The Importance of Being Care-full

I often like to make a distinction between caring and care-taking when it comes to leading others. This post, from 2011, gets more specific about what it means to care and why it’s important.

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hands-heartBenjamin Franklin once said, “Want of care does more damage than want of knowledge”

Never is that more true than in the workplace. Of course, there are those who continue to believe that caring for the people we lead is unimportant or a sign of weakness. After all, they would never accomplish anything if they had to spend all of their time worrying about everybody who works there. And others are often heard to say, and quite proudly too, that they take care of their people, which is a totally different thing.

The flaw in this kind of thinking is that caring for those under our charge isn’t about parenting. It is about inviting people to bring all of themselves to work every day and helping them give their best effort willingly to something that matters both to them and to the organization. I think it safe to say that engaging people in this way gets results. That makes it pretty important.

So, what does caring for people look like from a leader’s vantage point? Well, I have some thoughts about that. Here they are:

Judicious leaders care enough to…

Be interested in each person’s skills, talents and ambitions

This is a good place to start and is not dissimilar to taking inventory. You have to know what, and who, you’ve got before you can decide how you are going to help them use it and grow it for both individual and organizational benefit.

Be clear about their expectations:

No one can produce desired results if they are working with a murky set of expectations. So it is incumbent upon the leader who cares to be able to state what s/he expects, as simply and succinctly as possible and to ensure that the person to whom s/he is speaking understands those expectations in the way they were meant.

Tell hard truths

We are all familiar with times when it is easier to avoid the truth than to confront it. But, when someone is not performing well, it is essential for the leader to address it. This often requires some pretty uncomfortable discussions, and can result in equally painful decisions. Caring sometimes means helping others step up… or step off to something else.

Hold people accountable

So you’ve had the conversation. You and your colleague have come to an agreement about what s/he will accomplish and how you will support him/her. It sounds good and you both leave the room feeling good.

Caring leaders know that it doesn’t end there. Follow-up is necessary, first, because those under their charge may need some help. Second, they may need some encouragement. And finally, they may need some reminding about the commitments they’ve made. Holding people accountable for doing what they say they are going to do sends the message that their efforts matter to the success of the whole.

Risk their own vulnerability

Relationships, even those that are forged for professional reasons, are two-way propositions. Leaders who care and want to build strong connections with others are willing to share their own stories, something of themselves that makes them human. No one is a super-hero. If we try to be that, we don’t have time to concentrate on much else

Challenge people to stretch

Sometimes people are capable of going beyond what they have agreed to do, and yet, haven’t. Or, they are assigned something they believe to be too challenging for them, and don’t think they can do it. In either case, the leader who cares will provide a needed nudge, will challenge, cajole, encourage and inspire that extra effort that brings them over the top and helps them win.

Clear the way

Leaders who care will anticipate and provide needed resources. And, they will address obstacles that get in the way of success.

Let go

So by now you’ve made a heavy investment in someone’s development to the extent that s/he is now a top performer. It is natural to want to hang onto that person. After all, s/he is making a huge contribution to your results.

Letting go is hard but it’s also an important part of organizational, and personal, development. Those who go on to greater things will appreciate that you cared. Those who feel held back will quickly forget that you did. Besides in letting go, you get to….

Start Again

This may be good or bad news from a leadership perspective but the truth is that people come and people go. I like to believe that the person who has built a good reputation as a leader who cares attracts those who are willing to learn and to meet him or her halfway.

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

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Listen Here!

listening“Pardon?” I say.

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Well,” he says.

“That’s because you weren’t listening.”

I expect that, for most of us, this is a pretty common conversation. And yet, if we were to ask any number of people to rate the significance of listening in being a good leader; building good relationships; or doing good business, the ability to listen well would be among the most important.

So why are we not better at doing it?

Well for one thing, there is a possibility that we assume, because we come equipped with two ears, listening is something that will naturally follow. However, while hearing may come naturally, listening certainly does not. And yet, little attention has been paid to teaching us how to use our ears for the purposes of actually absorbing what is being said.

Think about it. When we were little children we were taught to read and write. In high school we might have learned how to debate effectively or write a coherent essay. And, Later on, we might have had instruction on effective presentation techniques, or business writing. We recognize these as developed skills. In comparison, there is little such instruction on the topic of listening because we tend to believe that hearing and listening are synonymous.

The truth is, most people can hear. Listening on the other hand involves engaging, not only the ears, but also the brain, in the process of receiving new information and assimilating it in the way in which it was intended.  Fewer people are good at that.

So, the question is, how do we get to a place where we  listen more?

I have a few thoughts on that and here they are:

1. Make Understanding the Goal

Just to be clear, understanding is not the same as agreeing. Often, when someone is speaking, we allow our own values and judgments to intervene prematurely and evaluate. Because of this (and just as often) we fail to understand what is really being said. Making understanding the goal means getting past our own biases and making space for someone else’s perspective.

2. Be Quiet

This seems simple enough. But is requires some practice. It’s hard to take in what someone is saying if we have crowded our heads with inner chatter; are waiting for our turn to speak; or thinking about what we are going to have for dinner. Taking a little time to achieve some sense of quiet and focus on the person talking will help to achieve the understanding we need to engage in a meaningful exchange of information or opinion.

3. Use the Inquiring Mind

Let’s face it. Even with the best of intentions, we aren’t always going to get to the intended meaning of every conversation easily. And, when we don’t, it is tempting to pretend we do if only to advance the conversation and move onto something else. But of course doing that takes us further away from the goal. So it’s not something we would want to make a habit of. Asking questions for clarity however, is a great habit to get into. It lets people know we are listening and it keeps the conversation on the right track too.

4. Paraphrase

Paraphrasing is another good habit to develop when listening to someone speak. This, by the way, is not about repeating word for word what we hear. Instead, paraphrasing asks us to summarize in our own words what we have heard, without judgment. If we are able to repeat what we understand the speaker to have said and the speaker confirms it as being what he meant, we have listened successfully.

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

 

Note: this is a refreshed version of a post originally written in 2010

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Patience in Leadership ~ More Discipline Than Virtue

patience

Ben Franklin once said, “He that can have patience, can have what he will”

He was probably right. But, in a world where technology demands speed and the pressure to produce immediate results is all around us, disciplining ourselves to be patient is tough. Nonetheless, for leaders, it is a challenge worth pursuing. Here’s why:

Patience allows us to suspend judgment long enough to make considered decisions

Often, when the pressure is on, we can make snap decisions that we later come to regret. With a little patience, we can give ourselves the benefit of stopping to consider the impact of the decisions we make and whom we might be affecting by making them. And besides, ill-considered decisions usually result in having to take corrective action anyway.

Patience allows for the development of late bloomers

Not everyone learns at the same rate. Some, like the hare, are quick out of the gate and others, like the tortoise, are slower off the mark. Each needs leadership to get to the finish line. Patience requires us to steer the hare and reach back to encourage the tortoise.

If you are a leader with little patience for the development of those who take more time to learn and grow than you’d like, you could be missing something. After all, Winston Churchill was a late bloomer

Patience can help us to be better Listeners

Most of us recognize the value of listening, both to get to understanding and in building solid relationships. To accomplish either of those things there must be patience enough to suspend our own judgments and focus on what is being said rather than on what we are about to say.

Patience can help us manage stress

Getting to the place where we accept that sometimes we just have to wait can diffuse a lot of negative feeling. If we are frequently impatient with those around us, we are likely also frequently frustrated and possibly angry too. Managing our own expectations long enough to put matters into perspective can relieve a lot of tension and ultimately make work a more pleasant experience.

So, if you buy all that, the next question is, how do we develop patience?

Not being the most patient of people, I’m still working on that one. There are however, a few ideas that come to mind and here they are:

Learn to value the questions as much as the answers

There is a lot of benefit in curiosity and exploration. Patiently peeling away the layers of a problem through questioning and listening does, I think, result in a richer and more rewarding outcome.

Know the “impatient” triggers and practice managing them

To develop our level of patience, I think we need to focus on what makes us snap and the triggers that usually take us there. Once noticed, the rest is about practicing in an equally conscious way to improve our tolerance levels.

Keep the long-term goal in mind

It’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of short-term results. After all, they can be very gratifying. The problem is, if we spend all of our time chasing quick results, we can easily get sidetracked and lose sight of our primary purpose. Some opportunities are worth waiting for. And, some goals just take longer to achieve. It seems to me that if they are important, they deserve whatever time it takes to accomplish them.

In the final analysis, it’s probably safe to say we all suffer from bouts of impatience, some of us more chronically than others. Impatience in leadership is particularly troublesome because it gets in the way of our ability to do the right things at the right times.

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

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Note: this post was originally published in 2010

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Unlocking the Energy…Yet Another Job for Leaders

Enthusiasm-150x150Frances Hesselbein once said, “the Leader’s job, after all, is not to provide energy but to release it from others”

Admittedly, the initial image that popped into my head, on reading that quote, was a bit bizarre. (I’ll spare you the details). And, I thought that Ms Hesselbein’s remark was not quite right or perhaps an oversimplification of a very difficult job.

But then I wondered. What does it actually take for people to unlock hidden reservoirs of energy from others and have them use it willingly in the accomplishment of great work? As a matter of fact what does it take to make me give my best?

So I had a little think about it and here’s what I came up with.

First, give me something I can relate to and believe in.

For me, work transcends into something meaningful when I know why it’s important and the part I have to play is equally important. If I can feel that importance, then I stop thinking about it as work and start thinking about it as contribution, which to me, is something I do by choice.

Second, work with me.

I don’t mean that you should do the work I’m doing or be there every minute. No, I mean, talk to me from time to time. Let me know I’m on the right track and if I’m not, help me to make adjustments. Tell me what I need to do, or be, to succeed. Let me know you’re interested in what I’m doing. And yes, occasionally, roll up your sleeves and work alongside me. That will help me to build my sense of common purpose. As well, I seem to have more energy when I feel that the work I do is important enough for you to pitch in from time to time.

Third, please Don’t Hover

There is a fine line between working with me and hovering over me. If I satisfy your need to know that I know what I’m doing, then let me get on with it. If you hover, you can be sure that my energy level will plummet pretty fast. On the other hand, I can get pretty stoked when I know that you trust me to do my part without having to give me constant direction.

Fourth, give value to my contribution

There is nothing more energizing to me than being acknowledged for doing my job well. It doesn’t have to be a big deal but from time to time, I need to know that what I’m doing is appreciated and valued.

Fifth, and finally, (at least for now), help me to make my work life fun.

I don’t expect you to be a constant source of entertainment. I know there is serious work to be done. But at work, as in life, there are, well, absurdities that just need to be laughed at. I have so much energy when I can laugh in the company of my colleagues. It breaks any tension that might be hanging around and really helps me to keep a healthy perspective when I need it.

So that’s it for now, from me anyway.

What about you? What turns you into the Energizer Bunny?

Note: This post was originally published in April, 2010

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Climbing the Ladder of Inference

It happened again this week. I was going along merrily about my business when I read something very disturbing on someone’s Facebook page. It was one side of a multi-faceted, distasteful, eye-opening situation affecting a significant number of people personally and about which most of the rest of us had an opinion. I took an opinion too, way too early in the game. And, I found myself at the top of the Ladder of Inference feeling embarrassed by my rush to judgment and having to climb my way down again by taking back words I had written in haste and with insufficient thought.

I don’t suppose it will be the last time I’m going to rush up the ladder. However, it is a goal of mine to ensure fewer occurrences. The air is far too rarified up there for critical thought to successfully cancel out, or at least modify, the rush of emotion that fuels an ill-considered journey to the top.

It is with this in mind that I’m re-publishing this post about the Ladder of Inference, just in case, along with me, you also could use a refresher course.

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6c4ec-examineThe other day, while at the supermarket, I was reminded of how easy it is to make assumptions about people. It happened while I was going through the checkout counter. Behind me, were a mother and her little boy, who looked to be about three years old. Together, they had two carry baskets brimming with grocery items.

Realizing she had forgotten something, Mom left the queue to go and get it, suggesting to her son that he begin to put the items they had already collected on the counter. He was very small. In fact so small his ability to comply with this suggestion was in some doubt, at least in my mind. But, soon he was grabbing each item and chucking it as high as he could over his head so that it landed, rather unceremoniously, on the counter above him. He was doing fine until he came to a can of soup. After heaving this in the direction of the other items, it landed on its side. Being fearful that it might roll off the counter and hit him on the head, I took the can up and set it aright, thinking I was doing him a service.

The little boy gave me a filthy look. He looked at the can. Then he looked at me and scowled. And, when his mother returned from her quest, he said, “Something’s not right

Mom, not really understanding what her son was on about, asked him what was not right, at which point, I said,

I think he’s referring to me. I righted the can of soup so it wouldn’t roll off the counter. I was trying to help

To this, the little boy raised himself up to his full height of maybe three feet and loudly proclaimed, “I didn’t want any help!

While a little stunned by the vehemence of his words, I quickly apologized to him, received some words of thanks from Mom and then decided it might be best if I minded my own business.

Thinking about this story, The Ladder of Inference comes to mind. It was developed by Chris Argyris and made known in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. It works something like this:

ladder-of-inference
http://www.strategyworks.co.za/2004/11/05/the-ladder-of-inference/
At the bottom of the ladder is information that is clear and observable. In this case, I saw a little boy helping his mother with the grocery shopping. I saw too, that there were a lot of groceries and that the little boy was really small.

I climbed to the second rung from the bottom where I narrowed my focus and selected only the data that interested me. In this case, I concentrated on two things, the little boy and his attempts to hurl grocery items onto the counter above him.

I climbed to the third rung of the ladder and began to make assumptions. First, I assumed that because he was small, he was not really capable of fulfilling his assigned task. And then, I assumed he needed help.

I climbed to the fourth rung of the ladder and concluded, based on these assumptions, that he would be glad of my help. From there, I proceeded to the fifth rung where I connected this conclusion to my belief that helping each other is an important and natural part of the human experience.

When I got all the way to the top of the ladder and acted in accordance with my assumptions and beliefs, I was met with hostility rather than the appreciation, or at least the neutrality, I was expecting.

The point is that it is easy for us to run up the ladder and get things wrong even when we have the best of intentions. Had I simply asked the little boy if he would like help in unloading his groceries (or in his case UPloading his groceries), I would have had the answer I needed, respected his wishes and stayed out of trouble. But I didn’t. So I didn’t.

All of which brings me to this…Good leadership can falter quite easily too, if we fail to check out and validate assumptions before we act. For instance, before every meeting you hold do you assume that everyone knows why you are meeting? Do you assume that everyone will have everything they need to fully participate in the meeting?

What other assumptions might you be making when you interact with those who follow your lead? How accurate are they? What steps might you take to prevent a trip up the Ladder of Inference? What questions might you ask?

Have you other thoughts you can share?

In the meantime and on the lighter side, this is what Oscar Wilde thought about assumptions, courtesy of Benny Hill.

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Leadership and the Attitude Contagion

catfrownDuring my active career, I used to spend a lot of time travelling for business so hotel stays for me became somewhat commonplace. And, I experienced a variety of attitudes from hotel staff as well.

On one particular trip to Toronto, I stayed in a hotel that was, and is, a rather posh place to hang your hat so I was quite looking forward to the experience.

Even so, on arrival, I felt an unmistakable chill in the air… and it wasn’t the air conditioning. The bellman, a rather tall and portly man, looked distinctly unhappy. In truth, his attitude toward me had a whiff of disdain about it as he unlocked the door to my room and ushered me, unceremoniously, inside. Hmmm, I thought, not a good start.

Once in the room, I realized there was no hair dryer in the bathroom. And so I phoned housekeeping. The Housekeeping department tersely informed me that while they would supply me with a hair dryer, I would only be allowed to keep it in my room for half an hour. Really?

This person didn’t sound happy either. Needless to say nor was I.

In contrast, my husband and I once went on a short road trip to Vancouver, Washington. We stayed at the Heathman Lodge, an upscale hotel built to blend harmoniously with the Pacific Northwest environment.

Here, we were warmly welcomed. The hotel staff was upbeat, positive and friendly. I saw no miserable faces, no reluctance to serve and no disdainful glances.

In the restaurant adjacent to the hotel our experience was even better. The wait staff was more than accommodating. And each morning at breakfast, Cecily greeted us with a cheerful smile. Cecily exuded happiness. She and the others, who all remained cheerful in spite of the busy breakfast period, helped us set our own moods for the day

People were happy. And so was I.

So what’s the message here? Well, there are a number of them but one that stands out for me is this. Attitude is contagious.

If you are a leader, formally designated or otherwise, know that you are probably also a Chief Attitude Officer.

Simply put, that means the atmosphere in your place of work is created largely by the attitude you bring to it. And, as it is unlikely anyone wants to encourage an attitude that creates unhappiness in employees and customers alike, here are a few thoughts about making positivity the contagion of choice:

Know What You Value

Being clear about what is important to us as human beings is critical to creating a kind of internal compass that guides our choices and decisions. In the workplace, knowing what we value and doing work that aligns with those values is equally important. If there is a misalignment of values between the leader and those who follow, then generally, a less than positive working environment is the result and poor attitudes tend to prevail.

Be Consistent

Okay so it’s one thing to be clear about our values. It’s possibly another to demonstrate them consistently. Like it or not, the leader is the role model. If the leader strays from the values being espoused, it is likely that everyone else will too. So, not only do we have to be clear about what they are and believe in them, we have to live by them and demonstrate our ongoing commitment to them as well.

Be Generous

Most businesses and organizations provide service in some form or another. And, even within organizations, everyone serves someone. To me, generosity is the key to success in this.

Generosity is one of those things that spills over from one person to the next. It makes sense then that if a leader’s approach to those who follow is generous in nature, that attitude will transfer to others and serve to lift the mood of everyone who comes in contact with it.

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 Importance of Being Purposeful

This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in March, 2010

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why-am-I-hereWhen I first came to Vancouver to take up my new role as a Human Resources Consultant with a major bank, my boss and I agreed that I should go on a road trip and meet with as many corporate banking employees as possible. It was sort of an orientation thing for me and perhaps provided a chance for everyone else to give me the “once over”. Coming from Toronto, it seemed I was automatically not to be trusted.

On one occasion, I was to talk with a number of Corporate Account Managers. My intent was to get to know them as individuals; to learn about their ambitions; their challenges; and how we might better support their efforts. It is entirely possible though that I did not adequately declare my goal, because the first person I encountered, pulled his chair very close to mine; stared sharply into my face and said, “I make money for the bank. What do you do?

Aside from the obvious attempt to intimidate me, his question was meant to suggest that as a person who made no direct contribution to the bottom line, whatever my purpose, I was an expense to the organization and consequently, of less value.

This is not an uncommon perspective to take, especially in large organizations. But at the time, I couldn’t help but think  there was something gravely missing from this outlook.

It occurs to me now that “making money for the bank”, while an admirable outcome, did not tell me anything about what this fellow saw as his purpose. And, for me at least, there is something lost when a person seems to view his primary raison d’être as making money.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I like money as well as the next person and there is a primal need to earn it and manage it prudently. But, the purpose of most jobs, or even most businesses is probably not principally about money. It is more than likely something else, something that has to do with providing a service. Making money is an outcome of that. The amount of money earned is usually determined by the quality and consistency of the service delivered and the ability of those who deliver it, to engender loyalty among a growing constituency.

But sometimes I think we forget. We take our eye away from our fundamental purpose and allow ourselves to get fixated on the dollars. And that’s when we risk running afoul of ourselves. We become greedy. We get our priorities out of order. And then we get into trouble.

For instance, there continue to be number of “recall” situations in the automobile industry. Somewhere along the line, I suspect the affected companies have strayed from their fundamental purpose, which to me goes something like; Make good, reliable cars & keep people safe, or something to that effect. It doesn’t have to be complicated. People just have to know what it is and be able to access it when they need to re-focus.

And that is where good leadership is key. People need to know why their jobs exist; whom they are there to serve; and how it all fits together.

I think this is so because…

It helps us in making good decisions and prioritizing appropriately.

If we train ourselves to ask the question; How will doing this, (or not doing this) help me to serve my purpose? The answer will often give us the information we need to move forward.

It helps us when we tackle problems.

Often problems can start to build on each other and become so complex that we get lost in them. When this happens, it sometimes helps to get back to the basic questions like;  What is my main purpose and who am I here to serve?

It helps us stay connected to the overall purpose of the organization.

Knowing why our jobs exist and how they fit into the bigger picture makes it easier to stay focused on what’s important.

It gives value to every role in the organization, not just a few.

If you nurture a culture that identifies the purpose and value of each job in relation to the overall vision and to each other, everyone in the organization has an opportunity to feel important.

It promotes good stewardship.

If we are clear about our purpose, it is that much easier to recognize and fulfill our responsibilities to those we serve.

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

Oh, and here’s an afterthought for you to chew on…or not.

I tend to be an idealist and often write about the way things “should be” but I find myself having to acknowledge that some people actually see “making money” as their primary purpose, and no kind of proof to the contrary could convince them otherwise. 
However, for most of us anyway, a purpose like that is too fragile and volatile to sustain and build on over time with the consequences of the ups and downs such a purpose suggests being way too heavy for most people to endure.

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