Friday, December 23, 2011

Chewing Gum Saves Lives: Creating Space in the Midst of Panic and Hurry

Happy Holidays to everyone!  This is the season where we all rush around trying to tie up last minute shopping and leave our piles of work on our desks to gather dust for the few days we are away from the office.  It is a time of stress and hurry, family and craziness, punctuated- if we are lucky- by moments of peace, reflection, and appreciation.  In this spirit I've selected one of the chapters from Get the Cookie, Paco! that addresses that need to create space in the midst of all of the craziness... space to take a breath, relax, and just be.

            Years ago I had a client who owned a small airport. They offered a flight school, firefighting services, plane storage and avionics repairs, and a flight shop. When I was interviewing the general manager, who was also an accomplished pilot, I asked him if he’d ever had an emergency while on a solo flight. “Sure,” he told me. When I asked him what happened, he responded that the single engine just cut out when he was at about ten thousand feet. He was all alone, and the plane started to go down. I’m not a big fan of flying, so the story was especially captivating, as it played out my worst fears. I asked, “So what did you do?”
            “Well,” he responded, “I reached into my shirt pocket and took out the pack of Juicy Fruit gum I always keep there.” He looked at me.
            “And?” I asked, on the edge of my seat.
            “And then I took out a stick of gum, removed the foil wrapping, and put the piece into my mouth.”
            “But what about the plane?”
            “Oh, it was going down at this point,” he assured me. “I chewed my gum for a few seconds, thought about my options, chose the best course of action, and followed it.”
            “That makes sense, but why in the world did you need a piece of gum right then?” I asked.
            “Well, taking that gum out, unwrapping it, and chewing it for a moment gave me a chance to gather my thoughts and make sure I was not just panicking, but choosing the best option. What I lost in time then more than made up for it when I knew I was making the right decision on how to best correct the situation safely.”
            I was stunned. Who thinks to casually unwrap some gum to chew when their plane is going down? But it did make sense. Those extra few “wasted” minutes were vital to his safety, as it kept him from just doing anything (and probably the wrong thing) when the crisis hit. He had created space to do nothing in the midst of a situation that demanded he do something and was better off for it.
            One of the hardest things to do is nothing. Try it. Actually, if you are trying to do nothing, then you aren’t really doing nothing—you are trying. In our increasingly busy lives, we never schedule the time to do nothing. If we schedule downtime it usually is taken up by an activity—reading, watching TV, or sleeping. My dogs spend the better part of their days dozing and lazing around. Of course this isn’t possible for most of us, but giving yourself even ten (ideally fifteen to thirty) minutes a day to just be can be very beneficial. It serves as a time to get perspective and get energy.
            I try to meditate every day. Usually I fail, and I end up spending my extra time in some frivolous activity like surfing the net. The times that I do get to meditate are wonderful. Recently I began to take on a few more clients. This happened just as my last classes at Boston University were heading into finals and my wife started a new job. Things got hectic really quickly. When I finally found a chance to simply sit and focus on my breathing, I could actually feel the clutter in my mind start to settle. It was like a Tetris game where all the pieces are poorly placed and new ones keep dropping quickly from above. When my “screen” (my mind) was almost filled to the top, things finally started to fit together. With each minute I sat quietly another piece fell perfectly into place, reducing the chaos and creating space in my mind for new information and peaceful reflection.
            Not long ago a friend of mine introduced me to a small start-up company she had heard of. It’s a brilliant idea. The company sells T-shirts and asks the purchaser to commit to ten minutes of helping others each day the shirt is worn. Each morning that the shirt comes out of the drawer in the morning, the wearer makes a mental promise to find ten minutes in the day for the benefit of others. The idea (and the business) is based on the fact that the idea will spread with others buying a shirt and making the same conscious choice to help. Knowing how beneficial it is for me to take a few minutes of each day to meditate, I thought of co-opting the idea for a company called Take 30. The wearer of this T-shirt would commit to spending half an hour of his day doing nothing. It could be meditating, lying on the couch staring up at the ceiling in silence, or sitting in the car at the beach with the radio off looking out at the surf. The rule would be that during those thirty minutes, you could not sleep, watch anything that ran on electricity, or interact with any other person (or pet). You could not actively pursue any goal other than just being.
            There is so much we don’t know about ourselves, and we look everywhere outside for it. We soak up information, get advanced degrees, pursue our careers, buy things, and build relationships. Yet, we don’t look inside. Aside from being a useful way to step out of the fray in order to better handle it when you step back in, the simple exercise of doing nothing is a first step to getting familiar with yourself.
            It’s difficult enough to lead others effectively. If you don’t have a decent knowledge of yourself, it’s almost impossible. I had a friend a few years back who had all the characteristics of attention deficit disorder. (I don’t know whether or not she had been diagnosed.) Sweet as she was, she would run around all day frantically putting out fires (real and imagined) and following her active and worried mind. I asked her once what she would do if she was forced to sit down quietly with herself in a room with no distractions. She told me she would probably explode. Maybe she would have needed more than a T-shirt.

do nothing

Friday, December 16, 2011

Fire These Three People Right Away

These are from G. Michael Maddock, author of the upcoming book Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox—How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models.  I liked them so I thought I'd pass them along to you. 

Of course, nothing is so black and white as just firing people based on the below info, but it does have a grain of truth to it.

Fire These Three People In Your Organization Right Away

The victim. This is the person who sees problems as occasions for persecution rather than challenges to overcome. The persecution apparently comes in the form of you name it — humans, processes, and inanimate objects with equal ease. And if there isn’t a problem, the victim will find one. The victim is often angry, usually annoyed, and almost always complaining. Note to HR: After termination, the victim will no doubt look for someone like you for sympathy and agreement that the world is against him.

The nonbeliever. This person lives by the Henry Ford quote: “If you think you can or think you cannot, you are correct.” Winners really believed they can do it; losers (nonbelievers) always doubted it was possible. The link between believing and succeeding is powerful and real. So is the link between nonbelieving and failure.

The know-it-all. The best innovators are learners, not knowers. The same can be said about innovative cultures; they are learning cultures. Those who think they have nothing to learn will invariably be overtaken by learners, or will drag down an organization and let the competition overtake the organization. They never see new things coming because they think there are no new things. That’s how it is when you think you know everything.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lead from the Middle of Your Leadership Compass

In other posts I've mentioned that the ability to influence the behavior of others is not only from the top down.  You don't have to be high up on the organizational chart to exhibit effective leadership.  Of course it is easier to use coercive power from a position of authority over someone else, as you can control rewards and punishments.

But influence works in many directions.  Not only can you influence "up" the ladder, but left and right as well.  Richard Haas thinks of it in terms of a compass: "North represents those for whom you work.  To the South are those who work for you.  East stands for colleagues, those in your organization with whom you work.  West represents those outside your organization who have the potential to affect matters that affect you."

How do you use influence?  Joseph Nye argues that there are three ways: coercion, payment, and attraction.  People can either want to do what you want them to do, be paid to do it, or be coerced into it.  In many cases it is a subtle combination of the three all at once.  You may enjoy the type of work that you do, but at the same time you may not do it for free.  Perhaps you'll work a little harder at meeting a deadline if you know a round of layoffs are coming up.  By using all three in the right combination, you can effectively influence or wield power over another.

Although leadership and power are not the same thing, they are interrelated.  To lead is to help define and achieve shared goals.  To do this, you need power.

Think about the four points of your compass.  Who do you report to?  Who reports to you?  How can you use the techniques of influence to affect the behavior and decision making of these people?  How about your colleagues?  And who is outside of the organization who is important to your job?  Clients?  Peers in other similar organizations?  The media?

By keeping this compass model in the back of your head you'll remember that you're in the center of a network of influence and you have some ability to use it to achieve your goals, both personally and professionally.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Do's and Don'ts of Email

Email is so common now it's almost passe.  Texts threaten to usurp- and further abbreviate- other methods of communication.  As septuagenerians venture online, tweens consider email old news. But in the arena of effective leadership (and management), real communication is still one of the pillars of effectiveness.

So this month I bring you a brief list of email do's and don'ts to help keep yourself out of trouble in the workplace, and to make your communication just that much smoother around the office:

  • Use email to set up meetings, to recap spoken conversations, or to follow up on information already discussed face-to-face
  • Keep email messages short and to the point.  Many people read the messages on tiny screens on their phones
  • Use email to prepare a group of people for a meeting (sending materials to review, reminders of time and location, etc.)
  • Use email to transmit standard (non-sensitive) reports
  • Act like a newspaper reporter: Use the subject line to grab attention, put the most important info in the first paragraph, answering the important who, what, when, where, how, and why right away
  • Be aware of the email "tail" - you know, that part of the email that contains the history of the conversation back and forth that automatically builds when you hit reply.  I have seen more than a few people very embarrassed by forgetting that there is a whole history down there, and sending it off to someone new.  When in doubt, just start a brand new email to reply and avoid all the history.
  • Know your audience.  The better you know them, and the longer your history in working together, the more you can assume that they can "read between the lines" of your message and get the correct intent.  Be more careful with those whom you just started working with- the potential to get a message misinterpreted is higher.  

    • Use email to discuss something with someone who sits right next to or down the hall from you- get off of your chair and go see them the old fashioned way!
    • Respond in anger or while agitated.  If something sets you off, set it aside for 10 minutes or more and get some perspective.  Try to get some perspective and calm down before responding- and ask yourself if you even need to respond to such emails.  Sometimes no response is the best one.  Remember-email is forever... do you want your explosion of anger frozen in time for others to pull up later?
    • Hit reply to all without giving some serious thought as to how your response will be seen by EACH and EVERY recipient.  Conveying emotion electronically is hard enough, but sending one message to many recipients makes it that much harder.  Read and re-read that email response before replying to all.
    • Write anything in an email that you wouldn't want to have published in a newspaper or company newsletter for all to see.  Because let's face it, when you come right down to it, that's basically what email is.  There is more chance that something WILL leak out than it WON'T.  
    Happy emailing! 

    note: more than a few of these do's and don'ts come from Andrea Poe's article "Don't Touch that 'Send' Button" article from HR Magazine 7/01.

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011

    Leading at Just the Right Distance

    Note: the following is Chapter 36 from the recently-released book:
    click here for more info

    Twenty Steps Ahead: Leading at Just the Right Distance

    Zeke is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s very cute and endearing, but he can really be dumb as a post sometimes. Case in point: he can get lost in our house. To be fair, many times when he’s turned  around, it’s not because he doesn’t know where he is, it’s because he doesn’t know where I am.

    Our staircase is in the center of the house and is split into two sections with a landing in between. You walk up, turn ninety degrees right on the landing, walk a few feet, turn ninety degrees again, and walk the rest of the way up. If I’m upstairs and I call Zeke, he has trouble triangulating where I am. Did my voice come from upstairs? Or from the other room? He’ll run halfway up to the landing and wait. When I call him again
    he knows I’m upstairs, but now my voice is coming from the direction where, if he ran toward me, he would be descending the stairs. Now he’s completely baffled. Should he run toward my voice and down to the first level, or away from my voice and up to the second level (where he now knows I am)? It’s just
    so confusing! I have to literally walk down to the landing and guide him up, so that he can follow me in the right direction, and the stairs line up with the path to my voice. Like I said, he’s not brilliant.
    a labyrinth

    The same thing happens when we are out for a hike. The best places are off-leash areas where the dogs can run free without danger of traffic or unsuspecting pedestrians. Many of these locations are in the woods,  composed of a network of small footpaths. Taking Paco and Zeke on the trails is predictable. Paco zips back and forth, running a hundred feet ahead, then coming back and checking on us before running ahead again. He usually gets twice the walk we do. Zeke usually falls behind, engrossed in the smell of some patch of ground.  For most of the walk, we don’t have to worry about the dogs. They run off and play and then catch up with us again. Yet we have to take care when there’s a fork in the path. Paco is usually attentive enough so that if he’s ahead of us on the wrong fork he zips back and finds us. Zeke gets lost. Since he lags behind, he doesn’t see which path we took. His solution is to panic, choose a direction, and just sprint.

    We first observed this on the trails at Fort Funston in San Francisco. This park remains our all-time favorite place for dog walking. Stretching out on rolling cliffs and dunes over the Pacific Ocean, the paved paths are a magnet for dog owners. The dogs socialize while the people get a workout and a stunning

    One afternoon we were hiking there with the dogs, and Zeke fell behind. We didn’t notice for a few minutes, and when we did turn to look for him, we could barely see him around a bend. At that moment he looked up from the root he was sniffing and realized he had lost us. We saw the panic set in as he frantically scanned everyone around, not finding us among them. Within ten seconds he simply chose a direction (the wrong one) and took off at full speed. There he went, sprinting his muscular little body off into the distance, his head glancing at every person he passed.

    Leaders need to be just far enough ahead of their followers to motivate them, inspire them, and show them the direction, but not so far that nobody can see them. This quote by Georg Brandes, an influential Danish literary critic, sums it up nicely: “The crowd will follow a leader who marches twenty steps in advance, but if he is a thousand steps in front of them, they do not see him and do not follow him.”

    When we were a hundred feet in front of Zeke, he was able to follow us. Once we got too far ahead of him, we lost him. When a leader is no longer in sight, some followers will behave as Zeke did—they will choose a direction and just run. Others will sit down and wait. In any case, the leader will no longer be a leader as there is no one following him. In many cases, the “distance” between a leader and followers is not literal. It may be the distance between the mindset of the two. It may be a gap in vision. For instance, Steve Jobs may have lost some followers who did not grasp his vision of personal computing.

    Transformational leaders are aware that while they have to push the envelope they still need to  communicate a future that followers can identify with and understand. So how do leaders provide a path for followers to show them how to get from point A to point B? I have to meet Zeke halfway down the stairs to correctly guide him, and it’s not too different for the leader of a (human) team. Leaders meet their followers halfway and provide them structure and direction. They initiate structure by putting organizational elements in place and clarifying vision and goals toward which everyone should strive. Initiating structure (along with consideration) has been found to be one of the most important elements of effective leadership. It consists of organizing and communicating within an organization how work is supposed to flow and what tools, policies, and procedures are available to guide that workflow.

    In general, initiating structure means making clear to everyone how tasks are supposed to get done, providing a path of here to there. For instance, a company goal may be to increase gross revenue. OK, how? Make more sales calls? Make the same number but make them better? Attend more networking events? Put money into research and development of new products? New services? Who should they ask to clarify? When left without any intermediate direction and structure, employees have to guess for  themselves how best to achieve this collective goal of increased gross revenue. When this happens, inefficiencies result. If a leader steps in and initiates structure, efforts can be aligned. The key is to lead at just the right distance—not so close as to be micromanaging but not so far as to be vague and unclear.