The questions to ask to make the mentor or coach choice clear
Written by Ed Cook
The words coach and mentor are often used interchangeably making distinctions between them murky. This is unfortunate because the value of each can be tremendous for a person’s career, but where and how that value shows up is significant. Furthering the confusion, people call themselves a coach or a mentor without even defining what they mean. Some clarity is needed here.
“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” --John Wooden
As the coach of UCLA’s incredibly successful basketball team, John Wooden certainly knew something about coaching. But is his coaching the same kind of coaching that we would want to see in business? The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.” This definition puts the professional experience of the person receiving coaching at the center and then places the coach as a facilitator to enhance and grow the person based on that experience. In contrast, a sports coach, like John Wooden, would do that but also include his own experience as a guide to improving the performance of the athletes. Each approach can be valuable. This also gets at the first question to ask in terms of determining if a coach or a mentor is best.
Do I want help in developing who I am or help with a whole new view of who I can be?
A coach is going to start with who a person is today and then develop them from there. A mentor can provide a much broader perspective. Mentors rely on their experience to provide wisdom and insights that the mentee cannot see because they don’t have that experience. A mentor will do more “telling” while a coach will do more “questioning.” A typical business coaching experience has the coaching asking questions of the coachee in order to bring out what should be done in a particular situation. Done well, it can be an insight gaining process for not only the solution to a problem but also a process to solve future problems. Great coaches help build the mental muscles that allow those they coach to grow on their own.
Mentors will rely more on their personal experience and network as a way to provide a point of view that those they mentor could not achieve. This is a way to get a refreshed view of what is possible for life/career. It is not likely that the mentee will learn new skills, although new skills may be gained by watching the mentor communicate and interact with others. That kind of exposure can be valuable. Because of this, mentors are often better when they have experiences that are significantly beyond those of the mentee, while coaching is more of a skill where success is based on how adroit the coach is not on how experienced.
Do I want this relationship with my manager or with someone outside my group?
This question gets at what a boss can do effectively and what a boss cannot do effectively. Since managers have the responsibility to evaluate their employees, having an effective mentoring relationship is impossible. Mentors need to be able to deliver what may be hard messages, even a “kick-in-the-pants” to their mentees without the mentee having any fear of performance evaluation ramifications. A manager can never do that. Everything a manager does will be viewed by the employee as potentially evaluative. To be properly positioned to deliver these messages, mentors must not be responsible for the work the mentee does. To be sure, a good mentor will be emotionally invested in the life/career success of a mentee, but not in the actual work the mentee does. This is a crucial difference.
A coach, however, can be effective while also having the responsibility to evaluate who they are coaching. One subtlety here is that coaching is a leadership activity, not a management activity. There are skills required to be a great coach and those skills are beyond the core functions of a manager. For a deeper dive into the Manager-Leader distinction, read this. It is important to keep in mind when considering whether to engage with a coach or mentor. Leader as Coach is one of the defining attributes of a great leader. All of this leads to the assertion that a boss can be a coach but not a mentor. Mentors must come from outside the performance evaluation sphere of the mentee.
How should I choose the person to be my mentor or coach?
The first mentor was the character from Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was an old man who was a friend of Odysseus. Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, appears in the guise of Mentor to impart a viewpoint to Odysseus that he never would have seen. So in picking a mentor, find someone with experience and wisdom to provide an insight that you would never have gotten on your own. Someone who has been where you are now but has had difficult experiences and overcome them. These are the people with the wisdom that you need. As a bonus, these are also the people likely to make introductions to others and expand your social network where you can find others that can help you and likely that you, in turn, can help.
Coach is a much newer word originating from the Hungarian town of Kocs where the horse-drawn coach was made. The use of coach as a person came in the 1860s from the University of Oxford where it was slang for a person that “carries” a student through an exam. Given that meaning, a great business coach would be someone who can not only encourage your ability so that you can pass the business “exam” but also has enough knowledge to do that with context. A great coach needs to be knowledgeable about the work you do, not just skilled in asking coaching questions.
"Get away from these two types of people: the ones who think you can only go as far as the situation you were born into; and the ones who think you can only go as far as the current situation you are in." --Dee Dee M. Scott
No matter if you are picking a mentor or a coach, you need someone who is looking to expand your ability to succeed. That may be with a new point of view (mentor) or through the development of who you are (coach), but it is always about how you are more powerful, more capable, more successful.
Leadership and management are distinct activities
The words leader and manager are often used interchangeably and with that, their individual meaning is lost. Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis are often quoted as saying:
“Management is doing the things right and Leadership is doing the right thing”
It’s pithy and points to deeper insights. Management is about making things happen. It is literally about manipulation. The words management and manipulation both come from the Latin word manus meaning hand. If done well, there are efficiencies gained and improvements made in every aspect of what the managers’ organization is doing but that success is circumscribed. Great managers are still working inside the confines of constraints that have been given to them. They can be awesome but only with what is given to them. Leadership is about seeing beyond the confines and setting a vision for something better. The origin of the word is very different. It comes from Proto-Germanic, laidjana meaning to go. Leaders take their teams somewhere else.
When should you lead and when should you manage?
There are three key questions to ask and if any of those are true then it’s time to move from being a manager to a leader.
1) Do we need to make a change in order to grow or even survive the future?
Amazing managers can optimize and improve, but if the situation requires a change then it's time to throw away the manual (another word that comes from the Latin, manus). A leader needs to show up. On January 15th, 2009 as US Airways Flight 1549 climbed over New York city it had the disaster of double engine failure from multiple bird strikes. Having quickly exhausted the procedures in the manual, there was no more managing left to do. Capt. Sullenberger made the decision to land in the Hudson River saving every person onboard the aircraft. Beyond being a remarkable feat of flying, it is an exemplary bit of leadership. Applying six-sigma, exercising management-by-walking -around, or even holding a brainstorming session, were not going to work. Only a Leader as Change Agent was going to save the day!
"In a battle between two ideas, the best one doesn't necessarily win. No, the idea that wins is the one with the most fearless heretic behind it." --Seth Godin
Since most of us will not need to apply leadership in life and death situations, a useful question to ask is “what is the best I can hope to achieve with management tools?” If it all was fully optimized and efficient and lean and all the other important terms of management, then where would you and the team be? This is a powerful question if truly applied. First, it means that to be successful as a manager you must master these tools so it is possible to answer the question. Second, you must develop a true honesty with yourself about the ability of you and your team to hit the maximum value with these tools. That is rare. Don’t bet on always being the best and hitting the near-impossible goal every time.
2) Are the people on my team able to drive change without me?
If you are the only one that can drive change, then again you and your team are limited by your abilities. It’s time to start coaching your team members to advance their own skills. Creating a high-performing jazz ensemble is a wonderful example. In this essay David Berger, a high-school music teacher gives a masterful example of management and leadership, particularly coaching. He talks about how jazz was traditionally learned from experienced players but in the high school setting, there is only one, the teacher. So he arranges the seating of the ensemble to allow them to better hear and learn from each other, management. He then goes on to describe how to help his bassist feel confident without an amplifier, coaching. And then further describes the changes that every other player can make now that the bassist is no longer amplified and drowning the other players out. It is a masterful example of Leader as Coach.
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." --Rosalynn Carter
A wonderful example offered by music performance is the difference between a symphony conductor and a jazz leader. A conductor needs to manage the performance all the way to the end. To be certain, conductors can be leaders, but on the stage, they manage. Note in jazz, the term “leader” is used not “conductor.” At the time of the performance, most of the management is done. The successful jazz leader has been coaching the ensemble so that they can now make decisions and adapt as the performance evolves. Done well, the result is a moving piece of art unmatched in other genres.
3) Do my people have meaning at work?
A great manager will have laid out what skills each person on the team needs to be successful. A great manager will carefully define the competencies required for each job and then match employees to those jobs. A great manager will give instructive feedback about how each person on the team is doing and how the team is doing as a whole so that action can be taken to continually improve. All of that work is wonderful, but done at the top-level of managerial performance with the subtle and impactful conversations, it will still not be a process Creating Meaning at Work. Only a leader can provide that meaning.
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." --Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Whether it’s research from 15 years ago or more recent popular books, Creating Meaning at Work continues to elude so many. Why?
On the surface, creating meaning at work is in tension with business profitability. The business is about the service or goods it produces not about being a meaning generator for employees, right? In the moment-by-moment decision-making that is true for every manager, the pressure is to handle the solution to the immediate problem. Creating meaning for those on your team is great but you have a problem to solve now! This is another distinguishing characteristic between the leader and the manager.
Managers solve immediate problems. Leaders solve future problems
Creating meaning at work is a way to energize your team so that they drive the work without you. Much like a Leader as Coach or Leader as Change Agent, Creating Meaning at Work is an investment in the future and that’s what leaders are about.
How to lead change when you don't have a clear view of the future state.
Early in my change career, my boss, my colleagues, and I were learning the art and science of change work by absorbing everything we could get our hands on. We poured over books together to see what we could glean that was relevant to our current business problems and applied the concepts right away. We were learning like crazy. It was energizing because we knew we had to get it right. Our reputations depended on it. A lot of people were depending on us.
At the time, most of the advice we were taking in was about getting from current state to future state, point A to point B. The goal was to have a clear articulation of both, examine the difference, then dive in to close the gap. All great concepts, but we quickly ran into a brick wall.
My boss was spending a huge amount of energy and time to get our senior leaders to articulate "B". It was exasperating for her. Over and over again, she'd come back to the team feeling like she was no closer to understanding the future state. We were at a loss! How could we do our work without "B!"
Perhaps we took this idea too literally. Perhaps that was a reflection of our inexperience. Experience over decades and through a wide variety of change work helped me to let go of the need for a clear “B” future state and instead focus on the direction. In fact, I don’t believe there is a “B”, at least not the way I understood it then. It’s a phantom that can take a life of its own. Worse, it can be an excuse for not moving forward and a source of friction or even the cause of a rift between people.
Here’s what I’ve long believed since then: You need to have an idea of where you're going and why. It needs to rooted in your values and the drivers of your business. It needs to be compelling to you because it's going to get hard sometimes. And you need to be okay with what you don't know yet so much so that you'd be comfortable telling others what you don't know yet. You also need to be prepared to learn your way forward because as you embark on your change you will be actively learning and making adjustments to your implementation strategy or even the change goal itself!
Here's the difference: Rather than putting pressure on yourself to create a beautiful articulation of a future Nirvana, instead say where you want to go and why and what you're willing to do and learn to get there. Being that honest is something people can get behind and trust.
This is risky, I get it. What if you're wrong about the future you imagine? What if people constantly pepper you with questions you can't answer?
Here's some simple advice on that...
First, take care of yourself because that matters a lot to your decision-making and the way you interact with people. When an organization feels stress, people will pay attention and notice your energy and they will respond to it.
Second, set up a process to learn how the change is progressing:
This does not need to be complicated. What you're doing is setting up a learning process in an intentional way so you can make practical decisions. This is particularly useful when you need to lead change with your company's leaders and managers.
So what does this have to do with joy at work? Part of what people say joy at work means to them is finding connection to the mission of the company. When you communicate the direction you want to take and why, you start to involve the whole company in the process. They feel invited to participate and start to see how they can help make your vision happen. That kind of empowerment is meaningful to people. It's their contribution to creating something in the world. That's joy at work.
So, our advice is not to worry about "B." Just get clear about what you want, set yourself up to actively learn your way forward and engage trusted advisors to help you see. Focus on your goal and be open and flexible to the way you get there. By articulating where you want to go and why to the people that work for you, you’re on your way to achieving the future you have in mind.
How to make M&A a true success
By Ed Cook
The amount of research on why Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) succeed or fail is voluminous but not particularly clear. M&A is often not successful. Early research focused on strategy and structural factors, but the results were mixed. More recently cultural factors are the focus, but this opens up significant complexity onto the study of M&A. Still, the work is revealing.
Intriguingly, some scholars have found a positive effect between cultural differences and the success level of M&A.
This finding seems to be explained by the core strategic idea that merging two different sets of capabilities can produce a better performing combined company. With more skills and a broader knowledge base, the new combined company can more readily succeed. The key activity is capability transfer so that the abilities of the two organizations are combined into the new one. To get fantastic success means that the capabilities must be complimentary and not just additive to the existing capabilities of each organization. But the more different the organizations are the more difficult it is to bring them together culturally.
What is the path to success?
Success then lies in two factors. One, having two organizations with different capabilities that are complimentary. Two, managing the change that will come with the cultural integration of the two organizations.
For the capabilities portion taking a broad view is best. Capabilities can be the knowledge, skills, and experiences of the individuals in the organization and the mechanisms that are available to allow those individual capabilities to be brought together into a well-working whole. We see failures of this all the time. A sports team with superstars but an inability to win (no mechanism to bring them together); A family run business that both tolerates and does not take action to help a poor performing relative without the skills to do their job (lack of the needed capabilities). Both capabilities and a cooperation mechanism are needed to achieve success for a company. For M&A, this is true as well.
The first step is to map those capabilities. This begins before the deal is done in the “Data Room,” the mysterious place where information about the companies is shared confidentially. In their blog post: How To Prioritize Human Capital in M&A Due Diligence, Visual Workforce provides a step by step guide as to how to do this. The idea is straightforward, maybe so much so that it is often skipped: map out the skills of the two organizations by person and then recreate an organizational structure that can take advantage of the full set of skills. Too often M&A activity is about fitting one organization into another and engaging in a Procrustean looping off the parts that don’t fit. Some of this may be needed, but it is akin to adding great guitarists to your band and then telling them not to play the riffs which make them great.
The second step is to get in front of the change process especially as it related to culture. This is critical. The strategy may be perfection, the skill synergy magical, but failure looms because of inattention to the change. Having been through many variations of M&A activity from both the acquiring and acquired sides, I have seen the comedy movie moment too often where there is a pronouncement and the supporting actor/comedian in the movie turns and says “Wait...what?” Befuddled and surprised is the worst place for your employees. It is rarely funny as it happens.
To alleviate this sort of change surprise, we suggest the use of a simple tool called The Change Story. The Change Story walks a leader through the steps to help their team understand what is going on why, as well as help the leader to understand the impacts of the M&A work they are about to undertake. To be sure a large M&A effort would require more work and analysis, but this is a good start.
To be sure, M&A is a difficult and often fraught part of business. Although it fails often to deliver on its promises, it can succeed. It takes clarity of purpose and a willingness to understand the skillsets of each member of the team and the cultural impacts of coming together. Do that and you’ll be on the positive side of the hurdles to success!
What if achieving joy is truly the role of a leader?
By Ed Cook
While watching a symphony or orchestra or choir, I’ve often wondered what the value of a conductor is to the other musicians. Afterall other music groups seem to do fine without one. Rock bands, jazz groups, a cappella ensembles, all manage without a conductor. I got an interesting glimpse into just what a conductor does after viewing this smile-inducing clip. A professional ensemble sets up on a city street with a sign that invites passersby to “conduct us.” We are then treated to a series of would-be conductors who produce...what? Clearly, the ensemble does not need them to create music. Yet each of these conductors brings something special...joy!
As the first conductor steps forward, the glee on the faces of the musicians is striking. They are truly ready to take on whatever the conductor can provide. As each new conductor steps forward, we see some take on a persona of a conductor, some test the limits of their powers by spotlighting a particular musician, some add clearly nonstandard moves to see where it leads. Even a city cop steps up and gives it a try. It’s a wonderful scene. As a metaphor for leadership, it is powerful. The conductor is not bringing better technical music. The musicians clearly have that handled. The conductor is bringing joy. Their own unique and fully realized version of joy. None is better than another. They are all precious.
What if achieving joy is truly the role of a leader (conductor, team captain, CEO, foreman)? This does not negate the need for proficiency in the technical skills of the job, but those are inputs to the process. Perhaps joy should be the leader’s output. The rest of the team can create the outcome of the group (music, points, profits, quality).
Currently, the Richmond Symphony is in the process of finding a new conductor. With amazing candidates, the leaders of the symphony have constructed a significant program where each candidate will lead the symphony through several performances, but will also meet the public, talk with city leaders, and generally engage with the City of Richmond. Certainly, the skills of each candidate will be on display. Each will show their ability to conduct the musicians, select the energy of the performance, and even demonstrate their thinking on the future of the symphony, but I suspect there will be another important criterion as well. The musicians will imagine rehearsals and judge if they will be joyful. City leaders will consider if a prospective conductor will add to the joy of the city. Patrons of the symphony will imagine performances in the future and search to find the special joy that this conductor could bring.
A useful distinction between manager and leader is that managers focus on outcomes and leaders focus on teams. Think of the team that you look back upon as your favorite. Joy was likely at the center of that experience. Reflect on that experience and go find your place for conducting joy!
If measuring competencies is irrelevant and impossible what should we measure?
Written by Ed Cook
In corporations around the globe, managers are engaging in a process to develop their associates. At least they are trying to do it. These well-meaning attempts typically include some sort of a model of competencies. The manager is supposed to “ground” an assessment of the employee’s competencies with behavioral examples when they exhibited higher or lower levels of these competencies, then finally give the employee a score against each competency. There are a few core questions to examine in this system of thought.
First, what is a competency? So many companies talk about these. Rate their people on these. Determine promotions, bonuses, raises on these. Companies define competencies like “strategic thinking” and “builds relationships.” These certainly seem useful. Who wouldn’t want an employee to be great at these two competencies and others? Typically, competencies are the more intangible traits that a company thinks makes for a great employee. So, we need to define a competency so we can measure it.
Second, how is a competency defined? This is where it starts to get tricky. Competencies are abstractions, something that only exists as an idea. To make sure everyone is on the same page for the meaning of any competency, companies attempt to define them by listing “behavioral examples” that often have “differentiators” for the level of proficiency of the competency that an employee demonstrates. With a typical five-point range, that means even having five competencies requires twenty-five differentiators. The descriptors used to make the differentiation are often adverbs like “rarely,” “sometimes,” and “always” which now sets up the problem of defining those terms. On it will go becoming more and more complex and unwieldy.
Third, how is a competency measured? With descriptors either fixed year-over-year or defined for each year (a laborious process), managers are now tasked with determining where on the scale each employee sits. Here’s where the system really starts to wobble. There are two factors to examine in any measurement system: validity and consistency. Validity is the ability of the system to accurately measure. Consistency is the ability to do it repeatedly without significant variation. Competency measuring systems can do neither.
First, competencies cannot be measured. Taking “strategic thinking” and “builds relationships” as examples, are they expressions of who we are and therefore immovable or are they skills that can be improved? If they are skills then there should be direct tests to measure them and a body of knowledge to learn. If companies see these as skills, then there is a clear path to measurement and training. A skill mapping system makes sense because then all are clear that these are skills which are valuable for the role. It would be possible to develop schools and classes for these like there are for accounting and marketing and analytics all of which have a body of knowledge to learn and external tools to measure proficiency. If instead competencies are expressions of who we are, then a very different approach is needed to understand these. For an understanding of the psyche of a person, we look not to a group of outsiders (managers in this case) to peer inside the head of an employee, but rather we use internal tools. Questions are asked that an employee answers, not managers, about how they would handle a situation or simply how they would assess themselves. A look at art and artists can be instructive. There are many skills involved in creating art, that can be learned. Arts schools exist in part to do this. But art schools take a very different route for the competency of creating art. They don't measure it with external tools, instead they create a dialog between student and teacher where the student can discover what art means to them.
Second, improving a competency does not necessarily drive improved performance. Certainly, it is the job of managers to make decisions with limited information. It is not unreasonable to explore the idea that even if it is very hard to get the measure right, the process of doing it can still be valuable. This is the second problem with competencies. The idea of the well-rounded person who performs better as a result of improved competencies is the stuff of management theory not management reality. To see this, we can look to examples of all kinds from sports, music, business, military, government. We wouldn’t ask a great footballer to enter the hockey ring or an opera star to sing hip-hop or a sales person to handle accounting. In studies of what did make for a great performer, what consistently showed up was that they excelled somewhere. It was not being well rounded but instead having greatness in some aspect of the role.
If measuring competencies is irrelevant and impossible then what should we measure? Answer: outcomes. This is at once subtle and obvious. Obvious in that people have been measuring outcomes since the first person made a trade of a good to another person. What else are we measuring except the goodness of the work? We should continue that tradition. This is, however, subtle in that describing a good outcome in our ever increasingly complex processes of business can be hard. But…that is the role of a manager! Of all the things a manager can do to create value, clarity of what good means for each employee tops the list. With that clarity, employees are now empowered to make decisions about how to get to that outcome. An opaque system of competency measurement will not do it.
There is still room for managers to help employees make improvement. Managers can coach to provide guidance on how employees can use their skills to better effect. They can provide training to improve skills. Even better they can be clear on what skills are needed and then set up training programs for employees to obtain those skills. They can select work that both plays to their strengths but allows room for them to grow. Managers remain critical to the success of the group and the growth of the employee. It is clarity of outcomes that shows the path to success.
Everyone has so much more to their story than we can know.
In work, I often feel pressure to offer others an insight or something else that may be valuable within just one conversation. That means giving something without attachment to whether or not it’s received as I intend. I recognize the limitations of that because I can’t fully know their context. I can only try to get a glimpse in that one moment.
The pressure I feel is self-imposed. It’s based on my personal interest to try to alleviate the pain, self-doubt and confusion people feel when working together. I try to give others new words, a new concept, a new frame that comes from my belief that people are generally good at their core. I believe people want to do work that’s meaningful in some way, however small.
This personal interest began from a childhood decision. At a very early age I remember very clearly that I made a conscious decision to work, to have a career, so I could be independent. I had a fierce independent streak that was not particularly welcomed in the oldest, female child in a blue collar rural Connecticut family and community. Yes, I was expected to work hard but know my place. Like others, I got those messages all the time.
I could see as a female the culture’s preferred choice for me was to get married, have a family, take care of the home and contribute to the finances by working, maybe as a receptionist somewhere or maybe a bank teller or doing the books for a family friend’s business. It might have been a great life. I might have signed up for it too had it not been for the harsh reality I was facing because of the suffocating dependence I witnessed in the women that were part of it. It’s subtle, unseen and real. I was lucky, I was born at a time when I could break out. For many reasons, the women in my family before me did not have that choice.
So it’s with that grounding experience and constant reminder I decided that I was going to work my whole life to secure my independence. I had a huge desire to learn things and think things and imagine things with others. This set me on a path to imagine what work could be like. I thought, if I’m going to work for the majority of my life what do I want it to be like? What would I choose it to be? How would I choose it to feel and be about?
I’ve always worked hard. I’ve always been determined. When I say to others, “first imagine what it could be like then make it happen,” that’s because that strategy has worked for me over and over again. My life as a child looks completely different from my life now and that’s largely because I imagined it and then made it happen while filtering the messages I received from my environment. Over the years, I had a lot of self-doubt and often wondered if there was any point to my persistence. I did not spend much time thinking about fairness or disadvantages because that would have spiraled me down and out. I had to constantly remind myself to stay in my belief that life could be better. The battle with myself to stay on course seemed much more productive than a battle with others. There are definitely lower points to my life but in work it constantly improved.
What’s on my LinkedIn profile is a curated recent history. It’s the result of learning over and over again what the world of work values “on paper”. What’s not on my resume is my first official job working summers in the tobacco fields of Connecticut so I could afford to get my hair cut and buy clothes for school. What’s not on there is my next job which was scooping ice cream at Friendly’s. I remember what a luxury that job felt like because there was actually air conditioning and relief from the harsh physical toll of farm work. Right there, work improved for me. This is just the beginning. I worked for the Sheraton as a waitress and then became a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines just before they went bankrupt (what a crazy experience that was!). Those two jobs I held at the same time which helped me fund classes at a community college an hour away. I worked all the time and I was tired but I mostly loved it.
There are so many other improvements I made to my working conditions out of sheer determination. I never took a job that would put me in danger. I never took a job that would compromise my personal integrity. At 16 years old, I walked out of a retail store after filling out a job application in their stock room when I became insulted by its line of questioning. It was assuming the wrong thing about people, like they couldn’t be trusted. It made me imagine what it would be like to work there, how I might be treated. At 28, in a job interview for a prominent corporation I was being questioned about whether or not I lied about never taking drugs. The line of questioning went something like, “Everyone has done drugs of some kind. Are you sure you don’t want to change your answer?” It was manipulative and insulting. They did not know me. They did not know my background. I was not interested in a company that valued this interview technique (which it turns out they were notorious for) no matter what that opportunity meant for my career. Both the retail store and corporation pursued me afterwards and I turned them both down. I always believed I had choices even if no one else did.
As a young girl with limited education and a shaky family foundation, I was an easy, vulnerable target. I knew that. I knew what it meant to be taken advantage of so it was through this lens that I constantly assessed the risks to my mental and physical well-being. People do this all the time.
There is so much more to my story, but that’s true for everyone. Everyone has so much more to their story than we can know. People are amazing, when you think about it. All of this is the source of my drive to improve daily life at work. For all the disadvantages, I know I’ve had many privileges too. I’m truly grateful for all of it. The unique contribution I can make is based on experiencing the good and the bad, and knowing what’s possible.
This is what I carry with me every day and connects me to my purpose. This is my context.
Making time for balance.
Written by Ed Cook.
Recently, I successfully defended my dissertation. That sentence is an incredible understatement of my emotions. The lead up to the day of the defense was laden with anxiety. Despite the assurances of certain success from so many friends and family, I was not certain. As I waited in the hallway for the committee to deliberate, talking with the friends and colleagues who had come to watch the presentation, I was fatalistic about the future. I hadn’t had that feeling since I was on the deck of aircraft carrier having completed my initial landings aboard the ship and now waiting to hear if I had passed. I mused over my fate: “Well no matter what I’m a pilot that has managed to land on a carrier, a tailhooker. That can’t ever be taken away.” Barely before getting into the back of the jet, the instructor said over the comms system, “Clear on the canopy, Cook you qual’ed!” I let an involuntary and joyful scream that had to have penetrated my oxygen mask, the Plexiglas canopy, and the jet noise all around. That was some Joy at Work!
As the door opened and my adviser stepped out, he said, “Congratulations, Dr. Cook.” I managed not to yell in the halls of the VCU School of Business but my smile was as big as it had been on the aircraft carrier. The committee congratulated me, and I thanked them. The weight of an eight-year labor to build these ideas had ended. My degree was a Ph.D. in Systems Modeling and Analysis but my dissertation was about Group Decision-Making. Ironically, I now had a significant decision to make that would involve several groups: “what to do now?” I had already begun teaching at the University of Richmond and would continue to do that. The Change Decision was continuing to grow and there was more work there. But what else? Fly more? Learn to draw? Start rowing on the James? Write a book? Publish in academic journals?
So many possibilities. Fortunately, for the immediate, I pushed all that aside and went out with all those friends to grab a celebratory drink and a night of rest without having to wake up thinking about the next step in the dissertation. With some space to think of the question: “what’s next?”, I remembered my watch-word for this year: balance. I had been so focused on so many things that parts of my life were squeezed out. Now I could balance. So the specifics remain to be seen, but I will do some of all of these things, but at a pace that respects the need to balance.
Feedback is important but it's not objective.
Written by Ed Cook.
For much of my corporate career, I have heard: “feedback is a gift.” I think it is a gift I’d prefer to give back. Apparently, I’m not the only one. In their new book, Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall discuss the growing distaste for feedback, at least feedback as it has been practiced for the last several decades. They point out the charged and emotional nature of feedback and how that can be detrimental to guiding improvement. I have certainly had the butterflies-in-the-gut feeling spread through me after hearing, “I have some feedback for you.” My anticipation is that the next phase will not be about how wonderful I am but rather a portrait of my shortcomings. With my emotional wall up, almost nothing of any value can penetrate. But maybe that protection is good. After all, what is feedback? It is certainly not an objective and universal view of my performance. At best, it is a perspective that provides insight for me. At worst, it is simply wrong.
There are two people involved here the feedback giver and the feedback receiver. In a slight nod to Lois Lowry’s cautionary book, The Giver, I’ll refer to these two as the Giver and the Receiver. Let’s look at feedback in a different way. First, from the Receiver. I’ve come to think of feedback as this:
A reflection of how your actions compare to my idealized self.
This has a few important points worth considering when you hear feedback. First, feedback is not objective. It is not even about how the Giver would do something. It’s how they would want to do something if they could do it at their hoped-for idealized level. This certainly does not make the feedback invalid, but it does not make it The Truth. It is simply a point of view.
Second, from the Giver. Nine Lies about Work has something useful to say. Only give directive feedback when it is about the facts or the steps in a process, like “our process is to always call the customer back within 3 hrs.” As long as that is objectively true (as in written down somewhere) that is useful feedback. If not clearly verifiable, then the Giver would do better to describe the impact it has on them, as in, “I feel like I get a better result when I call the client back in 3 hrs.” This is not directive. This is an expression of feelings. It lands softer and is easier to take on.
Feedback will continue to be an emotionally loaded topic. So perhaps we would be better off thinking of it as explicitly so. Instead of taking it on as The Truth, the Receiver can recognize that it is laden with the emotions of the Givers’ notion of an idealized self. Instead of giving it as The Truth, the Giver can recognize the power of expressing the impact the Receiver’s actions have had had on them. With these subtle changes in perspective, something more useful may transpire.
Give employees a meaningful mission statement to help focus their work, making the mission more likely to be fulfilled.
Written by Ed Cook.
Is there anything that brings on the overwhelming urge to yawn more than a corporate mission or vision statement? This is supposed to be the company’s description of what it means to work there. It is the expression of purpose. But, (yawn)...it is often an example of mediocrity and stale wordplay. What makes me incredibly sad is that people crave purpose. Everyone, customers, employees, the lunch lady, everyone. And it is not all about money, as in cost for customers and pay for employees. It is deeper. Dan Pink’s book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, illustrates the impact of intrinsic factors like autonomy, mastery, and purpose as much more powerful drivers than money.
If everyone desires an expression of purpose, then companies would start to describe that purpose in a statement that has meaning, real meaning. But how?
One way NOT to do this is with Corporate Mad-Libs. I love this phrase! This is the corporate jargon version of the Mad Libs” books born in 1958 where you inserted adverbs and nouns and other parts of speech to create funny stories. Every corporate citizen knows about these (lack of?) purpose statements:
These are meaningless. Worse, they pretend to have meaning when clearly they do not. They are corporate blather, insipid rhetoric, dunderhead inspiration. I could go on with the Mad-Libs but you get the point. One way to tell if your purpose statement is useless is to state it as the opposite. If it’s foolish, then your statement was not all that valuable. For example:
We will maximize shareholder value. >> We will minimize shareholder value.
Of course, the opposite is idiocy, so why say your purpose is to maximize shareholder value. It doesn’t provide any direction for decision-making. It doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t do anything of value. These statements meet the test:
To get more specific, these are vision statements. They describe the bold future of the organization. The mission statement has the particulars of how a company does this and for whom. The two statements are linked because the vision statement should inform the mission statement. I like the three vision statements above because they do not get bogged down in the industry specifically. They are bold statements of something well beyond themselves. The mission statements, however, do speak to the industry and the specific customers. They provide more of the guideposts to make decisions.
I’ve previously written about the “Leadership Bubble” as a way to help employees grow and learn. The mission statement should be a tool that helps the leader determine how tight or loose the bubble should be because it provides the markers of success. By bringing their employees minds back to the mission statement, leaders can help focus the work that they do making them more successful as individuals and the mission more likely to be fulfilled. The vision statement should be the thing that gets people interested in coming to work. A vision statement can even be for a project. In Roxanne’s post: “How To Lead A Change You Dislike And Win For Your People,” she guides a leader through the process of dealing with their own feelings about a change. What if they were inspired by the change instead of turned off? The leader’s energy would flow through to the team. A well-crafted vision statement can do that.
Reframing narratives, detaching emotions from outcomes, and recognizing agents of change.
Written by Lauren DeSimone.
This past July I participated in Seth Godin’s altMBA. The altMBA is designed as an alternative business course for “high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.” Seth Godin calls these individuals ruckus makers because they’re enrolling in the altMBA to learn how to instigate change within their companies and communities. When describing my experience to others, I often said, "It's like going to human school and learning a bit about business.
Each altMBA session brings together a class of 100+ leaders in a virtual workshop setting for four weeks. It is a 30-day sprint during which leaders complete three projects a week, give feedback to peers on their posted projects, and share reflection summaries in response to the feedback they received. It is 30 days during which smart minds from all over the world thoughtfully challenge their peers’ best ideas. Each week’s projects originate from prompts that encourage one to think, read, and write expansively – with humility, courage, generosity, and no judgment.
One prompt in particular, “Make Good Decisions,” was pivotal for me. It enabled me to open my mind to new, future possibilities by way of letting go of outdated or erroneous frameworks. These frameworks had anchored my decision-making and consequently inadvertently narrowed my vision. I learned to see that the truths informing my thoughts were actually influenced by emotional narratives. Once I saw them for what they were, I learned how to reframe narratives to reflect actual realities.
To do this I first had to understand a few core tenets:
Learning the importance of reframing narratives, detaching my emotions from outcomes, and recognizing agents of change all help me make good decisions. When I say good I mean objective, rational, deliberate. This enables me to let go of constraints I didn’t know existed, tap resources I didn’t know I had, and see opportunities that I had overlooked. In letting go I gained the autonomy, creative license, and possibility I need for making a ruckus in our wild world.
A process that guides each person to their place on the team, so they can find their personal fulfillment in the team’s success.
Written by Ed Cook.
With one quarter remaining in the year, it’s an opportune time to think about how to lead your team to the end of ”two-thousand-greateen” so that you achieve greatness.
These last three months can be a pivotal time of year. Vacations are finished. The press of work and the hustle for families has returned. It’s easy to get lost in what is right in front of you instead of concentrating on your end-of-year goals. Don’t let that happen. Engaged teams emerge or vanish in opportunities like this.
Team Engagement is the pinnacle of leadership. It’s the end result of a process that guides each person to their place on the team, so that they can find their personal fulfillment in the team’s success. This makes Team Engagement a completely different beast than Team Building.
Team Building is discovering more about the members of your team; what they enjoy, their creativity, or their competitiveness. It comes through playing bubble soccer, and attending wine and cheese pairings, or even a team lunch. For a great place to find these kinds of events, check out Occasion Genius. And, while Team Building is valuable, it is not Team Engagement. Done well Team Building can create connections where true Team Engagement can begin to form. Done badly, it is a sugar pill for teams that creates the expected high and then the inevitable crash. Team Building answers the question: “Who are these people?”
Employee Engagement is about the individual and how that team member finds personal fulfillment at work. An engaged employee is more likely to be able to contribute to an engaged team which makes your focus on the employee important. To get to Employee Engagement a manager needs to spend one-on-one time with an employee to understand from where that personal fulfill can come. Employee Engagement answers the question: “What do these people need?”
Team Engagement answers the question: “How do these people find joy in the team?” Team Engagement is the lightning in a bottle that many of us have experienced on a sports team, theater group or hopefully somewhere in your work. Team Engagement (like so many things) is something you know when you see it, but there are signs.
There are three signs of Team Engagement:
But if these are the signs, how to achieve them? We will focus the rest of this year’s newsletters on just that question. But for now, the first necessary step is totally with you, Awesome Leader. You need to embody the three signs of Team Engagement. As Roxanne has often said, for a team to change, the leader must change first.
Your first assignment is to reflect on the level of truth for you Awesome Leader in each of the three signs of Team Engagement. Think about how that truth came to be. Think about how happy you are with situation. Think about where you would like that to be by the end of the year.
Balance is needed to achieve your goals over the long-term.
Written by Ed Cook.
There are a slew of books, blogs, and podcasts circulating that tout the value of prioritization. Essentialism by Greg McKeown, The One Thing podcast, even The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey all talk about prioritizing as the path to success. Yet, so many fail to achieve their desired success, why?
Prioritization may be necessary to make progress by placing your limited resources against what you most desire to get done in the short-term, but prioritization is not sufficient to achieve your goals over the long-term. For the long-term balance is a necessary component. Here’s why. Prioritization is a powerful tool against the distractions of the day. It helps direct energy to where it can lead to success of what is most needed now, and away from activities that may be be highly demanded or even enticing in the immediate but do not help achieve your goals of the day. Prioritization keeps social media at bay. It is a measure by which to judge if the excited employee, client, friend, colleague really has a “hot” item or are you just chasing after what is the most noisy, most obvious, most in-your-face.
What prioritization does not do is set a course for a fulfilling future. I mean the word “fulfilling” in its more literal sense. Truly full. Prioritization will often drive to great results in the area in which you are prioritizing, but what of the other areas of your life? It can be clear what the next most important thing at your job should be done, but how do you balance time with your family or friends? Prioritization does not have much to offer in letting go of doing that next assignment now and instead go have a long lunch with an old friend who you keep rescheduling, or read the next chapter of that book that you look upon longingly, or even the strategic planning you need to do for next year. Afterall, the word prioritization itself means to find “the first thing”. Getting that next deal done can readily score ahead of lunch with a friend. After all, that lunch can happen...tomorrow.
But of course tomorrow never comes, and people can end up prioritizing themselves away from their desires for a full-self. So in addition to prioritizing...balance. This can be a simple allocation of time and energy to the major areas of one’s life. Maybe it is 60% work; 30% family and friends; and 10% on yourself. Each person needs to pick the amounts for themselves, but the idea is once picked THEN prioritization can happen WITHIN each of the life areas. Do this both weekly and monthly, and the shift will be dramatic. It’s OK to move that lunch with a friend in favor of closing that big deal, but the lunch has to land somewhere else on the calendar. Actually land on the calendar, not have an intention to put on the calendar. An easy way to track this is to color code your blocks of time on the calendar so you can see if you are staying true to your intentions for balance.
I have been checking my balance by counting activities. How many times am I going out a week to do a cultural activity, how many times that are just hanging out, how many times with family. I have pushed this into the business as well. How many networking coffee meetings. How many events. And for myself how much am I reading. How many times am I going flying. How many times am I exercising. Tracking these events gets the same result for me and is easy to track on a color-coded calendar.
This issue of our newsletter announces Lauren DeSimone as the first new member of The Change Decision. In part, having Lauren engage with us is an attempt to balance. We balance not only what Roxanne and I are doing for our clients but also balancing the skills and energy that we can bring. As different as Roxanne and I are yet complimentary, Lauren brings in even more dimension (and raw awesomeness) so that we can have even more impact.
Good luck with your efforts to balance and achieve FULLfilment in what you desire for yourself and all around you. Let us know how it’s going.
When you want to change and shear force of will fails you then get some outside help.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
There are lots of times when I’ve thought (exasperated), why can’t I do anything about this?!
I read endlessly about change. I’ve advised countless executives and practitioners on the ways and means of getting change done. I’m constantly thinking and talking about it. No kidding, I’m oddly fascinated and adore the subject.
And yet when it comes to some things I work on personally, it just doesn’t matter how much I know. So frustrating!
My conclusion? Sometimes you just need a little outside help to get what you want. I know, I know, not particularly insightful and a little self-serving. Definitely not my intent!
What I can share that may be of use to you are a few resources that can help -- the things I turn to when I’m working on something I really, really want. So, here you go…
A tool of my own:
Sending best wishes for getting what you want most this year!
When you focus on the struggle the clarity of your team's purpose will emerge.
Written by Ed Cook.
On February 14, 1990, the scientist of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) turned Voyager 1 around to face the solar system. The spacecraft was just beyond the orbit of Neptune and on it’s way toward interstellar space. While out there, Voyager 1 took what came to be known as the "Family Portrait," a series of photographs of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth and Venus. At the press conference Carl Sagan, at that time a "rock star" scientist because of his popular books and television series, "Cosmos," said,
"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings..., every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."
The photo of the Earth became known as the "Pale Blue Dot."
Capturing these photos was heralded as a defining moment in humanity’s struggle to understand the world and itself. But not everyone was so joyful.
At the time, many of the scientists at JPL were adamant against risking a shot so close to the sun that it might damage Voyager’s camera as well as the use of Voyager’s precious fuel to create photos with no scientific merit. This was a stunt in their minds. More publicity than public science. In fact, Carl Sagan had to go over the heads of the scientists at JPL (some had been working on the mission for over 20 years) to the Administrator of NASA, Richard Truly, to force the issue.
But outside of the scientists themselves and those curious enough to read the books and watch the documentaries, no one remembers that struggle. Just the pictures are remembered. Those striking thought-provoking pictures. You can see them here: Family Portrait
Often projects that are considered a huge success in hindsight were a struggle all the way to completion. Recognizing the value of the end result and not the strife on the way there, is a key for leaders to maintain strength and push out doubt. In fact, it is the ability to engage in struggle that creates the conditions from which greatness can emerge. Squash all dissent and team will atrophy as their muscles to handle a difficult question are unused. Foster the struggle, guide it, and a high-performing team will emerge.
This happened for me in a large team program. The leaders were "bickering" (or so I labeled it), but as it was happening Roxanne texted me, "This is great! They’re working it out!" That totally set me back on my heels. That was not my interpretation, but as I reflected, I could understand that she was right. The team was in the struggle, working it out, and in the process getting stronger. Had I squashed the conversation, it would have sent the message that I was concerned primarily about harmony or even worse that I was indicating some opinions are more valuable than others. Instead, the team stayed in this mode of struggle and I kept them focused on their purpose. In the end, we completed the program successfully. It was great, but it was never easy.
I have failed and (re)learned this lesson every year of my career. It is as difficult as it is powerful. Focus on the struggle and the clarity of purpose (your team’s purpose) will emerge.
Making a real connection with my new team.
Written by guest blogger Tracey Sloan.
It's lonely at the top. I used to hear that phrase, and think "Really? You got THAT far, and now you're complaining?!" Fast forward a few years (okay, two decades), and I hate to admit it, but, it's lonely at the top.
I am in a senior leadership role in the transportation industry. Not so senior that I have my own floor, or even keys to the Head Master Chef's Boardroom. But I am invited to the table, and I have a role and a team that allows me to dream big and create something absolutely fantastic for the future.
In years past, I was a little spoiled. I'd led communication, change, strategy, operations, training...well, all sorts of teams. In most of those occasions, I grew up through the ranks, and had plenty of time to invest in building great, productive and positive relationships. Relationships I could tap into in a pinch, for a word of encouragement, or a quick cup of Joe to talk through a challenge du jour. And my team, who'd I'd essentially grown up with, was there for me, anytime and always, and me for them. I got to a place where I could just share an outcome needed with a direct report, and BOOM, they delivered, just like that. On time; high quality; minimal guidance required. Guess you could say I was livin' the dream, from a leadership perspective.
In my new role (four months or less; still a babe in these woods), I know no one. Goose-egg. Came to the company new to everyone; no familiar faces or places in sight. I was fortunate enough to meet a small handful of people in my interview process, and in the first couple of weeks, I began to build a small tribe. Unfortunately, they have day-jobs, too, and can't be there at my beck and call, just because I'm feeling lonely or need a little encouragement or peer interaction. One of them even made clear that this was not a role he was even remotely interested in playing. Um, okay.
So lest you think I'm just crying in my proverbial Wheaties, there's a positive angle and some light coming (because living in darkness is just not my thing). While it's been difficult to navigate this career change, I've grown a tremendous amount in just four months. I've learned that all workforce cultures have their ups and downs, their smiles and frowns. I've learned there is always good to be discovered, and bad to be worked through. Pursuing perfection is a waste of time and life. I've learned I do much better when I remain present, and embrace the now. If you stay hopeful, and encouraged, good things will come back to you, even when you aren't sure how that's going to happen.
Recently, I had several back-to-back, high-stakes, high-visibility meetings and deadlines. Testing the new kid, I get it. They were all hitting at once, and there's only one me. Out of sheer and utter necessity, I had to let go of one of my deliverables, because I knew it would go to pot out of sheer neglect. So, after weighing my options, I took an uncalculated risk and delegated 100% of my very first All Hands to my direct reports. It had been years since they'd all been together in one place, so this was an important event. I challenged them to work together and design an event that would be informative, interactive and inspirational. I warned them that I would essentially just be showing up, and they'd be fully running the show. I then proceeded to work ridiculous hours on making sure the other efforts I was managing were on track.
When my team arrived early to set up for the big day, I was finishing up my last big meeting, which unfortunately ran two hours late, and both meetings were in the same room. This reduced their set-up time to seconds, not minutes, with eager-beavers waiting in line to get in. I prepared myself mentally for a complete debacle, realizing it would be my fault if it tanked, for leaving them in a lurch. Boy, was I wrong. The team didn't miss a beat; they put on an amazing show. The team was engaged, thinking and laughing-out-loud, like never before. Prior to this, I'd experienced my team more as a group of talented solo artists, and here they were working together, as a thoughtful and free-flowing symphony, with all but a standing ovation at the end.
Here I gave them this task out of pure necessity, and they delivered something magical, better than I could ever have imagined. The lesson was on me. I learned to trust that your team has your back, even if they're just getting to know you. That they can take - and even welcome - a challenge. That home runs happen when people are inspired, not over-coached. And that Stephen Covey was right when he said people will rise to whatever expectations you set. I just needed to get out of their way.
Since this day, I've seen my team through a whole new lens. I think we've gained mutual respect and understanding, and see the value of the diverse gifts each person on the team brings to the table. I give them more space, and greater degrees of freedom to lead. In response, they are lighter in their steps, stronger in spirit and leading with a renewed sense of creativity and determination. And me? Well, let's just say, it's not so lonely at the top anymore.
How to build and sustain trust on a virtual team.
Written by Ed Cook.
What is trust? And, why do we want to build it? These may not have the easy answers the simplicity of the questions suggest. Let’s start with trust. We place our trust “in” things and people, like, “I’ll put my trust in this old car,” or “I’ll put my trust in Angela,” or even “I’ll put my trust in God.” We talk about “my trusty pen,” or “umbrella,” or “screwdriver.” But how do we even know we have trust? The one key characteristic of trust is that it is something given, as in, “I give my trust to you.” It cannot be taken or really even earned. The origin of the word itself is from Old Norse and means strength. In giving trust, you are giving your strength to another. A powerful gift.
As to why would we want to build trust, especially in a team situation, the value is clear. The team is stronger. This makes sense if the team is thought of as the collection of connections between the members of the team. The collective strength of those connections are the strength of the team. Building trust is team building.
This definition provides a guide to the activities that will truly build the team. These activities cannot be merely episodes in the life of a team. Although ropes courses and team outings and, yes, even trust falls can create comfort between team members, they cannot create trust. These efforts are more of a quick, sugar high. Tasty but it doesn’t nourish. This is particularly true when the team is working mostly through virtual means.
One of the ways to build trust is for each of the team members to express to all of others the unique value they bring to the team. Then the other members of the team tell that person what they appreciate about them. This Appreciation Exercise is something we have done with many teams and the results continue to surprise us. In a simple exercise like this, people who are normally emotional rocks will tear-up as they hear what others appreciate about them. In many cases, they did not realize the value that others held for them. Trust was implied but not expressly given. A video meeting is a perfectly good way to do this for a team that must work virtually.
This brings up the second way to build trust, use video. Effective human communication relies strongly on audio and visual information not just the conceptual content of the message. So a phone call is better than an email, and a video conference is better than a phone call. Making sure that the message is fully received is certainly important in the giving of trust. How sad it is to mean to convey your trust only to have the receiver miss the message because of the limits of the medium.
The third way to build trust is the most obvious and most difficult. It must be given. Since Trust is a gift, it cannot be earned by the team member on the other end of the video chat. It must be given. In that gift, you are strengthening the team and increasing the chances of your own success. This is the key to strengthening a team...trust me.
How to be a meeting genius.
Written by Ed Cook.
As I step out of a meeting, I wondered nearly aloud: “What was that about?” Yet another hour spent with a group of people, both on the phone and in the room, where NOTHING of any value was accomplished. So much time together, with so little to show for it. And then Ron Swanson (my favorite character from the TV show, Parks and Recreation), ran through my head: “Why don’t people know how to meet?” For those in the know, he actually said “eat” instead of “meet” but it still works.
I wondered why don't people know? Maybe nobody ever showed them? Maybe they haven't experienced a good meeting? With that in mind, here are my Four Guidelines (because there aren’t really rules) to achieve a good meeting.
For those still skeptical that these will make a difference, I ask you to imagine the opposite. People come together, they don't know why, and they are not sure what to do. They do it because others do it. It may be enjoyable but often not productive. To me that's not work, that's playing company. Imagine hearing, “I'll make the agenda!” “I'll get the snacks!” “I'll send out the invite!” Those people are playing, not working. It's silly.
Employ even one of these techniques and you will be a meeting master. Employ them all and you will be a meeting genius.
Practical ways to get you and your team focused, even when you're under stress.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
What do you do when you have so much to get done and your team is just not focused? Let's get right into it...
The first thing to do, of course, is to get yourself focused. What you focus on grows, right? Take five minutes to jot down….
Getting a little perspective helps! You could probably come up with a quick game plan with the answers to these questions alone.
But let’s talk about what to do when the team is under stress. In the best case scenario, the team is stressed yet energized toward the goal. They’re into it! It’s awesome! The worst case is when the stress they’re feeling is leaving them deflated or hostile. Getting a team like that to focus can be particularly difficult and no fun.
When a team is stressed and energized, the main thing to do as their leader is to sustain their momentum and feed that energy. Pick your spots to remind them of the vision -- where you and the team are going and how their work is getting you there -- and stay out of their way. Don’t disappear! Your attention matters. Try not to be a hovering manager but instead a coach on the sidelines -- encouraging and quietly communicating confidence in them.
When a team under stress feels deflated or angered, that’s clearly a different story. Now is the time to separate their emotions from the pressure you’re under.
Here’s what I mean. You probably know in your gut what’s wrong. Think about it. Are people feeling disrespected? Are they tired from running hot for too long? Maybe they don’t understand why their work matters. Or, they do understand but they don’t think their work matters to their leader or the company. Maybe there’s a change in direction that’s really unexpected and very different from the path they thought they were on. The point is to check in with yourself. Looking at things from their perspective, you probably know something about why people are feeling the way they do.
Here are some other questions to answer:
Acknowledging and communicating comes next. Your team needs to hear you acknowledge the problems before they’ll see you as credible and get onboard. It’s time to share your vision for the future and why it matters in terms of what’s at stake. It’s also time for you to declare a personal commitment that you will stick to. And, ask for their help.
This approach may seem dramatic but it’s effective no matter how emotionally charged the situation is. The idea is to tune into what’s happening with yourself and your team, decide how you want it to be and lead.
Sure, you could lay down the hammer instead. You could threaten them (directly or indirectly) to focus. You’re the leader, you can do what you want. But be careful, threatening is not a long-term play. Sooner or later your reputation shows up long before you enter the room. What you do in these moments becomes the content of what people say about you when you’re not there. And, that has consequences for who will follow you, who you attract and, eventually, impacts your contribution to the world.
Creating purpose and meaning in your current job.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
Imagine this: You love your work. You love being absorbed by it. You feel your life’s purpose reflected in the work you do and you can see the impact it’s having. Your family and friends are proud of you and the work you do. They can see why it’s important, why it drives you. Even on those most hair-raising days leaving you completely rung out you still feel deep satisfaction because you know your energy and time is worth the effort.
Nirvana, right? Maybe this is you today. Or, maybe this was you at some point in the past or something you wish for. The question is, how can you cultivate meaningful work?
Turns out even if you don’t have a deep, meaningful connection to your work today, there are still ways to bring meaning into your world of work without leaving your current position.
Like what? Well, you could…
Of course, this assumes you’re in touch with what makes work meaningful to you. If you’d like to explore that a bit….
How can you create meaningful work for your people?
I was surprised by a recent conversation I had with an administrative assistant at a non-profit organization. As part of a meeting series with each member of their 20-person staff, I noticed every person I met with was enthusiastic and highly engaged in where the organization was headed. By the time I met with the administrative assistant (which was after several meetings), I was struck by the difference in energy level and how little he had to share in contrast to the rest of the team. After a while he revealed that he did not feel his work was particularly meaningful (I’m paraphrasing). Exploring this, he said he understood the importance of his role to the organization and he enjoyed working with everyone on the staff. That wasn’t the problem. It seemed to him, though, that all the members of the staff were doing work they were really passionate about. By comparison, his work seemed far less significant. He spoke as if he were resigned to this, as if that’s all he could reasonably expect in a role like his compared with the role others played. He actually seemed demoralized! Clearly, I was not expecting this.
With his permission, I shared my notes with the leaders of the organization. I just knew the leaders would love to find a way to involve him in projects he would find meaningful. They just didn’t know how much it mattered to him! And, that’s exactly what they did.
So, what can you do for your people?
And, to prepare for those conversations, here are a couple things to do in advance and have with you:
Imagine how inspiring this would be for your team to hear you say! People want to feel like they’re part of something important, like they’re making a contribution that’s real. They also want to work for an authentic leader so be careful not to manufacture meaning where it doesn’t really exist. You’ll know in your gut if you’re forcing it.
Doing this for your people may help you discover more about what makes work meaningful for you and what areas to expand. With just a little focus, you can make purpose and meaning become more and more integrated into the culture of your team.
A useful example of change leadership.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
We've all been there. You've been given a task you don't believe in, or you have to make a decision you hate making, or a combination of the two. So what do you do when you have to lead a change you don't like?
Well, the first thing to do is get your mind right. Now is the time to ask yourself what's bothering you about this change? Were you taken by surprise? Did you have completely different expectations? Do you fundamentally disagree with the decision? Is your ego getting in the way? What is it? Put some self-reflection time in to understand why you're not onboard. This self-awareness is useful for managing your mood.
Now think about your people, the people you need to lead through this, the people that are impacted by this change. How do you expect they'll react and why? How surprised are they likely to be? What will they need to understand? What support will they need? Start deciding how you will communicate the change and how you will invest in supporting your people.
Now try some visioning. How do you want this to go, ideally? For you and for your people. Imagine the ideal. Why? Because even though you don't have complete control, you do, in fact, have a significant amount of control over how the change is experienced. You control your own experience of the change, and you certainly have significant influence on how your people will experience the change.
Let me zoom in on this for 30 seconds: If you think the change will be hard then it will be. If you think your people won't like the change because people don't like change, then, as the leader, you've pretty much sealed their fate. If you expect (and decide) it's going to be bad, there is no doubt that it absolutely will be. It will meet your expectations.
If, on the other hand, you decide your experience of the change could be how you envision it ideally, then you've got a much better shot at something great. And, if you envision it ideally for your people, then they have a shot at something better too. Let's just say this: People have thanked me for how a difficult change was handled, a change that had a huge impact on their lives, and that's largely because I started by envisioning the ideal for them and then worked hard to figure out how to make that happen. You can do this. It's hard, but it's worth it.
Here are some constructive tactics:
1. Take stock of what you're most concerned about. Ask yourself, what's the worst that can happen? What would happen if you didn't make this change? What would be the impact in six months or a year? What positive actions can you take to prevent the worst from happening? What could you do to create a positive outcome? Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" -- if you have the book, see chapter 4, How to Analyze and Solve Worry Problems, for a useful exercise. Another great exercise comes from TED Talk presenter Tim Ferriss: Why you should define your fears instead of your goals. Here's a tool to help you clarify your concerns.
2. Decide how your going to show up for your people everyday. Your people are tuned into you, like or not. Your behavior and words send signals all the time about what's important and how things are going. If you're worried, chances are they've picked up on that and they're worried too. My friend Mark Becker (a change expert) always says it's important to check in on your emotions when you're leading a difficult change. He suggests that, for example, on your commute or your walk from the car to your place of business ask yourself how you feel right then. Ask yourself, how do you need to show up for your people? Then make the decision to act accordingly. Remember who you are -- their leader -- and then act accordingly.
3. Start executing strategies to take care of yourself. You're under stress, you need to help yourself manage that. No kidding, don't discount this. How you feel will come across and will only bring you more stress if you ignore it. People around you will suffer because you impact the people in your world. You matter, you are important. Take care of yourself.
4. Get help from a coach, trusted advisor, or mentor to keep you going. Find someone that can be a safe place to talk though what's on your mind, to vent and get perspective. Make it a regular thing. That periodic emotional release will help you find your inner-calm and focus back on what matters most.
This is not an easy thing to do, but you can do this. Once you decide to lead this change well, my bet is you'll already be halfway there.
My inspiration: Back in September 2016 I led a 3-day change management course for a group of HR professionals working for non-profit organizations in foreign countries. Given my heavy corporate experience, needless to say, it was a departure from my usual audience. It was awesome because it was a chance to translate my change management methodology into something that could be universally applied. At one point one of the participants asked what she should do if she didn't believe in the change. Such a fundamental, universal question, and I hadn't covered it! It was good to be reminded that this is a struggle every leader faces sooner or later, and often more than once. It's just part of the deal. The thoughts in this blog are what what I shared in the course.
Putting a protective structure around the members of your team to help them fail and grow.
Written by Ed Cook.
Leaders, who help to develop the skills and capabilities of their teammates, are giving a gift that returns again and again. Giving it, however, is not always so easy. These brave leaders are attempting a process that can be both difficult to do and even damaging if not carefully done. What makes this such a difficult undertaking is that the process of learning new capabilities does not always happen through instruction alone. Often, it happens best through experience. In order to truly grow, people need to try these new capabilities which means they will fail, certainly in the early attempts. Those brave enough to try may suffer loss of credibility should they fail. They may lose confidence as they see the negative impact of their mistakes on others. Decline, not growth, is possible here.
To conceptualize their role leaders can use The Leadership Bubble. The Leadership Bubble is the concept of a leader placing a protective structure around each member of the team, but it’s tricky. Too tight and the teammate doesn’t learn. Too loose and the teammate may get hurt. I first came in contact with the idea of The Leadership Bubble when I was a pilot in the US Navy and had become a flight instructor. A veteran and grizzled instructor, who had taught me when I was a student, passed on his words of wisdom: Students need to fail. This was not at all obvious to me. Shouldn’t our role as instructors be to help the students succeed. Who teaches someone so that they fail? With decreasing patience, he explained to me that we were not teaching, we were instructing and there was a difference. Teaching was about passing on knowledge. Instructing was about guiding experience. Our job was to guide the experience of the student pilots so that they could fail, safely. Failing leads to learning. Defining the boundaries of success and failure provides the students the motivation to continue on. They fail but can learn and see the way to improve. It keeps the process available and possible not mysterious and unattainable. His specific advice was to never let the student fly beyond my capabilities to make a correction and recover the aircraft. Nowhere is this more difficult than landing on the aircraft carrier.
Months later I found myself flying at night with a student pilot, out for her first night landings aboard an aircraft carrier. Through the hundreds of landing I’ve had aboard an aircraft carrier, I never got comfortable with night landings. You are literally flying into black abyss looking at just a handful of lights as your guide for where the ship is. The process pushes against every instinct that exists in the human body for self-preservation. Doing it while a rookie pilot is at the controls is an act of supreme control of raw animal fear. The plane I flew has the pilots sitting side by side like an airliner. The two pilots share the power levers in the center of the console but have their own set of all other controls. As was my habit, I had my hands at the bottom of the power levers and formed my fingers into a ring so that the student pilot could move the power levers easily but would hit my hands if too much or too little power was applied. It was my version of The Leadership Bubble: a physical bubble around the power levers.
As we moved in behind the ship, the student was clearly struggling. The control and power movements were getting bigger not smaller. Near the very back end of the ship in the literal last second before we would “land” on the aircraft carrier, the plane began to rise on the glideslope. The student made the wrong correction and then pulled the power all the way back. This is deadly. The aircraft passed through the mass of air that is disturbed by the superstructure of the aircraft carrier which makes the aircraft settle. That couple with the reduced power had us plummeting into the back of the ship. With screams over the radio to add power coming from the ship, I closed my fingers around the power levers into a death grip and pushed them to full power. We pulled away from the aircraft carrier, and minutes later I flew the plane back around and landed on the ship.
My buddies congratulated me on saving the aircraft. They scolded the student for such a mistake. It seemed over until my old flight instructor came up to me and dropped this bombshell: “Were you holding the controls the entire time?” I told him that of course I was, he was the one who had taught me to do exactly that. With much disappointment, he explained that I was doing it wrong. The idea was to be near the controls not on the controls. I had made the circle too tight. The student pilot couldn’t make small mistakes, so she couldn’t learn. When it came down to a really dangerous situation, she was not prepared, and it was my fault. Fortunately, the student recovered and went on to be a successful aviator.
This incident solidified for me the power of The Leadership Bubble. I had made the bubble too tight. The student pilot couldn’t make small mistakes and learn. I was trying to protect the student but instead I had made her less capable. On the other end, a leader can make The Leadership Bubble too big and thereby not keep their teammate protected enough. It is a delicate and individual balance, but when done right can create significant growth for each team member.
Reflections on a 20+ year career in change work.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
When I first met you my life at work was in turmoil. At the office, people standing feet away from each other wouldn’t acknowledge each other. It was like they didn’t know how so they just filtered each other out. People decided to keep to their friends now that our company had bought a long-standing competitor. There were new people. Worse than that, the new people were the enemy. They were our competition that for years we battled against for clients, awards, big business. We knew them by name and by sight and now they were in our office. They were supposed to be one of us now. How strange it all felt. The new people acted like they were in a foreign land, looking stunned, trying to adjust. It was beyond awkward. I retreated to my office to escape the pressure of those interactions. The rooms and hallways were dense with emotion pressing everything downward. Lots of slumped shoulders, lots of gazes to the floor, just a weight. A merger announced one day and with that all of the joy was sucked right out of our team.
Then I met you. It was in a class I signed up for at school. Change Leadership, it was called. That’s where I discovered you. I had no idea what I was in for. Every week a little more was revealed about you. Each lecture, each reading. The implications of you were incredible to me. It meant people didn’t need to be the victims of inevitable changes that come to the workplace. It meant they could be guided through it, even choose how they wanted to experience it. THEY could be given control of their experience. YOU could do that for them. Incredible.
And, that wasn’t all of it. It was better for the company they worked for too! People adjusted faster, were less distracted, were more productive and resilient. Fascinating! When I finally grasped all that you had to offer I remember thinking I had discovered something precious. Something everyone should know about. Why wasn’t everyone doing this, I thought? That was you, CM.
Bit by bit what was happening at work became clearer. Now I could be compassionate and say what needed to be said. Put words to what was happening. I could try to help us make sense of the transition. You helped me try. I was hooked.
Seventeen years later my commitment to you is impenetrable. Yes, there was a time in the early days when I wondered if this was really a career. Many said I was crazy to pursue you. You won’t last, they said. They said you were too this or not enough that. But I studied you, I persisted, I experimented. I insisted on doing the work and I insisted you were real. I was right.
Some have quipped that it’s too bad the word “Management” is in your name. It’s true, it’s not a dynamic word and does have some negative associations but so does “Change”, frankly. I’ve heard all of the criticisms and, oddly, I feel immune to them now. I’ve earned my point of view. I know the feeling when you’re present and when you’re not present. That’s all the resolve I need.
I could have pursued many other professions. Before you I certainly did. But once you came into my life I knew you were for me. I think like you. I feel empathy through you. I’ve served countless people through difficult situations with dignity and respect because of you. I’ve also helped people discover and create the culture they longed for because of you.
You have brought my life joy and meaning in ways I hadn’t expected. To see the sudden light in people when they realize all you have to offer and that they can do it too. It’s incredibly satisfying. Over and over I’ve witnessed it. It doesn’t get old.
And, your beauty is always evolving. It’s a delight to discover how you adapt to new scenarios and ways of work. Learning is the essence of you.
Not a clear career path? Maybe so. But you have given me a career I feel deeply aligned to and that makes me brave every day, in service to others and for something much bigger than me. Clear or not, for that you are absolutely worth it.
With love and gratitude,
My Inspiration: Last week TJ Rinoski gave a presentation to a group at Gather about the launch of his new magazine Skinny Dipper that's a long-time collaboration / labor-of-love project, years in the making. It's a work of art. Each issue is created with the intention that it be kept, even displayed. During his presentation he talked about it being a love letter to the variety of media art they love. Hmmm..., I thought (made a note). The way he talks about it is inspiring and endearing. Clearly he and his friends care a lot about this thing. The big launch was yesterday. We ordered our copy today.
How to influence workplace politics for better outcomes, both long- and short-term.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
There’s tension in the room. What’s happening here? An executive asks a question and the guest speaker answers. But then the speaker clears his throat. Or maybe he glanced to the side. Whatever he did, it was a sign to dig deeper. Maybe weakness. The rest jumped in with the inevitable attack. This had become standard. The preferred way to behave. Looking for something or someone to blame or some elusive answer to solve everything that had gone wrong over the last six months.
The woman in charge of this weekly executive check-in intervened. She took over the conversation, purposely, so they would focus on her and not the guest. Partially to protect the speaker, but mostly to get their focus on track. “Aren’t we here to make decisions?” To her, the purpose of the conversation seemed pretty straightforward. But it never was. There was danger. It was palpable. Unnamed and unclaimed but real.
People remember moments like this because they are emotionally charged. These moments stand out. Everyone is in hyper-self-protection mode. It’s a time to be clever. Careful. The possibility of changing the behavior of a group like this seems impossible. Just blow up the whole group and start over, that’s one solution. But that’s often just a fantasy. You’re stuck with who you’re stuck with. You can just live with it and wait for the pain to end one day. You could abandon the whole situation by finding another place to go for yourself. There are options.
Can anything be done constructively here?
What if you reimagined the whole thing? What if.....you suspended reality for a moment and imagined how you’d like this group to be? What would you imagine? How would it feel ideally in those meetings?
Having trouble with that thought? Understandable. Once you have a fear-charged memory conjured up it’s hard to replace it with something ideal.
Try this...take a breath and give yourself a moment to clear out that fear. Now...think about the best experience you’ve ever had leading a meeting or leading a team or working with a group of senior executives. What was that like? Okay, time to write some things down -- write down all of the adjectives that come to mind. Just keep writing and writing until you run out of adjectives.
Look at what you’ve written then ask yourself, what made it that way? What was happening? Write down what was happening. Again, keep writing and writing.
Then ask yourself, what did you accomplish because of all that was happening? Write down what you accomplished.
Now, sit back and look at it all. You have this great experience inside you. You know what’s possible because you’ve experienced it. It’s your story, not someone else’s.
Now that you're looking at what you’ve written and remember, ask yourself, what one or two things would I like to apply to the emotionally charged, fearful situation? What would it be like if that could happen? Picture it in your mind.
With that in mind, write down what success would look like for the current situation by completing this sentence, “I’ll know we’re truly working together toward successful outcomes when…” Write down as many thoughts come to mind for completing the sentence. This is what success looks like for you!
Now comes the hard part: The question to ask next is, what must be true to make this happen? This is when it’s time to be really honest with yourself. What do you need to change to make this happen? How do you need to be different? How do you need to think differently about all of the players? And, who’s help is critical to make this vision happen?
There are people to enlist to help you change what’s happening. More often than not you’ll find others want that too. If you are the leader of the group, you have a legitimate position to work from and others will be happy for your willingness to lead the group to a different place. If you aren’t the leader you can still have an influence. Just your presence, how you think about all of the players and holding your vision in your mind can have a positive effect.
There’s much more to do, but this is a solid start. A shift in your thinking alone will cause a shift in others. Things might start happening that surprise you. Your best bet is to be open to surprises. Look for them. Step in when they happen. Hold that vision while being open. Involve others. Pay attention to the negative but filter out what’s not constructive.
We know that work is what you make of it. Of course, it’s hard to remember that when you’re in the middle of the day, week, year packed with work responsibilities. The question is, now that you remember, what’s possible? Even more importantly, what are you going to do?
My Inspiration: Back in 2012 Daryl Conner interviewed lecturer and writer Peter Meyer. It was a fascinating discussion about the difference between using fear or attraction to bring about change. He also shared a practical, step-by-step approach to using attraction. I've been applying some form of his approach ever since. Thanks, Peter! Thanks, Daryl!
As a takeaway, use this and see our Self-Service Tools page for helpful resources.