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?


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!

Image via Registry Online Inc.

Image via Registry Online Inc.

Two friends of mine got married this weekend here in Albany.   Throughout the wedding, I kept noticing little details that acted like a stamp of their personality.  Each place setting had a little bride or groom rubber duck – an homage to the assembly line of rubber ducks in different costumes along the sink and window in their bathroom.  The cake centerpiece was a reference to Scully and Mulder from the X-Files – a favorite of the bride.  Ommegang beer was on tap because of the groom’s love of a good brew.  And there was a sundae bar.  Mmm.

A marriage itself isn’t really a unique occurrence.  Yet each wedding we witness is a little bit different, and that’s what makes it special.  It’s the same with leadership.  We worry too much about what the “formula” is for leadership.  What does a good leader look like, act like, and sound like?  We want an exact equation for replicating inspiring leadership.  The reason we have a hard time articulating what’s needed is because leadership is personal.  It’s a reflection of your self – your ideals, your passions, your interests – leadership is sharing yourself with others.

Just like the wedding I was at, you need to put a stamp of your own personality on your leadership style.  Mentors are important, don’t get me wrong.  But leadership isn’t about applying what works for someone else.  It’s about learning from someone else and taking their lead, but then twisting it so that it’s your own product.  Try to get to the heart of why someone you admire is acting the way they are.  If it’s a reflection of their values you shouldn’t copy that reflection – you should create your own.

This is good for those of us who advise leaders to remember, too.  We go to conferences or talk to our peers at other companies, and wish that our leadership team would utilize new technology in the same ways.  Heck, I’m guilty of looking at greener grasses myself – leaders like CEO Brian Dunn at Best Buy set the bar high!  But just because the Best Buy CEO is on Twitter doesn’t mean your CEO should be.  And just because your mentor has one-on-one meetings with each of his employees every week doesn’t mean that you should, too.  

It’s important that we remember certain fundamental aspects of leadership, like continually building and nurturing relationships with others.  But build and maintain those relationships in your own way.  It’s the only way to be authentic and credible and not come across as insincere.  Know yourself well enough so that you can inject a little bit of personality in your leadership.  Don’t be afraid to feel goofy once in a while.  It’s those moments of vulnerability that bring people closer to the real you.

So what aspects of your leadership style show your personality?  Have you put thought into what you can do as a leader to show your personal mark?  Take a lesson from marketers and focus on building your brand, one act at a time, day by day.   The leaders we respect the most are those who dare to be unique.  So go ahead, be your own kind of leader.  I dare ya!

Photo via Flickr user jbelluch

Photo via Flickr user jbelluch

The U.S. men’s soccer team victory against Spain last month brought back a flood of memories of my soccer-filled youth.  I had a really great coach who not only pushed us to get better but taught us a lot about the game itself.  In the course of thinking about what I’d learned from countless hours of ball drills and scrimmages, I realized that he also taught me how to be a successful leader.  My coach shouted a lot of pointers from the sidelines but three tips stand out the most.

Keep your eye on the ball.  There was always at least one player on the opposing team who had a lot of ball skills.  Her feet moved insanely fast and she’d be the one who moved the ball down the field, distributing it to others.  My coach constantly reminded us to watch the ball, rather than the person’s feet.  It’s the ball you’re after, not the feet.  In corporations, we get distracted by all the fancy moves – the “flavor of the month” if you will.  It’s important for leaders to understand their values, the company’s values, and their employee’s values and not get distracted by the new management technique on the best seller’s list.  Keep your eye on your values, and remember the principles.  A new technology or winning method will only work if it is aligned with your values and done for the right reasons.  Or else that fake to the left will leave you staring at the grass while the ball moves on by.

Take advantage of the double-team.  Sometimes it makes sense for two teammates to go after the ball together.  It’s the same principle as a breakaway with two forwards versus one defender: you have the advantage.  Leaders can’t be afraid to ask for help.  Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean that you need to go it alone.  Leaders need mentors, too!  Sometimes it makes sense for you to team up with another leader in order to become a stronger unit for your employees.  Find someone with a strength to match your weakness, or with a weakness that can be bolstered by your strengths.  You can learn a lot from your contemporaries and you can get a lot of help from other organizations such as HR.  That’s why we hear the analogy of a team used a lot in corporations – the leadership team needs to act together when necessary and be comfortable with the double-team.   

Pass the ball to a space.  On breakaways, we were taught to pass the ball to the corner of the field, so that the forward could run to it.  If the ball was passed to her feet, she wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of momentum as she made her way toward the goal.  Leaders need to remember this when they’re giving assignments to their team.  Instead of handing off another assignment that is at their current skill level, consider giving them an assignment that will cause them to stretch – to move to a new spot that they weren’t in before and take advantage of the momentum from your “pass”.  This is how you help them grow and become better versions of themselves.  This is also how you keep them actively learning and actively engaged.  There’s a fine line here, though – if you pass the ball too far ahead they’re not going to be able to get there in time and will fail.  

Soccer taught me a lot about successful leadership – and I’m sure that we’ve all had life experiences that have shown us how to become better at what we do.  Do you have a sports experience that you think about as inspiration or use for guidance when you’re trying to figure something out?  What other lessons can we learn from the sports we played as kids?

Photo via smartypants

Photo via smartypants

I hear it all the time at work: “I’m not that creative” or “let’s find some creative people for the team.”  Why is creativity considered an elite skill?  Who says we all can’t be creative?  In reality, we all need to be creative, especially as leaders.  Granted, whether we’re born creative or not is an old debate.  But that’s not my point – I’m assuming we’re all born creative; my argument is that as leaders, we need to learn how to tap into that creativity. 

It is possible to access our creative tendencies.  Consider the experience of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who suffered a massive stroke on the left side of her brain.  Here was a woman whose whole career focused on using the logical and rational left brain.  During her recovery, she realized that using the right side of her brain caused a “euphoric” experience and a great sense of peace.  So she taught herself to silence the “chatter” of her left brain and utilize the creative, intuitive right side of her brain more.

In organizations, we are constantly up against chatter.  There is corporate culture, precedent, policy and a whole lot of long-timers who like it the way it has always been.  There are employees scared to death of change, ready to dig their heels in at any suggestion of difference.  And there’s the little voice in our own heads, worried that our idea will never work.

I think Sam Harrison (@zingzone) has an excellent solution for this chatter.  At a session on creative marketing at the 2009 IABC conference in San Francisco he encouraged us all to get out of our “velvet rut.”  I love the imagery that phrase evokes because it explains it all: when we’re comfortable, we’re not being creative.  We should be worried when our leaders are comfortable because it means they’re stagnant.  Sam suggested we see different things and see things differently.  Think about that for a moment:  not only should leaders seek out new experiences to learn from, but they should also try to look at what they already know from a different angle.

Dr. Michael Lieberman Carey, a professor in Gonzaga University’s Organizational Leadership program, calls this “seeing and seeing again.”  For leaders, creativity doesn’t have to be a measure of how artistic we are.  Instead, creativity should be how well we can see the situation – and then see it again, differently. 

We can’t be good leaders without using our imagination.  Our imagination encourages us to view our organizations as living, growing and changing organisms rather than structured machines.  Our imagination pushes us head over heels outside the box, to an unfamiliar yet completely necessary creative space.  When we truly tap into our imagination, we’re pulling energy from the very inside of our selves and from the very center of human nature.  Imagination is the ingredient we need to get out of ruts, to grow, and to push our organizations (and our people/selves) to better and better levels.

Creativity, imagination and leadership are so incredibly intertwined…I know I’m just scratching the surface.  This probably isn’t the last you’ll hear of my thoughts on the subject.  But hopefully I’ve given you a little nudge to stop and think about what creativity and imagination means for you as a leader.

What are you doing to ensure you never get stuck in that velvet rut?

I thought it only appropriate that my first “real” blog entry be on Father’s Day. Often our parents are the first role models we have for leadership. Good our bad, our leadership styles are shaped by our parents’. In fact, I argue that the most important role of a parent is to be a servant-leader for his children. Larry Spears wrote about ten characteristics of a servant-leader, all of which can be extrapolated to influence how we look at parenting. In honor of Father’s Day, I want to focus on three of those characteristics as they relate to my own father.

Parents and servant-leaders need to be good listeners. A lot of my childhood memories involve leaning against the doorway in my father’s home office, talking to him about what I was learning in science or how we had a particularly difficult sprinting practice in track and field. What I remember most is my rambling and his attentive and intent listening to what I had to say. I don’t know that I was saying anything too earth-shattering or interesting, but to my father it was important because it helped him get to know my perspectives and interests. Servant-leaders are great listeners not only because they’re committed to listening but because they are attentive. Larry Spears said that they “listen receptively to what is being said (and not said!)” and seek to clarify the will of a group. How often do we really listen to others? Do we really seek to understand them or are we merely hearing their words, waiting for the pause to insert our own?

Parents and servant-leaders need to be committed to the growth of people. My father always pushed me to become a better person and set the bar higher with each victory. I played soccer when I was younger; my father was an active cheerleader throughout that time. After each soccer game we would be in the car, talking about the game and what I had done – as well as what I could focus on next time to get better. Granted, I wasn’t always very receptive of this advice, but I internalized it and worked harder to be my own version of Mia Hamm. This push to be better was not because my father was disappointed in my performance; on the contrary, it was because he saw what I could become and was intent on helping me get there. He saw what I couldn’t yet see. In organizations, sometimes our leaders ask us to take on roles we’re not really interested in. But often we learn a little bit more about ourselves from those assignments. As leaders ourselves, we need to make sure we’re listening to our employees and really peeling back the layers of the onion to see who they truly are. It’s our responsibility as leaders to help our employees grow. Robert Greenleaf (link), the leader who coined the term servant-leadership, said that the best test of servant leadership is whether or not those served grow as people. Are we helping others become better versions of themselves? Or are we putting them in roles that will benefit us more than them?

Parents and servant-leaders must build community. To me, this means having a focus on family. One of my strongest personal values is the importance of family; I inherited that from both of my parents. My father came from a big family and I was (still am!) lucky enough to have many opportunities to interact with others who were like me and unlike me. My father modeled the importance of community to me by the way he interacted with and respected his family. He helped his parents with the farm chores when we visited, he encouraged imagination and creativity with his nieces and nephews by building hay forts in the barn, and he took great joy in teasing others (no taking yourself too seriously around him!). This same kind of community needs to be present in organizations. Servant-leaders need to build camaraderie with their employees by encouraging laughter, imagination and selflessness. What is it that all these very different people have in common? May it be a shared vision, goal or value, it is the job of the servant-leader to find that common thread and show the way toward collaboration and community. How well do you build community with your work groups? What about outside of work?

So to all the dads out there, happy father’s day. And to all the leaders – look to your father’s example to see how you can become a better leader! There’s a lot we can learn about leadership from parenting – what has your father taught you about leading?

Reference: Spears, L.C. (2003). Introduction: Understanding the growing impact of servant-leadership. In Beazley, H., Beggs, J. & Spears, L.C. (Eds.), The servant-leader within: A transformative path. (pp.13-27). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Image via Flickr user distant_camera

Image via Flickr user distant_camera

To blog or not to blog? I’ve been holding off for a while now, just listening in on the conversations and trying to figure out what I could contribute that would be valuable to others. And then it hit me: I have found very few blogs focusing on organizational leadership, or more specifically, focusing on it in a manner that encourages true dialogue about it.

I’m defining dialogue here based on Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s philosophical views:

If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings…dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world.

Freire believed that dialogue both required and generated critical thinking, which I can attest to as a current part-time graduate student at Gonzaga University. I’ve been having truly thought-provoking conversations about all aspects of organizational leadership. Sometimes we focus on servant-leadership and other times we bring our various backgrounds to bear on leadership as a whole. But the dialogue is always diverse, respectful and boundary-pushing. And it is through that that my world view and the views of my classmates are shaped.

I’m halfway through that master’s program and have started to realize that there is a void of opportunities out there for the encouragement of true dialogue. Which brings me back to my question: to blog or not to blog? I decided that it was time to join the conversation and be a starting point for some critical discussions on leadership. And I’m psyched to contribute.

I’m new to the blogosphere, so please bear with me as I learn on the fly and tweak the content and layout of my blog to reflect my growth. You’ll probably notice a strong undercurrent of communications in my language – that’s because it’s a big part of who I am and how I see the world. And it’s a definite element of leadership.

This blog will focus on my personal path as I explore and learn more about what leadership means to me. I want to share my observations, experiences and thoughts. But I don’t want this to be a flat document; I’m looking for a genuine exchange with others. My view is only a partial view, so I look forward to learning from others as they react to my words and reshape the conversation with their own perspectives. In fact, I need to learn from others, or I won’t be able to grow from where I am now. This is a continual journey for me (for all of us, really!).

So, will you join my conversation?