There’s Greatness in this Younger Generation

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.

In a recent program with experienced managers, the inevitable and mind numbing and stupid topic of how difficult it is to manage the younger workers surfaced and people jumped on this out-of-tune bandwagon like they were giving away free money. Complaints of poor work ethics, preoccupation with devices and not caring swirled around the room like a hurricane. Every generation looks at the differences of the generations coming up behind them and focuses on these differences as negatives. It’s cliché and yes, it’s stupid.

Spend some time reading the current “40 Under 40” issue of Fortune magazine and you will come away energized by the energy, creativity and world changing endeavors and accomplishments of this younger crowd. (And if you’re over 40, it’s reasonable for you to wonder why you’ve been slacking off while these people are changing the world.)

I also loved Fortune Editor Alan Murray’s four takeaways from the “40 Under 40” profiles in the latest issue of the magazine:

  • Bet Big
  • Have a Purpose
  • Failure is a Good Teacher
  • Have Breakfast with Dad

The last one, “Have Breakfast with Dad” was offered by artist, Taylor Swift. As a Dad, it caught my attention. She describes the advice her Dad gave her to “think about your actions,” and translated it into the dilemma faced by a teenager who might prefer sleeping in to taking advantage of this breakfast invitation. “As an 80-year-old looking back, you go to breakfast with your Dad.” Wise woman…and successful!

I spend a great deal of time with people under 40 and a fair number of them in their early to mid-twenties in one of my teaching endeavors…a leadership program for young working professionals pursuing their college degrees that repeats with a new group several times per year. I find their views on the world every bit as energizing as the individuals profiled in Fortune, and working with them as a teacher is truly a privilege.

While my students aren’t the ones who have made millions (yet), they are individuals holding down one or two jobs while serving as parents…sometimes single parents, and attending school. Many are navigating severe illnesses or family tragedies. One remarkable individual recently lost a limb to amputation and never missed a beat in class.

In addition to their fierce tenacity for working through life’s obstacles, I find that most in this youthful group reflect and aspire to Murray’s takeaways above. They are purpose-driven, they have an incredibly mature and refreshing view on what great leadership looks like and they often reflect the views on life and pursuing your passion that Steve Jobs so effectively outlined in his now famous Stanford Commencement address. I wrap up every term with these remarkable individuals just a bit more confident there’s greatness in this younger generation and it’s our job to help it emerge.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’re an experienced manager lamenting the sorry state of the youth in your workplace, I encourage you to look in the mirror. In most cases, you’re the one who needs to change.



Leadership Caffeine™—Role Models from Dangerous Situations

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

I had the great honor of delivering two leadership workshops at the Alabama Jail Association Annual Conference recently, and the experience was for me, fascinating, humbling and incredibly educational. (Yes, teachers do learn from students and instructors from participants!)

I wasn’t certain what to expect from this audience heading into the program. I didn’t know this crowd. In fact, as I remarked to the group, I had successfully managed to avoid meeting them my entire life. Also, beyond a few corporate settings that felt like war zones, I had not spent a great deal of time with individuals immersed daily in dangerous settings.

As it turned out, the audiences in the two programs were fantastic! They were hungry for ideas and insights on strengthening as leaders and they were more active and engaged than most corporate groups I’ve worked with over the years. They worked hard on the cases and activities and they generously shared the challenges of their environment as we discussed ideas and approaches to strengthening leadership effectiveness.

Early in the program, we ran a breakout activity where I asked the participants to share stories in small groups about the individual they point to as the leadership role models in their lives. Digging deeper, I asked them to discuss what it was their role model did that had such a profound influence on them and others. I requested they pick one story from their small group to share with the larger audience. And to a group, they shared stories with identical themes.

The role models were either current or former senior officers from the corrections environment. They inspired by leading by example, living and working by a clear code of values, holding themselves and others accountable for fairness and excellence and to a person, caring deeply about their team members.

One example of a number of the officers turned out to be the mother of another participant in the workshop. To listen to others describe the impact she had as a leader on so many present was visibly humbling for the son.

I listened and soaked up the great stories, and as the participants described the realities of their difficult working environment, it was clear to me that the great skill of effective leaders in dangerous settings was the ability to create a leadership and performance environment that transcended the physical setting and dangerous circumstances.

As part of my preparation for the program, I spent a good deal of time catching up on the leadership studies and stories from dangerous settings. Sadly, we have all too much recent data on this topic, mostly beginning with the reporting of the heroics of the law and fire officials during 9/11 and certainly from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The studies showcase consistent behaviors that define effective leadership in dangerous settings, including:

  • Caring at a personal level
  • Credibility earned by backing words with actions
  • Competence displayed…physically and cognitively, particularly via decision-making
  • Trust given
  • Purpose front and center
  • Accountability uniformly and fairly enforced

The consistent display of these behaviors contributes to forming a working environment that transcends the physical setting. While the audience was quick to highlight the flaws and challenges in their workplaces, they were visibly proud of their membership and of their team members. For all of us operating in the relative safety of corporate walls, there’s more than a few powerful lessons on leading we can gain from those operating in harm’s way. The first lesson is humility.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Effective leaders create the environment for success regardless of physical surroundings. Their behaviors transcend the dangers, and the tough circumstances create the bonds that build trust and loyalty and promote performance. And yet again, we hear that the impact of an effective leader has a ripple effect that transcends the years and generations. If you’re looking for a leadership example to model your own behaviors, perhaps it’s time to look to those leading in harm’s way for a meaningful example.

New Leader Tuesday—3 Questions to Bring Your Future into Focus

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesday at the Management Excellence blog is for anyone getting started (or starting over) on their leadership journey.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership legacy during the early part of my career. No one does. After all, who has time to worry about something so squishy and distant sounding when you’re focused on getting things done? And make no doubt about it, I was laser focused on translating the formula for success in corporate life into my own personal gain.The formula in my mind was preoccupied with driving great results by pushing others.

Yes, my style as a young manager was more muscle and not finesse. I was playing a short-game…minute to minute with little concern for the long-term. And for awhile, the scoreboard was in my favor. I grew my responsibilities, title and income at a rapid rate. And then the wheels began to wobble as people cycled through my teams and off to other areas and even my own satisfaction with what I was doing (and how I was doing it) began to decline.

Thanks to a great mentor, I began to understand that the good short-term results were coming at a high price in terms of morale, burn-out and my own professional reputation. I believe he described me as a “machine,” and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. The connotation was more about being demanding and soulless and less about efficiency. He made me think about my approach and my style and I didn’t have to look far to find evidence that supported his case.

The relationships with my team members were shallow…mostly transaction-based, and the environment was demanding. I was demanding. Perhaps a bit of a minor tyrant. I took pride in my “get it done at all costs” reputation. As it turned out, I was running things like a sports team interested in winning a championship now with little concern for the team members or building a culture of excellence that would sustain the test of time.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he challenged me to think about and then act on the output from three provocative questions. The introspection prompted by these three questions changed the course of my work, my career and likely my life. How will you answer them?

3 Questions to Help You Build a Great Leadership Legacy:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes we are accountable for to our stakeholders, but they’re never the purpose or the drivers. The great quarters and years are like dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement. What I’m most proud of are the many successes of the great people who got their start on my watch. This simple question caused me to pause and then pivot in my thinking about my purpose in leading others.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances. Thinking through this question in the context of great leaders of history (or perhaps your personal history…via family members) is humbling. You recognize how important it was to have vision and then overcome extreme uncertainty and hardship while striving to keep people inspired by the vision. Whether it was the survival of Britain or the retention of the entire Union, neither Churchill nor Lincoln knew how they were going to prevail, they just knew that they had to for the greater good.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day? The environment I had created as a young manager was anything but healthy.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The comment that I was functioning like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of an approach based on my answers to the questions above. I use a question in my keynotes that challenges leaders to offer a pre-post-mortem on their impact on big initiatives. Extend this to your career, and ask: “At the end of your career, what will you want people to say that you did?

It’s time to start doing it.

Leadership Caffeine™—Great Leaders Care

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

“Care for followers is the second most important leader attribute that influences the development of trust… .” from Leadership in Dangerous Situations.

While a leader’s competence is viewed as the most important attribute to engender trust, the fact that he or she genuinely cares about team members is a critical number two.

The emphasis in this excellent collection is of course for military, first-responders and our life-safety (police, fire) public servants, but the content is spot-on for our less threatening but still challenging corporate world. And while I suspect a good many readers may wonder who decided their boss was competent, I’ll leave that for another day and focus here on the caring dimension of leadership.

Simply stated, we can use a whole hell of a lot more authentic caring about our people.

I have the good fortune of gaining hundreds of exposures per year in workshops and classrooms to people who describe the leaders who have helped them change their lives, and it’s no surprise they consistently describe these leaders as people who took a strong interest in them as human beings, rather than as interchangeable parts. Sadly, they also describe these caring leaders as being significantly outnumbered by their more transactional or distant counterparts.

I long ago learned to hire and promote for both brains and heart…my equivalent to the competence and trust highlighted in Leadership in Dangerous Situations. Today, I choose my leadership coaching clients based on a preliminary interview where I have the opportunity to better understand what drives the individual. If it’s all about career climbing based on the efforts of others versus lifting others up and succeeding in the process, I politely opt out. (It’s hard to coach “heart.”)

Some may confuse this issue of caring with being soft. There’s no connection in my experience. Some of the toughest, most professionally demanding s.o.b.s I’ve encountered were the first ones to show up at the loss of a loved one and the first to volunteer help, resources or time when team members faced a crisis. These demanding leaders served as rocks to support rebuilding or recovering. They also suffered visibly when team members they invested in let the team down.

What I love about the caring leaders I’ve known either as an employee, a leader or a consultant/coach, is how comfortable they are in their own skins. They understand their business mission intimately, they take pride in honing their skills and pushing themselves hard and most of all, they recognize and aren’t afraid to show how important each and every individual is as a human and as a team member. They practice what they preach and they unabashedly and unashamedly put the team and their team members ahead of themselves in all things. This takes self-confidence and knowledge of self.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Careers are both long and insanely, ridiculously fast at the same time. In hindsight, there are points in time when I got my priorities out of whack. I suppose I can rationalize my actions as doing what I had to do for the people who mattered, but it’s not always that clear. My advice to my younger self most definitely is to not compromise my conviction for caring…not suspend my humanness in pursuit of someone else’s numbers or transactional goals. Beyond your own competence as a professional, there’s nothing more critical for building trust and ultimately driving results, than showing your team members you genuinely care.







7 Lead-Off Mistakes to Avoid as a First Time Manager

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsEvery Tuesday at the Management Excellence blog I share ideas to help those starting out on their leadership journeys.

Establishing yourself as a credible and positive leader is important and challenging. Here are some all-too-common missteps of first-time (and even some hapless, experienced) managers. Avoid them in good health!

7 Lead-Off Mistakes to Avoid as a First-Time Manager:

1-Leading-off with, “Things are going to change around here.” Too many managers enter into a new role assuming everything is broken and that they’ve been elevated to right the wrongs and inanities of the prior regime. Unless your boss has suggested that your function isn’t functioning at all, you need to show some respect for the work of the group, the team members and yes, the prior manager. You won’t win any hearts or minds by suggesting that everyone else was incapable of functioning without you around.

2-Leading-off with some variation of, “I’m the New Sheriff in Town.” I’ve lost track of the number of times a new manager has compensated for his insecurities by overplaying the “I’m in charge” card. The credibility conferred by your title lasts until you open your mouth for the first time. Don’t set a new land-speed record for blowing it.

3-Leading-off with, “Nothing’s going to change.” Yes, something will. Don’t try and assuage concerns about you as the new boss by telling a lie to kick things off. You might even believe that things won’t change, but it’s your job to help things improve over time and that means change.

4-Leading-off with an immediate restructuring. Senior managers inheriting crises make quick calls after assessing talent and workplace dynamics. You shouldn’t do anything in this area quickly. In your role as a new (and first-time) manager, plan on investing a quarter or two to assess talent and dynamics before remaking the group. And don’t forget to ask for your team’s help.

5-Leading-off by listening to just the noisy ones. Chances are, some of the the best ideas and insights are found in the brains and hearts of the quiet people on your team. Don’t equate noise level with gray matter…or even good intentions.

6-Leading-off like a solo consultant. I owe this one to an accomplished consulting colleague who admitted to investing the first 60-days in his first-ever role as a manager (with a VP title) by studying (investigating) everything and failing to engage his team. In his own words, “I squandered a start-up opportunity with my team by boiling the ocean on the business. I operated like a solo-consultant and not a manager responsible for others.” Balance in this case, would have been appropriate.

7-Leading-off by trying to be everyone’s friend. This one is particularly common to those first-time managers promoted from within a group. Sorry, but the relationship has to change. You’re no longer one of the gang.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Treat everyone with respect. Ask questions. Listen more than you talk. Find opportunities to help. Establish a culture of accountability. Share your values. Learn the business. Learn the people. Learn. And then begin to act.