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:

http://mentorscout.com/about/how-to-start-a-corporate-mentoring-program.cfmhttp://www.trainingmag.com/article/how-start-corporate-mentoring-program

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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I don’t know

“I don’t know” is scary. We all have used this phrase at times whether it was to show lack of understanding or avoid taking ownership. The point is, it can be interpreted in many ways.

As adult learners we are not comfortable saying “I don’t know” when we believe there to be real or perceived consequences of not knowing. Sometimes we are not even comfortable admitting it to ourselves since admitting “I don’t know” may require action that we are not willing or able to take. It means admitting limitation and that is very uncomfortable for many adults (and children). Saying “I don’t know” takes courage – it means that you have to openly admit a weakness be it a competency or skill that we simply do not have, or we do have but know we could perform better. There is an argument to say that courage is not required to utter it, the real courage is to do something about it. Either way true learning takes courage.

This reluctance to say I don’t know and more importantly the cultural reality that makes it unacceptable to openly share your limitations poses a real challenge to those of us that are in the business of enabling the performance of others. How do we as parents, as learning professionals, as teachers and as leaders help facilitate the process of acknowledging the “I don’t know” so that true learning can take place. How do we make the shift from it being a courageous act to an expected act – is lifelong learning and continuous improvement not the end goal of most? Based on my own research and years of experience as a leader I believe it can be boiled down to a few prescriptive measures.

The key is that we need to make learning acceptable. As leaders we need to make it ok to “not know” something. There are many elements to this but as a starting point this requires more than lip service. We need to have our actions and our words aligned – we need to build a level of credible security that not knowing in its own right isn’t a punishable offense by creating an environment where gaps are acknowledged and dealt with appropriately.

1. Align learning with performance

One way in which you can do this is align your performance management processes to acknowledge and reward learning a new skill or competency that supports the strategic direction of the company. A major bank that I have worked with does this well. Your performance bonus is largely determined by the performance of the bank. Your merit increase is determined by the added value that you have brought to the table. When determining your merit increase, your manager asks two key questions. What learning have you done that has enabled higher levels of performance? What learning or responsibilities have you taken on to better position you to meet the banks performance objectives? This alignment between acknowledging “I don’t know” and reward is a very tangible way to make learning acceptable and in fact desirable.

2. Walk the talk 
 
As leaders we need to show that we believe in the power of identifying our own gaps and taking actions to close them. This is not necessarily an easy task. There is a fine line to showing a weakness (empathy and acceptable) and losing credibility (she doesn’t know what she’s talking about) but it is a worthwhile step to take. As leaders we need to demonstrate that we too are learning. Learning about our clients, our business, our profession and about the skills we need to be effective. Confidence is not instilled because I know everything (because I don’t) it is instilled because I am willing to learn and have a process for incorporating that into my “go forward” approach. Feedback that tells me “she cleared the path and made me feel I had a voice” tells me that I have demonstrated not only an openness to learning, but learning from those that know better than I.

3. Invest

Learning is an investment. Your willingness to invest in the learning needs of your team demonstrates that learning is valued and by default acknowledging that you have something to learn is acceptable. Learning organizations/ departments worldwide know only too well the impact of a tight economy. Learning is at times seen as expendable but this is perhaps where it is important to make a differentiation between formal and informal learning. Learning does not need to stop because the formal learning dollars have dried up. Learning occurs in many ways and as a leader you have many avenues as your disposal.

  •  Have a favourite management or skills based book? Recommend it. Send out excerpts. Create discussion points to bring into team meetings. Share your experience with incorporating it. Formalize it as part of the performance management process.
  •  Found a new technology tool/ software/ app that you like? Demonstrate it. Ask others to review it for applicability to the team. Tie it back to the goals of the team, department, or organization.
  •  Grant people “time” to learn. There may not be a budget and yes everyone is busy but be prepared to be wowed by the level of productivity that will materialize when you demonstrate your support of learning. Your people will feel valued and will seek to still get the work done even as they learn.
  •  Encourage process improvement. Seek ideas. Ask people to propose how to make things better. Make clear your expectations in terms of proposals being fully supported. You will naturally motivate people to “back up” their recommendations by seeking out supporting evidence. This is learning.  Be open to trying new things and allowing for organizational learning to take place. Take a risk.

The options for learning interventions or opportunities are far beyond what is listed here but the message is clear. Don’t let formal budget restrict the learning process.

4. Share your vision

As adults we like to be self directed. A sense of control is integral to our sense of well-being. It empowers us. As leaders we can further empower our employees by sharing the vision in such a way that they can start to self identify where they have opportunities to better fit into that vision. Most human beings have a strong survival instinct. If we sense danger or upcoming change we will all move through a process that will allow us to feel “safe” again. When we have the opportunity to have some control it is a much easier process than when it is forced upon us. We may not control the desired end state but we certainly can have some control in how we get there. Once the vision is shared the role of the leader becomes one of reinforcing and realigning. It becomes one of encouraging our people to share their thoughts, aligning them with ours and looking at options for the learning to take place. It becomes a partnership in realizing the vision.

5. Acknowledge that learning takes courage

Learning takes courage. It is a change management exercise at the personal level with all the nuances that formal change management implies. You will see denial, you will see mourning at what is being “lost”, you will see acceptance and then adoption. Our job as leaders is to make it as easy as possible for our people to move through the change process. Avoid “minimizing” the potential impact and acknowledge the personal reactions.

The more we can do as leaders to make “I don’t know” an acceptable term within a framework of empowering people to move to “I know”  the better we will create an organizational environment where personal learning is no longer an act of courage. Instead you will have created an environment which supports learning as part and parcel of realizing the organizational vision, and more importantly you will have created an environment where people feel empowered and equipped to do great things. As a leader there is very little that is more rewarding that watching your team soar.

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