Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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“Our company’s greatest asset is our people!”

How many times have you heard this?  It’s a nice saying, but it’s meaningless without introspection and application. And the truth is, people aren’t your greatest asset, unless they’re in position to leverage their greatest strengths – those things they do well consistently and energetically.

Years of research have proven that individuals and teams playing to their strengths significantly outperform those who don’t in almost every business metric. In fact, the single best predictor of a consistently high-performing team is the answer to this question: “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?” Teams with individuals who do, massively outperform teams with people who don’t.  They are more profitable, more productive, less likely to quit, less likely to have accidents on the job and the list goes on.

That’s compelling, but this is confounding: Research reveals that only 12% of people in the workplace play to their strengths “most of the time.” Could it be we take strengths for granted?

At a time when organizations are trying to do more with fewer people, it’s critical to engage each person’s strengths, and do it at all levels across the organization. The strengths movement isn’t about making people happier; it’s about making organizations more productive. It’s about yield. The best companies are made up of great teams. And those teams have individuals who know their strengths, take them seriously and offer them up to the organization.


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Confidence…Can it be learned?

Does it seem like some people are born force-full and self-confident, while others struggle with voicing their opinion or speaking up with ideas and promoting ourselves. Does this mean that, for the most part, confidence is something you’re born with, and those less gifted in the area simply have to deal with it as best we can? Absolutely Not!

According to an article published in Psychology Today “most socially confident people deliberately learn specific skills”.

So what exercises do the experts recommend for the confidence-challenged who are eager to learn to keep unruffled in front of others? First, forget about simply repressing your anxiety, which simply makes you more self-conscious. Then, consider honing the following skills:

  • Read your body right: “You can create a crisis of confidence by overreacting to your own normal heightened alertness. But if you can work yourself up simply by misinterpreting your body’s signals, you can chill yourself out by reading them correctly. The irony of misreading your nervous system’s cues is that far from harming you, your natural excitement can enhance your performance. Increased activation is not a sign that you’re failing, but that you want to do well and your body is ready to help.”
  • Focus on helping others: “Mastering social skills requires tuning in to your self-esteem. But instead of being self-conscious and fixating on your anxiety, work on creating positive interactions that make the people around you feel engaged and happy. Focusing less on yourself and more on others will yield big payoffs in expanded social opportunities.” Also, “feeling allegiance to a larger cause can make your discomfort more tolerable”
  • Get cozy with your fears: If you’re brave enough, “try ‘implosion’ — tackling a challenge so intimidating that once you’ve made it through, your original goal no longer fazes you.” Comedy stars Conan O’Brien and Will Ferrell apparently first started performing because it was what they feared most. By tackling their fears head on they overcame them.

The article includes much more information on the science of shyness, including statistics on its prevalence (40 percent of young people report they’re shy) and the genetic basis of social anxiety, as well as a ton of personal anecdotes about introverts’ battles to become more confident. If you’re interested, it’s worth checking out.


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Can your voice be heard

As an associate level employee you often hear conversations about policies or procedures that your peers don’t like or think could be improved.  You may have followed a procedure for some time, even though you knew it didn’t make sense and wondered if management was even aware that the same goal could be accomplished more effectively a different way? The question is do you really have to be in a high level position to make changes in your organization?  I will say it’s certainly easier when you have the ability to communicate regularly with the powers that be, but those people aren’t the only ones who can–and do–make things better.

1. Be a top performer. No one listens to suggestions about work-life balance from someone who comes in late every day and does poor work. You want your suggestions to be taken seriously? Do good work.

2. Do your homework. Look outside your department. Especially in a big company, departments can differ wildly. Even though everyone may have the same employee handbook, managers do things differently. Before you make a new suggestion, see what other people are doing. If you can show that another department has implemented this program and the people are productive and the earth has not ceased rotating, half your case is made for you.

3. Pick one area you want to improve. If you go into your boss with a list of 25 things you want fixed, she’ll tune you out before you get to item 3. Pick one thing. After that’s fixed, go onto thing 2.

4. Be willing to do the work. You can’t just make a suggestion today and expect it to be done tomorrow. You’ll have to write-up a plan that will demonstrate the costs and benefits. Don’t leave off the down side to your plan or no one will take you seriously. You will have to plead your case, so make your presentation a good one. When you do your research, be willing to find out that your “fabulous” idea is one that was tried in the past and failed miserably. If that happens, either demonstrate how this is different, or drop it and try something else.

5. Companies often move slowly, so don’t get crazy when it takes a while to get things done. You may have to present your idea two or three times. You may also have to meet with more than one, two, or three different people. Be patient and good luck.


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Constructive Feedback

The main purpose of constructive feedback is to help an employee understand where they stand in relation to the expected and/or productive job behavior.  This implies that expectations were established when the employee first obtained a given position.

The feedback is especially important during the first 90 days after the employee takes on a new position.  This early feedback is essential in preventing poor patterns of behavior from developing into permanently poor patterns of behavior and ultimately terminating an employee for something that may have been prevented with constructive feedback. 

The importance of feedback in an organization is crucial to its ongoing development and growth. In the competitive environment that businesses operate in constructive feedback is essential for continuous improvement.

Employers need to give effective, constructive feedback regularly, which is what most employees want. What employees look for in feedback from employers includes positive reinforcement and acknowledgment for a job well done as well as ideas or instructions on doing their jobs better.

Effective feedback is specific, not general. (Say, “The report you turned in yesterday was well-written, however, you failed to make your points about the need for expense reduction clear.”   Vs. The report you turned in yesterday was not a good report.)

  1. Successful feedback describes actions or behavior that the individual can control and change.
  2. All comments should be based upon observable behavior and not assumed motives or intents.
  3. Positive comments should be made first in order to give the employee confidence and gain his/her attention.
  4. Language should be descriptive of specific behaviors rather than general comments indicating value judgments.
  5. Feedback should emphasize the sharing of information. There should be opportunities for both parties to contribute.
  6. Feedback should not be so detailed and broad so as to “overload” the employee.
  7. Feedback requires the ability to tolerate a feeling of discomfort.


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Clutch Leadership??

In Gallup’s annual poll asking Americans about their confidence in various public and private institutions, one has ranked first or second nearly every year since 1973, when the poll began, and has topped the list continuously since 1998: The Military.

Military leaders have long been recognized for leadership skills that are of great value outside military environments. Think about it, for more than two centuries, America has trained its officers to be effective leaders in combat and beyond.  Military leaders have had to learn new tools and techniques to face a fast-changing and unpredictable type of enemy, so they must be trained in ways that build a culture of readiness and commitment. Business leaders need just such a culture to survive and succeed, given that they, too, face unprecedented uncertainty—and new types of competitors.

Do you know managers or CEOs who rises above when everything is on the line? In sports I understand they call this a “clutch player”.  This is a new term for me, but the definition is clear, clutch player refers to someone who succeeds in pressure situations…one who does well with the game on the line.  Think Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Martina Navratilova. They not only didn’t wilt, they got better.

Is there such a thing as a clutch leader?

The latest issue of Harvard Business Review focuses on military leadership. New York Times business writer Paul Sullivan, author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel under Pressure and Others Don’t recounts a talk he gave at West Point on the subject.

All clutch leaders display five traits, he said: focus, discipline, adaptability, being present, and fear and desire.

Sullivan’s good news for the rest of us is that organizations can train their performers to respond well to pressure.  Sullivan says there are three things business leaders can learn from cadets:

  1. Focused on a goal. “When they graduate they will be deployed to lead a platoon, probably in Afghanistan or Iraq. They know the responsibilities and the risks. And everything they are doing is preparing them for that moment. Do you know what your primary mission is at work?”
  2. Continuous improvement. “They work in an organization that is continually striving to be better. When a mistake happens, the Army tries not to let it happen a second time. Are you aligned with the right organization? Or if you’re leading that organization, are you prepared to change things that aren’t working, even if change could be hard or even a reversal of something you implemented?”
  3. Practice for success. “These cadets are given the physical and mental training that will help them do their jobs at the highest level. They know you have to be able to perform a task perfectly under normal conditions before you can expect to do it in a stressful situation. Can you say the same thing? Are you able to do your job at a high level every day? If not, then you should not be surprised when you make the wrong decisions under pressure.”

Will following this advice make you the Michael Jordan of your organization? Maybe not, but working at focusing on the objective, adaptability to the environment and improvement of skills sure puts whatever natural abilities you have in the best position to succeed when the going gets tough.


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Respect Our Decision

Many years ago I worked for a major airline.  I have to say that when I went to work for this organization, “union” and participation was pretty foreign to me.  Shortly after I joined I found out that employees had to belong to the union if you were part of a particular working group.  I was appalled that I had to pay dues to an organization that in my opinion did nothing for me.  I don’t think I ever met a union representative during my tenure as an employee.  I worked hard and followed the rules.  I had a great relationship with my peers and my leadership.  Excellent customer service was a given.  I had a good job, great benefits and worked with great people, exactly what did I need the union for. 

Later I went into management with this same airline and I finally experienced the union at work.  Don’t get me wrong some of the union representatives were great people.  I am also not saying that all unions are bad; I have some dear friends and family who support their unions.  But I do have to say that in my experience the only people the union really helped were those that didn’t do their jobs or had some other idea of what work required.  All of this to say I am so proud of the Delta Airline flight attendants and I hope the remaining non-union work force follows their example.

This is a huge and positive message employees are sending.  They want to be valued for their individual contributions.  And most people don’t need someone else to represent them.  Sure there are still companies out there that don’t treat their employee so great, but the employment laws are on their side. 

Delta has 20,000 flight attendants, and like any other employer makes its fair share of mistakes, but they must be doing something right when a large employee group decided to stay independent, even with laws passed this earlier this year that made it easier for unions to win elections.

This is the 3rd time Delta Flight Attendants have turned away from unionization.  Isn’t it time for the union to step aside and allow this company and these employees an opportunity to move forward independently.


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Is it bravery or just great leadership?

Do you ever wonder how you are really doing as a leader?  Who does the judging?  Meet a CEO who lets employees vote him in or out every year. 

ING Direct is a large European banking operation that does business in the United States with a very interesting twist. When ING first entered the country, they hosted focus groups to find out what people hated about their banks, and then they did the opposite. The first rule of ING’s code of conduct is a simple concept: “We will tell the truth.” Great businesses often start from this premise.

The company’s CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann puts himself up for election by secret ballot among his company’s employees every year. “All my colleagues think I’m nuts, and the board thinks I’m nuts,” Kuhlmann told the New York Times.  “But I don’t want to serve here unless I’ve got the commitment of people genuinely wanting me to serve.”

Kuhlman says he is not asking to win a popularity contest, but he wants to know that employees have faith in the mission, the company and his abilities. Even though the shareholders, the board, and the customers seem to be happy with him he wants to know how the associates feel.  There are two messages he wants to send by doing this. One is that he doesn’t take the job for granted. And, No. 2, that he’s willing to be accountable to them, not because he works for them in a broader sense, but he feels that if he’s walking around saying that his associates are so important, then why don’t they have a say in terms of whether or not he’s leading them.

It takes courage and confidence to ask those who work for you how you’re doing as their leader.  But after all isn’t that what leadership is all about.

For the entire interview with Kuhlmann go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/business/31corner.html