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

How to Face Your Critics (HBR)

When people criticize you, what’s the best thing to do? Show up and face the music… and your critics!

Show up. Let your critics see you for the leader who you are. Adopting a “hide in the bunker” attitude only plays to them. It gives them free rein to paint you however they like — demon, demagogue, or do-nothing. By showing up you demonstrate that you are not afraid.

Be open. Shoot video of your meeting and broadcast it over a controlled-access website. In doing so, you demonstrate transparency and show your willingness to engage those who disagree with you. Videotaping also challenges people to be on their best behavior because they are being recorded.

Be cool. When people criticize you to your face, breathe deeply. As an opponent’s voice rises, lower yours. Speak deliberately and with a sense of calm. The more control you have of your emotions, the stronger you will appear.

Acknowledge your shortcomings. Standing up to criticism is an opportunity to admit your own failings. Do it with a sense of earnestness, that is, demonstrate through words and passion that you have done what you think is best. At the same time, do not be defensive. Act with honest confidence, even when you admit mistakes.

Criticize gently. The spotlight may be on you, but the heat is also on your critics. Give as good as you get, but do it with a sense of diplomacy. A good-natured jibe here or there is good for you as well as others. It reveals your humanity.

Smile frequently. Lighten things up by relaxing your facial muscles. This demonstrates that you are in control. Smile when appropriate, but never smirk. Don’t let them see you sweat, either. Smiling keeps you on a more even keel.

Leave them wanting more. Know when to close the engagement. You can ruin a good thing by hanging around on stage. It may be appropriate to meet and mingle off stage, in fact that’s a great idea, but know when to get off the stage and let others talk.

When the heat is on, showing your face to your sharpest critics is a great way to demonstrate that you are in control of yourself as well as your message. Standing up to those who oppose you is a strong measure of demonstrating that you have what it takes to lead.

First posted on HBR.org 2/03/2010

Learn to Ask Better Questions (HBR)

Every leader I know has at least one need in common: a need to connect honestly with others. One way to help foster improved connections is by asking good questions. Leaders who excel at asking good questions have honed an ability to cut to the heart of the manner in a way that disarms the person being interviewed and opens the door for genuine conversation.

Whether they are talking to customers, interviewing job candidates, talking to their bosses, or even questioning staff, executives need to draw people out. And so often, it is not a matter of what you ask, it is how you ask it. Here are some suggestions.

Be curious. Executives who do all the talking are those who are deaf to the needs of others. Sadly, some managers feel that being the first and last person to speak is a sign of strength. In reality, though, it’s the opposite. Such behavior is closer to that of a blowhard who may be insecure in his own abilities, but is certain of one thing — his own brilliance. Such an attitude cuts off information at its source, from the very people — employees, customers, vendors — whom you should trust the most. Being curious is essential to asking good questions.

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First published on HBR.org on 2/16/2010

VIDEO: Exude Confidence When Speaking to Your CEO (Part 1)

It is important to make a personal connection when you meet senior people in your organization. This is especially true when presenting to an executive team or the board of directors. Below, I discuss three things to do.

One final note: When you present to your CEO or a high-ranking executive, you need to exude a degree of confidence. That means you need to demonstrate poise as well as self-awareness.

Act on that thought — and stay humble – and you will do just fine.

First posted on Smart Brief 7/11/2014

Know When to Back Down from a Challenge (HBR)

You don’t get medals for common sense — but perhaps you should get a pat on the back.

Edwin van Calker, driver on the Dutch four-man bobsled team, told his coach that he would not pilot the bobsled down the icy, treacherous track at Whistler Sliding Centre at the Vancouver Olympic Games. His coach Tom de la Hunty said, “I’ve never seen someone get to a major event and not compete because they’re scared. You keep your inner fears to yourself and do it.”

Not van Calker. He had crashed on the track during the two-man bobsled competition and did not think he could safely pilot the much heavier four-man sled. And he didn’t blame the track, which has seen multiple crashes and the death of a Georgian luger at the start of the Games. “[J]ust my lack of confidence at the moment.”

Perhaps there is a lesson for leaders in van Calker’s admission. The mettle of a leader is tested by adversity; history lauds those leaders who take on the odds and win. But savvy leaders are those who also know when to say no. Unfortunately, we brand folks like that as quitters, when it may be more correct to say they have the guts to know when they’re licked.

So how do you evaluate whether you should take on that challenge, or back down? Here are some thoughts.

Know the odds. Assess what you are up against. You can often quantify a challenge through the metrics you employ to manage your business. Weigh the costs of going forward against the costs of holding back. Try not to undercount the costs on either side. Remember, this type of equation is often used to justify mergers and acquisitions, where two businesses come together to avoid competition that will tear them apart. Yet most mergers end in failure.

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First posted on HBR.org 2/26/2010

VIDEO: Learn to Delegate

One of the hardest things for emerging leaders to learn is how to let go.

Entrepreneurs are notorious for falling into the do it yourself (DIY) habit. That may be good for home-repair people but not for business people. And especially not rising executives.

Well-focused leaders stay on track, in part because that’s their job, but also because their energy comes from managing the team.

First posted on Smart Brief on 8/08/2014

Tips for Making Small Talk with the Big Boss (HBR)

One of the things that can befuddle managers, even experienced ones, is how to make small talk with the big boss.

When you are talking about someone who has authority over you, be it your boss’s boss or the CEO, the word “small” becomes relative. Anything involving a boss can have a big impact. Conversation with a superior can be fraught with peril but it can also be a great opportunity. Peril comes from the fear of saying the wrong thing; opportunity arises because you can reveal a new dimension of yourself to other.

You can increase the odds of success if you prepare. Yes, actually plan out what you will say to the senior manager. This works well if you know that the CEO is coming to visit your department or if you have the opportunity chat with him at an all-employee gathering. So here’s what you can do.

Do your homework. Learn the issues the senior team is focused on. Ideally everyone in the company should know the strategic priorities. Bone up on these so you know them, too. Think in advance what you will say to a senior person if you meet her in person. Work out a key message about your projects, your career and yourself. This is good practice whether you meet a senior person or not. Finally, if it’s a more social meeting, you might try to learn of a boss’s personal interests — hobbies, sports he or she likes, or their volunteer activities.

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First posted on HBR.org on 3/22/2010

VIDEO: Vulnerability – Use It to Your Advantage

Leaders should show a sense of vulnerability.

This is advice I have given to many senior leaders because it shows a sense of humanity and openness, even transparency. It brings people to them because it shows that the senior leader does not have all the answers.

But does this advice apply to those in middle management and below?

The answer is yes, but! Leaders who understand their limitations but know how to solve problems are those that senior leaders look to give greater levels of responsibility.

First posted on Smart Brief on 8/22/2014

The Advantages of One-Page Memos (HBR)

Give it to me as a one-page memo!

Many managers have received this directive from their bosses when preparing to present an idea. Ronald Reagan was famous for asking for one-page summaries and today many executives follow that example. It is good practice because it challenges the petitioner to reduce his idea to its barest essentials as a means of ensuring understanding as well as developing a platform for advocacy. This methodology is something that I have coached executives to ask for as well as to develop for themselves.

While it is good practice, it does have a serious drawback: In the effort to shrink the argument there is a tendency to reduce salient points as well as obstacles to neat bullet points. By doing so, we eliminate complexity and avoid nuance, both of which may be necessary to full understanding of the issues.

Let’s say two competitors form a strategic alliance to develop and market a new product. This occurs routinely in the pharmaceutical industry. On the surface it may look good because two companies can pool brainpower and resources and improve efficiency. However, a look beneath the surface we may uncover other issues related to customer satisfaction, vendor issues, employee collaboration, other competitors and perhaps regulatory issues. None of these issues by themselves, or even taken together, are enough to kill the alliance, but it is easy to see that reducing discussion of such an alliance to bullet points could be flawed because the context behind each point may be overlooked.

Striving for clarity in a summary memo is essential, but managers need to ensure that they are hearing the whole story. So when issues are significant enough to affect the outcome of the enterprise, you must take steps to take to ensure that the decision-maker receives a full picture rather than a side view.

Set the context. Make it known that you want your team to consider the big picture. Talk about the environment in which you operate and the competition you face. Make it clear that you want your people to consider multiple variables when they research their pieces of the picture. Stress that you do not want opinion; you want facts that support as well as disprove your argument.

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First posted on HBR.org on 4/06/2010