Are you looking for that much needed strategic advantage in life? Are you looking to gain an edge over the competition to get that job you believe and think is already yours? If so, all it takes is learning how to follow three simple rules to develop a shift in your mindset to hone your skills to become a stronger leader for yourself and others.Read More›
* This post was originally published on LinkedIn
I’ve always been amazed at the number of tremendously gifted leaders who underutilize the one asset most responsible for their success – their brain. It’s not that leaders don’t think; it’s that they don’t think enough. And when they do find time to think, many leaders often think about the wrong things, in the wrong ways, at the wrong times. My message is simple, but not necessarily easy; to do more – think more.
Employees want feedback. They want an honest assessment of their behavior to help them improve their work. They know that if they listen to, and take action on, clear and constructive feedback, their overall performance will improve. And so will their job satisfaction.
However, most managers feel uncomfortable delivering feedback, especially when it involves a problem or concern. So many managers take a passive approach or are guilty of knee-jerk, “drive by” feedback, which can be counterproductive. Providing feedback that gets results isn’t as difficult or painful as you think. Listed below are ten tips to make it a powerful, positive experience.Read More›
Marissa Mayer is in trouble. Information recently spilled through the Yahoo firewall that she is habitually late. Evidently she has the tardy gene, a degenerative marker that becomes symptomatic with a little authority and can become chronic with a lot.
She is not alone; many bosses do things they shouldn’t when they can. In fact, more authority makes many people less responsible. But to be fair, managing time is a difficult task that increases exponentially with each promotion. Regardless, senior executives who cannot manage themselves are incredibly disruptive to their organizations and the best leaders work hard to get it right.Read More›
Thoreau wrote: “It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak and another to hear.” Most of us are great at the former but at the latter, not so much. Truth be told, most of us are poor listeners. When considering great leadership skills, we focus on transmission skills–speaking and writing. The most effective leaders know they have to be great listeners too. They understand the need to work hard to increase their chance of hearing the truth. When leaders ask me how they can communicate better, I tell them to listen better, listen smarter, and listen more often.
Here are four things to consider:
- Do you ever stop talking? It’s been said, “if you want to learn something new, stop talking.” This is especially true for leaders. Because as a leader you rarely get interrupted, but when you stop talking, someone will fill the silence and often with what you need to know. We’ve all been in meetings where everyone but the boss knew an important truth, but it never surfaced because the boss never stopped talking.
- Do you ask smart questions? A leader’s questions indicate interest in learning and also show respect for the insight of their people. I’m not recommending questions that prove how smart you are, but the probing questions that indicate your interest and uncertainty. Military commanders use a formal tool to identify their information needs; a list of questions to clarify information that will lead to understanding, decision, and action. All effective leaders ask great questions and use every tool at their disposal to increase their understanding.
- Do you listen to all the answers? Its easy for leaders to listen to voices that sound like their own, but the best leaders listen to a chorus of voices. They welcome unexpected and even uncomfortable answers by encouraging the messenger. They listen where the rubber meets the road and the truth most often resides.
- Do you make honesty your policy? I’ve yet to see a great organization that didn’t make honesty a core value. We are conditioned to please authority figures–parents, teachers, bosses–and as a consequence people will lie, cheat and steal to please the boss unless the boss makes it clear that doing the right thing pleases them more.
If you really want to hear the truth, listen better. Leaders who don’t will learn the truth sooner or later, but it just might come from an unwanted headline, broadcast, or blog.
Related Post: Leadership and The Power of Listening
One of the most effective ways to order your world is to simplify everything you encounter. However the problem for many is keeping it simple often becomes very difficult when our basic human nature is to over-complicate everything we touch. In thinking about the people I respect the most, to the one, they possess the uncanny ability to take the most complicated of issues and simplify them. You will find that the best leaders, communicators, teachers, innovators, etc., have a true knack for taking extremely complex, dense, or intricate content and making it engaging and easy to understand. In fact, it was Leonardo Da Vinci who said: “simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.” In today’s post I’ll take a look at the often overlooked benefits of keeping it simple…
While simplicity may have become a lost art, understanding the importance of simplicity is nonetheless critical to your success. Consider all the presentations/meetings you’ve attended in the last few weeks; was it the people who were able to articulate their positions in a simple and straight forward fashion, or the individuals that made things complex and tedious that got traction with their ideas? It has been my experience that the more complicated, difficult, or convoluted an explanation is, that one or both of the following issues are at play: 1) the person speaking is a horrible communicator, or; 2) the person speaking really doesn’t possess a true command of their subject matter. It is one thing to toss around the latest buzz-words or to have the most complex flow chart, but it is quite another thing to actually possess such a deep and thorough understanding of your topic that you can make even the most complex issues easy to understand.
It is almost as if business people have come to believe that complexity is synonymous with sophistication and savvy. It has been my experience that the only things that “complexity” is synonymous with are increased costs and failed implementations. There is an old saying in the software development world that states “usability drives adoptability” which tends to lend support to my observations. Those of you that know me have come to understand that I prefer to cut to the chase and get to the root of an issue as quickly as possible – this requires the ability to simplify, not complicate matters. Complexity is precisely what plagues many businesses. You don’t solve complicated matters by adding to the complexity. The most effective way to deal with complexity is to strip it away by addressing it with simplicity.
The truth is that simplifying something doesn’t make it a trite or incomplete endeavor. Rather simplification makes for a more productive and efficient effort that is often more savvy than other more complex alternatives. Another benefit of simplicity is that it serves as a key driver of focus, which enables greater efficiency, productivity, and better overall performance. Keeping things simple allows you to focus on one thing at a time without the distractions that complexity breeds by its nature alone. I would suggest that you break down every key area of your business (operations, administration, marketing, branding, sales, finance, IT, etc.) and attempt to simplify your processes, initiatives, and offerings.
As a C-level executive you must focus on simplifying your day in order to maximize your effectiveness. By simplifying everything from the information and reports you view, to your communications protocol, to your agenda, to your decisioning structure, you will be better able to operate in today’s unnecessarily complex world. I’ll leave you with this quote from Longfellow: “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.”
What say you?
Related Post: How Dumb is Your Business?
Process… just the mere use of the word can spread fear and panic in the workplace. This sad reality exists for a reason - 100% of companies unnecessarily suffer from a process problem. They suffer to varying degrees, but they are nonetheless suffering. The good news is bad process is one of the easiest things for leaders to remedy. By simply being willing to stop the madness and reclaim the asylum from the lunatics (inept leaders, lazy managers, and fee happy consultants), huge gains in morale and productivity can be quickly achieved.
With the plethora of conflicting information written about process design, implementation and management, combined with the nightmares we’ve all experienced as a result of bad process, many executives fear the pain associated with flawed process less than they value the benefits created by good process. How sad it that?
Here’s the thing – It’s not what you know, but what you don’t know about process, or perhaps what you’ve allowed process to represent that has left you fatigued and frustrated. I’m going to crawl out on a limb and make a bold claim: by the time you’ve finished reading this piece you’ll find the topic of process no longer creates untold amounts of brain damage, but has transitioned to something you’ll find altogether invigorating – trust me on this one…
One of the ways successful companies gain a competitive advantage is through creating process advantage. The problem is most companies are buried in process disadvantage. Good process is sophisticated (not complex), efficient (simple) and effective (usable and value added). Good business processes serve as the central nervous system for your organization providing a framework for every action, decision, activity or innovation to flow from and through. There are many who would say process stifles creativity and slows production, and while I would concur this statement is usually the case with bad process, nothing could be further from the truth as it relates to good process. Good process serves as a catalyst for innovation, which in turn optimizes and accelerates engagement, collaboration, work-flow, and enhances the overall productivity of business initiatives.
So, here’s where the fun and excitement comes in – I want you to place your business processes under the microscope using the following 7 points as filters for what processes you create, keep, refine or discard moving forward:
- The Right Mindset: If your business processes are perceived as a rigid set of mandates and rules, rather than a set of flexible guidelines – you’re in trouble. Good process should provide a fluid framework to inspire creativity not stifle it. Sound process encourages the use of good judgment, it shouldn’t insinuate people don’t have any judgment. Believe it or not, good process should allow people to take risks not preclude them from doing so. The debate shouldn’t be one of systems vs. talent, but systems and talent.
- The 20% Rule: I’ve yet to encounter a business that couldn’t eliminate 20% of their existing business processes and be better for it. You; yes you, are allowing the expenditure of precious time and resources on silly processes that add no value whatsoever – they should be eliminated immediately. Bad process is indicative of an unhealthy mindset that justifies anything currently existing as valuable. The fastest way to inject a breath of fresh air into your business is to give permission space to your workforce to tell you where bad process exists and then to do something about it.
- Design Matters: While good process can be inspired from anywhere, it should be designed by those closest to the work. Imposed mandates from above while often well intended, are rarely as effective as organic initiatives created by team members who most frequently interact with said process. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing consultants to “install” a “best practice” process. Rather, allow your team to create a next practices solution. By choosing the latter over the former you’ll save considerable time, money and frustration.
- Simplicity Matters: If your process isn’t simple, it’s going to be very expensive, not very usable, and probably not sustainable – put simply, it will fail. Whether evaluating new processes, or determining which ones to reengineer or discard, make simplicity a key consideration. Remember this – usability drives adoptability, and simplicity is the main determinant of usability.
- Don’t Think Product – Think Outcome: I know this will offend some, but process is not a new software program or application. While toolsets can enhance process or can become a by-product of process, they do not in and of themselves constitute process. Don’t get caught in the trap of perpetual spending or development as a solution. Recognize if you’re caught in this trap it’s a symptom of bad process not a reflection of good process.
- No Band-Aids: Good process is not reactionary. A series of bubble gum and bailing wire solutions put in place in haste as a knee-jerk reaction to the latest problem is not good process design. Process by default will never provide the benefits of good process engineering by design. Think long-term, and if you must, bridge with a phased solution, but be planful in approach.
- No Panacea: While good process will help optimize any business, it will not make up for shortcomings in other disciplines or functional areas. Process is not the main driver in business, but merely a critical support system built for enablement, delivery, accountability and measurement.
Good process comes as a by-product of clarity of purpose. It is the natural extension of values, vision, mission, strategy, goals, objectives and tactics. It is in fact working down through the aforementioned hierarchy that allows process to be engineered by design to support mission critical initiatives. Recognition of the fact that you don’t start with process design, but that process design should be used as a refining framework to enable better execution is critical to the development of good process. Process is the part of the value chain that holds everything together and brings and ordered, programmatic, yet flexible discipline to your business.
Good process results in a highly usable infrastructure being adopted across the enterprise because it is effective for staff, and provides visibility and accountability for management, all of which increase the certainty of execution. Good process across all areas of the enterprise will result in elimination of redundancy and inefficiency, better engagement and collaboration, shortening of cycle times, better knowledge management and business intelligence, increased customer satisfaction, and increased margins.
I encourage you to not let apathy, negative experience based upon results of bad process or flawed implementations, or the fear of the unknown keep you from benefiting from the numerous advantages created by good process engineering. I would also strongly encourage you to evaluate all of your current processes so you can discard or re-engineer (simplify) bad process and improve upon good process, striving for excellence in process design. Now go to work and unleash some goodness of process…
Many would say if you’re in the leadership business, you’re also in the business of dealing with adversity. Regardless of where you are in your life and your career, I can promise you one thing; you will consistently be faced with challenges and obstacles along the way. In today’s post I will take a brief look at the beliefs that cause some to succeed where others fail.
Life isn’t easy, it’s not fair, and it’s certain to challenge even the best of leaders. You will face physical, mental, financial, relational, and resource challenges among others. Instead of beating yourself up or giving in, it is critical you develop the ability to learn from setbacks. In a nutshell, dealing with barriers, obstacles, and setbacks requires both attitude and aptitude. So, do you have the skills and perspective to thrive under pressure and to succeed, or will you implode when faced with a challenge?
Sir Edmund Hillary was unsuccessful on three different occasions in his attempt to climb Mt. Everest before his successful summit in 1953. People who lauded the praises of Sir Edmund’s ascent said, “You’ve conquered the mountain,” and Sir Hillary said, “No, I’ve conquered myself.” The bitter experiences of the three failed attempts did not hold back Hillary from a fourth one. With a focused vision, a clarity of purpose, a passionate outlook, and a great team, he pursued his goal and achieved it.
Anyone who has ever launched a new initiative understands the inevitability of running into numerous barriers over the life-cycle of any project. The difference between those who succeed, and those who fail, is their perspective on how to deal with the barriers they encounter along the way. People often stumble over even the smallest of obstacles, while all too easily considering these routine speed-bumps as rational excuses for their failures.
Setbacks and difficulties are an inevitable part of life. While they will often challenge your skills and temperament, it is those who are willing to spend the time assessing the obstacles as they arise, and who refuse to submit to their various trials who will succeed. The ability to blow through barriers must become a passion if you want to achieve sustainable success in the business world.
I could certainly paint a more complex picture of what it takes to overcome challenges by citing esoteric theories, but the truth of the matter is the only thing required to get beyond barriers is to stop complaining about the challenges and obstacles, and spend your time solving problems & creating outcome based solutions. If my objective is to get to the other side of the wall, I don’t really care if I go over the wall, under the wall, around the wall or through the wall… I just care I get to the other side. While I might spend a bit of time evaluating the most efficient strategy for getting to the other side of said wall, it will ultimately be my focus on the tactical execution of conquering the challenge that will determine my success. A bias toward action is always a better path than falling prey to analysis paralysis. Generally speaking, there are only really two ways to address difficulties:
- You can either change the circumstances surrounding the difficulty, or;
- Change yourself to better deal with the circumstances or the difficulty itself.
You can deal with difficulties properly and leverage your experience (or better yet the experience of others) to enhance your confidence, or you can deal with them incorrectly and let them seriously damage your confidence, performance and ultimately your reputation. Following are 4 things to consider when setbacks do occur:
- Recognize: Be honest enough to acknowledge what has happened. Don’t hide from the reality of the situation at hand. Setbacks happen – don’t be discouraged, learn from them, deal with them, and move on.
- Learn: Turn setbacks into development opportunities by asking positive questions such as: What are the positives surrounding this situation? How can I make the most of this situation? What can I learn from it? What are the facts underlying this problem? How can I avoid this situation next time?
- Acknowledge: Setbacks are part of life – they happen to everyone. When they happen to you, it’s important to understand you are not being singled out. Don’t take it personally, deal with it, and move on.
- Perspective: View setbacks as a challenge to overcome rather than an issue or problem.
Just as a diamond cannot be polished without friction, neither can you fully develop your skills without them being tested by adversity. Use obstacles and failures as an opportunity to polish your skills. I think Winston Churchill said it best when he noted, “The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Let’s cut right to the chase; stop focusing on being efficient – it’s a waste of time. Nobody other than perhaps you really cares how efficient you are, but everyone cares how effective you are. Not only do they care how effective you are, but they also care about the effectiveness of those whom you lead. It’s important to remember leadership is a people business, and people are messy. Leadership has little to do with how neat and tidy things are, but everything to do with how successful you are at scaling effectiveness.
Efficient vs. Effective – there is sometimes a very big difference between the two. So much so, that I’ve really come to cringe every time I hear the word efficiency. It’s not really that there’s anything wrong with becoming more efficient, but far too many executives major in the minors when it comes to efficiency. Stop focusing on optics over outcomes. Don’t worry about how you look, worry about the results you produce.
Let me ask you a question – Have you become so efficient that you’ve rendered yourself ineffective? At an organizational level, have you focused so much on process improvements and incremental gains that you’ve failed to engage people, and seek opportunities to be disruptive? Are you efficient or effective, or do you know?
I really don’t have a problem with increasing efficiency so long as the tail doesn’t start wagging the dog. If you’re a baseball player who has beautifully efficient swing mechanics, but you can’t hit the ball – who cares? If efficiency starts diluting productivity rather than increasing it, something is woefully amiss. This is more than an issue of semantics – it’s become a systemic problem with many individuals and organizations. Here’s the thing – process in and of itself was never engineered to be the outcome, it was designed to support the creation of the right outcomes.
If you’re not tracking with me yet, ask yourself the following questions: Do you send an email when you should make a phone call, or worse, do you hide behind the phone when you should be face-to-face? Even worse yet – the leader who sends a message by proxy when it should have been delivered personally. Do your sophisticated screening processes do such a great job of filtering they blind you to new opportunities and critical information? If your desk is so clean you don’t have anything to work on then you might be focusing on the wrong thing – it might be time to make a bit of a mess (see Leadership Is About Breaking Things).
What I want you to recognize is sometimes the least efficient thing can lead to the most productive outcome. A great example of this would be carving out time in your already too busy schedule to mentor someone in your organization. Clearly this endeavor will take time, and may not yield immediate results, but the payoff organizationally, relationally, culturally, and in terms of future contribution can be huge.
As I’ve said many times before, things don’t always have to boil down to either/or types of decisions – not everything must end-up on the altar of sacrificial decisioning. With the proper perspective and focus it is quite possible to be both efficient and effective. Efficient process can enable effective resource utilization. The two concepts can co-exist so long as the focus remains on the proper thing – results. Smart leaders don’t just focus on moving the needle, they focus on moving the right needles, at the right times, and for the right reasons.
Bottom line – check your motivations. When you ever so efficiently cross something off your to-do list has it moved you farther away from, or closer to, putting points on the board? Better yet, are the items on your to-do list even the right items to begin with? Lastly, I’ll leave you with this reminder – leadership is not about how many emails, memos and transmittals are sent under your signature – it’s about relationships, service, and engagement.
Choice; it’s a simple, yet critical aspect of leadership. Academics and business theorists often gloss over the basics of leadership preferring to trivialize their importance. It’s far too easy for those with an elitist approach to leadership to dismiss simple as sophomoric, and obvious as irrelevant – nothing could be further from reality. Leadership has little to do with complex theory, but everything to do with understanding the subtleties of human behavior. Just as you must choose whether or not to lead, it’s your choice whether or not to read on – choose wisely.
At its essence, leadership isn’t a job – it’s a choice. Everything about leadership begins with a choice – even accepting a leadership role. Whether leaders are elected, appointed, anointed, or self-proclaimed, and regardless of whether it is by design or default, at some level you make a choice to be a leader. Once you make that choice, you then must choose whether or not to lead well.
It’s often said leaders succeed or fail based upon the decisions the make. While the aforementioned statement is true to an extent, it glosses over a fundamental element of the decision process – choice. All decisions are the result of several seemingly insignificant choices. By the way, these choices are only insignificant to the arrogant, naive or inexperienced. It’s also important to keep in mind, rationalizations and justifications are choices too.
It’s not uncommon for leaders to feel forced into making certain decisions due to personal, professional, positional, cultural, or political circumstances. That said, leaders are never forced into anything – they make a choice. Leadership is also not a matter of chance; it’s a matter of choice. While flawed and/or failed leaders often blame happenstance as the reason for poor outcomes, it’s their choices that deserve scrutiny when searching for the root cause of calamity. There is an art to choice, and smart leaders always place themselves in a position to create and preserve options; not limit them.
The best leaders I’ve worked with have a framework for developing priorities, which in turn, allows them to make outstanding choices. They have a clear understanding of who they are, what they value, and where they will or won’t compromise. This affords them tremendous clarity of purpose. It also gives them the ability to align vision with talent and allow important decision making to be pushed to the edges of the enterprise. They recognize it’s quite possible to be very focused, without becoming rigid. Great leaders understand there is more to be gained through flexibility and collaboration than by edict or mandate. They simply make wise choices.
The choices leaders must make are seemingly endless. Leaders choose to control or collaborate, and to lead change or to embrace status quo. It’s a choice to value being right over seeking the right outcome. Leaders choose to be aloof or to be engaged. It’s a choice to be self-serving or to place service above self. A leader always has the choice to take credit or to give credit. Leaders can choose to create culture by default or design, and perhaps most of all, a leader must choose to care.
Leadership shouldn’t ever be complex, but the reality is it’s often very difficult. Leaders must choose to display the character and integrity required to make hard choices, personal sacrifices, and to do the right thing (not just the popular thing).
In my most recent column on Forbes I briefly discussed the value of white space as it relates to “span of control” but felt the topic deserved a deeper dive. Here’s something you might not want to hear, but you should definitely take to heart – If you’re having difficulty ordering your world, it’s nobody’s fault but yours. I don’t care how busy you are, but I do care about what you accomplish – the former doesn’t always lead to the latter. Busy leaders are a dime a dozen, but highly productive leaders are not so common. One of the easiest things for leaders to do is to bite off more than they can chew.
Fact: bright, talented executives with a bias to action will often take on more than they should. These leaders don’t understand the value of white space. The reality is maximizing results and creating a certainty of execution is all about focus, focus and more focus. Here’s the thing – it’s difficult to focus in the middle of chaos. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to learn to create white space. The best leaders are those who understand the most productive things often happen during intentional periods of isolation used for self-reflection, introspection, and the rigor of critical thought.
While the mind of a leader may be most comfortable being oriented toward the future, he/she can only act in the here and now. The knowledge and skills required to master any endeavor only happens when we focus on what we’re currently doing. This is the definition of presence, and it is only when we operate in the present that real creativity, growth and innovation occur. The problem with being present is many leaders confuse this with having to do everything themselves. Have you ever interacted with somone who deals with silence by jumping in and filling the conversational void? This same thing occurs with executives who attempt to fill every open slot on the calendar with activity – this is a huge mistake.
All good leaders have matured to understand they can be fully engaged and present and yet still be alone. Smart leaders don’t fill their calenders with useless activities, they strategically plan for white space allowing them to focus on highest and best use endeavors. Leading doesn’t always mean doing. In fact, most often times it means pulling back and creating white space so that others can do. This is true leadership that scales.
Is your rubber-band stretched so tight it’s about to snap? Efficiency and productivity are not found working at or even near capacity. Rather entering the productivity zone is found working at about 60% to 70% of capacity. Operating in excess of that threshold will cause increased stress, lack of attention to detail and errant decisioning. The old “what if I only had ‘x’ number of hours to work in a week, what would I focus on?” exercise is a good one. In fact, if you’re reading this text, just stop right now and benchmark your activity against your reflective thoughts – Is what you’re doing, in alignment with your true priorities, or have you been sucked down into the weeds?
It is important for executives to learn to apply focused leverage to a limited number of highest and best use activities rather than to continually shift gears between multiple initiatives. Resist the temptation to just advance a broad number of disparate initiatives, and alternatively focus your efforts on the completion of a few high impact objectives. The simple reality is that if you continue to add new responsibilities to an already full plate, all of your obligations will suffer as a result. Face current challenges head-on by keeping your head down and applying focused leverage to the task at hand. Leaders who operate without margins usually hit the wall they are most desperate to avoid.
Have you noticed how some leaders are frenzied, stressed, and always playing from behind, while others are eerily clam and always appear to be a few steps ahead? It’s been my experience that leaders who fall into the latter category make great use of their thought life, while those in the former category seem to forgo their alone time in lieu of being busy. Savvy leaders crave white space whereas unseasoned leaders feel uncomfortable with open time.
One thing that can be a difficult lesson to learn is that not all engagement is necessary or productive. Leadership and engagement go hand-in-hand, but only when engagement happens by design rather than by default. Don’t get me wrong, good things can happen with spontaneous engagement, but if you’re engaging with others without intent and purpose, it likely serves as a distraction for all parties. Don’t interfere with your team just because you don’t understand how to use your time wisely. If you do, you’ll become an annoyance known for not respecting others – this is not leadership.
I have found the best leaders are harder on themselves than anyone else could ever be. In fact, so much so, that the best leaders constantly self-assess and are relentless in challenging themselves. They relish their solitude because it gives them the ability to be alone with their thoughts, to challenge their logic, to refine their theories, and to test the boundaries of their intellect. It’s during these quiet moments that leaders willing to be honest with themselves will examine their own flaws and frailties. They are forever in search of new ways of dealing with old problems.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about creating white space is that it presents opportunities for others to step-in and raise the level of their contributions. When leaders step back and resist the temptation to do everything themselves their organization is strengthened. When leaders become comfortable being without always doing collaboration flourishes and productivity is enhanced. Whether white space makes you more productive on an individual basis, or you leverage the white space create operational depth and scale, you’re better off with white spice than without it.
Ask 5 people for their opinions on optimizing “span of control” and you’ll likely receive 5 different opinions. These well meaning opinions will often cite a few different rules of thumb on size and composition, and will undoubtedly refer you to someone’s version of best practices. Here’s the problem – they’ll all lead you astray.