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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Leaders, Disconnect and be a better leader

Ahh technology, you can’t live without it.  But how did we ever function before, cell phones, lap tops, text, etc. Do you often find yourself sitting on the couch in the evening with your laptop reading e-mails and your cell phone nearby, just in case.  

It isn’t just happening at home. When was the last time you went to a meeting and found people focused entirely on the topic at hand – with no one ever holding or using their phone to check their email? Kevin Eikenberry writes that in his leadership workshops he challenges people to put their phones down between the breaks. And while these breaks are just 1 hour apart, many people can’t keep the phone in their purse or on the table; they seem compelled to take a quick peek, checking their texts and emails.

Don’t get us wrong we agree that Technology can improve and extend our communication options. These technologies can aid our productivity, especially when we work away from the office or have a virtual team. And, like in many other areas of life, too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily so good.

What problems does technology cause for all of us as professionals and especially for us as leaders?

It starts with our assumptions. Because we have a phone, a laptop and perhaps a tablet computer, it is assumed that we are always connected, always ready to talk, answer a question or make a decision. And the most dangerous assumption is that we need to be constantly connected, that if we aren’t something terrible will happen.

I agree that as leaders do we need to be accessible and available to provide advice, wise counsel and coaching.  We also need to be  flexible in the ways and times we are available, and be open to different communication mediums to accommodate the situation and the other person.  But, does that mean we can never silence our phone or that we can’t go a couple of hours away from email? Not at all.

I realize that there are some jobs where you’d better be available. Being an inbound Customer Service Rep, a police officer or Fire Chief come to mind. If your job truly requires you to be available and on-call 24/7 perhaps not every bit of this article applies to you (but check your assumptions – I believe that is very small percentage of those who will read these words). After all when was the last time you really had to put out a fire?

Have you ever wished you could have some unconnected time to think, to coach, to focus and perhaps get some important work done? Have you ever (or do you always) feel compelled to be connected or have a hard time un-tethering from your electronic devices?

I believe you will become a more effective, productive and valued leader when you re-evaluate your relationship to your beloved electronic devices. How can you do that? How can you, well Kevin has some suggestions on disconnecting and leading better.

Five Ways to Disconnect

Set expectations and boundaries. This is the big one and it cuts straight to the heart of the assumptions above.  If you are going to unplug and disconnect, be it for 45 minutes (sometimes baby steps are needed), four hours or four days, people need to know that.

If you have been wired 24/7 and you suddenly disconnect without talking to people about expectations, you will understandably create chaos and confusion. Let people know when you will be accessible, and the timeline they can expect to hear back from you.

Ever listened to a voice mail message and heard someone say when you can expect to hear back from them? That is the idea! It may take time for you and others to adjust, but would you rather adjust or watch your phone become permanently affixed to your hand?

Manage your interrupt-ability. Have you ever gone into someone’s office and had them turn off their phone, or put the ringer on mute?  Did you feel like your conversation was important to them? That is the point of managing interrupt-ability. You will find what is appropriate for you and when (see expectations above) It could mean turning off the email notification on your computer, putting your phone in silent mode, or any number of other things. Figure yours out and do them.

Schedule time to reply to emails.  Have you ever been travelling for the day and then looked at your email after several hours? If you have, you likely found three things: there was a lot of it, few if any messages required fast attention, and responding in batches took less time.  Let’s be clear. When you are constantly replying to email, you are training people (setting unspoken expectations) that you are always answering emails!  If you choose to set times aside during the day (or even during the hour, if you must) you will be more productive AND you will be taming the expectations that you are “always on.”

Set sacred off-line times. Do you really have to be on the phone in the public restroom? Is your email really the last thing you need to check before bed and the first thing in the morning? If your answer to any of these is “yes” I’d say get a life and get over yourself. The most important, busiest people in the world aren’t doing that, and you don’t need to either.

Change the medium. Pick up the phone. Walk to someone’s office.  All of our technologies are about communication. Not all of them are equally effective in every situation. Stem the email flow with a quick call.  Send a text instead of a call that will become a five-minute conversation. Go synchronous when needed, and take it off-line when possible.

These ways will certainly improve your productivity – allowing you more focused time for the task at hand.  But if you think of these as only time management suggestions you will miss an important part of my point. They will also allow you to be a more effective leader when used in a balanced way– showing your trust by engaging and encouraging people to operate without your input at a moment’s notice, every time.

If you are thinking you can’t change the culture in your organization in regards to these technologies, I urge you to reconsider. If things are aren’t working perfectly, someone must raise the question, change the conversation and adjust the behaviors.

If you agree with even a small part of what I’ve suggested, tell people about your new decisions. Try one or more of the suggestions above. That’s what leaders do – work to make things better.

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Leaders need competent teams

 If you think of a leader as “the boss”, or “the commander“, standing alone at the head of an organization and running things, the training and development of others in the organization probably doesn’t occur to you as an important function of the leader. But that’s probably an outdated conception of leadership.

If you consider a leader as one who has to rely on the skills and abilities of his or her subordinates, and is responsible for maintaining organizational coherence and effectiveness over time, then it’s easier to see that the development of the team members or people below becomes much more important. Leaders don’t do all the work, or even much of the work in any organization, so their success relies heavily on the skills and abilities of others. An excellent leader in charge of incompetent followers simply can’t succeed.

Given that there are still many people who confuse leadership with commanding, it’s not surprising that many leaders don not pay adequate attention to building the skills and abilities of the people they are leading. In fact, in a study by The Blanchard Companies survey, 59% of respondents cited failure to train and develop staff as a major and common leadership mistake.

The prescriptions are clear. Leaders need to allocate some time to developing their immediate subordinates, and also to create opportunities for learning for others through mentoring, coaching, training, seminar attendance and highlighting best practices in the organization and outside of it. Obviously leaders are not trainers and don’t have a surplus of time, but they can both encourage and arrange for opportunities to learn.

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Leadership by JC

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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Every once in a while I get a little unconventional.   Today is Good Friday and I feel it is appropriate that I write about the leadership style of the greatest leader of all times.  During his leadership Jesus Christ created a climate where the mission and vision of his objectives were clearly defined and communicated.  He communicated in such a way that he did not have to seek followers, they wanted to follow him.

Jesus taught that you did not have to be a hero to be a leader. He taught just the opposite; that to be great leader you must be a servant. Jesus was willing to “walk the talk” when he demonstrated his commitment to this principle by washing his disciples feet.

Perhaps the most relevant example of what Jesus thought about Corporate leadership versus Servant leadership is found in the story where James and John’s mother came to Jesus and asked that her sons be permitted to sit at the right and left of Jesus in the Kingdom. Obviously, the mother of these two men had a very corporate view of the kingdom. She wanted her sons to be at high points on the executive ladder, Executive Vice-presidents of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus did not agree with this management style. He pointed to the Gentiles as a bad example of those who “lord it over” people, and wanted no part of this plan. Instead he pronounced and repeated on many occasions: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.”

The motto for his management style? “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

All of this to say if leaders today follow the simple guidelines that Jesus practiced, great leadership would be seen throughout our world.

Jesus leadership practice

1. He expects that servant leaders be relational. We are to be among people, not over them.

2. The servant leader does not bark orders, but instead simply goes to work and demonstrates how others may join in.

3. The servant leader is a catalyst for behavioral change in the lives of those he or she leads.

It is not enough that followers obey commands, but that they experience a sense of community and purpose in the process.

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Peer leadership – Stepping back to move forward

Leadership is an act that requires stepping forward as a means of asserting authority. When it comes to leading peers, you can demonstrate authority by showing that you are willing to share your authority with others.

Peer leadership is something that is often overlooked in leadership circles because, most often, we focus on what and how leaders lead their followers. This is appropriate, but much of what’s accomplished within an organization is because of people in the middle who get things done. Sometimes it requires leading up — what you do for your boss — but often, it requires what you do with and for your colleagues — leading peers.

Throughout history, we have seen seemingly ordinary people step up and take charge. Look up the “Cincinnatus model.” Cincinnatus was a Roman farmer who left his land behind to serve as Rome’s leader when the city was threatened. When peace was restored, Cincinnatus resigned his post and returned to his farm. His abandoning of his work to serve Rome, and especially his immediate resignation of his absolute authority at the end of the crisis, has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good.  His actions served as inspiration for George Washington, who followed his example. Leadership from the middle does not be an act of heroism, but it should be done with forethought and planning.

The first thing to understand about leading peers is that it is a means of exerting control over someone else. If you have brothers and sisters, or if your children do, then you know the frequent complaint: “You’re not the boss of me.” With peers, you do not boss — you lead — and most often you do it by setting the right example. Let me offer some suggestions:

  • Find the pain. Sometimes the need to act is urgent; it will hit you with the force of a two-by-four across the face. Crises provoke the need for immediate action. But you do not need to wait for a burning platform to step forward. Sometimes the need to act comes from what is not being done — processes that are malfunctioning, employees being misdirected, or customers not being served. That may call for action from the middle.
  • Listen more than you speak. Before you go too far, listen to others. Get their assessment of the situation. Find out if they want or need help. None of us like a meddler. If people do want help, do not pull a “command and control” act. Listen to what their needs are, and identify the true problem before you act. When trouble brews, it may only be a symptom of a larger issue. Therefore you need to size up the situation and assess what you can do.
  • Stand back. If you have the power to act, do it. But work with people — not in spite of them. Think like a film director. You are the one behind the camera. The actors are doing the work. You are simply providing some direction, but they are doing the work. Be willing to lend a hand but do not try to take over. Remember that you are a colleague, not a boss.

Peer leadership is fraught with peril. Too often, those who try to do it get burned. Sometimes this is because they have overreached, or because they do not have the authority to do what they want to do. Often there are rivalries among peers, such as two or more people going for the same job. Navigating that terrain can be treacherous.

There is no easy way around such issues, but one method is to lead with your project. Let what you are seeking to accomplish — your project, your initiative, your process — be the star. Demonstrate its benefits for the organization. This way, you show that you are more interested in helping the company succeed than in shining your own star.

Leading peers, of course, is a good way to get noticed. When done correctly, it positions you as someone who knows how to make things happen. It’s even better when your peers support you. Then, you demonstrate that you have the support — and most often — the trust of others.

Those who lead from the middle are a rare breed, but one that is essential to the success of any enterprise.

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Criticism and Perception

The very first performance review I received was based on a typical 1 to 5 scale with 5 being “exceed expectations”.  I was working in a hospital and the system was pretty straight forward, you worked hard and mastered your tasks and you were almost always going to get a 4.  The general perception was if you received anything less than a 4 you probably weren’t very good.  Well, I aimed for a 5, so I learned everything there was to learn about my job, suggested some improvements and if I was on duty my department always got high marks.  So, I was not surprised that I received 4 and 5’s in each category.   It pretty much went the same way for several years.  That is until my first management role, where I reported to the CEO.  She and I got along great.  My strength was people and hers was finance and negotiations, she was former CFO.  Before my review we really never sat down to discuss expectations, I just did what I had to do to support her, the company and the other senior leaders.  During our first review she was very positive about my overall performance but when she got to the finance/accounting area she gave me a 3.  She told me I was doing great with monitoring our finances and maintaining a decent size budget, but I needed to strengthen my overall knowledge of the financial accounting side of the business.  She further explained that this would really provide me with a stronger foundation in my future career opportunities.  To me, at that time, like many employees, considered a 3 to be average (but that’s a different subject) at best and it really surprised me.  I became defensive and probably stopped listening at that point trying to figure out why she gave me a 3.    My mind quickly went to the fact that she was a financial nerd and expected perfection. 

But as I think back to that review, she really taught me a great lesson.  She cared enough to step out of the norm and tell me where I needed to improve, and I did.  Had she not been willing to tell me the truth, I would have never focused in the finance and accounting area since it is not exactly the enjoyable part of my job.  But I had to be knowledgeable in all areas of business if I was going to continue to grow and expand in my career.

Any criticism can be hard to accept. But surprise feedback — criticism that seems to come without warning is the hardest. We’re far more likely to be defensive.   About the only thing I would have suggested to her today would be to have discussed her expectations with me before that meeting and provide me with information about those weak areas so when that review time came, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The other strong lesson I learned is to prepare your employees on your methodology as it relates performance reviews.  If you don’t give high marks, unless someone walks on water, tell them ahead of time how you will be rating them.  Everyone seems to take criticism better, when it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.

So as you listen to criticism and your adrenaline starts to flow, pause, take a deep breath, and:

Look beyond your feelings. Look beyond their delivery. Feedback is hard to give, and the person offering criticism may not be skilled at doing it well. Even if the feedback is delivered poorly, it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable and insightful. Not everything will be communicated in “I” statements, focused on behaviors, and shared with compassion. Avoid confusing the package with the message.

Don’t agree or disagree. Just collect the data. If you let go of the need to respond, you’ll reduce your defensiveness and give yourself space to really listen. Criticism is useful information about how someone else perceives you. Make sure you fully get it.

Later, with some distance, decide what you want to do. Data rarely forces action, it merely informs it. Recognizing that the decision, and power, to change is up to you will help you stay open.

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The need to create leaders

I was reading a survey that McKinsey and Company’s conducted in 2009 about the breakdown in leadership that affected so many companies in this recession.  I still think we have that problem today and we have to fix it before we can really grow to have lots of great organizations again.  The writer John Baldoni, wrote that the breakdown in leadership was primarily due to managers and executives who simply don’t understand what it means to lead.  I agree.

Many of you ask, well if they don’t know how to lead, how did they rise to their current positions? As unbelievable as it sounds, the survey results are clear and I’m not sure we should be all that surprised.

Who out there hasn’t worked under — either directly or further down the ladder — a manager or executive who wasn’t really leading? Think of the boss who seems to just “boss” you around or the micromanager. They aren’t really leading.

In his book, Lead by Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results John addresses the challenges all leaders face when seeking to bring people together around a common cause. It argues that leaders must create conditions for people to succeed.  He definitely has some ideas on how to get managers and executives where they need to be in terms of leadership. What do you think? Is your company taking steps to grow better leaders? I’d like to hear your thoughts and ideas.