Sum Up Your Leadership in Six Words (HBR)

Once upon a time Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story using only six words. Impossible, some thought. Not for Papa, as Neal Conan explained on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. The next day Hemingway produced this: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Clare Booth Luce, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, once told President John Kennedy that “a great man is one sentence.” Noonan writes that Lincoln’s life could be summed up as “He preserved the Union and freed the slaves.” My colleague, Scott Eblin, adapted the concept to summing up one’s leadership legacy. “It takes time and effort to boil down the essence of what you’re trying to do to a short and memorable idea.”

Reducing one’s life to a handful of words is a mighty challenge. Creating a six-word memoir, a concept inspired by a project conducted by Smith magazine, can be a useful exercise in self-analysis, particularly if you apply the process to reflecting upon your goals and your results. Did we achieve what we set out to achieve? Did I help them and the team to succeed? Did our results stand the test of time?

The million dollar question for any leader is this: did you leave the organization in a better place than when you found it? Sadly we have discovered that the great recession we are enduring was in part due to senior executives who did not leave their companies better off, even though they themselves exited with pockets full of cash.

For leaders, this six-word exercise works well as a form of aspiration, that is, how do I want to be remembered? So if you are early or mid career, you have time to make changes so that you can become the leader you are capable of becoming. Consider the following three questions to help you consider how you would sum up your work life in six words or less.

What gets me up in the morning? A very basic question! What do you do and why do you do it? For some, the answer is the opportunity to work with others on a project that has real meaning, that is, improves the quality of life for others. If this question throws you, then you need to consider what you don’t like about what you do. Is it possible to change something, or must you change careers?

How can I help? We humans are motivated to work for goals greater than ourselves. Leaders achieve through the efforts of others. It is imperative that they create conditions for others to succeed. They help others achieve intentions that enable the team, and by extension the organization, to succeed.

What is my influence? Line authority over someone on your team is a point of leverage but its effect may be limited. For organizations, particularly in challenging times with dwindling resources, leaders need to exert their influence. Such influence is built upon good example but transmitted through effective persuasion rooted in trust.

You can adapt the six-word memoir exercise to fit other needs. For example, how might you describe a challenge facing your team using just six words? “Tough job. Committed people. Keep working.” Or “Need ideas. Sooner than later. Help.” You can even make a game of it at your next staff meeting. Encourage your people to contribute their six words as a means of getting to think about the issues, the challenges, and the opportunities you face.

Summing up your career in six words may not produce a eureka moment of sudden clarity, but the exercise challenges you to think about what work means to you and how you influence the way others work. “Big idea. Profound thoughts. Truthful moment.”

[For more information on six-word memoirs, read Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure .]

First posted on HBR.org 7.09.2009

How to Use Humility to Drive Performance (HBR)

I’ve written before about the importance of humility as a leadership trait. But, as was recently pointed out to me, humility is an important trait in employees, too.

When people act humbly, they are acknowledging their limitations and accepting that they cannot go it alone. This mindset is valuable to a team because it serves as an invitation for others to help. Humility, however, is not an excuse for slacking. It also means having the willingness to help others do their jobs when the need arises. It is a means for allowing different personalities to coordinate with each other.

Rick Hensley, an executive with Messer Construction, reminded me of the importance of this trait in employees after I mentioned humility in keynote address I recently delivered at Miami University. Rick, a vice president for information technology, has developed a “personal humility index” that he uses when interviewing job candidates.

Among the things Rick looks for are self-awareness, a “strong sense of modesty,” the “use of we and team versus I and me,” and the candidate’s desire to develop different levels of employees. Rick wants candidates to “see themselves as others see them.” Trustworthiness, along with integrity and honesty, are essential.

Fostering humility at work requires leadership and putting what you believe into action. Here are some suggestions.

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First posted on HBR.org on 11/05/2009

VIDEO: Leaders Seeking to Re-Energize Don’t Need to Go It Alone

So what do you do when you hit the wall?

Sometimes it is not simply fatigue but symptom of something deeper. You feel that you are lacking in creativity and, as a result, you are not challenging yourself or your team to achieve their best. You need help!

So find a partner — someone you can trust to give you good advice. Here’s how you can make it work. Every leader owes it to him or herself to keep challenged, focused, and energized. A good partner can help.

First posted on SmartBrief on 1/24/2014

 

How Communication Drives Performance (HBR)

“Courage, innovation and discipline help drive company performance especially in tough economic times. Effective internal communications can keep employees engaged in the business and help companies retain key talent, provide consistent value to customers, and deliver superior financial performance to shareholders.”
Watson Wyatt 2009

According to Watson Wyatt’s newest communication survey for 2009/2010, companies that are effective communicators “have the courage to talk about what employees want to hear,” “redefine the employment deal based on changing business conditions,” and have “the discipline to plan effectively and measure their progress effectively.”

Does this really matter? Yes. The study shows that companies that communicate effectively had a 47% higher return to shareholders over a five-year period (mid-2004 to mid-2009).

The link between communication and these three levers of performance — courage, innovation, and discipline — is a welcome one. These are themes that I have written about, taught and coached for years. Here is how you can utilize them in the workplace.

Courage. Watson Wyatt defines it as “telling it like it is.” This is especially true when it comes to delivering straight talk. Shielding employees from bad news is akin to treating them like children; it says they are not “grown up” enough to handle tough stuff. So why do companies do it? One reason is because they feel employees will lose heart and then underperform. The Watson Wyatt study shows just the opposite. Tell people what they need to know and they will reward you with solid performance.

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First posted on HBR.org on 11/19/2009

 

How to Crack the Self-Awareness Paradigm (HBR)

To bring people together around a common cause, it is critical that a leader be self aware. Jeff Immelt’s recent comments to the cadets at West Point reminded me of this fact.

Immelt, CEO of General Electric, said he he’s learned lessons from the Great Recession that have made him “humbler and hungrier… I needed to be a better listener coming out of the crisis… I should have done more to anticipate the radical changes that occurred,” he added. Such an admission reveals an executive who is comfortable in his own skin, even as he is making hard decisions about the future of his company.

Coming to terms with yourself is a private matter. But if you fail to come to terms with your own limitations and it affects your ability to lead then it could be worthy of public scrutiny. Toward that end, here are three questions leaders can ask themselves, or a trusted associate or two, about their own managerial performance.

1. What more do I need? This question might seem easy because a leader will always say she needs more time. True enough, but lack of time is often an excuse for failing to address simmering issues or to carry projects through to fruition. Ask yourself and others what you need to do more of; one answer might be “doing less.” That is, learn to delegate more and devote your time to thinking.

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First posted on HBR.org 12/23/2009

 

VIDEO: It’s Okay to Second Guess Yourself

The challenge of leadership is to do what is right for the organization even when it means reversing a decision.

When reconsidering a decision it is important to decide what you did, why you did it, and what will be the consequences of reversing the decision. Shrewd leaders think ahead, and are willing to reconsider decisions when situations change.

First posted on Smart Brief on 6/27/2014

VIDEO: Your Best People May Be Those You Overlook

re you overlooking the talents and skills of someone on your team?

Some star performers may lack the confidence to challenge conventional thinking about themselves and therefore they stay in their given roles.

Those who manage the talent pipeline would be wise to heed the words of composer Ludwig von Beethoven, who wrote, “The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, ‘Thus far and no farther.’”

Talent wins!

 

First posted on Smart Brief on 4/10/2015

Three Traits of Successful Entrepreneurs (HBR)

Sometimes when you’re wondering what to do next in life, good advice can come when you least expect it — like when you’re getting your hair cut.

Joan*, the hairstylist giving me a trim, mused aloud about what she was planning to do with her career. Cutting hair was just one part of her livelihood; she was also a professional caregiver as well as the owner of a rig that her husband operated. But her husband was about to retire from the road, and now they were wondering, “What next?”

Over the course of our brief conversation, in no more than the time it took Joan to cut my hair, I picked up on three attributes of her success that are helpful for any entrepreneur:

Practical. Listening to her brainstorm reminded me that successful entrepreneurs know how to keep their feet on the ground. First, they get inspired through personal observation, developing ideas from needs they see in the world around them. Second, they develop a concrete plan. They may work the plan, changing it as they go, but always with an eye towards getting a good return.

Purposeful. People with a practical outlook seek opportunities that add value, as opposed to opportunities that just seem “cool.” (It’s easy to forget this distinction, especially in well-established organizations.) Their focus is offering products and services that customers need and will pay for. For instance, Joan’s second job as a caregiver: that’s a service for which there is always a need.

Impatient. Sure, patience is a virtue in some cases. But for an entrepreneur, so is impatience. Joan is eager to make things happen so that she can continue to earn a good living. When it comes time for her husband to leave the trucking business, she will be ready with another venture. Her gumption and ambition make her impatient for success, and that drive increases her chances of getting there.

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First posted on HBR.org 5/23/2011