Leading Fully

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Archive for the ‘character’ Category

One of my favorite one-liners came from a friend of mine who works a lot with senior executives: “There are two things you never get as a CEO: A bad lunch, and the truth.” People usually chuckle when they hear that – because like all good humor, it has a grain of truth in it. This should be disconcerting for leaders. How can you run a company, division, or even department if nobody will tell you the truth?

Do You Hear The Truth?

For most executives, one of the most difficult things is making sure that you are getting critical feedback from people in your company. One client, a newly minted VP at a major multinational company quipped to a friend as they sat down for lunch: “I used to be able to say whatever I wanted. Now, I have to watch what I say, because suddenly, what I say matters. Whenever I say something, people run around doing stuff!”  This is the good news/bad news of being in charge: People pay attention to your actions and words!  The good news is that when you talk, things happen. The bad news is that if you haven’t gone out of your way to make sure that the truth is coming your way with intentional regularity, then it won’t – because people are waiting to see what you think before they tell you risky truth.

…or Does the Emperor Have No Clothes?

There’s a reason why the story about “The Emperor Has No Clothes” has lived on for so long. Like all lasting stories, there is an intuitive truth expressed in the story – that people are afraid to deliver tough messages to the boss. It seems irrational (even infuriating) when you are the boss, right? You know what a nice person you are. What we miss is that it is a perfectly rational response when viewed through the lens of human survival. We’ve seen other people pay the price for offering a point of view that differed too far from that of  the boss. Most of us don’t even think about it. We know that there is a line that you just don’t cross, and like dogs who have been trained to know when they are approaching the boundary lined out by the invisible fence, we instinctively stop when we sense that we are getting close to the edge.

Six Tips to Engender Candor in Your Organization

1. — Ask for feedback. Especially if there is an area of your work that you are trying to improve, ask people for the bad news. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t tell you right away. If there is a longstanding pattern of treating the boss with kid gloves, it may take a few tries. If you demonstrate that it’s OK to tell the truth, it’s amazing how much people will tell you if you ask. It’s equally amazing how long they will let you trundle along, blissfully ignorant of your shortcomings – unless you ask. People have learned that it is usually safer to not tell the boss she has warts.

2. — Listen to the feedback. This one is so important, I was inclined to put it first (if not for the temporal sequence of asking for and then receiving feedback). If you are not prepared to listen to others‘ points of view, it is better not to ask. I’m always surprised by the number of times I have seen people ask for feedback and then not ignore or discount the response.

3. — Thank them for the feedback. If someone has enough courage to give you feedback, the first thing you should do is thank them, irrespective of the substance of the message. If you are hurt, disappointed, or frustrated by an aspect of the feedback, don’t react. Thank them sincerely, take some time to reflect on it, then when you are able to see the value of the feedback, go back and thank them more specifically, letting them know how the feedback helped you.

4. — Develop Powerful Listening Skills in your leaders. Listening well is a skill. Some leaders are naturally gifted listeners, but even those are pressed for time. Leaders need to recognize and value that an important part of their job is listening to the people that rely upon them for leadership. Make it a priority in your organization, and make sure your leaders understand how to do it well.

5. — Develop feedback skills in your leaders. It’s one of the most difficult tasks to do well, and it’s one of the most important skills that a leader can have. The most effective leaders are able to deliver feedback that leaves the hearer feeling stronger for having received it, irrespective of the message. It’s easy to imagine how someone would feel stronger for having heard an encouraging feedback message. It is equally true of a well thought out, meaningful constructive or corrective feedback message. Click here for more about delivering powerful feedback.

6. — Never underestimate the power of the truth. In my years in Human Resources, coaching, and developing others, I am always surprised at the number of times that managers will say “I don’t know what to tell her/him.” They are often shocked to hear me say “Why don’t you tell them the truth?” This is not a license to be rude. You often have to think carefully about what is the useful piece of information for the hearer, and then speak clearly, simply, and with compassion. Too often, managers will deliver a tough feedback message couched in so many qualifiers that by the time it reaches the recipient, they think everything is great. It’s much better just to speak plainly.

If this sounds simple, well, that’s because it is. It does not have to be complicated to work. Don’t mistake simple for easy, however. The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these six things can be a good start toward building candor and feedback into the culture of your part of the organization.

In my time flying jets for the USAF, one of the things that I learned is that feedback can be a matter of life and death. For most of us, it’s not literally life and death, but it can seem that way. When we live our working lives in a “feedback desert,” as a client once said to me about her organization, then well-delivered feedback can seem as life-giving as water when it does finally come.

Feedback is a Gift

Think about it this way: if you were barreling around a curve on a country road, and a bridge was out just around the corner, wouldn’t you be grateful for someone shouting at you to slow down? My favorite image illustrating this is the commercial aired during super bowl XLV showing a beaver who dropped a tree in front of a speeding car which was headed for a washed out bridge. (Click here to watch it on YouTube.)

While this perspective is most useful when receiving tough messages, it can also be useful in spurring us on to do the hard work of giving meaningful feedback to those around us. Remember the times that someone had the courage to tell you the truth when the message was tough. Have you ever heard “I wish you’d have told me sooner…?”

Feedback is Powerful

Giving effective feedback is possibly the most important job you have as a leader of people. It can be one of the most powerful motivators and performance improvement tools. Done well, it forges a personal connection, gives dignity, and taps the wellspring of hope in each of us. It helps keep us aligned with the direction of the organization, and gives us the clarity we need to improve.

If It’s so Great, Why Don’t People Do It More Often?

Many managers view thoughtful feedback as a once-per-year event, linked to performance reviews (if you do them). This may be the result of being trained by habits borne of processes endemic to most organizations.

It’s also true that doing it well isn’t easy. I think that leaders mostly don’t do it because they aren’t confident in their ability to do it well. Psychologists call this “self-efficacy.” You are more likely to do things that you have confidence in your ability to perform. The trick, then, is to build your confidence in your ability to do it well.

How do I do it Well?

My 7 year old nephew was playing video games with Grandma, and soundly clobbering her in every aspect of the game. Sensing his frustration, Grandma said “I’m sorry honey, I just stink at this.” My nephew sighed heavily and replied “I can’t say anything.” His mother had taught him what many of us learned at that age. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” A minister once gave me a more sophisticated version of the same coaching. Before offering corrective feedback, ask yourself: “Is it true, is it necessary, and is it kind?” If it passes these three criteria, then go ahead. Here are a few tips that build upon that foundation.

Six Aspects of an Effective Feedback Message:

1 — The deliverer has the intent to help and not to harm. That’s where the kindness comes in. When thinking about the message, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about what benefit it will be to them, and explicitly communicate your desire to help them improve.
2 — Dialogue. Any meaningful developmental conversation I have been a part of has been a dialogue. Meaningful dialogue about the context, actions, and impact surrounding the feedback helps you to get to a mutual understanding of the facts and the significance of the issue to the organization and the individual.
3 — The feedback is true. This can be a challenging one. While you may want to believe everything you think is true – it is important to recognize that we are all subject to our own biases. See #5 below.
4 — It makes a difference. Think about whether the feedback you want to offer will help them to improve in some important way. You may not know exactly what the specific improvement will be, but you should be able to see the possibility of improvement.
5 — It distinguishes between the objective and the subjective, and responsibly communicates both. I’ve heard it said many times that you should keep the feedback purely objective – I disagree. Objectivity is important, but so is subjectivity. What’s more important than both of them is to recognize and distinguish the difference. The objective part of the message is “what happened” – the observable, verifiable facts. The subjective part of the message is the impact of their actions, which lets them know why the feedback is important.
6 — It gives everyone a path forward. Even when delivered well, corrective feedback can be difficult, and positive feedback can feel good but have little impact. A meaningful discussion about the path forward can help both parties understand the path forward. This includes next steps, agreements, offers of support, requests, and commitments.

If you’ve not been doing this well, give yourself some grace – very few leaders do. Don’t, however, give yourself an out. this is one of the most important skills you can master as a leader of people.  The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these five things can be a good start toward building your skills as a developer of great performance in others.

(from “FTL Update, Nov 24, 2009. Click Here to Subscribe)

Developing Character as a Leader

Over the years, I have spent many hours in dialogue with corporate leaders about how to define leadership. Most of these conversations were in the context of identifying and developing internal leadership talent or identifying and selecting external candidates based on leadership characteristics. More often than I care to admit, the conversations would end in an unresolved exploration of the “it” factor — that certain inarticulable attribute of leadership; the thing that you can see in leaders but can’t describe. Some have called this the “leadership gene.”

Who Do You Think Of?

When I think about that difficult to describe set of attributes, I am reminded of my grandfather. He was respected by his friends, colleagues, and family members. He was a well-known geologist, and known as a gentleman. He was fun-loving and yet wise, competent, and hard working. He was widely respected for his integrity and fairness in business dealings, and he was kind and respectful to all people. His life was rooted in core moral values. I can remember writing a college application essay about him – the topic of which was “The Person I Most Admire.” Retrospectively, I can see that what I admired in my grandfather was the “leadership gene.” The “it” factor.

Great Leadership is Not Out of Reach

The ‘undefinable’ “it” factor is not out of reach, and does not defy description. This is good news, because until you can describe what comprises good leadership, you’ll be limited in your ability to grow yourself as a leader, and you will struggle to select and develop leaders in your organization – often without results.

Much has been done to describe leadership over the past quarter century based on competencies, loosely defined as “skills and abilities.” We have myriad models describing the competencies of a leader.  Competencies certainly can have value, and have driven the development of training programs, degree programs, and books that have grown up around the topic. However, colossal leadership failures in recent history (Enron, Tyco, Madoff, others) have challenged our conception of leadership, suggesting that perhaps competencies are not enough. It is difficult to describe and measure leadership well, but it can be done. There is a name for the “it” factor. It’s called character.

Great Leadership: Defined — Then Developed

Further, character can be described, and therefore can be measured. I’ve heard it said that character is difficult to develop. While true, this is only part of the story. I’ll agree that it’s not easy, but to say categorically that it is difficult lets us off the hook too easily. It’s more useful to look at why it is not easy and/or what is difficult about developing character. The same challenge that defies executives in defining the “it” factor is the chief difficulty that stops most people from effectively developing their leadership character. They stop short of a rigorous description of what it means to be a leader, so their efforts are diluted by an ineffective description, or in many cases, a failure to describe it at all (“I know it when I see it” is not a description).

What Does It Mean, Really?

By character, do you mean “honesty,” or “integrity,” and “perseverance?”

Yes, these are key aspects of any model of character. We also need to think carefully about character in the context of leadership, and what other attributes contribute to great leadership. We need to challenge ourselves to look through a broader and yet targeted lens at those attributes that are evidenced in a leader that actively pursues leading well. “Leading” in this context does not simply mean charging ahead or being first. Leadership in this sense of the word is about creating the space in which others can achieve great things. When looking at the character of a leader, we are seeking to understand who they are that influences others, not simply what they do.

Adding The “How To”

Even with a useful description of leadership, we are still left with the question, “How do you develop the character needed for great leadership?” Here we have to look to the body of knowledge around development. There is much written on the topic, and at the risk of oversimplifying, I will lay out three straightforward steps that can be taken:

  1. Increase awareness of leadership. Awareness in this sense occurs at two levels:  First, awareness is a recognition that leadership is describable and learnable. Unless we are willing to distinguish poor leadership from mediocre leadership and great leadership from mediocre, then we have not even arrived at a basic level of awareness of how leaders can influence the world around them.  Second, leaders can build self-awareness of their own leadership character. Who are you as a leader, and what unique gifts do you bring to your organization? As self-awareness increases in the context of an awareness of what it means to be a great leader, powerful possibilities emerge.
  2. Increase understanding of great leadership. Leaders can spend time educating themselves about what it means to be a great leader. Further study of great leadership against the backdrop of general awareness and self-awareness can help to focus the direction of development efforts. This can take the form of independent study, course work, training programs, well-chosen mentors and coaches, and observation.
  3. Practice the disciplines of great leadership. This is where change happens. Through focused coaching, well-considered action, and on-the-court practice of leadership, leaders grow. It’s important to remember that practice done correctly is comprised of the right lessons applied in the right way to real issues of import. So application of what you learn is essential, and it is important to carefully think through how you apply those lessons. As we are reminded by Warren Buffett: “Practice makes permanent — not perfect.” It is perfect practice that makes positive changes permanent.

Enter Tilt 360. The Tilt Leadership Model describes the essence of leadership in everyday, actionable language. The Character of a leader as described by Tilt includes 48 Commendable Traits which comprise 12 Core Leadership Strengths. These 12 Core Leadership Strengths make up four Meta Factors: Humanity, Courage, Wisdom, and Resilience. It is through balance and mastery in these dimensions of leadership that one can intentionally develop character towards greatness as a leader.

The Choice

Developing your character is ultimately a choice that then informs a series of purposeful choices and actions. The question is: are you leading fully?

Choose well.

(from “FTL Update” July 16, 2009) click here to subscribe.

What are you bringing to your organization as a leader? Whether they say
it or not, people in your organization are looking to you for hope where
they might not otherwise see it.

Offering Hope in the Swirl that is Today: What Difference Does a Leader Make?

Humans are intrinsically spiritual creatures, and as such, we are fueled by hope. What is hope? A credible expectation that things will get better. We want to know that things will get better, and we need a credible expectation that the belief is real. Real hope is not a feeling or an ambiguous promise for something different. It is a concrete expectation (or set of expectations) based in rational evidence. Leaders are uniquely positioned to offer hope. They are people to whom others look when asking themselves if they should be hopeful. A leader offers hope because she/he is able to offer (and demonstrate) a well reasoned perspective that shows not only that things can improve, but how and why so.

Finding Reasons to Hope

When Rudy Giuliani spoke publicly in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on Manhattan, he expressed his confidence in the indomitable spirit of New Yorkers and Americans. He went further to he cite specific, real examples of actions that he witnessed in the midst of the crisis. Others told similar stories about his actions during the crisis: Simple things, like being there (at ground zero), giving hugs, sharing words of encouragement, expressing genuine concern for fellow New Yorkers in their suffering.

Being Authentic

Giuliani’s example demonstrates another simple truth: It is equally important that the leader’s actions are consistent with her/his spoken word, because this reinforces the sometimes fragile hope that each of us cautiously harbors deep in our hearts. We want to know that the hope that the leader offers is real, true, and trustworthy, and where we look to confirm that is in the actions of the leader. In a US News Article about America’s Best Leaders, Writer Anne Mulrine quotes Nathaniel Fick, a former platoon leader for the US Marine Corps when he comments on the importance of the example set by the leader’s actions: “It’s pretty easy to look another human in the eyes and say, ‘This is going to suck, but I’m going to be there with you,’… “It’s harder saying, ‘I need you to do this, and while you do, I’m going to be sitting in the [command center] tent with a cup of coffee.”

The whole family was together, gathered on the back patio and around the pool to celebrate my youngest son Jamie’s fifth birthday. My siblings and I were talking about the state of our economy and the political climate, which can hardly be discussed without emotion, especially among those of us who care about the future. As a family, we tend engage topics with passion and spirited debate. I engaged, and in short order, my brother and I were in a high-energy, full-on debate about nothing (interestingly, we agreed on this topic). As I look back on the incident, I’m embarrassed by my conduct.

One thing that leaders have in common with everyone else is that we are human. None of us has a 100% record in living up to our ideals. What differentiates a leader in such circumstances is what you do when you fail. Do you have the humility to take responsibility for your failures and the courage to make it right? If you are challenged (as I am) by that question, pick the thing that made the skin prickle on the back of your neck when you read the word “failure” – yeah, that one – and do something about it. Whether you need to get more honest with yourself about what you did or didn’t do, or whether you need to garner some courage and act, now is the time. Action is the only effective antidote for regret. Honesty, humility, and courage are required to make it work.