Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What's important?

What's important?
Originally uploaded by destinelee

"What's important?" is possibly the most powerful question in the coach's arsenal. It helps sort the wheat from the chaff, if you will. On a daily basis you've got clutter, both mental and physical, to contend with. There are people who are driving you just a little bit nuts with their incomprehensible behavior. And there are deadlines and expectations pressing you to move faster and more effectively. "What's important?" helps you put everything into perspective and take the longer term view.

As a time management tool

"What's important for you to accomplish right now?" In this segment of your day, what are the intermediate results that are going to get you closer to the ultimate outcome you're seeking? Is this phone call important, or is it only urgent - pulling at you but not related to results?

As a relationship manager

"What's important in your relationship?" How big a deal is it that your loved one throws wet towels on the floor? Is that more important than the fact that they care for you unconditionally? How important is it that they agree with your views on politics? Is it more important than their willingness to drop what they're doing and help you when you need it?

As a values clarification tool

"What's more important - buying a new car or having more money in your monthly cash flow?" For some people the answer is the car - for reasons of reliability, status, function, etc. For others cash in hand is king.

You don't have to be a certified coach to benefit from asking this question. "What's important?" helps you avoid breaking your legs jumping to conclusions about what other people think and feel. It works best, though, when you aren't invested in the other person's answer. Sometimes that's the hardest part.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Womens' lacrosse and the teamwork shortage

I’ve been watching a young sports team for the past few weeks – womens’ lacrosse to be exact. Most of the players are completely new to the sport, so they’re still mastering the basics, - rules, conditioning, cradling the ball, plays and positions, etc. The thing, though, that’s blowing my mind is the difficulty they’re having playing as a team. And I must admit that I see quite a few parallels with some business behavior I’ve witnessed, both in my “straight work” in the corporate arena and in my client companies now.

  • There are a couple of “stars,” self-anointed at least, who can’t seem to pass the ball. When they have an opportunity to run it all the way down the field they do so, even at the expense of sound strategy. Eventually (and this doesn’t take too long) the other team figures out that they only have to cover a couple of players, and cover them they do.
  • There are a few social subsets on the team, players who know one another from school or from another sport. If you’re not in their group they don’t give you the opportunity to carry the ball or to shoot on goal.
  • Some of the experienced players don’t trust the rookies to do anything, so they do it themselves. It would be sort of like a baseball team that only uses 4 batters – the best ones, and just enough to complete a full circuit of the bases before they start over. Wouldn’t want to risk somebody else striking out!
  • The players who operate as one-woman bands, running it all the way down the field, can’t seem to resist making a shot on goal despite the fact that they’re covered by three defenders and it’s an obvious (to spectators anyway) no-win scenario. In the meantime several other attack player team-mates are left open and, if they had been used, able to score.

Who has to start the process of developing trust? Do the new players have to prove themselves first before they’re given the ball? If that’s the case, how are they going to get the playing time they need to get good enough to prove themselves?

Should the experienced players risk losing a game by passing the ball to an inexperienced (and in many cases not very competent) player? Isn’t winning the whole point of playing? In business I've heard there isn't an "A for effort." How does that mean that we handle mistakes when people make them?

Should the coach be mandating a certain protocol for bringing the ball down the field – a certain number of passes required before shooting on goal? How about benching the player who isn’t operating with the rest of the team? In business life how does the senior leader set the standard for teamwork and development behavior?

Kids’ sports can provide such huge life lessons - it’s a question of whether you (if you’re the coach) are truly leading and thereby managing what lessons they’re learning:

  1. Working together vs. doing your own thing.
  2. Respect for someone else’s learning process vs. cutting them out from lack of trust.
  3. Uniting against a common foe OUTSIDE the team instead of battling for power within.

Last – one of the other things I’ve seen is parents verbally piling onto the coach when they don’t agree with what’s happening. They aren’t the ones who have sacrificed free time and put up with young teens’ attitude issues in order to field a team. Yet they can sit on the sidelines and know exactly what the coach should have been doing and criticize freely. Hmm – teamwork from the supporters of the team. What a concept.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Results vs. activity measurement

How clearly have you defined the results that you want your company, your department, and your staff to achieve? Perhaps you have a budget and that’s what’s been guiding your overall activities. But what if the results aren’t what you’d like them to be? Do you push harder, do some rah-rah motivational stuff? I’d venture to say that the results you’re geting are being determined in great part by what you’re measuring. And if you’re like a lot of companies you’re probably not measuring the things that are going to help you get to where you want to go.

Determine your most effective methods
How do you determine the activities that are the best ones for your staff to engage in? Do you experiment? Do you test and measure? Or are you finding that you’re beating your head against the same wall over and over again without really knowing why?

If you create spurt programs with measurements of effectiveness you can validly test whether, for instance, sending pre-approach letters actually works to boost sales. Do a trial period of 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days and then check your statistics. Compare the pre-approached group with a group that didn’t receive the pre-approach and see whether the additional time and dollars invested made a difference in results.

If you measure for the sake of determining effective methods you can prevent your company from creating a “Noah’s Ark” of steps that nobody understands and that don’t add value. Of course this depends upon your willingness to analyze and then weed out whatever’s not working, even if it’s popular among your staff. Golf might not be your best way to woo new customers, for instance, once you look at the numbers.

Performance standards
The people who report to you need to understand what’s expected of them, to have reasonably consistent goals with other people in their same role and pay grade, and to have accountability for their results. In addition, they are most effective when they can take some charge of their own performance management.

If you are my boss and you say I’m not doing a very good job I might have room to dispute that if I come from the perspective that it’s just your opinion. I might not value your opinion. But if I know that I’m expected to make 6 new business calls per week and I haven’t done more than 3 any of the past 4 weeks I know as well as you do that I’m not cutting it.

Another thing related to performance standards: it might be too late for me to modify my behavior if I wait for the ultimate results. A better move would be for us to set some target levels of activities (methods) that we know are effective, track my actual activities and then change course if necessary based upon the interim results.

As you’re evaluating performance you want to account for activities as well as results. First, because results are sometimes delayed, and so an outstanding performer might have to invest weeks or months in activity before they see the ultimate outcome of their efforts. The other reason it’s important to look at both is because market conditions might be making results difficult to achieve despite the most vigorous attempts at good performance on the part of the employee. In that case it’s back to the strategic drawing board to develop new tactics to counteract market softness (and of course to measure their effectiveness once they’re put into place.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

You don't need to run your mouth...

Pictogram at Asda
Originally uploaded by hayleyb_28

Sometimes when people don't understand what we mean we think we have to give a bigger explanation. We add words to the words we already have spoken, walk verbally all the way around the mulberry bush - and still our message is clear as mud. Sometimes it's muddier. Corporate-speak (at the end of the day, results-focused, out of the box, etc.) sometimes confuses syllables with meaning. You don't need to run your mouth to get your message across.

One of the best communication developments (in my never-to-be-humble opinion) is the pictogram for public communication. You don't have to have an MBA, or even to be literate for that matter, to understand that the pictogram above is telling you to use the crosswalk. You can be in a country where you don't speak the local language and you can still see where not to park, or where the rest rooms are.

Have you ever considered using pictures to convey your vision for your company? We say "draw me a picture" or ask "Do you get the picture?" but we're usually talking. What happened to "a picture is worth a thousand words?" Somehow it seems as though we think that if our artistic skills are somewhat suspect we shouldn't use them at work. We must think that coloring is only for preschoolers.

I've found that the process of drawing what you mean rather than writing what you mean can unleash a far deeper interpretation of your content. If you don't believe this idea, though, here's a test for you: bring your vision or mission statement to a group of your staff and ask each of them to draw what they think the vision or mission means. See whether the pictures look similar or not.

Even if interpretation or comprehension are not the issues, sometimes speed of message is. If I'm tearing through the airport on my way to a gate with a need to find a rest room I can do a very quick visual scan and know exactly where to go. On the street the sign with the big black P that has a red slash through it helps me know that I shouldn't even bother slowing down - I won't be parking right here.

I've read that the majority of people are visual learners. Why not stop flapping our jaws and use that information to our advantage more often?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

In search of instant pudding

Steamed orange pudding
Originally uploaded by tednmiki

"Buy now, pay later!" "Lose 50 pounds in 30 days!" "Make a million dollars from your home computer!" "Tighten muscles while you sleep!" If these messages weren't working we wouldn't be seeing and hearing them every day. Everybody seems to want instant pudding - quick results with as little effort as possible.

This is a statement of the obvious, but we still allow it to bite us in the derriere from time to time - there is a delay between action and result. We don't plant seeds today and see mature fruit tomorrow. It takes sun, and rain, and perhaps a little fertilizer - and then days or weeks for the seed to germinate and grow into its ultimate form. We don't blithely decide to be more patient today and instantly transform forever after. It takes patience and attention and willingness not to quit when there's something important that we're shooting for.

I've come across a story in a number of different sites about the fern and the bamboo that relates to this:

“God”, I said. “Can you give me one good reason not to quit?” His answer
surprised me…“Look around”, He said. “Do you see the fern and the bamboo?”“Yes”, I replied.

"When I planted the fern and the bamboo seeds, I took very good care
of them. I gave them light. I gave them water. The fern quickly grew from the
earth. Its brilliant green covered the floor. Yet nothing came from the bamboo
seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. In the second year the Fern grew more
vibrant and plentiful. And again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did
not quit on the bamboo.” He said.“In year three there was still nothing from the
bamboo seed. But I would not quit. In year four, again, there was nothing from
the bamboo seed. I would not quit.” He said.

“Then in the fifth year a tiny sprout emerged from the earth. Compared to the fern it was seemingly small and insignificant…But just 6 months later the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall. It had spent the five years growing roots. Those roots made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive. I would not give any of my creations a challenge it could not handle.” He said to me.“Did you know, my child, that all this time you have been struggling, you have actually been growing roots?”“I would not quit on the bamboo. I will never quit on you.”

Instant pudding doesn't even taste as good as the real stuff that's been made from scratch, boiled, steamed or baked with fresh ingredients. Accomplishment is more rewarding when it hasn't come easily. If we can persist in watering the plant until it's ready for us and we're ready for it, the payoff can be huge like the bamboo.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Avoiding potholes when gathering employee input

The topic of participative decision making arouses controversy in many of my client companies. The theory sounds great but the practice is often flawed. On one hand too little participation can create the type of work environment that brings back memories of The Wizard of Oz and the soldiers marching outside the witch's castle chanting "Yo-ee-oh!" Drudgery and servitude. On the other hand too much employee authority and you've got the potential for a Cuckoo's Nest situation, where the inmates are running the asylum.

I was talking to a leader the other day who was completely frustrated at the amount of time she had to invest (and the overall salary $ the company invested) in an employee team meeting to define a dress code. Round and round they went, with debates about the difference between denim skirts (OK) and jeans (not OK,) what was fair and unfair - with a little bit of gender conflict. The group argued about tattoos and their appropriateness - this time with a bit of intergenerational conflict.

Employee input creates buy-in, and a resulting likelihood that employees will comply with the decision they helped to make. But employee participation in decision making isn't a free pass to get out of leadership - at some point someone at the top of the house has to put a stick in the ground and say, "Here's where we're going - like it or not." Standards are not always best created by a democratic process.

The quality movement brought employee involvement into the forefront because of the belief (and I agree with this) that the people who do the work are the best equipped to know where the problems are. But they aren't always in the position to make policy decisions. It's management's job to determine whether two departments need to be handled differently, because it's management that sees the big picture of the company and it's needs.
  • It helps to have a process. A group should have a chairperson, who is responsible for the outcome, and a facilitator, who is responsible for the process of herding the cats.

  • You don't have to go all or nothing with input. Gather opinions, then go back to the corner office and make the decision. Or before you ask for input, narrow the options down to a handful and have the group choose among them.

  • Input doesn't have to be done in person. A survey with just a few questions could give the opportunity for employees to express opinions, yet leave the decision to management.

Conflict doesn't necessarily arise in a company because management is too tough. Tough, fair, and consistent can create awesome performance and employee pride in a job well done. Conflict more often arises when management is perceived as weak and malleable, or when management is inconsistent. Employee involvement is no substitute for leadership.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Life as a visionary

We hail visionaries, but mostly in retrospect, as we realize the level of their ability to see in advance things that we weren't aware were possible. We admire them days, months, or years afterward for their tenacity in pursuing their vision. But life as a visionary isn't easy while it's happening.

First, it's been said that if other people think you have a good idea you're probably behind the visionary curve. If you're receiving kudos you're not so far out on the edge as to challenge it. If you're a true visionary you're catching flak from people who don't get what you're trying to do. Unless you have a track record of successful innovation you're probably having trouble convincing a banker to provide financing for your next experimental project. You're going to have to approach nontraditional sources to fund your dream.

Second, the vision isn't always completely clear at the outset. A visionary has to be able to deal with a bit of fog and ambiguity as the vision is starting to take form. Certain pieces of the ideal puzzle picture might not even have been invented yet. But the visionary plugs forward, keeping his or her eyes open for the things, for the opportunities that can serve as stepping stones to the next level of progress.

Third, a visionary has to communicate, and communicate, and communicate some more if he or she wants to enroll other people in the vision. Sometimes the visionary can be the equivalent of the classic mad professor, sequestered in a secret laboratory only to emerge when the potion is complete. But more often the visionary has to talk, teach, inform, in a constant drip, drip, drip of effective persuasion and convincing information until suddenly his or her harebrained idea has become part of the shared consciousness.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Developing a communication policy

Communication methodology is perhaps the largest contributor to your company's culture. Yet in many organizations it grows not by intent, but rather haphazardly or organically. The larger your company gets, the more important it can be to have a formalized communication policy because you

  • Don't necessarily have direct contact with everyone in the company
  • Can't assume that you're all coming from the same set of skills and values
  • Have more people conveying the company image to current and prospective customers

And these are just the first reasons that come to mind. There are many more.

While we were talking about this subject yesterday a retiree told me his former employer's policy was to "Tell them everything unless we can't tell them." Interesting. Full disclosure unless it was important not to disclose for some reason meant that employees were really bought into the company and its culture. Employees knew what was going on and felt like participants in it, to the point that some of them would bleed the company colors if they were hit by a truck.

If you think you want to get more formalized in your communication, to the point that you want to create policy, here are some of the considerations:

  • What are the values behind the policy? (complete candor in everything, our employees are key stakeholders, we uphold high standards of integrity, customers must be able to trust us implicitly, etc.)
  • What is the purpose behind creating a communication policy? What do you hope to achieve?
  • Who are to be included as official senders of communication?
  • Who is responsible for corporate image consistency? Can just anyone copy the company logo, or does it have to be in approved format in approved colors?
  • Who are the recipient groups for communication? How will the methods used vary from group to group?
  • In what direction are you trying to encourage information flow? Down? Up? Sideways? Radiating out from the company? Inward from customers?
  • How are you best at communicating with them?
  • How do they best like to receive information? (Your communication will be better if you consider the preferences of the prospective receivers when you structure it. If you live by email but they don't and you want to reach them use their mode, not yours.)

No matter what policy you set there will be an informal communication system in operation in addition to yours. Your biggest influence on the informal system will be to provide real information in larger quantities that you've been used to doing. The grapevine loves a vacuum - people will feed on tidbits and lose productivity trying to interpret them, not to mention that the interpretation will most likely be (a) negative in spin and (b) inaccurate.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Writing better position descriptions

People in a number of my client companies have complained about their position descriptions, including these general categories:

  • "I don't have one for my current job."

  • "It doesn't represent what I really do."

  • "My boss doesn't know what I really do to get things done."

Sometimes a position description is mainly created to justify a particular pay grade moreso than to provide valid direction for an employee's activities. Sometimes it's a rush job completed in order to fill a slot and doesn't give as much guidance as it could to the new hire as he or she works to get ramped up and be successful.

IPMAAC is a section of IPMA-HR, an organization of human resource professionals throughout the United States and worldwide. Members are specialists in hr selection and assessments. Highlights from their view of position descriptions are as follows (for full content click the link):

A job description is a relatively short summary of a job and should be about
two to five pages in length. This suggested length is not really typical of most
job descriptions used by organizations; they tend to be only one page. But for a
job description to be of any real value, it must describe a job in enough detail
that decisions about activities such as selection and training can be made. Such
decisions probably cannot be made if the description is just one page long.

Though I/O psychologists believe that job descriptions should be detailed and
lengthy, many professionals in organizations resist such efforts. These
professionals worry that listing each activity will limit their ability to
direct employees to perform tasks not listed on the job description. The concern
is that an employee, referring to the job description as support, might respond
"It's not my job". This fear, however, can be countered with two arguments. The
first is that duties can always be added to a job description and job
descriptions can, and should, be updated on a regular basis. The second is to
include the statement "and performs other job related duties as assigned" to the
job description.

A job description should contain the following seven sections: job title,
brief summary, work activities, tools and equipment used, work context,
performance standards, and competencies.

An accurate title also aids in employee selection and recruitment. If the job
title indicates the true nature of the job, potential applicants for a position
will be better able to determine if their skills and experience match those
required for the job.

My own view of position descriptions is that it needs to focus on results first and methods second. First, without a context of "why" it's difficult to prioritize between one specific duty and another. Second, if we look at results first and foremost we're more likely to be open to letting individuals use their strengths to do the job, and to change methods when situations, technological change, etc. warrant.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Goals and the juggling act

How many goals do you have going right now? Two? Five? Ten? How do you decide how to allocate your time? Part of the idea of setting goals in the first place is to create focus, but how many balls can you juggle without blowing it on one or more of them?

I'd suggest that you keep a queue of all potential goals, but only keep 3-5 in active mode at any one time. You don't want to lose your ideas, but if your energies are scattered they all are likely to suffer. You might need to limit your active goals to an even smaller number if the most important one will require a lot of your resources of time, energy, money, or intestinal fortitude.

Years ago Betty Friedan said to women yearning for meaningful lives as wives, mothers, and career women, "You can have it all, just not all at the same time." This advice applies to goals too, no matter what your gender. You ultimately have to decide whether goal A - building cash reserves, is more important than goal B - replacing your car. You might not be able to have one foot on each of two boats without falling into the water.

If your priorities are established but you still need to manage multiple goals at one time it becomes more important for you to:

  • Make them specific and measurable. If you've got a really full plate you'll need to feel the thrill of victory every now and then.
  • Keep them to a reasonable scope. It's not realistic to expect to solve the problem of world hunger singlehandedly - I don't think even Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey have the resources to do that alone.
  • Break them down into action steps so individual pieces can be managed rather than five 800-pound gorillas at one time.
  • Enter the action steps into your planner or PDA so you only have to focus on what's to be done right now.
  • Set aside time slots to work on each of them so they don't slip through the cracks. It's just like setting another appointment - your job, though, is to make your commitment to yourself as strong as a commitment you would make to another person.
  • Build in anticipatable obstacles, including delays, interruptions, etc. when you create your plan. You don't want to be halfway down the runway only to realize that your plane doesn't have enough fuel to reach your destination. Do your thinking up front.

Gosh, there are tons more pointers on how to achieve more goals, more readily, but that's enough for today. Happy juggling!

Grab those balls!
Originally uploaded by Fintan

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are you coachable?

More and more executives are hiring coaches as sounding boards, brainstorming partners, and personal developers. Depending upon the area in which you live coaches might be the newest trend or they might seem as though they're on every street corner. But before you go way down the road toward finding a coach that's right for you, ask yourself this question - "Am I coachable?"

The question isn't whether you are hopelessly stuck in the mire - now stop that! - but whether you are ready to be coached. You might be ready for coaching if one or more of the following conditions are in place:
  • You have a specific situation that you want to navigate right now, and you think you would benefit from a sounding board with whom you can strategize.
  • You are at a career or personal crossroads and have some decisions to make.
  • You are aware that you have some habits of thought or action that have been stopping you from achieving the level of performance you want.
  • You have a strong desire and high sense of urgency to achieve a specific goal but you haven't developed a specific plan for attacking it.
  • You know what you want to do, but just can't seem to summon the motivation to get off the dime and do it.
  • You want to develop yourself, your attitudes and skills, but don't want an audience in the form of a group.
  • You want the luxury of a process that's completely tailored around you, your goals, your preferences, your schedule, and your agenda.

My most successful coaching clients are the ones who are open to learning and, more importantly, applying new concepts and approaches. They look forward to experimenting - doing the old "test and measure" to prove to themselves what works and what doesn't. Yes, there are approaches that have high percentages of success, but an effective coach brings more questions than answers. Even if they've coached a dozen of other people through a similar situation, what works for one person might not work for another. It's a process of you discovering what works for you.

One of my favorite things about working with my own coach (yes, good coaches use them too) is the sheer luxury of having it be "all about ME" for the time we're talking. This is the time to be completely selfish - you can't be a strong support for others unless you're doing what you need to do to be strong for yourself. No reciprocity needed, no listening to the other person's tales of woe. Just your stuff, all the time. Cool.

If you're not certain whether you would benefit from coaching, request a complimentary test drive coaching session. Most coaches are happy to have you sample their process and their style. It's important to have a good match of temperament and/or style - that will help them relate to you in a way that's the most helpful to you, and will help you benefit the most from your coaching relationship.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Holding meetings that matter

How much of your week is invested in meetings? 20%? 30%? More? One of the most common complaints I hear is that meetings take too much time. Most often it's not actually the time invested but rather the lack of results that's the issue. How do you go about holding more meetings that matter?

Know your purpose

Why meet in the first place? Are there other forms of communication that would work equally well for the purpose you have in mind? Some possible purposes include:

  • Sharing top-down information - You can do conference calls, emails, memos, or videoconferences for those times when you don't need much two-way dialogue. Warning: if you're in a meeting, call, or videoconference and you don't want input you're likely to have some participants drifting off, mentally if not physically. Not to mention that meetings are really expensive when you consider the combined hourly pay rate for all of the people in the room.

  • Gathering input for a decision - If you're gathering input let the participants know the rules for the process. You might know what you're doing but want a final cut before you proceed, or you might be a blank slate completely open to their ideas. If they think that you're open and then find out that you already had a path laid out in your head they'll feel set up and think their time has been wasted.

  • Collaboration on a project - This process is best handled with a chair (responsible for the outcome) and a facilitator (responsible for the process.) That way one person has his/her eye on the result but the meeting won't be oversteered and therefore miss opportunities.

  • Peer to Peer updates - It says a lot about your organization when you communicate only "need to know" information rather than also "nice to know." People want to see where they fit into the whole scheme of things, and hearing what their peers are doing helps them do that. In addition, it can help them share resources and/or avoid working at cross-purposes.

  • The group (or you) needs face time - Your group will feel connected or unconnected from the company based partly upon your accessibility as a leader. It's important to them to realize that they're significant enough to you to invest your time in them. And of course sensitive or controversial messages are better communicated in person so you can field questions and get a sense of the response from the group.

What are you going to do about it?

Probably the biggest complaint I hear about meetings is that nothing happens as a result of them - ideas get tossed onto the table, bandied about, then nobody does anything about them. A critical part of structuring meetings that matter is to wind up with a set of action items and accountabilities for people. In addition a followup date should be set so the group can evaluate progress and determine next steps. Providing this structure can keep the process moving and help ensure that the time invested in the meeting is well worth it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Humor in the workplace

When we laugh we bring out the child hidden inside us. We

unlock creativity and open ourselves to learning. But attempts at humor in the workplace reveal different perceptions and perspectives among colleagues that create some risk for the humorist. I know that I'm not alone in having a joke (or ten) fall flat on its face.

Our local newspaper columnist, Mike Argento, receives weekly (maybe daily) hate mail from readers. I think his column vacillates between thoughtprovoking and belly laugh producing. But his satirical tone is lost on some of his readers, and since he presents his ideas publicly they verbally thrash him publicly for it when they disagree with his points.

Times have changed so much in what is acceptable humor on the job. When I first entered the working world people were still telling ethnic jokes without repercussion. The formula was simple - fill in the slanderous comment with the ethnicity of your choice and wait for the laughs. Of course it was only funny when you weren't of the ethnicity being skewered. Nowadays it takes some fairly large measure of insensitivity to go there, and you might get in trouble for it.

A while back I wrote a tongue in cheek blog post about how not to get employees to crawl over glass and nails for you. I adapted it and submitted it for a trade publication. The editors softened the ending because they were concerned that members would be offended by my saying, "If you do these behaviors don't die in your office, because everyone who works with you will be a suspect in your demise."

My friend (a blonde) tells blonde jokes regularly, and they go over well with people because they're self-deprecating rather than taking shots at somebody else. Self deprecating humor can be tricky, because although it can be funny you also run the risk of reinforcing something negative about yourself that's better not reinforced. If your "I'm fat" jokes are your best material you might not be easily successful at changing your body shape if you want to at some point. Your repetition of the fatness mantra, even when humor is your intent, will have created the identity that will support behavior that is not consistent with your goals.

Sometimes I think that we've gone too PC with humor. Yes, I agree that the impact of a joke can be way more negative than the intent behind it ever was. I certainly don't want people to be uncomfortable as a result of my trying to create a light atmosphere. But hey - maybe we're taking ourselves a bit too seriously. Maybe we're throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water and missing some great opportunities to establish rapport and interpersonal glue.

Friday, April 11, 2008

You are not your car

How do you define yourself? With what do you identify? Some people are "the Mom" or "the Dad." Others are "the Boss" or "owner of the huge house." Some people are "the person with digestive troubles" or "the fat person." We use so many labels and have so many attachments. But that is not who you really are. You are not your car. You're much more than that.

In his book A New Earth Eckhart Tolle writes, "What you usually refer to when you say "I" is not who you are. By a monstrous act of reductionism, the infinite depth of who you are is confused with a sound produced by the vocal cords or the thought of "I" in your mind and whatever the "I" has identified with."

A small child starts with the concept of "mine" and acquires a special toy that is part of "I." And as the child grows Tolle says he or she attracts other attachments - gender, possessions, roles, knowledge, opinions, and a sense of their own personal story. This definition of self is a collection of thoughts, an illusion - ego.

Marketers take advantage of the ego when they sell to us - buy this dress and you'll be the irresistable woman. Upgrade to these leather seats in your car and you will be the prosperous man. Buy this and you'll be just as cool as Tiger Woods. When you buy a particular label your ego is, in effect, investing in an identity enhancer.

According to Tolle, one of the challenges of identification with things is that the satisfaction is short-lived. You'll wind up wanting more and more, until your identity becomes wrapped around not having, but rather wanting. You keep on looking for more.

"Ego-identification with things creates attachment to things, obsession with things, which in turn creates our consumer society and economic structures where the only measure of progress is always more. The unchecked striving for more, for endless growth, is a dysfunction and a disease. It is the same dysfunction the cancerous cell manifests, whose only goal is to multiply itself, unaware that it is bringing about its own destruction by destroying the organism of which it is a part."
Tolle suggests that if we want to release ourselves from the world of things that we observe ourselves, and in particular in relationship to the things we designate as "my __________." We are to be alert and notice when our sense of self-worth is bound up in the things we possess.
According to Tolle, "The ego isn't wrong, it's just unconscious. When you observe the ego in yourself, you are beginning to go beyond it. Don't take the ego too seriously....If you consider the ego to be your personal problem, that's just more ego."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What are your dreams telling you?

At the pace at which we live and work we're absorbing inform

ation at incredible speeds. We process emails, memos, information in meetings, TV shows, radio programs, the daily recap from our spouses and children. It's overwelming at times.

But at night our subconscious mind takes over and helps us sort through the data from the day, how we feel about our current stage of life, etc. through our dreams. Our minds help us sort through the clutter.

I was on a site called to find out a little more about the impact of dreams and how they can inform our waking time.

Consider this. As an adolescent, Alfred Einstein dreamt of going faster and
faster down a hillside on a sled. As it approached the speed of light, the stars
above distorted and changed patterns. Years later, this dream was to form the
basis of his theory of relativity. Niels Bohr dreamt of a racetrack that led to
the quantum theory. S.T. Coleridge wrote his masterpiece Kubla Khan after seeing
the manuscript in a dream. Rene Descartes was convinced through dreams that he
was destined to seek the truth.

Let's get slightly esoteric. Joseph was convinced of Mary's virginity in a dream. Queen Maya dreamt of a divine white elephant entering her womb before she gave birth to the Buddha. Prophet Mohammed was told most of the Koran in a dream. In fact, even Adolf Hitler was saved by a dream that prompted him to leave his trench minutes before it was blown up in World War I. Clearly, dream guidance doesn't have moral pretensions.

"I don't think dreams are divine influence," says Shona Singh, a corporate
consultant who has been studying her dreams for years now. "Most of my dreams
reflect what I expect from my life. So, perhaps it is the God within me who is
guiding me to attain completion." Possible. But why should guiding dreams occur
to some and not to others? "We all have meaningful dreams," Shona avers. "We
just don't take the trouble of deciphering them. "

Sigmund Freud translated the meaning of dreams in largely sexual terms. Carl Jung acknowledged their sometimes symbolic or allegorical language, but disputed the Freudian theory that dreams are all about sex.

Dreams are now gradually edging their way into the corporate sector as well.
"Your dreams reflect the unresolved issues in your life," says Delhi-based Dr
Anjali Hazarika, author of Daring to Dream, who holds dream workshops for
corporate executives, "and they can have tremendous impact on your work."
According to Dr Hazarika, dreams offer new perspectives to problem solving, give
creative insights and create awareness about life in general. "The images in
your dreams may appear strange, but they are all deliberate parts of a
meaningful story about you and your life," says Gillian Holloway, a New
York-based dream analyst and author of Dreaming Insights. Gillian feels that
when we work with dreams, synchronicity increases in our life since dreams
connect the unrelated parts of our existence. They also help battle ghosts of
the psyche.

If you want to gain more insight about yourself and what you're thinking by analyzing your dreams make a point of writing them down in as much detail as possible. That way they'll remain fresh as you consider obvious and not-so-obvious things they're trying to help you see.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I see you, I feel you

I see you, I feel you
Originally uploaded by cattycamehome

In his book People Skills Robert Bolton said that 80% of the reason why leaders fail is lack of people skills. In the world of production it's often the super-worker who is promoted to supervisor. It's not often that their people skills (or the lack thereof) is a consideration in the decision. And so the new leaders are, in many companies, fending for themselves in the interpersonal department. They learn what they think they need to know by modeling off of someone else (sometimes a scary proposition) or by trial and error.

If somebody is motivated to learn they can keep their eyes open and their antennae tuned to the people around them and their reactions, positive or negative, to the actions they take. But this can't be counted upon to get somebody through the transformation to leadership. There are several potential obstacles to becoming the "I see you, I feel you" kind of leader:

  • The people side of things might not be on their radar screen. It's not that they don't care - it's just that they don't see it.
  • They are focused solely on their goals, their tasks. This can be the equivalent of wearing blinders while walking down the street - you see only what is in front of you, while the opportunities and hazards might be right beside you.
  • They are part of a system and a culture. Remember that role-modeling comment above? If the leader is creating his/her style based upon what they see in the company they will think they only have a certain range of behavior available to them. Put a great person in a dysfunctional culture and the dysfunctional culture will win.

If you want to see better leadership skills that result in more productivity and greater internal customer loyalty you have several potential actions to take:

  • Check yourself first. Chances are you'll figure out (if you're willing to see it) that the behavior that they're doing that's driving you nuts is a copy of what they see you doing.
  • Build a culture that reinforces the importance of interpersonal skills. It has to start from the top of the house. Interpersonal effectiveness has to be a factor in performance evaluations, promotion opportunities, etc. if you want to get proper alignment.
  • Do some diagnostics. Assessments like the Attribute Index can help you identify the extent to which Empathy is a master or a potential blind spot for this particular person. Then you can determine how to proceed with selection, development, and/or support systems based upon the data you receive.
  • Make a point of developing the people skills side. Effective leadership and supervisory behaviors can be learned just like technical skills can. You can speed up the process by addressing all of the factors - human relations skills, goal setting and goal achievement, and the attitudes and assumptions that support them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Goal achieving or tension relieving?

Do you end a number of your workdays feeling like the important things didn't get done? Are you being drawn off target by fires that need to be fought? Are you perhaps an accomplice in your own productivity issues? Here's the litmus test question shared with me by a mentor: "Is this activity goal achieving or tension relieving?"

Goal Achieving
If you're engaging in goal achieving activity you're working on action steps that directly relate to gaining a predetermined, written desired result. The activity might be one in a series that make a straight path to the result, or it might be an action step to remove an obstacle that's currently standing in your way.

Tension Relieving
In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge wrote about creative tension - it's the stress that results from the gap between where you are and where you want to be. The wider the distance between your Point A and Point B, the greater your tension is likely to be. Depending upon your confidence level about the task ahead, you might take a left turn and head off the highway to smell some roses to take your mind off of your fear.

Obviously we can't go on and on day after day under huge amounts of stress without a break and come out unscathed. Tension relief can be a good thing. The challenge is when it becomes a pattern, a habit. If you're concerned that your project won't be done on time and you go to the movies to take your mind off of it you're increasing the likelihood that your project won't be done on time. Tension relieving habits can be self-defeating self-fulfilling prophecies in the making.

Ramifications for Goal Setting
If you feel an inordinant amount of stress when you commit to goals and want to avoid the pothole of too many tension relieving activities, here are some points to consider:
  • Start with smaller goals with shorter deadlines. You'll get breaks from the tension and get used to meeting your commitments to yourself.
  • Document the goals you've achieved so you can refer back to them when the tension is flowing and you don't want to resort to the avoidance tactic.
  • Build in benchmarks and evaluation dates. Even with a really long-term goal you can celebrate the victories along the way.
  • Plan it out in detail. Tension increases with the degree of unknown. If there are risks and current or potential obstacles account for them. Create Plan A, Plan B, and even a Plan C and D if it will help you.
  • Take action. Do something and it's like you've broken through a wall - once you've started momentum will help to keep you going.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Are you a sheep in a flock?

Now What...
Originally uploaded by rianklong

A flock of sheep is walking down the road. One sheep nudges the sheep next to him and says, "Where are we going?" The other sheep replies, "I don't know - wherever everybody else is going." The first sheep says, "How do we know we want to go there?" The second sheep replies, "Huh?"

Sheep have long been the metaphor for following without thinking - wherever they're going is where I'm going. We go through sheep-like periods in our lives as we mature, like when I hear my almost-12-year-old ask, "Why can't I have a cell phone? I'm the ONLY one in my class who doesn't have a cell phone!"

The thing is that some people never seem to grow beyond their adolescent urge to follow the flock. I've known people who've married because they were at the age that they "should" be thinking about marrying. In some instances they got lucky, but in other instances they wound up in divorce because the urge to follow the accepted timeline was stronger than their judgment about who would be a good lifetime partner.

Some degree of conformity creates a social grease of sorts. If we're not too different from the people around us they can feel more comfortable, and we can feel more comfortable that we're fitting in with the norm. Like is attracted to like, and all that. For some people that gives confidence. If they have the "right car" the "right clothing" and belong to the "right club" nobody has to look too closely at the person behind the stuff and behind the conforming behavior.

After a point, though, we forget why we're doing it - or we find ourselves conforming to things we don't even want or believe in just to get along. That's when we've really turned into sheep.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The continous transformation of real leadership

Adapted from the depths of my Peak Performance archives...

A colleague of mine did a keynote address a couple of years ago about the difference between transition and transformation. Transition is the process, for example, of having a wedding. Transformation into being married, though, is different. It's the process of becoming the person who thinks and behaves as a husband or wife.

It's the same when a person makes a decision to start a business or buy into a business. That's the transition - the physical exchange of money, signing of contracts, etc. The transformation that is needed goes way beyond writing the check. Being a leader and owner in the truest sense calls for something deeper. I was considering the questions a person might ask himself or herself about transformation to business ownership:
  • Do I have a clear picture of what I want my business (or organization) to become?
  • Have I written down some specific values, or rules of the road that I expect myself and my team to abide by?
  • To what extent am I behaving consistently with the values I profess?
  • Have I decided what I will do if I or someone else violates those values?
  • What am I doing daily to help my employees, my customers and myself have confidence in me as a leader?
  • Am I working on my business as well as in my business?

The need for transformation is sometimes harder to see the farther we transition in our businesses and/or our corporate roles. After all, we've received rewards for our aptitudes, our interpersonal skills, our goals focus, etc. That's how we got to the elevated rank we're at today. That doesn't mean that the need for transformation is any smaller. We might be thinking things like:

  • My ideas are the best.
  • Why can't they DO something?
  • I'll give this project to somebody I like to work with.
  • I guess I'm going to have to use my strength on the details to help them see what they're missing. It's obvious, after all.

What we might not realize is that the impact of our thoughts and our resulting behaviors is quite different from our intentions. What we see as helpfulness others might perceive as lack of trust. What we see as creativity other people might interpret as second-guessing. The impact of the overuse of our effectiveness in certain respects can be, paradoxically, ineffectiveness.

Marshall Goldsmith, possibly the most high-profile coach in the U.S., wrote a book called What Got You Here Won't Get You There about the successful leaders that stop being so successful because they're in what they think is a good groove. In actuality they are out of touch with how they're coming across to others and it's interfering with their effectiveness. They are in need of a wake-up call of self-awareness that will lead to new transformation.

If there's one thing that's abundantly clear to me after almost 18 years of being in business for myself and coaching other owners and leaders, it's that acquiring the mindset and skills of effective leadership is a never-ending process. Transformation follows transformation as the challenges, threats, and victories reveal character and provide the opportunity to do better next time. It's the awareness of the intended path that's important, and the consciousness that one's own influence spreads much further than is immediately apparent.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

What makes a great leader?

Great Leader
Originally uploaded by chris.merwe

The supporting info for this photo says that this baby elephant is leading a herd of 54 to the water. Talk about an unlikely leader! What are the qualities that make a great leader in your book?

  • Compelling vision?
  • Communication skills?
  • Decisiveness?
  • Content knowledge?
  • Good relationships with people?
  • Gets results?
  • Has willing followers?

Your definition might be very different from that of other people with whom you interact. Obviously this creates an opportunity for conflict to arise. If you want to demonstrate decisiveness and the other person values participation more they might rebel against what they see as an autocratic, "my way or the highway" style. If they are not following are you really leading?

There is a situational quality to leadership that has generated reams of pages by a variety of writers. Great leaders, in my view anyway, use different methods and exercise different skills in times of crisis than they do in "peacetime." They supervise new employees with more direction than they do 10-year veterans. And they are willing to put on the follower's hat when the circumstances call for it.

There are many styles of leadership that are effective. One person can be the charismatic, engaging speaker. Another might be the quiet, thoughtful type who is consulted before any major decision is made because their expertise runs so deeply.

The key is that even the littlest elephant has the capacity to lead. Sure, we're all born with unique sets of talents and some people might seem to have a larger set than others. But regardless of the raw material, nobody reaches their maximum potential without developing that raw material into something more. Every gem has the potential for sparkle, but every gem requires polishing to reveal it fully.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

What's your summit?

Moon Over Banner
Originally uploaded by mrwsierra

What's that really big goal out there for you or your company? What would be the ultimate in achievement for you? How do you define success?

The pursuit of worthwhile goals adds adventure to life. The structure of making and keeping commitments to yourself gives you the opportunity to have a yardstick to measure your performance. (Of course it's also one of the reasons why the faint of heart resist setting them!)

If your summit is the one that's remote and exceedingly difficult to climb you probably don't want it to be the very first peak that you've attempted. Smaller, less demanding climbs can give you the experience and confidence you need for the big one.

You will want to have a plan. Determine what gear is needed, what clothing the setting requires. You'll take a look at a map to choose the route that's best for you, and to estimate the length of time that you think you'll need to reach the top. If you don't have data you might talk to someone else who has climbed this mountain before you and benefit from their deeper understanding of the challenges ahead of you.

You'll need to consider whether you're ready for the rigors of the climb - whether you're prepared for the physical and psychic demands. You might have some preparation to do, some conditioning. You're best off if you have reserves of strength and endurance to protect you against contingencies.

Speaking of contingencies - are there risks or potential obstacles that you can anticipate as you're planning your climb? Weather can change quickly, or you or someone on your team could become injured. The extent of your contingency planning could literally make the difference between life and death.

You might want to take some people with you on your journey to the summit. A sherpa can help guide the way and reveal the safest paths. A trusted climbing partner can be someone to share the journey with and can make the demands of the climb seem lighter. A little friendly competition along the way can help both of you find reserves of energy that you didn't know you had. And if you are beset by some problems the accumulated brainpower can help find the solutions to get you through them.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How much information should employees have?

The quality gurus are big on employees having results data for the work they do. For example, if they operate a widget drilling machine they should be able to see how many widgets they drilled per hour this week compared to last week and last month. The premise behind the dissemination of performance data is to provide employees with the tools they need to manage their own work. It's an adult-to-adult approach. But how much information should employees have?

Most of my clients are privately held companies where the founder/owner is still involved in the business. Certain pieces of data (profit before tax, for instance) could lead employees to extrapolate what (they think) the owner takes home. So many owners stop short of providing profitability information.

I can appreciate their concern. Employees won't necessarily have the whole picture on debt service, personally held property that houses the business, etc., so their impressions of just how "rich" the owner is are likely to be distorted. Worse, if employees think their owner is getting a disproportionate share of the bucks the employees can start to feel resentful.

Yes, I know, the owner takes the risk and lives the business 24/7 and is due the rewards for doing so. I'm not arguing that it's not right. But as my daughter tells me, I'm just saying... although it's fair for the owner to reap the bulk of the rewards it doesn't mean that employees won't be a bit ticked off about it.

Consider, though, that it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Here are some examples of data that helps employees manage their own performance but doesn't put an owner in a sticky situation:
  • Production volume for the last day, week, month, quarter, etc.

  • Average cost per unit.

  • Number of new customers added.

  • Number of customer defections.

  • Average # of days in Accounts Receivable.

  • Average cycle time for process X (production, quotes, delivery, etc.)

  • Percent on-time delivery.

  • Production backlog.

  • Performance against expense budget.
Consider giving more performance data to your people. If you're not collecting it already, select and disseminate a handful of key ones that will help them manage their own performance. It'll help them see "how high is up," possibly for the very first time, and will get you more of the attitudes and results you want to see.