Leadership Caffeine—In Praise of Mistakes Made for the Right Reasons

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

The true test of your leadership character isn’t measured by the absence of mistakes, but rather by the mistakes made in pursuit of growth and learning AND how you conduct yourself once you’ve made a mistake.

Show me a mistake-free leader, and I’ll show you someone hiding from the real issues confronting the business: people and strategy.

People:

People are complicated. In spite of the myriad of assessment tools at our disposal, selection is still a judgement call with all of the inherent risks and biases of human decision-making. And the challenge of aligning skills and experiences with tasks while searching for that spark that stimulates people to work at their creative best is truly much more art than science.

You will make mistakes on people. Make them for the right reasons. Taking a chance on good people for the right reasons is worth the risk every day.

Remember, character always gets a positive vote. After a certain age, character is formed and nothing you can do will alter someone’s core character. You cannot change someone. Assess character carefully. Look for behavioral examples around values, and if the view is dissonant, it’s a non-starter.

Passion and desire are powerful reasons to take a chance on someone, even if others around you suggest this person isn’t right for a role. I like betting on the underdog if I’ve done my homework on the individual. Taking chances on people who show that extra spark is part of the essence of leadership. Much like character, you cannot teach passion, you can only help it emerge.

The greatest rewards I’ve enjoyed as a leader come from those people I selected against popular wisdom because I saw something. Of course, “something” is hard to codify and I’ve been wrong here as well. It doesn’t mean I will stop taking chances.

Strategy:

Much like the challenge of selecting and inspiring people to apply their talents, strategy is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Choosing what to do and importantly, what not to do is a core management task, yet human judgement in all its brilliance and all of its flaws is once again at the center of strategic decision-making.

Even in our data-driven world, selecting and then executing a strategy is like walking through a minefield on a fresh lava-flow blindfolded. There’s a high probability that somewhere between choice of path and the journey down that path, you will misstep with painful results. Assuming the essence of the strategy is sound, often, you can recover, adapt and proceed from execution missteps. These non-fatal errors are powerful learning experiences, teaching you and everyone around you how to spot gaps, fill in blind-spots and redouble efforts to get execution right.

While many view strategy as an event, with an outcome that is carved in granite and the granite set in concrete, in reality, it is effectively a testable hypothesis backed by a series of experiments. In a military metaphor, you engage in a series of skirmishes designed to test defenses and learn terrain, and then you push to conquer the ground. These skirmishes are the teaching experiences and your mistakes here are part of the process of figuring out how to get it right. The only mistake is not to decide to take action.

The best leaders I’ve worked around understand the need for the missteps. No one actively seeks them out, but they are an inevitable part of the pursuit of success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The least interesting professionals to me are those who cannot articulate a litany of mistakes on their way to their successes. The absence of mistakes…or, the unwillingness to admit prior mistakes is a character flaw and as mentioned above, there are no compromises when it comes to character. There’s no guarantee that some of your own mistakes won’t have painful consequences. Nonetheless, the mistakes made for the right reasons…in favor of great people and in pursuit of business success, are simply tickets to admission. Pay the price, take your lumps, learn and keep moving.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leadership Caffeine—3 Questions To Help You Cultivate Your Leadership Style

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership style for a large part of the first decade of my career.

I didn’t care at the time. It wasn’t relevant. Although in hindsight, I certainly had a style, it was more muscle than finesse.

My focus was on driving results through people and pushing, pushing, pushing. It was a simple formula. Drive results + make bosses happy = growth in responsibility and income. And it worked. The results were there, but the relationships were shallow…mostly transactional, and the work was less than rewarding. There was little consideration for the bigger picture of the people or environment I was creating.

I was managing, and as it turns out, and not very effectively. There certainly was no visible sign of leadership in my approach.

Fortunately, a wise senior manager took me aside and suggested I would be more effective over the long haul if I quit acting like a machine and started acting like a human who cared about people at least as much as he cared about results. He suggested that I was leaving, money, performance and the growth of people on the table, and he challenged me to think long and hard about the type of leader I wanted to be.

I am grateful to this day for that leadership wake-up call.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he regularly challenged me with a number of provocative questions that ultimately shifted my focus from results at all costs to results through supporting and developing others. How will you answer these questions?

3 Leadership Questions to Help You Cultivate Your Leadership Style:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes. However, I am fiercely proud of the great people who have developed on my watch and their many subsequent career and life successes. This question made me pivot in my thinking about my role.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Feedback that drives introspection supports growth. The comment that I was acting like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of a style based on my answers to the questions above. Try spending some time thinking about the leadership style you want to cultivate, and then do it.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

It’s Your Career—Is It Time for You to Go?

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas and guidance on strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

Far too many professionals linger in stagnant roles or struggling firms long beyond the optimal expiration date of their involvement. Instead of seeking out new challenges that support learning and skills expansion, otherwise competent, motivated individuals tend to linger in bad situations hoping for circumstances to shift more to their liking. More often than not, they are disappointed.

This is the career equivalent of the classic cognitive trap, escalation of commitment. Instead of cutting our losses, we value the time invested and recall better days. We falsely believe that with just a bit more time and effort, things will change. In reality, the time you’ve put in is gone. It’s a sunk cost, and the only thing that matters is what happens today and in the months and years ahead for you in your career.

Most of us are conditioned to place a premium on loyalty and dedication in our co-workers, and we wear our own commitment as a statement of who we are as professionals. Sadly, in this era, there’s little reward for standing firmly planted on the deck of a sinking corporate ship or facing the daily tirades of a miserable manager. There are no gold watches and there is no one to look out for you in your career but yourself.

Please give yourself permission to do what’s best for you in your career, including changing roles, departments or even firms.

Beware The Gravitational Pull of Running in Place:

With apologies to physicists everywhere for the very inaccurate science suggested in the header of this section, the fact is that there’s a strong force that keeps is locked in position, repeating our daily routines week in and week out, in spite of our internal understanding that this is going nowhere…or at least nowhere good.

When I talk with employees or clients about why they’ve lingered for so long in a situation that has moved from bad to lousy, they typically offer some form of the following three responses:

  1. I believe I can make a difference and improve things.
  2. At least I know what’s wrong here. I could easily jump into something worse.
  3. I have financial commitments. It’s not a good time for me to make a job change.

My response in order: (1) that’s noble, but after a good effort with no change, you are simply naïve, (2) that’s a lame excuse to stay in employment jail, and (3) the best chance you may have for easing those financial burdens is to make a change.

Fear and Loyalty:

My own translation is that most of us struggle with the elements of fear tinged with low self-esteem. For many, throw in a smattering of that nagging feeling that if we leave we are being disloyal to the firm that sends us a check every few weeks or to the manager who has helped us along.

First, the fear issue. The thought of change is disconcerting. And yes, changing positions, firms or industries comes with a set of all new challenges. Your routine will change. The political dynamics in your new department or firm are different than what you’ve grown accustomed to in your prior role. You might not be the expert…and in fact, you might be momentarily dependent upon other experts. Or, it might not work out. Those are all tangible concerns and some of them breed fear. Nothing should be as frightening however, as wasting the time of your life or the time of your career. If you’re not learning and being challenged, you’re dying professionally, and the thought of that should scare the heck out of you. Fear breeds resistance and you have to find a way to cut through that resistance.

Now, the loyalty issue. I’ll offer it from my own perspective as an executive. I value the intelligence and hard work of the people on my team and I appreciate every single day they make the decision to walk in the door and help the cause. I know very well that it is my job to foster an environment and provide the support, coaching and feedback that keeps the good ones coming back every day. Any manager worth his/her salt gets this.

However, I also understand that I am dealing with individuals who have aspirations and sometimes those aspirations cannot be met in my world. It’s a sad and proud day when a long-time valued contributor moves on to a new role. And it’s an honor when I’ve helped them along the way and served as a reference for the next opportunity and have welcomed them into my extended professional network.

No one owes me or any other manager anything more than their best efforts during their time of employment. That’s code for saying that I don’t expect nor will I reward any excess loyalty. I respect your need to take care of yourself in your career.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you are stuck in a position that no longer is challenging, or where you are no longer learning, it’s up to you to seize control and improve this situation. Don’t let the fears or false beliefs or even laziness keep you from resolving your career problem. I admire individuals who strive to solve the challenges within their present firms and I respect those who after giving this a valiant effort, decide to take their talents elsewhere. Give yourself permission to make a change.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Art of Managing—How to Respond When the Experiment Goes Wrong

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Many firms incorporate something in their values statements that encourages experimentation and recognizes the reality of failure in pursuit of learning and growth. The understanding that to succeed you have to fail first is common knowledge for most of us. However, it’s not the words on the values sign that bring life to a culture of experimentation, but rather, it’s the response of senior leadership to the inevitable clunkers that determines how willing people are to take risks and pay the lessons learned forward.

I have more clunkers to my credit than most people would be comfortable admitting publicly. And while the clunkers created sleepless nights and a fair amount of internal anxiety, I take satisfaction not in having politically survived these failures, but rather, in having leveraged those failures for future gains that propelled our teams, products and firms forward. Of course, a bit less pain along the way would have been nice, but I’ve yet to find the path to innovation that doesn’t include some discomfort in the process. Thankfully, the people I worked for had fairly high pain thresholds.

In the most successful firms I’ve been around, the managers actively promote experimentation and learning as core to everyone’s job. Yet, it’s not the words on the wall or even the words that come out of their mouths about experimentation, it’s the actions they take when things go horribly wrong that fosters the effective learning environment. In a number of these firms, this support of learning is so strong it creates the gravitational pull that keeps the top performers in place long-term and not drifting towards competitors.

3 Counter-intuitive (and Effective) Responses to a Failed Initiative:

1. Throw a experimentsparty. Seriously. One of my favorite managers leveraged the occasional project gone horribly wrong scenario with this counter-intuitive tactic. It was his way of pulling the final plug…telling us how much he valued our efforts and charging us up for our next run at something new. For one particular disaster, he sponsored a day at a theme park. While I carefully checked the safety harness on my first roller coaster ride just in case, it was his way of helping us blow off steam. An important note here; the party wasn’t the end of the process, but the beginning of the next phase of learning. After the fun was over, he put us through the paces of rolling up lessons learned and identifying pieces of intellectual property that could be inventoried and used for the future.

2. Invite Some Outsiders to Help You Study Your Failure. While not as fun as the party process described above, this technique of peer review served as a powerful learning tool. We invited a group of uninvolved experts to challenge everything from our assumptions to our decision-making processes and execution approaches. The playback of the project plus the clinical, detached questioning from the outsiders created a powerful environment for reflection and learning. The results were carefully summarized and archived for review prior to our next initiative. In fact, every new project team spent at least a week as part of their forming process reviewing cases from other project teams as a means of sensitizing the members to historic success and failure factors.

3. Make a Case Out of the Failure. No, not a federal case, but an actual working case to be studied by other groups. Closely related to the “outsiders” suggestion above, the team would create their form of a thinly disguised business case and then sit by and listen and learn as other groups assessed the case and proposed different courses of actions. While this might sound onerous or even too academic, the effort that went into creating the case required a detailed review of the assumptions and processes, and everyone gained insights from the experience of watching the new groups work the case and develop their own approaches.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Most managers and most firms work hard to eliminate the odds of misfires and miscues. While I don’t encourage managers to run towards failures, the process of moving forward requires frequent backing up. When it comes to projects or major initiatives, you cannot plan your way to success on paper and expect the plan to unfold as predicted. You have to deal with the messy, sometimes unpredictable nature of people and the inherent challenges in doing something new. Your response at the point of failure is critical to what happens next.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Art of Managing—In Searching for Talent, Emphasize Potential

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

The article, “21st Century Talent Spotting—Why potential now trumps brains, experience, and competencies,” in the June, 2014 issue of HBR by Claudio Fernandez-Araz, is must reading for every manager concerned about putting the right management and leadership talent in place to grow his/her organization. (And yes, every manager should be concerned about this significant challenge.)

The author builds a case for shifting away from the competency model (core skills and experiences) that has dominated hiring practices for the recent past, to one that emphasizes assessing a candidate’s potential in the form of, “the ability to adapt to ever-changing business environments and grow into challenging new roles.”

Raised Eyebrows and Victories:

I’ve long been a fan of build versus buy or, hire the best athletes when it comes to talent acquisition, although admittedly, my selections have raised some eyebrows in the more traditional HR environments. One hire to help build out a new initiative had no experience whatsoever in the function I was hiring her for, yet she brought a deep understanding of the customers we were pursuing. In this case, the HR executive who not so politely wondered whether I had lost my mind, was professional enough to loop back after I invited him to the interview process, to offer, “Now I get it.” The outcome was excellent, as she quickly provided much needed customer context for our strategy work, while learning the ins and outs of a new discipline.

Another hire that proved to be remarkably valuable was the recruit from the retail world for a technology sales role. There’s not a hiring model in existence that would have led anyone to this individual, however, the attributes he displayed in winning for his firm, team and store in his retail role were so powerful, I had to give him a shot in my world. He is now a Senior Director in one of the world’s largest and most successful software firms.

The Big Five Indicators (Plus Some):

The focus of the author’s model is on assessing five key indicators: the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. (He also appropriately highlights need to gauge intelligence, values and leadership abilities as part of the process.) The emphasis on the five indicators shifts the weighting away from prior experience in the job and places a tremendous emphasis on the ability of the individual to both learn and adapt. The oft-cited assessment philosophy of, the best predictor of future success is prior performance, is significantly diluted in this approach.

Of Risk and Return:

In addition to a number of noteworthy successes in my own too ad-hoc approach to this style of talent assessment, I’ve also misfired on several occasions. In one case, I failed to recognize the true complexities of quickly learning the new role, and the individual struggled to win the confidence and respect of his colleagues. In another, the individual failed to gravitate to the new role at all, preferring to avoid situations where her expertise was less important than her ability to execute on her core position responsibilities. Both were frustrating situations for all parties, and I learned to avoid future gaffes (like these) through better pre-hiring dialogue over a longer time frame and significantly increased exposure to the demands of the very new role for the candidates.

Invest in Potential and Then Push to Stretch:

Fernandes-Araz concludes the article with an emphasis on “Stretch Development” for the high potential hires. In his words, “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens.” The stretch work is also where you find out whether your initial assessment of potential was on or off the mark.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Talent is the difference-maker in this world, and identifying, securing and developing the right talent is arguably the most important task of managers in the enterprise. You don’t fulfill on mission, effectively serve customers or appropriately reward stakeholders without the right people on board…all learning, growing and adapting to market  conditions. If shifting your viewpoint and recruiting approaches off of the like-kind prior experience model will give you a potential boost, it’s worth the risk. Your batting average on hires that stick might slip a bit, but the upside is worth the cost of the experimentation.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.