Leave the Squirrels Alone – Put Energy Where It Matters

Today at breakfast I watched the squirrels eat at my bird feeder.  Remember – I called it a bird feeder.  I grew up watching my Dad chase the squirrels away with every trap and method imaginable, so to this point in my life I saw the squirrel as an enemy.  Then I realized that 25 lbs of sunflower seeds was less than $10 . . . and that squirrels are just hungry.  Suddenly, the reason I had started this battle in the first place was fuzzy.  The only thing I could come up with was it was a matter of principle because I wanted to feed the birds.  So I decided to feed the squirrels and turn my energy to other things.

Seth Godin calls the part of our brain that takes over when we feel threatened the lizard brain.  More specifically, it is the amygdala or inner brain, and when it takes over the thought and reasoning parts are idled and fight/flight thinking dominates.  The resulting behaviors have been researched and identified by the Birkman Method as stress behaviors, and they are not normal or productive.  They happen when the lizard brain is in charge.

So what are the ‘squirrels’ you are battling?  In the business world I have seen operations square off with sales, engineering with design, quality with suppliers, finance with sales, and purchasing with just about everyone.  There are lots of battles going on, and in many the lizard brain is in charge.  Getting out of the lizard brain is one of those things that is simple, but difficult. Here are five steps to taking the control away:

  1. Step back and see the behaviors (yours and others) as lizard brain thinking.
  2. Ask the questions:  What is our common goal here?  What is the solution we are each offering?  Why are we so passionate about our solution?  (keep asking Why? until you get to the basic answer)
  3. Listen well and write the answers so everyone can see.
  4. Ask:  What solution best fits our common goal?
  5. Make a decision – and move on.

A grown man, in his pajamas, sneaking through the snow with a club to attack a squirrel is an image that reflects some lizard brain thinking.  What is a good image of your lizard brain taking over?  Identify it, remember it, and take the power away from it when it happens.

Self-Awareness 101: Why it matters and 5 questions to get started

A few days ago my 8-year-old daughter shared an observation.  She said “Daddy, when you come on field trips my teacher always gives you the new kids for our group.  You like to meet new people.”  Her comments made me step back because she sees that about me as does her teacher, who I have known for nine years.  I thought about what she saw, and she was right.  It pains me to see someone standing away from a group of people looking alone and lost.  I like to find those people, connect with them, and get them connected.  In my professional life, nothing irritates me more than seeing a poor onboarding program at a company or no resources put towards helping new leaders or teams be successful. 

Moments like this happen every day, but too often we let them pass by.  As our jobs and leaders change more frequently, understanding who we are and what we need to be successful and happy is important.  In fact, it is more than just important, it is critical. 

So here are the five sets of questions that make up Self-Awareness 101.  Being able to answer these will help you build a base of knowledge to use when being approached for a tough project or a new job assignment.

  • What do I do extremely well?  What are my talents?
  • What am I passionate about?  What gets me excited?
  • What do I need from my job?  What rewards mean the most to me?
  • What are the realities in my life right now?
  • What demotivates me?

In his book Mastery, George Leonard teaches us that mastery is a journey, not a destination.  Mastery of ourselves (ie. Self-Awareness) starts with commiting to understand ourselves and seek answers to these five questions, even if the answers come from an eight year old.  Enjoy the journey.

The Career Question No One Asks – and 5 Questions All Leaders Should Answer

A couple of times a year I do a keynote address to high school students for something Junior Achievement calls a reverse job shadow.  This is a day where people come to the school to talk about their careers.  One question I always ask the students is:

  • Did any of the presenters share a mistake they made during their career journey? 

The answer is always no – which is a shame.  We get the students into a room to help them consider career choices, and we don’t take the time to tell them mistakes are part of the journey.  Like any journey, career journeys are not defined by the mistakes, but by our response to those mistakes.   They should know that, and we all need to remember that.

Next time you have a chance to tell your story, make sure you include the answers to these questions:

  • What careers/degrees/jobs did you have before you found this one?
  • What is one thing you wish someone had told you before you started?
  • What is the biggest mistake you ever made and what did it teach you?
  • What part of your job is more fun than hard?
  • What part of your job is more hard than fun?

If you are a leader, what would be the impact of sharing this information with your people? 

Remember . . . Vulnerable <> Weak.

I care… really! TrustBUSTER™ #8

TrustBUSTER™ #8 – Shows little concern about me a person

When I stand in front of a room of leaders and ask the question “How many of you care about your people?”, 100% of the people raise their hands.  I believe that 99.9% of leaders care about their people.  (I will save a discussion about that .01% for later)

Recently, I led a group discussion around trust that divided 30 people into four groups based on personality type.  I provided them with the TrustBUSTER™ list and asked them to identify one behavior on the list they saw most frequently from the other three styles.  One group received feedback from all of the other groups that #8 was the behavior that tripped them up.  The group receiving this feedback was the task focused/achievement oriented group.  This is the same group that 60+% of executive teams fall into based on my past experience.

Why does this happen? A manufacturing supervisor once shared this wisdom with me, “Intentions without action equals SQUAT”.  In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey makes the point that “We judge ourselves on our intentions.  We judge others based on their actions.”  Both quotes lead to the same conclusion, if people don’t see it they don’t believe it.

As a leader, how do you bridge the gap between your actions and the perception of the people reporting to you?  Here are three ways to keep this TrustBUSTER™ from tripping you up:

  • Self Assessment: Test your knowledge of your people by asking these questions.  What are the names of their spouse/children?  Where do they live?  What non work activities are most important to them?  What is the biggest event going on in their life right now?  Take a moment to evaluate how you answered these questions.  This is pretty basic stuff, so if you missed anything you need to spend more time with your people.
  • Monday/Friday rule:  Spend time on Friday connecting with people to hear about their week or upcoming weekend activities.  Spend Monday hearing how the weekend came together or what they are looking forward to during the week.  (take a few notes after each conversation if you are like me and forget things)
  • Find a partner to help:  If you are an executive chances are you have way to much to do and connecting with your people is not a strength.  Find someone around you that will remind of key dates for your people(birthday, anniversary) and keep a pulse on what significant things that are happening with those in your team or department.  Enlist their help to remind you of opportunities to connect.

What would people say is your focus during the holidays? Quick thoughts

Christmas cookies in Czech republic.
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I get emails from people who think about things that are important to me.  An email came in today from an organization that helps remind me to stay focused on the relationships in my life and gives me gentle reminders around my core beliefs and faith.  Below is an excerpt they shared that comes from an unknown author.  It is a message for Christmas, but could easily be applied to any holiday or celebration that is a tradition to someone.  Tasks have to get done, but how we accomplish them is our choice.  

What role and focus would people say you have this week?  Give it some thought.  Blessings . . . .

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just a decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the tree with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on my love for Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops the cooking to hug the child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband. Love is kind, though harried and tired. Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way. Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will endure.

Joy – 3 Steps to Create More as a Leader

Map showing ten largest municipalities in Mich...
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I participated in a panel discussion around the ‘new normal’ in Michigan business that was sponsored by CORP! Magazine.  If there is one message everyone is sure of it is that the economic recovery will be slow and the main thing individuals look for to measure improvement (jobs / income) might not get back to normal depending on your profession.  Regardless of the speed of the rebound, there are things leaders can do to create more energy in the workplace.  This also applies to followers.  We need to create more JOY.

What is joy?  Joy is not a superficial adjective, it goes deeper than that.  The Joy I am talking about is a noun, and the Merriam-Webster dictionary says it is a source or cause of delight.  Words are important, and the word source jumps out at me because it makes me think of a deep flowing spring that fills a lake or starts a river.  Something that we know is down there because we see it emerge and create something powerful and beautiful.  Thinking of that, as leaders we need to be a source for more joy in our workplace.  Here are three ways to make that happen.

1.  You first! Joy is a choice.  Being able to look at what we do, at whatever the situation is, and commit to being hopeful is the first step.  Jim Collins presented what he called the Stockdale Paradox in his book Good to Great, which was to “Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be AND retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”  A first step, make it a habit to smile and greet people.  Another move is starting each speech by recognizing a couple of people for their attitude as well as a specific accomplishment in the past week.  

2.  Ask others to join: It has been a tough few years for workers.  At one point I saw a statistic that 69% of people had either taken a pay cut or lost their job. A simple first move for leaders, start every meeting with your executive team by asking people to share what they see is going right this week.  Cover the tough stuff, but start with the positive stuff.  For any name mentioned make a point to have people email them or call them after the meeting to congratulate them. 

3.  Allow space for the opposite – but get back to joy: I worked with someone who used to ask for what he called a “Carnegie free zone” every now and then.  It was a break from the great Dale Carnegie’s mantra to never engage in the 3 C’s (criticizing, condemning, complaining).  This zone was 5 minutes of unloading the thoughts and frustrations of the day.  At the end, the goal was to ask a simple question – “So what can I do about it?”  Choose a positive step, a potential solution to some nagging problem, and then get after it.  A second move is to purposefully create this space in your one on one time with each team member.  Accomplish this by inserting the following questions into the one on one agenda (that you should be doing at least monthly).

  • What is your biggest frustration right now?
  • What can I do to help make it go away?
  • What move can you do to help make it go away?

Remember that joy is not ignorance.  We need to face realities, both personally as leaders and in the presence of our teams.  Joy is more about attitude.  So Leader – you first!

TrustBUSTER™ #6 – Criticize decisions AFTER the team made them – How to handle the 3 most common situations

TrustBUSTER™ #6 – Criticizes decisions AFTER the team has discussed them and the decision has been made

I still remember the situation vividly.  Early in my career I went to a meeting, listened to the discussion, and heard the decision.  I went back to my desk and did some more analysis(things I should have done before the meeting), realized that I had a different opinion, and went back to the leader with my concerns.  He was visibly frustrated and let me know that we had already discussed it.  It was a lesson in being present for a discussion vs being engaged in a discussion.  I had been there, but not contributing like I should.

Later in my career I heard a different story from a senior executive.  He shared a decision that had been made by his peer that he did not agree with.  His comment was “It was his decision so I will give him some rope.  He will run into problems eventually, then we can discuss bailing him out.”  His strategy was to let his peer fail (without giving him the right kind of help) so that his plan would ultimately prevail.

In both cases it was not a lack of discussion, but a lack of open and honest dialogue by all the parties involved.  The result, people leaving the table with individual agendas that trumped the team agenda.  Nothing erodes trust faster than failure to listen, failure to share opinions, and failure to support decisions made by your team.  Here are the three standard situations you will see happen on a team, what the issue is, and what the leader should do to ensure the person stops doing this TrustBUSTER™.

  1. Openly criticizing people/decisions after the fact = criticizing = character issue = Action:  Direct warning (job loss)
  2. Questioning decisions after the fact = criticizing = character or self-confidence issue = Action: Need more info . . .
  3. Bringing more(new) data after a bad decision = criticizing = takes guts = Action: Thank them for finding the information, then explore – Why did we not have this information?

This is one of those behaviors that highlights something Stephen M.R. Covey shares in his book The Speed of Trust, which is “We judge others based on their actions and we judge ourselves based on our intent.”  This is an especially critical message for the kind but timid person on your team that does not speak up.  Their actions create trust issues with their teammates.

The key question for a leader when this happens – How can I lead differently so this TrustBUSTER™ never becomes an issue?  The key action is to deal with it quickly and directly because it will grow like cancer in your team.  Secondly, look also at your meetings and evaluate if you are creating time for key debates to happen or if decisions are just being unilaterally made and not discussed.  Finally, if you see this happening between two departments in your organization, examine the relationship of the leaders of those groups.  Likely the departments are mirroring the leaders.  In any case, address it directly and be willing to change the leaders if it does not stop.

Here is what I think. . . TrustBUSTER™ #5 – Tells a lot, listens very little

TrustBUSTER™ #5 – Tells a lot, listens very little

A study was shared with me once that calculated the average time a doctor listened to a patient before making a diagnosis was 23 seconds.  For many of my visits that number has actually proven to be long enough.  But for a complex medical issue, Twenty-three seconds is not long enough.  In my experience working with the results of employee surveys, not enough listening is always a root cause of the top issues.

Here are some broad generalizations on listening. 

  • As people become experts at doing something, they become less adept at listening. 
  • When individuals are rewarded for being great at doing and made a leader, most feel the need to talk louder to make sure things happen.
  • A high salary has to be justified by knowing everything and never letting people see your mistakes.

I will let someone else to worry about the issue of twenty-three seconds for doctors, lets talk about how this applies for leaders. 

LEADERS:  The ability to hear what people need and understand what is going on in an organizations is probably the most important skill a leader will need as they move up the organization.  Recently a client shared with me that they were concerned about the statistic that 60% of people currently in jobs are open to moving to another job as the economy improves.  Their response?  Begin to provide the CEO time to meet with small groups of people so he can hear what they are thinking about.  Listening for leaders is about slowing down.  The cost? Free!

ORGANIZATIONS:  The top three ‘listening’ processes in an organization are performance evaluations, one on ones, and staff meetings.  Why do I say this?  Listening to individuals requires face time in a setting where they are comfortable and the agenda is about them.  Ken Blanchard offers guidelines for one on ones of meeting every other week for 15-30 minutes.  How many organizations do that?  As for performance evaluations, how many managers see this as listening time vs “I have to get through this and get their signature so I can turn it in and get credit for it” time?  Then there is the staff meeting.  Does the agenda promote open listening or lots of talking with no questions or debate?

Do we need to do employee surveys?  They do serve a purpose and there is always benefit in asking people’s opinion. The mistake is leaning on the surveys as the primary way that listening happens in an organization.  It is supposed to be supplemental data to ensure that good listening is happening.

How effectively do you use the ‘big three’ listening times mentioned above?  How would you grade yourself on this TrustBUSTER™?  How would others grade you?

Leadership Time – Chronos and Kairos. Which one guides your day?

I heard something from the pulpit a couple of weeks ago that really got me thinking.  In Greek there two words for time: chronos and kairos. 

Chronos refers to time as we measure it.  It is a quantitative measure.  As a western civilization, we put a great focus on chronos time with productivity tools, phones, emails, calendars, and multitasking.  As leaders we focus on keeping on schedule, preparing as we walk between meetings, and leveraging the help of others to make sure our days are productive and time is well spent.

Kairos refers to time as a right and opportune moments.  It refers to the space in between the chronos or sequential time when something special happens.  It is a qualitative measure.

What are these Kairos moments?  What about someone saying hello and asks us about our weekend?  Maybe it could be a voice disagreeing with something we needed to make a decision on yesterday, or our kids busting into the house to tell us about something exciting that happened to them today.  How about your elderly neighbor who cannot move fast enough to catch you at your mailbox, but is sitting on their porch waiting for a conversation.  It might even be inviting two people working through lunch to come out with you for a bite to eat.

Chronos will get taken care of because we are good at it, but sometime Kairos needs more of our attention.  What can you do as a leader to make Kairos more of a priority?  It is a good time of year to ask this question.

Who me? TrustBUSTER™ #4 – Does not communicate and explain changes/decisions well

TrustBUSTER™ #4 – Does not communicate and explain changes/decisions well

I have had many opportunities to watch ‘trickle down’ communication in action.  In one such organization I worked with the senior leadership team to implement a new performance management tool for all their direct reports.  The decision was made to have each vice president roll out and explain the changes to their people.  The material was put together and given to each executive and a deadline for communicating the information was set.  As the deadline passed I had a chance to talk with a large sample of these direct reports and realized 50% of the executives had not communicated to their teams.  I was asked for my feedback in front of the executive team a few weeks later and I shared this statistic.  They became silent, and from their faces I could tell they were all wondering who had not followed through.  After all, they all saw themselves as a great communicator.

This is an area where the speed of business and the explosion of tools to communicate information has gotten in the way of true communication.  Too often the act of hitting the send button makes us believe that everyone knows.  So often the TrustBUSTER™ list is about perception, and the measure  of communication can be so subjective.  They key to making this TrustBUSTER™ go away is in developing the habit of slowing down work daily, weekly, and monthly to get groups together and share information.  The best resource I have found to explain what this looks like is probably Patrick Lencioni’s book Death By Meeting.  It would be worth reading for any leadership team. 

For a leader looking to understand how well things are being trickled down, here are three things you can do to get a pulse:

  1. Walk around and ask.  This probably seems too basic, but just getting out and asking people what they know or what they do not understand will give you lots of good information.  Questions like “What do you know about . . . ” or  “How is …… impacting you?” or “What kind of results have you seen – positive or negative?”
  2. Be purposeful in communicating change.  At a past organization, for every change initiative we would give all the leaders a sheet outlining exactly what needed to be said and answers to frequently asked questions.  Everyone had a message and the expectation was they would share it by a certain time.  We always spent time at the next meeting discussing what we heard and how people reacted.
  3. Leverage your staff meetings.  As organizations grow adding time for the leadership team to meet seems like overkill to many because “we talk all of the time.”  Hearing something in a quiet room has more impact than a passing comment in a hall.  Create space to debate, decide, and plan next steps so everyone knows how and why the decision was made.

This TrustBUSTER™ goes away when we slow down, seek to understand the perspective of others, and spend time explaining the what, why and how of things.  This is also called leadership. 🙂