Long ago I discovered the power of the language…within it lies the ability to conjure up vivid visions to hide from reality or in fact create new realities. As a learning professional words are a medium with which to connect with the learner – a way in which to make a point or learning element land. As a leader language gives us the ability to inspire and set direction.
As a blogger language and words take on a whole new meaning. Writing is a way to articulate, organize and examine thoughts with a beginners mind. It is a way to explore more deeply something that caught my eye – in many ways it’s a way to indulge the “ooohhh shiny thing” moment. Writing allows me to learn from that. Why did it catch my eye? What is important here? What can I learn from this? At its core it’s a chance to reflect and as leaders that is a “luxury” that many of us put aside in order to focus on the here and now.
And that’s what I have been doing for the last six months. Focussing on the here and now of a new role, fully engaging in real-time learning and fully immersing myself…well, in the here and now. And not coincidentally I have stopped writing. I have very rapidly allowed myself to be caught in the daily demands of my role and in doing so have set aside the very thing that allows me to bring the best “me” to the table. Reflection.
The result? Well I am in demand. I am sought after for my expertise, my time, my opinion and my support. I am adding value. I am drowning. In my desire to prove value I have stopped adding the value that my organization most needs…that is, to bring to the table an enquiring mind that looks at how we can shift…to do things differently so that we can continue to grow in service of our clients and our employees. I have stopped reflecting and allowed “doing” or “busy-ness” to drive my day, mornings, evenings…waking thoughts, night-time insomnia thoughts… I have, through no body’s fault but my own, stepped into the pervading culture that is my organization.
The step into that culture was an easy one for me and in many ways very comfortable. It is important to me to add value…but I am starting to learn that I am seeking to prove value. It is not something I naturally accept as bringing to the table. I want to make a difference and in doing so don’t effectively set boundaries that would allow me to make a more significant impact. I do not say NO easily because I see the possibilities. I get excited about the potential and forget that implementation may be a more arduous task. I stretch thin. I flex into my personal time to ease the tension. I start to blur the lines between me and work and family. I lose sight of me. I do it easily. I am starting to learn that this behaviour is not new.
Thanks to my current love affair with all things executive coaching (and you will soon see a shift in Courageous Learning as a result) I am asking myself a few powerful questions…
1. what type of leader do you want to be?
2. what would be different if you focussed more on reflecting first?
3. how would your team, manager, organization benefit if you focussed on “you” before you focussed on “do”
4. how might your life look if you defined who you “want to be” and then worked towards that end?
As a leader I have the choice to continue on the current path where things will get done and it will be good or I could define what great looks like and then go after it with a single mindedness that will allow for a significant shift for me personally and through that my family, my team and my organization. As I type the words I can feel the excitement and the energy that the mere concept ignites in me.
Imagine what it would be like if all leaders bring to their workplace a passion and a vision that radiates and inspires great things. This passion and vision starts from a place of “me first”.
Over the coming weeks and months I will share some of my thoughts and learnings as a result of my journey to “be” an executive coach…an exercise that started as a functional exploration on behalf of my organization and one that has now shifted into a rich and life altering “me first” journey that will reap benefits we did not imagine when we set down this path.
I invite you to take this journey with me. As leaders we have the opportunity to make an incredible difference to the people around us… how will you shift your paradigms to allow for that impact to be meaningful and rewarding for all, including yourself?
As a leader and as a learning professional I value and encourage learning. I read broadly, I question with interest and I take the time to reflect. I encourage others to do the same. The world is changing at an incredible rate and if we are to continue to add value to the stakeholders that we are accountable to we need to internalize the act of learning in the same way that we do eating and sleeping.
There’s my elevator pitch. What I had forgotten was how much mental energy is required to support an active learning process on multiple fronts. Let’s make this post all about me. About a month ago I started a new role with a new organization. The recruitment process was an active one – my employer had a wish list of skills, competencies and other attributes that they wanted to bring into the organization that would allow them to deliver against their strategic plan. They did everything right…after all, they hired me. The interview process was very much a two way street. First and foremost I was looking for fit. As I’ve matured throughout my working career the lure of the big dollars and straight line advancement opportunities simply isn’t as strong as it used to be. I was looking for an organization that had similar values, that believed in the power of people, that encouraged growth, learning and risk taking. Above all else I wanted, no needed, to work somewhere that allowed me to feel that I was contributing to something greater that ME. So on March 19 I began that latest part of my journey…for those that follow this blog you may have noticed a corresponding drop off in activity.
During the last five weeks I have started to develop an understanding of a brand new government driven industry. I have planned and budgeted for the upcoming fiscal year. I have participated in the inaugural leadership development offerings that has been launched in support of a new management framework within the healthcare industry, I have conducted focus groups on work that was done more than 18 months prior to my starting, I have started the process of merging two teams and assimilate myself as their leader. I have researched, identified process improvement opportunities, and taken the lead of one of our corporate strategic projects. Each act normal but for each I have had to look back even as I try to to build enough contextual understanding to drive the right forward looking actions. It’s been invigorating, challenging, fun and oh my goodness satisfying. I look forward to what the new day brings as a child does during the long lazy days of summer. But I have to say by the end of the day my brain is full. At the end of the working day that involves a commute, dinner (cooking or procuring) and the small talk of the day made with the family I am at best awake (I lay no claim to coherency at this point), and fast asleep on the sofa at worst. My brain has developed a very healthy coping mechanism – it shuts down. It needs time to process and it needs for my body to catch up. Each day it gets easier, the feeling of competency is starting to develop and my reflections and learning becomes more targeted as I build the contextual understanding to identify what is important and what is not.
Which got me to thinking…how much information is too much? At what point does the act of sharing information or learning become ineffective? The reality is that change is going to continue to drive the need to adapt and learn at an ever increasing pace. In the healthcare industry we are driven to do more for an aging population, with dollars that the government is looking to provide more stewardship over (and so they should…my tax dollars are in there somewhere!) and in a way that is different than how it has been done in the past. This process is being replicated in all industries and all companies.
How as leaders and learning professionals do we ensure that our people are supported to be effective in this type of change environment when there is simply so much to learn? It’s a question that is critical for us to get our heads around if we are to avoid the risk of our teams collectively shutting down simply because they can absorb no more.
Some of the answers may come out of the work related to the transfer of learning. In a nut shell – learning is better absorbed if there are some critical supports in place.
- Just in Time Learning. Don’t train it, share it, introduce it until such a time that your employee needs it and will be required to apply it. Use it or lose it is very true of all new learned skills.
- Make sure the learners are ready. Do they understand why they need to learn, change or adapt? Is there a driving value proposition that makes it worth their while to invest the time and mental energy? Do they have the skills to learn?
- Are you employing adult learning methodologies? Whether formal or informal learning is being employed – we all learn different. Some of your employees need to do, others need to see, others need to think it through and talk about it. If you are looking to deploy significant change have you catered to all types of learners?
- Don’t dilute the message. Identify what is a need to know and a nice to know. Focus on the need – your employees time and mental energy is precious. Use it on the big hitters…leave the small stuff for another time.
- Are you ready? Are you ready to coach, are you ready to help build mental bridges between the work, the change and the strategic directions? Are you supporting a learning environment?
- Teach it as they would do it. Theoretical learning can be fun but in a busy schedule most benefit from learning that applies directly to what you want me to do. Take my budget example – in the preparation of the new budget I learned about the history, I learned about how public organizations are funded, I learned about the approval processes in place etc… it was real because it was relevant.
As leaders one of our key roles is to empower our people. Part of that empowerment is to ensure that we are creating the right supports for learning. And part of that empowerment is the gift of time – to absorb, apply and reflect. And part of that is to model the process… as leaders and learners… food for thought.
Business, for all it’s technology, products and innovation, is at its core a study in human behaviour. It is about frameworks that bring like minded individuals together to provide a needed service or build a coveted product. The motivation that drives us as individuals within these frameworks ranges from altruism to the pursuit of covering our basic human needs. The fabric of the framework is strengthened when performance of the individuals, no matter the motivation, moves the whole forward in a predefined direction (identified as success) and is weakened when one of more of those individuals cannot or will meet the agreed performance expectations.
As a leader there are times that we need to remove people from our business to ensure that the fabric of the whole remains strong. That removal may come in the way of economy driven layoffs or it may come as a result of poor performance. Both types of departures are necessary but neither are easy. No matter the reason for severing a working relationship the good leader never forgets that there is a human element at play – the characteristics that define us as good leaders are exactly the same as those that allows us to feel empathy even as we deliver the messages that most people don’t want to hear.
When faced with having to layoff or fire an employee my personal test is “can I look myself in the mirror knowing that I have done the right thing?” It’s about leadership integrity.
Over the course of my career I have delivered both types of messages. The layoffs are personally more taxing in that it is difficult to give the impacted employees a sense of control of their own destiny. The layoff message is rarely personal (at time because we are legally obligated to keep it that way) and as such it is difficult for the impacted employee to own the message. It is difficult for them to wrest control out of a situation that is not about their personal performance, that they perhaps have not seen coming and that leaves them vulnerable during an economic time that new jobs are scarce. As a leader in these situations there are three key things that need to be done
1. the message needs to be delivered in a way that allows the employee to understand that today is their last day. It needs to be direct.
2. the employee needs to feel that they are respected and that their contributions have been valued. A leaders role is to allow the employee to walk away with their dignity intact. This is the key element in allowing them to start the process of moving forward.
3. all remaining employees, including you as a leader, need to be given the opportunity to “grieve” through the process. You are only human.
If you have cared for all three steps, and knowing that this was something that had to be done to sustain the business, then it makes the process while a difficult one, an acceptable one.
I would argue that a performance related departure or a “firing” is not that different. At the end of the day the message needs to be understood and it needs to be delivered with dignity. The termination discussion is not the place to dwell on the ongoing performance issues. That should have occurred well in advance. And that, in an exceptionally long winded way, gets me to the main point of this post.
The only way that firing an employee for ongoing performance issues (effectively taking those gross negligence, illegal etc activities out of this argument) is “ok” is if the all of the following have occurred:
1. performance expectations have been clearly articulated.
2. the employee is aware that they were not meeting performance expectations
3. you as a leader, have provided the necessary coaching, tools and opportunities for the employee to reach a successful level of performance
4. you as a leader have made yourself available – clear direction is of no value if you are not accessible during the implementation
5. the employee clearly understands the potential consequences of not meeting the expectations
If you have done your due diligence and given the employee the opportunity to move towards success, and they choose not to succeed or ultimately are not capable of succeeding then the termination path is the right one to take. The discussion will not be a surprise and quite frankly if the process was done effectively many have already started to look for other opportunities.
If you have not done your due diligence and covered all of the above five elements then the employee should not be fired. You are putting your organization at risk if you have not stepped up to the plate. You have to show that it’s the right thing to do and that you have done your job as their manager. I have no tolerance for heavy handed managers who feel that they are omnipotent, able to hire and fire at whim. That is not good business and is definitely not good leadership. Managing performance that may end in a termination is time consuming. It requires a higher level of engagement than is normally given to any individual employee (whether this is right or wrong is perhaps fodder for another post) and it requires a higher level of sensitivity than we may otherwise choose to show.
At the end of the day if a terminated employee can walk out of the door acknowledging that they knew that it was coming, that they were treated respectfully and with the right level of support throughout the process and that they learned something along the way then you, as a leader, can look yourself in the mirror and say “I fired someone. And that was ok”
This post definitely falls into the arena of “things that make you go hmmm”.
Story telling has long been used to pass down wisdom, as a tool for learning and to entertain. A good story leads us down a path, it allows us to discover, at predetermined moments, little nuggets of wonder that make us want to follow the path to the end. At the end of the story we are left with a message that the author/or teller wants us to have but the experience we had in getting there was very much our own for we saw it through our eyes, our realities, our emotions…
Recently I had the distinct pleasure of preparing a story as part of an interview process. The story, at its heart, is about people, it’s about massive change and it’s about learning to do things differently. It’s a story about human frailty and incredible human strength. It’s about the excitement of the possibilities.
In “business speak” it is a story about selling myself as being the right person to help an organization implement and embed a new leadership framework, of supporting the creation and sustainment of a learning organization and of leading a diverse team to do great things.
The organization that I interviewed with has a clear vision and the change required to support that vision, on the surface, was massive. However as I built my story, as I reflected on what I had done in the past and researched what others had done in similar situations I had an “aha” moment that made my story a very easy one to tell.
A few facts first
- the organization was in the process of moving from a heirachical leadership model to a distributed one.
- achieving the vision and the strategic imperatives was going to require a strong cultural change – the way in which the work got done would have to change
- the organization was committed to creating a learning environment (this was not shared up front but it was an assumption I made given that I was applying for a role with “Learning” in the title
I developed my story by asking myself “what does effective/successful” <insert topic> look like. As I asked this question for leading, cultural change and learning it became very apparent that there in fact four key success drivers that are common to all.
Distributed Leadership Model
Clear roles and responsibilities. Vision.
Clear definition of end state.
Clear definition of end state
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Resources and support to meet goals
Resources to support the change
Resources to support the application of learning
Feedback and adjustment
Cultural audits and adjustment
Feedback and adjustment
First and foremost we need to know where we are heading. We need a vision or end state that we are driving towards. As leaders, as employees or as human beings we are then able to self manage our alignment to that end state.
Secondly we need to be able to measure our success. Are we moving in the right direction? Are we seeing the changes in the way that we expect? Are we driving the right things?
Thirdly, do we have the right resources and tools in place for people to be successful?
And lastly we need to ensure that we are collecting the feedback we need to ensure that we can make course corrections as we go. This is a critical step for all leaders. Things change, people are unpredictable, stuff happens – we can not always plan for every possible outcome but we can certainly build in an agile feedback and correction methodology that will allow us to keep steering to the vision.
As I was writing my story it became apparent to me that if these four success drivers were effectively cared for the individual stories of leadership, cultural change and learning would naturally merge to create a rich tale that could drive towards the strategic changes that this, and any other, organization was driving towards.
When you walk into most call centre environments you will likely see a small personal mirror on the desk of every phone agent. While it can serve to stroke ones vanity or serve as a personal grooming tool the real purpose of the mirror is to remind people to smile. Your verbal tone is very different when you smile – and when you are on the phone tone is one of the few tools that you have at your disposal to build relationships.
The humble mirror is often also flouted as an insult or rebuke as in “she needs to look in the mirror” meaning that perhaps “she” should be looking at herself for the answers/issues/ problems rather than looking at others around her. While the usage is very different than the call centre example the end result is the same – it is about relationships and human connections.
The mirror serves as an intimate 360 feedback session – a session with our ourselves. Good leadership means different things to different people but at its core most of us agree that is defined by vision, personal integrity, respect and relationships. We may use different words and we may have a few other criteria that we use but on the whole our views are very similar.
As a leader, I like to use my mirror for two purposes.
The first is to assess “how did I do”? The questions can relate to today, this week, this quarter, this year.
- Did I share the vision. Have I communicated it well?
- Have I used my time effectively? Efficiency is only part of the question, the other is am I spending my limited time on the things that matter most?
- Did I provide and ask for feedback?
- How have I grown? Did I learn something new?
- What have I done differently?
- Did I model our shared values?
- Have I treated everyone with the respect?
- Did I earn my salary?
The second is a more focused look into the mirror when dealing with an issue or crisis. The type of questions I have asked include:
- Could I have done anything to avoid the crisis from happening
- Did I ask the right questions to understand the root cause of the problem
- Was my response appropriate for the problem? Did I over react? Under-react? Did my reaction support the vision.
- What will I do differently next time?
- Have I cared for the “people” element involved (coaching, supporting, communicating)
- What did I learn? How do I need to disseminate that learning?
The strength of the mirror is that there is no need to lie or fool anyone. It’s an opportunity to take an honest look at “you”. The fact of the mirror is that it shows all – the good, the bad and the ugly. The gift is that it allows you to learn and grow as a leader. It allows you to develop a true level of self awareness so that perhaps next time the bad and the ugly can be countered in the moment and quite frankly that makes for much nicer conversations with “you”.
“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th Century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st Century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker.”
My initial motivation for the post “Leaders Still Need Time to Think” came from my observations that technology and ease of access to data points was driving a warped speed of business that seemed to cut out the critical step of deep thinking. Time constraints and time bound expectation are stopping us from pursing a level of thinking that allows us to explore beyond the obvious.
As I was writing that piece I was asking myself – how do we do that? How do we as leaders create an environment that not only gives people permission to think but also encourages them to think? My research very quickly showed me that others, not surprisingly, have asked these questions before me. The most noted a woman by the name of Nancy Kline who authored a book called Time To Think in which she offers some very practical tools designed to support a thinking environment.
What follows is based loosely on what Nancy has articulated with a good measure of Ann thrown in. For an indepth understanding of the tools I highly recommend Nancy’s book.
1. Time. Let’s start with time, simply to create a link to my previous post. Giving people time think without the contraints of looming deadlines or meeting packed days will naturally result in a higher level of thinking. Nancy refers to this as Ease. Many of us spend our days in meetings. Back to back. Different topics. Different people. We rarely have the time to assimilate the information that is being shared during those meetings let alone move through a process of critical thinking.
2. Attention and encouragement. If someone comes to us with a problem or request for help we need to ensure firstly that we empower that person to find a solution for themselves. Give them permission to think. Listen without interruption. Quite often people share what they think we want to hear or what we think they should think. Let me give you an example. I have been involved in an enterprise wide project that was led by a leader who had very strong opinions, who struggled with ideas that did not support their own and who would consequently “decree” direction. The process was an uncomfortable one. We are naturally programmed to find a way to remove our discomfort and unfortunately one solution was to give this leader exactly what they wanted. This particular project struggled to define its scope, team members disengaged from the process of thinking, attrition was higher than expected and we lost the benefit of the combined thinking that the team members brought to the table. We simply could not capitalize on the expertise in the room.
As a leader your role is to remove the judgement and encourage people to think for themselves. Listen deeply. A few years ago I worked with a Learning Manager who, in response to hearing the term “I don’t know” would ask the question “what would you say if you did know”. More often than not this freed the person to speak in a more ‘hypothetical” way that tooks away the onus of having to know. More often than not they provided sound insight – they just needed validation without fear of judgement. I have used this technique many times with great success and it has become one of my favourite “coaching” questions.
3. Ask penetrating questions that are designed to strip away the assumptions that we use to limit our thinking.
4. Provide information. Sound thinking can only occur if we have understand what we are dealing with. Transparency, clear communication, and open sharing are all key foundational requirments to nuture a thinking environment. As a human being I am willing to invest my time and effort in “thinking” if I know there is value. If we feel that information is being withheld, which then throws into question the validity of that thinking, we are less likely to want to make that investment. As a leader you need to not only provide the information, you also need to encourage others to do the same. We need to all trust that we have the necessary information from which to think our way into great things.
5. Create equality in an environment that supports thinking. Human beings are more likely to listen and be attentive to others when we know that we will have an opportunity to also share our thoughts. Establish meeting protocal that gives everyone the opportunity to speak without interruption. Utilize tools such as brainstorming and round robins to solicit input. Create a process that allows people to go away and think, then add further input. Collobartive sites are one tool that enables this in a way that doesn’t necessarily require more meetings. Equality also means we remove the heirachical value attached to position power. Thinking is best supported in an environment such as the distributed leadership model. Your organization may not be structured that way but you, as a leader, have the ability to influence a team/project/department environment that has the right supporting characteristics.
6. Treasure and promote diversity. Diversity in background and experiences will naturally bring with it a diversity in thinking. The differences between us will help add a richness and quality to our collaborative thinking that our similarities simply cannot.
And one thrown in based on my own recent experiences
7. Think like an author. I have discovered that I look at my world very differently as I try to articulate a concept or thought or opinion. I question because I want to learn, I think because I want to assign meaning and I want to share that learning. I research because I understand that my expertise needs to be augmented and I seek out others thoughts because they challenge my own. Thinking like an author encourages you to go a little deeper with an inquisitive mind than you may otherwise would.
This is exactly what we want our people to do. You, as the leader, have the power to make a contribution to this century by enabling the thinking power of your more important assets. Your people.