Sep 29, 2013

A Leader's #1 Fear

Number One Fear
I've heard it.  You've probably heard it.  The notion that most people's biggest fear is public speaking.  (Dying is distant second.)
I no longer believe that public speaking is the number one fear.  In the United States, many leaders fear delivering negative feedback above all else.  

When a leader avoids giving negative feedback, they deny subordinates the opportunity to improve.  And undermine the motivation of other employees who see poor performance tolerated. Ultimately, the entire organization suffers.
Of course, some leaders give lots of negative feedback in a destructive manner.  And some leaders give negative feedback in a constructive manner.  But many give only positive feedback. And avoid giving negative feedback -- or saying anything whatsoever to an employee that might cause an emotional outburst.
Most leaders agree with me when I discuss the consequences of avoiding feedback.  They are acutely aware of the problem, and feel a high degree of stress when interacting with a poor performer.  They hope that the employee will simply improve on their own.  Or be transferred.  Or decide to quit.  Some leaders cling to any slim hope that justifies postponing difficult conversations indefinitely.
How to Start
If you are avoiding giving feedback, what can you do?  First, please don't beat yourself up.  This is a common issue.  And if you're not it the habit of giving direct, negative feedback in a constructive way, it can be difficult to start.
Second, recognize that effective feedback focuses behavior, not emotions.  Telling someone that you're unhappy or upset is not useful to them, and often starts the conversation off on the wrong foot. The purpose of feedback is to give a person honest information about their behavior and give them an opportunity to improve.

Third, start by giving negative feedback in situations where your personal emotional involvement is low.  Most of us interact with service people in a variety of situations.  The next time someone asks you for feedback, be honest.  For example, when your waiter asks, "how was your meal?" give both positive and negative feedback.  Let the server know what met your expectations and what did not.  Give them an opportunity to fix things before you leave a tip.

Practice, practice, practice.  As you become more confident delivering constructive, negative feedback as a customer, check out my next blog post on delivering feedback as a leader.

Jul 20, 2013

Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

Seduction of Process Efficiency

I'll never forget a conversation I had decades ago with an engineer from India.  I was trying to explain how Business Process Re-Engingeering (BPR) could be applied to make processes more efficient.  I was failing miserably and my engineer friend was confused.

In desperation, I talked about the tradeoff between capital and labor.  I explained that most BPR implementations usually involved some form of automation or information technology.  That the capital investment was offset by reduced labor costs.  "Ah, hah!" he exclaimed.  "We would never do where I come from.  Labor is cheap and capital is dear."

http://masqueradingscientist.blogspot.com
We suddenly realized together that BPR could work in his old neighborhood, just differently.  Processes could be re-engineered to use more labor (not less).  In the US, we use conveyor belts to unload luggage from airplanes with just a handful of laborers.  My friend explained that the last time he flew home his luggage was passed from hand to hand through a long line of laborers (like a bucket brigade).

Unfortunately, this desire to create process efficiency can get in the way of effective leadership.  An effective leader identifies, utilizes and develops the talents of his team.  Every member of his team.

When every member of the team is learning and growing, your team team becomes more effective.  And able to continually improve your processes.

Jul 14, 2013

When Not To Coach #2 - Sell Your Idea

Sometimes people confuse coaching and selling.  After all, both can use questions in order to achieve a desired result. 

My favorite example of using questions to change someone's mind appears in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Toula (pictured left)  gets help from her mother (pictured right) to convince her traditional Greek patriarch father that she should leave the family restaurant to work in her aunt's travel agency. 

As the IMDB plot summary explains: 

      All her father Gus wants is for her to get married to a nice Greek boy. But Toula is looking for more in life. Her mother convinces Gus to let her take some computer classes at college (making him think it's his idea). With those classes under her belt, she then takes over her aunt's travel agency (again making her father think it's his idea).
I'm all for getting people to buy in to your ideas through questions.   However, if you walk in with a particular outcome in mind, and use your questions to convince someone of your point of view, you're selling, not coaching.  Your questions are leading, rather than open-ended.

Effective coaching starts with the coach and coachee agreeing upon a desired outcome.  Neither the coach nor the coachee is wedded to a particular path to achieve the desired outcome.  The coach must firmly believe that the coachee is capable of defining an appropriate path.  Then (and only then) can they truly coach.  By using open-ended questions, an open-minded coach can help a willing and able coachee identify an appropriate course of action.  

Are You Projecting a Bleak Outlook?


The news media are, for the most part, the bringers of bad news... and it's not entirely the media's fault, bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers than good news. 

Peter McWilliams



I'ts so easy to develop a negative outlook.  Every morning newscasters focus on scary stuff.  Their job is to keep you from changing the channel, and frightening stories work.

Unfortunately, if you drive to work listening to negative talk radio, you become negative.  Your mind can easily magnify small problems into  looming disasters. 

And whatever your state of mind when you walk in the door, your employees will notice.  Worse still, some people will observe your posture as you get out of your car.  And if you are beaten down and pessimistic, your attitude is will infect them.

People follow leaders who believe they can make a difference.  And if you feel beaten down by events around you, and start to think you are not able to make a positive difference, you'll lose your followers.

Colin Powell wrote that "they must believe that no matter how bad things look, you can make them better."  Powell was told:


Lieutenant, you may be starving, but you must never show hunger; you always eat last.  You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion  but you must never show that you are cold or hot.  You may be terrified, but you must never show fear.  You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions.
Whatever you do, take time before arriving at the office to focus on the bright side.  To remember your positive vision of the future.  To arrive empowered, optimistic, and ready to lead others.



Jul 3, 2013

What Are Your Superpowers?


This morning I forgot my superpowers.

Maybe it's happened to you.  You wake up in a bad mood, or have an early meeting that doesn't go well.  And you're off your game.

I wasn't having a great day when my husband started looking for his ball cap that says "Veteran" on it.  I was pretty sure it was in our front closet, but he couldn't find it there.

Tom's approach is a bit different from mine - he pulled out several ball caps the same color as his "Veteran" cap.  None of them were the right cap.  Frustrated, he threw up his hands.

So I tried my method.  I systematically removed every hat from the closet until I found the hat he wanted.  And I funny thing happened.  My attitude changed.  I suddenly realized I had used several of my superpowers to find his hat:
  • Persistence
  • Analytical problem-solving
  • Keen observation

I'm so thankful that I have superpowers. That I know what they are. And I know how to apply them!

Too often, in self-reflective moments, I focus on my weaknesses. This is like Superman bemoaning his Kryptonite vulnerability and forgetting his flying ability!

To help me remember my strengths, I created a cartoon of my superhero alter-ego.   My staff of persistence keeps me grounded as I move step-by-step toward my goal.  My decoder ring helps me unlock and solve complex problems.  And my bright green goggles enable me to observe what others miss.

My ears have wings because listening is my most important superpower.  And I've got stars because, well, I like stars!  Plus, when I coach leaders, we surface and hone their star qualities.

Are you a leader?  The best way for you to develop as a leader is to leverage your strengths.  Not to shore up your weaknesses.  Most of the stuff you're not good at can be delegated or outsourced.

OK, ok.  There are some exceptions.  If you curse your staff or consistently show up late to meetings, yes, you need to improve.  But aside from curing fatal flaws, please don't spend a lot of time overcoming minor shortcomings.  Be bold in applying your strengths!

If you're great at strategy, strategize.  If you're great at motivating others, motivate.  If you're great at selling, sell.  Use your superpowers.  And surround yourself with people whose superpowers complement yours.

Want your own superhero cartoon?  Check out the tools at http://www.heromachine.com/  I'd love to see what you create!

Jun 30, 2013

The Gift of Feedback

Do I have spinach in my teeth?

Telling The Truth

Imagine your team is ready to walk into a client conference room and make an important presentation. One of your subordinates comes over to you, straightening their jacket and running a hand through their hair.  They stand in front of you, pause, and smile broadly.

Will you tell them them the truth?  Will you alert them to the spinach in their teeth?  Or will you keep silent about the green, leafy vegetable punctuating their smile?

When I ask these questions, most managers respond, "Of course I'll tell them!  It's in their best interest to know right away so that they can fix it."

So - here's the $64,000 question - what keeps you from giving immediate feedback in other situations?  When Susie alienates everyone in a meeting by interrupting them and failing to listen?  When Curt gives a long-winded talk to your team with too many slides and too much information on each slide, leaving the group bleary-eyed and confused?

Excuses for Withholding Feedback

Excuses I often hear include:

  • They ought to know, I shouldn't have to tell them.  (Hmmm.  If they already know, why are they behaving this way?)
  • I'm too busy for this. (Great.  Where does managing people fall in your priorities?)
  • I'll wait and see if it becomes a pattern before criticizing them.  (Bad idea.  Once it becomes a pattern, it's harder to change behavior.)
  • I'm afraid they'll get upset, and I don't want to deal with an emotional outburst.  (Wow.  Looks like you're teaching your people that they can get away with all sorts of behavior, as long as they threaten to get upset if you bring it to their attention.)
And I sometimes get this excuse:
  • Since I'm not perfect, who am I to criticize them?


The "I'm not perfect" excuse breaks my heart.  You see, no manager, no leader, no executive, no matter how much money they make or how successful they are - no one is perfect.  But that does not excuse you for withholding information that someone desperately needs.  

Forget trying to be a perfect role model.  Focus on giving accurate, impartial feedback.  

Simply Observing

Most people want to do a good job.  And want to know where they're falling short, so that they can improve. Your simple observations can be extremely helpful.

I recommend learning to stick  to observations and stay away from conclusions. For example, when you see me with spinach in my teeth, you might conclude that I neglected to brush my teeth after lunch.  You might be right.  But you might also be wrong - perhaps I brushed, but the spinach stubbornly remained!
Possibly Wrong Conclusion:  Looks like you missed a piece of spinach when you brushed.
If you start by stating your conclusion, we're likely to get into an argument.  Better to simply offer your observation.
Simple Observation: You have some spinach in your teeth.
I'm likely to thank you!  No one else has mentioned this to me and your feedback is a gift.  I am able to take appropriate action based upon your observation.

Your observation has nothing to do with your behavior, character, or leadership ability.  You are simply observing something that I missed and bringing it to my attention.  You're acting as a mirror, without judgment.

Observations vs. Conclusions

You don't have to be better (or even as good as) the person you are observing.  Just stay away from drawing conclusions.

Simple Observation: You interrupted people and didn't listen to them during this meeting.
Possibly Wrong Conclusion:  You don't care what other people think.
Simple Observation: You presented a lot of slides and a lot of information during this meeting.  I observed that several team members were confused.  
Possibly Wrong Conclusion:  You didn't practice your talk.

OK, I get it.  You might be thinking the possibly wrong conclusions.  Please don't share them.

And here's the good news - the more frequently you share simple observations, the easier it gets. And people will come to you more often for feedback, since they'll hear the truth.


Apr 8, 2013

Last Ditch Attempt to "Fix" a Failing Employee - When Not To Hire an Executive Coach #1


I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a call from a manager who has decided to hire an executive coach as a last ditch attempt to fix a performance problem.  This is a very bad idea.

First of all, coaching requires more than compliance from the coachee.  Coaching only works when the person being coached actually wants to be coached.

Remember that great joke:  How many executive coaches does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one - but the light bulb has to really want to change.

So coaching someone who doesn't actually want to be coached is doomed from the start.  And, "I'll be coached in order to save my job", doesn't cut it.  Fear is a powerful motivator, but a poor foundation for coaching.
To Do List, a photo by Design Build Love on Flickr.

Also, frequently a manager simply wants to prove to themselves and others that they've done everything in their power to save the failing employee.

Worst of all, you'll communicate to everyone in your organization that coaching is for performance problems.  Good luck when you try to engage an executive coach to develop a rising star.  No one in your organization will want to be coached.

Feb 25, 2013

Am You Really Delegating?

As you give more responsibility and autonomy to your most capable direct reports, focus your conversation less on how they should approach a task and more on the what and why.  
                                                                                                                                                John Beeson


When I was a 20-something manager at IBM, I thought that delegating meant getting other people to do stuff I would be doing otherwise. I tried to "delegate" a task to one of my highly capable 40-something subordinates.  Problem was, I wanted him to do it the same way I would.  So I spent a lot of time explaining just how I wanted it done.

by purpleslog
I'll never forget his response.  "Look Sheila", he said, "if you tell me what results you want, and let me do it my way, I'll take responsibility for the results.  But, if you insist on having me do it your way, then you're going to be responsible for the results."

He really set me back on my heels!  My first thought was, "How insubordinate!" Luckily, I kept my thoughts to myself, took a deep breath, and realized that he was right.

In his HBR article, Stop Micromanaging and Learn to Delegate,  John Beeson explains:  I'ts important to realize that other people won't do things exactly the same way you would.  Challenge yourself to distinguish between the style in which direct reports approach tasks and the quality of the results."

See, I couldn't delegate anyway, unless my employee had the appropriate skills and experience. Since he was talented and capable, I could:
  • Clearly specify the desired outcome
  • Allow him freedom regarding the process, and 
  • Hold him accountable for results.

I learned the hard way, but I learned.  And this approach was actually less work for me!