Leadership Caffeine—The Struggles Really Do Make Us Stronger

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 world of leadership development lost a giant at the end of July this past summer, when Warren Bennis passed away. In tribute, I’m including his classic article, “Crucibles of Leadership” (HBR, fee required) with Robert Thomas in one of my leadership courses this year. Revisiting this article is always inspirational both for myself and for the students who share their own crucible experiences including: personal loss, business and career struggles, and being on the receiving end of discrimination, sexism and racism. I’m humbled not only at the hardships these good professionals have endured, but at their remarkable attitudes about surviving and leveraging the experience for good in their lives.

In case you’re not familiar with how Bennis and Thomas applied the term crucible to professional development, consider: “…the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, questions their assumptions, hone their judgment.”

Almost to a person, the students in my courses describing their own crucible experiences look back at them as transformational in their careers. The strength it took to endure the hardship translated into resolve and commitment to persevere, to make right a wrong for others and to do good in their own lives.

In my own hiring practices, I look and listen for the challenges and struggles, more than the successes. While this doesn’t crop up in many articles on best practices in hiring, I’ve used it to good success.

Consider this very real crucible scenario I encountered a few years ago:

I traveled from my home city across the country to interview two very different candidates for an important strategic leadership position on my team. The first candidate boasted a nearly spotless record of achievement and accomplishments and his career progression looked like he had been shot out of a cannon, gaining responsibility and altitude with each passing year. His life story read like a storybook…the one we all wish we might enjoy.  He was indeed a solid professional and almost a no-brainer of a hire.

The other candidate’s record was good, however, there were several points in time when things appeared to have gone wrong. A start-up failure was the first red flag, followed by a few years of seeming under-employment. Strikes one and two in many books. As I probed a bit more, it was clear the individual quickly had established herself as a leader in her under-employed role. A definite positive. Finally, upon closer review of her background, it was clear there was a gap of about 7 months followed by still more under-employment, albeit, once again moving quickly to a position of responsibility in a struggling not-for-profit. The roller-coaster was confusing to me. However, since that time she had rebounded nicely, recently passing the three year mark in a role of significant responsibility with a well-regarded firm. And while my position was likely a stretch role for her, she was in the game, but not nearly as attractive on paper as the other candidate.

I always like to do my own reference checking (I know, H.R. professional everywhere are shuddering) and during the course of the discussion with one of her bosses from the under-employed phase of her career, he volunteered how much he admired her for her ability to navigate life’s challenges. I probed a bit and it turned out that she had spent several years living through a litany of crucible moments, including serving as the care-giver for a terminally ill parent and then navigating the loss of her spouse and her new role as a single parent. I was told that her start-up had fallen victim to an unscrupulous financial advisor, although according to her former boss, she viewed herself as 100% accountable for that employee and in fact had repaid all of her friends and family investors over the years.

I reached back to her and asked very generally for her to talk about the challenges she had encountered and what they had taught her. What I uncovered was an attitude in the face of adversity that was truly remarkable and humbling. I doubt I would have conducted myself as well as she did.

The first candidate was compelling for all of the right reasons.

I hired the second candidate without hesitation. There was no charity case here. Both candidates were qualified, although one was stronger on paper. Nonetheless, I was (and am) committed to fielding the absolute best talent to help our organization grow and an individual who had fought through hardship and evidenced the ability to survive and ultimately prevail, would bring a level of personal and leadership depth and hunger to succeed far beyond that of my more traditional and well-heeled candidate.

She was a great hire and continues to prosper in her career.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your struggles and even your failures are important elements of who you are as a leader.  A track-record of chronic failures is different than having encountered and survived a profound setback in your life. It’s the setbacks, the unexpected crises and your approach to surviving and persevering through these crucible moments that forge your character as a person and as a leader. Learn, live and lead. And as a hiring manager responsible for building your team’s and your organization’s leadership future, open your eyes to people who understand what it means to struggle, survive and ultimately succeed.

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—Resolve to Conquer Your Fear of Speaking

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!

A frighteningly few number of people genuinely relish the idea of getting up in front of an audience at work and talking.That’s too bad, because there are few skills that will take you further and help you more in your career than developing your speaking skills.

4 Big Benefits in the Workplace of Conquering Your Fear of Speaking:

1. You separate yourself from the herd. Your willingness to stand and engage coupled with the competence developed through practice puts you in a smaller group and helps you stand out to your senior managers, peers and colleagues across your organization. Of course, people are looking for more than hot air! Message quality, authenticity and supporting actions are essential!

2. You develop a platform for your ideas. In a culture where ideas to improve, fix, or do something new are potentially worth their weight in gold, you need influence and a platform to ensure your ideas are heard, explored and acted upon. There are few better ways to support developing influence and cultivating interest in our ideas, than being able to describe and advocate for them comfortably and competently in large group settings.

3. You are increasingly perceived as a leader. While there’s no connection between extroversion and effective leadership that I am aware of, people PERCEIVE that you have leadership qualities if you can confidently articulate your views. It’s OK to leverage this perception. And remember, there’s a reality in the workplace that you have to understand how you are perceived and manage this appropriately, developing comfort and confidence in your speaking skills will aid this cause. Again the health warning that no one loves a pontificating blowhard, so message quality and authenticity count!

4. You develop self-confidence that leads to strengthened self-esteem. And when that unexpected but much coveted invitation to present at the board meeting or executive offsite occurs, this self-confidence will be one of your best assets in surviving and succeeding in this new setting.

It’s time to confront your fear of speaking and make this critical skill a valuable part of who you are as a professional.

6 Tips for Cultivating Competence and Confidence in Your Speaking Skills:

1. Practice! Seek out some easy opportunities to practice. Departmental or team updates can be fairly non-threatening.  Alternatives include community events, classroom visits, or school committees. I teach a number of graduate management courses every year. Nothing forces one to up the game more than being accountable to an intelligent group of professionals for quality content delivery and facilitation.

2. Seek feedback. Ask your boss and peers for specific feedback on your speaking performance and effectiveness.  What should you do more of?  Where do you need to improve.  Don’t settle for, “that was great!”  No one gets better by being told they were great. Ask: What worked? What didn’t? How could that presentation been more effective?

3. Seek help. Search on “Toastmasters” and find a local chapter and join! These remarkable groups of professionals all understand the benefits that accrue from strengthening speaking skills and will become your best feedback and support network. In the rare chance you end up in a chapter that doesn’t work for you, don’t give up…just switch to another one. I’ve pushed more team members than I can count into Toastmasters and almost to a person they have prospered in part because of their growth in self-confidence.

4. Reference a good book or great blogs. My favorites: “The Exceptional Presenter” by Timothy Koegel or the blog (Public Words) and books of Dr. Nick Morgan.

5. Engage a Coach. People use coaches for great reasons. They view us objectively and clinically and can offer the critical input we need to eliminate weaknesses, close gaps, and enhance strengths. Ask your manager if there’s an opportunity for your firm to bear the cost. If not, don’t let that slow you down. The cost is small when factored over the course of a career and evaluated against the potential benefits.

6. Volunteer. Yep, you heard me. After a lifetime of sitting in the back row dodging the teacher’s eyes, it’s time to stand up and assert your great ideas. Once you recover from the out-of-body experience from raising your hand for a speaking opportunity, you’ll find it exhilarating.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Don’t let a common and irrational fear of speaking in large groups stand in the way of your success. Developing the confidence to stand, deliver and engage is liberating and professionally profitable.

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.

 

Art of Managing—When People Develop at Their Pace, Not Yours

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.

I’ve encountered more than a few managers who have expressed frustration over the pace of development of someone they have marked for future advancement and increased contribution. For many of these managers, it’s a vexing dilemma with no clear solution.

One manager offered: Mary is a talented individual, and I believe she can do more for us. However, she seems to run in the opposite direction from new opportunities and challenges, preferring to stay closer to what she knows.

Another shared: Jason was great as a new employee, and we moved him along quickly by adding new responsibilities and more money. Recently however, it seems like he cannot get out of his own way. The mistakes are piling up and his colleagues are beginning to question his capabilities.

Everyone has a capacity to learn and grow, however, some individuals self-limit their pace based on insecurities and fears. While there are many reasons why otherwise talented individuals resist new opportunities, a few of the most common include: concern about sustaining a high level of performance in an unfamiliar role, discomfort over dealing with people outside of their core area of expertise or, reticence over changing a mission that they’ve long internalized. As a result, it’s possible for people with remarkable skills and potential to become stuck on a personal performance plateau, leaving otherwise conscientious managers flummoxed over what to do. There are no easy or magical answers, however, here are 4 ideas to help support you in this situation.

4 Ideas to Help People Move Beyond Personal Performance Plateaus:

1. First, assess whether your expectations for the individual are realistic. Get some objective input from an outside observer to help ask and answer some important questions. Are your expectations for this individual’s growth realistic? Are you imposing your belief in their abilities on the individual when he/she doesn’t share this same belief? Have you moved the person along too fast and not allowed appropriate acclimation or mastery time? Have you reached a point where additional growth must be supported by additional training, education or coaching?

2. Start a dialog rich in expectation setting and ripe with feedback. Talk openly with the individual about your belief in their potential and share examples. If your high potential is suddenly struggling in a new role, share specific and timely behavioral feedback and work together to find a way to strengthen performance. (It may be training and education, it may be clarification of objectives, and it may just be lack of confidence in tackling the new role.)

For many managers, it’s awkward to start a constructive dialog on performance challenges with someone who has been on the receiving end of nothing but gold stars and praise. It’s important to get beyond this discomfort. There’s never a substitute for honesty and transparency, and this honest and behavioral focused dialog is the foundation for future development efforts.

3. Change your approach to the individual’s development and advancement. Design assignments, not positions to help people acclimate to new challenges. The formality of a potential promotion to responsibilities outside the experience or comfort zones of an individual can trigger a fear and flight response. Mitigate this by exposing high potentials to informal experiences in the new areas. Ask them to contribute to a project team. Assign them to engage people in other functions on an improvement initiative. Create a scenario to shadow managers and other contributors in different areas. And don’t forget about lateral job rotation assignments as a means of exposing someone to new people and experiences before promoting them to the next level. (Note: it often seems like assignment rotation is a lost approach. We don’t practice it enough in most of our organizations, yet it is the best way I know to build well rounded team members. Give it a shot even if it is not widely practiced in your organization.)

4. Recognize that some people just want to perfect their craft, and refocus their development to support the pursuit of mastery in their current vocation. Your belief in a person’s ability to do more is secondary to their core interests. Accept that sometimes it’s not fear or insecurity that holds people in place, but rather a deep interest in what they are doing. At the end of the day, the individual always reserves the right to stay close to a vocation or role they identify with and want to master.

While I encourage you to pursue all of the above, have an honest debate yourself about whether you should reset your expectations. It’s OK to have narrow contributors who are high performers in their preferred domain. Not everyone is interested in leading or even in doing more. In this situation, shift your support to helping them become the best performer they can be in their chosen area and move your sights to someone else for broader leadership and management tasks.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Kudos on your concern for the development and growth of your team members. The worlds needs more of you. Nonetheless, people don’t always respond as you might expect and at the pace you might perceive is appropriate. Handled poorly, you risk derailing a high potential and damaging your management credibility. The best managers learn to adjust and adapt to suit the individual.

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—How to Ace Your Next Executive Presentation

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!

While some people view an invitation to present to executives as a prison sentence (or worse), this truly can be a career enhancing opportunity. However, like any challenging situation, preparation and attitude are keys to success.

I’ve worked with dozens of professionals faced with this opportunity for the first time, and every encounter reminds me of my own early emotions as I prepared for and dreaded my first senior management presentation.

It’s not worth the churn, dread and sleeplessness folks, especially if you prepare properly and thoroughly.

7 Ideas to Help You Prepare for and Nail Your Executive Presentation:

1. Start early and prepare your mind. Unless you are presiding over a disaster of monumental proportions and have been summoned to explain yourself in front of the firing squad, this is a positive invitation. It’s an honor to be invited and it is an opportunity to establish an impression with the people who can choose you to be successful. Prepare like it’s the next most important job interview of your career.

2. Know who invited you and why. Since someone had to champion getting your name placed on the agenda, it’s important for you to tune into why you were invited and precisely what they are expecting from your time on the agenda. Your inviting sponsor in this case has a stake in your success and typically will do whatever it takes to help you prepare for your presentation. Leverage this resource liberally.

3. Know your audience. This one can be difficult for individuals who have had very little or no prior contact with members of the senior management team. Your sponsor or your boss may have some insights, and of course, it’s reasonable to err on the side of assuming that the group is comprised of successful, smart people interested in facts, well-developed ideas, clear plans and how all of this will help the firm achieve its strategic and financial goals.

4. Plan your message. Whatever your topic is, you’re in front of the executive team for just a few brief moments. Use this time with the skill of an entrepreneur asking for an investment in an idea. Your message must be crisp, your key points or recommendations defensible and your defense supportable.

While most of us tend to launch powerpoint and think in serial fashion when preparing for a presentation, start by planning and tuning a message map before you build your first slide. (Note: it’s OK to skip the slides…see point #6.)  The message mapping process forces you to lock in a clear central theme and then defend this theme with key points and supporting evidence. A properly developed message map offers you the ultimate support for answering the expected difficult questions from your executives. Also, everyone will appreciate a crisp, well-developed message delivered with clarity and confidence. (For more on the technique, check out my post: The Career Enhancing Benefits of Message Mapping.)

5. Bring your confidence and back it with transparency. Executives smell “lack of confidence” immediately, and they know when someone is attempting to obfuscate the issues. Confidence and transparency are two critical components that must be present when you present to this group. A perceived lack of confidence will destroy your credibility in the moment and any attempt to mask risks with sunshine or offer visions of results that cannot be supported will result in you effectively inviting an air strike of questions that you will not recover from in this setting. Alternatively, clearly describing risks and highlighting assumptions while offering a way forward will earn you serious credibility stripes. It goes without saying that having your message down cold (thanks to your message map) and ample practice, will help you build confidence.

6. Focus on the message and keep the materials clean and simple. If you suck at building clear, crisp, bullet-light and text limited slides or handouts, get some help. Call in a favor from a colleague or go into favor debt, but ask for help. Leave the eye-charts, clip-art and complex animation builds for some other setting. The visuals and supporting materials must never fight the messaging and thanks to our mostly sloppy use of the presentation tools such as Powerpoint, they often do just that.

7. Admit it if you don’t know it. Said another way, never, ever make stuff up. While this piece of advice might seem preposterous, the pressure of the event has overwhelmed many an accomplished professional’s common sense, especially in the face of tough questioning.  You are much better off admitting you don’t know something than attempting to bluff your way through the answer. The best response in this situation: “That’s a great question and instead of hazarding a guess, I will get back to you today.” And then do it!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Last and not least, remember that the prevailing attitude of the executives before you open your mouth is one of interest and hope. You wouldn’t have made the agenda if they weren’t interested in hearing and learning from you, and you can bet that good executive members are always excited to have intelligent and confident new voices join the discussion in planning the way forward for the firm. Make a great impression and you will be back. Perhaps in a new and improved capacity!

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.