Just One Thing—Push Beyond “M” for Mediocrity

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!

Why do we fail with our initiatives (projects, strategy, leadership) in the workplace so regularly when the causes of failure are well documented and the practices to minimize the chances of failure so well identified?

A student exploring project risk management was perplexed when she compared the data on project failures to the literature on risk management, only to see that the causes of failure and ideas for reducing risk were clearly identified over and over again in a nearly endless stream of articles.

I see this same situation play out repeatedly in leadership and strategy work.

The formula for leading effectively isn’t a secret kept locked in a vault with the combination known only to two people. In fact, the principles have been understood for a few millennia. And for us today in our firms, the behaviors of miserable managers and lousy leader are well understood and at last count, there were seemingly 4 quintillion resources offering input, training and help on how to lead effectively.

For strategy, too many of these programs fail not just because they were poor ideas (usually not the case), but rather because the process of execution broke down. People fail to coordinate the work necessary to properly and effectively bridge ideas to execution. While not to minimize the complexity of executing on strategy, the issues of communication, coordination, feedback, adaptation and so forth are fairly easy to grok.

Finally, when I work with people and teams in troubled organizations, I always figuratively scratch my head over the juxtaposition of relatively smart people who understand what is going wrong with the reality that few are doing anything about it.

It’s as if we have a default gear labeled “M” for mediocrity in our organizations and in ourselves. It’s the acceptance of this gear inside organizations along with the perpetuation of practices that reinforce “M” that governs our consistent and repeated sub-par performance.

However, not everyone or every team is held back by the tractor-beam pull of mediocrity.

In troubled organizations, I look for the individuals who fight back and rail against the tyranny of something that screams less than excellent. These people fight mediocrity with all of their energy and while they are often laboring in relative isolation, I strive to place them in positions of power for getting things done. From leading change initiatives to managing projects to owning big chunks of the coordination of strategy execution, these individuals have an extra gear or two beyond “M” that allows them to move people and teams faster and more effectively than the norm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For all of us, we have a choice to make. We can either be part of the problem or we can push ourselves to shift out of “M” and fix what’s broken and quit perpetuating the mistakes that give rise to the same advice over and over and over again. The choice is yours on what gear governs your performance. But be careful, once you shift away from mediocrity, the side effects are quite rewarding. You feel great about yourself and your work and someone somewhere who chooses people to be successful will want to create a whole new set of opportunities for you.

Is it time for you to shift out of “M” and fix what you know is broken?

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—Quit Playing Down to Their Level

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!

Good competition raises the level of performance for all involved.

Whether in athletic endeavors or business, a skilled, aggressive competitor forces us to raise the quality of our own game. Strenuous competition with aggressive, skilled performers tests us physically and mentally and helps us find that extra gear needed to perform at our best.

Annoyingly, the opposite also seems to hold true. When the level of competition is low, we typically back off of our own best game.

In business, lack of aggressive competition or the lack of highly skilled performers results in a fat, dumb and happy cadence in the workplace. We lose our edge and we settle into a gear that minimizes stress and conserves fuel. Hunger disappears. The drive to innovate or to pursue excellence abates. Effectively, we play down to the level of the competition.

Great performers love to be around other great performers…whether on the same team or on opposing sides. Just the presence of highly skilled performers is enough to help us raise our performance expectations and levels. When confronted with the opposite, it’s awkward…less interesting and less motivating for them.

I see the negative form of this situation play out in the workplace in a number of different ways.

Good people with fresh ideas and new ways of approaching old problems find themselves swimming in a sea of toxic politics or suppressed by a crowd of collegial passive-aggressive types. Eventually, they grow tired of swimming against the tide and jump out in search of fresh challenges.

The brilliant individual contributor is hired to help lead the firm in a new direction and after the welcome messages fade, she finds herself in some form of alternate reality where heads nod in the right direction and people focus their energy in another. Some recognize this situation early in their tenure, and when solid efforts at coalition building yield little in the way of support, they leave…with most people failing to recognize the future of the business walking out the door.

The worst of all of these situations is a team of hard-working, capable people who are hungry to promote change but held back by poor leadership. In my experience, many of these people refuse to give in to the reality that the big changes they believe in and need to help the firm level-up are not forthcoming. They continue to raise the issues to little or no response and meanwhile, they execute their day jobs in good fashion, settling for any morsels of improvement they can drive. And slowly, over time, their expectations and their cry for “new” or “improved” reduces to an occasional whisper and they begin to accept the current state. This is when they’ve let the other players reduce the level of their game.

The gravitational pull of the status quo is strong. Moving from mediocrity towards excellence takes remarkable energy and great leadership. In the absence of great leadership, the acceptance of mediocrity across the culture wins.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No business can thrive when key individuals or teams are playing down to a level that resembles mediocrity. No one can survive and thrive in their career by playing down a level. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Either refuse to give up…find a way forward…or find a better team to play on.

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—New Leadership Role? Try Warmth Over Strength

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!

Let’s face it, the new leadership role is a great testament to your prior success and the faith that your firm’s senior leaders place in your abilities to help build the future. You’ve gained their confidence and trust, but the hard work is still in front of you. You’ve got to earn the trust of your new team members.

The group of Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger writing in the July/August 2013 Influence themed issue of Harvard Business Review with their article, “Connect, Then Lead,” suggest that you choose your approach to engaging your new team members very carefully to optimize your start-up effectiveness. In particular, they suggest that you should fight your natural instinct to initially project your strength and competence and instead, focus on displaying warmth to support building trust.

For some of this, warmth approach is no easy task!

Focus on the Goal:

Remind yourself as you plan your start-up with your new team, that to be effective, you’ve got to be trusted. Trust breeds openness, engagement, support, creativity, communion and a host of other good environmental factors on a team and between a leader and a new team. The challenge for the new leader is how to earn trust as quickly as possible.

The authors in the HBR article cite evidence from behavioral scientists who suggest that when we judge others (in this case, the new boss), we look first at two characteristics: “how lovable they are” and “how fearsome they are.” While I doubt you think in terms of “lovable” or “fearsome” you are internally processing on your reaction to their verbal presentation and non-verbal cues and your perspective on their warmth impacts your perception of their trustworthiness. The over-emphasis on competence factors and an approach that suggests,  “I’m the new sheriff in town,” may raise the defenses and keep people from engaging with the new boss in a way that they need to begin creating an effective working environment.

The judgment on lovable or fearsome becomes important as we process on two key questions: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Is he/she capable of acting on these intentions?”  Any answer that breeds caution or tentativeness fights the early establishment of trust and delays the ability of the new leader to truly tap into the true perspectives and best creativity of her team members.

Adding a bit of data to the mix, the authors cite a study of 51,836 leaders where only 27 of them were rated in the bottom quartile in terms of likability and the top quartile in terms of overall leadership effectiveness. By my math, that’s a poor outcome for those of us who take pride in our competence and effectiveness and prefer a no-nonsense approach to getting started.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

As always, Mom was right. The behavioral science is just getting around to concluding what she was telling us years ago. You get more cooperation with honey than vinegar.

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.

Consider:

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.

 

Just One Thing—The Impact of a Simple Gesture

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!

I fly almost weekly, and for the most part, the experience is sterile, mildly uncomfortable and less than memorable. I typically occupy one of the seats in an exit row, and like everyone else in steerage, I buy my meal if I’m hungry, and I keep my nose in my reading and my ears plugged with music. Conversations, if any, are typically left to those traveling with family or friends.

My airline of necessity, United, does a good job of getting me from point to point mostly on-time. One flight blends into another with no distinguishing characteristics. The attendants are efficient, if not a bit harried, and I have nothing but words of appreciation for the professionals who pilot these flying buses with skill in all manner of conditions. Nonetheless, if given an alternative that offered a better experience with equal convenience, I suspect I would not care about the logo on the tail of the plane.

During my Friday afternoon return home flight last week, I engaged in the usual process of squeezing into a seat trying to make myself small because the person next to me wasn’t, and generally tuning out the experience in the hope that it would soon end. A simple announcement altered the experience.

In mid-flight, the attendant shared with the passengers that the gentleman in seat 20C was on his retirement flight, returning from headquarters to his home in Chicago. This was his final business flight after several decades of traveling with the airline.

Hearty applause followed the announcement and suddenly the flight changed. People emerged from their self-imposed digital cocoons and started conversing. The passengers in the vicinity of the retiree asked questions and offered their congratulations and more than a few of us shared our own flying and career experiences with our previously unknown seatmates.

As people deplaned, there were more congratulations and best wishes and encouragement for lowering his golf score, and then like always, everyone faded into the terminal in pursuit of connections, baggage or transportation. Nonetheless, the experience was different. It had been altered by that simple gesture.

The simple act of singling someone out and highlighting a milestone humanized the entire experience. It didn’t take much time…30 seconds or so for the announcement, and it didn’t cost the airline any money. All it took was an alert attendant who engaged with his customers and learned how important this single flight was to one person.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a lesson in this situation for any airline or business striving to differentiate in a world where almost everything seems to be some flavor of vanilla. The best marketing always has been and always will be relating to people as individuals and creating a warm, memorable experience.

There’s a lesson here for leaders as well. Imagine if you tried this today in your workplace with your own team members. People do their best work when they perceive they are being treated as individuals who matter. The cost is zero. The time investment is nominal. All you have to do is pay attention and then offer a small gesture. The payoff is priceless.

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.