leadership incorporated blog

February 11, 2013

How smart leaders unintentionally murder successful outcomes

In the mid-1990s, the murder rate in Minneapolis was higher than New York’s. Things were so bad, people referred to the city as “Murderapolis.”

Today, that rate has dropped by 60%. How did they do this?

They gave high-risk teens an A.

I’m referring to the concept of “Giving an A” described by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander in The Art of Possibility (Penguin Books, 2002).

The idea is to assume that everyone is an “A student,” — even violent teens in Minnesota. You can see it in the core goals of Minneapolis’ program:

  • Every young person was supported by at least one trusted adult,
  • Intervention at the first sign of risk,
  • Focus on getting kids back on track rather than giving up on them,
  • Recognition that violence is learned; that there is a larger system at work.

This program assumed that every kid was deserving of support, intervention, training, trust and belief.  And it produced a dramatic result.

This same concept can make a big difference in the growth and effectiveness of your organization.

When we approach poor or underperformance from a stance of judgment and blame (the equivalent of assuming people are F students), what happens?

  • We become blind to root causes
  • We repeat the same patterns of poor performance over and over
  • We send discouraging messages to individuals that undermine their ability to recover
  • We send the team a message that blame is an organizational strategy, setting the stage for increasing blame in the place of problem solving
  • We increase costly drama and politics

When take the opportunity to assume that everyone is an “A student” it generally leads to the opposite actions:

  • Looking for root causes and creating more lasting solutions
  • Sending a message of support and expectation to the person that tends to increase effort and commitment
  • Establishing an organizational culture focused on attacking problems and not people, which increases trust, safety and retention
  • Reducing costly drama and politics

Meet Gordon, the VP of R&D in an information technology company.

Gordon lived in a constant state of fury brought on by Joan, one of his project directors. He had no patience for hearing that yet another of Joan’s deadlines had been missed and the raft of excuses that would follow. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where they were barely communicating. He was ready to issue her a Performance Improvement Plan that would allow him to finally let her go at the end of 60 days.

He was giving Joan an F.

When I was brought in to coach Gordon, the conflict with Joan surfaced as one of his biggest challenges. When I asked Gordon how he would approach the situation if Joan were an “A student,” he realized that in his quickness to assess Joan as a underperformer, he had not once had a straight conversation with her about the challenges she faced.

Gordon uncovered that the issue was not with Joan but with another department Joan’s group was dependent upon for data.

By giving the other department an A in his negotiations with them, Gordon was able to work out realistic deadlines and help them in resolving a bottleneck that was consistently keeping them behind schedule.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be productive?

When I present this concept, I’m often asked, “When can I give someone an ‘F’?”

This question asks, “When can I blame?” My response is “Never!”

Blame never leads to the best possible outcome.

This does not mean you won’t give people honest and constructive feedback. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t hold people to the highest standards. Or even sometimes let an employee go.

You may take the very same actions when giving a person an A as you would have when giving them an F. Yet, the quality of the experience of those actions will be completely different for all concerned — in ways that support rather than undermine growth and success.

The concept of assuming people are “A-students” actually makes it easier for you to effectively hold someone accountable, as well as to support them in creating the outcomes your business needs.

One more distinction: you may be tempted to reframe this as “giving someone the benefit of the doubt.” This takes you halfway there, but still begins with doubt.

Giving someone an “A” begins with trust. And trust leads your organization down a very different and much more productive path.

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December 17, 2012

Leaders: Are You Using The Activation Phenomenon To Succeed Bigger?

A 2001 study at Johns Hopkins showed that when nurses met the medical team by name and asked about their concerns early on, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions than nurses who were not treated as valued team members. Getting people personally involved activated their participation, their sense of responsibility and their willingness to speak up.

The researchers called this the “Activation Phenomenon.”

Think about your own experience in workplaces where you were (are) activated and challenged to be at your best. Weren’t you more interested in your work? Did you look forward to getting to work and not want to stop? Did you have moments in which time stood still while you worked your magic? Didn’t you find yourself caring deeply about the work, the results, your clients, co-workers, and vendors?

On the other hand, most of us have experienced not being encouraged to use our smarts and skills and can-do spirit. We’ve felt frustrated, bored, undervalued. We’ve questioned our own worth. We’ve done our time without caring about the results, because, really, what was the point of caring?

Companies that produce the best results over time more often make people feel the first way. Organizations that create the second set of feelings, generally have to spend a lot of their time and capital on people problems, efficiency problems, quality problems, turnover problems…yes, all kinds of problems. And that gets in the way of creating sustainable success.

Do some of the engagement issues come from the people themselves? Of course, yet no problem is one-sided. And your business is either doing things to activate engagement on the part of its people, its clients, and its vendors or it is doing things to deactivate them.

So, it’s a good idea to periodically take an unflinching look at some of the conditions business leaders create that either activate or de-activate even themselves:

  • Create A Strong Sense Of Purpose: When we feel connected to the “why” behind our jobs, we work longer, harder, smarter and with greater passion. When disconnected from the end results of our work, our roles become abstract and we become disengaged.
  • Offer A Good Meaty Challenge: Stretching people just slightly out of their comfort zones is highly engaging. On the other hand, asking too little keeps us feeling bored and insignificant. However, asking the impossible breeds resentment and lack of respect.
  • Build A Connected Team Feeling:  Personal connections, being part of something bigger than ourselves, knowing others depend on us and that our delivery has an impact on their ability to perform is a powerful and energizing motivator. When work is impersonal and disconnected from others, it’s much harder to care.
  • Treat People With Respect: Virtually everyone does their best work when approached consistently as valuable human beings and team members. Conversely, being talked down to, blamed, ignored, yelled at, dismissed, and so on, almost always results in mutual disrespect.
  • Provide Constructive Feedback: Study after study shows that people work harder when we know how we are doing, whether the feedback indicates we are exceeding, meeting, or failing to meet expectations. One critical warning: make sure feedback is actionable and focused on the work, not the person. Blame, judgment, and feedback that does not suggest a course of action will demotivate.
  • Give The Authority To Make Decisions That Impact Outcomes: When people are able to create and carry out actions that produce results, we feel empowered and take ownership of the process. When we’re held responsible for conditions over which we have no control, we become passive and resentful, feeling that we’ve been set up to lose and that it doesn’t matter what we do.
  • Allow Permission To Make mistakes: In environments that encourage mistakes (and learning) we feel freer to think out of the box, to come up with new and better ways and speak up when we see the potential for problems ahead. When mistakes happen, we don’t hesitate to surface them and get to immediate resolution. On the other hand, when we fear “getting in trouble,” we risk less and cover-up more. Which do you think is of greater benefit to any organization?

See anything here that your organization might do better on? What conversations can you have in the next few weeks to activate yourself and the people your business depends on to hit the ground running in 2013?

Wishing you a happy holiday season and some highly activated growth in the new year.

September 23, 2012

The Re-entry Phenomenon: Coming Back Strong After A Crisis

It’s been one tough summer.

In the last several months, my family has supported both my force-of-nature mother-in-law and incredibly strong father-in-law (and our dear family cat) through intense illnesses and facilitated them in passing on in the most positive, loving, supportive environment possible.

In the middle of all this, we also moved our eldest off to college and have facilitated him through a series of life-rocking transitions. And I had some surgery to solve a neck/shoulder problem.

Now, after several months of immersion in family life, it seems that the crises have passed, the fog is lifting and we are surveying the damage and realizing that it’s time to come back to our lives in progress.

Maybe you’ve been here before. Sometimes events beyond our control pull us away from life and work as we know them and immerse us in another reality. Then —often suddenly — the emergent circumstances wrap up and we find ourselves changed, contemplating a new normal and trying to figure out how to integrate ourselves into it.

My wonderful husband, Michael Leventhal (of MC Squared Law & Consulting, a digital media law & business consulting firm) and I have talked a lot about what’s changed, the challenges facing us now, and how to approach our comeback. We realized that this “re-entry phenomenon” in its broadest strokes also applies in other situations:

  • Having a baby
  • A significant illness or injury
  • The loss of a client
  • The loss of a job
  • The loss of a business partner
  • The end of a project

Can you relate?

A few of the biggest, most common challenges:

  1. You’ve formed new habits that aren’t compatible with normal life. For example, our sleeping and waking patterns have shifted in ways that are inconsistent with normal working hours.
  2. Residual feelings flow over you in unpredictable waves. Seemingly unrelated comments or images trigger powerful memories. Sadness, loss, guilt, stress can take you by surprise and leave you feeling exhausted and in need of a nap. Not exactly a great recipe for productivity.
  3. You have fear stories and other thoughts that get in the way of getting back to work and life. You may worry that people have felt underserved or needed to move on without you. You may believe that you have lost your momentum and don’t know how to get it back. These stories can shake your confidence, and paralyze you from taking even baby steps that lead back to life.

The power of ritual. In the Jewish tradition, there is a three-phase process prescribed for mourners. First, you immerse yourself in mourning for a week. Over the next month you begin to incorporate normal activities at a reduced pace while refraining from certain aspects of life.  For the rest of the year that follows, the balance shifts again: more normal life, yet you keep some practices that create a structure that enables you to make a gradual and supported return.

Whether or not you believe in the religious or spiritual, this is brilliant from business leadership and coaching perspectives.

We need to process. Those who don’t have religious traditions may find themselves pressured by the world to skip some necessary steps that help us to honor what needs honoring, clear what needs clearing and rejoin our lives in a gradual way that allows for predictable discomforts and challenges and makes them acceptable and natural…thereby supporting us in our return.

How many of us force ourselves to come back from a profound break too soon and too abruptly? What is the cost to our well-being? What is the cost to our effectiveness upon our return?

In strategizing our returns, Michael and I sketched out a few practical rituals (spirituality optional) that I thought might be useful to you someday. Here they are:

Process, process, process: Talk, write, think, read, explore and otherwise immerse yourself in what you have just been through for a focused and limited time, say a week. These thoughts and feelings need to be exposed to the light. Grow with them. Don’t stuff them.

Connect and Reconnect: Your relationships are the most powerful path back into your life. Reach out to people. You don’t have to talk about what you’ve been through with everyone, perhaps only a select few. More importantly, find out what’s been happening with them.

Be of service: Shift your focus from self and family to others. How can you assist clients, colleagues, staff, friends? Rediscover your purpose and value to others.

Create with words: Get back into the language of what you do. Make a plan. Use words to talk and write about what you want to do next.

Replace habits one at a time. Prioritize the habits that will make the biggest difference, but don’t try to change them all at once. Gently, yet firmly, go one at a time. Remember it takes about 21 days to create a new habit. Be sure to reward yourself in healthy ways for success.

Reassess. This is a great time to look at what’s working, get rid of what isn’t and refocus yourself on what really matters. Create new opportunities. Nothing is as re-energizing as what you really care about.

Work the dichotomy of patience and encouragement: Allow yourself extra time and be understanding and gentle with yourself if you aren’t adapting as fast as you thought. At the same time, strongly encourage yourself to get back on your game. Most of us tend to do one or the other. Finding the balance between these two makes for the smoothest possible re-entry.

Ask for what you need. If you share, you’ll probably find that people relate. The most surprising people have stories just like yours. And if they don’t yet, they will. That’s life.

My request: I want to reconnect with you. How are you? What have you been doing while I’ve been gone? Please let me hear from you.

August 12, 2012

Leaders, what are the major anxieties of your people in your time?

No matter how excellent things are, we each have something that eats at us.

Something we worry about. Something we lose sleep over. Something that challenges us, Some occasion that we aren’t sure we’ll be able to rise to.

It’s human nature.

Don’t think you have anything to worry about? Chances are good you’re in denial!

Many leaders minimize the impacts of problems they don’t want to deal with — seemingly small problems — hoping they will just go away.

And sometimes they do take care of themselves quickly. (Ask me sometime about my amazing 15 minute rule!)

But when a guppy of an issue doesn’t resolve itself in short order, more often than not, it is feeding and growing unseen and one day a Loch Ness Monster of a problem may surface.

Anxiety is a gift. It is your body’s deeper wisdom telling you that there is something that needs your attention. Think of it as an early warning system! Often our bodies are far more tapped in to the truth than our defensive minds.

The more we increase our awareness of our internal signals that a problem is lurking, the more intentional and effective we can be in managing it appropriately.

You manage the problem…or the problem will manage you!

Lately I’m hearing a lot of people ignoring their anxieties. Putting off dealing with issues that have the potential to grow into much bigger, much scarier problems.
Here are a few themes:

  • Overwhelmed, yet not with the right kind of business
  • Things that continue to not get done
  • Unresolved people problems
  • Negative perceptions of your business in the marketplace, due to factors beyond your control
  • Concerns about health, self-care

What is your greatest anxiety right now?

What is the greatest anxiety of your clients?

What is the greatest anxiety of the people you work with?

Let me hear from you. If you’re willing to play with me, let’s confront some of these anxieties together. Be as specific as you can.  I’ll keep your identity confidential, and explore in Inspired to Succeed the monsters keeping this particular group of leaders up at night right now.

Until next time…

June 10, 2012

How wisdom from your prior job can kill your company

Meet Joan.

12 years ago, she landed a job as account executive in a regional office of a rapidly growing national ad agency. Joan intuitively understands how to build strong relationships with clients. She was a rising star and was promoted every 2-3 years first to account supervisor, then account director, followed by VP Account Management and just over three years ago she took over leadership of the office.

Joan’s biggest struggle had always been dealing with the creative department.  She never understood why creatives consistently don’t meet deadlines, why they regularly propose ideas that are outside of the budget, and why their concepts are so often off strategy.

Joan hit the ground running in her new role with a plan to improve agency performance on deadlines, budgets and strategy. Within 3 months, the long-time Creative Director left the agency to take a job with a competitor. At first, Joan was elated. Now she could really change things. But since then she has gone through 2 other CDs, and there might as well be a revolving door in the creative and production departments. Those clients she had great relationships with before are now dissatisfied with the creative product and she’s lost two significant accounts. Growth has effectively stalled. Joan realizes that her job is on the line. In hindsight, she is starting to see the value that the creative director brought to the table.

She estimates the hard costs to the agency of the turnover in this critical position at around $2.5 million and climbing. In terms of reputation of the office, impact on morale and missed opportunities the costs are inestimable and clearly significantly larger.

Can you identify the problem here?

Much as Joan originally wanted to lay the blame on difficult creatives, this is a leadership problem. As the head of the organization, maintaining a strong sense of alignment with one department over others was a huge limitation to her ability to succeed. This over-alignment kept her perspective too narrow. It turns out that what’s best for the account team isn’t necessarily what’s best for the business. It cost her an invaluable employee, several clients and the foundational integrity of the organization.

Joan failed to comprehend that she needed to be a leader not for the account team but for the entire agency. 

She brought her pre-existing struggles and preconceived alliances and prejudices to the role, when what is required in a senior leadership position is always a shift to an expanded and more inclusive perspective.

By relying almost exclusively on counsel from her former account team buddies and making decisions that favored her prior department, position and sensibility, she failed to develop trust with the rest of her management team, with other departments and many individuals. And that compromised the trust with the clients.

Trust is essential to business growth and success.

Trust is no luxury. It is critical. Lack of trust in organizations cripples performance, ignites conflict, guarantees inefficient use of resources, forces duplication of effort, ensures communication breakdowns, and pushes the best people and clients out the door. When lack of trust originates at the top of an organization it has a powerful ripple effect that will travel throughout the organization and can be very challenging to undo.

Take an honest look at yourself.

It’s only natural to identify and align with those who share our perspectives and experience. Yet, this is exactly the opposite of what we need to do to lead growth in our businesses.

Where might you be blinded by your prior experience and alignments?

How might you expand your counsel and open your mind?

May 6, 2012

Why CEOs Need To Become GPSs

Randy is the CEO of a Solar Energy company. Back in 2010, she and her senior team spent 3 months of executive team meetings developing promising 1-year, 3-year and 5-year visions for the company. When they shared their picture of success with the rest of the organization in early 2011, everyone was energized and excited. It was all they talked about — for a month.

There was some initial forward movement toward their objectives. But those first steps surfaced some unexpected challenges and uncertainty about how to proceed. When a huge project came in and demanded everyone’s time and attention, it was so much easier to put those growth goals aside “for the time-being.”

A year later, when people speak of the vision, it’s with cynicism.

This isn’t an unusual scenario. Many companies struggle with the challenge of keeping an organization on track towards growth goals while maintaining the current core business.

From point A, the path to your desired point B may seem clear. But once you move off point A, even a little bit, things can look very different and feel much less certain. Next steps can become less clear. And there’s nothing like the certainty of what you already do well to distract the team and send them racing back to the safety and security of point A.

One thing that can make a huge difference is for the CEO (and other leaders) to continue having planning meetings (Randy thought they were done when the vision was complete and presented!) and to continuously restate the vision for the team in the context of what is happening now.

It’s kind of like being a GPS device for your company, keeping everyone aware of where they are and continually rerouting based on what’s going on in the moment.

As projects came in, the team needed to hear from Randy: “OK. We have a big project that’s going to demand our time and attention, but this doesn’t mean we aren’t still moving toward our goals. Here’s how we’ll do that now…”

What goals do you have that have lost momentum because when you moved off your starting point the path became less clear?

Time to become the GPS and reroute.

April 22, 2012

How You Make The Difficult People You Work With More Difficult

Who ruins your day? The VP who has to be right no matter what? The client who doesn’t listen? The direct report who undermines your authority? The CEO who has to belittle someone in every conversation? Your colleague who, after you’ve come to an agreement, does exactly the opposite? The weenie who takes credit for your work? The softie who can’t make a decision?

OK. The person you’re dealing with really is a grade A jerk. Difficult. Unjustifiable. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And you’re right. So what?  What does being right get you? You still have to deal with it. And you still have to deal with the consequences of your interactions.

Let me offer you what may be an uncomfortable take on this, which just may change your life:

There is no such thing as a difficult person.

Difficult people are just human beings (no matter how much they may be disguising that) behaving in ways that they believe work for them.

The perception that they are difficult belongs to you. You are part of a system with them. And just as their behavior contributes to the difficulty, so does yours.

The good news: you can change any system by changing any part of that system. You may not be able to change the other person. But you can change yourself. And when you change, the system changes and then that person has no choice but to change.

It all begins with doing something different from the way you’ve been doing it. Here’s a quick roadmap:

  1. Depersonalize the situation. It may help to assign different names to the players and pretend that you are an objective observer.
  2. Identify the problem behaviors and the problem responses. Chances are good that you have a go-to response.
  3. Identify the costs of the difficulty. Look at the big picture as well as the more immediate one. Who else is impacted by this interaction?
  4. Identify your desired outcome. What would work better than what’s happening now?
  5. Put your butt in their seat. Develop an appreciation for why they’re making the choices they are making—and an understanding of what they want to achieve.
  6. Model the behavior you want to see. If you want them to listen, you listen first. If you want them to do it your way, try theirs.
  7. Strategize. What other ways might you respond to their behavior? Consider some of the following options: Get more direct or give more direction.  Become more connected. Look at ways you might offer support. Provide information. Use humor. Push back. Don’t push back. Agree. Disagree. Try it their way. Offer other options. Ask a good question.
  8. Try it out. Put a different strategy into practice and observe the results. Expect the discomfort that comes along with changing a habit and remind yourself that your desired outcome is worth it.
  9. Learn. Fine tune. Try again. 

Don’t give up. You’ll just go back to the way things were. Instead, keep moving forward. Keep being willing to adjust your own behavior and see what happens.

March 12, 2012

How Not to Negotiate: 7 Essential To-Don’ts and To-Dos

Meet Julie, the leading biz dev rep in a privately held med tech company.

Julie had been underpaid in a biz dev support role for 6 years and pressing for more opportunity. In late ‘09, a regional rep quit abruptly and the company offered her the position with a small increase and the promise of a more substantial raise at her review.

After 2 years, Julie had brought in new business that exceeded $1.8 million. In January 2012, the company expanded Julie’s territory. Their proposed new comp package increased her pay by 25%. They seemed to think she would be thrilled.

Julie knew she should be grateful, but she was disappointed and felt undervalued. Because her salary was low to begin with, a 25% increase just didn’t amount to that much. She knew the company had experienced some significant losses in the economic downturn. She didn’t expect to be paid as much as the other top biz dev people in the company, but she did feel she deserved more.

She scheduled a conversation with the CFO and head of HR. She took in a prepared presentation focused on her tenure, her recent success, and what was fair given the increase in responsibility with an additional region to support.

They listened sympathetically but stood their ground: the company had just given her the largest percentage increase they’d ever offered and the budget wouldn’t allow them to do more at this time. Further, they said, the president was concerned that her current region might be depleted and she should be grateful for the additional territory. They would review it again in 12 months.

Julie left the meeting deflated and overwhelmed by her new workload, even as she questioned her own right to feel badly.

Recently, I’ve heard from people, at all levels of other organizations, who are being asked to do more than ever for less than they know they deserve, but who, like Julie, find themselves unable to negotiate a better deal.

Most of them make the same critical mistakes and miss the same powerful opportunities as Julie

7 Essential To-Don’ts and To-Do’s:

  1. Don’t make it about you. Instead, make a business case. Your needs, wants and what’s fair are irrelevant. A business has a fiduciary obligation to make decisions based on what’s best for the business. Figure out how what’s best for you is also best for the business and you’ll be in much better shape.
  2. Don’t negotiate with the wrong people. Get in front of the right decision makers. When you negotiate with people who are responsible only for the budget the conversation can only go so far. You want to talk to people who are responsible for the future.
  3. Don’t let them keep the focus of the conversation on budget and tradition. Control the direction of the conversation. Do this by asking questions that focus on the future, the value of the services you provide and the cost of missed opportunities, i.e., losing you.
  4. Don’t buy into their story of comparison to others or current limits. Have your own story. And make sure it is all about what you can create, the value you plan to bring, and the potential that can be achieved.
  5. Don’t make a one-way presentation. Make it an interactive conversation. Get them talking about what they want, need, fear and hope for. Listen deeply and respond thoughtfully with ways you can create their wants and hopes and reduce their needs and fears.
  6. Don’t focus on the past. Focus on the future from the perspective of the higher level that you want to attain. The past is done and paid for. The way to get more (often unlimited) money is to demonstrate who you can be for them in the future.
  7. Don’t be ignorant about your own value. Do your homework and know and quantify the value you provide. Make sure that the value you provide significantly exceeds the package you want. Get your employer to quantify it for themselves. If you can get them to do the math and see they come out ahead, it’s usually a no-brainer.

The key to effective negotiation is co-creation. Be creative. And, remember, salary isn’t the only negotiable. By the way, all of this applies whether you are negotiating for your career with your employer, for your company with a client or for yourself with your spouse or kids.

Good luck. I’d love to hear about it when you score that big win.

February 21, 2012

Too Much Talk, Too Little Action?

Frank is a member of a cross-functional team in a Midwest manufacturing plant that’s been assigned to work together to improve utilization of resources. The team has been meeting weekly for the past several months. Each week the discussion is vibrant and energized, yet they have little to show for it. Each discussion moves the conversation to new territory that surfaces new challenges and opportunities that are valid, but that keep the team from focusing on the original task or landing on specific actions.

Does this sound familiar?

Are there individuals or groups in your business that tend to have big ideas but little follow through?

Do you suffer from “mission creep” where as you talk and explore challenges without even noticing you’ve moved on to other challenges and lost sight of your original objectives?

Who do you know who tends to jump in enthusiastically, skipping over analysis of details and potential obstacles, and then stalls out when details and obstacles become reality?

Could you use a tool for getting and keeping things moving?

Even as we are all unique, we all also fit rather neatly into 8 basic styles of approach to work and life. We each tend to see the world and take action through our style, make decisions and choices that are consistent with our style, and are unaware of and/or put off by people with other styles.

By the way, each of these styles has important perspectives, skills and qualities to offer. And each has its own particular blind spots. We tend to gravitate toward others who share our style, and this can cause too much focus on our strengths and too little on the areas where we are least comfortable and then things can get a bit out of balance.

Most of the members on Frank’s team were of a similar style, best described as “Energizing.” Leaders and teams with this style bring essential passion and energy to projects. But they need balance from other styles in order to keep things moving forward, get the details right and follow through to completion.

When we gain understanding of our own style, the styles of others and the style of our teams and organizations, we can see clearly where style clashes or blind spots may be keeping us stuck and interfering with achieving our objectives.

Awareness of style allows us to define, articulate and address these challenges in new ways that can quickly and dramatically change the results we produce.

Once Frank made his team aware of how they were getting in their own way, they were able to change their pattern by making sure that each meeting ends with specific action steps and each subsequent meeting begins with a check in as to progress. They’re also establishing a “parking lot” for important ideas that surface in the discussion but that are off topic. This allows them to come back to the specific task while being able to decide based on priorities whether to address other issues in a different meeting immediately following or at a later date.

Where are you, your team or your organization stuck that understanding style might give you some tools to get moving in the right direction?

To learn more about leadership styles and how you might use this knowledge to turbocharge your results, contact me: sr@leadershipincorporated.com.

January 22, 2012

Leaders: Are you focused downstream or upstream?

A man walking along a river suddenly sees a local farmer being carried along in the current, struggling to keep his head above water. He heroically jumps in to the rescue. No sooner has he got the man to shore and caught his breath, but he sees another farmer bobbing up and down, screaming for help. Again he jumps in. But they just keep coming. He can’t pull them out fast enough. He starts to become angrier and angrier at these big, stupid farmers who kept falling in the river. He sees the Mayor walking by and calls out for help, but the Mayor runs away, making the man even more furious.

Does this sound like anything you are doing in your work?

Frank, the CEO of an ad agency,  is frustrated by the constant conflict between the creative and account teams, which results in a tremendous waste of time and money — not to mention the impact on client retention and company morale. The creative group complains that the account team doesn’t provide adequate input and sets unrealistic deadlines. The account team fires back that the creatives don’t address the input that’s given and over-create. Meanwhile, they continue to miss the target and have to do work over and over, job after job, month after month, year after year. What makes Frank the angriest is when the creative department starts demanding a presence in client meetings, not understanding how that undermines the account team or the cost of that duplication of effort to the company.

Jody, the head of a regional commercial bank, is trying to support Samantha, one of her VPs in solving a problem with team meetings. Team members aren’t engaged and when they aren’t specifically “on,” they are checking email and doing “who knows what else” on their smart phones. Important information needs to be repeated often. People who slipped out for calls need to be tracked down at critical moments. Meetings take at least twice as long as they should and waste company time and money. She has tried to outlaw smart phone use in meetings. She is outraged when team members have the nerve to complain about Samantha who is the one person Jody can count on to be focused and dealing with business issues.

Back to our man at the river.

Why were the man’s tireless efforts having no impact? It turns out that one mile upstream, on the path to the mill, there is a rickety wooden bridge with no guard rail. A section of supports are loose and as the farmers move across the bridge with their heavy loads, the slats dip and tip them right into the river.

And who discovered this? Why, the Mayor, who hadn’t been running away from the problem at all, but running upstream to find its cause.

If Frank were to look upstream, it would become obvious that his problem lay neither with the account execs nor the creatives but with agency protocol that has the account team as the sole point of client contact. From this perspective it might be easier to see that giving the creative team client contact is not duplicating effort, and is actually a solution to the problem.

Looking upstream, Jody might see that Samantha, her engaged team leader, was actually causing the problem, by using meetings to think out loud and presenting every bit of data before reaching her point or a conclusion. From here, it makes much more sense to solve the problem by coaching Samantha to prepare her thoughts in advance and communicate more succinctly.

When we’re in a downstream solution, it’s only natural to turn our anger on people looking upstream.

When looking downstream at a problem, it can feel quite compellingly that we stand to lose everything by shifting our attention away from the problem. But, that is often exactly what we must do. It’s all about perspective. And the cue to stop what we’re doing and look upstream is when we find ourselves continuing to pull metaphorical farmers out of the river — and becoming angry at the farmers for being there.

So, how about you? Where would looking upstream give you a different perspective on the problem at hand? Where are you trying to solve a business or personal problem downstream when an upstream solution could be a game changer?

Wishing you the inspiration to see your challenges with new eyes over the next few weeks.

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