Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leaders grow.

Leaders grow on purpose with a plan.  ~John C. Maxwell

John Maxwell amazes me.  As the big box bookstores have declined or even disappeared, real estate on the bookshelves in the stores that remain is privileged space.  So when I go to my local Barnes & Noble, which is not a huge store, and see that John still commands nearly an entire shelf of the limited space devoted to management and leadership, I’m impressed to say the least.  He must be doing something right.

One of John’s many books is entitled, Make Today Count: The Secret of Your Success is Determined by Your Daily Agenda, and this week’s quote was borrowed from the final chapter.  While John outlined his own plan for growth, what I find most interesting about it is the number of times I’ve heard this same plan practiced by other leaders.  So I’m thinking this recipe for growth is worthy of some serious consideration.

Listen to audio tapes.  John listens to as many audio tapes as possible.  He says that out of every seven he listens to, about four are average, two are good to excellent and one is outstanding.  For each tape he listens to he tries to determine at least one “take away” that he can apply immediately.  I would add that in addition to audio tapes there is an endless supply of presentations, interviews, speeches, TED Talks, etc. available online.  The trick is doing enough searches to learn what criteria narrows the massive number of options to what you’re really looking for.

Read two books every month.  John has an interesting approach to his reading.  He has two stacks of books.  One stack he identifies as the read thoroughly stack and the other is the speed reading stack.  He reads one book from each stack every month.  For those less voracious readers this could make reading two books per month sound less daunting.

Set an appointment every month.  Of course we all have more than one appointment per month, but John deliberately schedules one appointment with someone with the intent to learn from them—someone who will help him grow.  If they are an author, he reads their books; he does research on them and then prepares a list of specific questions to guide their discussion.  I would think most people would be flattered to hear that you’d like to meet with them because of what you believe you could learn.  And coming armed with a list of questions is typically impressive and viewed as a compliment.

File what you learn.  In John’s case, I believe he means file, literally, as in hard copy files.  While I absolutely agree with the practice of file what you learn, I’d encourage us to think a little more environmentally and be diligent about organizing our electronic files for easy reference.

Apply what you learn.  I wholeheartedly agree with John; the final test of any learning is always application.  If you apply it, then you’ve learned it.  I have found that the sooner I apply it, the more likely I’m going to repeat that application and it will become embedded in my thinking.  And thus, I’ve grown, on purpose.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Leaders are disciplined.

The discipline of market leaders: choose your customer, narrow your focus, and dominate your market.  ~Michael Treacy & Fred Wiersema

This quote is actually the title of a book by Treacy and Wiersema first published back in 1995.  The authors themselves will admit that this is not a highly profound concept, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for leaders to accomplish.  Here we are in 2012, 17 years later, and I still run across leaders who are struggling to embrace this concept of discipline.  And by embrace I mean behave in a way that demonstrates they believe this statement to be true.

After thinking about this and trying to better understand some of my own clients, I got an idea.  I zeroed in on four key words in this book title: discipline, choose, focus and dominate.  While each of these words is certainly very deliberate and intentional, which is something most leaders aspire to, each of these words also requires identifying what you will freely leave behind.  I think it may be the idea of freely leave behind—which for some leaders could feel like a loss, missed opportunity, or even failure— that could actually be preventing some organizations from thriving.

Synonyms of the word discipline are control, restraint and order.  For example, when we think of being disciplined about doing something (exercise, reading, spending less money, etc.) we frequently equate that with what we are “giving up” in exchange for being disciplined.  We are exhibiting control or restraining ourselves from doing one thing so that we can do another.  While the idea of discipline is nearly always viewed as a positive attribute, it is also perceived to nearly always come at a cost—the cost of freely leaving something behind.

The word choose clearly implies that we made a choice between at least two options, which in turn means we “freely left something behind.”  My favorite definition of the word focus is “a state of maximum distinctness.”  In order to be distinct, we must communicate not only what we are but also what we are not.  Again, to focus, we’ve “freely left something behind.”  Dominate means that we rule, control, or dictate something.  But we never (with a few exceptions) rule or dictate over everything, so again, something is freely left behind.

This idea to “freely leave behind” is my own notion.  My first inclination was to use the word willingly leave behind because it is something we’ve agreed to do; we are willing participants.  But when I looked up synonyms for willingly, I discovered words like eagerly, readily, gladly, cheerfully, enthusiastically and freely.  My own personal definition of willingly was a bit more subdued than Webster’s. Then I realized that Webster had it right.

As leaders, if we want to be disciplined and choose and focus and dominate then we need to embrace the liberation that comes with freely leaving behind.  We need to “leave behind” and do it eagerly, readily, gladly and even enthusiastically, and as a consequence, we will become market leaders.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Leaders know that rules aren't values and values aren't rules.

Thinking in the language of can versus can’t predisposes you to perceive challenges in a certain way and respond within narrow avenues.  Thinking in and speaking the language of values—the language of should and shouldn’t instead of the language of can and can’t—opens up a wide spectrum of possible thought, a spectrum that encompasses the full colors of human behavior as opposed to the black-and-white response of rules.  ~Dov Seidman

Dov Seidman hits the nail on the head once again.  The organizations of the industrial-age with their vertical hierarchies drove their rules and policies through the organization.  But now, in the information-age and an economy built on knowledge with flat organizational structures, it is shared values permeating throughout organizations that enable them to thrive.

I can’t say it better than Dov, so I’ll let him explain.
Rules achieve good floors, minimum standards of behavior, and they prevent bad things from happening—if people follow them.  Values are not black-and-white or quantitative.  Values are like trust; they empower others to honor or betray you.  They open up avenues of possibility and leave room for interpretation. 
Harry C. Stonecipher, the president and CEO of Boeing, was asked by Boeing’s board to resign after having an extramarital affair with another employee, for example, the company could have responded by amending its code of conduct to prohibit or restrict certain kinds of relationships between employees. Instead, Boeing did something far more interesting: It enshrined and enforced a value.  Lead director and former non-executive chairman of Boeing, Lewis Platt, said, “The board concluded that the facts reflect poorly on Harry’s judgment and would impair his ability to lead the company…” the CEO must set the standard for unimpeachable professional and personal behavior, and the board determined that this was the right and necessary decision under the circumstances.  Boeing sent the message that employee behavior does not answer to a set of rules, but to a much more powerful standard: repute.  In a stroke, Boeing employees understood that part of their job involved bringing the company positive repute; and that integrity was so central to what Boeing is that it could cost even the highest executives their jobs.  By celebrating a value rather than instituting a rule, Boeing gains much tighter alignment with its workforce.  Every employee must internalize this value, wrestle with it on an ongoing and individual basis and thereby develop a much more active relationship to the company’s desires and a tighter alignment with its goals.  The value, while seemingly less direct than a rule, achieves a greater result.
What this reinforces for me is not just the identification of values, but the personification of values.  If the personification of values is vibrant and alive, then are rules or policies really necessary?  As Dov suggested, rules set a minimum standard while values lay a foundation for possibility.  For several months now, I’ve been trying to identify organizations’ values based upon my interactions, whether I’m a consumer, consultant or coach.  If I can’t identify at least some of their values, without actually asking, then I doubt if their values are vibrant enough to really achieve the results they are likely aiming for.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Leaders are good at unlearning.

There may be no better definition for a closed mind than someone unwilling to change their opinions.  Smart leaders recognize it’s much more valuable to step across mental lines in the sand than to draw them.  One of the most profound and commonly overlooked aspects of learning is recognizing the necessity of unlearning.  ~Mike Myatt

Unlearning put new vocabulary to a common theory of cognitive therapy and leadership behavior.  This theory being that the way we act (or behave) is a result of the way we feel, which is, in turn, a result of the way we think.  And we can change the way we think.

William James (my favorite philosopher) said that “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”  James also said “Man can alter his life by altering his thinking.”

Myatt, author of Leadership Matters, says:
No one has all the answers, so why even attempt to pretend that you do?  Show me a person that never changes their mind, and I’ll show you a static thinker who has sentenced his mind to a prison of mediocrity and wasted potential.  The smartest people I know are the most willing to change their minds.  They don’t want to be right, they want the right outcome – they want to learn, grow, develop and mature.  Leaders and their ability to change their mind demonstrate humility, confidence and maturity.  It makes them approachable, and it makes them human.  People are looking for authentic, transparent leaders willing to sacrifice their ego in favor of right thinking.
One of the most powerful questions I've ever been asked is, “Are you willing to say that you could be wrong?”  By saying “yes” to this question, I'm essentially saying that I'm open to unlearning.  I'm willing to let “the way I think” evolve as new information, new perspectives, new ideas, new facts become known.  I'm willing to focus more on the right outcome than being right. 

I've witnessed a number of scenarios where people have argued that when a leader changed their mind or took on a different position that meant they had also changed their principles or values, or were no longer credible, lost integrity, or were not trustworthy.  Wouldn't it actually take a lot more integrity and credibility for them to say that they could be wrong?  Wouldn't allowing their thinking to evolve be a means of living out their principles and values, not changing them?  And wouldn't someone who’s searching for the right outcome rather than being right be more trustworthy?

So why do we hold so tight to the way we think and many times resist unlearning?  Maybe because once we unlearn and change the way we think, we know that the ripple effect could be endless.  How we feel could change and how we behave could change.  Before we know it we've stepped across the mental line in the sand.  As William James said, our life has been altered.  Who knew that unlearning could be so painful yet filled with so much possibility.