Monday, December 20, 2010

A Quick Primer On Presenations

Okay, maybe it's not a primer, but it does deal with presentations.

Fast Comparny expert blogger Mark Suster lists the four types (very generally) of people that you deal with in meetings and presentations. He offers some good pointers here for the personality characteristics.

The only real problem is trying to identify the four types, especially when going in cold. He offers some suggestions on how to deal with each type. It's a skill to be able to respond quickly to the different types, but it's worth it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Let the future take care of you

When you take care of “now,” the “future” will generally take care of you.

I’ve discussed before 8 to Be Great: The 8-Traits That Lead to Great Success by Richard St John. I’ve been re-reading it. Like any good work (book, film, art, person), every time you look at it again, you can gain something new. As my mother would say, every time she saw The Godfather, she would always see something she had not noticed before. By the way, my mother never really knew English, but she still enjoyed watching The Godfather.

In my latest read, I came away with the idea that you can only control what you’re doing now. If you do what you’re good and passionate at, you don’t have to worry about the future. The future will take care of you.

Go back to the fundamentals. First, read the book, then follow the 8 steps. Don’t worry about the future so much. You can’t control it. You can only control what you’re doing today.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Motivation versus Leadership

I am not a motivational speaker. I tried it once. I failed miserably. I learned my lesson. I should have known better. I knew my skill was in leadership training and development, not in motivation. I know the difference and I should have passed on the request.

I had someone go through one of my leadership sessions. They were impressed and thought I could do the motivational presentation.

I really couldn’t.

The audience had to get up and stretch after my presentation. Maybe that I spoke after dinner had something to do with it, but I don’t think so. So, I’ve avoided motivational presentations ever since. I know I’m not Tony Robbins. I won’t get you to walk in your bare feet over red, hot coals. I may not even get you to clean up your office.

The take away here is that a good leader (or trainer) needs to know where their strengths are. I could probably get better at being a motivational speaker, but that’s not really where I want to be right now. I want to get better as a leadership trainer. That’s where I’ll stay for now.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Leadership App

There’s an “app” for just about everything. The neat thing about apps is that you can download them to your phone and have the app accessible at any given moment. Leadership is a lot like that.

My son, for example, has more apps than he really knows what to do with. He has to clear a few apps every so often. It gets too much to keep track. It’s no joke that he needs an app to keep track of his apps.

The neat thing about leadership skills is that they’re always at your finger tips. You carry it around with you all the time. Sometimes, it seems we’re always trying to download a new skill: learn a new way to do this or that, a new approach to handling this problem or that, and so on and so on. But, like my son’s phone, we can overload and fail to keep track of our skills or trying to decide which one to use in this instance.

In leadership, we need to keep our apps down to the essential few that we really need. Keep honing those until you don’t even need to think about it, so that it comes naturally without out having to search for that app.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Positively Getting To The “A-ha!” Moment

In leadership, problem-solving is an essential skill. Actually, problem-solving is an essential skill for everyone. New research points to developing a positive attitude to help you develop critical insight to solve problems.

According to a New York Times article by Benedict Carey, Northwestern University neuroscientist Mark Beeman and graduate student Karuna Subramaniam conducted a study which “found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.”

The two researchers showed college students a Robin Williams video and then asked them to solve puzzles. According to the researchers, the humor creates a positive mood that allows the brain to connect the dots more easily. “The students solved more of the puzzles over all, and significantly more by sudden insight, compared with when they’d seen a scary or boring video beforehand,” Carey writes.

“You’re not only thinking more broadly, you’re literally seeing more,” said Adam Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, commenting about the study’s results.

You can test your insight here.

The take away here is that keeping a positive mood, even through humor, would help you when facing the small and large challenges.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Where is your event horizon?

It’s something that anyone who has taken a walk through the woods knows. Standing at ground level, you can’t see very far into the distance. Standing on a hill, you can for see what’s happening for miles and miles toward the horizon. I use the phrase event horizon.

The same applies to an individual’s view of life. How far is your event horizon? How far ahead do you see things? How far ahead do you focus your vision?

Some people’s event horizon is very short. For example, when we’re young, we tend to have a very short event horizon. We may only see a few minutes into the future, maybe even a couple of hours, but little beyond that. Tomorrow is lost to us. As we get older, become teenagers, our event horizon may still only be this instance, into the weekend maybe. Good luck getting most teenagers to think beyond that. As we get older, our event horizon starts to get further out, years out even. We start thinking about our kids’ college, retirement, mortgage, etc.

Our event horizon reflects in our work and leadership style. For example, younger employees who are less invested In your organization, may seem less motivated or dedicated, the slacker mentality that many employers and bosses decry, whether it is deserved or not. It seems that their event horizon isn’t focused very far beyond tonight or the next weekend. Some managers don’t seem to see beyond the next quarter’s numbers or today’s stock price. In either case, their focus is on what they can get today. Rather than looking at the long term, both these groups fail to look beyond their immediate gratification.

It is part of what got the country into the mess it’s in economically and in Iraq and Afghanistan. People failed to look beyond the immediate and failing to account for the long-term. It is why we have gridlock in Washington D. C. because they’re really just focused on the next election. It’s why schools focus on the next round of student test scores.

It is the effective leader who takes on the long event horizon, looking at where the organization is going to be in 10-20-30 years. It takes practice and effort to look at the distant event horizon. It means that you have to stop looking down at your feet and pick up your eyes. Too many people are focused on today’s agenda only. It’s easy to look like you’re working hard because you’re only focusing on the to-do list. It’s a lot harder and time consuming to look at the distant event horizon.

How far ahead are you casting your event horizon?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Cat Takes All

It’s a simple challenge.

“The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Which is the most effective strategy for your team to use?

It’s a challenge I sometimes use in my leadership training sessions when groups start examining their team’s approach to strategy. It essentially asks about their strategic perspective. Do they want to be the first in their field to try something, to look for the newest technology or practice to achieve their goals (the early bird)? Or, do they want to let others take the risks first to find out if something works and then adopt the new approach after someone else has tested it.

One group I just did this with, chose a different approach, “Cat takes all!”
As they said, it is thinking outside the circle. It is a balanced but challenging approach. The group hoped to find those points where they can adopt a new technology or approach when the risk is not that great and wait at other points to let others try the new technology or approach. The true challenge is figuring out which is which.

It is an attractive approach, trying to take the best of both approaches. Being the cat is a good option because the cat can eat both the bird and the mouse. However, it is the truly nimble and cunning cat that will catch both the bird and the mouse at the same time.

Not that it is impossible, but it must be truly nimble.

So, how nimble is your organization? Is it the early bird, the second mouse or the cat that watches carefully and jumps on both?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lessons from The Blob

In my leadership seminars, I play a game called Blob. It's pretty much like what it sounds like, a take-off on the movie. In a defined space, one person starts out as the Blob. When the Blob touches someone, they become part of the Blob, and so the Blob grows. The larger the Blob grows, the slower it gets. The Blob wants to consumer everything and everyone, but it keeps slowing down as it grows.

Organizations are like the Blob, the bigger they are, the harder it is for them to move quickly. It's hard to be nimble when you have to move 1,000 feet in the same direction. An organization can only move as quickly as its slowest member. So, what makes your team members slow? Do they understand where you're going, really? Do they have the tools and training they need to move quickly? Have you removed all the obstacles that get in the way? Have you made your vision so obviously clear and compelling that they know exactly what you want them to do?

In the game, the fastest players generally are the last to be touched by the Blob. However, the Blob always wins. It may be slow, but eventually the Blob plays to its strengths or it can't catch the last few players. Blob members learn to move together, adjusting their speed and placement to bring everyone along without falling down.

How nimble and fleet-footed is your team? Have you done everything you can and removed as many obstacles as possible to get them moving in the right direction? That's the leader's job.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Manage Yourself

I've talked about The Nine Critical Leadership Skills: Manage Yourself; Learn to Communicate; Think and Act Strategically; Learn to Be Creative; Take Action, Risks and Initiative; Learn to Motivate; Handle conflict; Build Teamwork; and, Persevere.

I've talked about The Quick and Dirty Strategy as a quick way to develop a strategic mental attitude. I will return to that in the future. Today, I want to start talking about managing yourself.

Manage yourself.

Unless you’re the King of the Universe, the only person you control is yourself. Manage yourself. There are many books that deal with this, and I can't cover it all, but I want to share a few quick points.

1. Set priorities

•Take some time and think about what your priorities are (See The Quick and Dirty Strategy earlier.)
•Write them down
•Develop a mission statement if it helps you clarify your priorities (I will deal with this in my next post!)
•Develop some specific goals for this year and the next few years
•Figure out how you are going to meet those goals

2. Develop your skills set
•Identify what skills you need to improve
•Develop a specific plan to improve your skills
•Develop a specific plan to practice your skills (See the Power of Practice earlier.)

3. Develop your career path
•Decide where you want to be professionally in a year, three years, five years and ten years
•Work back from each point to today and figure out how you will get there
•What do you need to do: education, training, move, find a new job, expertise, etc.
•Who will you need to help you: spouse, family, friends, coworkers, mentor, etc.
•When will all this happen: give yourself some deadlines to meet each milestone
•Develop some partners to help you get there.
•Caution: the plan will need adjusting along the way. Don’t sweat it. It will happen. Just keep working at it.

4. Keep working at it

•This is an ongoing process
•You will have setbacks
•You will make some changes
•Don’t sweat it.
•Things will get better.

The Nine Critical Skills are interlinked and they work together. Start on it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What do Sex and Leadership Have in Common?

Well, what do sex and leadership have in common? Previously, I listed nine critical leadership skills. No, sex was not among those skills, though it is critical for other reasons. One of the skills I noted is the ability/inclination to "Take action, risks and initiatives."

Leadership happens in the doing, not in the studying or reading. Like sex, you can read about leadership, listen to others talk about it, watch others doing it or even role play it. However, it doesn't really make sense until you give it a try yourself. If you don't take action and try it out, you will never master it. You have to take the initiative and try to do something (be a leader) to learn leadership.

Likewise, reading and hearing about it tends to make it seem easy: step one, step two, step three, etc. Once you try it for yourself, you find out how much more difficult it is and how complicated it is. Okay, I'm still talking about leadership here, but it does apply to sex as well.

Take action. Take a risk. Show some initiative. Get involved in something where you have to actually practice leadership. Volunteer for some project, committee, group, team, or volunteer opportunity. You get better at leadership the more you do it and the more diverse opportunities you take on.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Power of Practice

When Michael Jordan was at his peak, he stepped away from basketball to give baseball a try. Baseball was his original sport in high school but switched over to basketball in his junior year. After winning three consecutive NBA titles, he decided he wanted to give baseball a try.

He spent one year as a AA baseball player. He was not inspiring. The next year, he returned to basketball. Oh, the return was not that pretty. The first few games, Michael was rusty. He failed to make some easy shots, things that might have been easy before he left basketball.

The lesson here is about practice. As great an athlete as Jordan was when he took up baseball, he had not really practiced those skills in almost 15 years. He had a less than stellar turn as a baseball player. When he returned to basketball, his basketball skills had gotten a little rusty. After a while of practicing basketball again, he returned to his legendary form.

There is another example of the power of practice: Tiger Woods. He is legendary for his daily practice, year-round. It is part of what has made him the best golf player today.

As I said in a blog earlier this year, practice is essential to a good, effective leader. Whatever skill is important and valuable to you should be practiced, practiced, practiced and then practiced some more. From running a meeting to public speaking to project management to relationship cultivation, when you stop doing it on a regular basis, you get rusty and make mistakes.

What skills do you need to practice? What skills are essential to your professional and personal success? Which of those skills got you to where you are now? Which will you need to go forward?

It's the power of practice.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Quick and Dirty Strategy

There is a time when every organization (and individual) has to pick their strategy for success -- however they measure success. This is a quick and dirty way to decide what your strategy should be. Of course, you need to be very honest about where you are first before you can get to answer the strategy question. I assume you've done that or already know where you are.

There are only four options.

Survive. This is the organization that is just trying to keep its doors open. They want be able to avoid bankruptcy or foreclosure or the IRS or some other calamity that will shutter the organization. This needs emergency action. Drop everything else and reach for any lifeline.

Maintain. This is the organization that is content with where they are. They don't want or need to do anything really different. They may want to polish or clean it up a little, but nothing truly different.

Grow and Expand. This is the organization that has seen a new vision where they can see new growth, maybe by choice, maybe by necessity. They need to move on to the next level and are willing to do the hard work to do this.

Dominate. This is the organization that has already seen success and wants to move to a position where it is the dominant player in an industry, market, segment, product or service. They want to be the top dog and are willing to do the really hard work to get there.

The strange thing is that some organizations can actually be in all four modes at the same time. Take the auto industry. Some companies have so many lines of models that not all of them are doing well. For some their truck line is doing well, but their midlevel cars are not while their cross-over line has seen demand exploding.
The larger and more diversified the company, the more likely they are to have different divisions or markets at different stages, meaning that they have to have multiple strategy approaches.

Of course, this also applies to the individual. We are always at different levels of success in the different areas of our lives.

For many organizations, once they have taken a good hard look at where they are, the choice of which strategy to pursue should be obvious. The problem comes in when organizations (people, really) are not very honest with themselves about where they are, like the car companies before they had to be bailed out.

Take a good, hard look at yourself and make your choice about which strategy you want to choose for your organization and yourself.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sharpen you axe

There are many apocryphal stories about Abraham Lincoln. In one, Abe was challenged to a tree cutting contest by an upstart neighbor. Abe took the challenge. The two met the next day at sunrise in a wooded area and started the contest. The challenger started at a furious pace, taking no breaks, and kept on cutting until the contest was stopped when the sun hit high noon. As expected, Abe won.

Afterward, the competitor went up to Abe and asked, “How was it that you were able to cut more trees? I never took a rest and never stopped swinging my axe, even when my arms were ready to give out. Yet, when I looked over at you, you would stop to take rest?”

Abe responded, “Every time you saw me stop to rest, I was sharpening my axe.”
Abe knew that an axe gets dull with repeated use. The more you use it, the less it cuts. With a sharper axe, Abe was able to cut more trees.

The sharper your tools are, the more you can do. Your tools are your skills. Sharpen your skills on a regular basis. Any skill worth learning is worth practicing and getting better at. Learn new skills. Whether it is people skills or technical skills, the good leader never stops learning and improving their toolbox of good leadership, management and technical skills.

What skills do you need to improve? What new skills should you learn?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The three types of teamwork problems

There are three types of teamwork problems: the ones you can fix with some work, the ones you can fix with a lot of work and those that can’t be fixed. It really comes down to whether the people on the team want to solve the problem or not, and that determines whether or not the teamwork problem can be fixed.

The first is generally some type of organizational or structural problem: goals are not clear, responsibilities are not clear, people with the wrong talents are on the team, the challenge is too big for the team, there is little or no communication, etc. These are things that can be fixed with some work from the team and management. It may take some time and supervision to get it going.

The second is generally some type of personnel issue: people don’t like each other, there’s mistrust, someone is slacking off, etc. This is harder because people issues are harder to identify and fix. Very few people relish working on personnel issues. However if the team and management really want to get the team moving, these types of problems can be overcome. Training on handling conflict, better communication skills, negotiation skills, and other people-time intensive efforts can handle most of these types of issues.

The third type of problem is also a personnel problem, but one is which the people on the team (or at least one or more of them) do not want to solve the problem. In fact, they may not even see that it is a problem. This is the person who refuses to change. They may have a problem with someone else on the team or the organization and will do whatever it takes to fight them at every opportunity, or some variation of this. This person does not want to solve problems. They want to grind their axe.

Okay, maybe this one can be solved, but it will really take a lot of effort – a long-term effort – to make it work. What you have to ask is whether this effort is really worth it. How long will it delay the team? How much time will you lose in getting your project or work done? What is the impact on the organization?

Solutions here are limited: fire or transfer the problem to another position. Firing is never easy. This is especially difficult in public employment where termination is often a long, difficult process. Transferring the person can also be a problem because other managers likely know that you are trying to move a problem person to their team.

The leader has to make that choice and make it quickly. It is hard to terminate a team member, but sometimes it really has to be done. But, the leader has to move quickly before the team suffers any more problems.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Wallenda Factor

During my leadership seminars, I pose a thought challenge to my groups:
I have laid down on the floor a 10-foot long board that is very thick and about 8 inches wide. Can you walk across it? While some people think about trying to see if there is some trick in the question, the answer from everyone is always, “Yes.” Next, I’m going to raise it on some solid blocks about six inches off the ground. Can you walk across it? Again, some people look for the trick, but the answer is yes. Okay, now I’m going to raise it two feet off the ground. Can you walk across it? Now, there is hesitation. A one or two may say they’re afraid of heights. Most everyone says yes.

Now, I’m going to raise the board to six feet. This time, about half say they would not cross the board. When I say I’m raising it to ten feet, the group willing to cross gets smaller. At 20 feet, only one or two says yes. At 30 feet, I rarely get volunteers.

I ask the group, what’s the difference whether you walk the board at two inches or 20 feet? Isn’t it the same? The difference is the Wallenda Factor.

The Wallendas were a family of circus performers known for performing amazing feats on the tightrope without a net. Karl Wallenda, the founder, was once interviewed about what it took to become a tightrope walker. He said they start out training on a rope on the ground and eventually raise it as they get better. As you go higher, Wallenda said, you have to work a little harder, pay attention to more details. You have to take greater care, especially when doing an act that involves other people, as the Wallendas did with one that involved up to seven of them.

According to Karl Wallenda, the only real difference between walking the tightrope a foot off the ground and 20 stories off the ground from one building to another is the risk to you and those working with you. The skills and techniques are pretty much the same, regardless of the height – with some added focus and greater attention.

I use this thought challenge when a group or individual gets to the point where they face a decision about taking on a major project, going for a promotion, taking the plunge and going out on their own to start a business or any number of other challenges they might face.

When you are facing that decision, to take the plunge or not, it is the risk that often holds us back. If you have successfully implemented a project, led a team, managed a department, or even run a small business, then you have the basic skills to move up to another challenge.

It is one thing to know that you still need to build up your skills to take on a challenge and try to work at getting better. Don’t let fear and risk be what controls you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Take your tools and build

Woodworking, mechanics, and all those other tinkering past-times are often learned best at the feet (or hands) of someone who knows more than you. If you have ever picked up a saw, a torch or a socket wrench, you probably watched somebody else do it first and learned from them.

Most men learned auto-mechanics and woodworking from a father, an uncle, a grandfather or the shop teacher. I learned my mechanics skills from my older brother, Sabino. We worked on his blue on white 1955 Chevy when I was still in junior high. I read the repair manuals, read about the overhaul procedures, went over the timing specs, and tried to decipher the wiring diagram.

He is still passionate about cars. He still tinkers with them, adjusting this or that. I can’t say that I have the same passion, but at least I can make some of my own repairs. A true care lover, though, goes beyond just repairing things. They make them better. Of course, it used to be easier before computers and the emissions systems clogged up the motor.

My brother —- though he probably wasn’t trying to -— taught me about making things better. He could have stayed with the standard equipment the car had, but he wanted something better, something that would make the car go faster, something that would work better. He would adjust the timing, the spark gap, the gas mixture, adjust and adjust and adjust again. It could always be better, he thought.

For me, it was Mr. Soriente, my junior high shop teacher, who got me started on woodworking. For two years, I worked on simple projects. The culmination was a small cabinet that I still have, some 35 years later. I learned about dado joints, butt joints, and rabbit joints.

From Mr. Soriente, I learned the value of using the best wood you can afford, of building something without nails or screws, and of helping someone else build their project.

I can build shelves, tables, cabinets, cases and a host of things. Granted, they generally aren’t square or plum or level. The doors don’t close correctly. The cuts are crooked. The finish is not quite right. The drawers stick, and it takes me forever to finish a project.

I don’t care that I am a bad woodworker. I enjoy it. I like the smell of cut wood. I like the feel of smooth wood. I linger over the tools in catalogs and online. I look at furniture and wonder how it was made. I work at being a better woodworker. I look at the work others do and see what I can learn from them.

Every one has their passion. Each passion generally requires some essential tools. And each passion has its own lessons. It’s the good leader who can take those lessons and apply them elsewhere in their, their family’s, their profession’s, and their community’s life.

What is your passion? What tools and skills does that require? What lessons have your learned? How can you apply all of them to other parts of your life? How can you use that be a better leader?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

That's motivation

In my leadership training work, there are always questions that keep coming up over and over again. One of these questions concerns motivation and enthusiasm. It comes from business executives, teachers, elected officials, government staff, church volunteers ... that is to say, from virtually everyone. "How can I maintain my enthusiasm and motivation, day in and day out, when I keep running into obstacles and problems?"

It is a serious question. But my response is always the same. "Look to a successful model," I suggest. Having a good role model can be incredibly helpful. I add that we need to see how some people manage to maintain their motivation and enthusiasm every day without letting obstacles and setbacks drain their joy. And this is what I tell them:

Let me start by telling you that I know of one group of people who consistently show incredible enthusiasm every single day of the year. They wake up with smiles on their faces. They're ready to go from the moment they open their eyes. They take on the day as if it were a race. They want to get started where they left off the night before.

If you try to distract them from their goals for the day, it can irritate them, but not for long. They bounce back from setbacks with incredible resiliency. And they do it with a smile.

You don't believe that there's anyone like that? Let me assure you there is.
These people don't know the meaning of the word "no." They believe in "now." No door can remain closed to them for very long, if at all.

They celebrate everything. And they celebrate everything every day! When they succeed, their celebrations can make the Super Bowl look like a tea party.
Although they are dynamos individually, they are a virtual hurricane when they join as a team. They can overwhelm any office they might walk into.

If you thought Ronald Reagan was "the Great Communicator" or Barack Obama drew cameras like a magnet, you haven't seen this group show off their networking skills. If one of them were to walk into your morning staff meeting, all attention would be focused on her instantly. They have a way with words and can talk to anyone as if they were life-long friends. They ask any question that comes to mind and answer your questions with brutal honesty.

Unlike most of us, they have no real need to play phone tag or carry cell phones. They live for the face-to-face contact. They thrive on it.

At the end of the day, they fall asleep knowing they have done their absolute best. They never fret over unfinished lists of things-to-do. They never look to the end of the quarter. They measure success in very different terms than you and I.

I would urge you to go find them and study them. Given an opportunity to study the great leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill, Zapata, Gandhi, Caesar – you would probably want to just stand and watch them, hoping to catch a glimpse of what drove them, listening to their ideas, examining their sheer determination to overcome all challenges.

And so it is with the people I am telling you about. Given a chance, you should listen to them and study them. You will never find a better, clearer model of enthusiasm.

Yes, they do exist. The secret is finding them.

But it really isn't a secret. They meet in the same room every single day. But, I warn you, they will suck you right into their tornado of a world. No one walks into their meetings and leaves the same. Prepare to be taken by the hand, literally, and forced to find your own enthusiasm. It is a challenge some people are not up to. If you really want to learn to maintain your enthusiasm and motivation, go there ... if you dare.

Go look for them.

They're in kindergarten.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Shoes versus groceries

“When you pay for shoes, it doesn’t hurt, but when you buy groceries it’s really painful.” said one young woman to the other as they paid at the checkout counter ahead of me at the grocery store.

Looking at it from the outside, listening to two women in their early twenties, I could just brush it off as two young, self-centered people more interested in their looks than the more important things of sustenance. But, to a certain extent, we are all like that. We all set our internal priorities and make our decisions accordingly.

For example, I don’t think twice about buying musical equipment for my son because he is good at drumming, and it helps him do better. I also don’t think twice about buying things my wife wants because she’s generally very thorough and doesn’t ask for frivolous things, whether its clothing or things for the house.

I also don’t think very much about buying new woodworking tools when I need them. On the other hand, I constantly put off buying new clothes, even work clothes. I know I need new shoes and maybe a new suit, but I keep putting it off. I have told my wife that it’s painful to spend $35 for a new pair of slacks, but it doesn’t seem to hurt to buy my son a $500 electric piano. Why?

It comes back to my internal priorities. I don’t see much value in new clothes for me, but I see great value in musical instruments for my son or a new blade for my table saw. Looking at it from the outside, I can see that I need to keep my professional appearance up, and that perhaps I need to invest in that some more. Yes, I can see that, but it does not align with my internal priorities. However, there was a time when I spent a large part of my income on new clothes.

Acting as a father, I can sacrifice for my family. I can put myself last for most things. However, as a leader, I have to be able to step outside of myself and my internal priorities. I have to examine my decisions to make sure that I am not letting my priorities get in the way of the right decision.

For example, I am a late adopter of some technologies. While I was among the first in my area to buy the first Mac computers that came out, I was skeptical of faxes, cell phones and email. I put off using them when they first came out. I did not want a cell phone, and I kept avoiding the internet. My wife forced me to get a cell phone, and my bosses forced me to use email. In retrospect, it was my internal priorities that valued face-to-face contact. It was my kids who forced me to use texting. I should have had a blog years ago when I first found out about them. I have had to change my internal priorities about many of those things. It is also jarring to learn that I am behind the times and not adapting to change when I should. It is humbling to ask my sons for direction on some things.

What decisions or choices are you not making because of your internal priorities. Too many teams still shy away from certain technologies or opportunities because of their or their leader’s internal priorities that do not value those technologies or opportunities. Too many companies are still under-technologized (Is that a real word? You understand what I mean.), understaffed, undermarketed, etc.

Too many of our leaders’ priorities were set under different circumstances, in a different economy, under different political circumstances, in different social environment, in a different technological era. It is time for them to look at their internal priorities and listen to what is going on now. A good leader looks at her/his internal priorities on a regular basis to make sure they still apply. While fundamental values always last, circumstances change, and we must adapt to that. Too many organizations, teams, groups, communities and companies are floundering because they remain stuck in a previous mind-frame.

Listen to those people around you who question you and how your do things. Like my sons questioning my refusal to use texting, you may find that their ideas are actually good.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

When Dreams Are Deferred

An elderly man struggles to walk down a hospital hallway, a physical therapist on one side and his daughter on the other, trying to get back his strength after a heart attack. He stops at the end of the hallway, looking out from the fourth floor at a community far different from when he was a young man. In the near distance, there is a newly developed subdivision with a few houses already scattered through the empty lots, other houses still under construction.

“Look, Dad,” says the daughter in Spanish, pointing to the houses under construction. “More houses every day.”

“My father used to do construction work,” the daughter explains to the physical therapist. “He used to make cabinets, finish work, installing the trim, that kind of thing. He used to work hard. He would take on extra work at night and on weekends. He was always working when we were little. Sometimes he even did things like yard work or planting trees and grass for the new houses.” The physical therapist nods, looking down at the worn, gnarled hands that gripped his forearm tightly for balance.

The man trembles slightly as he stands looking out at the houses in the distance, searching to distinguish the workers that were really just a blur in his worn eyes.

“I, I always worked in construction, all my life,” he whispers. “But, my dream was…always…to have my own cabinet shop. It was work I really enjoyed doing. But, I was always working. I had to work to feed my children…to send them to school…to make sure they would not have to leave school to work…to send them to college. I never had time to start my cabinet shop…to make my dream a reality. I was always working. For your children, you will give up anything…even your own dreams so they can make their own dreams.” He turns, walking back down the hall to his room.

Tears stream down the daughter’s face as she looks at the houses. “I never knew that was his dream.”

So, what does this story have to do with leadership?

As leaders, we often have to make a choice about how important our dreams are. When do we have to put our dreams aside for the good of the family, the team, the organization, the company, the community, the nation...the world? It is a hard question, but an important question. What is good for ME is not always good for US. This is obvious in such situations as the credit crisis where some people benefited at the tragic expense of many others.

Good leadership depends on making sure my dreams align with the dreams of the people around me, whatever those dreams are. If they are not, then I have to decide whether I want to change the people around me or change my dreams. Sometimes, your have to change or defer your dreams rather than the people around you. Sometimes, it is the other way around. Sometimes, you have to do both.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Nine Critical Skills in leadership

While there are many skills that contribute to being an effective leader, most people tend to isolate a few skills that are the most critical. In my work, I have been able to talk to many people and do extensive research about these critical skills. Additionally, during my training sessions with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and skill levels, I have repeatedly asked people to identify those skills and behaviors that they see as important in the people that they look up to as leaders. Many of these people have repeatedly identified very similar traits and skills in the people that they admire and respect.

These are skills that can be learned. These are behaviors that can be learned. These are the behaviors and skills that we use in dealing with people.

I am not talking about some of the more internal things about who we are. There are certain things that are either in you or not. The most common of these is honesty. Are you honest or not? I assume that most people are. But I’m not sure that I can train someone to be honest. Most of the time, I deal with adults, fully formed adults. These are not people that I can reform in terms of their internal compass for right and wrong.

Certainly, you can learn new skills in the same way that you can learn to use a new software program or a new technology.

I need to point out that many of these skills are skills that we already have within us, to a certain extent. For example, all of us are communicators, effective communicators, to a certain point. Some us, of course are better than others. However, that does not mean that you cannot improve your skill level. We can all become better public speakers, learning new techniques, new approaches, new ways of reaching an audience.

The same thing holds true for virtually any skill that can be learned over time. And there is a key point that needs to be kept in mind at all times. It is important that you learn about these skills, but is just as important that you practice and improve upon the skills. These are not one time trainings that remain unchanged. These are skills that can be improved constantly. Improvement comes with use and practice. I would urge you to use the skills as often as possible, but to also improve upon them as often as possible.

The list of skills that have been identified as being the most critical are:
• Communication skills
• Think and act strategically
• Be creative
• Take action, risks and initiatives
• Motivate
• Manage yourself
• Handle conflict
• Build teamwork
• Persevere

I have put these more less in order of importance. The first one, communication skills, I think is the most critical. Before you can do anything, you have to be able to share it with the people around you. That is essential. Being able to communicate is the start of leadership. You must be able to communicate your ideas, revisions, plans, intentions and goals. All of these are important. It is also important to be able to listen to people. Not just to talk to them, but to actually listen and dialogue. It is the one where you have to start.
In future posts, I will discuss each of the Nine skills in more detail.
Let me know if you think I’ve left a particular important skill out.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Strategic Leadership

When I met John Hofmeister, then-president of Shell Oil, about four years ago, I asked him what he actually did. He paused for a second and then responded, “I spend about 60 percent of the time looking outside the company. I have to see what is going on around us with other companies, the government, society and across the world.”

He went on to explain that he needed to keep the company focused on its goals. That’s what his staff did. He also needed to keep the strategic view always in mind with long term focus, the 60 percent of the time he looked outside. I understood that he saw strategic thinking as being critical to his job responsibilities.

I was reminded of that this week when Bloomberg and the Hay Group released their annual list of Best Companies for Leadership.

The survey also asked what skills the companies valued the most. The top 20 companies valued strategic thinking (67.6 percent) above execution (47.6 percent), inspiring leadership (37 percent), decision making (31.5 percent, and even teamwork (31 percent).

The top 20 are:
11 IBM
15 ABB

Strategic thinking is what keeps you moving forward. How fast and how far depends on your vision.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Let’s disagree about consensus

Let’s say your customers, or at least some of them, are demanding certain products or changes to your products. You know your products are not quite what they should be. You want consensus on what changes need to be made.

Internally, your staff and board keep going back and forth. Maybe we need to make some changes, maybe not. If we do make changes, what should those changes be? Should we do it incrementally or do a drastic rebuild? Should be do it now or just hold off? The debate goes on. Time goes on. Your customers keep getting more frustrated. The debate continues. Your staff and board start to take it personally. The subtle and not so subtle name-calling starts. Then your customers get in on the debate and the name-calling.

You’re sitting at the top, with your executive committee, hoping something breaks loose, hoping all the discussion and debate leads to some compromising and rational discussion. You keep sitting, waiting and waiting. You send out memos, urging everyone to keep the goal in mind, to keep working, to reach consensus. You send out more memos, month after month. Every once in a while, you hold large staff meetings where you urge everyone to keep the goal in mind, to keep working, to reach consensus.

You and your executive committee keep waiting. So do your customers.

Whether you’re running a convenience store, an engineering firm, NASA, a hotel or the U. S. government, it’s all the same. At some point, you have to make some tough decisions. As much as I think consensus is important, there are times when you have to take action whether you have consensus or not. Inaction is more dangerous than the lack of consensus. In the end, your customers really don’t give a flying fig whether you had consensus or not. It makes absolutely no difference to them. They just want you to do something, anything. But, you’re waiting on consensus.

My immediate example is health care. I don’t really see any break in the logjam. The Democratic leadership (the President, Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader) can get this approved without the Republicans, but they seem to be stuck trying to appease the Republicans and middle of the road Democrats.

It’s been a year and still no real action on the legislation.

The fact is that the person whose child needs a life-saving medical treatment doesn’t care whether health reform passed by 100 votes or one.

Ask your customers whether they care if you reach consensus on all your decisions. Ask them whether your internal consensus really makes any difference to them as far what products they buy at your convenience store, use your surveyors, use your space shuttle or stay in your hotels. They don’t really care about your internal decision-making process.

They want their services to be better.

They want their child to get the medical treatment they need.

That’s all they care about.