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.

Advertisements

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.

Critical Soft Skills

IMG_1081_editedAs leaders, we are always talking about the soft skills.  Saying things like – “the technical skills are your ticket to the event, but it is the soft skills that will determine whether or not you will get the job or the promotion.”  We espouse the term like everyone knows what these soft skills are.  Sure, we know that is usually means things like team work, problem solving, and communication.  But, think about those terms.  What are we saying?  We are saying something like the elements of salt water are the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, or the South China Sea.  These terms are so broad that there are volumes written on them.

So how do we as leaders counsel others including ourselves about the elements of these board topics so that we are highlighting the critical elements of these “soft skills”.  And, as the critical elements change; how do we get that across to our teams and mentees?  This is a crucial question because it is being able to recognize these changes and being able to articulate them that allows us as leaders to stay relevant.  It is what is going to make the difference between being current or stagnant.

Let’s take for example the topic of several news reports over the past weekend about a critical skill that the Millennials seem to be missing.  It seemed that no matter what news story you watched, they all discussed an aspect of communication.  It is not that the Millennials did not communicate, it was how they were communicating or not communicating.  There seemed to be a lack of direct person-to-person communication via telephone or face-to-face.  Sure, the Millennials would text, use Instagram, or some other social media tool, but these did not involve a direct person-to-person interaction with the non-verbal clues.  Employers are indicating; it is how these individuals are handling or not handling these direct interactions that were costing these individuals, either in terms of not landing jobs or in poor ratings on the job.

Telling a student or mentee or young professional that they need to improve their communication skills may or may not get the point across.  These individuals think that they are communicating and don’t understand what is missing.  We as leaders have to start really articulating what is missing in the soft skill.  In the example, what is missing is that these individuals haven’t had to learn or deal with nuisance or really understand how their bearing conveys just as much of a message as the words they use.

Add to this that some of these “soft skill” areas begin to tread into dangerous territory, the world of perceived discrimination.  For those of us that lived in a bit of a different time, where your superior came in and discussed your physical appearance without consequence; we now have to carefully handle these situations in such a manner as to not trip over a regulation or create a perceived negative environment.  This makes it a challenge in how we guide or mentor individuals to ensure that get the appropriate guidance.  Which is why, we as leaders have to spend the time to think about how to address some of these soft skill issues as well as create safe places and situations where these skills can be learned and practiced.

As soft skills are culturally disseminated, the first thing that we as leaders have to do is become models of the desired behavior.  We must demonstrate the professionalism we desire.  We need to be open to criticism ourselves. We need to encourage dialog.  And, we need to learn how really verbalize areas where the culture is changing and communicate how some actions are perceived by others.  We have to develop a new critical soft skill – dealing with sensitive issues in a sensitive manner.

Listening, Hearing and Understanding – What is the key element?

storm clouds forming
Is a storm coming or is this after the storm? Without all the observation, one does not know.

When asked to list essential leadership skills, there may be a variety of items listed.  However, listening is definitely one that most leaders would say is a skill that is not only essential, but is one that needs to be tended and cultivated.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to say that listening is a skill that needs improvement.

There are lots of factors that go into how we listen and there are different levels of listening.  For example; there is the aspect of just hearing (what are the words that are being said?).  Our brains are interesting things.  Have you ever noticed that there are times when someone says something to you and you only hear bits of the sentence?  Then you realize what was likely to have been said?  Our brains are very good at filling in patterns.  Our brains fill in the blank spots.  And, sometimes we fill in with the wrong word or even the wrong sentence.  When we are really working on listening; it is important that we don’t fill in the gaps for the speaker. One has to stop and make sure that we have heard what was said, not what we thought was said.

There is the aspect of tone, how the words are being conveyed.  As listeners, we have all experienced a misunderstanding of what was trying to be conveyed because of the tone of the words.  For example, someone makes a comment that was intended to be a joke but the listener assumed the comment was serious.  Or, a speaker sounds angry and conveys that as anger to the person within hearing, yet it really wasn’t anger, it was frustration.

While we are “listening;” we really tend to be multitasking.  We are assessing the information being conveyed.  We are evaluating and making judgments.  We are preparing our response, questions, or what we are going to say.  We are processing and planning.  We aren’t necessarily really attempting to understand the information that is being presented.

The definition of listening is from a leadership perspective is to pay attention, pay heed. Listening is,  therefore, is not just an auditory skill.  Truly listening means that you have to gather information to understand what is being conveyed. This means that we have to understand the tone and other cues that are being provided with the words.  It is the lack of cues in emails, texting, tweets, and other forms of social media that is getting all of into trouble.  Just how do you convey cues in 140 characters or in a 10-second sound bite?

As leaders, we are supposed to be communicators. Which means that we not only have to convey the information, but we have to make sure that our listener is truly hearing what it is we are trying to convey.  We need to recognize when we aren’t listening and when our listeners aren’t listening.  We need to make sure that we aren’t just processing words and we understand the information and ideas that are trying to be conveyed.  We have to slow down and think about what is being conveyed, before we process, assess and respond.

A quick internet search will find a number of methods to improve listening.  There is the active listener method. There are the 5, 10 or 12 steps to becoming a better listener.  And, there are ways to practice, such as listening to audio books or summaries, working with a partner, and taking notes.  But, all of these require something more fundamental, the knowledge that most of us really don’t listen and that we have to be engaged in the process to listen.  Without this fundamental acknowledgment, you might as well be in a sound proof room.

What happens now?

20130518_134257_edited

If you look at the calendar and the milestones in people’s lives, May and June are months of major significance.  In the United States, graduations from high school and college are common events as well as the beginnings of marriages and new careers.  These events are culminations of long-term planning.  (Even if you didn’t realize it at the time.)  And, once the excitement of the celebration is over, you may be waking up feeling lost and adrift.

What happens now?  Some may be lucky enough to already, have another long-term goal or may be working on one.  For example, you just graduated and are planning on pursuing a higher degree; or are working, and now are turning to focus on that next big project or promotion.  But, for others, all of a sudden you achieved what you were after and then…….  Well, it is time to figure out what’s next.

How does one go about it?  Many of us know the usual goal setting steps (or do we?) and how to state a goal.  Zig Ziglar gave us seven; Bradley Foster gave us ten; and Wikihow gives us ten.  We are told our goals need to be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and have a timeframe.  But, the steps?  Let’s look at Zig Ziglar’s seven, because most of the versions are similar:

  • State the goal
  • Set a deadline
  • Identify the obstacles
  • Identify the people, groups and organizations that can assist
  • List the benefits of achieving the goal
  • List the skills needed to attain the goal
  • Develop a plan

Okay, but what is the goal?  What is the next step? How do I tell what my next goal should be?  What am I being called or driven to do?  It is this unknown that sets a person adrift.  Because once we are able to articulate what it is we are after or where we are headed; the usual goal setting wisdom and attributes help us.  And, it is the easy part: developing the long-term plan on how to achieve it.  The conventional wisdom does nothing for helping us assess what it is we want to achieve.

Determining the direction or the next personal goal requires self-awareness, introspection, and self-assessment.  One has to take some quiet time and think about what makes them happy; what they like to do; and if they could wave that magic wand what would be their perfect world.  One method may be to PREP: pause, re-assess, evaluate and prepare.  The pause step is the most critical, one needs to stop and think about those serious questions.  One needs to fuel the imagination, and one needs to picture what that future state may be.  This is a very difficult thing to do as we don’t necessarily like to look into ourselves, and finding the time to do this with all of our day-to-day pressures adds to the complexity.

Yet, it is essential because if we don’t, we will remain adrift or someone else will be making these crucial decisions for us.  This leaves us unfulfilled, and miserable.  It is critical that one steps aside and think about what is it that drives us, what is it that we want to achieve, and how do view my personal success?

How to get to this point?  We know that we need to be able to state the goal, picture it, and articulate it.  But, what methods or techniques do we use?  There are some tried and true ones:

  1. Where do you want to be in a year?
  2. Where do you want to be in three years?
  3. Where do you want to be in five years?

These are a bit stale because they are used as interview and annual review techniques; so we tend to give “pat” answers or the ones that the person asking the questions want to hear.  And, this still requires a person to have a longer term view.

Other questions may seem strange, yet can provide deeper insight;

  • What do you want your high school reunion summary to say?
  • Why should you be invited to speak at a graduation ceremony?
  • What words would you like to have on your headstone?
  • How do you want ___________ (your mother, your spouse, your colleagues, your friends) to describe you?
  • What things don’t you want to be said about you? (Sometimes it is easier to look at the negative than the positive.)
  • If you could choose one accomplishment, what would it be?

These questions will help you to paint a picture of that elusive long term goal.  Once, you have that the rest is just a paperwork exercise to outline the path.

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.

Just How to Keep a New Year’s Resolution

All of the research says that less than 50% of individuals will keep their New Year’s Resolutions.  Why?  There are lots of reasons and they include:

* The resolution is unrealistic.

* There is no action plan as to how to achieve the goal.

* There are too many resolutions.

* There is no support system in place.

The list can go on, but you should be able to see a trend.  People set resolutions or goals without thinking about how they might achieve them.  In order for a resolution to hold, you must have a plan.  And, you have to work the plan.  So here are a three tips as to how you can be part of the group that not only sticks to your resolution – but actually achieves the underlying intent.

1) Write it down.  Yes, you have heard this one before.  Writing down your goals sets you toward achieving them.  Why?  By writing the goal down, you have had to formally articulate what the goal is.  This helps you to think about the nuisances of your goal. When you write the goal be specific, and draw a picture as to what it means.  Thus, it is no longer a vague “lose weight” but you make it concrete, “I will lose 10 pounds.”

2) Make it a daily habit.  According to Covey, it takes three weeks to make a habit.  So, think about what you can do on a daily or regular basis to help you stick to your resolution.  If your resolution is to lose weight, your daily habit might be to journal the foods you eat.  If your resolution is to read more, set 5 minutes a day to read that book on your bed side table.  The key is to make it a habit.

3) Figure out your support system.  This can be finding an accountability partner or even setting email reminders or posting notes on the refrigerator.  You may even have to develop a reward or a point system.  And, yes there may be even an App for that.  The key is to find to provide yourself with both accountability and a means to get you back on track if you falter.

With these three tips, you are likely to develop a positive habit and set yourself on a path to stick to that resolution.  My New Year’s Resolution?  Sticking to the plan that I developed for the goals that I set last year.