VIDEO: Make It Safe to Learn

One of the big reasons change initiatives fail is because people do not like to be pushed out of their comfort zones.

That is only the surface emotion; a deeper reason is that people are uncomfortable with learning something new. Changing will mean absorbing new information, processing it and acting upon it. Sometimes that is hard.

Learning is intrinsic to change. This video contains suggestions for leaders to engage in the learning process.

The operative word for leaders is to engage; get involved in the learning process as student and teacher and watch good things happen.

First posted on Smart Brief on 1/22/2016

The “Just One More” Solution (HBR)

Sixty-two phone calls! That’s what it took a friend of mine, a former executive vice president for national sales, to land a meeting with a new account. He made those calls over a sixteen-month period; each call represented one more attempt to gain the client’s attention. And when he finally met face to face with the client, she thanked him heartily for not giving up. Needless to say my friend’s persistence helped his company win the business.

This story surfaced in a conversation about the need for tenacity in our down economy. It is easy to become discouraged at the deluge of bad news that threatens to swamp us in despair. I am particularly mindful of our twenty-something’s who till now have not endured such heavy weather. [And this is NOT a knock on their work ethic. I have found this generation to be as hard working as any previous one.]

It is up to more experienced managers to show them the right way to conduct themselves. Not with platitudes but with action steps. And so in that spirit I propose the “one more” solution. Consider how you might:

Make one more connection to a customer. Many customers are not buying. Do not let that dissuade you from reaching out and meeting with them. Those who stay close to their customers today will be those who reap the benefits tomorrow.

Make one more attempt to sell an idea upstairs. Tough times are great times to pitch new ideas. Some bosses are naturally resistant to change. But you can make an extra effort to demonstrate the benefits of your great ideas. Be certain to argue the business case. Use the downturn to reinforce your salient propositions.

Make one more effort to engage your employees in the challenges facing your business. Listen to what they are telling you. Learn from what they share with you. Find ways to put some of their ideas into play. Not everything an employee suggests is golden but you demonstrate a willingness to learn if you listen.

And finally, think about what you can do more of in your own job, your own function, and in your own business.

Doing all of these “one more’s” is no guarantee. You or your business may not be viable in today’s tough economic times. Hanging tough might help in an endurance race, but it will not generate new clients or new business if your offerings are not competitive.

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity,” said famed aviator, Amelia Earhart. “The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do.” Tenacity will pay dividends. Perhaps not immediately, but over time it will. Those employees and managers who exercise tenacity today will be those who have earned their resilience. That will hold them in good stead now and in the future.

First posted on 4/16/2009

VIDEO: Put Feedback to Work

Feedback, as Marshall Goldsmith taught me, is a gift. Even when it smacks us upside the head like a two-by-four! Rejecting feedback without thinking about it is foolish.

However unfair you may think the feedback is — and most often it is very fair — there is a grain of truth in it that is worthy of reflection.

As Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen write in their book “Thanks for the Feedback,” negative feedback knocks us for a loop. It upsets our self-constructed image of ourselves.

So as, Stone and Heen argue, it is necessary to learn from feedback. One, you can learn how your actions are impacting others. Two, you can learn about yourself.

Feedback requires humility to accept, as well as the common sense to put it to good use.

First posted on SmartBrief on 12/31/2015

5 Things John Madden Teaches Us about Leadership (HBR)

Boom! John Madden has retired from the NFL broadcast booth. With an analyst’s eye for detail but a storyteller’s ear for story, Madden brought the pro game to life, and in the process, helped make the NFL an enduring staple of sports entertainment.

Madden not only excelled in the broadcast booth; he was a successful NFL football coach, guiding the Oakland Raiders to their Super Bowl victory in January 1977. Madden’s outsized but affable personality made him a natural as a TV pitch man. He also embraced the video game business, helping to develop and upgrade annually the EA Sports NFL game that bears his name.

So what can you learn about leadership from John Madden? Let me itemize five lessons.

Commit to what you do. Football coaches immerse themselves in their craft. From recruiting talent to coaching it, along with developing game plans and spending hours studying film, football coaches spend their lives molding players and analyzing those actions. Madden took the same work ethic to the broadcast booth; he continued to study film, meet with coaches, and interview players. Broadcast partner, Al Michaels, noted that Madden never regarded himself as an “ex-coach” moonlighting as an analyst. Madden thought of himself a broadcaster and worked hard at this craft. Like Madden, leaders need to commit to their jobs and do what it necessary to push the team forward.

Innovate as you go. Madden turned the clunky Telestrator, a video graphics tool, into an artist’s pallet for illustrating games from a coach’s perspective. Broadcast professionals respected Madden for his football smarts as well as for his gift to communicate simply and colorfully. Madden also advised on broadcast coverage telling producers and crew about team and player tendencies. All leaders may innovate personally but they need to be open to new ideas and encourage others to think freely and without boundaries.

Tell stories. Madden imbued his broadcast narratives with heart. Digressing momentarily from the action, Madden would spin picaresque anecdotes of players and coaches that gave viewers insight into players as characters who were sometimes funny, odd, even tragic but always very human. He also punctuated his calls with old fashioned expressions like “boom” and “pow,” a style that annoyed some but also heightened his everyman aura. Bosses who tell stories are those who can communicate a sense of humanity to the job that encourages followership.

Love what you do. When he announced his retirement on KCBS Radio in San Francisco, Madden made it clear how much he loved what he did. Football and subsequently its analysis were his life. Work life is hard and if you do not enjoy what you do, avoid it. But if you love what you do as a leader then you will have a fruitful time helping others achieve their goals.

And finally know when to say when. Anyone in a position of leadership who is thinking about a career change or retirement would do well to study Madden. He retired as an NFL coach after winning a Super Bowl and posting the most successful record of any head coach, a record that stands till this day. Madden then pursued a career as a football analyst starting with a handful of games in 1979. Thirty years later the love for the game persists but love of family his stronger. He wants to spend more time with his wife of fifty years, Virginia, and their five grandchildren. His parting comments made it clear that he was not ill nor was he being shoved aside. His contract was in effect for a further three years.

The NFL game will go on without Madden but it will do so enhanced by his legacy as coach, broadcaster, and innovator. Boom, indeed!


First posted on 4/20/2009

VIDEO: Leveraging Doubt

Doubt, while annoying and irritating, can be a leader’s best friend.

When a leader hesitates, pausing to consider the assumptions as well as the options, she is doing what the organization needs.

How a leader responds to the second-guessing is a measure of his ability to withstand pressure. Knowing in your heart that you made the best call you could make at the time forms a foundation for going forward.

The leader has only her gut to trust. And when she can look into the mirror and say she made the best decision possible at the time then that is all you can ask.

First posted on Smart Brief on 12/15/2015

You Think You Have Morale Problems? (HBR)

Originally posted 4.23.2009

President Barack Obama visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia the other day to speak to CIA employees. In doing so, the President was doing what every senior leader needs to do in times of crisis: be seen and be heard.

People of good intention from all sides of the political spectrum have different views of the CIA, but inside the agency, employees have been feeling beleaguered and demoralized.

Therefore, in some ways, what has occurred at “The Company” is akin to what is occurring in many companies. It fell to the President, as it falls to all senior leaders, to rally the troops. While debate will continue to swirl around the CIA, what the President said and did at Langley is worthy of study for leaders seeking insight to communicating in tough times.

Come to them. When Director Leon Panetta introduced the President, he noted the employees’ enthusiastic response, “This is a very loud welcome [laughter] to a group that is supposed to be silent warriors.” Employees love it when top officials visit their location. It sends a powerful signal when the leader comes to your workplace. It demonstrates that what you do matters.

Affirm their worth. “You are on the front lines against unconventional challenges,” said the President as he itemized the work the CIA does to “support our troops,” “disrupt terrorist’s plots,” and help “destroy terrorists’ networks.” Therefore, the President said, “You should be proud of what you do.” Employees never tire of hearing their good work praised by people at the top, and need to hear that the work they do is consequential.

Stand with them. Knowing that many in the CIA are feeling under siege for the release of information on the torture memos, the President accepted responsibility for their release. But he made it clear that he would “protect your identities and your security” adding that he “will be as vigorous as protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.” Employees need to know that executives have their back because all too often when things get hot it is employees who suffer the heat first.

Do not pull punches. The President was explicit in expecting CIA to uphold the values of the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, “Al Queda’s not constrained by a constitution.” He noted that it may seem as if the U.S. is “operating with one hand behind our back.” No matter that CIA has “the harder job.” The President emphasized, “we will defeat our enemies because we’re on the better side of history.” Leaders need to have explicit standards, values and behaviors. Such things reinforce the culture and leaders need to endorse them.

Tough jobs in tough times demand solidarity from top to bottom. Leaders need to iterate what they feel and why they feel it.

Experienced leaders know that speeches may make headlines, but employees do the work. It will be up to the President through his appointed CIA director Leon Panetta to ensure that the CIA adheres to Administration aims when it comes to intelligence gathering. Showing respect for its work is a good first step; what happens next will matter to history.

Leaders can never assume that employees do not want to see and hear them, especially in tough times. What Obama did at Langley, senior leaders need to do in their own shops. Make the personal visit. Shake some hands. Give a pep talk. Take questions. Listen to what people are saying. And when possible, promise a return visit. When times are tough, the leader’s presence is an affirmation that what employees do matters.

First posted on on 4/23/2009

VIDEO: 3 Questions to Create Powerful Engagement

Engagement is employees’ commitment toward their work. It is rooted in purpose.

You can begin to establish engagement by asking employees three simple questions.

In this video, I reveal that answers to these questions knit communication and follow-through together in ways that demonstrate that a leader is interested enough to listen, concerned enough to act and willing enough to offer assistance.

First posted on SmartBrief on 12/02/2011

Five Ways to Sharpen Your Communication Skills (HBR)

We need people who can communicate!

Raise your hand if you have heard this line at least a thousand times. In fact, you’ve likely heard it so much that it’s become meaningless. Communication, as I teach and coach, is the glue that holds an organization together. It is the means by which we exchange ideas, learn from each others, and perhaps most importantly, connect to each other.

“Communication and interpersonal skills remain at the top of the list of what matters most to recruiters.” That’s according to the Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal business school survey published in September 2007.

So why do we ignore the relevance of communication until it becomes an issue? One reason may be because we don’t take the time to quantify what we mean by it.

That’s why I found Adam Bryant’s New York Times interview with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, refreshing. In the interview Anderson proceeded to define his expectations for effective communication.

1. Know the fundamentals. “People really have to be able to handle the written and spoken word,” said Anderson. Express yourself well verbally, as well as on paper or through email. Failure to communicate coherently leaves people unsure of what is expected of them.

2. Think clearly about what you will say. Anderson is not a fan of PowerPoint. Bullet points without a “subject, a verb and an object” do not convey “complete thoughts.” With respect to Mr. Anderson, PowerPoint itself is not the problem; executives who use it as a short-hand for thinking are. Too many managers use it to sketch out thoughts rather than flesh them out.

3. Prepare for meetings. Documents for meetings should be distributed in advance and made clear and concise. Anderson also wants meetings to “start on time.” That’s all part of the preparation process. So often meetings go off track before they begin because managers and employees do not take the time to think about what they will say before they say it.

4. Engage in discussion. “I want the debate,” says Anderson. “I want to hear everybody’s perspective, so you want to try to ask more questions than make statements.” All too often, either due to the press of time or perhaps a feeling of over-importance, executives do not make it clear that they want to hear alternate points of view. Such an approach leads to “groupthink” because no one speaks up.

5. Listen to others. Discussions are meaningless if no one is listening. Anderson does not like to see his managers checking their BlackBerrys in meetings. Doing so shows lack of “focus” and is akin to reading a newspaper during the meeting, says Anderson. As little as we may tend to oral and written skills, we spend even less time on listening. For that reason, too many managers end up ill informed and, in turn, ill prepared to deal with issues that subsequently morph into problems. Time spent listening might have headed off such disasters.

“Measure what you treasure” is a saying used by compensation professionals in reference to aligning rewards to corporate goals. The same philosophy can be applied to communication. If you value communication skills you will recruit, train and hire for it. Oral and verbal skills are a baseline; organizations also need to look at the broader context of how such skills are used to inform, persuade, coach and inspire. That requires years of practice and example. It is up to leaders to show the way by communicating clearly — but also teaching others to do the same.

First posted on on 4.30.2009

VIDEO: Why Good Managers Spend Time Out of Their Offices

“The office is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

That’s a quote from David Cornwell, the great spy novelist who wrote under the pseudonym John le Carré.

Such advice applies not only to spies but also managers. But too often, because of the pressures of time, managers spend too much time behind the desk and not enough time in the field. As a result, they lack the first-hand knowledge that managers need to operate effectively.

In this video, I present tips on what to do when an executive gets outside the office.

First posted on Smart Brief on 1.20.21012

In a Crisis, Avoid Labeling (HBR)

Politicians on the right and left are quick to label issues. For example, some may call federal assistance to businesses “nationalization.” Others may refer to the assistance as “stabilization.” Such labeling is part of the political discourse; it encourages like-minded followership. And therein lies the problem; you speak to partisans rather than to individuals.

Executives need to avoid such political games; they need to reach out to all stakeholders. When times are tough, no one person has all of the answers, but so often the collective intelligence of the organization can suggest alternate ways of thinking. The first step in soliciting new thinking is to stop the labeling game. Here are some suggestions:

Avoid generalizations. Short-term thinking leads us to believe that good ideas come from on high, and dumb ideas come from below. That, after all, is the basis of hierarchy. But when we have witnessed so much organizational failure, often emanating from poor decisions made in the C-suite, it is time to shake up the decision-tree. Encourage people to think for themselves when they approach issues and problems.

Skip the name-calling. Bosses are not idiots, nor are employees half-wits, but all too often we hear slurs from either side. And while it may sometimes make us feel good to let loose with such terms of “dis-endearment,” resist the temptation. Learn to look at colleagues as contributors rather than as two-dimensional cutouts.

Stop pejorative thinking. If a person comes up with an idea that the team has not tried, a common reaction is to say, “no way, no how.” The labeling of a new idea cuts off discussion before the idea can be debated. It may indeed be a dumb idea, but until it is discussed and debated, you will never know. Jumping immediately to “no” is a sign of desperation. It is short-hand thinking that feeds short-term actions that may do long-lasting harm. Ideas for new products as well as process improvement come often from doers rather than managers. At the same time, managers, too, have good ideas. Each needs to listen to the other.

Don’t objectify. President Lyndon Johnson, as noted in the classic text on negotiation Getting to Yes, routinely referred to the enemy as “he.” Although common in military usage, Johnson used the pronoun in reference to the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the Chinese — as if they were a single entity without noting their differences. Same goes for managers who consider anyone who questions a decision as a “dissenter” and automatically on the “other side.” Objectification creates distance between speaker and listener, and thereby hinders negotiation and collaboration.

Of course not all labeling is wrong-headed. After all, brand identification is a form of visual short-hand. When people associate a positive experience with a brand, be it toothpaste or an automobile, they will buy it, tell friends about it, and buy it again. That “labeling” is beneficial.

But when labeling is used for exclusion, especially in terms of people and ideas, then it cuts the leader off from opening dialogue with people who may have good questions as well as some answers. Labeling also erodes organizational cohesion. It divides individuals into “us” and “them” camps. That is destructive and prevents people coming together for joint purpose.

And that may be the differentiator with companies in trouble — good people coming together to solve problems.

First posted on 5.04.2009