Leading Fully

Patrick Ogburn's Leadership Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘self-awareness’

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.

Many times, leaders who attain a level of success by advancing through their technical discipline reach a level where their strengths don’t seem to be getting them the results they expect at the next level. “What got you here won’t get you there” is the title of a recent business book by Marshall Goldsmith. The reason the title is so catchy is that it’s idea that’s been around for awhile, and has some intuitive truth in it. There are valuable lessons from this idea. I’ve also seen some logical fallacies often applied in the wake of this insight.

Tone it Down?

Too many times I have heard a well intentioned coach tell someone they need to “tone down” their strengths. I ‘m not sure I agree. I understand where this idea comes from. All of us have known leaders who are insufferable know-it-alls, or leaders who leave people bewildered as they rapidly jump from initiative to initiative, or many of us have experienced the pain of working for a “control freak.” I won’t disagree that we could point out aspects of overused strengths to each of those leaders, and all would agree that they seem to need to “tone it down” in some way. I would further suggest that in each case, it’s often not a simple matter of toning down a strength. Rather, it’s more often a matter of better understanding and judiciously applying the real strength, and/or balancing that strength with new talents and perspectives that help to make more productive use of the best of who you are.

By way of illustration, let’s look at the first example on the list: the “know it all.” This is a reasonably common scenario. For the purposes of this illustration, we’ll narrow it to a specific variety of know-it-all;  a technical expert who became a leader of people. In this case, let’s say the leader’s name is “Kelly.” Kelly is a brilliant technician, and clearly and quickly sees to the heart of most technical issues, effortlessly fashioning elegant solutions before most people understand the problem. Suddenly, when leading other competent people, his best skills don’t seem to be helping. His skilled engineers don’t want his elegant solution — they want to create their own. Truth is, he probably wants them to do that also.

Misapplied Strength

Very often, this is the point at which some well meaning coach will say: “You need to throttle back your analytical and problem solving skills.” Not so fast. While there is merit in the intentions, the suggestion is rooted in incomplete logic: “If a skill is getting in the way, don’t use it as much.” What this misses is that the skill or “strength” as we’ll call it, is not the issue. The issue is behavior. A subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference when making an adjustment. In this situation, the behavior of solving direct reports’ problems for them is one aftereffect of applying the problem solving strength – or more accurately stated: misapplying that strength.

OK – Now what?

The real question, especially for the practical minded among us is: What do I do with this insight? Here are five things you can do to move the needle

  1. The starting point is to work hard to gain clarity about your unique mix of strengths. Sometimes the mere action of building self-awareness will move you in the right direction. There are many ways to do this, the most effective of which collect input from others which feeds a meaningful dialogue about your unique gift mix. Multi-rater questionnaire based feedback (often called 360 feedback) can be a very cost-effective and efficient way to gather feedback – when done properly.
  2. Work towards balance. Very often, rather than simply “scaling back” your strengths, better results can be gained by identifying counterbalancing strengths, that, if present, could help you be more effective. In our example, Kelly (not his real name) could be more effective by strengthening his receptivity behaviors. By intentionally developing behaviors that force him to elicit solutions and be open to the input of others, he would be able to mitigate some of the counterproductive effects of overusing his own analytical ability.
  3. Look for ways to reframe and reapply your strengths. Sometimes the shift can be achieved by reframing the challenge to which you are applying your best self. Back to our example: Rather than being a great engineer managing his team of engineers, Kelly could become a leader of great engineers. First and foremost a leader of people, whose depth of knowledge in engineering strengthens him as a leader. When you apply analytical skills to being a leader, the subtle shift results in  solutions that support their analytical prowess rather than highlight your own.
  4. Build in mechanisms for ongoing feedback. Development is, by its nature, a challenging and somewhat risky endeavor. If you are really developing and growing, you will be trying out new perspectives, approaches, and behaviors. Rarely do we get it right the first time. Find people you trust to give you meaningful feedback. If you have direct reports, cultivate dialogue with them that will allow them to give you meaningful feedback.
  5. Make sure that you don’t do this alone. Develop relationships with leaders you respect through which you can get meaningful, objective coaching. When you can find these relationships within your company, they can bring the added dimensions of providing some specific insight about the company and building influential allies. There can also be value in having someone outside of your company as an objective observer and coach.

(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.

Camping with my sons often lends perspective to matters that are relevant to us all. Most recently, I had the privilege to enjoy a full week of camping with two of my sons (ages 7 and 9) at the Heritage Scout Reservation in the Laurel Highlands of PA. The camp is operated largely by current or former Boy Scouts, ranging in age from 14 to early twenties. While there, I could not help but notice that the young scouts hang on every word coming from the counselors. When the counselors showed enthusiasm, the scouts followed. Most notable to me was a moment at dinner when Nick, one of the counselors, engaged Grant (my 9 year old son) directly in a conversation about how camp was going. In that moment, there was a visible change. Grant’s eyes brightened, and his whole attitude changed.  His participation in the camp changed qualitatively — any remaining nervousness faded away and he was free to fully engage the experience.

Nick had some awareness of his role as a leader for the young scouts. And yet, when I thanked him pointedly for the impact that he had on the boys and what he did to make a difference, he was visibly affected, and reminded of the call to leadership. So it is with each of us. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. Most of the time, we walk through life and work with a very limited appreciation for the impact that we have on others as leaders in our home, community, and workplace. You are always leading. As a leader, people are watching you. This presents to each of us a great opportunity – and a great responsibility. Are you leading fully… engaged, conscious, intentional?