Leaders: Always Fix Yourself First

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.” – Albert Schweitzer

We all fight far greater battles privately, within ourselves, than we ever face in public arenas. When people recognize their shortcomings, most will work their entire lives to change and rise above them in order to become the person they want to be. Indeed, some of history’s greatest leaders – Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. – have each faced personal challenges such as lacking enthusiasm, doubting their capabilities, using poor judgement, and even feeling bouts of insecurity. The answer to why anyone looking to be a leader must work to remove these debilitating factors may seem obvious. But in fact, the reason has less to do with the leader than with the people they are hoping to lead.

To be truly effective as a leader, your shortcomings must never eclipse those of the people that you are trying to inspire.

Leaders inspire others to reach, to go beyond what they believe they accomplish. To do this, leaders themselves must be armed with a clear mind and strength to lift others. This means having feelings in check that may weaken a leader’s abilities.

ACTIONABLE STEPS:

Self-improvement – much like being a leader – is an ongoing activity. The truth is you will never be without faults; the question is how well will you be able to monitor, manage and maintain control of these areas for improvement effectively enough to be a strong, dependable leader. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Acknowledge your shortcomings. As the old saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step. Write down the issues you have for you to help get clear in your mind what exactly it is that you have to work on. A good exercise to help you understand what these may be is to ask a trusted friend their opinion. Take their feedback to heart, abstain from objecting, and listen with an open mind. If someone is truly trying to help you improve yourself, it is in your best interest to just listen.
  • Set goals, keep records, and celebrate wins. Any process that requires ongoing work over a long period of time is difficult to do without motivation. Leaders looking to have sustainable results can find this motivation by having points of reference and keeping track of personal improvements. Seeing growth in your abilities to overcome personal weaknesses will help you to remain diligent in keeping with the mental or physical activities driving positive change.
  • Figure our a ‘therapy’ that works for you. It is almost impossible to change who you are without also making a change in the way you approach addressing who you are. Find activities – mental or physical – to accomplish this, that work for you personally, and give you the strength to become the person you want to be. For Lincoln, he would write each evening; Gandhi would take daily walks, Mandela would have regular meetings with trusted friends, and King Jr. would pray. In each of these activities, these leaders found incremental improvements in overcoming their own personal challenges. It is, however, important to find the ‘therapy’ that actually works for you. Once you’ve found it, prioritize the activity and make it a part of your regular routine.

QUESTIONS FOR LEADERS:

  1. What do you do to perpetually address your shortcomings as a leader?
  2. How do you help others reach higher and overcome their own shortcomings?

As always, your answers and other thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

Bringing Back The Value Of Meetings

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.” Clifford Nass, Professor – Stanford University

Imagine you and I are having a conversation – let’s say in your living room – and you’re talking about something that is really important to you. So important, in fact, that you spent several hours preparing to have this talk with me; so crucial for me to hear what you have to say that you’ve asked me to take an hour out of my life and join you in the conversation.

Now imagine – really imagine – that I am reading and sending text messages on my phone the entire time you’re talking; or maybe I’m reading emails from work. How would you feel about that? Would it be rude? Would you be offended? Would you say something? Regardless if you did, I’m sure our relationship wouldn’t be better off for it.

Yet this same behavior has become almost commonplace in today’s business meeting. The larger the group, the more likely it is to happen. The longer the meeting, the more likely it is to happen. Take 20 people and sit them down in a room for 2 hours and each person will, at some point, either check email on their phone or simply open their laptop and start working.

Under the guise of workaholic taskmasters, what the people who do this are really saying is “This really doesn’t matter to me. If it did, I would be paying attention and thinking about how I can add value to the discussion.”

When we dismiss the value of being present, fail to focus on the conversation, stop engaging people in meetings, and pass on the opportunity for discussion, debate, collaboration and consensus building, everyone loses.

I once worked with a CEO who took the reigns at a failing company soon after the CEO was fired. After a few weeks on the job, he started to unashamedly telling people they could leave (meaning “leave”) if they were caught working on their phones or laptops. It took very little time for most of his executive team to get the hint and start using the same practice with their own meetings. Six months later the CEO made it official and sent a memo requiring A) all meetings be laptop free and B) any phone use must be related to the meeting discussion (such as looking up information or emailing relevant questions to non-attendees).

As an outsider who worked closely with the teams during both tenures and saw the changes from a neutral position, I believe five benefits came of this:

  1. People no longer accepted and came to meetings that they didn’t need to attend.
  2. People worked more productively at their desks knowing it was the only time to get work done.
  3. People who did attend meetings felt more respect and better about their relationships with coworkers.
  4. Meetings were more productive; people were engaged, added value to the discussion, and *GASP* decisions were made.
  5. Post-meeting confusion and questions about the meeting’s discussions/takeaways were noticeably reduced.

The truth is we’re not mentally designed to do two non-related, complex tasks at once…at least not well. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says today’s nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves—and he says there’s evidence it may be killing our concentration and creativity too. From the interview, Nass states:

“We have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”

You can see and listen to his interview on NPR here.

So if you’re looking to take the next step and join the “Focused Revolution”, here are some suggestions for writing up your own team/corporate rules:

  • Rule #1: No laptop, tablet or cell phone usage unless it is related to the meeting (such as viewing a PPT or emailing a meeting-related question to a non-attendee).
  • Rule #2 Emergency situation notifications are to be sent via email, with URGENT in the subject line, and those emails can only be answered after excusing oneself from the meeting.
  • Rule #3 While subject lines can be reviewed, no emails are to be opened and no emails are to be sent unless they are flagged as emergencies or relevant to the meeting.
  • Rule #4 Phones are set to vibrate for both calls and text messages. Voice mail cannot be checked, calls cannot be made, and text messages cannot be checked or answered.
  • Rule #5 Notify attendees if an important call is expected. If it comes in, leave the room without distracting others to take the call.

Whether you employ these rules as a team or as an entire company, once they are in place and being followed, meetings will improve. They will return to being a collaborative, informative and strategic tool for developing ideas, setting teams on paths, and delivering decisions for driving towards business success.

Resolving Conflicts in Your Work Relationships

Does this remind you of anyone?

When it comes to confronting difficult people at work, we all feel challenged on a level that’s hard to compare to other situations in the work environment. Unfortunately, speaking to that person directly is usually not the action we take – replaced by either hesitation, coddling or, in extreme cases, complete avoidance of the individual. Why? Because most people are fearful that any action would lead to a worse situation than simply ignoring the person’s abrasive or downright abusive behavior. Yes, there are those who confront others easily without as much as a bat of the eye. But without a good understanding of the situation and the right approach, this can easily lead to irreparable damage to the relationship or even a “friendly” meeting with HR.

People I’ve coached on this topic have most often expressed concern that, if they confront the other person, he/she will either retaliate, make their life at work difficult or at best cause a scene. I’ve also heard statements made of futility, that it’s useless to speak up because ‘There’s no point. The person will never change.’

I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t sometimes the case. There are folks who think they’re perfect, don’t care about how they are coming across, and are not open to change. I have found, however, that most of the people we find challenging either a) know they are imperfect, b) have heard similar feedback, or c) are not aware of how they are coming across. In these cases, I’ve usually found people are willing and open to change (or at least try). If you have a situation like this and feel a relationship with this person is salvageable, here are some steps you can take towards improving the issue and, hopefully, creating a better work environment for both of you.

1. Put your perception in a positive place.

You have to start here. Without believing that the situation can be worked out, your approach will come across as defensive or accusatory or both. Your words need to come from a place where you genuinely want to work things out without a desire to make the other person feel bad or regretful. Once you can confidently and honestly get to this place, go on to step 2.

2. Plan the right time & place…for both of you.

In your office or just when the other person is trying to leave for the day would be the wrong approach. Schedule an offsite lunch or casual dinner (no drinking) with the person, just the two of you. A neutral environment is important for both of you to feel secure and physically “separates” the issue from work. It goes without saying, but don’t plan 30 minutes if that’s what time you need to get your conversation out. Leave time for discussion. The other person may need some validation or additional communication from you and deserves the time as well.

3. Focus communication on the problem, not the person.

You have to own this situation with the other person. You cannot put the blame solely on their head. This is critical for yielding a positive outcome from your discussion. Avoid any name calling, direct accusations or statements that start “You’re being…”.  Instead start with something along the lines of “There are differences between us I’m hoping we can discuss and maybe I can learn what I can do better to create a more positive relationship between us.” It is important that you stress how valuable a good working relationship is for both of you and that this is the goal you hope the two of you can reach together. From there, work towards defining the cause of the problem; maybe you have conflicting goals or objectives, maybe you’re both under a lot of stress or maybe each of your communication styles are simply hard for the other to understand. Defining the problem in a way that both you and the other person agree upon removes blame and allows you to address the real issue, not the other person’s self-esteem.

4. Allow for venting, and then strive for a partnership.

While you may be focused on the future, there may be some need for the other person to express how he/she is feeling about a past situation or conversation. Here is where you have to be the listener and validator. Be empathetic and patient in hearing the other person out, but don’t add to the discussion over details regarding a past event, not one comment. Your goal is to focus on the future and how the two of you can partner to make sure what happens from this moment on is positive. If the other person is asking for all the change to come from you, begin ideas with ‘Can we both…?’ or ‘If I…, will you …?’. Come together on future agreements; don’t split up over past disagreements.

5. Consider following up with a written recap.

If there is a trust issue or a history of problems, you may want to communicate in writing what you’ve discussed. Simply send that person (and only that person…no blind CCs) an email, thanking them for their time, communicating gratitude that you were able to talk it out, expressing hope that the future holds better opportunities to work together and, most importantly, what was agreed upon. For your own protection, it is also important to keep a personal record of past situations, how you reacted at the time, the meeting/discussion you had to resolve the issues, and length of time until any issues happened again. Your records may be important if you need to escalate the situation or HR is asked to get involved.

6. Expect another discussion.

Unless the issue was a blatant misunderstanding or you both have uncommon ability to change your personalities on a dime, there will likely be another moment where an issue that arises. This shouldn’t be looked at as a setback; rather, take this as an opportunity to learn, communicate and recommit to a positive relationship. If there has been progress, it should be celebrated and made the focus of the discussion. If you don’t feel any progress was made, don’t get frustrated. As long as you’re making an honest effort to respect the agreement and create a positive work environment, then start with step 1 again and follow through. Sometimes people need to be shown that a situation isn’t going to be ignored, but it also won’t be handled unprofessionally. You might be tempted to ignore or escalate the situation, especially now that you’ve applied additional effort to resolve the situation, but consider arranging another meeting with the same process to try and get results from your hard work and efforts.

7. Be smart and protect yourself.

Again, there are people who you’re just not going to be able to work things out with, but you have to assume from the beginning that you can if you hope to resolve these issues that may be affecting both your work output and your stress levels. Here are a couple of quick tips to make sure you are positioning yourself for the best possible outcome:

  • If you sense you’ve picked the wrong time, place or you messed up a step, start back at step 1 and be patient with working through this process.
  • If the person can be particularly volatile, then make sure you take the suggestion of a public place that allows for a private conversation (like a restaurant).
  • If you think they are likely to accuse you of a serious violation of company policy, like harassment or physical threats, agree to have a person from HR join you at that meeting
  • If the issue is serious and can’t be resolved, then do your best to protect yourself (and your mental health) and do what you can to make the best of a bad situation. If this means moving on – after management has been made aware of the situation but taken no action – then work towards making that happen.

My hope is that you never have to take these steps and that all your relationships are positive and healthy. But should you find yourself needing the advice above, I believe there is some solace in knowing that almost all of us face with this type of situation at least once in our careers. It’s how we chose to handle it that will determine both the outcome and, maybe more importantly, the way we look back on it when the situation no longer exists.

Is Your Company a Perfect “10”?

“10” is within every company’s reach!

The whole cannot be greater than the sum of its parts.

Some of us may remember this statement from elementary math, but its principle seems forgotten when it comes to organizational structure. Recently, I was dining with three C-Level executives at a well-known and expensive restaurant. The purpose of this meeting was exploratory in nature. The BOD’s P/L goals for the company had been repeatedly missed over the past 3 years and wanted something done about it. The goals had been reasonable, the marketplace had been strong and, unfortunately, the competition was doing well.

As we discussed the situation, they painted a picture of a company with barely any turnover, but also acknowledged that there was very little motivation for employees to excel. By the time dessert came, it was clear what their problem was and why business had been suffering.

At this point I reminded my clients that our waiter had missed a few basic service standards that evening. One of our meals was wrong (and not corrected), we were never asked how the food was and we sat with empty drink glasses for most of the evening. Our server was also generally rude and impatient towards us and another couple sitting nearby. I asked the three individuals sitting with me if they would give him a 10 for this service. They all agreed that a 4 was about as high as he would rate. I then asked if they felt the food was a 10. We all agreed it deserved a 10. I asked them to rate the oveall restaurant itself; decor, music, menu selection. For these aspects in total, again, they gave a 10.

I then asked, “What final score would you give this restaurant?” They all agreed that it would recieve about an 8.

“That,” I said, “is exactly where your problem lies. You want to operate as a “10” but you have too many “3s” and “4s” in your teams.”

This is not an uncommon problem. In fact, because of weak human assets, I have watched entire companies go into the red and disappear despite having solid products and great market penetration. Yet, turnover is thought of as a bad word in corporate circles. It is often interpreted to mean a company can’t retain employees and that it likely spends too much on hiring and training initiatives. This view of turnover inherently dibilitates a company’s ability to grow. When it is purposeful and strategic, turnover can be extremely beneficial. When you let go of people who are not pulling their weight, it sends a message to the rest of your staff that:

  1. Those who give 110% to the company deserve to work with people who will give as much.
  2. The company is striving for perfection.
  3. The company will reward those who take ownership of their jobs, and remove those who do not.

Here is an excellent exercise to put things into perspective. Make a list of all your employees or, if you are a large organization, list employees in just key positions. Score each one of them based on their ability to do three things:

  • Consistently meet your expectations for tasks you expect them to own (1-4 Points)
  • Regularly exceed your expectations in terms of attitude, professionalism, work ethics and commitment to excellence (1-3 Points)
  • Effectively comprehend, communicate and enforce your expectations to those who do not report directly to you (1-3 Points)

When I work with upper-managers, I don’t reveal the theme of this exercise. That being said, I’ve often seen managers beam with pride in their organizations built with average scores of 7s-8s. After we complete this part of the session, many will make comments such as “This looks pretty good” or “My teams are strong overall in these areas.”

First, let me point out that the scoring is usually on the high side. I’ve learned that most managers will give their teams/employees at least a 3 on the first point (just above average) and 2’s on the second and third point (average). In my opinion, these scores lean towards the higher end of the scale because C-Level execs know, to a certain degree, that their subordinates are a reflection of themselves as managers and leaders. If nothing else, they are a reflection on the executive’s ability to hire and motivate good talent. Scoring their subordinates below average is something few execs are willing to do in front of colleagues or their direct reports (or a “tell-it-like-I-see-it” consultant).

It should be clear how absurd it is to rate your most important company assets (your people) as average and call this result “pretty good.” Without excellence in this crucial aspect of your business, you can never obtain excellence overall. Again, the whole cannot be greater than the sum of it’s parts.

What I am saying is this: You must hire, train and retain all level 10 employees if you want a level 10 company. This is a simple concept. If you have all 7s and 8s working for you and running your business, your company will always fall short of its market potential.

How do you fill your ranks with level 10 employees? It starts with the interview process. Most organizations in this day and age have figured out that you better vet your applicants for key employment positions. I’ve even known one person who had to go through a 2-day interview marathon where they met with 16 individuals and 4 groups (she didn’t get the job, but the person who did get the position had to weather another day and 4 individual interviews for a total of 20). But it’s not the number of interviews, or the number of days, or the length of the interviews that matter. It’s what is asked, what is answered and, most importantly, what is not answered. Be sure you have a firm grasp of this person’s ability to:

  1. Do the job better than the person they are replacing.
  2. Bring some kind of strength/experience to the company/department that does not already exist.
  3. Hold themselves accountable for all of the responsibilities you will be asking them to manage.

Next, incentivize and reward employee behaviors that go beyond normal day-to-day responsibilities. Often, all it takes is a simple personal acknowledgement from someone way up the chain to motivate a person to continue outstanding performance for months on end. Think back to when you were starting your career and what it would have meant to you to have someone way up the chain acknowledge work you made great. It costs nothing, so give praise often and whenever it is deserved.

On the reverse side, do not tolerate laziness, irresponsibility or unprofessional behavior from any of your staff, but especially from those in upper-management. Leadership, or lack thereof, always trickles downward. Once bad behaviors become commonplace deep in the organization, they can be difficult, costly and even impossible to remove.

Finally, remind those that work directly for you that the people who work below them are the “parts” of their “whole.” They are responsible for hiring and developing talent below them that raises the score of their areas to “10s.” Again, to reach a 10, one cannot have a score below a 10 as part of the equation.

It’s really just a matter of simple math.

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