154 posts categorized "Leadership"

January 22, 2016

Four Life Lessons I Learned From the Gym

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About two years ago, I rededicated myself to physical fitness in order to lower my blood sugar and improve my mental performance.  I joined the David and Barton Gym in my office complex, hired a trainer and started going three or so times a week.  While the whole point of working out was mind-body fitness, I learned some life lessons that have enhanced my professional performance as well.  Today, if I don't work out, I feel like there's something lacking from my day. That's how any life-changing performance-improving process works.  Here are the four lessons that I've taken away from the gym:

  1.  Motivation Is a Daily Requirement - As Rosanne Barr once said: "The problem with working out is that you have to do it again!" She's right, too. It's very easy to find excuses not to go to the gym, and when you get there, just treadmilling it for 30 minutes while watching cable is a big temptation. Doing all the reps, including the painful core work, requires internal motivation.  It's too easy for me to find an excuse not to get in the car and spend 1.5 hours roundtrip working out, and only I can overcome it. I've realized this applies equally to my professional life. Every day, I must find the focus and energy to work on what's important, finish the must-be-done and put in the effort to continually improve.  No author, mentor or guru can or will do that for me.  
  2. Coaching Is a Necessary Ingredient - At first, I worked out by myself, which led to a piddly approach.  Did a little of this, a little of that, and had no regular routine.  I wasn't building up, I was just doing reps.  Being a search-sleuth, I looked up routines, which helped a little, but still I lacked the perspective to understand what my body really needed and how I could stretch myself to go a little further every day.  A few months in, I invested in hiring a personal trainer, who changed the game for me.  He put a process around my physical fitness and monitored my form.  He didn't congratulate me for just showing up.  He encouraged me when I could finish the reps required.  In this process I realized that no matter how long I've been in business, I still need coaching to move forward on the daily.  Since then, I elicited the help of a few colleagues to serve as that trainer, giving me feedback on my professional strategy and monitoring my form as an author, consultant and speaker.  It's greatly enhanced my ability to grow a little every day, and find new ways to reach milestones in my career. 
  3. Progress Is Mostly Intangible - I really didn't expect to get "swole" like Popeye by hitting the gym, but I was surprised that after a year of regular exercise, I largely looked the same.  But my limberness, endurance, strength, agility and mental alertness were all greatly enhanced.  Even though I couldn't point to the results, they were permeated throughout my being.  This is the same for professional life.  When we study or work on stretch projects, the results can't always be measured in dollars or title-progress.  But if you'll pay attention, you'll find that your mental agility, sharpness, courage, cunning, productivity and influence are growing by leaps and bounds. 
  4. Injuries Happen When Training For Strength - As a 50-something, I know that it's important to conduct strength training and not just focus on cardio.  So I lifted weights of all types, did pull ups and pushed myself to challenge my capacity.  And of course, I've injured myself a few times along the way.  I'm nursing a slight tear in my rotator cuff now, which is likely the result of doing just a little too much on the bench.  That's how it goes, I find out.  You can't push for strength without pushing boundaries and there's no clear signal that you are about to pay the price.  That's why I'm not alone in the gym being injured, all the other ambitious members experience it too.  This is exactly what happens when you are trying to grow your influence or gain more power at work.  As you try and be a stronger manager or harder closer, social injuries will happen. Feelings get hurt or you get disappointed in yourself or others.  Sometimes, you might lose friends along the way, since there's no clear line on how much coaching is too much.  But that comes with the territory if you want to move up in your career and not just do your time. 

I'm curious: What life lessons have YOU learned in the gym?  I'd love to read them in comments and am willing to append this post to add the best.


October 15, 2015

Making the Leap From Disrupted to Adaptive

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Regardless of what business you are in, likely, you will face business model disruption in the coming years. According to authors Robert Tercek, Jay Samit or Bill Jensen, digital technology and the ongoing expansion of the World Wide Web are driving new value propositions and annihilating legacy companies.  

Over the last 20 years, I've witnessed disruption in multiple industries, which ushered in new leaders or defined incumbents as agile and adaptive.  What's interesting is that adaptation didn't rely on physical intelligence or capital stockpiles.  It was pure psychology.  Take Blockbuster and Kodak.  Both of them could have pivoted earlier into new business models such as subscription (Netflix) or digital photography (Kodak).  They had the resources, the customer base and the brand.  But they didn't.  Why?  

These leaders, along with the rest of those who's companies ended up in the scrap heap of the Disrupted, made a bad choice when faced with the first credible signs of pain.  They rejected the innovation, labeling it as a passing fad that would fade soon enough. As time went by, and the bleeding continued, they entered the resistance phase, where they stockpiled negative emotions towards the disruptors, their customers and in some cases the government for standing by and not rushing in to protect them.  Take the current case of Uber.  Taxi cab companies are clearly stuck in the rut of resistance right now, tick-tock-tick-tock. 

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Sure, it's a roller coaster ride...but that's the nature of being in any industry where Moore's Law continues to hold true.  Things will change quickly.  But some companies have figured out how to make the leap from being disrupted to becoming adaptive.  Walmart (responding to eCommerce), Gillette (responding to disposable razors) and CareerBuilder (responding to social hiring by adding SaaS services) are three examples of leadership success in psychology.   

In each case there was a fundamental decision by senior leadership that made the organization respond with agility:  They replaced fear with curiosity.  It's a decision, really.  As Norman Vincent Peale once wrote, "If you can worry, you can dream!"  His point is that our mental models can either lead us OR we can lead them.  When you face hard data suggesting that your customers are responding to a new offer in the market, you either choose to reject-then-resist it to defend the Status Quo OR you double check the data, then move across the dip into the exploration phase.  You do research that helps you understand, "What if we tried..."  Like Proctor & Gamble, you stage hackathons, empowering your youngest talent to try way-outside-the-box ideas and then test them for scalability. 

This is your challenge if you are facing disruption.  So far, I've focused on technology as the change-maker, but in industries such as insurance or telco, it's generational shift that brings the pain.  In health care or financial services, it's regulatory developments.  Whatever.  It's all the same in that you as a leader must make the decision to leap from shock to exploration faster than your competitors and certainly fast enough to retain your core customer base.  The article Surviving Disruption in Harvard Business Review puts a process around the exploration and response phase.  

Recently, I subscribed to Adobe's Creative Cloud services. I pay a monthly fee to have a suite of creative tools available to me, constantly updated to keep up with the pace of change.  I never thought I'd subscribe to software, but in fact, it's the new way of harnessing technology innovations without getting caught in legacy-land.  Many people wrote Adobe off for dead when Steve Jobs famously banished Flash to the software scrap heap.  But Adobe's leadership responded by exploring how their best customers (creatives) would use their tools in the future ... and they made the leap.  And now I'll spend $500.00 a year with them instead of using their technology for free.

(The above image was created by Coverdale, an organization founded by agility-leadership expert Ralph Coverdale.)


September 25, 2015

Three Great Fall Business Reads

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It's that time of year when publishers release copious amounts of business books.  You've probably seen them popping up in the airport book shops.  As a voracious reader and blurb-giving-author, I have the opportunity to review dozens of them between July and September.  My interests range from sales & marketing to leadership to futurism to success.  I look for a book that challenges conventional wisdom, offers a rich perspective grounded in fact and most of all, advice that I can put into practice.

This fall, there are three books in particular that I'm excited about and highly recommend: 

The Challenger Customer by Brent Adamson, Matt Dixon, Pat Spenner & Nick Toman: This is the follow up to the fantastic Challenger Sale.  In this book, the CEB team reveals how difficult it is for companies to buy services or change suppliers.  This is due to a rising number of decision makers involved in every major purchase, and the disfunction that comes from diversity of agendas.  Their solution is for marketing to create challenger content that acts as "a dog whistle" which attracts mobilizers inside prospect companies.  These mobilizers often display signs of skepticism or demand action as go-getters. But they are the key in driving consensus and ultimately change. This is a must-read for any B2B marketing or sales professional. But note: The authors will challenge your current attempts to establish your company as a thought leader with barrages of content. In their eyes, "looking smart" isn't nearly as effective as "proving you are wrong" when it comes to content marketing that finds the mobilizer.

Vaporized by Robert Tercek: This book will take you on a journey of technological disruption, which few companies have mastered.  Tercek is a certified futurist, with a career arc that spans from founding MTV International to consulting with the most elite tech and digital media companies in the world.  He chronicles the vaporization of print, television and all types of media ... and why companies either found success or failure in the transition.  Then he explains that "anything that can be infrastructure will be," using companies like AirBnb to illustrate the unfair advantage that comes from being digital.  He reveals insights into the App Economy, Peer-To-Peer media and Big Data. But unlike most futurists, he won't leave you hanging.  The end of the book offers a solid blueprint for navigating the vaporization of all things service, and how you can convert disruption into a game changing opportunity.  

Grit To Great by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval: This book is all about the power of pluck and determination when it comes to leading others, being an entrepreneur or succeeding in the face of adversity.  The authors reveal the attribute that Michael Jordan, Alibaba's Jack Ma and Michael Bloomberg share: Grit.  In a world of look-at-me or stand-out-in-a-sea-of-sameness, Thaler and Koval offer a different viewpoint: Grit is about sweat not swagger.  You are nothing special.  Grit is cultivated over time and is the result of practice and design.  The book lays out a series of steps, mostly decisions you need to make, that lead to a higher level of grit, which is easily converted in greatness (confidence, effectiveness, innovativeness).  From the Lead To Learn conference, Thaler offers a glimpse into the book's content in this video clip


September 16, 2015

Turn This Up To 11 To Boost Your Leadership Performance

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There are many ways we can improve our ability to drive employee engagement and loyalty.  We can pay people more (that doesn't scale), let them off easy (that's bad for business) or play tough-coach with them (that's bad for your employership brand.) 

During the course of my career, I've found a better way to manage or lead: Turn up that noticing knob to 11!  By that, I mean that we should go out of our way to notice contributions and thoughtful deeds.  Giving recognition for the little things makes a big difference, especially for Gen Y (Millennial) employees.  

It's not something that comes easy, though.  We live in a world where non-stop news cycles, full inboxes and social media clamor for our attention.  We work heads down, only noticing that which can be measured.  But most contributions at work are not obvious. When one of your employees rallies a team to solve a big problem, do we notice this leadership exercise or do we wait to see if the problem is solved? When someone mentors a co-worker, do we notice that? 

Then there's the two clicks down problem of recognition.  Too often, we only notice what our direct reports (or favorite employees) do. But a leader should engage with all of her followers, not just the chosen few.  At Barton Protective, CEO Tom Ward made a daily practice of "catching someone doing something right!" That's how he practiced management by walking around. Whether it's a custodian or cashier, turn up your noticing knob to spot laudable performances. Recognize people publicly too, as it only magnifies their pride-at-work.  

There's a side benefit to turning up your noticing knob: You'll realize how many loyal and talented people you have on your team. Their efforts, noticed, will send a powerful message to you: You are not alone in this battle! This is important for leaders too, because confidence in team translates to confidence in general.  And that's rocket fuel.  

One way to turn it up: Every morning, instead of jumping on email when you first wake up, take 10 minutes to recollect the previous day to identify someone who's made a contribution worth recognizing.  In the beginning, this exercise will identify the same old crowd, but if you do this long enough, heroes at work will emerge from the edges.  This practice not only helps you start off your day with an attitude of gratitude, it viscerally forces you to keep your eyes open every day for people that are making a difference. 


August 12, 2015

Is Your Culture Built On the Right Foundation?

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Ask a strategic consultant about the value of a strong organizational culture and she'll likely remark: "Culture eats strategy for lunch!" Her reasoning is usually based on the consistency of behavior that strong culture creates - enabling every associate to make "the right decision" even when the leader is not around.  The name of the game in business growth is scalability, growing steadily without sacrificing consistency in quality (whatever that means to you.) 

Org-culture is a conversation, led by leaders, about "how we do things here successfully." It's built up through hiring, on boarding and successions practices.  It's reinforced through rituals and stories, often shared at the group level.  The more leaders punctuate the conversation with action, the more the followers march in lock step with them. 

But here's the problem: Every idea is based on an assumption, and similarly, every culture is based on a set of values.  When transparency is a key value, the culture requires sharing information and avoiding secrecy.  When someone violates it, they are shunned, punished or coached.  The word 'transparency' is often embedded into internal communications and in some cases, the market facing branding.  While few would argue against transparency, I would take issue with whether that value is a leader's personal value or a business driver. 

The purpose of an organization is to produce customer/member value, which in turn is captured in order to sustain and grow it.  If culture drives consistency, then it should be based on values that drive the business by producing a unique value proposition.  In other words, your culture-driving values should differentiate a company in a way your customers care about.  That's the real reason that culture has become a focal point of leadership development and corporate performance.  

When Zappos put a supreme value on "Delivering Customer Happiness," it separated them from other apparel e-commerce providers.  They redesigned call center rules, adopting unconventional KPI's to ensure that reps spend ample time with customers and display empathy and a sense of humor.  They enforced the culture heavily throughout hiring an on boarding, famously offering briefcases of money to those who were willing to quit (and leave the Happiness Culture).  In this case, the value drove the business.  

But in too many cases, values are often created in a cramped conference room by over-worked founders or later in the life of the enterprise, by corporate communications during a turnaround. There is little or no formal training on how to vet a value for business output, it's usually just a random process where words or phrases are thrown around until the group forms a consensus. 

That's why companies have chosen "Fun" or "Fair" or "Agile" as their values - making them the foundation of the culture they are building.  And it's hard to debate the value of fun, fairness or agility from a personal or even professional standpoint.  Why not?  That's why they are often adopted.  But what if the company is in the financial services market, where "Meticulous" is valued by the customer more than "Fun"?  What if the company is in a risk-averse business, where customers value "Best-To-Market" instead of "First-To-Market"?  In those cases, Fun and Agility are not business drivers, they are pet values, which are likely to build more of a cult than a strong corporate culture.  

So here's the prescription: Test the values that you base your culture on for business value. If you choose "Honesty" for example, ask yourself, "is this a market space where deceit is a customer concern?  Is this a lead story in our industry?" If it is, then this value will drive the business through differentiation.  If not, then you are basing your culture on a foundation that could lead to a me-too market position.  If your competitors are honest, then why is this a business driver value and not just "good business practice"?  

You might be thinking, "What's the harm in including obviously good values in our culture mix? Why exclude "Fun" or "Honesty"?  I thought that way too for a long time, but when I went to work in human resources, where values are a part of the talent lifecycle, I realized that you have to pick your battles, and limit yourself to a manageable group of norms you want to create.  

Limit yourself to 3-5 values, the less the better.  Much like phone numbers or login passwords, the longer the list, the harder it is to call up when you need them.  Culture is all about living a set of values everyday, and if you throw in the kitchen sink, your associates will have to pick and choose, and that's where a culture starts to get weak (read: inconsistent).  

It's never too late to go through the business driver value process with your team.  If it leads to a new conversation about "how we do things around here moving forward," it just may help your company jump out of the pile, and rise to the top of the customer's mind.  Just like a company can outgrow its founders, an organization can also outgrow its founding values.

Note: The recent holocracy movement at Zappos is based on the founder's value of self-management.  It's yet to be seen as to whether that's a pet value  or a business driver (their relative customer experience levels will be lifted).  In the long run, the fate of the company's market position will be an acid test of my theory about picking personal or business centric values to base a culture on.

Watch: Culture Is A Conversation by Tim Sanders


August 05, 2015

Clear These Three Hurdles To Be A Great Leader

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Napoleon Bonaparte believed that the leader's role is "to define reality, then give hope." Within this prescription lies a formidable challenge to leaders.  How can you focus on the challenges and opportunities of today and, at the same time, maintain the spirit and effectiveness to lead your team forward? 

In today's business environment, there are high hurdles that stand between you and leadership success.  The ability to leap over them through lifestyle design and talent development separates the truly effective from the ambitious or charismatic.  The three hurdles are: 

Distraction: Today's technology makes it nearly impossible to work without distraction.  Think about right now.  Some of you are reading this post, and will stop to check your email that just dinged. Before you can get back to reading this, a text comes through on your smart phone, requiring a quick call.  After it, you return to grazing on a budget spreadsheet, which you were working on before you booted your internet browser, clicked around and found this article. Sound familiar?  You may call this multi-tasking, but really, it's LWD (Leading While Distracted).  

SOLUTION: Work on one task at a time. Turn off email notifications and instead, schedule times during the day to read-respond (and only do that during that time!). Put your smart phone in Airplane Mode.  Push back on anyone that invades your scheduled focus time.  For more on this, read Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman

Abstraction: Too often, leaders rely on verbal communication to convey complex ideas. They often do this via email or written memos.  Words often don't work, and in turn, there is confusion, requiring you to repeat the attempt and grow frustrated.  You cannot define reality or give hope if you cannot reduce abstractions into concrete ideas.  Your bullet point slides don't solve the problem, they just summarize your wordy attempts to get through.  

SOLUTION: Show them, don't tell them. Find visual ways to express your ideas. You can find images on Google or iStockPhoto.  Better yet, create prototypes of a proposed process or product. They could be simple diagrams or rough sketches.  At innovation consultancy IDEO there's a saying: A prototype is worth 1000 meetings.  For more, read Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don't Work by Dan Roam. 

Dissatisfaction: This is the highest hurdle, especially if you've been leading for a while. Skillsoft's Taavo Godtfredsen has spent time with hundreds of leaders and leadership experts during his career and has discovered that career dissatisfaction (burnout, resentment) is a supreme challenge to effectiveness.  Long after the luster of the title and power has faded, the pressures of leading and chasing made up goals crushes the best of leaders.  Never assume you'll stay motivated! 

SOLUTION: Find work-life balance, even if it means more delegation. Design you lifestyle to recharge your spirit as well as physical health.  Revisit the purpose of your organization, and periodically read your 'fan mail' to understand the significance of your work.  For more, read Fully Charged: The 3 Keys To Energizing Your Work and Life by Tom Rath.


September 09, 2014

Why Stars Don't Always Make Good Leaders

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Quick, name a Hall Of Fame player that was also a head coach.  It's quite rare, actually. but if you take this test on a company's sales or product group, the answer would be different.  We often graduate the rock stars of business to middle management and beyond.  That's the bench strength program of the average organization. 

Too often, though, the Peter Principle applies as the new manager struggles to make the leap from Rock Star to Director.  Why?  Because most stars are deeply scripted to focus on their personal improvement above all, so they can outwit and outlast.  Many stars are also good team players, but that's more about the give-and-take of strategy than it is coaching.  

Occasionally a star player exhibit's otherish tendencies, and that's when and only when they should be promoted to coach the team (manage a group).  Michael Jordan, who should know, once said: "It's one thing to get better and better, it's another to make everyone around you better." 

To offer a football analogy (It's Fall, after all), that's why so many of the top coaches in history were not rock star players: Bill Belichick, Tom Landry, Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, etc.  Sure, they all played football in college, but they were not Pro Bowl caliber.  Why were they selected to lead others? In every case, they were spotted as having two key coaching talents early on: They lifted up others' performance and had a high football IQ. 

That's what should drive our management assignments.  We should learn to ignore the individual performance and zero in on that leadersish style, combined with a strong sense of the business.  When Jordan talks about the ability to "make everyone else better," he's talking about the ability to deliver the following: 

  • Education - The practice of gathering, distilling and sharing insights.  Great managers are well researched, candid and enthused when others learn from them.    
  • Enforcement - The willingness to challenge those that stray off course.  They enforce the culture and best-practices of the organization without fear of losing popularity. 
  • Encouragement - The tendency to be the first of the scene to cheer for someone who's made a great play.  When a team mate is down, they are there to pick them up and focus them on the next play.  They find a way to balance empathy with an eye on the potential that lies ahead. 
  • Esprit de corps - The ability to lift an entire team's spirit up, even in the most adverse situations.  The great manager fulfills what Napoleon Bonaparte described as the leader's role: "To define reality, then give hope." 

Marcus Buckingham, co-author of the management classic First Break All the Rules, directly applies this thinking to cube-farm living.  He once told me that the superstars soar with their strengths, while the average performers struggle to conquer their weaknesses.  The superstar manger, on the other hand, it the one that focuses the superstar on his or her strength to begin with.   

Here's the takeaway for leaders and HR professionals: Before you promote that superstar to the next level, question his or her leadership strengths.  You might be robbing the system of several more years of top production, just to fill a mangement role with a strong resume.  What you are looking for will not usually show up on paper, which means your ability to pick managers is going to be driven by your eagle-eye on others' ability to lift up others rather than break records. 


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.  


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