December 30, 2008

Leadership Reflections

2008 is coming to a close. The new year will soon be upon us. It is a good time to reflect.
  • What have you as a leader accomplished this year, both personally and professionally?
  • What are your goals for 2009?
It has been a difficult year financially for many businesses and if the economists are correct, 2009 will continue to be a challenge. It is not time to despair, however, but time to take a step back and consider whether you are on the right track. Are you doing work you love? Is your business strategically set up for managing during these troubling times? Is your personal life fulfilling? Are you attending to your physical health? What are you doing to manage the stress?

Down times can also provide opportunities---opportunities for innovative solutions...for redirection and renewal....for connecting more with what is really important to you.

And those are my 2008 reflections, coming from a true optimist!

December 5, 2008

Leading through difficult times

These are the times that really challenge one's leadership capabilities and the one issue that challenges a leader more than anything is the need to downsize. It is something all managers hate but is sometimes unavoidable. We are currently seeing many layoffs and there will be more in the coming year(s).

As someone who has worked with many companies and individuals experiencing restructuring and downsizing one thing is very clear: HOW these transitions are handled will have a major impact on those involved. And there are 3 things that really need to happen: communicate, communicate, and communicate!

Most leaders communicate less about what is happening then they should. They may think it best to keep things quiet so as not to generate fear and anxiety. Yet the lack of information is often more anxiety-provoking than anything and can lead to a culture of fear.

There is also an assumption that once told, you are done. WRONG. You need to tell, re-tell and tell again. You need to ask, listen, and hear. You need to reassure, remind and re-state. This is true with pre-org planning, during the downsizing process and afterward.

Don't avoid having the difficult conversations, it only makes it worse.

And remember, the employees who stay may feel relief, but they are watching very closely as they determine whether employees in this company are a valued asset or a disposable commodity.

November 26, 2008

Are managers a health risk for their employees?

Companies seem very interested these days in saving healthcare costs. So here's a new hitch---pay more attention to the Manager-Employee relationship. It saves money in reduced healthcare costs. It also appears to save lives.

A Swedish study by Anna Nyberg, a psychologist at Karolinska Institute's Department of Public Health Sciences in Stockholm, established a clear link between management style and employee health. This study looked at 3,122 men over a period of close to a decade and found that employees who see their managers as passive, uncommunicative and inconsiderate were more likely to suffer from heart attacks. Those who thought well of their bosses were less likely to have cardiac problems. In essence, the better the relationship, the lower the risk.

When discussing this new study over the dinner table, my 22 year old son said it best. He said, "Well, Duh!"

I have discussed the Manager-Employee relationship in other blog postings and articles, usually focused on the value of a positive working relationship to ensure employee engagement, productivity and retention of valued staff. Now it seems there is another reason companies should pay close attention to this critical relationship--it may help reduce the costs associated with medical problems.

Most "lousy" managers are not evil people. They may be professionals who were stellar employees as individual contributors who were promoted without the proper training to excel in the new management role. Being a high-performing scientist, software engineer, financial analyst, physician or other role that requires technical knowledge and expertise does not necessarily prepare you for managing people. There is a new set of skills required and they largely center on communicating and interacting with others.

Sometimes "lousy" managers are themselves too stressed out with the multiple challenges faced in today's complex, ever-changing business environment. Maybe they do not have great relationships with their managers, and so on and so on.

Changing this cascading effect of poor management-employee relationships requires a strong message from the top that managing people--having an open, trusting and productive relationship with your direct reports---is a priority. It is the right thing to do, it is cost-effective and it may save lives.

November 18, 2008

The era of the Post-Heroic Leader?

Put your politics aside for a minute and take a look at the personal qualities of our new President-elect Barack Obama. Does he appear to reflect a new style of leadership?

Early on, I worried that we didn't know much about the man since he was fairly new on the national scene. However, as the political season dragged on (and on and on) I found myself intrigued. My initial he just a good speaker? the press being too nice? he lacking in experience?.....were replaced by a sort of fascination with his consistency.  His consistent use of the word "we" rather than "I". His consistently calm manner. His tendency to take the long view, and see the big picture. His thoughtful, reflective style which involved seeking advice from others rather than being reactive, impulsive or self-focused. 

For those unfamiliar, the current thinking in leadership development has focused on  the concept of Heroic vs. Post-Heroic Leadership.  Heroic leadership describes leaders who see themselves as solely responsible for the actions and results of their companies/countries/communities.  They are in essence "Heroes" who are expected to take all the responsibility and blame as well as all the credit.  We tend to glorify heroes but, of course, when they don't live up to our expectations we are inevitably disappointed.

The Post-Heroic Leader, however, is more collaborative and relies much more upon the people he/she is surrounded by. Post-Heroic leaders are more apt to listen to, engage and seek the opinions of others realizing the best ideas sometimes come from unanticipated places.

When comparing John McCain and Barack Obama one cannot avoid the Heroic vs. Post-Heroic comparison, especially given that John McCain is a true American War Hero. 

The results of the U.S. presidential election were definitive but still relatively close in numbers if you consider 46% to 52% popular vote. And there are many factors which help to explain these results. But I do find myself it possible that we are indeed moving into the era of Post-Heroic Leadership? I guess we will find out soon enough!

October 26, 2008

Why conversation trumps "Performance Management"

I hear it time and time again. People lamenting over the lack of open conversation and trust with their managers. Sometimes you hear someone say...."I used to have a great relationship with my manager, but I have a new person and rapport is not so good...." or "I left my job because my manager was impossible. I just couldn't get through to him..".

It is a serious and persistent problem which ostensibly has an easy fix. But I guess if the fix was easy, the problem wouldn't persist.

Companies of any size now implement sophisticated performance management systems to improve the performance of their employees. These are important (I think). Well, OK, they help. But the bottom line is this: if a manager cannot have a direct and sensitive conversation with his/her direct reports and build the kind of trust that is needed for effective team and individual productivity, then the performance management system is window dressing. I've seen it. You have probably seen it. Anonymous surveys confirm this. Yet somehow, we seem unable to fix the problem.

I firmly believe that it is the Manager's responsibility to build that trust and open communication and that is true at every level of the organization from the Executive ranks to front-line supervisors. There is a power differential between a Manager and his/her direct reports. As a Manager, you cannot expect your staff to be open and honest with you unless you take responsibility for setting the tone, especially as they know you have the power to "hire and fire".

What do we need? Managers, as well as all of us, need to learn how to talk with one another. How to listen effectively. How to develop self-awareness, so we know when we are alienating those with whom we are trying to connect; how to balance assertive and accommodative communication; how to resolve conflicts in a win-win way. These are the things that will build trust, increase employee morale and improve productivity.

But first, we must somehow be convinced that something as simple as learning to communicate effectively is worth the attention, time and money we pay to sophisticated performance management systems.

Now that is the real challenge !

October 15, 2008

Hope vs. Fear

Maybe it is reasonable to have a little FEAR. If you are in danger of losing your job, your health care insurance, your house, your lifestyle....then fear may be an appropriate response.

On the other hand, FEAR can become overwhelming, distorted and lead to dangerous actions. We saw the hatred and bigotry that came after 9/11 when FEAR was used by some to move their own agendas forward.

HOPE, on the other hand, is necessary to keep us moving forward. The main factor associated with deep depression and suicide is hopelessness, the strong belief that things will not get better, so why bother, why not just end things now.

Both HOPE and FEAR are natural human emotions. They have evolved to help us maintain a balanced existence. They can both be abused. FEAR is adaptive if it helps you to confront a danger that needs to be addressed, but it can also lead to rash decisions and behaviors.

Blind HOPE can lead us down the wrong path if we don't stop to ask the difficult questions and follow through with real plans and actions. HOPE can be passive. We cannot make things happen by simply "HOPING" they will.

So, when confronted with critical life issues, we should ask ourselves: On what basis am I making this decision ? Is it out of an irrational sense of FEAR, a blind sense of HOPE, or a reasoned thoughtful analysis of what is best?

October 3, 2008

2008 Financial Crisis--Part 2

Well, things seem to go from bad to worse.

While the White House, legislators and the business community are battling over how to fix the serious financial crisis, let's ask ourselves--

What can we expect from our leaders?
How should they respond to this situation?

Some of the behaviors we are witnessing include....
  • Immediate action
  • Making speeches
  • Reflection
  • Anger
  • Information gathering
  • Bringing together competing points of view
  • Blame
  • Reassurance
  • Negotiations
  • Compromise
  • Self aggrandizing
  • Fear mongering
  • Analysis
  • New Ideas
Once the immediate crisis is resolved, there are longer term issues to address....
  1. How did we get ourselves into this mess?
  2. How can we prevent such serious problems from reoccuring?
Leadership matters. It really does !

September 18, 2008

The 2008 Financial crisis: what can we learn about leadership?

It's now clear our economy is suffering a major blow. Financial institutions are crumbling. The government is stepping in to head off even more calamities while creating significant discourse on who is to blame and what is an appropriate response.

These are the times in which leaders are most challenged. They are challenged to demonstrate what they are really made of.

It is also a time in which we should reflect upon what type of leaders we want and need to lead us further into the 21st century.

The complex nature of the world today demands a different kind of leadership. We are much more interdependent than ever before. We are global. Information is coming at us from all directions and what we learn in school is quickly outdated. Companies that once seemed like stable and sustaining firms disappear overnight.

Yesterday I heard Bill George, former Chair and CEO of Medtronic and now professor of management at the Harvard Business School, speak about his book True North which focuses on what he calls Authentic Leadership. According to George, authentic leaders demonstrate 5 dimensions:
  • Pursuing purpose with passion
  • Practicing solid values
  • Leading with heart
  • Establishing enduring relationships
  • Demonstrating self-discipline
What does this have to do with the current financial crisis?

One could argue that the current crisis is about policy, regulations and unfortunate economic conditions. However, consider greed, lack of transparency, sub prime mortgage loans, and all the various decisions made around derivatives, hedge funds and other high risk financial practices.

Given the complexity of today's financial world and the pressure for short term gain, continuous growth, quarterly it really possible for leaders to demonstrate authenticity?

Well, I think so, but don't ask me, because when it comes to human nature I am The Optimist!

September 9, 2008

Diversity at the Top

Despite your political leanings, you cannot deny that the 2008 presidential election has a new look. Two women, an African-American and an older gentleman have appeared front and center on the stage. Regardless of who wins, there will be a new look in the Whitehouse come January 2009.

So what does it mean, exactly?

It seems clear that people are energized by having greater diversity at the top. We are a very diverse nation, growing more so each year, and people like having their leaders reflect their own characteristics, hoping they will thus be more able to represent their views.

It is an exciting time in this respect.

There are caveats, however. One potential danger is in choosing leaders solely because they look like us, as opposed to being the best person for the job. And this is, unfortunately, too much of what has happened in the past.

Clarence Thomas and Barak Obama are both highly-accomplished African-American men, but their political views differ dramatically. Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have both helped to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling; but their views on most issues that affect every day Americans are markedly different and as a result they would lead the country in very different directions.

Diversity should be considered "necessary but insufficient". In business as well as politics, we need the value that comes from diverse voices, not only gender, race, age, ethnicity, but differing points of views as well. Our world is too complex to rely upon a simple, singular perspective.

We also need leaders who are intelligent, competent, and trustworthy who will go beyond soundbites and scripted speeches to really "walk the talk" of inclusive leadership.

September 1, 2008

We all need a little vacation every now and then

Do you feel guilty when it's time to take your vacation? Do you worry about all the things that may go wrong while you are away enjoying yourself with a little R and R?

Here in the U.S., unlike certain other places, we find it difficult to find the time to get away from our work. However, that "away" time is actually good for us and the job. It allows for valuable time for reflection; time to be rejuvenated, to gain a new perspective on our work and lives, and if all goes well, return to work with a renewed spirit. It also allows us to be WHOLE --to be people who can spend time with family, leisure activities, our community.

When we do finally decide to take some time off, we often work longer hours in preparation for our time away, and work much harder upon our return. No wonder we hesitate.

Then there are the incessant emails..........we can use our technology wisely or as an albatross. If having your blackberry or iphone or whatever helps you feel you can keep a little in control of things, I say why not. However, you should guard against the notion that you cannot be away from your work at all. In most cases, there is someone who can cover for you while you are away. And the reality is: no one is indispensable. Maybe things will happen a little differently, but business will generally proceed as usual.

So go take a vacation.....and don't worry, there will be plenty of work left for you when you return!

August 23, 2008

Moral Leadership

I attended the annual American Psychological Association's Convention last week so be prepared, gentle reader, for my blogging reflections from this event. I do not normally attend this convention which is primarily focused on the more clinical side of psychology--however, there were a number of presentations geared to Organizational Psychology practice and one that was particularly inspiring to me was given by Richard Kilburg entitled "The Evolution of Executive Conscience and the Practice of Justice". Kilburg, a consulting psychologist, seasoned executive coach and professor at the Carey Business School of Johns Hopkins University challenged those in the audience, many of whom were executive coaches and organizational consultants, to push the moral issue with our executive clients. He presented us with challenging questions and exercises we can provide our clients to help them to develop their "Moral Compass".

Morality is a topic often left to our church, community or home life. But it is clear that strong ethics and integrity are characteristics we want to see in our leaders and we are all too often disappointed in this area. I doubt the problem lies in choosing leaders who are immoral, though there are a certain amount of psychopaths who make it to powerful leadership positions. I suspect the problem is more likely in the difficulties and challenges we all face in our daily work world.

Consider this: Have you ever been asked to lie about your work? Maybe its to fudge the numbers "just a little bit" to make things look better? or, to keep quiet about errors or problems that may impact the sale of your product. Do you sometimes exaggerate your capabilities to get the job? Have you ever kept quiet about practices in your company that are clearly wrong? There are many situations we face in our work world that require a decision to take the high road, or not. The impact of these situations becomes bigger as the scope of one's job enlarges.

The pressures of business can make it easy to get off track and lose our moral compass. It is often routine every day decisions that can lead us astray or keep us on track. Leadership is not just about doing things well, its also about doing what's right. Not always the easy path---but who said it would be easy, anyway?

August 13, 2008

Experience, Judgment and Learning Agility

I was sitting in a cramped American Red Cross bus, doing my civic duty and giving blood. As I lay with tubes coming out of my arm, the nurses began to discuss the presidential candidates who apparently both have August birthdays. One nurse commented "Now I really don't know who I am going to vote for---McCain really does have alot more experience" (she sounded like a former Hillary supporter).

So I wondered: What is experience worth in a Leader? How much is enough? Can one have too much experience or not the right kind?

These questions are critical today given the looming baby boomer retirement issue and concerns about filling the leadership pipeline, both in government and business. If experience is the critical factor in choosing a leader, than all leaders should be as old as possible since they will have the most experience. I know that is simplistic, but it does sort of follow from the argument.

On the other hand, there is the question of the right kind of experience. In politics do we want leaders who are former military people, have many years in the senate, experience governing a state or leading a company, community organizing, public interest law? In business, do we need leaders with specialty expertise like engineering, technology, finance, biotech or will we be better served by leaders with more general management and business experience?

I believe experience is important, but what is even more important is what one learns from that experience which is captured in the concept of Learning Agility. Learning agility , as defined by Lominger, is "the ability and willingness to learn, change and gain from life experiences; use failures, successes and feedback to form rules of thumb, models, maps, paradigms......" --basically to apply your learning to new situations.

So the question becomes, not "How many years of experience do you have?" but instead, "What have you learned from your experience? How have you applied that learning to better yourself and the world around you?"

Unfortunately, too much hiring today focuses on the first solution--- years of experience---rather than the second which, granted, is a little harder to define.

We are living in a time of rapid change and complexity, and we do not know all the challenges we face in the future. When you consider the daunting tasks ahead for a new President, Governor, CEO, College Chancellor or others in high places, do you want the person with the most years of experience or someone who has demonstrated the ability to learn from his/her experience and apply those learnings to new and unforeseen situations?

August 5, 2008

Coaching, Mentoring or Training: What, When & Why?

There are many options available for developing your people. Three strategies one often hears about are coaching, mentoring and training. What are the differences? Why one over another?

Training is something most people are familiar with. Most companies implement some form of training-- new hire training, training on specific technical skills or applications like Microsoft Office or SAP, learning to operate a particular machine, etc. Training usually involves some classroom lecture but may also include discussion, on-the-job activities, or online delivery via webinars or e-learning courses.

Mentoring is when a more experienced Leader works closely with someone to "show them the ropes", provide guidance, and act as a role model. Usually mentors are experts within the same company or industry as the person being mentored, though not always. Mentors can be engaged through a formal mentoring process or informally; either approach can be effective (or not).

Coaching (non-sports coaching, that is) is distinct from training or mentoring. Corporate Coaching is usually a formal 1:1 relationship between a manager and the coach targeting specific leadership capabilities which will ultimately benefit the individual as well as the organization. Coaching differs from mentoring; whereas the mentor is a guide, expert, or role model, the coach is more of a facilitator or process consultant. The coach is not necessarily from the same industry as the person being coached and it is often beneficial to have a coach with a solid foundation in business and psychology who has had exposure to diverse industries and corporate structures.

When to use one approach over the other?

There is no single answer to that question; it really depends upon your unique situation. We do know that classroom learning is the least effective approach for people development. However, training can be more effective when utilizing action learning programs that include real work scenarios and opportunities for applying just-in-time learning.

Mentoring can be through either formal or informal programs, applied on either a one-off approach or an organization-wide program. However, there are some issues to consider with mentoring: the mentor-mentee relationship is a delicate one and will only be successful with the right chemistry and an environment where trust can develop. Sometimes professionals seek a mentor from a different company or a professional association if, for example, they are working in a small company or other setting in which viable mentors are not readily accessible. Mentoring can be a good option under the right conditions as it can be cost effective and lead to growth and development of both mentor and mentee.

Coaching is generally a formal relationship involving an external consultant/coach and usually occurs at the senior manager to executive level. However, informal coaching delivered by the HR/OD department or through a peer coaching program is also a good option. Coaching is most effective in helping successful people become even better at what they do. It is of particular value during transitional times such as new hire/on-boarding, promotion, lateral moves to a new business unit, or post mergers/acquisitions. Coaching is also sometimes useful for addressing employee performance issues; this is a more sensitive situation and requires two major conditions: (1) the company values the leader and sees coaching as an opportunity to help him/her overcome obstacles to success and (2) the leader is highly motivated to change.

These are the "cliff notes" on 3 different ways to provide leadership development. They are all viable learning modalities and generally within the grasp of most companies or nonprofit organizations. Most every organization states "people are our greatest asset", yet it is this "greatest asset" that is frequently overlooked. People want to learn and be the best they can be.

All they need is a little coaching, mentoring or training !

July 30, 2008

Sales Leadership Advice: Stop Selling!

Attended the Worcester Business Journal Sales Awards Breakfast today where 20 top sales people from Central Massachusetts received awards for their Sales Success.

Much of the focus on Sales Success was attributed to what some may call "psychological factors", notably: listening more "selling" less; More focus on the customer/client, less on your own products or services; More emphasis on developing relationships less on "closing technique"; More on managing people less on managing metrics.

Of course, the bottom line in sales is sales, i.e. making the numbers. But the critical question is: What, exactly, is the best way to get there? In most cases, it is by developing the art of communication, building sound relationships, understanding the needs and wants of your customers, demonstrating integrity and developing trust that you will deliver as promised.

Sounds rather personal, if you ask me.

July 25, 2008

Why I love technology (and you should too!)

Standing in the Apple line at the Burlington Mall waiting for the "privilege" to buy my new iphone, I had the time to reflect upon my relationship to technology.

As a consultant, I am a change agent. I help organizations and their leaders develop, grow, expand their capabilities and be more effective in achieving their business results. Which is why I love technology: its all about change.

Other reasons:

-Its fun
-It saves time
-Its challenging
-Your kids can't make fun of you for being non-tech savvy (don't worry, they'll find something else!).

Too many people resist change, innovation and new technology which is unfortunate. Is it fear, frustration, general resistance to change or progress? Nostalgia and a desire for the good old days when things were simpler? True, technology can be used for good or evil, and we can become slaves to our new fancy the need to check your emails 24/7...why? Because you can!

Nonetheless, we are in a world of fast moving new technological apps and if you want to stay ahead of the game, you need to embrace change rather than resist it.

Meanwhile, I need to go find out if my iphone is going to sync with my Mac desktop. What a pain!

July 18, 2008

Leadership in Healthcare

Our healthcare system is in trouble. Does anyone negate this point?

OK, we are likely in agreement here, the question is what to do about it. There are simple and not-so-simple answers. One payor system, more insurance options, greater consumer responsibility, pay for performance, six sigma and lean quality programs, improved technology, more primary care physicians, innovative primary care solutions, increase in nurses and technicians, streamlined payment systems, and more.

Healthcare is an excellent case study for examining what is needed in leadership today. The system is so complex and multi-faceted that it demands leadership that is equally complex. No one person is going to solve this problem. There are too many players involved and unfortunately they sometimes have competing interests. These include: pharmaceutical companies, insurers, medical device companies, physicians and other healthcare providers, hospitals, businesses, governmental agencies, oh and least we forget: patients.

Solving the healthcare crisis requires leadership that will help us achieve what we all want: good quality, accessible care that is affordable. It requires leaders who can see the big picture, understand the complexities, communicate effectively and involve the key stakeholders to arrive at innovative solutions.

Are we preparing today's leaders to meet these challenges?

July 11, 2008

Flip-Flopping vs. Obstinance: A Leader's Dilemma

We find ourselves disappointed in our leaders for flip-flopping. We don't want to think they will change their minds on a whim...or for political advantage. Obama is getting some heat for this now, especially on his recent vote on FISA and his position on campaign financing. McCain has also done his share of changing positions, most recently regarding immigration law.

So, when is changing one's position "Flip-flopping" and when is it "evolution of thinking"? Is flip-flopping worse than stubbornly holding on to a perspective that upon reflection has no merit? Is it OK for leaders to admit errors and change their minds?

During a heated political campaign it is near impossible for a candidate to make a shift in position without it being seen as politically motivated. What about business, however? Are the internal politics of the corporate world the same?

There are times when flip-flopping can be a virtue in business and, yes, even in politics. Today's world is complex; sound decisions require information from a variety of sources. Leaders must be open to new perspectives, which may result in a change in position.

Historically, we have valued leaders that were strong, decisive and unwavering, dare I say also at times obstinate? Yet there is increasing evidence that real leadership comes from being reflective, collaborative and having the ability to use the creative energies of others. This sometimes necessitates a "flip-flop" and can present a real challenge for today's leaders.

July 3, 2008

Liberty, Personal Freedom and Business

On the eve of July 4th, 2008, it is worth reflecting on the state of freedom in the US. I am thinking particularly of how it relates to the world of work and business.

Our country is founded on the notion of personal freedom and liberty for all. As a nation in our daily practices, we are getting closer to reaching the goal of "liberty for all", though we aren't quite there yet.

I find myself curious about the existence, or curtailment, of personal freedom in our work world. Upon entering an organization, we endure drug tests, reviews of our criminal background, credit checks and reference checks. Some companies are checking the weight of their employees and deducting money from their paychecks if they are overweight--why not, health care costs are increasing exponentially?

Sometimes these invasions of privacy make sense--like when safety is a factor or for high stakes positions. But all too often, they aren't necessary and can be counterproductive. For example, I recently heard of a situation in which a background check pulled up a criminal charge that was an error---the individual had been arrested but charges were dropped when it was determined the arrest was without merit. The charges were supposed to be cleared from the record, but they weren't. The individual was not hired for a job for which he had been considered a perfect fit.

How often do these events occur? We have no way of knowing, really. But one must wonder why it is acceptable to curtail our individual freedom in such a significant way when it comes to business settings. The usual response to this issue is---"You don't have to work there, if you don't agree with the policy". True, we do have the freedom to walk away; but what happens when those policies become pervasive ? Where does one "walk away" to?

Liberty is always a balance between individual freedom and the greater good. And LEADERSHIP means having the courage to ask the difficult questions and challenge the status quo, even when it is unpopular.

June 26, 2008

Trust in the Workplace

Do you trust your manager? Does he/she trust you? How do you know? Does it even matter?

There are differing opinions regarding this issue. Some say it is unreasonable to expect trust between employees, managers and peers in the workplace given the nature of work today and it may even be counterproductive or detrimental. For example, being overly trusting of others may lead you to divulge information that is then used against you. You tell a fellow Sales Manager about potential leads you are working on, and later discover that person following those leads and making the sale. We all have examples of people who have taken credit for our work after we innocently shared the information "trusting" that we would not be undermined. Why trust, better to be self-protective.

Others posit that Trust is EXACTLY what is needed in the workplace---the more the better. In the situation described above, for example, a trusting relationship between the Sales Managers could serve as deterrent for such undercutting behavior.

I am particularly interested in the topic of Trust between Managers and their Employees. In my work, I have seen the damage that occurs when it is lacking. A manager who cannot trust his/her employees will have difficulty achieving business goals and objectives. An employee who does not trust the manager, may not reveal concerns about work that is going awry and could conceal errors that may potentially have a major negative impact on productivity.

Though Trust goes both ways, one cannot deny that there is a power differential between managers and direct reports. Leaders must set the tone and create the environment that will foster trusting relationships at work.

If you are a manager, you should ask yourself these questions..
  • Do my employees trust me?
  • Do they really?
  • How do I know? and if not,
  • How can I change that?

June 19, 2008

Is "Political Leadership" an Oxymoron?

A blog on leadership cannot ignore the obvious---what is happening in the political scene. It is clear that today people are cynical about politics and politicians. Polarization seems the norm--one side takes a position, the other side reacts. The other side takes a stance, again a reaction. Few political leaders are willing to stand up and "cross the aisle" to tackle the really difficult issues, knowing it may involve losing support and ultimately being voted out of office. This may be what got us into the Iraq war.

Yet, beyond our cynical views of the state of politics, we have to ask ourselves: to what extent are we to blame? Do we expect our leaders to give us all we ask for? Do we criticize and vote them out of office when they don't? Isn't it true the really difficult issues require some give and take, open debate, and willingness to compromise?

I believe in Contextual Leadership which means that leaders do not live in a vacuum, they operate within a context. The current political context is very polarized--Right/Left, Democratic/Republican, black/white, Christian/Muslim, etc. It makes it almost impossible for a true leader to emerge within this volatile landscape. Though there exists individual politicians truly lacking in integrity, the primary problem is systemic, i.e. a broken system. Therefore, putting all our faith in individual leaders will not get us to where we need to go.

This is also evident in business, which is why the failure rate for newly hired senior managers is so high. Even a really talented executive or politician will need help from within the larger system in which he or she works.


June 13, 2008

Values-Centered Leadership in Action

Last night I had the opportunity to hear Tom Chappell, co-founder and CEO of Tom's of Maine, speak on values-centered leadership. You probably know Tom for his natural toothpaste and other various natural products. He presented his company as a Case Study with an emphasis on the various trials and tribulations of developing a business that was consistent with one's values. Tom sees himself as a sort of self-made man who operated from an intuitive level as opposed to an MBA--business school approach. Nonetheless, he is clearly infused with the entrepreneurial spirit which is apparently a family tradition.

I must say the presentation was inspiring---it is refreshing to see someone so obsessed with the notion of being totally consistent with his values. How hard is that today? To give up short term gains for long term benefits and sustainability. To risk failure and avoid taking the easy road because you are paying more attention to the heart than the head?

Of course Tom's success is not based solely on fluffy, intuitive, "go with the flow" behaviors and he spoke highly of a very talented Board of Directors that helped to guide him along the way.

The main takeaway for me: One can be successful and profitable while also living with integrity. This is a lesson that is sure to benefit any leader in business (or politics) today!

June 9, 2008

Learning in the midst of Confusion

Why does the most profound learning come in the midst of a crisis? You have probably had that experience. After a failed project, a personal set back or a time of major transition, you find yourself making major breakthroughs. This is very common and there is evidence suggesting a physiological basis for this phenomenon. What happens is that during these times you are more open to new learning. When everything else in your life is being challenged, you question basic assumptions and reflect upon things you usually take for granted. This can result in great insights or "AHA" moments.

Let's say, as a leader, you receive 360 feedback and you are totally slammed by peers, direct reports and/or managers. You are floored! You had no idea! Do you pick up and leave the job, try to escape? Do you dismiss the information as lacking credibility? Admittedly, you are embarrassed as well as confused. However, this is a critical moment and an opportunity. Rather than dismiss the data, you can take it on as a challenge. You do some serious self reflection. You work at understanding the perspectives of your colleagues and you use the information to become a better Leader.

You always have a choice and choosing to learn and improve yourself is probably better than hiding your head in the sand. Even if it does involve some confusion.

June 5, 2008

Leading through conversation

Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to accomplish. Like having a difficult conversation that may change the course of events.

In the work setting, people are always confronted with the decision to speak or not speak their minds---"Should I give my opinion on this controversial issue?" "Do I tell my manager I have concerns about x ?" "Should I put myself out there in the team meeting, and be the person to raise criticisms regarding our present strategy?"

We all have a conversational style which can work well in some situations but not others. Some of us are too blunt, others too quiet or evasive, and most fall somewhere in between. But speaking with an authentic voice and saying what really needs to be said is surprisingly difficult. Yet, that is what really sets a leader apart from others. It involves courage, tact and interpersonal savvy. It usually involves some risk. But the payoff in the long run can be immense.

If you are a business leader and you are not confident about your ability to communicate effectively, you may want to get some advice, coaching or feedback from others. Carefully observing people who are particularly effective in conversation can also be instructive. Or, you might just want to give it a try, push yourself a little beyond your comfort zone. What's the worse that could happen? OK, I suppose you could get fired, but how likely is that really?????

June 4, 2008

The Leadership Journey Begins

Is there really enough room in cyberspace for another blog on leadership? Well, I say a resounding YES! As an Organizational Psychologist, I bring a perspective that attends to both the personal and the organizational---and leadership is all about the dynamic between these two realms.

Some folks are scared off by the word "Psychology", fearing that it is too focused on the soft and fuzzy as opposed to business competencies. But consider this: Being a great leader means having the personal skills, courage and commitment to make things happen.....
  • It means being resilient---able to bounce back after adversity.
  • Being a communicator---able to have the difficult conversation when needed.
  • Being a decision-maker--not afraid to make the tough decisions.
  • Being humble--keeping your eyes on the prize and at times helping others to take credit for success
  • Being agile---able to deal with complexity and change in a world filled with enormous challenges
Yes, business and technical skills are critical. But Leadership is also personal and leaders today need a high level of self awareness and resilience to be successful.