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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Inspiring Communicators

In two decades (that sounds old) of working with CEOs, business owners and other senior leaders, I cannot recall one who I would have deemed to be stupid (ok maybe 1). But seriously most were intelligent, talented people. Yet, when faced with the challenge of change, or a crisis, many succeeded and some failed. Those who failed usually lost their jobs or businesses.

When I listen to the ones that succeeded consistently, I listened to inspiring communicators.

To be inspiring, however, was not the same as being a great speaker.   To be inspiring, you had to learn how to be a better listener, you had to fundamentally understand what was in the hearts and minds of the people in your audience, and you had to speak with passion and authenticity.

You could stumble and stutter over your words, but if people saw you speaking to the things you truly believed, and felt that you truly understood them and respected their views, you were far more likely to make the vital connection that would attract them to your vision.

HR leaders have recognized that leadership has changed. OUT has gone the command and control style of leadership, and IN has come a new, more empathetic, emotionally intelligent style of leadership where communication becomes one of the top two skills that you need to succeed. (The first is raw intellect and the ability to develop the right strategy.) The ability to understand, motivate and inspire others is the characteristic that is now second most important when recruiting senior leaders or anyone headed in that direction.

Great leadership ensures that the right conversations are taking place right across their businesses, for they understand it is those conversations that drive change and ensure progress.  Leaders have to learn how to engage people in and through conversations. They have to learn how to tell stories better, and they have to learn how to be themselves, only better if they want to lead in our changing world.

The task of a leader is to inspire others to achieve great results. It sounds simple, but leaders today are operating in an incredibly demanding environment. The difference between competent communication and inspiring communication can be the difference between poor performance and outstanding results.

In speaking with leaders I admire the most, two words that I consistently hear are relationships and trust. You cannot lead if you cannot establish relationships of trust, both inside and outside your company.

Effective communicators:

  • Address the concerns of the audience BEFORE delivering their own messages,
  • Learn to listen better and master the most difficult communication skill of all,
  • Develop strong points of view on key issues,
  • Use more stories to capture hearts and imprint messages on memories,
  • Are aware of the power of unintended signals and messages,
  • Prepare properly when appearing on public platforms, and
  • Keep reviewing and developing your communication skills.

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Creating a Culture of Smarter Thinking

Innovation has always been a business necessity.  How many times have you worked with individuals or teams that work really hard, but not always in the most effective way.  I am sure you heard the mantra “work smarter, not harder”.  Art Markma, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program recently published a book “Smart Thinking”.  In the book he discusses several straightforward things leaders can do to help everyone in an organization think more effectively. The more you know about the way your mind works, the more that you can improve the thinking of the people around you. Here are some things you can do to get the ball rolling toward a smarter organization.

  • Stamp out multitasking. This is one that has been debated quite a bit and we are all guilty of it,   virtually everyone today does some type of multitasking.  Markma says “The human mind simply isn’t designed to do more than one kind of complex thinking at a time”. When people are working on complex material, give them permission to ignore the phone, shut off the e-mail and shut down instant messaging. When you bring everyone together for a big meeting, get them to “be here now.” Ban smartphones and Internet browsing during meetings.
  • Encourage openness. You never know where the next good idea is going to come from. So encourage people to try on new ideas for size before deciding whether to pursue them. Too often, people assume that the fiercest critic in the room is the one who looks smartest. But if you criticize before deeply understanding an idea, you won’t be able to use that knowledge later when you need it. Set an example by focusing first on the positive parts of a new proposal before finding potential flaws.
  • The company succeeds when “we” succeed. Our culture is one that prizes individualism. Ultimately, we reward people who make important contributions. Credit and publicity tend to go to particular individuals who make important contributions. History rewards great people, but rarely great groups. But an organization cannot succeed without a group contributing deeply to that success. Lead by promoting the value of group success and reward groups for their achievement. In the long run, that provides everyone with the incentive to learn and grow.
  • Create desirable difficulties. We use technology to make things easier for us. And, of course, there are lots of things that ought to be easy. It is wonderful that we can send documents across the globe in seconds and that we can get research papers with the click of a link. But technology cannot make learning easier. Gaining true understanding of complex situations requires effort. Don’t just provide summaries of key concepts to group members. If there is something that people need to understand, encourage everyone to dig in and work on it.
  • Support smart habits. There is a lot that we do mindlessly each day. We don’t have to think about where the light switch is in our office or how to find the gas and brake pedals in the car. Those habits are smart, because they allow us to focus our mental energy on more important matters. Similarly, don’t disrupt the habits of people in your organization without careful planning. Open workspaces, for example, don’t allow people to develop habits for where their desk supplies are and can cause disruption. Changes in internal websites and forms cause people to think about tasks that should be mindless. And remember change for the sake of change costs more time and mental effort than it is worth.

This book provides simple yet valuable advice that can be applicable to anyone and any situation. I would recommend it to anyone with a curiosity and desire for living a smarter and more efficient life.

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Undercover Boss

Every CEO should be an undercover boss for the day.  The information your managers never give you would amaze you.  On a recent episode of “Undercover Boss” a CBS reality show, the head of a US drive-through food chain broke his cover during filming and shut down a restaurant on the spot, because of how employees were being treated by a manager.

Early in the episode an employee named Todd told the CEO, Rick Silva that his manager treated staff badly and once threatened to take him outside and beat him for not working hard enough.  Todd said he was worried that Stevens would terminate him if he stood up to him, and he needed the job to support his mother.

Checking into these allegations CEO, Rick Silva went undercover.  After doing a little observation on his own Mr. Silva raised allegations to the manager, known in the show only as “Stevens”, about verbally abusing his employees.  The manager retorts that if he didn’t scream at the employees they would not listen to him. What training did he take? 

“I’m not going to let you continue telling me I’m disrespecting my crew. Have you been in the fast food business before?” the manager says.  Mr. Silva tries to maintain his cover, saying “no I haven’t”, but cracks when the manager continues to prod him over his supposed lack of experience.   He finally says to the manager that he does have experience.  Mr. Silva admits “I have been in the restaurant business for over 20 years and I’ve been in the fast food business for over 20 years. I’m the CEO for this company.”

Stevens’ jaw drops as Mr. Silva says: “Right here, right now, we’re going to shut the restaurant down.”

Mr. Silva reopened the store with a new general manager the next morning and sent the offending manager away for more training.  Personally, I would have fired the guy.  No employee should have to deal with a lack of dignity and respect.  But unfortunately, this manager’s style is more common than we would like to believe.  So think about doing your own internal observation, you may learn more than you want to know.

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Are you climbing the right wall?

We need both, but if you’re a manager you can strive to be a great leader through your actions.  If you’re a “leader” do you demonstrate your leadership through your actions.  Lots of people spend their lives climbing a ladder — and then they get to the top of the wrong wall. Most weak organizations are over-managed and under-led. Their managers accomplish the wrong things beautifully and efficiently. They climb the wrong wall.

Both a manager and a leader may know the business well. But the leader must know it better and in a different way.  He/She must grasp the essential facts and the underlying forces that determine the past and present trends in the business, so that he/she can generate a vision and a strategy to bring about its future. One telling sign of a good leader is an honest attitude towards the facts, towards objective truth. A subjective leader obscures the facts for the sake of narrow self-interest, biased interest or prejudice.

Effective leaders continually ask questions, probing all levels of the organization for information, testing their own perceptions, and rechecking the facts. They talk to their constituents. They want to know what is working and what is not. They keep an open mind for serendipity to bring them the knowledge they need to know what is true. An important source of information for this sort of leader is knowledge of the failures and mistakes that are being made in their organization.

To survive in the twenty-first century, we need a new generation of leaders — leaders, not managers. The distinction is an important one. Leaders conquer the context — the turbulent, ambiguous surroundings that sometimes seem to conspire against us and will surely suffocate us if we let them — while managers surrender to it.

Leaders investigate reality, taking in the pertinent factors and analyzing them carefully. On this basis they produce visions, concepts, plans, and programs. Managers adopt the truth from others and implement it without probing for the facts that reveal reality.

There is profound difference — a gap — between leaders and managers. A good manager does things right. A leader does the right things. Doing the right things implies a goal, a direction, an objective, a vision, a dream, a path, a reach and sometimes not very popular.

Managing is about efficiency. Leading is about effectiveness. Managing is about how. Leading is about what and why. Management is about systems, controls, procedures, policies, and structure. Leadership is about trust — about people.

Leadership is about innovating and initiating. Management is about copying, about managing the status quo. Leadership is creative, adaptive, and agile. Leadership looks at the horizon, not just the bottom line.

Leaders base their vision, their appeal to others, and their integrity on reality, on the facts, on a careful estimate of the forces at play, and on the trends and contradictions. They develop the means for changing the original balance of forces so that their vision can be realized.


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Delayed Gratification

You can change lots of “things” in an instant – but not people. When it comes to making professional changes, we need to allow time for people to put any new information into context, validate it from their perspective and try it out in some way.  Only then can they really figure out what and
how much to change. Then they decide the ‘when?’ question. If you’re a manager or lead people in some way, you probably get a lot of satisfaction from seeing people develop and grow.  Sometimes the gratification doesn’t come right away, but delayed gratification is part of being a leader.  Your job is to coach; giving time is part of the game.

The Exception

When managing a performance issue, the game changes: it’s your job to set the deadline for ‘when?’ Be clear about the urgency (when) and the context (why). This can help speed up the learning process or enable the individual to realize, “This isn’t for me.”  If they don’t realize it
during the set timeframe, you need to make a decision and act upon it.

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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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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.