Apr 07 2014

Leadership and Mission: Feeding the Mushrooms

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Shortly after arriving in the new organization, I asked why we were doing certain tasks that didn’t seem to make sense. This was my first job as an airplane mechanic. I was very young and quite impressionable. I was also quite curious. So I was disappointed when another mechanic told me not to bother asking. He said we were like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed, well, you get the picture. Was this the way the working world was? Was I a drone, expected to do what I was told without question? Would I never know the why behind the orders? This didn’t seem like the kind of atmosphere that would inspire the best in workers like me.

For many in my generation, these are almost silly questions. We were raised to do what we were told and trust that our superiors knew better. I must have been on the cutting edge back then because I didn’t respond well to the type of command and control leadership that is now quickly falling by the wayside. Today, young workers want to know why they need to accomplish a task and what that task has to do with the bigger picture.

After I had been in that organization for a few weeks I was assigned to a supervisor trainer who had a little different view of the working world. He made it a point to explain to his young charges why we did what we did. Though mission statements were not in vogue in those days, he understood that it was important for us to understand we were part of a larger effort and our contribution was important to its success.

While orders from above still seemed crazy at times, I no longer felt like a mushroom. I understood that I was part of something bigger than me and that I could make an important contribution.

That lesson has stayed with me and I’ve made it a point to emphasize the mission in every organization I’ve led since, no matter how large or small. When people understand why they are there and that their leaders appreciate their contribution to that mission, the results are always a more engaged workforce.

There’s another, closely related concept that becomes apparent when a leader emphasizes mission. There are a lot of very smart and talented people in any organization but if they don’t feel their contribution is appreciated or they don’t understand the mission well enough to bring their expertise to bear, that talent is lost. But, when they do understand the mission and their contribution to it, there is no limit to what they can do.

There’s one other benefit to this mission concept. When I began to understand the mission back in those early days, some of those crazy directives that I had first questioned started to make sense. No, not all of them, but more than ever before.

There’s one more piece to this. It’s also important for leaders to understand the mission. That may sound silly, but I’ve seen organizations led by leaders who really didn’t have a grasp of the mission and the result was always bad. Without that clear understanding, leaders have a tendency to head off in odd directions that have nothing to do with why the organization actually exists.

Many years ago, that first supervisor made sure his workers understood the mission and our contribution to it. The result was more inspired and engaged workers then, and more successful leadership later. It will work for you too.

Mar 26 2014

Leader Know Thyself – What is Success

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What do you consider success? How do you know if you’ve reached that point?

I include this in those things a leader should know about themselves because I’ve found it’s important. Some leaders never stop to think about what success really is.

Take a piece of paper and write at the top, “Succes is…” Then write down a few phrases that define what you think success is for you.

What did you write? Did you list a few indicators that you’ve heard others cite as success? Did you write about material possessions such as a big house of fancy car? Did you write about accomplishing goals on the job, the next promotion, or a better office?

As a leader, it’s important to define what success is to you. This is one of the most telling exercises for a leader because it gets to what they really want at a basic level.

An executive was informed he was selected for promotion to a coveted position. This was the culmination of his career. Success! He went home that evening to tell his family and before he could say anything his son, who was a high school senior, asked him to attend the school’s awards banquet the next week. The day after the banquet he went to the office, turned down the promotion and submitted his retirement. Why? At the awards banquet his son received several awards. They were for activities the executive didn’t even know his son was doing. He realized his success was really failure.

Honestly determine what success is. Remember that success isn’t what others might tell you it is. Success is what you think it is.

Mar 21 2014

Are You a Hater?

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Language evolves and words take on new meanings over time. For example, in modern times the phrase “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the U.S. Declaration of Independence is interpreted as a right to a state of joy. That isn’t what the authors meant. In the 18th century, the word happiness referred to something more like success.

Sometimes normal words take on a completely new meaning. In the internet age words change meaning entirely, or take on a new meaning that would have been incomprehensible only a few years ago. A mathematician could have told you what a google was, but would never have considered using it as a verb. A mouse? Well, we had traps for them.

Every now and then a meaning develops for a word that is not only new, but potentially destructive. In that category I place the word hater, pronounced as a verb form of hate, not as something placed on your head.

Hater has come to signify a dangerous trend in society whereby anyone who disagrees with you is not only wrong, but also has evil intent. We now have crimes categorized as hate crimes long before any actual motive is determined. All that seems to be required is for the perpetrator to be of one race, belief, or any other category while the victim is of another.

Society’s use of hate has long since left the bounds of common sense and now to simply disagree is to hate. Of course any crime is wrong, no matter the motive. But disagreement is not a crime. In fact it’s what makes human life richer. Just because I may disagree with your beliefs, or your position on an issue doesn’t mean I hate you.

The only way we grow as a society is by openly discussing our differences in a mature manner. That means accepting everyone’s position. We must be free to openly discuss the issues and present our own arguments without fear of being labeled and outcast by those who hold an opposing view.

I can be pretty hardheaded at times. I don’t like to accept other’s opinions when they differ from mine. But I do and most times it results in an improvement in my own thoughts and actions. That doesn’t mean I compromise my basic values; just that I make myself listen and carefully consider new and different thoughts.

If you present an idea or position that I cannot agree with it doesn’t mean I hate you. I just disagree – and that’s okay.

Mar 19 2014

Leader Know Thyself – Your Buttons

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Think about someone you don’t like. Why don’t you like them?

Now, consider someone who can really make you mad. What is it that they do that fires your temper?

As my psychology professor once said, we all have buttons. The question is, how do we manage those buttons. Do we wear them openly for everyone to see and push or do we keep them to ourselves and learn to manage them when someone accidentally pushes one?

It’s essential in the leadership role to know why you don’t like some people and what it is that will really get you spun up. When you know that, it will be easier to control who has access to those buttons and what happens if they push one, even if it’s only accidental.

Leaders must strive to stay on an even keel and so it’s essential to know what will cause you to lose your temper. Once you’ve identified those buttons, you’ll be better able to keep them concealed.

That’s not to say you won’t get upset from time to time. You will. But, when you know what is likely to make you upset, you’ll be much more likely to successfully control your reactions.


Mar 17 2014

Enter the Snowflake

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When Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense he was famous for a piece of paper called a “snowflake.” A snowflake could be just about anything the secretary wanted to communicate.

Since I didn’t directly work for the secretary I only occasionally saw a real snowflake. I did see what happens when someone thinks they have a better idea.

At the headquarters where I worked, we also had snowflakes but what might have seemed like a good idea in its original form became sadly perverted in subordinate level application. In our case the snowflake was a short synopsis attached to the top of a staff package. It very briefly described what the package was and what action was desired. In other words, this wasn’t a way for the boss to communicate but was a way for us lowly staffers to make it easier for the boss.

Here’s the thing. In fine military tradition, a staff package, no matter how simple or complex was summarized on a form called a Staff Summary Sheet. This piece of paper showed all the different offices the author thought needed to coordinate and then contained a synopsis of the issue and recommended actions. It was considered extremely bad form for the summary to exceed a single page, even for the most complex issues.

Enter the snowflake. After the staffer had carefully assembled the package and summarized their work in a short and concise way, he or she now had to attach a snowflake.

The snowflake was exactly half of a standard sheet of paper. It was addressed to the final decision making authority and, in only a few sentences, was to summarize the summary.

One boss I worked for actually took it a step further and requested a short, hand-written note attached to the snowflake. That’s right. He wanted a summary of the summary that summarized the summary.

Are you doing this to your people? Are you making their lives more difficult in order to make your life easier?

Mar 12 2014

Leader Know Thyself – Strengths and Weaknesses

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What are you really good at? Be honest and put away the humility for a moment. Take a piece of paper and write two or three things you are really good at. For this exercise, try to keep it related to your leadership responsibilities. Maybe you’re good at speaking to people. Perhaps you’re pretty good at writing, or maybe you have a better than average understanding of the technical nature of your area or responsibility.

Now, write down what you’re not too good at. Maybe you aren’t too good at getting your point across. Perhaps you don’t have a good grasp of the technical aspects of your new responsibilities. You must be honest with yourself here; you’re the only one who will see the list.

Why did I have you write this down? Because it’s essential for you to have a firm grasp of your own strengths and weaknesses. Think about some of the leaders you worked for. Have any of them had weaknesses they thought they were hiding from you? You knew about them anyway didn’t you?

No one is perfect and no one can be an expert at everything. When you know what your weaknesses are you can do something about them. Maybe learn more about your area. Maybe find someone else who’s strengths compliment your weaknesses.

But, don’t try to hide them. It probably won’t work.

Mar 07 2014

Opportunity – Window or Door

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She was about 16 years old and stood behind the lectern with noticeable trepidation. She overcame her nerves though and delivered the speech. It was short and to the point, unfortunately too short, but it left me with an interesting point to ponder.

The speech was part of a youth organization contest for which I was a volunteer judge. What captured my attention during her presentation was what I took to be a mistake. The young woman said “door of opportunity,” but then quickly corrected herself and said “window of opportunity.”

Window of opportunity is the common phrase, but I’ve thought a lot about her little slip. In fact, we should see opportunity as a door, not a window. When we look out the window, we see opportunity, but if we must step out the door to grasp it.

Are you looking through the window, or are you ready to step out the door and grab that next opportunity?

Mar 05 2014

Leader Know Thyself – Values

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There’s a common misconception that you’ve probably heard quite often. “That person doesn’t have any values.”

That’s wrong. Everyone has values. They are an internal force that tends to control our actions. When I work with groups creating strategic plans we do a short exercise to identify values and I find that most people will express very similar values. But, do they really mean it?

Sometimes the values they espouse and the values they actually practice can be quite different. As a leader, you can cite a list of values all you want, but your people are going to be much more aware of the values you demonstrate.

You can tell them you value integrity, but the first time you lie to them, your integrity is shot.

That’s why it’s important for a leader to clearly understand what their values are and then live by them. Remember that real values are not situational. In fact, the way you act under stress tends to be a much better descriptor of your values than anything you say. That’s what your people are going to see as your real values.


Mar 03 2014

Leadership and Smallpox

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Did you know that smallpox is a possible weapon in the fight against cancer? I didn’t. Why would I? I’m not in the medical research field. But, I am interested in new technology and like everyone else, I’m just a little concerned about cancer.

What’s does this have to do with leadership? It’s how I learned about smallpox and cancer.

Last week I was a volunteer judge for the speaking portion of a student organization’s contest. One of the young women spoke of this smallpox – cancer connection in her speech, saying that smallpox was being tested against breast cancer. I had never heard that and was a bit skeptical so, during a break I did a quick search on the subject and found that she was at least partially correct.

When I judge at these types of events I really don’t expect to hear anything new. The speaker was no more than 15 or 16 years old and at that age, there isn’t much original research. That’s where the leadership lesson emerges.

We must always be alert to the possibility of information and ideas coming from where we least expect them. Never discount someone because of their age or experience. You never know where the next idea will come from that will set you on a new path to success.

The other lesson came from my quick check of this young woman’s facts. Apparently, smallpox is being used in clinical trials to treat otherwise untreatable liver cancer. It is only in the initial stages of consideration for breast cancer. So, the other lesson is follow-up to satisfy yourself that the information provided is accurate. In this case a valuable piece of information came from a completely unexpected source. The fact that she was a little off on the details doesn’t diminish the importance and potential of the information.

There’s probably someone in your organization with a bit of information, a suggestion, or an idea that is valuable and maybe a little unexpected. Are you listening?

Feb 26 2014

Dealing with Problem Employees – The Ladder Climber

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When dealing with problem employees, you may not consider the ladder climber. You should because this person can cause a lot of trouble.

You’ve probably run across this person before. They will do anything in order to reach the next rung on the corporate ladder. They can be of any age or experience level and they are most evident by what they leave behind. Their footprints will appear on the backs of those who used to be their fellow workers.

One of your responsibilities as a leader is to grow future leaders. In your garden of leadership possibilities, these guys are the weeds. If you let them they will take over and choke out everyone else.

What do you do about them? First you have to recognize the climbers. They’re usually pretty obvious because they tend to make themselves known. Either they’re always hovering around you trying to curry favor, or they’re doing the same thing with your boss in an effort to go around you.

While you shouldn’t treat them any differently you do need to make it very clear you don’t appreciate what they’re doing and that it isn’t going to help them get ahead. Explain and demonstrate that the people who will get ahead are the team players. Don’t hesitate to discuss this with your boss so he or she knows what’s going on.

By the way, this isn’t the person who is ambitious and hard charging. It’s the one who takes advantage of others and usually grandly inflates their own contribution.

The ladder climber is one of the most difficult cases you’ll experience when dealing with problem employees. Be fair but be firm.

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