Tag Archives: Communications

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?

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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.

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?

Watch the Noise – You Can Lose Your Message

In an outstanding example of failing to understand psychological noise, a British Ambulance service has apologized for asking 4,000 employees to rate how cool Adolf Hitler was as a leader.  What’s that, you ask?  How did they get to this point?  Excellent question.

Initial plan for survey? Maybe...

This explosive question was part of a survey designed to tease out employee opinions on the topic of leadership.  The idea, I suppose, was to galvanize these thousands of workers into thinking about what makes a good leadership figure in the hopes of fostering the climate necessary to grow leaders within the organization.  In actuality, what happened is that workers completing the survey found the message drowned out in the noise surrounding Hitler’s very name.

What’s this about noise?  Simple stuff really – as leaders and communicators, we all need to be aware of things, or noise, that reduce the strength of our signal.  In technical terms (supposing one was building a radio) this means controlling the signal to noise ratio.  In any case, we can break noise down into three broad categories:

  • Physical Noise – interference created by physical conditions such as cold or hunger.  In the practical sense this can be overcome in the business setting through simple measures like making sure everyone attending a meeting has a chair, making refreshments available, or scheduling health breaks.
  • Psychological Noise – interference caused by forces within us.  Extreme feelings, beliefs or trauma from past experiences are included in this category.  Dropping Hitler into a leadership survey to rate his coolness certainly qualifies.  The less noticeable instances of noise (i.e. someone’s family problems interfering in their ability to listen) can only be dealt with if you know the people you are dealing with.  In other words, you need to be an engaged leader to combat psychological noise…
  • Semantic Noise – interference caused by language issues.  I often see this when someone speaks in jargon or acronyms.  Local dialects might count too…  Easy fix – monitor your communications to remove jargon and gigantic words that nobody has ever heard before.  Hint – if you see people accessing an online dictionary while reading your memo, you may have lost your signal to semantic noise…

The ambulance company’s survey example goes from bad to worse.  Not only did they choose poorly in using Hitler as an example, their “after-action” comments sound like they’re defending their choice.  At the end of the day, no one will remember the attempt to inspire leadership within the ambulance employees, but everyone will remember being asked about Adolf Hitler as a “cool” leader.  Psychological noise at its best.

Anyone care to share an example of noise interfering with leadership?

7 Great Leadership Blogs

Now that I’ve managed to post into the double-digits, I’ve discovered that there are some blogs that I keep returning to as I wander my way around the inter-web.  These bloggers are professional leaders, mentors, coaches, and business people.  They work together to discuss leadership and communication issues and respond nicely to new bloggers like myself.  Each approaches the complex ideals of modern leadership in their own way.

Here are some of my favorites (they’re in no particular order, in fact they’re all equally excellent):

  • Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog.  Wally takes on various issues, indexes his blogs for ease of searching, and responds promptly to questions and comments.  Everyone who takes the time to comment gains additional value from his immediate and welcoming response.  Wally also uses his influence to point to other blogs with a “top five post” every week.
  • Mike Myatt’s N2 Growth Blog.  In his role as a strategic leader, Mike provides tremendous value in his posts.  In fact, his recently posted leadership test provides a great deal of food for thought.
  • Make Work Meaningful.  This collaborative site features many blog authors and serves as a one-stop shopping locale for all things leadership.  Broad topics include coaching, leadership, and organizational culture.  Not only does this group of people provide great value, they welcome the input of others.
  • Gwyn Teatro’s You’re Not the Boss of Me.  I stumbled onto Gwyn’s fantastic blog quite by accident and immediately began following her posts.  As a well-established HR professional, Gwyn has some great thoughts on leadership that I think you’ll find rewarding.  Plus her blog has a great title!
  • Commander, Submarine Group Ten.  Why the heck does this one make my list of favourites?  Well, there’s the fact that it’s a Navy blog.  How cool is that?  The real reason?  Rear-Admiral Bruner is in the process of dealing with some large organizational changes that focus on emotive issues – women in submarines chief among them.  He has a tremendous leadership challenge and is using social media to reach out and engage with his sailors.  His strong leadership shines through on his blog and is worth watching as the USN makes changes.
  • Michael Hyatt’s Leadership Blog.  Michael is the CEO of a large publishing house and provides great value through his blog.  I am not alone in my thoughts on his posts – he routinely makes it through my postrank.com filter unscathed!
  • John Baldoni’s Lead by Example Blog.   I found John’s blog through an article that he wrote for the Harvard Business Review on leadership presence.  I’ve been trying for 2o years to explain the concept of command presence to people and John’s article provided some great guidance.  Definitely worth a look.

Go ahead and let me know if you follow a leadership blog that you think I would enjoy.  I have also changed my wordpress layout and welcome comments/suggestions on the new format.  Thanks!

The Symphony Conducter Isn’t All Bad

I just read another great post by Wally Bock on leadership. In his most recent post, Wally takes aim at the management metaphor that is provided by the symphony conductor.  Wally provides a great argument against this leadership example; the conductor stands out in front, above his orchestra and exerts utter control.  To make matters worse, the conductor gets to take the full credit for the orchestra’s performance – in fact, the conductor is often the only performer to take a bow.  When you view it like that, Wally’s right; this model can’t possibly reflect the modern collaborative approach to leadership.  Or is he?

Management or leadership?

Consider the concept of the high reliability organization (HRO).  These organizations are defined by the price of failure.  They are exemplified by places like submarine control rooms, hospital emergency rooms or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.  For these organizations the price of failure is measured not only in big money, but in lives.  The people who work in HROs, much like our orchestra, are professionals who don’t need to be told every aspect of their job.  They do, however, require someone to coordinate their activities and set the priorities – I can’t see anyone putting together an orchestra, handing out sheet music to provide the goal and then stepping back – the result would be very hard to listen to.  In other words, they need a conductor.

Let’s go over the conductor’s role again.  As the leader, he or she selects the music – or, perhaps better seen as the organization’s goal – and then sets the tempo.  Communicating using nothing but body language, the conductor coordinates the activities of a vast array of highly trained specialists.  With a gesture, he or she influences the outcome – bringing in the violins to take over the melody, initiating the flute sections’ counter-melody, reducing the volume of the percussion section so that Swan Lake can continue to awe and amaze.  As Wally points out, the conductor doesn’t wade through the orchestra pit to begin moving somebody’s fingers around the strings of a violin.  Quite the opposite – as the leader, the conductor steps up so that he or she can see and be seen.  Armed with the whole situational picture that cannot be seen by the 3rd flute, the conductor tweaks the machine to make magic.

So what is the conductor really doing?  Is he or she conducting a management activity? Nope.  When you roll in coordination, influence and communication, the conductor is coming dangerously close to exercising command.