Tag Archives: Leadership

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.

Advertisements

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?

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?

Three Things You Need in a Leader

Timing is everything.  Even as British politicians sort through the confusion that is a hung parliament to arrive at a coalition government, a leadership conference was taking place well below street level, in the War Room used by Sir Winston Churchill to run operations in 1940.  This conference, staged by the The Said School of Business (Oxford University), included government, industry and military leaders in a forum designed to identify what it takes to lead in the modern world.

What did they come up with?  Well, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the event, they identified these desirable traits:

  • a leader needs moral courage
  • a leader needs to be able to take risks
  • a leader needs passion

Although this seems to be a simplified list when compared with all of the scholarly literature on leadership, it speaks to me.  I admire it for its very simplicity.  In fact, if you can find these three things within yourself, you have what it takes to lead.  If you can’t?  Consider stepping back.