Monday, September 26, 2005

Possibly a New Seminal Book

A friend recently recommended a leadership book to me: Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I'm just over fifty pages into it and I believe I will be adding it to my personal list of seminal books.

The basic premise is that leadership is a dangerous avocation. Effective leaders become the target of people threatened by change. The result can be devastating and derailing for a leader. The book describes this dynamic and provides practical suggestions for dealing with these dangers.

Here are some key take-aways from chapter 1, The Heart of Danger. First, people don't resist change, they resist loss. Understanding the potential losses to your constituents is key to leading them through changes. Second, the authors define two types of problems: Technical problems, which can be solved with the right process or knowledge; and adaptive problems, which require learning, experimentation, and cultural change. Leaders need to focus on addressing adaptive problem; helping their teams cope with their losses and understanding the value to them and/or the larger group.

I'm finding applications of these ideas almost on a daily basis. I can't recommend the book more highly. If you prefer seminars to cuddling up to a good book, the authors have set up the Cambridge Leadership Associates™ to teach leaders how to approach adaptive problem solving.

More to come as I find additional insight from this impressive book.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Who Feels the Pain

I was recently in a project review meeting and the project manager mentioned all the extra work the team was putting in to meet the upcoming deadline. One of my managers had the sense to ask, "Are you worried about burn-out?" The PM was using the staff's personal time and energy to address the problems in the project. The staff was taking on the pain of addressing the problem. It was good leaderly behavior to speak up in the meeting, especially with concern for the team members.

It is sometimes appropriate for a team to roll up their sleeves and take on the burden of bringing a project in on time. But, there are other ways to address problems in a project. The big four solutions are: Spend more money, re-plan the project (often by slipping the schedule), work extra hours, and reduce features.

Each of the big four solutions causes pain. It is important to keep in mind, though, where the pain is felt. I find that some PMs are too quick to put the pain of addressing problems onto the backs of the people doing the work. Often this turns out to be the easiest place for them to solve the problem.

When PMs add more resources, they put the pain onto the company not just the employees. Since the company reaps the main benefit, it seems like a natural place to put the pain, but companies put tremendous pressure on PMs to avoid this solution. Instead, the PM could rework the plan or slip the schedule. This puts the pain onto the PM themselves. Usually, PMs take the minor steps to rework plans, but dodge the harder work or avoid the stigma of delivering late. Finally, PMs can reduce the feature set. This puts the pain squarely on the customer's back. Clearly, this is the least attractive of the big four, but there is usually some sloppiness in the requirements process that allows room for this.

How We Fix ProblemsWho Feels the Pain
Spend More Money--The Company
Re-plan the Project--The Project Manager
Work More Hours--The Employees
Reduce Features--The Customers

There is no answer to problem solving that applies to every situation. The easy answer, though, of putting the pain on the employees shouldn't be your default answer just because it feels so easy. Staff burn-out can cost the company money in turn-over and can costs the customer in quality. I'd also be hard pressed to find many examples where working extra hours over an extended period actually delivered the project earlier.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Act Deliberately

We’ve already covered how distressing it is to go through life on autopilot. What is equally distressing is how much we act out of habit. That is, we do what we do today because it’s what we did yesterday. We get into ruts. We talk to the same people at the same time, and often about the same things. We dress the same way every day. And we respond to events with the same actions predictably and without thinking.

When you act out of habit, you throw away opportunities. You can’t leverage your actions to their greatest potential. This is not a “power of positive thinking” speech; it is a call to be “on” in your actions. Acting out of habit gives you just a random chance of getting the best value from an action. For example, if always sit in the same spot whenever you are in a particular meeting, you miss the opportunity to leverage your position to either take the lead or give it to someone else.

Acting deliberately doesn’t give perfect results, but it gives better results than random habits. Even slightly better results give your team a leadership edge toward success. That edge can be the difference between a good leader and a great leader. Those deliberate actions are each tiny manipulations of the world around you.

“Never mistake motion for action.”
– Ernest Hemingway

I’ve already given some examples of acting deliberately, such as dressing for the situation, and deciding where you should sit when you enter a room. It is difficult to notice when you are not acting deliberately, though. Those are the times you are not paying much attention to your actions. To make it worse, there is no practical way to evaluate and leverage every action. Imagine trying to think through every footstep.

So how do you recognize and evaluate actions to leverage more effectively? First off, you need to build the same habits here as you do in paying attention to everything. You need to start asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” If the answer is either, “I don’t know,” or “It’s just the way I always do it,” or “For no particular reason,” then you are not acting deliberately but out of habit.

Once you recognize a non-deliberate action, you need to think about whether it is worth changing or not. For that, you need to ask yourself the question, “Can I do this differently for a better result?” Typically, acting deliberately takes no more effort than acting out of habit. The difficulty comes from the stress of being “on” all the time.

One effective way to deal with this stress is to work on one or two things at a time. Of all the areas you could act more deliberately on, pick one to focus on. Your goal is to make acting deliberately in that area a habit. A bit ironic, I know. For example, each time you walk into a meeting deliberately ask yourself, “Where can I sit to the best effect?” After a while, perhaps even months, deciding where to sit will become habit.

Integrating new habits works best in smaller doses like this. When you try to take on too much, you can easily become discouraged and give up. You should still take every opportunity to act deliberately. But focus your efforts on making one or two things at a time into new deliberate habits.

Here are a few things for you to try acting deliberately on:

  • Decide how busy you should look. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you have to look busy. When you look busy, team members don’t feel as comfortable asking you for help. To give the impression of availability, don’t act distracted when people come to talk to you. Don’t look at other work or your watch.
  • Decide how patient you act. Even if you are impatient with someone, they may need your patience to make effective progress. Some people need to see your impatience to be motivated.
  • Decide how attentive to be. While an attentive audience motivates most people, there are times where inattentiveness or even aloofness can be of value. For example, if you sit aloofly at the back of a meeting, then when you become attentive to a particular point, you can emphasize its importance.

Here’s one example of acting deliberately that I found particularly funny. I went to a pizza party in celebration of a product release for one of my groups. The party was supposed to last about an hour. I decided that I better leave the party very early, about forty minutes into it. There were three other times I could have left: a few minutes early, right on time, or a few minutes late. If I left a few minutes early, everyone else would have taken my queue and left. I didn’t want to end the event by leaving. If I left right on time, people might have seen me as holding a stopwatch on the event. That’s not a perception I wanted to convey. If I left the meeting late, I would be setting an example that was more casual to schedules that I wanted. I didn’t particularly mind if the event went longer, but I didn’t want to make it a norm by my example.

Deliberate actions allow you influence your environment for your own benefit and the benefit of your team. Instead of going through life on autopilot, be "on" and act deliberately.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Take a Vacation

I just got back from two weeks vacation. I couldn't recommend it more. I am in a much better state of mind to lead. All those little annoyances have slid away, leaving room for dealing with important tasks. Instead of leaving work every day completely frustrated, I'm going home with a sense of accomplishment. The annoyances aren't gone; I'm just better able to cope with them.

Don't fall into the trap that you are indispensable. I always worry that it isn't a good time to take a vacation. The group will collapse without me. On the contrary, there are certain things that only happen if you leave:

  • Obviously, you recharge your batteries. This is a critical part of Steven Covey's seventh habit: sharpen the saw. Two weeks is a minimum for me, since it takes me four to five days to get work out of my system.
  • When you get back you can focus on the important problems rather than the day-to-day annoyances. You may be more productive the first week back than you were the previous three weeks working.
  • Time off gives you new perspective. I'm finding this first week back that I'm full of new ideas that I never would have had without wiping my slate clean.
  • Time off creates an opportunity for others in your team to grow. When you are not around, they need to cope with problems without your support. This is a tremendous opportunity for people to learn. When you get back, try to let people continue with their newly-learned autonomy.

Give yourself a break, take a vacation: if not because you need it, then because your team needs it.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Micro Interactions

"The smallest of interactions with your employees can have an enormous influence on how they perceive you as a leader -- and help you reach your business's goals." - so says Roger Pearman on

This is along the same line as my earlier post about paying attention to subtleties. As leaders, we all need to remember that our every action is scrutinized by the people around us. We can't afford to let our guards down. You may never recover from a careless mistake in some people's eyes.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Understand People's Motivations

While most people act without thinking, nobody acts randomly. There is important information to get from figuring out why people do the things they do. And, knowing why people are doing what they are doing gives you the best tool for helping them to success.

The lowest levels of people’s motivation are easy to understand. People eat because they are hungry. People talk because they have something to say. And, people ask questions because they want an answer. Simple enough, right. Well, no. Some people eat to calm their anxiety. Some people talk because they want to be recognized. And some people ask questions because they want to make someone else looks stupid.

Understanding everyday motivations at a deeper level can be extremely valuable. Consider this simple example of someone asking you a question. There true motivation could be any number of things. They could be trying to show you up. They could be looking to show you how clever they are. They could be challenging you out of anger. They could be indicating disbelief in a previous answer. They could be trying to tell you something cautiously. They could be asking the question that they think will clarify something for someone else in the room. They could be speaking rhetorically. They could be afraid of making a mistake by double-checking an answer. They could be probing for the right question to ask. Or, they could just need a simple answer.

Knowing why they are asking their question can help you shape the answer. Answering without knowing could be a waste of time, or could even be a step backwards for the interaction or the relationship.

Effective leaders instinctively ask themselves “Why did they do that?” for every personal interaction they have. Building this instinct is not that difficult, but it does take practice. Most people have an instinct for understanding why. What they lack is the instinct to ask themselves why. So, next time you have an interpersonal interaction of any sort, ask, “Why are they acting like that?” or “What are they trying to accomplish?” Answer the question in your head, even if the answer is plainly obvious. Remember, you are not trying to learn the answers; you are practicing asking yourself the question. You are teaching yourself to be “on.”

Even so, this level of understanding is not deep enough. Great leaders truly understand people’s most basic, fundamental motivations. For example, some people are motivated by the need to feel important. Others are motivated by a need for money. Still others are motivated by the amount of money they make as a measure of their self worth: the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most stuff, wins.”

Understanding people’s basic motivations allows you a key advantage in satisfying their needs. When you satisfy a person’s needs, they are able, even eager, to help you satisfy yours. Over time, you will build up trust, so that even when you can’t satisfy that person’s needs, they know you’ve tried, and will be more willing to work with you anyway.

Understanding a person’s basic motivations is tricky and at best inexact. It is a process of paying attention to behaviors, noticing trends, taking guesses and refining those guesses based on future behavior.

The process starts with the superficial “why” questions. After some number of interactions, look for trends on which go smoothly and which go awry. Don’t focus on their interactions with you. You can learn much more from their interactions with others. Your view of the details will taint your evaluation of the interactions. Your interactions are also biased toward your own interaction styles. This is one of the most important reasons to be “on” in meetings. Every interaction is an opportunity to observe other people’s motivations. If you zone out except for when you need to be involved, you lose those opportunities.

The next step is to evaluate the trends: what answers to your “why” question come up frequently? For example, I knew someone that asked a challenging question at nearly every presentation they attended. I asked myself the “why” question. My instincts said that they were trying to trip up the presenter. But that was not enough to understand their basic motivation.

The next step is to peel away at the onion of the behavior by asking a series of “why” questions, and shaping the answers by recollections of past behavior. Your goal is to dig down in to deeper and deeper motivations until you have a general motivation that you can apply to many situations. You are looking for the motivating factor that really excites them. It’s the event that happens that they brag to their spouse about. It’s the event that makes them say to themselves, “I was great today.”

In the case of the person who was trying to trip up presenters, I asked “why” again: perhaps, to make himself look smarter than the presenter. “Why look smarter than the presenter?” I guessed that people recognizing his technical brilliance motivated him.

Having a good guess is not enough though. As with any hypothesis, you need to test it to see if you can use that knowledge to predict outcomes. You need to validate your guess by watching future interactions to see if it holds up. Finally, you need to see if you can change the outcomes of future interactions based on your understanding.

In my example, I also noticed that whenever I met with the person, the meetings lasted far longer than I expected, and went into far too much technical detail. I tried an experiment. The next time we met I actively looked for technical ideas I could praise, presuming that this was what motivated him. It turned out that this was difficult, because I genuinely didn’t agree with many of his technical ideas. But, I was able to agree with some of the steps of his ideas. When I found something I could comment on, I said something like, “That’s a really excellent point. That will help us here.” After about three times, the rest of the interaction went smoothly. We got through the points and I could even disagree without further lengthy interactions. The guess seemed valid.

It’s not enough though to stop there. People just aren’t that simple. They generally refuse to be categorized so easily. Motivations are much more complex and impacted by other external events. Events like a fight with a spouse or a sick friend could have a strong influence on someone’s behavior or even their basic motivations. Also realize that everyone has multiple needs and motivations. Some of them may even be in conflict. Furthermore, people change. What motivates them now, may be completely unimportant to them a year from now. As a result, be ready to change your understanding of what motivates each person.

As a manager, it is important that you explicitly consider the motivations of each person on you staff at least yearly. As a team leader, you should try to understand the motivations of each member of your team. Do it explicitly; don’t wait until you think it matters. Just like your elevator speech, you won’t have time to figure it out when it matters. In fact, you should work to explicitly understand the motivations of everyone you frequently work with.

Many things can motivate people. There are some common things, though, that motivate people. As you peel back the onion, consider some of these common motivations, and ways to work with them:

  • Power or Control – Feigning agreement or even subservience can sometimes work with these people. It can work to let them feel like they are directing you. A good way to do this is to start with a solid proposal and ask, “does this work for you?” You might also ask for their support, “This won’t work without your support.” For the most part, title is not as important as real control.
  • Respect by peers – Praising them in public can be motivating to these people. Seeking their support as a “thought leader” from the team is also effective. You should also work to give them as much challenging work as you can. They thrive on opportunities that can make them look good.
  • Respect by superiors – Sending kudos to their management and copying them is a very powerful motivator. Getting their boss to ask them to help you is also good. Allowing them opportunities to make presentations to superiors is helpful. Titles and promotions are very important to these people. This sometimes manifests itself as “empire building:” focusing on the size of their staff.
  • Self-respect or Ego – These folks may or may not be motivated by public praise. It is usually enough to thank them in private. It is also helpful to ask them for their help as if they are really saving you.
  • Money – Few people are really motivated purely by money, although it does happen. Bonus programs can be very effective, but only if you don’t routinely pay full bonuses.
  • Recognition – Public acknowledgement is obviously powerful, but can also be dangerous. For each person publicly recognized, other people can be de-motivated because they were not recognized. Effective public recognition must be well deserved to avoid this. Effective recognition is about someone noticing their effort and going out of their way to acknowledge it. That can be as easy as a “thank you.”
  • Challenge – Give these people nearly impossible projects, but give them plenty of latitude in the solution space. It can be helpful to point out that someone else failed, or thought it couldn’t be done.
  • Care – These people like to feel loved. Ask them about their feelings, or engage them on a personal level, but make sure you pay attention to the answers. Follow-up on previous discussions. They will usually support you out of loyalty and friendship.
  • Loyalty – Befriending these people is important. Spending time with them is the key. Actively support them in public, especially when they are being attacked. Another effective technique is to elicit commitment from them to a task or the team.

Understand what people need and satisfy those needs first. Only then will they be able to focus on your needs.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Training New Leaders

As this year's leaders, we have a responsibility to train next year's leaders. Johanna Rothman's article, Management Myth #4: Managers Don't Need Training, reminds me how important this a job this is. In the article and her upcoming book, Johanna focuses on training new managers for dealing with the common situations they encounter such as the one-on-one meetings. I'm looking forward to this resource.

I want to highlight the importance of teaching new leaders and managers before they face the job on their own. You shouldn't just pluck the most promising individuals out of your teams and throw them into a leadership role. This won't be effective even if you spend time training them in their new role. We need to start training new leaders and managers even before they realize we are training them.

Who are the potential leaders in your teams, and what are you doing to make them ready to take your place? Train a replacement not only prepares our future leaders, it builds capacity in your team. Here are some ideas:

  • Have them tag along with you to a variety of meetings.
  • Have them give your presentation to a customer with you there for backup.
  • Have them review memos and contracts before you send them out.
  • Give them increasing levels of problem solving responsibilities, with real opportunities to fail.
  • Ask their opinion about difficult problems, and share with them what you decide to do.

After all these situations, I find it valuable to debrief. This helps the leader-in-training to see things that they otherwise might miss, "Did you notice how I asked everyone in the meeting to share their ideas about the proposal? Some people will never raise an issue unless you ask them directly." This debriefing time also helps me think through why I do things, thereby honing my own skills.

This process can take time. It's not something you can rush through with only one month of notice when you realize the need is imminent. Be thankful if you have eighteen months to two years lead time. And, you should work to fill the leadership pipeline with multiple successors if you can. So become a leadership mentor today. Some future new manager will thank you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Taking Your Group to Dinner

A new manager came to me recently with a problem. She had taken her group to dinner for a release celebration. The team ordered far more than she had expected, far more than seemed reasonable, and she felt taken advantage of by the group. The group ordered appetizers, drinks, bottles of wine, tended toward the high side of the entree items, and ended with desserts.

We've all seen people who abuse such efforts by the company to build more of a team atmosphere. They seem to think that the company owes it to them or that the company can afford it. It's easy to see how a manager, who identifies with and represents the company, could feel hurt by this behavior. Besides the manager's hurt feelings, I've seen group members themselves offended by similar behavior at other events.

It's unfortunate that we don't think to take the time to teach new leaders how to deal with common situations like this. Next time you take your group out, there are some techniques you can use to set the right expectations:

  • Decide up front where the limits are. Know if you want to include drinks, appetizers or desserts. Money spent should have value to the company. If the goal of the meal can be served without extravagances, avoid them. Sometimes the goal is best served by lavishly celebrating. Money wisely saved or spent is in the best interest of the company, and ultimately of its employees.
  • When the server comes, start by setting an example with your drink order. You'll notice that your team will watch you to see what you order and take their cue from you. If you are sporting for drinks, order a drink. If you're not a drinker, make a point of telling everyone, "I don't want a drink, but feel free to order one if you like." If you don't want drinks served, order a soda.
  • You can also use a more direct approach, "I'll cover the first round of beer" or "I'll get a couple of bottles of wine for the table." You can even add the more explicit, "If you want other drinks, you'll need to cover those."
  • Appetizers are more tricky. I find it helpful to control the whole question by ordering them for the table. Your group will usually allow you to lead this part of the meal. This doesn't mean you shouldn't get people's opinions about what to order, but you should usually be the one to order them. If you want to be more extravagant, give permission to the group, "Why don't people order some appetizers."
  • Set an example with the entree you order. Most employees will order in roughly the same price range as you if they can. If you want them to feel free to order anything, don't order a cheap entree.
  • When it comes to dessert, you can head it off by responding quickly when the server asks, "Nothing for me, thank you." People will tend to wait for you to respond first and follow you lead. So, if you want people to feel free to order desert and coffee, order them yourself, even if you don't really want them.

The keys to success are to play the host and take the lead. When people see you as the host rather than some faceless company, they are less likely to abuse the situation. They won't be rude to a person they can see. When you take the lead, you are in a position to set the tone with your examples. Leadership in this situation is mostly a matter of speaking first. Don't be shy. People will look to you for limits. Your quick responses also will remove the uncomfortable silence while people try to figure out what is okay to order.

I'd love to hear the other ideas and techniques you use in this situation.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Care About Subtleties

Knowing that the leaders around you are watching the details around them should give you pause: one of the details they are paying attention to is you. In this way, the details of what we do matter. In fact details matter to precisely the people we care most to satisfy: the other leaders around us. The details of our behavior matter not just to the leaders around us, but also to everyone who interacts with us. Here are some examples of the kinds of subtle details you should pay attention to in your work:

  • The clothes you wear influence how you are perceived. But don’t default to a suit and tie. You should dress with an eye to what the people you are working with will respect.
  • Neatly format and spell check every document you create, even email. A sloppy document to an attentive leader is the same as wearing a wrinkled t-shirt on a sales call.
  • Be respectful of everyone. Simple acts of politeness, such as saying please and thank you, are noticed, but not nearly as much as not saying them is noticed. One of the more frequent reasons I see for people expressing anger at work is, “I worked extra for them and they didn’t even say thank you.”

People judge you more quickly on these kinds of details than on any large victory or even a large failure. And the impressions they form from these details last much longer too. While we remember historical figures for their acts of greatness or infamy, we remember the people we interact with based on more personal impressions. Think about someone you know and respect, then ask yourself why. Is it because of a big success or because of the general way they comport themselves? Before you answer, try to think of someone else whom you know with similar credentials, but whom you don’t have similar respect for. It’s not the actions, but the details that make the difference in your respect.

You can do the same thought exercise with people you know who have had some large failures. Some you will respect and others you will not. The difference lies in the details. Those details determine how much you “like” them. I use the word “like” because that’s often what it comes down to. If you like them, then you will celebrate their victories and lament their mistakes. If you don’t like them, you will naysay their victories and laugh at their mistakes. It’s the subtle details of their every day behavior that set this tone.

A key element of your success as a leader is based on the strength of your reputation. And perhaps the most critical element to building your reputation is the everyday details that people see from you. These subtle details can be a bigger influence on your reputation than the big events of your career.

When you have a good reputation, every aspect of your interactions with other people goes better. People are more supportive of the people they respect. This benefit can not be undervalued. Its impacts are subtle but powerful. I once counseled someone trying to build back his reputation. When he made a good presentation to his team, he got no end of questions and second-guessing. If a more respected peer had made the identical presentation, it would have gone without a hitch. It didn’t come down to his presentation, but to his reputation.

My un-respected friend couldn’t understand why every part of his job was harder than it seemed to be for his peers. He didn’t understand the impact of all the subtle things he did on his reputation. He was quick to get frustrated, and this tended to make him defensive: a negative feedback loop on his behavior. Ultimately, he cared too much about what people though of him, so that his own ego got in the way of people “liking” him.

Another way that subtleties matter can be understood by noticing that most big achievements are made up of a multitude of tiny steps. This is particularly true of the social changes needed to effectively lead.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Chinese proverb

Take for example, the common leadership job of instilling a vision in a team. Every experienced leader knows that this isn’t done by one inspiring speech to the team. That speech is part of the process, but the most important parts are all the subtle ways a leader pushes the vision. None of the encouragements, lobbying, reminding, or presenting by themselves make any significant difference to the overall acceptance of the vision. Taken together, though, they form a history of subtle changes that instills the vision.

Another familiar example is changing the culture of a group. I once had a group that thought of its products as secondary to the other products being delivered to the customer. As a result, they didn’t have pride in their work nor did they think much about innovating or delivering added value. There was no way that I could change that group culture by holding an inspirational meeting and telling them to believe differently. Social changes like these always take time and people tend to be resistant to attempts for quick change.

Obviously, the first step to this change process was to formulate a vision of the change I wanted to happen. The culture I wanted to instill in the group was that their product was critical to the success of our customers. I attacked this problem in some direct ways like stating the idea in team meetings and adding it to a proposed group mission statement, but the team had no direct evidence that these words matched our customers’ reality.

The more subtle approaches made a bigger impact. The first subtle approach was repetition. Every politician and advertiser knows that if you repeat anything often enough it becomes true. Another subtle approach is to make the idea feel like it came from the team. Every time someone on the team said something that was similar to the idea, I would point out how it supported the vision, “That’s just like the idea we were talking about where our group is critical to customer success.” Notice also the subtle difference in saying “we” verses “I.”

A more valuable subtle approach was to sell the vision to the rest of the company and to our customers. At every opportunity I would share that my team was “starting to understand that they were critical to our customers’ success.” Some customers verified that idea or gave me examples to take back to the team. Where they were skeptical, my phrasing of “starting to understand” allowed them to correct me or think harder about the idea in non-confrontational ways.

The team got the evidence they needed when they started to hear customers and other groups within our company echo the sentiment of this cultural change. It took about nine months for the message to echo back and another three to six months for the team to own it as true. After that and many other subtle actions, their sense of pride in their work and their desire to innovate and add value went way up.

To make that change in our group culture required a long process of many subtle actions. Any one of these actions would seem useless toward moving us toward the goal. Many leaders would consider them futile efforts toward impossible change. Considering the small cost of such efforts and the value of taking no action, there’s really nothing to lose by trying. But, the patient leader will find that the more valuable results take time and attention to subtle actions.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

All the Troubles are Fun

Just a small bit of encuragement for the day. We all need a little now and again. -- Leading is fun!

Okay, I agree, sometimes it is a pain in the neck, frustrating, tiring, thankless, discuraging - add your own frustrations to the list. But even these troubles are fun if you let them be. Most of us who have taken on leadership roles are dynamic, life-long learners. The worst leadership times are the best times for learning. Step out of the day-to-day and look into the growth potential. If you didn't have the trouble, you couldn't have the growth. Take the opportunity; learn from it; and enjoy it.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if there weren't any troubles, why would your team need a leader. Think hard about this. You don't have a role if there aren't any issues. That's a key point of leadership. If you don't thrive on the challenges, leadership might not be the right role for you. And if you don't feel the troubles, perhaps you aren't leading well enough.

So, next time you are frustrated by your leadership role you have two things focus on. First, what are you learning from it. Second, your team still needs you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Pay Attention to Everything

I once worked on a project that was doomed from the start. In hindsight it was obvious. There was bickering within the company about whether this was the right project to do. There wasn’t real clarity about what the project’s goals were. Even the project staff was divided between the technical staff, who were aloof and cliquish having worked together on a previous project, and the rest of the staff.

As problems arose one of the project managers consoled the rest of the managers with a question, her mantra, “Well, what can we learn from this?” She taught me that there is value in every failure if we can learn from it.

Unfortunately, to take most advantage of learning opportunities, we have to actively pay attention to them. I find it is easy to fall into complacency, not noticing all the really good information that is available for the taking by anyone who bothers to open their eyes and notice it.

Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is showing up.” Stephen Covey’s first habit, “be proactive,” gives a similar sentiment. So many of us go through life on autopilot, not really thinking about the world around us. We never stop to consider the most effective ways to work within it.

Life on autopilot is easier, but it is frightening sometimes when you notice yourself doing it. Take the simple example of reading. I find myself drifting off sometimes, only to notice that I’ve read two or three pages and don’t have the slightest idea what I just read. A more disturbing example is when I drive to a familiar place like work. I’m driving along, taking turns as they come, listening to the radio and thinking about the day to come. All of the sudden I’m nearly at work, and I can’t remember driving the last few miles. I find it frightening to realize that I’ve been doing the most dangerous task I usually do, without the slightest conscience thought whatsoever.

How much of our lives do we spend not paying any attention? If you want to be an effective leader, the answer is “too much.” Effective leaders apply two skills here. One, they are engaged in the world; paying attention; looking for what they can learn. Two, they put these details to use to better manipulate the world around them for their team’s success.

Here are a couple of examples of things to pay more attention to:

  • Learn the power structures in your organization. Figure out who are the thought leaders driving the decision makers. Figure out who the decision makers are, and who they ask question from before making a decision. An effective leader makes sure they sell the thought leaders on ideas, in addition to the decision makers.
  • Pay attention to body language. People convey their thoughts through body language. Watch for signs of support, like rapt attention and smiles. Look for signs of discomfort showing lack of confidence or unspoken bad news, like diverted eyes or sitting awkwardly in a chair. Crossed arms sometimes show disagreement as well as a body turned away from the speaker. When people agree, they tend to take similar postures. Use body language to send subconscious messages to people. They may not get the message directly, but assuming the same position as someone you want to support can make them feel much more confident in their ideas.
  • Learn the special languages of the groups you work with. When talking with your accountants, realize that they mean precise things by “profits,” “margins” and other special words. If you don’t understand them, ask and learn. Senior managers often have a special language based on strategic initiatives and management books. Common phrases can be loaded with particular meanings, that you as a leader can better react to if you understand fully.

This is only a small set of suggestions of things to pay attention to. You should pay attention to everything. Figure out what you can learn from what you see. Engage your brain, and see what it can do for you. I call this being “on,” and it’s exhausting.

You may know the feeling from being in a meeting with an important customer. Perhaps you know the feeling from being a parent of small children. I first got the feeling as a lifeguard at a summer camp pool. It’s the feeling that you need all your attention focused on making sure that every little head that goes under the water comes back up again. After a few hours of that, I was exhausted. It’s the same feeling I get after every meeting with customers. It’s the same feeling I get after every meeting and presentation I host or attend.

Pay that much attention; that you find your self exhausted at the end of every day. That will be the advantage you have over your peers. Look around you the next time you are at a meeting. How many people have simply tuned out?

Now turn your attention to successful leaders around you. Watch them in your next meeting. Are they tuned out? I can confidently say that they are not. They are watching everything around them, including you.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Have a Goal and Keep it in Mind

The first step for any journey is deciding which direction to take your first step toward. That is, the first thing effective teams do is to decide on a goal. Steven Covey emphasizes this idea in the second habit of his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind.” Others talk about this in terms of vision or direction setting.

This sounds obvious and simple. It isn’t as simple as it seems. Of course, you need to have goals or you never really know when you’ve been successful. And we all have many goals that we are working on in an ad-hoc fashion: goals for a project, goals for our career, financial goals and goals for life in general. This is all good. What we are talking about, though, is something much more deliberate.

Successful leadership requires goals that are clear, simple, and compelling. This starts by making the goal very deliberate. It isn’t enough to have a good sense of the goal. You need to work it out; take the time to think it through. Write it down and edit it until you have a compelling idea that you can clearly communicate to your team.

I call this an “elevator pitch.” Amazingly often you will find yourself in an elevator with someone you need to sell on your idea. You need to be ready for those opportunities with a story that you can complete before the elevator door opens and your audience in no longer captive. You won’t have time when you see this opportunity to formulate your story and deliver it, so you better be ready in advance.

It would be tempting to start writing down all your goals and memorizing them. It is more valuable to spend your time focusing your goals to the most compelling one or two. Most people simply can’t keep track of more than a few things at a time. You will be a more effective leader if you focus on a few things at a time. Even at that you should keep the goals simple and focused.

Focused goals are not only effective for elevator pitches. Focused goals are also excellent for keeping you as a leader heading in the most important directions. But your job as a leader is to manipulate your team to keep the goal foremost in their minds. If you can infect your team with the goal, then half you job is done. Once they have the goal clearly in their minds they will head there with very little extra work from you.

Many people have difficulty figuring out how to effectively infect their team with a goal. We can take a valuable cue from advertising. In every advertisement there is a slogan or catch phrase, which is repeated often multiple times with every ad. When politicians do the same thing they call it a “sound byte.” I prefer to use the term “mantra” because the word reminds us how important it is to repeat our idea at every opportunity.

Your job is to repeat your mantra at every opportunity. There will come a point when you team teasingly mimics you repeating the goal. When this happens you have been successful at communicating the message.

The simple formula is to have a simple but effective goal, and take every opportunity to communicate it. This should happen in elevators, at lunches, in meetings, in speeches and in letters. The next important step is to pay attention to the feedback and reactions of everyone you talk to so that you can effectively make any needed adjustments to the goals.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Own Manipulation as a Tool

Leaders are successful by giving people a goal, convincing them to head there, and then helping them successfully make the journey. Put another way, leaders manipulate the world around them to more effectively get their team to the goal.

The word “manipulation” has very negative connotations. When we hear it, we think of subliminal advertising, cult leaders, lawyers, or nagging parents. Those connotations are so strong in our ethical subconscious that we tend to actively avoid any notion that we could sink so low as to manipulate people into doing what we want. We need to get over that notion. Whether you know it or not, if you are an effective leader you manipulate people every day. You probably don’t realize just how much of your effectiveness as a leader comes from manipulation. Let me give you a few examples of things that effective leaders do to manipulate the people around them.

  • Effective leaders notice that a meeting has gone off track and redirect the team to the agenda. What seems like such a straightforward task requires manipulating the group to give you control of the floor. Manipulating the team to agree to stop the current line of discussion, and switch to your new direction. And, manipulating the group to agree to follow your agenda in the first place.
  • Assigning team members to a task and a due date also requires significant manipulation. It means manipulating the person to agree to the task. Manipulating them to believe that they are the right person to do the job. And, manipulating them to agree to the date.
  • Keeping people motivated on a daily basis requires ultimate skill in manipulation. It requires manipulating each person to be interested in doing the task. Manipulating them into caring about the completing the project rather than just continuing to make progress. And, manipulating them into wanting to stay with the team at all.

Some of you may look at the examples above and think, “I do those things every day. Those things aren’t manipulation. They’re just part of my role as a leader.” You are right. They are part of your role as a leader, but they also require you to manipulate people. The fact is, you have your role as leader because the people on the team won’t always do these things if you don’t cause them to. A working definition of manipulation is causing something to happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen if you didn’t act.

You are probably still reluctant to own the label “manipulation” as describing what you do as a leader. That’s the negative connotation pulling against your ethics. You might be thinking that only bad people manipulate others, so I can’t use manipulation on others. Bad people do use manipulation, but it’s not the manipulation that makes them bad, it’s the motivation that makes them bad. What we dislike about manipulation is that we can use it to make people do things that they wouldn’t otherwise agree to.

A good leader doesn’t try to manipulate people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise agree to. Rather a good leader is trying to get people do to the things they want to do, but wouldn’t naturally do. Think about a leading people on a hike. Your group decides to take a rest on some rocks by the path. After a while it’s time to get going again. Many people would sit on the rocks waiting for someone else to get the group moving again. Some would think, “I don’t want to be the one to end the break.” Some would think, “No one would listen to me if I suggested we start up again.” Some would think, “I’ll just zone out; someone else will make sure we get going again.” None of those people would otherwise start going again. Each one would be perfectly happy to get going again if someone else took the lead and suggested it. As the leader when you suggest the team get going again, you are manipulating them into it.

You may still be thinking, “That’s not manipulation; that’s just leadership,” but think about it a bit more. You can suggest that you get going in a couple of ways. If you don’t say it just right, some people will think you are joking and just sit there. If you don’t look sure enough about yourself, others will follow suit, and no one will move. You can decide when the best time to suggest going is. If you say it too early, the group will rebel, and effectively remove you from the leadership role. There is more to effective leadership than simply taking the lead. That extra quality is the ability to influence people and events. The best word I can find for that ability is “manipulation.”

“Who shall set a limit to the influence of a human being? There are men, who, by their sympathetic attractions, carry nations with them, and lead the activity of the human race.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

So brush all those bad connotations out of your mind and own manipulation as a leadership tool. If it makes you feel better try to find a better word for it. A quick look in the thesaurus yields “manage.” Could there be a more boring word? The most important thing is not the word you use to describe it, but the techniques you use that make you more effective.

Ideas Not Ego

People assume that leadership is about getting others to follow them. It isn't. Leadership is about getting people to follow ideas. True leadership isn't about the leader. It's about implementing a vision, achieving a goal, or advancing a cause. Getting people to follow you because you want to be in charge is about your ego. It's what we expect on a playground from school children: "I'm going home if you don't play my way."