The Things We Think & Do Not Say

No, I am not about to have a Jerry Maguire moment. But the title of Jerry’s infamous “memo” has always stuck with me and it seems to fit here.

This is simply a call for constructive honesty.  And it absolutely applies in your personal as well as professional life… Why do we sometimes avoid saying what we’re really thinking?  Because many people don’t care for conflict… And… many times we believe that “saying what we’re thinking” will lead to conflict… So… we consciously or subconsciously avoid conflict by not speaking our mind

So then, why do we sometimes avoid conflict?  Perhaps we lack the skills to successfully navigate conflict (maybe we don’t know how to voice disagreement in a constructive manner… or maybe we’ve never seen positive conflict resolution role-modeled!).  Maybe we think we’ll “get in trouble” for speaking our minds… with a boss, with a spouse??  Or, perhaps we have just given up the fight … we’re too “worn out” to stand up for what we believe?

If we don’t constructively state what we’re thinking, we sub-optimize the decision at hand because we withhold a critical input that might change the result/decision.  Also, these unexpressed opinions we have bottled up tend to create cynicism that can lead to toxicity (oh by the way your Doctor will tell you the same is true in your personal life – tons of medical research backs this up).  And usually, we end up saying it later anyway… in the wrong place at the wrong time… as negative “water cooler talk” or as an unproductive explosions that add no value at all.

Are you ready to try a different way?  Have confidence that your voice is valued:  the people who depend on you absolutely want to know what’s on your mind.  Make a choice to speak up even if it leads to disagreement… that’s actually healthy.  And practice doing it “the right way…” for example:

  • Don’t just shoot down what you think is a “bad idea”… suggest a better idea instead.  (If you are consistently negative with no positive suggestions, you will wear people out!);
  • Don’t “go in hot”… when possible allow yourself a bit of time to decompress before trying to work through a really difficult topic with someone;
  • Ask yourself if you are presenting your ideas in a way that will improve your relationship with the other person!
  • Deliberately pick a time, place, & setting that make sense to have a thoughtful discussion.

By the end of the movie, Jerry Maguire has stumbled onto something bigger than he could have imagined… and it all started because he spoke his mind.  Being honest with himself and with others led him down an unexpected path but ultimately to a richer life: he found love, a family, a successful business he actually liked working in, and the admiration of an industry. Hmm, maybe there’s something here for each of us…

Bottom line: as leaders we have to learn how to speak the truth as we see it, in a manner that leaves our relationship with the other person even stronger than it was before.

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Are You A Know-It-All?

Somewhere back in grade school, each of us became conditioned that we should always know the right answer.   We were tested on our knowledge of the facts, and how well we could regurgitate them.  15X15 always equaled 225, and the symbol for water was always H2O (I think).  Those of us with excessive drive who were destined to become future leaders learned a lesson: we were rewarded for knowing the “right answer.”

Fast forward.  You have now been in the workforce for 20+ years.  You have an important title and lead a lot of employees.   Do you still think you have to know all the answers?   Think again.  The world you move in today is not a fact-based place… it is an arena of gray, where decisions are based on a combination of the best available info, plus a healthy dose of judgment.

If you are still acting like you have to know all the answers, here’s what you are telling your team:
> None of you are as smart as me.  I know more than all of you.  You could never do my job because I know everything…  Yes, I have all the answers.
> Don’t try too hard because I’m just going to shoot you down if you come up with an opinion I don’t agree with…  Because I have all the answers.
> If there’s a really difficult problem at hand, I will always be your fallback so don’t worry too much about it yourself.   Don’t stretch yourself to find new and different solutions… Because I have all the answers.

This is a silly game that your team doesn’t really believe anyway.   Why don’t you ask them to solve some really difficult problems, and then hold them accountable for the results?  This will polarize your team: the stars will embrace this accountability and rise to the top, while your lower-performing leaders will also become more obvious.

Bottom line: everyone knows you don’t have all the answers, so stop acting like it.  Let your team get in the game and you’ll optimize results while developing your people.

Leaders: Change Your Mindset

Leaders: you have to have the right mindset.  If you don’t, then it’s unlikely that you will be able to effectively lead for the long term.

This applies equally to your personal life & your professional life!  

  • Start by getting clear on what mindset you want to have.  Think about it.  Write it down.  Borrow the points from my last post on mindset if you want somewhere to start (like everything else in life, if you don’t have a target for this, then you can’t know how you’re progressing).
  • Self-assess.  How does your mindset today align to your aspired mindset?  What would other people say about your mindset based on your words & behaviors when they are around you?  Are you role-modeling the mindset that you want your team members to have?
  • Change your mind(set).   In the end, the only person who can change your mindset is… you.   And the way you change it is simple: you make a decision that you want to be different.  If you’re feeling brave, share your goals with someone important to you that you trust: a team member, a boss, a close personal friend, a spouse?

There are no pre-requisites for growth… meaning: you can start doing this right now.

Mindset for Leaders

(Warning: I will camp on this topic because of its importance!)

I want to suggest that the most critical input leaders have is our own mindset.  Recently I asked a group of emerging leaders what they thought mindset was.  Their answers: “attitude, beliefs, values, viewpoints, inclination, disposition, habits.” That’s a pretty good definition.

I will suggest that your mindset will pre-determine your response to & interpretation of every situation.  Only you can decide what mindset you should have… But I’ll share with you the mindset aspirations that I’ve developed over time based on observation of other successful leaders:

> Believe you have significant impact on your success… don’t be a victim
> Go for “gold” results… don’t settle for bronze or silver
> Help the bigger team win… not just your own area
> Have confidence… get comfortable being vulnerable to the unknown
> Relish learning, don’t fear it… that’s how we get better
> Never get set in your ways or “hard-wired”… must remain open to growth
> Have courage to make qualitative judgment calls – you’re never going to have perfect info!

More to come on mindset…

Leading with Process Excellence

I think that any organization hoping to grow rapidly must develop its ability to lead with process excellence (PE). These concepts when applied properly can create organizations with fantastic operational rigor & relentless improvement.

There are some stone-simple concepts that underlie all PE tools, approaches, etc. These ideas can be applied very literally in a data-rich environment… but can also be applied conceptually in situations where there isn’t a rich amount of measureable data.

1. “Process” = a series of repeatable, sustainable steps that consistently produce a desired outcome.
2. Everything is a process (Well, almost everything).
3. Process can usually be expressed by the formula Y=f(x1, x2, x3…), where Y is a discrete output & the x’s represent the major (critical few) inputs & process steps.
4. Every process should have a single owner: the person who has authority to approve improvements to the process.

Which leads me to my next point. To be an effective process owner, you need to develop some specific skills… I will chunk these up into a few blog entries, coming soon.

Are you boiling the ocean?

When I first started leading teams, I would ask them to work on dozens of different priorities at the same time… And guess what: they didn’t know which priority was really a priority!  This is because we weren’t focused on the critical few… Instead, we were trying to “boil the ocean.” Eventually I learned that “if everything’s important… then nothing is important.”

The problems with trying to boil the ocean are endless, but to name a few: 1) It is impossible… and therefore leads to a sense of futility & frustration… 2) You will sub-optimize execution due to insufficient resources being applied to each activity… 3) You & your team will continually be distracted and interrupt-driven.

On the other hand, if you can successfully apply “critical few thinking” you & your team will optimize the allocation of resources to the most important ‘stuff’… and therefore you will dramatically increase your odds of successful execution.  As you start to put wins on the board, you will increase your team’s confidence and your own confidence as a leader.

…So What Should You Do?
Identify the critical few for your area… If you’re not sure, ask the people closest to the work.  They know & will be glad to tell you.  Next, you should explicitly de-focus on the trivial many.  Please apply wisely! I am not suggesting complete abandonment, but perhaps a downshift of resources is appropriate.  Or maybe there are some projects that can be deferred?   Stop trying to boil the ocean.

Also: if you feel like you never have enough time in your personal life, you might be boiling the ocean.  Is there anything you can de-focus to make room for your “personal critical few…?”  As above, be thoughtful, don’t make rash decisions… but this stuff is important to figure out so you can have a successful personal life too.

Good luck from a former ocean-boiler!

What is “leadership?”

Simply put, leadership is… influence.  The ability for person A to influence person B to do something.

So how do you influence others?   Influence comes from the application of power and can be used for “good or evil” as we’ve all seen.  There are several kinds of power that you’ve probably experienced.

Types of power leaders can use to influence others:

  • Positional power.  Also called “legitimate power” or “structural power,” it is the power of an individual because of their position/title and duties.  It’s when you do [a task] because your boss asked you to.  The military typifies this approach.
  • Coercive power.  It includes the ability to demote or to withhold rewards if the desired actions aren’t taken.  While highly motivating in the short-term, the downsides include increased stress, fear, uncertainty, etc on the part of the recipient.  Don’t recommend it.
  • Expert power.  Power someone has because of very specific skills or expertise.  This type of power is usually highly specific and limited to the particular area in which the expert is trained and qualified.  You all know someone like this – they are a technical genius in their field and when they speak, everyone listens.
  • Reward power.  Reward power depends on the power wielder’s ability to confer valued rewards (benefits, time off, desired gifts, promotions, increases in pay, responsibility, etc). This power is obvious but also ineffective if abused.
  • Referent power.  Ability of individuals to attract others and build loyalty, based on the relationship and interpersonal skills of the power holder.  This loyalty creates the opportunity for interpersonal influence.  Hopefully you’ve had the good fortune to work with someone like this – a boss you were proud to follow, a colleague that you could get you to run through a brick wall for them, or a team member that always inspired you to go the extra mile.

…So What?  (What should I take away from reading this?)

For Leaders:
◊ Take personal inventory. Which forms of power do you rely on most heavily? Is that effective in the short term? What about in the long term?
◊ What changes do you need to make in your personal approach to the use of power?

For Individual Contributors:  You’re leading every day… in fact you can be more powerful than people with “leadership titles!”
◊ Think about your spheres of influence… who do you influence on a regular basis?
◊  How are you consciously using your powers… for good & not evil?

For All Human Beings: 
These concepts apply in both business & in life.  Think about how you could change your use of these forms of power to enrich the personal relationships that mean the most to you.