Sunday, October 14, 2012

Strategic Planning Made Easy: Questions for the Busy Manager

“I have so many projects to manage and so many people, I just don’t have time to do any strategic planning.  I seem to just keep reacting to various project issues and I don’t have the time to focus on real leadership.  I want to sit down with my direct reports and talk about their goals; I want to draft a strategic plan and discuss it with my boss.  But all I do is try to keep things from crashing.” 
My client, Emma, had been promoted into a new position and found herself overwhelmed with taking care of immediate projects when she really needed a little time to take stock and do some planning.

Leaders need to keep their focus on their vision and goals.  They have a lot on their plate and it’s difficult to figure out how to take care of everything well, especially when they are in a new position.   In Emma’s case she hadn’t even had time to figure out what her vision for her department might be as she spent her time bogged down in the urgencies of the day and corralled into meeting after meeting.
This is not an unusual case.  Most leaders, especially mid-level aspiring to senior level, are challenged with the combination of project and personnel management, and leadership functions.  Taking the time to really think about what your vision is, what your priorities are, and drafting some plans will help smooth the way long-term.   Discussing with your boss your vision and plans will show her that you are a strategic thinker and planner and will impress her that you have done some hard thinking about your area.

If you are a new leader, a leader in a new position, or just a leader who wants to refresh their approaches, the following questions can help you focus on what is important. 

1.   What is your leadership philosophy?  What do you expect from yourself as a leader?  What should your organization expect from you?  Share your expectations of yourself as a leader to your staff, and ask them to help keep you accountable.  Starting with being clear about yourself will begin to set a foundation of trust and respect that’s important once you start sharing your vision.

2.   What is your vision for what you control?  What should you and your staff focus on?   How do you communicate your vision?  Discuss your vision with your boss and then make sure everyone knows what it is.  Communicate it often, in a variety of mediums. (See Got Vision? for more on developing a vision.)

3.   What resources and relationships are in place to help you reach your vision and major goals?  What do you need to do to get those in place and maintain them?  For example, do you need to send anyone to training, hire new team members, or focus on building cross-collaboration among other teams?  Do you need to change your culture to become more open or innovative?  Organizational culture changes begin at the top, and although you are one of the leaders, you many need help from the CEO or other senior managers in order to instigate change at this level.  However, in order to attain your vision and major goals, that may be necessary.  Take a good look at your organization’s culture to see what behaviors are rewarded and reinforced.

4.   What are your key priorities?  What will you accomplish in the next 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 2 years, 5 years to reach your vision and major goals?  This is where you can sketch out some plans that include tasks, tactics and changes that you want to make.  Invite your boss into the discussion and add their suggestions to your plans.  When you keep your ultimate vision in mind, creating plans with will be easier because the goals and tasks are all tied to your vision.

5.   How will you measure success?  How will you recognize it?  What milestones will you celebrate?  Knowing how you will measure your successes will assist you when you need to collect and analyze data and make decisions on the best actions to take to achieve your goals. And of course, celebrating milestones along the way will keep the momentum going and morale up.  Make sure that everyone knows exactly what those measureable milestones are.
Giving your attention to these questions will turn you into a visionary leader with strategic planning skills.  They will help transform you from a struggling manager into a valuable principal player.  As in Emma’s case, your boss may be so impressed with your plans that extra resources are provided for you that will ease your workload.  Strategic planning isn’t hard.  Take the time to focus on it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

When the Ugly American Is Your Boss

“He’s acting like a playboy," my Number One said. “That’s what the office staff told me.”

Hana (names have been changed!) was referring to my boss, the head of our international sales department, during his solo visit to our Tokyo office. His carefree behavior was coming across as a lack of respect not only to our Japanese employees, but to their work.

And we all felt like our hard work was being jeopardized by his clueless actions. Hana and I were worried about how our company might be coming across not only to our somewhat new Japanese office staff, but to our customers and business partners. Granted, customers probably would not come into contact with our boss, but the press might. Certain magazines loved our products and business model and not infrequently wrote about them.

“Yesterday he took off during the day to visit the Salt Museum. They’re wondering why he even came. They haven’t seen much of him.”

Boss had been promoted to oversee our international department a year before, based on – I assumed – his excellent performance in another area of the company and his excellent relationship with the hiring vice president. Unfortunately, he didn’t know anything about international business. Luckily, his staff (we) knew quite a bit. I had lived in Asia for ten years – six of those years in Japan – and hold an MBA in international management. Hana was native Japanese. Our staff was truly multi-cultural and for the past four years we had painstakingly built the international business, growing exponentially in double digits from year to year. Our growth had drawn the attention of senior management and they had decided to promote someone they knew well into the leadership position for international sales. It had become increasingly obvious to us, his immediate staff, that Boss’s expertise was limited to his knowledge of our company’s products.

Accompanying him on his first visit to Tokyo, I had observed his cluelessness toward some Japanese customs. Another American living in Japan had even commented to me about his casual style of dress in business meetings, when the rest of us wore business suits. His implication was that Boss didn’t seem to care how he came across and he was coming across a bit disrespectfully. I had been surprised myself about some of his actions and although I cut him a little slack for his first Japan visit, I felt very uncomfortable that I hadn’t seen any changes in his ethnocentric attitudes and behavior since then.

Despite what you might have pictured in your mind, Boss wasn’t your typical six-foot bumbling Caucasian American. He was ethnically Asian and when he was in Japan, he was often mistaken by other Japanese for one of them. Raised in Kansas City, with a degree in art, Boss, except for a couple guided-tour vacations, had never spent much time overseas and didn’t speak a foreign language. He seemed to view his new position as head of international as something of a lark – an opportunity for him to justify multiple international trips. From my perspective now, I believe he was in over his head and as an immature 40-year-old male, did the only thing he really knew to do when traveling: had a good time.

I wasn’t sure what to say in response to comments like our Tokyo employees’ or the ex-pat in Japan. How could I defend my boss when I had observed his egotistic behavior myself? Workplace protocol is to never disparage your boss; my parents raised me not to talk poorly about anyone and the nuns had taught me to respect authority. My office advice is always: Don’t say anything about anyone behind their back that you wouldn’t say to their face.

Boss never consulted me or others in our department on protocol or customs. When he saw us altering our dress or behavior a bit while traveling, he voiced somewhat surprised observations which at first made me think that since he was observant, he would get that doing that was simple courtesy and respect for others. But he never picked up on that he might do so himself.

Looking back I wonder what I could have done differently to help protect the company from what was to come. My staff and I wrote a well-researched report for senior management – at their request - about the pros and cons of a proposed direction of the international business, and we advised taking a different approach. It was disregarded and Boss sided with senior management to invest heavily in a risky Japan-based endeavor – basically replicating our successful US retail strategy in Japan.

I know that a major part of the reason they chose this direction was that Boss and senior management were too US-centric. Although our report, using two Japan-based expert consultants’ facts and advice, laid out pitfalls of their strategy, senior management was just too internationally ignorant to understand. Boss agreed with them that simply applying our successful US strategy in Japan would work just fine.

After working with Boss for two years, I ended up leaving the company. By that time I had no respect for Boss and not much for senior management either. After I left they pursued their chosen business strategy in Japan with the result of the first loss ever for the company. After a year of bleeding red they closed up shop in Japan and the international department was dismantled.

This true story could serve as a typical international business case study in one of my Thunderbird MBA classes. The harm a lack of international experience, cultural sensitivity, and global business acumen can do to an organization is well-documented. Add to that heavy doses of internal corporate politics and US egotism and you have a volatile mix that sets the stage for certain failure.

Yet this kind of thing still happens even in our current global environment. Senior management can  be blinded by their domestic success and think it simple to replicate anywhere. For optimal global success, listen to your internal experts no matter what level they are. Read books on your target countries. Consult some experts, find a cultural coach. Don’t be the ugly American (or your country’s counterpart). Get some international business training!

Japanese Bathroom
Cars 2 —
I love Japanese bathrooms!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ten Tips to Help You Like Your Job Again

If you’ve got a boring, frustrating or extremely stressful job you may entertain fantasies of walking out the door for good.

But you know it’s not a good idea to quit your job without having another one confirmed and waiting for you. Even if your boss is a micromanaging dictator, you never are appreciated for the boring work you do, and there are no growth opportunities, having a job in these volatile times is something to cherish.

However some people’s jobs have extremely negative effects on them and their loved ones. After weighing the mental and physical consequences of remaining in your job, the stress of working may seem worse than the stress of not working. You may want to jump ship without having another boat to board. Before you do, however, try the following tips that will not only help you get a little more enjoyment out of your present situation but will also help ready you for that next opportunity.

And if you are happy with your job, these tips can only make it better.

First take a good look at your present work.

1. Focus on the parts you like. Yes, there are some; even the worst jobs have good parts. Make a list of all the things you like about your job. Look at that list every day and make an effort to do more of those things you enjoy or expose yourself to those situations that you like. For example, do you enjoy working with a particular person? Ask them if they need help on a project, or make a point to take a break with them. Volunteer for more tasks that involve doing the things you like to do. Be sure and tell your boss and colleagues about the tasks you enjoy – let your enthusiasm and interest show. And keep adding to the list as you discover more of what you enjoy. If you can spend more of your workday on things that you like to do, work will naturally be more satisfying.

2. Avoid, or try new approaches, with the parts you don’t like. No doubt you already know well the tasks and situations that you hate about your job. Maybe they are unavoidable, but if not, it makes sense to try and avoid those people, those meetings, those tasks and situations that cause you the most grief and stress. If they are totally unavoidable, take a look at how you are approaching them. Are there other ways to interact with that office curmudgeon that will elicit a more positive response? Try them out. Are there other ways to get that task done that may not be so distasteful? Observe others’ approaches and consult those you trust about what you might do differently.

3. Identify some mentors. More than one is better, and they don’t have to be formal “mentors” by any means. But if there are others at work that you respect and would like to spend more time with, certainly make an effort to get to know them better. Find mutual areas of interest, whether work-related or not. Drop in for just five minutes a few times a week to ask how their projects are doing, share your experiences, ask for advice, or see if they will have time to spend lunch with you. Check outside your company for likely mentors too. Take the time to build friendly, professional relationships. If your work team is more hostile than not, or you feel like you are not well-utilized where you currently are, then these folks can be allies and perhaps even conduits of new opportunities for you.

4. Come up with an idea for a project or task that excites you. Write out a short proposal that outlines what you’ll do, the benefits and results of it, what resources you need, and how long it will take. Tell your boss you have an idea that will provide XX benefits to the team/company and want to get her advice and input on it. It’s crucial that you have some (ideally quantifiable) benefits that you can illustrate, and that you ask for your boss’s input as well. Get them involved and show your excitement. Sure, they can shoot you down, but at least you tried. Find out if there are tweaks you could make, other areas you could focus on or if it is just the timing that makes it non-feasible. Don’t let your boss’s negativity dampen your own enthusiasm.

5. Get outside your team. Look for areas within your company that make sense for you to cross-train in. Ask to shadow an executive for a day or two. Ask to be involved in a project or committee that involves others from across the company. You’ll be exposed to other types of jobs, departments, and people and maybe you’ll find a spot better suited for you. At the least, you will learn more about another area and that can help broaden your perspective and deepen your experience. Which are never bad things.

6. Change your physical surroundings. Sometimes, creating a little personal retreat in your cubicle can go a little ways toward making you feel in control as well as making you feel more relaxed at work. Feeling like you have more control and are more relaxed will definitely positively influence your attitude toward work and your life in general. So cover those gray cubicle walls with a tapestry, new posters or photographs. I’ll never forget the Mexican brown-eyed Elvis tapestry draped over someone’s cubicle wall. Add your own personal marks: plants, books, music, cushion, bumper stickers, anything that makes it feel more like a home office than an office office.

Besides your job, take a good look at yourself. Your work may be boring but you don’t have to be. What can you do to spark yourself up a bit?

7. Make external changes. First take a look at the easy stuff: your outside. Get a new haircut and invest in some classy new shoes or other accessories. Sharpen up your outer image and have fun while you’re doing it. If you’re female, consider stopping by one of those department store cosmetic counters and have them give you a new professional look. Learn a couple new make-up tips. I still remember the time that I changed my makeup and got comments like ”You look so great today!” People didn’t know what I had done (until I told them) but they certainly could tell there was a positive difference. A fresh change on the outside can temporarily boost your internal confidence and the positive feedback you may get will certainly help too.

8. Learn something new. Next take a look at your professional skill levels. Could they use some sharpening too? Talk to your boss about where you’d like to get some extra training and see if they agree that it would be beneficial. Ideally, your company will pay for some classes for you that may help you get certified or reconsidered for another position – one that may be more satisfying. Certainly adding certifications and other skills will make you a more desirable professional just about anywhere and lets people know that you aren’t lackadaisical about keeping up your professional development.

9. Make internal changes. You’ve also got to take a look at your overall attitude. Do you hate coming to work? Do you find yourself complaining about work every day? Do you often take mental health days? Do you cut corners when you can, come to meetings and work late, keep from interacting whenever you can with others on your team? You may think you are justified in behaving that way because the job itself is awful, and/or the company and your boss are too. But you can’t change them. You can only change yourself. So work on changing your attitude. Besides looking at the list in #1 every day, make a promise to yourself that you are not going to waste your precious mental time on spewing negative energy within and around you. Don’t fool yourself that you keep it to yourself. Your boss and co-workers can tell if you are engaged and interested or not.

One exercise that can help you pivot that attitude is to set some easy, daily challenges for yourself. Plan them a week at a time and write them out, one each day, in your calendar. These small work-related goals will provide daily personal successes. At least some of them should focus on others. All of them should engage your interest. For example:

--Today I am going to send a complimentary email to someone.
--Today I am going to set a personal record on getting my most hated task done in record time.
--Today I am going to make Mr. Curmudgeon smile.
--Today I am going to come up with one new idea.
--Today I am going to ask my boss what one thing they wish they could delegate.

These are your own secret work goals that have nothing to do with the expectations of others at work. No one else needs to know about them. But if you accomplish one small challenge for yourself every day, they will add up and I guarantee that you will feel better about how you are spending your time. And if at least half of your daily successes involve doing positive things for others, then you will see some eventual and unexpected rewards come from that too.

10. Get involved with outside associations and organizations. Make sure your personal life is rich, and that you are not too exhausted from your job that you neglect it. One of the best ways you can spend your off time is to join your professional association and get involved. When you are a regular volunteer, others get to know you and your work. You make contacts that can lead to new jobs. I do this at my local chapter of the American Society of Training and Development. Other regular volunteers and I have gotten interviews, new jobs, new clients, and more opportunities opening up simply because we are better connected than those who show up for a meeting once in a while. Check to see if your company will pay for your membership but even if they won’t, join on your own. Then find a committee or project to work on, or get on the board. You won’t regret it. You may find yourself receiving some recognition from others in your company if you do.

No matter what your work situation is (even if you are happy there!), you can expand your career potential by trying out these ten tips. I guarantee that by initiating your own “personal professional improvement campaign” that you will increase your level of enjoyment at work and eventually your career opportunities. Don’t allow yourself to become a victim of the workplace. Take control of your own attitude and actions and watch things change for the better.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How To Prevent a Poor Working Relationship

We all have jobs that require working with others.  Occasionally, we discover that the person we’re supposed to work with is reluctant to work with us. Usually it’s a passive resistance, resulting in information withheld or deadlines overlooked. Once in a while it’s a more overt behavior such as verbal outbursts that let you know the person is definitely not inclined to help you. And once in a great while they can be downright obstructive in a sabotage-like manner.
Why can’t they just cooperate? They may feel threatened by your incredible efficiency, intelligence and position of favor by the powers-that-be. They may fear the changes you bring to the group or organization. Or, perhaps they are just terribly overworked.

Whatever the reason, the fact that they are not on the same page with you is frustrating and detrimental to your success. People like this can make work that might otherwise be interesting into something to dread.

It’s na├»ve to assume that everyone you have to work with is happy to help you. The more likely assumption is that they would be happy to help you if they were not already stressed out from ____________(fill in the blank with anything, it doesn’t make much difference what is stressing them). You can help ease some of their stress by clearly laying the groundwork on how to work together.

Setting the foundation about how best to work with one another will make the whole process easier. It also goes a long way toward modeling how to work well with others who may have different goals and priorities. If you manage a team, that’s an invaluable behavior to demonstrate to them.

Schedule a preliminary meeting with your counterpart to determine the process of working together. Let them know that is exactly what it is: “Meeting to Kick Off a Great Working Relationship”, or if you think that is too corny, just give it a title like “Project Preparation”. Share your agenda: “Define mutual roles, responsibilities, goals and expectations (in regard to the X Project)”.

When you meet, redefine the goal of the conversation clearly and begin with the why. Starting with the why is important. You wouldn’t tell everyone in a room “You must exit quickly right now.” They would look at you with a question in their eyes but wouldn’t budge. But if gave them the reason first: “There is a fire in the building next door. You must exit quickly right now”, then you wouldn’t encounter much resistance at all.

The same rationale should be used with every action you want someone to take. To avoid initial resistance, start with the reason. You might say something like: “I want to prevent potential overlap in our roles and responsibilities. I believe that clearly defining our respective responsibilities and expectations of each other will go a long way to avoid any future misunderstandings and will make working together much easier and more productive right from the start. “I’d like to hear what your responsibilities are (regarding this project) first, and then I’ll share."

Besides responsibilities, make sure to cover roles, goals and priorities. And don’t forget expectations. “I also want to share with you my expectations of myself and hear what yours are.”

What are your expectations of yourself in regard to your roles? What do others expect of you and what do you expect of others? For example, if you are speaking with a manager of another department at your same level with whom you need to work on projects, you might say, “My expectations of myself are that I deliver my part on time and communicate with you weekly about the status of the project. If I let you down on this, please remind me. My expectation of you is that you will be upfront and clear about what you need from me and let me know if I am falling behind your expectations in any way. Will you do that? And I’ll do the same for you.”

By stating your expectations in this regard, you establish yourself as an upfront and open communicator and that is what you also expect from them. Later on when you have to call them on a missed deadline, you’ll approach them with a positive attitude, giving them the benefit of the doubt. They will not be surprised or affronted. You expect them to do the same with you. It is all with the ultimate goal of producing a stellar project together.

Knowing and understanding the other’s behavior style will go a long way toward establishing trust and respect. If they prefer a primarily people-oriented style, they will love the fact that you want to better the relationship and will not feel that it will be a good one unless you have a little bit of personal conversation as well. Start off the meeting by asking about their weekend or family, or by complimenting them. Share a little about yourself. It only takes a couple minutes to establish that personal connection.

If their style is task-first, keep the personal chit-chat to zero unless they open it up. Keep the conversation entirely about the issues at hand, define the results you want from the meeting and wrap up the meeting stating what results were achieved. If they are more analytical than directive, assure them that the information they provided was exactly what you wanted. They will be impressed with your efficiency and preparation.

Instead of plunging in full speed ahead with your projects take the time to establish guidelines for a working relationship. Remember to cover these areas right from the start:

1. Roles and responsibilities
2. Goals
3. Priorities
4. Expectations

As Stephen Covey says, “With people, slow is fast and fast is slow.” Your work will go faster and more smoothly if you take the time to lay a solid foundation with your colleagues.

If this Warehouse 13 video isn't showing up, check it out at

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Do You Have A Kitchen Cabinet?

“Kitchen cabinet” is the term used to describe an unofficial group of presidential advisers.  First used commonly during the U.S. presidency of Andrew Jackson, the phrase pops up periodically since making use of the knowledge and wisdom of one’s friends in strategic places is a common and expected leadership practice.

President Obama developed a business-specific ‘kitchen cabinet’ to address jobs creation.  He consults with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, AOL co-founder Steve Case, and Intel CEO Paul Otellini, among others.  Ronald Reagan’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ was a group of about a dozen conservative, wealthy Los Angeles businessmen who first became his advisers as he sought to become governor of California, and later, president.  George W. Bush was criticized for having a ‘kitchen cabinet of one’:  Dick Cheney.

As a leader and a professional, it makes sense to have a variety of trusted colleagues with different areas of expertise that we can consult from time to time that will help us make better decisions and increase our chances of success.  But too often, we get locked into talking with the same people we see day after day:  our own teams, whether they are leadership teams or project teams or our employees.    We probably also have regular blogs or news sources that we rely on to inform us of new trends or developments in our industries.

But that doesn’t take the place of conversation:  Being able to pick up the phone and call a colleague to pick their brain about what’s working in their company, or what they might have heard about how something we are considering may work.  Finding out if a problem that ywe are having is something they may have encountered.  Pondering their input regarding a decision or new direction we are considering.  Having a small group of trusted advisers helps us take into consideration points of view and information we may not be aware of, enabling better decisions.

How can you develop a trusted group of advisors like this?  

As someone who has worked a number of places, I keep in contact with old bosses and others I’ve worked with.  “Never burn your bridges” is a piece of advice my mother gave me as a teenager and it has proved to be invaluable.  I can email or call up colleagues I know well and who know me well to ask their advice or bounce ideas.  It’s a great way to keep in contact as most people like to be helpful.

Another way to develop your own kitchen cabinet is through professional organizations.  Every profession has at least one association.  If you join it and get involved with it – not just attend meetings once in a while – you will develop some excellent contacts.  Making an effort to develop good relationships means volunteering your time, contributing your hard work and knowledge, and making appointments for coffee or lunch once in a while to connect on a more personal level.

In my own business, I’ve had the opportunity to develop marketing ideas, hone presentations, and learn new skills from my own version of a ‘kitchen cabinet’.  My advisers are in a variety of industries and positions.  A few of them have become personal friends but most remain professional colleagues.  I find they are unique resources and support in many ways, especially when it comes to industry issues or professional development.  Others may have a better ear to the ground if I am researching or contemplating a local issue.

You probably have friends and family you consult with on personal matters.  Develop the same for your professional life.  Leaders don’t isolate themselves.  But they don’t consult with just anyone either.  Who makes up your 'kitchen cabinet'?
Advisors that are different from you can give you new perspectives.
"Good talent is a mixture of experience and willingness to learn."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Get the Right People on the Bus - Without Crashing

“What was the last book you read?”

What?!  I thought. I was a member of a panel interview and a colleague from another department asked the candidate that question. I was caught off guard by this left-field question, but the interviewee handled it with aplomb. I don’t remember her answer, but I remember wondering that since the last book I had read was a fantasy novel, would I share that or tell them about a weightier tome I had recently finished? And then I thought, if I considered fudging that question, how would we ever know if our candidate did too?

Most of all I wondered: Why did my colleague waste our time by asking that question? What does that question have to do with her ability to handle the position we are hiring for? And since it has nothing to do with the job, what will the candidate think of us for asking that question?

And then I thought, we should have prepared better. And since the new hire would be working directly for me, I blamed myself for not prepping the members of our panel on the questions and information that were most important for us to discuss.

Luckily that was the only inappropriate question asked at that interview. I’ve learned a lot about interviewing since then, from both sides of the table. And I know that a lot of hiring managers are not well-prepared to conduct interviews.

I recently heard from a client that was experiencing a panel interview that the interview was delayed fifteen minutes since one of the crucial panel members (a senior manager whose okay was required for the hire) got lost trying to find the conference room. Once there, he was woefully unprepared, not having taken the time to review my client’s resume. Needless to say, my client was not impressed with the organization and was not surprised by long delays in the hiring process. He decided to look at other opportunities which were available to him.

Please, hiring managers, present yourself and your organization in a good light by preparing well for the hiring process. Preparing thoroughly will help prevent poor hires too. Those are the people who make managing difficult, who don’t deliver as promised, and who may leave before you’ve reaped your initial investment and now have to go through the hiring process all over again.

As Jim Collins says, “If you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.”

And not insignificantly, hiring mistakes are costly; I’ve seen estimates from twice to fifteen times the person’s salary. Calculate the cost of a hiring error in your organization with this  "Sales Hiring Mistake Calculator" .

These are common hiring pitfalls that not only present a poor impression to your candidates but will increase the odds of a making a bad hire:

1. Not knowing clearly what you want or need. What are the results you expect from someone in this position? Based on the results you want, what are the competencies and attributes that you require? Think through the scope of the position thoroughly. If some skills and attributes are more important than others, be prepared to prioritize your interview questions and weigh them differently. Don’t change your requirements in mid-hiring; as in any project changes are costly and cause delays. Of course things in your organization change constantly, but don’t try to hire someone for every eventuality. Know what you need most and prepare your interview questions around those requirements.

2. Asking interview questions that don’t pertain to the job description.  Ask questions that help you determine if the candidate has the experience, knowledge, attributes, and skills necessary for the job. All other questions are a waste of time. A Kansas State University study determined that behavioral-based questions are five times more accurate than a more traditional interviewing style for choosing the right candidates. Those are the questions that insist on the candidate drawing from past experience to tell a story and usually start with “Tell me about a time when…” or “Describe a situation in which you…”

3. Not preparing adequately for the interview. Did you study the candidate’s resume and prepare some questions specifically for them? Do you have insightful behavior-based questions all ready with follow-up questions to help you probe in more depth? Do you have your business cards with you? Do you have paper for taking lots of notes? Do you know how to answer the questions that the candidate will ask you? Have you made arrangements not to be interrupted? Do you know where the interview room is?

4. Falling into the trap of hiring people just like you. It’s natural to feel most comfortable with people who look like us, talk like us, and act like us. Be aware of your behavior style and be on the lookout for your unconscious discriminations to play out. We all have them and you are not exempt. But if you are aware of them, you can re-focus yourself on their suitability for the job, and not whether they are too young or too old, too thin or too heavy, too fast- or too slow-talking, or whatever. Be careful of your “gut feelings” as research shows hiring based on that and first impressions can have a 50% failure rate. Use the data and analyze your candidates - many interviewers create a “scorecard” using the positions’ competencies.

5. No follow-up. No doubt at the end of the interview you told the candidate what the next steps are in the process, and gave them a timeframe. I’ve never known anyone to keep to the timeframe, however it is just good manners to let the candidate know what is happening and where they fall in the process, especially if there is a delay. It’s fine to delegate this to other personnel, but please do let them know in a timely manner. How one is treated during the hiring process is an indication to the potential employee of how the company treats it’s employees in general.

When constructing interview questions, be wary of treading in the danger field of not only inappropriateness, but illegalities. In addition to the opening question in this blog post, here are some more examples of inappropriate interview questions:

What kind of activities do you do in your spare time?
How would your family feel about relocating?
How are you involved in the community?
You have an unusual last name. Is it Polish?
What year did you graduate from college?
You mentioned you are pregnant. How much time are you planning to take off after the delivery?
If you were an animal, which one would you be and why?  (Really?)

Remember, all questions must be job-related and relevant to the goals and responsibilities of the position. In the United States, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ( “it is illegal to discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of that person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” So interview questions and job postings must be screened so that there is no indication that there could be a legal violation.

Since I do quite a bit of career coaching, I coach my job-seekers on how to be prepared for poor interviewers. There are certainly a lot of them out there. It makes sense to treat hiring just like any other project you manage. Be methodical and plan well. If you are haphazard in your hiring, it shows poor project management skills. And unfortunately, like any project poorly managed, you will pay for it.

So what’s the last book you read? If you are planning on doing some hiring soon, I recommend it be Hire With Your Head: Using Performance-Based Hiring to Build Great Teams by Lou Adler. As the author states: “There is nothing more important - to your personal and company success - than hiring great people.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Create a Best in Class Company with These Benchmarks

What does it take to become a top performing company in a given industry? Maximizing individual employee performance would seem to be obvious. Yet in case after case it seems that leaders tend to overlook substantiated evidence on what actions to take that will yield the best from their employees.

Employee engagement ranks as having the highest impact on employee performance – in one study organizations with engaged employees were found to be up to 43% more productive.

Yet another study on employee engagement has been published and this one has come up with some benchmarking metrics that can be used across industries. Maybe this will be the one that will convince any holdouts of the benefits of investing in employee engagement strategies.

A July 2011 study from the Aberdeen Group surveyed and interviewed leaders from 248 diverse organizations on their employee performance and engagement practices. They were able to isolate key metrics that separate the top performing companies – the “best in class” – from the average and bottom rung – the “laggard” companies. Here are a few of those metrics; see how your company measures up:

     Percentage of employees who rated themselves as “highly engaged”:

     Best in class companies: 62%     Average companies: 35%     Laggard companies: 13%

     Percentage of employees who received “exceeds expectations” on latest performance reviews:  

     Best in class: 71%                       Average: 20%                        Laggard: 13%

     Degree of improvement in employee retention over the previous year:

     Best in class: 11%                        Average: 2%                         Laggard: 7% worse

Those are benchmarking metrics to strive for. The Aberdeen study also offers specific actions to take to help reach those goals.   

An engaged employee is first of all, in the right position. The Aberdeen study doesn’t mention this vital fact, but if an employee’s strengths and interests are not being utilized, they will not experience success and logically won’t feel very engaged. Managers need to know how to hire well, and to assign roles and responsibilities commensurate with an employee’s strengths and limitations. Or if necessary, move them to a role or team (or as a last resort, out the door) where they can experience success.

Assuming the individual is in the right role, “engaging” them will yield the highest performance results. Aberdeen reports that the following should be in place:

     1. A culture of alignment and ongoing communication.
     2. Tools and practices that provide visibility and transparency into individual and organizational      goals and progress.
     3. Full accountability among individuals and managers for business results.

Highly engaged employees need to know and understand exactly how their individual and team goals are aligned with the strategic plan of the company. Employees are crystal clear about their own performance expectations and can gauge how they are doing by looking at key performance metrics that are easily accessible. They are not overlooked by their managers, but given feedback and recognition on an ongoing basis. If they are high performers, they know it, and everyone else does too. They receive the recognition and corresponding development opportunities. If they are mediocre performers, they know exactly what they need to do to raise their performance.

It all seems pretty clear cut, doesn’t it? However, as we know, the ability to communicate well with direct reports – defining expectations, giving feedback, coaching, reiterating core values and strategic plans, etc.– does not come naturally to every manager. Tools such as wizards that aid in filling out reviews and appraisal forms, and in creating individual development plans can be provided. Training and coaching in communications and leadership skills should be required and reinforced for every leader. There are many methods and tools to provide assistance for leaders to help create an engaged workforce.

But the crucial sticking point is that senior leadership needs to be on board. In best-in-class organizations, 74% of senior leaders bought in and supported efforts aimed at increasing employee performance and 70% supported efforts at increasing employee engagement. Laggard companies were at 58% and 28%, respectively. That implies that it is still a struggle for many human resource leaders to establish the foundation to implement what is necessary to bring an organization to the top of their industry.

It seems obvious that performance improves when an employee feels totally engaged in their work. Now we have some metrics to strive for and proven actions that support what it takes to engage an employee. Numbers can make a good case when HR buzzwords (like “employee engagement”) don’t.

This fellow is definitely not engaged at work.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Impact of Leaders Listening - or Not

My last post created some discussion on a LinkedIn group about what actually was the most overlooked leadership skill. Some said strategic thinking, some said project thinking, and some swerved over into the realm of qualities and mentioned humility and integrity. But the most often cited skill that was extremely important but often lacking was listening.

When I think back on bosses I’ve had, I can think of only one who was an exceptional listener. He would listen so intently to what you had to say that some people were a little uncomfortable with the quiet space he left after they finished speaking. People are used to others jumping in right after (or even before) they’ve finished talking so having even five seconds of silence while he waited to make sure you were finished speaking was unnerving for some. Like most people though, I appreciated it, and felt that I had his full attention and what I had to say was important to him.

What’s the impact when leaders don’t listen? I have some personal examples, as I am sure you do, too:

A quite common occurrence is the boss I had who would continue to do email while I spoke with him, even if it was a scheduled meeting. I’d usually ask “Is this still a good time?” and he would always say “Yes, yes, go on”. Of course, I never really felt like he was listening to me, but I would try to take advantage of that one-to-one time as best I could.

Another experience quite vivid in my memory was when, after delivering a workshop where I had received the same piece of feedback about it for the third time, I decided to convey that to the person who had created the workshop and had the most experience in it – the President of our company. My intent was just to share the comment and see if he had heard it before. It was a neutral piece of feedback, neither a criticism nor a rave, but I thought it was interesting that three separate people had brought it up.

His immediate response to me was “You should tell them that…..” and proceeded to tell me how I should handle it when I received such feedback. I felt diminished by his reaction because it seemed that he didn’t have the faith in me to know how to properly respond. I had thought we would have a bit of an interesting conversation about the whole thing and share other comments and feedback we’d received. Instead, his responses reduced me from senior consultant and colleague to novice facilitator and I just clammed up.

I wasn’t sure if he really felt that I didn’t know how to handle such circumstances (which was depressing to think) or if he was just not listening very well since he had a lot going on (as most people, especially leaders do) and so gave me the immediate response that came to his mind. In any case, the result was that I didn’t feel drawn to be quite so open about workshop experiences with him again, which was too bad because that meant that both of us missed enrichment opportunities, which naturally extended to our workshop participants missing out too. All unknowingly, of course.

These examples show the impact on just one person – or in the case of workshop participants, a small number of people. But sometimes the impact of poor listening is detrimental to the entire organization and perhaps their shareholders too.

In one company I worked the executive leadership team ignored the advice of two outside consultants and an internal team convened to specifically research opening a store overseas. The C-suite decided to overrule recommendations to begin with a small store in a specific urban neighborhood and instead went all out to build a multi-million dollar free-standing retail complex in an out-of-the-way location outside the city. In less than a year, the store failed miserably, was closed, and the company experienced it’s first losses ever. The leadership team never seriously listened to the team members or consultants, being driven by their own egos: a common mistake in listening.

This may be a good illustration of why humility was also cited as one of the most overlooked qualities of a good leader.

The reaction that sharers most often receive from their listeners is “let me help you fix it”. It’s the customer service representative reaction! Leaders are not customer service reps. They don’t and shouldn’t jump in to fix things. That leads to dependent folks who aren’t confident in their own abilities. Are those the kinds of employees you want?

Instead of jumping in eagerly to help, the listener should pause and really listen to what the other person is saying. Are they explaining a situation? Are they venting? Are they reporting important information? Are they just making conversation? Did they ask for help??? If you don’t know, ask them.

The very act of listening attentively is so rare that the person on the receiving end will feel important and recognized. What a simple and effective way to appreciate someone!

Now listening is not just a leadership skill, but a great skill for everyone to develop.

Leaders, (and Moms, Dads, spouses, friends…) don’t quash their sharing. Don’t diminish their power. Take the time to listen. Before saying anything else, ask a question. Ask questions that help you understand them and their situation better, and questions that help them understand themselves and their situation better. Whenever you do that, you will be increasing their personal power and helping them grow stronger, more confident, and more knowledgeable. And that’s what a great leader does.

Sometimes it's so hard to stay quiet!

But staying quiet can reap unexpected rewards!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Most Overlooked Leadership Skill-?

One leadership skill that always seems to be overlooked is leading meetings. How many meetings have you been to where one or two people were allowed to dominate the conversation, or where the topics seemed to drag on and on without resolution? How many meetings have you been to where you felt that your time could have been better spent somewhere else, doing something else?

Facilitating meetings well is a skill that is rarely taught, and difficult to do by oneself. Good meetings are the result of all the participants understanding the purpose and the process for the meeting. Everyone knows how the meeting should be conducted and takes the initiative to conduct themselves accordingly.

The foundation of effective meetings is having a set of ground rules that are agreed upon by all the participants.

Ground rules are essentially codes of conduct that participants agree will help keep the meeting civil, effective and efficient. Although most people assume that everyone knows how to do this without going the extra step to spell out the rules, that’s just not so.

Let’s start with one simple ground rule as an example: when the meeting starts. When I worked at Wizards of the Coast, we had what was referred to as “WotC time”. Meetings didn’t start until ten after the hour. No one even arrived in the room until about then, so sometimes meetings didn’t start until quarter after. I was informed of WotC time as soon as I started working there. So, although someone would set a meeting for 10am, everyone knew it would begin at 10:10am. Meetings would usually last just 50 minutes, giving attendees enough time to prepare for the next meeting if they had one.

Contrast this practice with Wally time, which was what meeting times were sometimes called at REI, where I worked before Wizards. Named after the then-CEO, Wally Smith, it meant that every meeting started exactly on the hour. It was not unusual for people to arrive up to five minutes early so they wouldn’t be late for the meeting.

These types of unwritten rules are part of the culture of an organization. But as a leader, you can create your own culture starting with the expectations you set around meetings. In fact, once the CEOs of Wizards of the Coast and REI changed, those meeting start times changed too (along with some other aspects of the organizational culture).

Take control of the culture you want to foster in your area by taking control of how meetings are held. Put together a list of ground rules you’d like to see in place, bring it to a meeting for discussion, and as a group, decide on the final ground rules that everyone agrees to abide by. Everyone expects some type of code of conduct, and formally establishing one emphasizes that an environment of respect, collaboration, and efficiency are priorities. It gives participants a sense of safety as well, as they know what is expected of them. Ground rules may look something like this:

1. Meetings will start on time, and participants will be on time.
2. No texting, emailing or phone calls during the meeting.
3. Participants will come prepared to participate.
4. Everyone will be heard; no floor-hogging.

Of course your group's rules will reflect what you and your team decide are the most important meeting behaviors.  It’s best to keep the rules short and simple, and to review them as a group from time to time to see if any changes or additions should be made. It also helps to copy them along with every agenda so they can be a reminder for everyone at each meeting.

You may want to impose penalties for violating the rules. The first time someone violates the rules it could just be called out to them – keeping people accountable to agreed-upon rules is all important or otherwise no one will take them seriously. For the second offense you could impose a penalty – maybe a contribution to a change jar to be used for cookies for the meeting, or even buying the whole group muffins for the next meeting.

Once you have some ground rules, you have others to help with the facilitation. For example, if someone starts monopolizing the conversation it shouldn’t only be the meeting leader who calls them out. Anyone should feel comfortable enough to say something like, “Janet, Rule #4. I know you have a lot to say about this, but it’s time to hear from someone else.”

Meeting facilitation lies somewhere between a skill and an art. An active group with a large agenda can be quite challenging to facilitate. Running meetings smoothly requires more than just a good set of ground rules. Here are a few helpful techniques:

--At the beginning of the meeting state the purpose of the meeting, even if everyone knows or should know. The purpose should be crystal clear to everyone.

--Briefly go through all the agenda items to see if there are any changes or corrections to it.

--Put a few short agenda items at the beginning to get off to a good start.

--Be alert to participants’ facial expressions and body language: are they engaged, confused? If confused, you may be going too fast. If they are not engaged, you may be going too slow.

--Draw out quiet ones without putting them on the spot. Before the meeting, make sure everyone knows what agenda items they will be expected to contribute to. If they don’t speak up, ask them. Sometimes that’s all they are waiting for.

--Evaluate the meeting at the end. Leave a couple minutes to ask “How was the pace of this meeting?” “What do you wish we had done differently in this meeting?” “What went well in this meeting?”

--Thank everyone for their participation and for honoring the ground rules.

There are many more excellent techniques for facilitating meetings. Since you know your group better than anyone, you can customize your facilitation methods to foment participation and keep them engaged. And since meeting facilitation is a skill that is best honed by practice, rotating that responsibility among others is a great way to develop your employees.

Violating the ground rules gets you kicked out of meetings on The Office.

The purpose is stated clearly! Just about everyone seems prepared to give an opinion…and he keeps everyone on task, allowing everyone a chance to speak.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Are You Investing in Yourself?

I’m back! Happy New Year!

Besides being distracted with the holidays, I have been working about three jobs at once and so the blog, one of my favorite things to do, fell away. I’ve missed it. So one of my New Year’s resolutions is to post at least once a month. The past two years I wrote close to once a week, but as I am doing a lot more writing now, I have to be realistic about how to spend my writing time.

We all want to make the new year better than the one before. Sometimes, though, it seems like things are out of our control. However one thing we can always control is our own attitude. My number one resolution is to weather all the inevitable bumps and storms in our lives with more grace. We will always have recessions and wars, difficult people to deal with, and bouts with sadness and anger. Handling these expected parts of life with grace, understanding, and good humor is a lifelong pursuit which I plan to put more focus and awareness toward in 2012.

Although I would love to spread more cheer with my writing, I am not going to change this to a humor blog. I am afraid I can’t become a humor columnist because as a leadership coach and trainer, we are a serious bunch dealing with a serious issue. I mean, look around. Our leaders have led us into quite a few pickles what with the huge government debts, foreign entanglements, and struggling economy.

I can guarantee you that no leader that I have coached ever contributed to these global problems. And it’s not just because I haven’t coached any high level politicians or military leaders. Well, not the only reason. I have had the good fortune to attract clients who have more than their own egos to develop. Clients who are earnest about professional and personal development, which means that they stay true to their values and priorities, and work to clarify and strengthen them.

Which leads me to the real topic of this blog: you! I think you should make a resolution to invest in yourself this year. Not just putting away savings, like your financial advisor says. Not just spending some “you time” at the spa or on vacation. All good goals, sure, but I am talking about your personal and professional development.

The best leaders are continuous learners. I’ve advised “investing in your best” before, and now I want to extend that to investing in you, so you can be one of the best yourself.

Yesterday I spoke with a client who told me that his organization had identified eight main competencies that everyone needed to have. Every employee rated their own level of expertise on each competency, and then picked two to work on for the year. They didn’t have to be the competencies they were weakest in, they could even be the ones they were strongest in, but they had to pick two that would make up their 2012 development plan. (Interestingly, conflict management was the top pick across the company.)

I encourage you to do something similar. You might look at the competencies in your profession. Or the competencies required by good leadership. And you may want to take a look at personal areas that you’ve always wanted to improve. Public speaking?  Golfing?  Parenting?  Bridge?

My suggestion is to pick one from each list: one professional area to develop and one personal area. They may overlap, which is all the better. Once you decide, look up classes, books, blogs, and who is the best in those areas. For this year, resolve to do what you can to get better in those two areas. At the end of the year, I bet you will have had a very productive year.

So yes, I am going to take control of my attitude more. I want to be able to weather all the ups and downs with more grace, and to experience more joy. That’s my personal goal which I think will definitely spill over into my professional life. I will have to see what webinars are out there for that.  There is plenty written about controlling one’s attitude but not so specific about how to weather the storms with grace and still spread joy. Maybe I will have to write something…which leads me to my professional goal:

Professionally, I am going to concentrate on developing not only my writing skills, but learning more about the process of writing and publishing. Now that I have a writing coach, I have found out that there is so much more to it than just the actual writing part! At the end of the year, I hope to have finished a book.

Happy New Year to all, and best wishes for a year full of joy-filled growth!