Category Archives: Establishing Direction

Getting Culture Right

Earlier last week, I viewed a video, a parody actually, called Office Space: Meeting The Bobs.

This video speaks to the culture that is prevalent in more workplaces than any of us would like to admit, workplaces that operate on the basis of positional power with an undercurrent of fear.  And it suggests that the primary task of many of its employees is to find ways of being paid while doing as little as possible.

While it is a clever film, it highlights very disturbing things that go on in  some organizations.  They are disturbing to me because I recognize them.  I have seen them. And, over the course of my career, I have also occasionally done some of these things  as well.

What was more disturbing were the number of comments from a myriad of viewers applauding the perspective of the young man who presented his tardiness, lack of focus and apathy as a badge of honour.  He is, to some, a kind of hero who has the temerity to expose and deride the cultural norms of his company… one guy against the Establishment uniformed in uber casual jeans, flip flops and attitude.

Organizational culture is something that, in so many companies, is ignored and yet its impact runs deep, and to me, ultimately dictates an organization’s level of  long-term success and employee contribution.

While my personal experience in the workplace, has, from time to time, been depressingly similar to the atmosphere portrayed in this video, I know there are companies out there who see the value in nurturing a different kind of culture.

Zappos.com is one such company.  Zappos is essentially an online department store but the video does a better job of explaining who they really are:

While some of Zappos core values are pretty traditional, there are some quite unique ones like, “Create fun and a little weirdness” and “Be Humble”. What this suggests to me is that they have actually spent time thinking about what kind of culture they want to create and the kind of people who would be happy working there.  Simply put, Zappos may not be the place for everyone but they work hard at ensuring that it is the place for everyone who works there.

I think for me, the bottom line is that paying attention to the kind of culture you want to create and sustain is a critical leadership function.  Ignoring it, or paying lip service to it, creates unwanted resistance that gets in the way of healthy productivity and long-term sustainability.

Some things to think about

What kind of culture exists in your workplace?

Does it serve you or get in your way?

If it gets in your way, what kind of culture would you create if you could start again?  How might you influence change in that direction?

What else?

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, diversity, Establishing Direction, motivating & Inspiring

In Praise of Bossy Women

I have never considered myself to be bossy, (having inherited my father’s more conciliatory disposition), but the older I get, the bossier I become.

The women in my family are like that…bossy.  They have been bossy for generations in fact.

My great grandmother raised four daughters and, with her husband, ran a dry goods store somewhere in the south of Cornwall.  My great grandfather was a handsome devil, with, (I’m told), something of a roving eye.  I imagine great grandma must have had to fend for herself on many an occasion.  Being bossy probably came in handy.

And there were others:

My maternal grandmother, married a sailor and spent some years raising her three children on her own, while my grandfather served in the Merchant Navy during WWI, and afterwards too. Bossiness was a necessary skill.  And, when my grandfather returned home from his travels, and later became ill, Nana took constant care of him.  It probably helped for her to be a little bossy then too.

My paternal Grandmother was also a Shopkeeper.  She married a man with little ambition, I’m told, and a penchant for gambling and drink.   Together they had five sons.  During the 1920s and 30s everything was scarce, at least for them.  Grandma bought her shop when the opportunity presented.  She sold things like bacon and processed meat on one side of it and on the other, tinned goods, cigarettes and the heaven that was chocolate bars and sweets.  She raised chickens in her back yard too.  Dad often said that if not for his mother, they might have starved.  She was determined and focused and yes, probably a little bossy too.

When dad’s parents both became ill with cancer, my Auntie Ethel took care of them.  Auntie Ethel was a wonderful woman.  On first glance, she might have been described as “homely”.  But in every other sense, she was a beauty.  It was Auntie Ethel who saw the intelligence in my father and insisted that he go to high school, in spite of opposition from his brothers and perhaps certain indifference from my grandparents.  Auntie Ethel was a driving force in my father’s life and he loved her even though, or perhaps because, she was bossy.

My mother defied the convention of the early fifties and sixties by working full-time while having a family.  Luckily, my parents had a great partnership, with dad sharing the domestic workload happily.  The world however, was not particularly approving of her.  When confronted by the Principal of my elementary school about her “duty” to remain home to care for her children, she raised herself up to her greatest height of five foot three and told him to where to go.  She was a force to be reckoned with and one who successfully propelled (and yes, bossed) me through my years of excruciating shyness and self-doubt.

When I reflect on these stories, I am reminded that leadership comes in many forms.   And sometimes being bossy can be a good thing.

Sometimes you just have to stand up and be counted: tell people what’s what and sort things out.  Sometimes it’s the only way to get things done…or survive.

So go ahead, choose your times carefully, but be bossy every now and then.  Just don’t be like my Auntie Flossie.  She crossed the line into the land of tyranny and my uncle Reg no doubt died before his time, just so he could get some peace.

So, when have you had to stand up and be counted just to get things done?

Who are the people in your life who have propelled you forward?

When do you think it’s a good thing to be bossy?

Oh, and just in case you are on the receiving end of some bossiness, here’s a link that will help you to think through it.

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Filed under communication, Establishing Direction, Leadership Style

Employee Engagement…What’s in a Name?

Last summer I was spending a lot of time at the hospital.  My husband had had a serious stroke and so my days were spent largely going to and fro, admittedly in a bit of a haze.  I didn’t have time to notice too much of anything outside the small sphere of my personal concern but there was one thing that stood out, one thing that I noticed each morning as I walked past.  The Hospital Human Resources Department had changed its name to The Employee Engagement Department.

Now, four months later, my husband and I go back to the hospital from time to time.  Each time I see that sign, I wonder what they might be doing differently now that they weren’t doing when they were called The Human Resources Department.  And it started me thinking.

It is easy to change a name but not so easy to live up to it.  In the case of the hospital employees, I wondered what their experience was like working under the newly popular umbrella of Employee Engagement. Did they feel more engaged or involved?  Were they happier?  Were their issues and concerns being heard more than before?  Were their opinions being sought out more often?  Were their teams more functional and productive?  Did they feel more energized and valued?  Were the hospital’s costs better managed or the patients’ experience enhanced?

Of course I don’t know the real answers to any of that except to say that my short observation of this particular hospital staff led me to believe that not much had appreciably changed in the way they went about their daily work life.

And perhaps that’s the point.  You can change the label on something but it won’t make the substance of it any different unless you a do something differently or introduce something new. Simply calling it something else just doesn’t get the job done.

So maybe there are a couple of ways of looking at this.  Do you change the name first to create a mental visual around what you want to achieve? Or, do you re-label only when you can be satisfied that what you have to offer bears a reasonable resemblance to the name you give it?

I’m kind of leaning to the latter here.  After all if you take a cherry pie and label it “apple”, it may resemble an apple pie from the outside but unless you change what’s inside, it’s going to stay a cherry pie no matter what you call it.

What do you think?

P.S. If you really want to know more about employee engagement you should check out David Zinger’s blog.  He provides lots of good and useful information to those who really want to  inspire people to bring their “A” game to work.

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Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Learning, motivating & Inspiring, Uncategorized

The Dreaded Performance Review

I think it is safe to say that the performance review is something that most people love to hate.  And I think we hate it because although it starts out with noble intentions it tends to degenerate into an exercise without meaning.   Leaders hate it because it becomes just another thing to do.  And employees hate it because it rarely acknowledges their real contribution while being a determining factor in how they are paid.  In this scenario too, the performance review often becomes something we do to people rather than with them. Like going to the dentist for root canal, it has that tinge of dread about it.

But the reality is that performance assessment is important to both the organization and the people who work for it.  To achieve its goals and remain competitive, the organization must maximize on the capability and knowledge of its people. Likewise, to achieve their own ambitions and receive appropriate recognition for their contribution, people need a method of summarizing their accomplishments; identifying their learning needs and; planning their next steps.

Hopefully then, we can agree that while the principle of performance review is sound, where it often falls short is in the execution of the process.

So, what to do?  Well, probably a lot of things, but here are a few thoughts to begin with.

  • Performance assessment is a cooperative thing

In order for a performance assessment to be effective, both the leader and the individual must participate.  That means that each must find a way to connect with the other; discuss and agree on what is to be done and; talk about how they will measure it.  If, as leader, you simply deliver targets to people without that kind of engagement then you are giving up an opportunity to not only know what the individual can do, but also to recognize his or her future potential.

And, while on this topic, the leader must also:

  • Be Clear about Performance Goals and Expected Accomplishments

Ken Blanchard has some ideas about maximizing individual performance.  He believes that the task for leaders is to help people “get an A” on their performance assessment by being clear about what is expected of them.  I think he’s right.  Here’s a video of Mr Blanchard explaining his philosophy.

  • It is unrealistic to approach everyone in the same way

In many organizations I believe we spend inordinate amounts of time trying to level the playing field.  In other words we operate on the principle that equity means treating everyone in the same way.  But I say that being equal is not the same as being the same and human beings create a much more interesting and varied landscape than a level playing field suggests.

To me, that means that not everyone is going to fit comfortably into the boxes that performance review processes often ask us to comply with. So the challenge for the leader is to inject variety and individual attention into the process in service of achieving optimal results and satisfaction levels for everyone.

  • Performance assessment is not a once-a-year activity

In my experience, at the end of any given fiscal year, there was always a flurry of activity around getting performance assessments completed.  And, as human nature generally dictates, when it comes to doing things deemed unpleasant, most people tend to put them off until the last minute.  Because of this, the quality of a good many of the assessments was, well, questionable.  Some people were hard pressed to remember what they were actually measuring.  And of course others crammed as much meaningless rhetoric as possible into the reports rendering them impressive but not very useful.

If we are to give meaning to measuring performance and helping people build skill and experience, we have to pay a little attention to it every day.  It is part of the leader’s job to create working environments that invite participation and interest. Monitoring and measuring along the way provides performance benchmarks that allow people to see how they are doing at any given point.  This does not mean that you have to concentrate on this all of the time.  It does mean that you bring the notion of acknowledging individual performance into everyday conversations and routines.

There is of course a lot more involved in motivating others to perform and in accurately capturing the results, than can be covered in one blog post. But, maybe this can be a start of an interesting conversation.

If you have a performance review story or opinion that you would like to share, please do!

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Establishing Direction, Leading Teams, motivating & Inspiring

The Power of the Talking Stick

I once went to a meeting where there were a great many people.  I can’t really remember what we were there to discuss.  I do remember that it was a highly charged issue and one that just about everyone had an opinion about.

It was a noisy affair with people talking on top of each other, hoping to be heard; failing to listen and as time went on the frustration levels were reaching unmanageable proportions.

And then someone introduced the talking stick.

I had never heard of a talking stick up until that point, but that day I watched as its magic worked the room and rendered peaceful an otherwise chaotic atmosphere.

The premise of the talking stick is that only the person who holds it has permission to speak. The job of the rest was to listen.  And, as the stick was passed quietly from person to person, so the variety of views and opinions emerged, giving clarity to what we really had to do to address the issue that was so important to us all.  It was quite the experience.

So here’s something to try.  The next time you hold a meeting.  Take something with you that represents your “talking stick”.  It doesn’t have to actually be a talking stick, just something to hold onto that can easily be passed from person to person.

Here are the basic rules:

  1. The person holding the stick is the only one allowed to speak.
  2. When s/he is finished the stick goes to someone else who has something to say
  3. The job of those who do not hold the stick is to listen

It’s a pretty simple premise but I have seen it work wonders on unruly gatherings. Try it and let me know how you made out will you?

Have you used other tools to keep order in large meetings?  What were they?  How did they work for you?

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Filed under Establishing Direction, Leadership Style, motivating & Inspiring

So, We All Agree?… Really?

Here’s the scenario.

You call a meeting to discuss a project. You gain full agreement from everyone on how you’re going to proceed. You adjourn the meeting feeling good about having been successful at getting everyone “on side“. And then you hear people on their way out of the room saying something like, “I’m really not sure this will work, but everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea so I went along”?

Ever happen to you?

Believe it or not, this particular frustration actually has a name.  It’s called The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox was introduced by Jerry B. Harvey.  It is essentially a story that demonstrates what can happen if we are not candid in sharing our views and opinions.  Here’s the quick version:

Four people are sitting comfortably on the porch of their home in Coleman, Texas.  One suddenly suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (which is about fifty miles north), for dinner.  A second one considers that the trip will be long and hot but doesn’t want to be the one to pour cold water on the idea and so agrees. A third simply says that it sounds like a great idea and when doubt is cast upon the willingness of the fourth person to go, this person responds indignantly with “of course I want to go!”

And so they pile into the car.  It is a hot and dusty trip.  When they arrive at the restaurant in Abilene, they order and eat a very mediocre meal after which they pile into the car again for the long and hot trip home.

When they arrive home, they are all exhausted. One admits that she would rather have stayed home.  This surprises the second one who confesses that the only reason he suggested it was because he thought the rest of the group might otherwise be bored. And, as the truth began to unfurl they learned that the trip they had just taken was one that no one really wanted take.

Sounds pretty implausible doesn’t it?  But it happens.

So, when you are sitting in a meeting with a bunch of other people, determining what course of action to take, what can you do to make sure that you’re  getting the benefit of authentic views and opinions?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

  • You can conduct meetings on the principle that “nobody gets to be wrong”.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to agree with everything everyone says.  It only means that if someone has something to say, they can feel confident that whatever it is, will not be instantly discounted or in any way disparaged.

  • You can  appoint someone who is willing to be “devil’s Advocate” for the meeting.

The role of the devil’s advocate is to purposely bring up issues that might be at odds with the popular trend.  Often these are things that some people are thinking anyway but are reticent to bring out.

  • You can share the “Abilene Paradox” anecdote with meeting participants before a meeting actually starts.  This, in addition to establishing other operating principles for the time participants are together, makes for an environment where people can feel comfortable speaking their minds.
  • In addition to the “devil’s Advocate”, you can include the “voices” of the client, the employee and the shareholder.  This often gives the propositions being tabled, a multi-dimensional perspective that ensures that all parties are heard from and the chances of “going to Abilene” are negligible.

The Abiliene Paradox points out to me that it is just as important to manage agreement as it is to manage disagreement.

What do you think?

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Filed under Building Relationships, Establishing Direction, managing paradox

Getting things done – Expect then Inspect

Okay so as leader, you have shared your vision for your company or department with those who work for you.  They understand where you are going. You have done a good job of helping them see where they fit in the overall scheme of things. Now what?

Well, now it gets a little more complicated as you move from a general view of where you are going into something more specific.  And that means working with each person to establish exactly what they are expected to accomplish.

Here are some ideas on what you will need to do to be clear about that.  And you will need to be clear if you want good results.

1. Assess each person’s capability in relation to company goals.  In other words, what can each person realistically contribute now?  Is there a gap between what they can do currently and what you need them to do?

2.Consider the gaps and then take the time to understand what each person will need to fill them.  Some people may need training.  Some people may need resources.  Some people may need you to address obstacles that get in the way of their ability to meet the challenge you set for them

3. Set and agree on realistic goals This means that you will agree to provide the appropriate conditions (see #2) for them to perform optimally and they will agree to complete the activities and projects required to help everyone move toward accomplishing the organizational, company or departmental goals.  Be specific.  Ensure you both have the same understanding of what is to be done.

4. Set reasonable time parameters for completing tasks and projects. Having a time frame for completing the work ensures that it doesn’t start to drift away from you and lose the clarity you need to be able to see exactly what you are accomplishing overall.

5. Inspect what you expect. Of all the points raised here, this one is the most important.  If you fail to follow up, the work you do in setting goals and gaining agreement becomes merely an academic exercise without connection to anything of substance.   And when that happens, people begin to look at the whole process with a certain cynicism that undermines the value of the process and all of the time you take to implement it.  Not only that, but you run a very real risk of failing to accomplish what you set out to do.  And that would be a shame.

What is your biggest challenge in setting expectations for others?

What do you do to meet it?

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Filed under Establishing Direction

How Not to Waste Time at Meetings

It happened every Friday morning.  My colleagues and I would sit around a very large conference table, shaking the sleep out of our heads, inhaling excessive amounts of coffee and chatting about, well, whatever.   We would be there for over an hour as we each took a turn to inform the others what we were up to at that particular red hot moment.  And we all felt the need to make it sound important.  Sometimes we came away from these gatherings with something useful.  But it was pretty hit and miss. So here are some thoughts about getting the best out of meetings.

Meetings need good leadership to be optimally useful.  And good leadership in this sense often means creating a good structure.  For instance:

  • Every meeting should have a stated purpose.  So often people attend a meeting to discuss something.  That something develops into a bunch of other somethings and when they leave the room, no one is clear about what has actually been decided or accomplished.  So, ensure that before you call a meeting you have a clear objective for holding it and an equally clear view of what you want the group to achieve by the end of it.
  • Once you have the purpose nailed down, Develop an Agenda to follow to allow you to manage your time optimally.  If you are leading the meeting it will be your job to make sure everyone stays on point.  The agenda is the tool you use to achieve that and also to manage your time.
  • Gain agreement on a set of principles about how you are going to behave in the meeting. These don’t have to be complicated, philosophical or lofty in any way.  They simply speak to the environment you want to create for the time you will be in the room together. Examples include agreeing to keep what is said in the meeting confidential or encouraging respectful dialogue while agreeing that only one person will speak at a time…that sort of thing.
  • State the assumptions you are working under.  For instance you may be assuming that the attendees know each other or that everyone is clear about why you are meeting. Checking out your assumptions before you launch into the agenda saves you from having to backtrack later.
  • That done, your job now, in addition to ensuring that you move through the agenda efficiently is to Ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the meeting. Let’s face it, in every meeting there will be those who love to talk and those who will say little or nothing. Managing the flow of the discussion allows for input from everyone. After all, people generally are not invited to be part of a meeting unless it is felt that they have something to contribute. So encourage the quiet ones and manage the more talkative ones so everyone has room to have their say.
  • Before adjourning your meeting, Make some decisions about what’s next. Identify what work has to be done; who is going to do it; and by when.
  • And finally, before leaving the room, check back to your meeting objective.  Are you leaving with what you intended to get when you started? If you did, then your time was well spent.  If you got more than you expected, (and happily, that happens) that’s even better. If  not, what might you do differently next time?

Want to know more about managing meetings?

Here’s a preview copy of Meetings Bloody Meetings, with the delightful John Cleese. It’s a bit long but worth the effort. Enjoy


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Filed under Establishing Direction, Uncategorized

Establishing Direction: 5 Steps to Making Visions Practical

It is easy to think that having a vision is only for those who are at the top of the organization; for presidents and other grand chief Poobahs, but the truth is that no matter how high (or low) you are on the echelon of leadership, being able to establish where you are going and then sharing it with others in such a way that they understand and can commit to it, is a critical step in getting there happily and productively.

So here’s my thinking on how to do that.

1. Find out what’s going on around you.

If you want the direction you establish to have some relevance, a good first step is to find out for yourself what’s happening in the rest of your organization, in your marketplace, and even in the world. For instance, if you are responsible for the work of a group within a larger organization, ensure that you understand what it is focused on achieving.  What business are you in? Why are you in this business? What does success mean to your organization? If you are in business for yourself, these are still very good questions to ask and to answer before you even begin to communicate with others.

2. Write it down

Yes, write down what you know, see, and believe, about your current situation.  Then write down what you want to know, see, and have, in your future and the future of your business or work group.

3. Be honest & make sure you can stand behind the words.

When you have the words, make sure you believe them.  If you write something down because it sounds good, fancy or like something you ought to be saying then it will lack authenticity.  In short it will be hard to “sell”; even harder to engage others in; and harder still to be any use as a tool for gauging your progress.

4. Live with it for a while

Once on paper, let it rest in your mind for a day or two.  Let the words come in and out of your thoughts.  At the risk of being accused of talking to yourself, let the words come to your lips.  Test them out.  Make sure they feel good and real to you.  Do this, until you can say with some confidence, “Yes, that is just where we need to go”.

5. Enroll others in it

There’s no point in having a vision for your company or department if the people who work for you either don’t understand what you are trying to achieve or aren’t really willing to follow you there. To establish direction and enroll others in it, you must

  • Communicate it with confidence & enthusiasm
  • Show your group or company how their skills and talents might be used to accomplish the work that will be needed to get you there.
  • Help them to see some meaning for them in the direction you are taking them. Give them a chance to ask questions, add their thoughts and express their concerns. If some new information comes out of this exchange that makes sense you can always modify your vision accordingly. It is not a sacred stone tablet after all and with general agreement, the work will go a lot more smoothly.

So, that’s it…well a beginning anyway.  Of course Establishing Direction involves more than having a vision.  But it is a great place to start.

Some questions to consider

What is your business striving to become?  What compels you to move in that direction?

What do you need to get clearer about? What’s missing?

If you want to know more here’s Something to Read:


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Filed under Establishing Direction, Leadership Vision