Friday, February 1, 2013

When Do You Throw the Fastball?

Imagine that you’re a professional pitcher, or at least a really good nonprofessional pitcher. You’ve got your arsenal of fastballs, breaking balls and change ups. Of course, you decide which pitch you use at any given time.

Who you’re facing is critical in deciding which pitch you use. While you may have a blistering fast ball, you don’t use it every time, do you? Of course not. It’s not suitable every time, and the opposing players soon learn how to deal with you.

Let’s change it slightly. Will you pitch the same to a five-year old as you would to a college ball player? An eight year old? A 12-year old? A 17-year old? Of course not. You would adjust your pitch to each person.
Now, let’s switch perspective. Do you communicate with everyone in the same way? Strangely enough, a lot of people do. Some people use their fastball every time they deal with people. Why would someone do that? Because it’s fast and overpowering. It’s their most powerful pitch, and it makes them feel good when they throw it because they see communication as a competition. However, if the other person is not quick enough, the ball has passed by before then even realize it. It becomes intimidating because they know that, if they’re not careful, the ball can cause some major damage if it hits them.

Yes, there will be times when you need the fastball. In an emergency, perhaps. But, if you can’t tailor your pitch to the person you’re dealing with, people will stop swinging at your pitches. Eventually, they start finding ways to avoid playing on your team. Or, in real life, they stop listening to you. They come to fear interacting with you. Fear has no place in leadership.

As a leader, you always need to work at perfecting your pitches, finding new ones, and improving and modifying them to fit the situation. You can’t be a one-pitch leader and be effective.

In Leadership, Environment Is Part of Destiny

Think of two scenarios.

In the first, you’re back in high school, and your family just moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone. It’s your first day at school. How do you feel? How do you behave? Who do you talk to?

In the second scenario, you’re moving to a different high school where you know a few people but not that many? It’s your first day at school. How do you feel? How do you behave? Who do you talk to?

While the building may be different, the real environment that makes you feel welcome or not is the people you hang out with day after day, your friends and fellow students, the teachers and, to a lesser extent, assistant principals, counselors and the principal.

It’s the same thing when you go to work. It’s not the building or even the work that makes you feel welcome. It’s the people. If it’s your first day on the new job, you’re on shaky ground, not quite knowing how to behave, what the rules are, who’s really in charge, and where the best place to eat at the cafeteria is (just like in high school). It takes a while to learn all of that.

While you a contribute a certain element to the atmosphere, there is already a substantial atmosphere in place that you will mostly conform to. It takes a lot to change the atmosphere.

Contrast that with a start-up or newly formed company. The first couple of generations of workers at the new company get to create the new environment. Then, it tends to take on a life of its own and live on for decades. New CEOs, directors, supervisors, managers and staff come and go, but the culture lives on. Sure, it’s modified along the way with each new generation, but the basic structure of the culture remains.

After that, new leadership (not necessarily management) can change the environment with some dedicated work. It’s long term and needs to be focused. Like most other things, it starts from the top leadership levels.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Challenged Life

“Because it’s there.” So said British climber George Mallory in 1924 when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. Mallory and his partner Andrew Irvine perished later that year as they attempted to get to the top. Since May 29, 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally conquered the summit, countless people have successfully taken on that challenge. Of course, many have also died in the process. It is one of the essential elements of humans. We all seek challenges. It is the internal drive, to seek a new challenge. While it is certainly not easy to climb Mount Everest, you can only climb it “the first time” once. The challenge is never quite the same. To some extent, we all seek a new challenge every day. It’s when we fail to purse some new challenge that we become bored and uncaring. It doesn’t have to be a new mountain every day, just a different challenge. It could be something small or something huge, as long as it’s something important to you. Every team needs a challenge, a shared challenge, a challenge they all buy into. That’s where team motivation comes from. When you, as the leader, fail to develop a challenge that is important and relevant to all of your team members, then that challenge will not motivate them. I don’t understand climbing a mountain just because it’s there, but Mallory did. What’s your personal challenge? What’s your team’s challenge? If you can’t answer that, you need to take time to find a few challenges to take on.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Playing Baseball in the Fog and The Power of Feedback

Imagine that you’re at home plate waiting for the pitch to come. First, let me set this scenario up. The fog has come in. You can barely see the pitcher and nothing else beyond that. All you can really see clearly is the pitcher’s arm as it comes out of the fog and hurls a pitch at you. Sometimes you swing and miss; sometimes you don’t swing at all. But, the umpire is silent and won’t tell you which are balls and which are strikes. Every once in a while, you swing with all you’ve got and hit it high into the fog. Silence. Was it caught? Was it a base-hit? Did you knock it out of the park? Just silence. The pitch comes again; you swing again. You just keep swinging over and over.

You’re left wondering where the game stands. What’s the count? What’s the score? Is anyone on base? What inning is it? Is your team leading, tied or behind? Should you bunt? Should you go for a sacrifice fly to right field? Should you stop swinging and hope for a walk? Do you need a grand slam homer?

That’s an organization that doesn’t provide feedback. It’s frustrating. You don’t know where you stand. You don’t know where all those hits went. Did they use your ideas? Did the changes you made in your department make any difference for the organization? Where exactly does the organization stand?

Now, let’s look at another scenario. You’re back at the plate. It’s still foggy. You keep swinging. Every once in a while when you hit the ball, you hear someone shout out: you’re out or base-hit or home run! Sometimes the umpire calls a ball or strike. Otherwise, it’s just silence. The pitch comes again; you swing again. You just keep swinging over and over.

That’s an organization with limited feedback. It’s also frustrating. You only get some infrequent comments but not really enough to get a handle on things. You still don’t really know where you and the organization stand.

Now, let’s look at a real baseball game played in bright sunlight. Every time you come up to the plate, you know exactly where everything stands: the score, players on base, inning, who’s pitching, etc. You know if you're facing that pitcher with the lightning fast ball, the quirky knuckle ball or that dancing curve ball. You know whether you need to bunt, sacrifice, get on base, etc. You don’t have to guess. You can take control of what you need to do. You even know if you need to stay in the dugout and call in a pinch hitter because you aren’t the right person to bat in that situation. In this situation, the batter and everyone in the park knows exactly whether they did their job right. He/she can’t hide it or explain it away.

That’s an organization with good, effective feedback. With good feedback, you need less supervision, and you have to accept greater responsibility for your own actions and results. You can’t get out of it without looking like a complete idiot. This goes back to one of the Nine Critical Leadership Skills: communication. Good leadership requires effective communication, both at the personal and organizational level. Too many companies wait until they’re in crisis before they start giving out information to fire up the team. By then, it’s probably too late. What everyone in the park can now see is the critical mistake someone made in keeping their teams in the fog. That’s the power of feedback in any environment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two types of networks: ideas and action

Andrew Revkin posted a lengthy but quite intriguing commentary from Andrew Hargadon, a University of California, Davis, researcher focused on the roots of innovation. Essentially, Hargadon says that innovation needs to move through two types of networks: ideas networks and action networks. I will admit that I am firmly in the ideas networks realm.

Hargadon notes that an idea has to go through a process of evolution and change. This is the idea network where one collects a variety of ideas and even shares his/her ideas with others to create better ideas. In many organizations, that’s where it stops, right after the brainstorming session. If it doesn’t get pushed into the next network, the idea remains just that – and idea.

This is where action networks kick in. Work gets assigned, supplies are bought, people are hired, products are manufactured, strategies are implemented, etc. In other words, action starts to take place. This is also a different group of people in many organizations or communities.

It is this key transition that makes the difference between idea and reality. When you start thinking of new ideas, start thinking of who is going to be part of your action network. Who will help you make your ideas a reality. It is this second vision that makes good leaders great leaders.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Beyond the Golden Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I had never given it much thought beyond the obvious admonition that we should be nice to other people lest they treat me badly. Recently, I learned about that rule taken to its next logical step: The Platinum Rule.

The Platinum Rule is a book by Dr. Tony Alessandra. I haven't read the books, but I like the summary Allesandra shares here. It goes like this: Treat others the way they want to be treated.

At first glance, it may sound like the same thing, right? Well, not really. It’s a matter of perspective. The Golden Rule is said from my perspective. If I follow it, I’m telling people how I want things done. The Platinum Rule is me taking into consideration how YOU want to be treated.

Used properly, this can transform you at the personal and professional level. For example, should I focus on how I want to be treated or on how my family wants to be treated? Which will help to build more harmony and peace at home? Which do I control? At work, should I focus on how I want my team to treat me or on how they want to be treated? Which do I control? Which will create a better teamwork environment?

It can change the nature of your relationship with the people around you.

An effective leader looks at how he/she deals with their team, making sure they feel like they really are part of a team rather than just employees assigned to you. This puts a lot of responsibility on the leader. But, that’s why you are the leader.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

7 Life Lessons You Can Learn From 'Star Trek'

Yes, I love "Star Trek." But that headline is not mine, unfortunately. David Borgenicht posted a neat commentary by that title.

He holds, and I agree, that you can learn some good leadership lessons from "Star Trek." These are the 7 points he makes:

"1. The best way to travel is to boldly go where no one has gone before." From a new restaurant to a new career, this will take you to new places.
"2. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few--or the one." You are not the center of the universe or even the world.
"3. Expressing your emotions is a healthy thing." There are times when you have to let it out.
"4. When estimating how long a job will take, overestimate--and when you do better your captain will always be impressed." Yes, Scottie always restarted the engines with seconds to spare.
"5. Wearing red makes you a target." Think of ideas as color-coded.
"6. When you don't know what to say, pause." It wasn’t just bad acting (though there was some of that) that made Kirk a great negotiator.
"7. The most powerful force in the universe is friendship." Why else would you want to save the galaxy?

Whether you’re trying to save the universe, your business or a local park, these lessons will make your journey a little easier to handle.