Friday, May 29, 2009

Don’t be a bore!

There are those leaders that have such charisma that people migrate toward them. Other leaders are great communicators and are able to express their vision in ways that attract people. Certain leaders are obvious experts in their fields and this causes people to respect and listen to them. Of course, there are those raconteurs that can make their points using stories and teams simply understand and follow them.

At an absolute minimum, there are few boring leaders. I came across this April 29, 2009 posting by Gretchen Rubin on Shine from Yahoo titled “7 topics to avoid if you don’t want to be a bore.” While the post itself is insightful, it also has almost 500 reader comments! A key lesson Gretchen provides is to be sure that the topics you bring to a conversation have room for the listener to add content.

Do you get too excited about your own ideas? As a leader, do you leave room for your teams to participate?


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Be candid – Get candid

Over 20 senior company leaders were anxious how the message was going to be delivered and, even more importantly, received. The teams debated for days whether to even bring up such a sensitive topic. The idea of telling the boss “his baby was ugly” was a frightful thought. Now it was time.

The first discussion did not include such a land mine and went well. The key message was in the middle of the presentation when it was recommended that a key initiative should be “paused.” A kind way of saying “stop it.” The presenter continued on but the boss asked her to go back. “By pause, are you suggesting we can it,” he asked? Actually, that was the recommendation, and the group transitioned into a robust discussion about the possible ways of moving toward far more progressive and positive solutions to the business challenge.

This was an amazing example of the power of a leader’s candid openness resulting in improved communication and business solutions. It created buy-in and a comfort level not often experienced. As leaders, we all need to be open to hear our teams and take the time to clarify what they recommend. This closely relates to the “curiosity elevator” we discussed in “What floor are you on?”

Have you experienced a leader open to having their solutions questioned? Are you this type of leader?


Friday, May 22, 2009

"Piccolo atto di rispetto"

If you have been to a formal business dinner in Italy, you know the importance of the correct seating arrangements. I have seen a caucus break called during the actual business meeting for our Italian hosts to work on the correct and appropriate dinner arrangements. Cultural traditions and formalities such as this keeps me interested and learning.

A couple years ago, my Italian business partners did a "piccolo atto di rispetto" (Italian for “small act of respect”) that truly impressed me. My wife, Barbara, was traveling with me on business to Italy for the first time and was invited to join the dinner event. While she did not know at the start of dinner, but she was seated at the top guest table position (that would be the seat to the right of the highest ranking leader from the host company). This sent a clear message to all those attending the dinner that she was the guest of honor. My hosts took the time to consider that I had been working with them for many years and had my time in that seat. For that evening, I was in the number two guest position (to the left of the host). Barbara was served first, approved the vino and was treated with great respect.

Upon returning to the states from that trip, I have always considered the importance of the small things we can do as leaders to demonstrate respect to our teams, customers and suppliers.

Have you experienced small lessons such as this that changed the way you act in the future?


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Are you a user friendly mentee?

It is finally the day. Scenario 1 - The high-energy, well-educated, tech-savvy teammate is scheduled to meet with the senior leader she has wanted as a mentor. Scenario 2 – The dedicated, hardworking, proven performer is scheduled to meet with the senior leader he has sought as a mentor.

Both scenarios are important to the leader, but the needs of the mentee are likely very different. Having been in these different sessions back-to-back, I thought it might be a good idea for this forum to debate how to be a user-friendly mentee. Here are a couple of ideas:

• Send helpful advance information – resume and career development plan.
• Use your organization’s forms – performance reviews and development plans.
• Provide pre-meeting topic insight – an agenda or question is helpful
• Focus on “who” questions rather than “how” – as John Strelecky recommends.
• Categorize – let the mentor know where they might best help (Mentor strategy payoff).
• Follow-up – close the loop with the mentor on contacts and recommendations.
• Two way street – Mentees must teach the mentor an equal amount.
• On-going communication – short email updates work well.
• Don’t let it die – keep the relationship active or end it. Don’t let it die of inactivity.

Time is the most valuable resource a leader can provide. It is non-renewable. Mentees that use it well will gain the most and will most likely be invited back.

What successful mentor/mentee relationships have you experienced? What made them successful?


Monday, May 18, 2009

Mentor strategy payoff

It has happened to me on multiple occasions. A well intentioned, smart, up-and-comer asks if I’ll be their mentor. While I am always humbled and willing to help, I also want to make sure I bring value to the potential mentee.

I’ve learned over the years to ask what it is that the individual thinks I can help with and it they have other mentors for other topics. Similar to the concept of finding the correct “who” in John Strelecky’s books Big Five for Live and Life Safari, I too believe successful people surround themselves with multiple mentors with different areas of expertise. The five categories of mentors I’ve encouraged talented, high-potential people to have are:

• Educational – Mentors to help guide your education decisions.
• Professional – Mentors to provide insight and guidance for your profession.
• Organizational – Mentors to help interpret and navigate organizational land mines.
• Diversity – Mentors very different then yourself for exposure and self awareness.
• Life – Mentors to guide and understand the things life brings.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive but it does demonstrate the need for multiple mentors and finding the right advice and guidance for a particular situation.

Do you have your own mentor strategy? How do you coach those you mentor in this area?


Friday, May 15, 2009

Who taught you the internet?

WARNING – you must be over 40 to get the full impact of this posting.

It was only 15 years ago and we did not have a personal computer at the house. Why should we? What would you possibly do with it that wasn’t just more work? The early users were moving from Prodigy email service, Dell was just starting, most internet users used their provider’s search engines and workplaces were still trying to cost-justify the purchase of more than one PC per office area.

As a result of the post last week, “Try Honesty,” an old colleague and friend emailed me a comment/compliment that reminded me of an interesting transition time in my career. “You sure have come a long way on your skills with the Internet from those days when I "mentored" you in your office” Randy stated. In the early 1990’s Randy was a first-line manager and I was his boss. He had a quick affinity toward the internet and I was curious. I have mentioned often about being mentored by whoever knows your interests. Level and stature should not matter. I am not sure which thing brought the smile to my face, the memory of Randy teaching me to do a search, or the fact that my mentoring theory proved correct again.

Who initially taught you the internet? Have you been mentored by subordinates successfully?


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What floor are you on?

A day had been added to the annual leadership team offsite for some type of team building event. The offsite itself required preparation, travel and days off the “real” job, so the idea of extra time was not thrilling. The hired consultants were coming.

If we were going to go into a jungle, playing a sport or test trust with a daring exercise, that would have seemed like fun. This, though, was mandated from the top and performed in a hotel conference room. To my surprise and delight, I left that session with one tool that I have used every day since - The Senn-Delany “Mood Elevator.” This is a far too simplistic explanation, but my take-away was to start every conversation at the elevator’s mid-point which was “Curious and Interested.” Think about the difference in the way people provide you information when they believe you want to know. Even your ability to ask probing questions improves. “I’m curious why you feel so strongly about topic XYZ.” “I’m interested to understand the benefits of your proposal over the one we already have?” “I’m curious if your teammates feel the same way?”

Do you start your conversations from a position of curiosity? Try it and share how it went.


Monday, May 11, 2009

“Melted water pipes”

Dave Hansen is a big dude about 60 years old with motorcycle oil in his blood. He calls himself the Proprietor Extraordinaire of “The Shop” in Ventura. Specializing in Indian motorcycles, he shared some great history of the big shots in Indian motorcycle lore. Most famous of those was Burt Munro from Invercargill, New Zealand. You might remember Burt from the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” (2005) where Anthony Hopkins portrayed him. Multiple times when Dave was talking he referred to his mentor. He did this enough times that I asked him who and where this mentor was. Dave pointed to the framed photo above the door and said “that is Sam Pierce and he taught me everything I know about Indians, running a shop and just about everything else important.” Dave even told us the story of the time that Burt Munro was passing through Sam’s house on his way to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Sam called Dave and told him to get over to the house right away, sit down, shut up, listen and be in the presence of greatness. Burt was melting old Ventura county water pipes and making piston sleeves for his motorcycles. Burt said Ventura pipes used the best materials. Per Dave, he learned so much that afternoon from Burt and Sam.

I thought about what had just happened for the next 30 miles while I cruised up Hwy 1. It would be amazing to have a mentor so important and influential in our careers that we frame a photo of this person and hang it over the door of our business/office! Wouldn’t we all want such a strong role model? I am fortunate enough to have such a person, and while I stay in touch and thank him often, I do not have his photo proudly displayed (something I might consider). Then it struck me – I’ve really got it backwards. Each of us should strive to be a mentor so positive, so effective, so influential that our mentees see it within themselves long after we are gone to hang a photo of us so others know the role we had. This could be the ultimate test of our leadership ability.

I enjoy when I learn something important when I’m not looking. What are your thoughts on the importance of finding or being a mentor?


Friday, May 8, 2009

Beer Cans & Ashes

The 3491 foot tall Mt. Greylock is the highest elevation in Massachusetts, the centerpiece of a 20,000 acre state reserve and a rest point on the Appalachian Trail. That is where yours truly was “Ranger Danger” for the summer as the night patrol working solo. The job was simple enough, help anyone in trouble and keep the partying kids off the mountain. The problem was that these were all my friends and if I was not working the night shift, I might have been one of those kids.

The measure of my success was simple. If the park superintendent saw beer/bottles and/or felt warm ashes the next morning, then there must have been unauthorized activity on the mountain the night before. Bottom line, I was measured by beer cans & ashes. If you really think that through, there are lots of ways to have outstanding job performance in this system and still have the park full of undesirable activity at night. Lanterns and recycling come to mind. It was a great way to spend the summer and the park superintendent often congratulated me for outstanding performance.

As leaders, we need to be absolutely sure the metrics we put in place align with the real results we want. We need to think through the unintended consequences of the metrics to ensure we are not creating an environment or activity different than our desired end state. The up side of using beer cans & ashes was the simplicity of the metric and the ease of data collection. The down side was it did not meet the other metric objectives.

Have you seen a good metric gone bad?


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

AAR - Leaders prioritize learning

If I were to ask you what you learned from a recent leadership experience, the odds are you would think for a moment and provide an answer. It would be the response you thought up at that exact moment and it might have been a different answer yesterday and/or tomorrow.

Once in a while we are exposed to an idea or concept used in another leadership setting that has direct application to our current challenges. I was reminded of one the other day when reading Tom Magness’ Leader Business blog post “Take Charge (Part IV).” He referenced the military’s After Action Review (AAR) process. Simply put (I apologize to the military experts if I do not do it full justice), right when an important undertaking is complete the team should ask themselves three questions: 1) What did we plan to do? 2) What did we do? 3) What could we have done better? A few very key elements of the process are:

• Conduct the review within 15 minutes of the action (when the boots are still muddy)
• Document the three questions and the brainstorm answers
• Take no more than 15 minutes for the exercise, and
• Distribute the completed AAR to key stakeholders for future plan enhancements

While extremely simple, I have seen this process teach valuable lessons. It is a particularly useful mentoring tool when used as the final submittal for a less experienced teammate to share with a boss before ending an assignment.

Have you used the AAR process? Do you have another tool you have used in the past?


Monday, May 4, 2009

“You have three months”

• 40% Stock Market Decline.
• 8.6% Unemployment
• High Profile Financial Institutions Fail
• Legacy Fortune 100 Companies in Bankruptcy
• And, “You Have Three Months”

Gary is a respected program leader that I ran into the other day. When I asked him how he was doing, he said his management told him the job he had been doing had ended and he had three months to find a new position within the company. While this appears to be a fair and reasonable process, it is code inside big companies for “we wish you the best, but you are on your own.” What bothered me was how surprised people seem to be in these situations.

We work for ourselves. Our customers are the employers we sell our services to, and our products are the skills and capabilities we provide. Long before hearing “you have three months,” there must have been signals that the customer’s satisfaction had changed. Perhaps you no longer received the best assignments or toughest challenges. Maybe the services and products provided were not meeting a higher same standard or using the latest technology. We do not always have to agree with the “customer."

Do you believe leaders should have the ability to foresee when their services no longer meet customer needs?


Friday, May 1, 2009

Angry Young Man

Consider these two scenarios:

1 – One 15 year old has ok grades without trying, plays sports, but without passion, and listens to Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” about 50 times a day. He was generally an easy going person but not going anywhere. (View a 1970’s version of the music video and lyrics.)

2 – The other was 17 years old, has really good grades without trying, is the captain of the basketball and baseball teams, president of the National Honor Society, and listens to Styx’s “Angry Young Man” about 50 times a day. (View a 1970’s version of the music video and lyrics.)

What if the two were the same person just older? Is there a slight chance that this whole idea of self-affirmation really has an impact? I personally vote “yes.”

While a lot of things changed during this two-year period of my life, listening to a lot of music did not. The message in these songs vary greatly. One song is about going nowhere and the other about future achievements.

As leaders we should understand these explicit and implicit messages and ensure we are sending the ones we intend. Are we saying one thing and doing another? Are we surrounding ourselves with people who support our aspirations? Do we support theirs?

Have you seen consistent positive communication improve the workplace?


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