Leadership Caffeine—Your Critical Personal Performance Questions

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!

An early career mentor offered this comment and it has been with me in one form or another throughout my career: “If you’re sleeping through the night, you’re not thinking hard enough about your job and career and you’re definitely not asking yourself the tough questions.”

While I encourage a full night’s rest…we all need quality sleep to perform at our best, the second half of his advice on asking (and answering) the tough questions of ourselves is spot on. From CEOs to smart functional managers and senior leaders, we often get sucked into the operational vortex of our jobs and we forestall asking and answering the big questions on direction, people and about our own personal/professional well-being.

There are convenient excuses we use to keep from attacking all three of those categories.

  • People issues are sticky and they involve emotions, and when the emotions might be negative, we tend to move in the other direction.
  • Issues of direction…a change in strategy, investing in new offerings or changing long-standing processes, are by nature ambiguous and therefore perceived by us as risky. Too many managers are taught to avoid risk, and by habit, we move towards the status quo as a safe haven.
  • And issues of well-being…physical and mental health and career satisfaction are things we plan on getting to later. They take a backseat to the urgent daily activities.

Yet, no three topics are more important in helping create value (profits, market-share, efficiencies, engagement) for our firms than the decisions and actions we make and take on people, direction and on the development and maintenance of our own physical and mental well-being.

Here are just a few of the questions effective leaders hold themselves accountable to asking and answering.

At Least 11 Must Ask and Answer Questions for Leaders at All Levels:

Fair warning…compound questions ahead.

1. How am I truly doing as a leader? Am I getting the frank feedback I need from my team members and peers to help me strengthen my effectiveness? If not, how might I get this feedback?

2. Am I taking accountability for the team that I’ve put on the field? Is the best team with the right people in the right positions, or, are there clear gaps that only I can fix? Do I have a plan to fill those gaps? Do I have the courage to make the needed moves?

3. Am I a net supplier of level-up talent to the broader organization? If not, how can I strengthen my talent recruiting and development efforts?

4. How am I measuring performance and success of my team(s)? Do the measures promote the right behaviors? Do the measures promote continuous improvement? Do the measures connect to the bigger picture outcomes we are after?

5. Is the firm’s direction clear to everyone on my team? What can I do better or more of to constantly reinforce direction and ensure that our individual and team priorities support direction? Do I need to teach people about our business and how we make money and how we plan to grow?

6. Am I realistic about the need to embrace change? Are market dynamics signaling a needed change in direction and am I advocating for this change with my peers and by offering ideas?

7. Am I serving as a catalyst for productive change in my firm? Do I believe passionately in an issue that can benefit my firm and am I advocating hard for it, or, am I simply going along with consensus? If it’s the latter, how can I constructively break with the consensus and build understanding for my idea or approach?

8. Am I actively cultivating healthy relationships with my peers and colleagues in other functions? Do I recognize how dependent I truly am on the help and support of other leaders and other functional team members for my own success? Is there a rift that needs healing and am I taking the lead on making this happen?

9. Am I developing myself? What investments have I made in time, effort and money during the past year in strengthening my skills and gaining exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking?

10. How I am doing? Is my work (my firm, my vocation) in alignment with my passion, superpower(s) and values? If any of the three are out of whack, what must I do to fix the problem? Are the issues repairable in my current environment or, must I do the hard work of making a significant change?

11. Do I understand that my physical well-being directly impacts my mental well-being and professional performance? Am I taking care of myself physically? If not, how can I adjust my lifestyle to improve my physical health? Do I need to invest the outside help of a coach or trainer help me jump-start an improvement program?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

High personal performance is an outcome of clarity and balance. From ensuring clarity for the direction of your firm, your team and your team members to gaining objective insight on your own performance, clarity in the workplace is essential for your success. Balancing your passion, capabilities and values with your daily work and backing this balance with physical well-being is essential for your satisfaction and success. The pursuit of needed clarity and healthy balance is a journey with constantly shifting terrain. Get started by asking and answering the questions noted above. And if the answers are less than ideal for you, take action.

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.

Just One Thing—Practice Staying in the Moment

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

“To be present is to listen without memory or desire.” Wilfred Bion as cited in John Baldoni’s excellent new book, Moxie—The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.

Our world of work is filled with quick sound-bite exchanges and constant interruptions. Many of us have learned to cope with competing stimuli and the pressure to move faster and faster in our daily transactions, yet there is a cost to working this way. We’ve sacrificed personal connection and clarity for the siren song of constant communication. It’s communication of sorts, but in no way complete.


Most meetings are a competition for some unknown prize, where people talk and debate but don’t typically connect.

Too many leaders engage with half (or less) of their faculties with their team members as they chase the urgent or the urgent-unimportant.

Spend a day observing how people engage in the workplace and you might reasonably conclude that the signal-to-noise ratio in the workplace is mostly noise.

Exercise Your Power of Attention by Staying in the Moment:

Just for today, bend time to your will by slowing down and focusing on the people you come in contact with in the workplace.

Listen intently to what they have to say or what they are asking. Resist the urge to jump in and finish sentences or interject your own thoughts. Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand their perspective. Restate their points in your own words to confirm that you understand their points. And then and only then, share your ideas in response.

If you are approached in your own workspace, flip a mental switch and disconnect from your screen and turn your attention to the individual in front of you. One effective manager I know, blanks her screen and puts her mobile device on silent in her desk drawer to ensure her full attention.

Yes, the suggestions above are part of what we call active listening. I call it showing respect.

Do the same in meetings. Leave the device in your pocket or at your desk and serve as that clarifying influence. Pay attention to the speakers. And if needed, help people corral the communication chaos by actively facilitating in pursuit of common understanding.

And finally, there are some people we work with who are brilliant but struggle to communicate clearly using just spoken words. Some people are visual communicators…engage with them by drawing on a whiteboard. Others are fierce writers… find an opportunity for them to think on screen and then share their wisdom. Still others live and work in a world of numbers or logic. Be the better communicator and strive to find the medium that best supports their ability to share their message.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Few activities in your career offer a better return on investment than silencing the noise and paying full attention to everyone you encounter.

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.


Level-Up #3—Cultivating Grace or Fire Under Pressure

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting your professional development as an emerging executive.

There will be bad days, tough situations or pivotal debates on key issues with colleagues that will trip your trigger and stimulate your fight (as in argue) or flight reflex. For some of us who never met a good knock-down argument we didn’t love, the situation will tempt our fight or fight-harder reflexes. And for those who tend to operate on the quiet side of the equation, sometimes you just need to be heard.

Learning to match just the right level of emotion or passion to each situation is important in gaining support for your initiatives and gaining much needed credibility with team members and your firm’s senior leaders. Knowing how to temper your emotions in the heat of a business battle is equally important.

For those Predisposed to Engage Aggressively in the Debate, There’s a Line:

I managed to get away with stepping over what I would now perceive as a reasonable line in a number of challenging moments during the level-up phase of my career. In hindsight, I’m fortunate that I did not derail right out of a role or off into a position penalty box. While I cannot recall having a distinct strategy, I believed to my core that my passionate engagement was on the side of goodness for my firm. I came out fine and mostly unscathed. I’m certain luck helped in a few instances.

My mistakes and those that I see frequently involve miscalculations on whether to engage and debate passionately (fight) or withdraw and reassess options. For many of us, the idea of compromise feels a lot like defeat.

Never Engage in an Emotionally Turbocharged Issue Blind:

It’s likely I set the all-time record for mistakes and gaffes when as a rising product and marketing director, I managed to tick off one of the top senior executives of my very large Japanese employer. He was making a ceremonial visit that turned somehow into a very detailed business discussion over forthcoming products and the end-of-life management of our cash cow product in particular. The dialog moved tactical and I believed passionately in moving this system out of market with a bang…leveraging it to capture market share in its last year. He didn’t. I argued passionately (and with volume in my voice) for my case and the situation became uncomfortable. As I later learned when the meeting adjourned, the senior director offered to my boss, “He really ticked me off. I like him.”

I got lucky. I showed passion for a product that was very personal to those who had engineered and enhanced and supported it for many years. I respected their baby. I was a newbie, and I was willing to fight. While I violated almost every cultural norm in the situation, I had established my reputation for strength and the willingness to advocate for what I believed was right for the firm. My motives were perceived as pure.

Too Loud, Too Long or Too Quiet are All Problems:

I’ve observed many others stubbornly hang on to a position that seems to everyone else in the room to be mostly self-serving. In this case, the incessant arguing seems irrational and selfish, unleashing a credibility killing cloud of hot air that becomes suffocating to others.

Hang on too long to the wrong position for the wrong reasons and you’ll do yourself more harm than good.

I’ve also worked with professionals who erred by spending too much on the side of quiet reserve. While a strategic retreat when you are losing a firefight is a reasonable approach, the failure to know when to stand up for your position and ensure that you are heard communicates weakness and works against you with those responsible for your Level-Up opportunities.

7 Suggestions for Matching Your Response to the Moment:

1. Sometimes you have to jump through the walls. Overcoming the resistance of the status quo in many circumstances requires extraordinary energy. Your willingness to engage passionately for something you believe is in the best interest of the business will wear down resistance and even build enthusiasm. It’s appropriate to let the fire in your belly for an issue turn into passionate and constructive debate.

2. Not every situation demands that you jump through walls. Sometimes it’s appropriate to walk through the door. Save your passion for the big issues. This skill will become particularly important in senior management and boardroom settings.

3. Don’t cross the line and make the debate personal. Ever. When that happens, you’ve lost the debate and you’ve lost credibility with everyone in fallout range.

4. Do seek first to understand. Always. This is a recurring theme in my coaching and posts. Too many people focus on their position…their approach and far too few strive to find shared interests. Once the interests are uncovered for an issue, you can construct an approach that serves various constituencies. Again, this is a critical skill to cultivate that will set you apart from peers and help those who must select you for more opportunity to develop confidence in your approach.

5. Learn to self-regulate. If the battle has been lost, withdraw and offer your support. It’s better to be respected for advocating an idea and then accepting that it’s going in another direction than it is to be known as that pain in the a@@ who won’t let go.

6. Know your opponents. My example above with the senior director of a firm from a very different culture was extremely dangerous. He allowed my to violate his cultural standards because we were in our environment. He was enlightened. I wasn’t. Don’t expect to find someone quite as enlightened in most circumstances. I’m fortunate that I wasn’t put in the permanent penalty box in that environment after picking a fight blindfolded.

7. There’s a time to make noise even if you’re quiet by nature. Cultivating the courage to step into an important issue and assert your opinion will help build your level-up credibility. People recognize your quiet nature and heads will turn and resistance may melt when you shift your style momentarily and engage. The failure to engage is a limiting factor.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I appreciate professionals who debate constructively, passionately and intelligently for their points. In fact, I love working with these types. It shows me they are engaged and motivated to do what it takes to get beyond the sticky gravitational pull of the status quo. If the results are good and the passion is more than self-serving hot air, I look for reasons to promote these types. For those who simply like to argue, don’t expect much support in your quest to level-up.

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.


It’s Your Career—The Power of Displaying Passion for Your Work

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!

There’s something infectious and likeable about someone who displays obvious passion for their work, particularly when the enthusiasm is anchored in fixing, improving or innovating around something meaningful to others and to the firm. For professionals climbing the rungs of the organizational ladder or navigating boundary crossing in highly siloed organizations, visible enthusiasm for your work will serve you well during your journey.

What you project about yourself, your attitude and your enthusiasm for your work are all important components of your professional presence…how people perceive you as a professional. Since others must choose you for more responsibility, it’s important to have your presence working hard for you and not against you. Putting your passion for your work on display is one way of projecting a stronger, more positive presence.

Managers appreciate employees who show how much they enjoy their work. (Perhaps more than you will know.) Executives are hard-wired to notice people who seem to thrive and enjoy their work and new challenges. And peers and other resources tend to rally around individuals they perceive as genuine in their interest to right a wrong, fix something that is broken or do something new for the greater good.

Your showcasing your personal passion for your work is an admission ticket to the early stages of that precious asset we seek from others, known as trust. Your enthusiasm excites a similar emotion in others, something that is sadly often dormant in your many un-engaged co-workers who have grown accustomed to accepting the status quo. Armed with the trust and support of others, you can move mountains.

Alternatively, a dour demeanor or one that seems to project a constant aura of boredom or worse, righteous indignation laced with I’m just here to do my job and by the way, I’m right and you’re wrong, has the opposite effect of the positively passionate individual. I’ve known, managed and coached plenty of both of these individuals over my career, and without a doubt, the individuals who showcased genuine interest in others and authentic enthusiasm for their work and their firm’s work have grossly out-distanced their often very intelligent but less excited peers.

While putting a smile on your face and ginning up some halfhearted enthusiasm won’t get you too far…people will see through your attempt at a façade. Those striving to grow and advance in their careers will be well served by discovering (or re-discovering) what they love about their work and putting it on display. And by the way, if there’s nothing left in the tank that resembles passion for your work, it’s time to consider a new direction.

5 Ideas to Strengthen Your Professional Presence and Put Your Passion on Display:

1. Start with shifting your attitude from “I’m here” to “You’re here!” One of the great role models of professional presence in my career was an incredibly successful business owner who was widely viewed as the patriarch of his industry. He was a marvel to watch as he arrived at a conference or entered a room. Some people project the aura of “I’m here and I’m important, please acknowledge it.” His approach projected “You’re here and I’m honored to see you and I acknowledge you.”

Whether you were a senior executive or someone fairly low on the ladder, he sought you out, engaged with you and left you feeling like he appreciated you. Needless to say, that approach earned him widespread respect and massive cooperation for a number of his industry initiatives. The “I’m here” attitude projection is a derailment factor and the “You’re here” showcases interest and enthusiasm for being in the presence of others. It is indeed a powerful approach to leverage.

2. Execute on social blocking and tackling. The basics count! Smile more, engage with people with the “You’re here” attitude suggested above and practice and employ active listening techniques. The latter emphasizes listening more than talking, striving to understand the views of others by asking questions and then working hard to offer supportive ideas or direct help.

3. Seek first to understand. While much about passion is you putting your enthusiasm for your project or work on display, it’s imperative that you understand how your ideas fit with the interests and initiatives of others. Too often in the workplace, people are at cross-purposes over approaches. They focus and argue on “The What.” They fail to understand that they completely agree on “The Why.” No one loves a pontificating blowhard who fails to listen to the views of others. Everyone appreciates someone who can listen and understand interests and blend or meld ideas.

4. Accept and project that you are there to solve problems. Too many professionals display a sense of righteous indignation over the problems they encounter…and of course these problems are always because others are too ignorant to get their part right. That’s bull. Your job is to enthusiastically seek out and engage with others to make things better (improved quality, reduced time or cost, improved effectiveness etc.). Stop thinking and projecting that you are the only smart one in a sea of idiots and start recognizing and displaying through your actions that you are here to help fix and strengthen.

5. Turn the volume up but remember, it’s not about you! Many good professionals struggle with articulating how important they perceive their work is and how excited they are to be engaged in it. And when they do find the courage to share their enthusiasm, the message comes out muddled or it seems self-serving to others.

Do find or create opportunities to share your genuine excitement. Project review meetings, executive updates and even workplace social situations are all appropriate venues to showcase your enthusiasm for your initiatives. Make certain however, to anchor your excitement in why the initiative is relevant/helpful/germane to creating something new, fixing something that needs fixing or doing something important more effectively. It’s not about you!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Showcasing your passion for your work sends a strong message to everyone around you. It screams, “I’m engaged, I’m here to help and to solve, and let’s do something great.” As an executive, and a coach, I love this attitude. I’ll move mountains to help these people. Sadly, this type of enthusiasm is either dormant in many or simply in short supply. Odd, because it costs absolutely nothing. Try it on for size, you might just like the results in your career and your life.

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 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.


Level-Up #2—Reality Check for the New Vice President

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting the successful identification and development of new executives.

There are few more simultaneously exciting and disorienting experiences in your professional life than your initial promotion to a corporate position as vice president of something.

A Swirl of Emotions:

The promotion feels good personally, because in your mind, it validates your hard work and the sacrifices you made earlier in your career. And it is gratifying that someone or some group thought highly enough of your work and your potential to trust you at this new level. Congratulations!

It’s exciting, because you are confident that now that you have the title and authority that comes with it, and you’ll be able to push through those sweeping changes you know are needed to keep your firm at the top of the industry.

And it’s a bit disorienting, because there’s a lot of “new” involved. Your peers are new. Your routine is new…new meetings to attend, new reports to generate and new goals and assignments from your boss that are a lot fuzzier and more abstract than those you are used to tackling.  A great deal in this new role feels new, but after all, you haven’t made it this far without embracing change. And how tough can it be to succeed at this level? It’s not much different than every other promotion in your career. Or so you think.

And then reality sets in.

4 Hard Facts of Life in Your New Role as Vice President (and a few thoughts on what to do about them):

1. Don’t expect a ticker tape welcoming parade from your new peers. Title offers you admission to but not credibility in the executive ranks. Don’t expect a great deal of start-up help or even attention from the grizzled veterans sitting around the table with similar titles but eons more experience. To them, you’re furniture until proven otherwise.

A key part of early success or avoiding derailment is to prove credible to these brokers of power, influence and resources. Reach out to them individually. Strive to understand their priorities and in particular, their issues/needs vis a vis your resources and functional areas and then deliver help. If they begin to perceive you are serious about being part of the solution, the barriers will crumble and working relationships will form.

2. There is no honeymoon period. OK, I’ll give you until about mid-morning on your first day. After that, it’s, “what have you done for your firm lately?” Moral to the story: if you’re starting in your new role without an understanding of the terrain and challenges as well as the framework for a plan, you’re already behind.

Quickly focus on understanding your priorities. This includes tuning into the metrics your boss uses to evaluate you as well as learning to understand her priorities and goals. It also includes getting to know your new team members and plugging into their world with 3 simple questions: What’s working? What’s not? What do you need me to do to help you/your area with your goals? Remember to do something with the feedback. Quickly.

3. They promoted you because they trust you to make good decisions. Now make some! They might have left out the part about the issues requiring decisions being significantly more ambiguous than in prior roles and the outcomes being much more impactful. Yes, it’s important to be able to select that next market to penetrate or, to choose what products or programs to cut so that you can focus on things that hopefully will bring more value two years from now. Regardless of the ambiguity, you’re on the hook for some good decisions. Now.

It’s time to exercise those decision-making skills I’ve been writing about in at least 924 of my 1,000 plus posts here at Management Excellence. (OK slight exaggeration, but not by much.) Seriously, learn to leverage framing for fun and profit and be careful of the decision traps that bedevil so much human interaction. Learning to make good decisions or, teaching your new team to make decisions is a lot like that fitness program you’ve been thinking about. The view in the mirror doesn’t change unless you do something about it. Read, study and apply the tools of effective decision-making. Teach your teams to talk and frame and debate effectively, and liberally leverage outside perspectives to help or to sanity check. This is the hard work that will either keep you in this role, propel you to the next level or earn a one-way ticket heading in the opposite direction of the C-Suite.

4. Everyone’s waiting to figure out who you are. Seriously, your new team needs to know what you stand for and what your elevation to the lofty new title means for them. As mentioned earlier, your new peers view you as furniture or white noise until you prove yourself and the boss is excited but looking for validation of the decision to move you up. The title is great, the compensation not bad, but the stakes are high.

Accept that you’ve got to prove yourself all over again and get on with the work. The “What’s Working” discussions referenced above, are a great way to break the ice with your team. While it’s tempting to assert yourself in your first executive meetings, my council is to choose your contributions very deliberately and avoid the tendency to sound like a jackass as you share your pent up concerns about how the company is run. Seek first to understand in your new environment and find ways to prove helpful and supportive. The allies you make now will provide the treasure for revolution later on in your tenure.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Congratulations on your new role and welcome to my reality check. You may have just earned the hardest job in the firm. Or, in any firm.

There’s a reality about the role of Vice President in most organizations that isn’t apparent until you occupy the position. You’re sandwiched between the needs and demands of the CEO and the needs and demands of those below you, and they often are at odds with each other. That and the fact that influencing change from your role may well be harder than doing it from the middle of the pack due to the power and politics swirling around the C-Suite, are sobering but real issues for anyone in this role.

Go into your new arrangement with eyes wide open and with the acceptance that the first-time Vice President’s role isn’t a linear extension of your prior role. A beginner’s mind is healthy in this circumstance, coupled with the recognition that you’re on the clock and under scrutiny from above, from the sides and from below. Seek quickly to understand and then leverage your skills for communication and action, all the while forging new alliances and serving a large number of cantankerous constituencies.

It’s simple.

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.