3 posts categorized "August 2014"

August 21, 2014

Do You Have the Courage To Mentor Up?

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Mentorship is an opportunity to build relationships and give gifts. Mentoring up, to those above you in rank or stature, may be one of your best career boosters. Really. This post will show you how to do it without getting shot for the message. 

There's a common misconception in our business culture that mentorship is a top-down activity. In The Hero's Journey, the mentor is often case as the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman. Think Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Miyagi in The Karate Kid. In this theory, one must have achieved success to pass on wisdom to the young or the new. 

If you actually research the origins of the mentor, however, you'll find a different story. According to the fabulous writer's tool The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler,  "the name 'Mentor', along with our word 'mental', stems from the Greek word for mind, 'menos', a marvelously flexible word that can mean intention, force or purpose.  Menos also means courage."

He illustrates why courage can be required to mentor: "Many of the Greek heroes were mentored by the centaur Chiron, a prototype for all Wise Old Men and Women. A strange mix of man and horse, Chiron was foster-father and trainer to a whole army of Greek heroes including Hercules, Actaeon, Achilles, Peleus and Aesculapius, the greatest surgeon of antiquity. In the person of Chiron, the Greeks stored many of their notions about what it means to be a Mentor. Chiron was not always well rewarded for his efforts. His violence prone pupil Hercules wounded him with a magic arrow which made Chiron beg the gods for the mercy of death."

Here's the idea: When you mentor others, you are a provider of knowledge to assist them in their journey. Regardless of their seniority, you do this because they need the help and no one knows everything.  This is especially true when times are filled with disruptive changes.  

In my experience, mentoring up has been a tool to build powerful relationships and a source of inspiration for my continual learning. When I worked at broadcast.com (1997-1999) and Yahoo (1999-2005), the Information Age was just taking hold. I poured myself into books and trade publications that gave me insights on topics such as eCommerce, permission marketing, digital technology and new media. I became wise beyond my experience in years.  

When I had opportunities to sit with legacy leaders such as Howard Stringer at Sony or Jim Keys at 7-11 or Mike Rawlings at Pizza Hut, I mentored them on the new world of Internet enabled business. I shared insights from books, case studies from trade journals as well as my perspective on "how the new world would work." 

At first, much like Hercules, some of them pushed back hard. One leader wrapped up our conversation within five minutes and reacted dismissively to my suggestions. I apologized via an email and sent him a book that underscored the point I was making about the disruptive nature of eCommerce. I included my cliff notes from the book.  Within a month, he invited me back and included his VP staff in the meeting. Eventually we did millions of dollars of business together. 

I've also had the audacity to mentor my managers and even executives a few clicks above me. By mentorship, I mean that I shared information and perspectives that I felt would assist someone in solving a problem or gaining a strategic insight. Usually, it was a single point or observation, backed up by experts or statistics. I knew that because I was mentoring up, I couldn't just make an assertion based on my experience. Only the Wise Old Tim could get away with that. It led to strengthened relationships and in one case, a champion who enabled me to become the Chief Solutions Officer of Yahoo!.  

Today, you have a unique opportunity to mentor up. It might be to your customers, prospects or your bosses or executives. The world is changing fast. Digital/Cloud/Mobile/Social/Global forces disrupt business in a compressed period of time. Whether or not your superiors (I use that term loosely) know they need it, information if required for their continued success. 

Or as George Clooney's character in Our Brother Where Art Thou often said, "When times are tough, people are looking for answers." 

Here's how to mentor up without getting hurt: 

* Gather knowledge. Lots of it. Become a knowledge pack rat. If you tell someone something they already know, it's not mentorship. If you fully commit to this, others will sense it as you share with them and be more receptive. 

* Seek first to understand, then to be understood: This nugget of wisdom from Dr. Stephen Covey applies here. You need to listen to your superiors to understand what they already know, what they fear and then what they need to know. If you jump in too quickly, you may offend or worse, miss the mark completely. When mentoring up, you likely have one chance to impress. 

* Make sure you are helping a benevolent hero. I've always looked for superiors that I respected and trusted to be the-bigger-person in any conversation. Every time I mentored up, I really wanted those legacy leaders to succeed and admired their past accomplishments. If I sensed they were mean spirited or overly defensive, I kept my trap shut. Remember Hercules. 

* Be respectful and follow up with proof. No one is ignorant or stupid just because he or she isn't yet calibrated to the times. There is a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. While he may not know how to use social media or why digitization is a threat to the core business, he can likely run circles around you in areas like finance, strategy or operations.  

I'm aware of the concept of reverse mentoring, where a senior leader asks for help. But this is a different concept all together, because it's the junior leader that takes the initiative. And that's why it's so much more impactful. 

If you follow these simple rules, you'll enable yourself to become closer to leaders that will help you on your journey too. My mentorship efforts to Stanley Marcus Jr. in the area of eCommerce led to him sharing insights with me about Customer Relationship Management and Talent Experience Design. As he told me in our last lunch meeting, "You'll never get dumber by making others smarter."  


August 07, 2014

Great Leaders Can Change the Subject

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Your work culture is a conversation, led by leaders or troublemakers, about how things are done around here.  If the leader isn't driving the conversation forward, troublemakers can move it sideways or backwards.  Troublemakers include the naysayers, doomsdayers and taker-types.  

Much of our work life is spent in conversations with others. When these conversations move forward, we make progress. When they go sideways, confusion reigns. When they slide backward, conflict and negative emotions ensue.

“Conversation is a game of circles,” wrote Ralph  Waldo Emerson. In other words, a conversation is useful but often is complicated by each player’s agenda. And yet, through this highly interactive process, we shape our attitudes and beliefs.  That's why it's important for leaders to take charge of the conversation.  

Too many conversations at work are moving everyone in the wrong direction. They can be historical, bringing up old-and-outdated subjects.  This leads to a collective hangover, where we can't shake off the weight of our past failures or the phantom menace of a long faded competitor.  There are conversations which exchange gossip information, usually about people.  Gossip is the fast-food of workplace conversation and often reduces its participants to base level thinking.  

The most paralyzing conversations are led by the Chicken Littles, who drum up fear through declarations that "the sky is falling."  They have the blogosphere and big media as their stronghold, and often punch much bigger than their weight.  All of these conversations must be led by leaders to a better place. 

One way that leaders can change the conversation is to directly challenge the historian, gossip or Chicken Little.  One manager who attended one of my talks took this to heart.  "When I spot a Chicken Little spinning up his coworkers unnecessarily, I ask him where he's coming from: Fear or confidence.  I use the experience to coach him on the difference between constructive information and fear-mongering."  

A second approach is to divert the conversation forward.  One way to do that is to reframe the bad news as an instant brain-storm about what each conversational participant can do about it.  Focus on the solution, not the problem. You can introduce a connected issue that leads to a discussion about a current project that everyone can contribute to.  You could simply introduce a progressive subject and drive the conversation towards it and away from the previously bad one.  While this requires finesse, great leaders have the strength to drive the conversation forward.  Each. And. Every. Time. 

Ignoring a sideways conversation is not an option.  Like a sore, they fester without your attention and often bubble up as a collective malaise.  Your job is to find the balance between empathy at a personal level and leadership at a conversational level.  

This comes from Principle Two from Today We Are Rich: Move the Conversation Forward. 


August 01, 2014

Why Today’s Leader Needs the Agility of a Downhill Skier

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Read any recent white paper on leadership, and you'll see numerous references to agility as a key area for development.  From learning agility to innovation agility, it's clear that leaders need to focus on how to go fast but stay graceful.  

Prior to my recent talk on this subject at a leadership conference, I conducted research to uncover why agility has become so critical to success.  The answer was quite simple: The time it takes for a new business concept or technological innovation to disrupt and industry is compressing ... fast.  What took a decade to wreck and industry in the 60's takes a little more than two years today.  

Think about how fast smart phone apps have disrupted various industries that manufactured one-off devices (guitar tuners, navigational devices, watches, video cameras, cameras, and so on).  Think about how fast Uber has disrupted transportation.  How fast has AirBnB disrupted hospitality?  This is why I call today's leadership a downhill ski-sprint where one must go fast, stay on their feet and not crash too many gates.  Even in non-tech industry like consumer packaged goods, we've seen concepts like GMO-free products take hold in a fraction of the time it took for organic-and-local to achieve traction.  This is what life for a leaders looks like today:  Slide1

To survive, the leader must be on the ready to move his or her enterprise in a novel direction to capture an opportunity or defend their customer base.  But the risks are high, when fast-to-market is the paradigm, so often times people talk about being nimble but still hold steady until it's too late.  I believe that agility is a capability we build up through practice, just like a champion skier perfects their ability to make it down the hill in record time in one piece.  Here are a few ways you can boost your agility: 

  1. Read Voraciously About the Future - Readers are more agile leaders, especially when they widely expand their knowledge base every year.  If you commit yourself to reading one book every month cover-to-cover that outlines the future of your industry or technology related to your industry, you'll find yourself more confident and inspired about change.  You'll also develop key insights, which can help you create solutions faster and implement them better. 
  2. Develop Habit of Brainstorming When Faced With a Challenge - To often, our first instinct is to look for safe/proven off-the-shelf solutions to business problems.  Agile leaders start with brainstorming to consider novel approaches.  Over time, the more you make that your first response, the easier it will be to let go of the status quo when the writing's on the wall. 
  3. Protect Your Psyche - Being a change agent is like playing Whack-A-Mole ... where you are the mole!  You'll receive criticism and ocasionaly crash in an attempt to take a corner quickly.  Don't be defensive as research indicates that will get you lower marks from your managers or board.  See every piece of criticism as a gift that gives you valuable information about the person delivering it to you or in some cases, about the quality of your ideas or execution.  
  4. Create A Sprint Culture - This starts with meetings.  Cut down 2 hour meetings to 40 minute sprints.  Replace long lunches with Ted-Talk length speed-round sessions (18 minutes).  Reduce the time you give your team to implement project deliverables from 90 days to 2 weeks.  Conduct hackathons (all nighters) to compress a few weeks work into a single day.  All of these actions will drive speed into your collective psyche and make it easier for you and your team to run faster over time without falling down too much. 
  5. Invest An Hour a Week Reflecting On How Your Ideas Play Out - Be an objective person when looking back at market or organization reactions to your new ideas.  Objectify failure, because it's not really a reflection of your nature or character.  The more you think this way about the agile you, the better you'll adjust your plans to develop more finesse.  That's the key to passing through and not over the gates of innovation.  

I'd love to come speak on Leadership and Agility at your event.  Contact me for more information or suggest me to your speaking bureau agent.