Leadership…And All That Jazz

This week, I’m offering you a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010. Not to be immodest but it is one of my favourites. I love jazz and I think it a perfect metaphor for leadership. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

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jazz-piano-record-producer-9-13-2012-2011Warren Bennis once said, ‘I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s more like jazz. There is more improvisation”

I must confess. I really like the symphony orchestra metaphor, simply because it is, well, beautifully uncluttered. But, as much as I would like to think it possible for all things to be in harmony at all times, I know the reality to be a lot messier, or jazzier, metaphorically speaking.

In fact, it is perhaps the jazz of life, (that stuff that requires spontaneity and improvisation), that transforms the vanilla of a well-ordered enterprise into something spiced with possibility and potential for greatness.

So it is with leadership.

In leadership, there are times for following a well-planned strategy. And, there are times when doing so isn’t going to work. The landscape has a way of changing rapidly, often requiring leaders, as creative beings, to rely on instinct to successfully navigate unexpected challenges or opportunities and explore unknown places.

At those times, improvisation is a useful tool. However, as with jazz, improvisation on its own will not create a joyful noise. It must somehow find its way back to the primary melody no matter how far afield it may go.

In leadership, the primary melody lies in the organizational vision, its purpose and the values and principles it operates from. How far afield we are willing to go to realize the vision and fulfill the purpose is usually dependent on a number of things like:

  • How much we know
    The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about the immediate environment, our markets, our politics and the world, the better equipped we are to make spontaneous decisions that will serve our purpose, either now or in the future.
  • How much we are willing to risk
    When it comes to risk, those who extend themselves too far, risk losing sight of their core purpose and those who don’t explore at all, risk missing opportunities for growth that go beyond their current expectations. Being clear about how much we are willing to risk can help us determine the extent to which we are willing to improvise.
  • How much we believe
    If we have our organization’s core purpose and future vision etched on our brains and hearts, the likelihood is that we will also feel more at liberty to play with improvisation without fear of getting lost.
  • How much we imagine
    Just as jazz music is highly interpretive, the extent to which we use our imagination in leadership often determines the kind of organizations we build and the ability of the people working in those organizations to improvise effectively.

I believe there is a vital role for improvisation in organizations. Our appetite for spontaneity will of course vary but if we are wise, we will allow room for it. It could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

Oh, and just for fun, here is Oscar Peterson providing a fine example of what can happen when improvisation blends beautifully with the primary melody.

 

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity?

Every once in a while, I like to get back to the basics.  The basics for me are always about people and how we relate to each other.  This post addresses giving and receiving feedback. I know, it is an old topic but I’ll stop talking about it when more of us get better at it. In the meantime, here it is…again.

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canstockphoto6447088“Feedback is the breakfast of Champions” or so says Ken Blanchard. But I’m wondering how many of us truly have an appetite for it.   After all, it has a way of feeling like bad news much of the time.

Why is that I wonder?  Well, first of all a very common view of feedback is this.  Feedback equals Criticism.

When I looked up the word criticism, here are some synonyms that greeted me…reprehend, censure, reprobate, condemn, denounce. Okay then, I can’t wait to get me some of that!

Often too, the experiences we have around performance management time can bring on an allergic reaction to feedback because, despite good intention, it is often delivered badly and received equally badly…a breakfast of champions complete with sour milk.

Perhaps, then, the task for all of us is to shift the perspective of feedback from one that equals criticism to one that equals opportunity.

So, where is the opportunity in both providing and receiving feedback?

For the Recipient there is opportunity:

For personal growth

We only see ourselves from the inside out.  The value of having others observe us and give us information about what they see helps us ‘round out’ our impression of ourselves.

To make positive change

Information about ourselves gives us a chance to make changes that have some personal meaning.  The hardest part about making change is the commitment it takes to sustain new behaviour.   Knowing why a change is important helps us to remain on course and raises the potential for experiencing positive results from our efforts.

For the Provider there is opportunity:

To build relationships that include trust

Feedback becomes a gift when it is presented sincerely and without judgment.  As well, when it is given as part of a conversation rather than a laundry list of things to fix, it is more palatable for the recipient and allows for deeper understanding on both sides.

To convey belief in the recipient’s capabilities & potential contribution

Giving feedback allows us to paint a picture of what we believe another is truly capable of and to shape our expectations around those beliefs.  If we simply demand a certain level of performance without inviting input or considering what people might need to make it possible, we will likely be met with resentment rather than interest.

Okay, so this might address some of the why for shifting a negative perspective of feedback to a more positive one (and there are doubtless more reasons for doing so as well) but it doesn’t speak to the how.  So here are a few thoughts on that:

As Providers of feedback, if we take the opportunity perspective we must:

Be clear about what we’re looking for

This means that if we are going to observe someone going about their work and then provide meaningful and useful information to them, both parties have to be focusing on the same things.  Feedback, after all, is comprised not of a single conversation but a series of conversations that lead to change and growth.

Make conversation and observation a daily habit

Sitting down with someone once a year to talk about performance and outcomes does not encourage an opportunity based perspective on feedback.  Instead, it becomes something one dreads.  Having daily conversations with people and making daily observations about their activities facilitates good and useful exchanges of information.

Avoid the “poop sandwich” approach

Who is not familiar with this?  Its starts with something positive; ends with something positive and then sandwiches the negative  you-know-what in between.  I personally don’t like this approach because it feels contrived.  And, by the way, no one is fooled by it.

As Recipients of feedback, in taking the opportunity perspective we must:

Participate in the conversation

In my experience, people who say nothing during a session that includes personal feedback can have plenty to say when the session is over, and to people who can only commiserate.  While this might feel good at the time, it really isn’t very helpful.  Participating in the conversation means asking questions.  It sometimes means disagreeing and challenging.  But it also means there is opportunity to understand as well as to be understood.  That alone has great value.

Take the view that feedback is as often positive as it is negative

Whenever someone says, “May I give you some feedback?”  It is tempting to say “Uh-Oh.  What have I done now?”

To be open to receiving feedback I think we must also do our best to wipe out the negative “tapes” that play between our ears about it.  In short, an open mind helps.

The truth is, these discussions are rarely easy.  They take thought, and work, by both parties.  And, because we have this tendency to equate feedback discussions with personal shortcoming, we avoid having them; wait to the last minute to have them; or rush through them in a way that does more harm than good.  I think shifting our perspective  away from criticism and toward opportunity might help

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under Coaching, communication, Human Resources, Performance Management

Leadership and Human Nature

flowerIn October, 2012, Superstorm Sandy was top of mind for a great many.  Not only was it a catastrophic storm for thousands of  people, it served to remind us, once again, that disasters pull people together like no other phenomena.

I say this, not to be flippant, but to call to attention how the best in good people seems to rise to the top whenever the worst things happen. It’s almost like our greater brain kicks in and we gain full access to whatever stores of resilience, resourcefulness and generosity we have inside us.

It would be great if we could bottle it, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps then we could take a spoonful whenever we begin to forget what’s important.  After all, in life or death situations, things have a way of shifting our view, away from politics, bottom lines and winning at all cost toward something decidedly more genuine, more human.

So what is it we forget about people when we are not in crisis that we would do well to remember and respect? And, how would doing this serve to improve our leadership efforts?

The answers to those questions require more than this one person’s scrutiny but when I think about it, I’m reminded of a few truths about being human, like:

Necessity is the mother of invention ~ When we feel an urgent need, we are driven to seek a solution that will fill it.  That necessity drives change.  For most of us, before we are willing to change, we have to both see and feel the need for it. The role of leadership in this is both to help people feel the urgency and to believe that the pain of change will be worthwhile in the end.

People are more resilient than they are typically given credit for ~ While, firm structures are important during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things. In leadership is it wise to remember that in general, human beings are not that fragile.   We fare much better when we are regarded, not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

Caring for and about others is in our DNA ~ In crisis, our list of priorities tends to look different from the list we might draw up in more stable times.  Specifically, the safety and welfare of people always seem to come first when things are truly scary.  Everything else falls away.  Regrettably, when we are not in crisis, it is easy to forget that and shift focus to other, more financially or politically rewarding pursuits.  I suspect though that when leaders actively care for the people who follow them, the financial and political aspects of organizational life don’t suffer at all.

When we know the score we have it in us to be patient~ With a few exceptions, those who have suffered, and continue to suffer hardship from this latest blast from Mother Nature seem to have borne the discomfort and inconvenience of power outage and fuel shortage with stoic resignation.  People expected to lose electrical power.  Likely too, they expected to have to line up for batteries, gas and other supplies.   I  think that people who are not in crisis also appreciate it (and are much more patient with themselves and each other) when they know what to expect.  Patience allows for clear thinking. Clear thinking allows for greater productivity and problem solving. From that perspective, keeping people informed pays off.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This article was originally posted in 2012

 

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational culture, Organizational Effectiveness

Four Things to Remember When Change Hits “Upside the Head”

woman-ice-pack_300Change.  It’s a topic that provides much fodder for discussion among leaders.  We anticipate it; study it; plan for it; and, if we are smart (or lucky), we make it happen or respond to it with strength, a sense of purpose and a clear head.  Sounds pretty simple.

But of course, it’s not.  Sometimes change hits us “upside the head” and cares not whether we have had time to think about it or prepare for it.  It simply happens, rudely and without ceremony, leaving us grappling to make some sense of it all.

Yes, there are ways to mitigate the impact of such brutal changes but for the most part, they have a way of sending us into a tailspin and causing even that which was once so familiar to seem somehow foreign and out of sync with how we understand the world.

The trauma brought about by such change happens every day to countless people, people without contingency plans, or any idea how they are going to cope with what has happened to them.  And yet we do, cope I mean, under many conditions and through many challenges.

Having experienced an “upside the head” change myself, I am given to thinking about aspects of change that I perhaps did not give so much consideration to in the past. Here are a few of those thoughts:

Change is primarily an emotional and people-centred event

In 2001, Jeffery W. Greenberg, Chairman of Marsh & McLennan Companies headquartered in New York, presided over a firm of 58,000 people worldwide.  1,127 of them worked in the World Trade Centre, some in Tower One and others in Tower Two.  Mr. Greenberg’s office was in Mid-town Manhattan.  From his window, he had a clear view of the towers and of the horror inflicted on those who went to work there on September 11th.

At the end of the reckoning, 295 of the company’s employees had lost their lives.  In the midst of the pain and disarray that was to ensue in the days, weeks and months following the attack, something significant emerged.

In telling his story, Mr. Greenberg’s primary observations were not about executing business disaster recovery plans or repositioning Data Centres and telecommunications systems but about the people in his organization; their courage, resilience and determination to pick up the pieces and move on.

This suggests to me that successfully moving through horrendous change events relies more heavily on the preservation of emotional health than we might otherwise think.  It reinforces, at least for me, that building an organization with a strong sense of purpose, widely shared values and an engaged workforce is not a faddish notion.  It is a business imperative.

During times of drastic change, people are often given far less credit for having resilience than they deserve

It is tempting, I think, for leaders to assume that because a change is frightening, people will fall apart and be unable to participate in working toward a new normal without constant hand holding and caretaking. I believe though, that it is during such frightening times that we each have the potential to discover inner stores of strength and courage that might never have been tested.

While, firm structures are important during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things.

“Upside the Head” kinds of Change bring out the best in most people.

It would be naïve of me to suggest that when disaster strikes, there won’t be some who will take advantage of it for personal gain, or fail to rise to the occasion, but for the most part, people are amazingly supportive of one another during times of trouble.  Even if, in ordinary circumstances, they spend time bickering, there is something galvanizing about life-changing, scary events that brings out the best in most of us.

For leaders, it is something to perhaps remember…and to trust.

Recovery requires us to dig deep and see the funny side of things.

It’s hard to even think of laughing when your world has been turned upside down.  After all, the experience of being caught in a chaotic and foreign situation is far from funny. But, in my experience, there is always something ironic or just downright comical about every situation.

My husband had a stroke, a very serious one.  It scared us both, badly. But, for some reason, along with the crying (and there was some of that), there was also a fair amount of laughter too.

I just think that, sometimes reverence can be overrated and looking at the lighter side of life, even if it seems a bit out of place, has a way of lifting the load for a time. It is even possible that through a recovery period when the going is hard, laughter is indeed a very potent medicine.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

 

Note: A revised version of a post originally published in 2009

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Change

The Practical Gift of Humility

freemanX-GiftsSome time ago, there was an online discussion that came about from a blog post published by Mary Jo Asmus.  In it, Mary Jo  outlined a number of important gifts people can give to those they lead; the more intangible ones that make a big difference when building a happy and engaged workforce.

At the end of the post, Mary Jo asked us to think about what other qualities leaders might bring and apply at work.

I offered the gift of humility.

Mary Jo said it was a great gift but asked, “How would you give humility to others?”

Well, that started me thinking.  How indeed?  After all, humility is one of those things that is constantly in competition with the ego.  And, it’s not a quality that comes naturally or easily to human beings either.  In fact, we can’t actually give humility to another person.  Even the idea sounds a bit, well, arrogant doesn’t it?

I suppose I could go off on some esoteric journey about the righteousness of humility (a journey on which I would no doubt find myself alone), but right now, I’m more interested in looking at some of its more practical aspects. Here are some that come to mind.

Leaders give the gift of humility every time they:

  • Praise others and give credit for work well done, without expectation of sharing in the tangible recognition that may come from it.
  • Give the challenge of new and exciting assignments to those who they feel will get the best result and grow from the experience, even if doing the work themselves would have earned them major bragging rights.
  • Step behind the rest of their team when accolades are being given for great results.
  • Look in the mirror first, when things go wrong.
  • Make the work and the collective effort of the team more important than their own status or image.
  • Express more pride in their teams, the work and their values than in themselves.

Okay, all this sounds tough.  And it is.  It may appear Paradoxical, but I think that to be able to carry it off, we need a healthy sense of self-esteem, because then we can more easily find contentment and pride in allowing others to shine brighter, or more often, than we do.   It is that, which makes it a gift.

Do we have to be captains of industry to give the gift of humility?  Of course not.  Does it mean we have to turn into someone like Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep to be humble? Certainly not.  In truth, leading with humility is available to us all.  It simply (not to be confused with easily) takes practice and sincerity.

I’m still working on it. You?

 

Note: this is a revised version of the original post published in 2010

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Filed under building awareness, Building Relationships, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams, organizational culture, Uncategorized

When the Grasshopper Teaches the Master

Little Man Business cut out 72dpi-resized-201.jpgThere is a lot to be said for learning from younger people. While we veterans can teach the invaluable lessons of the past, they can teach us the path to the future. And that is worth paying attention to.

For instance, people of my generation often grapple with the wonders of technology with varying degrees of success. Some of us are totally immersed and intrigued by what can be accomplished in a wireless world, (including all the cool toys that come along with it). Others of us are hard pressed to know how to turn on our computers, if indeed we even own one. But, no matter where we are on the technology learning curve, the one thing we know for sure is that to learn it, we have to consult those who have the skill and it’s highly doubtful that we will find this expertise in people older than ourselves.

That’s why I like the idea of mentorships in organizations working both ways.

It should be pretty simple really.

Take Young Person A, who knows about something and put him or her together with Older Person B who doesn’t know much at all about that particular something. Then let the learning begin.

All right, so it’s not that simple.

People of the older generation… well, we have our pride. We like the idea of mentoring someone younger because it seems to us to flow with the accepted order of things… you know, the Master and Grasshopper type of relationship. However, when it is the Grasshopper doing the teaching, it can make us feel somehow redundant, even stupid and that’s not something one willingly puts a hand up for.

Alternately, people of a younger generation may not see the benefits of slowing down to help us older ones learn things that are, to them, elementary my dear Watson. They may also feel they are carrying a load for someone who might even make more money than they do and from whom they see no reciprocal reward. There’s not much fun in that either.

So to begin with, I think that a successful Young master/Old Grasshopper relationship needs to begin with an attitude check on both sides.

And you spell that R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Of course along with that has to come a certain measure of empathy that allows the older to appreciate the skills and knowledge of the younger; and the younger to give credence to the lessons that only an older generation can teach.

With that established, I can think of a few practical steps that might help the Young Master/ Old Grasshopper set off on the road to building a mutually rewarding relationship. Here they are:

Determine a skill base line

There is nothing more counterproductive, or annoying, than making assumptions about what a person knows or does not know. Spending a little time determining current skill levels within the context of the subject matter is a good use of time.

Take time to set some goals

Technology, for instance, encompasses a huge body of knowledge. To make some headway and avoid being overwhelmed, discuss what you want to be able to do and how it might benefit your work before you start tackling applications that may, or may not, move you in the right direction. Goals will also give you benchmarks against which you can monitor progress. There is something very satisfying about that for both parties in the relationship.

Establish good communication habits

For the most part this means speaking plainly; being truthful; and regularly checking for understanding.

Have Fun

Working with someone to learn something new and seeing that new thing being applied in real time is exciting! Enjoy the journey and the person with whom you are taking it and my hunch is, you will both profit from the experience.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

 

* Note: originally posted in January 2010

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Learning

A Leader?

Many years ago, I found this poem. It is one that impressed me and continues to speak to me now. To the best of my knowledge its author continues to be anonymous. Here it is. Enjoy

A Leader?

I went on a search to become a leader

I searched high and low. I spoke with authority, people listened but alas, there

Was one who was wiser than I and they followed him

I sought to inspire confidence but the crowd responded.

“Why should we trust you?”

I postured and I assumed the look of leadership with a countenance that glowed

with confidence and pride.

But many passed me by and never noticed my air of elegance.

I ran ahead of others, pointing the way to new heights.

I demonstrated that I knew the route to greatness.

And then I looked back and I was alone.

And I sat me down and I pondered long.

And then I listened to the voices around me.

And I heard what the group was trying to accomplish

I rolled up my sleeves and joined in the work.

As we worked, I asked,

“Are we all together in what we want to do and how to get the job done?”

And we thought together and we fought together

And we struggled towards our goal.

I found myself encouraging the fainthearted

I sought ideas of those too shy to speak out.

I taught those who had little skill.

I praised those who worked hard.

When our task was completed, one of the groups turned to me and said, “This would not have been done but for your leadership.”

At first, I said, “I didn’t lead, I just worked with the rest.”

And then I understood, leadership is not a goal.

It’s a way of reaching a goal.

I lead best when I help others to use themselves creatively.

I lead best when I forget about myself as leader and focus on my group, their needs and their goals.

To lead is to serve, to give, to achieve

TOGETHER.

leader

That’s what I think too.  What do you think?

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