Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Why your staff may not be listening

“I have been telling my staff that for years………they don’t listen.”  I can’t tell you how many times managers say this to me. 

Today, it’s easy to communicate with one person or thousands very quickly. Too frequently, however, the message gets lost in the medium and fails to resonate with the intended audience.

Here are some tips I have recommended to leaders that encourage more effective communication:

  • Be clear about what you need. Don’t expect your team to guess. Remember, that one size doesn’t fit all, so you may have to infuse your cut-to-the-chase request with humor or compliments to soften the message.
  • Overhaul voice mail and e-mail. Survey your team members’ current responses for their business e-mail and telephone messages, and prepare to be shocked by the content and length! This calls for creating a template or script. Each script should be tailored to the person’s job function.
  • Teach your team how to communicate. While you can’t control every word that comes out of your team members’ mouths, you can establish standards of what is appropriate.
  • Have frequent in-person updates. Somewhere along the line, “micromanage” has become a  bad word. It conjures up images of bosses who can’t delegate, who don’t trust their team members and who don’t give employees room to do their      best work. No, you shouldn’t do your team’s work for them, you should get regular (and of course, succinct!) updates.
  • Use your negatives sparingly. If you’re telling your team everything they need to know, but you still aren’t getting the results you want, try using more cut-to-the-chase sound bites. Be sure your announcements don’t always  start with a negative, followed by a litany of unpleasant consequences. If you frequently start each communication with negatives, your team will simply stop listening to your entire message.
  • Look in the mirror.  The golden rule definitely applies to leadership and business. It’s always a good idea to treat your team as grown-ups and make them partners in whatever you’re doing.

If you’re not getting the results you want, you might be the problem. When you’re open about what’s at stake and use a logical, positive tone, you’ll find that your communications will gain traction.

The vehicle or venue you select to deliver your message is just as important as the point itself. Good news should be presented in an upbeat setting, and more serious subjects should be broached in a setting that’s “strictly business.”

If you’re open and succinct, you find that your team will mimic your style. Communications will become understandable and actionable.

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Composure – A key leadership skill

In my opinion composure and self-control are very necessary leadership attributes. I will take it a step further to say that without it, one can only go so far in a professional business environment.  For some, composure is effortless, seems like it comes as second nature to them. For others, it must be cultivated — and not easily. As I coach leaders, I urge them to explore different techniques or methods to help them control their emotions, especially when the going gets tough.

A good example is a Fire Battalion Chief on the scene of a major fire. Amid the smoke and fire and heat, they typically radiate sheer calmness. Emotions might be roiling inside, but outwardly they are cool as a cucumber.

Their coolness leads to something I call the clarity to see complexity. By not succumbing to the mayhem of chaos, they keep their heads clear to think through the possibilities. In this instant if the Battalion Chief gives into emotions, lives are at a greater risk.

Your situation may not risk lives but letting your emotions get the best of you, limits your ability to focus on the options.

Some techniques that may help:

  • Breathe deeply.      In the heat of the moment, there is a tendency to breathe rapidly. So take  a deep breath. Feel the breath come into your lungs. Exhale, than repeat      a few times. It slows things down, really!
  • Relax your facial muscles. Tension is evident on our faces. So be conscious of how      you look. Rub your cheeks and flex them. Smile if appropriate, as a means      of reassuring others.
  • Keep your voice lower. When tension rises, people speak more quickly and with      more emotion. A leader’s job is to keep calm. So speak slowly and at a      lower pitch. Others will notice and maybe follow suit.

Remaining composed under pressure is not the answer to all leadership challenges, but for my money, I would rather follow an executive who keeps it together than one who is wild-eyed and restlessly pacing.

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Trust and Service

Two elements of leadership,” trust” and “service” unfortunately, aren’t always obvious to analytical types whose focus is primarily on metrics and results.

A leader however isn’t the person with all the answers. Rather, a leader is the catalyst for influencing others to overcome obstacles, find solutions, and seize and create opportunities. Leadership begins with trust, and leaders are most successful when they combine trust with a challenge to look outward.

People will not remain motivated, growing and achieving at high levels of performance if they are insecure about their place on your team. As leaders, we can create greater levels of creativity when we build an environment where employees and teams are encouraged to share ideas and where courage and risk-taking are complemented with both reward and safety.

Encourage vulnerability. Ideas that are proposed today may not work today. However, experimentation will develop a culture of creativity and lead to better ideas in the future. When employees can count on your support, it creates an environment where there is honest and proactive conversation about what’s working and what’s not. People become comfortable with risk, which, in turn, encourages them to move into uncharted territory, expect problems along the way and find ways around obstacles. It becomes natural to learn from mistakes.

Continually looking for the perfect employee can be an ineffective and exhausting exercise. Experience has taught me that bringing in the next “great guy or gal” often exposes me to a different set of weaknesses. A better approach is to know your people — what motivates them and makes them tick. You’ll find great success and earn tremendous loyalty and trust when you leverage employee strengths by putting them in the right role rather than painfully focusing on their weaknesses.

As the leader, you are responsible for a healthy team. As a role model, you owe your team consistency between your walk and talk. And you owe them an environment that is free of politics, backbiting and ill will. You need to be fair, consistent and diligent about how you treat, respect and encourage each other. What you value will get done.

You are creating a culture — whether deliberate or not. Your employees have to feel safe, appreciated and encouraged if you expect them to make your customers feel that way.


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Leaders capacity to relate

One of the most common complaints about leaders is that they are promoted for their technical skills and ability, and often have poor social and communication skills. A big insight that emerged in the 2011 NeuroLeadership Summit is that this may simply be a function of the leader’s
role.  I don’t agree with this conclusion, but it is a very interesting topic, especially when I applied it to some of the leaders I’ve worked with over the years.  It really got me thinking.

UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, one of the founders of the social Cognitive Neuroscience field, presented research on our ability to mentalize, (their word not mine) or predict other people’s emotional or intentional states. It turns out this requires significant effort, attention and resources. People experiencing even a mild cognitive load or “stress” find their ability to think about what others are thinking or needing is impaired. The trouble is that our
ability to mentalize about other people’s thoughts is extremely poor even at the best of times. I certainly never thought of it this way, but it does make

In one study, an average of 50% of participants initially predicted that people would be able to work out the tune of a very well-known song by listening only to the beats being tapped out. It turns out only 2.5% of people could successfully guess the tune with tapping as the only information. I’m not totally sure how this relates, but I am not a scientist.  Their study found that our ability to the think about the minds of others is surprisingly poor, even when not under pressure.  Not a big surprise.

The other challenge is that the ability for thinking analytically, such as thinking about the future or about concepts, switches off the ability for thinking about others. People spending a lot of time being analytical, conceptual or goal focused may have diminished ability for thinking about the minds of others, simply through lack of use.  They may have a point here.

Leaders who spend too much time analyzing and strategizing may find it difficult to activate their rarely used social ability. Put this together with how hard it is to think about the minds of others when under pressure (and leaders are under massive cognitive load), and you begin to see why there is such an emotional divide between cognitively exhausted senior executives and the people they lead.

The big question now is what can be done to improve a leader’s capacity to relate and connect with others? Lieberman is studying this very question now.  I for one look forward to seeing the results.

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If you intend to lead, Stay out in front

Have you ever walked into a meeting that no one seems to be leading?  Well I have, and all I find is a roomful of frustrated people. Nothing bothers meeting participants more than having a leader who doesn’t lead.

If you are the leader or leading a meeting ask yourself these questions before the session:

What do you want your role to be?  Establish that at the beginning of the meeting, as well as what authority the group will have. Do you intend to simply facilitate a discussion? Will you allow the group to set the agenda and the process? Do you intend to tell them how you will discuss each idea and come to a decision – consensus or vote? Do you intend to have the final say or will the group have the authority to make the final decision? Will you be a silent observer or do you plan to add your opinion? If the group starts spinning its wheels, be ready with “Which way do you want to go?”   “What’s the solution?” “Let’s back up and redefine the problem.”

You don’t have to have all the answers and make all the decisions, but you do need to be out in front.
Either lead or formally give the responsibility to someone else. Then, get out-of-the-way.



Accept Failures to Succeed!

Some people never fail. They’re the ones with no aspirations, no will to excel, no guts. Everyone likely to be reading this, however, has failed. Repeatedly, I might add.

What we all have in common is the temptation to simply put it behind us and forget it ever happened. To spit failure out and get that bitter taste out of our mouths before it does any real damage to our self-confidence. As soon as possible, if not sooner.

But the strong and successful among us resist that urge because we know better. Painful as it is, we carry our failures around with us every day of our lives. Not as a badge of honor, although it’s tempting to feel that way. We do it for two reasons. First, failure is how we learn. Failure teaches us how to do things differently. How to do things better.

Failing to admit and learn from failure will only lead to more dramatic failure. The converse is also true: admitting and learning from failure will ultimately lead to success. Unfortunately, leaders seem to be allergic to the whole idea of admitting failure.

But there’s actually an even more important lesson that failure teaches us. A more important reason to never forget that we’ve failed and will fail again. It reminds us that we’re human. On the surface, that sounds almost too simple to be important. But that’s a characteristic of most important lessons.

Being aware of your failures gives you a unique sense of empathy, humility, even humor, that others don’t possess. It means approaching your job, each and every day, with a level of genuine openness to the ideas and positions of others, not in spite of the fact that they differ from yours, but because they do, because you know you might be wrong and they might be right.

It’s tempting to think of this as a lesson for the young, but it’s not. It’s a lesson for all ages.  Take Steve Jobs, for example. It’s easy to forget that he wasn’t always a leadership icon. While Apple did invent a truly breakthrough computer, the company’s first decade was turbulent and Jobs’ management style was so toxic that he was essentially forced out of the company. That was painful for Jobs. And his next venture, NeXT, lost a boatload of investment capital.  So, when Apple’s acquisition of NeXT returned Jobs to the company he cofounded, he was a very different man. He was a far more mature and balanced individual than the one who was drummed out of the company 11 years before. Clearly, success and failure both contributed to that transformation.

This is just one example, but every successful leader will point to failure as a key ingredient in their growth, maturity, and success. People often confuse having courage with being fearless. Actually, nobody is fearless. Courage, on the other hand, means facing your fear and doing the right thing anyway. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. And once you’ve been through that a few times, it makes you a better and more successful person. But only as long as you never forget.