Leadership Caffeine™—Running Uphill Against the Wind

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

The oft-cited and disturbingly dismal numbers reported about employee engagement tell an interesting story about leadership effectiveness…or the lack thereof.

In my own experience, professionals and workers who are engaged have a number of very common characteristics. They care deeply about their work. It’s a reflection in part of who they are as human beings and they have a fierce desire to not only strive and succeed, but to help their coworkers and their organizations succeed. They see the flaws in the workplace and genuinely strive to be part of the solution. They have an emotional attachment to their work and their workplace that transcends the pay for hours provided.

And they respect their firm’s leaders. They feel supported, challenged and safe.

There’s another group…perhaps the largest group in aggregate. These are individuals who WANT to care deeply about their work, however, something is fundamentally wrong in the working environment, pushing them to operate mostly in “safe” mode as a survival mechanism. They have no emotional attachment to their workplace and they most definitely don’t feel good about their bosses.

Sadly, this latter group is sizable, and likely contributes mightily to the disturbing size of the “we’re not engaged” numbers. The root cause of this situation isn’t a flaw in the people, it’s a flaw in the system of management in these firms, and particularly, it reflects fatally flawed leadership.

When I’ve surveyed or interviewed individuals in this latter group, the input is consistent. There’s some combination of not being treated with respect, being micro-managed, being verbally abused, not being challenged and supported to grow that combine to create these very dysfunctional environments.

All of these behaviors are easily identified, and while often not curable across the firm and up and down the organizational ladder, they are curable by YOU in your immediate environment.

We have an interesting tendency to mimic the behaviors of those around us, and in organizations, the behaviors modeled by those in senior leadership roles tend to be the behaviors adopted by everyone in managerial or supervisory positions. However, you don’t have to fall into this vicious failure trap.

If you’re reading this, you’ve already likely self-selected yourself into the group of “I care.” Now, take the time to look hard at your own behaviors. Are you creating an environment with your team that is safe, free from toxicity and genuinely focused on helping people strive and grow? If not, you’ve got some work to do, or you’re at risk of being part of the problem.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

An early mentor of mine impressed upon me the reality that even in a sea of aberrant organizational behaviors and lousy leaders, I should always strive to create a calm zone where people valued their work and felt respected and appreciated. He was right. It’s hard work…you’re running uphill and against the wind. But it’s the good work you’ll be proud of when you look in the mirror. Don’t accept dysfunction and lack of engagement as inevitable. It’s time to start running uphill.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.

 

Leadership Caffeine™—Letting Go of Your Need to Be the Smartest Person in the Room

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!

One of the most common and damaging of a leader’s blind-spots is the compulsion to regularly provide evidence that he/she is the smartest person in the room.

Many well-intentioned leaders are adversely impacted by this bad habit without realizing it. The impact of what is often not much more than one or more behavioral tics includes stifling creativity and innovation and derailing any hopes of developing a high performance environment.

The challenge is to learn to recognize your own smartest person in the room behaviors and to replace them with a few simple but not simplistic habits that focus on drawing input from team members instead of stifling input. While blind-spots are by definition difficult to see, I’ll make a reasonable assumption that your desire to improve your effectiveness as a leader can help you both self-diagnose and take some simple but powerful corrective actions. (For those too smart to spend time thinking and working on their own performance and behaviors, now would be the time to write a comment suggesting why you’re right.)

3 Common Smartest Person in the Room Behaviors:

Do any of these feel familiar?

  • The Final Word Habit. Leaders who struggle with smartest person in the room syndrome often operate with a false belief that being in charge means always having the answer. This drives the individual to assert his/her opinion as the final word or last word and it teaches people to suppress their own ideas and wait for solutions from the person in charge. If you’re frustrated with your team’s lack of creativity or active discussion about ideas, you might be someone who has taught them to wait for the last word.
  • The Eyes…and Face and Voice Say it All! Some leaders telegraph their smartest person in the room persona through their verbal and non-verbal responses to the commentary or ideas of others. I’ve observed senior managers who portray what is perceived as disinterest or disdain for the commentary of team members by interrupting them in mid-sentence or maintaining a facial expression that seems to ask: “Why are you using up my valuable oxygen with this stupid idea?” Of course, the leader may not be intending to communicate disregard or disdain however, we impute this less than noble intent based on our interpretation of the visible and audible cues. If your team members are less than enthusiastic about sharing new ideas and approaches, perhaps you’ve inadvertently shot them down too many times.
  • I’ll See You and Raise You. A closely related cousin to the behaviors above is the leader who listens to the input of his team but fails to acknowledge good ideas or threads of their good ideas. One top leader had the unique habit of responding to input with his own input in a seeming point/counter-point battle that was interpreted as either arguing or trumping the ideas. In reality, she was using an unrecognizable form of active listening to translate what she was hearing into her own words, however, it was interpreted very differently.

3 Approaches to Combat Your Own Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome:

1. Ask More than Tell. Questions are powerful leadership tools…much more effective than orders in most circumstances. Train yourself to respond to ideas with questions to help you and others better develop their ideas. Strive to understand before offering your own perspective.

2. Cultivate the Courage to Shut-Up and Let Others Decide. While you never have to cede your right to veto an idea or an approach, use this veto power sparingly. Most of the time through questioning and the technique of “building upon the ideas of others,” you can promote a modification or adaptation of someone else’s approach without throwing your weight around. If you must, use the “line item” veto

3. Work Hard to Look for the Beauty in Ideas, Not the Flaws. Some people look at a scene and see the beauty in it and others find the gaps…the faults. Frankly, those who see the flaws are significantly less interesting and enjoyable to be around. A micro-managing boss sees the flaws and hammers people for changes to minutiae. The effective manager acknowledges the beauty inherent in ideas and focuses questions and efforts on realizing that beauty. Discussions about flaws can be isolated to a simple discussion around risks.

And a Few Ideas If It’s Your Boss Who Doesn’t Recognize Her Case of Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome?

If you are working for someone suffering from this syndrome, you have a number of options…all with pros and cons.

1. Resist the Urge to Argue. It’s tempting…it’s one of my own challenges and it is often wrong. Take a deep breath…close your lips and think. If you must talk, ask clarifying questions. It never hurts anyone to seek first to understand.

2. Manage Upside Down. If your boss is generally well-intended and receptive to input from team members, construct an effective feedback discussion with behavioral examples. Indicate the business or performance consequences of the smartest person behaviors and offer one or more of the techniques above as suggestions. Offer to observe and look for opportunities to apply the techniques. Agree on a mechanism to signal an improper behavior and suggest a different course on the fly. It takes your own personal courage to offer feedback to your boss. Remember, my operating assumption is that your read on him/her is that they are interested in strengthening performance and growing as a leader. There are some who will not take kindly to your feedback. Tread softly and if the ice is firm, proceed. If not, move to number 3.

3. If the Boss Isn’t Approachable, Use Judo on the Situation. Reinforce the ideas from the boss as positive and suggest approaches to strengthening those ideas. Of course, the approaches match your original suggestions, however, you’ve re-framed the idea as his/hers. A little bit of child psychology can go a long way with a difficult boss.

4. Facilitate His/Her Idea Development and Proactively Raise the Risk Discussion. Your calm facilitation of the discussion will allow you to both ask clarifying questions and at the appropriate time, suggest that you explore the risks. List them on a board or flip-chart. The act of highlighting risks may be enough to gain cooperation from a boss who views himself as always right.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are a number of powerful internal drivers that push some people to assert their opinion as the right one. From compensating for a lack of self-confidence to falsely believing that being in charge means being right, this need to assert is a performance and environment killing habit. Learn to recognize your tendency to do this and use discipline to resist the temptation. Like reaching for the donut instead of the handful of almonds on the snack table, it’s difficult to do at first. If you work for the smartest person in the room, strive to be just a little smarter…by managing the psychology and resisting the urge to argue. In all cases, the effort is worth the potential improvement.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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—Priceless Perspectives of Experience

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, guidance and inspiration for strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

During the past few years, I’ve talked to many 40 and 50-something professionals on how their perspectives and attitudes on personal and career issues have changed over time. Their insights are instructive and inspirational. Enjoy!

On Confidence:

  • The sky is not falling no matter how big the problem is we will find a way to deal with it.
  • I’m fearless on taking risks, because I know I’ll find a way to navigate through it and learn a great deal in the process.
  • While the world has changed, people haven’t. If you’re good in working with and through others, there’s no problem that cannot be solved, no matter how new and unique it is.

On Failing:

  • I’ve failed more times than I can count on my way to succeeding in my career. While it’s never the goal, it is a fact of life for anyone striving to achieve something.
  • I long ago learned not to sweat the small stuff that made me a raving lunatic of a manager when I was younger. It turns out that most of our issues are small stuff.

On Striving:

  • Success isn’t a solo sport. Others choose us to be successful and others help us along our journey to success.
  • It’s a lot more about the work and the impact of the work on others than it is about the pay or the title.
  • At the height of what I thought would be success…title and money, I was miserable. I had to learn to redefine success was for me, and it wasn’t title or money.

On Leadership:

  • It used to be about what I wanted. Now it’s about what they need.
  • To lead, I teach.
  • I take more chances on people I truly believe in, regardless of the conventional wisdom around me. The individual is my responsibility, not some other executive’s.
  • I give my trust instead of requiring people to earn it. It saves a great deal of time and eliminates the games.

 On Effectiveness:

  • I flail less, fail faster, teach more and help more and I’m more effective than I’ve ever been in my career.
  • My need to conquer the world in the next quarter has given way to the reality that people and teams evolve at their own pace, not the pace in my mind.
  • I used to be driven by fear. Fear of job loss. Fear of the boss lurking behind me. That stifled my creativity. I finally found my performance gear when I quit worrying about both of those things.

On the Future:

  • My best work is still ahead of me.
  • Every day is a great new adventure. Even the tough stuff feels more like fun than it used to.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’ve got a few miles on you, take heart that you’ve earned the right to draw upon wisdom gained over time. If you’re just starting out, re-read these quotes and strive to realize them just a bit faster than the rest of us. You’ll be happy you did.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.

 

At Least 10 Unnatural Acts of Misguided Management

TrippingNote to Readers: this column is rated “SM” for the representation of stupidity in management. Younger managers strongly cautioned.

At Least 10 Unnatural Acts of Misguided Management:

1. He only lied when his lips were moving. The CEO announcing to all of a firm’s employees, “there will be no layoffs,” over a pizza lunch in the warehouse. Ten days later, there were layoffs.

2. Coordination is over-rated. An executive team who despised each other so much, they never met. What do you think happened to this business? You’re right.

3. It turns out, people have to want to change. The manager who early on in his career believed he could change a brilliant but difficult person into a brilliant and not so difficult person. (Crap, I was that manager.)

4. Rats, I should have picked the other door! The executive of the market leading firm who defiantly announced to his team, We will not play in the low end of this market. There are no margins there. We own the high end” It turns out that when the high-end disappears due to the disruptive competitor and you have no viable response, there are no margins when there are no sales.

5. Homer Simpson said it best: “Doh!” When the team cannot answer the question, “How many customers or prospective customers were consulted in the making of this strategy?” with anything greater than zero, you’ve got a problem.

6. How many monkeys with a typewriter do we need to recreate Shakespeare’s works? When the CEO brings 45 people together for a strategy offsite and proceeds to have that entire group wordsmith vision and values for the entire offsite, you shouldn’t expect greatness. Or coherence. Or lucidity. It was like the audience of a play simultaneously feeding the actors their lines…one by one by one… and then arguing with each other over which line or which nuance of a line was right.

7. Cats and Dogs Achieving Instant Karma. Every meeting that has ever been held anywhere between two different management teams suddenly thrust together due to merger or consolidation and charged with the task in the next two days of creating a unified vision and strategy. Yes, all of them. Every one.

8. Great Moments in Corporate Motivation. There was the corporate slogan author of this global firm who provided instructions to the printer that must have said something to the effect of, use the same slogan as last year. When the tube containing the new slogan was opened and the banner unrolled for the first time at the management meeting, guess what it said? Yep. “Same Slogan as Last Year.” Seriously.

9. “With a bit more time and money, we’ll get this right.” The team who convinced themselves that every failure put them closer to success. It turns out, that’s not always the case. Sometimes with a bit more time and money, you just waste more time and money.

10. “The inventory said, what?” The GM who very seriously accused his management team of not listening closely to the inventory. It turns out, the inventory had shared with the GM that it was ready to be sold.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The pursuit of effective management is a noble calling. It’s too bad that too many managers give it a bad name.

Leadership Caffeine™—What to Do When You Grow Fatigued

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!

Much of our common dialog around leadership focuses on the lofty and noble. That’s good and appropriate. After all there are some remarkable opportunities for growth and reward in the life of a conscientious leader. Empowering people who respond in great form to drive remarkable outcomes is indeed exhilarating. Taking a short leap of faith on an unproven player in a new role and watching (and helping) it work is what it’s all about. Looking back at the careers and achievements of people who intersected with you during your journey for a moment in time is truly amazing and humbling.

Why then is it so damned exhausting to serve as a leader? And better yet, how does someone entering the power dive of leadership fatigue find a way to pull out and continue serving enthusiastically in pursuit of the noble?

Vexing (and very real) challenges and questions for anyone who has served in a role responsible for others.

An Inelegant Escape (With a Great Outcome):

I hit the wall hard earlier in my career and made what was likely my biggest career blunder in my drive to escape the tyranny of the team. After being in a supervisory or managerial role for all but 6 months of my first 14 years out of college, I had had it with the drama, soap operas, head cases and garden variety of issues that all people and all teams bring to the occasion. All my teams had been successful…our businesses grew nicely and the talent was everywhere. And I was out of gas spinning the plates and keeping the wings from breaking off during our tumultuous flights for success.

In my attempt at achieving escape velocity from the life of a leader, I took an individual contributor’s role as a senior staff member working for a brilliant (but very) mid-twentieth century style command and control leader. It didn’t take long to recognize that something was wrong. While the people around me were brilliant and the many divisions and firms under this corporate umbrella fascinating, there was no team for me to develop and I wasn’t building with anyone. I discovered that if I wasn’t building people, teams and businesses, I felt like I was dying. Fortunately, this role led to an unexpected door into a new role and new firm leading others and growing a business that by all standards was the most rewarding portion of my corporate career. Happy ending. Good fortune. The next time around, the experience with all of its headaches was so rewarding from a people perspective, I dedicated my first book to a good number of those “family” members.

You’re Not Alone:

I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in having hit the wall of leadership fatigue. Many former colleagues and coaching clients have experienced their own form of this syndrome. Many suffer in silence, counting the days and marking time. Others have pursued radical career changes and entrepreneurial adventures and a good number have managed to find ways to revitalize and reset around this wonderful, vexing, draining, exhilarating role of leading.

Here are a few thoughts drawn from the wisdom and examples of others striving to recover from a bad case of leadership fatigue. Feel free to add your guidance here for all of us striving to keep the energy high.

Ten Ideas to Help You Fight Leadership Fatigue:

1. Create an Artifact to Remind Yourself Daily of Your Real Purpose. The daily challenges in our organizations can be all consuming. Chasing the urgent consumes much of our time and the urgent-unimportant has a way of filling any openings. An exercise I’ve used for years now to help leaders remind themselves is to develop and make visible their own personal leader’s charter. I have my own…and those who have followed this tactic have developed their version of why they are serving in this role and what they are accountable for in leading others. A simple morning re-read of this framed charter hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf provides a powerful reminder of your real role and the opportunity you have to build others and your business with every single encounter in the upcoming day.

2. Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind. This one is difficult for the young and brash. It takes a few laps around the blocks of professional life to recognize that you don’t have the answer to every problem. Approaching issues by suspending judgment and seeking first to understand is a remarkable way to change the tone and tenor of every day. Beginners learn to ask questions and viewing people and teams and challenges from a fresh perspective can lead to an inner calm and a perpetual journey of discovery. The wisest leaders I’ve worked around understand that with every person and every day they are beginners.

3. Keep it in Context. Remember, you have the privilege of helping people and helping your firm every single day. Each day is a blank canvas that you get to fill-in with positive encounters, helpful ideas and productive interactions. Problems and issues represent opportunities to serve and to teach. Recognizing and reminding yourself of this privilege of serving helps to tame the stress.

4. Don’t Cede Control to the Gremlins. Faced with circumstances that are personally toxic…a hostile environment; a micromanaging maniacal senior executive breathing down your neck or an endless barrage of Everest-like problems, it’s easy to fall into the professional death spiral. Unless lives (yours and others) are on the line, beware this trap of equating your self-worth and your life’s value with your miserable work experience. While I don’t advocate a casual attitude about your work, remember that you have to give permission to that miserable manager or the stressful circumstances to take control of your perception of self. Strive to not cede that control by looking at the reality of the less than life or death issues swirling around you. (In some cases, external help/counseling/coaching is a great idea if you’re in this mode.)

5. Engage In the Moment—One Encounter at a Time. Instead of focusing on the noise and heat that you expect to encounter every day, reign in your focal point to the person, group or issue immediately in front of you. Much of our angst is over the expectation of what will happen. The act of focusing on what’s happening in the moment versus boiling the ocean of uncertainty over what may happen or what’s happening in the background is liberating. You get to create the future one controllable moment at a time.

6. Get a Coach. I love great executive and professional coaches for all of the wonderful wisdom they bring to our issues and for the metaphorical clubbing upside the head they provide to help us see ourselves and our situations with a level of clarity that we are unable to gain on our own. Great coaches peel back the layers of complexity and help us identify our core issues and then they kick our asses in pursuit of resolving or strengthening around those issues. If you’ve ever had a great strength training or conditioning coach, the professional coach has the same priceless impact. They see you through eyes other than your own and they push us harder than we would ever push ourselves.

7. Master Another Discipline. It’s amazing how pursuing something new…a new language, a craft or a hobby that takes you completely out of your daily life can help you cope with those vexing daily circumstances. While you hate to say that the workday becomes less important, the pursuit of a new passion is energizing and it creates a halo effect around your work days. You’re aware that you are tackling something bigger and different than your daily work and strangely/interestingly, it makes your work all the more bearable.

8. A Healthy Body Breeds a Healthy Mind. Working on your diet or fitness offers nearly instantaneous feedback and it’s amazing what a host of small victories (more time, faster time, more strength, the first few pounds, the next weight target, the better fitting clothes) will do for your daily attitude. In my case, it has been transformational for both mind and body.

9. Manufacture “You” Time. Finding time to think deeply about what you are doing and what you need to do is priceless. Our always-on world and our omnipresent devices don’t make this easy. Something as simple as 15 minutes of reading (in your profession, in your faith, pure escapism… whatever) gives your brain both a much needed stress rest and a jolt of energy and creativity.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Eject Button. While it may sound like I’m suggesting you give up, there are absolutely circumstances where enough is enough. I tripped and stumbled a bit with my own eject activity, however, I would do the same thing all over again. The transition helped me refuel and regain much needed context. Importantly, it set the stage for some of my life’s best work. Sometimes a new adventure is just what the spirit needs to revitalize.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve encountered too many people suffering in silence in their roles responsible for others. Nothing good comes of this martyrdom…for you for or for those around you. Pick a strategy to recharge…try a variety of approaches until something works or, cultivate the courage to go do something else. The only mistake is to stay locked in irons, making yourself and everyone around you miserable. Leading others is too important to be left to someone out of gas and out of heart. Given our challenges in this world, we need all the leadership energy and heart we can muster.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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.