Why Hire an Executive Coach

October 9, 2015

Companies used to engage executive coaches to help fix toxic behavior demonstrated by their top leaders. Today, most coaching is instead deployed in order to develop the capabilities of high-potential performers, including directors and senior managers. Coaching is no longer seen as an aspirin, but as a vitamin.

An ever-increasing pace of change requires leaders to quickly develop while on the job. Professional development programs or training that take the leader out of the organization to focus on general theories rather than the immediate day-to-day challenges are no longer sufficient.

Using 360-degree feedback is a valuable way to gather data and report back to the individual leader. This feedback has been found to stick better when the leader works with an unbiased external professional to create sustained progress based on that feedback.

Coaching provides a way to use the feedback as a springboard to formulate actionable S.M.A.R.T. goals and an individual development plan to bring about sustained behavioral change. Working in close partnership with a coach, the leader can then be given direction and support as well as be held accountable to meeting these goals.

There are now nearly 50,000 professional coaches worldwide representing about $2 Billion in revenue, according to a 2012 ICF Global Coaching Study.

Coaching is no longer limited to C-suite executives in big companies as those of all size and type now realize the importance of raising leadership capacities of high performers throughout the organization.

Many reasons exist for hiring an executive coach, including:

  • Uncover blind spots
  • Improve leadership presence
  • Improve communication skills
  • Improve interpersonal skills
  • Make sustained behavioral changes
  • Assist with a new leadership role
  • Help navigate rapid company growth

Bottom line: a coach can assist whenever you desire to grow as a leader.

A coach can be professional development expert (e.g., leadership development, emotional intelligence, performance management) who provides guidance, insight and challenges your thinking. The coach serves as a confidant and trusted advisor on whom you can fully rely upon. When the coach is external, he or she can serve as an objective outside resource to deliver tough messages those on the inside may not be able to do.

The best coaches serve as partners to their clients not because they know the specific details of your particular business, but because they know people, relationships, organizations and how to bring about behavioral change. They can help you with the interpersonal aspects of leading.

A coach can be especially helpful when you are struggling to best manage yourself when you engage with others.

But you also need to be ready to be coached. Those who are coachable are able to readily share their experience. They know their strengths and are able to accept their weaknesses. They are also capable of taking behavioral risks.

Making behavioral change is hard because it’s not instinctual and it is counter to the way we normally behave. It also becomes especially challenging when under stress, which is when it also matters most.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects to consider when choosing to hire a coach is whether the sponsors can be counted on. There may be no better link to coaching effectiveness than whether or not leadership either those above or along side the client are on-board with and supportive of the coaching effort.

As Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan wrote in an article titled “Leadership is a Contact Sport,” leadership is a relationship not between a coach and “coachee,” but between the leader and colleague. It is vitally important that those stakeholders surrounding the one being coached are involved in order for coaching to succeed. Coaching cannot exist in a vacuum.

The ultimate goal of coaching is not dependency on the coach or his or her colleagues. The goal is self-reliance and therefore the one being coached needs to be committed and disciplined.

When there’s a good match between leader and coach, clearly defined goals, a roadmap that leads to behavioral change, commitment to the process, and supportive, involved stakeholders, coaching can be extremely valuable in making more effective leaders.

Successful Behavioral Change Linked to Values

September 23, 2015

Nothing will make people change their behavior—no matter how detrimental—until they can see how it is in conflict with their own value system. That alone motivates us toward successful change.

As a leadership coach working with mid-level managers, directors and C-suite executives, much of my work is helping clients change their behavior in order to become more effective leaders. And changing one’s behavior is hard work.

That’s because our behavior is a part of our identity and we defend it by saying it has worked for us to this point. Why change?

Besides, we don’t have to think about our behavior; we simply react. Therein lies the problem. Instead of reacting, we need to take time to respond.

Reacting is action without thought. Responding is action after thought. Unless you’re on the basketball court with the shot clock running down, you probably have a few moments to contemplate your response before acting. Take this time to contemplate your usual behavior, and then perhaps alter your natural and instinctual way of reacting to respond more appropriately.

But this resistance to change is also deeply rooted in our individual value system.

In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith wrote: “We obey this natural law: People will do something—including changing their behavior—only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values.”

Our values ultimately guide all our actions and they largely determine the decisions we make. Therefore, as a coach, it’s important for me to identify those behaviors that are out of alignment with the leader’s values in order to secure buy-in.

Goldsmith found that the higher one goes in an organization, the more his or her issues are likely to be behavioral.

In fact, he lists more than 20 such behaviors that even the greatest leaders need to stop doing in order to be more effective. These include things like: 5) Starting with NO, BUT, HOWEVER; 9) Withholding information; 16) Not listening; 17) Failing to express gratitude.

These detrimental behaviors often remain hidden because, while they may be obvious to others, they can be a blind spot for the leader. And we have become very adept at seeing only our best selves.

We judge ourselves based on our intentions and we judge others on how they make us feel, according to social psychologist John Wallen. This disconnect from seeing how our behavior impacts others can keep us from being aware of our blind spots.

The blind spot is an area a coach can help uncover and provide a roadmap for how to change. Results from a 360 analysis and other assessment tools enable the leader to gain perspective and challenge his or her previous assumptions. After seeing and accepting the data, he or she must then commit to the behavioral change.

Without this commitment, no measurable improvement is likely to occur. That’s because no one can make us change our behavior unless we want to. And that’s why the direct link must be made to the individual’s own values.

This link to our own sense of who we are and what we represent motivates us to change like nothing else. When a coach points out how the detrimental behavior is in direct conflict with the leader’s own values, it can help fire up the desire and commitment to make the change.

Integrity is a word thrown around a lot in job interviews and on corporate value statements, but to really live with integrity means to act according to the values, beliefs and principals you claim to hold dear.

You cannot behave in a way that is counter to those values, beliefs and principles without the risk of jeopardizing your integrity. Your behavior is therefore a direct reflection of just how much integrity you truly have.

When our behavior undermines our leadership effectiveness, it’s time to see and accept the compromised connection to our values, and commit to change. Only then can we succeed in making real change in our behavior that will lead to a successful outcome.

Misguided Notion: Pursuit of Happiness

August 6, 2015

“The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” — Benjamin Franklin

Most parents when asked will tell you that all they want for their children is for them to grow up to be happy. However, happiness is elusive and ephemeral. What makes us happy one day will not sustain us the next.

So much in life is transitory and we fail to accept that what we want, what brings us pleasure will continually evolve. Despite the fact that most of us claim our favorite foods, movies, music, books, etc. will remain consistent over time, research has shown that even our taste in these things change as we grow older.

A life in pursuit of happiness is like a life in pursuit of wealth—one of the results perhaps, but it should not be the focus. Instead, the focus should be meaning.

A for-profit company’s mission should not be about making money, but it should certainly be one of the results. Their mission statement should instead include something meaningful such as delivering a product or service that enables customers to do something faster, better or cheaper than ever before. If the company is successful, profits will result.

The same is true for individuals with regard to happiness. A meaningful life is one that is in some way in service to others or in something larger than oneself, and this will likely result in happiness because happiness is a byproduct of a life that has meaning.

“Feeling happy is not enough,” says Paul Shoemaker, author of Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World. “People need meaning to thrive.”

“There is a tension between a meaningful and a happy life,” says Shoemaker. “They’re not mutually exclusive, but if you are going to tilt one way, tilt toward meaningful because, done with sustained commitment, a meaningful life can eventually lead to a happy life. I’m not sure about the other way around.”

According to research conducted by the Journal of Positive Psychology, there are key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. These are:

  • Happiness is considerably more short-lived and fleeting than meaningfulness.
  • Happiness is largely present-oriented, where meaningfulness involves integrating past, present and future.
  • Having sufficient money to purchase objects of desire is important for happiness, but makes essentially no difference as to whether a life is meaningful.
  • Challenges may reduce present happiness but are linked to much higher future meaningfulness.
  • Happiness is linked to being a taker rather than a giver; meaningfulness is the opposite.

The research also found that those with a purpose—specifically meaningful goals having to do with helping others—rated their life satisfaction higher (even when they felt personally down and out) than those who did not have any life purpose.

Another study found that people who put the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than people that had their priorities elsewhere.

Feeling happy is not enough because meaning is essential to a valued sense of one’s purpose in life and in community.

The great leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, author of Mojo: How to Get it, How to Keep it, How to Get it Back if You Lose it, says there are five things that really matter in the lives of successful people. In no particular order these are: health, wealth, relationships, happiness and meaning.

Goldsmith suggests that in order to find more happiness and meaning in your life, both at home and at work, you need to spend less time on activities that are simply surviving, sacrificing and stimulating. And you need to spend more time on activities that are considered sustaining and succeeding. These provide both short-term satisfaction (happiness) and long-term benefit (meaning).

Perhaps Victor Frankl, author of the best-selling Man’s Search for Meaning, said it best: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”

Whether it’s finding your “Can’t Not Do” or your “Mojo,” meaning is essential. Meaning is required for sustained happiness. Change your focus from yourself alone to something bigger than you. Change from short-term satisfaction alone to include long-term benefit.

You will catch sustained happiness only when you attach meaning to your pursuit.

The Sarcastic Leader

June 20, 2015

Can you be sarcastic and become a great leader? Though you may gain some friends and even form a small following with this type of humor, you ultimately will not be a strong leader. Sarcasm will hinder your overall effectiveness.

Sarcastic people may defend their sarcasm because it can help create levity and ease tension in certain situations. And while this may be true in the short term, it can also have unintended long-term consequences.

Growing up I was led to believe sarcasm was a respectable form of humor. It was only later that I discovered sarcasm is really passive-aggressive communication that can undermine trust. Oscar Wilde called sarcasm the lowest form of wit.

Defined simply, sarcasm is when someone says something that everyone knows is untrue in order to draw attention to its ridiculousness. It is typically a sharp, biting or cutting remark, which requires face-to-face vocal communication and is context dependent.

Sarcasm can also make someone feel superior in situations where they perceive they have little control. Though an occasional biting comment can spark a good laugh, frequent sarcasm tends to reflect dissatisfaction that may be rooted in what psychologists believe is anger and hostility.

Sarcasm ultimately offers only two outcomes: it can instantly kill a relationship or slowly erode it. That’s because sarcastic humor typically depends on the derision of a person, relationship or circumstance. The fact is sarcasm requires a victim.

This certainly doesn’t make sarcasm the kind of trait we look for in leaders.

Leaders need to be trusted, focused and decisive; sarcastic humor undermines all three of these.

Sarcastic leaders can’t be trusted because, as a person with authority over others, your words carry added weight. Making fun of someone through sarcasm—even in a light-hearted way—can have a subtle effect causing the people you lead to doubt your trust in them, undermining their trust in you.

Trust is difficult to earn and takes a long time to rebuild. Don’t let yours be damaged for short-term levity.

Leaders need to be focused and not ambiguous. Sarcasm relies heavily on tone of voice, body language and other nonverbal cues to be properly understood. That’s why sarcastic comments are typically lost when done over the phone or in writing.

Sarcasm allows one to claim some sort of authority without actually taking responsibility for what is said. Lack of a focused message means your leadership is compromised and sarcasm only accentuates this.

Decisiveness is also a necessity in leaders and sarcastic comments are typically directed on problems rather than solutions. Being decisive requires moving beyond the problem no matter how ridiculous it may be. Pointing out the humor only delays finding a constructive way to fix it. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun seeking solutions only don’t use sarcasm as it will only further delay your decision-making.

Sarcasm breeds negativity by discouraging others to focus on what’s wrong rather than on how to fix it. This is the opposite of what a leader should do.

Next time you’re faced with a ridiculous situation and a sarcastic remark comes to mind, hold back and see if you can respond more proactively instead. You may not get the immediate endorphin rush you’re used to, but you will find the way you’re perceived by others will ultimately be more respectful and help build stronger relationships.

Leaders look long term and don’t require the immediate rush of laughter to build their confidence. Focus on solutions rather than problems, nourish relationships without negativity, and always seek to build trust with your co-workers.

Find a way to bring levity into the workplace without sarcasm. It’s better for you and for the organization.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7870246@N03/5799872822″>National Sarcasm Society</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Emotional Health for High Performing Teams

February 19, 2015

Why is it when we put together a group of highly capable individuals to form a team, this “whole” doesn’t necessarily exceed the sum of its parts?

Obviously, teams won’t always exceed the collective contributions of the individuals, and sometimes these teams can backfire and produce even less.

“It is relatively easy to find talent; it is hard to form teams,” wrote David Brooks in The New York Times. “In hiring I suspect most companies and organizations pay too much attention to the former and too little to the latter.”

Selecting talented individuals without consideration for how they interact with others is a risky proposition, since so much of what we do in organizations is done in collaboration with other people.

“The key to success is not found in the individual members, but in the quality of the space between them,” according to Brooks.

This space between members has to do with emotions, and individuals must be emotionally healthy to work together properly. As I’ve written about in previous posts, one’s emotional intelligence is vital to workplace success.

In fact, Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, found that 67% of all competencies deemed essential for high performance were related to emotional intelligence. Furthermore, one’s emotional intelligence mattered twice as much as one’s technical knowledge or IQ for this high performance.

This emotional intelligence is magnified on teams since the effectiveness of team performance relies so heavily on the interaction between team members.

Effective teams are those with trust, open and effective communication, respect among members, a common goal, and interdependence. These are foundational in fostering healthy conflict, collaboration, cooperation and creativity to find innovative solutions to challenges.

Getting to this solid foundation requires the emotional health of each individual because our ability to self-reflect, self-regulate and empathize with others determines to what degree we are able to work together effectively.

Instead of using familiar and workplace-safe words such as “empowerment” and “team-based” and “motivation,” I think it’s time we accept that our feelings are not something we lock away in our private lives or keep at home during the day. Our emotions—both the positive and negative—are with us everyday and everywhere we go.

Accepting and honoring these emotions does not mean no longer acting professional or giving up all rational thought. Instead, it means embracing the gift these feelings provide us in order to work effectively with others and be more productive.

Fear, anger, frustration and other negative feelings can undermine group dynamics. For teams to function at a high level it is therefore important to shift these and harness optimal emotions such as joy, passion, even excitement to provide energy and enthusiasm.

The most optimal emotions can stimulate innovation and productivity because they enhance the competencies of quickness, flexibility, resilience, and the ability to deal with complexity, according to Jackie Barretta, author of Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance. These optimal emotions can then transform any team into a high-performance engine where people function with sharper minds, find creative solutions and everyone operates at their peak.

This does not mean faking positive emotions in order to overcome negative ones. You need to remain congruent with your feelings. But it does mean paying attention to those negative feelings that may be hampering your team.

In her book, Barretta provides a “Fear Release Guide” to reduce fear and negativity. Many of these techniques rely on a high level of trust for team members to feel comfortable sharing their emotions with other teammates, and this is key in order to shift to optimal emotions.

When that fear and anxiety are replaced with joy and playfulness, a team finds it easier to dream up elegant solutions to satisfy customers and deliver long-term value. Barretta defines positive emotions as heartfelt emotions that you can actually feel by the way people speak about their job, their team and their company.

Heartfelt emotions can dramatically impact our ability to interrelate with others, and learning how to navigate them in ourselves as well as those around us can greatly influence our success on teams.

Researchers at HeartMath used sensitive magnetometers to find that the electromagnetic field emitted by our hearts actually extends beyond our physical body to those around us. We automatically and unconsciously sense the heart fields of other people. And this provides valuable information for how well or poorly we function as a part of a team.

If your team is not currently functioning at a high level, perhaps it’s time to take an emotional assessment. What is the predominant feeling in the room? Maybe it’s time to shift away from fear, anxiety or frustration in order to improve your team’s effectiveness.

Resilience: A Recipe for Success

July 9, 2014

We all face adversity in life and, like the proverbial hand we’re dealt, the most important thing is what we do next.

Effectively bouncing back (or forward) from a failure, tragedy or loss determines our resilience, and that resilience may contribute directly to our ability to succeed.

In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, author Malcolm Gladwell investigated why so many people at the top of their profession were found to have deprivation and struggle earlier in their lives. Could it be that the very adversity they faced was in fact the catalyst to help them reach such heights?

Among other things, Gladwell found that those who struggle early in life may have an advantage at taking on challenges others shy away from.

And in a new book titled Supersuvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, authors David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz illustrate how people who have suffered great trauma and tragedy are able to accomplish extraordinary feats.

These “supersurvivors” are people who dramatically transformed their lives after surviving a trauma by “accomplishing amazing things or transforming the world for the better.”

The authors learned through interviews with these supersurvivors that certain delusions can be healthy, forgiveness can be good for the body, and reflecting on death can ultimately help lead to a better life.

The authors provide five key characteristics of these supersurvivors:

1. Have a sense of “grounded hope”
Better than positive thinking, supersurvivors adopt a way of thinking called “grounded hope,” which the authors describe as “an approach to life involving building one’s choices on a firm understanding of reality.” This provides for a foundation for supersurvivors to bravely ask “now what?” rather than wait for something to happen.

2. Are delusional, but in a good way
Great ideas are often considered delusional at first and yet those who are determined enough to persevere through ridicule or skepticism are the one’s we hold in such high esteem for bringing great ideas to fruition. Supersurvivors often need to push back on those well-meaning people around them in order to thrive. Without some delusional thinking, these supersurvivors may find recovery intimidating or even impossible.

3. Are willing to be helped by others
Trauma can create feelings of isolation and may make survivors reject the very people who most want to help. Remaining open to the support of friends and family can result in positive emotions, which can ultimately make you stronger. “The people in our lives really matter,” Feldman and Kravetz write. “Many studies have shown that aspects of social support appear to provide a buffer to the emotional effects of trauma and other negative circumstances, helping to protect some people from mental health symptoms that haunt others.”

4. Know the power of forgiveness
Though many traumas are man-made, moving beyond feelings of hatred, anger and resentment can help people move on with their lives and rebuild inner strength. It is this ability to forgive that enables us to fully accept what has happened and move forward. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Without forgiveness there is no hope.” Supersurvivors don’t hold grudges, and they forgive themselves and others.

5. Find strength in something larger than themselves
For several supersurvivors featured in Feldman and Kravetz’s book, faith was a determining factor in helping to overcome trauma. Some feel God literally called out to them, while others find a set of beliefs help ease suffering. Whatever their belief system, these people are able to tap into the power of a connection with something larger than themselves. “For some, religious beliefs and practices are comforting, buffer the damaging effects of trauma, and galvanize personal growth,” Feldman and Kravetz write. “Faith seemed to help people cope and to strive for better days, even when a logic dictated the opposite.”

Resilience is an extremely important leadership quality as it determines how one responds after a crisis. This resilience can indicate whether a leader truly has what it takes to lead an organization through challenging times.

Is there some setback, trauma, failure or loss that has held you back? Or did it propel you forward instead? Don’t underestimate the power and transcendence of resilience.

Strong Leadership Requires More Humility & Less Hubris

October 10, 2013

As our congressional “leaders” fail to settle differences to negotiate a deal to keep the United States government open and resolve the debt ceiling crisis, I am troubled by our failed leadership in Washington.

This leadership is failing because the representatives of “we the people” are firmly grounded in their positions (or those they are beholden to) rather than doing what is right for our country. This leadership is made up of politicians focusing on ideology instead of the practical matters of governing. This leadership is weak because they demonstrate far too much hubris and too little humility.

Hubris is running rampant throughout our society: Witness the fact that we pay so much attention to celebrities’ ideas on government matters. Cable news programs present well-quaffed talking heads’ spouting their opinions as if they are facts. And we as a people willingly choose infotainment instead of intellectual discourse.

CNN recently brought back Crossfire not because there is actually any useful information being exchanged, but because people shouting at each other apparently encourages the right demographic to tune in and watch.

This hubris, especially in the modern definition of the term, is about overconfident pride and arrogance. It reminds me of how the United States education system is falling behind many other nations in every category other than confidence. Our students may not know the correct answer, but they sure take pride in themselves anyway.

Pride that blinds does not demonstrate strong leadership. In fact, it does the exact opposite.

What if instead of accepting this hubris we demanded our leaders to act with more humility? Though often presented as a weakness in our society, humility is being studied as an important trait that can enhance leadership effectiveness.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, called Level 5 leaders those who attained the top spot in the hierarchy of executive capabilities identified in their research. Collins described these top leaders as those who “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

Recent research by J. Andrew Morris and Rob Nielsen suggest that humility is multi-dimensional and includes self-awareness, openness and perspective taking—emotionally intelligent traits proven vitally important to strong leadership.

Humility is one of those traits that are found in the greatest of leaders throughout history, though are not necessarily found in those who rise to fame in business or politics. That’s because to be humble doesn’t necessarily play well in the media. Being humble does not enable egotism and perhaps most pertinent today, it doesn’t create controversy.

Though hubris may attract more attention because it appeals to our basest interests and may serve to confirm our suspicions regarding inept and corrupt politicians, I believe this can’t continue. At some point Americans will stop blindly supporting those politicians and candidates who demonstrate such a lack of courage. We will no longer support those who pander to us voters while serving their more powerful financial backers. We will demand authenticity and integrity.

In the same way business leaders must prove their abilities through results, the same should be said for our political leaders. Arrogance and overconfident pride are not traits that get results and they are not traits to effectively run a company or a country.

Evolving Role of the Middle Manager

August 9, 2013
“I would rather have a first-class manager running a second-rate business than a second-rate manager running a first-rate business.” — Jack E. Reichert

Middle managers are essential to business, but their role is being questioned in this new business era.

Last year nearly 11 million employees identified themselves as middle managers. This represents 7.6% of the total U.S. workforce, which has recently been on the rise but may begin to slow in the future.

The Wall Street Journal recently did a series called “Managing in the Middle” on the role middle managers serve in organizations—a role that is evolving to meet the challenges of the faster pace of change, technology and a new work ethic.

They profiled a high tech company with nearly 40 employees, who only recently promoted an employee to become their first manager. As reported in this article, “. . . at startups, where speed and autonomy are prized above all else, managers are often dismissed as archaic, or worse, dead weight.” Some firms dislike the term “manager” so much that they instead refer to them as “leader” or “person primarily responsible” (PPR).

This lack of respect for managers may be due to an evolving work ethic inspired by the Millennial generation of workers. Rather than be managed by someone else, these young, digital natives like to be empowered to get things done without a chain of command or corporate bureaucracy standing the way.

Some might argue that unregulated individual contributors cannot possibly know all the different ways decisions on elements of a project may negatively impact the project as a whole, other projects or the entire organization. And there can be no cost consolidation or process innovation if someone isn’t looking at the intimate details of how projects can work together better.

Middle managers now need to do more of the work as well as supervising others. In many cases, it is the supervising part of the manager’s job that is least likely to be measured and evaluated, and as a result this gets the least attention.

Supervising others has always been a complex task requiring many so-called “soft skills” that enable one to effectively lead others while also navigating the political environment within the organization. This includes being able to effectively manage not only downward, but also upwards and across the organization.

The challenge is that middle managers are not always given the tools needed to succeed as most are promoted to management positions based on their work as individual contributors. In many cases they achieved some technical expertise and this gave way to a promotion that didn’t always include management training or mentoring on the additional skills managers need.

Some common responsibilities for middle managers across industries are:

  • managing day to day operations
  • firefighting and troubleshooting
  • addressing ill-defined problems
  • developing others (as well as themselves)
  • championing innovation and facilitating change

All of these things still matter, but how has the manager’s role changed over the years? Here are a few examples:

It used to be that the middle manager position was the only pathway to career advancement. A middle manager learned to take on greater responsibility and supervise other people because this is how he or she could demonstrate leadership qualities while delivering quality products or services.

Employees now demonstrate their skills and abilities as individual contributors while working collaboratively with others. They need to take on a more strategic perspective to see beyond their own scope of work and how this impacts others and the organization as a whole.

In the past a middle manager needed to hold individual employees responsible for completing quality work on time. This was done through various forms of direction and measurements, and then communicated at annual performance reviews if at all.

Now individual employees need to hold themselves accountable for their part on the project, and to communicate with other team members to ensure the work is done well and delivered in the right timeframe.

It used to be that middle managers were Baby Boomers or Generation Xers who managed others in their generation or younger folks. This maintained a hierarchy and made it clear who was in charge with deeply-held respect for this authority.

Now in many organizations, middle managers are just as likely to be of the Millennial generation and managing those their own age as well as those older than themselves. Respect is something that is assumed equally up, down and across the organization in a more casual environment.

The role of the middle manager will continue to evolve. And it’s up to those in these positions to embrace these changes in order to thrive. This means continual learning, collaborating, communicating, mentoring and accepting the ambiguity of the position.

Though this quote is attributed anonymously, I think it is particularly poignant. “If you want to manage somebody, manage yourself. Do that well and you’ll be ready to stop managing and start leading.” Exactly!

Knowing Your Weaknesses Makes You Strong

June 1, 2013

“There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage.” – Cha’n Master Fuchan Yuan

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Famous Job Interviews Through the Ages, Joe Queenan states that asking job applicants what their weaknesses are is a stupid question.

“This is a rude, intrusive question, and nobody should be required to answer it,” Queenan says. “It is a trick question designed to put the applicant at a disadvantage.”

Although Queenan’s article is meant to poke fun at how famous historical figures would answer many of today’s standard interview questions, it’s clear that he seriously thinks there is no value in questions such as the above.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Open ended questions like what are your weaknesses can indicate a level of self-awareness, which I believe is very important. Being able to articulate your mistakes and failures demonstrates that you may have learned something from them rather than simply been successful at hiding them.

As any journalist knows, there is an art to asking questions that get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes direct questions are best and sometimes it’s better to take a more nuanced approach. Regardless, if you want to really judge whether someone is up to the task at hand, you should ask open-ended questions that enable the candidate to reveal who they are.

Leaders who know their strengths and weaknesses and can articulate them to others effectively demonstrates the self-awareness necessary to lead others. This ability also indicates a certain amount of humility and perhaps this is something missing in our leaders more than any other trait.

Queenen goes on, “ . . . the presumption that people have weaknesses is un-American. It is defeatist and sad. The whole point of being American is to feel invincible, that one is incapable of being improved upon.”

This reminds me of the U.S. education system compared with others around the world. While our students are no longer among the strongest in mathematics and other disciplines, we remain highest in our confidence.

Can this confidence and feeling of invincibility therefore override our weaknesses? I suggest it cannot and we would be foolish to think it can.

While I am all for building confidence in ourselves, I think doing this at the expense of acknowledging our weaknesses can be problematic. It can also lead us into trouble because we end up hiring the wrong people, listening to the wrong pundits, and following the wrong leaders.

Think of the overly confident CEO who takes a company down the wrong path leading to bankruptcy and lay-offs. Or a President of the country who takes our soldiers into harm’s way in wars he is confident about.

While focusing on weaknesses too much will never get anyone hired, those who are aware of their own weaknesses are more likely to deal with them. A CEO would hire others with strengths to complement his or her own competency. A President could include expert advisors capable of telling the leader of the free world when he or she is mistaken.

Any employee worth hiring should be aware of and capable of articulating their weaknesses. As much as we all want to hire confident employees, don’t minimize the importance of humility in them. Employees who are aware of and can articulate their weaknesses are stronger employees.

Will Data Help You Hire Better Employees?

April 26, 2013

The cost of hiring and retaining workers can approach 60 percent of a corporation’s variable costs, so it makes sense to manage this extremely well. Can big data and software help do this?

Nearly two-thirds of all workers are paid hourly in America and about half of them change jobs every year. Companies can save a great deal of money if they can better determine who will perform well and stay in these jobs.

Evolv is a company that monitors recruiting and workplace data in order to help companies decide who to hire. They have analyzed and studied millions of data points from more than 30,000 hourly employees.

Among their findings are that those who fill out online job applications using a browser that they had to deliberately install like Chrome or Firefox, perform better and change jobs less often than those who used Microsoft’s Explorer—the default browser that comes with most computers.

Evolv also determined that those who work in customer service at Xerox are more likely to stay on the job if they live near their workplace and can get there easily. And that those who belonged to one or two social networks stayed on the job longer. Using data such as this during the hiring process, Xerox was able to reduce attrition by 20 percent in an initial pilot program.

Using software and data to help determine viable candidates seems to make sense, but relying on algorithms alone can be a mistake. Like with any data, it can only be as good as the people who determine how to gather it, design the queries and analyze the output.

Think about your workplace. I’m certain you can think of people who may not have all the standard qualifications, educational background, and necessary experience that may be required to do the job. And yet, these very same people may be among the top performers. Are they only outliers who shouldn’t be considered or would it be a mistake to install a system that would deliberately miss them in the recruiting process?

My bet is that these people didn’t get the job through the normal HR channels because they likely would have been rejected by resume scanners and other data-driven software.

Data mining for people acquisition is not limited to hourly wage employees.

Google uses “people analytics” to better hire innovators who are so crucial to them as well as every other company. The way Google sees it, accurate people management decisions are the most important and impactful decisions a company can make.

And all these people decisions are based on data and analytics. They are applied with the same rigor Google applies to engineering decisions. It’s hard to argue with Google’s success: on average, each of their employees generate nearly $1 million in revenue and $200,000 in profit every year.

You can read more about Google’s analytical approach to human resources in an article by HR thought leader Dr. John Sullivan.

But the notion of putting such analytical decision-making above the relational issues human resources is typically relies upon seems ludicrous.

Aren’t these outliers more likely to be the very innovators many companies say they are really looking for?

So much of the hiring process is based on instinct and attentiveness to the relationship because human beings are not made up of ones and zeros. While our ability to do a certain task is something that can very often be quantitatively measured, our ability to work cooperatively with others, verbally communicate effectively, and generate creative solutions cannot always be quantitatively measured.

Think about how schools in China are now trying to teach out-of-the-box thinking so that their students can become more innovative like Americans.

There are so many subtleties in the hiring process that could ultimately miss great prospects through filtering software.

Let’s not lose sight of the importance of instinct, relational attunement and qualitative evaluation that cannot be determined via data and software analysis.

Grown-up Responsibility in the Workplace

April 11, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is intended to inform, entertain and hopefully inspire you to take action towards improving your own or your group’s behavior in the workplace. While the information is based on the experience and expertise of the author, he takes no responsibility for the accuracy nor for any damages incurred from deploying this information.

What happened to the notion of personal responsibility, and when did this no longer become a requirement for being a grown-up?

As a parent of young children I find I am constantly signing waivers so my kids can participate in various physical activities. All these legal agreements have similar language that essentially disavows those providing the service from taking any responsibility should my child get injured while participating in the activity.

These disclaimers are even found in preliminary report cards. Here’s what came home the other day with the grades for our middle schooler:

DISCLAIMER: This system is provided as a convenience. Grades and other information provided by this system are not official records and may or may not be accurate. Neither this institution . . . . or its affiliates accepts any responsibility for information provided by this system and/or for any damages resulting from information provided by this system.

These disclaimers are not limited to the activities of our children, of course. More and more of the products and services we purchase every day come with a limited liability notice so the manufacturer or provider cannot be held responsible should their product or service come up short or result in an injury or death.

I know this is done in order to protect organizations from lawsuits but perhaps this has gone too far. We have become such a litigious society that no one wants to be held liable in the case something goes wrong. The cost is just too high.

But, of course, things do go wrong. In fact, they go wrong all the time and as a result of so many waivers, it is difficult to hold anyone responsible.

My concern is that this lack of organizational responsibility is infecting each of us individually. How long before we send our children to school with a waiver for teachers to sign stating that in no way are we as parents to be held responsible for our children paying attention while in class. Absurd? I hope so.

What about the workplace? As an employee, you may want to be given full responsibility and then held accountable for the results you are asked to achieve. Instead, maybe you are given only partial responsibility, yet still held fully accountable. This can often make the task frustrating if not impossible to accomplish.

If employers gave their employees more responsibility, would they achieve more results? It seems obvious that some would and some would not. In the same way parents provide teenagers with increasingly more opportunities and responsibilities, the same method should be applied to employees. Provide employees with opportunities to achieve success a little at a time. There will no doubt be setbacks and mistakes, but there will also be growth and eventually greater results.

I think many employees would embrace more responsibility and do their best to fully meet the obligations so they could get more respect and career advancement opportunities. And with more responsibility comes greater challenges and opportunities for learning, which includes mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes, but how we deal with our mistakes says a lot about our character as well as how we accept personal responsibility. Denying our own contribution to what went wrong or blaming others is only failing to live up to what responsibility entails.

Responsibility requires that we each own our part in what goes wrong. And instead of attacking others who may have made a mistake, attack the problem that led to this and seek immediate ways of correcting the mistake without pointing figures. Then look for long-term solutions to avoid anyone making the mistake in the future.

And take responsibility not only for the task, but also for the relationship. We all need to work with other people to get things accomplished. Owning up to your mistakes will demonstrate your leadership aptitude as well as protect the relationship, which is vital for cooperation, collaboration and effective teamwork.

Taking responsibility has become all too rare in today’s leaders. If you want to stand out and continue to grow in your leadership capacity, begin by embracing responsibility and behaving like a grown-up.

Getting Along to Get Things Done

November 8, 2012

The election is over and it is time for our elected officials to get to work. The American people have spoken so our leaders can stop campaigning and start governing. And governing means doing what we elected them to do, which is to get things done.

Our politicians need to follow the lead of President Obama and New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie who recently overcame ideological differences to work cooperatively and deal effectively with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The so-called looming “fiscal cliff” now has the same immediacy and perhaps greater severity to more people’s lives.

Living in this especially contentious time, we as a people seem unable to have a meaningful and respectful dialogue in order to better understand each other’s position.

In their book You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong by Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, the authors present how a stanch conservative and a die-hard liberal can appropriately converse and agree to disagree.

“We have thus reached a point where conservatives are more interested in what Bill O’Reilly says about liberals than what their own liberal neighbors say about themselves,” write Neisser and Hess. “Likewise, many liberals ‘know’ about conservatives from reading updates on Huffington Post as opposed to getting to know actual conservative acquaintances.”

Rather than seeking to truly understand each other, we look for shortcuts from partisan media, make assumptions based on stereotypes and all too often take as fact what the pundits pontificate about. This leads to further misunderstanding and deeper resentment.

Authors Neisser and Hess explore the notion that despite political differences of people on the left and the right, many share a deep desire to work for the greater good of society. In a divided congress, it is essential that our politicians are able to do this.

It is also necessary for the rest of us to stop thinking in terms of competition between the blue and red teams, and start working together to build bridges of understanding. This understanding should demand that our elected officials no longer persist in simply holding firm to their positions, but instead find ways to compromise for the benefit of all.

Divisiveness cripples our politics, but also the rest of our lives. Only through working together in spite of conflict can we get to a shared place of understanding and growth. This requires being open and trying to really appreciate the other’s perspective. It requires having respect and taking responsibility for maintaining a positive relationship.

These traits of being open, listening for understanding, and working hard to fully appreciate the other’s perspective are vital to all our relationships. At work, assumptions you make about your colleagues will continue to keep you divided and conflicted. If instead you try to find common ground and see others for who they really are, you will be rewarded with a more congenial workplace where things are getting done.

Workplace & Leadership: This I Believe

September 21, 2012

In my work with organizations both as an employee and external consultant, I have learned (and continue to learn) many things over the years. Many of these have evolved or been entirely reversed, which is indicative of the fact that we are living at a very dynamic time.

For example, in a recent article in Harvard Business Review magazine, Michael J. Mauboussin writes about how organizations are so often using the wrong metrics to measure success. The continual focus on earnings per share instead of other metrics and statistics prevents these companies from fully understanding their business. It’s time for business leaders to adapt their thinking.

In this blog post, I thought I would simply state some of what I believe with regard to the workplace and leadership. Although these statements are likely to continue evolving over time, I believe they will retain a kernel of truth that should remain constant.

I am indebted to many great business leaders and theorists for these ideas and I apologize in advance for a lack of attribution.

  • Most people want to do their very best at work.
  • More autonomy for how the work gets done leads to greater employee satisfaction and higher productivity.
  • Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them. They hire motivated people and inspire them.
  • Character traits like zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity are common among great employees, yet are rarely advertised for or even looked for when seeking and interviewing candidates.
  • Emotional intelligence may not get you the job, but it will undoubtedly keep you in the job and help you get promoted.
  • Getting the right people focused on the right task is the most important objective for any organization to reach its goals.
  • Focusing on employees first is what will make customers happy and this leads to happy shareholders.
  • The role of a great leader is not to come up with great ideas. Instead, a great leader should create an environment in which great ideas can happen.
  • Everyone has the capacity for leadership no matter the position.
  • Leadership development should not be restricted to executives, but implemented throughout every level of the organization.
  • Most of the billions of dollars companies invest in leadership development fall short of success because the programs are so heavily focused on data and assessment gathering and very little on people and processes.
  • A high level of trust in the workplace is directly related to greater productivity, higher profitability and more engaged employees.
  • Building trust and accountability are the most important things a manager should work on in order to get the most out his or her people.
  • Praising workers in a meaningful way is a simple, yet highly effective means of raising employee satisfaction and overall productivity.

I welcome your thoughts and comments as well as other statements with regard to what you believe in order to extend the conversation.

Do the Work to be Lucky in Your Career

June 25, 2012

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  — Seneca

I often encounter people I admire who seem extremely lucky in getting a great job, regular promotions, and seemingly unlimited professional success.

For the most part, I believe these people earned this fate through taking responsibility for their luck. What I mean by taking responsibility is that they are doing the work necessary to be lucky in their careers.

In psychologist Richard Wiseman’s book “The Luck Factor,” he studied thousands of exceptionally “lucky” and “unlucky” people. What he found was that those who considered themselves lucky tended to exhibit similar attitudes and behaviors. And those identifying themselves as unlucky tended to exhibit the opposite traits.

His 10-year study revealed that good fortune is not primarily due to talent, hard work or intelligence. It is the attitudes and behaviors you have that can help determine how lucky you are in your career.

Wiseman identified four principles that characterize lucky people. They:

  1. Maximize chance opportunities and are especially adept at creating, noticing and acting upon these opportunities when they arise.
  2. Are very effective at listening to their intuition and do work—like meditation—that is designed to boost their intuitive abilities.
  3. Expect to be lucky by creating a series of self-fulfilling prophesies because they go into the world anticipating a positive outcome.
  4. Have an attitude that allows them to turn bad luck into good. They don’t allow ill fortune to overwhelm them, and they move quickly to take control of the situation when it isn’t going well for them.

Wiseman recommends listening to your gut, being open to new experiences, remembering the positive in situations and simply visualizing yourself as being lucky. By actively practicing these principles, he says you too can find more luck in your professional growth and development.

According to a survey from the professional networking site LinkedIn, 84% of professionals believe in career luck. And 48% consider themselves to have better career luck when compared to other professionals.

These LinkedIn professionals attribute their luck to having strong communication skills, being flexible, acting on opportunities, compiling a strong network, and having a strong work ethic.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says 70% of all jobs are now found through networking. It seems obvious that the more you pursue the sort of people who can help you in your career, the higher the probability that you’ll meet them.

So what exactly is the work necessary to bring more luck into your career? I believe you can position yourself to be lucky in advancing your career by the following:

  • Become more aware of what’s going on around you. The first step in any change begins with awareness. Not only of where you are, but who you are, and what you want to be. Practice mindfulness to be more conscious of the abundance all around you.
  • Follow your passion and pursue those who fascinate you. Just because you’re doing one type of job, doesn’t mean you can’t talk to people outside of this niche. Don’t limit yourself just because you don’t have any experience or education in a certain field. If you’re passionate about something and have some talent in it, then find those who can help you nurture this.
  • Open yourself to serendipity. A chance encounter is how so many great innovations and breakthroughs occur. Serendipity is the ability to take a chance occurrence—a surprising idea, person or event—and make creative use of it. Connecting the dots and seeing patterns can lead to novel ways of doing things and enterprising opportunities.
  • Always be on the lookout and be ready to pounce. This is all about the preparation necessary to seize opportunities. It means having your elevator pitch always at the ready. And it means being able to pursue your interest when the right connections appear before you.
  • Don’t count anyone out: see every encounter as potentially fruitful. You never know who you may meet who can help you take your career to the next level. Keep an open mind with everyone you meet to let them know what you’re looking for. Most people will want to help you if only given the opportunity.
  • Seek out and listen to advice. Keep an open mind to others’ ideas and suggestions so you can expand your thinking. Learning should be a lifelong pursuit no matter where you are in your career. Ask questions and really listen in order to learn.
  • Be nice even when others don’t seem receptive. Maintaining a positive attitude and showing appreciation is vital to attracting people and opportunities. People want to hire and work with people who are nice to be around. Make sure to demonstrate you are nice be around even when it may be difficult to do so.
  • Reframe the situation. Your perspective can influence events. Crisis can mean opportunity. Getting fired from a job that is not aligned with who you are can lead to your finding the job that is. I’ve always believed that if you raise any glass high enough, it will look half full rather than half empty.

While acquiring knowledge, skills and experience are important to any career, luck also plays a significant role. And though many people think of luck as something passive that either happens or not, the lucky ones know it is much more active and requires work.

So do what’s necessary to adequately prepare and remain open to see the opportunities in front of you. Then you’ll have luck on the side of your own career development.

Character and Success

September 20, 2011

Can you succeed in your career and life if you haven’t first learned how to fail?

This is the prominent question in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “What if the Secret to Success is Failure.”

The writer suggests character traits, including the ability to overcome failure, may be just as important, if not more so, than intellgence in order to graduate from college and succeed in a career and life.

A list of 24 character traits come from a book called “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification” by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. The 800-page book is basically the “science of good character.”

Seligman and Peterson settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras after consulting works from Aristotle to Confucius, the Upanishads to the Torah, the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters. The list includes traits like love, humor, zest, bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity as well as things like social intelligence, kindness, self-regulation and gratitude.

Many would argue that character traits don’t belong in the classroom curriculum and that this should be the domain of parents and not teachers. Let’s face it, teachers have enough to handle at a time when American students academic scores are failing to keep pace with many students around the globe.

My own middle schooler is currently experiencing a great deal of anxiety over the increased demands sixth grade entails, and my wife and I can see that this anxiety is not strictly about the academics so much as the increased homework, internal pressure to do well, and the lack of mature coping skills.

And as difficult as it is for we as parents to watch our child struggle and possibly fail, it may be fundamentally important to her success that we do. We all know at some level that kids need a little hardship or challenge they can overcome in order to prove to themselves that they can do so. This may be the best—if not the only—way to build confidence in oneself.

So if overcoming failure and having certain character traits are so important to success, what does this say about the workplace? How often do these traits show up in a job description or are even mentioned during an interview?

A successful interviewer should certainly probe a candidate for a time when he or she failed at something, and then look for what was learned or how that experience led to improvement. If the candidate is unable to provide an example of failing, that alone should raise red flags.

Character traits are more difficult to uncover yet they can be ascertained through repeated interactions and requests for stories from previous work experiences as well as through detailed conversations with professional references. Ultimately, character traits may never be quantified enough to fully measure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be looked for in a potential employee.

Many companies have a list of corporate values that include character traits that are consciously or unconsciously sought after in the people they hire. Knowing what these are and choosing to deliberately look for them in hiring should be emphasized.

What if your company looked for character traits like zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity in the people it hired? Would these be a good predictor of whether that employee succeeded or failed? I believe they would, but would love to know your thoughts.