Never Let Your Ego Stop You from Learning (HBR)

When the most physically dominant player of his generation goes back to school because he wants to “learn the secrets,” it makes news. NBA all-star Shaquille O’Neal recently took a crash course in sports broadcasting journalism at Syracuse University in preparation for a career after basketball. O’Neal is no media neophyte; as reported in the New York Times, he’s starred in movies, made rap albums, performed in over 250 commercials, and done too many post-game interviews to remember. Still, O’Neal aspires to something more — to do a sports talk show — and to do that he wants to learn to develop and deliver stories on the air.

O’Neal’s experience reminds me of what thought leader Jim Collins did a few years ago. In addition to being a best-selling author and much sought after consultant, Collins is a climber, and has been since his teen years. But sometime in his early 40s, as he writes in the Epilogue of Upward Bound, he knew that if he wanted to get better he would have to relearn his climbing technique. And so he put himself under the training of two climbing coaches. “The most important lessons…” as Collins explains, “lay not in what I needed to learn, but in what I first needed to unlearn.” It was arduous and awkward at first, but Collins persisted and made progress. In honor of turning fifty, Collins scaled the 3,000-foot vertical face of Yosemite’s famed El Capitan in just 19 hours, a feat that takes most experienced climbers at least 24 hours.

There are lessons for managers in what O’Neal and Collins have done. O’Neal honed his basketball skills through practice and coaching; Collins holds an MBA from Stanford and is an accomplished teacher. Each has learned how to learn in one field and has been able to transfer that skill to another field. That transference discipline is essential to continued self-development.

Peter Drucker advised in his famous Harvard Business Reviewessay, “Managing Oneself,” that it is critical to realize how you learn. For example, Drucker writes that Churchill, a poor student, “learn[ed] by writing.” Beethoven wrote in his sketchbooks but did not refer to them when he composed; ideas and melodies had been committed to his subconscious. Speaking personally, before I teach something I feel more comfortable when I write out my ideas first. Recognizing your learning method is important because it defines the way you absorb information and process it as knowledge. As children we are force-fed in classrooms (and not always well either); as adults we need to use our intelligence to discover how we master what we learn.

Most often you cannot receive more schooling, especially when dealing with critical issues that are fast-breaking and in which there is no body of formalized instruction. You will need to figure things out for yourself. For most leaders figuring things out is second nature; it is way they have arrived in positions of leadership. But the best leaders are those that are never afraid to ask questions. Rather than a question being a sign of ignorance; it is admission ticket to learning as well as a good way to build rapport and trust with colleagues.

Neither O’Neal nor Collins let their egos interfere with their desire to learn. That is a good lesson for the rest of us. There is little to gain by allowing your ego to supersede your desire to learn. Too often we may feel too embarrassed go back to the classroom, or even to ask questions, for fear of looking stupid. Actually the stupid thing to do is to fake it. The smart thing is to apply your learning skills.

First posted on 5/28/09

VIDEO: Individuality and Teamwork

“We expect everyone here to be team players.” 

Most of us have had a boss who preached teamwork. Some bosses even like to put up posters with slogans such  as, “there is no ‘I’ in team.”

Teamwork is essential to organizational success, but too much teamwork can be deadly.

The secret to effective collaboration is individuality. You want everyone on the team to feel free to contribute ideas to a project as a means of instilling ownership and therefore increase engagement.  That does not mean that every idea that anyone says goes, but it does mean people can contribute their brains as well as their brawn.

First posted on SmartBrief on 8/03/2012

Exert Ownership in Your Workplace (HBR)

In March 2008, Tom Stewart, then editor of the Harvard Business Review, posted nine trends that he believed would influence the future of business in the coming years. Stewart focused chiefly on big ideas such as multiculturalism, financial regulation, and intellectual property. Inspired by Tom’s fine example, I would like to offer my suggestions for human factors that will shape the workplace in the coming years.

– Managers will talk strategy but act tactically.

– Initiatives from on high will falter on the shoals of poor execution.

– Companies will say that people are their most important resource, but profits will dictate decisions about headcount.

– Bosses who make the numbers will be rewarded more than bosses who “make” people, e.g. develop them.

– Connections to the top will trump competency when it comes to getting promoted.

– People with no interpersonal skills will be promoted into management.

– Your boss will not listen to you.

No doubt as you can tell, none of these are future trends. They are a collection of actions and behaviors that we see every day in the workplace. They are the things that Scott Adams has used to great effect in his Dilbert strip as well as the creators of The Office have used in their series. Readers can certainly add many more. The challenge is what to do about it?

To me it comes down to a simple proposition: exert your ownership. If your boss is not giving you feedback, ask for it. If your teammates are driving you crazy, talk to them. If you are struggling with an impossible workload, find ways to lighten it. Proceeding as you are is inefficient; failing to address the problem may be even worse. Bottom line, you have a responsibility to do the job for which you are paid. Do it.

Part of the ownership proposition demands that you continue to learn. Once upon a time, hierarchies made decisions for people; they told you what to do and how to do it. In return, you were compensated and developed. That social contract began to erode at least a generation ago with the rise of emerging global competitors; downsizing became a way of life. Smart employees realized that they must fend for themselves, or at least develop their own skills. Whether you work for a small company or a large one, you are responsible for your career development. Insist on it.

All of the factors listed above are with us. We are human after all, and humans continue to do silly and stupid things. But there is an advantage we humans have over other sentient beings. We can think and we can decide. Look inside yourself first. Are you part of the problem? Are you doing what you can be doing to improve the situation? If not, then consider making a change. Nothing will ever improve unless you make a decision to act.

Sometimes what you do can make a difference in how a company thinks and acts. You can exert a positive influence on your peers and your boss. And if the frustration becomes too much, consider other options. You may be happier working in another part of the company, or for another company, or even for yourself.

First posted on on 6/04/2009

VIDEO: Instilling Collaboration

How can a leader instill collaboration?

In a previous video, I spoke about the need for members of teams to retain their individuality.

Teamwork is essential to getting things done, and to do it effectively managers need to draw upon the talents of individuals who have a stake in the outcome. There might be no “I” in team, but as Michael Jordan, whose singular play powered the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles, used to say, “But there is in win!”

First posted on SmartBrief 8/17/2012

How to Defuse Discord on Your Team (HBR)

Last week in Cairo President Barack Obama stated, “So long as our relationship is defined by differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”

While the speech went into some detail about how the President seeks rapprochement with the Muslim world, this single paragraph laid bare a root cause of the conflict. Neither side trusts the other; those who seek to exploit the distrust emerge as the beneficiaries rather than the populace at large. Not only does that statement provide good insight into U.S.-Islamic world relations, it gives any student of leadership an insight into conflict in the workplace.

Too often opponents take more comfort in the disagreement than in solution because they derive power and influence from discord. Such conflict not only threatens productivity, it creates a terrible work environment that contributes to poor morale, absenteeism and even lower rates of employee retention. Managers cannot allow disagreements to erode into discord. Here are some suggestions for seeking common purpose.

Diagnose the root cause. Find out why co-workers are in conflict with one another. Often the roots of the discord lie in things that occurred long ago. One person may feel slighted because his ideas were rejected by his boss whereas those of a coworker were accepted. Another might feel that he is not receiving his fair share of time and resources to complete a project. Still another may feel overlooked when she did not receive an expected promotion. Such issues when not addressed promptly can fester over time and can breed hostility.

Stay high and dry. If a boss is responsible for problems, he should acknowledge them and apologize. Look for ways to improve the situation through further discussion and dialogue. However, if the roots of discord occurred before you were manager, acknowledge the hurt feelings but do not take sides. In other words, don’t swim in the water under the bridge; walk over the bridge. Failure to do so simply allows individuals to wallow in their misery.

Defuse the conflict. Make it clear that cooperation is mandatory. Managers who allow employees to act on grudges are giving the aggrieved more reasons to be disagreeable. Establish a no-tolerance policy for disagreements over people and personalities. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself, to that standard.

Find common ground. People in conflict have no difficulty identifying differences; those differences are what fuel their disagreements. The challenge for a manager is to get the conflicting parties to put aside their differences. So, identify common values. For example, both parties will want the company to succeed; that is a common purpose. Make it clear that their discord is destroying that value proposition and insist that they stop it.

Follow through. Just because you have gotten people to stop shouting at each other does not mean they are working together. Continue to monitor the situation. Watch for warning signs among former combatants such as angry expressions, avoided eye contact, and the silent treatment. Affirm individuals’ contributions but at the same time, make it clear that cooperation is required.Those who fail to treat co-workers with respect will be removed from the team.

Let me make it clear that discord is different from dissent. Discord is disruptive because it harms individuals and productivity. Dissent can be positive when it causes people to re-examine an idea or an issue; it promotes dialogue. Sometimes dissent will change minds; other times it can re-affirm an intended course of action.

Defining oneself by differences is a zero-sum game; it breeds few winners and mostly losers. Defining an organization by its common purpose leads to trust and ultimately a foundation for achieving sustainable results.

First posted on 6.08.2009

VIDEO: Providing Inspiration to Your Employees

It is a truism that people want to believe in causes greater than themselves. That belief is central to the nature of purpose and its role in organizational intention, and even in the way we focus.

It is also true for leadership. Followers want to believe that their leader stands for something and, to an extent, might be better than anyone else at the job. Such conviction defines the reason followers defer willingly to leaders.

It comes down to doing well by doing good. In doing so, leaders provide followers with an example of purposeful and principled living. People not only want to follow such leaders but also do so with great enthusiasm.

First posted on SmartBrief on 9/07/2012

What a Little Blue Stone Can Teach You about Leadership

Recently on a visit to Toronto I stayed in charming boutique hotel, the Cosmopolitan. Guests who stay in this Zen-styled retreat receive a complimentary gift of polished blue quartz.

A description that accompanied the stone read “blue quartz is a healing stone that helps develop intuition, enhances creativity, refines communications skills, eases tension, and strengthens the immune system. It signifies power, success, idealism, increased perceptions and healing, spirituality, wisdom, psychic awareness and strong protective energies.”

While I cannot attest to the transformative powers of blue quartz, I can say that its description, aside from strengthening one’s immune system, pretty much describes what and how leaders need to be doing for themselves and their followers. And with the stone as “our guide” let’s explore this idea further.

Intuition and perception. Managers need to tune into what is going on with their people, especially in tough times. It is not enough to monitor progress toward goals; managers need to find out how people are doing it. For example, are they logging excessive overtime to meet a deadline? Or are they sitting around finding make work projects? How are people feeling about what they are doing? Tense, anxious and nervous? Or unfocused and apathetic? Some managers can sense the mood intuitively but good managers make a habit of talking to their people frequently. You respect personal boundaries, but you can ask questions about how people feel about their jobs.

Creativity. As entrepreneur and Harvard Press author, Scott Anthony, has been teaching us, there is no time like the present to encourage creative expression. Creativity begins by stimulating the thought process. Managers who put people into positions where they have some time to think may benefit. For example, give people an hour a week to think about their job and how they might do it differently. You might also arrange for a field trip to an art museum, science exhibit, or even a sporting event.[ Yes, I know you are not in sixth grade but breaking the routine can stimulate creative thinking]

Power. Leadership rests on authority, that is, the power to make things happen. Responsibility dictates that such power will be used to effect positive outcomes. That does not mean that everyone will be happy with the application of power. Organizational leadership requires hard decisions that will not satisfy every need but are intended to ensure organizational success.

And while I did make an exception for the immune system, on second thought I could be overlooking something. Perhaps good leaders do improve immunity, maybe not physically but certainly organizationally. Effective leadership protects the organization from the kind of internal strife that tears so many organizations apart. Good leaders will not tolerate behaviors that denigrate individuals. Such leaders are those who seek to lead by example and thus hold themselves accountable for ensuring that people do right by one another. This is no protection against recession certainly, but it does ensure greater levels of harmony (immunity perhaps) that helps an organization function more effectively by cooperating.

Certainly if a little blue stone promises us so much, we as human beings can do our part by acting on those expectations. We can lead our teams more effectively and achieve our goals in ways that enrich lives as they add value to the organization.

First posted on 6/11/2009

VIDEO: Be Authentic When You Speak

The ability to communicate is not merely the ability to string words together coherently. It is the ability to authentically connect with people.

If you are in charge of an organization you may have the ability to tell people what to do, but you will never have the ability to tell them what to think. Great leaders do. They win over followers on the strength of what they say and how they act, and that is why the sincerity of communication is so critical.

Good leaders understand that public leadership is public theater, and rather than shy from it, they embrace it — authentically. And so, too, do their followers.

First posted on Smart Brief on 9/21/2012

What Executives Need to Succeed (HBR)

“I don’t know anything about cars,” revealed Edward Whitacre in an interview with Bloomberg News given after being named the new chairman of General Motors. “A business is a business, and I think I can learn about cars. I’m not that old, and I think the business principles are the same.”

Long-time Michigan political observer, Jack Lessenberry, lauded GM’s hiring of Whitacre as an example of the new leadership the company will require if it is to succeed.

But Whitacre is joining a company with a history of rejecting executives from the outside. H. Ross Perot and Jerry York, as a surrogate for investor Kirk Kerkorian, tried without success to shake things up at the board level. Another senior executive who failed to change G.M. was Elmer Johnson. According to the New York Times, Johnson was so frustrated he wrote a memo saying “Teamwork has been replaced by Balkanization. Our culture discourages open, frank debate among G.M. executives in the pursuit of problem resolution.”

Hiring an executive from the outside for any company is always a gamble. According to a 2008 study conducted by the Institute for Executive Development (IED) and the Alexcel Group, thirty percent of executives hired from the outside fail to meet expectations within the first two years. One key reason that executives — not simply those from the outside — fail, is an inability to collaborate with others.

Negative trends aside, it is useful to consider those positive characteristics that will make the newcomer an asset to his new business.

Keen intelligence. Not only do you have to be a quick study, you have to be able to size up the gaps as well as the opportunities. Learning the business is the easy part; finding out what works and what doesn’t requires not only experience but insight. Lou Gerstner, a former McKinsey partner, was particularly adept at determining corporate strengths and weaknesses. After trimming IBM to fighting weight, Gerstner pursued strategies that would capitalize on IBM’s unique capabilities rather seeking to be all things to all customers.

People skills. It is common sense to value your people but it may be “so common” that it is often neglected. The outside leader needs to reach out to employees and treat them as colleagues. One technique that many executives employ and that I encourage newly promoted executives to adopt when meeting their direct reports for the first time is to ask: what can I do to help you? Such a question does two things: one, it establishes the direct reports as the experts; two, it positions the leader as one who wants his people to succeed.

Strong will. The hidebound mindset that made hiring someone from the outside necessary will seek to maintain the status quo. Some in senior management will feel slighted that one of their own is not running the show. While they do want the organization to succeed, they will want to protect their domains and their influence. A new leader must stand up to entrenched powers and their stale ideas.Therefore, he will have to fight hard to be heard, believed and eventually followed in his own organization.

One executive who has shown strong backbone in bending the culture of his new employer, Ford Motor Company, to a common purpose is former Boeing executive, Alan Mulally. As reported in Fortune, Mulally, as CEO, has instituted the One Ford approach, which seeks globally-derived vehicle platforms as well as a more collaborative approach to planning and execution. [Note: While Mulally was new to the auto industry when Ford hired him in 2006, he is an engineer with extensive background in product development and manufacturing.]

Organizations bear responsibility for the high washout rate. The IED/Alexcel study also demonstrated that on-boarding programs and mentoring programs are valuable. Executive coaching, too, can help. In other words, don’t let the executive fend for himself; provide him assistance.

For the sake of us taxpayers who have a stake in General Motors, I hope the company provides Whitacre — as well as any other outsiders he may bring with him — with more than a tutorial on the automotive business. He, like all outside executives, needs the support of management so that he can earn its trust and help the company succeed in very trying times.

First posted on 6/15/2009

VIDEO: Kiss Up, Kick Down Boss

The next time you want to hire an executive for your organization, find out how he treats people who work for him.

Senior executives are the face of the organization. When selecting them, you need to be careful that they radiate the values of your organization. Your brand image is at stake. One bad hire in a senior position can be harmful to a corporate reputation.

First posted on Smart Brief on 10/05/2012