VIDEO: Look on the Bright Side of Your People

Wise leaders look at what an employee can do rather than what he cannot do.

The lesson for leaders who evaluate people — that is, every leader — is to adopt a “glass half-full” versus a “glass half-empty” attitude. An executive who is evaluating talent should ask three questions about the individual:

  • Does this person have the skills to do the job?
  • What has been holding this person back from achieving?
  • What can I do to help this person succeed?

Talent is not a commodity. It is the lifeblood of the enterprise and those leaders who look for it, nurture it, and seek to capitalize on it are ones who achieve their objectives.

First posted on 4/12/2013

Use Nap Time to Maximize Your Up Time (HBR)

Want to make better use of your time? You might want to consider taking a nap.

new study from Pew Research shows that one-third of all people who earn $100,000 or more take naps. These folks spend more time napping than those earning between $30,000 and $100,000. (Too much napping is not good for your income: those who napped the most earned less than $30,000 annually.)

While I cannot attest to the earning power of napping, I can vouch for its leadership effectiveness. Winston Churchill and John D. Rockefeller took regular naps, as did my grandfather. For nearly thirty years, Grandpa John worked full-time and ran a weekly newspaper on the side. Naps were essential to his ability to keep working productively.

Napping is something I’ve been preoccupied with lately as I recuperate from foot surgery. Since I have been instructed to stay off my feet as much as possible, the tendency to snooze has caught me more regularly — typically it’s a quick doze on a hard floor. When I awake, I am refreshed and recharged, and possess an extra stipend of energy.

The chief purpose of a quick nap is less about the time spent resting and more about the energy it produces. Some refer to this as power napping. Here are some suggestions for making your naps more productive.

1. Find a comfortable spot and stretch out. This can be hard to do in an office setting but it’s not impossible. If appropriate, keep your eye out for a clean stretch of carpet, perhaps in a conference room or unoccupied office. [You can also snooze in your chair but make certain you are not cramped and that you are positioned for safety so you won’t fall out when you fall asleep.]

2. Close your eyes and focus on a project. Do not get wrapped up in details like budgets and deadlines. That will only provoke anxiety; focus on possibility, that is, on how you will accomplish the project and with whom.

3. Relax as you mull over concepts. As your mind wanders, let your body relax, too.

4. Doze. For me, fifteen to thirty minutes works. Any longer makes me a bit groggy, but do what works for you. (Note: naptime is not heavy REM sleep; often I do not actually fall asleep but I do feel rested upon waking.)

5. Wake up. Rise slowly, and as you regain your balance, stretch your arms and legs. Time to get back to work. Enjoy the sense of renewal that comes from a quick nap.

Chances are if you follow these simple tips, you will be more than ready to get back to work. You may find yourself with a bit more pep in your step and zip in your thought processes. You may not make more money but you will likely be more refreshed and able to tackle the challenges the rest of the day presents.

From my point of view, naptime is not slack time. It is self-time. Use a nap as you would exercise or reflection; it is a time to connect your thoughts to your eventual actions. And for leaders that can be a very good thing.

First posted on on 8/06/2009

VIDEO: Bad news? Deliver It with Dignity

Have some tough news to deliver?

Use a one-two approach: affirm their value, then critique their performance. Too often managers open with the tough stuff, and when they do they cause the other person to go into a defensive posture — or shut down as psychologists say — and hear nothing else.

If you play it straight and with dignity, you demonstrate that you care about your employees.

First posted on SmartBrief on 4/26/2013


How to Speak to an Unruly Crowd (HBR)

The speaker was doing his determined best to continue speaking but the audience had other ideas. Those in attendance were restless and eager to get to a reception for free drinks and snacks. Still, the speaker plowed on through his presentation, seeking to talk over the catcalls and murmuring. 

This scene came back to me when watching news coverage of protesters disrupting town hall meetings on health care reform that congresspeople are holding in their districts. Most members of congress are not as naïve as the speaker I described; they know enough not to ignore hostile crowds. Some seek to engage the protesters; others pack it in and call it a day.

There is no best way to handle an unruly crowd but clearly the executive just described did the wrong thing; he ignored the audience. More adept speakers, like politicians, will seek to engage the audience. If that is your choice and it is safe for you to speak, then here are some suggestions when dealing with a tough and vocal audience.

Be prepared. Every speaker must learn what her audience expects before she arrives to speak. In the case of the executive, he did not consider the fact that he was the final speaker of the day and the only thing standing between the audience and a reception. On a more serious note, if you expect people to be hostile to your message, study up on the reasons why they may be upset. You want to integrate your counter arguments into your presentation, or be prepared to deliver those arguments if questions arise.

Be flexible. If someone heckles, acknowledge it. Comedians, who often earn their stripes by performing in small nightclubs, learn early in their careers how to have fun with hecklers. Sometimes you can parry the jibes and have a quick back-and-forth dialogue. This demonstrates that the speaker is in control, not the heckler. But cut off the debate quickly and move forward with your presentation. You cannot cede control to the crowd.

Be resolute. If the shouters will not be silenced, then give the rest of the audience an opportunity to voice their opinions. Negotiate time to continue but promise to take questions from the audience as soon as you finish your remarks. If this occurs, abandon the script and speak directly to the audience. Be brief. And keep your cool. Shouting back makes you one of the mob; speaking with confidence acknowledges your authority over the message.

There is no guarantee that any of these suggestions will quiet a crowd. As we have seen with the health care protests, some attendees are not coming to listen — they are coming to disrupt. As with unruly and spoiled children, there is little reasoning that can be done. When a disruptive mood prevails, or if you feel unsafe, walk away. Do so calmly and purposefully. Stride confidently off the stage to a quiet and protected space. (Of course if people are throwing things at you, exit hastily.)

It takes a strong sense of self to face a restless crowd. The operative principle when engaging an audience is control. If you have it, continue; if you lose it, retreat.

First posted on 8/11/2009

VIDEO: 4-Step Guide to Coaching Your Employees

Coaching your employees requires commitment. It must be planned in advance, not done off the cuff.

Management today is really about enabling people to succeed and that means providing them with the guidance, resources, feedback and support they need to do their jobs.

Coupling feedback with expectations is the foundation of manager-to-employee coaching. It’s also the method by which managers can help employees and teams get the work done and promote higher levels of engagement and productivity.

First posted on SmartBrief 5/17/2013

How to Use a Downturn into Your Advantage (HBR)

The first time I heard department stores referred to as dinosaurs (e.g. facing extinction) was at least twenty-five years ago, and even then it was old news. So when Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s, gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal talking about how he was using the downturn to improve operations, I thought it wise to pay attention.

First and foremost, Lundgren is a realist. When asked if he “worried about” customers holding out for discounts, he replied: “I’m not worried about it. I’m counting on it.” Leaders need to face facts and adjust expectations to those realities. That is something that Macy’s, along with every other retailer, does. In other words, you don’t count on a turnaround, you make a turnaround happen.

How you do that varies from business to business. Leaders such as Lundgren teach us how you can use the downturn to your advantage. Not overnight, but over time. Here’s how:

Make tough choices. Now is the time to get rid of anything and everything that does not add value to the bottom line. Adhering to the principles of value engineering will help an organization optimize operations, but that is not enough. A leader must look to kill old habits. Reduce practices that “feed the monster,” that is, projects that inflate egos rather than earnings. For example, reduce the number of staff and skip-level meetings. Let people do their work rather than prepare for meetings with senior staff.

Look for the up and comers. When times are flat or in a downturn, look for new ideas. Challenge your best and brightest to make suggestions to improve operations, attract new customers, or work more collaboratively with vendors or each other.

Live resilience. This is the first significant downturn that younger employees have faced. Keep spirits high by emphasizing self-determinism. Show them how seasoned leaders respond to tough times by focusing not simply on the business, but also on the people propelling the turnaround. Good leaders use these opportunities to describe what is going right as well as what is going wrong. Acknowledge the obstacles, but show people how to go around them or climb over them.

Reality dictates that business turnarounds require economic rebounds. No leader can tweak his operation into success; you need customers to buy what you offer. But if you do not improve what you offer and how you offer it, you may miss the upswing.

Preparation for the upturn should be well underway at most organizations, but turnarounds cannot rely upon what those at the top tell financial journalists and analysts. Leaders must shepherd the spirit of the turnaround through every level of the organization so employees not only see the possibilities, but more importantly, discover what they must do to make them real.

First posted on on 8/14/2009

Ask Three Questions to Clarify Expectations (HBR)

Leave it to a comedian to invert perceptions of the leader-follower dynamic.

In 2009 Jon Stewart asked chief White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee “Is [the President] going to impeach us?” After all, Stewart mused, might the unpopularity of the President’s health care reform be due to people’s failure to follow rather than the President’s ability to lead? While Stewart, as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, was being funny, there is truth in his comments about the leader-follower relationship; both sides have roles to play.

Leaders must work hard to explain their initiatives and create conditions for people to succeed when they implement them. But equally so, followers need to work to fulfill their responsibilities to the organization that pays them. While the majority of employees do pull their weight, we all have seen examples of employees simply clocking time.

While such behavior is never acceptable, it is even less acceptable when times are trying, as they are now. So leaders need to exert their management skills to engage employees and set clear expectations. Here are three questions managers can ask to ensure that employees follow through on their responsibilities.

1. Do people know what is expected of them? Too often we assume people know their jobs. People may know the specifics, but often lack knowledge about how what they do helps the entire organization. For example, if an employee works in accounting, she needs to know how vital her job is to the efficacy of the company. Her attentiveness, as well as that of her colleagues, is essential to the company’s ability to profit. People need to be told, and reminded, of the importance of their work.

2. Do employees know what they can expect from you? It is important to let employees know that you as their manager are available to them. How you define “available” may vary from employee to employee. For new hires, you might be more teacher than boss. For veterans, you will play the coaching role. For the team, you will be the supplier of resources as well as their champion.

3. Do employees know what is expected of each other? While managers need to make certain employees are doing what is asked of them, employees must also do their part to coordinate with each other. Whether a self-managed team makes its own assignments or a manager makes the assignments, what matters most is that employees know who does what so work can be completed in a timely and responsible fashion.

Pushing for employee responsibility is not an excuse for roughshod management. If managers expect their employees to be accountable, then they must set the right example. These leaders need to handle tough issues, volunteer for tough assignments, and go the extra mile to help the organization succeed.

First posted on 8/18/2009


VIDEO: 5 Questions on Character

Character is essential to leadership and so educators and executives alike are wise to focus on it.

Recently I came across a definition of “leadership skills” offered by Jeff Nelson of the One Goal organization, which works with disadvantaged youth in Chicago.

Nelson believes that kids need to learn are “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition.” These traits are important because they are inherent to a leader’s character.

First posted on Smart Brief 7/05/2013

Why Leaders Should Lighten Up (HBR)

With the economy in a coma, a pervasive unease has settled on businesses. Executives worry about the state of the company; employees fret about losing their jobs. What’s a leader to do?

Lighten up!

Work, especially when the stakes are so high, is serious enough that a manager shouldn’t add to the tension by over-managing or going around with a sour puss. It is up to the leader to inspire hope and confidence and one way to do it is by spreading some good cheer. Here are a few things to try.

Relax your mood. There is nothing a manager can do about the tanking economy, but he can do something about how he reacts to it. Grim-faced expressions do not make people want to work harder, but a frequent smile and a friendly nod can do something about the way they feel about their work.

Create laughs. World War I British troops living in trenches amused themselves by staging lighthearted theatrical productions. It was a taste of home and a reminder that as bad as things can get, we all need to laugh, if only to remind ourselves that we’re human. So find ways to lighten the mood. Spring for lunch, order cake for the break room, pass out movie tickets or DVD rental coupons, or post cartoons on the billboard. Doing these things reminds people that all work and no play makes for dull living.

Keep your door open. Let people know that you are available to chat. Most often people will come by to discuss work, but there will be times when conversation about life in general is more appropriate. This is not slack time; it’s human time. Be available when people just want to talk about things, even about the fate of the company. Be honest and open. You cannot guarantee lifetime employment, but you can promise straight talk.

There is precedence for levity. Abraham Lincoln kept his cabinet and his generals loose by telling stories that would amuse but were also instructive. Case in point. When associates sought to poison the reputation of U.S. Grant by calling him a drunkard, Lincoln famously quipped, “Send whatever Grant is drinking to the rest of my generals.” Grant was winning; the other Union generals were not.

Franklin Roosevelt held regular happy hours in the White House, even during the darkest days of the Depression and the Second World War. It was a time to kick back, gossip, and share some laughs.

No one would call Lincoln or Roosevelt inattentive to their situations; both men knew how to find a moment of distance from reality as a means of refreshing themselves and their aides.

Few would argue for excessive levity — that’s foolhardiness. A manager needs to keep the team focused on the priorities at hand, but she can do it while being professional about the work and appropriately lighthearted with the people who do it, including herself.

First posted on 8/21/2009