Saturday, December 29, 2007

Two Christmas Exchange Stories

Our first stop at the mall yesterday was to Victoria's Secret so my daughters could exchange some pajama bottoms that didn't fit. In the process we discovered that Victoria's Secret's return policy is to give cash for anything under $50, even without a gift receipt, and store credit for anything over $50. Even though the store was crowded and the line was long, they had enough people implementing a simple exchange policy to move everyone through in a flash.

Our second stop was to Eddie Bauer to catch the after-Christmas jeans sale. The woman next to us at the check-out counter was trying to do an even exchange for a coat. She didn't have her receipt, but the cashier was able to look up her sales slip in the computer using her credit card. After some confusion, she rung up the jacket and told the woman she owed ten dollars. The woman explained that she was only looking for an even exchange. Another cashier who was helping with the transaction explained, "The problem is you didn't have a receipt. You know, we aren't required to look up your receipt on the system."

Which experience do you want your customers to have?

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Golden Rule of Management

Manage unto others as you would have others manage unto you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Fortune Cookie Leadership Lesson

I got the following fortune in my fortune cookie last night:

Today you should be the leader. Things will go your way.

I'm choosing to think this means that things will go my way if I take the lead.

Monday, December 03, 2007

10 Great Products from Mistakes

Scott Ginsberg has a great post on leveraging your mistakes into successes. He describes these ten products that resulted from mistakes:

  1. Chocolate chip cookies
  2. Coca-Cola
  3. Tea
  4. Ice cream cones
  5. Maple Syrup
  6. Penicillin
  7. Ivory soap
  8. Popsicles
  9. Stainless steel
  10. Paper towels

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Pragmatic Management Advice on Shorter Task Lengths

My friend Johanna Rothman just mailed out the latest issue of her newsletter, The Pragmatic Manager. This issue had good advice about reducing the length of development tasks to what she calls "inch-pebbles."

If you estimate in days, you'll be late by days. If you estimate in weeks, you'll be late by weeks. ... If you estimate in months, you'll be late by months.

This latest issue is not yet posted, but you can subscribe here. They are always worth reading. Older issues are posted here.

I also liked this quote from from Johanna:

The schedule is the one way the project won't work.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is this Integrity or Fear?

Ester Derby has a post about a senior manager who was unwilling to talk to his VP to modify a commitment. The senior manager committed to deliver a special project, then after evaluating it, recognized that the project didn't make good business sense. The senior manager refused to talk to the VP about changing the commitment, ostensibly as a matter of integrity.

If I were the VP, I would expect the senior manager to give me the new information, so we could make the best decision for the business. I suspect that the senior manager's integrity issue is more a question of fear. Certainly the senior manager's integrity would suffer equally from knowingly making a bad business decision.

Sometimes a leader needs to make the decision to take the personally painful path for the greater good of the team. Integrity demands it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

University of Chicago Study Shows Hard Skills More Successful for CEOs

According to the study cited in this Wall Street Journal article, hard skills have a larger impact on CEO success than soft skills. The study was done by University of Chicago Graduate School of Business professors using data from ghSmart, a management assessment consulting firm. The sample CEOs were from companies in buyout situations. The research doesn't appear to say if the data applies to CEOs at other companies.

These "hard" skills have the largest impact on success of the sampled CEOs:

  • Persistence
  • Attention to detail
  • Efficiency
  • Analytical skills
  • Setting high standards

These "soft" skills have less impact:

  • Strong oral communication
  • Teamwork
  • Flexibility/adaptability
  • Enthusiasm
  • Listening skills

I wasn't able to find the primary research paper on-line. If anyone has a pointer, leave a comment so we can dig into the details.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Opportunity to Connect with Your Team

If you live in the states, the Thanksgiving holiday gives you an opportunity to connect more personally with your team. Holidays like this one give you a safe topic as a personal conversation starter. Show your human side. Ask about the holiday plans of the people on your team. A better connection among the members builds a stronger team.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Corporate Culture Impact on Shopping Experience

My wife and I went shopping today for a larger-ticket item. We did some comparison shopping, and found some huge differences among the stores we went to. Each store had an obvious niche, and an equally distinct atmosphere and customer experience. In my experience, leadership impacts culture; culture impacts the way the staff treats customers, which impacts the customer experience, ultimately impacting sales.

We saw four kinds of stores:

  1. High-end: Top notch prices in an upscale environment
  2. Low-end: Lower prices but an uncomfortable shopping experience
  3. Middle-of-the-road: Acceptably lower prices, but a pleasant shopping environment
  4. Wholesale: Best prices, but like shopping at a deli

In the high-end store, we were met with high schmooze-factor sales techniques. The sales person felt like everyone's definition of a used-car salesman. She cozied up to us obsequiously. She gave us lots of information that sounded useful, but after we had shopped at other stores turned out to be mostly a smoke screen. Their culture appeared to recognize that they wouldn't win on price, so they had to "fool" the customers either by selling the sizzle, or by selling a false relationship. We walked out as quickly as we could, feeling dirtier than when we entered.

In the low-end store, we also had a sense that the product was overpriced for its quality. It felt like the quality of the product was much lower to match the lower price. The niche appeared to be to set an environment that looked low-end, so that customers felt they were getting a bargain. We got lots of useless information about how to compare their product against the competition. Again, it felt like a culture of "fooling" the customers into a sale.

One particularly low-end store had a sign that said, "All sales final." We didn't even stop there.

The middle-of-the-road store was very comfortable, neither showy nor shabby. Our sales person gave us detailed and relevant information about his product. We felt like we got a valuable lesson in what factors impacted quality, and how to value them. He steered us away from the top end, pointing out why it wouldn't matter to us. The prices were only slightly more than the low-end store, but we felt the quality of the product was much higher. The culture of this store appeared to be based on confidence in the product and fairness of the price. This came across as honesty from the salesman and inspired our trust.

We walked into the deli-like wholesale store, where we literally took a number. The place was shabby but crowded with customers who were buying. Their culture appeared to be optimized toward giving the lowest possible price, but everyone was perfectly professional. They cut corners on customer convenience, expecting customers to come in knowledgeable and ready to buy.

How we were treated by the staff impacted on our confidence in buying from each store. In the end, we bought from the wholesale store, but we will likely go back to them and the middle-of-the-road store in the future. We will certainly not go back to the high-end or low-end stores. The key was our perception of honesty in the different stores.

The leader of each company sets the culture and approach. That translates to what is expected from the sales staff and directly to how customers experience the interaction. In my own small sample size, a culture of honesty and integrity translated to a sale and future business.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The LinkedIn Wave as a Harbinger of Attrition

I have been a huge fan of LinkedIn for a number of years. In that time, I've noticed a phenomenon about LinkedIn invitations. Every now and again, someone new joins and invites their friends. This causes a short burst, or wave, of new LinkedIn subscribers and invitations. These waves seem to last about three days.

One of the key reasons people start to use LinkedIn is to beef up their networks to explore a job search. If you see more of these waves in your company, you might start to wonder if people are becoming unhappy enough to look around. These waves could be an early warning sign of future attrition.

I may be starting my own little wave here: If you aren't using LinkedIn already, you should be. It is a great tool even if you aren't looking for a job. Once your network is in place you can see the subscription activity in your network by looking at your home page in the tool.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Make the Goal Clear

This may seem obvious, but I'm going to say it anyway. It should be clear to everyone on your team what the goal of the team is. So my challenge question to you: Is the team goal clear to everyone on your team? Before you say, "of course," how do you know? If I came into your team and asked each member, would they all tell me the same thing?

In the spirit of practical leadership advice: today would be a good day to write down your team's goal. Verify with your team that you have it right and that it is clear. Finally, post it somewhere as a reminder. I bet you find that it's not as obvious as you think it is.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ways to Tell That You Have Lost Your Audience

  • The room has fallen silent - you are getting no feedback
  • You hear pages turning - people are reading the slides
  • People are looking around the room at other people's reactions
  • Everyone has a vacant look on their face - nobody is smiling
  • Lots of people are getting up to "go to the bathroom"

What can you do about it if you notice?

  • Don't panic
  • Be dynamic - move around more
  • Modulate your voice, tone, and pacing more
  • Don't just talk louder - project your voice with confidence
  • Engage the audience by asking them questions
  • Most importantly, figure out what your audience wants to hear and dump the parts that they aren't interested in

Monday, November 12, 2007

Five Leadership Quotes from Napoleon

A leader is a dealer in hope.

Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.

Soldiers generally win battles; generals get credit for them.

In war, three quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.

Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Survival of the Most Adaptable

Today at Slow Leadership there is a post about how cleverness and adaptability are more successful traits in a leader than hard-driving toughness.

Species success among birds depends mostly on being clever or adaptable—like starlings, crows, doves and sparrows. Those that need specialized diets and environments, even massive birds of prey, are always vulnerable to extinction.

Give some thought to your company culture and your own approach to leading. Are you able to adapt to changing circumstances, or are you heading toward extinction as your market landscape inevitably changes? The post is worth a read.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Leadership Analogies from Driving

Next in our series of leadership lessons by analogy: What can we learn about leadership from driving? As always, the interpretations are left to you.

  • Driving around can be fun, but it doesn't get you anywhere unless you have a destination.
  • Excessive speeding is very dangerous.
  • So is tailgating.
  • Drive defensively.
  • It helps to have directions, but don't read them while you are driving.
  • It is better to have a navigator.
  • Turn signals let those around you avoid bumping into you.
  • It is better to take the next exit than to swerve across three lanes for the current one.
  • I shouldn't have to mention the guy backing down the exit ramp.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Papelbon Dance Risk Builds Recognizable Brand

First, congratulations to the Boston Red Sox. We could get used to this.

If you haven't seen Jonathan Papelbon's dance moves you should take a look. He is remarkable for his passion more than his skill. I'm impressed by the fearlessness he showed the first time he strutted his stuff in front of all those people. He risked looking like a fool, but the reward was a signature that makes him a recognizable star of the team.

Now, everyone loves Papelbon.

It will often be the case for you as a leader that you have to risk looking like a fool to stand out from the crowd. For most of us, the risk is actually quite small. Some folks have difficulty simply asking a question in a meeting. To take the lead and build your own brand, you need to show your own fearlessness and take your own risks. When it feels too risky, compare your fears against dancing a jig on national television.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Thinking Outside the Box - Moose and Squirrel License Plate

I saw a great license plate the other day that reminded me of the value of creativity and thinking outside the box. It was the New Hampshire plate "&SQRRL." That wasn't so interesting until I noticed that the plate was a special New Hampshire Conservation License Plate depicting a moose on its left edge.

Vanity plates for this program are limited to a mere six characters and symbols. That doesn't feel like a lot of room for creativity. Some out of the box thinking expanded the possibilities. Think about where you should expand your thinking to find solutions outside of the rules you think you are working under. How can you break free from your six-character-limits?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Kudos to Mitre

I attended the Boston SPIN meeting earlier this week, which is held on the Mitre campus. Mitre donates a large meeting room for this monthly meeting and supports it with security and facilities staff. Mitre is a secure facility and needs to take extra care to register guests and monitor where they go. I saw nothing but smiles and a helpful attitude from both the security and facilities staff.

It would have been easier by far for Mitre not to sponsor these meetings. Instead they are enthusiastic and happy to support them. This shows me a leadership culture of supporting their community in a way that feels sincere. By the way, as we left the meeting we enjoyed music from a small wind ensemble that was practicing in the great acoustics of Mitre's lobby area.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Impact of Customer Expectatons on Estimates

I went the September meeting of Boston SPIN (Software Process Improvement Network) and heard a presentation from Mike Cohn of Mountain Goat Software on Agile Estimating and Planning. I was fascinated by a study Mike shared about the effect of customer expectations on estimates.

Mike presented a summary of results from a presentation by Magne Jørgensen and Stein Grimstad: How to avoid impact from irrelevant and misleading information on your estimates. Three groups are given the task of estimating the same project. The control group comes up with an estimate of 456 hours.

The second group is told that the customer thinks the task should take 500 hours. They are also told that the customer has little basis for this, and they should disregard the customer's expectations in their estimate. In effect, this customer input should be irrelevant to the estimate. This second group comes up with an estimate of 555 hours.

The third group is told that the customer expects the task to take 50 hours, but again to disregard the customer's expectation in the estimate. This group estimates 99 hours.

Think about this the next time you ask your team for an estimate. I'm sure we can all hear ourselves saying, "I think it should take about a month" or "I'd like to know if we can get it done by the end of the year."

Friday, August 31, 2007

Outstanding New Innovation Blog

I like the leadership that Troy Worman at Orbit Now has taken. He has created an award for outstanding new bloggers with a badge they can proudly display on their blogs. Troy leveraged his credibility with his community to have fellow bloggers like me give out the initial round of awards. Troy's leadership builds cohesion in his blogging circle, and gives encouragement (and some additional traffic) to burgeoning bloggers when they need it the most. Well done Troy.

I'm giving an award to Jim Todhunter at Innovating to Win. Jim is a long-time friend and recent blogging colleague. I appreciate that Jim creates meaningful new content in each post, adding to the discussion instead of simply reframing it. Jim, you can display the badge of Outstanding New Blogger:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Speaking Confidently in a Meeting

I was in a meeting today where the leader asked everyone to give a few words of introduction. Even this simplest public speaking effort strikes fear into people, and you can see the fear in the way each person speaks. One person went from sitting up straight to hunched over, looking at notes, and spoke in muted tones.

When you speak in public, even in these simple situations, you need to project confidence. You don't have to be confident, but you do have to look confident. Most successful speakers will say they are no less anxious than anyone else; they just know how to fake it.

When you find yourself speaking in a meeting, set yourself apart with the following approaches:

  • Take 10 seconds to prepare a short outline so you don't ramble
  • Sit up straight and square your shoulders
  • Use you best radio announcer voice and project
  • Smile - It changes your tone
  • Use hand gestures to animate you speaking
  • Make eye contact with multiple people to engage the whole room

These simple approaches show you as a confident leader. They make a surprising difference in how people listen to you and how effective your message is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Juggling the Three Balls of Technical Leadership

What makes juggling interesting is that you have three balls but only two hands. So one ball is "out of control" all the time. Technical leaders also keep three balls in motion: What the customer wants, what engineering can deliver, and what will make money for the company.

There is a relationship between these three balls that makes technical leadership interesting. If engineering overbuilds, the customer is thrilled but the business isn't as profitable. If engineering under-builds, the customer will pay less for the product, or not buy it at all. The business puts pressure on engineering both to deliver more and deliver efficiently. The customers and the market put pressure on the business to give them every feature they want at the lowest price.

Good technical leaders listen to all three constituents and throw ideas for how to satisfy everyone. They act as a translator between what the customer wants and what engineering can deliver, with an eye on the business impact.

All three balls are important. As with juggling, if one ball falls it stops being interesting. As a practical leader, you need to keep an eye on all three areas, in a balance that keeps the customers happy, engineering excited about the product, and the business profitable. And, when you drop a ball, pick it up fast and get back to juggling.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Is Your Workplace Too Nice?

Lisa Haneberg at Management Craft wrote an excellent article about workplaces that are too inclusive and nice. I've seen this myself. In an effort to make everyone feel included, progress slows to a crawl. Nothing gets done unless everyone agrees.

Yes, people do want to feel included. Effective leaders make sure that this need is met. But, people also want to see their team make progress. And they want their leaders to take on the burden of deciding when there is enough information to make a decision and end the discussion.

Part of the hard job of being a leader is taking the heat for making a decision. That usually includes deciding not to follow the preferred direction of some of the team members. And, that comes with consequences the leader needs to take, normally the disappointment of the team member and possibly outright anger. Leaders need to have the courage to accept those consequences for the team and deal with bruised team members.

Monday, August 06, 2007

No Room for Bad Days

We all have bad days, get in bad moods, or simply don't feel up to leading. Practical leadership usually doesn't give us this option. Sometimes we just need to brace ourselves, put on a good face and get to the job at hand. Fortunately, as hard as it may be to start, after about fifteen minutes of forcing yourself to lead, your outlook can turn positive again.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Quickest Way to Demotivate a Team

I recently saw a team of people attack a particularly challenging task. They were working on it fine, stumbling a bit, but making great progress. It was the kind of task that took a bit of trial and error.

The project leader was off working on another task, but happened to see this team working together. Unfortunately, what he noticed was that they were stumbling. He didn't notice the engaged attitudes, the teamwork or the progress they were making.

He did know how to do the task better than they did. He injected himself in the task with them, taking the central role. They disengaged. The nature of the task required some of them to stand by in minor support roles and watch. Two of them quietly stopped helping and left. The task finished successfully. Was the leader successful?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Review of Johanna Rothman's Book, "Manage It!"

Even if she were not my friend, I would recommend Johanna Rothman's new Book, Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management. The best way for me to describe Manage It! is as a survey course in project management for experienced project managers.

You could read this book to get a good flavor for what project managers do, but I don't see it as a first course in becoming a project manager. Instead, Johanna is particularly skilled at describing many project management methods. She gives insights into the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Experienced project managers typically have grown up with a particular project management method: Waterfall, phase-gate, spiral, agile, Scrum, XP. While Johanna shows a general preference for agile methods, she gives excellent detail on how to work effectively in each method.

Johanna presents pragmatic tips for many elements of project management including scheduling, estimating, team building, and meeting management. I particularly liked her low-tech advice about building Gantt charts out of sticky notes on a conference room wall.

I think I will come back to this book whenever I feel stymied about how to approach a project management task. Each part gives multiple suggestions about how to be successful in most common project management situations. Don't skip this book because you think you are too experienced for it. Manage It! is packed with great tips for the most seasoned leader.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Writing an Outstanding Meeting Announcement

My wife just sent out a meeting announcement for a community project we are working on over the summer. It was so effective, I thought I'd share some of the lessons learned.

It started out, "Our 5th (of only 7!) meeting will be at ... ." I think this give a great sense of progress to the team, and a good reminder of the short-term nature of the project. Many of our teams could use the reminder that projects should have an end, and the meetings associated with them should also end.

The next line was simply, "We finish in 18 days!" It is very useful to get this reminder of where we are in the project, so we can gauge our pace against our progress. When the leader keeps people informed about key project dates, it lets the team better focus on their own tasks.

At the end, she added two action items for people before the meeting. This made the meeting more valuable for everyone. We are all used to sending out an agenda. Agendas tend to focus on what will happen at the meeting, but preparatory actions engage the team in the meeting's success.

One more thing added to the value of the meeting announcement. The entire message took up only eleven lines, including spaces. It all fit in the preview screen of a mailer. That meant it was short enough that people would actually read it.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Effectiveness of Bully Bosses

Chances are that you have no problem thinking of multiple bosses who are full-out bullies. They are the bosses who yell at people in meetings, threaten to fire people, and use the crack of a whip to get people to work harder, faster and longer. Odds are good that you hate one of the bosses in your own management chain.

The downsides of a bully boss seem obvious: employees leave the company, they are less engaged with the company's success, and they are less willing to put in extra effort. Nevertheless, the problem persists. The reason appears to be that bully bosses are effective.

First, senior leaders promote people whom they see as dynamic and aggressive at delivering. Our culture puts value on the hard-driving leader who gets the impossible job done. Second, the bullying boss really does get people to work harder, faster and longer. Fear gets results. If you look at the heads of many successful companies, you see plenty of tyrants.

All this is true with a short-term focus. Many people will endure a bullying boss so long as the company is growing quickly. As soon as there are better opportunities elsewhere, they will leave as quickly as they can. Finally, consider the impact of bullying even in a growing company. People stop giving the company their all, which reduces the magnitude of success. And, while people may work harder, faster and longer, that doesn't say much of anything about whether they are working better or delivering more value.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Best Leadership Blogs

Blogger Kevin Eikenberry has created a list of top leadership blogs for 2007. He has invited his readers to vote for their favorite by July 6th. Here is his list:

Troy Worman at Orbit Now! has challenged people to extend the list by adding three other good leadership blogs. You can see Troy's additions here. And Phil Gerbyshak at Make It Great! has added his three cents here.

Taking up Troy's challenge, here are three leadership blogs that I would add to the conversation:

Thanks for the challenge, Troy.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Convergence of Disney and Leadership

People who know me know I have a huge interest in all things Disney. More than just the magic, I have been intrigued by Disney's commitment to customer satisfaction. I think this started with my first trip to Disneyland as a kid with my mom and sister.

The trip was a big financial stretch for us. We went to lunch in a cafeteria on Main Street. After we paid, my sister dropped our tray of food. Before my mom could panic, one cast member was cleaning up the mess and another was refilling a new tray for us. That probably made the difference for us not having to leave the park for a cheaper meal. It certainly helped build a set of life-long Disney fans.

Disney's approach was both excellent customer service and made good long-term business sense. Although it may not have passed the scrutiny of an accountant, it fit with the vision that Walt had for the Disney experience.

Today at Re-Imagineering®, there is a post about Managing the Creative Factory at Disney. It gives a good view of the impact of changing leadership approaches over time there. We can find good leadership lessons in all of our areas of interest.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Use the Right Process for the Right Job

I'm in the middle of reading Johanna Rothman's new project management book, Manage It!. Johanna presents the variety of project development processes from waterfall to agile. She gives some detail on which process works well in different circumstances. I have six different saws in my garage. Each works best on different projects. I guess I could cut lumber with my hacksaw, but that wouldn't work well. I could also decide to only work on projects that I can do with my jigsaw, but that's not realistic either. I'll keep all six of my saws. Process is like my saws. You need to use the process that works for the project you are working on. Using the wrong process is like trying to cut pipe with a handsaw.

Being a Good Follower

Think about what happens in a meeting when the leader asks everyone to stand up. People hesitate. They try to figure out if the leader really means it. A group decision gets made about whether they will collectively follow the leader's directions. Some people, perhaps most people, will stay seated and try to wait it out. Even when most of the room stands, a few hold-outs will stay seated trying to look too-cool-for-this.

Now think about the value of two potential outcomes. In one, the leader successfully gets everyone to stand. In the other, the room rebels and stays seated. In most situations, everyone in the room gets more value if the leader is successful. When the leader fails, their plan is thrown off, the group falters, perhaps the whole purpose of the gathering is lost. No matter how silly the leader's gimmick seems, it is usually in the best interest of the group to follow it.

Our role as practical leaders is to help the group succeed. As members of the audience, we participate in the group decision to follow or not. We can influence that group decision by standing without hesitation. That gives others permission to follow as well. We can be good leaders by being good followers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Defining a Corporate Culture

Last week I wrote about Michael Duffy's thoughts on the importance of corporate culture. I got some feedback that I should write more about how to define a corporate culture. If you don't understand the cultural dimensions, you can't effectively instill a culture.

Following are a few of the dimensions of culture. While some of these feel black-or-white, you can reasonably fall anywhere along each axis. The right answer for each depends on your company, the industry, and your management styles.

Technology/Business/Customers: Companies tend to identify themselves as primarily focused on one of these three things. You can see it in their advertising and mission statements. Technology-focused cultures say, "We make the world's greatest..." Business-focused cultures say, "We deliver shareholder value by..." Customer-focused cultures say, "We make customers successful by..." Determine what you lead with.

Shareholders/Customers/Employees: Companies tend to value one of these three groups as the primary reason they are in business. It is their primary reason for being. Naturally, all three matter, but when there are trade-offs to make, you should think about which group you naturally favor.

Playfulness: Lots of companies like to say, "We work hard and we play hard." Consider if you want group socializing and playfulness to be part of your company culture. Many people consider this as the definition of a strong culture. Be careful, though, many people are repelled by play at work. They would just as soon spend their social time elsewhere.

Family Friendliness: This manifests in lots of ways, not just hours worked. Will managers call people on weekends? Will they set meetings in the evening? Will they ask about family conflicts before making travel commitments for employees?

Time Spent at Work: Most companies have expectations of the hours that employees will be at work. In some companies if you are not at the office before 8:00 or after 7:00 you are not seen as committed. Technology companies often have core hours, where everyone must be in the office between 10 and 4. I was once in a company where it was bad form to not "look like" you worked over the weekend. In most companies this is not a question of the number of hours worked. I've notice that when the culture expects long hours of attendance, they often get short hours of actual work. Employees figure they are at work so long, they don't need to work as hard during all those hours. They also take longer lunches, run more errands and do more chatting during the day.

Frills: Frills can include everything including private offices, blackberries, fitness centers, cookies at 4:00, free catered lunches, pinball machines, and company cars. These extras can build a sense of specialness that keeps people loyal to the company. Also consider the impact on culture when these frills are only available to certain groups.

Theory X/Theory Y: These are management models of how people are motivated. In Theory X, managers believe people are inherently lazy and need to be closely led and supervised. This is sometimes called a "hard" culture. In Theory Y, managers believe people are motivated toward success and want to help the company succeed. In this "soft" culture, managers need to set up the environment to enable accountability and success.

Lightly Staffed/Heavily Staffed: In a lightly staffed culture, a company believes that no matter the challenge, the team is up to tackling it. They over-commit, work to near burn-out and take pride in the successes. In a heavily staffed culture, the company values having the right people, particularly specialists, to do the jobs that the process demands. These cultures often are more family friendly and put a high value on predictability.

Hierarchical/Flat: This choice says something about the value the company puts on rank, power and politics. It also provides a way to think about delegating authority effectively. Flat organizations can sometimes be a technique leaders use to maintain control and avoid delegation.

Decision Making Model: Some cultures put value on individuals making decision within the scope of their position. Individuals get input from other people, but ultimately are accountable for their own choices. Other cultures value decision making by teams, favoring consensus in the team over individual authority. Still other cultures rely on well-defined decision making processes and sign-offs. The trade-offs are around risk tolerance, speed, individual growth and empowerment.

Honesty/Integrity/Respect: Everyone would claim that these traits are part of their culture. But, companies often behave counter to these values. If you treat you employees dishonestly, they will do the same to your customers. If you tolerate rudeness in the workplace, you get more rudeness in the workplace. The culture will be what you model. Be explicit about these basic human values.

The first step to instilling cultural values is to be explicit about what your expectations are. Spend time thinking through what your values are in these dimensions. Then spend time thinking about the other dimensions you value. Finally, come back and add other value dimensions to the comments so we can all learn together.

In a future post I'll write about implementing your cultural values. Here is a preview: It's a twofold problem. Not only do you have to instill the cultural values, you have to model behavior consistent with those values.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Corporate Capacity for Risk Taking

Here's one more interesting tidbit from the MIT Enterprise Forum. Panelist George Bell, Special Venture Partner at General Catalyst Partners, shared this:

The capacity of a large company to say "no" is almost infinite. If you are in a little company, you almost always have an advantage because you have the capacity for risk-taking.

The Importance of Corporate Culture

Last night I attended the MIT Enterprise Forum panel session "People, Money, Markets and Big Ideas." Each of four panelists shared important lessons learned in their careers, and more than a few interesting stories. If you haven't been to a Forum event, I highly recommend them.

One of the panelists was Michael Duffy, CEO of OpenPages. Michael shared his lesson learned on the importance of setting a corporate culture right away. He explained his belief that it is important to "capture people's hearts." For the practical leaders out there, he outlined three key steps to setting and maintaining a corporate culture:

  • Write down the culture you want and share it.
  • Put a rewards system in place that reinforces the cultural values.
  • Hold orientations for all new employees to share that culture.

By the way, another panelist was Monster founder Jeff Taylor. He shared the nugget that the most active time on Monster is Mondays at 2:00. I'll let you connect the dots.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What's Wrong With Front Row Seats?

The most coveted seats at a concert are the front row seats. So why is it that in other settings nobody wants to sit in the front row? You have seen the empty front row at any big company meeting. The leader calls out, "Plenty of room up front," and nobody moves.

We want the front row at a concert because we value the performance. Apparently we don't share the same value for the speakers at a business meeting. Mostly they bore us. What would it take to become a front-row-worthy presenter? It's probably out of our reach.

On the other hand, we can lead by example and sit in the front row ourselves. Research has shown that students in the front row of class learn more. So, by taking our place right up front, we show how we value the presentation and we might learn a little more.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jeff Taylor on Office Space

In the presentation I went to yesterday, Jeff Taylor mentioned that the staff at Eons had just given him an office, but that he didn't know what to do with it. He said his office at Monster was five comfortable chairs and a coffee table. Now that's an open-door policy.

Think about what you use your office for. In general, leaders need to get out of their offices more and go work with people. Very little leadership happens in your office. These days, it's not totally clear that leaders need one. Laptops are portable, files are on-line, and we all have cell phones. But, there is no need to be extreme.

Take the lessons from Taylor: Be accessible and work with the people.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jeff Taylor on Attrition

I attended a networking event today that included a Q&A session with Monster founder Jeff Taylor. His newest project is the social networking site Eons for people 50 and over. It is like MySpace for people wise enough to use it productively. Taylor says you can sneak in at 49, but he is still too young to be a member.

Taylor shows a real passion and understanding for this underrepresented Internet demographic. "Retirement is a graduation," he says; not the end of a career, but the beginning of a life the retiree has been working toward for years. Taylor hopes to brand Eons as an exclusive club for those who are closing in on the career graduation rewards.

Taylor, who describes himself as undiagnosed with ADD, engrossed us with story after story from his career. The questions served as mere launching points for a series of fascinating glimpses into the philosophy of this entrepreneur. I'll be sharing more leadership take-aways in future posts.

Taylor started off talking about attrition. He said, "If I know you, I can keep you," adding that he was frustrated after Monster grew larger than 500 people because he didn't know everybody's name anymore. After hearing him speak, I don't believe he was exaggerating. His leadership lesson is that retaining employees depends on you knowing enough about them that you can relate to them as people rather than employees.

He told us a story about Eons employees celebrating the company's first anniversary by jumping into the ocean near their office in the Charlestown Navy Yard. "You have to jump in with your employees," Taylor said of both the celebratory swim and of daily work life. And I believe that he swims in the deep end every day with his team.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Another Great Thomas Paine Quote

Reputation is what men and women think of us; character is what God and angels know of us.

Lead, Follow, or Get in the Way

Thomas Paine gave us the quote "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." We hear this old saw when a would-be leader is looking for a convenient way to displace another person who is getting in the way. The quote suggests this fourth choice of: getting in the way. Some leaders just can't stand to be questioned by anyone. Those leaders might as well say, "I'll have no questioning here."

I want to make an argument in favor of getting in the way, with a twist. Getting in the way is an act of not following. It is more deliberately being contrary to following. This non-follower does not like the direction the leader is heading. The non-follower is trying to stop that direction. Oddly, this non-follower is also a leader. Such a person is making a case for a different direction, but often without doing the important step of proposing what that different direction should be. Therein lies the twist: If you are going to be a leader and get in the way, you need to take the extra step of proposing an alternate direction.

Be ready to explain your concerns with the initial proposal. Be prepared to explain why your alternative is better. Make your case respectfully, and if necessary, privately. Since you are expecting the other would-be leader to consider your case, you also need to be genuinely willing to consider a response.

Working together, you two would-be leaders should be able to figure out a good direction for the team. Consider how great it would be if every team had two effective leaders instead of one beleaguered leader and a non-follower.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

That Guy With the Nametag

Tim Milburn over at pointed me to Scott Ginsberg's latest book Make a Name for Yourself. Scott has taken the unusual step of making his book available for free download with the expectation that once you read it you will want to buy it. He is right.

Scott wears a nametag everywhere he goes to be more approachable and make other people friendlier. He is a very encouraging person, and his book is chock full of practical life lessons, including much of value to growing leaders. It is very easy reading and given the price, you have no excuse not to read it.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Impedership" vs. Leadership

Dale Dauten writes the syndicated business column The Corporate Curmudgeon. In his February 4, 2007 column in the Boston Globe, he coined the term "impedership" to describe leaders who decrease the productivity of their employees by acting like jerks. "Impedership" not only slows down your team's productivity, but gives you a reputation as a jerky manager that follows you in your career. The folks at ej4, a corporate training company, ran with the idea and created a great video expanding on it. I hope you don't see too much of yourself in the video, but if you do, have the courage to address the problem immediately.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Volunteer for Leadership Training

In the workplace, leaders have an unfair advantage in getting their teams to follow them: Their employees want to keep their jobs. Hopefully, you aren't the kind of leader who overtly threatens your employees if they don't support your direction. Nevertheless, your employees understand that if they don't follow your leadership, they risk not satisfying you and at best limiting their career options.

On the other hand, leaders of volunteer organizations recognize that volunteers can walk out any time they feel like it. Because of this, volunteer leaders learn how to motivate their teams without the advantage of fear. Success in this arena depends on a leader's ability to understand what will motivate each team member and address those needs.

I gained many of my leadership instincts in college as the editor of our student-run yearbook. I encourage you to take a turn leading volunteers. At the very least, you contribute some of your skills to your community. You may also learn something.

Corporate leaders too easily rely on their power to drive their teams to follow them. Power certainly works, but using only power doesn't give you the hearts of your team members. If you want the hearts of your employees, you need to understand and work with what motivates them to support your vision. Getting your employee's full support is worth putting away the easier, fear-based leadership approach.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Leadership Requirement for College Admissions

I'm on vacation this week with my family. We are taking my daughter on college tours. The admissions officer at the college we visited today said she looked for two things on an application that I hadn't expected. First was evidence of an ability to take on a long-term commitment. She wants to see that the student is able to participate in anything for multiple years. The second unexpected thing she looks for is leadership experience. The admissions officer explained that leadership experience shows a level of passion that drives you to share what you are passionate about with others. She also explained that only the truly passionate are willing to do the management required for everyone else to participate. There are lessons for us everywhere if we listen for them.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Get Comfortable Presenting

Most people feel uncomfortable giving presentations. Unfortunately, effective leaders often find themselves in the spotlight. Don't presume, though, that other leaders feel comfortable giving presentations. While some do feel comfortable, many have merely learned to look comfortable. Nevertheless, they don't shy away from getting up front. Here are some hints for feeling more comfortable with public speaking:
  • Start small - if the best you can do is speak up more at meetings, then do so. The more you practice the more comfortable you will feel. If you can speak comfortably to a group of four people, practice that.
  • Work up to larger groups - challenge yourself to speak to groups a little larger than you feel comfortable with. Over time, you will acclimate to larger and larger audiences.
  • Know your material - the root of many people's discomfort is a fear of looking foolish. the better your know your material, the more comfortable you will feel presenting it.
  • Have a plan - more than knowing your material, you need to have a plan for what you want to achieve with your presentation. Focus your presentation on just those things that you need to present to achieve your plan.
  • Learn from others - don't just listen to when other people present. Look for what you like and don't like in how they present. This gives you many more opportunities to improve your skills.
  • Practice, practice, practice - face your fears by seeking out opportunities to speak in public. Call meetings where you might otherwise send an email. Stand up at a whiteboard where you might otherwise run a meeting from a chair. Volunteer to facilitate meetings for peers. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel.

Communication is one of our key leadership tools and we can't afford to limit our approaches by avoiding public speaking. You need to learn to get through your fears and develop your skills for standing in the front.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Leadership Analogies from Home Car Repair

What leadership lessons can we learn from home car repair?
  • It's worth getting the Chilton guide for your car.
  • Make sure you have a way to get parts before you disable the car.
  • You are going to bang your knuckles loosening a bolt.
  • You are going to bang the same knuckle a second time.
  • Keep your head to the side and carefully remove the oil plug.
  • Don't over-torque bolts.
  • Keep a tray for all the small parts as you take something apart.

As usual, you should use your own imagination to fill out the analogies.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Leadership Analogies from Woodworking

Here is the second post in my "analogies" series. What can we learn about leadership from woodworking?

  • Measure twice, cut once.
  • Sand with the grain of the wood.
  • Take time to sharpen your saw.
  • Jigs are a big help when making multiples of the same thing.
  • Watch your fingers and wear you safety glasses.
  • The better joints are harder to make.

Again, I will let you attach meaning to these analogies.

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 11

New lessons have become hard to see in recent episodes. My best advice is to go back and read some of my earlier posts. There is very little new here. This will be my last Apprentice post unless this changes and there is something valuable to add.

Rather than leave you with nothing, there was one interesting new lesson this week. Oddly, it came from the reward. Kinetic's reward for winning the task was a night with a member of their family. No other reward garnered more excitement and emotion from the candidates. This is a good point to remember as we consider the motivations of our work teams.
Lesson: Most people are motivated by time with the people they care about.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Leadership Analogies from Fishing

A good way to learn is to apply analogies from other fields and see where they lead us. For example, what can we learn about leadership from fishing?
  • Go to where the fish are.
  • Different fish like different bait.
  • You need to be patient to catch fish.
  • Shh, you'll scare the fish.
  • There are lots of lures in your tackle-box.
  • You have to clean your own fish.
  • You need to be prepared with a container to take fish home in.

I will let you attach meaning to these analogies. [I might just make a series out of this.]

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 10

At the start of the show, Mr. Trump called James at Arrow and asked him to choose someone to go to Kinetic. This was an awkward spot for James, but one that he needs to be able to handle. First, James asked for a volunteer, but got no takers. Compare that to how eager Surya was to move when he had the same chance. This was an opportunity for one of the team members to shine above the others. I'm disappointed that no one took it.
Lesson 1: Take every opportunity to shine - volunteer.

James narrowed it down to Tim and Nicole because he considered their skills similar to his own. Again he looked for a volunteer, got none, and was forced to pick Nicole. She complained, "James must think I'm weak." Later, after her team lost the challenge, Nicole complained that she was upset at Tim for not standing up to keep her on the team. That didn't go well for James or Arrow.

James had alternatives. Asking for a volunteer was great, but when he didn't get one, he could have expressed disappointment and picked someone unilaterally, "Each of you should be jumping at this opportunity. If I need to pick ... I pick Nicole." Explaining his reasons only made the team question them. As it was, Nicole decided he had picked her because he saw her as the weakest member. Another approach was to build up the team with a joint decision making process, possibly a single-elimination rock-paper-scissors tournament.
Lesson 2: Don't apologize for being decisive.
Lesson 3: Look for ways to turn difficult situations into positives.

The task this week was to sell passes to Universal Studios Hollywood using a human-wearable, point-of-sales device called the Adwalker system. Both teams were set up to sell at the same location. During the sales, Arrow commented that Kinetic's girls-on-skates approach was good. As a result, Arrow started using dirty tactics to steal business from Kinetic, including interrupting Kinetic's sales-in-progress to grab customers. Ivanka called them "competitive" and "ruthless," traits that Trump valued as good business. I think that kind of dealing sets a reputation in the long-term that ultimately turns away customers.
Lesson 4: Sometimes all is fair, sometimes it isn't. Consider the difference.

Kinetic lost the task by a large margin. I blame some of it on being less aggressive than Arrow, but there was some amount of failure in not making a comfortable environment for customers to buy from them. Angela was fired as team leader because everyone on her team did good work, nevertheless Kinetic lost. Angela couldn't give a reason to keep her or fire anyone else.
Lesson 5: Always be ready to make a strong case for why you are great.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Advice on Firing People from Donald Trump

People know Donald Trump from his signature "You're Fired!" line on The Apprentice. Trump has a post on his blog about how to approach firing people in real life. Fortunately, his advice bears no resemblance to the television show. Given how many people admire and try to emulate Trump, this is welcome moderation. His advice is good, and much better than emulating a television show.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 9

The task this week was to create a 45 second web-based soap opera to promote Soft Scrub. Arrow won on the strength of their leader, James, who leveraged the skills of his team. Nicole was a big soap opera fan, and understood the medium. Tim knew how to do the production. James stepped back and let them shine, knowing they were doing a good job. Kristine, the leader of Kinetic, also stepped back, but she did it to avoid a conflict with Muna. Muna wanted to be in front of the camera. Kristine knew that Muna would be hard to direct and hard to understand. She said of herself that she "took the path of least resistance" rather than dealing with the problem she was facing.
Lesson 1: Be willing to stand back and let your team succeed on their strengths.
Lesson 2: Don't avoid your leadership responsibilities because they are difficult.

In the boardroom, the decision came down to firing Muna for being difficult or Kristine for letting Muna be an actor. Both Heidi and Angela had difficulty telling Trump which of the two they would keep on their team. Angela said she would keep Kristine. Heidi nearly got herself fired with her indecisiveness, but also said she would keep Kristine. Muna got fired, but I would have fired Kristine for her unwillingness to manage Muna.
Lesson 3: Be willing to take a stand.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Game of Go as a Leadership Training Tool

GO is a popular board game in Japan and China akin to chess in complexity. Fans say it is more complex. The rules are simple. Players alternate placing white and black stones on a 19x19 grid trying to surround and control territory. While marking out territory, players also surround their opponent's stones to capture them and remove them from the board.

Note in the first diagram how the black stones are surrounded by the white stones. They won't be completely surrounded though until the "eye" in the middle is filled by a white stone. When white plays a stone in black's eye, white removes the black stones, essentially capturing the territory occupied by black. In practice, black's stones are considered "dead" and left on the board.

Now consider the second diagram where black has two "eyes." In this example, black is considered "alive" since there is no way white can fill in both spots before black would have a chance to remove the newly surrounded white stone. Play alternates until both players agree that there is not territory on the board that is uncontested. The player with the most territory and captured stones wins.

While the rules are simple, how games play out is anything but simple. Each turn presents a choice of strategic placement or tactical attacks on smaller regions. There may be many unresolved battles on the board at the same time, which often turn out to influence each other. Players trade off losses in one are for greater wins in another.

GO is more than a simple metaphor for leadership concepts; it is a way to practice leadership skills. Playing GO gives you an opportunity to exercise many of the skills you need as an effective leader. GO allows you to:

  • Practice looking at the big picture
  • Practice making trade-offs between strategy and tactics
  • Practice seeing how distant elements can impact each other
  • Practice trading off a loss for a more important gain
  • Practice learning when a tactical position is lost, and move onto something more important
  • Practice learning how being less aggressive can give you bigger victories
  • Practice stepping out of the task of the moment to look at everything else going on

In real life, opportunities to practice these things come up occasionally, but in GO they happen dozens of times each game. And unlike in life, when you make too many mistakes you just lose the game. Now that's a deal: you can play a game and become a better leader.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Give Sharp Focus to Your Presentations

The first thing speakers ask after finishing a presentation is, "How did that go?" Most people feel uncomfortable making presentations. They sense that they are not connecting with their audience. They are mostly right.

The best tip I give to nervous speakers is to know what you are trying to communicate. Just as companies need mission statements and teams need goals, speakers need a purpose to their presentations. Before you present, figure out what your purpose is. Many presenters share everything they know about a topic, rather than everything their audience needs to know. It is not good enough to say your purpose is to present all the slides in your PowerPoint deck. Typical good purposes are to teach people something, inspire them to do something, or change their opinion about something.

Once you are clear on your purpose, you need to brutally review your presentation against two tests:

  • Does my presentation achieve my goals? If not, add what you need to fix it.
  • Does anything in my presentation not advance my goals? If so, remove it.
Usually, this results in people greatly reducing the material they are presenting. It is a big change from sharing every bit of information you have about a topic. It always results in a better feeling about how the presentation went.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 8

Arrow lost this week on the task of promoting GNC at an LA Galaxy soccer game half-time show. This week's lessons are easy; they deserved the loss. They didn't behave as a team. Frank started out the episode saying, "Surya is a phony. I hate him," then he proceeded to mock Surya during the planning phase. The whole team has not supported Surya for a couple of weeks. Someone on the team should have taken the lead to pull Surya aside and address their concerns directly.
Lesson 1: Don't sabotage your own team.
Lesson 2: If you have a problem with your leader, you need to tell them.

Surya has been no better and was fired for it. He never took the leadership role of holding his team accountable for being a team. When team members don't support the team's success, the whole team counts of the leader to fix the problem. In particular, Surya needed to pull Frank and James aside and tell them individually to shape up. Both of them needed to hear that they were off the task if they couldn't support the team.
Lesson 3: You are responsible for unifying your team.
Lesson 4: You have to be direct in dealing with disruptive team members.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

A New Blogger with a Crossover Post

A friend of mine, Jim Todhunter, just started a new blog on innovation. One of his first posts is worth sharing with this leadership community. Jim highlights that to overcome resistance to change the team needs:
  1. A clear problem (some say a burning platform)
  2. A vision of the improved state
  3. A plan for action
  4. The pain of change must be less than the pain of the problem

Welcome to the blogging community, Jim.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Heaviest Known Element

A friend pointed me to this article on the discovery of the heaviest known material: Administratium. Wikipedia expands the article with discussions of Bureaucratite and Governmentium.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Thoughts on the Apprentice: LA, Episode 7

This week's task was to create a promotional event for the new Lexus LS460. Kinetic, under the leadership of Jenn, lost the challenge. Their event focused on gimmicks including a magician and go-cart racing. Arrow, again led by Surya, got the win by focusing on the luxury experience of the Lexus brand and directly showing off the features of the car, including its ability to parallel park itself. People were impressed, and rated Arrow's event very highly.
Lesson 1: Avoid gimmicks and sell to your product's strengths.

One notable failing point for Kinetic was their attempt to create banners. Creating banners turned out to be of very small value to the event. Both Angela and Derek spent time coming up with the banners. Angela was indecisive and asked Derek for advice. Derek actively decided to let Angela flounder even at the expense of missing their deadline and doing a good job. Angela did a poor job. Derek should be ashamed of his approach.
Lesson 2: Never decide to allow your team to fail.

Jenn led the Kinetic presentation, but did a terrible job. She lost her place and blamed glare on her presentation screen for her errors. The real problem was that she wasn't prepared to present and didn't know her material well enough. She was flipping through a stack of papers to figure out what to say next. Additionally, with better preparation she might have known that there was a glare problem on the screen.
Lesson 3: When presenting, know your material cold - don't use notes.
Lesson 4: Dry-run important presentations to make sure your technology works as you expect.

In the boardroom, Derek jokingly called himself "white trash" and Trump fired him for the insensitive, wise comment. It seemed like Trump overreacted; as if the comment struck a particular nerve in him. Derek needed to go anyway. Nevertheless, there is no room for joking in an important meeting beyond what you know works with your audience. And I've noticed that self-depreciating humor always seems to fall flat.
Lesson 5: Keep your jokes in business to what you know works with your audience.
Lesson 6: Avoid self-deprecating humor.

Trump continued on to fire Jenn based on her past history and her decision to use go-carts in a Lexus event. This was a good decision. Jenn is a gracious person, going as far as trying to save another team member by suggesting that Derek's firing should be sufficient. She didn't badmouth her team or snipe that she was fired. She showed class, but ultimately was the right person to fire this week.
Lesson 7: Show grace and class in the worst situations.

I need to make two points about Arrow. First, Tim and Nicole's relationship is starting to get negative comments from their teammates. James noted that their "relationship is making them soft." Second, the whole team has started to make a silent coup against Surya. They have started to drive success on their own while denigrating Surya's leadership. The team will see their victory as proof that they were right to work around Surya. I don't think Surya is doing a poor job. I think he is just socially awkward. He lacks comfort, perhaps charisma as a leader. I've seen it before where a leader is so eager to drive the team forward that they loose the respect of the team. I can't see any recovery for him now.
Lesson 8: Skip the romantic relationships with coworkers.
Lesson 9: Don't appear overly eager for progress, your team will mock your naiveté.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Be Available

A huge part of our job as leaders is to support our teams when they run into roadblocks. While this seems obvious, many leaders are so busy in meetings that they can never be found if a problem comes up. If you are never in your office, you need to change that. Set some office hours, delegate some meetings, or even cancel some meetings. I bet you have some meetings that aren't as important as being available to your team. If you do have to attend a bunch of meetings in the same day, make a point of doing some MBWA (management by walking around) at a break. If they can't find you, you might be able to find them instead.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Recognizing that Your Vision is Foggy

I came across a great post about how to recognize if your vision is working from George Ambler at The Practice of Leadership. George quotes an analogy from The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes & Barry Posner. When they ask people what they do when they are driving and run into a thick fog bank, they always get the same answers:
  • I slow way down.
  • I turn my lights on.
  • I grab the steering wheel with both hands.
  • I tense up.
  • I sit up straight or lean forward.
  • I turn the radio off so I can hear better.

This is how people react to the fear of not being able to see far enough ahead to feel safe. This gives us good parallels to noticing if our team's vision is foggy: Our teams become more careful than usual, they search for clarifying answers more frequently, and they seem to tense up. Helping them clarify the vision helps to lift the fog.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 6

I still don't feel like we are seeing enough of the tasks to make a good judgment about what either team could have done better. This week the teams had to get people signed up for a Priceline sweepstakes in a mall. Arrow won by a 10% margin over Kinetic. The reason that came up in the board room was that Kinetic didn't properly account for the Spanish speaking demographic. This was a red herring. Neither team addressed the Spanish demographic, and even though Kinetic had two Spanish speaking team members, they still lost. I'd suggest that the real difference was how effective each team was in getting people to the kiosk.

The lessons this week were about loyalty and respect. Let's start at the end. Kinetic's project leader, Aimee, was fired. As she drove away in the limo, Aimee blamed her team for the loss. She showed her future teams just how she will treat them. She just blew her next job interview.
Lesson 1: Don't bad-mouth your old team to your new team.

Our next lesson comes from the beginning of the show. During Arrow's planning meeting, Frank drew a mocking picture of Surya and passed it around to the team. Everyone got a good laugh at Surya's expense. This is not a model of teamwork and respect. It is a wonder that Arrow won given this level of discord. I can't say that team Kinetic was much more cohesive, but at least they weren't overtly disrespectful.
Lesson 2: Show some respect, people.

Our final lesson has yet to fully play out. Frank and Nicole finally broke the tension by kissing around the pool. This was cute on Survivor with Rob and Amber, but has no place in a leadership show. It is very likely that one of these two will be the project leader for the other. Forget how hard that will be to manage and imagine the impact on the rest of the team. Even if they think they can manage their own potential awkwardness, they can't manage their team's awkwardness. This will hurt later.
Lesson 3: You can't have a relationship with a teammate.

Bureaucratic Control as an Obstacle to Reducing Process

I got the following comment to my previous post:

"There hasn't been a bureaucracy in history that has decreased the number of rules. Half of the bureaucracy derives its power from enforcing rules."

I expect this is true on both counts, but I'll put out the challenge anyway: Can anyone share a story where an organization made itself more successful by reducing its processes?

Power is a fascinating dynamic in organizations. I prefer to talk about it with the less ambiguous word "control." People have a desire to feel in control of their world. As leaders, it is critical that we understand this. With due respect to Maslow, if a person thinks their world is out of control, they will go to extraordinary lengths to put it back in control. Some people seek the power of hierarchy, others the comfort of a process, others laudably the strength of talent, and some rest in the iron-grip of bureaucracy.

You can't push down bureaucracy without filling the bureaucrat's need for control. Bureaucracy happens when people in low-control jobs feel that their world will spin out of control if they don't put process in place to stop it. If you remove the process without addressing their fear, they will quickly force it back in. As leaders, we need to build trust from our teams that we can keep the world in control without the need for controlling process. We can only do this when we exhibit the uncommon traits of listening to concerns, showing a clear vision of how we can be successful, and fixing problems quickly rather than hoping they will go away on their own.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders today are strong believers in bureaucratic control. They see it as an easy way manage their own world; certainly easier than keeping a keen eye out for problems and dealing with the conflict of fixing them. This is what puts us back in the circle of process driving down associate engagement. A big part of the cure is to build fundamental leadership skills in our teams so they can work effectively without bureaucratic control.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Process/Associate Engagement Circle

This week I met John Miller of the St Clair Consortium. He has remarkable experience and insight into the value of engaged employees to the product creation process. One of his insights was the difference between "human capital" and "intellectual capital;" two terms that are often used interchangeably. "Human capital" refers to the employees that come to the office each day and do the work of our companies. Many of them follow the processes set before them, but essentially check their brains at the door.

What we want from our employees is not just their hands but also their minds. This is our "intellectual capital." This is reflected in the motto of MIT, "Mens et manus," which translates as "mind and hand." We want our employees engaged in making our projects successful with all of their intellectual capital.

From this distinction I want to highlight a potential feedback loop in our organizations driving associate engagement down. We put rules and processes in place partly as a response to our fears that employees won't be engaged to make projects successful without them. Certainly many of our processes are necessary to run the business, but perhaps not as many as we might think.

The upside of rules and processes is that they remove the need for employees to invent an approach to every problem. They take away the need to think through everything. The other side of this same coin is that they remove the need for employees to think on their own. They make it possible for employees to check their brains at the door. Too many rules and processes tend to drive down associate engagement. Employees resent it when they perceive that the rules treat them as if they are stupid. And they resent it when they perceive that their best work is hindered by following an overly prescriptive process.

The feedback loop occurs as a result of putting more rules and processes in place than people need to do a good job. This leads to disengaged employees, who make more mistakes because they check their brains at the door each morning. Companies can be tricked into fixing this problem with even more process, but this will only make the problem worse.

You need to add one more rule in your systems: "We won't add a rule or a process if we can do better using our intellectual capital." Follow that up by giving your teams permission to propose striking processes that aren't required. Invite your teams to use their minds unless they can succeed better by thinking up a process.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 5

I liked the idea behind the task this week. The two teams had to harvest honey, design packaging, bottle the honey, and sell it. The task gave the teams a good appreciation of the life-cycle of delivering a product. It promised to be a good week for learning, but fell short. The show was so heavily edited that it was impossible to see why one team might win or lose. Instead of showing us the competition, they spent time setting up Aaron as a timid leader.

Arrow ultimately lost the task and Aaron ended up in the board room. Recall last episode that Aaron didn't say much from the other side of the board table. This week Mr. Trump commented multiple times that Aaron didn't contribute from the power side of the board table. Aaron was fired, and mostly because he wasted his opportunity to show Trump what he could do for him as an employee.
Lesson 1: Playing it safe wastes a leadership opportunity and ultimately isn't safe.

Aimee, on the other hand, was very strong on the other side of the board table. She stepped right up, almost taking over the meeting, and asked hard but incisive questions. Trump commented to Aaron, "Do you like it when Aimee is being tough?" and added, "Maybe too tough." Aimee scored points with Trump, but may have set herself up to be shot at equally hard next time she is in the hot seat.
Lesson 2: Don't be shy, but realize that you will be on the other side of the table sometimes, too.

As Trump talked in the board room, he used strong language a number of times. The editing seemed to be showing him as a strong, hard leader. Instead he came off as crude and somewhat out of control. Firm works for him; vulgar does not.
Lesson 3: There is seldom value to swearing in business.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Two Meeting Leadership Roles

People want their leaders to keep meetings under control. I'm not suggesting that leaders bully through a tightly controlled agenda. Teams want a meeting to move along at a good pace, the leader helping them get past rat-holes. But, they don't want a meeting to go so fast that their own comments gets ignored. Two important roles emerge from this as you lead meetings.

First, you need to provide focus for the meeting. You need to keep track of the goals and the pacing toward those goals. But, don't be overly wedded to the agenda. Listen to what each person says with an ear toward how it advances both the current topic and the goal of the meeting. Be particularly mindful when someone raises a new topic before the current topic is concluded. Your job is to acknowledge the comment, note that it is off topic, and focus back to the current topic. Drive each topic to completion, with a clear summation of the conclusion, even if the conclusion is that the topic was a rat-hole. There is nothing worse than a meeting full of half finished discussions. What a waste of time.

Your second role is to make sure that off-topic comments don't get dropped on the floor. People raise topics that they think are important. You can't afford to just ignore a comment, but you can't allow the meeting to be distracted by every thought that comes up.

When the distracting idea is central to the meeting goal, capture it, but don't let it derail the current discussion. Come back to it when it fits best in the meeting. You need to manage a dynamic agenda, adjusting the steps of the meeting as important ideas come up. The goal is important not the agenda for reaching it.

When the distracting idea is not central to the meeting goal, acknowledge it and agree to cover it in another forum. It takes a moment of active listening to make sure that you understand the idea well enough to declare it off topic, "That sounds like a topic we should cover in another meeting, or am I missing how that relates to what Anna is talking about?" If you ignore their ideas, people won't feel valued. They will stop feeling comfortable raising important issues.

Sometimes the distracting idea is really just a rat-hole of unimportant detail. As the leader, you play the role of noticing it rather than joining in. You are the person the team relies on to say, "I'm sensing we are in a rat-hole. Is this an important detail to get us to our goal?"

The key idea is that as a leader you are not just a participant. You are not doing your job if you are focused on contributing to the discussion. Yes, this takes away from your time to make your own points. You probably shouldn't be dominating the meeting with your points anyway. You have leading to do.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 4

Finally a loss for Kinetic. They didn't do a bad job, but they were up against Aaron leading Arrow, who did an outstanding job. Aaron will be difficult to beat. He has energy and charisma, but more importantly, he inspires his team to succeed. He makes them feel confident, and that gives them a tremendous edge. Heidi is well organized but doesn't seem to engender enthusiasm.
Lesson 1: Leaders inspire their teams to feel confident of success.
Lesson 2: Confidence helps create success.

I was pleased this week to see the number of volunteers to help Arrow. It is tempting to see this as indicative of the number of good people on Kinetic. I think it shows that the people on Kinetic knew the importance of getting a leadership role. So long as they were on Kinetic and winning, Heidi was not sharing the lead. Her teammates needed to leave to find good opportunities. When Surya left, he couldn't stop sharing his ideas for improving Arrow. I recommended that Heidi delegate leadership before she had problems on her team. Now I'm recommending the same thing to Aaron. Take more of the lead by delegating the lead.
Lesson 3: Lack of leadership opportunities will cause your leaders to look elsewhere for them.

I need to highlight an important error on Heidi's part, one that hasn't played out yet, but I bet will later. Heidi discussed Marissa's performance with the group behind her back. It may have been a good game tactic, but it was incredibly poor leadership judgment. She has created an environment where her teammates know that there is culture of gossip. She should have shut down the conversation the moment Derek sniped about Marissa's chicken suit idea, or at least asked Marissa to join the conversation. The team now knows they can't trust each other.
Lesson 4: Integrity matters.

Marissa was fired this week. She might have been able to avoid it if she hadn't been annoyingly tenacious at every turn. Mr. Trump was trying to give her more chances and might have fired Amy. Instead, Marrissa fought to survive beyond Trump's ability to stand her, just like she did for the chicken suit idea and the Bravado name for the product. While she might have survived this week, she would have never made it to the end.
Lesson 5: You can push too hard.

Why Lead?

People have wondered why I focus on leadership in this blog. I continue to see evidence that some people don't have a basic understanding of what leadership means. They have various ideas about leadership including getting others to do what they want, being at the top of the heap, or getting to set the direction.

Teams of people want to be successful. Unfortunately, they often lack the skill to clarify what success looks like, coordinate their differing ideas of success, agree on the right way to get there, or sometimes even motivate themselves toward action. Teams need help to be successful. A leader's job is to provide this help.

Note that the role of the leader is to help the team find the team's vision, not impose the leader's vision on the team. The role of the leader is to coordinate the tasks the team needs to achieve success, not order them to do tasks. Leadership is fundamentally about making a team successful, not about building the leader's ego. Leadership is a servant role not a boss role.

I write about leadership to help more teams be successful.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Personal Approach

Imagine you and the other leaders in your organization get an email from your human resources department. It is an offer for free outside consulting time to facilitate some of your project teams. Accepting the offer means chasing down the HR person to get the details, filling out forms, extra meetings, and more people crowding your project than you think you want. It feels like too much pain, but the help will probably be worth it. Nevertheless, I'm guessing you ignore the email.

On the other hand, imagine your HR person stops by your office and makes the same offer, explaining the value and dealing with the obstacles. With this personal approach, you are likely to consider the offer.

If you want results, try the personal approach. One-on-one is usually more effective than dealing with a group. And, face-to-face is better than an email. Don't waste your valuable time sending out an email you wouldn't respond to. As usual, most leadership takes place when you go talk to people.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sit at the Table

As with most corporations, my company's conference rooms include large tables ringed with chairs, and a few scattered chairs backed against the walls. I am always dumbfounded when someone comes into the room and sits in those wallflower chairs. Even when the table seems full, there is always room to squeeze one more person in.

People seem to sit on the edge for two reasons. Often they perceive the table to be too crowded already. They don't consider themselves important enough to crowd in. Which brings us to the second reason, the don't consider themselves worthy to sit at the table. They defer to the people they see as more important than they are.

Neither of these is a good reason to be a wallflower. When someone sits on the edge of the room, rather than at the table, they prove to everyone that they don't belong at the table. The edge is neither a leadership position nor a follower position. It is a position of inaction.

The only time I recommend sitting on the edge is when leaders need to push their teams to run more effectively without their constant input. Even then it is usually better to not attend the meeting at all.

No matter how low your stature, or how senior the meeting, you need to sit at the table unless you are asked not to. Be presumptive. Push right up with the certainty that you belong there. You can't be a real participant from the sidelines. And, you can't expect to be successful if you don't participate.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice:LA, Episode 3

After last week's poor showing, I was worried that this season might start heading downhill. I worried too soon. This was an excellent episode, full of all the drama and armchair quarterbacking we watch for.

Let's get Kinetic out of the way first. Kinetic got to sit out the task this week and instead spent the time enjoying the amenities of the Lowes Santa Monica Hotel. Once again, Heidi squandered her opportunity to strengthen her leadership position. Mr. Trump didn't make this mistake. He used his position of strength to advertise his friend's hotel.
Lesson 1: Take every opportunity.

After Kinetic left for their reward, Mr. Trump asked for two people from Arrow to volunteer to lead teams for the next task. I couldn't believe what happened. I expected to see seven hands shoot up for the lead. Instead, only Aaron stepped up. Mr. Trump asked Michelle if she wanted to lead and she said "yes" because she couldn't figure out a way to turn it down. The fear of accountability cowed them: what a shame. It is no coincidence that Aaron's team won this mission.
Lesson 2: Always volunteer to lead.

This week is the story of Michelle. We saw last week that she had trouble making commitments. She started her leadership reign by trying to build a team of consensus. Time after time, she avoided accountability and asked her teammates to make decisions. The team begged her for leadership, and when she didn't take it, they stopped respecting her as their leader. Michelle wasted her team's time. They responded by checking out of success.
Lesson 3: Teams really want you to lead them.
Lesson 4: Be willing to take accountability for making decisions.

In the board room, Michelle's team struggled to stand behind her, while Aaron's team was enthusiastic in their support. Michelle's team found out predictably that they lost by a large margin. Before either team left, Michelle announced that the program was harder than she expected and that she was quitting. Michelle appeared to be running from the shame of being fired, and in doing so put the rest of her team at risk of being fired later in the boardroom. Mr. Trump summed up the lesson well:
Lesson 5: "You can never be successful if you quit."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Jockeying for Position

A friend of mine shared his recent experience setting up to facilitate a technical strategy meeting. He notice that he was getting three types of email from the team:

  • "Here is a list of people to invite..."
  • "You don't need to include the following people..."
  • "Please don't forget to invite me."

This is clear evidence of lack of true leadership in the team. There may be someone on the team with the leadership role, but they are not exercising it properly. Multiple people recognize the leadership void and are trying to step into it. This is a dynamic doomed to fracture this team.

I am also seeing that some of the people don't trust that the existing leaders will represent them in the meeting. This is a group of people that don't feel secure. I suspect most of their resumes are on the street.

I preferred to see my friend focus on addressing this leadership problem before the strategy session, although this wasn't practical. Instead, he needed to go into the meeting recognizing that he had to step into the leadership role for the session to have any hope of avoiding useless jockeying. This team needs a firm hand to support them toward progress rather than discord. Don't let this team be yours.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 2

This week's Apprentice was not as compelling as previous installments. Too much time at the Playboy mansion appealing to the more prurient viewers left insufficient time to show the burgeoning leaders in action on their swimsuit design task. I couldn't get a real sense of how anyone did on the task.

Team Arrow lost again this week. They had a poor showing in their male swimsuit designs mostly under the lead of Carey. Carey leveraged his own experience and made suits that would appeal to a limited community. He neglected to consider the broader based market that the buyers were looking to sell into. While this turned out to be a fatal error for Carey, I wouldn't put the blame for the loss on him.
Lesson 1: It's good to take advantage of your personal experience.
Lesson 2: Don't over-rely on your personal experience.

Carey showed an eagerness and spirit that will be missed on Team Arrow. He took a risk, and made a strong contribution. Mr. Trump should not have fired him. His team, and particularly the team leader, Nicole, let him down. They didn't channel his enthusiasm toward a mass appeal product. Everyone on Team Arrow knew that Carey's judgement was clouded by his enthusiasm. Nicole should never have approved Carey's final design.
Lesson 3: As the leader, you own ultimate responsibility for the team's decisions.
Lesson 4: Team members need to support their team mates by helping them see through their own excitement.

In reality, both teams failed this week. Neither team did the advanced marketing required to understand what would sell best. Heidi and Team Kinetic got lucky at best to pull off a victory. As far as I could tell this task was a coin toss that neither team helped to rig in their favor.
Lesson 5: You have to understand your customer.

I am also disappointed in Heidi this week. She didn't leverage her victory last week by delegating opportunities to lead. The seeds of discontentment showed in this episode, and will be fully sowed if Heidi doesn't delegate some leadership. Heidi won't be able to survive a loss if she doesn't win some unconditional loyalty in the next task.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Five Things About Me

I've been tagged by Bren at Slacker Manager. I have been watching this meme with a small amount of dread. If a friend sent me a chain letter, I would throw it away. Shouldn't I do the same thing on the web? Isn't this the same as sending email requesting business cards for Craig Shergold?

I spent some time back-tracing some of the tag chain. Here are some leader-laden places I found and enjoyed while following the chain:

These are all places that were otherwise outside of my circle. Finding them seems like sufficient value to participate in the meme.

Here are five things that are not generally known about me:

  1. I collect stamps, cameras and Disneyana.
  2. I like to play games like go, Magic The Gathering and competitive Scrabble.
  3. I'm a photographer, but prefer Polaroids to digital.
  4. I have a degree in mechanical engineering.
  5. I cherish my wife and two daughters.

I'm going to try something a bit different in tagging others. I'd like to see if we can pull some celebrity bloggers into the conversation. I tag Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner, Clayton Christensen, and Donald Trump. They won't participate if nobody asks them.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Thoughts on The Apprentice: LA, Episode 1

I have to admit, I love this show. Watching it, I am the armchair quarterback of the leadership football season. The show gives us opportunities to stretch our leadership muscles asking, "What would I do if I were them?" Let's look at some of the more interesting moments. If you haven't seen the show yet, you can watch it here.

Before I start, I'll note that this is television. It is certainly contrived and heavily edited for better storytelling. Some parts are probably scripted and re-shot to that end. The best we can do is take the context we are given as a starting point.

My first observation may be an error of bad scripting. The contestants drive to the mansion four to a car. Each candidate silently contemplates strategies for their opening gambits. Hello, this ride was their opening gambit. The people in the car are both teammates and competition. They all threw away an opportunity to position themselves as leaders. Again, probably scripted. I would have worked the crowd every opportunity I got.
Lesson 1: People are the medium in which we practice leadership. Talk to them.

The first mini-project was putting up a large tent. They all attacked the tent project with the energy of the realization that it probably mattered. But, lacking any defined leader, it started out as bedlam. The dynamics are familiar to all of us: a desire to finish quickly, no stand-out leader, people jockeying for the lead. A decent strategy at this point would be to sit back and let someone else risk being shot down as the leader. The best outcome is to ask for the leadership role and get it. The worst is to ask and be denied.

Heidi stepped up and assumed the lead. The team gave it to her. I'm impressed with Heidi. She managed to take the lead softly, without appearing aggressive. She waited the right amount of time for the team to realize they were not making progress without coordination, but not too long so that someone else grabbed the lead first. The risk paid off. She earned the highly visible first project lead role and parlayed it to a seat next to Mr. Trump in the board room. This is a huge advantage.
Lesson 2: Before risking to take the lead, make sure the team realizes they need a leader. Only after that, take the lead before someone else beats you to it.

Sometime into the tent project, everyone must have realized that Heidi had succeed in setting herself apart. Frank acted to do the same for himself by bullying his way into the lead. Heidi realized she had already won this task. She gave him the lead rather than look foolish by fighting Frank for it. Very well played. Bullying works as a tactic, but fails as a strategy. The team didn't need a new leader. The team gave Frank the lead, but not their respect. He will suffer for this later.
Lesson 3: Nobody respects the bully.

The first real project had the two teams, led by Heidi and Frank, each running a car wash for a day. Frank started the project barking directions in a limited, street-side strategy session. Then he grabbed one of his teammates and ran to a local copy shop to print fliers. Yes, you read correctly: He ran to the copy shop. There is so much wrong here. One, his team was not prepared enough for him to leave them. Two, he could have sent anyone to get copies. Three, you don't need two people to make copies. Four, there must be a better way to get around LA. Five, filers were not an effective way to get cars to pull into the car wash.
Lesson 4: Plan first, act second.
Lesson 5: The leader needs to delegate and stay available for the whole team.

Heidi made early mistakes as well. There came a point where they had more cars in line than they could wash. Too many of her team were holding signs to bring cars in; not enough people washing. Heidi noticed the problem and re-balanced the team so more people rolled up their sleeves and washed cars.
Lesson 6: Be open to changing direction.

Either team could have improved by 25% with better planning and execution. I picked up on a few other lessons along the way. First, both car washes had a staff of experienced people there to help them. Neither team engaged this extended staff in the planning or main execution of the task. The car wash staff in the background seemed to be mocking the candidates in their neatly tailored business suits.
Lesson 7: Your are never too important to ask the line staff for help.
Lesson 8: When there is dirty work to be done, change out of your suits, if only metaphorically.

The big loser of the week was Martin. Martin appeared to be trying to stand out in every way. He dressed oddly. He coupled a weak joke about hugging Mr. Trump with a poorly timed request to go to the bathroom. He tried to take a supervisory role during the tent project. Being so visible is risky, but not a bad plan for getting noticed in this competition. On the plus side, Martin did an excellent job of playing the group psychology in the evening. He effectively, put Frank on the ropes with his team mates as the primary cause of the team's loss. It would have worked if Martin hadn't been such a poor performer in the car wash project.

I'm disappointed to lose Martin. I think he had more skills to show us. Frank on the other hand has already annoyed me beyond what I want to see. I think we have seen all there is to Frank. Although, it may be interesting to see how the others deal with the bully approach. Frank is what I think of as a one-time leader. He gets people to do what he wants one time, but they will never volunteer to work for him again.

Next week Heidi gets to be the project leader again. This is tremendously valuable currency. My advice to Heidi is that she not forget to spend her currency effectively. As the leader, she can subordinate the project leader role to another member of her team. In doing this, she should make it clear that since her neck is on the line with Mr. Trump, she needs to retain some oversight and control. This has two positive values for Heidi. First, she gives someone on the team an opportunity to show their leadership skills. Second, it sets up Heidi as the senior leader for the team, and cements her superior role for the rest of the competition.
Lesson 9: You gain more power by giving some of it away.

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