Archive for Enabling Leadership

Possibility…

This week Renee heads up to Maine, where she’ll lead a session at the Maine HR Convention, which also commemorates its 20-year anniversary. She’s done this for a few years running now, and her sessions always focus on a book that she’s found both enlightening and practical. This year she’s introducing The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

The book covers a variety of interesting perspectives, many related to Benjamin Zanders’ experiences as an orchestra conductor. The Zanders discuss frameworks of leadership, the importance of speaking possibility, enrolling others in your vision, and how best to listen to the voice in your head. Their views truly open up new ideas of furthering “possibility,” providing us with guidance that can inform how we engage with others in ways that are productive, creative, and inspiring. The book’s concepts instantly resonate with HR leaders.

“Possibility” is a wonderful and powerful word, isn’t it? It’s the stoker’s fuel, the swimmer’s stroke, the pilot’s current. Possibility can take us anywhere, allow us to do anything, reach for any goal. It’s a word steeped in color and vision.

Possibility.

Each of us is surrounded daily by possibility. We see options and we make choices. Many of them are repeats of choices made the day before, or the week before, or the year before, while others are new, unique. Some are mundane—choosing breakfast, for example—while others are life-changing, like offering up a ring from one bent knee. Some are innovative. Some challenge us to try new things, while others limit opportunities.

What’s important, though, is not which possibilities we explore and which we don’t, but that we recognize that the possibilities are always there. Too often we encounter possibility like a butterfly encounters the air. It is so much a part of existence that we don’t even know it’s there. But it is. Each day we experience it, breathe it, catch its flow.

What the Zanders remind us—over and above their specific notions of Capital-P Possibility, is that possibility is constant, always with us, always presenting opportunities for change, innovation, and growth. It’s just there for our taking.

Photo courtesy of lightwise.

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Leading Leaders Can be Harder Than it Looks

At some point in the not-to-distant future, Renee and I will likely have the honor of becoming grandparents. (Children heading to the altar, after all, anticipates a certain inevitability!) Thinking about it brings up some interesting questions: What kind of grandparents will we be? Are we supposed to have any role in discipline—in managing our grandchild’s development?  And how will we manage the delicate balancing act of being both loving and firm, yet still make sure that we don’t interfere with role of the child’s parents? After all, don’t we know best? Haven’t we’ve had a lot of practice raising our own kids?

Put another way, the question is this: How do we learn to let others take over for things we’ve done ourselves for so many years?

In our coaching and consulting we run across all types of changing situations—everything from departmental or organizational restructurings, to acquisitions, to shifts in senior leadership. One of the situations that has some very unique and important challenges, however, is the situation in which someone is managing managers for the first time.

Managing direct reports can be difficult (though nearly always rewarding!), but someone with that responsibility is directly involved in nearly every facet of subordinate work. At the other end of the spectrum, members of senior leadership teams predominately immerse themselves in strategy, finance, and higher-level operations, often having very little “touch” with the kind of day-to-day working activities that make up the majority of most employees’ work. The second tier manager (often carrying the title of Senior Manager or Director), however, exists in a strange amalgamation of the two. On the one hand accountability for a group’s or department’s success is very clearly part of the job; yet on the other hand, a Senior Manager or Director is expected to see things from a higher, more holistic view, to take into account not only the workaday tasks, but the bigger picture.

Invariably what we find in such situations is an individual challenged to take a step back and to let his or her direct reports manage their employees as they see fit, while still insuring that those people two tiers below (i.e., “skip-level” reports) still feel part of the larger mission. They must fight the urge to micromanage but still recognize that they have a responsibility to lead and provide direction while maintaining employee engagement, morale, and productivity.

So how is a second-level manager supposed to work with the rest of the group? In our estimation there are three key points to remember:

  1. The second-level manager should focus on his or her direct reports, and on the development of skills that make those people better managers of their own staff members.
  2. The second-level manager should craft clear and measurable goals for his or her direct reports, insuring that they are outcome-based rather than task-based, and then review the goals of others to make sure they are aligned with the group’s overall responsibilities.
  3. The second-level manager should strive to have strong relationships with everyone at skip-level, but should always refer important conversations back to an individual’s direct manager. In other words, second-level managers should never undercut the authority of the managers working for them.

In much the same way that a grandparent needs to be there for the grandkids without undercutting the authority of the child’s parents, so, too, must a second-tier manager learn the skills necessary to empower their own direct reports to manage, while still maintaining a strong sense of mission and group energy. With the proper guidance, coaching, and development, a person’s first experience as a second-level manager can be the kind of success that promises further management growth in the coming years.

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Is “Conventional Wisdom” Wrong About Millennials?

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. We find our comfort zones and are wont to stay there.

One of the elements of any comfort zone is our reliance, to some degree, on the concept of “conventional wisdom,” sets of tried-and-true beliefs and aphorisms that help guide the way we make decisions and manage risks. One example is the saying that working hard is the path to success. It may not always be true, of course, but it certainly makes success more likely, and so is useful. Another is that education leads to a higher standard of living, an equally useful tidbit, as are many others.

Such conventional wisdom often serves us well, but not always.

Sometimes conventional wisdom can be annoyingly, devastatingly wrong. One has only to remember that there was a time when the conventional wisdom had most people believing that the earth was flat. As Mark from marksdailyapple.com writes, conventional wisdom can be “a lumbering beast: slow to move, but difficult to alter course once its big bullish head is set on moving in a certain direction. It’s the pigheaded, stubborn curmudgeon yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn.” And often that’s true.

Why all this preface? It’s because we came across an article recently that challenges a very specific conventional wisdom—this one about millennials.

We’ve all gotten quite comfortable with the generational nomenclature by now. We recognize our GenXers and our Boomers and our Millennials. Theories have been written about generational differences, and we’ve incorporated a lot of that thinking into the way we hire, develop, and lead. In many ways we’ve internalized “conventional wisdom” about these generational classifications.

Now, a new study is asking that we take a hard look at what we think we know.

The study, conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value (and reported in this month’s HR Magazine) reports that Millennials are much more like the rest of us than conventional wisdom suggests:

  • Millennials’ career goals are nearly the same as those reported by GenXers and Boomers, focusing on financial security and seniority to the same degrees as these other categories.
  • Millennials do not live in a world where “everyone gets a trophy,” nor do they expect it. What they want is transparency and a chance to be heard.
  • Millennials are much more interested in face-to-face interactions than supposed; though they are more versatile in virtual situations than older workers, they don’t always prefer it.

There are a few other example in the article as well, but the point is less about the specifics and more about this point: As leaders and HR experts, we must challenge our pre-conceived notions, challenge the “conventional wisdom” in order to create the best environment for our employees. This study brings home the importance of that message. All is not always as it seems.

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Why We Should Invest in Employee Development

As I sit here this morning it is once again snowing outside, and—even though I live in New Hampshire—I’m surprised and just a little bit frustrated by it. It’s been such a hard, hard winter, and with everyone I know anticipating the coming season with a fervor I’ve rarely seen, it feels almost like a step backward, one that’s pushing spring even further away. Still, this latest snowfall rapidly melts, and I know that it’s just another slow step in the move toward the greens and yellows that mark the first forsythia buds, now only just around the corner.

It may not look like it, but change is coming.

Thinking about the slowness of nature’s seasonal shifts reminded me that we, our co-workers, our leaders, and our organizations also change slowly. We invest in them through training and development, through coaching, through workshops and team-building experiences, and yet the next day—when everyone returns to their “real work,” nothing seems all that different. People still seem to talk to each other the same way while they perform the same tasks in support of the same objectives that drive the same strategies.

So if that’s true, why invest at all?

Because change is slow, sometimes too slow even to see.

While the snow falls my placid dog Zoe lies nearby, curled on one of the several beds we’ve scattered around the house for her. (Yes, I know: she’s spoiled!) She’s a wonderful dog, and the day we rescued her was one of our happiest. I’m trying now to picture her as she was when we first got her (as an eight-week old pup, newly weaned), and I find that the image easily leaps to mind. What doesn’t leap to mind, though, is seeing her grow day by day. Oh, I remember what she looked like when she was about six or seven months old, and I certainly know her as an adult, but I can’t recall ever seeing her change.

Yet she did. She does.

The same is true of ourselves and those we work with. Each event, each investment, each opportunity for learning creates a situation in which the tiniest of changes can occur. And while each tiny change may be unnoticeable, over time those changes accrue until, just like with my dog, (or your child, or that oak tree that you never realized was quite so tall) something shifts, leaving a person stronger and bolder and more confident than before.

People change and improve. Cultures change and improve. Leaders change and improve.

So keep providing those opportunities, encouraging people to go through that training and development, that coaching, those workshops and team-building experiences.

The investment is worth it.

P.S. I’d like to offer a shout out to Robin Eichert at PeopleSense Consulting, whose blogs about her own wonderful Grace inspired today’s post.

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3 Ways that Coaching Supports Strong Mutual Relationships

We firmly believe that the key to effective “mutual relationships” is to “map” your organization’s customer/supplier commitments. Once built, however, keeping those mutual relationships alive and thriving takes personal discipline, a willingness to remain open to the needs and concerns of others, and a true desire to remain aligned with the goals the organization.

This is where coaching comes in.

Leadership coaching vastly improves the success of transformational and impactful change—exactly the kind of change organizations undergo when beginning to center on relationships.  How, exactly, does this happen?

  1. Coaching encourages the development of deep listening, the ability to truly hear what others are saying without defensiveness and without judgment.
  2. Coaching provides the means to explore and unlock potential, and to deepen confidence and capability, exactly the kinds of skills needed to develop the kinds of trust inherently part of strong mutual relationships.
  3. Coaching deepens new ways to be curious, to open oneself up to the kinds of questions designed to explore rather than to make a point, to create rather than to block, and to relate rather than to defend.

Coaching supports stronger relationships with customers and colleagues (who are also “customers,” as we know) by renewing energy, increasing awareness both of self and others, and describing new ways of being in relationships. All of this offers a way to influence and to sustain over time the important mutual relationships developed with our approach.

Organizations are complex systems that are challenged with monumental and accelerated change.  Results can be achieved through leaders who value the natural diversity of leadership styles and the talents of the teams they lead.  All leaders can benefit from learning how their own styles impact those they lead and the results desired, and nowhere is this more of a vital component than within the emerging world of newly formed mutual relationships.

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A New View of Working Relationships: Part Three—Knowledge Sharing

Last week we introduced the idea of customer—supplier relationships at work, relationships based on the idea that everyone both gets and gives important things to others.

This idea of customer—supplier relationships is a fundamental foundation for taking a new view of working relationships, one of five such foundations we have identified. We introduce the second one today, and it is this:

We must relearn how to share.

We don’t much share at work, really share. Our knowledge is valuable to us: it protects our job, makes us feel important, and creates respect in others. But for companies to work really well, knowledge sharing is critical. And we’ve forgotten how to do it. Why? Because it’s been trained out of us.

Even before you reached kindergarten, it’s likely that you had some exposure to the “rightness” of sharing. Perhaps you had a sibling or a cousin close in age that you played with frequently. If so, your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles probably all told you more than a few times that you needed to “play nice” with someone or to let “your little sister take a turn.” Sharing is what we were taught to do, what we were expected to do and what we needed to do. Sharing, we were told in many different ways, is a cultural norm.

But then we graduated from kindergarten into the mainstream environments of our elementary grades, and slowly the ideas of sharing and independence slip into competition, as if you can’t really do one and also the other. And it’s this dichotomy that continues into our adult lives and into the workplace. But how does it happen?

It begins very early, during the time we transition from a sharing-based play/learn environment to a more learning-centric environment in school. As we move through the grades, each progressive world we are led to relies more on individual measurement, usually in the form of grades. We are tested on what we learn, study, and know for ourselves. And slowly, as we move through our school years, what used to be sharing is given a new name: cheating.

For those of us who go on to college, that training becomes even more intense. Despite the study groups and the joint projects, despite the way students may take notes for each other in order to skip a class or two, there is now an even stronger emphasis on independence, on that individualized grade. Now, in college, you’re not just going to be graded on what you know, you’re also going to be graded on what other people don’t know. It’s called the curve, and it means, simply, this: To score well, to get a good grade, you must be better than the average within your class. Inherently that means that you must know more than other people around you in order to truly succeed.

And so there we all stood at one time or another: on the threshold of our working lives, degree in hand, gladdened (or not) by how we’ve scored throughout twelve or sixteen or twenty classroom-filled years, and ready to move forward into hopefully fulfilling and interesting careers. Eventually we find that door and begin, bringing with us all the training and learning worked into us over the entirety of our educated lives. And one of those things we’ve learned, that is now practically bred into us, is how not to share.

But sharing our knowledge with others (and having them share theirs with us) is a critical component for creating the customer—supplier environment we want and need for our organizations. As leaders we must learn to recognize the importance of encouraging and enabling sharing whenever and wherever we can.

Photo courtesy of: otnaydur / 123RF Stock Photo

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A New View of Working Relationships: Part Two—Customers and Suppliers

In last week’s introduction to this series on Working Relationships, we threw darts at the myth that people at work know exactly what they need and how to get it. This simple dictum—a kind of “conventional wisdom—is simply untrue. People generally don’t know what they need, and so part of what we want to do when improving our working relationships is to surface exactly what we do need—and to understand why.

We begin shedding light on the conventional wisdom by first introducing some ideas about being a customer and being a supplier.

From the moment we get up in the morning we are, in one way or another, a customer. You may have your morning coffee while watching the local news, in which case you are a customer of your local cable company (on whom you depend to provide the signal), the owners of the channel you’re watching, and those who put on the broadcast itself. If you channel-surf from the news to, say, a sports or business station, then you become customers of those services and companies as well. Perhaps you stop to get gas on your way to work, in which case you’re a customer of Shell, perhaps, or Sunoco, and if you then take a toll road to the office, you’re again a customer—this time of your state’s transportation department.

The list is endless, and not just in a metaphorical way. From now until your very last day on earth, you will be a customer: dry cleaning, dentistry, movie theater, super-market, electronic store, plumber, airline, bookstore, hair salon, hockey team, university, emergency road service, doctor, manicurist…. There is not a day—not a single day—in which you can (or should) avoid this role.

Yet we never speak in these terms at work. We talk about having customers—those individuals and organizations to which our company sales products and services—but we don’t often think of ourselves as customers of each other, customers inside the company. We don’t imagine that the engineering department, for example, is a customer of the finance department when, in fact, engineering can’t do a thing—can’t purchase materials or hire staff or maintain equipment—unless the finance department approves the engineering budget.

Being a customer is almost like second nature to most of us; given that we have so many customer experiences—every single day, in fact—it should come as no surprise that it’s pretty easy for most of us. In fact, most of the time we probably don’t think of it directly, we simply expect certain things to be provided to us, and to be provided in ways that are easy, that cause neither difficulty nor confrontation. And most of our customer interactions are like that—we walk into some place (or log on some site) with a set of expectations and most times those expectations are met. So used to adequate (one might almost say “invisible”) service, we acknowledge it only in the most automatic ways—a “thank you” and a smile at most.

But for every time we’re a customer, someone, it’s worth remembering, is acting as a supplier, giving something to us. And it stands to reason that we are also suppliers, often and every day. We’re probably much less aware of it, but we provide things to others constantly, mostly without even realizing it.

At work this supplier role takes on very significant meaning, yet it’s a role we almost never acknowledge. Too often we complete work we’re “supposed to” complete, yet never really understand what it’s for or how it’s used.

If you think about it, there is a fundamental relationship between person-as-customer and person-as-supplier. There must be, or else why would any product, service, or work ever happen?

Next week: Defining the “Customer—Supplier Relationship”

Images Courtesy of: stuartphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
and lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

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A New View of Working Relationships: Part One-Introduction

There are certain stories we all carry around with us, certain common cultural memes that resonate. For example, we’ve all probably learned that if you show up first, work hard, and recognize your opportunities you’ll likely be rewarded, because “the early bird catches the worm.” Or that consistent effort pays off because “slow and steady wins the race.” Similarly we’ve learned a host of values and mores, all guiding us toward ways we should behave.

These stories persist into our working lives; we carry them with us wherever we go, and that includes into our organizations and into the relationships we have with others in those organizations.

But as often as these stories are true, they are also misleading. We know, for example, that it isn’t always the early bird that gets the worm, because what really pays off is to “work smarter, not harder.” We also know that the sudden burst of inspiration can lead to innovation and growth for a company—along with instant “overnight” success for those who haven’t just worked slowly and steadily hoping to win the race.

One of the most pervasive myths that we find in working with organizations is the idea that everybody knows what they need to succeed, to get their jobs done. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you: “I need so-and-so to give me this-or-that.” And it will be spoken with such surety that no one will ever question that what people say they need is precisely what they do in fact need.

But, as it turns out, it isn’t.

When the company succeeds, so too can the individuals within it. But for that has to happen there needs to be a foundational understanding between and among the people who do the work, the people who actually are the company.

It starts with understanding need, but in a way that hasn’t been truly addressed before, in a way that recognizes that needs must be surfaced quite clearly, then negotiated and agreed to, almost as if they are an internal contract between parts of the company and the individuals within those parts.

We call this the development of mutual relationships, relationships that are based on fulfilling needs for each other in the context of performing actual work tasks.

And it’s entirely new.

Over the next few weeks we plan to introduce a variety of these new concepts—concepts that will change the way you think about relationships at work.

UP NEXT: What it means to NEED things…

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What are YOU Reading this Summer?

Summer reading lists are something of an American tradition. The New York Times Book Review, for example, just released its fattened summer book edition, a habit that goes back scores of years and now includes such institutions as the Los Angeles Times, Barnes and Noble, the American Library Association, and even TED (of the famous “Talks”). The latter’s list includes such non-standard summer reading material as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Renee and I have decided to give you our own summer reading list, one that covers the topics important to all of you, but at the same time meets the criteria expected this time of year: somewhat light and breezy, quickly read, and suitable for the beach (or some similar vacation spot).  So here are five leadership-relevant books (presented in no particular order) that will enlighten and amuse you in various ways…

Quiet, Susan Cain—Both Renee and I are introverts, and so we rapidly embraced this book as a passionate and well-researched case for how and why society tends to undervalue the more quiet among us. Being an introvert, it turns out, is a bit like being left-handed—the world is subtly designed for others and you almost don’t realize it.  Importantly though, introverts not only can become great leaders, but they actually lead in unique ways.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith—There’s a long history of “climbing the ladder” books, popularized most famously by The Peter Principle (which introduced the idea that most people will sooner or later rise to their level of incompetency). In this book Goldsmith argues that you can climb and climb the ladder, but as you climb the skills you need to keep climbing will change. The book introduces the “20 workplace habits you’ll need to break,” if you want to maximize your success. (We particularly like Habit #12, “Making Excuses.”)

The OZ Principle, Robert Connors, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman—And speaking of making excuses, this book’s authors stress that one of the biggest barriers to trust and teamwork in organizations is what they call “the blame game.” Instead, they say, draw a line between being a victim, and being empowered and accountable, then go “above the line” to “see it, own it, solve it, and do it!” Using the Wizard of OZ as an effective metaphor, the book breezes through its key concepts, and will give you new language that reinforces the book’s central ideas. (Also, I love that Glinda the Good Witch represents “above-the-line leadership!”)

The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni—Lencioni may not have pioneered the readable business book, but he’s certainly made it work. He has the five of this and the three of that, uses sexy words like “dysfunction,” and packages it all up into meaningful bites that are both tasty and nutritious. In this book he covers “organizational health” and, true to his motif, give us his “Four Disciplines” model. It may not seem complex, but underneath it all are some pretty heady principles, ones that can actually make a difference.

Archimedes’ Bathtub, David Perkins—This is without a doubt our favorite book on the list. Not strictly a business book per se, Perkins well-written and always interesting book is about breakthrough thinking, and uses as it’s jumping-off point the apocryphal story of how Archimedes figured out the principle of water displacement by soaking himself in a public bath. Filled with stories, games, puzzles—and eye-opening insights, this is a book we go back to again and again. To give you an idea of how much fun this book is, try to figure out the following puzzle, in which you are asked to add one straight line to this inaccurate equation in order to make it a true statement:

(Bonus points: The puzzle actually has THREE answers! Can you find them all? If not, email me at mcharney@charneycc.com and I’ll send you the answers…)

So there you have it: For those of us who just never get away from business books, a few “beach reads” to dive into between dives into the water!

What books are you reading? And how does your summer list compare to ours?

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A Few Thoughts on Coaching Meetings

When we discuss coaching engagements with potential clients, one inevitable question that comes up is “How do you coach and what are your methods?” We encourage this question, and have a thorough response that covers our approach, beginning with the confidentiality and ethical responsibilities outlined by the International Coach Federation, and then continuing on to describe our five-step process: assessment, goal setting, design of an action plan, coaching to plan, and evaluation for continuous improvement.  However, it’s important to remember that the question also has a different meaning, one that clients also care about, and that is “When and how do our meetings occur?”

Many clients not surprisingly prefer face-to-face sessions, and we believe there is an important place for those meetings. (Generally, all of our engagements include some face-to-face time, particularly at the beginning, middle, and closing sessions.)

Face-to-face coaching has obvious benefits. There are advantages, for example, in seeing a person’s body language in order to “read” a mood or attitude. Also, there’s something about just sitting in a room with someone that makes it easier to discuss changes, goals, and commitments.  Face-to-face can also have some downsides, though. Some coaching clients may find it more difficult to answer questions when sitting across from someone and feeling exposed. (This is true even when solid trust between the coach and client has developed.) Similarly, some clients may feel more pressure to respond in the moment (rather than taking some time to reflect) simply because the face-to-face environment often feels more like a “meeting,” and meetings tend to be structured environments where “answers” are expected in the moment.

Face-to-face is only one of several methods we use, however, and it’s worth exploring the others in order to understand why and when different methods might be useful.

Virtual/Visual methods are rapidly becoming a common way to conduct coaching sessions. We routinely work over Skype or Google for one-on-one sessions, sometimes augmented by a shared document that we can co-edit in real time with a client. This environment does a reasonable job of emulating the face-to-face meeting in many respects. While there are some limitations around reading whole body language, along with the occasional delay in response time (you need a good connection for these sessions), the advantage of time savings can often outweigh these minor limitations.

Phone conversations still remain a major tool for coaches, too, particularly once face-to-face sessions have occurred. Those initial sessions give a sense of comfort, friendliness, and trust, all of which can make phone conversations very productive; often these sessions are akin to having a long, comfortable conversation with a friend (albeit a friend with a coaching certification!). Phone conversations also have a subtle but very real advantage over other methods because clients will sometimes say something very important when they feel they have a feeling of removal or anonymity. Phone conversations—with their lack of visual connection—actually provide clients with a thin level of perceived distance, something that can be important for a breakthrough.

Email and texting also have their place, though we use them only for specific, targeted, and brief needs. Because they’re not necessarily in real time (particularly emails), they should only be used for non-urgent requests or follow-up items, and both coaches and clients should recognized that these methods support communications to and from, but do nothing to foster true conversation (which, as we all know, is at the heart of a successful coaching relationship).

The bottom line is that most coaches use a combination of methods, and that clients care what those methods are. So it is very important to ask the question: What kind of method does the client want, and how will it help the engagement to succeed? Given that answer, and given the various advantages of the different methods, the coach can design the right approach for a particular engagement.

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