Leadership Caffeine™—Know When to Assert Yourself

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!

There are points in time when the only right choice is to assert and dictate direction or a decision. In those crucible moments for firms and teams, the failure of a leader to assert is the height of malpractice and irresponsibility.

From critical strategic choices to decisions on talent, teams and execution, there are times when the kinder, gentler form of participatory leadership just doesn’t cut it. This is a difficult topic for those who ascribe to a softer style of leading, Yes, I applaud your daily repression of the command and control style in favor of a more participatory and consensus driven approach. However, when timeliness is of the essence and lives or jobs are on the line, you must step-up, step-in and assert yourself.

I’ve encountered too many well-intended but misguided leaders who through their slow-to-act approaches have squandered opportunities, opened the door for competitors and caused damage to their own careers. In polling these leaders post-crisis (in many cases, years later), what I consistently heard was some form of, I truly expected my directs to suspend their own views and come together as a group around what was right for the organization in that time of crisis. The fact that they didn’t is disappointing.

The only person this leader should be disappointed in is the one staring back at them in the mirror.

I would like to live in that world where people in groups suspended their own personal views and interests in the name of some form of corporate, arm-linking kumbaya focused on the greater good. And while it happens in some circumstances, in 30+ years of navigating corporate hallways and boardrooms through all manner of crises, I’ve learned not to hold my breath waiting for that momentary alignment to emerge on its own. Strong leadership for key directional decisions is essential for unifying people’s hearts, minds and actions.

Your job in crisis situations is to catalyze action along a clear vector. You’re the compass…you determine the vector and your approach to the crisis situation will either help people shake off fear and the resultant paralysis or, you’ll be the cause of chronic running in place.

Don’t wait for perfect clarity to emerge before you decide. It never does. Your leadership must bring clarity to others. Once the team begins moving, you can tweak the course as the fog lifts.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Once you’ve successfully led the team through the storm, you can return to your regularly scheduled style of soft leadership. In the meantime, assert yourself, darn it! Your team, your firm and your career depend upon it.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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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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.

The Saturday Serial Number 1—Welcome to ACME John Anderson

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeThe Saturday Serial is an on-going management and leadership story and case based on a fictional firm and fictional characters all dealing with very real challenges in leadership and management. The intent is to stimulate thinking and discussion in a format different than the traditional “how to” blog post. Each episode includes a series of discussion questions for your consideration (or use with your team). I’ll share my views on the prior week’s chapter and questions in a subsequent post.

Episode 1:

The electronic sign in the lobby, offered up a friendly, Welcome to ACME CONSOLIDATED SOLUTIONS GROUP (ASCG). As John waited to check in with the receptionist, he was pleased to see his name scroll past: John Anderson, Manager, Product and Marketing. Nice touch, he thought as he stepped up and gave his name to the receptionist.

John was excited to be starting at ACSG today. This was his third employer in 14 years since graduating from college. While ACSG was a big conglomerate, John would be working with one of the smaller units…the Data Systems Solutions Group (DSSG)…an area that from all of his research, appeared to be an important part of the conglomerate’s future. During the interview process, John had been impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit he sensed in the people working in the Data Systems Solutions Group, and he liked the fact that he could help grow a start-up under the umbrella of a firm with deep pockets and diverse business interests. Also, John was mid-way through his MBA program and it didn’t hurt that the firm offered to pick up the future tuition costs as part of their generous employee education reimbursement policy.

All in all, John was excited to start this next chapter in his career.

After a quick greeting with his boss, Pat Paulsen, John was off to a whirlwind of meet and greet sessions. He met with security and had his picture taken for his permanent i.d. badge. HR took him through benefits sign-up and then Pat walked him around the Data Systems Solutions Group offices and introduced him to all of the unit’s 54 employees, including his new product management and marketing team members. After some time spent with I.T. setting up log-in credentials, it was 11:45 a.m. and John was scheduled for lunch with the unit’s six-month new CEO, Victoria Pyott. Victoria’s policy was to have lunch with every new employee regardless of level or title on their first day, and John was impressed with this thoughtful treatment.

Over lunch, Victoria outlined her view on the opportunities and challenges for the team in DSSG, and John was impressed with both her excitement about the unit’s prospects and her frank assessment of the challenges for the upcoming 18 months.

“We’re in a great arena,” offered Victoria. “The opportunity to help firms, teams and managers make better sense of their data is huge. All of us in all of our firms have spent years investing in systems to capture and access data, but we’ve still not resolved some of the fundamental issues…how to get the right data at the right time for the business problem or process issue we’re attempting to resolve. There’s all manner of software packages and tools to help clients do this, but by and large they’ve failed, because they’ve been expensive, complicated to install and integrate and frankly, very complicated to use. We can’t expect the finance or supply chain manager to be a software or even data expert…we have to create offerings that make their lives easier and that easily help them develop trusted, complete data on demand for the problem at hand,” she stated.

“Of course, like any firm motivated to grow and supported by a parent company that looks for results, not just promises in the future, we have to do a better job turning our ideas into solutions that we can monetize,” added Victoria. “That’s where you and your team come in, John. Thus far we’ve been led by the vision of our CTO, Raj Nataraj, and while he’s brilliant, he doesn’t have that knack for commercializing his vision. I’ve invested heavily in your team, and when your predecessor was grabbed by our parent company to lead another new initiative, we worked hard to find the right replacement. I think you’re absolutely the right person at the right time to lead this team and help lead this business into a successful future. It won’t be easy, but you have my support and the support of our entire management team.”

After returning to his office and sitting down with his manager, Pat, he relayed the lunch discussion and shared his over-the-top excitement with her.

“John, Victoria is right,” said Pat. “We’ve got a great opportunity and your role and your team is critical. But remember, no one said this would be a day at the beach. There are challenges ranging from the choice of markets and the development of the best entry strategies to critical product investment calls and challenging execution issues. We’re a young unit, but we’re big enough to need more process around our approach to daily operations…while at the same time insuring that we keep that entrepreneurial culture. And yes, I read once that these jobs would be easy if it weren’t for the people. It’s true here…there are a wide variety of personalities, all with different perspectives and all trying to help the firm grow and go. More than a few of them missed the memo on teamwork. You definitely have your work cut out for you, but I’m glad you’re here. And I’m thrilled to have your help and to offer my support,” she said.

“Now, are you prepared for your first team meeting?” asked Pat. “It’s in five minutes.”

While the morning’s raw enthusiasm was still there, John was beginning to understand the magnitude of the work out in front of him. He smiled, and said, “Absolutely. Just point the way to the conference room.”

Discussion Prompters:

  1. The initial meeting with a new team is one of the more challenging for any manager. What do you think is running through the minds of John’s new team members as they head to the conference room for this first meeting with their new boss?
  2. What are John’s objectives for this initial, formal group contact?
  3. What must John do and say to make a positive first impression?
  4. What must John avoid to minimize tarnishing that first impression?
  5. Help John get started on the right foot in the weeks ahead. What should John do in the early days of his new role as the head of Product Management and Marketing in the DSSG?

All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Introducing The Saturday Serial—An Ongoing Management & Leadership Case

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeA note from Art:

I’ve long believed serials are great ways to share stories. Dickens published many of his works in serial format and the dockworkers were reputed to shout from the shore as ships arrived with the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, “Did little Nell live?” The Golden Age of Science Fiction was filled with stories told one chapter at a time from issue-to-issue and today’s Game of Thrones novels from George R.R. Martin are an excellent example of the serial on steroids, with fans (myself included) waiting impatiently to learn the fate of our favorite characters and hoping that Mr. Martin finishes the story. Who lives? Who dies? Who conquers?

Serials provide readers an opportunity to become invested in a story and the characters, and I believe the approach provides authors an opportunity to think and then create new twists and new approaches to challenge the characters and further engage the readers. As a child and teen I was addicted to the Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries because I appreciated the characters and I loved the ability to try and solve the cases. I’ve added that twist here in the form of discussion questions and I look forward to sharing my ideas and learning how readers might solve these business cases.

Welcome to my intent and attempt to share and cultivate management and leadership lessons beyond the format of a stale blog post and endless lists of “10 ideas to… .” While I love writing the Management Excellence blog and the first 1,025 posts are testament to my commitment, I’ve wanted to experiment with the serial and management fable format here for a long time. I’m emboldened by the reader appreciation for the short, fictional cases around my mythical APEX Corporation, inserted in front of the chapters in my book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership. Those mini-cases and their discussion questions and the author’s take on the cases have been a staple of this book and something many managers have leveraged to stimulate thinking around the issues we all face in growing as leaders. I’m grateful for the appreciation many of you have expressed for those cases.

Lencioni and Goldratt popularized the novelized or fable form of business lessons in their various writings and I understand that some of you love those and others don’t. For those who prefer their business and leadership lessons and questions with a taste of drama, The Saturday Serial is ideal for you.

Beginning with my first episode, “Welcome to ACME John Anderson,” you will meet a growing cast of characters facing a series of very real management, leadership and career challenges in this fictional high-tech, global conglomerate and its various units and divisions.

Yes, the issues are real. I see them every day and I’ve experienced and observed these dilemmas around strategy and execution and learning to lead and learning to manage in many flavors  for 30-years. And while the characters and firms are all fictional, I will wager a fair amount, you will recognize these issues and challenges…and many of you will be dealing with them in real time. Now, you get to see and hear them unfold here in this on-going series of stories and cases, and hopefully, we’ll all engage in sharing some ideas on how to navigate the challenges. After all, the intent of my work and this entire blog is to help those striving to grow their firms and grow in their careers find useful and creative ideas and answers to the vexing challenges we all face during our journeys.

Welcome to The Saturday Serial at Management Excellence I hope you’ll tune in and chime in as the story develops. After all, the beauty of this format is that you can help determine the outcomes. -Art

Check out Episode Number 1.

 All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Six Ideas to Help You Have Better Days at Work

Businessman Being Hit with Boxing GloveEveryone has difficult days, however, when every day feels like a slow, painful, stressful march up a rock-strewn path toward certain calamity, it’s time for you to take action. Here are a few ideas to help you re-frame your daily activities and reset your attitude.

Six Ideas to Help You Have Better Days at Work:

1. Shrink your goals and create little victories. View every encounter or task as an opportunity to succeed…and internally acknowledge the successes. This technique is often referenced in the context of the Navy Seals as one that allowed them to survive and succeed one of the most rigorous training programs on the planet. Every successful step during this stressful program places them one step closer to achieving their goal.

Instead of focusing on the less tangible yearly or quarterly goals, spend more time succeeding in the present. Remind yourself that every day offers a host of challenges and encounters ripe for earning victory. Whether it’s taking the burden away from that stressed out customer, sharing challenging news with executives or, making the calls needed to support your sales pipeline build, every step and every encounter offers a chance for you to say, “OK, I succeeded with that one. Next!”  You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how acknowledging small victories will improve your attitude and steel your resolve and confidence for solving the bigger challenges.

2. Defuse stressful situations by employing a “seek first to understand” approach.  Instead of arguing with that same character in the other department, ask questions that when answered will help you understand why he is so animated about a change in process or policy. When you encounter squabbles on project teams, take the same approach. This is a classic negotiating technique where striving to uncover shared interests allows the two parties to work towards or design a proper outcome. More often than not, we engage in verbal arm-wrestling over positions and approaches without cultivating a clear view to the real interests of all parties. Questions are your best friend here!

3. Try Admitting Your Mistakes…instead of hiding from them. It’s typically not the mistakes that we make that are damaging to our credibility and our immediate environment…it’s what we do once we’ve made them that determines the real impact. How you handle one of your mistakes says a lot about your character and whether people can trust you. With a genuine dose of humility, try a simple, “You were right and I was wrong,” or some variation based on the situation. This approach can prevent emotional boil-overs and help cool simmering slow-burns.

4. Try Offering Your Help. The words, “How can I help?” or, “Here’s how I can help…,” are lifelines for individuals and teams struggling through complex issues, and your support is a great way for you to build professional equity and credibility with your coworkers. Of course, once the offer is made, stand prepared to deliver.

5. Practice Preparing Your Daily Attitude. I’ve referenced this one before and it bears repeating. A participant in one of my workshops offered how she managed to move her attitude from negative to positive with a simple daily ritual. She would arrive at work a few minutes early every morning and use those minutes in her car to begin focusing on how she wanted her day to unfold…from beginning to end. While things have a habit of not going as planned in most workplaces, she offered that the simple adjustment of walking in the door and walking around to greet her team members helped her improve her attitude and set a better tone with her team every morning. As she walked out the door at night, she would think about the achievements of the day (small victories) and how tomorrow offered another great set of opportunities to succeed. The other workshop participants (and the workshop leader) found this approach to be priceless!

6. Ask for Help—Seek Outside Perspectives on Big Issues. While I encouraged you to offer, “How can I help?” above, it’s important for you to recognize that in some circumstances, an objective outside perspective is essential to identifying or evaluating a situation. Instead of stewing and stressing over a big decision on your own, identify someone who is experienced enough to offer valuable perspectives and far away enough from your situation to be objective. While you may own the call and the implications of the call, seeking external input is an important and stress-reducing step we should all take more often in our work.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Creeping negativity is a morale killer in too many workplaces and a potential career killer if you’re the one spreading it. If you’re daily attitude needs a bit of adjusting, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to take action. And who knows, you might just stimulate some creeping positivity and help make work a better place for everyone around you. For those of you who have some additional ideas and approaches for improving your days at work (and reducing stress), please share. You’ll be doing us all a public service.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! 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 Art’s book: 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.

Revisiting The 5 Priceless Lessons from Amundsen and Scott

Roald AmundsenNote from Art: given the recent storms and polar-like weather in the Midwest and Northeast, it seems fitting to revisit the priceless management and leadership lessons gleaned from Amundsen and Scott in their race to 90-degrees south. These lessons never grow cold!

In preparation for an upcoming presentation, I’ve become a bit obsessed with studying the 1910 expeditions and race between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to 90-degrees South (the South Pole).  The lessons for leaders and managers practically leap off the pages of this classic example of coping with risk, uncertainty and volatility.

This “Heroic Era” of polar exploration was capped off (really bad pun!) by Amundsen and Scott, in what turned into an adventure where Amundsen beat Scott to the pole and safely returned, crew intact. Sadly, Scott and his crew ultimately perished during their attempted return.

I have Jim Collins to thank for this latest management segue, as he draws upon this same race and the comparison and contrast between Amundsen and Scott in his book with Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite them All. (Note: While Collins hooked me, see my suggestion at the end of the post for much deeper reading on the topic.)

The level of preparation that Amundsen and team put into their polar expedition was both monumental and commendable.

All students of project management and management and leadership in general should study this case.  The comparison and contrast between Amundsen’s approach and Scott’s is fascinating and highly relevant to leading initiatives and organizations in today’s turbulent workplace environment.

For the rest of us, here are a few lessons gleaned from my just-started study of this fascinating event.

At Least 5 Key Lessons Gained from Studying Amundsen and Scott:

1. The Conventional Wisdom Isn’t Always Right.  Amundsen’s selection of a previously uncharted path to 90-degrees South was contrary to all of the conventional wisdom of the time.  Long voiced concerns about the stability of the ice in the area kept prior expeditions from considering Amundsen’s starting point. His own painstaking review of the various logs of prior explorers suggested that the geology hadn’t changed much in decades. He decided to take this risk in return for a straighter, shorter (albeit completely unknown) line to his destination. While his choice introduced an element of risk, he viewed the payoff for success as worth it.

How often do you let the conventional wisdom dictate your approach to a complex problem?

2. Focus Means Focus. Amundsen was solely focused on reaching the South Pole. Everything he did…the months of preparation, the customization of his tools…and everything he had done earlier in his life, including, living with the Inuit, led to his preparation for success in the harsh polar environment. Scott had a mixed agenda of exploration and science, and the complexity of doing both contributed in part to his challenges.

It’s always tempting to tag on goals that seem complementary. Beware the dilution and distraction effect. In another work, Collins describes our tendency to engage in the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” We’re always best served by clarifying and then laser-focusing on the mission at hand.

 3. Luck Happens-It’s What You Do with It that Counts. In Amundsen’s words: “I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

Scott’s journal was filled with descriptions of bad luck. In reality, the two expeditions faced much of the same lousy weather luck. One succeeded while the other failed. What we do with our luck…good or bad is completely within our control.

 4. Tailor the Tools to the Mission. While Scott and his crew spent the winter months wiling away their time with lectures (to each other) and reading, Amundsen’s team maintained 8-hour days customizing every single piece of equipment to improve their odds of surviving anything. Both expeditions used the same sledges, but Amundsen’s were modified to reduce the weight considerably. Amundsen redesigned his skis and ski bindings, his crates, his critical paraffin containers and everything else with the idea of safety, security, light-weight, ease of use from set-up to stowing all the driving goal. And he took tips from the Inuit on clothing, opting for a style and material that promoted air circulation and helped managed sweating and heat retention/loss.

Too often we expect our technology tools and generic practices to yield great results. Take a page from Amundsen and tailor your tools to the mission in front of you.

 5. Nobility is Nice, but Practicality Wins. Scott and his crew viewed it as noble to man-haul their sledges and gears. Yes, man-haul. Amundsen knew from his time with the Inuit that dogs were superior haulers and that the issue of calories would eventually determine survival or death. Scott grossly miscalculated the calorie burn from man-hauling, and that combined with poor food depot planning (location, contents, fuel) contributed to his team’s demise. It is reported that Amundsen’s team actually gained weight during their successful return trip.

Pride and nobility goeth before the fall. Don’t get caught up in the nobility of your tactics, when there may well be a better, less-elegant approach to save the project, your job or in Scott’s case, his life.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

All of us live and work in a world filled with chaos and turbulence. Our customers feel it, our suppliers know it and our competitors are coping with it as well. As Collins and Hansen suggest in Great by Choice: “It’s what you do before the storm comes that most determines how well you’ll do when the storm comes. Those who fail to plan and prepare for instability, disruption, and chaos in advance tend to suffer more when their environments shift from stability to turbulence.”

While, “Be like Amundsen” doesn’t have that commercial jingle sound to it, we will all be better off if we incorporate this explorer’s constancy of purpose and unrelenting focus into our personal and professional endeavors.

Another great resource on this topic: Race to the End by Ross D. E. MacPhee (hardcover only…a beautiful collector’s book.)

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! 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 Art’s book: 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.