Monday, July 29, 2013

Real leaders can walk around the table.

If something is not to your liking, change your liking.  ~Patricia Ryan Madison

I recently tried a new exercise in a leadership development class and I think it got my point across much more effectively than if I had stated the obvious.  Everyone in the class had completed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Then I categorized their basic workplace MO (modus operandi) by graphing a combination of their Extrovert/Introvert and Judging/Perceiving scores.  These combinations fall into one of four groups I call Quickly Conclusive, Just-in-Time Planner, Thoughtful Spontaneity, and Reflective Realization.  Then I gave them each a slip of paper with one of the four categories written on it that did not represent their actual personality.  The task I gave them was simple.  As a group, decide where you would go out to eat this evening followed by some type of activity. But, participate in the discussion as someone with the MO that is written on the slip of paper, not your actual personality type.

It was kind of fun to watch them battle against their own nature.  My favorite was one person who just sat there and never said anything.  At the conclusion of the exercise he admitted that it was so difficult for him he didn't even know where to begin.  Consequently, his experience illustrated my point. 

I reminded them that sometimes the person sitting across the conference table may feel the same level of frustration they just felt because their personality or MO is so different.  What feels so natural and "right" to us, may feel excruciatingly painful to the person across the table.

Real leaders learn to walk around the table (metaphorically).

Patricia Ryan Madison authored the book, Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.  This book was not written for actors seeking to hone their improv skills, it was written for ordinary people just like you and me.  It's described as an irresistible invitation to lighten up, look around, and live an unscripted life.  No matter how carefully we formulate a "script," it is bound to change when we interact with people with scripts of their own.  As the quote states, "if something is not to your liking, change your liking."

These real leaders walk around the table and change their liking.  They are able to listen, understand, empathize, and lean into the person across the table who may have an MO that's a stark contrast to their own.  These leaders don't focus on trying to get everyone to become "like them."  Instead they move around the table effortlessly (or at least they make it appear as if it's really that natural). 

I'm guessing some of you might think this doesn't sound very authentic or genuine; like you're faking it. I think we can make the argument that it's very authentic and genuine.  If an individual is truly self-aware, knows who they are, and is so secure in who they are that they can meet others precisely where they are, then that sounds very genuine to me.  In other words, they know how to change their liking.  This isn't implying we need to give up who we are, but it is suggesting that we need to learn to embrace and accept who others are, with all their similarities and differences.

Next time things feel a little uncomfortable at the conference table, instead of holding tight to your own MO, trying walking around the table.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The leader is not the expert.

A leader isn't good because they're right; they're good because they're willing to learn and to trust.  ~Brigadier General Stanley McChrystal

Last week I began facilitating two new cohorts in a 12-month leadership development program.  As one of several ways to introduce the concept of leadership to these emerging leaders I used a TED Talk by Stanley McChrystal, a former 4-star Army General.  In his less than 20-minute presentation, he hits a number of key leadership behaviors.  But he also introduces an idea that I think will only become more common—inversion of expertise.

In the not so distant past it was typical for individuals in an organization to be promoted up through the ranks because of their increased level of expertise, and it was usually technical expertise of some form. It was assumed that the more technical expertise someone could offer the organization that they could also lead.  Maybe that assumption held true more frequently in the industrial age, but in today's organizations that could be a recipe for failure.

John Kotter (Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School) defines leadership as "taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities.  Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about providing useful change.  Leadership is about behavior."  Using Kotter's definition of leadership, there is very little technical expertise required.

Getting back to McChrystal's TED Talk, he said, "So how does a leader stay credible and legitimate when they haven't done what the people you're leading are doing?  It's a brand new leadership challenge.  It forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, a lot more willing to be reverse-mentored from below." 
I can think of several individuals who served on an organization's board of directors and became the CEO.  Even though they had been on the organization's board, they weren't on the board for their content expertise but for their leadership within the community and/or constituency base.  One example that particularly intrigued me was Mark Murray, who went from university president to leading a big box retailer with nearly 200 store locations.  Murray had served on the retailer's board of directors for a couple of years and Murray's leadership capabilities were evident to the corporate leaders.  Without one bit of retail experience, he took on the challenge and for more than seven years led the organization well. 

This type of leadership, that now includes inversion of expertise, requires behaviors that haven't always been thought of as leader-like.  Behaviors like being transparent, really listening, and a willingness to be reverse-mentored from below are somewhat new to the list for great leadership.  The leader is not the expert.  The leader is the one channeling the expertise to address opportunities that are coming at the organization faster and faster.        

Monday, July 15, 2013

Leaders shun complexity!

Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.  ~Winston Churchill

"Complexity is a leader's enemy not their friend. Great leaders live to eliminate or simplify the complex, while average leaders allow themselves and those they lead to be consumed by it. Complexity stifles innovation, slows development, gates progress, and adversely impacts culture. Complexity is expensive, inefficient, and ineffective. …great leaders understand opportunity and profits are extracted from complexity through simplification, not by adding to the complexity."

I read that paragraph last week in an article in entitled, Five Transitions Great Leaders make that Average Leaders Don't.  I thought back on my own week—having had several Skype calls with individuals in Argentina and Peru, helping someone with a leadership survey in Malawi, researching topics that seemed to have an endless amount of information available on the Internet—and I realized that even in my own little world just how complex things have become.  We don't have to search far for complexity because we live in it!

This then led me to an article by Margaret Wheatley with Debbie Frieze entitled, Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host.  What an interesting analogy to describe the leadership transition necessary to lead in complexity—from hero to host!

These authors say that "leaders-as-hosts know that people willingly support those things they've played a part in creating—that you can't expect people to 'buy-in' to plans and projects developed elsewhere."  They say that hosting leaders must:
  • provide conditions and good group processes for people to work together
  • provide resources of time, the scarcest commodity of all
  • insist that people and the system learn from experience, frequently
  • offer unequivocal support—people know the leader is there for them
  • keep the bureaucracy at bay, creating oases (or bunkers) where people are less encumbered by senseless demands for reports and administrivia [I love that word!]
  • reflect back to people on a regular basis how they’re doing, what they’re accomplishing, how far they’ve journeyed
  • work with people to develop relevant measures of progress to make their achievement visible

I have to admit, as I read that list (and I didn't include the entire list here) that I felt a bit exhausted.  Hosting leadership is hard work; it's much more involved than simply playing the role of "hero."  A hero can swoop in, make all the decisions, assume everyone will follow without question (because you're the hero after all) and you're on to the next challenge. 

Will you make the critical transition to shun complexity and live to eliminate and simplify the complex, or will you (and those you lead) be consumed by it?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Fireworks, veterans, and freedom!

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, the last is to say thank you.  In between, the leader is a servant.  ~Max De Pree

I spent the Fourth of July holiday in a small town; something I've done for the past eight years.  One of the things I've noticed over these years is that I believe the folks who live in smaller towns are more patriotic, at least when it comes to taking time to both celebrate our independence and honor those who have made that independence possible. 

I stood on the sidewalk watching the parade pass by and noticed that I happened to find an open spot next to an older couple who had set-up a card table and two lawn chairs (you know, the kind that have an aluminum frame with the nylon weaved seats) to sell books on the town's history and some of their more notable veterans.  Then I noted that the man was wearing a cap that boldly proclaimed World War II Veteran.  As the flag passed by to signal the beginning of the parade, the couple stood and it wasn't hard to see by the expression on their faces that "independence" really meant something to them.  I started to wonder how much "Independence Day" has really become "fireworks, cookouts, and a day-off" day. 

It reminded me of a time when I had listed all of the official holidays for employees and one of my colleagues inquired, "What about the Fourth of July, don't we get that day off too?"  I responded with, "Yes, it's listed as Independence Day."

Do we really forget that quickly the effort, sacrifice, courage, and bravery that allows us to have the freedom we take for granted? 

How often do we do the very same thing within our organizations?  Every organization has employees who are going through difficult personal challenges, who have sacrificed too much of their personal/family lives for the sake of the organization, and who show up for work everyday without complaint.  And how often do we sit down with these people, face-to-face, and simply say, "Thank you."

I've been in the workforce now since 1986 when I started my first job out of college.  I worked for my college alma mater as a recruiter.  What do I remember most about that job?  The college president periodically showing up, sitting down in my office, and asking me about my recruits and telling me how much he appreciated the work I was doing.  It's 27 years later and that's a memory so clear it seems like only last year.  I've tried to carry that influence with me through the decades and I'm sure I've not been nearly as consistent or committed to saying thank you as was Dr. Richard Stephens.  But that memory is certainly still with me.

Max De Pree also said, "How important it is to learn to say thank you! There are many ways to say thank you, but the problem is to find the most graceful and fitting."

So take a second to think about whom you need to thank.

What is a fitting and graceful way to thank them?

What do you intend to do about it?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Are you mind full or mindful?

Mindful: it's the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.  ~Jon Kabat-Zinn

I've written about mindfulness before, but I read a blog this week that I thought provided a very relevant example of the importance of learning to be mindful.  This came from Chip Cutter, editor at LinkedIn, who wrote a blog post entitled, "A Harvard Economist’s Surprisingly Simple Productivity Secret."  The economist is Sendhil Mullainathan and this was his experience.
Mullainathan's own productivity breakthrough came when he dropped his cell phone in a toilet. 
That night, he went to dinner with friends, and found he had a surprisingly fun time. His friends didn't get more interesting. The food wasn't better than usual. What changed was that he didn't have his phone. 
That meant he couldn't receive potentially bothersome emails or text messages before or during the meal. "My bandwidth for those two hours was focused on the thing I wanted to be focused on," he says. 
Since then, he's made other changes. He no longer receives work email on his phone. Before a meeting, he tries not to get to check email, so he's focused on the discussion ahead. 
And he's come to a realization. 
"All those times that I thought I was using my time well -- 'Hey, I've got five minutes, let me check my email' -- I was actually using my bandwidth badly."
We all have a limited amount of mental bandwidth and we all try to stretch that bandwidth as much as possible.  In other words, we're using every ounce of our mental energy to be mind full.  What Mullainathan discovered is that we're actually more productive when we are mindful.  Chip Cutter said, "A lack of time isn't the issue; a lack of focus is."

Several months ago I was facilitating meetings with an executive team and I noticed that one of the VP's was frequently closing his eyes.  For a while I thought he was dosing, which surprised me because this was a small group of eight or nine so falling asleep was not going to go unnoticed.  Then later this VP said that he closes his eyes because he's trying to really think, or I would say, be mindful.  Even though part of what he oversees in the organization is IT, he's one of the few VP's who does not sit down at the meeting and immediately flip open his iPad (which is not a mindful practice).  When I step back and look at this VP's overall personality and behavior, he's probably one of the most focused and mindful people I know.  He's mindful; and his department is one of the most efficient and productive in the organization.

Janice Marturano, founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership says, "Our minds can become distracted by the urgent at the expense of the important and we can become so preoccupied with yesterday and tomorrow that we are no longer able to excel at leading in the present."

So I'll ask again, are you mind full or mindful?