Category Archives: Uncategorized

Creating Stability in the Midst of Uncertainty

cairn-468185_640As we near the end of 2014, my mind wanders to the inevitable predictions that come with a new year. The seers and prophesiers among us will be at the ready to let us know what we can expect in 2015 and beyond. Some forecasts will be based on reasonable analyses of the World landscape and some will be rubbish. As always, it will be up to each of us to choose what to believe, what to throw away and how much it’s going to matter to us.

Having said that, there is value in taking time to reflect on what might be coming next. After all, there is always something happening, changing, interfering with, or otherwise upsetting our equilibrium.  In fact, we have come to know that just at the moment we begin to feel steady, things are going to change. It’s the way of the world.

To me, all this suggests that a leader’s job, (at least one of them), is to create a platform for stability, often where none exists, because in a world of constant change and increased complexity, people need to feel anchored to something they can count on.

The question is, how might this be accomplished? The answer is…well I’m not sure.  But I have some ideas and here they are:

  1. Be Purposeful

Knowing our organizational purpose is a great beginning to creating stability. After all, while change affects the way we go about fulfilling the purpose, the purpose itself, more often than not remains the same.

  1. Extend the purpose beyond the confines of organizational boundaries.

Most organizations support charities or causes of some kind.  Just as the causes can vary, so can the motivation for supporting them. To me though, doing good works that align with the organizational purpose helps the company grow roots and contribute to the creation of stable communities, both inside and outside corporate boundaries.

  1. Keep Learning

Broadening our knowledge base creates a more stable environment.  In other words, the more we know and understand the less there is to fear.  So giving true value and support to learning, not just training, will build a company of people who are confident, resilient and eager to see and experience what comes around the corner

  1. Be Guided by a set of strongly held values

World events, economic instability and a constant feed of both useful and useless information contribute to a dizzying existence for most people.  Sometimes we just need to stop and remember what’s important and what we stand for.   It’s kind of like being out in rough seas.  When we can’t see the shore and the boat is tossing us around mercilessly, our values serve as the lighthouse beacon that gives us the promise of solid ground.

  1. Take Blame out of the Equation

When things go wrong, and they do, it’s easy to panic.  When we panic we look to place blame.  Blame is the enemy of stability.  It rattles people and often for the wrong reasons.  Blame is not about accountability it is about passing a hot potato and making sure it lands in someone else’s lap.

Taking blame out of the organizational culture and replacing it with a more solution oriented demeanor allows more people the confidence to participate in solving problems as they arise rather than spending time looking for ways to take cover.

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

 

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The Story of A Great Leader

teacherIf you were to ask me to describe someone who demonstrated greatness in leadership, I
might be tempted to paint the picture of a larger-than-life super hero, perhaps a president, a king, or a captain of industry.

I might not come up with Roberta Guaspari. Nonetheless I believe she is just that, a great leader.

Roberta Guaspari teaches children to play the violin. When she first started, she was a single parent to two young boys. To earn her living she arranged to provide violin lessons in school to the children of East Harlem. What she had going for her was the love of music; the ability to play; and the strong desire to make a difference for children whose opportunities were limited by their circumstances.

She has a clear and passionate vision which is simply,“for kids to have music in their lives

She believes that her vision is important because music, “empowers these children with the ability to make something beautiful that allows them to believe in themselves and know they’re special”

This is Roberta’s primary purpose, to help children love music, play music and believe in themselves. It is not about money or attention for herself but about something bigger than that, much bigger.  She is a great leader because not only can she see a better future for the children she teaches, she helps them get there, even against great odds.

In 1991, Roberta’s music program was cut from the school board budget. That meant, not only was she out of a job but the children (and their parents), who so depended on her, would lose something that had become vital to their development and future.

Roberta did not back down. Instead, she kept her focus. She forged relationships with people who had the power to help. And they did. She plucked up her courage and made much larger strides than I suspect even she thought herself capable of. Throughout it all, it seems  she never lost sight of her primary purpose.

Empathy, Vision, Focus, Determination, Courage, …and a violin. This is what makes Roberta Guaspari a great leader.

And, (the violin, notwithstanding),  such qualities exist in other great leaders, each of whom typically:

  • Have clear, well-articulated visions of the future
  • Lead with great will, humility and focus
  • Build strong alliances with a variety of people
  • Strive to achieve things that are greater than themselves and for the greater good

To demonstrate that the kind of leadership I describe can bring great results, here is a clip of Roberta Guaspari presenting her students at Carnegie Hall in a fine performance accompanied by Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Mark O’Connor.

Great leadership Indeed.  that’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010.

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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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For The New Leader: Some Truths About Being a Boss

I wrote this post originally in July of 2012.  However, based on suggestions made by some of my very astute readers, I have added a few truths that weren’t included then.  While the additions made do not complete the list necessarily, they do round it out nicely.  So, with thanks to Jamie, Terry and Alex, I offer you a newer version of ‘that which went before’.

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boss_cartoonYou just got promoted. Congratulations! Now you’re in charge. You’re the boss… Le Grand fromage. It feels good…and if you’re honest, a little scary. You’ve read a lot of books about leadership and you have some ideas about what it takes to be a good leader, but now you have to put them into action. That’s the hard part.

So, how can I help?

Well, I can toss out, for your consideration, some simple and practical thoughts about what being a leader is about. It’s not going to be an exhaustive list of course, but hopefully it will help get you started on the right foot. So here goes:

You’re not going to “get there” quickly ~ The process of becoming a great boss is a slow one. In fact, you never really ‘get there’ because with each experience there is something new to learn. Books on Leadership and other peoples’ advice help, but mostly it is how you interpret, and act on, what you read, see and hear that counts.

Knowing yourself is an important part of leading others ~ One of your jobs as leader will be to build relationships of all kinds and at many levels. It’s easier to do this if you know yourself well and what you have to offer. If you are like most people, you will find self-examination tedious, humbling and even exhausting, but once you have a strong grip on who you are, it makes it that much easier to let go of your concerns about yourself and concentrate on other people instead.

Loyalty to the work will more often trump loyalty to you ~ If you think simply being the boss earns you respect and loyalty, you would be wrong. In these times, when organizations are no longer loyal to their workforces, the expectation of loyalty to any one leader is unrealistic. Instead, you must find ways to help people find meaning and satisfaction in the work. Engaging people in accomplishing something bigger than all of you, leads to success in achieving your collective goals and sharing a well-earned sense of pride. Now that is something worth being loyal to.

Even the best laid plans can go awry ~ It would be nice if there was a straight line between the beginning and the end of any undertaking.  But this is seldom the case.  Often, when you set a goal, something will happen to change everything.  And when the terrain shifts like this, so must your response to the new information it reveals. When plans go awry, it helps to step back and reconnect with  your organizational purpose.  Why are you in business? What and/or who are you there to serve? What values do you live and work by? If you know the answers to those questions, they will guide you through uncertain times and increase the odds that your decisions will be good ones.

And, when it comes to decision-making, know what you may, and must not, delegate to others ~ There are a number of reasons why delegation is a good idea. For one thing it ensures a reasonable distribution of workload. For another, delegation provides a means through which people can learn and grow. There will be times though, when delegation is the least appropriate course of action and you alone will have to make some tough decisions for the sake of the greater good, even when it makes you unpopular. Here are some examples .

Behave in the way you would want those who follow you to behave.~ Yes, this is the “lead by example” principle.  It comes up a lot.  But it is surprising the number of leaders who show through their actions that this idea, while good, is really meant for other people. Here is a post you may find useful. It’s called Leading By Example and Some Mistaken Beliefs.

Simple messages have more impact than fancy oratory or business-speak ~ The purpose of communication is to achieve mutual understanding not to look good or perfect your oratory skills. People will appreciate and be more willing to act on simple, clear messages than on those shrouded in the mystery of complicated language.

Power and politics are always in play. Use them both wisely and with respect ~ Both power and politics are part of organizational life. As a boss, you will have certain decision-making authority over others. But don’t confuse this with permission to exercise your will over them. Power is at its best when shared. If it is used to manipulate others or to advance the interests of only a few, it becomes something less useful and more destructive. The bottom line here is: When it comes to power and politics, handle with care.

There are always more questions than there are answers ~ If you think that as boss, you will be required to know all the answers, think again. Those who think they know it all, don’t. Those who think they should know it all place too much pressure on themselves to solve everyone’s problems. However, if you strive to listen more often than talk and develop your ability to ask powerful questions, you might just be onto something.

Managing emotion is critical to earning credibility with others ~ You will have days when you feel snarky, miserable, angry, or otherwise out of sorts. Hey you’re human. It happens to even the saints among us. But your workplace is not the place to ‘vent’. If you do, chances are, you will have bridges to build, or repair. This takes up time that could be used more positively and productively. In short, if you want to earn the trust of your colleagues, find ways to manage your negative emotions. It pays off in the end.

When you are the boss, there is nowhere to hide ~ Not only are you going to make mistakes but other people will too. As the boss, their mistakes, at some point, will become yours. That doesn’t mean you absolve them of the consequences of having messed up. However, it does mean it will be up to you to ensure that those who make them will learn from them. There is no hiding or finger-pointing here. Should you be tempted to deflect ultimate blame away from yourself, you will be rewarded with resentment from the very people you wish to engage.

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

P.S. If you interested in reading more ‘Truths’ about leadership, you might consider this:

The Truth about Leadership ~ by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

The Truth About Being a Leader ~ by Dr. Karen Otazo

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Four Leadership Reminders from Nuisance the Cat

It’s been a year since I wrote this post about Nuisance, my cat.  She has proven to be a lovely addition to our household (apart from the occasional lapse in toilet etiquette).  On the outside, she looks like any ordinary black cat, but over the time she has been with us, she has displayed nuances in her personality that are unique to her and have become special to me.  In the workplace, it is easy to look at people as ‘just ordinary’ too, but like Nuisance, each will bring something unique to the collective effort that is worth looking and listening for.

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Her name is Nuisance.  She just turned up one day at our window, a little black cat with bowlegs and signs of the stress that spending too long outside alone can bring.

When I first caught sight of her through the window, I thought she must belong to someone but as the days went by and she spent even the rainy ones sleeping on the gravel under the eaves of our condo, I realized she was a lost little soul who needed some help.  Even the “found cat” note I posted went unanswered

So I began to feed her.

Some nodded knowingly when I admitted to doing that.  “You’re stuck with her now”, they suggested.

“She’ll keep coming back and then what will you do?”

To be honest, I didn’t really know.  My experience with cats had been limited to a time when I was eleven years old and that was, well okay, about a century ago.

But she kept coming back and I kept feeding her.

And then I began to feel responsible for her.  She was all right outside in the summer sun and warmth but winter was coming.  What then?

So, after several failed attempts to coax her inside, one day she simply jumped in the open window and claimed me as her guardian.

We have been quite happily learning about each other ever since.

So what has this got to do with leadership or people?  You may well ask.  It may be a bit too much of a stretch but perhaps there are some parallels worth exploring.  Let’s give it a try anyway.

When I think about it, Nuisance has reminded me that:

Engagement is a two-way street ~ We can talk all we like about employee engagement but my experience with Nuisance suggests that no manner of coaxing or demanding can make others respond well, if what you want is not what they want.  Also, had I grabbed for Nuisance and pulled her inside the window without her permission, I would have destroyed any trust she was beginning to place in me. And, I would have been left, if not broken, certainly bloodied from the experience.

Engagement, after all, is not about leaders turning themselves inside out to get peoples’ attention, blinding them with science or forcing them to pay attention.  It is more about leader and follower doing a dance of sorts, one that includes conversation, inquiry and patience.  And it’s about each taking responsibility for their part in the connection, taking some steps forward together to serve a mutually beneficial purpose.

Effective communication involves all of the senses ~ It’s taking a while for me to anticipate her wants and needs, but Nuisance and I are learning to read each other.  We don’t speak the same language of course but she is trying hard, through her actions, to let me know what works for her and what doesn’t.  I’m doing my best to convey my own wants and expectations.   It’s a mutual effort borne out of respect for each other.

In most workplaces, we have the advantage of speaking a common language.  That should make communication much easier.  In some ways though, common language is not necessarily an advantage.  It can make us lazy and less willing to go beyond what is being said to understand more deeply what is not being said and the real feeling or need that comes from that.

Consistency & Continuity are important ~ Nuisance is a typical cat. She likes to eat, sleep, prowl and play at a certain time in the day.  She does not like me to interfere with her regular routine.  It upsets her and makes her feel unsafe.   Many people are like this too.

But we all know by now that change  is an ongoing, relentless and often necessary thing.  So, along with change must also come a large measure of consistency in  leadership.  That means, showing up and conveying a constant message about the future.  And it means providing the opportunity to take a little of what is already working into that future.   In short, consistency and continuity are two things that bring a measure of reassurance and allow people, (and cats) to be open to, and eventually embrace, change.

Love rules ~ Whether we are talking about animals or people, no matter how conscientious or skilled we are, our progress will always be impeded if we fail to care.  Love makes the work worth the effort.  And, it is a powerful motivator.

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

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Putting Rules in Their Place

This post, from 2012, examines the role that rules play in organizations and how easy it is to fall into a pattern of blindly following them even after they have long fulfilled their purpose.

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To live a civilized life, we need rules, but when do rules start working against us instead of for us?  I think it is when they morph into something that satisfies the few while serving to control and stifle the ideas, ambitions and progress of the many.

Witness the British Government in 1964.  This was a time when, musically, the British invasion was happening everywhere… except inBritain where the government there placed a ban on Rock ‘n Roll music.  In fact, British rock and pop broadcasters were allowed only two hours of airtime per week, despite a growing demand for it from the public at large.

Here, from the movie, Pirate Radio is an idea (although somewhat exaggerated) of the government attitude of the time on this subject.

Your organization may not look very much like that. But as its leader, or one of its leaders, you will also have rules. Some will have preceded you.  Some you will make yourself.  Some you will develop with others.  And some will be imposed upon you. Whatever their genesis, these rules were at one time or another put in place for a reason.  In my experience though, it is often the case that the reason disappears long before the rule that was developed to address it.  As a result, governments and organizations alike accumulate rules that no longer serve any useful purpose.  An example of this comes from the Province of Alberta where the law still states “businesses must provide rails for tying up horses”.

The point is, that while rules must be respected, they should never be viewed as sacrosanct.  As such, they are fair game for challenge.

The process of putting rules under scrutiny does not necessarily have to be a big undertaking.  It could be simply a matter of developing a habit of examining them through different lenses, like these three, to confirm their continued effectiveness:

 Relevance in the current environment

If the rule in question seems more to hinder than contribute to your progress, it may be time to give it closer examination. Why was it made in the first place?  Do those conditions currently exist? What purpose might it continue to serve? If you abolish it, what are the risk factors associated with doing so? How will it affect other areas, or people, in your organization?

Alignment with organizational purpose, and values

In my mind, rules must fit with purpose and values, not the other way around.

For example, in Florida, a young lifeguard was once fired for going outside the bounds of his designated area to save a drowning man.  The company’s argument for firing him was that he disobeyed a rule and they were concerned about being exposed to litigation.

It seems to me that the organization’s purpose was essentially to keep people safe from drowning. In fact, as it is a private lifeguarding company, keeping people safe from drowning is  its whole reason for being.  But, had this particular lifeguard obeyed the rule and stayed within his designated area, a man might very well have lost his life.  So, while there may still be a place for this rule, in order to fit with the organizational purpose, it requires examination and change for alignment.

Accuracy of assumptions

Sometimes rules are made based on false assumptions so it’s always a good idea when examining a rule to consider the beliefs on which it is based.  Simply asking, ‘by enforcing this rule, what might we be assuming?’ could trigger a useful discussion about its continued place in the organization.

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So here’s the bottom line.  Rules have their place but they form only part of the framework that allows people the opportunity to do their best work.  Outdated, irrelevant, self-serving rules can get in the way. If you are a leader, you can’t afford to let that happen.

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

Please Note: The clip from the movie “Pirate Radio” is not used for commercial purposes or financial gain.  It is respectfully borrowed  for illustration purposes only and not intended to infringe on copyright.

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A Case for Being a “Nice” Boss

‘Nice’ is not a word that is often used to describe successful leaders. But, it’s really all about how you look at it.  This post, from 2012 attempts to shift the perspective about ‘nice’ from one of weakness to one of strength.

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My uncle, now deceased, used to have a little wooden plaque hanging on the wall of his den.  It read, “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice”

I was reminded of this the one day when I caught myself being not nice to a young man who was conducting telephone surveys for an insurance company.  Specifically, I allowed my disdain for unsolicited telephone surveys to affect the way I spoke to him.  That wasn’t fair.  And it definitely wasn’t nice.  So I apologized and then did my best to separate my dislike for the survey from my empathy for someone doing an honest and thankless job.

It occurred to me then that nice, at least in corporate settings, is often the victim of our contempt and in fact frequently equated with weakness.  The perspective is that people who are nice are pushovers. They lack character. They are spineless, maybe even incompetent.  When we ask people to describe a leader, they invariably say things like, strongdecisive, visionary, and courageous.  Rarely are they characterized as ‘nice’.  Indeed in some organizations we even expect our leaders to bring with them a measure of unpleasantness.  It goes with the territory.  After all, they are busy people. ‘Nice’ doesn’t get the job done.

But to me, ‘Nice’ gets a bad rap.  In fact, it has an important role to play in organizational success.  It could also use some repositioning in terms of the way we think about it.

So let’s try it.

What if we decided to equate ‘nice’ with strength instead of weakness?  What would it look like?  Well, here’s what I’m thinking about that:

When “nice” = “strength”…

It would look like Kindness  ~ We’ve all heard it.  “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” It’s an old American proverb with an enduring ring of truth.  And really, it takes just as much time to be mean as it does to be kind.

It would look like Truthfulness ~ Here’s where ‘nice’ grows teeth. Sometimes engaging in difficult conversations and telling people what they need to hear to make better choices is much nicer than avoiding or misleading them.  Often, taking the easy way out is very far from being nice.

It would look like Respect  ~ To me, respect asks us to behave like adults and treat others like adults too.  There is no room for condescension or patronizing behaviour in my definition.  It’s simply not nice.

It would look like Generosity ~ Generosity is often about letting go of something we’d rather keep for ourselves.  It is a demonstration of regard and a vote of confidence.  It takes strength.  And, it’s a nice habit to adopt because generosity can be catching.

It would look like Clarity ~ Being clear about what we need and what we expect is part of the package, especially if we intend to use those expectations as a benchmark for performance appraisal at some point.  Otherwise, it’s not fair and especially not nice.

It would look like Empathy ~ Seeking to understand how things are for others is a primary role of the leader.  It’s the way s/he “tunes in” to the work environment and engages people, not only in conversation but also in playing a willing part in fulfilling the organizational purpose.

It would look like Civility ~ Good manners are certainly part of being nice.  We may think we don’t have time for this. We are too busy.  I assert, however, that for workplaces to be ‘livable’ they must include courteousness.  People work better together when they treat each other well.  It’s as simple as that.

The truth about being “nice” is, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.  It’s not about the word.  It’s about the behaviour that the word suggests.  If we choose to look at being nice as a weakness, we will continue to discount its value in the workplace.  We will cling to the notion that “nice ‘guys’ finish last” and  keep on accepting objectionable behaviour from leaders who believe it.

So let’s remember those words from the American Playwright, Wilson Mizner, ~ “Be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down”

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

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