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.

For more Trump fun, check out The Trump Blog.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

PowerPoint to Poster Boards

I am in the midst of setting up a management review meeting. Rather than parade by a string of project leaders to present the same stale reports, I asked each team to present a poster. I gave each leader one of those tri-fold poster boards that many of our kids use in school and no rules about how to put it together. I frankly expected most teams to paste a PowerPoint presentation onto their board and be done with it. Our kids make these things; you would think it would be easy.

In past reviews, the leaders threw together a presentation the night before the meeting, pulling most of the material from pre-existing slide decks. Some spent time with their teams reviewing the presentation in advance of the meeting, but this was always pretty casual.

This time around, the teams are getting together to figure out the best way to use the poster boards. The new format caused the teams to rethink how to present their material. The teams have engaged more with what and how to communicate.

It is easy to become sloppy in putting together our ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations. Here is a reminder from the AYE Wiki reminding us not to lean hard on PowerPoint as the center of our approach to presenting. Next time you give a presentation, think a bit about what you want to present and what is the best way to communicate it. Don't default to PowerPoint. You might try forcing yourself to use a new medium as a tool to keeping you fresh.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Community Day at Slacker Manager

Brendon Connelly at Slacker Manager graciously opened his blog to guest writers today. I wrote about updating our templates to reflect 2007 in my contribution. I was inspired today after seeing a presentation with a copyright notice not for 2006 but for 2002!

Participate in the community if you get a chance.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

My Leadership Philosophy: Part 2

I recently wrote an article in response to George Ambler's post, The Importance of a Clear Leadership Philosophy. I had hoped it would start a wave of business bloggers describing their own leadership philosophies. Unfortunately, it didn't earn a single comment. So goes the blogging world.

Mr. Ambler encouraged leaders to write down their beliefs about people, life and what makes groups effective. I found it to be a valuable exercise. As I've thought about that article more, it occurs to me that there are more elements of a leadership philosophy to write down than those three. The most obvious missing element to me was a philosophy of leadership itself. Here are my beliefs about leadership:

Leadership comes naturally to some people, and can be learned by many people. Although, not all people can be taught to be leaders. The most important thing to teach a burgeoning leader is to have the confidence that they have permission to lead. Leadership is not a matter of rank.

A leader is motivated to take action by a desire to see success. This is not ego-driven personal success, although many leaders have huge egos. Leadership is about making a team successful at reaching a shared goal. A leader needs to be able to visualize the future, and they need to be able to communicate that vision of success to the team. Finally, a leader needs to be impatient. Leaders are made when someone has a vision and becomes impatient that nobody else is moving.

I don't believe that leadership requires charisma. Leaders need to communicate a vision in a way that motivates the team to share the goal. This requires some empathy and insight into how other people think. They also need to inspire trust that they can lead the group to that goal, and then get out of the way. Charisma is helpful, but it can also blind a group to an otherwise poor goal or untrustworthy leader.

Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. Ambler.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Back from Vacation - Happy New Year

I've written about the value of taking vacations before. During this holiday break I took a break from blogging too. Most of you were not reading business blogs anyway. It was good to give my mind a thinking break, too. It feels just as good to be back.

During this vacation I worked on a paper model of Sleeping Beauty's Castle from Disneyland. It is a nice lesson in patience and slowing down. I am about 1/3 finished. So far so good. I highly recommend finding an activity that frees your mind from work.

Here's wishing all of you a wonderful 2007.