Promotion? Not worth it…

If you’ve just spent time trying to convince people who work for you to accept a promotion,  you’ve probable got a few questions in mind.  Questions like, “Why won’t these guys take a chance?” or “Where is their drive, their motivation, their commitment?”

These may be the wrong questions.  The real question should be “Why the heck can’t I sell a promotion?”  This really translates into “What the heck is wrong with our organizational culture?”

As Wally Bock pointed out in his recent post, supervisory roles are in crisis.  Wally’s point is well founded; companies have been promoting people right up to their level of incompetence for years.  The other point he makes that resounds with me is that the younger folks amongst us are less likely to want to take on these roles if the examples they’ve seen either aren’t doing a good job or are receiving the corporate head smack at every turn.  After all, why would you want to replace the person you’ve just spent the last two years feeling sorry for?

Does your boss look like this? Want his job?

If you are a leader, have a look around at the supervisor’s working for you.  Have you created an environment that attracts good people?  Have you created an environment that makes people aspire to the jobs you’re offering?

Food for thought.

Warfighting in Cyberspace Requires Leaders

The Changing Face of Military Operations

In a recent address to the graduating class of the US Air Force Academy, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, took specific aim at emerging threats in cyberspace.  His point?  The warrior’s environment is changing.

What message does this send to the prospective leaders of the US Air Force that listened to this message?  Changing warfare environments require change in leadership priorities.  It the months and years ahead, it will no longer be appropriate to relegate cyber and space warfare to a dark room of technicians.  It will require the attention of educated and engaged leaders.

In fact, it will require the attention of intelligent and technically minded people who could change the face of leadership once more.  Could this be the end of the football team captain and the rise of the chairperson of the audio-visual club?  For  my money, I think healthy change will require both ends of the high school social spectrum…

Your team plays bingo. They really do.

Who doesn't love Bingo?

As I look around the leadership blogosphere, I was reminded of a game we used to play during senior officer pep talks.  Now, by sharing the secrets of senior officer bingo, I’m probably only ensuring that it happens to me, but it’ll help me make a point about the pitfalls of motivating groups.  Here’s how the game works – you and your wingers sit down ahead of the meeting and make a list of all the tried and true motivational one liners of your organization.  Once you have a good selection, you make bingo cards.  As you sit through the meeting, check ‘em off until you get a full line.  What to do if you win?  Easy, put your hand up and ask a question.  Just be sure to use the word “bingo” so all your friends know that you won…

Here’s a shopping list of the types of phrases I mean:

  • “Ton for ton, the best ships in the world”
  • “What’s  your job?  Best one I ever had.”
  • “Pound for pound, the best sailors in the world.”
  • “World-class (insert noun here)”

See what I mean?  Everyone of us who’ve ever worked in a large organization can probably sit down and make a bingo card right now.

Here’s the thing.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with engaging with your team.  There’s nothing wrong with motivation.  And there’s certainly nothing wrong with fostering pride in your folks.  So why does this bring out cynicism?  It’s because our tried and true one-liners of motivation are vague.  They lack concrete terms and aren’t linked to specific, sticky things that people can touch, feel, taste or smell.  For further guidance on concrete and sticky messaging, have a look at the Heath Brothers book, Made to Stick.

The way ahead?  Think carefully about the message you send when trying to motivate you folks.  Does it fit with the organizational culture?  If you’re trying to change the culture, will your message help move in the right direction?  Is you message sticky?  Is it concrete?  Can everyone touch, feel, taste, or smell what you’re trying to say?

For me, a successful motivational talk would be one where the bingo game has no winner…

Anyone care to share the organizational one-liners that they love to hate?

Want to live outside your comfort zone? Try being in charge.

Have you ever looked at someone in charge of a team working under pressure and wondered, how can he or she be that confident?  How can they remain so calm when all they seem to be getting right now is bad news?  How do they know which decision is the right one?  They seem to – after all they give clear instructions, smile, and move on to the next problem without ever looking back.

Or do they?

As someone who makes a career out of leading teams, I can tell you that most displays of confidence under pressure are the product of high school drama classes.  Every one of us suffers from moments of self-doubt, usually found gnawing away at the deepest part of the stomach.  Every one of us actually develops eyes in the back of our heads to allow us to look back as we move to the next problem; that’s how the stomach knows when to act up.

A few weeks back I was talking with a friend of mine who worked with me at sea during a huge international navy exercise off of Hawaii.  He and another officer had just joined our ship, fresh from a year-long course designed to make them into warfare leaders, known as Operations Room Officers or OROs.  Being an ORO can be a tough job – you are responsible to the skipper for almost everything and have to coordinate a huge network of sub-teams and equipment.  On top of this, add being responsible for aircraft and other warships assigned to you for the current activity and now, as they say, we are in business.  My point?  Many people look to the ORO for guidance and direction.  He or she is expected to wade through mountains of information to seize clarity in order to provide sane instructions to everyone else.  In other words – a busy job with periods of impossible requirements.  The key to success?  Confidence and experience.  And if you have just arrived and don’t have much experience?  That leaves confidence…  In fact, my shipmates had the same conversation at watch turnover for almost two weeks  – “Figured out this job yet?”  Pause.  “Nope.”

Imagine sitting in a room without windows and coordinating this... Pressure.

The take away?  It’s OK to be human and feel like you’ve left your safe zone because leading under pressure is uncomfortable.  Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or doesn’t understand the question.

Worst. Leadership Advice. Ever.

Epic. Fail.

Sometimes, writing a blog on leadership takes care of itself.  Consider this letter to the editor, outlining someone’s advice to aspiring leaders.  Advice that, if someone actually implemented, would surely see them fail.  Well, maybe they wouldn’t immediately fail, but the long-term damage that someone armed with this advice could do to an organization is significant.

Let’s hit this point-by-point, shall we?

  • “Any aspiring leader would do well to adopt the following cliché as a personal mantra: Do as I say, not as I do.” Seriously?  This is exactly the sort of thing that people immediately notice and chalk up in the “lack of respect” column.  I suggest you go the other way.
  • “Leadership is about inspiring others – not effecting real change.” How can this be?  How many of us are inspired by the “that’s how we’ve always done it” school of management?  And, yes, you may have heard a snort of derision in my use of the word management.  At least in this context.
  • “The private life and personal values of the leader should remain out of view; “integrity” is merely a buzzword used to distract from the real measure of a leader’s success: control.” I view leadership as the whole package.  Anyone who views integrity as a buzzword needs to seriously consider their focus in life and examine the damage they may be doing in their current role.
  • “The leader alone remains in a position of authority and power – everything useful comes down from the top.” Wow.  If the road to engaging your team ever had an off-ramp, this is it.  Seth Godin has it right - a great boss approaches life with the reverse perspective – you work for your team, not the other way around.
  • “Granted, it may become necessary to provide the illusion of a democratic process; people in today’s society need to feel that they have some degree of influence.” If you are anything like me, you try to surround yourself with smart people.  People who value honesty and authenticity.  People who will see through this manipulative tactic for what it is.
  • “These consultations can even be held after a course has already been charted, as long as the participants are made to feel that their input will be considered.”  What’s missing?  Oh, I know, I know, pick me!  How about actually considering your team’s input vice making them feel like you are?
  • “In summary, the most useful tools leaders have at their disposal include a ready array of stock phrases and clichés, as well as a thorough disregard for democracy in the interest of an effectively administered organization.” While I agree that most organizations don’t operate democratically, they do operate on the backs of the potential of their members.  Slick lines made up of stock phrases do nothing to leverage that potential.

What can we learn from this?  There are many sources providing leadership advice.  Choose carefully.

Want to Avoid Mission Creep? Practice.

One of the hallmarks of leadership under pressure is the ability to generate strong, actionable plans without the luxury of either time or all of the facts.  How do you make sure that your team can do this?  Practice.  Followed by more practice.

The Canadian navy uses search and rescue (SAR) response exercises to test this very thing.  Consider this example – a warship at sea off the west coast of Vancouver Island receives a distress call from a sinking fisherman approximately one hour away.  Several things need to happen and they need to happen quickly.  First, the obvious step – move to the scene.  Second, gather all of your expertise (in this case, representatives of all departments in order to blend situational awareness, logistics, medical and technical knowledge all in one place) and assess all of the factors in order to create a plan.  Because the situations are never the same, each plan differs slightly from what could be considered standard operating procedures.  After all, there is nothing standard about a burning fishing vessel in five-metre waves during the dead of night, is there?

Good time to discuss the group dental plan? Mission creep.

My point?  If you place this problem in front of five ship’s teams, they will construct five different plans.  One or two will be outstanding, two more will be realistically achievable and one could be a complete “disasterpiece” in the making.  What causes the difference?  Excellent question; after all, although our teams are made up of different individuals, they all have similar training and experience.  In theory, they should all come up with realistically achievable plans, shouldn’t they?  One direct cause of this difference is something known as “mission creep.”

Mission creep can affect even the strongest of teams.  Wikipedia defines it as “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes.”  It occurs when our team of heroic leaders are drawn off track by needless details or dead ends within the plan.  In extreme cases, mission creep occurs when we add so much detail to a plan that it literally collapses under its own weight.  Although the term is a fairly modern one, the actual concept has been affecting organizations for hundreds of years.  For example, Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition grew by a factor of five from plan inception to execution.  Definite mission creep…

The SAR response example allows us to see mission creep in action.  What should the priority of search and rescue be?  It should be just that – search and rescue, or more simply put saving lives. Therefore any discussion (and believe me, it comes up every time) about saving the stricken vessel (remember, it’s sinking and people need to get off) is quite clearly mission creep.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t consider saving the vessel if possible, but with an hour to sort ourselves out while positioning at speed to the scene, an animated discussion of what pumps we need or how many damage control folks to send over by the same boat that should be transporting victims is… you guessed it, mission creep.

Avoiding mission creep can be challenging.  After all, you don’t necessarily want to shut down the bright folks on your team by harshly snapping them back to your mission – they are subject matter experts and bring skills to the table that you don’t have.  My two cents?  Try some team problem-solving exercises when you have the time.  Not only can you streamline your processes, you can tease out mission creep in a smiling environment vice a pressure-charged frowning one.

When the Student Becomes the Teacher

Isn’t it interesting that we seem to think that wisdom and age are inextricably tied together? Don’t you feel better when you’re sitting at a doctor’s office and the doctor actually looks old enough to have earned all of the certifications on the wall behind him or her?  I know I do.  Having said that, every once in a while we are reminded that wisdom and youth are not mutually exclusive.

Tecumseh Elementary School, Vancouver, BC

Take Safiya Hopfe, a grade 6 student from Tecumseh Elementary in Vancouver, BC.  Her thoughts on the leadership development opportunities that can be found in the school system saw her published in the Vancouver Sun.  Her article makes a great point – schools provide opportunity.  Safiya’s reasoning is sound – without the opportunities provided by schools, we can’t grow the leaders of the tomorrow.

Safiya goes further than just saying that schools develop leaders, she tells us how they do that:

  • Community Involvement Through participation in extracurricular activities, students learn to be involved in organizations larger than themselves.
  • Communications Skills. Education not only teaches problem solving, it teaches the critical interpersonal communications skills that are the very core of leadership
  • Teamwork Skills. Participation in team sports or other activities provides that basic building block that every one of us need in order to be productive – the ability to work with others towards a common goal.
  • Mentorship. Not only do our schools provide mentoring to students, these opportunities develop the cultural basis for mentorship.  Exactly where would we be without that?

Safiya, I would say that you are exactly right.  I would also say that I don’t think we’ve heard the last word from you…  Keep up the good work!

To the rest of us – listen to Safiya’s message – we need her and people like her to be capable of leading when their time comes.  Dare I say it might be time to attend the next school board meeting before the next round of budget cuts?