Archive for the ‘leadership lessons’ Category

via Flickr user KeithBurtis

via Flickr user KeithBurtis

Last week I read a Time magazine article about a young lady who tried to get a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store.  She didn’t get the job – and found out later that it was because she wears a hijab.  She wears this for religious reasons, so she has filed a lawsuit for discrimination based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This isn’t such a black and white issue, however.  In 1972 the Civil Rights Act was amended to include the definition of religion.  Part of that definition says that companies have to demonstrate that accommodating the religious belief would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  When you consider that Abercrombie & Fitch’s MO is to sell clothes with sexy, scantily clad youths,  a covered-up employee isn’t exactly aligned with their branding. 

Okay, enough of my amateur attempt to break down the law based on the one article I read…because dissecting the law is not my point.  The reason this article caught my eye is because it made me wonder what happened to Abercrombie & Fitch’s leadership.  According to the Time article I mentioned above, Abercrombie & Fitch has some other pending lawsuits related to discrimination.  So if they really felt like certain employees (potential or current) had an image that would cause them to lose a significant amount of business…it seems like these lawsuits might have negated those costs by now.

In business, we see a whole lot of decisions based on meeting existing rules or laws.  We spend a lot of time and money arguing in courtrooms over the connotation of certain words.  And we try really hard to interpret rules in such a way that we benefit the most from them.  Is that what leadership is really about, though?  I certainly don’t think so.  Leadership is about going beyond the laws and being better than the limit set for you.  Think of it this way – that’s the limitWe’re not supposed to exceed it.  The limit is the worst you’re allowed to be while still being okay.  If you’re meeting the limit then you’re just skimming by. 

Leaders should be setting a higher standard than that.  We should be doing things because they’re right, and because we want to move our companies and society in a positive direction.  How else can we grow, or encourage others to grow?

So what do you think – should we follow the law or do one better?


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Via Flickr user The Library of Congress

Via Flickr user The Library of Congress

Today Jay Rifenbary spoke to some of our senior leaders about his “No Excuse!” philosophy.  One of the questions he asked them struck me.  First, he asked if our leaders had company values.  He wasn’t surprised to hear the answer was yes.  What he asked next, though, surprised our leaders.

“Have you ever sat at the dinner table and asked your children what they thought the family values were?”

Think about that for a minute.  We spend so much time thinking about how we can be better leaders at work; how often do we really work on what kind of leaders we are at home?  If you’re only focusing on being a good leader in business, what kind of person are you being with your family and friends?  Do you have any energy left for them once you get home?  You can’t expect to be a good leader in one part of your life if you’re ignoring your actions in the rest of it.  If you just work on your values part of the time, you’re not really challenging yourself to actually live what you believe, and what you preach to your employees. 

Leadership is not just about getting business results.  Leadership is a lifestyle.  It’s a journey that requires 24-7 attention. 

When was the last time you practiced being a leader with your significant other or your child?  What leadership tenets do you think are the most important to bring to the dinner table?

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Image via Flickr user foodistablog

Image via Flickr user foodistablog

Okay, let me set the scene for you: you’re sitting around a campfire, s’mores in hand (using super gigante malvaviscos, of course), and…what do you do? Someone tells a story. You’re all relating that story to your own life experiences and pretty soon someone else tells a related story that just popped into his head. And someone else. Before you know it, the fire is down to smoldering coals, the temperature has dropped, and you have no idea where the time went.

That’s the power of storytelling. Would you have hung around to swap stories if someone was using a PowerPoint and reviewing statistical *yawn* statements? Probably not. You hang around when someone gives you colorful context, a plot, good characters, some action and a climax, followed by an ending.

As leaders, sometimes it’s overwhelming to sort through what feels like a fire hose of information; it’s difficult to know what to pass on to your employees and what they don’t care enough about. There are a lot of tools for communicating, but this is one of the most ancient and fundamental tools of communicating with others – whether around the campfire or around the boardroom table. I think it’s also one of the most forgotten tools. We get caught up in all the high-tech tools (cool and appropriate in their own right) and forget about the low-tech ones that still work.

Storytelling hasn’t died, even though book sales are down. We may be buying fewer books but we’re reading more online papers and blogs and toying with the idea of reading with an electronic device like Kindle. It doesn’t matter how technology changes, we’re still hungry for the story.

Leaders who don’t tell stories are missing a huge opportunity for engagement. The best way to help others understand a message is to help them relate to it and co-create it in their minds. Help your employees become characters in your story or use your stories as jumping-off points for their own.

Why don’t we see more storytelling in business? I think it’s because we’re afraid it’s child’s play. Like we’re Tom Hanks in “Big” and our cover is about to be blown. Storytelling is not just for children. It’s for all of us. It’s how we’ve passed knowledge to each other for centuries. It’s how we’ll continue to pass knowledge on, even with new technology popping up.

By the way, this doesn’t just apply to how you give information to your employees.  This applies to you, too.  We hear about the “elevator pitch” being our tiny chance to make a lasting impression.  If your elevator pitch is a story, you’ve got a much better chance it will actually stand out from the rest and be remembered. 

Just try it out.  Tell a story and see how much faster it spreads.  We can’t help but pass on a story from one person to the next!

So the next time you need to pass on information that people need to remember, think about your delivery. Rather than just stating the bare bones news, stop and do a quick storyboard in your head. Pretend you’re a movie director and set the scene, develop your characters and see where the twists and turns of the plot take you.

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Via Flickr user !Lauriin
Via Flickr user !Lauriin

Go to the beach. 

That’s not something you think of when you’re studying leadership, is it?  Yet there are leadership lessons all around us.  I spent some time with good girl friends at the beach this weekend, and as I relaxed with a borrowed beach book, I started to think about some lessons the beach could teach me with respect to my leadership journey.

Build sandcastles – Have you ever tried to build a sandcastle just using your bare hands?  It looks more like a big pile of wet sand than a castle.  But when you use a mold like a bucket or some other shape, it’s a different story.  Bucket after bucket, before you know it you’ve got something that looks like a castle.  The bucket is helpful because it shows you what shape to use, but don’t be afraid to innovate or use the form in unusual ways to create a truly creative, unique castle. 

Leadership is much like building a sandcastle: it’s helpful to have some sort of frame to guide you initially, but you can’t be afraid to improve the form with a little bit of your own personality.  All leadership is not identical.  In the end, you have to be the leader you are comfortable with being.  Be you.  Inject personality and you’ll have quite the leadership structure.

Use the lifeguards – Lifeguards are on the beach every day, practicing and honing their skills so that they can be successful when their skills are required.  If you need help, they come running to your aid.  As a leader, you don’t have to go it alone, and you certainly don’t have to save yourself. Find a mentor to be your lifeguard, to test the water conditions for you, and to throw a life saver at you when you need it most.  Look toward those who have a little extra training and experience to provide guidance on your own leadership journey.

Just pick up one seashell at a time – Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the call of leadership.  How can I, one little person, influence others to become better leaders?  How can I get my organization to change its culture and foster an environment that values servant-leadership principles?  The answer is in a story (not sure of its origin). 

A child is walking along the beach, picking up shells.  Someone asks the child what she’s doing.  When the child explains that she’s picking up all the shells on the beach, the person laughs and tells the child that she’ll never be able to pick up all the shells.  It’s much too big a job for anyone.  The child just continues to pick up one shell at a time, confident that she will succeed.  Eventually, others notice the child’s determination and begin helping her pick up sea shells.  Before long, hundreds of people are picking up thousands of shells.

So no, you can’t change the culture of your company all by yourself.  But you can change the culture within your sphere of influence.  Focus on one shell at a time.  Be the leader you wish others to be.  Influence the culture the way you’d like to see it changed.  It’s important for leaders to set an example.  Your actions will motivate others to emulate you; they’ll want to follow your lead and help you pick up seashells.  Don’t be intimidated by the huge unattainable goal of changing the world.  Just change your corner of it – before long, your corner will be bigger than you could have imagined.  There is a lot of power in the example you set for others.

What other lessons can be learned from the beach?  How do you deal with the sometimes overwhelming task of being a leader?  Do you approach it one step at a time, ask others for help, or even seek guidance from established models?

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Image via Flickr user blondie478

Image via Flickr user blondie478

Good leaders are constantly trying to improve.  They’re looking for data points and feedback, and they’re internalizing and assessing how that information can make them better leaders.  Leadership authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner assert that, “the leader’s primary contribution is in the recognition of good ideas, the support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system…call them early adopters of innovation.”

 But we’ve got to be careful.

When we’ve got a lot of touch points with our employees, we’ve got the opportunity to hear what they’re saying – all of it, negative and positive.  I know that leaders have every intention of doing the right thing, which means not only listening to the feedback they’re getting but acting on it.  Yet not all feedback should change the direction you’re already headed in. 

When you get negative feedback, what do you do with it?  I see a lot of well-meaning leaders listen to feedback and change their course to address that comment.  I struggle with this myself.  But what happens when that comment is coming from the minority?  With just anecdotal evidence, you run the risk of changing the course of a process, program, or policy that was already working well for the majority.

Leaders need to be cognizant of the diversity of their work force: people approach and react to situations in ways that reflect the differences in their background and past experiences.  If only two percent of your employees dislike something, you will be catering to the lowest common denominator rather than the good of the greater whole.

My caution is not to let the one bad apple spoil the bunch.  Yes, you need to show people that you have listened to their feedback.  But leaders also need to think critically about what they’re hearing and do some additional research to learn how widespread the sentiment is.  For example, if an employee does something wrong because they didn’t know what the correct process was, that doesn’t necessarily mean the process needs to be tweaked.  Maybe the fault was a lack of communication between the employee and the leader, rather than a faulty process. 

Instead, consider using that first bit of feedback as a trigger – use it to spur some additional prodding to determine if recognizing the idea and pushing the system to change it is truly the right decision.

Have you ever thought about removing the rotten apple before it infects the good ones?

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bus“Don’t choose easy people.  Choose the right people.”  These words were spoken by Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both the North and South poles.  This past June, I heard him speak at the International Association of Business Communicators conference in San Francisco.  Beyond his inspiring, energizing and humorous speech, this particular bit of advice stood out to me the most. 

Think about it – this guy walked in subzero temperatures, in a location where the slightest misstep could mean death.  If he had chosen his team based on personality compatibility, he might not be here today to share his story.  Robert Swan’s message is an important one for us as we think about creating teams in our businesses. 

Instead of choosing the people who are easy to work with, leaders need to face the difficult decision head on.  Choose the person whose skills balance out the rest of your team over the person you get along with better.  Part of this involves really knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your team.  The easy person is the one you get along with instantly, who operates from the same frame of reference.  But sometimes the best solutions come when you work with people who operate from a different frame of reference and provide solutions that you couldn’t have thought of on your own.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, makes the same point using the analogy of a bus: get the right people in the right seats on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, and then you’ll figure out where you need to go with that bus full of people.  That bus of people will take you to the right places your team or company needs to go.  If you focus on the “who”, as Collins says, the “what” will fall into place naturally.  Your team will be flexible enough to weather unexpected changes in the environment.  Yes, there will be clashes in personality as you come through decisions – but in the end, you couldn’t be successful without the significant contributions of each person.

Robert Swan has accomplished amazing feats because he surrounded himself with the right people – for leaders to accomplish amazing things they need to follow his advice and bring along the right people for the ride on their bus. 

But just how do you know who the right people are?  Do you have any tips on separating the easy people from the right people?

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My work group used to have a terrific (and corny) recognition ritual: when someone did something great, or helped a coworker solve a problem, one person would declare, “You rule!” and hand over the ruler (yes, a gaudily decorated wooden ruler).  That person kept the ruler on his or her desk for the day. 

Photo via Flickr user zedoworks.

Photo via Flickr user zedoworks.

Besides giving us a good laugh, this act served an important purpose – it showed that we valued each others’ contributions to the team.  We tried to find ways to be helpful and useful so that we could claim the ruler for the day.  It felt good to have that gaudy ruler on your desk!  To borrow a phrase from James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, we “encouraged the heart”. 

This is an important lesson for leaders, and one that is often overlooked.  We assume that employees prefer a big raise or highly visible award.  But, realistically, those large rewards can be expensive or time consuming to arrange and therefore are far and few between.  To encourage the heart, to motivate employees to continue to contribute to the company’s mission, we need to give more frequent accolades.  It is the smaller, more consistent and frequent recognition that keeps employees going. 

Think about it – when you’re working on a huge project it’s much easier to bite off little chunks at a time.  Before you know it, you’ve completed a project that looked impossible in the beginning.  Employee motivation is the same way.  When we get appreciated for reaching little milestones, we get the energy to make it to the next milestone.  And the next.  When we know our leaders have high expectations of us, we work hard to meet them.  Just like my coworkers and I worked hard to add value to the group so we could be recognized with the ruler.

Is this something you think about as a leader?  We should all make the effort to carve out time each and every day to recognize someone’s contribution and show them that they are valued.  You don’t have to be in a managerial position for this – it’s just good practice to appreciate others for what they bring to your life.  You’d be surprised at how quickly little acts of respect and appreciation can multiply, and how much they help “encourage the heart”.

What do you do to recognize your team for their incremental contributions?  Are you appreciating the all daily effort it takes to reach end goals, or just the end goal itself?  I’d love to hear stories of ways you have recognized others, so leave your comments below!

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