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”.

 

Story and the Art of Story Telling

If you read various leadership articles, you are likely to have found a number of items related to the “Art of Story Telling.” From a leadership perspective, the idea behind this is that people are more in tuned to messages conveyed via a story. If you want to provide a lesson or a concept – you can put it in a story, people will pay attention, and are more likely to retain the information and get what you are trying to convey.

But there is more to “Story.”  Story throughout all of history has been used to convey – historical events, to entertain, to perpetuate culture, to convey cultural morality, and to pass on family. In general – a culture is defined by its stories. If you think about the stories that are traditionally studied in school – Aesop’s Fables, Greek Myths, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You can see how story has been used.

There are religious stories – the Old Testament Bible stories – Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, and the Garden of Eden – as well as the New Testament Parables. In Native American culture – there are the Mother Earth stories. And, you can even follow certain themes throughout all cultures – there are common flood stories, and there is always a creation story.

Some stories have been preserved – the Bible, the Qur’an, and many epic poems (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and others). But, many stories and possibly the most important ones are not usually written. These are the stories that hold families and/or clans together. The tales of how we as individuals are molded and taught. These stories are unique to the personal histories of each family.

For the last several years, my husband and I have noticed that our Society has lost the art of story telling – beyond the “Big Screen” and the television. Children don’t hear Mother Goose, Aesop’s Fables, or the traditional Bible stories unless a special effort is made to convey these through a lesson plan at school or Sunday School. We have seen that when the stories of the overall culture – the cultural fabric or quilt have disappeared – the quicker the disappearance of the family stories particularly the ones told from generation to generation. And, these are even more likely not to have been recorded.

I suppose that this is a result of losing the extended family. In most cases, we don’t live down the street from Grandma anymore. Great Aunt Mary is in Arizona for the winter. Even brothers and sisters are removed by several states. Closely knit communities have seen the “kids” move to the cities because of they don’t want to farm or the mill has closed to get a job. We have lost the time around the kitchen table or the campfire where the stories flow. How did you get that scar on your knee? Why did we live in that particular house? How did Grandpa come to live in that town? Are being lost faster than your current cell phone goes out of date.

We are losing this trait so fast – that there are articles about it for leaders. There are courses in journal-ling. Our Society has to make an effort to revive something that has been a part of being human since language was invented. This is evidenced by the fact that Museums like the Smithsonian have programs where people come to put down their oral histories or a particular story about a topic or an event. We see organizations like the American Chemical Society collect particular personal stories about why they chose to be come chemists. These are efforts being made because we are losing a part of us. We are losing what brings us together and we can very possibly be losing ourselves. Our personal story is what makes us who we are, but it is the grounding, the enrichment of the stories of how our great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and families that really tell us so much more about why we are the way we are.

(Also published on SophicPursuits)

Transition & Re”creation”

According to the calendar, it is May.  And, May generally is a time of transition – end of a school year, graduations (high school or college), weddings may be in the air, and people are beginning to thing about a summer vacation or recreational activity.  For some the weather is finally starting to feel like the grip of winter is leaving and you can transition from indoor to outdoor activities.  So, there are lots of things that are vying for our attention. 

May is also a time where your leadership skills may be challenged, dusted off, or reach a new level.  Because May is a transitional month, you may have to rely on your personal skills to help you through the transition.  If you are graduating, you may be transitioning to a new job.  If you are in academia – you may be preparing for a sabbatical or a summer research push.  If you are industry, you may be thinking about summer field work, manpower issues, or interns.  You may also be facing personal life changes moving from a single person to a married one.  Transitions imply change – and successfully navigating change requires good leadership.

Even if you are not facing a significant transition – chances are there is someone close to you who is.  Thus, you may be called on to mentor that person.  Mentoring requires good leadership.

May then is a great time to think about your leadership in transition.  What are you specifically doing to improve your leadership skills?  What goals did you set for yourself at the beginning of the year?   How are you progressing on those goals?  Have you grown as a leader?  These are questions you may want to take a bit of time to think about.

On May 3 – I had a chance to sit in on a graduation ceremony at two year college, which led me to think about these questions.  And, I also began to think about how I personally could make an impact as a leader.  What actions – not just thoughts or words – could I do to bring about the change that I wanted to see?  In that graduation ceremony, I noted a number of things.  One was demographics – while there were some significant positives – the number of older students, the number of students in general and the support group present – the demographics were not what the should have been.  The group should have been even more diverse.  This means there is still work to do – and we as leaders need to do something – to see real change.

Second – was the concern that each and every individual there was facing a transition. Some where going straight to the workforce.  Some moving on to work on higher level degrees.  But, the fundamental question was – were they truly prepared?  As leaders, it is incumbent on us to help, encourage and mentor individuals through these significant transitions.  We have to be the role models, and the support groups.

Third – was the meaning of this transition. For some of the students, this was just a brief stepping stone or a mile marker.  But, for others it was a sign of achievement, sign of determination, a huge accomplishment.  I saw graduates that were the first in their families to ever receive a degree.  For one student, it took 14 years to get her Associates. She took one or two classes at a time – got her girls through their Bachelors before she finished her Associates.  She is a role model for the next generation.  Each story behind the graduate is different.  Each spark that drove that particular individual was different.  But each one had someone behind them that said – you can do it.  As leaders – we need to spread that spark a bit more.  We need to think about those little conversations that provide the encouragement.  You never know if it is the one thing that gets that individual over the hump and help them achieve.

Leadership is not just a hypothetical topic in a book.  It is not words on paper.  It is not a speech.   It is a push, a prod or an extra fifteen minutes.  It is a practice.  It is action.

So, as you plan your summer – think about what actions you as a leader can take to help the person next to you.  

What “commodity” do you value most?

As leaders we have a number of responsibilities and a variety of demands calling for our attention.  In addition, we all have good intentions of getting everything done.  For many of us, it means that our “to do” list is never empty.  Thus, we all have to prioritize and make choices that are going to impact our day, our well being, those around us, and even how we view our success.

How many of us have attended those time management classes, or bought self-help books that promise a 4-hour work week, or get more done in less time, or you can do it all.  Deep down we know that this is not possible. We try multitasking, balancing, delegating, etc.  But, what it comes down to is a basic value statement – what do you value most?  What commodity in your life – time, money, patience, etc. is highest on your list?

We get busy and caught up in the activity of life.  We go from one task to the next.  It seems that our priority is to get things checked off the list.  There are situations where at the end of the day – you may have checked a dozen things off of your “to do” list but you still feel that you did not get anything done.  This is a symptom of focusing on the activity rather than the accomplishment. You have focused on the wrong measurement or gauge to assess your day.  While what you did may have been important or had to get done – it may not have progressed you toward your goals.  

For me – the activity of life was not fulfilling.  I was not growing as a person or a professional.  Yes, it appeared that I was successful and happy.  But, I was spending the most precious of commodities on the wrong thing.  I wasn’t focused on the reasons for my behavior – I was focused on getting things done – thus, not getting the right things done.

Each of us has to ask the question of ourselves and truly be honest – why do you work? Yes, there is the needs part – I have to pay the bills, I have to have a place to live, etc.  But, there is that other part – I have chosen this profession because – I want to make a contribution to ……. Or, I want to be able to …… Or, I want my family to be able to……..  In many cases, we get so caught up in the day-to-day burdens of the job, or what Society says we should be doing – that we don’t have time to make that contribution, or do what fills in the blank.

To me – time is that precious commodity.  It can’t be saved for a rainy day.  It can’t be borrowed against. It can’t be retrieved when it has past.  We have to use it wisely.  We have to choose how we apply it. We have to make sure we are focused on the “right” things.  “First things first” as Covey says.  We need to reflect and get out of the rut of thinking that activity is success and focus on the why of the activity – not just checking it off the list.

So, carefully use some of that precious sand in the hour glass each day to reflect and prioritize.  Close off the rest of the demands for 5 minutes and truly take that time to focus on what is important to you.  Then, set up your to do list – you might find that it gets shorter, and is less activity based.  You may also find that in the end – you achieved more.

Accountability

I just read a short blog about holding yourself accountable.  While it was directed to PR professionals, it is not just PR professionals that face an accountability challenge.  Each and every one of us do – and even if we hold ourselves accountable in one area of our lives – we tend to not do the same in other areas.  Thus, we really need to look at how we got to this point and what can we do to get us out of our current state of lack of accountability.

Blame/Excuses – How many times have you heard this statement “It was not my fault because……”  When we were kids – the imps from Family Circus were to blame for everything “Not me” or “I don’t know.”  We had a set of standard excuses, I couldn’t do this or that because there wasn’t enough time, the teacher did not show me how to do that, they didn’t remind me that the paper was due on Friday, etc.  Today, we can add – the internet was down or there was no reception at this location. 

We have become a society of “it is not my fault.” Or, I am not responsible.  Hooey – someone has to take responsibility.  OK, so the internet was down last night – why did you wait until the last minute to open up the computer to do the assignment or submit the application?  Yes, there are some things beyond our control – the plane was diverted to Helena, Montana when you were going to Denver, Colorado.  But, most of the time the root cause of our problem or failure is because of something we didn’t do or waited to late to do.  We need to think about the “what if’s” and plan ahead better.

We tend to rely on someone else.  It is not your boss’ responsibility to remind you of the deadline for submitting that report to the government is on Tuesday. It is not your boss’ fault that they have told you for two weeks that will be gone on a two week vacation on Monday – and you did not get the signature of approval on the report before they left.  Yes, sometimes it is the boss’ fault when the report sits on their desk for a week, but did you remind them?

Your crisis may not be the most important.  Don’t get angry when the boss or the instructor says too bad when the report is late.  They may have other priorities.  You need to plan ahead.  Recall, your failure does not necessarily create a crisis on my part – I have responsibilities as well.

As individuals – self doubt, worry, and being your own worst critic – become hindrances to productivity.  There is a saying that sometimes we let perfection get in the way of the good or excellent.  Time is an extremely valuable resource.  We don’t have infinite time to get something accomplished.  Yes, we need to turn out good work.  We need to edit, polish, and refine.  But, we shouldn’t hold up others or the project just because you can’t decide whether or not ebony or black is the perfect word for the sentence.

As a society – we have allowed this lack of accountability.  Instructors have accepted late homework.  Clubs and organizations have accepted applications past the deadline.  And, the government continually moves the deadlines to suit their needs.  As individuals, we need to show some leadership and stop sliding down the slippery slope.  Exceptions should be rare and not expected.  Currently, they seem to be the norm.  We need to hold the line on deadlines.  Hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable.  We need to have accountability partners.  We need to maintain the same accountability in all areas of our lives.

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.