Roselle Leadership Blog

December 17th, 2020

4 Ways to Develop Leadership Vision

When I last visited my ophthalmologist for a checkup, I discovered that my new contact lens prescription was lower in both eyes.  To my delight, I realized that my vision is improving!

This is a big deal to me, because I still remember the fear I experienced in 2nd grade when my eyes became dramatically more near-sighted every six months.  Eventually, my vision was reduced to legally blind, without glasses or contacts.  I discovered then how important vision is, especially to those like me with limited vision or blindness. 

In working with various organizations and their leaders over the past 30 years, I have learned anew how important vision is.  Proverbs 29:18 says “Where there is no vision, the people decay.” This is true in every organization.

What is vision?  Here is my definition:

Leadership vision is the capacity to accurately see the current situation of the organization, to create, through collaboration, a picture of an inspiring future state, and to develop a strategy to achieve it, with the input and commitment of the team.

I wear mono-vision contacts, where one eye is corrected to see close and the other is corrected to see far away.  Seeing near and far is a core piece of leadership vision. In addition, vision includes inspiring others in a collaborative process of creating the vision and executing on the strategy to achieve it.

How can you develop it?  While it is true that leadership vision is a relatively rare competence within most organizations, it can be developed.   Here is an approach any leader can employ:

  1. Leverage people on your team and in your organization who have a high degree of vision. No matter where you are in your organization or what size it is, you can identify and leverage people around you who seem to have a greater ability to think strategically.  There are personality tests and strengths assessments that can help you do this, but even your day-to-day observations and discussions with others in your organization can easily illuminate those who more naturally think in future-oriented, blue-sky, visionary ways.
  • Pull yourself out of day-to-day task execution. The gap in strategic thinking often comes out in the results of my 360-degree feedback assessment that I use on the front end of executive coaching.  Typically, people who are low on strategic, visionary thinking on their 360 results are often very strong at planning and executing tasks.  As I like to say, “nobody gets everything and everybody has flat sides” in their competencies.  Another truth in leadership competence is that people tend to spend most time where they are most comfortable.  This means that if you are someone who is highly effective at day-to-day tasks, your schedule probably gets filled with these, leaving little or no time to focus on strategic planning.  So, the more you continue to let yourself get stuck in the detailed tasks that you love doing, the less effective you will ever be at strategy and vision.
  • Ask future-oriented, mission-based questions.  A simple way to build your vision muscle is to ask questions with your team, peers, and boss that get at underlying issues and future direction.  For example, instead of asking, “What are the tasks we still need to accomplish and how will we get them done?” ask this kind of question, “Why are we moving in this direction, how does it fit our mission, and what are we hoping to achieve in the next 3-5 years?” All three of these kinds of questions address the big picture. It is not necessary for you to have the answers to these questions.  You simply need to raise them and two things will happen: others will view you as increasingly visionary in your orientation, and those around you who are more highly competent at strategic/visionary thinking will be encouraged to weigh in.  From their ideas–and your own–you can then form a vision and strategy to direct your planning and execution skills.
  • Educate yourself on how recognized visionary leaders think. A number of books written in the past 5-10 years, as well as Harvard Business Review articles and various online white papers can provide examples of how visionary leaders approach problems they face.  You do not need to be Steve Jobs to be viewed as visionary.  Attending online and in-person conferences in your field often provide ideas you can bring back to your team to help spur their vision and strategy.  The specific ideas and solutions they share might not be helpful to you, but their thinking process in developing vision and strategy can give you new ideas.

Use these four components to help you develop and apply your vision to your organization.

August 18th, 2020

Cowbird Leadership

Summer in Minnesota always brings a few surprises, and this year, I encountered a cowbird for the first time.  These birds are about the size of an oriole (a cousin), with the male being solid charcoal gray with a dark brown head, while the female is solid light brown.

One day, I noticed eggs in a finch nest on the side door of my garage, as well as in a cardinal nest in the hanging fern on the front porch. The finch nest contained three small, blue-green eggs and two larger eggs that were white and mottled brown. Since I’d never seen this before, I checked and discovered that cowbirds are parasites who don’t build their own nests, but, instead, lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. 

Over the course of hatching, the finch eggs disappeared until only the cowbird eggs remained.  (I learned that the female cowbird often removes the eggs of the host bird to make room for hers).  The hatched cowbirds were eventually too large for the finch to feed, so that both chicks died.  The cardinal abandoned her cowbird egg, and it never hatched.

What does this have to do with leadership?  Simply that the cowbird provides a helpful metaphor to describe the ‘parasitic’ behaviors of leaders I have encountered over the past 30 years.  Cowbird leaders display these types of toxic behaviors:

  • Undermine the ideas of others to make room for their own
  • Assign a pet task to a team that has no buy-in, and, consequently, no follow through
  • Generate an ‘egg’ of an idea, but then leave it to others to plan and execute
  • Assign a big idea to a team that is too small in skillset and capacity to deliver
  • Blame the failure of their idea on those who did not properly carry it out

Cowbird leaders are distrusted and sometimes despised by their team and peers.  They often lack the emotional intelligence to recognize how their self-focus and lack of collaboration undermine relationships and results.  They do not realize how their drive to promote their own ideas actually pushes out of consideration some potentially great ideas. 

If, with some introspection, you discover that you sometimes display cowbird leader behaviors, here are three approaches you can develop as new habits:

  • Be open to explore new ideas, regardless of who generates them.  Everyone likes to have their ideas considered and, periodically, put into action.
  • Work collaboratively with your team to create buy-in and follow through on your ideas.  That way, they will not feel like an idea has been dumped on them, and you are more likely to get the result you seek.
  • Be conscious of the capabilities of your team(s) and work jointly to clearly communicate expectations and develop a strategy for execution.  Sometimes, your team will not be capable, by itself, of bringing your idea to successful completion.
  • Make certain the team has sufficient resources to get the job done.  One key to fruitful execution is to ensure that the team has tools, funding, decision-making clarity, and senior leader support.

The bottom line: take responsibility to see your own ideas all the way through to implementation, delegating to and overseeing others on the way. Don’t be a cowbird leader!

July 6th, 2020

4 Responses to a Bully Boss

In talking with a friend recently, she described a meeting she had with her boss that led to her resignation.  It was not the first time she had such an encounter.  In this meeting with her boss, he called her work attitude poor, accused her of not submitting to his authority, and blamed her for the problems the organization had been experiencing since she had first begun working there.  His tone was critical, judgmental, and accusatory; he yelled at her and slammed his hands down on the desk.  She was deeply shaken by the experience.

In responding to her upset, I confirmed that her boss was a bully. Though her boss was small in stature and usually affable and soft-spoken, he was the Jekyll-Hyde type whose emotions overpowered him when circumstances pushed his buttons.  On the inside, he was actually frustrated, angry, and afraid.

The difference between a bully boss and one who is just tough and demanding is that tough bosses treat people the same. A bully boss, on the other hand, targets only one or a few victims.  Bullies tend to pick on people who, in their minds, pose a threat to them. Their victims, in fact, are often smart, competent, and self-assured, and they may also be highly effective at collaboration and team orientation—something the bully boss typically is not. Bullies often go after employees who are liked by their supervisors and praised for their work. Bullies typically have poor coping skills, and they mask their insecurities by victimizing others. Bully bosses often pick victims who have strong morals and integrity, or whose values conflict with those of the bully. As happened with my friend, bully bosses often target those who are new to an organization.

Over the years as an organizational psychologist, I have encountered bully bosses, and they typically display behaviors like these:

  • Question commitment, adequacy. Bully bosses disparage opinions and ideas suggested by their victim. They blame victims for work issues and take credit themselves for successes.
  • Undermine projects, work success. They set victims up for failure, withhold essential information, micromanage in ways that undercut, and interfere with the success of assignments.
  • Gossip. Bully bosses will go to great lengths to paint their victims in a bad light. Sometimes, they pretend to be a concerned ‘friend’ who wants to help the victim through a situation, but then they use the information against the person, or purposely lie to damage their reputation.
  • Verbal abuse and intimidation. They humiliate their victims in front of others. They shout, swear, unfairly criticize, make sarcastic remarks, threaten, berate, and ridicule.  

What options do you have if yours is a Bully Boss?  Here are four ways you might respond:

Go along to get along. This approach is passive and simply acquiesces to the bullying behavior.  In the short term, this approach seems to work, because it typically does not inflame situations so that they escalate.  However, going along to get along usually does nothing to curtail or end the behavior, and it provides the bully with the confirmation that he/she is superior to the victim.

Directly fight against the behavior.  Giving back in kind could, at first, seem to end the bullying behavior, since people usually do not stand up to bully bosses and this response momentarily throws them off.  However, this feels like a “test of strength” to the bully boss, who will most likely amp up his/her response to win the fight and re-establish dominance.

Ignore the behavior to extinguish it. This is an approach that often works with children who exhibit bad behavior; instead of calling attention to it, just ignore it and reinforce more desirable behaviors.  It also involves doing work-arounds to avoid situations in which the boss most often becomes a bully.  This approach may seem very similar to the “going along” strategy, but the difference is that the victim is actively working to snuff out the bullying behavior by not giving the bully the reaction he/she wants.

Assertively stand up for yourself. The victim telling the bully boss their behavior is “bullying” and stating that this approach is not acceptable is the first step in this approach.  Continuing to name behaviors as bullying and involving others in power (HR, the boss’s superior, the Board) to assess the behavior as bullying can lead to the person changing his/her approach (perhaps with help from an external coach), being limited in scope of leadership responsibility, or leaving the organization. Clearly, the best long-term strategy is to assertively respond to the bulling behavior.  As indicated, this often requires the support and intervention of others in the organization who wield power.

May 31st, 2020

6 Permanent Changes Post-COVID

The Wuhan Corona virus has caused world-wide fear, death, illness, and economic destruction in a way that no other virus ever has.  While I do not claim to be a futurist, I have observed some trends that will now impact leaders across wide swaths of industry, including public, private sector, and non-profit.  These six trends–dramatically amplified by this virus–have become solidly etched into the minds of Americans in a way that has created a permanent change in their expectations going forward:

Skepticism toward Experts. Throughout this virus pandemic, the experts have been worse than meteorologists or fortune tellers at predicting the future.  It has become apparent these ‘experts’ were only knowledgeable in the data related to their previous experience, but were terribly wrong at extrapolating the unknown.  For some reason (personal, political?), the experts from universities, US government health agencies, and the World Health Organization seemed to need to gin up the most horrific possibilities in their predictive model assumptions.  A few weeks before the lockdown, for example, when ‘experts’ were predicting several million deaths in the US alone, I was checking data on the CDC website for reported new cases of the Wuhan virus.  I could see even then that the number of new cases peaked, and then began to decline.  Current data on the CDC website indicates a slow decline in new cases has continued since the first week in April.  The experts, though they may have been well-intentioned, failed with any degree of accuracy to project the behavior of this virus, even after there were a couple of months of data from the US and other countries on which to base their predictions. And now the question is, why can’t the experts agree on the usefulness of treatments like Hydroxychloroquine or Remdesivir?  For people who face the choice of ‘dying or trying’, why can’t experts agree on a course of action to save lives?  Going forward, this skepticism of experts will be permanent.

Demand for Delivery/Drive-thru/Curbside Service. For many, eating at home is preferable to getting dressed and heading out to wait in line at a restaurant or coffee shop.  The main motivation for going out for most people is to have someone else cook your food, mix a fancy drink, or prepare your favorite latte. In the past, there have been few options, other than drive-thru coffee or fast food.  But now, having been given the options of drive-thru, online ordering, home delivery, and curbside pickup, the need to change out of lounge pants and go to a restaurant has been altered permanently.  Oh, there will still be special occasions when you want to hang out with friends or family over dinner at a restaurant, or meet new people at a club, but the pattern will be forever changed.

Preference for Online Purchases.  It doesn’t take a police detective to notice the vastly larger number of UPS, FedEx, USP, and Prime trucks on the road these days.  Some segments of the population were already doing most of their shopping online, but the difficulty getting into brick and mortar stores since the lockdown, the requirement of stores like Costco to wear masks, the long lines at some stores to be allowed in, and the lack of basic necessities on the shelves have all led many more consumers to shop online.  Now that consumers have been shaped into this online shopping behavior for a few months, they will never return to their old shopping habits—another permanent change, due to the coronavirus.

Resistance of Authority.  Citizens of all states affected by the lockdowns with directives to ‘shelter in place’ stayed home initially, closed their ‘non-essential’ businesses, refrained from going into work in ‘essential’ industries, and dutifully donned protective gear to help ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus spread. Based on the available data, it appears these measures have helped avoid the overcrowding of hospitals and clinics that happened in Germany and China. As the curve of new infections flattened and citizens realized that hospitals would not be overwhelmed with patients needing ventilators, the new scourge for countries in lockdown became the subsequent economic decimation.  People logically asked why businesses were still closed when the original purpose of the shutdown—to protect hospitals and clinics from being overwhelmed—was achieved. They began to have their “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” moments.  They began to defy over-reaching authority to meet with friends and family, take walks, visit parks and beaches with their children, and resist the orders of their mayors and governors.  And then, they started to get arrested and put in jail for resisting what seemed to them to be capricious use of power.  Citizens being compliant in the face of authoritarian action is a thing of the past; the new norm will be to question those in authority.

Work from Home.  The rules for social distancing and the idea of essential versus non-essential industries have resulted in many more people working from home.  While telecommuting has been a trend for a number of years, it really became a thing the past several months.  Though many workers—especially those with small children at home who were barred from attend daycare or school—have found working from home to be extremely distracting, the flexibility of sometimes going into the office and sometimes being at home is a permanent change that an increasing number of workers will expect, even demand going forward.

Choice of Telemedicine.  A few days ago, I scheduled an appointment with my GP and had my first telemedicine experience.  Instead of waiting in the lobby with a number of people who suffered from a variety of flu/cold symptoms and possibly contagious skin diseases, I sat at home in my drawstring pants and chatted on the phone about my concern.  Far different from the typical office visit, my doctor was 5 minutes early for the phone call, took all the time I needed without a sense of being rushed, and followed through on the next step of treatment while we were talking.  Clinics will need to expand their telemedicine options going forward, as the old model has permanently changed.

Leaders at all levels and in all industries need to be aware of and decide how to respond to these permanent, Post-COVID changes.

March 31st, 2020

3 Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Response

No one that I’ve read or heard in the media, from the World Health Organization to TV pundits, seems to disagree that the Covid-19 virus that originated in Wuhan, China is a pandemic.  In less than 4 months, it had spread to almost every country in the world. 

This corona virus has terrified individuals, governments, businesses, and stock markets across the globe.  Based on the lines of crazed, masked shoppers inside and outside of major big box retailers scooping up toilet paper, disinfectant, and bottled water, the fear of this virus is akin to the bubonic plague. This bubonic virus, spread by fleas, resulted in the deaths of 30% of all Europeans in the late 1300’s (recall the movie, Search for the Holy Grail, “Bring out your dead!  Bring out your dead!”).

Based on the data available as of the writing of this article–and assuming the data are accurate–Covid-19 has claimed lives of those who contract it ranging from 12% in Italy, 5% in places like China, France, and the UK, and 1% in the United States and South Korea.  What is the comparison with the percentage of deaths in the US every year from seasonal influenza? Well, that is about .1%, or roughly one tenth the rate for Covid-19.  This is a certainly a serious pandemic, yet 99 percent of those infected eventually recover.

In the midst of the global reaction to this illness, we have seen a range of responses from global leaders as the pandemic crossed their borders.  What best practices can we glean from the actions of these leaders?  Here are three leadership lessons from the Covid-19 response.

Set Aside Personal/Political Agendas. In late January, when other countries would have been helped by the “heads up”, reports started to emerge that Chinese authorities may have delayed reporting the outbreak purposely, and then downplayed and covered up what they knew. This included restraining a doctor who tried to warn colleagues about the virus.  China’s actions early on may have unintentionally postponed the global response to a deadly pathogen and allowed it to spread further. According to a January 29 report in the New England Journal of Medicine, by authors from the Chinese CDC, there were already health care workers infected in early January, which is evidence of human to human transmission.  But the public was not informed about this situation until January 18. People were still being told there was no strong evidence of human-to-human transmission. In the same article, there’s other evidence that human-to-human transmission was occurring already in December.

Meanwhile, in Italy, during the first week of March, officials decided to lock down and quarantine 16 million people to fight the disease after it had been allowed to ravage Italians unabated for six weeks.  The quarantine threatened to put those who disobey in jail for 3 months.  What were their reasons in Italy, which has the worst death toll percentage, to not respond for six weeks, and then suddenly drop the quarantine curtain around massive population groups?  In a shame/honor culture like China, it becomes clearer why they might have delayed announcing the virus, but what personal or political agenda stopped the Italians from acting immediately, as did the US and South Korea?

Move Decisively, but Thoughtfully. In the US, the CDC issued a travel notice for Wuhan a week after China announced the coronavirus discovery in their country on December 31st, and within three weeks, the CDC established a management system to collect and share information about the virus, issued a travel health notice for Wuhan, and began screening at three US airports.  The NIH also began working on a vaccine, as the CDC urged all Americans to avoid nonessential travel to China.  In early February, the CDC began shipping test kits to US and international labs (about 30 countries) and expanded a partnership with a private research and development company to expedite development of a vaccine. 

In South Korea, leaders were meeting with medical companies one week after the first confirmed case in their country in late January.  By mid-February, Koreans were shipping thousands of test kits, testing thousands of individuals, and imposing emergency measures in the city where the contagion was spreading most quickly.  These decisions were made relatively quickly as new information was available and in collaboration with medical experts and government organizations in both countries.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.  In South Korea, relentless public messaging urged citizens to seek testing if they, or someone they knew, developed symptoms. At walk-in centers, health-care workers administered throat swabs.  Buildings started using thermal imaging cameras to detect fevers and restaurants began to check for temps before allowing customers to enter.  Leaders concluded that limiting the outbreak would require keeping citizens fully informed and requesting their cooperation.

During January/February in the US, the President’s Corona Virus Task Force was formed to help monitor and contain the spread of the virus, the illness was declared a public health emergency, and further Chinese travel restrictions were announced, including suspended entry to the US for foreign nationals who posed a risk of virus transmission.  The news media began to communicate about the outbreak after the first case on US soil was confirmed on January 21st, and this information spread has increased sharply in the news cycle since the virus accelerated around February 21st.  By mid-march, daily briefings were being held to inform the public about the most recent and accurate information about the spread of this illness.

Though these examples are specifically from the Covid-19 epidemic, the themes for leaders in a multitude of situations still hold true.  When a crisis hits, set aside your personal/political agenda, move decisively and thoughtfully into action, and communicate as much as possible, as often as possible to keep people informed.

January 26th, 2020

Four Keys to Influencing Others

Leaders often find themselves in situations where they are trying to influence peers or others who are not in their direct line of supervision.  That is, they have no formal authority over these people, but they must find ways to collaborate on projects.  Sometimes, when they try to influence others on a project or initiative, the others feel threatened by them or somehow pushed out of their lane.

A couple of recent examples from coaching clients might help to illustrate these kinds of situations.  In one, an engineering director was asked by the GM of the plant to create a slide deck to help senior leadership understand the new product that engineering had developed.  He had involved several marketing managers in developing the slides, but had not specifically informed their manager, the marketing director, about the status.  When the marketing director was informed of the deck at a meeting, he became visibly upset and confronted the engineering director about the lack of involvement by marketing.  Apparently, he felt that the slide deck being presented to the sales force indicated that engineering had veered intentionally outside of its lane and into the marketing lane.

In another situation—this one from the nonprofit world—the chair of the Board was holding off on a decision regarding the announcement of a new executive director of the organization to make sure all the legal paperwork was completed before the new person was announced to staff and donors.  He received a text from a member of a departmental committee who had some strong feelings about the timing of the new position announcement.  This person wrote, “There is no reason in the world that the paperwork is not completed on time.  Do this right!” 

In both of these cases, different as they are, one person made a fundamental mistake in trying to change another person’s approach to a problem.  In the first case, one peer was trying to influence the actions of another peer; in the second case, someone was trying to influence the next steps of a person two levels above him in the organization.  In both cases, they made the fatal mistake of assuming they could influence someone else by bullying them.  Being aggressive is usually not the preferred strategy in organizational leadership situations, and never effective when trying to influence someone.

  1. Ask open-ended questions and listen.  This will help you learn more about the thinking and approach of the other person.  Listen deeply to their response in order to more fully understand them.  Most situations in which you believe you must change the thinking of another person occur when you believe the other has a viewpoint that is in conflict with yours.  In the first example, above, the marketing director assumed the engineering director was purposely moving outside his lane. Had he, instead, asked a question like, “What are you thinking the involvement of marketing should be at this point?” or “How do you think we should proceed with this slide deck, and how should marketing be involved?” he would have discovered that his team was already involved and there was still time for him to influence the final result.

  2. Once you understand, share your perspective.  People are much more likely to listen to your point of view if they see that you are interested in their thinking and have asked questions to better understand. When you are certain that the other person has shared everything they have to say on the topic, and that you fully understand where they are coming from, then begin to share your own point of view on the situation. Be patient before you share.  Don’t make the mistake of jumping in assuming you understand, when, in fact, the other person has only shared a fraction of what they want to say.  In our second example, had the department member made sure he understood the reason for the delay in announcing the new staff person, he might have shared a different perspective and found the board chair was much more open to it.

  3. Look for possible common ground. As you provide your perspective, begin to lay the foundation for shared understanding.  Look for common ground in what the other has said and what your point of view is; begin to identify values and needs you both share in the situation, and look for ways to build a collaborative solution from there. Almost always, if you look closely, you will find a piece of common ground on which you can shape deeper collaboration.

  4. Move toward a resolution. If you have spent sufficient time listening to and understanding the other person, and you have subsequently shared your own point of view emphasizing areas of common ground, then moving toward a resolution should be relatively simple. Sometimes, however, even after your perspective and the other perspectives are laid out, there is no clearly defined common ground. Sometimes, shifting to another open-ended question like, ”What’s really important to you in this situation, bottom line?” can open up a deeper dialogue and ultimately move you toward resolution.

The ability to collaborate with others when there is no clear line of authority is a competence that will have ever-increasing value in the company of today and tomorrow.

September 25th, 2019

5 Simple Ways to Retain Talent!

In the past few months, I have had several conversations with leaders in the 35-45 age range who had either left their previous companies, or were actively pursuing other opportunities.  They worked for multi-billion dollar organizations and had been at their companies for 5-10 years.  None were probably considered ‘flight risks’ by their current companies.

Why did they decide to look for other options?  They were not satisfied enough in their current roles and they started to develop a ‘wandering eye’ about what might be available to them elsewhere.  Their fundamental needs were not being met, and nobody—including their manager—was asking them about those needs.  They were just plugging along and everyone assumed they were happy where they were, though in a couple of the cases, they had actually talked with their manager and more senior leaders about their desire to be promoted.

What’s missing?  Based on my own research and that of others in the leadership development/employee engagement field, we know that people often have these as their primary work motivators:

  • Have a say in the decisions
  • Do work that is meaningful to them, the organization
  • Are able to develop friendships with coworkers
  • Can build new skills, advance
  • Have a manager who relates well to them and appreciates them
  • Experience balance in their work and private lives
  • Are paid competitively for their time
  • Make clear progress towards goals

When organizations fail to meet some or most of these needs, the motivation level drops and retention of key talent is threatened. 

More recent research indicates several indicators of employee commitment that seem to be the primary drivers in whether employees stay or leave.  Most of them are related to the relationship with their immediate supervisor, as well as more senior leaders. Here they are, in order of importance from greater to lesser:

  1. My career aspirations can be achieved at this organization.
  2. Senior leaders treat employees as valued resources.
  3. I am rewarded based on my performance.
  4. I am acknowledged for my accomplishments.
  5. My manager supports me.

Are you seeing a theme here?  Each of these five motivating needs related to work are significantly impacted by the relationship between the individuals and their leadership.  What are you doing in your organization (or, what is your organization doing for you) that makes sure employees are progressing in their careers, rewarded and acknowledged for their work, as well as valued and supported?

Does your organization intentionally address these work satisfiers by developing and promoting leaders who inspire their team members and bring out the best in them?

How can organizations retain talent?  Especially in this time of high employment and competition in recruiting top talent, organizations must do all they can to be proactive about employees walking out the door. 

Here are the five best practices I suggest, gleaned from my client organizations that are most successful at retaining talent:

  • Ensure that every position has a clear path toward a next position.  Even if the incumbents in a particular role express their desire to remain there and not move to another role, make sure that a path exists and the learning they will need at the next level is clear.
  • Gather regular feedback from employees about how they view the culture at your organization and how well they feel like they fit in and are welcome.  Ask for specific ideas about how the culture could change to be a better fit for them individually.  Then, make the changes you can.
  • Tie the compensation of each leader to the retention, development, and promotion of their team members.  Though there are always extenuating circumstances (spouse moves out of state, team member decides to go back to school fulltime, health issues force early retirement), connecting a financial and promotion component to keeping and growing existing talent on your team makes it clear how important this is to the organization’s success.
  • Require frequent career discussions as part of the regular one-on-one meetings between manager and subordinate.  Build in communication pathways that allow subordinates to also talk with their manager’s leader or others about their career aspirations.  This way, managers who conduct career discussions just to check a box can be ‘double-checked’ by another leader in the organization.  Too many talented people leave, because their manager represents a roadblock to their progress and career satisfaction.
  • Build in metrics that help you recognize every six months which managers/supervisors have unusually high turnover and conduct due diligence to determine what was missing in the retention and development of those people who left. Take steps to correct these gaps.

Bottom line, make it so appealing for talent—especially young talent—to stay in your organization that they do not want to leave.

June 17th, 2019

How to Lead When They’re Not Following

A few years ago, I provided executive coaching to a VP of Sales/Marketing who received 360 degree feedback on the front-end of our engagement. From the ratings and comments on the report, it was clear that his sales team had a very low opinion, even in areas that he thought would come out as strengths. A former career military guy who had held various leadership roles, he concluded, “If my team’s not following, then I’m not leading.” He decided to resign.

More recently, I worked with the CEO of a medical nonprofit organization who had been in her role for about a year. Having been given a clear message by the Board Chair that the staff and leaders at this organization were headed in a downward spiral, she very quickly began to institute change. The team, however, thought that most aspects of the clinic were just fine. They did not see the need for many of the new changes, and had they had become accustomed to a passive, distant leader over the years. Their reaction to this new leader and her changes, after an initial honeymoon period, was distrustful, resistant, and hostile.

I was brought in to work with the CEO as her coach and it was decided that I should interview a core group of the most critical team members, as well as the other top leaders. This core group of ‘deep state’ team members had began to stage a coup, going around the CEO and directly attacking her to the Board, as well as refusing to institute the changes. In my interviews, it was clear that a deep level of distrust had developed. The CEO and I decided to work to turn around the distrust.

How does trust erode? In this case, it was the result of the CEO stepping into a deeply distrustful and fiercely independent environment , and then not spending enough time on the front end of changes to enroll the team. Stephen Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) encouraged leaders to build the emotional bank account of trust in little deposits over time. David Horsager (The Trust Edge) identifies 8 pillars of trust that include communication and consistency—the two aspects over the3 years I have seen as primary in building and maintaining trust. But it is another of Horsager’s pillars that I think mostly undermined this nonprofit CEO—clarity. She did not clearly communicate the need for the changes, nor did she adequately enroll the team in the changes.

Even though it’s true that, if they are not following, you are not leading, it is also true that it’s never too late to go back and do the right thing. It might mean that several team members resign as a result of their deep hostility, but the remaining team can be nurtured to adapt, become part of, and even embrace the changes.

People adapt to changes in a four-phase process. They often start by holding on to the previous way, denying that things will actually change. Next, they start letting go of the old structures and procedures, recognizing that the organization will not go back to the way things were. Then, they begin reaching out to test the changes and determine how they can be successful within the new system. And, finally, they begin taking hold and fully embracing the changes. As happened with this nonprofit, some of the most entrenched resisters will leave and find employment elsewhere, but the remaining group will be committed to moving forward in the new direction.

What can a new leader do to enroll followers? Before new leaders can have impact in the existing organization, they must approach the staff and existing leadership (formal and informal) in a four-phase process:


  • Learn as much as possible about the situation in advance, before the first day
  • Diagnose the challenges, opportunities
  • Shed assumptions that might get in the way
  • Create an initial strategy for addressing issues


  • Initiate relationships (individual, small groups)
  • Test early assumptions, get to know the people, culture
  • Learn the job more fully
  • Develop productive relationships with key stakeholders
  • Identify problems, opportunities
  • Establish credibility via early wins


  • Deepen relationships with key stakeholders, others
  • Build, contribute to a strong team
  • Develop influential coalitions, networks
  • Create a vision and a plan of action with key stakeholders
  • Begin to enroll others in the plan


  • Align strategy, skills of team members, systems
  • Enroll, actively involve others
  • Listen to others’ feedback, insight, perspective
  • Hire new people to fill gaps
  • Manage successful implementation(s)

Engaging your team in this way will help build trust and enroll them in the changes you intend to make as their leader, whether you are new to the role or taking on broader scope of responsibility.

February 27th, 2019

7 Leadership Lessons from a Toddler

These days, I spend as much time as possible with my twin 14-month old granddaughters.  They are the apples of my eye and have wrapped me around their pudgy little fingers already.  In the last couple of weeks, they have begun to develop ways to play with each other and respond to each other that provide perspective to all levels of leadership.  From my observations, I have gleaned seven leadership lessons.

Once you learn a new skill, don’t turn back to less effective approaches.  Babies tend to develop from rolling over to sitting up, scooting on the floor to crawling, and then standing/walking, to running.  Each stage is a milestone that leads to the next stage.  I’ve noticed that, once toddlers have developed more effective skills, they do not return to the old approach.  The same should be true of adult leaders, as well.  In my coaching, I often use the analogy of the Atlas rocket that propels a capsule into the atmosphere.  Once the capsule is beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull, the initial rocket must drop off so that other, more agile rocket engines can take over the trajectory.  When the techniques and strategies that got you to one level of success as a leader continue to drive your behavior at higher levels, you find it impossible to delegate fully, let go of details, and focus on bigger picture, future issues.  Don’t regress to old, less effective approaches.

You are more likely to receive help by being nice than throwing a tantrum.  Seems like a simple truth; toddlers learn it at an early age.  Going rigid and throwing themselves on the floor gets attention, but usually not a lot of help until they stop the tantrum.  However, being sweet and engaging tends to create an immediate positive response and willingness to help.  Leaders who manipulate and threaten their team, react in a defensive and blaming manner, or steal credit for others’ good work are the ones who end up with direct reports unwilling to stick their necks out to help.  Building effective relationships is the key to leader success; leaders who throw tantrums typically fail.

When someone is willing to step in and help clean up your mess, accept it graciously.  I have not yet observed a situation with my granddaughters where they were unwilling to let a grown-up step in to help clean up a mess.  Whether it involves a highchair messy with food residue, a room strewn with toys, or a stinky diaper, they always seem willing to accept help in cleaning it up.  When others try to step in to help some leaders, however, I have seen denying that they have created a mess, blaming others for the mess, and being unwilling to accept help that might not be done ‘perfectly’.  Instead, leaders should genuinely care about individuals on their team, look for ways to bring out the best in them, and thank them generously for their help with the messes.

Stand up for yourself.  From the crawling stage, one of my granddaughters was more physically assertive and often pushed her sister, pulled her hair, and took away toys she was already holding.  Eventually, however, the other toddler began to take desirable toys away from her sister, or go after her and retrieve a stolen toy.  She was learning to be assertive about her own needs.  As a leader, encourage your team members to stand up for themselves with you and others on the team; make sure they understand the distinction between standing up for their ideas and either pushing them aggressively, or only mentioning them passively.   Make sure you stand firm when the team gets off course.

Learn to share with others.  At the same time my granddaughters are learning to stand up for themselves, they are also learning to share.  That is, they are beginning to play little games with each other with the same toy or set of blocks, creating collaborative efforts.  Recently, they worked together to pick up my large snow boots from the front hall entry and move them to the kitchen.  One started this game, and when the other noticed, she laughed and picked up a boot, as well.  As a leader, sharing with your team looks similar.  Encourage team members to lend a hand on projects and to find ways to help the team succeed.  You can be the role model for this by asking for input, using their ideas in the final decisions, and making sure individual team members and the group as a whole share in the credit.

Laugh deeply throughout the day.  Toddlers laugh often in a typical day.  They find most things amusing, from watching people/dogs/cars out the window, trying out new finger foods, playing games they make up, and being chased by grandpa.  It seems like the only times they are not laughing are when they are concentrating on a new task, refining a skill, feeling sick, or getting sleepy.  Though there is a tendency for some leaders to think they must be the role model for serious demeanor–ensuring team members check their smiles at the door– the research shows that people do their best work when they are engaged, motivated, and light-hearted.  The most creative output comes in these situations, as well.  So, encourage humor on your team and see the humor in things, yourself, as the leader.

Be curious, explore, and don’t be afraid to try new things.  Everything is a new with a toddler, from testing objects in their mouths, to swinging on a swing, to stacking blocks.  They are curious about everything and not afraid to attempt to walk on the edge of sofa cushions or do backward somersaults out of grandma’s arms.  As a leader, it’s critical to be the grown-up making sure no one gets hurt, but it’s equally important to encourage team members to be curious, test things, and explore other avenues.  Make the end goal clear, but encourage them to develop their own path toward it.  This will generate more potentially breakthrough ideas and motivate them to continue to try new approaches.

February 12th, 2019

Coping with a Toxic Leader

Search for ‘toxic leader’ on the internet and you will find everywhere from four to 10 characteristics or traits of toxic leadership.  Some articles identify psychological traits: autocratic, narcissistic, overly competitive, manipulative, and intimidating.  Others describe behaviors: bullying, sense of entitlement, lying and inconsistency, lack of listening, lack of moral compass, and self-promoting.  Still others use characteristics and attitudinal descriptors: arrogant, not confident, rigid, callous, insular, incompetent, hierarchical, and discriminatory. 

This is quite a poisonous picture of ineffective leader behaviors.  My guess, from working with hundreds of executives, is that no one wakes up in the morning and looks forward to being a toxic leader at work.  In fact, when leaders I‘ve coached receive 360 degree feedback that uses words like these to describe their behavior, they become agitated and defensive—some to the point of tears. 

How toxicity develops.  If no one starts out desiring to become a toxic leader that makes others sick and generates high turnover, then how does toxicity develop?  Just like rust on your automobile or cholesterol in your arteries, it develops in small deposits over time.  However, there are usually some precipitating incidents from early life that set the toxic ball rolling.

For most people, a fearful incident or series of them in childhood threatens the need we each have to be loved and accepted, valued and significant, and safe from harm.  In those moments of fear, we generate theories of how to protect ourselves going forward.  Because we usually produce these beliefs before age 7, when we first have the ability to think logically, they are automatically irrational.  These theories include ones like: “I need to be shy and pull back to make sure I’m not rejected,” “To be seen as competent, I must prove that I am smart and make sure I get all the credit,” or “I must make sure people around me are not seen as more competent than me, or I may be fired and replaced.” On a deep level, toxic leaders feel like a fraud in the role, and they are working very hard to compensate.

Why do toxic leaders remain in place?  Usually because they offer a high level of competence or brilliance in one area that the organization views as too important to lose.  Consequently, they make excuses for the behavior, work around the person when possible, and accept the fact that there will be higher turnover from this person’s department.  For example, in providing feedback a number of years ago to a CFO, we both could see clearly that his toxic behaviors contributed to lower scores in his emotional intelligence.  However, when we looked at the section where others indicated how important they thought it was for him to change these behaviors, very few identified that as a compelling need. In other words, they saw that his behaviors were toxic and ineffective, but did not see it as a priority for him to change.

What can you do with a toxic leader?  Here are some ideas for individuals who work for a toxic boss, as well as organizations that employ one:

Individuals: recognize that their toxic behaviors are not the result of anything you have said or done.  That is, the foundation for the toxicity was laid long before they met you.  Toxic leaders are frightened leaders who have developed ineffective behaviors to cover their irrational fears.  Try not to let your own fears and faulty beliefs cause you to react to these people, but, rather, take a breath and respond to them as calmly and rationally as you can.  Follow up conversations with an email to summarize your understanding of the decisions made (this helps clarify communication and document the interaction). Whenever they do or say anything that seems supportive of you, acknowledge them and thank them (this helps move them in the direction you would like to see them become).  Keep Human Resources informed of their toxic behaviors and how you are trying to work effectively with them.

Organizations: recognize that toxic leaders can have a very negative effect on your bottom line, through demoralized attitudes and low productivity on the part of the team, as well as high turnover and the cost of replacing team members who choose to leave.  Take seriously the complaints of people around them and conduct impartial HR evaluations of the veracity of claims. Administer a 360 degree feedback instrument, making sure raters are assured that their specific responses are confidential.  Provide in-depth feedback on the instrument and use it to create a development plan.  Hire an executive coach who is competent and confident enough to dig into the underlying dynamics of this toxic behavior to ensure that the individual will gain insight about the irrational fears and faulty beliefs, as well as develop new leadership strategies.  Make certain the individual is held accountable for the behavior change identified.

December 12th, 2018

Stop Being So Defensive!

In my work as an executive coach, I find myself in situations where the people I’m coaching become defensive. This often happens as I’m walking them through our FULLVIEW 360-degree feedback instrument, when they see a particular rating or comment that pushes their buttons.

Recently, I worked with a mid-career executive who had overused alcohol at an organization-sponsored, multiple day event.  I was trying to help him see how his drunkenness and inability to function over the course of the event was a signal that he was feeling overwhelmed in his executive role, and that he needed to undergo a chemical dependency evaluation as a first step in seeking help. Instead of being open to the offer of help from his organization, he reacted defensively to the suggestions, and then abruptly resigned.  His manager and I received the resignation news with shock, and we asked ourselves, “What just happened?”

The answer to our question is that he did not want to fully address the underlying, contributing issues, but instead chose a knee-jerk, defensive response. At the core of defensiveness is an individual perceiving the need to protect oneself from the personal attacks of others and tending to take things personally that others say, even when they are not meant to be a personal attack. As I discuss in my 2006 book, Fearless Leadership, this reaction is based on irrational fear and faulty beliefs that trigger someone’s fear of being personally rejected, viewed as incompetent, or getting hurt in away they cannot fix. 

What does it look like?  Defensiveness can be observed in spoken words, emails, texts, etc. in which someone communicates to you or about you or  your team, and you find yourself over-reacting to their communication. Most people find themselves reacting defensively at times in a typical day or week,but some folks take it to an art form.

In this executive’s case, he exhibited six aspects of defensiveness that you may have seen in yourself and others:

  • Feeling hurt. You interact with others and you leave the interaction feeling that their words were overly harsh and critical of you. You feel like they are blaming you for something that was not your fault. They did not seem at all to be concerned about your feelings.
  • Blaming others, the context. Not wanting to be blamed yourself, you find fault in others. If they had just helped you in some way or stepped in to protect you, this problem would not have happened. Or perhaps you blame the organization for lack of clear system and communication.
  • Not genuinely apologizing. Stuff happens and things go wrong, but defensive people feel overwhelmed if the blame legitimately falls on them. Instead of genuinely apologizing and beginning the restoration process with others, they do an insincere ‘mea culpa’ that leaves others feeling like they were actually the ones at fault.
  • Shifting the focus. If others are not clearly to blame in the situation, you deflect the focus of the conversation to another, broader topic that obfuscates the real issues.
  • Controlling the interaction. In order to protect yourself from being blamed, you take steps, sometimes dramatic ones like resigning, to control the narrative and the outcome. 
  • Minimizing the impact. Often, the person being defensive actually is to blame in some tangible way. In these cases, they describe the situation in a way that makes the problem seem to be smaller than it actually is.
  • Shutting down or leaving. When all else fails, emotionally shutting down or checking out can be used by the defensive person to stop the feeling of being blamed. This includes ignoring suggestions from others designed to be helpful. 

How can you help someone stop their defensive reactions? Here are several steps that can help you become more emotionally intelligent when dealing with defensive people:

  1. Refrain from reacting defensively. The typical response when someone interacts to you with blaming, minimizing, shifting focus, or shutting down is to become defensive yourself.  The first step, then, is to recognize when you feel your blood pressure rise in a “fight or flight” reaction, take a deep breath, and recognize that your buttons just got pushed.
  2. Shift your focus to the other person. Look at them with compassion, recognizing that their reaction has little or nothing to do with you, but, rather, has resulted from pent up emotions from various other sources in their work and life.  Decide to be curious about what is going on inside of them that has resulted in their over-reaction.
  3. Ask open questions until you understand them. Using statements like, “Please tell me more about your feelings,” or “Help me understand what upset you” can begin to attenuate a defensive reaction by others. 
  4. Move toward a resolution. Once the person has become less defensive and more open to dialogue, you can also try posing questions like, “How can we  resolve this going forward?” or, “What would you like to see as next steps?” This might require a ‘time out’ between step 3 and step 4, to give the person a chance to return to a normal state of mind.

November 27th, 2018

4 Right Reasons to Choose an Executive Coach

In the course of my 30 year career as an executive coach, I have sometimes been in the circumstance where the executive considering me as a coach is also interviewing other potential coaches.  Thankfully, these win-lose situations usually have resulted in the executive choosing me.

In most situations where I have not been chosen, it has been for legitimate reasons and strongly held beliefs.  For example, I have not been picked several times, because the executive preferred to work with a female.  Next most frequent as a reason is that I am Caucasian, and they preferred to work with someone of color.  The third most frequent legitimate reason is that I was perceived as either too structured or too open-ended to suit the approach they thought would work best for their style.

All these explanations for not choosing a coach make sense to me and seem to be legitimate reasons that an executive would hesitate to choose a particular coach—especially if the beliefs are very strong and not likely to shift with further discussion.

However, I have also heard a few reasons for not choosing me as a coach that I think should be questioned by the organizations paying for the coaching.  Here are the particularly problematic reasons for not being chosen:

  • “We clicked immediately.” While it’s true that working with a coach who makes your skin crawl or whose voice is like fingernails running down a chalkboard would be painful, coaching is distinct from choosing your new best friend or picking someone with whom to eat lunch or have a drink at a conference happy hour.
  • “The other guy seemed more fun.” Working with a dour, humorless person as a coach is probably not a desirable situation for anyone, but, seriously, coaching is a working relationship in which the coach provides what the executive needs to be more highly effective.  It’s designed to be a working relationship, not a play date.
  • “The chemistry wasn’t right.” This makes sense, to a degree, because there should be a feeling that the coach and participant can work well together.  Since most coaching participants have not previously worked with a coach, they don’t actually have a good idea of what the chemistry should be for growth to occur.

How to choose for the right reasons.  Since coaching is the interaction that occurs within a trusting relationship in which the coach equips others with the information, perspective, support, and opportunities they need to help them develop, it is important to choose a coach thoughtfully.  Here are four legitimate reasons for choosing an executive coach:

  • This coach complements my style. Ideally, that means the person has an approach that will help move the coaching work forward.  For example, if you are more detail and short-term focused, someone with a strategic and future oriented approach can help you broaden your leadership approach.  Or, if you tend to be very serious and somewhat awkward around people, a coach who has a sense of humor and is more relationship focused can help pull out this side of you.
  • This coach brings a depth of expertise in an area that will help me. If the informal feedback you have received from your boss and others is that you need to exhibit a greater level of business savvy, working with an expert in that area can fill in gaps.  Or, if you tend to over-react to situations and easily get your buttons pushed under stress, a coach who has expertise in the role that fears and faulty beliefs play can help you learn to stop reacting and start responding more effectively.
  • This coach is strong enough to challenge me. This might be important to you, because you are a strong, aggressive personality yourself and need someone to call you on your stuff.  Or, you might tend to be passive and avoidant as a style, and you need someone to challenge you to become more consistently and confidently assertive with others.  Coaching is not therapy, and organizations paying for coaches want to see real, measurable change, so you need to be challenged.
  • This coach creates a safe space in which to grow. At the same time you need someone to challenge you, it is also critically important to work with a coach who provides a safe place in which to grow.  That is, a person who will work to understand you deeply on the front end, encourage the behaviors that you both want to see more of, and notice/reinforce the steps you take to become more effective.

The best strategy in choosing an executive coach is to combine all four of these to find the ideal fit. Whether you are paying for the coaching yourself or your organization is paying for it, it is important to be a wise consumer.  Your career future just might hang in the balance.

July 2nd, 2018

Addressing Addiction While Keeping Your Career on Track – Guest article by Eva Benoit

You’re cultivating a career and might even be managing others. Maybe you pour yourself a drink as soon as you get home to unwind, only to find you’ve finished the bottle before bedtime. Or perhaps long days behind a desk have aggravated a condition that causes chronic pain, prompting you to rely on prescriptions just to get through the day.

At first, you might not think twice about your habits, but it’s important to understand that not everyone with substance use disorder turns to illegal drugs or is an obvious abuser. Drinking can become alcoholism, and legal prescriptions can lead to abusive behavior. In these cases, it can be more difficult to determine when use descends into abuse. So, what warning signs might indicate you need help?

Although the signals can differ depending on the individual and the substance they are abusing, if you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or cravings for substances of your choice, it could indicate addiction. That’s especially true if you are continuing to use even after experiencing serious negative consequences. Other signals might include an increased tolerance for your substances of choice and loss of control — including repeatedly trying and failing to reduce or stop using drugs or alcohol on your own, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Indeed, the reality is that few people struggling with substance use disorder can stop using and say sober on their own. They also shouldn’t be expected to, considering the fact addiction is a disease that — like other chronic conditions — is most effectively addressed by a team of healthcare professionals. Those experts may provide counseling or other forms of behavior therapy as well as prescribing medications. Effective treatments should also address co-existing conditions, such as mood disorders, that may be a contributing factor for abuse.

Whether you decide on an inpatient or outpatient approach, getting and staying sober will probably mean taking some significant time off. But, before you share your problem and plan with your supervisor, you should educate yourself on company policies that pertain to employees and rehab.

For instance, your workplace could have specific guidelines to help you maintain confidentiality about your health conditions and your reasons for being out of the office. Your employer may also offer additional resources, such as an employee assistance program, that offers counseling services.

It’s also important to know that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees from being fired for poor job performance because of substance abuse as long as the employee has chosen to enter treatment. What’s more, you are entitled to as much as 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave annually under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Considering your position is protected by law, the best approach is honesty when explaining to your supervisor why you’ll need time off in the coming weeks.

But the company could require returning employees to sign a return-to-work agreement after rehab. Such agreements outline the employer’s expectations for the employee and serve as an important accountability tool. And the deal is more than just words on paper. Failure to abide by a return-to-work agreement after completing rehab can be grounds for termination, according to So, the best way to deal with such agreements is by meeting or exceeding their goals.

While that may be a challenge considering you’re also dealing with the stressors related to recovery, it is possible. Even though you may have thought you were an effective employee or executive before entering rehab, you will likely be exponentially more effective after. And once you’ve gotten back into the groove at work, you might find the time off, and the accomplishments you made in that span, are advancing your career — and your recovery journey.

About 6 years ago, Eva Benoit left her job as an office manager to pursue being a life, career, and overall wellness coach. She specializes in helping professionals with stress and anxiety, but welcomes working with people from all walks of life. She works with her clients to discover and explore avenues that will bring them balance, peace, and improved overall well-being that can last a lifetime. Her website is and she is author of the upcoming book, The 30-Day Plan for Ending Bad Habits and Improving Overall Health.

June 10th, 2018

Check Your Blind Side (4 ideas to improve your EQ)

Last week, I was once again cut off and nearly struck by a car driven by someone who failed to check his blind side.  Instead, he just slashed across a lane of traffic squinting into his side-view mirror and assuming that everything he needed to know could be seen from there.

Don’t they teach people in driver’s education to turn their heads and check their blind side anymore?  Don’t drivers realize that there is critical information—possibly life or death—in that simple over-the-shoulder look?

While it may be less important to check your blind side when you drive one of the new high-tech vehicles with blind side alerts and automatic braking, it is still critically important to check your blind side(s) at work.  Having coached executives for 30 years, it is clear to me that everyone has blind sides.  Most do not regularly check them.

What do I mean by a blind side at work? Being too aggressive or passive in conflicts, procrastinating on decisions, talking over people in discussions, treating others in a dismissive or demeaning manner, and being excessively quiet and close to the vest are examples of blind side behaviors.  That is, people are often blind to others’ reactions when they exhibit such behaviors.

Much like drivers who only check their side mirror, most people only ask a few trusted others at work how they think they are doing and what they could do to improve.  They do not dig deeper to determine what their blind sides might be or how they could be more effective.  Sometimes, these blind sides are referred to in performance reviews, with words like “people skills” or “results focus”, but often they are not addressed directly by one’s manager.  Moreover, people tend to become defensive when others bring up their blind sides, because, well, they are not aware of them—hence the term ‘blind side’.

The problem is that these blind sides often become obstacles to your emotional intelligence (EQ) with others, and, ultimately, to your career success.  What can you do to make sure your blind sides–much like bad breath or body odor–are not sending signals to others that undermine their perception of you?

These four ideas should help:

  1. Become committed and open to learning about your blind sides and addressing them, recognizing that everyone has them. People are much more likely to be give you feedback and coaching about these if they can see that you are open to their perspective and committed to putting new approaches into practice.
  2. Identify a set of 10-12 others at various levels in your organization (boss, peers, direct reports, others), and ask them what they think your primary strengths are in your role, as well as your developmental needs. The advantage of this approach is that it is usually fast and inexpensive; the downside is that these folks might not be comfortable enough to tell you the whole truth.
  3. Or, contact your Human Resources department to ask that they conduct an online 360 degree feedback instrument on you that will anonymously contact your boss, peers, direct reports, and others to ask them about your strengths and weaknesses. I use the FULLVIEW Feedback Inventory, an online instrument I developed about 20 years ago. This approach provides a much more in-depth set of data and comments, and, because it is anonymous, makes it more likely that you would receive honest responses.
  4. Whatever approach you take to getting honest feedback, be committed to learning and growing from it. If you feel stuck in trying to make changes on your own, work with an executive coach.  Read books like Fearless Leadership—my 2006 book—that help you recognize what pushes your blind side buttons and how to move from reacting to responding.

The good news is that these blind side behaviors are usually just approaches you have adopted over the years that can be un-learned and replaced by more effective behaviors.  Identifying and working through them will improve your EQ and your career trajectory.

April 7th, 2018

8 Critical Characteristics of Entrepreneurs

Much has been written in the past few years on the question of which characteristics are most correlated with success in leadership roles.  Many writers have emphasized the importance of emotional intelligence, while some have focused mostly on the capacity to achieve results or build effective teams.

Nearly 40 years of research on the factors related to the success of leaders new to their roles have illustrated that the capacity to build and maintain effective individual and team relationships is the most important factor, followed by the ability to attain the promised results.  Most of that research, however, has focused on leadership in medium to large businesses.

What about leadership in small, entrepreneurial businesses? At a recent meeting of small business entrepreneur/owners that I attended, one of them asked the others in the group what they thought the single most important characteristic was for successful small business leadership.  His question took the others off guard and they needed to take a moment or two to think about it.

These owners represented a wide range of types of business, from manufacturing to financial services, mechanical/technical production to consulting. Each business had less than $5 million in top line revenue.

The individual who asked the question was looking to hire a new leader who would report to him, and he intended to use the answers from the group to help him narrow a list of potential candidates.  When everyone had weighed in on the list, they looked at it and agreed that this same list was critical for success for the top leader/owner-entrepreneur, as well as for all key leader roles in their small businesses.

The top 8 critical leadership characteristics.  They identified and agreed on these characteristics as the most critical ones:

Clarity: identifying goals, strategies, and objectives, as well as mission and vision of the organization in a way that others can easily understand. Imbedded in this is the ability to articulate these clearly, as well as the intention to communicate them often to the rest of the company to ensure continued clarity.

Drive: demonstrating consistent energy investment in the goals, objectives, strategies, etc. of the organization.  This includes a strong emphasis on accomplishing the results as promised, within the agreed-upon timeframe. This kind of energy is infectious to the rest of the organization and motivates them to go beyond their self-perceived limits.

Courage: exhibiting confidence in the face of ambiguity or rapidly changing conditions, having the capacity to be fearless in approaching difficult customer or internal issues. This includes not being afraid to bring conflict into the open or to be assertive about individual or organizational needs.

Authenticity: displaying genuineness, being open and vulnerable across interpersonal situations, and resisting the urge to ‘fake it until you make it.’  Instead, this capacity means being consistently ‘real’, letting his/her core personality and style come through, and being comfortable in his/her own skin.

Empathy: recognizing that the emotional needs of employees and their families is important and has an impact on quality, productivity, and morale.  This includes being open to conversations about the emotional needs of others, believing in their best intentions, and listening with curiosity and empathy to their desires and concerns.

Empowerment: focusing on the development of others on the team and pulling out the best in them.  This includes trusting them to do the best they can, delegating fully, looking for ways to stretch people and help them grow, and encouraging them to try new things. This also means helping people move from lower levels of confidence and competence to higher levels, until they can take full responsibility for projects and tasks with little or no oversight.

Integrity: demonstrating trustworthiness in his/her own actions when handling people issues, utilizing resources, negotiating with customers, and communicating information across the organization.  This includes ‘walking the talk’, being consistent in interactions with others, and doing what you say you will do.  This usually also includes having a firm foundation of beliefs about honesty that drive their trustworthy behaviors.

Humility: exhibiting openness to feedback, both positive and constructive or critical, and an understanding of his/her weaknesses as well as strengths. This includes giving a major share of credit to others when things go well and taking a major share of responsibility when things go wrong.  It means having the best interests of the organization and others in mind, rather than self-interest.  It includes the capacity to laugh at his/her own shortcomings and to recognize that success is about others, not them.

How do these same characteristics apply to larger businesses? Though these are the eight characteristics this group of entrepreneurs identified as most critical to success in small, entrepreneurial ventures, how do they apply to larger corporate structures or nonprofit organizations?  Since nearly all of my executive coaching and 360 degree feedback work has been within large, multinational organizations, I applied these same characteristics to those leaders and saw that there is great overlap.

While there are a number of top leaders in such organizations who evidence very little of characteristics like Empathy, Humility, or Authenticity, this type of leader is, in my opinion, being phased out.  That is, the next generation of leaders will need to be more genuine, empathetic, and humble to continue to be promoted.  They will, of course, also need to demonstrate Clarity, Drive, and Courage so that they consistently achieve the results as promised.  They will need to put renewed emphasis on empowering others and achieving results through them.  Because lack of integrity has caused a groundswell of reaction on social media across multiple industries, this, too, will be a more highly sought characteristic of leaders in larger organizations going forward.

Questions to ponder: How do you think these 8 characteristics fit the profile of what is needed in the top leaders in your organization?  How well do you think you fit the profile? What is your organization doing to recruit and promote such leaders?

February 14th, 2018

Ancient Wisdom for Today’s Feedback

Recently, I was reading a manuscript that dates back more than 2,000 years, and I noticed that the wisdom captured there could be applied by organizational leaders to the process of giving feedback.

More on that in a moment, but, first, what is feedback?  The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines it as: “Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.”  In the organizations where I provide executive coaching and leadership development training, feedback is used primarily as information and perspective on an individual’s performance in aspects of their work.

I believe that feedback is a gift of someone’s time and energy, even though—like me—you may have experienced feedback in the past that has seemed to be anything but a gift at the time!  Often, feedback is poorly done, so that it feels more like an inquisition, an assault, or an attempt to keep you in check.  It is one of the most frequently used vocabulary words in organizations today, and it usually begins with the words, “Can I give you some feedback?” to which the only acceptable answer is, “Yes, sure.”

This article will give you useful tips on how to provide good, helpful feedback intended as the basis for improvement.  First, I’d like to share a story from my past, when I learned that feedback is a gift, and that I needed to care enough about people to give them my feedback. 

About 25 years ago, I was part of a panel that spoke to a group of HR professionals in New York City on a topic related to career development.  On the panel sat a Human Resources VP, the head of another consulting company, and me as an outside consultant.  This consulting company president immediately annoyed me when he arrived breathless—shortly before the event began—and told the rest of the panel that he needed to go first, because he had another important engagement to attend.  So, from the beginning, it was clear that he had something more important to do and he did not intend to stick around to hear what his fellow panel members had to offer.

Then, just moments before he was to speak, he popped off to the men’s room.  He came back and turned toward the room filled with HR professionals to address them.  As he made this turn, I was seated slightly behind him and noticed that his suit coat was tucked into the back of his pants, making him look like an idiot.  He was unaware of it, however, and the audience was also unaware of it as he faced them about to speak.  I sat there silent for a moment and asked myself if I should tell him about his suit coat being tucked into his pants. In that moment, I decided that I didn’t care enough about him to give him the gift of feedback.  He launched into his part of the talk, often turning his back to the group as he went through his slide deck.  I knew it would be sometime later, when he was at his next, more important meeting, that he would notice the way he was dressed.  I smiled with a bit of evil satisfaction thinking of that moment.

As I said, feedback is a gift of time and energy designed to help someone improve.  In order to be the kind of leader who gives effective, consistent feedback.  Here’s where the ancient wisdom comes in:

Genuinely care.  When you decide you will give people feedback, make sure that you are genuinely interested in their improvement.  If you are threatened by them in some way, if you are jealous of their abilities or successes, or if you just don’t like them for some reason, you will not give feedback that is helpful.  Particularly if you are feeling critical or judgmental about them, your feedback will not be effective.  Further, if they feel judged by you due to the tone and content of your feedback, they will evaluate you as unfair and overly critical, and they will convince themselves that your feedback is designed to harm them rather than help. Make sure you do have their best interests in mind.

Clean up your own act.  Over the years as a coach, I’ve heard my coaching clients complain about bosses or peers who gave them feedback about something, when these people were actually worse at it than my clients.  For example, if you struggle with listening deeply to others when they share their thoughts and feelings at work, make sure you bring your skills up to at least adequate before you start to give advice and counsel to others about listening.  Or, if you tend to swing from passive to aggressive in your approach to conflict situations, shore up these conflict resolution skills in yourself before you coach someone on being respectfully assertive. 

Carefully choose the timing.  Even the best feedback, from a foundation of genuine caring and personal skill in the area of coaching, will fall flat if the person is not ready to receive it.  So that you are not wasting your breath—and annoying the other person—choose your timing carefully.  Tee it up in advance by giving the person a ‘heads up’ about the topic about which you want to provide feedback.  Ask them to think about their skill level in the area before your meeting.  If they become visibly upset during the first part of your feedback, reschedule the meeting for a later time and ask them to think about the topic again beforehand.

The origin of this ancient wisdom. These three aspects of effective feedback come from the ancient wisdom of the Bible.  In Matthew 7, verses one through six, Jesus said, “judge not that you be judged”, “take the plank out of your own eye”, and “don’t cast your pearls before swine”.  These three admonitions, it turns out, provide the basis for highly effective feedback in which you genuinely care, clean up your own act first, and carefully choose the timing.  In addition, you should:

Be specific in your observations, suggestions. Vague suggestions and unclear observations from your perspective will only serve to obfuscate the situation.  Focus your observations on the specific behaviors you have observed on which you want to provide feedback.  What have you seen them do, or read from them in emails that you think could be improved?  Stay away from interpreting the underlying psychological reasons for their behavior or impugning their motives. Just state the facts, and then share your response—thoughts or feelings—to those facts.

Follow up to ensure understanding. When delivering the feedback, you might make the mistake of assuming people understood what you said.  I’ve often heard coaching clients say, “oh, I’m sure they understood me—I was very clear in my feedback and concern.”  However, unless you ask people what they understood you to say, you don’t actually know if what you intended to say was what they interpreted from your words.  So, follow up with them later to ask what they walked away with from the feedback; if it’s not what you intended, clarify further and check again for understanding.

January 22nd, 2018

Parked Between Hero and Handicap?

This morning, I as I drove into the parking lot at the athletic club where I work out, I noticed a small, red sedan parked in ‘that spot’.  It was in that highly coveted spot next to the building, very close to the front door.  In fact, it’s the one space closest to the door that is not marked as requiring special credentials to park there. 

It sits right between the one marked handicapped and the one reserved for veterans wounded in combat.  Right between hero and handicap.

It’s a space I’ve parked in before.  When it’s raining or snowing, or just plain freezing like it was today, I relish parking there–right between hero and handicap. No special requirements, no special license plates—no need to be someone special to park there.

Today, however, when I saw the red sedan there looking kind of lonely with empty spots on either side, I started to think about how this unmarked parking spot reminded me of my life.  How many decades had I lived my life parked safely between hero and handicap, somewhere between courageous enough to take a bullet defending a cause I believed in, and being stopped by my own limitations.

 I wondered how many others live their lives in that same spot.  I wonder if you are, in fact, one of those people, like me, who work and live somewhere between hero and handicap.

Looking up “hero” in the dictionary online, I found that it is a word now considered gender-neutral, referring to a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character, or who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model. 

Then, looking up “handicap” online, I found that, in the most generic sense, it refers to any disadvantage that makes success more difficult.  So, handicaps can be physical, psychological, economic, geographic, cultural, racial, familial, or any characteristic that makes success more difficult for you than for someone else. 

While I have some achievements, abilities, and personal qualities I am proud of at times, I don’t feel like I measure up as someone noted for courageous acts or noble character—someone who is truly a hero.  And, while I have certain irrational fears, faulty beliefs, and feelings of being a fraud at times, I do not merit an official designation of handicapped. 

Looking back at my life from the perspective of the beginning of a new year, I decided to challenge myself to live this next year dramatically less handicapped by my real and perceived limitations and substantially more heroic in my words and actions.

My New Year challenge to you is to adopt these commitments that I outlined for myself, so that you can get outside of that comfortable rut between hero and handicap:

  1. Recognize who you are at the core. What are your unique attributes by which others know you?  That is, what do those who know you best tell you about your personality, abilities, motivations and ideas? What stands out to them as your signature traits, what words do they use to describe you to people who don’t know you already? A key piece of moving away from handicap and toward hero is to know and accept who you are, who, as some say, “God made you to be.” Commit to becoming grounded with who you are at the core. (See my 2016 book, The Fraud Factor).
  2. Identify the ways you are handicapped. I often describe to my coaching clients the ‘box’ they seem to be in, based on the various walls they describe that are hobbling them.  Sometimes, these walls are real–gaps in education or experience, physical or psychological limitations, or other factors that create an obstacle to moving forward.  Most often, these walls are created unknowingly by the individual.  A colleague who wanted my opinion on whether she should complete a PhD complained to me, “I don’t want to be 60 years old and just getting my doctorate!”  My reply was, “well, either way, you will turn 60—the question is, do you want to have a PhD when you do, or not?”  The ways that most people are handicapped are not genuine physical or psychological limitations, but, rather, limitations based on irrational fears and faulty beliefs that keep them from being fully expressed in their work and lives.  That is, we most often handicap ourselves through self-limiting talk that is based on unconscious, irrational fear (See my 2006 book, Fearless Leadership).
  3. Pinpoint the ways in which you are already heroic. Ask the same people you identified in step one to recount for you the ways they have seen you exhibit courage, character, or integrity in the past.  When they think of you, what stands out to them that is noble or good– something that has provided a role model for them in certain situations?  These are typically the kinds of things that others will not tell you, unless you ask them specifically. Ask work colleagues, family, and friends to answer this; perhaps, you can begin by telling them the ways in which you see them as heroic, and then ask them to give their perspective on you. Commit to continuing and building on these heroic facets.
  4. Paint the picture of your new heroism. Once you understand who you are at the core, how you have limited yourself in the past, and the ways in which others already see you as heroic, the final step is to commit to becoming more deeply heroic.  Where will you speak up more courageously? What will you do to take a stand for others less heroic than you? How will you invest your time and energy breaking down real and artificial barriers that have limited you or others in the past? Remember, from the definition, a hero is someone who has noble character, courage, and the qualities of a role model.  What will you do to stretch yourself so that your friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and—most importantly–you will recognize the heroism?

As for me, I intend to work fully through these four steps as I begin the New Year.  My very first step will be to not park in the spot between hero and handicap, but instead to walk past that parking space.  Walking past that space will be my metaphor and reminder that I am committed to walking away from my self-imposed limitations and toward the full expression of my heroism. 

October 17th, 2017

How to Fill Your Company’s Top 5 Leadership Gaps

In August of this year, I spent time with Human Resource leaders from 25 global companies on the topic of assessing and developing key leaders.  At one point, we identified critical leadership competencies across their organizations that were in moderate or low supply in the marketplace, as well as the most difficult to develop.  These constituted their top leadership ‘gaps’.

Using a model developed by Korn Ferry for their Voices 360 instrument, we identified the competencies, below, as the Top 5 Leadership Gaps across their organizations:

  • Develops talent—helping them meet their career goals and the organization’s goals
  • Values differences—recognizing the value that different cultures and perspectives offer
  • Demonstrates self-awareness—using feedback, reflection to gain personal insight
  • Adapts to situations—adapting approach, demeanor to fit shifting demands, situations
  • Builds Effective Teams—developing strong teams that apply diverse skills to achieve team goals

Notice anything that these leadership gaps have in common?  They are all related to interpersonal effectiveness and Emotional Intelligence.  They do not include other leadership factors like business insight, financial acumen, strategic mindset, managing execution, or driving results. They are all on the softer side of leadership competence.  In fact, 35+ years of research into what causes leaders new to their roles to either succeed or fail identified the number one factor as the ability of new leaders to develop effective individual and team relationships.  This same theme is clearly reflected in the top 5 gaps identified by these 25 companies.

The good news.  Having read the emotional intelligence literature and worked on building these competencies in leaders for 30 years, the good news is that all of the top 5 gaps listed, above, can be greatly impacted by selective hiring practices, as well as challenging assignments and executive coaching.  That is, though they are difficult to develop and in short supply, there is much you can do as an organization to build success into your selection and development systems.

What would be the Top 5 gaps in your organization?  That is, what competencies are in low supply among your leaders, and have proven to be the most difficult to develop?  What could you do to hire new people to fill these gaps, or develop your current leaders to fill them?  Two strategies working together can fill the gaps.

Selecting new leaders.  Let’s start with selecting new hires from the outside.  Your organization probably does a relatively good job of interviewing candidates—setting up multiple meetings with people at several levels from across the company —and ensuring that they have the relevant education and experience.  However, you may not dig deeply enough into those ‘top 5 leadership gaps’ that affect your organization and will impact it even more for the future.  Before selecting your next new leader, take these three steps:

  1. Identify desired skills. Use a leader competency framework (perhaps you already have one that reflects your organization’s values) to identify those skills and abilities that are most important to your organization’s future, are in relatively low supply in your company, and are the most difficult to develop through coaching or training.
  2. Create in-depth process. Using your desired skills from step 1, develop a multi-layered screening process that gathers accurate data on candidates. From an intentional, systematic combination of behavioral interview questions, written responses to questions, personality inventories, abilities testing, and sample work situations, look closely at the degree to which candidates have the skills you most desire in your organization.
  3. Troubleshoot the process. Identify 2-3 current employees you believe have some or all of the desired skills and take them through the process you have developed.  The goal in doing this is to determine if the process would have identified these folks as highly desirable hires.  If not, tweak the process in a way that more accurately hones  the most desired skill sets.

Developing existing leaders.  Now, let’s look at what you can do to develop people already working inside your organization.  Assuming the leadership gaps your organization identifies are similar in some ways to those identified by the 25 global companies mentioned earlier, they probably mostly reflect competencies related to building and maintaining individual and team relationships, developing greater resiliency to changing situations, accepting and applying feedback, and building diverse teams. 

Again, the good news is that most of these ‘softer skills’ are amenable to development through training and coaching.  For example, when I deliver my Great Leaders workshop series or engage in individual executive coaching, I am mostly working within a curriculum that develops muscles in these soft skill areas.  The process of creating positive change usually involves these three steps:

  1. Provide accurate feedback. Typically, leaders at all levels receive little to no in-depth feedback on their level of skill across a core set of competencies.  Oh, there might be some perspective shared at annual performance reviews, but this usually is not enough to actually create behavioral change.  On the other hand, using a 360 degree feedback instrument, like my FULLVIEW Feedback Inventory, or the Voices instrument previously mentioned, is a very powerful way to build insight and perspective.  It also injects a shot of motivation to change the negative perspectives reflected in the developmental needs sections of such reports.  In many cases, just receiving accurate, in-depth, unbiased perspective on how they’re being perceived is enough to change a leader’s behavior.
  2. Build desired skills. Use a combination of on-the-job learning that involves assignment to tasks and responsibilities designed to stretch and build muscle in the desired skillset.  Arrange an internal mentor who can provide additional perspective, or hire an outside coach who can help the individual work in-depth on new skills, as well as on the internal obstacles within the leader that stop him/her from growing these new skills.  Use classroom or online training available inside and outside the organization to help cement these new skills.
  3. Give follow-on feedback on progress. Use informal feedback from the coach or mentor, from key stakeholders, and from others to ensure that progress is being made toward the desired skill set. Make sure the individual continues to be motivated to build the skills and complete the course of work required to get there.

Bottom line.  Every organization has leadership skills gaps, and some of these are very difficult to fill. Using a combination of selective hiring and intentional development can mitigate the impact of gaps.

September 7th, 2017

The ‘Secret Sauce’ of Effective Delegation

More leaders struggle with effective delegation of tasks and responsibilities than any other single skill in their day to day work.  They often hold on to more than they should, swoop in to take tasks back, or dump the tasks on others with little context or follow through.  Are you one of those leaders?

In a recent coaching conversation with a senior leader, we focused on delegating more thoroughly to her team in order to more effectively manage her time.  She gave me a quizzical look when I brought up ‘delegation’, because she had defined her coaching issue as ‘time management’.  I explained that, in order to manage time in a win-win-win strategy, she needed to become great at delegating work. She gave me another quizzical look.  I explained that delegation is the only strategy I am aware of that creates a ‘win’ for her, the team members, and the organization.  The three wins are these:

  • Leader wins by freeing up time for higher priority tasks that are important, but not as urgent
  • Team member wins by learning new skills, growing in perspective, positioning for the next level
  • Organization wins by pushing decisions down to the lowest level, getting most bang for the buck

The light started to go on in her eyes now.  But quickly, she began to raise questions like these:

  • What if my direct report doesn’t do the task well?
  • What if they approach it in a way I know won’t work?
  • How will I keep my finger on the pulse of the work, if I give it away?
  • How will my boss know the work is being done to her satisfaction?

These are examples of what I call ‘faulty beliefs’ about delegation, ones that are fear-based and undermine a leader’s capacity to delegate fully.  (See my 2006 book, Fearless Leadership for more on faulty beliefs and underlying fears). Most leaders have a version of them in their minds as they hesitate to delegate, not trusting the outcome.  This leader added a relatively new twist, however, when she asked, “Won’t my team members just think I’m being lazy and arrogant, dumping work tasks on them that I consider beneath me?”

I laughed and thought about it for a minute.  Then, I suggested that she use this strategy: “If you can’t think of how a task will benefit your direct report, don’t delegate it.” This puts the emphasis on the requirement that a delegated task or responsibility must have some clear benefit to the person being handed it.  She smiled now, as she recognized that this simple rule would counteract her primary faulty belief about delegation.

How about you as a leader?  Do you use delegation as effectively as you could?  Is your boss pressuring you to take on other tasks and responsibilities, but your plate is too full to accommodate them? Are you grooming your replacement by making sure this person and others on your team are continually challenged to stretch in their work tasks and approaches? When you delegate, do you make your expectations clear and provide the optimal amount of support?

In another situation, this one from my first coaching conversation with the leader of a growing ministry, the issue of delegation came up again.  He showed me an email he had crafted to his Executive Committee that outlined potential changes in his role.  These changes were designed to free up his time, but I wasn’t sure he was focusing on the highest priority items or building in enough development for his direct reports.

I asked him what he thought were the components of his executive director role that only he could or should focus on.  He identified these as the key aspects of his role:

  • Casting the vision and making sure it was clearly understood by staff and other constituencies
  • Being the point person, with other key staff, in connecting with other organizations and individuals who could help support the programs of this ministry
  • Managing his staff and helping to guide their programs
  • Leading a couple of specific ministry programs that were especially dear to his heart

This was a very good start, and I encouraged him in the thinking he had done so far.  However, I also asked, “What about developing people who are in key roles right now, as well as those who could be groomed to fill these roles in the future—including your own?” That stumped him for a moment, and I saw that now familiar quizzical look on this new face.

As in my first example, the identified issue was managing time and feeling too stretched to meet all the demands, and, again, the solution was to delegate more effectively.  In particular, the solution was to identify the highest priority tasks that only he should handle, and to find ways to develop others on the staff to take on more of the responsibilities he currently controlled. 

So, what is the ‘secret sauce’ of effective delegation?  Here are the key ingredients:

  • Determine how much support versus challenge you will provide for tasks delegated to each person on the team, based on your sense of their competence and confidence.
  • Make your expectations and work direction clear on the front end as you delegate tasks; make sure they understand by asking them to tell you what their understanding is. This makes it much easier to hold people accountable downstream.
  • Determine the decision-making latitude with this person on this particular task. That is, should they only take implementation steps after checking with you, make recommendations for the decisions and steps, decide and inform you before taking, or just decide and inform you later?
  • Monitor progress on delegated tasks, giving feedback that encourages and provides correction as needed. Use an action plan that they create, with specific priority steps, check-in times, and due dates where needed.
  • Never, ever swoop in to take tasks back in order to get them done right!

And remember that, if you are having problems with time management, first take a critical look at how effectively you are delegating to your team.

August 14th, 2017

5 Keys to Great Collaboration!

In my work with leaders across a wide range of industries, functions, and levels, I’ve seen that they often run into situations that require collaborative problem solving approaches.  I have found that the collaborative approach—while preferable in most situations–has predictable downsides and rabbit holes.  These five components should minimize the times that your collaborative approaches derail!

Invite the right people to the table.  As the leader of a collaborative problem solving meeting, it is important to make sure that all the relevant perspectives are represented around the table.  Often, this involves bringing in an outside voice to the discussion, someone who can provide a ‘contrarian’ perspective and can ask about the unknowns that the group thinks they already know about.  To ensure the right folks are at the table, ask the first participants you identify, “Who else needs to be at the table to solve this problem?” Lacking all the right people can undermine the collaborative result. 

For example, when consulting with the head of IT at a major window manufacturer, my coaching client identified the problem for his IT department as, “we need to find outside offices, because there is not enough space for our team to sit together in the HQ building.”  This led him to exploring outside office space in the area and signing a lease on a set of offices.

That’s when the person in charge of corporate branding got wind of the solution and stepped in to label the outside office space ‘substandard’, not consistent with the brand.  Though my coaching client had invited engineering, facilities, and others to the table, he had not asked who else should be involved and he did not seek out contrarian points of view.  This led, predictably, to identifying the solution he had in mind at the beginning–to find outside space.  He then was forced to go back to the drawing board and to invite a broader spectrum of people to look at this space problem.

Ask the right questions.  In many collaborative problem situations, you just need someone to ask the right question, framed in a way that sheds light on the situation.  As a leader, you can encourage contrarian questions, tap people you know will freely speak their minds, and focus on input, rather than solutions at this stage. The most effective types of questions to use and encourage in others are those known as open-ended, which cannot be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, asking questions like, “how can we best meet our mutual needs?” or “what do you think our biggest challenges will be in 10 years?” usually leads to many ideas and possibilities.

One factor that works against us in collaborative problem solving is that our brains are designed to actively screen out unimportant information and focus only on the most critical stuff; they also fill in gaps between things so that they make sense.  However, often the most helpful information is that which our brains do not think is the most critical, and often the most insightful questions exist in the gaps that we normally just fill in.

For example, how many times have you read over an email and then sent it, only to discover that it was missing a word in the context of a sentence, or you had inserted the wrong word that started with the same letter of the word you wanted to use?  These both happen when our brains automatically fill in gaps; we literally need to read emails word for word to double check them.  A number of years ago, a colleague and I were working with Buick to help them think about how to engineer their dealerships to be more customer-focused.  To accomplish this, we used hidden cameras to capture interactions with salespeople.  At one point, we turned off the visual and just listened to the various sounds on the video.  Up until that point, the annoying background sounds were not part of the data to which our brains were attending.  With just the audio, however, it became apparent how the noise negatively affected the overall customer experience.

Agree on the problem.  In almost every problem solving situation, the participants have pre-conceived ideas about what the problem is and how to solve it.  Most participants arrive at a collaborative problem solving session already enamored with a particular solution.  For my coaching client at the window manufacturer previously mentioned, it was “to find space outside the building for my team.” To make sure that every collaborative discussion is framed accurately, start by asking each participant to write down what they think the problem is.  The way each describes the problem will usually be written in a way that suggests a particular solution, like needing to go outside the building to find office space. 

As the leader, ask clarifying questions to help get down to the underlying problem the group needs to solve.  For example, when someone indicates that the problem is, “I need space outside the building to house my team,” you can ask, “why is that a problem?” The response might be, “because I want the team to be in one location, and there is no space available in the building large enough to accommodate them.” Okay, so the underlying problem is that the team needs to be in one location, right?  Assuming that all participants around the table agree that this is the problem, they can then start generating solutions to this problem.  One of those solutions would be to find space outside the building, but other solutions could include: constructing a building expansion for this and perhaps other teams that have outgrown their space, using shared desk space and working from home a couple days a week, or finding a group that has more space than it needs right now to switch with your team. 

Apply the solution.  After generating several options to the agreed upon problem, the next step is to choose a solution and apply it to the problem.  For the window manufacturer, exchanging places between IT and engineering groups was the option that worked.  Both groups had adequate room in the near term with this option, and corporate branding was happy.

Accept the consequences.  Though we can usually identify the facets that we know are important, and the facets that we think are important, but we don’t know enough about them, it is difficult to identify the ‘unknown unknowns’.  As a result, we often are in a position where we need to move forward on a decision, knowing that there are unknown unknowns that might have consequences.  Being unexpectedly wrong is not a place that most leaders want to be, but this cannot be totally avoided. 

The key here is to accept the consequences, and then to quickly recognize the bad decision and adjust the strategy going forward.  Recognize that, even if you asked all the questions perfectly and involved the perfect group of collaborators on the front end, the decisions you reach will not be right much more often than successfully calling ‘heads’ in a coin toss.  However, if you use these five keys to great collaboration, you will have made the best decision possible, under the circumstances.