Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"As long as I've got mine..."

Originally uploaded by Brad Wiederholt

Wow - somebody must have had some sense of urgency to break this golden egg. I hope they left the goose that laid it intact!

Times like these certainly show what material people are made of. Were you surprised that the Wall Street bailout package wasn't passed yesterday? At the risk of sounding a bit jaded I wasn't completely caught off guard - there has been so much precedent for this kind of behavior, from the corporate (former) titans to the members of Congress.

Just like we talk about all the time, conditioned behavior is the behavior that comes most easily in times of crisis. When under severe duress our emotional state is so volatile that our real-time thinking goes on hold and autopilot kicks in. Unfortunately, when we have to engage new ways of thinking to solve problems our conditioning isn't our friend. (When we do what we've always done we get what we've always got.) See if you recognize some current conditioned thinking in the statements below:

  • "As long as I've got mine I'm OK. There are winners and losers in this world, and I've got the savvy to be one of the winners - even when the ship is sinking."
  • "We've got to look past this one situation and place the long-term health and reputation of our party first."
  • "Hey, they made bad decisions, now they have to deal with the consequences, no matter who they are."
  • "They only care about Wall Street. They don't care about Main Street."
  • "If that woman thinks she is going to talk that way to me she's got another thought coming. I'll just take my ball and go home. That'll teach her."
  • "He just doesn't get it."

Whoa! These statements make it sound like it's every man for himself (figuratively speaking, of course) in our country right now.

When it comes to times of testing like these we've got to be clear on our bigger goals, the goals we have in common. Otherwise we get logjammed, stuck in the mud of our differences. If we're stuck in the mud and there's an oncoming train (as some would say we're facing right now financially,) failure to see past our individual interests can be deadly.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Review - Words That Work

I'm reading Words That Work - It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, by Frank Luntz. I've been a communication junkie for years, written and oral, and am fascinated by the study of what makes people influential. If you're interested in some of the same things, or if you want to read between the lines in the next few weeks of pre-election debates, check this book out.

Frank Luntz has been a communication consultant in politics for years, primarily for Republican candidates, although some faces behind the scenes of the Democratic party have also called on him. His role is to help a speaker engage their listeners, to intensify their credibility and influence.

Luntz invokes 10 rules for effective communication:
  1. Simplicity - use small words.
  2. Brevity - use short sentences.
  3. Credibility is as important as philosophy.
  4. Consistency matters.
  5. Novelty - offer something new.
  6. Sound and texture matter.
  7. Speak aspirationally.
  8. Visualize.
  9. Ask a question.
  10. Provide context and explain relevance.

These are some of the reasons why the brainiest candidates don't get elected. It's not necessarily that the U.S. is dumbing down, although there are some that would argue that point. The idea as I'm seeing it in Luntz's work is that you as the speaker want to engage your listener's brains, but you don't want that engagement to be translating what you just said "from dictionary to English." You don't want your point to be lost in long-winded intellectual gobbledy gook.

Your listeners will make associations between what you say and the things that they already understand. If you don't provide a frame of reference they'll add their own, and sometimes their own paradigm won't support your idea. I loved one of the examples Luntz gave - if you show a picture of a man wielding a knife and then cut to a picture of a woman opening her mouth, you interpret that she's screaming. If, on the other hand, instead of seeing the man you see the clock read 3 a.m. and then see the woman open her mouth you draw a completely different conclusion. She's yawning. Same facial expression, two different interpretations based upon context.

If you want to influence you will benefit by being original, or by expressing an old idea in a new way, in visual terms. Talk about what is possible, what can be, even if it's not that way right now. If you ask questions you'll engage your listeners' brains far more than if you give all of your answers. And listener engagement is what it's all about.

Regardless of whether your arenas for persuasion are political, corporate or social, Words That Work is a worthwhile read. Check it out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cutting out the problem

Some leaders can clearly identify one person who seems to be the instigator for the people problems in the department. With or without cause, the person is running roughshod over his or her colleagues. If the person has been making valuable technical contributions to the company the boss won't choose to let them go - rather they'll often cut them out of the herd for specialized development. There are some reasons why this might not be the best strategy for handling the situation:

  • An individual's openness to development is an attitudinal thing. They will know that they are being "targeted," whether it's for coaching, training, or some other special treatment. Unless their job is absolutely on the line they are not disposed to participate fully when they're feeling like a prisoner. And even if they know it's this "or else" they'll have to be won over attitudinally or any gains will be fleeting.
  • People problems are rarely perpetuated by just one person. They are systemic. If Herb has been nasty to deal with I'll tend to avoid Herb, or perhaps I'll have all guns loaded whenever I have to interact with him. Even if Herb is having a good day today I'm going to see him through the goggles of my perception of him, meaning I might be the one who starts it today. I just might make a pre-emptive strike of some sort that sets him off. Who's the "problem person" now?
  • Let's say that Herb is able to change with the help of developmental support. You're now placing the "fixed" part back into the same old engine. Guess what? Because of the way in which people are used to dealing with Herb it will be hard for them to see his improvements. They will be likely to treat him the way he's needed to be treated before. And soon the original conditions will be back, unless Herb has had such a transformational experience that "the new Herb" can withstand the test.
  • You might be looking to "fix" a person when it's a process issue. Herb's job might simply be at the point in the process where the biggest issues occur. No wonder he's cranky!

Some leaders consider people development to be a "nice to do," an expense rather than an investment. But if they take time to consider the cost of productivity that's lost due to interpersonal issues the argument for people development becomes more compelling. Rather than cut Herb out of the herd for remedial work, it's more effective to involve everyone in the development process. You'll get a more systemic improvement.

Relationship building and people development activities are Quadrant 2 tasks - they're important but they won't be pulling at you - until they escalate into fires that you have to handle right away. Once you have a conflagration, don't use a wash cloth to try to smother it. Get a rated fire extinguisher and do the job right.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Leveraging all communication channels

Spider Web Gravity Well
Originally uploaded by Automania

Sometimes leaders are confounded when they think they are sending a certain message, yet the informal communication web is circulating a completely different one. Of course the informal system is at its best (or worst) when there isn't any formal information. Somehow the grapevine manages to pool tiny threads of speculation into a larger message and before you know it everyone "knows" that the company is going to be sold, or something equally dramatic.

In our electronic world the mainstream political pundits can't begin to keep up with the blogosphere. And candidates had better be thoroughly vetted before they're thrown into public view, because whatever skeletons are in their closets WILL come out. It's the joy of the informal network to unveil juicy new information. They like a good scoop as well as the national news shows do, and they have fewer constraints before releasing one - no editorial boards to satisfy before letting 'er rip.

I've seen effective leaders intentionally feed the informal network - they'll share info with that person who might as well be the front page of the local newspaper. It'll be out before the memo is ever circulated, then the memo clarifies (and occasionally debunks) the informal message. (You've played "whisper down the lane" - you know what happens.)

Effective communicator leaders send info by a variety of modes - electronic, hard copy, meetings - so they can reinforce the accurate information for people receiving it multiple times. Using various modes also helps to reach the people who aren't readers, who don't take in information well when spoken, etc.

Most of all, though, the leader best leverages communication by putting information out there in simple terms. It's hard to misinterpret "We had our best sales year ever - 15% up from $1 million to $1.15." The grapevine has less of a detrimental impact when the real stuff starves it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

You're going to be right

I guess you're right
Originally uploaded by PatruzZRocK

No matter what. You're going to be right because your selective perception is going to provide the information that supports your point of view. Take the current state of the political campaigns - do you read the columnists or listen to the speakers with whom you disagree? Or do you filter your incoming information so that you can gain additional ammo to use to support your point of view when facing-off with someone with the opposing perspective? My bet is that you do the intentional filtering.

Where other people are concerned you're going to watch for behavior that reinforces your attitudes. If you expect that they're going to have sneaky motives you'll see those sneaky motives in what they do. If you think it's a world plot with you as the target you'll see that too.

Funny thing is that the other person is also going to be right, so don't count on swinging them around to your point of view. They are using the same choosy methods of collecting evidence that you are, ones that will support their world view.

Even about yourself you're going to be right. Here you have the advantage of choosing (consciously or subconsciously) the behavior that supports your attitudes. If you do not consciously choose your behavior you'll support the self-image that has been conditioned into you. You'll act like the fat kid, the klutz, the space cowgirl, the nerd, the victim, etc. and you'll reap the harvest of your actions.

So are we at an impasse, hopelessly locked into internal and external conflict? Our need to be right is really strong, sometimes even overpowering our need to be connected, or to be confident, or to be competent.

What would happen if you would consciously choose what you want to be right about? Would you attract better relationships if you'd choose to see positive evidence of them around you? Is it possible that that horse's patoot that you have to deal with actually has some other dimensions that you could see if you wanted to be right about the fact that they have redeeming qualities?

What if you would simply choose to be right in the belief that there are many ways to look at any issue? If you were less attached to your current opinions, to your current way of doing things, what might be possible? Perhaps there isn't one definitive "right," but only a direction relative wherever you're standing in this moment.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why debate it in theory when you can...

test it and measure your results? Not even Carnac the Magnificent (if you're old enough to remember Johnny Carson!) has enough information to completely discount an idea beforehand.

It would be nice to think that the workplace is a completely rational place, but we know that it's not. Wherever there are people there are emotions. Our unwillingness to let people try things creates resentment and unnecessary competitiveness. It keeps us in the role of parent and them in the role of ignorant child. That places too much burden, frankly, on the leaders and reduces the overall corporate IQ of your company.

Imagine how much it will boost the morale of your staff when they are free to test their ideas! They'll feel like they have more control over their work environment, giving them a greater sense of ownership of results. If you let them test their ideas they'll get their own data and thereby will learn and develop more quickly than would happen if you kept a firm hold on the reins.

Of course some ideas are high-risk enough that you don't want the skunkworks to run away with them without some oversight. But even for that, you can create criteria ("If it's under $X go for it!) that can manage your risk. Huge numbers of low-cost or no cost ideas are out there that could readily be tested.

Remember the "measure" part of this. Determine what's important - are you looking to save dollar cost, time, number of people handling a part, or what? That will be the proof in your pudding.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Keys to better delegation

Originally uploaded by anthonywuzhere

There are so many advantages to delegating work - better time use on your part, involvement on the part of other people in your department, burnout prevention, and professional development among them. But a number of managers have told me that they aren't delegating the way they could or should. And in some instances they've been burned by handing off a job that was then not done correctly or not on time. Here are some of the obstacles they've named:

  • I can't let go. I stress about it the whole time the other person is working on it, so I figure that I might as well work on it myself.
  • I do it the best, so why give it to someone who won't do as well?
  • My staff is already jammed with projects - they don't need my stuff too.
  • My next in command isn't ready with the knowhow to follow through on the project.
  • I don't have time to be following up. It's easier to do it myself.

What it gets down to is a clarification of what you're being paid to do as a leader. You might have gotten your promotion because you're the best technician in the company in your field, but are you supposed to be the chief technician in this role? Or are you being paid to help others perform effectively? My bet is that you're accountable for leveraging the skills of the whole team, not just your own.

If you want to get better at handing projects off, you can improve your delegation by:

  • Setting clear expectations for the task, including criteria that you will use to gauge the quality of the output.
  • Establishing a timeline, either by telling the employee when you need it, or by having them evaluate the project (if it's more open ended) and tell you when they expect to be able to deliver it.
  • Training them BEFORE you delegate to them. Otherwise this will be an exercise and frustration for both of you and you'll prove to yourself that you shouldn't have delegated in the first place.
  • Developing a project plan. If this is completely new for the employee you'll want to collaborate on the development of the plan. If they have more experience have them develop the plan and discuss it with you before they start. That way you can teach them about your thought process (and they can demonstrate theirs to you.) Understanding one another's thought process helps the learning from this situation transfer to the next one.
  • Incorporating progress review dates. If it's a big and/or important project you don't want to wait until the 11th hour and realize that it's not complete. If it's been broken down into steps (see project plan above) you and they will be able to see whether it's on track and take corrective action if needed.
  • Freeing yourself from the idea that it has to be done the way you do it. There is more than one right answer for many situations, and your biggest concern is that the project gets the results you want, right? So let the person use their own strengths to get the job done, even if it's not exactly the way you would execute.
  • Providing feedback during and after the project. If one of the big benefits to delegation is to develop staff, let them know how they're doing. The greener they are, the more feedback they'll want from you. Behavior you reward is the behavior that will be repeated, so make a point of telling them what's right with what they are doing.
  • Drive out fear. Mistakes can and will happen, and you'll jeopardize future attempts at delegating if you flip out on your employee for messing up. Of course you don't want them to be learning the same lesson over and over again, but if you create a hostile environment they'll be reluctant to take on more responsibility and hesitant to take action.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why some leaders choose not to develop their people

I learned a long time ago that not all leaders are inclined to develop their staffs. They've told me a number of reasons over the years and I've inferred some other ones as well. Leaders who don't take active steps to develop their staffs might choose not to because:
  • They expect employees to come already equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to do the job.
  • The business is struggling financially and they think they can't afford it.
  • They are reluctant to interfere with the production schedule to do production capacity work.
  • They don't see the connection between developing staff and getting better business results, viewing development as an expense rather than an investment.
  • They expect the correct behaviors to be intuitive, or to be able to be "picked up" through the course of regular daily operations.
  • They don't know how to evaluate quality, or perhaps don't know what to look for in development resources. So when in doubt they save the cash and avoid the perceived risk.
  • The company is setting revenue and/or profit records, so they conclude that people are already doing what they need to do. They're "safe" from the need to develop staff.
  • It's not the right time because the company is smack in the middle of (fill in the blank _____) initiative.

The labor budget is (in most businesses) the largest single line item. How is it then, that it becomes so easy to consider staff development as a "we are the world" nice thing to do, rather than an essential leveraging of the largest resource in the company?

This is one of those "pay me now or pay me later" scenarios, particularly in the area of human relations skills. I can go on my merry way and put out the little fires along the way, not realizing that there's a line of flame running under the floorboards. If it breaks through I'll be in a conflagration before I know it - a mutiny or a union grievance or even a lawsuit could be in the offing.

If I'm a leader and I'm not growing myself I'm modeling stagnation. If I'm standing still I'm not avoiding risk - I'm inviting it, because the current of change will rush by me before I know what happened. And my business might grow beyond my own leadership competency level.

So when IS the right time to develop staff, and what are the right circumstances? My experience says that there is rarely a good one - it's something a leader has to choose because he or she sees something bigger and better in the future for the people and for the company. When there is a direct link between changed employee behavior and business results (including reduced distractions from solving people problems) the time is right.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Comparing apples and oranges

Apples and oranges
Originally uploaded by Jeff Tabaco

Yes, I know, that's the oldest comparison in the book, but sometimes the shoe fits...whoops, there's another oldie but goodie. The point is, when you're choosing among options are they really comparable?

  • When looking for a car, how can you realistically compare whether you've got a better deal on the minivan or on the convertible? Each has its own pricepoint because the features are very different from the other. Each has its own level of demand, which is going to influence the level of flexibility available to you from the dealer. They have two very different purposes (other than just getting you from place to place.)
  • How can you compare two children, two dates, or two friends? They are unique, and to reduce them to comparison minimizes their individual qualities. If you MUST compare, say, job applicants, you'd take a look at the specific characteristics, skills, etc. required for the job. But you'll never really be able to do a full comparison and count on being accurate. As a matter of fact, you'll never REALLY know a person until you spend a lot of time with them and their inner qualities reveal themselves.

Comparison is reliant upon the criteria you're using. Your criteria might not lead you to "good, better, best." Instead it might lead you to "easy care fabric, tailored fit, more versatile."

Sometimes people who have a hard time choosing the right partner for themselves do so because they haven't gotten specific (or comprehensive enough) about the criteria that are important to them. One person might put up with almost anything as long as their spouse has financial resources. Another person might be able to handle physical unattractiveness as long as their partner is willing to watch endless hours of pro football on TV.

If you've not been satisfied with some of your past choices, think back to whether you established clear criteria for the comparison. And no matter what you've done before, your next choice has the potential to be a more effective one.

Friday, September 12, 2008

People skills aren't automatic

Talking Away
Originally uploaded by hyperboreal

Where did you learn what you know about how to relate effectively to other people? How did you figure out how to get along in the workplace? How much are the people issues on your personal radar screen, and how important are they to you?

Some people have a great deal of clarity where people are concerned. Some might make an argument for temperament, and I do believe that genetics can play a role here. But a lot of what makes a person effective or ineffective is learned.

Some writers on the topic say that we have about 95% of our fundamental attitudes conditioned into us by age 5. Yes, I said age 5, by the time most of us are only starting school. Our fundamental attitudes include people stuff like:

  • How do I feel about people who are different than me?
  • How do I relate to authority figures?
  • How much can I trust other people?
  • What is an appropriate relationship for me to have with different categories of people? (parents, colleagues, friends, etc.)
  • How much do I disclose about myself?
  • How do I go about getting my way or pursuing my goals where other people are involved?
  • How important are my needs compared to everybody (or anybody) else's?

Most of us learn our interpersonal skills through modeling off of somebody else or through trial and error.

Role models

This can be a great way to learn people skills, or it can be one of our biggest stumbling blocks. It all depends upon the quality of our role models. When we're young we don't really select our role models, because we have no basis upon which to judge effective vs. ineffective behavior. We just copy the behaviors that appear to get results. Ultimately, although we may not realize it at the time, we'll assess future potential role models using the context of our early role models.

Sometimes we don't know what we want to do - our role models only demonstrate to us who we DON'T want to be. That's like turning off the television set instead of changing the channel. And if that individual's negative behavior placed a huge imprint on us we're likely to have that stored so that at some intense or stressful time in the future it'll pop out before we realize it.

Trial and Error

My favorite Tom Peters catch phrase is "test and measure." Try stuff and see whether it works; if it works, do it again. If it doesn't work test something else. Given a lack of role models this might be the only method immediately apparent to you. But how do YOU like to be tried and erred upon? Sometimes the mistakes are big enough that you find yourself in a position of trying to unbreak an egg. Some errors have consequences that last a long, long time.

Resources for People Skills

You can read up on this subject - there are tons of resources. The challenge with reading, however is that you need to find a way to translate the information into action. This isn't always easy to do unless you have a process that helps you apply what you learn.

Get feedback from people you trust. Sometimes we have blind spots that are messing us up in the people arena, and we need somebody to describe what we're doing and let us know the implications of our behavior. It can be helpful here to make an "official" agreement that we're looking for input - otherwise, that person's people skills might tell him or her that they shouldn't risk hurting our feelings.

Take a diagnostic. Behavioral style profiles like DISC can help you identify the patterns of behavior that are helping or hurting your relationships with other people. The Attribute Index can also help you see how big your "people clarity" is when compared with other dimensions, like getting things done or following rules.

Hire a coach. If you want a neutral, third party feedback source a coach can fill the bill quite nicely. A certified coach is trained in helping you "hold the mirror up" to yourself so you won't be blind to behaviors that aren't working for you. Because the roles in the relationship are defined you don't have to be reciprocal about it. It's all about you, all the time.

People skills are not automatic - and they're the reason why many people have difficulty at work or at home, no matter how intelligent or educated, or technically skilled they are. Why leave this big piece of your effectiveness to chance?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Money down the drain - finding waste

Money down the drain
Originally uploaded by thekmancom

In a down market we tend to be a bit closer to our dollar bills than we are when things are booming. But whether times in your business are good or not so great right now, there is cash - perhaps even substantial cash - hiding in your business right now in the form of waste. If you're not sure where to look, or if you haven't scouted for waste recently, here are some potential bonanzas-in-waiting:

  • Product defects - if you're remaking product or receiving warranty claims you've got waste.
  • If you're making more than you need you've got waste. My grandmother's dog ate like a king, but I'd hate to have paid her grocery bills!
  • If you're keeping too much inventory on hand you've got waste. (This includes your little personal stash of office supplies in your desk. As your mom would say, "What if everyone else would do it?" And they probably are doing it.)
  • If you spend a lot of time and energy transporting you've got waste. If 15 people need to meet with 1 person in another building the 1 person should go to where the 15 are located. How far do you drive or fly to see people?
  • If you're overprocessing you've got waste. If you're overinspecting or producing to tolerances tighter than customer requirements you're expending unnecessary time and capital.
  • If you're moving unnecessarily you've got waste. Large kitchens, no matter how beautifully appointed, are often not as efficient as small ones, where you can just turn around to reach the stove, refrigerator, pots and pans, and utensils. And at the office if you're hand carrying hard copies of reports to people you must simply be looking for ways to burn extra calories and/or socialize during the workday.
  • If you or your product are waiting you've got waste. That means if you choose to read this without doing anything about it, you're probably costing yourself money!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Re-inventing process

Originally uploaded by sweet distin

Where does innovation come from in your company? From some ivory tower R & D folks? From front line staff solving problems? From questions or requests that customers make about your products or services? Are you producing every day operating on autopilot or are you providing the opportunity for your company's (or your household's) potential inventors to devote time to thinking about whether HOW the process works is as effective as possible?

Invention can involve a "thing" or it can be the development of a new and better way to produce it. You might be in an industry where the process of product development is mission critical - in that instance hitting a new product introduction date can mean the difference between leading the market and playing catch-up with a competitor. Even if you're in a business where the products or services tend to stay more static you can capture market share by doing what you do more effectively and efficiently.

Innovation doesn't have to be something that a wild-eyed mad scientist does in solitary confinement - sometimes the best way to invent a new way of doing things is to collaborate with other people who are doing similar things. You can take the best of the best and design a new process that incorporates the input of many.

Here's how you invent something new and improved from an existing work process:

  • Recruit a team of people who are already involved in doing the work. This is no time for the theoriticians - you want the real deal in the room. It also helps if you have a facilitator from outside the work group whose only responsibility is for the movement of the re-invention process. (They'll be more effective if they've got no political stake in it.)
  • Dissect, in detail, what's currently happening, what the actual steps in the process are right now. You want to take a look at what the people do, and what the product is doing. Concentrate on what IS being done right now, regardless of whether it's what SHOULD be what's being done right now. If people aren't using the current process consistently there is more to it than employee noncompliance. Something in the process is broken.
  • Identify opportunities for improvement. You need not have one million-dollar idea to make your efforts worthwhile - a collection of one-dollar ideas will add up before you know it. Remember, if you're working on a process you're repeating it daily, hourly, maybe even minute by minute. Savings will continue to compound over time.
  • Create a new "can be" process. It can involve streamlining, integrating, perhaps even eliminating unnecessary steps from the old process. Problem-solve any issues that could be working but aren't right now.
  • Test the new process and measure gains. Refine if needed.
  • Implement new process on a larger scale.
  • Continue to follow performance measures to see whether additional action will need to be taken in the future.

If you haven't looked at your processes in a while they probably could benefit from some attention. Chances are that old processes are causing complacency and costing you money and time, not to mention employee morale. Why give up any of these if you don't have to?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Why your open door policy isn't working

An Open Door
Originally uploaded by DarrylW4

One of the most widely used tools by company leaders who want to create a collaborative environment and good relationships with their staffs is the open door policy. Yet some managers are puzzled that, despite their good intentions, the policy isn't getting the kind of quick learning, interactive team that they anticipated it would create. If your open door policy isn't giving you the results you want, here are some reasons why:

  1. They might not know what the questions are. A successful open door policy relies on the initiative of the employee to come and ask for help. Sometimes a person new to the job won't have enough context yet to come and ask. If work standards aren't communicated clearly at the outset they might simply try to muddle through, perhaps making mistakes or misdirections along the way. An open door is no substitute for a good orientation and thorough training.
  2. It relies on their willingness to demonstrate that they don't know. It can be a bit embarassing for some people to ask for help. If you hired them for their expertise they might be concerned about exposing their weaknesses, especially early in their relationship with you. On the other end of the spectrum is the person who's worked in your company forever, but who feels defensive enough not to want to give anyone any ammunition to accuse them of not knowing or doing their job properly.
  3. You might be saying one thing with your door but another thing with your other communication. Inadvertent frowns, sighs, etc. on your part communicate volumes about whether you genuinely don't mind being interrupted, and whether this question or concern is welcome. If your nonverbal communication is inconsistent with your words they'll believe your nonverbal communication.
  4. Constant interruptions will mess with your productivity. At some point you have your work to get done too. One of the biggest complaints I hear from leaders is that they receive so many interruptions that they can't even track their time use in 15-minute increments. There might be certain times of the day when you need to close that door for an hour or so. If your staff can't leave you alone for that long there's probably a training issue that you need to address (or a control issue that you need to get over!)

If you want to make sure it happens, create process around it. If you want to be sure that you are communicating with your staff regularly, don't leave it completely up to them to initiate it. Set up a schedule where, at minimum, you'll be talking with Sam or Jo at least for x amount of time each week or each month. That will help you keep in touch with them, help them keep in touch with you, so your open door won't be swinging constantly. You'll both be able to make pre-emptive strikes with information, and will be able to stockpile nonurgent topics to reduce interruptions between your scheduled one-on-ones.

Friday, September 5, 2008

How are you going to move your hands and feet?

In Your Footsteps
Originally uploaded by blabbr

It's easy to make the big pronouncements, like "I'm going to start my own business," or "I'm going to lose 10 pounds." But it's not so easy actually following through on them. Where a lot of goals go south is in the lack of specific action steps - in how you are going to move your hands and feet, and by what date.

Sometimes the obstacle to the development of action steps is not knowing where to start. One way to get around this is to start by asking yourself one or more of these questions:

  • Why haven't I done it already?
  • What's in my way?
  • What resources do I have to pull together to make this happen?

If these don't spur your thinking, back all the way up to your goal and determine whether you've been specific enough in how you've defined it. If you're going to start a business, specifics like what exactly it will be and where it will be located will make huge differences in the scope and risk involved in each of the steps you'll lay out. Leave your goal murky, like "I'm going to get more productive," and it will be hard to put your finger on what the appropriate actions might be.

A well thought through action step will meet the criteria of a well constructed goal: it will be specific, measurable, achievable, realistically high and time deadline stated. It can be readily entered into your planner or pda and tracked like any other task, checked off when complete. You can feel the thrill of progress even before you've achieved the ultimate goal, which for many people means you'll feel a renewal of commitment to your larger goal as an outgrowth of your feeling of immediate success.

When you boil even the biggest goals down into manageable action steps you can achieve a great deal before you even know it. This isn't rocket science - it is, however, one of the fundamentals that most of us know and far fewer of us do on a consistent basis.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Is the mommy track kaput?

The nomination of Sarah Palin to be John McCain's running mate in the 2008 elections has brought up thought and discussion of what, really, is the best role for a mother. I thought this would be a no-brainer for me - that she should be doing whatever she wants to be doing, "you go girl" and all that. In most cases this would be none of our beeswax. But the fact that we all get to decide whether she gets the VP job means that we do have a legitimate say in whether this mother of five should be recruited for a 24/7 job.

Back in the fabulous 1950's the expectation for a woman was school, marriage, children, empty nest, end of story. The comfort in this expectation was that everybody knew what they were "supposed" to do. Even if family situations required something different, the idea was that sometimes a mommy "had to" work. The ideal scenario was that the dads made the money, dads made the rules, and the mommies made lovely houses and nutritious meals.

I became an adult in the era where the expectations were beginning to be challenged. Women started to hold full-time jobs because they wanted to, not just because they had to. It was partly a desire for equal economic power. As a teenager I vowed that I would be financially self-sufficient and that I would make my own mark on the world. So there.

My years in the corporate world showed me a slightly different set of perspectives. On one hand were the women who decided to slow down their careers to make sure they weren't feeling like they were giving their children short shrift. On the other hand were the women who decided not to have children so they could have high-intensity careers without distraction from family demands. Somewhere in the middle were the people who waited till their kids were grown before they got intense about their careers, and the moms who only had one or at most two children to keep the logistics reasonable.

I chose to wait until my career was well-established before I became a parent. I chose to become self-employed in large part because I wanted to be able to make my own rules about family and work balance. And when the opportunity finally came I scaled back my work projects somewhat so I didn't have to do the day care dance while they were infants and preschoolers. Their daddy and I covered with help from Grammy and some pitching in every now and again by a couple of trusted neighbor moms.

Resources for working mothers are so much more plentiful now - extended hour day care centers, nannies, family members, and dads who don't feel threatened by being the stay-at-home parent. The challenge is not in the day-to-day, however. The challenge is in what you do when a child is sick, or what you do when you have a meeting and your daughter is in a dance recital on the same night at the same time. A working mom ultimately has to choose whether or not she is willing to delegate her mothering in those more delicate times.

In my mind it is a matter of degree. Some careers are more easily compatible with motherhood and its demands, whether it's because they have company-sponsored child care, or school-compatible hours, or flexible workloads. Families can adapt to a lot, but at some point each woman (or man, for that matter) has to consider whether she's asking her family for an unreasonable amount of adaptation for the sake of the advancement of her career.

Comment if you 'd like to tell me you disagree, but I believe that ultimately there is no substitute for a mom. It's not that I think Sarah Palin shouldn't be allowed to run - I do think, however, that she's doing a grave disservice to her family to do it right now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

When employees are unpredictable

It's so comforting when you know what to expect from someone - even when you 're not wild about what you're expecting to see you have the opportunity to do whatever you can to manage the transaction. You can think ahead and find a way to have a productive outcome by adapting your behavior to communicate with the person. But what do you do when their behavior seems to come directly out of left field?

  • If you're shocked, dismayed, or feel yourself getting emotionally intense about it - give yourself a time out so you don't add fuel to the fire. Even if you're asked a direct and inflammatory question by this person you don't have to answer it right away. Remember, people are watching your reaction and in the future will model what they see you do.
  • When you're assessing the situation, consider whether this most recent incident was unusual for this person or another in a pattern of unacceptable behavior. Are there any similarities in external conditions among the incidents, meaning are there triggering events or circumstances you can identify?
  • Meet with the person (once you're calm) and ask questions to help gain insight into the meaning behind the behavior you observed. Don't jump to conclusions in your interpretation of what the person intended - ask. If they're unaware of what they did that has the office in a tizzy, describe the situation using neutral descriptions of their behavior.
  • Talk to them about the fallout from their behavior - the consequences to the team and/or to the business - and ask for their help in making things better.
  • It's possible that the behavior that is driving everyone crazy is the result of personal crises, health issues (physical or mental,) or even substance use. Don't rule out the possibility that there are systemic issues in the company that cause a buildup of stress, ultimately causing what look to be sudden outbursts. If you have resources (such as an Employee Assistance Program) at your disposal to help this employee, by all means guide them to them.
  • Although you can't fix everything about your employees' lives it is your job to stand for a certain level of performance. Think carefully before you cave on accountability to avoid dealing with the problem. That approach will not serve you, this person, other employees, or your company and its customers.

Ultimately, most unpredictable and even irrational behavior isn't so confounding once you get some background. It's just that the person is operating from a different "common" sense than you are.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Courage and the high road

Take the High Road
Originally uploaded by jimheid

I admit it - I'm still wound up about the speech Barack Obama made Thursday evening at the Democratic National Convention. Whether you consider yourself to be a D or an R, a liberal, conservative, libertarian, independent, Heinz 57 or whatever politically, one point that resounded in my head after Obama's speech is exceedingly important to consider: We need to summon the courage to take the high road.

True leadership, in my view -

  • Has the courage to take the high road and make the discussion about what can be and what has to be done to get there, rather than to dwell on ways to break down one's opponent.
  • Resists the sway of the naysayers who stand back in apathy or hurl insults out of fear (or out of a desire to preserve their status quo.)
  • Challenges people to stretch beyond what is, and takes a comprehensive view. No one initiative will be a panacea - the rule of Kaizen is what works to solve our largest problems - death by a thousand cuts.
  • Seeks to be inclusive rather than exclusive in the potential for rewards.
  • Provides tools for people who want to take responsibility for themselves and for obtaining a better outcome.
  • Creates conversation rather than monologue about what is the proper course. After all, no one person has all of the intelligence, all of the information, nor all of the perspective.
  • Avoids placing too much emphasis on the worst case scenario. Anyone who believes in the law of attraction knows that when you focus on what you don't want you bring it closer. Decisions based upon the ugliest possibilities are defensive at best, unnecessary or downright wrong at their worst.
  • Makes the discussion about those who are following, not about himself or herself.

This is a defining time for us. We need to decide what kind of people we want to be, and that will determine who we should choose to lead us. Do we want to be dynamic, working toward a larger good? Or do we want to be defensive and invest our energy on looking over our shoulders and playing vigilante on the world stage? What a difference we could make if we could all summon the courage to take the high road.