Tim Duncan: The Selfless Leader

Spurs

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

Mobbing

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.

Learning Skills: Knowing vs. Doing

learningpyramid

So often knowledge and skills are linked together as a single unit. And while there is certainly a strong link between what we know and what we can do, these terms need to be uncoupled in order to better understand them.

The knowledge we acquire is a direct result of our learning through school, reading books and trade journals, attending training programs and seminars, etc. Staying on top of the latest research and thinking in our professional domain is vital to becoming and remaining successful.

Skills are what we are able to do with this knowledge, yet it doesn’t necessarily follow from our knowledge acquisition alone. Theory and practice are different: just witness fresh college graduates joining the workforce. But it’s not only in newcomers where this shows up since skills, like knowledge, need to be continually developed in order for each of us to stay current.

So how do you learn and improve your skills? Is it wrapped up in training programs promoted as “skills training,” yet delivered for the most part as knowledge transfer?

When looking at how employees are trained, there is often a tendency to focus on knowledge rather than skills. The primary reason is tradition and convenience, and because it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people rather than set up conditions under which these people can develop skills through practice.

The amount of money companies spend on training is often a good barometer of economic activity— when companies are growing, they increase spending on training; when they are slowing down, they cut back. Training is the most discretionary of all corporate spending.  And the larger the company, the more likely it is to invest in training and development.

In 2012, according to the Association for Talent Development (formerly ASTD), US companies spent more than $164 billion on training and development. And according to the “2014 Corporate Learning Factbook,” US spending on corporate training grew by 15% over the previous year—the highest growth rate in the previous seven years.

This increase in spending on training is not only associated with growing economic activity, but also due to a skills gap. In fact, more than 70% of surveyed organizations stated this “capabilities gap” is one of their top five challenges.

While knowledge can be fed into the brain to be stored and retrieved as necessary, skills need to be immediately practiced in order for them to be truly learned and retained. Today there is far too little effective skills training in the corporate world.

Skills training needs to be taught differently than knowledge training. The teacher needs to be less the “sage on the stage” and more of a “guide on the side.” Some examples include:

  • Programs and classes that are experiential where students actively practice a skill as a way to truly learn it. A particular skill is demonstrated by the instructor, then immediately practiced by students where they can be corrected as necessary. This can be done outside of the workplace where students can first gain competence along with confidence. Useful for improving public speaking or presentation skills, for example.
  • Executive Coaching is an excellent way to uncover issues or concerns, educate why they are ineffective, and then help change behavior through practicing new skills in the workplace environment. Beginning with the coach’s suggestions on alternative approaches, the client can then try out new behaviors in the workplace. Through reflection and direct feedback with corrections and/or modifications, the client can further refine practice of the new skill. Especially useful for improving communication, conflict negotiation, and increasing overall executive presence.

In their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, authors Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool discuss what they call “deliberate practice” where the focus is solely on performance and how to improve it. Whether it’s to become a grandmaster chess champion, a concert violinist, a professional golfer or a successful business leader, quality skill development won’t be found in a book, online seminar, or traditional training course. It will come through this deliberate practice.

According to Ericsson and Pool, this deliberate, purposeful practice requires:

  • Getting outside your comfort zone — “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Neale Donald Walsch
  • Doing it in a focused way with clear goals and a plan for reaching them — “A goal without a plan is just a dream.” Dave Ramsey
  • Finding a way to monitor or measure your progress — “What gets measured gets managed.” Peter Drucker
  • Maintaining your motivation — “People say motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.” Zig Ziglar

In the same way learning to play the piano requires music theory, it also requires continually putting fingers on the keyboard in order to enable muscle memory, among other things. We have to stop thinking that simply hearing, reading, or watching something will enable us to learn or improve a skill.

Skill development requires going beyond knowing to actually doing. It requires deliberate, focused attention that stretches us just beyond where we’re comfortable. It demands continual monitoring and adjustments. And the motivation to keep you continually moving forward.

Listening Your Way to Success

pers cycle

How often do you struggle to get people to buy what you’re selling?

I’m not suggesting you are a sales person, per se. However, all of us are selling something whether it’s seeking the boss’s permission to proceed on a project, persuading a co-worker to do something in a particular way, convincing your spouse to vacation in a certain location, or cajoling the kids to do their homework and clean their rooms.

This form of persuasion takes place in each of our lives every single day, and some of us are more successful at it than others.

In this age of message bombardment, it’s important to recognize that people selectively tune out the noise in order to hear what’s important to them. Because they are inundated with both wanted and unwanted to information, they fortify themselves to listen selectively.

So given this resistance, how do you get your message across?

In Mark Goulston’s book, Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, he explains the importance of successful communication through the Persuasion Cycle, illustrated above. Goulston says all persuasion moves through the steps of this cycle and therefore it’s important to to speak to people in a manner that moves them from:

  • Resisting to Listening
  • Listening to Considering
  • Considering to Willing to Do
  • Willing to Do to Doing
  • Doing to Glad They Did and Continue Doing

The secret to getting through to anyone is by having them buy in. This occurs only when you are able to get people to stop “resisting” to “listening” to “considering” what you are saying.

“Ironically, the key to gaining ‘buy-in’ and then moving people through the rest of the cycle is not what you tell them, but what you get them to tell you—and what happens in their minds in the process,” says Goulston.

As the title to his book implies, listening is a huge part of successfully persuading others. And effective listening requires seeking to understand before being understood as Stephen R. Covey described in his seminal book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

It also requires hearing what is unspoken yet conveyed through tone of voice, eye contact and other body language. This requires you to be curious, and using all of your senses to truly tune into the other person.

Getting people to reveal their resistance involves not only listening, but asking the right questions. No matter how many facts and details you share about your perspective, until you ask the right questions to uncover resistance you will fall on deaf ears. And learning to ask good questions is perhaps the most important leadership tool you can master.

You can also help persuade others by exercising your empathy muscle to make the other person feel heard. The gift of being heard is all too rare and goes a long way towards successfully connecting with other people. When they feel heard, they are much more willing to open up and reveal what’s most important to them.

Though most of us will say we are good listeners, the reality is we are not. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will admit that instead of actively listening, we are distracted or thinking about what to say next. This is counterproductive to moving through the Persuasion Cycle.

If you really want to enhance your ability to persuade others to buy what you’re selling, follow the steps in the Persuasion Cycle and improve your ability to truly listen.

Virtually Connected Yet Digitally Distracted

smartphones

Our reliance on smartphones not only enables us to connect with each other at any time and any place, it has also changed the nature of our connections in a profound way. Because we have a phone that connects us to our families, friends, bosses, co-workers, acquaintances, and just about everything else, it has almost become an extension of our bodies.

I remember I used to get so upset while waiting in line for something because when I finally got to the front, the clerk took a phone call and provided immediate service to that person instead of me. Once alerted to this, everyone began calling while they were waiting in line.

Today, two people can be having a very serious conversation, yet when someone’s phone beeps with a text or other alert, the conversation is interrupted (whether or not someone looks) and no longer are the two fully engaged. Our connections are no longer as in-depth because research has shown that even having a phone within sight keeps people from venturing as deep. Knowing that at any moment what you say can be interrupted, keeps you from making yourself vulnerable.

According to Sherry Turkle, author of the new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, this age of technological innovation enables us to always communicate, yet we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We have become distracted so much that we can’t be with others without turning to our phones. Research found that each of us look at our phones on average every 6.5 minutes. I suspect it’s an even lower number with younger people.

Rather than be fully present with the person physically before us, we are choosing to stay loosely connected to those in our wider circle for fear we may miss out on something or not respond quickly enough to their request. Why have we become such slaves to our technology?

“Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” writes Turkle. We choose to connect minimally with lots of people at the expense of losing the ability to connect deeply with someone. And this decrease in real conversation is leading to a serious lack of empathy.

How does this translate to the workplace?

Ben Waber and Alex Pentland from the MIT Media Lab developed a tool called a “sociometric badge” that allows researchers to track employees’ movements as well as a range of measures about their conversations: who they talk to, for how long, on what topic, with what pace of speech, with what tone of voice, and how often they interrupt each other. This badge can analyze intimate aspects of conversation such as body language, interest and excitement, and the amount of influence people have on each other.

This helped quantify what was previously unquantifiable and the results were as follows:

  • Face-to-face conversation leads to higher productivity and is also associated with reduced stress;
  • Call centers are more productive when people take breaks together;
  • Software teams produce programs with fewer bugs when they talk more;
  • The conversation effect doesn’t work the same way for online encounters.

“We think of productivity as . . . sitting in front of the computer and banging out emails, scheduling things; and that’s what makes us productive, but it’s not,” Waber says. What makes you productive is “your interactions with other people—you know, you give them new ideas, you get new ideas from them; and . . . if you even make five people a little bit more productive every day, those conversations are worth it.”

It’s hard to think of a meeting where people aren’t looking at their phones at the expense of conversation and paying attention. We have all accepted this practice because it is a sign of multitasking, which is still widely viewed as a good thing. I suspect there will be a renaissance of unitasking in the same way that mindfulness is gaining momentum. You can’t multitask and be mindful.

Perhaps our current fascination with smartphones is due to their still being relatively new and one day we will see them simply as the tools that they are meant to be. The phone will then be put back in our pocket or purse until we see the need to access it when we are good and ready for it. And while smartwatches and other wearables are on the market to further distract us, I hope we don’t forget that in the end it is the individuals in our lives who matter most. And fully connecting with each of them is much more meaningful than virtually connecting with many others.