Tag Archives: leadership skills

Leadership Lessons from Story Time

Kindergarten

From the title of Robert Fulghum’s best-selling book of life stories is as applicable today as when he published it in 1988.  And, you can learn a lot about leadership by participating in a number of summer activities that you might feel are “just for kids” like Story Time at the local library.

It has been a number of years since I last attended Story Time.  And, now that summer is here and I have the opportunity, I have begun to take my grandson to Story Time.  The format hasn’t really changed all that much – there is a gathering, a brief outline of what is going to happen, a song, a story, a song, another story, and an activity.  (Sounds pretty much like that standing weekly meeting, except that they aren’t as much fun, because we don’t get play along with the song, and the activities, well…..)

So, let’s look at the leadership opportunities that are present:

The Gathering – While it is one thing to “wrangle” 20 to 25 kids under the age of six plus their tag along adult into a seated position and ready to listen, it is another to bring together a team of professionals, right?  Not so much.  In fact, I sometimes think it is easier to deal with the children.  They want to be there.  They are expecting certain things.  They are anticipating positive outcomes.  The adults, well…..

So, what is the lesson?  When pulling together a meeting, a training session, a presentation, etc., we have to include the hook, some predictability, and a desired outcome.  Sure, you won’t always be able to have grab everyone and some of these are “have to be there, because” type meetings.  But, you don’t have to allow them to be painful, boring, or last longer than they need to.  Posting of agendas is necessary. A stated purpose is necessary.

And, you have to allow for the gathering to occur.  You can’t rush it.  And, it this may be the most important part of the event.  These interactions are what make your teams cohesive.  The real work of an organization is usually done in the hallways, the break room, and in those few minutes at the beginning and end of meetings.  This is where the innovation occurs.  It is where work gets streamlined.

The Outline – OK, even if the agenda was posted. At Story Time, even though it follows the same pattern every week, the outline for the next hour is repeated.  Why?  Because, there may be a new child, a new parent, or someone who is not yet familiar with the routine.  In the business world, the attendees may not have read their email, you might have a guest, you might have an observer, or they just need the outline to get them focused on the task at hand.  Humans like patterns.  We need patterns.  The repeating of the outline helps us grasp that focus that we need to be productive.

The Song, the Story, the Song and the Story – The purpose of the first song at story time (and it usually the same one from week to week) is the initial grabber.  It gets the participants involved.  These are the standing agenda items: the safety moment, review of last week’s sales, etc.  All the attendees know what is about to happen, but they are watch for anything new or how the new individuals are going to react.  And, it allows you to slide into the flow of the event.  Then there is the story.  It is new information, we are actively listening.  We are applying the information.  All are key things for adults as well as for the children.

This is followed but round two.  But, this time the song is different.  We have to be more engaged.  We are applying something new.  But, it is bringing us all together and bring the focus back to the group.  This is where the buy-in occurs at the business meeting.  It is followed by another story.  For the business meeting, this is where the connections with the organization’s mission occur.  The why.

The Activity – During Story Time, this is where the children get to participate and really do.  The activity is usually related to the stories that were presented.  So, connections are made.  New things are tried.  And, learning is masked as something fun.  For professionals, the activity usually means discussions of the work, the goals, the plans, etc.  There are the normal workflows that must occur.  And, how the information presented will be applied.  The only difference – we don’t get to see it as fun or play.  (Sometimes, you need a bit of play to keep the creative juices flowing.)

Thus, Story Time is a learning experience.  There are lessons to be learned.  There are observations to be made.  You might want to take a bit of time to be “outside of the concrete, steel, glass box” and take a trip to Story Time, it may be more beneficial than that leadership symposium.

Advertisements

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.

How do you stay current? Or, preparing for the next breakthrough.

One of my all time favorite leadership quotes comes from Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts:

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place.  And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

In our constant contact, fast paced, instant information world;  you know that it is a requirement to stay current.  But, the question is how?

Many professionals stay current by subscribing to some sort of digest service (my personal inbox gets over a dozen digests each day).  Your professional societies are also a great source of critical new information in your chosen field.  Then, there are a host of personal digesting services or apps out there.  But, this still does not solve the problem of how.  Because, it isn’t the technical side of getting the information that holds us back; it is the time to review, assess, and comprehend the information that is the trick.

As leaders, you know that it is important to stay current in your chosen field.  This is equivalent to the Queen’s running just to stay in place.  It is information from other areas or solutions applied in one industry that can be modified to apply in another.  So, not only do you have to deal with the information, you don’t have time for it now; but, you know to get to that next breakthrough, you have to “drink from the fire hose.”

So, what do you do?  Of course, there is the shut down response – do nothing and hide in the dark.  This won’t help, but may make you feel better temporarily.  Here are some more constructive approaches:

1) Keep an active read pile – both an electronic one and a physical one.  Instapaper is a great clipping service that can help you manage those internet or electronic articles you want to read.  It is accessible through any device which makes it very helpful.  You can use the same process, pulling out only those articles you want to read from your magazines and placing them in a folder which you can take with you to read over lunch.  (If nothing else this reduces the physical pile of magazines to a more manageable stack.)

2) Make some time to read – Give your self permission to stop and take time to read.  You might do it over your coffee break.  Or use an application like NaturalReader to convert the information into an audio file so you can listen to that article while running the treadmill.  This is one time where multitasking may be actually beneficial.

3) Relocate to a different place or office when it is time to read.  Don’t sit at your desk, if you do – you know what happens – you won’t dedicate the time that you need.  It gets swallowed up by other things.

Finally, make sure that you have something to write with or take notes on.  Those ideas that come to you while you are reading may just be the thing you need to make that next breakthrough!

 

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.

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.

 

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)