Lifelong (Workplace) Learning

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It’s nearing the end of summer and time for the kids to go back to school. September should also remind us that lifelong learning is vital in order for each of us to stay relevant at work and vibrant in life.

Whether you are just beginning your career, a mid-level manager or a seasoned leader, everyone should embrace lifelong learning—through formal continuing education, independent study, or deliberate behavioral adjustments. This will keep you moving forward at work and elsewhere.

A Fast Company article a couple years ago titled You’re Probably Making These Five Mistakes at Work pointed out the commonality found in people who may be limiting themselves in their careers. These mistakes are:

  1. Handling upsets poorly
  2. Failing to self-promote
  3. Thinking “me” instead of “we”
  4. Not asking for feedback
  5. Declining to take on new roles

It’s interesting to note how each of these may seem insignificant or you may even feel it contradicts how to be successful in your particular workplace, but for me, they all resonate with wisdom. Each has an element of maturity in them. Each of them points to a particular skill set such as emotional intelligence, courage, humility or communication.

The good news is that all of them can be corrected with a little bit of practice and discipline. This correction is certainly not rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take significant attention and focus. It can be especially helpful to have a mentor, supervisor, HR partner or colleague to help keep you on track and measure your progress.

Meanwhile, Marcel Schwantes conducted a LinkedIn survey last year prior to writing an article for Inc. Magazine titled 8 Mistakes Managers Make, According to Their Employees. He compiled the list after posting the question: “What is the one mistake leaders make more frequently than others?” The results came in from around the world where he states many employees felt distressed and disengaged. These eight mistakes represent how they “suck the life out of their teams.”

  1. Micromanaging
  2. Leading from a position of power or ego
  3. Not listening
  4. Not valuing followers
  5. Failing to grow themselves as leaders
  6. Lacking boundaries
  7. Not providing or receiving feedback
  8. Not sharing leadership

A great deal of avoiding these mistakes begins with self-awareness and understanding how your behavior is impacting employees. Learning the “soft skills” mentioned above can also be especially helpful.

Sometimes a leader can receive candid 360-feedback that is highly instructive in highlighting concerns. Corrective action can then be taken either independently or with the help of an executive coach. Other times it may take the form of a more heavy-handed directive from another senior leader, superior or HR representative in order to elevate the importance of correcting these mistakes.

Regardless of how you learn about your own mistakes, the importance is in whether or not you choose to change. Changing one’s behavior is not necessarily easy as it takes effort and constant attention.  Much can be learned through articles and books, mentoring and coaching, as well as trial and error with continual adjustments. The change may come about very slowly, but I am certain correcting these mistakes will help you in your career.

Learning begins with awareness and accepting that there is room for improvement. Once you can identify what may be holding you back from being most effective, it is time to identify an achievable goal towards the desired change and build a plan for achieving it.

Lifelong learning means you will never truly graduate, but only continue on your quest toward personal and professional excellence.

The Measure of Leadership

Magnifying Glass to Choose Person in Row of People

How do you size up a leader? Do you choose and accept him or her based on the perspective of your particular newsfeed? Or do you assess a leader based on who your friends and family respect? Does it depend on the size of the company or organization, or on the particular political party affiliation he or she happens to represent?

Each year Fortune magazine chooses the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders and this is different than your typical list. You won’t find Bill Gates, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton on it. Instead you’ll see names like Christiana Figueres, Pope Francis, Aung San Suu Kyi and John Legend.

According to the article, “It isn’t enough to be accomplished, brilliant, or admirable. We recognize those who are inspiring others to act, to follow them on a worthy quest, and who have shown staying power.”

On the other hand, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos comes up as number one on this as well as many other such lists. Well-known leaders such as Tim Cook, Angela Merkel, Nick Saban and Marc Benioff are also included.

There are many reasons why we follow someone, but it seems that some type of benchmark would be helpful: a litmus test if you will for whether or not you will choose to admire, work for or vote for a particular person.

We live at a time when many of our business leaders are more focused on creating shareholder value than treating employees and customers respectfully. And while middle income workers’ wages have stagnated during the past 20 years, corporate boards continue to reward CEOs with salaries often 300 times the average of the rank and file worker.

The media continually refers to our government representatives as “leaders,” yet clearly most are not demonstrating leadership. And when congress (members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate combined) has only a 14 percent approval rating yet 95 percent of incumbents are re-elected, we the people are clearly not living up to our side of the responsibility of democracy.

Think of the business or political leaders you most admire and for whom your respect has lasted over the years. These may be folks such as Herb Kelleher, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jack Welch, etc. What leadership qualities do they possess that have sustained your loyalty?

Now think of newer leaders you have recently chosen to follow. This could include Howard Schultz, Barack Obama, Sheryl Sandberg, etc. Do they possess similar leadership qualities or have you allowed your standards to be somewhat compromised? Is their leadership likely to stand up over time?

Before I attach my allegiance to a new leader, I like to evaluate him or her based on the following criteria:

  • Is there alignment with my own values? This seems like it should be the very baseline for whether or not I can willfully follow anyone.
  • Does he or she make me feel safe? Author Simon Sinek suggests this is a vitally important factor in whether someone can lead others effectively.
  • Does the individual inspire me? John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
  • Does he or she demonstrate integrity? “Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” — Warren Buffett
  • Has he or she created other leaders? Many mistakenly think leaders are only about gaining followers. “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself,” said Jack Welch. “When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

All of these are important when I consider whether a so-called leader is worthy of my respect and willingness to follow, work for or vote for.

In business or politics our leaders should continually be held to a high standard and one for which we hold them accountable. It is therefore incumbent upon us to demand more from those we choose to follow. Whatever your litmus test, it is important that you apply it before you accept your leaders. Then and only then can you “follow them on a worthy quest.”

Telling the Truth to Yourself & Your Boss

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Sometimes the most difficult part of being fully present and connected in the workplace requires simply speaking the truth: to yourself and to others.

Because we are often reluctant to be emotionally vulnerable by expressing our thoughts, wants and feelings in the workplace, we sacrifice our ability to fully connect and be most productive. This authenticity requires that we tell the truth, even when it is easier to stay silent.

Truth telling is currently in short supply throughout our society, but perhaps most destructively in our workplace. It takes courage and is essential to becoming a strong leader.

This is not to suggest we wear our emotions on our sleeve, but it does mean we should express—in an appropriate and professional manner—when we feel angry, disappointed or treated unfairly. We should be fully honest with ourselves and others in service of improving all our workplace relationships.

In The Courage Solution: The Power of Truth Telling with Your Boss, Peers, and Team, author Mindy Mackenzie offers a formula on how to courageously speak the truth in the workplace. She offers practical steps that require vulnerability and courage to improve your impact on the job and increase your happiness. It basically comes down to the only thing you can reliably change or control in any situation: yourself.

Mackenzie, an HR and organizational development veteran in senior leadership roles at Beam, Inc., Campbell Soup Co., and Wal-Mart, recommends four key areas to focus on beginning with yourself, followed by your boss, peers and team.

The techniques she offers require that you first take ownership and accountability for creating a work life AND personal life you love. This is a life that brings you increased fulfillment, greater sense of purpose, and more joy and energy to every day. It is your responsibility, and cannot be outsourced or provided by someone else. Accepting and owning this is vital.

“Changing the one thing you can change at will—your own habits, ways of thinking, attitudes and behaviors—will begin to positively transform your experience on the job and the results you achieve,” says Mackenzie. “But it’s not easy and will require you to be courageous. It will require you to tell the truth to yourself first. And that can be uncomfortable, but the upside is definitely worth it.”

You also need to lead your boss, which might be the most daunting part of the solution as this may require a mindset you’re not used to having with your boss. Because you likely report to a boss who may be the most instrumental in your advancement, it is very important that you manage this relationship well. And Mackenzie goes a step further in suggesting you lead rather than manage your boss. This leading requires that you:

  • Intensely study your boss to get to know the human being behind the mask. Be curious and establish a dialogue where you can better know how they operate.
  • Understand the company you work for: the business you are in, how the firm makes money, who the end customer is and how what you do fits into the company’s strategy.
  • Get the boss-employee relationship basics right. Always strive to keep your boss informed and when you make a mistake, be sure to own up to it and provide a plan for fixing it.
  • Make a concerted effort to elevate your thinking to an enterprise-wide perspective. Frame your ideas with a focus beyond your own domain, which will make you appear more like a leader and your ideas more likely to be implemented.
  • Get in tune with your boss by knowing exactly what he or she is wrestling with on a weekly basis. By knowing what your boss is working on, you are more likely to be an asset while doing your own work.
  • Provide honest, positive praise and affirmation to your boss. Be on the lookout for behavior or traits you admire and express that to him or her. Like any good relationship, you need to regularly make positive deposits in your relationship bank account.
  • Be smart by preparing your boss for your pushback, challenges and disagreements. Use the LCS (Like, Concern, Suggest) method to frame your differences so your boss can hear them and positively respond to you.

Throughout all of these it is essential that you tell the truth. Without being truthful, you will undermine their effectiveness and may ultimately sabotage the relationship with your boss.

Showing up and telling the truth in the workplace is not easy. It is certainly not common. If you choose to do so, you will stand out in a good way. You will ultimately be respected. And you will become more of a leader.

Tim Duncan: The Selfless Leader

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Earlier this week a great leader and perhaps the best power forward to ever play in the NBA quietly retired from the game. In his typical understated fashion, Tim Duncan stepped away from the game he played with passion, consistency and unselfishness for 19 years. His presence will be missed beyond south Texas.

Unlike talents such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and many others who receive so much of our collective attention, Duncan played in the relatively small market of San Antonio and didn’t seek out the spotlight he so much deserved.

Duncan’s five NBA titles (including three NBA Finals MVP awards) and two regular season MVP awards along with being selected a record 15 times on the NBA All-Defensive Team secured him as one of the best NBA players of all time. Duncan is also one of only three players to win the Wooden Award, NBA Rookie of the Year, NBA MVP, NBA Finals MVP and NBA All-Star Game MVP, joining Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Rather than taking advantage of all the praise for himself, he spread it around to his teammates and to San Antonio Spurs fans. In this age of Facebook “Likes,” Twitter followers, selfie sticks, and year-long victory tours (e.g., Kobe Bryant), Tim Duncan represents the kind of old-school leader we should be celebrating both on and off the court.

As Duncan explained recently, he took less money from bigger market teams in order to give the Spurs more ammunition to field successful teams. The money had “not ever been a deal for me.”

“Honest truth is I didn’t really know from year to year what people were making,” he said. “I think that was the best perspective to have.”

Tim Duncan’s leadership includes taking personal responsibility, leading by example and growing other leaders.

Leaders Take Responsibility
We live at a time when taking personal responsibility for our actions has become so rare that many people expect teachers and police to serve as parents. Tim Duncan is the kind of leader who demonstrates what Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great as one who looks out the window when things go right and in the mirror when things go wrong. Duncan held himself to a high standard and took responsibility (and blame) when it was warranted.

Leaders Lead by Example
Nothing builds up engagement among the ranks like the leader who is down in the trenches doing the grunt work. Tim Duncan was relentless in making his presence known on both ends of the court. Rather than seek out opportunities to make ESPN’s highlight reel, he did the things that helped his team win. While slam dunks are fun for fans to watch, what’s most important is winning the game and that was always Duncan’s focus.

Leaders Grow Other Leaders
Rather than be threatened by the arrival of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, Duncan demonstrated servant leadership principles by giving away his power to enable the entire team to achieve greatness. Together they won 575 regular-season games and 126 career playoff games—both the most by any trio in NBA history. Despite the fact that the media promotes individual All-Star players who are the face of each NBA team, basketball is ultimately a team game where every member has a role to play and how well they work together determines whether they win or lose.

When Duncan was a young boy, his mother taught his sisters and him the nursery rhyme: “Good, Better, Best. Never let it rest/Until your Good is Better, and your Better is your Best.” He cited his mother as his inspiration and the nursery rhyme as his personal motto. This is how he was able to achieve personal greatness.

Ultimately, what Tim Duncan demonstrated as a leader was to put his team above himself. In the same way a corporate executive should put the needs of employees, customers and shareholders above his or her personal needs (and I believe they should be in that particular order), too often executives begin with themselves and work backwards.

Whether you’re leading a company or a basketball team, the best leadership should be measured on overall performance of the organization. Tim Duncan’s leadership demonstrated consistency, competency and quality execution. He should be a model for all of us.

Perhaps Duncan put it best when he summed up his career: “It was just about being in the right situation with the right bunch of guys and getting it done.”

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/24887901@N04/14261831767″>2014 NBA Champions</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Reducing Office Politics Through Soft Skills

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Admitting you don’t know the answer. Apologizing when you’ve made a mistake. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Not speaking poorly about someone behind their back.

These are things we learned as children and know we should practice as adults, yet because many of us don’t, our workplaces are unhealthy and prevent us from being more productive. Traits like empathy, transparency and clear communication are often missing and make for a corrosive work environment where office politics has become an accepted standard element of corporate life.

In a recent Harvard Business Journal article How Facebook Tries to Prevent Office Politics, author Jay Parikh describes that from the very beginning of the social media juggernaut, they wanted to be more thoughtful in all their interactions to avoid letting “office maneuvering poison work life.”

Parikh, global head of engineering and infrastructure, offers five tactics Facebook discovered to keep their culture healthy and productive. These all include elements of trust, transparency, curiosity, and are focused on the soft skills so vital to effective workplaces.

“We equip our employees with the communication skills needed to be empathetic and to solve these issues in constructive ways,” writes Parikh.

Some examples of ways Facebook reportedly encourages employees to avoid the trappings of office politics include:

  • Make “escalation” legal so skip-level meetings are actually encouraged to ensure everyone is on the same page. This has enabled them to help uncover areas to improve, build greater engagement and establish cross-team collaboration among other things.
  • In the hiring process, interviewers need to document feedback on the candidate that everyone on the hiring team can see only after they have submitted feedback of their own. This keeps everyone accountable and prevents personal bias in decision-making.
  • Performance evaluations include twice annual 360-degree reviews to ensure assessments are fair and prevent favoritism or unwarranted punishment to take hold. HR partners have access to the information so no one person can inhibit another’s potential within the company.
  • When an employee does claim politics is to blame for a decision, their manager or other leader seeks clarification to get at the root of the concern. By reducing assumptions, everyone is encouraged to be accountable and to fully understand the other’s perspective. Oftentimes, politics isn’t the cause so much as misunderstanding.

All of these examples in theory can be helpful in building a more engaging, productive and enjoyable place to work. If Facebook is truly practicing these behaviors, I suspect this is an important reason for their rapid growth as well as their ability to retain and motivate high-caliber employees.

More organizations should encourage practicing behaviors that include empathy, transparency, curiosity and clear communication. When all members of the leadership team are actively embodying and demonstrating these behaviors, it sends a strong message that it is more than an external public relations message and integral to the values that the company stands for.

Leaders who courageously embrace attributes to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people will send a strong and clear message on what behaviors are rewarded throughout the company. Then and only then will other employees see the wisdom in following along.

And the result will create a healthier workplace where office politics don’t impede optimal productivity and all employees feel more engaged.