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.