Learn to lead faster

What’s the best way to learn to lead something? You might think, as I did, that it has something to do with organized courses, goals, and lists of lists, but that is, of course, not true.

Instead, we have hope that the world is not becoming increasingly robotized. It turns out that drones (whether of mechanical or humanoid variety) are NOT taking over, and never will. God has hardwired us not for better checklists but for play. Experimentation aligns better with human design than does following established norms.

Better leadership is not the result of better goals and more efficient processes, nor does it stem from head-down compliance. Leadership comes from, well, farting around.

Yes, it’s true. I am so happy right this minute.

The most productive route to better leadership is by playing and experimenting like you did with childhood friends. Paint, chalk, water hoses, magnifying glasses, stolen eggs and hot sidewalks make better leaders than a book by the Lord of Toyota.

Play your way into better leadership. Ha! Who knew? Although I am not sure beer pong helps, according to this study from Harvard Business Review, it would help more than becoming an old snit who never has any fun.

Am I to infer, then, that the finest leadership school would send people outside, lock the door behind them, and command the neophytes to: “Stay outside and play until lunchtime”? (Meanwhile, this Socrates of young leaders would, as my sister-in-law reports, retreat to the quiet of her air conditioned kingdom and drink a Tab.)

Maybe this leadership stuff is easier than we think. Maybe we just need to go out and try some stuff? Maybe the best leadership development comes after we receive permission to experiment and clean up when something breaks.

Band-Aids are cheap. Y’all go play.

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Eating frogs

Zig Ziglar advised tackling unpleasant tasks first thing in the day. He likened them to eating a frog, saying something like, “If you have to eat a frog, you just don’t want to look at it very long.” His meaning was to do the thing you must do but least like, first and the rest of the day will be easier and more fun.

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.

Unpleasant conversation? Schedule it first. You do not want to stare that frog down all day. Unpleasant, unimportant task? Do it never. Unpleasant, important task? Do it first.

A friend of mine has a task that’s critical, but not the most natural thing for him to accomplish. It reminds me of when I have to do accounting tasks. I can do them, I’m glad to do them, and I’m really glad when they’re done. But accounting is not in my sweet spot. If I anticipate the thing, it grows more unpleasant. If I just eat that frog, it’s done.

So my friend decided to do his less pleasant task first. He said he noticed a difference just thinking about getting it done earlier. The day went better. He felt happier and happier again when it was done.

Eat that fat frog fast! (Say that three times.)

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Phone home, stupid.

I’ve never seen it, but evidently thousands of people claim to have witnessed a couple out on a date, texting each other “What’re you having?” from across the table. Urban legend or prophesy? I don’t know.

Ron Friedman claims to know, however, that smartphones are making us stupid(er). He wrote an article (whoop tee do). He says that someone figured out that the mere presence of a smartphone causes people to score lower on complex mental exams.

Any parent of any teenager with a phone, smart or otherwise, could have saved that researcher a TON of energy. The mere presence of another teenager in any form, including virtual (on the other end of the phone for instance), leads to an inability to perform any mental task like taking out the garbage or clearing the table.

As for us adults, since at least one of us can rarely handle complex mental tasks – I’m thinking of something on the level of figuring out which playoff game to watch – news about the mere presence of a smartphone making me stupid is welcome.

I now have something besides college binge drinking on which to blame my stupidity on. My wife asks, “Why didn’t you put away all the dishes?”

My NEW strategery in one word not a commercial: “iPhone.” Thank. You. Ron!

And if the task gets more complex: “What do you mean you forgot to walk the dog?”

I haz fancy answerz! “iPhone 5s!”

“You only mowed half the yard?” (True.)

“It’s not my fault. I upgraded my phone last night.”

WIN!

Just imagine if I get a version 6! I’ll probably walk in front of a bus.

So, what else? Well, a bunch of Brits – a people not know for their effusiveness – report, “the presence of a cell phone also interferes with our ability to form close interpersonal connections.” Here in Texas that means, well, if you take your phone to bed, it may get in the way of, ah, bed things. Leave it on the night stand, cowboy. (Do British people really suffer so?)

This one is important (to me): “Subjects who spoke while a cell phone was in view perceived their partner as less understanding and less trustworthy.” Remember that if the Feds come knocking. Imagine, if the Enron guys had only put away those darn smartphones, they’d have made billions on the shale boom. And, really, if my partner is picking up her f*&(%ing phone instead of paying attention TO ME like she vowed (back before cell phones were smaller than a loaf of bread), I will think less of her. But not much since we’ve been together a long time and it would be really hard for someone else to train me to mow the entire yard.

Well, there’s more. Blah, blah, blah, inability to form memories or something. Fatigue, yawn, don’t care. Inability to distinguish real urgency from

Hell, I gotta go.

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7 Quick Thoughts on Feedback (make that 8)

Can I give you some feedback?

Lying, standard answer: “Sure. I love feedback.” (Translation: “Yugh. Could I eat glass instead? Glass mixed with live snails?) Everyone says they want feedback. Hitting the milestone of listening to confidential confessions of over 1,000 people means the truth everyone is shouting is this: EVERYONE LIES ABOUT WANTING FEEDBACK – NO ONE WANTS IT!

The ninth time reading Dale Carnegie is upon me and I realize – LIGHTNING FLASH – that the very idea of feedback is negative. Criticism makes people defensive. It never gets what the feedbacker thinks it will get. It gets running. Away. Feedback is loud, painful noise going backwards through a sound system. Anyone encountering it just wants it to stop. There is no such thing as “positive feedback”, that’s called “praise” and the people I know do not feel that they get enough of it. (I always feel terrible rereading How to Win Friends because I know this stuff but fail miserably at practicing it.)

If you are feeling overly happy at this moment, think about getting feedback – that’ll bring you right back down. I know, I know, feedback is important. How else will we know what to improve?

7 Quick Thoughts

  1. Give clear expectations up front, and grade nothing else.
  2. Offer a collegial goal setting and grading process by qualified evaluators.
  3. Continually build on strengths and work relationships.That is, all the time.
  4. Clarify the company vision and direction until people understand it and either buy in or go somewhere with a vision they can follow.
  5. Tell the truth, even when it’s hard.
  6. Offer people a clear career path, making them feel someone is really interested in their success as an important member of your company.
  7. Take action on Harvard’s finding that it takes at least 5 praises to over come 1 criticism.

Criticize only when you need to grab someone’s attention. Otherwise, praise, praise, praise, praise, praise. I believe they’ll respond positively. We’ll end up with more of what we all want: healthy, engaged, productive people.

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5 steps to better leadership

Douglas MacArthur usually makes the list of the world’s great leaders. What I never knew about him was how much he cared for the people who reported to him.

The same level of caring seems to ring true for all great leaders. Let me qualify great as referring to those men and women whose task was morally acceptable. I am sure one could list more than a few narcissistic sociopaths who had many followers, but I’m talking about people who made the world better.

MacArthur makes my list, and here’s why. His biographers report that he felt personally responsible for the welfare and development of the people under his supervision, and he asked himself a set of questions to keep on track – he called them tenets. Here’s a copy of the list scanned from Larry Donnithorne’s excellent little book, The West Point Way of Leadership:

MacArthur Principles of Leadership

5 Steps to Better Leadership

  1. Read the list and note the items you do well and for which you can be thankful.
  2. Give thanks. It’s up to you whether that’s to God who gave you talent and a chance to use it, to a person who helped you with knowledge, or perhaps to the one who gave you a shot at leading something. But thank someone.
  3. Correct yourself. Where you’re not up to par, get your act together.
  4. Create an action plan to get yourself in better leadership shape.
  5. Hold yourself accountable. Put “Read the List” or some such reminder on your calendar for first thing every Monday.

In about six weeks, I expect you to receive praise from the people who report to you, your supervisor, and maybe even from a spouse and children. Won’t that be a nice reward?

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4 tips to make interviews, evals, and home more interesting

Before we start, this stuff also works well on teenagers, spouses, and (as the title suggests) employee evaluations, and if I may suggest, conduct those three interviews in the same mindset. By the latter suggestion, I am not saying we interview our spouses and children as one would a potential employee. Quite the opposite–interview the employee as you would a loved one and see what different that makes.

Whether you’re hunting work, hiring, or just trying to get along at home, these four should at least make the process more fun. They may even improve your chances of getting what you want.

1. Land the plane

If you’re hunting a job or a promotion, the person with control over who gets the prize will ask you a question. Answer it to the point immediately. That is, 15 words or less. Elaborate on your answer for no more than 90 seconds and conclude by telling them you have more if they want more. Do not circle the airport–land the plane!

If you’re the interviewer, tell the candidate that you’d appreciate brevity. If you find yourself wanting to dig more, ask them for more. If it’s something negative or you sense they’re covering up, definitely ask for more.

If asking, use simple, but not simplistic questions–open-ended more than closed-ended. For instance, rather than, “I see that your tenure at XYZ Co. was two years, and you left for better pay at Acme, right?” They can offer you a simple “yes” and you learned nothing new–crackers without the soup. Perhaps, “Other than pay, what did you like better at Acme than at XYZ?” Now you’ll get a steak dinner. Follow up if you think there’s something more to learn.

While you’re at it, please let a question land before asking another question. I once heard an interviewer ask four questions in a row and it felt like he was punching a man who was already down. The poor candidate became so flustered, he froze. If you do that to your child, she will think she’s being interrogated by a hostile attorney.

Land the plane, and let the plane land.

2. Be invasive, not evasive

Don’t dodge a question by responding with vague answers. “I’m a great person,” means less than, “last year, I used my vacation to feed children in Malaysia.” Be specific about what you did and when, and tell me how I can verify that data.

Again, as the asker, use open-ended questions. You won’t learn as much from, “Are you timely?” as you will from asking: “What typically causes you to be late for appointments?” If you’re a candidate wondering if you’ll get a paid vacation, ask something like: “Tell me about your benefits package,” instead of the too simple: “What’s the vacation policy?”

When someone gives an inadequate answer, ask them to elaborate. If someone tells you they love feedback, respond with: “That’s great. Most people hate the sting of feedback. What do you do with it?” Let the silence hang in the air like a circling vulture until they give a solid answer. The truth is that most people despise feedback–feedback by its very definition is a bad noise that results from a frequency going backwards through a sound system. It stings the ears! And, by the way, there’s no such thing as positive feedback–that, my friend, is called praise and it’s music to one’s ears. If someone says they like feedback, they are rare indeed, but more likely, they have a growth mindset, which is gold for their employer, spouse, or parent.

The person you want can demonstrate behavior something like this: “I overcome the pain of negative feedback by thinking through the positive aspects of improving myself. I ask for help from someone who is good at the thing I’m not so good at or books and articles on the subject. I develop an action plan, and ask for accountability to see it though. That’s how I got over procrastinating on sending in reports when I was with Acme.”

Questions about taking feedback are terribly invasive and come off as unfriendly. It seems to me that most people ask weak questions so as not to appear unfriendly. As a result, they receive weak answers, and then they hire weak candidates (or worse, they tolerate liars). The truth is that being uncomfortable is the only way to make sure the person is a good fit. Good fits succeed more often, and bad fits almost always fail!  Invasive questioning may turn out to be the most friendly thing of all. Be invasive.

3. Do not wreck the bus

You’ve heard the popular expression of throwing someone under the bus, meaning to blame them to the point of severe injury. I’ve watched people wreck the whole bus during an interview by being defensive. Do not blame other people or argue with an assessment during an interview unless you want to wreck the whole bus.

An interviewer assessed a person’s behavioral style once. It was not a criticism, merely a statement of how the person behaved in regard to new information. The candidate proceeded to argue with the assessment. Surprisingly, it was clear that the person had the job! The interviewer was simply sharing an insight: “Hey, this is how you process information, and it may help to know…,” but the person was emotionally shallow and defended against the assessment.

No! Defensiveness wrecks the bus.

Even if the information is false, don’t wreck the bus. I’ve been falsely accused of bad behavior, and I bet you have too. I felt betrayed and slandered–I do stupid things often enough and I was sure not going to let a false accusation pass without a fight. So I wrecked the dang bus, which branded me as defensive with the person who brought me the info.

Next time something like that happens, I’ll say, “Well, that’s disappointing. I thought [the accuser] and I were on good terms. I did not see my behavior that way. I’ll have to correct that perception by acting differently in the future.” And the bus can go to the next stop.

In an interview, if things did not go well at your last job, admit it and move on. Do not blame others. The same holds if your company culture is not what you want it to be (make it clear how you’re changing and that new people will build the new company). In either case, state your part in whatever mess exists and what you learned from it. A great answer I once heard went like this: “Well, the place caught on fire and burned to the ground. Part of my job was to lock up and that included a check for combustibles. I missed some oily rags under a wooden stairwell and, wouldn’t you know it, they caught fire around 2:00am. I was canned, but I learned to go through a safety checklist, and it’ll never happen again.”

I love that last phrase. I think it’s the magnificent incantation of responsible people: it’ll never happen again.

Conversely, if you are asking someone about their behavior and they wreck the bus, do not let them abandon the scene. Ask what was their part. Ask what they learned. Ask how you can know it won’t happen again. Probe. Make them squirm–it may be the only interesting thing you see that day. Making someone uncomfortable is not fun (OK, it’s kinda fun), but it’s a lot more fun than hiring someone who will not admit mistakes or has not learned from their past. If they persist in covering up, end the interview. If a person will wreck the bus before they’re hired, imagine what they’ll do on the payroll!

Which is worse, by the way, not seeing one’s part in a folly or not learning from it? Either way, do not wreck the bus.

4. Ask: “How do you know?”

If someone offers you a job as Chief Widgeter for $100,000 per year, how do you know that’s a good deal? Ask.

Yes, you need to know the cost to live where they want you, any out of pocket expenses you cover like client lunches or a cell phone. You need to know the total package–does it include insurance, travel expenses, Widget Polishing Cream–that stuff is pricey! Before that, however, you just need to know how they know the number is fair.

And how do you know your expectations are fair? Too often, I’ve heard people say they should be making several dollars more just because. Because why? And then I hear, “Stuffed hippos. Vague generalities. Heartfelt congratulations. Trophies for everyone. Rainbows and unicorns!” It’s like listening to coaches at halftime, politicians on the campaign trail, and teachers during an assembly.

Speak plainly and do your homework. Find the market rate for Chief Widgeters. Show up prepared to back up your salary expectations and expect them to back up their offer.

If you’re asking for more or offering less, at least help them agree with you by stating the source for your numbers. Tell them how you know.

Well, that’s enough for today, don’t you agree?

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Leadership Personalized

The guy I work for has a surprising ability to ask deep, unexpected questions. I’d sell him short if I called him a crap-cutter, but that’s really what he does better than just about anyone I know. I’m sure he ticks a lot of people off–bluntness and crap-cutting being such an unappreciated skill these days. Personally, I believe he saves a great deal of time and emotional energy, and his approach gets me home earlier.

Last week, our group was going through a leadership book. If one were to believe the author, all humanity shall die a hundred deaths quite soon if we (our group) does not (all of us) get very serious about developing leaders, and not much else. The real leader in our group pointed out that while it’s my job to develop leaders, other people have other things for which he is paying them – revenue generation or financial management, boring stuff like that, you see.

I was thrilled, of course, to be the ONLY ONE CHOSEN to do the fun stuff. Kisses from heaven, thank you very much.

Anyway, he cut through all that crap and asked each of us to spell it out on paper. “It” being to personalize our view of our leadership in the company. And a week later, all those kisses have turned to bad breath. You’d think “it” would be easy but it’s not.

For one thing, I have lot to think through before I commit. What if I marry this thing and we don’t like each other later? Can’t we sleep together and play house for a few months, first? (smile)

No? Not consistent with my proclaimed faith, you snicker? (Well, aren’t you the judgey one?)

OK, here goes:

Develop leaders, one-at-a-time. I feel like I’m the one most responsible for creating a highly functioning leadership culture at Strong Electric. That happens slowly and gradually. To flesh it out a bit, I’m seeing three, overlapping domains of responsibility:

  • the discipline of leadership development;what I do
  • executive coaching; and
  • measures

Stay aware of current research and best practices in the overlapping areas of leadership and development. Know about adult learning, motivation, and habit-forming. Regarding leadership as a discipline means thinking of it less as an innate quality and more as a set of skills that anyone may develop over time.

People are motivated by what they want. To find what someone wants, use executive coaching, which includes skills like building rapport, listening, asking powerful questions, and action planning.

Measurement helps employees and their supervisors engage at work. Good measurements tell us what a person is paid to do and the level at which someone gets what they paid for. Measurement takes much of the guesswork out of performance evaluations, leading to deeper engagement. Engaged people develop their leadership (or any) skills more quickly.

One might call this being the people guy, and in the sense that helps people engage at work, and in the sense that engagement leads to greater happiness, being the people guy is a wonderful thing. Most disengagement results from weak leadership—so develop leaders one at a time.

Thank you for commenting below.

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