5 Radical and Irreverent Ideas to Help You Find Focus at Work

Image of a magnifying glass hovering over the word FocusA typical day in most workplaces is one unending series of large and small distractions that combine to keep most of us from making much forward progress on our one or two real priorities that matter. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people mutter around 5:15 p.m. that they are finally getting to the task they had started the day intending to complete.

Sadly, the workplace environment may be the single biggest inhibitor of effective workplace productivity.

5 Radical Ideas to Help You Find More Focus:

Health warning. Applying these ideas without a bit of common-sense and discretion may be harmful to your boss’s view of you. On the other hand, you might just make enough progress on your priorities to earn the boss’s undying gratitude.

1. Ignore Your Outlook Calendar. Yeah, I know…you would rather not wear underwear to work than go an hour without your precious calendar. This marvel of software engineering may be the greatest tool on the planet for organizing and systematizing distractions in the form of useless updates, never-ending status check-ins and meetings with no particular purpose that anyone can discern. Unless it involves a boss, the boss’s boss or a real boss in the form of a customer, try ignoring the rest of the filler in your schedule and use the time wisely on something that matters.

2. Say “No” to People Who Just Want to Talk. These human time-sinks (the analog equivalent of heat sinks in electronics that suck the heat out of the environment) amble into your assigned work space, plop their rear-ends down and regale you with tales of irrelevant crap. Before you know it, you’ve been lulled into a catatonic trance by the drone of their voice and you only snap out of it when mercifully, your Outlook meeting alarm goes off, offering you an excuse to trade this waste of time for another. Learn to politely shut these people down in the interest of getting your work done. Do this consistently and you’ll train them to stay away. Steel yourself for the sad puppy dog looks you get when you politely nudge them the hell out of your office.

3. Quit Deleting Things from Your E-Mail In-Box. Much like my Outlook comment above, I feel a ripple in the force for this one. Efficiency experts everywhere, you have permission to be outraged by this idea! In reality, there’s not a damned thing you’ll do better if your e-mail in-box is pristine. It might satisfy some goofy psychological need, but here’s a dirty little secret for most of us: the search function makes your in-box the greatest digital filing cabinet you’ll ever not own. The 1.2 million e-mails in my g-mail in-box (OK, it’s only 67,000 and I have to pay google $5 a year for storage space) are happily searchable at light speed and I know where everything is. And face it. At the end of your life, if you could have back the hours you invested over a career in cleaning up your in-box, I bet you would like that time back.

4. “Just Say No” to Powerpoint.  Seriously…one more flipping trip through a death-march of serial boredom perpetrated on me by individuals who missed the memo on bullets, font-size and pixels on screen, and I might lose it. What started out as a cool way to share ideas has turned into the single biggest inhibitor of effective dialog ever invented. Turn off the projector and the computer, stare at your colleagues and start talking. If you need a picture, go to a white-board. You’ll be amazed at the quality of the conversations when people are freed from the tyranny at staring at a screen until they start drooling.

5. Let the Little Things Age On Your To-Do List. This isn’t a game of volume, it’s a game of quality. If you’re a chronic “To-Do” list maker, make certain to focus on the one (or at most two) major issues on your list. While you might feel like you’re making progress by knocking out a bunch of the little items, it’s a never-ending trap that guarantees you’ll never make it to the big items. Somehow those pesky mosquito-like tasks multiply and just when you swat a bunch out of the way, the new ones return. Let the buzzing continue, because there are dragons that need slaying.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Time is our most precious asset. It’s irreplaceable, and the top performing professionals I know are remarkable at focusing on what matters and pushing the other items out of sight and out of mind. It’s easy for us to be lulled into the rhythm of the daily workplace and all its inherent distractions. It’s essential for us, for our teams and for our organizations to fight the distractions and find the time to focus on the issues that matter. If you cannot connect an activity to serving a customer, serving an employee or team member or helping the company beat a competitor or achieve key goals, it’s not an activity worth pursuing.

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.

 

Leadership Caffeine: Nine Key Skills Demanded By Our Times

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 seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

As a result of vocation and experience, I spend a great deal of time bridging generations and striving to support leadership and professional development for those just reaching the executive suite and for those just starting out on their career journeys.

It’s a fascinating contrast in perspectives.

The more youthful of the two groups stare at today’s world of volatility unblinking. It’s what they know and what they’ve grown up with in their short lives. Change, speed, technology, globalization, events that shock the entire economic system….it’s familiar ground.

Those with experience still deal with the notion that “this feels really different.” In my own case, the global world of business looks nothing like the world I encountered when I was fresh out of college. It does indeed feel different just about every day.

Regardless of perspective there are some critical core skills required to lead successfully in this environment. Leaders…and professionals of all ages and experience levels, take heed and invest in cultivating these nine skills required for success in this era:

Nine Key Professional Capabilities Demanded By Our Times:

1. Acting and Leading Authentically. It’s more critical than ever to be able to build trust on teams, trust across cultures…and trust as a leader, and the best starting point is to be yourself, let people see your strengths and weaknesses and work hard to get to connect with and get to know those you work with and for.

 2. Learning to Adjust Your Altitude. Helping your organization successfully navigate through today’s minefield of change requires the ability to connect the big picture…i.e. the macro forces and emerging patterns in markets and industries to the details of execution inside our organizations. You need to see the forest and the trees.

3. Learning to Leverage Extreme Ambiguity.  Unfortunately, ambiguity combines with fear to paralyze teams and individuals and exacerbate problems. Today’s leaders must embrace ambiguity as an opportunity to create, not a requirement to hunker down and wait until the smoke clears. It never does.

4. Recognizing the Need to Adapt. It’s nice to be the one promoting change and guiding teams into new frontiers. However, change will impact you as well, and your ability to adapt versus retreat is critical for survival and success. Ask anyone who has ever survived and then succeeded following a merger and they will quickly highlight their acceptance of the situation and their focus on adapting to the new role, culture and mission as critical to their success.

5. Paying Attention to Building High Performance Teams. Most of our work takes place on teams and in projects. Your ability to enable and support successful team development is mission critical in this world. There are common conditions surrounding high performance teams, and most of them don’t spontaneously generate. As a team leader, you own forming and framing the environment, promoting values, teaching teams to talk, argue and decide. You own feedback, coaching and ensuring proper organizational support. As a team member, you need to approach every assignment as an opportunity to strengthen your network, gain new skills, support your team members and showcase what you can do to help the group achieve.

6. Growing Your Cultural Intelligence (CI). There’s a nearly perfect probability that your business will become increasingly intertwined with global suppliers, customers, partners, competitors and team members. Developing CI is an organizational initiative, and one that must be pursued in the planning or early phases of your global outreach. If you are increasingly involved in leading teams with contributors from around the globe, you are absolutely on the spot for advancing your Cultural Intelligence. Your results depend upon it.

7. Learning to Switch Gears from Leading to Following. Strengthening your skills as a follower is as important as strengthening your skills as a leader. As functional and national boundaries dissolve or at least shrink, your ability to move seamlessly from leader of one initiative to committed follower for another is critical to your success. And your efforts here set an outstanding example for those around you.

8. Recognizing the Need to Grow Your Power. Those with power are the ones who get things done inside organizations. The best way to cultivate power is to volunteer for it. Grab the initiatives that need ownership and draw others into those initiatives and suddenly, you are deciding what gets done and who does it. Welcome to power. No need to over-throw the boss or stick knives in backs. Just solve some problems.

9. Cultivating an Innovation Mentality. Gone are the days when innovation was just for engineers. It’s an innovation-driven world, and the most compelling innovations are occurring in how we work, communicate, market and make money.  If you’re leading others, one of your Key Performance Indicators is how innovative your team is. Their innovation is a reflection of your leadership. If you’re working as an individual contributor, every team and every project needs great ideas. Learn to take risks and learn to sell hard and then prove your ideas. Build a reputation as an innovative thinker and doer, and the world is yours!

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve just offered a long list of really difficult things for you to do. Awareness is the first step. Audit yourself against the nine critical skills above and then take action to strengthen the already strong and improve the weak. Seek external feedback from those you trust to provide you the unvarnished truth about yourself. Find a coach. Approach each opportunity with a “Beginner’s Mind,” and seek to learn through more education or via your own self-education. And most importantly, don’t delegate your development and growth to your firm or your boss. Take control. While others choose you for success via promotions and new challenges, you own making their choice an easy one.

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 latest 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.

 

It’s Your Career—A Guide to Becoming a Better Employee

It'sYourCareerWhile guidance on developing as a leader is plentiful…perhaps in over abundance, there’s relatively little in the daily flow of business and management writing devoted to developing as an effective employee.

For just a few minutes, let’s turn the world of leadership and management advice upside down and take on the perspective of the boss and what she’s looking for from you as a member of her team.

10 Things the Boss is Looking for From Effective Employees:

1. Your Presence AND Engagement. We all know that you’ve got to be present to play…that’s table stakes. What the boss really wants beyond your physical presence is active involvement and full attention from the gray matter between your ears. For that period of time when you’re supposed to be on, the focus must be on your work, on collaborating with others to solve problems and on finding a way to meet the challenges in front of you and in front of your team or function. Leave the kids, the dogs, the dentist and the divorce outside of the office.

2. Some Excitement for Your Work. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable it is to engage with, support, develop and promote people who are passionate about their work. It’s amazing how hard most bosses will go to avoid or remove those who are phoning it in every day.

3. Solutions. Some employees are experts at describing problems, but forget to offer ideas and solutions. Spend too much time talking about problems and all that the boss hears is whine, whine, whine. No boss promotes a whiner. Never frame up a problem without offering ideas, and be sure to include yourself as a volunteer to help implement the solutions.

4. Creativity. Working with and managing creative problem solvers is one of the true highlights of almost every boss’s job. Real creativity…different ways of sizing situations or considering solutions and developing new approaches to exploit opportunities, are all priceless to the boss.

5. Speed. Remember that old ad with a headline of “The Boss is On His Way” and employees were shown moving through the office with flames coming out of their rear ends? Well if not, imagine it. Yes, speed and urgency are of the essence. Get it in gear! Don’t let those programs, commitments and follow-up items linger. Nothing annoys a boss more than an employee who says he’ll do something and then it moves at pre-global warming glacial pace.

6. Just the Right Level of Communication. I’m always amazed at employees who don’t take the time to figure out and deliver on the boss’s preferred communication style. If your boss is an active communicator, then don’t distance yourself and make him or her chase you for updates. If your boss is one of those “don’t bug me unless the world is ending and you can’t fix it on your own” types, the frequent updates will just annoy her. Frequency, subjects and level of detail are all important issues you for you to figure out and tailor to meet the boss’s communication needs.

7. Interest in Your Own Development. We’re suckers for people who want to improve their performance and improve their positions and careers. Tell the boss you are interested in developing. Come to the discussion with ideas on where you want to go. Show that you’ve been doing your homework. Show that you are spending your own time improving yourself and then open the door to working together to help you achieve your goals. We melt when approached by people who care enough to push themselves and most of us will move mountains to support those individuals.

8. Your Feedback. Yes, we all need feedback, even bosses. Sadly, as people climb the ladder in the world of bossdom, the flow of incoming feedback tends to slow to an occasional drop of good insight. All good bosses are striving to improve. Find a delicate but clear way to help the boss improve around a specific issue. If he bites your head off, that may not be a good boss. The rest however will be grateful for any useful performance input.

9. Your Thoughtful Opinions and Occasional Polite Dissension. Believe it or not, many bosses truly value employees who share their ideas and offer different perspectives. They value complete thinkers who are confident enough not to just nod their heads. Of course, they also value employees who embrace a decision and act upon it, even if the decision goes against the employee’s recommendations.

10. Your Avoidance of the Office Boss-Bashing Olympics. Bashing the boss ranks up there as one of the world’s oldest full contact sports. It’s tempting to be one of the gang, but that’s a gang you want to avoid. Out of respect for yourself and your situation, skip the boss bashing…regardless of your own opinions. And for a good boss driving controversial change, the bashing will be plentiful and she’ll value your support more than you can imagine.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

You own your career…you own your performance and whether or not you like it, we all report to someone. As Jeffrey Pfeffer offers in his book, Power, someone must choose us to be successful. Instead of being a pain in the boss’s neck, try putting some time and energy into the ten items above. You’ll find work that much more enjoyable, and it doesn’t suck to be on the winning side of promotions and career growth.

Related Post: 

If the Boss Asks You the Time, Don’t Tell Her How to Build a Watch

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

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

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

Just One Thing—Quit Playing the Role of the Office Overbearing Smarty Pants

Just One ThingI confess to having not used the descriptor “smarty pants” since sometime before I turned 11, but I was reminded of it the other day in a Wall Street Journal article on the potential nomination of economist, Larry Summers, to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve.

In describing Mr. Summers’ past accomplishments and credentials for a potential Fed nomination, the article also pointed out some of the negatives swirling around him:

“But to his detractors—of which there are also plenty—he is an overbearing smarty pants who could be a bull in the collegial Fed china shop.”

“He’s not a very self-aware person,” said Cathy O’Neil, a mathematician who worked with Mr. Summers at hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the Bush administration. “He’s incredibly aggressively competitive, in a kind of…high-school debate champion kind of way.”

Most of us have very little real understanding of how our behaviors impact others. Some of us resemble Ms. O’Neil’s description of Mr. Summers as not very self-aware.

We cruise through our days secure in our view of our importance and convinced that our presence lights up every room, enlightens our colleagues and brings joy and prosperity to our teams and organization.

Well, perhaps the enlightenment we create isn’t so great or the joy quite as profound as we imagine.

By all career measures, Mr. Summers has the gifts and juice to back up his alleged style. However, for many of us, we might just be our own worst enemies in fighting career advancement. Don’t let the “Smarty Pants” persona be the issue that holds you back from reaching the next level.

 5 Success Tips–Just in Case You Might be the Office Smartypants:

1. Shut-Up for a Day. While it may require superhuman effort, spend a day of meetings and interactions with your mouth clamped shut. Resist the urge to show everyone the errors of their ways and the flaws in their logic or facts.

2. Embrace the Silence in Your Mind. While much like the reaction of the people who had never experienced darkness nor viewed the stars in Asimov’s classic sci-fi story, Nightfall, you might be frightened of the sudden noises you’ll hear in your brain during your day of semi-silence. These are the unique voices, ideas and thoughts of your co-workers. Now, all you need to do is to make sense of these foreign invasions to your sacred space.

 3. If You Must Talk, Ask Clarifying Questions. While you might be greeted with stunned silence from your team members and co-workers, they’ll eventually catch on to the fact that you’re asking a question, and you might just be surprised with the answer.

4. If You’re the Boss, Practice Framing Issues Neutrally. The boss’s opinion is a sledgehammer that biases the team and puts a lid on creativity. Instead of describing the conclusion, highlight the issue without expressing an opinion and see where your team members take it. If needed, encourage them to frame it both positively and negatively and develop alternative solutions.

 5. Repeat the Above Every Day For the Rest of Your Career/Life.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I love smart people who have the self-awareness and the self-confidence to help everyone around them grow a bit smarter. These people view every situation as an opportunity to learn and perhaps to teach, but not to debate. It’s time to shed the overbearing smarty pants approach.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

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

New to leading or responsible for first time leader’s 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-7 Key Do’s and Don’ts for the Newly Minted MBA

It'sYourCareerIt’s graduation season again in the U.S. and for most newly minted MBA graduates, it’s time for a reality check. Here are some hard-won words of wisdom on how to navigate the steps immediately following your graduation.

All over the U.S., there’s a fresh new crop of MBA candidates preparing to say goodbye to their classmates as they wrap up what will be for many, the final phase of their academic careers. A key question on their minds is, “What’s next?”

For the graduates, there’s an expectation that the degree will reasonably and quickly translate into new opportunities, fresh promotions and improved earning power. While those who graduate from the top-tier schools may find themselves on a fast or at least faster track towards opportunities and increased earnings, many (read: most) MBA graduates face a reality that looks an awful lot like more of the same, albeit, with a bit more free time.

There will be ceremonies and speeches and parties, and rounds of drinks offered up by coworkers at local watering holes.  Bosses will congratulate the new graduates, and then June will melt into July, and in many cases, not much will change for the now former students.

For those who find themselves facing a post-school return to corporate or professional normalcy, without the hoped-for “pop” from the degree, here are some thoughts on coping and capitalizing:

7 Key Do’s and Don’ts for Newly Minted MBAs:

1. Do accept that your boss views you the same on the Monday after graduation as she did last Friday. Nothing has fundamentally changed about you in her mind. Sorry, but there’s no immediate mantle of legitimacy or wisdom bestowed upon you as you shake hands and grab the diploma. You’re a work-in-process, just like the rest of us.

2. Do congratulate yourself for having the intestinal fortitude it takes to complete your degree while working, balancing family responsibilities and all of the other challenges of life. Believe it or not, your current and many future bosses will view your accomplishment not so much as remarkable or rare, but rather as a sign of your tenacity and ability to stay-the-course.

3. Don’t expect a promotion just because of the degree. It happens, but it’s not as common as you might have anticipated. The almost immediate post-MBA promotions are most often an outcome of a development program already in-place coupled with the recognition that the timing is right to task you with more. Every boss knows that the new MBA will toy with the idea of moving to greener ($) pastures, however, if you weren’t on the high-potential or fast-tack list prior to the degree, the sheepskin won’t make much of a difference in the current environment. Translation, you’ll have to navigate your own way up or out.

4. Do use the milestone as an opportunity to work with your boss and refresh your professional development plan.  It’s a great time to sit down with your boss and update or create a professional development plan. There’s every reason for you to assert that you can and want to do more for the firm, and every civilized boss will recognize the need to start feeding this fresh appetite or risk losing you.

5. Don’t even remotely hint that unless you are promoted you are gone. It’s time to show what you can do, not show that after 3 years and $150,000, you’ve grown arrogant.

6. Do accept that the completion of your MBA is the beginning of your next apprenticeship as a leader and a professional. Grad school doesn’t teach you how to lead, nor does it turn you into a great strategist, a future CEO or a management innovator.  You’ve apprenticed on the tools…mostly the science of management (hey, no jokes about the dismal science, please!), and you’ve got a license to begin applying them.  The real work of learning to lead and learning how to create value for your stakeholders has just begun.

7. Do recognize that your primary task is how to make yourself more valuable to everyone around you. Now that you are no longer distracted by school, it’s time to answer, “What have you done for us lately?” Accomplishments are the currency of the realm, not degrees!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Congratulations! I’ll buy the first round and then tomorrow, we’ve got to figure out how to thump competitors and survive and thrive in this incredibly complex and fast-moving world. Sure hope you paid attention. Now show me what you’ve learned!

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

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

New to leading or responsible for first time leader’s 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.