Help Your Team Build Resilience (HBR)

“Every day you read what a terrible age we live in. Well, I’ve heard that all my life,” said Horton Foote in a 1988 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “I don’t think any age is any worse. There are just new [and different] problems is all.” Foote, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, died recently at the age of 92. Many of his plays drew upon the memories of preceding generations of relatives, who inhabited the small towns and by-ways of Texas. Foote and his family had certainly seen hard times, such as war, drought and the Great Depression as well as personal loss. Some could not cope with their losses, but some, like Foote, did.

Foote’s words, now twenty years old, remind us of the resilience of the human condition. We are very capable of enduring hardship. And for the most part we bounce back. Managers need to kindle this spirit of resilience in the workplace. Here are some suggestions to perpetuate it:

Gain perspective. The magnitude of this recession is unprecedented to anyone born after 1945. Millions of people have lost their jobs and many more will do so. Yet, if the past is any indicator, most companies will survive and new ones will be born. More importantly, we as a people will persevere.

Show resolve. If you have a job, and the majority does, apply yourself to helping your organization succeed. Management and employees need to work jointly. Employees are not beholden to management or vice versa. Each is beholden to the other.

Share stories. Foote was a gifted storyteller. Many of his plays dealt with adversity and loss. The heroes of his dramas learned how to survive. Managers can borrow from a playwright’s example by collecting the stories of people who are making it. It may be possible to turn a portion of regular staff meetings into story time. Not as a means of kvetching but as a means of coping; and, more importantly, as means of learning from the example of others.

Nurturing resilience is not simply an exercise in making people feel better. It is a way to keep them engaged in the work. When a manager devotes time to share his stories, he demonstrates care and concern. It also encourages employees to feel better disposed toward working for that person. In a world of increasing uncertainty, working for a boss whom you trust is a plus.

This resilience is good for the organization, but it is also good for individuals, especially those who may one day lose their jobs. If they have made it through trying times in their current job, they can do the same in the next job. Such fortitude may also keep their spirits up as they look for that new job.

In Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, a young boy is curious about the past of a recovering alcoholic country-western singer, Mac Sledge, who has moved in with the boy’s mother. As Mac (played by Robert Duvall) strums his guitar, the boy asks him if he thinks he will ever be rich again. “Well, I tell ya what, Sonny, I don’t lay awake nights worrying about it.” Mac then sings and calls out chords on his guitar. A music lesson proceeds, just as life does.

First posted on HBR.org on 3.09.2009

VIDEO: Meditating for Success

Mental preparation is critical to success.

Too often, the temptation is to prepare externally for a challenge while ignoring internal preparation. That is, executives go to great lengths in doing the work — doing research and marshaling resources — that they ignore their own mental state.

When adversity strikes you are at a disadvantage because you have not strengthened your inner self. You may buckle at the first sign of resistance.

One way to prepare is through the practice of mindfulness, which is the state of being fully present in the moment. You are aware of self and situation as well as what you can do or not do.

Meditation is one method for learning to become more mindful but not the only way. What is required for mindfulness is learning to take stock of yourself regularly as a means of gaining perspective on your performance and your interactions with others.

First posted on Smart Brief on 5.13.2016

VIDEO: Coaching by Flash Cards

If coaching is to succeed, it must be simple and specific. That’s why I am a big believer in flash cards. Maybe this goes back to my childhood when my patient mother used them to help me learn phonetics, words and arithmetic. You can even make a master flash card for dealing with complex problems by doing the following:

Square the circle. Focus on the core problem and its root causes, not peripheral ones that may be clouding the picture.

Determine action steps. Be specific about what you can do as well as what you cannot do.

Move forward. Take action when called for.

Flash cards can serve as your prompt to think through a problem, as well as to take action in a deliberate manner.

First posted on Smart Brief on 4.29.16

Ask Yourself Questions So the Whole Team Learns(HBR)

One of the exercises I put myself through before promoting a new book is to interview myself about what I have written. No, I am not delusional to the point of self-flattery. My wife makes sure of that.

The point of the self-interview is to look at your work from a different point of view. This process is not simply for authors but for anyone in a leadership position who is working on a project that will have impact on the organization. And if the self interview is done as the project develops (as opposed to being finished like a book) you can make changes as you progress.

As a creator, you are thinking about what you are developing. As a leader you must focus on the end result, that is, the effect it is having on others. For example, if you are in product development, the process is important, but what matters is how customers react to your product. How it makes them feel when using it. Same goes for someone in IT. You must have discipline in your network planning but users care about what your system can do for them in terms of managing the business.

Interviewing yourself is not as easy as it may sound. You want to avoid questions about action steps; that is narrative (good for stories but not for analysis). You want to focus on process and outcome. Stepping back and assuming the distance of someone else is good discipline. Here are three questions to ask:

Why are we doing this project? This question provokes a reiteration of purpose and mission. What you are doing and why? Most projects begin with such statements but so often the statement gets diluted due to distraction or misdirection. Reaffirming the mission is important.

What do we want our end-users to say about our outcome? Marketers use this question to prod developer to focus on what customers need and want rather than what developers want to produce. Sometimes there are reasons for deviation. New applications, new technologies and new competitors may alter original intentions. Nothing wrong with that as long as you are aware of them and adjust the project (and its mission) accordingly.

What are we learning? Project teams often employ existing best practices at the outset, but as the project develops you learn more about the team’s capabilities as well as available resources. By asking this question you can apply what you have more tactically, as well as strategically. Consider the obstacles you have overcome; they may lead you to avoid similar setbacks as you progress.

The self-interview can be expanded to include your team. Try the exercise yourself and then ask your team do the same, either individually or collectively. You can compare answers. Then, to borrow the “feed forward concept” pioneered by my friend, Marshall Goldsmith, you can use the self-interview questions to ensure that you are holding to the project intentions, milestones and budget.

Leaders who subject their work (or even themselves) to self interviews are those who are willing to face up to shortcomings. Better to face them as the project unfolds than when it is complete.

When you ask questions as you go along, you are seeking to influence your outcomes more directly. You may come to greater understanding of customer needs and make adjustments. Or very often you learn more about the capabilities and competencies of your team and can utilize their services more effectively. Such awareness may not only lead to better outcomes, but also better use of people and resources.

First posted on HBR.org 3.21.2009

VIDEO: Managing Creativity

Imagination often arises from an ability to stop thinking literally. Management by contrast is a literal process. At the same time, good managers sometimes let thinks fly in order to create something new.

Creativity then is based on substance which in turn becomes transformed by the energy that an artist, scientist or entrepreneur expends in producing something new and something different. Most importantly, there is always purpose. The phrase “creativity for its own sake” gives short shrift to the intention that creator gives to the work.

Creativity nurtures the organization and for that reason it must be fostered and stimulated. Simple when you imagine it!

First posted on Smart Brief on 4/01/2016

Wanted: Inspirational Leaders (HBR)

Some people I know work for large organizations that are faced with fiscal challenges, but few doubt their employers’ ability to survive long-term. What these organizations do not have is good leadership. Those at the top of the pyramid are effective managers but lack vision and the ability to inspire others that good leaders possess.

And I suspect that many organizations, both public and private, are in the very same spot. Their financials are acceptable but their leadership is lacking. What is missing is ability over the horizon to see possibilities and then mobilize others to action to fulfill those possibilities. Employees are drawn to leaders who have imagination and energy. The reason, as historian and leadership philosopher James McGregor Burns has postulated in his fine book, Leadership, is because they see in the leader the potential to fulfill their own ambitions and ideas.

Needed in this downturn are men and women who can inspire, not simply with the power of their personality but with the power of their imagination. Such vision need not be reserved solely for those at the top of the pyramid; rather it can be recognized and nurtured by those who are in position to groom and promote the next generation of leaders. Here are three attributes to look for.

Realism. Inspirational leaders are rooted in reality. They know the facts but remain undeterred. This sense separates them from fools who are quick to rush into things before considering consequences. Inspirational leaders are keenly aware of what could go wrong and are honest about it. It is his honesty that draws capable contributors. They sense the leader knows the facts but is willing to experiment as well as persevere.

Improvement. Wanting to make things better is essential to inspiration. Therefore inspirational leaders value innovations. They are inherently creative because they are not satisfied with the status quo. Very importantly they seek to open doors for people who can innovate in their function, be it product development or logistics. They encourage employees to think for themselves.

Optimism. You must believe in the better tomorrow. This is easy to do when the economy is rising but more difficult when it is shrinking. Optimism for the inspirational leader is not merely inherent; it is contagious. Others feel it and want to feed off it. This is essential to getting the work done now but developing next generation initiatives that will position the organization for success over the long term.

Inspiration is more than an emotional reaction. While inspirational leaders are often charismatic, as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were, leadership inspiration comes more from the power of possibilities. Bill Gates is an exemplar. Gates does not warm to the spotlight the way celebrities do. It is the power of his ideas, first at Microsoft and now at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that draw bright capable people to him the way moths are drawn to flames. As Dr. Burns has taught us, people want to work for projects that Gates shepherds because they will be able to achieve their own goals, too.

Leaders who can inspire others to achieve are a rare breed. But in times of crisis they are necessary to help their organizations past the dark times and more importantly shine a light, and help show others, how to follow that light to prosperity. “A leader’s job is to look into the future and see the organization, not as it is,” as Jack Welch once said, “but as it should be.”

Leaders are not futurists per se but they are people who can see potential where others see roadblocks. More importantly they can surround themselves with very capable people who can make the impossible possible.

First posted on HBR.org 3.16.2009

VIDEO: The Power of Joy

Leaders must be the type who look at the glass as half-full versus half-empty. Why?

People need to be inspired, and they will only feel inspired if their leader is positively disposed — and joyful.

A leader inclined to be positive is one who looks at challenges as opportunities. A leader inclined to pessimism is one who sees challenges as roadblocks. One way to spread joy is let people know two things. One, you care about the work. Two, you care about them as people. That gives people joy.

Caring about them really means talking about the work, having a meaningful conversation about what they are doing, and how they are contributing. You provide them with resources and support, and you recognize them for success.

That is joyful.

First posted on SmartBrief on 4.15.2016

Dealing With the Spoiled Star Syndrome (HBR)

We do not think of ballplayers as sources of management wisdom but perhaps we should do so occasionally.

Some years ago Jonathan Papelbon, the preternaturally gifted Red Sox closer, gave an interview to Esquire magazine in which he said, “It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that’s exactly what was happening” with Manny Ramirez, the all-star hitter the Sox traded last season. Ramirez was traded for journeyman outfielder Jason Bay. That is fine by Papelbon who said, “Johnny Ballgame (Bay) plays the game right, plays through broken knees, runs out every ground ball — and was like a breath of fresh air, man! Awesome!”

Papelbon is speaking for everyone and anyone who has ever had the misfortune of being on a team with a guy who may pull his weight, but makes such a big deal of the effort that he sucks the energy out of everyone with whom he comes in contact. While his work may be stellar, his ethic is off-kilter, and as a result sends the team helter-skelter.

Managers often find themselves in a dilemma over such performers for one simple reason: superstars produce. They make the numbers, be it in sales, productivity, efficiency and even customer satisfaction. But while they give, they often take away more. To make it worse such superstars often have friends, or patrons, in high places. The higher ups have little interaction with the superstar who is typically unfailingly polite to them and so the higher productivity is all they care about.

So if you are on a team with a spoiled star, what can you do about it? Often not much. There may be a temptation for individuals get together to sabotage the star’s results. That may get the star exposed but it also opens the others to dismissal, too. But there are ways to protect yourself.

Think straight. Know what you can do and what you cannot do. Think about how you will do your job by working around the spoiled star. If you can avoid being in his presence, do so. You will find yourself in plenty of company.

Do your work. Diligence will keep you focused on the task at hand. It will not get you noticed; spoiled stars have a way of sucking up all the credit. In tough times it may be easier to concentrate on considering the alternative.

Focus attention on your team. Collaborate with those with whom you trust. Work with people who believe as you do. Two people working together can sometimes do the work of three people — not because they work harder but because they work smarter, and more efficiently.

Superstars are not all bad. Their productivity can bring results. After all, the Boston Red Sox won two World Series with Manny Ramirez on their squad. There was little finger-pointing when the champagne was uncorked after the game-clinching victories.

Yet in the long run, spoiled stars who not only think, but act as if life is all about them, will kill team spirit. They will ruin harmony and eventually tank productivity. Baseball does have one legendary philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once said — among many things — “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” As well the Red Sox know.

First posted on HBR.org 3.26.2009

VIDEO: Be Open to New Ideas

When a leader demonstrates he is open to new ideas, he makes it known that he values others.

One executive I know in health care makes it a practice to keep her door open to anyone in the company. That sets the tone for other executives in the organization.

We all want to be respected by others, but how often do we show respect to others, in particular those who report to us? The more we can answer that question in the affirmative, the more respect we will get in return.

When that happens, people will be happy to share their ideas because they know they have a willing listener.

First posted on Smart Brief 2/19/2016

Use Your EQ to Make Your Team Stronger

IQ gets you hired. EQ gets you promoted.

This HR adage has been around sometime and while certainly valid, it does not address the entire picture when applied to an executive on the rise. Certainly the individual must have smarts, a combination of old-fashioned “book-learnin’” and business acumen. Additionally, the executive must possess the ability to maintain an emotional equilibrium with self and with others.

Truly successful executives must possess more. According to my colleague, Kevin Butler, former chief human resource officer at Delphi, these executives combine two elements in their leadership. They are socially aware; they understand people’s needs, wants and differences. They socially manage; they know how to leverage differences as well as likenesses in order to bring people together for common cause.

Awareness plus management is crucial. It’s one thing to be able to understand people, but, as Kevin points out, you also need to be able to get aligned toward common goals. This requires true leadership.

Understanding people goes beyond knowing their work or even their personal history. It requires the ability to observe dispassionately so that you know how they work best and why. From a management perspective, you put such people into positions where they can excel. Such talents, coupled with skills, makes them a good fit for some jobs but not others. Too often, talented people are put into positions for which they are not suited, and they flounder.

For example, an engineer who loves solving problems individually may not be inclined to seek a management position. He may prefer to work independently — and can work well in teams — but he likes what he does and has no desire to go into management, where he must step back from problem-solving personally so that his direct reports can do the work. An executive with strong social management skills can read the situation, recognize those talents and keep the engineer occupied doing the work he loves doing.

A greater dimension of social management is combining the talents, as well as the differences, of others to get them to coalesce around a common goal. “Leadership,” as Dwight Eisenhower once wrote, “is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Such leadership requires inspiration. In others words, employees have personal priorities; it is the socially savvy manager who can get them to lay aside differences to work on the project at hand. Even better when a manager can get those individuals to make such work their own personal priority. Such a team is on the way to achieving results that are not simply achieved, but sustained.

The business case for diversity, as Kevin Butler argues, rests upon those leaders who are savvy in social management. Such leaders see opportunity in differences due to gender, ethnicity, age and culture. Not only do these leaders recruit for differences, they manage to them; inclusiveness becomes the practice when assembling teams, developing initiatives, and promoting people into executive positions. Managing in this way does more than create opportunity for others; it maximizes innovation and hence business opportunities. People from diverse backgrounds think and do things differently. Differing perspectives are vital when developing and delivering products and services for a global economy.

Another way of looking at social management is to look back at a principle of our Founding Fathers — E Pluribus Unum. One from many. While our Founders were thinking of independent former Colonies throwing their lot together as a single nation, the same applies to business. Consider this as many different points of view coalescing for a single purpose.

First posted on Smart Brief on 1/08/2016