Monday, January 30, 2012

Leaders have no fear of focus.

Desperate, obsessive focus; you really have to focus.  You have to focus with all of your fiber, your heart and your creativity.  ~Will Smith

Yes, I’m quoting the Prince of Bel-Air, Men in Black Will Smith, and that’s a first for me.  In a Google search about focus I came across a YouTube video of Will Smith entitled, “Will Smith on Life, Purpose, Fear and Focus: Don’t Settle.”

Despite the economic climate, I’ve bumped into a number of organizations who are seeking to grow.  Maybe it’s because of the economic climate that many of them are creating a growth strategy based more on broadening rather than on narrowing their focus.  While that may seem like the intuitive thing to do, I’ve questioned if Will Smith might be right, and desperate, obsessive focus might be a more successful strategy?

I discovered a web consulting firm that had a history of expertise in a variety of areas including website design, email marketing, web portals and customer relationship management implementation.  The challenge was that they were “good” at a lot of things, but the company’s broad and diverse approach prevented them from being truly “great” at any of them.  With revenue flattening and the economy on the decline, their leadership recognized the need to refocus for growth.

Their executive team started by making an honest inventory of the company’s values, goals, vision and core capabilities.  Based on identifying these critical aspects of their business, they narrowed the company’s offerings from a broad range of web services to a niche subset of cloud services for a specific technology platform.  It was the area of the business that showed the greatest traction, most market opportunity and aligned most closely to their core capabilities.

The transformation was not without risk.  They did realize some employee attrition as a result and the company had to make investments in new marketing and communication elements as well as several strategic hires.  They even had to turn away some prospects that didn’t fit their new model, but they referred them to trusted industry partners who could better meet their needs.

Was it worth it?  In the 12 months following the company’s transition, they experienced a 44% increase in revenues and have hired additional employees to keep up with demand for services.  They opened another office and continue to recruit to build their team of highly-specialized cloud experts.

Given this and many other similar examples, I still wonder why so many leaders seem to have a fear of focus?  Will Smith went so far as to say, “There is no reason to have a Plan B because it distracts from Plan A.”  So why not focus with all of our fiber, our heart and our creativity?  All we may have to lose is a lot of excess baggage that weighs us down and slows our growth.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Genuine leaders are freaking out with joy!

Genuine leadership is not about trying to imitate another leader or striving to fit into a certain box or definition.  Genuine leadership is what emerges when we are fully and freely ourselves—when we are freaking out with joy.  ~Betsy Myers

If someone titles a chapter in a book on leadership, “Freaking Out with Joy,” it’s going to get my attention, which is just what Betsy Myers did in her book Take the LeadShe begins this chapter with a story about her young daughter.

At a mere four years of age, Betsy’s daughter informed her mother that her 4-year-old social calendar was too full of various activities and she just wanted to come home from school and play, like a kid, for awhile.  So Betsy and her daughter agreed that she would not participate in any activities until she was ready.  At the ripe old age of six, her daughter attended a dance recital and fell in love.  She wanted to sign-up for classes immediately.  After signing up, Betsy took her daughter to purchase all of the various clothing and items needed for dance class.  While in the dressing room trying on dance clothes, she turned to Betsy and with great enthusiasm proclaimed, “I am freaking out with joy.”

Betsy’s point is there’s a reason the academic world has had so much difficulty trying to define or determine the most effective leadership style.  Effective leadership is not so much based on style, but it’s based on being real, being genuine, being who you are to the nth degree.  This was true for Betsy’s daughter, who waited patiently to find the perfect fit that caused her to freak out with joy.  Thinking back to my own childhood – when time seemed to pass by so very slowly – two childhood years would feel more like four to six adult years.  I admire the patience of Betsy’s daughter to just wait, and “be,” and avoid cluttering her life with busyness which could have distracted her from finding what brought her so much fulfillment that it caused her to freak out with joy.  What an amazingly wise 6-year-old!

Throughout my career, watching various people come and go from organizations, I’ve witnessed a number of people who, literally, counted the days until they could retire.  Their work was just that, work.  They missed the opportunity to find that perfect fit, their real and genuine self who would freak out with joy over the work they got to do every day.  This is why there may be leaders at all levels in an organization.  They might be on the maintenance staff, a bus driver, or a switchboard operator.  What makes them leaders is not their title, it’s that they are being real, genuine, and coming to work freaking out with joy.  Who wouldn’t want to follow someone like that?

Imagine for a moment an organization where people are real, genuine, being fully and freely themselves; the energy so invasive that it’s palpable.  What if as leaders we spent more of our time removing barriers, obstacles, and hurdles that keep our employees from being real and genuine?  What if that even meant helping employees transition to another organization where they could flourish and thrive?  What if our focus shifted from employee satisfaction and retention to enabling all people to thrive?  If you’ve stayed with me this far you’re probably thinking I’m a bit Pollyannaish.  But, why not reach for an organization full of the wisdom of a six-year-old who searched patiently for what caused her to freak out with joy? 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Leaders have faith.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.  ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've often thought that the best leaders are both right-brained and left-brained people.  They are creative and analytic; feeling and thinking; out-of-the box and pragmatic.  What pulls the two extremes together, as MLK stated, is faith. 

Synonyms of faith are confidence, trust, conviction, belief, devotion, loyalty, and assurance.  Sounds like a list of character traits that describe Dr. King.  As I paused this week to remember and recognize Martin Luther, I was once again struck by his uncanny ability to articulate a vision—which we can still quote nearly 50 years later—and his faith to take the first step when he wasn’t able to see the whole staircase.

I've facilitated a strategic planning process for many organizations; the process typically begins with developing a vision.  Then what happens next fascinates me.  We start to develop goals or initiatives or priorities or whatever term you want to use.  These are five or so priorities that need to be accomplished over the coming three years to reach their vision.  When we start to put a timeline to each of the various priorities and then objectives, a vast majority of the priorities/objectives end up with a timeline to be completed in the next three months and sometimes it stretches into the next year.  It’s very rare that anything is identified as being accomplished in the next two or more years.

Why do I find this fascinating?  Well, if the vision can really be accomplished in the next few months then is it really all that visionary?  Or, if our vision is really visionary, do we only have enough faith to take us up the first couple of stair steps?  When we’ve reached those first few steps, will we keep going?  In my experience, this is where I’ve seen many organizations simply stop.  They accomplished what they could identify as the first few steps but there’s still a lot of staircase to go before they reach their vision.  Do they have the faith to not only take the first few steps but to keep going beyond the steps they can see today?

Many of the individuals and organizations we’ve come to admire are those who didn’t stop working their way up the staircase; even when they had made their way up the steps they could see at the beginning, they didn’t stop there, they kept going.  Thomas Edison had more than 1,000 failed attempts to create the incandescent light bulb before he succeeded at realizing his vision.  The Apple III was considered a complete failure.  They went back one step to Apple II, reevaluated their plan to phase it out and continued on with its development.  It’s been estimated that roughly half of the major ventures Steve Jobs engaged in simply didn’t pan out.  The magnitude of his failures, and his ability to recover from them, demonstrates what can be realized if we keep making our way up the staircase.  Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison, but that didn’t cause him to waiver in his vision.  After his release, he plunged himself wholeheartedly into his life's work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier.  He kept going.

We may never see the entire staircase, but if we allow faith to be part of the equation, we may make it farther up the staircase than we ever thought possible.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Leaders stand on the grave-mound of the past.

Only by standing on the grave-mound of the past will you see the vision of the future clear before you, alluring in its possibilities.  ~Eugene O’Neill 

I never know where I’ll find an inspiring thought about leadership.  This week, it was in an art gallery.  As I wandered through one of the galleries in my neighborhood, I noticed a quote the owner had placed prominently over the main desk.  The entire quote reads:
"If you want to become an artist you must come out of your shell…You must come out and scratch and bite, and love and hate, and play and sing and fly, and earn your place in the sun.  You will have to starve and weep and know great sorrows and great joys and great sacrifices…Only by standing on the grave-mound of the past will you see the vision of the future clear before you, alluring in its possibilities."  ~Eugene O’Neill
As I read the quote I thought about the numerous illustrations of a leader as an artist.  Then I also thought the word “artist” could simply be replaced with the word “leader” and it would certainly still hold true.

I was especially intrigued by the phrase, “only by standing on the grave-mound of the past...”  What a vivid image!  If it’s a grave-mound, then it must be something we’ve buried, put to rest, moved beyond, but certainly not forgotten and likely closed that chapter with ceremonious recognition.  We know where that grave-mound is, we have marked the exact location, and we may even come back and visit it from time to time.  But it’s when we boldly stand on that grave-mound that we’ll be able to see the vision of the future in all clarity.  Not only will we see it, we’ll be allured (i.e., attracted, magnetized, charmed, pulled) to its possibilities.

In all honesty, I have to admit that I also thought about what I was strictly taught as a child.  That it was disrespectful to step on a grave.  Does that mean we have to disrespect the past in order to see the future?  I doubt it, or really, I surely hope not.  Standing on a grave-mound could be viewed as using the past as a season of learning, of both failing and succeeding, in order to see the future more clearly. 

I've worked with a number of organizations that have a rich and deep history wrapped in a great deal of emotional attachment.  So when the time comes to demolish the flagship building or end the inaugural program, it’s not always met with optimism or hope for the future.  In every example I can recall, I don’t believe the current leadership had any disrespect whatsoever for the past.  They were using their past (the mound) to see just a little farther into the future; they were standing on the grave-mound in order for the future to be revealed to them.

Whether on a personal level or organizational level, we all need to have the courage and boldness to stand on the grave-mound of the past and be allured by the possibilities of the future.  Maybe the beginning of 2012 is just that time.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Leaders know how to make others thrive!

Leaders who give their employees the chance to learn and grow, have employees who thrive—and so does their organization.  ~Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath

I've always been attracted to the word and the idea of thriving.  It goes beyond contentment and satisfaction.  There’s momentum behind it; there’s energy inside it.  So when I saw the article by Spreitzer and Porath, I wanted to learn more; and something caught me by surprise.

Through extensive research into factors involved in sustainable individual and organization performance a new word was discovered to better describe what they learned: thriving.  A thriving workforce is one in which employees are not just satisfied and productive, but they are engaged in creating the future, both the company’s and their own.  “They have a bit of an edge—they are highly energized—but they know how to avoid burnout.”

Now here’s the surprise, at least for me.  They identified two key components of thriving—vitality and learning.  Vitality is the sense of being alive, passionate, and excited; these employees will spark energy in themselves and others.  They realize that the work they do makes a difference, in other words, it’s vital.  Learning is the growth that comes through gaining new knowledge and skills.  It can give someone a technical advantage and status as an expert.  Now, here’s the kicker—these qualities must work in concert.  One without the other is unlikely to be sustainable and may even damage performance!

Why?  How?  Learning creates momentum for a time.  Something I’ve experienced personally, time and again, which is why I intentionally engage in formal learning every five to ten years.  However, without passion, learning can lead to burnout.  An employee might be asking, “So what will I do with what I’ve learned?”  “Why should I stay at my current job?”  On the flipside, vitality without learning can be deadening.  When the work you do, even though it may make a difference, doesn’t give you opportunities to learn and grow, it becomes simply the same thing over and over again.

We clearly live in a day when the 40-year employee is a thing of the past. Consequently, I frequently hear clients hesitate to invest in learning for employees because they fear that the employee will take that learning to another organization and they will have then lost their investment.  Well, if you rely solely on learning you’ve created short-term momentum.  If you want that employee (and their learning!) to stay at your organization then that learning needs to be coupled with vitality.  Their work becomes rewarding not just because they’ve learned how to do it well (or even really, really well); they also have a clear sense of where they are going individually and in what direction the organization is headed.  They realize that what they do on a daily basis makes a difference; it’s vital.

It’s the secret combination to unlock sustainable performance: learning coupled with vitality.  Get the combination wrong (i.e., leave one out) and your investment could actually create damage and reduce performance.  Get the combination right, and the possibilities are limitless.

Article by Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Roth, “Creating Sustainable Performance,” was published in the January-February 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review.