chose to journal.  There are times that I journal in the morning as I am preparing for the day and my reflections may be about my goals for that day.  Or, if in the evening, they may be about something that I learned, noticed or was troubled by during the day.  I may reflect on a reading throughout the day, which is why I like my journal all in one.  I journal about new words, a line in a book, something I heard on the radio or something that I could have handled better.  It really doesn’t matter what you write, it is about taking the time to sit quietly and reflect.

Confucius said that the noblest way to learn wisdom is by reflection.  Margaret Wheatley reminds us that without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and fail to achieve anything useful.  The journal is a means of providing that bit of reflection that is needed to help us develop into the leaders we need to be.

Understanding Leadership – When to fish or cut bait?

MVC-019S

Fish or cut bait.  As leaders, we have probably used this phrase at some point.  And, we seem to have an inherent understanding about the concept that it is describing, even if we aren’t active in a fishing culture.  The four words succinctly describe a decision point where one has to assess the effectiveness of the current methodology or strategy versus the ultimate goal.  Or simply, put is this strategy or activity the most effective use of time and/or resources.

As leaders, we need to focus on what is the most productive use of our skills, knowledge and resources.  We have to make sure that the timing is appropriate, and that the right priorities are being met.  Unfortunately, the leader may be too close to the situation or may be in a situation where the day-to-day demands are such that they can’t see that they have reached a point where they are ineffective.  So, what is a leader to do when they find themselves in this situation?

Leaders need to PREP:

  • Pause – Stop for a bit to gather and observe.  What is the status quo?
  • Re-asses – After having gathered the information, one needs to look at the resources and priorities.
  • Evaluate – Here you have to look at the fit or “correctness” of the priorities, do the resources and priorities match?  Are the skill sets correct?
  • Prepare – Prepare a path to realign or to gain the appropriate resources that are needed.

As leaders, we forget how important it is to continually go through this cycle.  We tend to get bogged down in the day-to-day activities and firefighting.  We don’t take the time to work on the strategies or “tool sharpening” that we need to focus on, so that we can be more productive and efficient in the long run.  We don’t take the time now; so it will ultimately take less time.  We get stuck in the “have to do it this way now” to make it work mindset to meet the immediate need.

This ultimately puts us further behind and makes us more ineffective. It means that we continually hinder ourselves.  So, for the past three months, I have been practicing what I want to preach – building the skills and the resources, such that the day-to-day tasks require less time.  I have been searching for those new applications, resources, and ideas to make my daily work life more effective and productivity.  I have been PREPping for this new journey.

Now it is time to take the first step, down this new branch of the road.  Hopefully, you are willing to join me on this journey.

Leadership Lessons from the Headlines

The past couple of weeks, there have been some significant leadership lessons that have emerged from the headlines.

Meme - Note to Self

Assume that every email written will become public.

Just imagine – as you drive into the office, your emails are being read during the top of the hour news.  I am sure there are a few executives that wished they had never pushed the send on that email.  (There of course are a couple of corollaries to this one – Assume the Mic is hot and that everything you say is being recorded and will end up on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter!)  – Yes, every email you have ever written is likely to come back to haunt in some form or fashion.  And contrary to with the IRS has claimed – someone is sure to find them somewhere when you least expect it.

You need to be aware of not only what is communicated, but how and context.  What may seem like an innocent comment may become a fire-able offense in the future.

Every interaction has the potential to have unimaginable repercussions. 

The “Butterfly Effect”, you never know how a brief encounter may change the world.  Thus, why not strive for positive and kind interactions?  Small acts of kindness may make the biggest differences.  Unfortunately,  we only tend to hear about how these little acts have changed lives during this time of year.  As leaders we need to strive to make these part of everyday life.

It is OK to admit that you are wrong.  

– The key is to make the change to make amends and improve. –

As leaders, it is our job to model behaviors that will improve the overall situation.  Leaders need to model the culture that we want, whether that be at home, school, the workplace or society.  As leaders, we need to take responsibility.   But, we also need to strive to improve.

Leaders should not incite negative behaviors.  Leaders should highlight positive actions.  Our actions are lenses to our values.  You do not correct a wrong by committing more wrongs – under the guise of “demonstrations” or “public discourse.”  It is important to address the wrongs – but focus on the root causes.  Maybe – just maybe – if we all follow the second bullet point, the means of making amends and improvement will happen naturally.