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.