Archive for February, 2012

Creating a Thinking Environment

“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.”

Peter Drucker

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.

Time To Think by Nancy KlineAs 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.


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Leaders Still Need Time to Think

Technology has changed the way that we lead. More so than any other time in history we have access, almost instantaneously, to volumes of information and data points. We have software packages that can can those data points and provide us with intelligent insights. It’s accessible. It’s fast. Technology means that we are also more connected that we’ve ever been before. Technology has blurred the lines between work and home. Technology has given us the ability to “experience” and learn in ways that we have never before. As a non work related example when the Montreal Canadian decided to trade Camelleri back to the Calgary Flames we were able to share in the heat of the moment thanks to tv and twitter (being pulled mid match resulted in a frenzy that trended world-wide!) As sports fans we knew what was going on almost at the same time as the experts and the players themselves, as marketers we received a huge amount of information about the values of hockey fans and the pockets where those fans lived (maybe there is a market beyond North America) and we were able to connect with the affected players through their twitter accounts. In short we lived the moment in the moment.

Transpose that to the work environment – the immediacy of the information, the ability to interact with those that are impacted and the chance to influence the messages – all exceptionally valuable aspects of our technology driven world. Our customers want more agility. We have the technology to support that.

As leaders, both big L and little l, we have a responsibility to drive the performance required to meet or exceed our company objectives. We want to do so while we live the values we espouse. We need to not only deal with the realities of today, we have a core ownership to steer in the direction of tomorrow. While we have lots of information we don’t have a lot of time. Either as a real or self-imposed constraint – we are driven to be faster and better. And when we are pushed to be faster and better we push others to be the same. It drives an environment of pressure and speed. Some of that drive is valid – we have already shown that the technology supports that. But there is a limitation to the technology. At some point in time a human being needs to take that information, assimilate it, challenge it, decision it and share it with those that will need it.

The capacity of the human mind to process information has not changed significantly over recent time. We have better information and we have it sooner. No more no less. As leaders we need time to consider the information we have in front of us. We need to explore consequences of decisions. We need to weigh probabilities of outcomes and the impact they will have on meeting goals. We need time to do our “what ifs”. Sure we can make a decision quickly – most of us can very quickly see an obvious course of action given the information we have on hand. But obvious tends to come to us without testing core assumptions, without opening up to options that may not have been considered before. In other words it makes us faster at what we do today, it does not make us better or necessarily drive us to where we want to be tomorrow. And come to think of it, my obvious may not be your obvious. As a leader I need to know that. I need time to figure that out.

The consequences of not figuring it out can include, among other things,

– missed opportunities. The world is full of possibilities. Thinking outside of the box by challenging what we know and do today is a time-consuming but rewarding exercise in potential innovation.

– decision-making in a vacuum

– lack of ownership. Yours as a leader (I’m letting the information do my thinking) or your employees (I don’t have time to think through what the data is telling me. She doesn’t give me enough time, she can figure it out)

As leaders we need to take the time necessary to think. We also need to empower our employees to think. And thinking takes time… and perhaps a little practice.

Next post I’ll share some practical tips on how to create a thinking environment.

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Non Classroom Learning Solutions – The Mentoring Program

I graduated from the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management as a part-time student in regulation time. Ten semesters in just over three years. During my final year I was working full-time in a role that involved frequent travel, got married, purchased a house and started my family. In fact my daughter was born one month after I graduated. Am  I some sort of super woman? No, far from it. In fact I didn’t crack a text-book during that last hectic year but I passed and passed well. I learned a lesson during that year that has benefited me throughout my career… a little bit of common sense, a committment to active listening and an openness to learning from others goes a long way. I had the privilege of studying with a group of very tenured professionals(average work experience post under graduate studies was 10 years) from all walks of life. Their experiences, combined with my own, applied to the theoretical frameworks that we were discussing in class and through project work taught me far more than a textbook ever could have. Without labelling it at the time I was part of an incredible learning exercise that was in fact a rich and robust peer mentoring program.

Since that day I have been involved with mentoring programs as a participant (both mentor and mentee), as an administrator and as an initiator. I believe in the power of the mentoring program as a learning solution. Mentoring programs have a number of benefits but as a learning solution they need to address a specific need so that we can build a program that makes sense for our participants and our organizations. Mentoring programs can be a solution to:

– transfer knowledge between seasoned tenured professionals and more junior ones.

– institutionalize corporate learning currently held in the hands, and heads, of a few

– develop high potential talent (both senior and junior)

– strengthen the desired organizational culture

– increase employee engagement, productivity and satisfaction

– bring together diverse groups from within the organization

Unlike formal classroom solutions a good mentoring program allows the participants to define the parameters of the learning exercise so that it is a meaningful exercise. The cumulative learning taking place within the mentoring relationships can be used to inform more formal learning programs aimed at meeting organizational goals. In so many ways it’s a win win situation.

Mentoring programs are not difficult to set up. They do require some work ranging from the administrative, to training and marketing but none of these things are difficult. If you’d like to explore further here are a few resources that may lead you to the program that works best for your organization:

As a learning exercise, and dependant on the need you are trying to find a solution for, there are a number of things that we, as learning professionals can do to support the mentoring program. All of these component parts have the ability to add a richness to the experience. Examples include.

– training on how to be a good mentor and/or mentee – how do you articulate your objective, how do you prepare for your meetings, what are you roles and responsibilities within the program

– exercises that encourage dialogue around a specific organizational need. This can be very effective when trying to change or strengthen organizational culture

– regular debriefs to capture what is being learned

– recommended reading, articles, discussion points in support of emerging needs

– check-lists or structure to help the mentees capture the learning

My MBA experience, as an exercise in mentoring, seemed like a lucky break. Today I would go further to say that creating non classroom learning solutions such as mentoring programs is critical if we are to create learning organizations that can meet the needs of tomorrows reality. Learning professionals – put this one in your toolbox. It can be very effective.

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A timeless lesson in leadership from Atticus Finch

During the weekend, I had the great pleasure of watching To Kill a Mockingbird on the big screen in all of its revitalized, digitized glory. The movie is well made and the story well told but what surprised me was how well this story has stood the test of time. It’s storylines and its messages are still as relevant as they were 50 years go when the movie first hit the big screen. I’m sure that 50 years ago people were marvelling at how relevant the messages were in relation to the 1930’s, the backdrop for the story itself.

The story of To Kill a Mockingbird is most often discussed through the lens of racial relations but it could as easily be viewed as a lesson in parenting, personal integrity, tolerance or leadership. My personal filters these days are finely tuned to all things leadership and it was through this lens that I found myself watching the movie and reflecting afterwards.

Things I learned from Atticus Finch.

1. personal integrity is not defined by our times.

2. human decency is not defined by our times.

3. courage is not defined by our times.

4. respect is not defined by our times

We often hear of abhorrent behaviour or acts excused by the way of “being a product of the environment”. Atticus is the embodiment of that not being a given truth. He lived in a society that has as it’s “truth” that a mans skin colour was evidence of a mans value. The expectations, laws and practices within that society dictated behaviour of all men, no matter their colour. They each had a role to play and each typically played it well. Tension occurred only if one man, be they black or white, stepped outside of their designated roles. Within this backdrop the character of Atticus Finch was created.

Atticus shows us that even with a system of inequity a single person can make a huge difference. Atticus made his difference by creating a microcosm of equality. He created respect. He created the opportunity for his client to have a voice. He quietly stood up for what was “right” not in the eyes of his society but what he knew to be “right’ . He didn’t buck the system, he worked quietly within it and yet when it was necessary he had a voice that stood for reason. Not heated emotion. He lived his values through his work and throughout his life. His children were a reflection of that – they saw beyond the colour, the beyond the disability and through the hatred. They saw only people.

In Atticus I saw the things that I personally look for in a leader, that many of us look for in a leader. On many professional discussion boards the traits of leadership is a common topic. Perhaps for reflection in another post is why, so many years after the making of a movie such as To Kill a Mockingbird, in a time where our political, human rights and human resource environments are geared to make it so much easier to be good leaders, are there still so many examples of “bad” leaders. What makes it so tough for us as human beings to stay true to what is “right” when the world around us largely wants us to be “right”?

Atticus reminded me that leadership starts with one person…me. It’s not about the big L leader title (although I have held that for many years)…it’s about the ability to lead by doing what I know to be right.

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Asking for help – 7 key points to doing it well.

As adults many of us find it tough to ask for help. We’re afraid of being seen as less than fully competent, we don’t like to look foolish or we simply don’t know how. However our fear of putting ourselves out there is holding us back. We don’t learn if we don’t ask. Asking for help, at the right time in the right way, is core to us learning what we need to know and in some instances critical to meeting the expectations that have been set for us. We’ve all heard the saying “don’t ask, don’t get” and that is true almost 100% of the time in the work place.

My last post talked focused on what leaders need to do to make asking questions acceptable and comfortable. The ownership however doesn’t just lie with our leaders – we each need to take ownership for asking for help when we need it. The following points

1. Ask for help before you get to crisis management. We all have a sense of when things are starting to build to a level that we may not be able to manage by ourselves. It is much easier for someone to assist you complete a task, share some knowledge, or provide guidance when they also don’t have to help you crisis manage.

2. Set your emotions aside. Now is not the time for embarrassment or apologies. Give yourself permission to ask and don’t self project a sign of weakness onto the request.

3. Be specific. Articulate exactly what you need from someone so that they can best assess how they can help.

4. Set the scene. Share what you have done or know about the task. Explain what is outstanding. Show you’ve done your homework and you are not simply dumping responsibility.

5. Share you ideas for action and then invite comment or guidance. Show that you’ve thought through possible solutions and now you are seeking the input of others who could refine or add value to the end product.

6. Don’t whine. People are put off by whiners (or whingers for my UK and Australian friends). We are all busy. Dealing with whiners takes emotional energy that some may not be willing or able to share. The need to deal with the whining risks having your real need being lost.

7. Be appreciative. We all like to hear a simple thanks. None of us go into a assistance situation expecting appreciation or reciprocation. However building your partnerships by showing both will result in a pool of people that willingly help each other when needed. It’s what collaborative leadership models and shared accountability values are built on.

Asking for help requires us as individuals to take ownership for our own learning and success. It requires the courage to step outside of our comfort zones. We need to find a way to get past our own discomfort because asking for help, in our crazy complex fast changing workplaces, is critical to our organizations success. Consider it your responsibility to ask for help when you need it.

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Making it ok to ask for help.

In an ideal world we hire great people, we set them on the way to success, we support them and our people do great things. The employee feels appreciated and rewarded, as leaders we experience the sense of satisfaction that comes with making good hiring decisions and our organizations thrive.

In the real world, while the objective may be the same, the reality is often quite different. A myriad of roadblocks, issues, and challenges get in the way of the utopia. And as leaders we attempt to deal with them. Dealing, leading or managing through an issue however is possible only if you are aware. What happens when one of your team is struggling and you are not aware? Why are you not aware?

Too many times people are afraid to ask for help. The reasons for not asking for help can be categorized into a few broad categories

1. Fear. This is by far the largest category and include fear of being labeled weak in an environment that values self sufficiency. Fear of retaliation, of not being taken seriously, of not being supported, of being ridiculed or bullied often have us hold our tongues.

2. Don’t know we need it. Sometimes we don’t know that we need help until a problem has escalated.

3. Need for control. Noone can do it better than I can…right?

As leaders there are a number of things we can do to create an environment where it is ok to ask for help.

1. Model the behaviour. Openly engage others with more expertise than yourself. Leadership is not about knowing everything, its about bring resources to the table in a way that creates an optimal result.

2. Make it safe to ask. Personal judgement and disrespect play no part in the workplace. Employees need to feel comfortable that they can ask a question and be responded to with respect. A response may be an answer, guidance or a coaching moment, each perfectly valid responses, but in each case the employee should feel supported in their efforts to find an answer.

3. Do not take questions personally.

4. Ensure that all employees understand your organizations escalation process. Show your support of the process.

5. Create opportunity for employees to ask for help. You have informal daily, and hopefully, regular formal touch points with your teams. Ask them what you can be doing to support them. Are they experiencing any road blocks that you can help remove? Become a servant leader.

6. Demand and demonstrate an environment of open communication, personal integrity and respect.

If we as leaders can remove the real or perceived stigma associated with asking for help we foster an environment that not only allows employees to safely seek and find information, we also create a more collaborative work environment that taps into the knowledge of many and it encourages healthy risk taking and innovation. All things that support the ideal world we strive for.

Next time: Asking for help – doing it effectively

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Talent Gone Bad – Bad Luck or Bad Leadership?

In a casual conversation today I encountered the term “talent gone bad”. The reference was specifically pointing to the number of seemingly talented individuals that had been brought into a project but then didn’t meet the expectations that had been attributed to them.

Bad talent, at its core, is dangerous and expensive. Individuals that fall into this category may demonstrate a number of behaviours ranging from low productivity to subversiveness. Bad talent can sink organizations and sink leaders. Common sense and in fact common practice is that bad talent is removed from the organization as soon as possible. A leader who manages bad talent tends to be seen as having a high level of credibility – sending the message that poor performance is not acceptable and that they will not tolerate the impact of bad talent on the organization, on their team or on the bottom line. I buy in. Over the years I have had my fair share of bad talent discussions where I’ve led people down the path of self realization that perhaps this wasn’t the right organization for them. Those discussions however have always come at the end of a due diligence process. A process that involves honest communication, the opportunity and support to shift performance against expectations, and frequent feedback. Rather selfishly, at the end of the day, I want to go to bed with a clear concience knowing that I “did the right thing”. This level of integrity is my baseline. All other is gravy.

Bad talent can be attributed to any number of things including, but definitely not restricted to

1. A poor hiring process.

2. Incompetence

3. Bad cultural fit

4. A change in the employees circumstances negatively impacting work (illness, death, financial)

5. Lack of direction, goals and feedback

6. Low productivity caused by lack of focus, procrastination and motivation

As hiring managers we occassionally get one wrong. Over the past fifteen years I can think of two instances where I over-rode my inner “talent radar” to bring someone into my team. The first time I felt sorry for the gentleman. He so badly wanted to develop into a learning role and I was offering a six month developmental position. Given that he some relevant experience, was smart and motivated there should have been little risk. But in the back of my mind sat a kernel of questioning. During the 6 months that kernel grew into a tree of whining, unproductive, and excuse making mess. I had made a mistake and the impact was not only negative on my credibility as a leader but also on the gentleman himself. He was not able to move to a position of success. He was bad talent but I also owned a share of that responsibility. In case you’re wondering the second time wasn’t as spectactuarly bad but it was bad enough in that we brought someone in that couldn’t be, and wasn’t, successful in the particular choas that we were hiring into.

We all have our stories. Most of us  can count these on one hand and they serve to not only make us better leaders but also better hiring managers. But what happens when talent going bad becomes a common occurance? At what point in time do we cast our eyes and focus on the process, leaders or system rather than at the individuals themselves?

If you are finding that your attrition, regretted, assisted or otherwise, is higher than normal in any group or any given project then the red flags should be dancing brightly in front of your eyes. As leaders we need to be asking ourselves a number of key questions, no matter how uncomfortable they are:

1.Is my hiring process robust enough? Are we asking the right questions to properly identify the behaviours we need to see? Did we know what we were looking for? Did we properly articulate the expectations to the candidates throughout the process?

2. Have expectations changed? Is this really a case of talent gone bad or have that needs have changed in a way that doesn’t allow this candidate to now be successful? We should maybe ask whether the expectation are realistic? What yardstick am I measuring against?

3. Have we provided clear goals, direction and frequent feedback?

4. Is there a common hiring manager. This is one of those tough questions but we need to be looking for two things. Firstly the logic behind the hires and secondly the ongoing management of the employees. A gap or issue in either of these areas may very well result in unmotivated, disengaged and hence unproductive employees. When I see multiple cases of talent gone bad, especially when performance was initially applauded, I look very closely at the management/ leadership involved. Multiple people don’t “go bad” but mulitple people may have a negative reaction to a bad environment or a poor leader.

If you have a case of multiple “talent gone bad” on your hands odds are you also have a case of low employee morale on your hands that goes beyond the poor performers. There will be others in your team who have not spoken up, who have gone quietly under the radar and who are suffering through the issues because they feel they have no choice… the multiple “talent gone bad” may actually be a gift. They are visible and offer you the opportunity to identify and address the systemic issues. “Talent gone bad” occassionally happens. Mulitple cases of talent gone bad is caused.

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