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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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Taking Responsibility

It’s inevitable, all leaders make bad decisions sometimes.  It doesn’t matter how much information you gather and what your advisers may suggest you do, you call the shot and its a bad one.  My biggest issue is not the bad decision, it’s the leader that doesn’t own up to his/her mistake.  They somehow try to justify or worse substantiate their bad decision.  When they do, they lose the respect of the masses. There is an old saying “Two wrongs don’t make a Right”.

Employees value a leader who can stick to his guns, yes. But self-justification and blind faith in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary can quickly push those leaders over the line into arrogance. As much as leaders worry about appearing strong and resolute, it is much more likely that they will err in the direction of looking delusional in their consistency. If you’ve crossed this line then you are at serious risk of losing all credibility and there is only one way to get it back: Admit you were wrong.

While admitting our mistakes may sound simple, our psychological wiring works against us. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, the cognitive dissonance theory states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes abnormal behavior.  In other words, our minds actively seek out confirming evidence to support our decisions and self-image. For most people, this confirmation bias is so strong that we often end up convincing ourselves of things that sound outrageous to more objective observers. What this means from a practical standpoint is that since you were the one who made the decision, your employees never reach your level of commitment. Therefore if the decision was wrong, your employees will almost always see the folly of your ways before you will. If the gap between when they see it and when you see it is too long, you will lose their faith and confidence.

Since confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are hard-wired into our minds, there isn’t much you can do about it except be aware that it exists. If you are aware of it, you can at least guard against it, invite alternative ideas and open yourself to accepting change when your current direction isn’t working. Have you been blinded by your resolve? Is it time to change? If you’re ready to admit you’ve made a mistake, then do it without excuses. It is so rare for leaders to accept responsibility without pointing to extenuating circumstances that when they do, it is greeted with amazement and praise. While consistency is an important leadership trait, the ability to admit mistakes and accept full responsibility far outweighs the appearance of resolve.

Unfortunately, deflecting attention away from our mistakes is so ingrained into our culture — both American culture and corporate culture — that getting people to fess up to their mistakes is no easy task. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, who explore cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in-depth in their book Mistakes Were Made but Not by Me, explain that because American culture rewards results without recognizing effort, we have been conditioned to view mistakes as purely negative. A mistake equals a failure to produce results and therefore mistakes cannot be tolerated. By ignoring the trial and error process required to achieve success, we encourage people to stay on the wrong course long after that course has shown itself to be flawed. As a leader, changing your culture to one that accepts mistakes will not only make it easier for people to admit their errors and change course when necessary, but it will foster a more open atmosphere of candor and feedback.

Whether from fear or from the confirmation bias, most managers are terrified that admitting their mistakes will show they are weak or stupid; because of this fear they will choose resolve even in the face of obvious failure. Ironically, this type of blind devotion to flawed strategies will make them look far worse than simply accepting responsibility, speaking with candor and showing the strength to change. The risk of looking foolish is miniscule compared to the goodwill earned from standing up and doing the right thing. Nobody likes a quitter, but at some point leaders need to know when to throw in the towel and stop throwing good money after bad.

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Leadership Trait Often Overlooked

In succession planning the biggest question a committees asks is “who’s next?”  It’s a question that senior executives should consider with regularity. Amid the debate about who can succeed as a VP of sales or even who will become the next C-suite officer, one factor sometimes gets overlooked: Toughness!

I am not referring to what’s on the outside (gruff and ready), but rather what is inside the individual (character and resilience).

Toughness matters because you need a leader who has the wherewithal to stand up for what she/he believes in, as well as stand up to others to achieve team and organizational goals. More important, toughness matters when things are not going well, when the economy’s tanking, when the industry is struggling, or a brand-new competitor’s appeared on the horizon. Toughness also matters when heads are being counted and everyone is wondering if the next head to roll may be theirs. Tough times demand tough leadership. Some of the ways leaders demonstrate toughness:

They defuse tension. Performing under pressure is a prerequisite for leadership, but too much pressure can be a prescription for disaster. It falls to the leader to maintain the sense of urgency and momentum but also to give people some breathing room. This is not an excuse to slack off; it is an invitation to be careful and deliberate. Also, keep in mind that tension that comes from interpersonal conflicts is seldom positive; leaders need to eradicate it by making some hard decisions about who works with whom and why.

They get up off the floor. There’s no shame in getting knocked down; sports teaches that lesson very well. What matters is what you do next. Strategies will miss the mark; wrong skills will be applied; and projects will fail. Such is life in the organization. It’s a leader’s job to get back into the game and keep slogging. That requires resilience, an ability to flex with adversity as well as persevere when the going gets rough.

They let off some steam. If you are a team leader, and someone on your team makes a big mistake, one that he was obviously warned about, it’s natural to become annoyed. It is also acceptable to focus some heat on the person who made a mistake. The challenge is to focus your irritation on the action, not the person. He needs to know your displeasure; it may help him pay more attention the next time.

There is another aspect of toughness that sometimes seldom appears in a discussion of the topic. Humility. A leader who can admit he was mistaken is a leader who has the right kind of inner toughness. Owning up to failure is not a weakness; it’s a measure of strength. First, it demonstrates a willingness to accept consequences. Second, it demonstrates humanness; human beings make mistakes. It also creates opportunity to move forward. Rolling over in despair is not what leaders do; they acknowledge their misstep, learn from it and resolve to move forward. Toughness gives backbone to a leader’s purpose, and gives one the strength to continue.

 


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Are you the leader you think you are?

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” – Dwight Eisenhower

So you’ve been extremely successful for a while now.  Do you ever think luck had something to do with it, since your leadership style wasn’t.  Let me explain.  I worked with and executive who we’ll call Tom who at the age of 36, (20 years ago) was pursuing his career with a vengeance. It was all about him – about making a name for himself, being recognized, and making an impact. He had the highest standards of performance for himself and his team.

They were in fact very successful. More successful than any of them had imagined would be possible, given where they started and the barriers they faced. Everyone on the team was smart, dedicated, hardworking, and committed to the common goals. Tom was proud of himself and his team.

He decided to go into an intense leadership development program where he took a battery of personality tests and a leadership 360 where he solicited feedback from peers, direct reports, his boss and his clients. Upon receiving the feedback, he was pleased – that is until he saw the results from his boss. On a scale from minus 10 to plus ten, he rated Tom in the minus range on a large number of people-related behaviors. Tom was convinced he had just made a mistake – these results couldn’t be right.

He asked for a meeting with his boss and during the meeting Tom pulled out his feedback report, proudly showing him the ratings from his peers, clients and direct reports. And then Tom showed him his ratings, asking him why he had given him such low scores.  He was shocked by what he heard:

His boss said “Tom, you have amazing skill, drive and talent and you have been extremely successful. We are all grateful for what you have been able to accomplish. But to get that success, you are beating up your team. You make them feel like they are never good enough. You constantly look for someone to blame when things don’t go right and never put blame on yourself.  You intimidate them into working long, grueling hours – and they are afraid to tell you any of this for fear of your reaction.”

Tom was stunned, but he still held out hope that his boss had it all wrong. However, he bravely decided to speak with him team members one-on-one.  He asked them to be truthful and assured them there would be no reprisal.  After talking to his team, they confirmed what his boss had told him was true. Tom was crushed as he thought he was a great compassionate leader.

The feedback came as an affront to his own identity and his conception of himself as generous, caring, and nurturing leader.  He was, quite simply, embarrassed. Tom told his team members he was ashamed by his behavior. He then pledged to change his approach.  So with the help of his boss and his team’s coaching and support, he began to work on creating positive, rather than negative relationships with each person on his team. Part of it was purely personal, so he could feel good about myself again. The second reason was performance-related: leaders who form positive relationships enable higher levels of collective performance.

Talking with his boss and his team members about the situation was the first step in a long journey to turn his negative, overly critical style into a leadership approach that would continue to pursue the highest standards of performance – without beating his team up.

How did it turn out……I’ll let you know next time.


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Lessons Learned

4 years ago I left the corporate world and started PeopleFirst. As I reflect back I’ve learned much about a lot of things and I wanted to share some of that reflection here with you. I share these today for your benefit, for these lessons, when applied, will help you lead better, learn better and live better.

Human beings are learning beings

We are built to learn, and at some level we all learn every day. What we don’t do enough is learn intentionally. From hundreds of conversations I have learned that people are at their best when they are learning. When we are learning we feel alive, we feel meaning, we feel purposeful. Learning quenches the human drive of curiosity and when we do this intentionally we feel better, and perform better too. One of the most powerful ways to learn is to do what I am doing in this document – reflecting. Everyone can do it and it costs nothing but some focus and a bit of time. Our lives are complicated and the challenges we face are significant – so to succeed and make a difference in this world we must be learning.

Understanding change changes everything

One of the most popular requests I get as a consultant is to help companies change. Why? Because it is all around us, it is complex and our lack of understanding of it causes consternation, frustration and much more. We experience change personally and organizationally. Change is a pervasive part of our world and life, and when we begin to understand how it happens, why it happens, and how we choose it, it makes us more proactive, more understanding, and better able to help others too. Time spent understanding how change happens and how we choose it will fundamentally change your understanding of and ability to succeed in the world.

The contradiction of personal accountability

Here is the contradiction – We control very little, but can influence all most everything. This is a fundamental truth in life that most of us at one time or another try to change, ignore or deny. When we take personal responsibility for what we can control – our choices, our reactions, our emotions, our actions – we are more effective people. When we deny our ability to influence our world and other people by the choices we make, we become victims. And when we live in the land of the victimized, we can’t grow, improve or get better results. The bottom line – while we can’t control anything but ourselves, that is plenty to work with, and when we live from that reality we will be happier, healthier, and more successful.

Development is development

Personal development or professional development, what is the difference? Not much in my mind. When we go to work, we bring our whole selves – and most things we learn at work transfer to application in the rest of our lives anyway. Sure, you may never need to use a specific procedure outside of work, but almost all of our work is about interaction with others, influence, communication and so much more. When we begin to think about every developmental opportunity as both professional and personal, we will become more successful in all areas of our lives faster.

Everything is about choices – and they all matter

We have choices on everything – and how we exercise that choice makes all the difference in our results. Some choices we have relegated to habit and our sub conscious, but all of those are still choices and could still be changed. We often think about the big choices, as well we should. But it is the smaller ones – the mindless TV instead of the book, the carrot cake instead of the carrot, and rolling out of bed after the snooze versus ten minutes of purposeful morning planning – that change our lives. Og Mandino, author of
“The Greatest Salesman in the World” wrote in one of his books, “use wisely your power of choice.” It is a power and the choices are ours to make – and they all make a difference.

These five lessons aren’t the only five I could have chosen – in fact I kept trying to add more as I was writing, but these five have made a huge impact for me. In reading them, I hope they provide you with a challenge to explore how these lessons can make a difference in your life and work.


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Fostering A Work Environment Where Leaders Can Thrive.

 

The long-standing debate: Are leaders “born” or “made”? We all can recognize some people who appear to be “born leaders”, but many leaders are made. If you have employees who have the potential to step up as leaders but haven’t done so, there are several things you can do to help them develop.

Provide employees with decision-making opportunities

Good leaders have the confidence to make decisions on their own. One of the best ways to build up this confidence for other employees with leadership potential is to give them the power to make some important decisions on their own. Not only does empowering employees to make decisions boost confidence, it allows them to think critically and in the best interest of the company.

When an employee is responsible for making decisions without relying on a manager, it requires them to weigh the best interest of everyone involved and become more in tune with the project or organizational goals. The responsibility of decision-making gives employees a greater sense of ownership and accountability over his or her work, which leads to better employee engagement. The next time an employee asks how he or she should move forward, instead of giving them the answer, ask, “What do you think we should do next?”

Encourage employees to pursue their passions

There is no better motivation to accomplish great things than loving what you do. Another way to shape employees into leaders is to talk to them about what they are passionate about and where they would like to see themselves, their department or the company. Allowing them to see projects through that, will help accomplish that goal demonstrates your interest in their vision and that you value their input.

Revealing what excites and motivates your employees and giving them the chance to follow through with those ideas can help them feel more fulfilled. Even if what an employee is most interested in is something that would occur outside of the office, such as participating in sports or volunteering, encourage them to organize these activities and get co-workers involved. Satisfaction with one’s accomplishments is not something that can be taught, but it is a feeling that can spread to and motivate other employees.

Facilitate learning

Knowledge builds confidence and empowers people. Good leaders are continually learning and questioning how things can be done better. By suggesting books, articles and blogs to read, employees can become motivated to learn on a regular basis. Encouraging employees to attend webinars, watch videos, go to networking events and workshops can also help emphasize the importance of learning. The more experiences and knowledge employees gain, the more they can contribute to the growth and success of ideas and their work.

Acknowledge accomplishments

Acknowledging your employees’ hard work not only builds confidence, it also fuels a sense of pride in what they are doing. Investing time and money into staff well-being and happiness will also strengthen the company culture and bring out leadership skills. Whether it’s public praise at a staff meeting, an award at a company gathering or a gift card, tokens of appreciation are encouraging ways to assure an employee that he or she is on the right track. Additionally, if your employees notice you praising others, they may be more open to peer encouragement, which will continue the cycle of positive reinforcement and the behavior you want to see in a leader.

Good leaders, whether they are born or made, are often at the crux of a successful company.  Whether you are a manager or an executive; it’s important to foster a work environment where leaders can thrive.


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Are you Coachable?

Not everyone is. Those who are un-coachable often think they have no performance issues and believe everyone “out there” is the cause of the unfounded accusation. In these cases, coaching isn’t a very good option to produce positive results. It’s kind of like one spouse dragging another to marriage counseling in the hope that the counselor can “fix” the partner. (Ever see how well that works?). The sticking point here is a mindset that doesn’t allow one to reflect on personal behavior, a desire to change it, or mutual responsibility for a relationship. Forcing someone into a coaching relationship isn’t the best organizational solution for certain individuals.

If you are considering being coached or having someone on your team coached below are five attributes I’ve observed in people who successfully “own” their part of the coaching process. You might want to use this as a quick diagnostic tool.

1. Committed to Change. Individuals who don’t think they are perfect, that want to improve, exhibit responsibility for their lives, and are willing to step outside of their comfort zones are good candidates for a successful coaching relationship.

2. Open to information about one’s self. Be willing and able to listen and hear constructive criticism without being defensive; then, synthesize their coach’s suggestions with their own personal reflections on the issue.

3. Open about one’s self. Willing to engage in topics that may be uncomfortable but are getting in the way of their professional growth and development; talks about “what’s really going on” so the coach can have a complete and honest picture of the total situation.

4. Appreciate New Perspectives. People who get excited about hearing someone else’s take on a situation and figure out how to learn from it can really benefit from coaching.

5. Awareness about one’s self and others. Coachable people already have at least a fair amount of awareness about themselves. Equally important, they use it to reflect on their behavior and how it impacts other people in the range of situations that come their way.


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It’s Not “What” you say It’s “How” you say it!

The delivery of the message is more than half the battle, especially in leadership. Of course what you say matters, but how you say it, how you relate to people, is what differentiates great leaders from the pack.   That means you can have innovative ideas, indeed you must, but if you can’t deliver them in a way that connects with people and relates to them in a meaningful way, you won’t get results.

Over the years working with many CEO’s I’ve seen those that started out brash, aggressive and only worried about their success and driving results. That only gets you so far.  The smart (and really successful ones) learned the importance and motivational impact of genuinely connecting with people in a meaningful way.

That transition doesn’t happen all at once, it’s a process of continuous improvement and the learning never really stops. So, wherever you are in your journey to the top, these 5 tips will help to improve your delivery so people will want to be a part of whatever it is you’re doing.

Look people straight in the eye and really “see” them. If you take one thing away from this post, this is the one. It’s huge.  When you look someone straight in the eye, you’re initiating a potentially deep connection that can’t be achieved any other way. It also shows respect, i.e. there’s nothing more dismissive and demeaning than not “recognizing” someone by looking directly at them.

Increase your self-awareness. How you say things is more about how you feel than what you think. If people have trouble relating to you or respecting you, chances are you’re not as self-aware as you think you are. The only way to change that is to find out what employees, peers, and your boss like and don’t like about how you communicate. Being open to feedback is the only place to start.

Be direct and genuine. The big problem with political correctness is that it’s hard enough to be straightforward and direct with people as it is. The whole Political Correctness thing just adds layers of complexity that make it so much harder to be straightforward in a work environment. Actually, the more direct and genuine you are with people, the greater their sense of trust and the more respect they’ll have for you.

Executive presence isn’t about power and domination. This is perhaps the biggest misconception about executive presence. It doesn’t come from command and control, it comes from connecting and relating, from sharing your passion in a way that’s meaningful to others. It breaks down barriers.

Learn to be a storyteller. People relate to stories and storytellers. People don’t remember facts and figures or even logical arguments as well as they remember stories. They also find it easier to connect with storytellers. If you really want to relate to people in a deep way, tell them stories they can relate to.