Thursday, March 31, 2011

Define Your Signature Leadership Qualities

What is your greatest asset?

When I ask that question, what is the first answer that comes to your mind?

What frame of reference did you choose?

If you chose your own personal qualities as a frame of reference, you may have answered "my intellect".   Or perhaps "my ability to organize", "my integrity", "my ability to accomplish so many things in a short amount of time", "my creativity".  You no doubt have a lot of assets, or strengths, and it may be difficult to choose a “greatest” one.

Or, you might have thought “my eyes”, “my smile”, “my skin”, or something else more physical. Nothing wrong with that.

If you chose to answer that question from the frame of reference of accounting, then maybe you thought “my house” or “my 401K” or something else that could be converted into cash if you so desired.

If you answered that question from the frame of reference of a company leader, you may have answered with something like “my customers”, “my employees”, “our track record of stability, growth and service” or even "our intellectual capital".

So how did you answer that question?

Why did you choose the frame of reference that you did and what does that tell you about where you are right now?

Whatever frame of reference you chose, I challenge you to choose a different one.

Answer the question from the perspective of your child, your boss, your customer, your employee, your closest friend. What would they say your greatest asset is?

Understanding what your greatest strengths are can help you define yourself as an individual and a leader. What are your 'signature' qualities? What do you want to be known for?

When I do 360 interviews for my clients, I ask that question in two different ways. I ask their direct reports, manager, and a customer, “What 3 or 4 descriptive words immediately come to mind when you think of (my client)?” The answer to this is not always strengths, and sometimes can be interpreted in more than one way: “strong-willed” for example. The answers to this question reveal the signature qualities that my client is known for.

The next question I ask is “What are (my client’s) greatest strengths?” Ideally, you want the answers to these two questions to be the same, or at least to overlap.

If you know what qualities define you to others, and what your natural talents are, you can decide whether they are leadership qualities that you want to build on or are qualities you want to minimize.  You can define which of your assets you want to be known for, your 'signature leadership qualities'.

Understanding what your greatest talents are can help you identify where you want to put your time and effort.  Spending time, energy, and money to strengthen your natural talents builds them into assets that are unique to you and increase your likelihood for success.

Understanding how you are viewed by others gives you an opportunity to choose to either emphasize those qualities and make them your own, or change them if they are not the impression you want to leave. By deliberately identifying the assets you want to be known for, you are proactively defining your own signature leadership qualities.  Don't allow yourself to be branded by default.  Be conscious of how you convey yourself as a leader, what you stand for, and what your leadership philosophy is. 

So what is your greatest asset? By knowing it and strengthening it, it will become one of your definitive signature leadership qualities.  Make sure that's what you want.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hey Crooks, Keep Sending Emails!

Never send an email that you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the newspaper.

That little bit of advice reminds me to reread my emails to see how they might come across to my recipients. Makes me ask myself if picking up the telephone might not be a better way to communicate in a particular case. Nudges me to take the time to rewrite and delete phrases.

It seems like we should all know this by now. But careers curtailed by thoughtless emails are weekly fare in the news.

Emails are great for distributing information and for confirming tasks and responsibilities. But even those areas should be double-checked before using email – what kind of tasks and responsibilities are being discussed?

In Seattle, it might have been an email that was the last straw in whether to fire the School Superintendent over a $1.8 million mismanaged sub-contracting program in which she was cleared of any involvement. Two of the Superintendent’s top managers had discussed via email what to do about a bad report on the program.

"The other consideration is with regards to next week's executive session," one manager’s e-mail reads, referring to a meeting of the School Board. "If I understood you correctly, you and the Supt. didn't want us to hand out the report."

The report wasn’t distributed to the School Board, and a culture of deception is not tolerated. Out she goes.

The hacker group Anonymous has received lots of business press lately since they broke into security firm HBGary Federal’s systems last month and exposed emails that suggested illegal activities were being planned against a competitor of their client, the Chamber of Commerce. This resulted in the resignation of HBGary’s CEO and a congressional investigation. Anonymous has also hacked into Bank of America’s systems and published emails that they say provide evidence of fraud.

It seems like we should also know by now that nefarious activities shouldn’t be conducted at all. But if you choose to engage in them, please do write about them in your emails. It’s so much easier to prove guilt that way.

For those of us who are driven by expedience, slow down! Take a minute to review your email before you hit “Reply”. Emails that are sent without prudent judgment can cause the gamut from misunderstandings to lawsuits. Here’s the (literal) bottom line: If you’d be embarrassed to have your email published on the front page of the paper, don’t send it.

There are just "two" many examples of poor email judgment!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Prepare Yourself for VUCA Leadership

Business and government leaders in Japan are being tested during the current triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown.

Leading effectively during a crisis requires strong character, excellent planning, consistent communication, and a cohesive team. It takes the ability to manage one’s own dilemma: how to externally convey peace and calm while internally experiencing a turmoil of emotions that may include horror and despair.

Dilemma management was given an academic focus and an acronym by the US Army War College. The term VUCA was coined to describe the factors of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity which face a leader in today’s combat environment.

The study of VUCA began as part of a military leader’s education but now has crossed over into business, making it an important part of effective strategic management. Any business leader can immediately see how learning how to lead in a VUCA environment is relevant to their situation.

The VUCA framework gives us some direction about the skills needed to lead effectively during times of drastic change.

Volatility can refer not only to unexpected emergencies such as natural disasters, equipment failure, or workplace violence, but also to the economy and the speedy lifecycles of technology. It’s necessary to survey your particular organization and know what factors could disrupt your operations. If you work in a large organization, no doubt you have addressed the issue of business continuity and data recovery. However, it’s been estimated that 40% of small businesses have not. Having the foresight to plan for the worst in every situation is a strategic management skill that is a requirement for effective leaders.

I will never forget experiencing a bomb threat at my workplace, part of a call center and warehouse. The bomb threat was thought to be a direct result of some national media attention my department’s sizable Japanese business had attracted. Although not trained in how to deal with a phone call like that, the receptionist handled it with calm professionalism. Customers never knew what happened, but orders were not received or distributed that day, and hundreds of workers were sent home.

• Does your organization have an emergency action plan and business continuity procedures in place?

• Do you have strategic plans to address future trends that may affect your particular business?

No matter how experts try to predict - the next earthquake, the next invention, the economic recovery – no one really knows. The next great Tokai earthquake is overdue to occur in the Shizuoka prefecture and the Japanese government has been preparing for it since 1978. The great tsunami-generating earthquake of March 11th off the coast of Sendai was not predicted. We need to be able to lead despite uncertainty.

When faced with a volatile situation, list the questions you have. What is known, and what is unknown? Determine the best courses of action to deal with the unknown. Mitigate the uncertainty as much as possible by asking all the questions and collaborating with others to find the answers.

• Do you have a good team in place who asks the difficult and unexpected questions?

• Do you have the ability to listen well?

Every circumstance contains multiple connections and repercussions. The complexity of a situation can be overwhelming. Leaders need to be able to discern and prioritize to make good decisions within the parameters of their knowledge. In order to do this, you must have access to real-time, accurate information and as much expert analysis as possible.

Disaster relief workers in Japan are confounded by the enormity of their task: people need shelter, food, water, warmth, medical care, to find their loved ones, to find their belongings, to be protected from radiation…the list goes on and gets more complex when the challenge of logistics, gasoline and factors we are not even aware of are added. In order to prioritize and give people what they need, leaders need timely access to key information and essential communications.

• What is the state of your communications networks, for both emergencies and non-emergencies?

• Are you receiving the right amount of quality information on a timely basis?

• Do you have people and systems in place that can make effective use of this information?

It can be difficult for people to function in an environment of ambiguity, but that is often a necessity in business and in life. No matter how much we try to put structures, rules, and procedures into place, the world is not black and white. There are always exceptions, and in a VUCA world knowing how to lead people through chaos and ambiguity is an essential skill. Communicate way more than you think you need to in order to manage expectations, calm fears and mitigate rumors.

Most VUCA –type circumstances are not just problems to be solved, but dilemmas that must be prepared for as much as possible, then continuously managed. It can be a taxing job, so incremental successes within the larger situation must be identified, acknowledged, and celebrated.

• Do you communicate to your employees often and in depth?

• Do you have temporary structures and procedures for times of ambiguity and change?

Not surprisingly, the study of VUCA and dilemma management has not yet addressed (as far as I can find) the psychological preparation needed for a leader to manage during VUCA times or how a leader can help their people resume full functioning after a trauma. Here is one resource for the latter.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity at work are becoming more business-as-usual than exceptions. Take advantage of the practical resources which are widely available, such as data recovery systems and emergency action plan templates. And hone your leadership skills so you can manage both the internal and external dilemmas that come your way.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Are You Your Own Worst Oppressor?

Do you have an oppressive work ethic?

Feeling obligated to work extra hours late into the evening and on weekends is not uncommon, especially in young companies or during massive projects. The excitement of being part of something new and larger than ourselves is motivating. Our work ethic kicks in and we do what it takes to get the job done well and be the true professionals we are.

But when is enough enough?

A woman in my exercise class showed up after being away for quite a while. When I asked what had kept her away from a regimen that I know she loves she said, of course, “work”. She works in a rapidly growing company and her boss, the owner of the company, depends on her a lot. Unfortunately, he doesn’t usually acknowledge her dedication. But that week, he finally had extended her some public appreciation.

She said during recent office renovations she had stayed at the office all weekend. Her boss stopped by the office to pick up some athletic gear before going out again and was surprised to see her there. She told him she had to be there to let the workers in and oversee their moving of the equipment. She was surprised that he was surprised, but not surprised that he just took it for granted that she would take care of everything.

That Monday, he recognized her in front of the company at an all hands meeting. She was happy that he had said a few nice words, but frankly, I was thinking, why don’t the employees have a share in this company? She doesn’t get paid extra for those hours, and she is not part owner of the company. If he hadn’t stopped by the office on personal business, the owner would not have realized how much of her own time she put in. Needless to say, she told me that she didn’t expect to continue working there for an extended period. And after we talked, she has started coming back to our exercise class regularly.

I asked her what changed that allowed her to come back to our 6 pm classes. “I just decided to slip out. Someone else can handle anything that comes up", she told me.

Giving herself permission to just leave the office when there is still so much to do is a shift in her attitude that is a direct result of her boss stopping by the office on the weekend and being surprised to see her working. He should have been aware of what she was doing to ensure the entire company would run smoothly come Monday morning. Although she appreciated being appreciated, it also made her realize how much of her life she had devoted to the company without any appreciation.

In my article How to Find More 'You' Time I gave tips on how to lighten your workload. I didn’t address your personal work ethic. I heartily endorse having a healthy work ethic, but not an oppressive one.  Of course there will be times when short term projects keep you working late and on the weekends. The key phrase here is “short term”. Working all hours of the week should not be a regular practice; that is not a “healthy work ethic”.

Work can and should provide a creative and fulfilling outlet. But make sure you also plan for time for yourself, cultivating other interests, and enriching your relationships with your family and friends. Don’t be your own worst oppressor – no one will appreciate that.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How To Prevent Them From Saying "That's Not Fair!"

Last week’s blog posting may have raised a few questions for some people. Isn’t rewarding only some employees showing favoritism? Wouldn’t that foment poor morale and complaints from those who don’t get those extra perks such as more flex time or the coveted office chair?

It might, if you aren’t clear about your expectations, and consistent about asking for accountability and rewarding positive behavior.

What behaviors do you reinforce? Are your employees clear about which behaviors are desirable and which aren’t? Don’t assume they are. The only thing you can assume is what is obvious to you, is obvious to you and not necessarily to anyone else.

I remember a story one client told me about an employee who seemed surprised when he was told his cynical attitude was holding him back. Attitude is not usually a category on a performance evaluation. However, this employee should have been coached and given feedback on the impact his attitude had on his team and his own career.

Regardless of whether a behavior is measured on a performance appraisal, any action that impacts one’s career, their team, the customer, or the organization needs to be commented on. If it positively impacts others, then every team member should know that it is a desired behavior. If it has a negative impact, then the person exhibiting that behavior needs to be taken aside and educated and coached about how to change. It is remarkable how many employees are not aware of the impact of their behavior, so be sure they understand the depth and the extent of it.

In order to ensure that the cries of “unfair!” and “you’re the teacher’s pet!” aren’t heard among your team members, follow these guidelines:

1. Be super-specific about what your expectations are regarding performance and professionalism. Never assume others know what they are.

2. Verbally praise those whose actions and attitudes positively affect the team and the organization. Praise in public, so others know what is valued.

3. Educate and coach your employees about what actions and attitudes negatively affect the team and organization. Ensure they understand the extent of their influence and how others (including themselves) are impacted. Correct individuals in private.

4. Be consistent and timely in asking for accountability, and in providing verbal praise and coaching.

5. Be consistent in rewarding those who exhibit high performance, increased responsibility, and exceptional results.

When someone shows they can take on added responsibility and freedom, you give it to them. If they don’t you don’t. It is just like having children: when they show they are responsible, you can let them stay up later, do more activities, and have more privileges. When employees show they are responsible by performing above expectations consistently, you give them more privileges too. Just make sure you adhere to your own guidelines about what those expectations are, and what privileges go with them. And make sure your employees know that too.

If you do this, you won’t have to contend with grumbling about unfair treatment and favoritism. It will be obvious to all what they have to do to gain more perks and experience “re-recruitment”.

Top performers know what is expected of them, and everyone should know what it takes to be a top performer, and what the rewards are.