Leadership development

the first step to better leadership

Like many people, I’m trying to get back in shape and it’s a dangerous process (bear with me – this is actually about leadership). Obviously, I don’t want to waste any time, money, or effort so I want the best diet and exercise program possible. That should be easy to figure out, right? After all, the number of fitness experts are legion so they should have worked out the best program years ago.

Except they haven’t. Not even remotely close. The fitness magazines all tout this month’s latest and greatest exercises and fast results diet plans. These “best practices”, if you will, differ from magazine to magazine, from issue to issue, and even article to article in the same issue.

If I’m honest, not only do I not need an Olympic level program, but I know that different people are different and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily create the same results for another. Even athletes on the same team have highly customized programs. Plus, I’m not looking for the level of sophistication required to move an athlete from national caliber to global competitor. I just want to not be terrible.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. This is beautifully illustrated by the photo above. If things are going bad, the very first step is to stop doing things to make them worse. Rather than finding the best program ever, I’d be light years ahead to just stop doing the things destroying my fitness. It’s not a mystery why I’m not in the shape I want to be in: I eat too much, I eat too much of the wrong things, and I don’t exercise enough. How’s this for a first step fitness plan: stop eating so much; realize the beer, chocolate, and peanut butter aren’t helping matters; and stop being so sedentary. Eliminate the obviously bad, start small, build as I go, and improve incrementally. It’s pretty common sense and I don’t need the diet and fitness industry telling me what’s right. I just need to stop doing what I know is wrong.

Here’s where all this is about leadership:

If you’re trying to get better at leading others you know it’s a dangerous process. Obviously, you don’t want to waste any time, money, or effort so you want the best leadership information and techniques possible. That should be easy to figure out, right? After all, the number of leadership experts are legion so they should have worked out the best methods years ago.

Except they haven’t. Not even remotely close. The business magazines all tout this month’s latest and greatest approaches and fast results techniques. These “best practices”, if you will, differ from magazine to magazine, from issue to issue, and even article to article in the same issue.

If you’re honest, not only do you not need a world class executive development program, but you know different people are different and what works for one leader doesn’t necessarily create the same results for another. Even top leaders in the same organizations have very different styles and approaches as well as very different strengths and weaknesses. Odds are, you’re not looking for the level of sophistication required to move from mid-level manager to C-level executive. Today, you probably just want to not be terrible.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If things are going bad, the very first step is to stop doing things to make them worse. Rather than finding the best leadership program ever, most people would be light years ahead to just stop doing the things that cause others to shut down and stop caring. In fact, the one secret to leadership is there is no secret – good and bad leadership is always on display. For most people, the most bang for the buck in becoming a better leader is to simply identify the top five commonalities of their worst leaders and commit to never doing those things (bonus points for doing the opposite).

What are those top five? It’ll differ a bit from person to person, but experience shows there’s quite a bit of overlap. It’s more important that you identify your own top five bad leadership behaviors. The ones you hate the most are the ones you’ll be most motivated to not do.

Eliminate the obviously bad, start small, build as you go, and improve incrementally. It’s pretty common sense, but too often we focus on trying to be great without first eliminating the bad. The first step to being a good leader is to simply stop doing the things that make you a bad leader. It won’t make you the world’s greatest leader, but it’ll get you far ahead of the game.

What would be in your top five to eliminate (or make sure you never do)?

 

[Photo credit: Chris Wimbush [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

what do you mean it was a great meeting?

Compelling. Rejuvenating. Energizing. How often do people use those words to describe a daylong meeting focused on updating annual goals? How often do participants come away saying it was their best meeting all their years at the company? How often do they send thank you notes and stop the organizers in the hallway to say how fantastic it was?

Never? Exactly. A snowball’s chance as they say.

This week there was apparently a cold front blowing over the river Styx. Snowmen and downhill skiing in Hades and all that.

The company I work for is very big on goal setting and every June there is a meeting of roughly the top 20% leaders to look at internal and external factors that might require one’s goals to be updated/revised/changed. It’s an important event because it recognizes that the world is changing quickly and we need to adjust as needed. This year, the organizers took a big chance and shook things up.

Rather than talking about goals, goal setting, etc. the event happened like this: After a 30 minute kickoff, 15 teams of five people were given sealed envelopes with instructions for 8-10 out of 12 or so possible activities and turned loose. They got back together five hours later to debrief their insights from the activities and wrap things up. The activities ranged from looking at how competitors were using social media (in an industry that is very shy about such things), checking out internal learning resources available, going to the mall and seeing how a certain retailer is trying to rebrand itself, considering rapidly changing industries such as music and DVDs and how it might relate to our own, etc. They even decorated their own coffee mugs using markers (ala Pinterest) with how they were feeling about the near future. It all sounds campy and probably shouldn’t have worked. Amazingly (and thankfully) it did.

Why? I’m still not sure, but I have a few thoughts:

1. It was different and unexpected. People were planning on a long, dull day so the novelty was energizing and people appreciated the organizers taking chances with the meeting.

2. The teams were very cross functional across department, location, and level so participants got to know people they rarely work with or even speak to. There’s a lot of power and benefit in kicking at the silos.

3. People, even conservative people in conservative companies in conservative industries, want permission to play, explore, think, and discuss. They really don’t get a chance to do that.

4. The day was framed as being all about questions and possibilities. Participants were told up front that there were no answers to be given only exploration and discussion.

5. There was no right or wrong, just open ended questions. There was no looking at what the company needed to do better, no leading questions or judgment, just a lot of thinking about what was going on in a lot of different fields. The company has smart leaders and they were left to draw their own conclusions for moving forward.

6. When things didn’t work like the organizers had planned, they were very up front and shared it as a learning point for all the participants to benefit from.

7. The organizers didn’t apologize, hesitate, or doubt. Their words and attitudes conveyed that it was going to be a different, provocative, and fun day and the participants followed that lead.

 

In there is my own personal biggest takeaway: people want permission to think and play. Daily work, organizational politics and personalities, self-inflicted expectations, and fear of being different conspire to get in the way. Events that remove those constraints and create a safe zone for playing with ideas enable something pretty special to emerge.

time to talk

I am a big believer in leadership development classes, workshops, and seminars. I’ve witnessed (and experienced) so many of those “light bulb moments” where there is suddenly a huge shift in thinking that changes a leader’s approach, and results.

BUT. I wonder how much of it is the content of the class and how much of it is something else. Good content is important, yet the magic happens in the spaces between the tools and concepts. The class provides crucial time to think, reflect, and discuss. It gives time away from phones, email, customers, and employees and becomes a catalyst for dialog and insight that doesn’t happen on its own.

The class gets people together and gives them space and time to talk. The information, theories, tools, and approaches gives context and content for reflection, dialog, and sharing. The conversation lets people know that they are not alone in their challenges, and leading is sometimes difficult and lonely and sometimes a bit scary for everyone, and there are solutions.

It’s amazing what happens when leaders drop the charade of invulnerable infallibility and get human. Suddenly, there’s so much to teach and so much to learn. Building trust, exploring ideas, sharing and learning from each other’s joy and heartache doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time before the conversation gets deep enough and rich enough to matter.

Time that no one thinks they have – until they take it.

What thinks you?

 

helicopter human resources?

A weird question to start your week: Is it possible that a strong and effective Human Resources department or Learning & Development group could inadvertently reduce leadership effectiveness?

Both areas, when done right are a resource to help individuals and leaders improve performance and make better decisions. But is there ever a threshold point where that resource starts to function as a crutch or surrogate for leadership? Is there a point where managers start thinking, “It’s not my job to develop my people – that’s what the training department is for?” or “Don’t worry about the details, HR is great at cleaning up these sticky situations.”?

How do we provide great support and resources without crossing the line and becoming the helicopter parents of the organization?

What thinks you?