Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is Oprah a Good Boss?

Admittedly, I haven’t watched the Oprah show too much. But yesterday it ended after 25 years on the air, and I did watch the finale show.
And I wondered what she must be like as a boss. I watched some of the Season 25: Behind the Scenes videos and learned that her schedule, and those of the hundreds of team members who supported her show, was wacko. During the production season, days could be as long as 18 hours with incredible pressure to get things right, and there are a lot of details to get right.

I have no idea whether Oprah is a good boss or not. Her vast influence qualifies her as an exceptional leader. Can someone be an exceptional leader but a poor boss? After reading about Oprah and watching her highly edited interactions with her staff, here’s what I do know:

--She is brutally honest. Oprah, in rejecting ideas at a pitch meeting, said “There is not enough money on the planet, and I mean on the planet Earth, for me to do that” and “I am never airing that show.” Shooting down people’s ideas that they are 100% passionate about (Oprah’s requirement) might have nicked some feelings, but at least they know where they stand. But, do they know what she’s looking for? I don’t know if they do. Did she make her expectations clear? If she did, why were there so many rejections of ideas?

--Oprah knows her craft. She has great instincts, great skill, and great experience when it comes to producing a TV talk show. You have to respect her for that, and her staff does.

--She sets high expectations. And her staff wanted to meet them, even go beyond them. They respected her knowledge and aspirations and were on the same page with wanting to wow Oprah’s audience.

--Oprah surrounds herself with extremely hard-working, talented people. I think she knows how to pick and keep the right people. This is a leadership skill which is not often talked about, but is essential to success.

--She fostered a culture of constant learning. Oprah says at heart she is a teacher. After every show they debriefed and determined what went well and how they could do better next time. When bad mistakes were made, Oprah, although frustrated and upset, seemed to overcome it and go on without a grudge once her dissatisfaction was aired and the person erring admitted they had learned something and they would do better next time. I am not sure how much Oprah herself is open to feedback. When her producers were remarking that Suze Orman was too hard on guest Nadia Suleiman, Oprah said “I don’t think anything is too hard if it’s the truth.”

--She is generous with recognition and rewards. I have no idea if she is consistent or fair, but from what I can tell, she gives kudos when they are due and enjoys rewarding staff with gifts. She honored her production team during this last season and allowed them some air time. She gave IPads, $10,000 checks and more to all the O Magazine staff for a 10th Anniversary and took her production staff and their families on a Mediterranean cruise.

--Oprah is passionate about her work and that is contagious. She truly wants her audiences to learn something for the better and wants to bring value to her fans. That and the fact that she knows how to do it so well attracts a team of people who want to be a part of it too. Her enthusiasm and openness are undeniable, and everyone, her fans and her employees, respond to that.

I don’t know if Oprah is an “incredible boss” as Lisa Ling (a talk show host on the Oprah Winfrey Network) says, but from what I've gleaned, I think she is a decent boss. And, according to 1,000 surveyed employees - the graph with the results is above - Oprah ranks first among celebrities respondents would like to have as a boss.

So, can someone be an exceptional leader but a poor boss? If you can surround yourself with talented folks who complement your weaknesses and if you are open to improving yourself, you wouldn’t be a poor boss for long. 

Check out Oprah at a pitch meeting here.  When was the last time you clapped when your boss walked in the room?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lack of Interpersonal Skills is the #1 Downfall for New Leaders

The lack of interpersonal skills is the number one reason that executives in new positions don’t meet performance expectations, according to research from the Institute for Executive Development.

“Underperformance is about the lack of interpersonal and leadership skills, such as the ability to build relationships, collaborate, and influence,” states the report.

The study, undertaken in 2010, targeted how well executives performed in the first two years of a new position. Despite years of previous management experience nearly one in three externally hired executives and one in five executives transferred from within did not meet expectations. By the second year, 27% of external hires and 23% of internal hires had left the organization.

Seventy-five percent of the 320 respondents cited the lack of interpersonal skills as the primary reason for the poor performance. Other reasons given were systemic or structural problems and inconsistencies within the organization (28%), goal conflict between executives and the organization (23%), and poor selection by the organization of the executive to the new role (23%).

According to this study, it seems that at minimum, 20% of executives still need help getting along with others in order to just meet expectations. Companies may want to take a look at Google’s approach, where by applying their analytics programs to performance reviews, feedback surveys and top-manager nominations, they arrived at eight essential management behaviors ranked by importance and effectiveness.

The resulting behaviors are common enough, but by using their own “people analytics” process they reflect Google’s culture. “Be a good coach” is the number one behavior. Interestingly, the number one managerial pitfall is “Have trouble making a transition to the team”. Google recognizes what the Institute for Executive Development study revealed: many executives lack the people skills to make a successful transition to their new teams.

New leaders must build trust quickly. They should already have displayed competence in their chosen field. If not, they won’t receive respect from their employees and their attempts to lead will flounder right from the beginning. Beyond industry competence, managers must display integrity, and demonstrate support and interest in their employees. Being open, communicating often, and showing trust in their employees are essential behaviors to smooth executive on-boarding.

What happens all too often is new leaders, feeling a bit insecure in a new role-even if they are seasoned managers- think that perpetuating a “strong leader” persona is the way to go. However their interpretation of a strong leader ends up being someone who micromanages, keeps information to themselves, and doesn’t include employees in decisions or communications. This behavior is the opposite of a strong leader, because the result is poor personal and team performance.

Strong leaders know that their influence is what can make the difference between their team’s average performance and stellar performance. And positive influence only happens when trust and respect are in place. Building trust and respect, individually and at all levels, requires a complex set of people skills that need to be exercised continually. Sharpening current skills and learning new interpersonal skills is a lifelong endeavor, but one that literally pays off.

An investment in a coach to help with that lifelong pursuit will also pay off. Contact me if you’d like to try it out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

For Managers: The 6 Essentials of Effective Coaching

Coaching employees is a skill that gets better with practice. When I teach coaching to managers, they appreciate having a process to follow and specific phrasing to use. However, without incorporating some foundational elements, using a management process comes across as insincere. Any influence you may have is lost, and coaching becomes ineffective.
The following list outlines some essentials that make all the difference when coaching your direct reports. The goal of coaching is a better outcome for everyone involved, and doing it should strengthen your relationship with your employee. If you consistently incorporate these points, following a rote process is not necessary.

Note: The following items use examples that reference coaching to correct behavior or improve performance. However, coaching for development – to ready an employee for the next level – is crucial. You can use these points for those situations as well.

Point 1. Before coaching, check your attitude. It should be one of “I want you to be successful. I am here to help. We are in this together. I know you made a mistake, but it’s not the end of the world. Together we can make it better.”

If you are thinking “Don’t you get it? You really messed up. What a problem you caused!” then you better not coach at all. Either wait till you can change your attitude, or if you can’t, you shouldn’t be the one coaching. If the employee has repeatedly made the same mistake, then it’s not a coaching situation anymore – you should have already done that a couple times. It’s a “If you can’t change, this is not the right place for you” kind of conversation, and HR’s corrective process needs to formally be put in place.

You may have hired this person, trained them, set their expectations, supervised them, and provided their necessary resources and equipment. Perhaps you have a part in their failures?

Point 2. Remember this speaker’s adage: One breath, one topic, one sentence. Keep your sentences short and to the point. Don’t use a lot of jargon, slang or multi-syllable words. Don’t ramble, and don’t get off topic – and be alert to your employee pulling you off topic.

You may think the employee understands your company or industry jargon, but you can’t make that assumption. Keep things as clear as possible by using common language.

It’s human nature to deflect in uncomfortable situations. Expect your employee to change direction in the conversation. Be alert to that, and pull them back onto topic.

Point 3. No doubt they know they made a mistake. Don’t harp on that. Many employees are harder on themselves than you would be. Make sure they understand your expectation and focus on that, and how to reach it.

Research has shown that the number one reason employees don’t do what they are expected to do is because they didn’t clearly understand the expectation. Ask your employee to tell you what they think the expectation is. That is the only way you know for sure they got it.

Point 4. Ask questions. If you are talking more than 50% of the time, you are talking too much. Ask questions and listen. Don’t assume you know the entire situation, the reason for the error, or the best solution. Ask questions for clarification, to ensure you are both on the same page, and for their ideas on how to make things better.

Point 5.  Get specifics about the solution and the changes that are going to take place as a result of the coaching. Write them down. Don’t accept a general answer like “I am going to do better.” Find out what they are going to do differently in order to do better.

Point 6. Follow up!  If you don’t follow up, the message you are sending is "it really wasn’t that important". And if that’s the case, then it’s likely that their behavior will slide back to where it was before. Since it is difficult for people to change their behavior, you may need to follow up several times. This could mean just a quick comment to them to let them know you’ve observed and approve the changes you are seeing. Or, it could be a scheduled meeting to talk about how things are going with the new ways of doing things.

Coaching is an opportunity to let your employees know you care about them and their work. It often results in the manager learning something valuable too. Processes may need to be revised or training may need to be tweaked. Come to a coaching conversation prepared, yet with an open mind.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tactics to Use on Incessant Talkers

In the past two days, I have received estimates from four arborists on pruning my stately old Lombardy poplars. One of them gave me a competitive estimate by looking at my trees on Google Maps and emailing me. The other three stopped by in person and besides giving me a lot of information about my trees, they chatted about their hobbies and personal lives.

I learned a lot about their spiritual beliefs and recreational activities.  As a coach, I am a professional listener so maybe they were just happy to have someone listen to them. That is not uncommon. But they were acting like stay-at-home moms with a toddler who finally have a chance to spend time with other adults.

Although I no longer work in an office environment, I know that chitchatting at work can sometimes take a turn to the dark side. Either personal information becomes too personal or the chitchat can go on and on and on. The other day a friend of mine was complaining about a co-worker who spends too much time sharing her personal dramas. She said she walks a big detour around her and sits in her cubicle with her headphones on to avoid the excessive blather.

Avoidance is a viable tactic, especially since sometimes these lengthy talkers can’t take a hint. With one of the tree experts, I tried to wind up the meeting: “Thank you so much for coming by and taking the time to share your knowledge with me. I will let you know either way by the end of the week.” I walked toward his truck. He came with me but then spent at least ten more minutes talking. I learned quite a few details about his hobby of tree-climbing, about which he is extremely enthusiastic.

Now, if I had really wanted to get back inside to work on this rare Seattle sunny day, I would have had to use some more assertive tactics. The key tactic being: walking away.

Of course, one wants to be polite. But I had already said the polite stuff. I did not leave the area, which is the most important step when shutting down a big talker. When you are with someone, give them your full attention. If you are still there, they are still expecting your full attention. The only solution is to remove yourself.

At work, sometimes the offending party is in your space or is your cubicle neighbor. In these cases you will have to do something that may come across as a little rude: turn away from them. Do not look up at them again. Maybe even put in your earbuds. The bottom line is you are no longer giving them your attention.

I once had a coworker tell me when I went on a little too long about non-work subjects, “I’m feeling very task-oriented right now”, and she turned away. That’s a little too blunt for my taste, and it was a bit odd since she was the biggest talker in our group, but it certainly worked. I abruptly shut up. And it was her turning away that stopped me, practically in mid-sentence.

What you can say instead is something like “John, (use their name to get their attention), I can’t concentrate on what you’re saying right now – I have a ton of things on my mind, a big list of ‘to-do’s’. Sorry to cut you off, but I need to get back to work. Let’s catch up later.” Then turn away, withdrawing your attention.

In networking and business social situations, it’s important not to monopolize people or allow yourself to become monopolized. The whole purpose of these functions is to meet new people and get reacquainted with old contacts. After a few minutes of conversation, if you can introduce them to someone else, do so and move on. Otherwise, extricate yourself from long conversations with some finalizing statements such as “I don’t want to keep you from meeting others here. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. I hope we’ll bump into each other again.”   

If you have an employee who consistently oversteps boundaries by expounding on her personal dramas, it’s time for some coaching. How to coach employees who have bad habits (like talking too much) or are highly emotional will be the topic of an upcoming article.

For now, just remember that for those long-winded talkers, physically withdrawing your attention is the key. When they get the message that you won’t listen to their tales, they won’t bother you anymore. Your attention is valuable. That’s why you should be choosy about who and what you turn it on.

Thank you for giving me your attention!

Sometimes you just can't walk away.

Check out Run-DMC's You Talk Too Much