Leadership – An introduction

Rowena (Ro) Crosbie is the president of Tero International Inc. This is her first IowaBiz blog post.

Leadership is all around us. In our businesses, governments, sports teams, homes, schools andRowena Crosbie
communities. Many of us are called to lead formally. All of us are called to lead informally. 

What is leadership? Who is qualified to lead? What are the qualities of leaders? How do leaders bring out the best in others? What role does hard work play? What about ethics and values? Where does motivation and emotional intelligence fit in?

The definitions of leadership are numerous and the theories about what makes an effective leader are mixed. We do know that leadership is learned and that most leadership happens on a small-scale in everyday situations.   

This blog is dedicated to the subject of leadership and will be published twice a month. Stories, research studies and theories will be presented here. 

Why a leadership blog?

In 1993, I started Tero International with an idea and $200 that the bank required to open a business account. The first Tero office was a spare bedroom in our home. I named two house cats vice presidents of the company. They were my constant companions (at least as constant as you can be when you sleep 16 hours a day). Leadership was simple.

The idea: To provide presentation skills training to professionals who believed that competitive advantage was due, at least in part, to the ability to communicate persuasively and confidently.  It was a good idea in 1993 and corporate education is even more critical two decades later. 

Today the cats are retired, the business has grown and my role has changed. I am privileged to lead a team of professionals committed to helping clients build leadership and interpersonal skills. Like most of us, I have been a work-in-progress in developing my own leadership capacity. Unlike most of us, my job allows me to immerse myself in leadership research, a time-consuming luxury few leaders enjoy. This blog will share insights from both vantage points.

We hope that in this blog you will find ideas, inspiration and a community to help you develop your leadership capacity and improve things in whatever context you lead. For Tero graduates, we hope this blog is a valuable resource to further your professional development.

Learning leadership is a journey that happens over the course of a lifetime and in partnership with others. I look forward to our travels together and welcome your comments, suggestions and questions.

Employees with second jobs

In this economy, many people find it necessary to have second jobs. Reasons for those jobs vary from person to person and are needed for many different reasons. You probably have employees who have second jobs and you may not even know about them. Just because your employee has a second job does not mean they are not happy working for you.

Have you addressed second jobs in your handbook? Do you have a policy which states what kinds of jobs your employees may take? If not, you might want to take a look at the topic. Depending on what your business, is you might want to limit where employees can work part time. For instance, if you are a CPA firm you do not want your employee moonlighting for a tax place during tax season. In some industries it is OK to work in the same field, such as the food industry or healthcare. A nurse is a nurse no matter where they work but an accountant deals with clients. You do not want your clients going to another firm and following the employee.

It is a simple policy to implement and in certain cases much-needed. It also does not hurt to have in your handbooks that employees need to clarify it with human resources when they are seeking a second job.  The point is not to tell them they can’t, but to make sure they are not moonlighting with a competitor and also to find out why they need it.  Remember, they might really need it because of circumstances that you have no control over such as divorce, a spouse losing a job, kids going to college or they want to get out of debt. You need to be fair but firm with them.

-Susan Jones

Working from home

So you are one of those wonderful employers who allows employees to work from home when they want to. That’s great  - from the employee point of view. However, are you really getting the most and best out of your employees when they are working at home? 

There are many reasons to allow employees to work from their home. Convenience for them if they live far away and there is bad weather, or they (or their child) are sick. But how much work are they really getting done? If they work from home regularly, are you certain they are truly devoting eight hours to work? If it’s a beautiful day during the spring, how do you know they are not out planting a garden? Or hanging out at the beach?

Before (or perhaps after the fact now) you make it a regular practice to allow employees to work from home, you need to make some rules clear to them. For instance, checking in, whether it is by phone calls or emails, you need to be able to get a hold of them when needed. You both need to agree on their schedule, whether they will be working mostly during regular business hours or if it will be after hours and/or on the weekend. Both employer and employee need to be on the same page as to what is expected of each of them. 

Having employees working from home can be beneficial for both parties and some occupations can absolutely be done from outside the office. Just make sure you are truly
getting what you are paying for. If you have doubts it never hurts to have the situation evaluated.

-Susan Jones, Owner

JB Consulting

Does your company handbook help you or hurt you?

*Editor's Note: Susan Jones is the president of JB Consulting, a human resources firm located in Central Iowa. Susan has more than 20 years of human resources experience in the industries of insurance, healthcare, accounting, retail and other small business. She is the newest addition to IowaBiz.

Most businesses are under the impression that because they have a handbook which covers the basics, they are covered in all situations. A correct handbook can be a great asset and tool for a business. However, if your business has changed anything -- from adding departments to benefits -- within a year, you need to update your handbook. Also, if you do not have someone who pays attention to new laws and legislation regarding employees, your handbook can get you into some serious trouble.

When putting a successful handbook together, one must be able to look at it from different perspectives. Each employee will read that handbook from their perspective and their situation. Not only does the owner need to put in the basic rules of hours, payroll, benefits, what to do in case of conflict and so on; in today’s society new issues need to be addressed, such as social media. 

A handbook can also be a great way to communicate information to employees. It can include where, how and why the business was started, and by whom. It can also include what is expected of each employee in and outside of work. For a smaller firm in a small town, how someone is perceived outside of work can influence how the public sees the entire firm. Some forward thinking companies also require some kind of volunteer or community service. 

One important thing to remember when putting an effective handbook together is that whatever is in there, you as the employer are expected to abide by. The rules you are willing to bend for your best employee are the rules you need to be willing to bend for your worst employee.

-Susan Jones, JB Consulting
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I suggest you wobble

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933Photo credit: sean dreilinger

David Allen, the guru of organizational skills, says "you have to do something to know something."

If you wait to know something before you do something, likely neither will happen. The development of real knowledge requires intentional activity. As you faithfully move -- your body, your thinking, your spirit... things unfold that would be inaccessible in any other way.

An old proverb reads, "When you stand, stand. When you sit, sit. But most of all, don't wobble."

I say, "wobble!"

The learning is in the wobbles. As kids, we learned to walk and ride a bike through a long process of trial and error. Our enthusiasm and others' encouragement gave us the persistence to stay at the task until we reached our goals. But as adults, we don't like to take that long to learn something. We want to know how, now. So, we often resist taking the time to learn something new because we don't like the feeling of being out of control, looking silly or wobbling.

As a leader, what's one thing you know you need to learn or know how to do to be more effective? Get started. Take action. And when the wobbling starts... and it likely will... be patient with yourself. Focus on what you're learning and not on how you're looking.

You didn't learn to ride a bike sitting in a seminar; you learned to ride by riding, by wobbling.

- Shirley Poertner

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Her name was Dorothy

118218401You have to care enough about someone to learn their name and then -- most importantly -- to remember it.

I wrote down a short blurb from a Guideposts magazine while waiting in a doctor's office a number of years ago written by a woman named Joann Jones. She said, "During my second year of nursing school our professor gave us a pop quiz. I breezed through the questions until I read the last one. 'What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?'"

"Surely this was some kind of joke," Joann thought. "I had seen the cleaning woman several times, but how would I know her name? I handed in the paper, leaving the last question blank. Before the class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our grade.

'Absolutely,' the professor said. 'In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.'

'I've never forgotten that lesson,' Joann continued. 'I also learned her name was Dorothy."

When I think about the most effective leaders I know, one of their outstanding qualities is their interest in others, demonstrated through the remembrance of others' names. I've toured dozens of offices and plants and worksites over the years and I'm always empressed when those leading the tours --usually a senior leader -- knows the names of those working the equipment, directing a work crew, or just waiting for the elevator. And talks with them. And introduces them to those of us on the tour. There's nothing more disheartening than to see a leader in his or her own department stand there and talk about the employees without ever engaging with them.

Saying, "I'm just not good at names" is a cop-out. We don't forget the names of those who are important to us -- our family members, friends, co-workers, team members, or our administrative assistant. Widen that circle. We know we have the mental capacity to remember thousands of names -- everyone on our floor, in our division, at our branch office -- if we care enough to do it.

If you learn everyone's full name and something about them, and do it sincerely, and they know you know them, their impression of you as a leader will be greatly enhanced. And you know what? Connecting in even a small way with those you bump into every day will make you a better human being. Whether it counts toward your grade or not.

- Shirley Poertner



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Who's the most miserable of all?

Cover of "The Three Signs of a Miserable ...Cover via Amazon

We read all the time about how miserable many Americans are at work. We hear about the "Sunday evening slump," when something clicks in the brains of millions of Americans and they recognize the weekend is history, and tomorrow it's back to the grind. Why do so many people hate their jobs?

If you're a leader, you should be especially interested in the answer to this question. Heaven forbid that your employees fall into this funk and go from being a fun and engaged parent on Saturdays to being despondent and grumpy on Sunday nights.

Patrick Lencioni has written numerous books about dysfunctional teams, deadly meetings, and other pitfalls of corporate America. In one of his latest books, he takes on this topic of misery at work. In Three Signs of a Miserable Job, he identifies the three things that make people miserable at work: irrelevancy, anonymity and immeasurement. In other words, people are miserable if they don't see how what they're doing makes a difference -- to anyone. It doesn't seem like their manager knows they exist, and they can't tell how well they're doing unless their manager decides to clue them in with some sort of subjective assessment.

So...step back.

Let's flip the characteristics that reportedly lead to dissatisfaction and look at them from a  positive angle. If I were to ask your employees the following three questions, do you know how they'd answer?

  • How does what you do on your job matter, and to whom? How do you know?
  • How well does your manager know you? How do you know?
  • Are you successful in your job? How do you know?

We talk about employee engagement. Here it is. The essence of engaging the hearts and minds and hands of the people who make leaders successful. They're pretty basic but they take attention and intention.

Through planning and processes and systems, leaders can implement ways for employees to see the connection between what they do everyday and how it matters: to the environment, the community, customers, and even to each other. Embedding metrics for measuring "How I'm doing" takes time but is totally do-able.

Of the three elements of job misery, however, I find that the feeling of being anonymous is the most disheartening. And it can't be faked. Not really. I know of work places where employees can go days without a connection with their manager, not because the manager isn't around, but because the manager is focused on the tasks at hand at the expense of any kind of relationship-building.

What's your take on this prevalent but often ignored topic in the workplace? Does anonymity make people the most miserable?

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What I learned from Great by Choice

BookIn his latest book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins examines why some companies thrive in tumultuous times and extreme environments and why others don't. It's a fantastic read; I highly recommend it.

Collins, his co-author Morten T. Hansen and a team of 20 researchers discovered after 9 years of research that the best leaders were not bigger risk takers, more visionary, or more creative than those who failed to achieve greatness in equally challenging circumstances.

What was it then?

"They were more disciplined, more empirical, and more paranoid," Collins says. But it's not those 3 qualities independent of each other that's the key. It's the combined effect of all three that makes the difference. It's the "and" principle at work. The best leaders in the worst times are disciplined AND creative AND what Collins calls "productively paranoid" -- in other words, taking precautions before the storm hits, remaining ever vigilant, and "bounding" the risk.

  • Who do you think of here locally, in a leadership position, who demonstrates all three of those traits in combination?
  • Think of the leaders we've seen come and go over the past five years as we've ridden out this historic recession. Were those who didn't make it lacking in at least one of those combined characteristics?
  • How do these three qualities apply to leaders within your own organization or industry?

I remember the first time I saw the cover of Collins' book at Barnes & Noble last year and was struck by the word "choice" in the title. Choice? Surely Collins' research doesn't show that some leaders choose to be great, and some not.

As Collins explains in his epilogue, "Greatness is not primarily a matter of circumstances; greatness is first and foremost a matter of conscious choice and discipline." It's about taking action in a disciplined way regardless of what's going on in the markets or the environment. A quote by Ron Serino in Great by Choice sums it up well: "Freely chosen, discipline is absolute freedom."

(By the way, Jim Collins is speaking in Des Moines in June at the ABI Taking Care of Business Conference!)

"We Can Do" and you can too

"You don't really need to be a genius. You just need to work hard and you can accomplish anything."

That's what 14-year-old Moshe Kai Cavalin believes. His new book, "We Can Do," hopes to inspire other kids to do amazing things by focusing and approaching everything with total commitment. He means it. And lives it. He has earned two Associates Degrees since he was 8 and is about to graduate with honors from UCLA. He does more than just study though. He enjoys -- and excels at -- scuba diving, soccer, and martial arts.

Oh, and did I mention he's written a book, published in both Chinese and English, and did the translation himself?

Cavalin is to be commended. Being that focused and committed is not easy at any age. But I bet that Cavalin isn't facing a big mortgage or worrying about rising gas prices. Just how practical, and healthy, is all this talk about working hard?

We can. We do. Everyday. It's about rolling up our sleeves and:

  • defining what's really important to us -- our values. That provides focus.
  • putting in extra time and effort which leads to new challenges and opens new doors
  • committing 100% not just to our own success, but to our manager, our team members, our peers, our organization.

Thomas Edison said, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." Cavalin's been enamored by "overalls" for half his life. You can be too!

The sky is not the limit

No one can put a limit on you without your permission.

Eli Whitney was laughed at when he showed his cotton gin. Edison had to install his electric light free of charge in an office building before anyone would even look at it. The first sewing machine was smashed to pieces by a Boston mob. People scoffed at the idea of railroads. People thought that traveling thirty miles an hour would stop the circulation of the blood. Morse had to plead before ten Congresses before they would even look at his telegraph. Yet for all of these people the sky was not the limit.

In grade school I learned this little ditty and it has stuck with me ever since. "Beware of those who stand aloof and greet each venture with reproof; the world would stop if things were run by men who say, 'It can't be done.'"

Do you hope and strive for the very best, or do you just hope to avoid the worst? Is there some area where you've been your own worst enemy, putting your own limits on success?

Many of us have heard opportunity knocking at our door, but by the time we unlocked the chain, pushed back the bolt, turned two locks and shut off the burglar alarm -- it was gone! Don't be one of those leaders who spend their lives looking around, looking down or looking behind, when you need to be looking up. The sky is not the limit.

Look around your world. Can you see the limits, the "I can'ts or shouldn'ts" that you have created for yourself? Remove just one this week and start to see just how high you can go.

Guilty of innovation pitfalls?

JERUSALEM - JANUARY 24:  Yad Vashem director A...Image by Getty Images via @daylife

In Blueprints for Innovation, Prather and Gundry list five pitfalls to innovation. If you're trying to change a process, create a new product or service, or get your team to think in new ways, check out this list of pitfalls. Are you guilty of letting any of them hold you back? Be honest with yourself. Ask others their perspective.

  1. Working on the wrong problem. You may be expending too much energy on something minor or even something that only you see as an issue.
  2. Judging ideas too quickly. There could be a "nugget" buried within a thought and you'll miss it if you're evaluating rather than really listening.
  3. Stopping with the first good idea. When you explore a variety of ideas, you can more carefully analyze, bring key thoughts to the top, blend the best of the best, and chart the path to innovation.
  4. Failure to get a sponsor. You can do few things in isolation, and innovation is dead without the support and blessing of key decision makers and influencers. Selling your idea to others is crucial to moving them forward.
  5. Obeying rules that don't exist. Know what's written in stone and what you see as true because it's always been that way. Innovation comes from those who think differently.

So what do you think? Recognize any stumbling blocks within that list to your own efforts to be more innovative? If so, focus on how you can eliminate it this week.

- Shirley Poertner

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Feed your back burner

English: Sopa de albondigas or Mexican meatbal...Image via Wikipedia

It's soup season. Don't you just love the aroma of a hearty pot of soup that's been simmering all afternoon when you walk into the house after a long winter's day at the office or in the field? I do. 

Our creative minds work kind 'a like that stock pot full of soup on the back burner of your stove.

The back burner of our minds work in much the same way as the back burner of a stove, slowly brewing a pot of vegetables and broth into a delicious, succulent feast of soup. All we have to do is put each of the ingredients in the pot, stir them up, and then leave them alone to cook, only periodically adding a dash of this or that and stirring the pot.

A soup on the back burner needs to cook slowly; if we cook it too fast, the flavors don't blend properly or we burn the ingredients. The back burner of a stove requires little attention; we can cook something else on the front burner at the same time.

Putting problems and decisions on the back burner does two things according to Richard Carlson and Joseph Bailey in Slowing Down to the Speed of Life:

  • It allows us to slow down to the moment and attend to what is happening now and enjoy our lives.
  • It puts our most creative and intelligent thinking to work on issues that we have no immediate answer for.

We can solve problems with far greater ease if we feed our back burners. Try intentionally setting on your back burner a pot of problems, a handful of possible solutions, facts, and a timetable for when you need an answer. Like the ingredients of a soup, the thoughts you put on the back burner must now be left alone to cook properly while you go about the daily responsibilities of being a leader.

When you revisit the problem after it's simmered a while, you'll find the ingredients have come together in a way that will surprise you. And the solutions that surface will be much different -- and better -- than what you'd have gotten by turning up the heat and rushing the process.

It's like Emil Vollmer, the inventor, said years ago, "The challenge is the thing. I might not get the answer right away. I might have to walk away, have a cup of coffee, but when I come back, the idea comes to me."

- Shirley Poertner

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Is your name Buffett?

Is your name Perot, Gates or Buffett? Probably not. But it doesn't matter. A name and a bank account may open a door, but ultimately the person who walks through it will be measured by his or her core capabilities and actions. Successes in your past may be noteworthy, but it's how you handle each new challenge before you today that continually shapes your life and eventually your legacy.

Think about your current challenges. Answer these three questions:

  1. Has past success made you "dangerously comfortable" with your life?
  2. Can you risk "certainty" to create new levels of competency?
  3. What can you do to re-invent yourself, expand your skills and awareness, and move forward for self-growth?

The old Irish proverb is right: "You've got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was."

Even if his name was Buffet.

-Shirley Poertner

Actions versus words

"Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't," Margaret Thatcher said.

It's the old "actions speak louder than words" philosophy; those who have to talk about their power are working to convince themselves -- as well as others -- that they really have it and know how to use it. But people become leaders in the eyes of others through their actions, not through their job titles or their rhetoric.

When you think of a true leader, who comes to mind? Who inspires you to be part of their team? What gives that person his or her power? What is his or her uniqueness, and how can you put such skills and capabilities to work for you? Alfred Lord Tennyson called power "self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control." An organization can bestow a leadership title, but only an individual can earn it.

Identify one element of your leadership style that you would like to focus on in the coming week. Make a list of 3 or 4 specific actions that you could undertake that would help you hone that element. Remember, it's those actions that make all the difference, not the words!

- Shirley Poertner

Just get up!

Vince Lombardi said, "It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up."

Ever had a game plan that simply didn't work? Have there been days in which nothing seemed to go as you'd planned, no matter what you tried to accomplish or how you worked to move forward? How well did you handle your frustration and disappointment? Did you crumble in defeat or display resilience?

Do you make a practice of taking time to calm down, breathe deeply, reflect and develop a bounce-back strategy? A leader is not defeated or distracted by mistakes; a leader asks, "What can I learn from this? How can it empower me? How is this an opportunity to increase competency? What solutions am I not seeing?" A true leader is responsible for leading people out of disappointments and uses them as a way to rally and involve others in problem solving.

Vince Lombardi didn't say this, but he could have: Don't look to learn from those who win every game, go to the top, and then stay there. Look to learn from someone who has won, lost, and come back to win again. It's what you do when you don't win that helps you win in the end.

Try this: Identify someone you could learn from. If they're local, take them to lunch and ask them for tips and suggestions. If they're from elsewhere, or famous, read their blogs or books to gain some insight into their ability to get up when knocked down.

- Shirley Poertner

Who's driving your bus?

Imagine this: you've got a window in your forehead, so you can look in and see what's going on. There in your brain is a steering wheel, a big ole leather seat, and even one of those hats with a badge on it -- just like a Greyhound bus driver wore in the old days.

My question to you is, "Who's driving?" And the answer we often have to give is, "I've got a hijacker driving my bus!" Every one of us has one kind of hijacker or another driving our bus, at least some of the time.

So who's driving your bus? These hijackers or phantom bus drivers are our old, dependable habits. What each one of us is today, for better or worse, is the result of behaviors that we have repeated again and again over months and years and it is the same method -- repetition and practice -- that we must use to replace the hijackers in our driver's seats with new habits. New habits that are more effective and satisfying and that will drive us to a new and better destination.

Scary as it may sound, what you are or will be at sixty is what you are at thirty -- doubled. Unless you decide to change drivers. Now. No other outcome is possible otherwise, for practice makes perfect. With thirty, forty, or more years to drive the same route hundreds of times, your bus driver will be able to do it blindfolded, without even thinking about it.

Want to adopt new habits? Then take these steps:

  1. Name the old habit you want to change or eliminate.
  2. Clearly describe the new habit you want to adopt.
  3. List the steps you will take to get started and keep going.
  4. Identify right now how you keep yourself from deviating from your new habit at the first bump in the road.
  5. Ask someone to help you stay on course and be specific about what you want them to do.

Wrestle the wheel away from your hijackers! Drive your own bus to where you really want to go, not just to the place you happen to be headed.

- Shirley Poertner

Be the best you can be

Jessica Guidobono said, "Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it. Autograph your work with excellence." When people see your "autograph," what do they see?

An employee went to his supervisor to ask for a raise. "I am already planning on giving you a raise," she said. "Oh, great!" he said. "When will it be effective?" "As soon as you are," she explained.

Do you give your best in your role at work? If a thing is worthy of our time (...and we all certainly dedicate many hours to our professions), it is worthy of our best efforts.

In some of his speeches, Louis T. Rader relates that many top executives feel that a 99 percent effort is good enough. But here is the eye opener. If this figure -- 99 percent -- were converted into our daily non-industrial life, it means that:

  • More than 30,000 babies would be accidentally dropped by doctors and nurses each year.
  • Electricity would be off for fifteen minutes each day.
  • Twelve newborns would be given to the wrong parents daily.
  • 114,500 mismatched pairs of shoes would be shipped each year.
  • 18,322 pieces of mail would be mishandled per hour.
  • 2.5 million books would be shipped with the wrong cover.
  • Two planes would crash daily at Chicago's O'Hare.

Perfection is impossible for us to achieve. But doing and being one's best is not. Texas' first black congresswoman, Barbara Jordon, once said, "Each day you have to look into the mirror and say to yourself, "I'm going to be the best I can no matter what it takes." She never said, "I will be the best." She said, "I will be the best I can."

Think about the effort you put into being the best programmer, the best sales rep, the best leader you can be. How would you rate yourself on a 10 point scale, with 10 being "I consistently give my best" and 1 being "I'm a sluggard."

If your job is a self-portrait of you, are you proud of that portrait?

  • If you can honestly answer "yes," how can you ensure that you maintain that level of effort through the ups and downs of the workplace?
  • If you had to answer "no," what one thing can you do differently starting today that will begin to improve that picture of your and your effort?

- Shirley Poertner


Don't be the bass on the wall

Ever notice that you never see a fish on the wall with its mouth shut?

Opening your mouth can get you in big trouble sometimes. Knowing when to speak up - out of conviction, regardless of the consequences - and when to remain quiet. That's the challenge. It's like teetering on the edge of a precipice. Lean backwards? Or lean over the edge and plunge ahead?

We've been blessed with two ears and one mouth. That's not an accident.

William Penn said, "If thou thinkest twice before thou speakest once, thou wilt speak twice the better for it." My motto has always been, "If in doubt, don't." Saying that phrase to myself in the moment of indecision ("Should I say this or not?") has served me well in the workplace. Seldom have I regretted holding my tongue if that still, small voice inside my head raised a red flag in the heat of the moment.

Can you think of a time when you wished you'd kept your mouth shut because you felt like you ended up mounted on someone's wall for all to see, embarassed and regretful? Think right now of a motto that you can silently say to yourself in those moments of temptation to give yourself time to decide, "Should I say this or not?"

- Shirley Poertner

Bring problems to their knees

Ever heard of Steve Ventura? He's a smart guy. He said, "The hallmark of a well-managed organization is not the absence of problems, but whether or not problems are effectively resolved." Sure beats trying to create a problem-free environment, huh?

Apollo 11, the first successful space flight to land humans on the moon, was off course 80 percent of the time throughout its successful 1969 mission. But thanks to continually making strategic changes and fine-tuning, they reached their goal.

Problems are inevitable and provide the best opportunity for real learning. No one welcomes yet another challenge, but we learn through the experience of dealing with them. Leadership guru Warren Bennis calls mistakes "missteps" that are necessary for actualizing visions and achieving success.

  • When faced with a problem, do you develop and consider at least two solutions? Or three? or four?
  • Are you comfortable with the challenges of "what if's?"
  • Do you consistently look beneath the symptoms to find the root causes?

Decide right now to use your next misstep as a practice field to bring problems to their knees and solve them.

- Shirley Poertner

Don't be a chicken: Fail quickly!

Rooster in grass.Image via Wikipedia

The people who design jet engines use a chicken test. This test fires chickens (usually purchased at the supermarket) at a running engine. They attempt to run this test as early in the design process as possible because if the engine can't pass the test, there is no point in spending additional millions designing it.

Fast failure is acceptable; slow failure is not. But even more unacceptable is NO failure. If you aren't failing anywhere at work, then it's likely that you're not trying hard enough. You are not pushing the envelope.

The following related story may be urban legend but it's a good one. (It comes from David Thielen's, The Twelve Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management.) A British company asked Boeing for one of its chicken guns to test a new jet windshield. After using it the Brits called up Boeing and reported that the chicken went through not only the windshield but also the brick wall behind it. Boeing sent an engineer over to England to investigate. After watching the workers run the test again, Boeing added to the instructions, "Make sure chickens are defrosted before firing."

The point? Identify failure as fast as possible.

  • Sit down and try to come up with everything you're doing that could lead to failure. (It's usually pretty easy to accurately predict all the things that could trip you up. The surprise is usually in which of the predicted items actually did cause the failure.)
  • For each item on your list, figure out how to determine, as early as possible, if this is a showstopper.
  • For each showstopper, don't give up. See if you can find a way around the problem.
  • Only if the problem is truly unsolvable do you kill the project.
  • Oh, and be sure to read the instructions. All the instructions.

- Shirley Poertner

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Hello, obstacles!

Talking To A Brick WallImage by Joriel "Joz" Jimenez via Flickr

Every obstacle introduces a person to himself.

How we respond to obstacles at work is important. No obstacle will ever leave you the way it found you. You will either be better or you will be worse as a result of that confrontation. But keep in mind one important fact about obstacles: every obstacle has a limited lifespan. Many times there are things that we worried about last year that we can't even remember today.

Mediocre leaders tend to be tamed and subdued by obstacles, but great leaders always rise above them. You and I need to be like the leader who, when asked what helped him overcome the obstacles he encountered, responded, "The other obstacles." We should be like a kite that rises against the wind, causing it to fly higher and higher.

What is one of the greatest obstacles that you are facing at work right now?

Lay that obstacle in front of you and take a good hard look at it from a number of perspectives. Flip it over. Turn it inside out if you can. Bring someone else in to look at it and tell you what she sees.

Many times obstacles, given this sort of scrutiny, begin to shrink in size. If nothing else, a number of paths will appear to go over or around or through what might have once seemed insurmountable. And pretty soon, you'll begin to welcome obstacles because you recognize that you're growing in the process of tackling them. Hello, opportunities!

- Shirley Poertner

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Just Believe

Frank Lloyd Wright said, "The thing always happens that you really believe in, the belief in a thing makes it happen." And we know how that turned out for Mr. Wright!

It only takes one idea to change your world. One idea and a trait that all visionary leaders share. Intelligence? A position of power? Charisma? Money? A brilliant plan? We know better, don't we?

The one common component? Belief.

Walt Disney had 84 banks turn down his financing request to create the animated film that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse before bank #85 said yes. Thomas Edison and his buddies tested 10,000 different materials before they discovered one suitable for the filament in electric light bulbs. They just would not give up. They believed.

Now, as a leader you may not have your sights set on inventing a world icon or radically changing the daily life of millions of people. But you are a leader, right? You do have a vision. Are you ready to do whatever it takes to bring that vision to life? Do you believe?

  • What idea do you believe in with such certainty that you know you simply could not walk away from it?
  • What's getting in the way of you making that vision a reality?
  • How could you remove that obstacle?
  • What other obstacles can you anticipate and prepare for in advance?
  • Who could help you?
  • Who would share your vision and belief?

And now the most important question: What are you waiting for?

Start today. Don't give up until it's done. Believe.

- Shirley Poertner

Master the 15-minute meeting

The minute hand at 3, 15 minutesImage via Wikipedia

Want to know something that can make all the difference in a successful day at the office? A must-attend, 15-minute maximum, 8 a.m. meeting in which you surface the day's milestones, needs for assistance, and snafus.

What about when a crisis arises during the day? Call a 15-minute meeting and sort it out.

If you're religious about sticking to the 15-minute-maximum rule, you'll discover you've stumbled across a powerful device that can pretty consistently move the productivity needle in the right direction.

Tom Peters said, "Master the 15-minute meeting! You can change (or at least organize) the world in 15 minutes!"

I don't know about that, but I do know that when people have 15 minutes to get things covered, they get things covered in 15 minutes. There's no room for fat, for pontificating, for unnecessary deference. People learn to state their cases simply and succinctly, which is a valuable, but uncommon, life-skill. Gone are all the small, time-wasting rituals that turn many meetings into endless drones.

The 15-minute-maximum-meeting routine sends powerful messages about action, clarity, brevity and focus. And, oh yes, simplicity, too. Which is another admired but uncommon trait.

Try this:

  • Schedule your first "lightning speed stand-up meeting" in the next 24 hours. And then every 24 hours thereafter.
  • The agenda? (1.) What's happened in the last 24 hours? (2.) What's going on today? (3.) And nothing else. Never go to 16 minutes. Fourteen is just great though. Set the alarm on your Blackberry if it helps. 
  • When you're absent, delegate. Have the meeting whether three people or 14 are in the office. But have the meeting religiously. Make it clear -- as in "What part of 'no' don't you understand?" -- that nobody misses this meeting. Period.
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Hoarding Hinders Success

Silver coins hoard from around 1700, England -...Image via Wikipedia

Face it. Unless your goals are very small, you're going to need help. Or at least some support. Unless you can do the work of the whole team by yourself, both performance and morale are going to suffer. You must quit hoarding and learn to delegate.

Be honest.

  • Do you hoard tasks, keeping your favorite ones for yourself?
  • Do you "throw" tasks at people without an overall plan or sufficient follow-up? And then complain because they never really got it?
  • Do you micromanage because you don't trust others to do it "right?"
  • Do you think it's easier or faster to just do it yourself?

If you answered yes to some of the questions above, you may have a delegation problem. The majority of managers do.

Andrew Carnegie said years ago, "No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it." Wanting all the credit is one thing; wanting to do it all yourself, for whatever reason, is another.

Time is our most precious commodity. There's never enough. One of the main reasons is that managers do too much themselves. They often do too much themselves because of their discomfort with delegation.

We all know cognitively that delegation frees up valuable time. Delegation motivates. Delegation develops people. It gets more done. It's a skill that first-line supervisors are supposed to learn.

Yet, many high level executives still haven't grasped it.

Even senior leaders can be guilty of doing the tactical stuff first and letting everything strategic go until last. And when they do that, they don't have time to develop others. That makes them even more reluctant to delegate work because their team members aren't ready to accept it. Duh!

If you know you hoard tasks and don't delegate effectively, try this:

  • Identify an important goal that's looming for you and your team.
  • Who's most critical to you and the team achieving that success?
  • What are the specifics of what that person needs to know to help achieve that goal?
  • Spend time now with that person and make sure they understand the why as well as the how of the task or project.
  • Then be available to that individual to answer questions, re-direct and reinforce.

You'll find yourself agreeing with William Feather, American author and publisher, who said, "Next to doing a good job yourself, the greatest joy is in having someone else do a first-class job under your direction."


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Frame It Up

Nike shoes.Image via Wikipedia

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region in Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram - or text message - saying, "SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES." The other writes back triumphantly, "GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES."

The frames our minds create define -- and confine -- what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish as new opportunities appear.

Konrad Adenauer said, "We all live under the same sky, but we don't all have the same horizon."

Our minds are designed to string events into story lines, whether there is actually any connection between the parts. These story lines are founded on a network of hidden assumptions, accumulated over time. If we can learn to notice and distinguish these stories and their underlying assumptions, then we can shift the framework to stories whose underlying assumptions allow for new perspectives. Henri Bergson says, "The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend." Even with something as simple as bare feet.

The next time you need -- or just want -- to look at a situation in new and different ways, ask yourself:

  • What assumptions am I making that I'm not even aware of that give me what I see?
  • What might I now invent that I haven't yet invented that would give me other choices?

We can learn to turn HOPELESS SITUATIONS into GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES just by changing the frame around our stories and their underlying assumptions...and never see things quite the same way again.

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Driving Ambition

A cropped photograph depicts singer Elvis Pres...Image via Wikipedia

Elvis Presley said that "Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine." What a sweet ride! Often it's the only difference between champions and losers. As star golfer Nancy Lopez once said, "Competitors take bad breaks and use them to drive themselves just that much harder. Quitters take bad breaks and use them as reasons to give up."

Donna Karan, the celebrated fashion designer and founder of DKNY, started out in the business as Anne Klein's assistant. But she had a dream with a V8 engine. While pregnant with her first child, she clearly communicated her priorities and goals to Klein. She was committed to the company and wanted to have as active a role as she could during and after her pregnancy, as long as her unborn baby's health would allow it. Anne Klein died when Karan's baby was two days old. The company's corporate head asked Karan to take over as chief designer.

Ambition doesn't mean being a workaholic. Nor does it mean being unethical. It's a combination of goal-setting, focus, engagement and competitiveness. On the golf course, Jack Nicklaus was as driven as they come. But off the course, he managed to build a multi-million-dollar business at the same time, raise a great family, and give back to his profession.

  • Who's your role model when it comes to ambition?
  • Is there someone in your company or your family who combines intensity, passion and focus with the ability to hang on for the long haul?
  • How do they do it? Ask them.

On a scale of one to ten, rank yourself on focus, goal-setting, and competitiveness. Your scores will tell you if you're running at V8 capacity or puttering along on only four cylinders.

- Shirley Poertner

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The Selfish Neither Thrive or Survive

A king piece in chess, with three pawns.Image via Wikipedia

After the game, the king and pawn go into the same box.

There's an important lesson there. Though that Italian Proverb has been around for a long time, it speaks to team life in today's workplace. If you want to be a contributing member of a successful team, you have to put others on the team ahead of yourself. You have to see the good of the team as more important than your own short-term success. How are you when it comes to taking a backseat to others? If someone else gets credit for work well done, does it bother you? If you get bumped from the "starting lineup" of the team, do you pout?

Try this:

  • Are there successful teams in your company? If so, ask to sit in on one of their meetings. What do you see them doing that you can immediately apply to your own team? Talk with some of their team members. Ask them what practices have led to the team's success.
  • Make a list of the three most important elements you took away from those conversations. Bring your team together and begin a conversation about how you might change the way you all work together.

Highly functioning teamwork is important. It can also be a matter of survival. Remember the movie, "March of the Penguins." If emperor penguins in Antarctica don't work together as a team, they die. Period. Thousands of male penguins huddle together, providing each other enough warmth to last through the most brutal subfreezing weather. They take turns walking around the outside of the huddle while those in the middle sleep.

Teamwork means survival, and the selfish don't survive.

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Orville Wright Did Not Have a Pilot's License

My model plane!Image by orangeacid via Flickr

Think about it. Orville had nothing tangilbe or framed on his wall to tell him that he could successfully do what he knew he had to try. And yet how often have you said to yourself, "I'm going to build a Web page after I've taken classes." Or, "I'd go for the sales manager job but without an MBA, what's the use?"

Some of the greatest advances in history were made by individuals who didn't know any better. They didn't know they "couldn't" do what they ended up doing.

Ask yourself:

  • "Is there something I'm putting off doing because I think I'm not quite ready?
  • Am I waiting for permission or validation from someone else?
  • Are the credentials I'm waiting for necessary?" 

What if you just stepped out and did it?

Would you fly?

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Let People Be Different

Mind the dip! Ostrich, near Omuramba, Kunene, ...Image via Wikipedia

David Grayson said, "Commandment number one of any truly civilized society is this: Let people be different." And why not? People ARE different!

For some reason, we can be uncomfortable with people and groups different from ourselves, but we find extreme differences within the animal kingdom as intriguing. Think about it. When it comes to survival, the ostrich seems to lack good sense, has eccentric parenting habits, and can't fly even though it has wings. But it can run 60 mph for 30 minutes to survive a predator.

We appreciate that in the ostrich. But equally as remarkable is the bombardier beetle, which survives by carrying twin storage tanks on its back of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone. When threatened, the bombardier beetle mixes those chemicals together, shoots them through a special nozzle and blinds their foe. Now that's also a strategy worthy of admiration.

To survive and thrive in today's global marketplace, it's important that leaders see diversity within their workforce as key. Markets are more diverse. The labor pool is more diverse. And almost every global company's greatest opportunities are in cultures different and more diverse than its home country's. Managing global diversity well starts with understanding and embracing small, local diversity.

As a leader, do you:

  • manage all kinds and classes of people equitably?
  • hire variety and diversity without regard to class?
  • deal effectively with all races, nationalities, cultures, disabilities, ages and both genders?
  • support equal and fair treatment and opportunity for all?

To truly let people be different -- and recognize and embrace and leverage those differences -- you'll want to:

  • understand without judging those who are different from yourself,
  • see people more as individuals and less as a member of a group,
  • recognize your own subtle stereotyping and biases, and
  • be able to make a business -- and personal -- case for diversity.

Differences are good. Mark Twain put it this way: "It is not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horseraces." The same can be said for successful enterprises.

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Is WOO You?

A Sundial by a church wall in Lannion, Brittan...Image via Wikipedia

Raise your hand if you haven't heard of Gallup's StrengthsFinder. Most of us have.

The book, which introduced the concept of nurturing your strengths, came out in 2001: "Now, Discover Your Strengths." Since then, there's been a worldwide conversation about the importance of identifying, nurturing and developing one's strengths, rather than focusing on the difficult and counterproductive task of overcoming weaknesses. Even Benjamin Franklin got it. He said, "Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What's a sundial in the shade?"

Makes sense. And it's a lot more fun than swimming upstream, taking the path of most resistance, rather than flipping over and floating with the current of least resistance.

That's where WOO comes in. It's one of the 34 themes in the StrengthsFinder repertoire. WOO stands for winning others over. Individuals who have this as one of their five greatest strengths enjoy the challenge of meeting new people and getting others to like them. Strangers are energizing if you're high in WOO. Learning the names of others, asking them questions, and finding areas of common interest are fun and exciting for you.

Once a connection is made, those high in WOO are happy to wrap it up and move on to meet new people in new places. It's not necessarily about making friends; it's about making connections.

Sounds like the quintessential net worker in today's speed-meeting, Facebooking, LinkedIn world, doesn't it?

If WOO is you:

  • Be prepared to explain to others that making connections is an innate part of who you are and how you're wired. To those with a lower WOO ratio, you could seem insincere and overly friendly otherwise.
  • Tap your talent for meeting and greeting new people and putting them at ease. You're the ideal person to serve as a greeter at your church! Find a job where you interact with lots of people over the course of a day.

If WOO is NOT you:

  • Don't despair. (Imagine what the world would be like if everyone had WOO as a top strength!) Reach out to someone with strong WOO talents and let them help you expand the range of your network. It'll be a win for both of you.
  • Don't take it personally if those with WOO as a strength are super friendly, but then don't stay in touch. It's not about you. They're just a sundial looking for more sun!


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It's Time to Defrag

A hard disk drive with the platters and motor ...Image via Wikipedia

Plunk down megabucks for a new computer. Still -- inevitably, eventually -- it'll become sluggish.

Frequent use of certain programs and stored documents causes pieces of information to become scattered, making your computer search for the pieces before they can be used. To fix it? You have to run a program that retrieves the pieces and brings them together where they can be more accessible again.This process is called "defragmentation." The secret is sensing when it's time to defrag.

Life's like that. We're all busy people. Like pieces of information on our hard drives, we can become scattered, and overwhelmed by everything on our plates and the constant pressures of being on call at work 24/7. Research on well-being though shows that the best adjusted people are generally the busiest people, both at work and off-work. The secret is they know when and how to defrag.

Harvey Mackay says, "Knowing when not to work is as important as knowing when to." Because this thing we call work/life balance really has nothing to do with 50/50 or clock time. It has to do with how we use the time we have. Here are three tips for defragging:

  • When you work late and have only an hour with the kids before their bedtime, are you there with them in the present tense? Or are you obsessing about something the CFO said to you in the parking lot after work? Focus on the moment. Defrag for 60 minutes.
  • If your worklife consumes you, add things to your off-work life. Seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? Yet research shows that the best adjusted people forced themselves to structure off-work activities into their schedules, just like they do meetings and offsites at work. They schedule time for the gym, they put date nights on the calendar with their significant others, they set aside 30 minutes a night to read mysteries or romance novels, just for fun. They structure in defragging time.
  • Bring your strengths at work into play at home. If you're great with people, start a neighborhood group to fight for a cause. If you like to organize things, volunteer to start up and organize a committee at church. When you're doing what you're really good at, in a relaxed setting away from the pressures of work, you can easily slip into defrag mode.     

Define what "balance" means for you. Then live it. Before you become sluggish and scattered. Know when it's time to defrag.  

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Short, Simple and to the Point

Knife FoxImage via Wikipedia

I've always said that if you can't explain the essence of a project in one page, you aren't ready to head up that project. Or, if you can't hold a powerful feedback session with employees, using  a one-page document outlining what's working and what's not, you have to question whether you deserve to be their manager. What about not being ready to make a group presentation if you can't talk from a 3X5 card?

I'm fascinated with the idea of brevity. So few can do it well. And yet, how do you know what you really think or want to do unless you can narrow your thoughts down to a razor-sharp focus in just a few words. Until you get to that point, I'm not convinced you actually know what you really want.

As an executive coach, I helped a client a few years ago develop the ability to do this. She'd gotten feedback that she was verbose. Her emails and her in-person exchanges were full of excess words and perceived fluff. She became a master at expressing herself with clarity --whether in writing or in person -- in just a few words. Or a few sentences if necessary. Or if need be, a page. Her influence rose quickly within the organization because people actually heard what she was saying, some for the first time.

Bill Joos is a venture capitalist and a marketeer from Silicon Valley. He gets 95,000 applications for funding. He teaches people how to get heard. He and his team at Garage Technology Ventures whittle that number down to 50 funded projects. Bill teaches entrepreneurs how to get heard by nailing the core business proposition down to just seven words. Seven words! Asking for millions of dollars with a seven-word target.
In a recent CBJ Quarterly (Corridor Business Journal Quarterly), Tim Boyle had "The Final Word" and talked about this topic of brevity. He talked about the power of "the six word synopsis," like an NPR-ish sort of parlor game. It's what great trial lawyers do well, he says. They practice "summation," wrapping up an argument with a punch line. Wham! No way the jurors could miss that point!
It's like Twitter-lite. Tim shared a few of his six-word favorites:
  • Text messaging just isn't cutting it.
  • Cancer diagnosis taught me to live.
  • Smart people can overcome their education.

And the six-word epitaph on a gravestone in Los Angeles, "I told you I was sick."

Can you boil the mission of your department down to six words? If you're unhappy with an employee's performance, how would you convey that in six words, leaving no chance of misunderstanding? What's your leadership vision. "In six words, who are you?"

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Work sucks. Fix it.

"Work sucks," according to Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, unless we rebel and do work differently. Unless we do it the way it makes sense. The way it ought to be done in the Information Age.

Instead, we're stuck in this Industrial Age mindset of forty hours, Monday through Friday, eight to five. And it's making us sick, according to Ressler and Thompson -- authors of Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. It's why this sense of dread descents upon most of us on Sunday evenings, about the time that Sixty Minutes comes on. We know, deep down, that what we're about to do the next morning is stupid and unhealthy.

The solution as they see it? They call it a Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE. In a ROWE, people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. As long as someone is getting the results they are responsible for, their life is their own.

Ressler and Thompson wrote their book this year to start a movement, a movement to reshape the way things get done at work. They base their belief that this workplace of absolute trust and treating-adults-like-adults will really work on their experience in the early 2000's at Best Buy Corporate headquarters. They implemented ROWE there and found that:

  • employees are happier
  • company productivity is up an average of 35%, and
  • voluntary turnover rates are down as much as 90% in some divisions.

What do you think?

  • Would a ROWE work where you work? Why or why not?
  • How hard would it be for you as a leader to embrace the idea of trust to that extent?
  • Are there some people who would thrive in a ROWE and others who would fail miserably?
  • Do you already set the kind of clear goals and expectations that tell you whether someone is doing their job and getting the results they're supposed to get?

We all need clear targets and results-statements to be able to do our best work. And we'd all like to think that if we were just given the freedom to get those results as we see fit, we'd do it. However, the fact that so many people leave corporate America to start their own enterprises and survive only a year or two --in spite of being their own bosses and having total freedom to get the results they're after -- makes me wonder: like everything else in life, does a ROWE require an awful lot of discipline, more than a lot of us have? I know, that sucks!



Zebras and Wildebeests

Zebra and wildebeest migration Masai Mara, Sep...Image via Wikipedia

Ah, to be on a dream team! It's what we all dream about, huh? A bunch of people each skilled in his or her own specialty areas, pulling together, accomplishing way more than the added total of each working separately. Companies talk teams all the time, but very few provide the environment for teams to survive, much less thrive. They reward individual performance and undermine the very concept of unity and shared vision.

Unity of purpose is the very backbone of a high performing team. We sometimes think of unity as "sameness." It's actually just the opposite; it's about diversity. And that's where the strength...the backbone...comes in. Ralph W. Sockman, in "The Treasure Chest," said, "There are  parts of a ship, which, taken by themselves, would sink. The engine would sink. The propeller would sink. But when the parts of a ship are built together, they float."

What about you and your team?

  • Do you value and leverage the strengths of your individual team members? Or do you resent that not everyone is as creative? Or as detail oriented?
  • Do members of your team set aside their own interests for the good of the whole? Or are you a group of individual contributors, each vying for the recognition and visibility that belongs to the team?
  • Do you all find joy in each other's successes? Or do you forget sometimes that nobody can achieve the team goal unless everyone achieves the team goal?

While dream teams have all of the talent they need to accomplish a task, not any one member has all of the talent. High performing teams learn how to take advantage of each person's stengths and avoid unreasonable exposure to each person's weaknesses. Members of a dream team talk openly about their strengths and weaknesses. A weakness is not considered bad. The team just adjusts to it and moves on.

In Kenya, both zebras and wildebeests migrate from Masai Mara to Serengeti. Now here's the interesting part. The two massive herds travel together because the zebras have good eyesight, but a poor sense of smell. The wildebeests have bad eyesight, but a good sense of smell. By traveling together, both herds are less vulnerable to predators. Like high performing teams, they're more likely to survive AND thrive.

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Sitting in the Catbird Seat

WLA nyhistorical Cat and bird squeaky toy late...Image via Wikipedia

In his inaugural address, Gov. Terry Branstad told us that Iowa is at the "catbird seat of history." On Jan. 23, on Meet the Press, CNBC's Erin Burnett referred to some political figures "sitting in the catbird seat." It's obviously the place to be. What's that phrase mean for you as a leader? What does sitting in the catbird seat look like for you?

Catbirds, along with their cousins -- the mockingbirds -- are known as the mimic thrushes. The catbird is named for its ability to mimic the sound of a cat's meow. And here's where the "sitting" part comes in. They seek out the highest perches in trees to sing and show off. They're "sitting pretty," as the American phrase goes.

To mimic the sound of one of your most common enemies...that's pretty bold! Like asking for trouble. At the same time, the catbird is smart about where and how it's bold. It will stand alone, take a stand, be bold. But it's strategic in where and how it spreads its message.  

How does this relate to your role as a leader? Where and when do you need to be more bold? Maybe it would almost feel like being reckless in some way. And where and how can you do that in such a way that you're "sitting pretty?" You have the advantage; others can't help but hear what you're sharing. Your positioning is impeccable.

The first mention of Govenor Branstad's phrase showed up in James Thurber's 55 Short Stories from New Yorker, in November 1942:

"She must be a Dodger fan. Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions...'sitting in the catbird seat' means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him." That's the kind of balance we're all looking for, regardless of whom we're leading!

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Cast Down Your Bucket

A metal bucket. Image taken on 2007-04-12 in L...Image via Wikipedia

When someone recommends a new approach, or comes up with an idea that seems really far out, what do you do? Most leaders drop that idea onto the "sieve" in their brains that analyzes new data and a couple of things can happen.

  1. The idea might fall right on through because it doesn't line up with perspectives and philosophies that have formed their "screen" over the years. It doesn't catch. It's dismissed out of hand. 
  2. Sometimes though, because the idea is so unusual in contrast to what's already seen as ok, do-able, or right, it's grabbed up. It's weighed rather than tossed.

The story is told of Booker T. Washington's 1895 Cotton States Exposition address, where one of his illustrations alluded to this need for intentionally weighing an idea that at first blush might seem outlandish.

"A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, 'Water, water; we die of thirst!' The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, 'Cast down your bucket where you are.' A second time the signal, 'Water, water; send us water!' ran up the distressed vessel, and was answered, 'Cast down your bucket where you are.' And a third and fourth signal for water were answered, 'Cast down your bucket where you are.' The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River."

It's especially hardest when we're stressed and our options seem limited to be open to new ways of seeing things. It's easier to let what might be a perfect solution fall through the cracks because it doesn't align with our hardwired options.

When was the last time you caught yourself grabbing hold of a new idea that you first wanted to dismiss? Did it end up becoming your new norm?

P.B. Medawar said, "The human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it." Grab ideas and at least weigh them before tossing them aside. "Cast down your bucket where you are."

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Give Me Five!

Fingers of the left hand.Image via Wikipedia

Americans are sick of partisan politics. Since the November elections, "compromise" is the word of the day.

Not everyone is willing to reason together of course, not if it means giving in on anything they feel strongly about. In fact, it is like some people would rather see nothing happen -- see progress stall -- than reach across the aisle, find common ground and collaborate on a decision. The fact that there's even an aisle at all is problematic!

It is not just politicians. We've all seen results suffer in organizations because leaders didn't know how -- or didn't want to -- dialogue, and then, when necessary, reach consensus.

I was talking with an IT executive the other day and he was telling me about a team-based decision making tool their "scrum" teams use. (Scrum teams. Now there's another intriguing concept. But I digress...) The decision making technique is called Fist-to-Five and it comes in really handy when there is not total agreement on how to move forward with a project. Those times when it's important to canvass all team members' opinions in order to refine the decision and ensure buy-in on everyone's part. When it's not ok to say nothing and then complain later.

Here's how it works: When there's disagreement -- perhaps partisanship -- about a decision within a project team, a cross functional team, a leadership group, a staff committee, even a family, you let people vote using their hands and display fingers to represent their degree of support.

  • Fist: a no vote -- "I need to talk more about this and would require some changes before I could agree."
  • 1 Finger: "I still need to discuss certain issues and suggest some changes."
  • 2 Fingers: "I'm pretty comfortable but want to talk about some minor issues."
  • 3 Fingers: "I'm not in total agreement but feel comfortable enough to go with this decision."
  • 4 Fingers: "I think it's a good idea/decision and will work for it."
  • 5 Fingers: "It's a great idea and I will be one of the leaders in implementing it."

A team is ready to move forward with a decision once they've addressed the concerns of anyone displaying fewer than three fingers.

"Moving forward, making progress." Like "compromise", our hope for tomorrow.

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Leading in a VUCA World

A Radiant FutureImage by Gilderic via Flickr

We've come to expect a business environment -- a world in fact -- that is constantly changing. We get that.

Well, hold on. Because change is just the tip of the iceberg, at least according to futurists such as Dr. Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Remember when a generation was considered to be 25 years? Now it's six years.

The difference today between a 13-year old and a 19-year old is significant: a whole new "generation." That's rapid change!

Futurists like Johansen have begun to describe our world as a VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The term started in the late 1990's in the military and is now used everywhere.

Leaders in this kind of environment have to be at their best on a personal level, self-aware, optimistic, focused amidst distractions, cool, calm and collected under pressure. We used to talk about seizing opportunities. Those windows of opportunity open and close very quickly in a VUCA world and leaders have to be "in the zone" to seize them.

A VUCA world sounds frightening and threatening. But the positive flip side of VUCA is vision, understanding, clarity and agility. Effective leaders in a VUCA world train their brains to:

  • "See the play before it happens." That's vision.
  • Understand themselves first and then others, building empathy.
  • Sense a situation clearly and simply by paying attention to how they pay attention.
  • Be prepared to take action based on alternative realities and unprecedented challenges.

One of the biggest take-aways for me as I think about operating and leading in a VUCA world is the difference between dilemmas and problems. We love to problem solve. However, many problems today are on a gigantic or global scale and are unsolvable. They're dilemmas and can be improved, but not solved. If a situation is a dilemma and we try to frame it as a problem to solve, we're in trouble.

Are you facing any dilemmas in your VUCA world that you've been trying to problem-solve? How's that working for you?

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When "Nice" Isn't Nice

smileImage via Wikipedia

"But he's such a nice guy."

I know you've heard someone say that recently about someone they work with. You've undoubtedly said it too.

What preceded that "But...?" I bet it was something about that person's passive aggressive behavior. Our culture is full of this kind of behavior -- in both our personal and professional lives.

Imagine it. Ed promised that he'd be on time for your team's weekly meeting, even though he's been late the last three meetings for various reasons. You guessed it! Ed showed up fifteen minutes late. Again.

Rather than being apologetic, he explains to the team that he "couldn't help it" because Billy had the flu and had to be dropped off at a different daycare. He lamented, "I'm sorry but hey, the kid is only 4. I couldn't just leave him at home."

The team is disappointed and ticked. You can tell by their body language and you can read it on their faces. Does anyone say anything however? No. After all, a 4-year-old can't be left home alone. You can't argue with that. And Ed is "such a nice guy."

Bingo. An example of classic passive-aggressive behavior. Things (...like meeting ground rules) are sabotaged by the passive-aggressive and it is somehow never his or her fault. They express their true, negative feelings, but in a passive, indirect -- and often hurtful -- way.

A really good passive-aggressive is very "slippery," according to Dr. Tony Fiore. They're slippery with excuses, justifications or alternative reasons for why things go awry. At first glance, they may appear to be caring and considerate, but their actions may turn out otherwise.

Sometimes the behavior isn't overt. Instead it shows up in their words. Sarcasm is often a tool of a passive-aggressive person.

Recognize these?

  • Talking behind the back of a co-worker instead of talking directly to them about concerns.
  • Using labels like on the surface appear playful, but they carry an edge. There's a subtle hidden message in the name calling...and everyone knows it.
  • Exaggerating and whining about someone's faults, but acting nice to their face.

One thing that makes dealing with passive-aggressives so tough is that you're often left wondering, "Is Ellen really devious and underhanded? Or is just my imagination? Is it me, and not Ellen?"

What can you do if you have a passive-aggressive on your team? Two tips:

  • Look for patterns of behavior. Being late for one meeting isn't passive aggression. Being late for four in a row and none were her fault...hmmm.
  • Deal with it directly and respectfully. Explain what you've observed, what you're starting to think, and ask for their reaction.

"Nice" isn't nice if it drives honesty and the truth underground and keeps healthy dialogue from happening. Think twice before using the label "nice" about someone. Make sure "nice" means nice.

Shut Up and Listen

Various ear piercingsImage via Wikipedia

Listening means you've got to stop talking.

It never ceases to amaze me how few leaders really listen. I mean really listen. I had lunch with a guy the other day who's been in a leadership role -- a CEO -- for over a decade now. If he consumes as much of the air time with his employees as he did with me over a sixty-minute lunch -- and I bet he does! -- his organization can't be performing at its best.

Robert Sutton, a professor in Stanford's department of managment science and engineering, wrote "The No Asshole Rule" back in 2007. He's followed that up with Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best...and Learn from the Rest. In an interview in INC. magazine in October, Sutton was asked about the right balance between talking and listening.

He said, "On one hand, there is the blabbermouth theory of leadership. In Western cultures, the person who talks the most is viewed as having the highest status...But most bosses ought to shut up and listen more."

Do you have a listening problem? Sure, you know about paraphrasing, not interrupting, listening for underlying meaning. But do you do them? Or, like most of us, are you a selective listener? You listen intently to some, neutrally to others and not at all to yet others. Now think:

  • Who do you listen to? Who don't you listen to?
  • What factors determine the difference?
    • Smarts?
    • Age?
    • Gender?
    • Level?
    • Like you/not like you?

I challenge you to challenge yourself to practice listening to those you don't usually listen to. Listen for content. Separate the content from the person. Work hard to see and hear, and thus acknowledge the other person's humanity and their need to be heard.

Remember, listening doesn't mean you accept what's been said or even that you accept who said it. It just means that you've stopped talking and you're listening.

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