Critics and Allies

By: On November 28, 2017

If you’re a leader, you’re going to spend the vast majority of your days in meetings. Leaders spend most of their time with others wrestling with tough issues that couldn’t be solved elsewhere and creating a future that no one person could achieve alone.

So, quick: think about the next meeting on your calendar with colleagues at work. When you walk into that room, what will you encounter?

If you’re like too many organizations, that room will be packed with critics. They’ll be impatiently waiting for you to shut your big yap so that they can tell you what’s wrong with your ideas. They’ll relish playing devil’s advocate as if the devil needs any help these days. For every point you make, they will bring a counterpoint.

Even in a room of critics, you can be an ally

If you want to kill a meeting dead, follow the Critic’s Creed:

  • Indulge fantasies of punching, spitting, or escaping the meeting.  You’re activating the reptilian part of your brain. It mostly wants to survive and sit in the sun. It’s guaranteed to escalate or freeze out any real conversation.
  • Hide what you really think and want. This will make everyone wonder what your real agenda is. Your colleagues will watch their backs, their heads on a swivel. Which you think is fun to watch.
  • If you do say something, blur the distinction between data you see and how you interpret the data. Mash it all up so that people exhaust themselves trying to figure out how you got there!?!? That will wear them down and get them back to swinging their verbal fists. Which is what they always wanted to do anyway.
  • Spend a lot of time arguing about who owns what responsibility. Everyone knows deep down that these arguments are really about who gets credit when things go well or blame when they crash and burn. In case they got lax, the self-preservation instinct triggered by this topic will get everyone watching their backs again. #awesome

Critics practice this creed because they’re afraid of losing a zero-sum game they’ve invented in their own minds. They can’t see an alternative of working with others instead of against them. Unconsciously, Critics have adopted the belief system of what Wharton professor, Adam Grant calls Takers.  You don’t need me to tell you that if your culture is dominated by Critics, it will kill innovation and stifle the development of your next generation of contributors. Who would dare trot out a vulnerable new idea or stick their necks out to lead if they’re going to get slaughtered by the Critics?

A room packed with Allies is very different. Don’t get me wrong, Allies aren’t soft. They’re hard as nails on the problem you’re working on together. But they’re soft on the people. Instead of sitting across from you, arms crossed, ready to shoot down your ideas, they’re sitting next to you saying, “Tell me more. I didn’t see it that way. Maybe together, we can make something better happen.”

If you want to bring a meeting alive, follow the Ally’s Action Plan:

  • Monitor what’s going on in your mind, especially your reactions to others. If you find yourself getting angry or wanting to avoid this conversation, use that reaction as a trigger to ask your brain a question that the reptilian brain can’t answer. Something like, “what might lead a rational person like this colleague to hold that point of view?” Give the idea the benefit of the doubt, and forget about whether or not the colleague is rational. It’s an insignificant consideration.
  • Reveal what you think and what you really want and maybe even why you want it. Critics hide what they want to keep everyone off balance. Instead, put your cards on the table because you trust that you’re Allies and that there’s a really good chance you can reach an agreement or a better idea.
  • When you speak, use the four magic words. This will help others separate what you see from what you believe. It will also help them build on your ideas.
  • Align yourselves on the shared outcome you’re trying to achieve and how each party in the room can contribute to shared success. Spend extra time understanding where different parties must cooperate well and quizzing each other on what each of you must do to make the other successful. Make realistic and value-enhancing agreements – and then deliver on them scrupulously.  

It’s much easier to be a Critic than to be an Ally. It’s much easier to complain about the lousy meetings you have to endure than do your part to make them really productive. If you’re an Ally, you get on the same page faster. You agree to action faster. You learn and adjust faster. You do all of it with less wasteful friction and more creative tension. Put a bunch of Allies together in a culture that values that sort of constructive behavior and you’ll end up with more creative output and more commitment to everyone keeping promises.

And yes, if you’re an aspiring Ally stuck in a Critic culture, you can still make a difference. You have your own sphere of influence. You can find other Allies and do everything possible to work with them. You can model Ally behavior knowing that some current and potential Allies will find you.

At the very least, you will become one of those people about whom others in the organization will say, “She’s a tremendous colleague. We do our best work and feel best about ourselves when she’s involved.” That has potential for influencing others to come out of the shadows and join you.

 

Be Bright

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Four Magic Words To Make Your Next Meeting Productive

By: On November 7, 2017

You probably hate meetings. But if you’re a leader, the fact is that you spend most of your time in meetings. This isn’t going to end. Stop lamenting that you want to get “real work” done. Most of your real work happens in a meeting. Which means you need to become an expert at how to have good conversations, mostly about understanding and solving big hairy problems. The easy challenges get dealt with elsewhere.

And yet most business conversations are horrible. I know. I spend my life trying to facilitate them. They’re lousy at least partly because most of us don’t know the four magic words. Here they are:

  • “Here’s what I see…” – Listen to your colleagues in the next meeting. How often do they separate the inputs they’re taking in from the opinions they’ve formed? I’d guess not very often. Instead, many people make assertions which lead to counter-assertions which lead to rabbit trails and defensiveness. Eventually, the meeting’s time runs out and you’re saved by the bell. Except that there’s been no progress on the issues and you probably like and respect each other a little less. So start by clearly stating the inputs that shape your perceptions. Start by saying, “Here’s what I see…” and specifically calling out where you got your data. “Here’s what I see” statements should be followed with:
    • Performance data and trends
    • Outside sources or research
    • Direct observation
    • Even anecdotes. No they won’t carry as much weight as data but at least you’re separating inputs from outputs.

Come to think of it, that leads to four more words.

  • “Here’s what I think…” – Your perceptions ought to lead to some conclusions or at least a few hypotheses. You’re largely paid to think, so you’re expected to draw conclusions. You may be anywhere on the continuum of certainty from hunch to conclusion. Even that is useful to share since it tells your colleagues how firmly you hold your beliefs.

Since your perceptions are limited and your thought process may be flawed, I guess this could lead to another four words.

  • “I could be wrong…” – When you pair conviction (“Here’s what I think”) with humility (“I could be wrong”), you remind yourself and others that you’re not God. Which is never a bad thing to remember. You acknowledge that every great idea is born immature and needs help to grow up. You signal that you want others to join in. The music of real conversation begins to play.

Snap! This means maybe there’s yet another four-word set to get us to a great meeting:

  • “What do you see?…” – Now you’ve turned what could have been a monologue into a conversation. You’re dancing instead of boxing. Watch out. Something creative may happen. Worst case scenario, colleagues will understand your view and will perhaps feel free to agree instead of feeling drawn to a stalemate.

These magic words simply put an open mind into action. And open minds trump closed ones when you want to get things done.

So maybe your next day of back to back meetings doesn’t have to be miserable. Maybe you can help those meetings become productive, creative, and even *gasp* fun. It just takes four simple words…

Be Bright.

I’m Sorry… But I’m Not Sure How to Say That

By: On October 30, 2017

Elton John was right all those years ago: Sorry really is the hardest word. At least, it’s hard to say without coming off lame. Ask any number of public figures who have tried and failed recently.  “I’m sorry if you were offended,” is probably the most commonly used lame apology. In England where I lived for a couple of years, this poor excuse for an apology usually sounds like “we’re sorry for any offence caused,” making it sound like some shadowy third party caused the apology. Not me. Not us.  

I’ve done my share of poor apologies and I’ve seen the look of confusion, outrage, or just numbness on the other person’s face.  Not long ago, I got on a roll in a meeting and steamrolled a younger member of a client team in front of a larger group. Though I was factually correct in what I said, I was quite simply an ass in how I said it. I knew it immediately by the way the shades came down over her face. She went from engaged in the conversation to checked out, just waiting for this middle aged dude to get out of her face so that she could get back to doing something useful.

I faced that choice we all face when we realize we’ve been a dope. I could ignore the injury, make a lame apology, or do the hard work of repairing the relationship. In the heat of the moment, I chose a mashup of ignoring and lame apology. And that’s why the shades didn’t only roll down but got locked in place.

In truth, I didn’t mean to offer a lame apology. I just didn’t want to say I was sorry for everything that had happened. In my mind, my intent in the situation had been noble. I was trying to be sure that my client’s group made a solid decision. And while falling on my sword in front of that group might have mollified this woman, my “I want to be honest and correct” brain repelled the idea.

Soon I was the confused one. What started out trying to be both conciliatory and honest ended up just being awkward. Which made me want to shut my big trap and not bother apologizing at all. Ever again. To anyone. So there.

I knew swearing off apologies was probably not the best idea. Instead, I went to my live-in marriage therapist – who happens to be my wife – for advice. She has a lot of experience with lame apologies, both mine and those of clients stumbling through apologies with their life partners. How, I asked her, does a dude actually get across an apology that is both effective and honest?

She smiled at me knowingly and said, “Why that’s simple. But not necessarily easy. You might want to take notes.” Well, then.

What follows is my cliff notes version of how to apologize like a decent human being. Note: My color commentary is not Therapist-Approved. I apologize in advance to The Therapist for any liberties taken. I’m just a dude.

  1. Invite the other person to tell you the pain caused by the event. You’ll be about as excited to do this as to visit the dentist. Buck up. Unlike your trip to the dentist, resist the urge to ask for laughing gas. Put on your big kid pants and embrace the pain. In my client situation, this looked like, “It looks like maybe I did something that shut you down. Our working relationship matters to me and your input matters to this group, so I’d like to hear your side of the story.”
    • Pro Tip: When you start this conversation, be very careful to separate what you can observe from what you’re inferring. Avoid saying something like “You’re really upset,” since the other person might start arguing with you about whether or not they’re upset. While perhaps amusing, this argument would be a waste of time. “The expression on your face makes me wonder if you’re upset,” is safer. Unless that’s how they look all of the time. Then I wish you good luck. Buckle up for the ride.
  2. Listen carefully, almost curiously. Try to understand what the other person’s core response to the event was. Usually it’s some version of fear, sadness, or anger. The more I listened to my client, the more I started to see her core response. When you cut through the noise, she was saying, “I’m a younger member of the team and when someone older and more powerful steamrolls me, I may as well not even be here. It confirms what I suspect is true most days anyway – that my opinion just doesn’t count.”
    • Pro Tip: Don’t tell the alpha male/female in the room that they’re really afraid or sad. They won’t want to acknowledge that they ever feel those emotions, especially not at work. Instead, give them time and space to say out loud what they’re upset about. Notice where they may feel threatened or like they lost something important. Tuck that away in the back of your head.
  3. Try to show you get the other person’s point of view by replaying in your own words what happened and why it matters to the other person. Be as factual as possible. With my client, I had to try something like this. “It sounds like you want your opinion to be heard and treated as valuable in this group – especially since you’re younger and newer than the average team member.”
    • Pro tip: Don’t say things like “I made an innocuous little comment and you totally overreacted.” Those are judgements and even if they’re true, you’re just asking for a smack to the kisser.
  4. Express true remorse for what has happened. This basically looks like saying, “Your interests matter to me. I care that you feel this way. I can see how my actions led you to react that way. I regret that and I want to help us move forward.”  In my client situation, this looked like, “I get it. I can see how I made you look bad in the group and I’m really sorry about that. While I didn’t mean to do that, I own that my actions had that result.”
    • Pro Tip: It’s a bonus if you can say something like, “I feel  ______ about what happened.” As long as _____ isn’t something like “smug” or” justified” or “exultant.” Try something on the sad spectrum like unhappy or disappointed. Or on the embarrassed spectrum like sorry or foolish. Unless you’re a drama king/queen, leave crushed, heartbroken, and tormented for your romantic relationships.
  5. Work on the outline for a future, happier story with your colleague. Ask, “When we encounter a situation like this again – because we will –  how should we handle it?” With my client, I could try something like, “Sometimes I get on a roll in a meeting. Can we work out a signal you can give me if I’m shutting you down?”
    • Pro Tip: You don’t have to agree to whatever comes out of your colleague’s mouth. Treat it as a brainstorming exercise where you’re on the same side of the table trying to figure out a better way to approach a challenging situation. After brainstorming a few options, you can choose those that work for both of you.

You might be wondering, if it’s so simple, why is apologizing so difficult, especially for leaders? Maybe it’s because most leadership teams have unwritten rules about admitting you’re wrong. Being wrong is seen as weakness. And weakness is dangerous in a competitive environment where your status in the group – and your ultimate value in your work world – ride on being right and winning.

This makes constructive apologies really difficult. It means asking your brain a question that the reflexive “I want to smack this person in the nose” part of your brain simply can’t answer. Something like “what legitimate goal is this person really trying to accomplish here and how can I help them get it?” works pretty well.

You might also be saying, “But I had to do what I did! It was the right thing to do and I’d do the same thing again if faced with a similar situation. I can’t always make everyone happy.”

Yup, this happens plenty. However, it doesn’t prevent you from sincerely saying “I’m sorry that my actions hurt/angered/inconvenienced you. There are plenty of reasons why I took those actions but they probably don’t matter to you right now. And I want you to know that I’d never intend to hurt you. ”

As uncomfortable as apologies might be, we should wrap our arms around these situations and give them big hugs. Apologies are a sign of acceptance that something went less than perfectly. Well-handled apologies teach a team that they can be imperfect and it will still be OK. All of the best research on productive teams says that they work better when team members don’t fear being wrong. Creativity blossoms. Transparency increases. Outcomes improve because team members don’t hide.

      

Pride goes before a fall. Humility, perhaps best exemplified by the ability to apologize well, goes before trust, authenticity, and success. Build those practices into your leadership team and you’ll be able to face just about anything head on. Over time that will create a sense of momentum that will be contagious to all who come in contact with you. You’ll also become the kind of person who you’d want on your own team.

Who knew that being wrong could be so useful?

Be Bright.

Are You Starring in Leader Theater or Are You Building a Team?

By: On October 17, 2017

Karen sits in her office, slightly baffled. She’s in the middle of a major change initiative designed to dramatically improve her company’s cost structure. All along, she has been out in front of this initiative, explaining it, selling it, cheering for it. She made promises to the board.

But the results are stuck. Instead of moving up and to the right, the trend lines are flat. She walks into the executive board room and sits at the seat unofficially reserved for The Big Cheese. Around the table are key members of her organization: the CMO, CIO, VP of Sales, and head of operations. Everyone is smiling and nodding as her chief of staff opens the session.

And then this happens…

What’s about to happen is predictable if not particularly productive. It’s Leader Theater complete with assigned seats, scripts, and an open caffeine bar.

In this highly staged art form, the team members carefully tell The Big Cheese exactly what they want to hear. Sure, it would give the crowd a bit of a buzz if someone broke from role or fluffed their lines. But that’s hard to do. The group has rehearsed this bit of stagecraft for a long time. They’ve studied their characters so much that they’ve actually started to become these characters. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t tell your boss the truth at work. (Or should you?)

You might be tempted to think that the team members are cowards. I don’t think so. I think they’re smart. They know there’s a script.  Big Cheeses love it when you follow the script. They can get a little testy when you don’t.  Here are the cue cards people see the Big Cheese lay out.

  • It starts with the entrance and place on the stage. They sit at the end of the board room table. If they’ve watched too many mobster movies, they choose a seat with their back to a wall, preferably where they can see the door. There will be no surprises.  
  • The Big Cheese asks questions like, “Don’t you think people are really on board with the direction we’re heading as a company?” These questions have obvious right answers. Given the power difference and the public forum, who is going to take The Big Cheese on?
  • The Big Cheese talks without listening. It’s clear that there is a stump speech that is meant to pump the troops up. All visible signs in the past five meetings using that speech have been positive. So The Big Cheese stays in safe territory, hitting key points, watching the heads nod like a table full of bobbleheads.

In the unlikely event they make a subtle appearance at the show, The Big Cheese resolutely ignores reactions like fear, sadness, and anger. Privately, The Big Cheese is not quite sure what to do with these primal emotions other than ignore them so that things don’t slow down and get messy. Lord knows, they have enough mess in their life already. Better to avert the eyes.

This script, all too familiar to many of us, is just a symptom of a leader who has forgotten a fundamental organizational reality. My friends Eugenio and Kevin from Quarto Consulting call this phenomenon The Cloudline. Like a tall mountain, any organization will feel different depending on where you sit in the organizational structure. Those at the top are often above the cloudline. Things are clear. The sun shines. Yes the air is thin but you can see for-e-ver. Farther down the mountain, there’s weather – clouds, rain, mud. If you’re lucky, you can see your hand in front of your face.

When The Big Cheese refuses to descend into the weather – to slow down, to notice, to be curious – she’s missing out on the reality that most of the organization experiences each day. She may enjoy the sunshine, but she’s going to be pretty lonely up there. It will be hard to get things done. Once she leaves the room, everyone will exit stage left and go back to everyday life, pleased that they crushed that little scene of Leader’s Theater.

This is how so many leaders get nasty surprises. They leave the room thinking everyone is on board only to find out later that people were just reading from the script. Too many strategies die as a result. Too many organizations make less of a dent on the world. That, to paraphrase a certain Big Cheese, is #sad.

In case you’re feeling a little smug right now, wondering if you can cleverly forward this post to a Big Cheese in your world without getting fired, pause for just a moment. Chances are, you’re a Big Cheese in some arena of your workplace or personal life. Maybe, like me, you recognize a little Cheesiness in your own approach and behavior.

If so, the prescription is simple, though not easy:

  1. Slow down and come down below the cloudline. You can’t descend safely without reducing speed. Next time you’re leading or attending a meeting as a Big Cheese, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that speed kills.  Think through who is going to be there. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “How would I see this situation – and me – if I were in their place?” Based on what you discover, be ready to answer the normal questions they probably have about you and this situation as a way to open up the interaction. It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.
  2. Notice what you’re noticing. As you interact with others, take snapshots of the scene. Look for things that stick out to you. Then look one more time for things you might have missed on first inspection – a person’s expression, their fidgeting when you say certain things. Avoid judging, fixing, or even pointing out what you see. Just log it away.
  3. Be curious. Ask at least one question for every statement you make. Make them questions that do not have obvious answers. Questions like, “Help me understand what you’re seeing.” or “What would have to be true for that idea to be truly great?” are curious questions. When a response signals that another person may care more about a topic, gently dig into it simply to understand. Yes, this means you may have to wait minutes, hours, even days before you give your counterpoint to their point. That will be time well spent.

This may feel like it’s going to slow you down. But it’s almost always another example of the old wisdom, “When you slow down, you go faster.” Because avoiding Leader Theater will allow your team members to show you things you may otherwise have missed. Those perspectives are likely key to your organization’s success. That’s the kind of show we all want more of.

Be Bright.

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Is Your Team a Momentum-Maker or Momentum-Killer?

By: On September 18, 2017

Ben has a problem. He just took over the leadership of a company that until recently had been on a bad losing streak. Two years ago, the board brought in a turnaround artist who used a combination of hard work and brute force to arrest the decline.  As a result, a large portion of the current leadership team is new to the company. The good news is that they think of themselves as a collection of winners, pulled together with various experience to reverse their company’s fortunes. You can feel it in the nervous tension in the group. The bad news is that they aren’t winning as often as they should.

Ben thinks through what to do in his first few months as CEO. He knows his team members want to get moving, to get things done, to create results. Their instinct is to do something. Ben knows the typical tools used to get an organization rolling; restructuring, incentives, public floggings, optimistic road shows. He’s skeptical that these moves will work here. He’s no rookie. He’s seen what happens when you try to manipulate an organization. Smart people check out or become completely self-focused just when you need them to care about customers, the company, and most important each other.

While there are structural issues to address, Ben’s gut tells him that he needs to get his team together and do something, but it’s something that they’re going to hate: work on how they interact as a team. Without this, they can restructure all they want but the magic still won’t be there. He can imagine the thought bubble above the heads of many team members: “A kumbaya session? What does any of this have to do with getting results for our company?” He gets it. It’s a thought he remembers having at points in his career too.

From hard experience, Ben knows that there is often a strong connection between how his team works and the results they’re going to get. When his past teams were able to work through challenges without having it get personal, they could tear apart a miss in the last quarter’s numbers without damaging drama. When those past teams carried relational baggage, even deciding where to hold the next year’s sales meeting got sporty. Forget about dealing with the really tough issues that drive performance. You could almost feel the wind come out of those organizations’ sails.

Ben knows a secret that many leaders don’t grasp:  Leadership teams are responsible for managing one of the most elusive commodities in the world: momentum.

Momentum is the degree to which your people sense progress, excitement, and confidence in what’s happening. You know you have momentum when people are going the extra mile for each other, watching each other’s backs, and resiliently handling setbacks. You know it’s missing when everyone is looking out for themselves and maybe looking for a job in their spare time.

Momentum is either working for you or it’s working against you. If it’s working against you, you probably feel like you’re running in quicksand while banging your head against the wall. Which is a lot of fun if you’re into that kind of thing.

Sure, you can fake momentum. That’s called hype. It works for little while but it’s not sustainable. Once exposed, hype gives your credibility – and the company’s – a mortal wound, after which you will need to brush up your resume because the ship will likely sink.

Here’s how leadership teams – and how they work together (or don’t) – affect organizational momentum. This explanation builds on thinking from Mike Blansfield via Marvin Weisbord who first articulated these observations. Hats off to my colleague Mark Demel for making the ideas visual.

 

Like many things in life, momentum works in a self-reinforcing cycle.

  1. In an organization that’s stuck in neutral or going backward, the trigger event for another trip through the cycle is usually some sort of result. Usually it’s a crappy result. Profits are down, quality is poor, maybe a video of a customer being dragged out of your place of business after losing teeth at the hands of your staff goes viral. You get the picture.
  2. This trigger forces you to examine how things are getting done, or perhaps not getting done. As a leadership team, you need to look at plans, systems, processes, policies, structures or people. Probably a little bit of all of that. You’re on the hunt for the real issue.  In itself, this is not bad. In fact, a really good team does this well and gets to the root of the issue as quickly and deeply as possible resulting in useful course corrections. But pity the leader whose team has poo-poo’d the human stuff. Because right now, at this moment of trying to optimize or fix the business, that willful ignorance will be exposed.  Just try searching for ways to fix a business – especially one in any sort of crisis – when there isn’t a solid level of trust, openness, and shared understanding. Get ready for some totally awesome Leadership Team Theater as team members posture, attack, defend, and hide. You’ll be able to hand out Emmy awards but the problems will be obscured behind the drama.
  3. That’s because every team member is constantly asking a few questions about their participation in their leadership team. Yes, that includes your leadership team.
    • Am I in or out around here?–  Do people accept me and include me? Do I have to watch my back or do they have my back?
    • How are power and control handled here? – Team members often loathe the fact that they aren’t in total control when in a team, especially leadership team members who often crave control of their own destinies. The real question is who wields power and do I have any influence over what happens here?
    • How are skills and resources handled? – Everyone wants to make a contribution. At least everyone who deserves to be on your team. They wonder whether they’ll be given the resources so that they’re able to make their best contribution. If not, talented team members want to take their skills elsewhere.
  4. When leadership team members can’t answer those questions positively, cue the Leadership Team Theater. Your fundamental business problems will go unsolved. Maybe there will be a cosmetic fix, but nothing that’s going to reverse the momentum in any long-term way.

That cycle of failure leaves team members – and the rest of your organization – deflated. They’re less confident in the ability of the group to make good things happen. They’re less confident in their own ability to influence the group to make good things happen. Momentum sags.

But flip that story around.

  1. Imagine a leadership team that invests in the human side of their work together. Ideally, they’ll do this before they’re under the gun although there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. Imagine they work hard to answer the perpetual team questions positively so that each team member can say:
    • I’m in. People value me and my contribution.
    • I can influence things around here.
    • I can make a contribution here. I have the resources to do my best work.
  2. They can address the fundamental drivers of the business with gusto. Trust, openness, and a common understanding of where we’re going – and why it matters – are going to reign. No, team members do not have to be best friends. But they buy into the team’s core purpose and their place in it.
  3. Do that long enough and deep enough and results start to improve.
  4. Pretty soon, the team has a growing confidence in the collective and in their own individual abilities to get stuff done.

That team is going to have some serious momentum. That team is going to leave its positive mark on the world. Ben wants that team and I’ll bet all of us want to be on that team.

What’s the next step you can take to build momentum on your team?

Be Bright.

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Where Passion Comes From

By: On September 11, 2017

Why do you do what you do?

I was with an executive team recently and found myself silently channeling Simon Sinek, asking myself that question about these people: Why do they do this job? Their company provides a service aimed at helping families who earn $50K or less each year make the best of their financial situation. This is a serious, for-profit company;  I didn’t need to see their compensation reports to know that everyone in the room made much more than $50K per year.

What attracted these well-dressed executives to this business? Was it pity? Boredom? Worse yet, opportunism?

Many team members were relatively new to the company so we spent some time sharing life stories around the table. A pattern soon emerged. As people told stories about their backgrounds, we heard about their own experiences of living with limited means. One had a parent leave when she was young, throwing her family into a prolonged period of economic hardship. Another had a family business go bust;  he went from being the rich kid to poor kid at school overnight.

Of the twelve people on that team, at least half had personal experience living a cash-strapped life with all of the associated anxiety, stigma, and difficult choices about which bills to pay and how to do the right thing by their children. The nickel dropped for me: this is why these people are attracted to this business. This is at least part of why they work so hard. They aren’t serving a nameless, faceless “target customer” dreamed up by a marketing consultant. They’re working hard for people they understand at a deeply personal level. The purpose of this company connects directly to a set of experiences they could never forget, experiences that in many ways shaped these leaders.

Companies spend truckloads of money trying to motivate employees. It often feels like they’re trying to whip up passion in a loveless, selfish marriage. A dozen roses, some nice chocolates, and a weekend at a fancy resort can create momentary zip. But eventually you have to come home to the hard work of everyday life where flowers wilt, your teenager eats all the chocolates behind your back, and memories of the getaway have faded.

 

The same is true for company meetings with the hottest motivational speaker or a golf outing with colleagues at a posh corporate retreat center. The excitement from the newly forged bonds and exciting ideas fade after a few days back in the grind… unless you’re in HR and you’re trying to mop up behind the bad behavior that too often happens at those events.

So what’s the secret sauce? Do you have to staff your team with people who are exactly like or have been exactly like your customer?

The answer to tapping into passion at work is often simple though far from easy:

  • Clarify why you exist as a company. I’m not asking you to describe what you do or what products you bring to market. I’m not even asking you to articulate the business value of your offering even though that is super important. Instead, I’m interested in why any of that matters. Yes, there is probably a rational part of this, something you can explain in a nice line graph. But you really know you’ve hit purpose paydirt when there is a strong positive emotional reaction in the vast majority of your key people. My client’s leadership team has a visceral response to working hard for people living on limited income. It requires no hype.
    • Hint: This usually happens when people see how what you do makes a big difference for people they know or can identify with. Which leads to…
  • Help your existing team members to link that purpose to their own experiences. If they had the strong emotional reaction I mentioned above, they probably have at least a subconscious awareness of how your organization’s purpose touches their own life story. But it’s very powerful to give people the opportunity to explicitly connect the dots – and to share that connection out loud with colleagues. “My family was exactly like our customers when I was growing up” beats a slick powerpoint every day when it comes to motivation.
  • Attract more people who personally connect to that purpose. As you recruit new staff or attract new partners, pay attention to their life stories. Listen for points of connection or disconnection with your organization’s core purpose. Yes, people can learn to appreciate a purpose even if they don’t connect with it personally. But stocking your team with a solid percentage who carry this purpose in their bone marrow is just plain smart. Skills can be learned. Passion and purpose flow from a place that’s harder to affect.=

So if you’re looking to tap into the natural energy in your organization, start with clearly identifying how the work you do benefits real people. Give them names and faces. Then try looking into the personal stories of your people. Find the high points and low points that have marked them. Go on a hunt for how these highs and lows connect to the way your organization’s work touches real people. Yes, make the numbers work. But make work personal too. Because in the end, you’re dealing with people and people crave purpose more than just about anything else.

Be Bright

Are You Critical Thinkers… or Just Critical?

By: On September 22, 2015

You’ve probably been in a meeting where someone floats an idea that’s imperfect, maybe even half-baby calf
baked. They do it tentatively because they know the thought is emerging like a calf out of the womb, wobbly and likely to crash land onto the floor of the barn. It rests there, helpless, soaked in afterbirth, looking around the room with big brown eyes behind long, innocent eyelashes.

And then someone in the meeting gets up, walks over to that young idea, and smacks it across the face .

We call this critical thinking. We praise it. We hire for it. We promote it into the C-suite. We put it into a group of like-minded leaders and call it a strategy session.

And we wonder why strategy sessions and leadership team meetings often feel sterile, dull, and tense all at the same time.

Maybe it’s because we mix up critical thinking and having a critical spirit. Here’s the difference:

  • That idea might end up in here someday...

    That idea might end up in here someday…

    Critical thinking listens to an idea. It holds the idea up to the light like a gemstone being evaluated by a skilled jeweler. It tests and probes. It tells the truth but with an eye toward discovering potential. When it sees a flaw, its first impulse is to try to polish it, to take what’s good about the idea and improve upon it. It resists the urge to demolish and discard too quickly. Crucially, critical thinking is at least neutral toward the person who brought forth the idea. On good days, it is generous toward that person, perhaps even grateful that they had the courage to bring their idea out into the open. It not only allows the calf to stumble around. It puts its hands under the calf’s shoulders and helps it walk.

  • A critical spirit is different. Rather than focusing on the potential of the idea, it focuses onCynic its flaws, just waiting to pounce on it and destroy it. Worse yet, a critical spirit evaluates the person who brought it forth through the lens of the unfinished idea. Inwardly, a critical spirit says, “I have way too much to do to bother listening to this clown. I never thought she/he was so bright. That half-baked idea just confirmed my suspicions. I can’t wait until they stop yapping so that I can point out the flaws in the idea.” Outwardly, the answer to every question is no. Period. End of story.

Fill the room with critical spirits and you can watch the creative oxygen leave the room. At the very least, no one is really listening. After a little while, no one is really talking either. They’re just waiting for your so-called strategy session to be over so that they can go back to work.

Fill the room with critical thinkers and well, watch out. You can sense the creative energy buzz into the room. There will probably be laughter and curious looks and shy smiles. Confidence will grow in the group’s potential to crack through their collective mental barriers.

If work is a laboratory for the soul, then here’s your next experiment: shift from killing ideas to nurturing them and see what happens.

Noonday SunBe bright.

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Four Temptations of Teams Under Pressure

By: On September 15, 2015

You’ve been in this meeting: Your leadership team is facing a whole bunch of bad news. What seemed like a plausible plan just a few months ago now seems in jeopardy. Maybe worse, it seems like a pipe dream.

You look around the room. The team has the usual characters: the three people you naturally gravitate toward; the guy who rubs everyone the wrong way but doesn’t know it; the little cluster who sees the world very differently from you, who you’ll never get; the peace-maker who is always trying to smooth off the rough edges of any disagreement; the individualist who was never really into this team anyway; the person who must be the smartest person in the room.

You bring your eyes back to the deck placed in front of you by the CFO, whose unenviable job is to communicate in a professional monotone that you, collectively, are screwed. The competition is ramping up. Customers are defecting. Regulators are rattling their keys on the door.

For a moment, you feel yourself slipping into despair, like the Dilbert character who offers to die an hour earlier in exchange for the freedom to skip this meeting.

Right then, stop. Take a deep breath and realize that your team is normal. Under pressure, every team faces four great temptations. It’s your choice whether you give in to them or go another way.

  • It's 70 and stuffy in here...

    It’s 70 and stuffy in here…

    Temptation 1: Denial – It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the realities facing a team under pressure. If you’ve always been successful because of your focus on service or price or innovation or whatever, you double down on that historical strength. You ignore the pressure. Despite the raging storm outside your windows, you make believe it’s sunny and 70. As a leader, you’re tempted to engage in willful denial so that fear doesn’t invade your team. Which leads to…

  • Temptation 2: Panic – We should expect action in teams under pressure. But there’s a big difference between action and panic. Panic looks like scattered energy without clear thought. Unless that thought is, “Holy $%#&^$.” There may be a lot of ideas in the team, but most of them are pretty unhelpful.
  • Temptation 3: Retreat to Self Interest –  Under pressure, it’s easy to lose confidence in the team, to believe that no one else has your back. You’re tempted to retreat,  to think If I don’t take care of myself who will? One of the great acts of faith on any team is that the team will watch out for my interests. In this moment, we’re tempted to recant our faith, to implicitly say that we’re unsure anyone else gives a rip about us. And if no one else is going to watch out for me on this team, I’ll have to watch out for myself. So I retreat to my own area of responsibility and hunker down. I know that this won’t help the team succeed. But I’ve given up on the team at this point. Now it’s about self-preservation.
  • Temptation 4: Blame – Put any team under pressure and the natural temptation is to blame others. We blame corporate. We blame regulators. We blame competitors. Yes, we even blame customers. But mostly, we blame each other. If someone else would just do their part, we’d be out of this mess. If we stopped long enough, we’d know that it’s not fair or helpful to be that cranky but that doesn’t stop us.

While bad enough when faced by an individual, these temptations accelerate when they’re in a team. They’re contagious. They gain a momentum all their own. Left unaddressed, they can quickly destroy months and years of hard work in building your team’s momentum.

Like any temptations, these can be avoided but only if they’re replaced with something better.

  • Replace Denial with Reality: It’s not always sunny and 70. Everyone knows that unless you happen to live in southern California, but I have nothing to say about that. Many leaders are worried about stating the truth because they don’t want to spook the troops. But what really gives confidence to your organization is when you acknowledge challenges, even acknowledge failings, and show positive steps forward. That reassures them that your head isn’t in the sand and that you’re fully invested in the solution side of the problems.
  • Replace Panic with Focused Action:  I have a client facing tough times right now. One smart guy on the leadership team has reminded us frequently of the famous scene from Apollo 13 when Gene Kranz, the flight director for the doomed mission, gathers his team and says, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” This is what teams need under pressure: structured activities aimed at constructive outcomes to replace the frenetic and random actions of panic.
  • Replace Retreat with Partnership: Scattering is easy and reflexive. It’s also depressing because you know deep down that you’ve given up on the team and on your teammates. You’re not the colleague you’d wish for in tough circumstances. You’re normal, but in a bad way. How much better to look around and ask yourself, who can I help on this team right now? As I do my normal work, how could I do it in a way that brings value and extra energy to the person right next to me in the team? It’s amazing how taking your eyes off yourself can raise your own spirits.
  • Replace Blame with Ownership: Shouting at the wind is easy and therapeutic in the short term. But it’s a dead end in the long run. Sure, you can’t control everything that happens outside your team.  The question is, what can we control or influence? The same applies with blame within the team. I can’t be sure that everyone will own their part of getting the team moving again. But I can be sure that I will do my part.

Just as all of these temptations can spread, so the replacements can build their own kind of momentum.  A few people take ownership. A few others make quiet but useful contributions to the success of others. Denial or exaggeration is replaced by the clarity of the truth. People get to work on useful projects to address the core issues. Spirits slowly start to lift as team members look around and say, “Hey, we’re doing something real and productive together. Maybe we can pull through this!” It’s usually slow and fragile, but the tide can turn.

Ending this post now would be convenient, but trite. The truth is that you may choose to replace these four temptations with the virtues of reality, ownership, partnership, and focused action – and your situation still may not improve. This is the real world we live in. Sometimes best efforts and noble responses yield limited results.

And yet…

If work is about more than results, if it also acts as a sort of laboratory for your soul, wouldn’t you rather walk away from even a circumstantial failure with the clear sense that you had grown as a person?

Wouldn’t you be better prepared to be an exemplary teammate and contributor during the next challenge thrown your way?

Wouldn’t it improve the chances that you would view those on your team as great people on whom you’d call in some future crisis?

Wouldn’t that be worth it?

In that case, even a superficial failure just might provide you with long-term benefit that defies calculation.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

Integrity Test

By: On August 11, 2015

CrossroadsI was in a meeting recently where a leadership team was grappling with their long-term direction. They’re doing what many leadership teams must do – trying to discern how to kick-start growth in their business. It complicates things that they work in the healthcare industry where there’s enough upheaval to make anyone feel queasy.

This has led the team to consider all kinds of growth ideas. In this particular meeting, they were exploring an idea about reaching a particular market segment, one that is super price sensitive. For a company that built its reputation on personalized service, this would be a departure.

We had a few outside experts in the room with extensive healthcare experience. As the meeting unfolded, one expert shared what another company had done to grow profitably in this price-sensitive segment. As she shared the details of the business model, it became clear that this other company had achieved its remarkable growth partly be being a little less than forthcoming with customers. Was it downright dishonest? No. But in the immortal words of one of our past presidents, it may have been truthful but not very helpful.

The punch line of the story was simple: “That company made a ton of money in this segment.”

I sat in the back of the room watching faces, starting with the leader of the business. Curiosity turned to surprise and then to… discomfort? Disgust? It was hard to put a precise word on the facial expressions, but it wasn’t good. It was the same look I see on some face when Donald Trump says how “incredibly proud” he is that he made a lot of money by taking advantage of bankruptcy laws. When someone pulls back the veil on their success and all we see is naked ambition, many of us recoil. We ask that person to please grab a towel and cover themselves.

The facial expressions in the leadership team told me one thing for sure. I knew we had stumbled on a core value. People post corporate values on walls all of the time. Usually they’re lies or wishful thinking. You know you’ve hit a true value when you’re willing to walk away from profitable revenue because the business model doesn’t fit with who you are.

My client’s company has a long history of building trusting relationships with clients and partners. They care deeply about serving others. They aren’t naive. They know that a lot of organizations and people are willing to cut corners with the truth. They know that in some cases – like the one they were hearing about in this meeting – those who are willing to make those compromises have an advantage when it comes to generating certain kinds of results. But they can’t bring themselves to conduct business in that way. It would be false. Unlike Donald Trump, results at all costs would cause them discomfort when looking at themselves in the mirror.

This is an Integrity Test. Integrity is about being truthful and upright. It’s about not fudging your expense report even when no one’s looking.

But it’s deeper than that.

Integrity is knowing what you truly stand for. It’s about grasping your real values – not the motivational posters on the wall – and living by them. Even when it costs you. Maybe especially when it costs you.

In a recent Fast Company interview, Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia talked about the ad her company put out during a holiday shopping season several years ago. “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” the ad blared, showing one of their high-end parkas. Of course Patagonia wants people to buy their jackets. But this wasn’t a clever piece of reverse psychology. Instead, the CEO talked about how the ad reflected the company’s core value of asking each person to have as small a footprint as possible on the Earth. That’s why they repair clothing for customers instead of simply offering replacements. That’s why they get behind low Earth-impact causes even when they have no direct benefit to Patagonia.

Ask yourself and your leadership team:

  • What would we stand for, even if it cost us in the marketplace? Usually those deep values come from somewhere in the organization’s history or the personal stories of founding members. I know of a university with roots in a religious tradition that emphasizes humble service. To this day, they’re drawn to preparing students to serve. They can’t help themselves. And I’m thankful for that.
  • When is the last time we took that sort of stand?  When did you reject a path that may have led to superficial success but would have violated your deepest beliefs? Ironically, Donald Trump is probably facing one of these moments right now. Staying true to what appears to be his core values – including achieving results at all costs within the letter of the law – will likely cost him a bona fide shot at the Republican nomination for President. This is integrity of a sort, though I wish Donald would go to the mat for something more noble than being a good Machiavellian.
  • Where can we demonstrate more integrity? There are few things more galvanizing to a team than the tangible expression of deeply held values. Look for those gray areas you’ve been avoiding, the ones that nag at you because you know they don’t really fit with your highest ideals. Search for the scary opportunity that would truly embody your company’s beliefs but carries risk or makes you stick out.

Noonday Sun
Be Bright.

The Secret To A Hopeful Planning Meeting

By: On February 24, 2014

Here’s the situation: You’re sitting in a planning meeting. Your team has brain-dumped a list of great ideas that have been turned into the next wave of initiatives.  They’re inspiring. They’re feasible. They’ve won the prioritization vote. And you leave the meeting feeling defeated, because you know none of these very good ideas will be implemented.

Here’s why: there is too much clutter in the existing system. Today’s work leaves little room for new efforts. So any senior team that wants to create a great organization has to get ready for new initiatives by regularly clearing the decks. That way, you and your staff can feel excited and positive about your planning work because something productive will come of it.

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens – Photo by Jeffrey Anderson

But how do you unclutter cleverly? I decided to ask someone who has been eliminating clutter at a world-class organization for 25 years. His name is Tim Gruner and he’s the head horticulturist at Anderson Japanese Gardens, a jewel of a garden tucked away in Rockford, IL, perennially recognized as one of the top Japanese gardens in the world, and featured in garden guides. (See, for example, 55 Stunning Botanical Gardens to See Before You Die. from Emily Moore at Sproutabl.)

Tim Gruner

Tim Gruner

When you visit Anderson Japanese Gardens during the warm months, you’ll see Tim and his team out in the garden. Most of the time, they’re pruning. To you and me, it just looks like they’re cutting branches and shoots off trees and shrubs. To say we’re missing the point is an understatement.

I interviewed Tim about the art of pruning. Here are the takeaways from that interview with applications to leadership teams.

  • Context Matters: Any world-class garden is designed to create an effect on visitors. For a Japanese garden, that effect is to have humans feel connected to nature through composed scenes.

    • Leadership Application: What effect are you trying to create in customers and employees? What do you want to be famous for? Get clear on that before you start pruning. It provides you with the right mindset – the artistic eye – for the job.

  • What it’s all about (A): At a basic level, pruning keeps the garden alive by avoiding over-crowding. Tim says, “We’d lose this garden within a year if we didn’t prune it.” Individual plants need pruning so that they get enough light to stay healthy.

    • Leadership Application: How do you know if your key projects are healthy? When is the last time you examined them for signs of drift or bloat? The law of entropy applies at work just like in a garden.

  • What it’s all about (B): At a deeper level, pruning helps each plant fit with the rest of the plants around it in the “composition.” No individual plant can be managed on its own but only as it relates to the scene it creates with those around it.

    • Leadership Application: When your senior team prunes work efforts, how much of the conversation centers on how each project fits into the larger picture? Effective leadership teams design the overall work portfolio to achieve a specific strategic goal. So if a company needs to ramp up innovation to respond to a changing environment, they look at the overall weighting of their efforts and ensure that enough of them are focused on exploratory work.

  • What it’s all about (C): At its deepest level, pruning preserves the potential of the garden for future generations. By maintaining individual plants and the overall composition, you have the potential to create extraordinary experiences for people in the future.

    • Leadership Application: What pruning needs to happen now to preserve the potential of your organization for the future?

  • How to learn it: Pruning looks simple but takes years to master. Mastery starts with humility and then continues with observation of skilled pruners, experimentation under supervision, and being comfortable with the risk of mistakes.

    • Leadership Application: How intentionally do you practice the skill of pruning as a senior team? I’m not talking about the reactive cost cuts that come when business turns south or someone tells you that you must cut now. We all know what that sort of reactive exercise feels like. I’m talking about making it an art you master through regular, intentional practice.

Do some pruning before your next planning session so that your brilliant new ideas can be put into action. That way you won’t feel overwhelmed or discouraged. You’ll feel hopeful.

And if all this talk of pruning leaves you needing a Zen moment, grab a cup of green tea and check out this aerial video of Anderson Japanese Gardens shot from a drone by noted photographer Nels Akerlund.

Click below for Tim’s 60-second summary of the essence of pruning – or here for the entire 13-minute interview where Tim dives into the thinking behind pruning at a world-class garden. You’ll never look at workers pruning a garden the same way again.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

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