263 Who Do You Listen To? (And Who Listens To You?)

 

Who Do You Listen To? (And Who Listens To You?) - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 263

Max, the 1st grandson listening to an iPod

How do you determine who gets your time and attention? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who listens to you?

There are three distinct groups who occupy your life – in terms of people who you’re willing to pay attention to – with one major caveat, these are people who know who you are. Of course, we all tend to listen to far more people who have no clue who we are. We read books, listen to speakers, watch videos, read blogs and listen to podcasts by people who don’t us. Sometimes we even put more weight on what they tell us than on what those who love us most may tell us. It’s the maze we all have to travel as we figure out who deserves our attention based on who can really help us.

1. The core group – the people you know and who know you. These are people who have a personal connection with you. They understand your life, and they care about it. They have a more vested interest in your life. Hopefully, you also care about them.

2. The special interest group – the people you know and who know you, but they leap to your mind because of some present need or interest. For example, you may have some specialized skill. Let’s say you’re a WordPress website designer. People know that about you. When somebody has a question or need about a WordPress website, your phone rings – or you email inbox gets a new message. You occupy a “top-of-mind” presence for the people who know you. You have people like that in your life, too.

Then, there are all those people we know of, but who don’t know us. Connections are made that have value, but aren’t very intimate. We really don’t know them, but based on their public persona we think we do. Again, some of these people may be core people we listen to. We may listen to them all the time. We may hang on their every word because we’ve decided they’ll be in our inner circle of influence even though they don’t know us.

Another group may be more specialized. I’m a member of Don McAllister’s Screen Casts Online. Don teaches about all things Apple Mac. He produces killer video tutorials at his membership site. I learn from Don’s work. He doesn’t have a clue who I am, but based on my special interest in what he teaches, I listen to Don. We’ve all got people like that in our life. They provide value for us. Sometimes we pay for the value. Sometimes it’s completely free.

With Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Pinterest, Google + and the host of other places where we interact with people – it’s entirely probable that most of the people you interact with each day are people who haven’t a real clue who you are. Why do you listen to them? Is it popularity? What is it that draws you to them? What value do they provide in your life?

Quite often I find myself not asking these important questions – and every time I drift away from asking these great questions I find my life grows noisier. That’s not good for me. It’s distracting.

Some years ago I devised a plan to further restrict the voices in my head – and my life. It’s hard. I’d love to tell you how I don’t plan to allow the cool kids to dictate the voices I value most, but sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s like reading a book only because it’s popular and top-of-the-chart only to find that I’ve wasted hours reading a book that was an utter waste of time! The herd isn’t always right. Popular people aren’t always the most reliable people to listen to.

Besides, I find the most value in listening to people who care about my life – and those willing to let me care about theirs.

3. The special confidant – the person, or maybe persons, who you completely trust. This group is really a subset of the first group, the core group. And it can consist of at least 2 sub-groups:

a) people who have skills/experience to help or
b) people who are special friends willing to help (but may not know how)

Maybe your mom loves you and is willing to listen to all your problems, but that doesn’t make her qualified to offer you sound advice. A husband or wife may have little insight about a professional challenge. Or you may just want or need a person with some distance to provide you with a fresh perspective.

This last group can be the most challenging group. For good reason.

The first group naturally happens. Our family, church friends, friends who share our hobbies and people who share other social interactions with us — they know us. We know them. Each group has some context. That is, church friends see us in one context. Friends we tailgate with at the weekend football game know us in a different context. Parents of our kids’ friends know us in that context.

Additionally, these groups happen around some central focus. Family happens because we’re born into or adopted into a specific group. We didn’t choose it. It just happened. Funny how our closest core group is so random, huh? But other groups – like our tailgate buddies – happens because we share our love for a team. Or because we have season seats near each other. Or because we’re next door neighbors who happen to love the same team. There are some shared reasons that bring us together. Some of these relationships may be shallow while others run deep. Our core group of people tend to run the range between very casual to very trusted. Still, these people are in our lives because of a common, shared interest. Or because we’re family.

The second group – the special interest group – can overlap with the core group. Those tailgate buddies might be close friends, but the foundation of the friendship was forged because we both loved a specific team. It may have transcended the weekend fall game, but we still view these friends as people we can talk with about next season’s chances to go to a major bowl game.

I’m mostly using this second group for the purposes of helping us though. These are people who have a specialized skill, talent or experience. It’s less important that they know us because the relationship – our willingness to listen to them – is based mostly on how much trust we have in their ability to help us. Can they help us solve this problem?

As summer is approaching my son and I were talking last month about having our AC units checked out. He knows a guy. Well, I know a guy, too. But he knows his guy better than I know my guy. And his interaction with his guy was just last year. I haven’t interacted with my guy in a few years. Based on his past experience, his trust and confidence in his AC guy — we both lined him up to do a seasonal tune-up on our units. My son knows him. He knows my son. I had never met him, but because of my son we had a connection.

He came over, spent a few hours doing what he does, charged us a reasonable amount and I even posted on Facebook telling anybody who might need AC work to call him. I strongly recommended him based on how he served me. He was in my second group, but now he’s in my third group. And there’s a point to that migration from group 2 to group 3.

That third group is even more special, or narrow. The AC man was in group 2 for me because I was going on a recommendation of my son. The guy didn’t know me. We had never met. He had never done any work for me. But once he had done work for me – and once we met – I was fully prepared to move him to the 3rd group based on his work and my experience with him. He could have come to my house, done crappy work and fallen off of any list…except the one where I keep people who I never want to call again. But he did a good job so I elevated him among the people I’m willing to listen to.

I’m not going to call him when I have a business problem. He’s not going to be somebody I call if I want to talk Bible. I won’t be calling him up for relationship advice. But if I need heating and air conditioning advice, he’s my guy.

That’s how it is with specialized interest. But it can also be how it is with a special confidant. Sounds odd to have a special HVAC confidant, but we all have people like that. Maybe you have a yard guy or a tree guy. Any time you have a problem in those areas, you call a special somebody who knows how to solve those problems. You trust that person completely when it comes to yard or tree issues. They’re a confidant, even if the subject isn’t terribly sensitive. Like my HVAC units.

We don’t think twice about having such people in our lives. But we either fail to think – or we avoid thinking – about some other people who may serve us in very important matters (not that our yard, trees and HVAC aren’t important). Married couples can struggle and one or both can avoid seeking help because of pride, embarrassment or a host of other moronic reasons. A marriage isn’t more valuable than air conditioning? Sadly for some, maybe not. But it should be.

I think there may be an even bigger reason why people don’t find or include a special confidant in some areas of their life. They don’t know anybody. And they don’t know who to ask, or they’re too afraid to ask.

The bravest ask, or quietly cold call somebody seeking out Google and other search devices to find somebody. But many don’t. They just quietly go about their business struggling alone, or leaning on people unequipped to help them. They hope to find some solace in a listening ear, but often find themselves more frustrated by a caring friend or family member who doesn’t know what to say or how to react.

And there’s the whole stigma of seeking out a professional. “We don’t need to see a marriage counselor,” says the husband to his wife of 10 years. Communication between he and his wife are non-existent. They both know they’re in trouble. They love each other, but the last few years have wrecked what they once had. Pride. Shame. Embarrassment. Coupled with not knowing a good marriage counselor…are creating the perfect storm for their marriage to fatally hit the rocks. “Besides, how much does something like that cost?” asks the wife. Again, it’s so far outside the realm of what most of us know about…our cluelessness hinders our ability to craft an ideal circle of trusted confidants to who can serve us.

Executive coaching suffers the same problems. Whether you prefer to call it business coaching, leadership coaching or career coaching – it’s all very much the same. It’s serving the specific needs of somebody who needs a person with whom they can be completely transparent and vulnerable. It’s serving the person who may need short-term help through some specific challenge. It’s serving the person who may want longer term help through a transition. It’s anything, but one-size-fits-all. It’s specific, personal and targeted.

Those brave enough – wise enough – to seek it out will attest to the value of it. For many, it’s priceless. For most, it’s invaluable. When it’s done well, it’s a partnership. It’s focus is YOU. That’s a rare feeling for most. A good feeling, but rare. To know that another person is so vested in your outcome that they’ll do whatever they can to help you — it’s a terrific feeling. One that too few ever experience.

It’s not about fixing things necessarily. It’s about exploring possibilities. It’s about improvement and growth. It’s about vital friendships that can help us achieve higher levels of success faster.

Who do you listen to – and how do you decide?

Randy.Black

262 Every Significant Pay Raise Is Sparked By These Strong Desires

Every Significant Pay Raise Is Sparked By These Strong Desires - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 262

I’ve negotiated countless deals in my career. Some of them have involved my own pay and terms of employment. Those negotiations are personal with stakes that run deep. Each time I’ve done it I’ve thought about the representatives of professional athletes and others who rely on professional representation. I never reached altitudes that required it, but I can see the benefits of it.

Herb Cohen, author of You Can Negotiate Anything, published the first edition of that book in the shadow of the Cold War. For those of you too young to remember, the Cold War was more than strong-arm negotiations. It was an arms race to show strength of destructive power. The logic was simple. If we show the Russians that our guns are bigger and more powerful than theirs, then we’ll have the upper hand. It was problematic because it was constant one-ups-man-ship brought about by one country making a move that would be countered by the opposition.

Cohen had a front row seat in a number of negotiations with Russia. In the book, he depicts the Soviet negotiation style as a sort of “my way or the highway kind” of conversation. My entire life – and my generation – understood and learned that anybody who sat across from us at a bargaining table with such a posture was assuming a “Soviet” approach. From an American perspective, those Cold War negotiations made us believe the Russians never negotiated in good faith. I’m sure Russians my age likely feel the same way about Americans. Back then, you never heard that worn out phrase, win-win. If you won, that meant the other guy lost. If he won, then it meant you lost. And that didn’t just apply to international, governmental negotiations. It applied to business, divorce settlements and any other bargaining between two or more parties.

It was all a zero-sum game. My winning necessitates you losing. Your winning necessitates my losing.

That was then. This is now.

My early business career was not spent around many people who believed in the Golden Rule. Instead of doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you, the mantra was…

Do unto them before they have a chance to do unto you.

I wasn’t able to embrace that notion, or strategy. It violated everything I’d been taught as a child, and the philosophy I was determined to live. That didn’t preclude me from trying to get the very best deal possible. I always felt it was my job to do the very best I could for my employer. I assumed the other side was trying to do the same thing and if I bested them, it only meant they didn’t serve their boss better than me. Yes, it was personal. Whoever said, “It’s only business” was only saying that to make the loser feel better. It’s always personal. It can be professional, but it’s still personal.

Today’s show was prompted by some professional people who wanted to know my thoughts – and advice – on negotiating pay increases and higher end titles. I’ve mentioned all this Soviet stuff to establish my own history and background and to encourage you to respect the position of the other side of the table. Take your eye off the other side at your own risk. Assume the other side has your best interest at heart — at your own risk (and likely peril). You have to assume responsibility for your own welfare.

Negotiating pay raises or better titles isn’t the same as negotiating purchase orders. It’s far more personal. Our investment in the outcome is higher. And more sensitive.

Your Need For More Money Doesn’t Matter

One of my first experiences with an employee who wanted more money involved hearing how he needed more money. I heard about a wife and kids. I sat there, listened and at the first pause said something that sat him back.

“Your need for money isn’t my problem.”

I could tell he was stunned. Not wanting to appear heartless, I went on to explain to him that all of us had responsibilities – people who depended on us to provide. I was sympathetic with his sense of responsibility, but it wasn’t my problem. While I wanted him to have the best opportunities possible in our company, he had to understand that because he had 2 more kids than another employee didn’t warrant higher pay. I thought his argument was senseless, and it was.

I talked to him about adding value. However, like many people, he was solely focused on his need, not his value. I urged him to focus on that responsibility and let it propel him to higher levels of accomplishment in his work. “Your family ought to provide you with enough inspiration to be more valuable here at work,” I told him.

It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted me to grant his wish like some magic genie. I knew he left my office dejected, in spite of my best efforts to encourage him. But I was young and not likely as accomplished at encouraging people as I am now. But I knew that I couldn’t be held responsible for any income deficiencies he suffered. He needed to own it himself. His family was his burden to bear. My burden toward them was done only through serving him so he could serve them. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I tried.

It’s been 35 years or so since I had that encounter. Many more have happened since. Each time the focal point is the same – providing value. Far too many people seem stuck in thinking only of what they need or want, not how they can elevate their value to warrant a pay raise.

Just this week Jacquelyn Smith wrote a piece for Business Insider entitled, 7 tricks to talk your boss into the salary you want, from a former FBI hostage-negotiation trainer. Mark Goulston is the FBI. Now he’s an author. He’s written some very good books including, Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone and Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In.

Mark’s negotiation experiences are very different than mine. Yours, too probably. I’ve felt like I was in a life-death negotiation before, but it was just a feeling. It wasn’t real. Money, profits and income were the highest stakes for most of my negotiations. I’m not minimizing those because those are the pain points in business life. They’re just not quite the same as knowing somebody may die if you fail.

I’ll leave it to Mark and Herb Cohen (and plenty of others) to teach us some tactics. I’m mostly focused today on the point – the purpose and motivation behind the ask. And maybe, to a lesser extent, the courage to simply do it – to ask. In that regard, I really agree with point number 4 of Ms. Smith’s article…

Most people are “receivers” who are not willing to give — unless you ask, he says.

My own experiences have found this to be true. Sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who is proactive to reward superior performance, but it’s more the exception than the rule. And yet almost every worker likely wishes the boss would observe their good performance and offer them more money and other rewards. Maybe in a future episode I’ll talk about the powerful impact such behavior can have on a culture and leadership.

There are 2 things I want to focus on today. These are the things I have found most powerful when people are yearning for a pay raise. One is internal and one is external. It can start from inside out, or outside in. It doesn’t really matter. That’s an odd thing because most things have a defined sequence. Not this.

Inner Drive

Both things are inner. But only 1 is external. Let me explain.

Value. The business or organization cares mostly about what you can do for them (it). That doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t care about you as a person, but not so much really. It’s not personal – or impersonal. Well, it can be. But mostly, it’s business. It’s how things operate and you can’t be offended by it. In spite of some managers saying, “We’re like family…” it’s not true. Unless you really ARE family, which fosters its own set of big issues. Don’t expect your boss or your organization to care for you like your family. It’s not that kind of relationship. But I think many problems arise because managers often communicate “we’re family” and employees believe it. Then, when people don’t behave in the ideal family way, people are disappointed and sometimes hurt.

Value is both internal and external. The organization wants it from you (external). If you’re conscientious, you want to deliver it (internal). Some argue that it has to begin here, but I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why.

There are things I want. You want different things. Maybe you want a bigger house, or a newer car. Maybe I want to give my wife an expensive trip. Whatever we want is our inner drive. It doesn’t have to be something others find valuable. It’s valuable to us. And it can be selfish or altruistic. Some people want to earn more because they’ve got a sick family member. Others want to earn more so they can buy a fancy wardrobe. I don’t care what you want to do with the money. The point is, you do. We all care about what we want.

Here’s where too many people get it wrong. It stops here! Self-centered motivation drives the bus toward the quest to make more money. All by itself, epic fail. Nobody cares that you want or need more money. Just because you’ve got 6 kids and I’ve got 2 doesn’t mean you’re worth more money. It definitely means you need more, but that’s not my problem. Or your boss’ problem.

Value to your organization = value to your family and what you want.

Value to your organization in the work you produce + your personal desires = getting what you’re worth.

It’s one thing to say, “I just want what I’m worth” but most of us want more than what we’re worth. That’s the describer word needed in all this, MORE.

More value.

Bring more value to your work.

Gain more value to your personal desires and needs.

One can fuel the other. You need them both though if you’re going to make it happen.

Randy

261 Is Innovation Valuable In Our Personal Lives?

Is Innovation Valuable In Our Personal Lives? - RANDY CANTRELLInnovation in the workplace has been a hot topic during my entire career. It accelerated when the digital age arrived, but it was present long before that. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when our businesses operated with manual, handwritten spreadsheets, telephones and postal service mail. Facsimile machines arrived and suddenly communication got faster. Computers arrived and with it a piece of software called VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. That made every act of accounting – including inventory control and payroll – faster!

Technical innovation has built up speed all along the way. Today, it’s coming at such a rate of speed we likely need super-computers to measure it. The resulting avalanche of data has drastically increased the stress in the workplace. Every executive I know complains of being overwhelmed more often than not. Keeping up wasn’t always the biggest concern of leaders, but it is today.

Simultaneously, many leaders complain about a lack of innovation in their workplace. The pace, they claim, prevents it. “We’re moving so fast and furious there’s no time to consider improvement or innovation,” said one executive. “Besides, we’re afraid if we slow down enough to consider there might be a better way that we’ll just fall further behind.”

Not all that long ago I released an episode of my Leaning Toward Wisdom podcast where I talked about the damage of “the hack.” We’re focused on short-cuts and recipes. So much so, that I fear we rob ourselves of giving our work a chance to be great. But great is often the result of taking the time to innovate.

At home many people tell me they’re working hard to figure out a better way.

Doesn’t that seem odd? Busy moms and dads are often driven to figure out some things – to innovate – at home because of the blistering pace. Yet, that same pace at work stymies innovation.

Dig deeper and there may be some obvious reasons. Two of them actually: bosses and results.

At work we’ve got bosses. Even the bosses have bosses. And everything is measured, especially in high performance organizations. Employees, even executives (especially executives), are driven to knock out that to-do-list, produce results, finish projects, start new projects and keep pushing in a “mush-mush” world. No rest for the weary. No time to consider if what we’re doing might be done in a more efficient or improved way. It’s the pressure of the workplace.

The pressures at home are different. It’s less about performance and more about efficiency. Get the shopping done. Pick up the dry cleaning. Clean the house. Wash the clothes. Take the kids to school. Life is a never-ending series of to-do-lists. It’s about accomplishment, not performance. So the innovation is geared mostly toward getting things done faster, or with greater efficiency. “If I swing by the dry cleaners on my way to the pharmacy, I can avoid that road construction on my way back home.” At home innovation often takes the form of mapping out geographical and time navigation!

The paradox is that busyness is driving both behaviors. At work, it’s clogging up the innovation. At home, it’s forcing it to happen.

The result is we’re getting more done. We have to. But are we doing great work? Are we building better businesses? More importantly, are we building better homes (better marriages, better environments for our children to thrive)?

Innovation isn’t about change. It’s about improvement. It’s about taking the time to ask – and answer – the question, “What if —?”

What if we spent more time having meaningful conversations with our spouse?

What if we turned off the TV and all the electronic devices, and asked our spouse what we could do to be a better husband/wife?

What if we established non-negotiable standards in our homes? Those things that matter the most to us!

What if we took the time to consider our short-term future, and actually tried to map out a strategy to get us there? What if we decided to do more than hope our future would be better than our past?

What if we took more time to ask more “What if?” questions, and what if we took the time to come up with good answers to those questions?

At the heart of all innovation is the two word question: What if…?

Innovation is really nothing more than improvement. For all of us – personally – it’s about giving ourselves the very best opportunity to be the people we know we should be. The power to be our best.

Randy

260 Isn’t It About Time Somebody Shook You By The Lapels?

Isn't It About Time Somebody Shook You By The Lapels? - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 260

1947 Best Picture winner at the Oscars, starring Gregory Peck – “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Why I oughta… is a line I grew up hearing  as a kid. Mostly on TV movies. It’s obviously an old-fashioned line, but every leader I know feels it. Maybe daily. Sometimes they may even say it out loud.

We want to lay our hands on people when we’re inflamed with anger or frustration. At other times it’s sparked because we can’t believe the foolishness of somebody. We want to grab them by the lapels and shake some sense into them. My parents sometimes knocked some sense into me when I was young, foolish and disobedient. No, it wasn’t abuse. It was corrective discipline, but this isn’t about your views (or mine) on raising wise kids with or without spanking.

“Shaking sense into somebody” is a phrase I suppose everybody can understand. After all, I don’t know anybody who ever shook themselves. We sometimes need others to serve us by shaking us. Mostly it’s a figurative sort of shaking. It’s not a good idea to lay hands on anybody at work. Consult your HR professional for more details. Or risk being fired, maybe arrested. WARNING: Do not behave inappropriately at work (or anywhere else for that matter)!

When Our Actions Aren’t Serving Us Well And There’s Nobody There To Shake Us

Sometimes we’re foolish. Sometimes we’re just not paying attention. Sometimes we’re stubborn.

We need somebody to grab us by our lapels and shake some sense into us. We need something disruptive to happen that will help us STOP and THINK. Those are the two benefits of figurative lapel grabbing.

In old movies somebody might grab another person by the lapels because they were angry enough to knock them out. It might be one guy jealous over a girl who wants to back down another suitor. Or it might be some rival in business. But it was almost always somebody who wanted the person to STOP doing something.

Let’s assume you’re not sitting on your rear end doing nothing. Most leaders aren’t guilty of slothfulness. More often they’re guilty of doing the wrong things – not doing nothing!

I’ve talked in the past about the people who serve leaders (in episode 237). Every leader needs somebody who will serve them with support and tell them the truth. Sometimes that person may need to do some lapel grabbing, too.

Leaders are like everybody else, except more so. That is, they get stuck in ruts, mindsets and workflows just like all the rest of us. Sometimes those things work well. Sometimes not. The challenge facing many leaders is ignorance about what’s working out. And what’s not working out. Ignorance vexes lots of leaders. Just watch an episode of Undercover Boss.

I sit in a conference room. The marble table and dark wood paneling of the room depicts financial success. Affluent people serving other affluent people. There’s a 55 inch flat panel TV mounted on one wall. High end bottled water is available. At the head of the table is The Man. Seated at the table are His Knights. They answer his every beck and call. It’s evident from the seating arrangement and the demeanor of every Knight that The Man isn’t somebody to be disagreed with, much less challenged. He speaks. They listen. Lots of nodding. All up and down. This room has no tolerance for dissenting.

The Man has the answers. Questions are only used to make others uncomfortable, or to make sure others know who has The Power.

The first quarter’s performance hasn’t hit the mark established in the plan. Last fall the team had projected higher growth than they’ve achieved. The Man isn’t happy. But it was His Plan. Mostly. Subtle suggestions made last August fell on deaf ears. The Man is like many others I’ve seen in my lifetime. He’s an Emperor with a clothing problem.

It’s hard to shake a lapel that’s not there. But when a leader has no clothes what’s a guy to do? Don’t expect me to provide a secret answer because there’s not one. Mostly, I’ve had to suggest people find a new leader. One with lapels they don’t mind being grabbed every now and again.

Leadership Is Not A One-Way Street

The Man in the fancy conference room is fond of grabbing lapels. He’ll grab them as needed. Sometimes when they don’t need it. He can give it, but he can’t take it. All his Knights know this, so in the effort to preserve their professional lives they endure The Man’s nakedness. They lift high his make believe train.

Good leaders don’t always get it right. They veer off track just like other mortals. They make poor decisions. They suffer knee-jerk reactions. You name it. Whatever happens among the troops can happen in the Chief Executive seat, too.

I live in an NFL city, home to the Dallas Cowboys. There’s always lots of talk about misbehavior among NFL players – all professional athletes really. Repeatedly we’re told that the poor behavior among the ranks of NFL players isn’t much different than the poor behavior among any population of people. We just tend to think these people are superior somehow to the rest of us. Turns out, they’re not.

If that’s true among NFL players (and I don’t honestly know if it is), then it’s bound to be true among leaders. All kinds of leaders. I suspect that’s right. But we tend to think that leaders reached their lofty perch by being better than the rest of us. And they likely were — in something. Or in a variety of somethings. But that doesn’t make them flawless or insusceptible to getting it wrong, or doing it wrong. Mistakes happen. But the leader has authority and power that can make the mistake much, much worse. The risks are higher when the mistake is made from a higher position of authority. President Obama can cause a lot more harm than I can.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  – Lord Acton

Lord Acton was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer who was fascinated by America. During the American Civil War he supported the Confederacy because he thought state independence was a more ideal way of government. He was also critical of the notion of the infallibility of the Pope. His quote was pulled from a letter he wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton, dated April 5, 1887. What most people may not know is the sentence he wrote right after that famous line.

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Not all leaders are corrupt. Or bad men. Some just need some lapel shaking so they’ll stop what they’re doing that isn’t work, or so they’ll start doing something more valuable. Some are crooked and intolerant of any corrections, but the very best ones will accept advice and information because they know that’s what determines the most effective decision-making. And what’s leadership all about if it’s not about making wise decisions?

We all need a jolt every now and again. People don’t normally change direction until or unless there’s something powerful enough to shake them. About a decade ago I began going to the gym regularly. I should have done it sooner, but I needed to be grabbed by the lapels. Nobody did that, but an event did. I saw an elderly man’s wife suffer to take care of him. He hadn’t done anything to fall into ill health, but after visiting him in the hospital my wife and I got in the car to leave. I turned to her and said, “I can’t do that to you.” This man hadn’t done anything to his wife, but that was what I said to my wife. In a flash, that experience grabbed me by the lapels and shook me. I began to workout and I’ve not looked back. I needed something – or somebody – to shake me out of my poor health habits. Well, some of them anyway. 😉

We’re all like that. Sometimes we can’t see clearly. Sometimes we’ve got blind spots we know nothing about. Others can help us see things more clearly, or see them in the first place. Don’t neglect the opportunities you’ve got as a leader to become more wise. Avoid the paranoia of thinking you are the smartest person in every room. Or thinking it’ll be a sign of weakness if you rely on others.

Listen. Look. Pay attention. Foster questions. And respectful debate. If you’re lapels are never ruffled you may be in trouble of walking about naked.

Randy

259 Avoiding The Loneliness Of Leadership

Avoiding The Loneliness Of Leadership - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 259

There you sit. Alone. Pondering the problems of the day. And the week. To say nothing of the quarterly performance worries.

Your organization’s performance hinges on lots of people. You stare at the ceiling tiles in your office and think of the various functions in your organization. Finance. Marketing. HR. Operations. Sales. Most days you never stop to think about all the moving parts and how they have to work almost perfectly to get it all done. But today isn’t one of those days. It’s one of THOSE days. A lonely at the top day.

Your gut is telling you all the right stuff, but that’s only because you remember being a young leader who made the mistake of sharing too much. Sharing the strains of your leadership with your direct reports — that’s a mistake you know all too well because you used to do it until an older, wiser head warned you about how destructive that could be to your people. You can still remember the day when he confronted you about it. “It’s not fair to them,” he said. You hadn’t considered that until he taught you. You felt better venting to them, but he was absolutely right…it wasn’t fair to them. It was just one of the many leadership lessons you had to learn. He told you it was “leadership courage” because it meant doing the hard things that would best serve your people.

But right now, sitting alone in your office, you’re sure wishing there were an easier way. Some way you could bring in a few of your most trusted people and just spill your guts about these worries. But you don’t. And that makes you feel even more lonely.

Part of you feels like a hypocrite because you’re constantly preaching teamwork. Just the other day you called in one of your top leaders who has 3 very capable direct reports. She was trying to pull all the weight alone and you had to coach her to “lean on your people and give them an opportunity.” Now, part of you is feeling like maybe you’re making the same mistake — but that’s your emotional heart talking in your ear and you know it’s different for you. This time.

Some problems are “rally the troops” problems. Not this one. This is one of those play your cards close to your vest kind of problems. Your head is telling you the right thing – keep this to yourself and figure it out. It’s the loneliness of being at the top. With the authority, power and prestige comes lots of loneliness. You signed on for it though so there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself.

But the weight is still there. Hovering on top of your shoulders like a bar bell filled with weights.

How do leaders handle the stress of this kind of loneliness? Like the punchline to a joke…I could say, “Very carefully.” But, there are some more serious answers to consider.

These answers can serve to help any lonely leader better cope with the stress and understand why loneliness is sometimes ideal for your work.

Okay, the title of today’s episode might be slightly misleading, but I didn’t intend it that way. It’s not really about avoiding the loneliness of leadership. It’s more about the realities of loneliness and why you should embrace them.

It’s Good For Your People

You want to be among the very best leaders, right? Of course you do. Leaders come in a variety of positions. There are team leaders, executives, supervisors and all sorts in between. Some have many direct reports. Some have one. None of that matters because it’s still lonely at the top of the leadership ladder. Whoever you are, whomever you serve — you want to be a high performer.

High performance leaders always serve their people. Decisions are made to maintain the healthiest organization possible. It doesn’t mean great leaders serve the individual, personal best interests of every single person because they can’t. Sometimes the best decision is to eliminate a position. You can’t hang your hat on that decision being the best for the person who holds that position because it’s not. But if it’s the best thing for the organization and the overall performance, then you have to do it. Those are difficult decisions that a great leader will make even in the face of knowing they’re putting somebody out of work. However, the great leader will still try to serve that soon-to-be displaced employee.

I’ve terminated managers before and in the process dug more deeply into ways I can help him land on their feet. It’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s because it’s just the right thing to do when you can.

The courage required to face down your fears is B-I-G. Make no mistake about it. Loneliness is a fear. It’ll suck you down the road of over-sharing if you let it. You’ve got to have courage to refuse the urge because it’s unfair to your people to burden them with something beyond their ability to handle. You’ll over share if you stop thinking of them though, and keep all the attention on poor, pitiful YOU.

I’m not talking about keeping your people in the dark about things they should know, or things they can help you with. I’m talking about things that you might share with them followed by, “…but that’s not your problem…I’m going to have to figure this out.” Too many leaders utter those words to their people. Far too many keep on uttering them. Why weigh down your people with something they can’t possibly help you with, and something that might only serve to distract them from their work? Or make them worry unnecessarily?

It’s not about nobility. It’s about service. Serving your organization. Serving your people. Protecting your people. Your leadership role is no different than the motto used by police all over the nation – To Protect And Serve.

It’s Good For The Process Of Improving

Improvement often stems from thoughtful consideration. In spite of all the hoopla on collaboration there’s a time when sitting alone in quiet contemplation works. Too often leaders are rushed from one meeting to another, from one text message to the next and from one conversation into another one. Every leader I know complains about not having enough margin in their life. Some want more white space on their calendar to coach their rising stars. Others want more margin so they can better prepare for the most important meetings. Still others want the white space so they can just “mange by walking around.”

Loneliness is represented by the white space on your calendar. It may not be utilized with quiet though — and that’s a mistake. You’re not embracing the loneliness of leadership if you sit alone in your office plugged into every web-based group think vehicle available. Twitter. Facebook. Reddit. Mashable. Business Insider. Pick your poison. It really doesn’t matter. Blogs, social media networks, aggregators and even podcasts take away your margin. They diminish your loneliness, which is why we all rush to them when we’re alone. Fearful we’ll miss something…we plug into the rest of the world and tune out our own thoughts and feelings.

Even people who claim to enjoy being alone (and I count myself among them), admit they’re not rarely quietly alone. As I type this I’m sitting inside The Yellow Studio. The radio is on a local sports talk radio station talking about the Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray going to Philadelphia. The flat panel TV is on – with the sound down – tuned to ESPN where there’s lots of talk about Murray going to Philadelphia. Over on the monitor to my right is a Tweeter client showing at least 4 columns of various content. Apple iTunes is open to my music library and I’ve got a pair headphones on my left ear only listening to some Hayes Carll tunes. And like Eric Carmen, I could sing, “All by myself…” You can relate. Sometimes it’s noisiest when we’re alone!

Okay, I’ve now turned off the TV. I’ve shut down iTunes. Sports talk radio is still playing ’cause I’m afraid I’ll miss the official announcement about Murray leaving Dallas. Now, prepare yourself for the real shocker that will prove how crazy we can all behave. I honestly don’t care one bit who Murray plays for next year. Sure, I’m a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, but only because I live here. I’m an Oklahoma Sooner football fan – where Murray played – and I still don’t care. But something in my brain compels me to listen for fear the news announcement will come and I won’t hear it in real time.

Don’t laugh. You do the same thing. We busy ourselves even when we have white space on our calendar. We say we want to do this or that – and the this or that is always something valuable or profitable – but when we have time, we avoid doing it. Instead, we do something less important, or less urgent. If you don’t do this, then keep it to yourself ’cause you’re more special than the rest of us. We battle these things. And thanks to Apple and other technology companies we’re losing the battle. I’m talking to you, iPhone. And you, too, iPad. And you, iTunes. All you “I” things are making me take my EYE off the more important things, sometimes.

Okay, I’ve shut down the radio. It’s all quiet now. And just like that, I find myself now with my thoughts. And this keyboard. And this post – this podcast. I’m suddenly thinking more seriously about the value loneliness can play in leadership IF it’s properly applied. And if we’ll stop to think of it for what it can do to serve us better.

Find what works for you. But make it quiet physically and mentally. I’ll share with you some things have worked for me through the years.

1. Turn the lights down. Or off. I don’t mean complete darkness, but turn off those florescent overhead lights. Pull down the shades over your windows. Turn on a lamp.

That warmer light helps quieten my mind down. And it happens pretty quickly for me, likely the result of years of practice.

2. Turn off anything that makes noise. I’m fond of white noise. When I sleep, I’ve got to have it. But when I’m embracing leadership loneliness, no noise is best. Even a ticking clock will drive me batty. Nothing will bring out a hammer faster than a ticking clock. I will beat a noisy clock to death quicker than you can say, New York second.”

3. Look up. I can’t explain it, but there’s a distinct difference in my mental state when I look down on the desk versus when I look up at the ceiling or toward the ceiling. Weird, huh? I know, but maybe life is metaphorically telling me something when I look up. When you’re facing a problem, or a challenge, or a decision – you want things to look up. So you may as well get things started by doing it yourself.

You’ve got to figure out what works best for you, but I can tell you right now — whatever you’ve been trying has probably not worked well for you. Not unless you’ve given some concerted effort to embracing being alone with your thoughts.

Daily Rituals by Mason CurryWe form habits that work for us on some level, but foil our improvement in others. One of my more recent favorite books is entitled, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Curry. The book chronicles the daily habits of creatives from the past and present. It’s done sort of in catalog fashion listing the person, followed by a page or two of how they went about their daily business. I find myself picking it up pretty regularly to just open a page and read of a few different people. The interesting thing you quickly find is that there’s not a single way to creativity. Nor is there a single path to being productive or being an effective leader. You have to not only find out what works for you, but you have to find out what works for your organization — because as a leader, your work impacts many other people.

Thinking time matters. And that’s the point. Drawing on your past experiences, your convictions, your philosophy and your intuition can flow more easily if you’re not looking outside yourself for every answer. There comes a time in every leader’s life – perhaps many times every week – when we just need time to think about our best course of action. Don’t rob yourself of that value found in loneliness.

It’s Good For Your Well Being

Let’s be selfish for a minute. Being alone is good for you. With all the demands on your time and with everybody tugging at you, it’s good to embrace the selfishness of being lonely, sometimes.

When I was a 25-year-old General Manager I was running a subsidiary of a larger company. The CEO of the parent company was about 10 years older and I really liked working for him. One day I was at the company’s headquarters (a different location than my offices). I was visiting with some folks in accounting and other people. I swung by the CEO’s office to stick my head in. The door was open, the lights were off. It was completely dark. I peeked in and say, “Dan?” He wheeled his chair around facing the doorway and I could see he was sitting there in complete darkness. I noticed a letter opener in his hand. I asked, “What you doing sitting in the dark?” He answered, “I’m contemplating suicide with this letter opener.” And we both laughed. I had caught my boss in a moment of loneliness. Leadership loneliness with a letter opener. A few years later Dan was killed in a car accident. It was a long time ago, but today I think of Dan every time I pick up a letter opener. A CEO sitting in the dark embracing a moment of loneliness.

You need time to exhale. Or inhale. Preferably both. It’s good for you to disconnect and just let your mind float to wherever it needs to go. Even before my days with Dan I had grown fond of using darkness. For as long as I can remember I’ve never used the overhead lighting in an office. I’m a fan of lamps. With bulbs that have a warm color temperature.

Good music and headphones plus darkness. That’s my personal recipe. You can mix up your own, but it’s important to go somewhere else in your mind. It’s a brain vacation without mind impairment. There’s a reason so many leaders, especially hard charging ones, are attracted to alcohol and drugs. The tension, stress and pressure of leadership must be released. Find a profitable, non-destructive outlet. I’m advising you to find moments while you’re at work. Sometimes 10 minutes is long enough. Sometimes you need an hour. Or two. Do it and don’t feel badly about it. Do it for yourself.

It’s lonely at the top. It’s necessarily lonely because the buck stops with you. It’s also lonely because as the head of your organization you’re driving. Only one person can drive. It’s the responsibility of the driver to get everybody to the destination safely.

Sometimes you want to roll down the road with ZZ TOP blaring through the sound system. Other times you want everybody to just shut up. The driver needs what the driver needs in order to navigate safely and successfully.

Embrace the tools of loneliness and you’ll be a more effective leader.

Randy

258 Creativity Lost, Creativity Found

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The most mundane businesses can exemplify high creativity. A plumber dispatches immaculately clean trucks, with crisply uniformed technicians (plumbers) who don booties before entering your house. Two hours earlier you called them – or maybe you visited their website. Your choice. After briefly describing your problem and giving them your location, you provided them with your cell phone so they could text you 30 minutes before their arrival. The experience infuriates you. Not at the plumber, but at all the other service providers who neglect this level of creativity. Your TV service provider. Your Internet provider. They all may as well arrive in a covered wagon compared to this plumber because they are so inept at being creative.

Wait a minute. You’re thinking, “That’s not creativity. That’s customer service.”

What’s the difference? What are the limitations of creativity?

I first learned creativity in business as a teenage hi-fi salesman. You may not think of it as creativity, but I knew firsthand the power of it.

A shopper enters the store looking for a pair of loudspeakers. We visit and I find out the type of music they love. “What’s your favorite record?” I ask. They tell me. I sit them down in a sound room – back when we had hi-fi stores and sound rooms – as I fetch their favorite record. I handle it as though it were a gem, because it is. To them. I carefully place the record on the turntable, manually clean it and gently lower the stylus into the groove. Then I turn up the volume, slightly higher than most people are used to. I say nothing. This experience – their favorite record coupled with a system unlike anything they’ve heard before – is captivating. Enthralling.

Where’s the creativity?

First, it’s in the thought process that compelled me to develop this simple process. Creativity is lost because of mindlessness. People act without thinking. Salespeople do it. Engineers do it. Accountants do it. Attorneys do it. Everybody does it ever now and again. Some more than others. Rote procedures foil creativity because we don’t think about “tricking it up.” Or we don’t think it needs to be tricked up. Why change? Why not change? I prefer to insert the word “improve” where others like the word “change.” That act of creativity changes everything because now the focus isn’t on simply changing for whatever reason, but it’s on improving. Who doesn’t want improvement?

Next, the creativity was in asking the shopper about their favorite record. Back in the 70’s when I was on a hi-fi sales floor nearly all the salespeople had their favorite tracks on records. Tracks they felt could really show off what a system could do. I was into music. I knew music was emotional. I knew songs were personal because everybody I knew – including myself – had certain feelings when specific songs were played. By asking, “What’s your favorite record?” I knew I’d get an honest answer. Come on, it’s a hi-fi store! Nobody ever said, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t really have a favorite record.” Everybody who came in had a favorite record.

The creativity was in my focus on their experience, not my own. It didn’t matter if I hated their favorite record. When the store was empty I could play whatever I wanted, but this was their moment. While I was looking for the record I’d engage them and find out why this was their favorite record. People love to tell the stories of the music in their life. Songs and albums have meaning to people – they did in the 70’s for sure. Everybody loved to talk about their favorite music. I gave them an opportunity to talk out loud about it. It also gave me some insight about the music in their life. Heavy rock fans loved lots of bass. Classical music lovers loved a more flat sound. That gave me insight about not only what products to show them, but how to adjust any system I played for them.

LInn Sondek turntableThere was also creativity in the presentation of the music. It started the moment I removed the vinyl from the album sleeve. I never touched anything other the very edges of the album with my outstretched palms or fingertips. Yes, it had technical merits of keeping the oil of your skin off the vinyl, but it also showed the average shopper who likely didn’t handle their vinyl properly…how to do it right! It was part presentation, part education.

Cleaning the record served the same 2 purposes, along with making sure the record was as clean as possible for the best sound. Besides, it gave me an opportunity to educate customers in proper record care while allowing me to sell them an accessory that would protect their record investment.

The whole thing was genuine and intentional. It all served a purpose other than to put on a show. The value provided was real and authentic. In the end, a memorable experience was the goal.

Creativity is lost in the sea of averageness. Stealing ideas. Copycatting. Following the template created by others. Following the leader. They’re all the crap of lost creativity.

Creativity is lost in lethargy. Laziness. That’s part of the reason for all the copycatting, but when I’m thinking of laziness I’m thinking of people who just don’t think. The company that answers the phone the same idiotic way they always have because nobody is thinking about it. The retailer whose people all use the same greeting to every shopper, “Can I help you?”

How hard would it be to rethink that? Not hard at all, but it would take more effort than to just fly every day on auto-pilot. It would require a leader willing to ask a very hard question, “How could we do this better?”

Creativity may be lost – in part – due to the fear of leadership. Maybe leaders are afraid to open up a can of worms by asking the questions creativity demands. Maybe they’re afraid nothing else will work as well as the status quo. Maybe they’re afraid the front line people will have an idea better than theirs.

Creativity may be lost due to distraction. We’re not improving things because we’re not paying attention to the right things at the right time. Todd Pedersen, CEO and Founder of Vivint, Inc. was recently featured on CBS’ Undercover Boss. Part of his undercover work involved spending time in the call center where he discovered the equipment was dreadful. Call center employees couldn’t even hear all the customers calling in. Oh, by the way, Vivint is a home security company! Being able to communicate with customers on the phone is critical. He had no idea the equipment was a problem until he went undercover.

So it goes. Creativity gives way to the ordinary, everyday activities that never seem to unearth the real problems that stymie our success. It’s the vast marketing budget and activities of companies like DirecTV when customers would be absolutely dazzled with simplified pricing. Or a better customer experience when they encounter a problem. It’s the small, no account budget of a solopreneur who gets VistaPrint business cards, but can’t embrace enough weirdness to use them in a creative way.

Big business. Small business. We all suffer the loss of creativity…sometimes. Some of us are chronic sufferers.

Time to find it again. Or for the first time.

Step 1 – Stop.

Forget what others are doing. Forget what you’re currently doing. Just hit the PAUSE button. I’m not saying to stop doing business. It’s more mental than physical. Well, it can be. Stop doing what you’ve always done simply because you’re assuming it’s working well enough. Stop thinking all is well. Stop thinking there are no better ways. Stop living in complacency. Stop being satisfied. Stop thinking things will never be better. Or stop thinking things will always be terrific. Stop.

Step 2 – Think.

Questions are your friends when it comes to embracing creativity. Ask questions. Lots of questions. Ask every question you can think of. The obvious ones. The not-so-obvious ones. And all the ones in between.

Then answer them. Get your team together. Wrestle them down. Take whatever time is necessary to find the best answers to your best questions.

Step 3 – Be Fearless.

Try things. Creativity guarantees only one thing – the prospect of failure. You can’t let that outweigh the prospect of wild success. Or even moderate success.

What if it fails? I’m not saying risk the whole company on one wild idea, but if you insist on a culture of playing it safe you’ll wind up broke and out of business. Radio Shack is dying. They were once a Ft. Worth, Texas institution. Not any more. They lost their way, but they join a long list of consumer electronics titans that are now gone. If you tell me creativity is risky I’ll argue not having it is far riskier!

Go in knowing some things may not work. The lessons you and your team can learn will be worth the failure though. Your fearlessness will foster greater creativity and the reflexes of your team will improve. Some of the best creative successes will come from adjustments made out of a failure. Post-It Notes by 3M is a famous example. This is what Wikipedia says:

In 1968, a scientist at 3M in the United States, Dr. Spencer Silver, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead he accidentally created a “low-tack”, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. For five years, Silver promoted his “solution without a problem” within 3M both informally and through seminars but failed to gain acceptance. In 1974 a colleague who had attended one of his seminars, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook. Fry then utilized 3M’s officially sanctioned “permitted bootlegging” policy to develop the idea. The original notes’ yellow color was chosen by accident, as the lab next-door to the Post-it team had only yellow scrap paper to use.

3M launched the product as “Press ‘n Peel” in stores in four cities in 1977, but results were disappointing. A year later 3M instead issued free samples directly to consumers in Boise, Idaho, with 94 percent of those who tried them indicating they would buy the product. On April 6, 1980, “Press ‘n Peel” was re-introduced in US stores as “Post-It Notes”. The following year they were launched in Canada and Europe.

In 2003, the company came out with “Post-it Brand Super Sticky Notes”, with a stronger glue that adheres better to vertical and non-smooth surfaces.

Until 3M’s patent expired in the 1990s, post-it type notes were produced only in the company’s plant in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

 Try nothing and you’re sure to fail. Try something new – something creative – and you’re certain to learn something. And it must might work the first time out. If not, you’ll have something to work with, something you can then try to refine and improve.

Step 4 – Don’t Retreat.

Working up the courage to be fearless at first is one thing. Maintaining the courage is harder.

Some lessons are so costly they’re priceless. I used to hear horror stories of retail buyers who made colossally poor decisions. Every now and again you’d hear somebody remark that the buyer wasn’t fired because the executives in charge felt it was such an expensive lesson they couldn’t afford to terminate the guy. Those stories made sense to me, even if they were somewhat fictionalized. I mean, if a guy bought something for say $150,000 and the rate of sale was so poor that the margins were a negative number, resulting in a net loss of $100,000 — it seems sensible to me to view the buyer as now having had a $100K lesson. Sure, it assumes he’s competent and capable and just tried something that didn’t work out very well. How do you suppose he’ll vet the next buying opportunity? More carefully perhaps. But he could also be subjected to his own loss of courage. If that mistakes creates a new tentative nature, he’ll be fired for sure.

Courage in the face of failure has to be maintained and fostered. Winners don’t retreat. They regroup and come back.

Step 5 – Celebrate The Process.

If creativity isn’t part of your organization’s culture it’s likely because the price tag is deemed too high to pay. People are afraid to be creative because leadership values the status quo too much. Or they value the safe outcome too much to innovate.

Creativity is a process, not an outcome. Everybody wants to celebrate the successful outcome. That’s easy. But that’s not where creativity’s magic is found. It’s in the process of being creative.

Celebrate that and you’ll stand out from the crowd. When your team rolls the dice on a well-crafted creative plan celebrate it. Do it before you even know if it works. Do it even if it fails. Do it if it works. Foster more creativity by making sure the team knows you value the process. It’s that process that’ll help you achieve new heights of accomplishment. It’s the fuel for your team to rise above the fray, too.

The same excitement I saw in the shopper hearing the details of their favorite record for the first time on a stereo system unlike anything they’d heard before is the same excitement I see in team members lead by a person who loves creativity. They’re alive and thrilled to do the work. It’s a unique experience they want to keep having over and over again. Give them the celebration of the process and watch them soar. Then you can sit back and take credit for having been the leader who made it all possible.

Randy

* Linn Sondek turntable photo courtesy of Jacques on Flickr

257 Free Form Friday: Smack Down Your Competition

Free Form Friday: Smack Down Your Competition - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE podcast episode 257

Can you be too friendly with your competition? 

Today’s episode is a “free form” discussion about competition. I’m preparing a full-blown episode on the topic, but today I wanted to dive in, give you a taste and solicit your feedback. Let me know what you think. Thanks for listening!

Randy

My Grandson, Soccer And Paralyzing Fear

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Max’s dad trying to talk him into joining the soccer game.

Max is my oldest grandson. A few years ago he thought he’d like to give soccer a try. He thought wrong. I recorded the story of his fear and some lessons I learned back in April 2011. I’m posting it here today because fear is a timeless subject.

For a good long while Max’s dad and I both tried – together and independently – to get him to join the other kids on the field. This kid’s fear was real and it was working furiously to keep him off the field. He simply couldn’t withstand it even though he saw all the other kids enjoying chasing the ball all over the field.

Regardless of our age, fear is a powerful force that gets in our way. Max’s encounter on a spring Saturday a few years ago taught me some things.

Randy

256 Leadership: Always Be Straight With People (Part 2)

Leadership: Always Be Straight With People (Part 2) - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 256

It’s about four-thirty on an ordinary work day afternoon. I sit down at a computer terminal on a desk of an office worker. It’s not my desk, but it’s the closest unoccupied computer terminal. I need to check something in the system. The system is already logged on by a user so there’s no need for me to log in. Within seconds a message pops up alerting this particular user of a new inter-office message. I hit return to get rid of the pop up message because that’s my habit. Of course, I’m almost always on my own log in, but not now. When I hit return it opens the message. Right away I’m conflicted wishing I hadn’t seen it, but glad I did.

It’s a sexually explicit message between co-workers. I don’t know they’re even dating, much less involved in some inter-office romance that has crept into our professional environment. It’s graphic. I’m certain I blushed. And I’m sitting at this desk alone. Knowing what I have to do.

Within 30 minutes I’ve got a person sitting in front of me, alone in my office. I’ve printed out the message. And a few more just like it from an earlier date…all from the terminal I was sitting at. I know who the recipient of the message was and who the sender was because every employee has their own unique login (user name and password). In front of me sits the sender.

I hand over the printed copies without saying a word. The sender’s head drops. Profuse apologies follow. I purposefully allow the tension to build and hang in the air. I know it’s a terribly embarrassing circumstance. For both of us. I embrace it knowing that I have to correct this behavior, but also knowing that this person is a very good employee. I’ve no intention of terminating this person. Or the recipient, another high performing employee. But nobody knows this except me. Not yet anyway.

I express my disappointment and disapproval. I want this person to feel ashamed. It’s working. I resist the urge to make this easy on either of us. It’s a serious infraction and I need to embrace the gravity of the situation so they will. Within 15 minutes it’s over. I’m convinced it will not happen again. Ever. And like a compassionate leader should, I also embrace the notion that I will never speak of this again. I don’t. I forget about it and move on, refusing to allow it to dampen my enthusiasm for two employees who have a proven track record of high performance.

I sit alone in my office after it’s over and lean back in my chair. Big exhale. Relief that it’s over, but I know this “couple” is going to be fretting about it for a good long while. Their embarrassment will likely be felt forever. I’m happy about that. That’s how it should be.

But I’m also thankful that I sat down at that terminal. It gave me the opportunity to serve these employees. And to be discreet about it. What if it had been somebody else who had seen that message. My hand might have been forced to get rid of these employees. Sometimes it’s a very thin line that separates good fortune from bad.

Sitting down and having that talk was important. Being candid…well, there just wasn’t any other option. This wasn’t the time to mealy mouth around. It was time for honest conversation.

Leadership always comes back around to being honest and candid. The other day as I sat with a fairly young leader discussing a variety of challenges, I mentioned a story – and old book – that I knew was well before her time, The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations On Management by Jerry B. Harvey. The copyright is 1988, but Mr. Harvey first published his Abilene paradox story back in the mid-70’s. You can click here to download a free PDF of the Abilene paradox (not the entire book).

Here’s how Wikipedia summaries the paradox…

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

The story powerfully, but simply illustrates the breakdown in group communications. There are lots of things going on here. There’s fear of being the odd man out. There’s fear of saying what you really think, or feel. There’s fear of contradicting the person with the idea. There’s reluctance to speak out. Blah, blah, blah. Every issue boils down to fear of being honest and candid. Management brainiacs have long studied group dynamics and “group think.” Honestly, I don’t care about that crap. I care about somebody whose willing to serve. A real leader!

But there is something very powerful in the story because it clearly addresses something business people have probably all experienced — timid group behavior where people may likely be thinking the same thing, but nobody says anything. Have you ever broached a subject at work, wondering if you’re the only person holding a specific opinion, only to find out that everybody felt just like you. Hello, Abilene Paradox!

At other times you may have broached the topic and many people were in lock step with you, but there’s that one (maybe more) person who has a contrary opinion. Suddenly, a few of the courageous start to waffle, leaning more toward the contrarian. It’s usually because the contrarian is normally a more highly charged personality than the more compliant folks. That can intimidate some. It can change the psychology of the entire room leave you wondering how the waffler really feels.

You Can't Let The Bullies Squelch The Room

You Can’t Let The Bullies Squelch The Room

The Abilene Paradox demonstrates how group-think can be innocently impacted by acquiesce and indifference. But it can also be impacted by one rebel rouser. Maybe you’ve seen it. One loud-mouthed bully can mount some podium topic and drive the room wherever he wants because most people will crawl inside a shell, especially if the bully has a title. I’m interested in group dynamics like that and I always catch myself looking away from the opinionated loud mouth, watching the others. Some shift in their chairs, visibly uncomfortable, but refusing to speak. Others look straight ahead, stoic. Still others doodle with greater intensity, never looking up.

Quite often the bully is convinced they’re speaking FOR the room. Watch for it the next time you encounter it. The bully will likely even use language to back up that claim. “I know others feel this way,” or “I’m only saying what I others are afraid to say.” There are many other variations of it, but it’s all the same – “I’m speaking a universal truth for the entire team.” But there was never an election or an appointment. Like a military dictator, the bully just takes the power and drains all the communication energy out of the room squashing all other opinions, especially dissenting opinions.

If the boss is the bully, you’re stuck. I would NEVER advise doing battle with the boss. You can influence the boss – maybe – but that’s a topic for another day. Don’t openly argue with your bully boss. Not all bosses are bullies, so I’m only talking about the ones who are!

If you are the boss and somebody else is hijacking the communication in bully fashion, you have to stop it. It could be something as simple as, “I’d like to hear from some others before I hear from you.” Different leaders have different styles. If you’re a leader handle the way you’d like, but I encourage you to pre-think it. Be prepared to kick bad behavior to the curb when you get your team together.

You Can’t Let Silence Ruin The Room Either

Getting input or feedback can be tough. The honest truth is, some people just don’t have a strong opinion. I used to think people were afraid or intimidated. And some are, or can be. But through the years I’ve come to realize there are far more people than I first thought who simply don’t care one way or the other. I’m not saying they’re apathetic. They just don’t feel strongly enough to speak up about every issue.

Other people are in that same camp until they hear something they strongly agree with…or something they strongly disagree with. Then, they’ll speak up. But if that never happens, they might sit there never uttering a word.

Giving people a safe, comfortable environment is important if the group is meeting to brain storm or figure out a solution. It’s impossible to address all the nuances of group think because groups get together for a variety of reasons. Interaction depends on the purpose of the meeting. Think about the context and purpose of the group so you can adjust the communication temperature of the room accordingly. Sometimes the temperature needs to be warm and comfortable. Other times it needs to be cooler. Leaders have to know the difference.

Ambiguity

Ambiguity Foils Effective Leadership

Inexactness runs rampant in many organizations. Whether it’s the proverbial beating around the bush, or mincing words or soft-pedaling. But lessening the bluntness of communication is not the same thing as ambiguity, even though it can lead to it. You’ve experienced it before. Somebody is trying to tell you something, but they’re meandering, failing to just come out and say what needs to be said. You’re left wondering, “What were they trying to say?” If it was your boss, you were left feeling like a lost participant on Jeopardy, wondering what the question was. That makes finding the answer all but impossible.

There’s one fundamental reason why ambiguity foils leadership. It distracts people. They spend more time trying to figure out what the leader was saying, or what they really meant than they do making a positive difference. And it’s entirely the leader’s fault.

Consider a typical superstar employee who has an innocent casual encounter with the boss. The boss says, “Are you okay with the new software upgrade in the finance department?” The employee says, “Yes, sir.” The boss replies, “Okay, I was just wondering.” They go their separate ways.

All afternoon the superstar employee is consumed with, “I wonder what he meant by that? I wonder if he knows something I don’t. I wonder if he thinks the upgrade is a bad idea.” Because the superstar employee is conscientious, he frets about what the boss said. It was ambiguous and the employee is left trying to connect dots.

Meanwhile, back in the executive suite, the boss is talking with his right hand lieutenant. “I saw (insert name of the superstar employee) in the hall a few minutes ago. I asked him how he felt about the software upgrade in finance and he said he felt good about it. I thought you said he was a sharp guy.”

The boss doesn’t quite have it right though. And in true “the emperor has no clothes” fashion, the superstar employee was in a no-win-situation. He was trying to read the boss and be honest at the same time. Do you dare tell the boss you’re unhappy about a software upgrade that’s over half done? And what if the superstar is genuinely pleased about the upgrade? How was the employee supposed to respond? He’s asking himself all those questions and more. And the boss is characterizing the brief encounter completely differently. He heard the superstar employee say he felt good about the software upgrade, but that’s not what the employee said. He was asked if he was “okay” with the upgrade. He said he was. Seems like a trick question. Welcome to the world of the ambiguous leader.

Now, the lieutenant has certain feelings about the superstar employee he didn’t have earlier. This was a star employee, but now there are doubts. Turns out the executives are having trouble with some points of the contract with the software upgrade. The superstar employee has no knowledge of those. He only knows the execution of the upgrade. During the proposal process, the superstar employee had some reservations, but he’s not a decision maker. He merely had expressed those concerns to his manager who assured him the executive team was going to address those things. And they did. Now, with about 45 days left before the upgrade is complete, things are on schedule and the superstar employee, being a faithful worker, is pushing hard to keep the timetable on track.

Behind the scenes there are issues though that he doesn’t know. And he’s now being judged for things beyond his knowledge or control. Ambiguity will hurt him if he’s not careful. And all he said was, “Yes, sir.”

How is leadership foiled? Because they’ve got a superstar employee in a bad spot. And they now feel differently about this worker. Everybody suffers.

Scenarios like this play out all the time in the workplace where straight talk isn’t valued, or thought about. Sometimes it’s intentional game playing. Sometimes it unintentional and thoughtless talk, or questions. It results in ambiguity, which fosters distraction, confusion and bewilderment. Do YOU do your best work when you’re feeling like that?

I wonder how many hours are spent each week amongst co-workers asking, “I wonder what he meant by that?” Think of the wasted hours spent trying to figure out the ambiguity. Then, drive yourself crazy thinking of saving all that time with clear, straight talk.

A Prescription For Organizational Craziness

Cafe Press – Ambiguity Gifts

A Prescription For Organizational Craziness

It was a few years ago when I first read the phrase that served as a blog post title to an entertaining article, What Happens In Vagueness Stays In Vagueness. It was written by Clark Whelton, a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, and appeared in City Journal, an urban policy magazine. I’m a sucker for all things communication so it hit my Google alert for some reason. I catch myself re-reading it every now again because it makes me smile and reminds of Edwin Newman, the old NBC newsman with a love of the English language (as evidenced by his appearance on Saturday Night Live).

I agree with Mr. Whelton.

“Uh-oh. It was a classic case of Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century.” 

Straight talk is one prescription – I’d argue a necessary prescription – for the organizational craziness that vexes many leaders and employees. Unfortunately, some confuse this with crassness, but that’s a cop out taken mostly by people who are…well, crass. Rude, crass behavior isn’t professional or effective in building a high performance organization. So I’m not giving permission or approval for boorish behavior.

The third leg of my business offering (what I call the trifecta of business building) is to help people avoid going crazy as they build their business or organization. Slippery, unclear communication ranks high as a source for craziness among employees. “Why won’t he just tell me what he wants me to do?” is a common question I hear.

Some years ago after hearing that refrain uttered over and over by people in a company, I asked the owner, “Why won’t you just tell people what you’d like them to do, and how you’d like it done?” His answer is more common than you might think. “I want them to figure it out. I just wish they’d know what to do. It drives me crazy.”

Had I been a doctor I would have taken out my prescription pad and immediately scribbled out the prescription,

“Talk straight with all your employees. Daily.”

The owner was a father. I asked him if he required his kids to do chores. “Of course,” he said. “I want them to learn to work.”

“When you first assigned chores did you give them any instructions or did you just leave them to figure it out?” I asked.

He stammered a bit trying to figure out what he had actually done. One son, the oldest, was responsible for the family pet, an outside dog. “Did you have to show him how to put food out for the dog, and water…or did you just let him put out as much food as he wanted?” I asked.

He proceeded to tell me how he had to make sure his son measured out the food using a scoop inside the big bag of dog food, and how he had to tell his son to do it at a specific time each day. He also had to show him how to harness the dog for a walk (even though his son wasn’t the only one responsible for that).

“But you had to train your son in those activities. You didn’t just wait for him to figure it out ’cause you wanted the dog to be properly taken care of,” I said.

I saw the light bulb turn on. He looked a bit exasperated and said, “My employees aren’t my kids.”

“No, they aren’t, but they deserve the same amount of clarity.”

I asked if his son did the job with the dog perfectly the first time. Of course not. He told he repeatedly had to show his son and sometimes he had to bark at his son (so the dog wouldn’t bark for food). I asked him if a day came when his son did the job without being told, and did it well enough to suit him. Yes. Dad saw it happen.

“Do you have to show him how to do that now?” I asked. “No, he just does it now,” he replied.

“And your employees will, too — once they know what you want. You need to hold them as accountable as you do your oldest son with the dog. Your dog’s life depends on it. Here, your business depends on. I don’t understood why you wouldn’t give your business more attention than your dog.”

This was an owner who had no written procedures though. So it was a hard lesson to learn. Over time we helped him realize that he had been taught many things by people who cared enough about him to help him do a good job. He had people in his life who didn’t just leave him alone hoping he’d figure it all out on his own. I simply helped remind him of his purpose as a leaderto serve the people doing the work so they could do their work better!

It’s always about serving your people. The question I’d encourage you to ask is, “How is this serving this person?”

If it’s not serving them, then stop it. If it is serving them, then ask, “How can I serve them BETTER?”

The cowardly leaders avoid the hard work of serving their people because it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s difficult, uncomfortable and too straight forward. Some leaders want to avoid the tension so necessary to serve their people. Like a parent who is too timid to discipline a child, the leader will quickly find themselves with employees who operate outside the lines. Show me a kid who’s a hellion and I’ll show you a parent unable to lead, or serve their child well.

You can be a straight-talking leader known for serving your people…or you can be known as anything else, but that.

Randy.Black

255 Leadership: Always Be Straight With People (Part 1)

Leadership: Always Be Straight With People - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 255

General Patton: Leader or Manager?

Let’s begin by making a distinction between MANAGEMENT and LEADERSHIP. 

We manage processes, workflows and systems. We lead people. Effective business or organization building requires both. That doesn’t mean one person – the same person – has to provide both. We celebrate the leader who is an equally capable manager, but quite often the skill set for one is very different than the skills required for the other. It’s one reason (just one) why you see so many co-founders these days. Ideally, one co-founder has terrific managerial talent while another co-founder has strong leadership skills.

Since today’s topic deals with people, it’s a leadership subject.

THE big people problem is almost always communication. Here’s a sentence I never hear,

“Our communication is so good it can’t be improved.”

Instead, I usually hear,

“Communication is our biggest problem.”

Look at picture of General Patton. Tell me that’s not the posture of a supremely confident leader.

“A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.”

Patton was unquestionably one of the most interesting military men in history. His childhood goal was to become a hero. His ancestors were military men dating back to the American Revolution. A strong sense of pride, fierce determination and willingness to go where fighting men went made him popular with the troops.

General Patton was fanatical about having prepared troops willing to execute with excellence. He cared about the process and systems, especially when it came to having his men prepared to fight. Management was important. And he was good at it. But leadership is where he gained his much desired hero status. He knew how to literally rally the troops to go into battle. And he was quotable.

Candid. Blunt. Passionate. Those were qualities the General embraced. Relished even.

Too Much Information

Novice leaders sometimes mistake candid conversations with sharing everything they know. When I’m seated across a first-time leader in their late 20’s I’ll often find myself preaching to them how leadership involves protecting their people. That means, sometimes you must hold your cards closer to your vest and not share too much information.

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Coaching Session 8 is a part of my private executive coaching. I’m inserting it here because it’s completely devoted to this notion of leaders sharing too much information and how that’s harmful to your people.

TMI

“Hey, too much information!”

TMI is fairly universal I think. It stands for Too Much Information. And it happens all the time.

It happens at social gatherings. It happens on social media. It happens in texting.

It also happens at work…where it can be devastating.

Okay, let’s eliminate what you may be thinking. I’m not talking about those personal, intimate details people often share resulting is us holding up our hands and saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Too much information!”

If I have to tell you how inappropriate it is to discuss really personal details at work, then we need to go back to square one and begin again! It’s not proper to talk about EVERYTHING at work. It’s certainly not proper to SHARE everything at work. Especially intimate details of your life – or of anybody else’s personal life.*

* Listen, as a client, I’m not terribly worried about you doing this because you wouldn’t have likely gotten this far by failing to control yourself, and your discussion points at work…even in social settings around the office. However, even grizzled veterans sometimes, in a momentary lapse of judgment, can say things or ask things that get them into trouble. Guard your tongue.

No, I’m not talking about TMI as we normally think about it – personal details we sometimes share that make others feel uncomfortable. I’m talking about WORK ISSUES that we wrongly share.

You can wrongly share work information in three ways (or perhaps a combination of them):

a. You can share things you shouldn’t share with anybody.

b. You can share things you shouldn’t share right now.

c. You can share things you shouldn’t share with that person.

Timing, the person being told and the fact that it was YOU who told it – those can have a horrible impact on your career and on others, too.

It’s Lonely At The Top

You’re a leader else we wouldn’t be working together. That means you’ve got direct reports and a level of responsibility weightier than the average bear at your workplace. It also means you have to understand and exercise discretion.

Discretion is defined as the quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid causing offense or revealing private information; the quality of having or showing discernment or good judgment; the quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid social embarrassment or distress.

Let me expound on those dictionary definitions a bit.

Discretion is the quality of not revealing information that may impede the performance of your employees or direct reports. 

Yes, that means sharing things with them that may not serve them well. It means keeping some things to yourself. That’s why the cliche, “It’s lonely at the top” is trite, but true. It is lonely as a leader. Especially when YOU have to keep your mouth shut in order to enhance the performance of your direct reports.

“Well, I would never lie to my people,” you might be thinking.

You should NEVER lie to your people. I’ll go further and encourage you to never lie to ANYBODY. However, just because you know something, or think something, doesn’t mean you should tell it. And if you think that’s lying, then I have no earthly idea how you got this far in your career being that stupid! Call me immediately and fire me ’cause I’m sure I’ll be unable to help you.

Too often leaders forget their pledge of loneliness. 

Let me put it into terms you’ll likely understand.

When you were growing up did your parents sit down and tell you all the problems they were suffering? I don’t care if they had marriage problems, financial problems or something else. As a child living at home, were you in the loop on those kinds of things? (For years I’ve asked this and grown increasingly jaded worried that somebody will say, “YES.” Thankfully, so far that hasn’t happened. I hope you’re not going to break my streak.)

I don’t care if you’re a parent or not, you surely understand the wisdom of parents who protect their children from such information. It’s quite literally TOO MUCH INFORMATION for a child to burdened with. It serves no useful purpose to put such things on children. It’s selfish on the part of the parent who would dare do such a thing.

It’s selfish when you do it, too!

Leaders often share things they should not because:

  • They lack self-control
  • They’re too friendly with staff members
  • They don’t maintain professional distance
  • They’re selfish and self-centered
  • They don’t see themselves as protectors and guardians
  • They’re lonely

Yes, there are likely many other reasons you can think of, but this list encompasses most of the ones I commonly see.

True confession (no, this won’t be TMI I promise): I rarely sit down with team members within weeks of initial engagement without unearthing some rather important TMI related issue. It’s remarkable how frequently this erupts into something under the surface…something the leader never intended. People are told things, sometimes in confidence, and the information begins to destroy their ability to do good work. I’ve seen it even destroy their ability to work, period.

People will say to me, “I wish he had never told me that.” Or they ask, “Why would he tell me that?”

I don’t gloss it over, but I don’t go through that list above either. Listen, I know leadership is lonely and I know that a leader’s credibility is always – ALWAYS – on the line. The last thing I want to do is undermine yours IF you’ve been guilty of TMI in the workplace! But I do owe these people a bit of guidance and help and I usually answer these people with honesty about how we’re all people who feel the need to share. Increasingly, with social media and smartphone technology we’re compelled to share more and more. That means, sometimes we share more than we should without even thinking about it. We can all relate to those facts. Then, I encourage them to deal with how this TMI has negatively impacted their work by letting me mediate a conversation about it. Sometimes they prefer to go it alone and talk directly – in private – with the leader. Other times they’re reluctant to even let me help. So important is this issue, I refuse to let up until I gain agreement to handle these things because they grow and fester over time.

I know you mean well, but…

You cannot discuss the poor work or weaknesses of employees with other employees.There are countless variations of this, but you must be so on guard that you refuse to poor mouth people behind their back. This is especially true when you’re dealing with a peer group. For instance, you have 6 direct reports. Casually, in an impromptu meeting with 2 of them you say something about a third member of your team. It’s not flattering. You think nothing of it until you begin to notice a sour attitude of that team member. You may not even remember saying it and you certainly aren’t thinking either of your 2 reports who heard the comment would run to the person to tell them. On all counts…you’d be wrong!

1. You cannot reveal possible changes that might negatively impact a person.

The operative term is “possible.” This is so common that I’ve labored for years with trying to figure out why leaders do it, but so far I don’t have any million dollar insights other than…they’re trying to see how the person might react. That’s not a good enough reason to do it. Let me explain, a SVP (senior vice president) of a division is sitting in your office. You happen to know that HQ is giving serious thought to eliminately this position within that division and reassigning him elsewhere. It’s not yet been decided, but you decide to send up a test balloon by talking about it. You try to couch your words carefully (this is your inner signal that you’re making a BIG MISTAKE). He grows increasingly uneasy in his chair and begins to ask the questions any sane person would.

Now you’re uneasy in your chair and you begin to crawfish and back pedal. The meeting ends and what good have you done? NONE. You’ve now stepped in a pile of crap that will hurt your employee, you and the entire operation. All because you just had to tell him what *might* happen.Here’s the explanation I most often get: “Well, don’t you think they deserve to know?” My answer: “No, they don’t.” For starters, they don’t deserve to know hypotheticals or possibilities unless they’re on the leadership team making such decisions. Secondly, they don’t deserve to be given crappy information. You can’t possibly give them anything to support them when the plan hasn’t even been fully hatched yet. Giving people a “heads up” is wrong. It’d be like a doctor speculating with us about having cancer without having run any tests to first confirm it. It’s just cruel.

2. You cannot blame your boss.

You have a regular meeting with your boss. The boss has made some suggestions – maybe even strong suggestions – regarding one of your team members or perhaps a number of them. At your next staff meeting you lay into your team telling them all about how your boss said this and your boss said that. You think you’re just being candid and open. Instead, you’re being selfish and arrogant. You’re an idiot.And you’re deflecting. You’re blaming the boss in hopes you’re team won’t think it’s YOU who are trying to elevate their performance. It’s your boss who is dissatisfied, it’s not you! You’re in it with your team and if it were up to you, you’d be happy. Blah, blah, blah!

It sounds ridiculous when you read it or hear me say it, doesn’t it? Too bad it didn’t sound as ridiculous when you told your team. Now, it’s like toothpaste squeezed from the tube…you can’t put it back. It’s done now. And it’s gonna cost you some mojo in your leadership because here’s what you don’t know – your team is losing respect for you.

3. You cannot point fingers.

This can be private in one-on-one meetings or it may be in a more public staff meeting. It’s interesting to me how often this happens when the person being targeted isn’t in the room. “Well, that last campaign had some difficulties. Sam knows he should have handled a few things better.” Meanwhile, Sam isn’t even in the building. The leader has just thrown Sam under the bus. Maybe Sam was at fault, but this is TMI and it’s poor leadership. A better option, if indeed Sam’s campaign was a talking point, would be for the leader to say, “Sam isn’t here, but I’ll let you guys know that he deserved more support from me in that last campaign. He and I have talked and we’re both going to make sure we do a better job of it next time.” It’s a completely different message and it’ll make a big difference in how the room sees your leadership.

“He’ll throw Sam under the bus, but he’d never do that to me,” right? See, this is where leaders lose their mind in thinking that TMI won’t hurt them. Only an idiot would think they’re immune from you throwing them under the bus if they see you do it to others. And pointing a finger IS throwing people under the bus. You don’t think so, but your people do.

4. You cannot take it out on your people.

I’ve sat in meetings with people and discussed the meeting privately with both leaders and their direct reports after the fact. The leader sometimes views the meeting as having “gone well.” The direct may say, “boy, he’s sure grumpy today.” Same meeting, two completely viewpoints.

The leader feels the meeting went well completely unaware that his foul mood permeated the meeting. That flat tire he got on the way to work entered that meeting. With frayed nerves he unknowingly barked a bit more than normal. He’s been snappy all morning. The staff has spent all morning trying to figure out why and what they can do to stay out of harm’s way. The lost man hours stack up because the leaders lacked the discipline to protect the work (and his people) from his own issues (professional or personal, it doesn’t matter!).

I can’t possibly review all the possibilities, but hopefully you now have the idea about the negative power of TMI. But before I end let me address one final item that is part of this.

Leaders sometime think they’re helping employees with a bit of “inside” information. 

In the quest to let an employee feel closer to the boss, sometimes leaders will draw employees into their confidence. Now, I’m not talking about a person who may be in your true inner circle vital to your decision making. I’m talking about a person who has no need for TMI, a person whose work (and head) may be hampered with TMI.

I challenge you to consider WHY you are telling an employee this information. WHY?

If you are telling them in order to make them feel more like an insider, don’t. There are more effective ways to accomplish that. Namely, by talking with them one-on-one and telling them how important they are to your team, how you value their contribution and how you’d like to place a bit more responsibility on them. Isn’t that going to leave them feeling better than pulling them aside to confide some “secret” thing to them?

Think before you speak. Think before you act. Next time I’m going to talk a bit more about SERVING (I might share that session with you at a future date) your people because it’s an important message that can’t be emphasized too much. It’s a fitting way to end today’s session by reminding you that your job, as a leader, is to help your people do the best work possible. That means you have to guard the information you share with them.

Okay, that’s the end of my executive coaching session number 8. Now, let’s get back to the topic at hand of always being straight with people.

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Candid Talk Isn’t The Same As Difficult Conversation, But You Need To Do Both

I don’t think you can have a successful difficult conversation without candor, but that doesn’t mean every candid conversation is a difficult one. Well, it shouldn’t be.

Some leaders (a’hem, “managers”) struggle with difficult conversations. Confronting poor performance, bad behavior, rule violations and other conduct is brutal for them. They get sick at their stomach, break out into a sweat and experience high heart rates. The anxiety can overwhelm some leaders, forcing them to ignore what they know they really need to do. If they have a strong sense of self-examination, they can beat themselves up over their “weakness.” If they don’t, then mayhem creeps into the organization because a lack of accountability becomes more the norm.

My experience in coaching executives indicates that the leaders who struggle with difficult conversations have faulty thinking about the whole process, and the value it serves their people and the organization. Most of us were brought up to be polite. I learned early in life to call adults “sir” and “ma’am.” Even today, if my 2-year-old grandson wants a mint or some candy, I make him say, “Please” before I give it to him. And once he’s got it in hand, I make him say, “Thank you.” That’s ingrained into most of us at an early age. Then we go to school where we’re urged to play nice with others. Fast forward to our first supervisory role at work and we’ve got a lifetime of learning polite manners. Now we’ve got to confront something that involves us calling somebody out. Being impolite. Possibly hurting somebody’s feelings.

WRONG.

Let’s think about what leaders are really doing…their primary purpose. Serving.

Leaders exist to serve their organization by first serving their people, then serving all the other customers. Those customers might be users, clients, partners, suppliers or anybody else. Any leader unwilling to put the employees at the forefront of their attention isn’t worthy of the title. And it can’t simply be lip service. It has to be real, authentic and genuine!

“Do everything you ask of those you command.”  – General Patton

Now, let’s consider that difficult conversation. Suppose you’ve got an employee who has slipped into the habit of being tardy. You wonder what’s going on because a week ago she began to come to the office 10 to 15 minutes late. Every single day. This is a new behavior. At first, you figured it was an outlier so you left it alone, but it’s now been 5 days straight of coming in late. You know you need to handle it, but your inner voice is telling you to just let things go and see how it plays out.

Question: How does letting it play out serve the employee?

Answer: It doesn’t. You just feel better not having to confront it. You embrace letting your mind convince you that this otherwise good employee is best served by remaining quiet. But you’re not thinking about the employee or your team. You’re being selfish. You’re thinking about avoiding what you think could be a difficult conversation.

You can *best* serve this employee by holding them accountable, making sure they know a) you’ve noticed their tardiness, b) it’s not  acceptable because it will hinder their work, c) it’s not acceptable because it will influence the rest of the team negatively and d) you’re not going to relax your standards for this employee, or for any member of your team. It’s the stuff of higher performance!

The dread is worse than the reality — most of the time.

I’ve had some really difficult conversations in my career. Everything from inappropriate attire to dating amongst co-workers (where inappropriate behavior creeps into the workplace) to drug use, theft and fist fights (all in the workplace). I can give you 3 fundamental keys to being straight with people during difficult conversations:

1. Be prompt.

As soon as you’ve got your facts, engage the employee. Don’t put it off. Don’t overthink it. Don’t talk yourself out of it. But don’t be guilty of the knee-jerk reaction either. And depending on the issue, don’t go in with guns ablazing. Be prepared to listen, but be quick about it.

2. Be understanding, but firm.

Our tardy employee may be going through something you don’t know about. For instance, she might tell you, “I’m sorry I’ve been running late. Last week my mother was placed into intensive care in the hospital. She had a stroke. I’ve been sleeping at the hospital and it’s a longer drive to work.”

Is that an extraordinary circumstance? You bet. And you can handle this however you and your organization see fit, but I’ve had things like that come up throughout my career. My first inclination would be to express my sympathies while encouraging the employee to come to me and keep me informed. I might seek her permission to share this with the rest of the team so others know that her sudden tardiness isn’t the result of her becoming a slackard. I might even work with her to adjust her hours temporarily to fit her current circumstance. I’m not going to let her off the hook and do nothing! That’s not serving her best interests. With a very ill mom in the hospital, how can letting her work habits slip possibly make her life better?

3. Be brief.

These are not times to belabor things. Make the conversation only as long as it needs to be. When I’ve had to deal with internal theft issues the conversations have taken mere seconds. I may have spent weeks fact finding, gathering irrefutable evidence and even lining up appropriate witnesses who can positively confirm the crime. If it’s a petty amount I may reserve the right to simply fire the person and let them walk. In other cases, I’ve notified the authorities and had them at the ready, or even present when I fired an employee. It’s not a long, drawn out ordeal.

Other times I’ve had situations like the worker whose mom is in ICU. Those understandably take longer. The employee is highly emotional, apologetic and feeling badly.

And there are two things I’d encourage you to think about in order to have an effective difficult conversation where correction is the goal. One, you must necessarily make the person feel appropriately uncomfortable. This is the part that curbs a leader’s enthusiasm for having these conversations. If you’re a parent, you already know the value of this part of it. People have to know you’re disappointed and why. That’s part of the process. Without it, you won’t be serving your employees.

When I was 16 working in a hi-fi store I was working the grand opening of a new location. The company had two departments: hi-fi and photo. I knew nothing about photo. An older man walked into the bustling store and I approached him. He asked about some specific piece of photo gear. I told him I worked in hi-fi, but that together we’d find out. I spotted the general manager, Don, across the store. With the shopper in tow, I asked, “Don, this guy is looking for (whatever the item was). Do we carry those?” Don said, “Yes, sir. I’ll be glad to help you” and off they went. I continued to help other customers. At some point, when I wasn’t busy Don spotted me and motioned me to the stock room. We walked into the back store room where Don said, “Randy, do you remember bringing me that shopper looking for some photo gear?” I was a good employee, a top sales guy. There was something about this though that made me uncomfortable. I knew I had done something wrong. I just didn’t know what it was.

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Do you remember what you said?” he asked. Man, I was stumped. I didn’t have a clue. He could tell I was puzzled. I didn’t answer because I didn’t have an answer, but Don knew me pretty well. After all, we both worked at the main headquarter location so he saw me regularly and interacted me regularly. While I was still pondering what in the world I could have done wrong Don said, “Our shoppers aren’t guys — they’re GENTLEMEN.”

I nodded and said, “Of course. Yes.” And that was it. It only took seconds. I never called a shopper a guy again. That was over 40 years ago, but the impact it had on me was profound. Don served me well. I was a good employee. He was working hard to make me better. And he did. I’ll never forget him for it.

The second component of corrective conversations is something Don did right. He was specific. Clear and specific. I knew precisely what I had done wrong and I knew specifically how to fix it.

Be honest with yourself and your people. Serve them. Serve them well. We’ll continue this next time by going a bit more big picture and talk about how communication determines the culture of our organizations.

Randy.Black