Category Archives: Establishing Direction

Going First

Photo by Erik Johansson

Leadership is a very big and often complex topic.  In very simple (possibly even simplistic) terms though, it’s about going first.  It’s also about having a clear sense of purpose and about engaging others in believing that the purpose is something worth pursuing; something that can be trusted; something that will make things better, not worse.

That’s the hard part.  Going first puts us under harsh scrutiny, creates (often vehement) opposition and sometimes gives rise to sabotage.  It also represents change and while we often talk about embracing it, for many of us, embracing change is sort of like, as children, having to give a distant and unfamiliar relative a hug.   You know you should, but you don’t really want to.

Going first asks a lot of us.

It asks us to be bold without being obnoxious  ~ willing to risk rejection, to bend rules, to make new ones, to explore uncharted waters but to resist the belief that only our own views count.

It asks us to be resilient without being stubborn ~ to learn to cope with stress, disappointment, criticism, to bounce back from adversity; but to maintain a level of vulnerability that allows us to express our emotions; show our humanity and accept the things we need to see about ourselves.

It asks us to be tolerant without being a pushover ~ to listen to, and learn from, opposing views but to challenge those that work against our purpose or values.

It asks us to be tough without being callous ~ to hold ourselves and others accountable for the decisions we make but to do so in a way that creates lessons rather than metes out punishment.

It is not an easy road but many choose it because they have a dream; because they see something and want something that the rest of us have yet to consider.  And, they want to help us get there.

So, if you are one of those people, the question is how do you blaze your trail and convince others that it is a road worth following?  Yes, I know.  It’s a very big question.  But, I have some ideas and also some very interesting places to point you to, so here goes:

Keep the Fundamentals of Being a Good Boss in Mind

There is a plethora of Leadership blogs out there.  Frankly, It is hard to determine which ones are going to do the trick for you.  But, here are a couple of places to start.  First, Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog is an excellent place to go for reference material and practical down to earth advice about how to be a good boss.  Similarly, Art Petty’s Blog, Management Excellence is equally thought provoking and informative.

The point is, there are a lot of fancy and complicated views about what it means to go first and bring others happily along with you.  Wally and Art will help you to get at what’s most important.

Be Clear about your Vision and Purpose

If you are even the least bit fuzzy about where you want to go, going first can turn into going alone.  This is where bringing clarity to your vision and purpose is critical.  To help you do that, I note that Jesse Lyn Stoner and Ken Blanchard have released a second edition of their book, Full Steam Ahead ~ Unleash the Power of Vision in Your Work and Your Life.  This book is written for those of us who enjoy a good story (and who doesn’t?).  It examines the notion of creating a vision, (which can have rather ethereal connotations) and brings it to life in a very real way.

Develop a Thick Skin

In order to be bold and to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks, going first often creates, we have to learn to take disappointment in stride and to hold ourselves in high enough esteem to weather undue or unfair criticism.

Anne Perschel of Germaine Consulting, recently wrote a blog post entitled,  Hold the Botox – Thicken Your Skin While its message is pointed at women, I think both women and men could learn something about developing resilience from Anne.

As well, I read another post from Jane Perdue in her blog Get Your Big On called, “When Pretty isn’t a Compliment ~ A story of Resilience This story illustrates how easy it is for the balloon of self-confidence to suffer from even the slightest pinprick if we are not vigilant.

And finally:

Learn to Coach …and Get a Coach

If you want to go first with purpose it is always a good idea to find someone you can trust to help you get there and hold you accountable for the things you want and the things you say you are going to do.  A coach can help you with that.  As well, if you want others to follow your lead, learning to be a good coach is a must, especially if you want them to follow you happily.

One of my favourite coaches is Mary Jo Asmus.  Mary Jo writes an excellent blog and one that is on my regular reading list.  One of her most recent posts is entitled, “When You Coach, This is What happens” You will not only get some insights about how to coach but perhaps also see the benefits of having a coach in your own life.

Of course there is much more to learn about going first.  In fact it is a never-ending pursuit.  Hopefully, this has provided something of a start to your own journey, one that will gather many followers.  And, there is a lot I have left out.

What would you add?


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Filed under Change Management, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, Learning, motivating & Inspiring, Uncategorized

A Reflection on the Hardness of Change

Now and then, I feel the need to have a little rant.  Luckily, for us all, it doesn’t happen that often. Today’s little rant is about change.


Whenever I think of the challenge of change, I think of Sally Field, well, not Sally Field exactly, her character, Norma Rae. I picture Norma, all five feet of her, standing on a table with her arms held high, holding a sign that simply says “Union”.  She stands on that table in defiance of her bosses, and on behalf of her often frightened and reluctant co-workers.  She does it because deep inside herself she knows it to be right.  It’s worth fighting for. It’s worth the risk. It will make life better in the end.  I notice her face as she’s standing there.  I see rebellion, fear and desperation.  And yet she stands there until the local police come and drag her away kicking and screaming. Take a little time to watch this and you’ll see what I mean.

That’s the thing about change, the revolutionary kind anyway.  It’s hard and scary and sometimes involves some kicking and screaming. That sort of change is rarely the kind we eagerly put our hands up for.  That’s when leadership and those who practice it are truly tested.

Today, there are those of us who long for a time when our world could be like it was before our global economy took a frightening plunge.  There are people without jobs who have lost their houses and the way of life they have become accustomed to.  To so many, it feels, and is, catastrophic and terrifying.   There are others who are less affected directly and see no reason to change their habits or their perspectives, those who fail to see that they are part of the problem…and part of the solution.

The job of leadership in times such as these requires the kind of grit that Norma Rae showed as she climbed upon her table and stood her ground.  In these times, change means hard work, hard heads, hard times and tender hearts.   And it’s not about one or two people leading everyone else out of the wilderness either.  We are all responsible.  We must all find a new way of being in the world.  Those who lead  will have a vision of the future.  They will put themselves forward to be followed; to be challenged; to be criticized; and sometimes to be scorned but they will each stand on their respective tables with their vision of better times held firmly in their hands.

The good ones will not make promises to bring back the past.  They will not waste their time, or ours, denigrating each other.  Instead, they will hold a firm vision of how things could be should we choose to act differently.  They will find ways to work together and to include us all by demanding our participation in building something else, something better…just like Norma Rae did.

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Filed under Change Management, communication, Establishing Direction, Leadership Vision, Leading Change

21st Century Leadership…Lessons from Julie Payette

What does successful 21st Century leadership look like?  Well, according to a number of pretty eminent scholars and teachers, those who will help us navigate through this century’s challenges will only be able to do so if they can effectively manage across borders; collaborate for optimal results; and build strong connections with others, among other things. To me, this speaks to a kind of leadership that is more grey than black and white and more feminine in nature than masculine.

But having chewed on that for a while, I had to ask myself: Who among us could possibly be representative of a leader who exhibits a healthy combination of masculine and feminine, leadership traits?

And I came up with Julie Payette.

Julie Payette is Chief Astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency and to me, a shining example of the kind of leadership required to thrive in the 21st Century.  Her choice of occupation suggests that she is a risk taker. She is compelling, imaginative, humble and appreciative of all that has come her way. And, while she works, and leads, in a traditionally masculine environment, she has maintained her distinctly feminine demeanour.

Here is a video clip of Julie speaking to graduates of York University in Toronto.

Julie is a hard act to follow.  But a wise leader might do just that, because her experiences contain lessons we would do well to consider if we are to thrive now, and in the future

So what lessons am I talking about?  Well, I can think of a few and here they are:

If we think ambition, drive & focus and collaboration, inclusion & openness are mutually exclusive, we would probably be wrong.

The traditional view of a successful leader almost always includes the first three characteristics, (generally viewed as masculine) but does not necessarily embrace the other three, (generally viewed as feminine). To successfully navigate the 21st century world we have to combine and apply all of these skills. It’s not a matter of either/or but more a matter of both/and that will lead to a productive and happy result.

If we rise high enough and look down, the borders that separate us disappear.

As much as we struggle with our territories and boundaries and with our mistaken or distorted views of each other, the truth is, none of it really matters when you’re looking at the world from space.

The 21st Century leader will find ways to navigate across borders and boundaries, real and imagined, and will do so by reaching out to learn about things and people s/he may not currently understand, in service of making meaningful and vigorous connections with others.

If we learned to really value our differences rather than grudgingly accommodate them, we would be a lot better off.

In one interview, Julie suggests that while in space, differences become assets and the team is more important than any one individual.  Back on Earth, the notion of diversity, for many of us, tends to stop at gender or ethnicity. In a time when we are constantly connecting with people all over the world this is simply not enough.  And, for a smart leader, this means staying purposely open to a variety of ideas, cultures and opinions; judging less; listening more; and using our uniqueness, and that of others, as a tool not a weapon.

To build relationships with people we may never meet face-to-face, we have to learn to communicate in a variety of ways.

Julie Payette speaks five different languages.  When asked why she was so interested in language she said that, for her, it was important to communicate with as many people as possible and her interest in languages stemmed from that. Technology too, has provided us with a multitude of ways to talk to one another.  The 21st Century leader will give priority to learning and using what technology has to offer for engaging people in meaningful and productive conversations.

There are, of course, many lessons we could learn from Julie and others like her.  And my hunch is there are more like her among us than we currently imagine.  To thrive in the 21st century we have to make room for their voices to come through and to break with traditions that no longer serve us, no matter how precious they might seem to be.  What do you think?

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Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, Establishing Direction, organizational Development

Becoming a leader…Shifting the Balance of Power.

When I first became a manager, I tried to be friends with everyone.  Often that meant that I regularly went out to lunch with one or two of them.  I confided in some of them…personal things.  I expressed my private frustrations, cares, fears and concerns to them. I became personally involved in their lives.   And, while I was doing all of that, I was not doing my job.

And then one day, someone came to me and told me I was failing her.  Oh, she didn’t use those exact words but that’s what she meant.  From her perspective, she felt that I might be favouring one or two of the group over the others.  And, truth be told, she was worried because my own issues seemed to be distracting me.  She didn’t feel safe.  She wasn’t sure I was being fair.

Well, this came as something of a shock to me.  All I had been trying to do was be one of them; to let them know that I was human; that by being their friend, they could trust me. I was wrong.  They didn’t need me to be their friend.  They needed leadership from me.  And, up until that point, the only person who had shown any leadership at all was the brave woman who came to tell me how I was letting her down.

This is a hard lesson for a newly minted leader to learn but it is a truth that anyone who wants to be a good leader needs to know.

So what did I learn?

Well, I can think of a couple of things and here they are:

The minute you become a designated leader is also the minute the balance of power shifts

This means that as leader you will have influence over other peoples’ working lives, something you didn’t have before.  Those people will be looking for evidence that they can trust you with that.

The Relationships you develop must transcend personal feelings and biases

In other words, your job is not to be everyone’s friend but to ensure that the group and the individuals, who work in it, get what they need to give their best effort.

People who look to you for leadership are less interested in your worries and more interested in your ability to meet their needs.

Simply put, being a leader is not about you.  If you believe yourself to be more important because you carry a title, you might want to think about that a little more.  Your job is only done well if you have enabled others to excel in theirs.

So, what are your thoughts?  What would you add?  What do you think it takes to make a successful transition from individual contributor to leader?

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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Establishing Direction, Leadership Shift

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