Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nordstrom Takes a Stand on Christmas Decorations

Every year my wife and I comment on how early stores deck the halls for Christmas. I grant that they are trying to maximize profit, which is completely appropriate. Yet there must be a more graceful way. Some stores ease into the spirit with white lights and green garland, which seems like a good compromise. I love how Nordstrom has taken a stand on this issue.

They attack the issue head on, getting extra credit for purposely bucking the crowd. I hope that taking this leadership position is an equally successful way to capture more of my money. I enjoy Christmas too much to have it cheapened a little more each year.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Unintended Consequences of Use-It-or-Lose-It Budgeting

A caller to a radio talk show shared a story from when he was in the U.S. Air Force. The unit had a fuel budget that they had underspent for the year. They had a use-it-or-lose-it budgeting system. It's a reasonable idea that the budget for next year should be related to the actual spending from the current year.

As frequently happens, fear of scarcity overrides common sense. Instead of losing their fuel budget for the next year, the caller shared, the jets fueled up, flew over the ocean and returned fifteen minutes later to refuel for additional trips.

Although I hope this is an apocryphal story, its plausibility reminds us that even decent ideas can have unintended consequences. We need to keep normal human reactions in mind as an important part of the evaluation of otherwise good ideas.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Organizing Papers as a Sign of Checking Out of a Meeting

One sure sign that someone has given up hope on the success of a meeting is the paper-organizing move. Let me describe it. It starts with the participant making a final, impassioned plea on some position. This plea doesn't get the response hoped for.

Now our meeting participant does the paper-organizing move:

  • He turns his body away from the speaker to his pile of papers and notebooks.
  • He slowly and deliberately organizes them into a neat pile.
  • Then sets the pile on the table, positioned ever so slightly toward the door.
  • Clasping his hands together he sits back in his chair, nearly at attention, as if his full focus were on the current speaker.

The paper-organizing move happens too frequently in meetings. It's meaning is clear: it shows that our meeting participant has lost hope in getting what he wants out of the meeting, and he has checked out. Not that all meeting have to end with everyone happy, but I'd call this an unsatisfactory ending. When a meeting has reached this point, it is frequently too late for the leader to do anything to fix it on the spot. Hopefully, though, recognizing the paper-organizing move gives you an opportunity to deal with the issues that caused it.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Senators Show Poor Leadership in Bailout Bill

US Senators showed the poorest of leadership today by taking advantage of a national crisis. Senators have amended the text of the senate bailout bill, officially titled the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008," with unrelated acts and special tax incentives.

This is the worst kind of abuse of the leadership we have invested them with, and they should be ashamed. As their constituents worry anxiously about the value of their 401K retirement plans, homes, and talk of depression, their Senators took time to augment the bill with administrative housecleaning and pet projects that might otherwise be difficult to pass. Knowing the importance of the bill at hand, they hide in the shadows of urgency and depths of 451 pages of text to sneak their special interests into law. Notably, the main part of the Act, Division A, ends on page 113, leaving 338 pages of additions including Division B, the ‘‘Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008’’ and Division C, the ‘‘Tax Extenders and Alternative Minimum Tax Relief Act of 2008’’ starting on page 261.

Division A, Section 2 of the Act reads:

The purposes of this Act are— (1) to immediately provide authority and facilities that the Secretary of the Treasury can use to restore liquidity and stability to the financial system of the United States; and (2) to ensure that such authority and such facilities are used in a manner that— (A) protects home values, college funds, retirement accounts, and life savings; (B) preserves home ownership and promotes jobs and economic growth; (C) maximizes overall returns to the tax payers of the United States; and (D) provides public accountability for the exercise of such authority.

Given the last line of the act's purpose, the Senators understand the need for accountability in the exercise of authority. They simply can't show personal leadership in their own use of authority. Here are some items from Division C that they should be publicly accountable for:

  • Section 308 (Page 279) is a two year extension to an excise tax "cover over" for rum from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
  • Section 317 (Page 290) is a two year extension to support "Motorsports Racing Tracks" having a seven year cost recovery period.
  • Section 325 (Page 295) is a five year extension to special tax incentives for the wool industry.
  • Section 503 (Page 300) gives excise tax exemption to kid's toy wooden arrows. You could put an eye out with them, but the Senate wants to give them a special tax exemption.
  • Section 511 and 512 (Page 310) has the distinction of being the only bill that has names associated with it, the ‘‘Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008’’. Apparently their pride overcame their shame.

From a leadership perspective, I look at it like this: In the middle of a raging fire, the fire chief calls his team together to talk about whether they will serve steak or lobster at the station's summer family picnic. Some might argue that it is a reasonable discussion to have, but this is neither the time nor is it respectful of the seriousness of the situation. Someone in the Senate should show leadership and call this out as wrong. We should all expect better of our Senators.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New England Patriots: Win or Be Hated

Our New England Patriots lost this weekend for the first time in 22 regular season games. Some of the fans booed them at the end of the game. Imagine if you were booed for results like that at work: 21 on-time releases followed by one late release would get you yelled at by your boss, or only getting 21 sales out of 22 sales calls would miss your sales quota.

Unfortunately, I suspect the Patriots aren't the only people who need a perfect record to keep their fans happy. You should celebrate your team's winning record instead of focusing on their most recent failure.

Perfect is the Enemy of Done

Voltaire wrote "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," frequently translated as "The perfect is the enemy of the good." My youngest daughter would laugh at me if I tried to say that in French. Instead, I'll share my leadership variant on Voltaire:

Perfect is the Enemy of Done

This quote comes in handy too often to remind people that we don't get any value from their perfect work until we deliver it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Simple Voice Mail Greeting

My brother-in-law's voice mail greeting is simply "George." It fits with his sense of humor. More than that, though, it's pretty close to perfect. I only need to know two things when I reach voice mail: First, that I've reached voice mail, and second, that I've reached the right voice mail. "George" fills both those roles very well, and as a bonus it makes me chuckle each time I hear it.

Contrast that to the typical voice mail greeting, which starts with "Hello, you've reached the voice mailbox of George." That's pretty obvious. "I can't come to the phone right now." Even if that's true, it's kind of the point of voice mail. We don't need to be reminded. "Your call is important to me." Really? How could he know? "So, leave your name and number at the tone." Again, we've figured this out by now, so why do we feel the need to give voice mail instructions? "And I'll return your call as soon as possible." That is more of a promise than anyone should make to an unknown caller.

We fall into patterns that may have served us in an earlier time, but have outlived their usefulness. It's important to step back and look at those patterns to find better ways of doing things. Now I leave my brother-in-law the message "Ken." He already has my phone number.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Expectations Make A Big Difference

We dropped my oldest daughter off at college a few weeks back and helped her move in. Her room is on the seventh floor of her dorm, so there is no practical alternative to taking loads of her belongings up in one of two small elevators. What was true for us was also true for dozens of other families dropping off their daughters and sons at the same time. The wait for the elevator was about fifteen minutes long. We made it in three loads, each with it's own wait for the elevator.

While a fifteen minute wait might seem like a huge pain, we were thrilled that it was so short. The school had wisely scheduled drop-offs into two hour windows, and they gave us plenty of warning to arrive early because the lines could get long for the elevators. The event was so well run, it almost had a party feel. Simply setting our expectations changed what could have been a horrible first impression into a customer relations delight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Common Management Techniques As Sabotage

The following list of suggestions for sabotage in a business setting comes via Joho the Blog. Joho explains that this list comes from a 1944 OSS booklet "The Simple Sabotage Field Manual."(pdf) The OSS created this manual to describe guidelines for the "ordinary individual citizen-saboteur" to create a "constant and tangible drag on the war effort of the enemy." The OSS was the precursor of the current CIA.

(1) Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
(2) Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.
(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.
(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
(7) Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

Unfortunately, most of us are familiar with these recommendations as everyday realities in our own organizations.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us." - Pogo

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Take the Time to Learn People's Names

On Friday, my wife and I attended an awards ceremony at my daughter's high school. The student presenter went through about a hundred names, and as far as I could tell she mispronounced only two. For one of those, she recognized the mistake and apologized as the student walked across the stage. I was impressed. That was a difficult task. I could not do nearly as well.

In contrast, I was at an employee meeting of a previous company. The head of HR had to give out about fifteen awards. He messed up the names of half the people. I imagine them thinking, "Thanks for the recognition, but could you just learn who I am?"

It is easier to get people to follow you if they know you care about them. If you can't be bothered to learn the names of the people on your team, they can be certain you don't care much for them.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Seeds of Leadership

When asked about key leadership traits, I respond with characteristics such as initiative, confidence, big-picture thinking, and pride of ownership. Then I realize that my list describes how individuals approach their personal efforts. These traits don't directly relate to how a person leads others. Nevertheless, I keep coming back to these ideas as fundamental to what I mean when I talk about leadership.

Certainly these types of traits are important to the success of a leader: They provide the motivation for a person to enlist a team to larger successes than they could accomplish themselves, and they are valuable tools to leading others successfully. But, even folks who would never think of taking the lead are more effective personally when they show initiative, have confidence, look at the big picture, and take pride of ownership.

I think these traits may be the seeds of leadership skills; fundamental kernels of approach that engender others to want to follow someone. I have seen many people who have a strong desire to lead others, but somehow have been unable to get others to follow them. They tell me about reading books, studying other leaders, and trying new approaches, all with little success. I see them struggle and fight to get others to follow them on a project. They are often successful through pure drive alone, but their teams don't follow willingly, effectively, or joyfully.

This may be why I keep falling back on these personal seeds of leadership in my descriptions. I have seen group leadership techniques fail, while shy-but-charismatic people can't seem to find time to work on their own projects because their teammates are constantly coming to them for leadership. People with these leadership traits seem to be forced to the front, even though they don't want to be.

So, if you are working hard to become a leader, looking to climb the corporate ladder, or are eager for others to follow your lead, look first to your personal character. The techniques for getting others to follow you grow from your approach to your own work. Leading others can be taught; learning to lead yourself is a more difficult exercise.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

If They Gave Me More Power, I Could Really Make a Difference

In the last week I have heard the following sentiment from two different people, "If they would give me the authority to make the changes I want to make, I could be successful." In other words, "I am currently not successful, and it isn't my fault. Other people are preventing me from doing what I know will work best. If those other people would give me unchallengeable authority, everything would work perfectly."

You should know that even leaders with unchallengeable authority are not effective using their authority alone. To be effective, they need to garner support from the people they hope will follow them. If they don't get that support, they can be successful for only a short while at best. Only if they are proven to be right, will others follow them for longer.

The same is true for you where you hope to lead. Only, one of the groups people you hope to get to follow you are the "other people" who are standing in the way of your success. You need to garner their support if you hope to get the authority you think you need to succeed.

Actually, authority is seldom a part of the equation for an effective leader. Effective leaders need to get support from the people they hope to lead, including those who have authority over them. It is a matter of selling your vision of success so that those "other people" have confidence in your leadership.

Don't let a lack of authority get in your way. Sell your vision by identifying the "other people" in your life and convincing them that you can help the team succeed with your vision. Don't forget to listen to them, too. Those "other people" may know something you have missed.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What You Know is Easy

I was at a meeting today and someone mentioned that a future product needed to be easy to use. One of the other participants added something interesting: "Easy is what I know. When something is new, and I don't know it, it is not easy. Once I know it, it's easy to me." He wasn't suggesting that the product shouldn't be easy to use. But, we should keep in mind that new things usually seem hard. We can apply this idea to our own leadership tasks, keeping in mind that as we help guide people through change, they may perceive the change as hard, no matter how easy it seems to us.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bob Schieffer on How We Pick a President

I heard an interview with CBS newsman Bob Schieffer today on NPR. Commenting on the presidential primary campaign, he said, "The run for president is unlike anything else we vote for. We vote for president according to who we feel most comfortable with in a time of crisis." That got me wondering what characteristics we value in the other leaders around us. There are at least five characteristics I see people gravitate toward in picking leaders:

  • Vision - People want their leaders to have good ideas for the future
  • Management Skills - Sometimes they want strong administrative and planning skills
  • Experience - Often they look for leaders who have dealt with comparable situations
  • Crisis Management Skills - They want someone who can save them when the worst happens
  • Charisma - Which was a key aspect of what I understood from Bob Schieffer's use of the word "comfort"

I think there is large value in having leaders with charisma, but I hope that we don't apply a likability test as the prime driver in how we choose our leaders. It's also good to have a leader who can deal with a crisis when it comes up, but I want leaders who can help us avoid a crisis. I want a leader who I feel comfortable with in a crisis but I'd prefer one who brings other skills to the role as well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Patrick Winston's How to Speak Lecture

Every year, MIT professor Patric Winston gives a popular lecture on how to give presentations. I have always been an advocate of the importance of public speaking to an effective leader. If you are new to public speaking, and even if you are old hat, this hour-long lecture is well worth your time. While you probably won't see it in person, you can see an old video of the lecture at Cameron Marlow's blog Overstated. (via boingboing)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Assume the Relationship You Want

The tone of a relationship can be set the first time you meet someone. With that in mind, it's important to set the right tone from the start. You can be a friendly peer, respectful adversary, junior employee, angry customer or possibly the big boss. Before you walk into that first meeting, decide the kind of relationship you prefer to have, then act as if that relationship exists. You may not get your preference to stick, but if you leave the kind of relationship that you form up to the whim of the other guy, you will probably end up as the junior employee. Take the lead in acting the way you want the relationship to form, and you are more likely to make it so.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

LinkedIn and Attrition: Part 2

Back in November, I wrote about how to use LinkedIn to predict future attrition. Recently, a woman I know told me that she connected with an old friend, who proceed to connect with over a dozen other new people a day. Out of curiosity, she did a bit of research into her friend's company and found that it had just gone through a large management reorganization. Obviously, her friend had started a job search.

LinkedIn is growing in popularity, and I am more pleased than ever with the tool. Now they post a daily network activity report on your home page that shows you changes in each of your direct connection's profile, including how many people each has connected to.

You can use this information to notice people who might be on the job market. Perhaps this could be the source of your company's next hire. Oh, and don't forget that your direct connections can see your linking activity, too.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Having the Right Tools for the Job or Getting Them

I just had to do a small plumbing job at home. As I've done home repairs over the years, I have made uncountable trips to Home Depot to get the right tool to complete the job. It was such a pleasure this time to find that I had everything I needed to do this job already in my toolbox. That was a good feeling.

One feeling that is just as good is getting a new tool and learning how to use it. I don't buy as many tools these days, but it is a new thrill each time I do.

I like to approach leadership with the same attitude. When I come across situations I've encountered before, it is nice to know that I have the tools to deal with them. And, when something new and unexpected comes up, I can enjoy learning the new tools. Instead of fearing the unknown, we can relish the opportunity to learn something new.