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.

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Being The Boss Means Overriding The Desire To Criticize

A leader must maintain balance between positive reinforcement and constructive criticism in order to truly motivate others and achieve success. - Brendan Witcher

A leader must maintain balance between positive reinforcement and constructive criticism in order to truly motivate others and achieve success. – Brendan Witcher

There is a hard truth in the world that most leaders struggle with: it is easier for us to recognize good behavior than bad behavior. For many of us, it’s because our emotions tied directly to each are completely unbalanced. When we see good behavior or experience a positive moment, our emotions flow like water from a faucet. By comparison, when we witness bad behavior or experience a negative moment, it’s like the Mississippi River is trying force it’s way through our brains and come shooting out of our mouths. Here is a good example that everyone can relate to:

Think of your car. Today, your car will probably get you from Point A to Point B (and maybe to C, D, E, etc) and then back to Point A again without a problem. You’ll go about your day without thinking much about your car or the modern mechanical miracle that it is. At each stop, will you thank your car? Will you feel happiness towards your car? Probably not.

But let’s say, during that important trip from Point A to point B, that your car suddenly stops working.  You’re not out of gas and there’s no logical explanation for it to break down. It just stops. Now you can’t get to Point B (or C or D or E) or even back to Point A today. Plus, you know that your entire day will be spent getting your car towed, working with a mechanic, and finding a way to get to all the “Points” in your life for who-knows-how-long. Now how do you feel about your car? Do you yell at it? Do you curse it? Do you pound on the steering wheel or kick the tire in anger? Enough said.

This is a good metaphor for how we react to most situations and, more importantly, other people in both our work and personal lives. Great leaders recognize and acknowledge that this is the natural state; to react boldly and swiftly to a negative and passively (if at all) to a positive.

Leaders work consciously to balance their reactions; to raise their level of expression in positive situations as well as suppress some level of expression in negative situations. 

Note that I did not state a complete reversal. Leaders don’t constantly play the cheerleader while ignoring that the team needs a swift kick in the pants. Here are some simple steps that can be taken towards that balance of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism:

  1. Be fully connected to what is going on: Actively look for the positive things happening around you (as well as the negative things that you might normally glaze over).
  2. Acknowledge good behavior immediately: Don’t wait for reviews or send it later in an email; do it now and do it publicly if appropriate.
  3. Pause before calling out bad behavior: Take the opposite route and plan to address bad behavior later that day and in private (note: never wait too long to address bad behavior)

Following these three steps with some consistency will get you most of the way towards this balanced leadership approach. By doing so, you’ll start to realize and recognize how far off your natural state is from this balanced state. If you find yourself having a lot of chances to praise that you wouldn’t have seen before (or pausing a lot more than you thought you would), you know you have some work to do. But stick with it, and you’ll find that mastering this skill is one of the greatest tools for elevating yourself as a leader and having success in working with others.

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.

Lead Like Apple: Prioritize Individual Accountability

To have a fully accountable team, you must break “getting in line” behavior with individual ownership of success. – Brendan Witcher

I’m not sure when or why this happened, but at some point, holding people fully accountable for their work became very non-politically correct. The idea of “getting on the bus” and building a culture of consensus/conformity has become the norm. I’ve been asked to write on this before, but really needed somewhere to start.

Today, while waiting in my office for a meeting to start, I picked up an old Fortune magazine and proceeded to flip through the pages. In it, I came across an article that described how Steve Jobs and Apple applied the concept of a “directly responsible individual,” referred to as the DRI, within the organization. What does that mean?

With every project, there is one specific person, the DRI, who is totally responsible for its success or failure.

Since my meeting was a 2014 budget review for open entry-level positions and internships, my thoughts segued from the article to the pile of resumes on my desk belonging to recent college grads.

It’s no secret that there is an excessive amount of emphasis team building in today’s business schools. My own experience in an MBA program was no different; most of my classes focused on team projects, where everyone received the same grade regardless of effort. I felt at that time, and still believe, that this was the opposite lesson needed for working in a real business environment, where individual efforts tend to define the decisions and outcomes of tasks, jobs or projects. Even in large companies, with 500+ employees, it’s rare that a “team” in some way gets fully rewarded or held accountable for success or failure respectively. In smaller companies, it’s almost never the case.

So, while academia seems to believe everything should be done via teamwork and collaboration (which often leads to compromise in projects), and that the tough decisions should be made via team compromises, I agree with Apple’s approach. Here are the rules I created years ago and use to manage my staff with at every company that’s employed me:

  • Make individuals – not teams – accountable
  • When people succeed, give them full credit and reward them…publicly
  • When people fail, determine what caused the failure and decide on the appropriate action(s): refrain, explain, re-train, or do not retain

If you are trying to implement a significant change, or even build a culture of innovation as part of a strategy, substituting individual ownership with consensus building teams can be disastrous. A culture of consensus (or conformity in a smaller organization) leads to legions of sycophants, merely trying to please the largest paycheck in the room. You also risk suppressing distinct and new opportunities, while crushing any chance of a significant”needle-moving” idea gaining traction.

Remember, if you try to make a unique idea acceptable to everyone, you end up with an average idea. I had a boss years ago who used to often say “Consider this outcome to be the determining factor between you having a job tomorrow or you (and your family) living under a bridge, begging for change.” Harsh, but her point was spot on. If you consider every decision you make to be that critical, the single determining element between success and failure in your career, you’re going to approach your work with a sharper eye, a more focused mind, and an uncompromising determination to make sure that you – not anyone else – deliver successful results.

So, what are the takeaways?

  1. With every significant project, use the DRI concept; name someone who lays down at night worrying that he/she is going to be a failure if this thing doesn’t become a success.
  2. Make it clear to the everyone, at every level, how the job/project is going to be run and, most importantly, who is the DRI. This needs to be said at the top and heard, first hand, by everyone who matters.
  3. Also, make sure it’s clear to everyone that the DRI has full authority and ownership over their job and delivering results, because he/she will be “the throat to choke.”

All that said, there are times when team consensus work is a better choice; in fact, there are situations where it is absolutely necessary. For example, teams must be used when you need to improve a process. Team members should represent the various skills needed to handle certain aspects of a process. Process improvement tools like Japanese Total Quality and Six Sigma brought the team concept to the American workplace; but, unfortunately, many folks still attempt to apply the team notion through every part of their business.

So recognize when to use DRI’s vs. teams, apply DRI use religiously to key areas of the business, follow through on accountability, and who knows…maybe you’ll be running the most valuable company in the world someday too.

Dedicated to Steve…your leadership and inspirational thinking is missed.

From Manager To Leader: Making The Leap

Making the jump between managing and leading takes vision, courage and the ability to let go of what works to find what works better.

Where are we going? Who’s in charge? How are things going to be better tomorrow than they are today? These are the questions that will be on the minds of those around you when you’re managing instead of leading.

I say “on the minds” specifically because you probably won’t be aware that this is what your team or peers are thinking. From the where you sit, in your own mind, you may believe you are being a good leader because everyone is following you. But leading isn’t about having people follow, it’s about motivating and inspiring in others such a compulsion to follow that it’s all they want to do. When these questions are being asked, leadership status cannot be attained.

There are many examples of  failed businesses that were being managed and not led (Blockbuster, Blackberry, Circuit City, Nokia, etc).  If you search through the achieves and read any of the public statements made by these CEOs during their decline, the common thread is a lack of leadership. There was a lot of “We’re going to continue to deliver…”, but very little in the way of “why” the business was going to turn around or how specific issues that were causing the decline were going to be overcome.  During this time, I guarantee that employees were having closed door discussions and spending lunch hours grumbling about the issues and missed opportunities and wondering why nothing was happening.

So why did managers running these long-standing organizations fail to lead, inspire through vision, achieve the needed changes, and turn their ships around? Why did they fail to visualize and act before things got so far gone? Because to change means to admit you’re doing things wrong, which is usually the only nail needed for the coffin if not done quickly. But that’s just the first step. To initiate and create permanent change means to let go of stability, create a new vision that is strategically sound, and communicate that vision in a way that inspires a cultural sense of urgency.

As the person in charge, you need to be the one who sees clearly and separate what works from what doesn’t. That’s managing. But if you wish to lead, you need to find (and encourage others to find) new, innovative ideas and ways of improving your team, department and overall business.

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