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Leadership Thought #467 – Leaders Should Listen More Than They Talk

Over the years I’ve noticed that it is inexperienced or mediocre leaders who feel like they have to dominate all conversations.  It’s almost as if what anyone else has to say has limited or no value and it is only their opinion that counts.  We’ve all been in meetings where there is that one person who simply will not be quiet and yield the floor to others.  They are also often prone to interrupting their colleagues before they can finish their thoughts and using obvious body language when the center of attention isn’t focused on them. This is bad enough when it is a peer but even worse when it is the actual leader of the group.  Nobody likes a “know it all.”

I have a colleague who is fond of saying that “most people are preparing to talk rather than listening.”  I must admit to catching myself in this mode more often than I would like.  You start to block out or only partially listen to what others are saying and wait for your chance to interject and share your thoughts on the topic at hand.  As a result you often miss important information, repeat what someone else has already said and de-motivate the other party to the conversation to continue engaging.  It is a vicious cycle and ultimately you end up providing a monologue to a disinterested audience.   When people check out on what you are saying as a leader, you are in trouble.

Leaders have the responsibility to foster rigorous debate and dialogue not inhibit it.  Your goal is to make the right decisions and come up with the best solutions.  The more people who participate in this process the better.  The only real way to do this is to ask good questions and listen intentionally to what other are saying.  You need to facilitate the conversation rather than just lead it.  No one person has the market cornered on good ideas.  The loudest person in the room is rarely the most intelligent; they just crave attention.  In my experience, a major reason why businesses don’t grow is because the leader feels he/she has to have all the answers rather than building a team of competent professionals and leveraging the skills/experience of those around them.

When I was a kid my mom used to often say, “Less is more.”  It took me way too long to figure out what she meant.  It’s not about how much you say, but what you are actually saying.  And, if you want people to listen to you, you need to listen to them.   The best leaders I now pick their spots.  They do their best to take it all in and only contribute when they feel they can add value or need to move things along.  If you are thoughtful about when you speak, people tend to pay attention.  If your ego pushes you to dominate conversations, then don’t be surprised if you find leadership to be a lonely place and continued success a hard nut to crack.


Leadership Thought #463 – You Need To Have Thick Skin To Lead Others

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  It certainly has its ups and downs and can test anyone’s emotional fortitude.  However, this is the very reason so few people can do it well.  If you take every small slight and failure personally, the job will eat you alive.  Whenever you assume a position of responsibility, you automatically also assume a roster of critics and malcontents who aren’t always aligned with your leadership vision.  Since you can’t realistically fire everyone who disagrees with you (nor is this advisable), then you need to figure out other ways to handle the pressures and scrutiny.

I’ve found that the best leaders I work with welcome the criticism.  They don’t always like it, but they accept that a key aspect of leading people is harnessing disparate points of view and feelings.  I don’t care how smart you are, no one person has all the right answers.  And, since we are all human, we will inevitably make mistakes.  To some extent, your critics keep you on your toes.  They help you maintain your ‘A game” and not take your position for granted.  If you are willing to listen to and embrace their feedback, you will definitely make better decisions.   Of course, there will always be points of diminishing returns, but don’t be too quick to assume you’ve reached this level of dysfunction.  Getting better often involves hard work.

In my life I’ve found that if you can navigate the rocky waters of professional disagreement effectively, then  you actually end up building new advocates for your point of view.  Sometimes the people who were most resistant initially end up becoming your most loyal colleagues.  Give me someone who is up front and honest with their opinions over someone who is more passive-aggressive any day. Healthy relationships are only ever possible if people can be authentically honest with one another.  I’ve also found that much of the initial angst and tension between two people is often due to poor communication and misunderstandings.

Leadership means embracing the spotlight not withering under it.  The very act of putting yourself out there and assuming others will follow is an act of unusual self-confidence.  Most people are hard-wired to follow not lead.  However, everyone can be a critic.  So be it.  As they saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” As a leader you will have good days and bad ones.  You will make great decisions and have many others you would like to take back.  You will trust people who disappoint you and lose good people to your competition.  You will be forced to make decisions with imperfect information and sometimes fail as result.  Many external market forces will be beyond your control to predict and/or influence. Some of your employees will make your life easier while others will require more work than you’d like. Not everyone will always think you are wonderful.

However, when all is said and done, leaders are in the minority people in this world who get to actually influence the future.  They ultimately reap what they sow as a business and individual.  Leaders have the opportunity to make a real positive difference in the lives of their family, employees and community. Maybe even this world.  Leaders get to stretch their personal capabilities in ways others will never experience.   Theirs will be a life of their own making.  Aren’t the benefits of leadership worth a little scrutiny and criticism?  You need to have thick skin to lead others and it is almost always worth it!

Leadership Thought #458 – Questions To Ask Your Potential Executive Coach

Regrettably, I am in a profession where there are minimal barriers to entry and just about anyone (within reason) can claim to do what I do.  Just about every week, I meet another person who is billing themselves as a business coach or executive coach and charging a considerable amount of money for something they have no business doing in the first place.  More often than not, it is someone who has been downsized from an existing position or exiting a failed business endeavor, an individual who has hit a career brick wall themselves, an academic with free time on his/her hands, an independent consultant looking to supplement their income, or a psychotherapist who has figured out they can charge more money if they change the title of what they do.  I shutter sometimes when I think about the bad advice which is regularly disseminated to executives and business owner by often well-intentioned, but under-skilled or poorly trained business coaches.  Here are a few questions I recommend you ask before working with someone in this capacity:

  • What events led them to pursue the executive coaching path?
  • How long have they been serving in a coaching capacity, how many clients do they have, and what have been some tangible business results they have achieved with their clients – always ask for and check on references?
  • Have they run a business themselves or at least had significant P&L responsibility within a larger entity? How did they perform in this role (ask for specifics)?
  • What is their level of formal business training/education?
  • What business books/periodicals/publications are they reading on a regular basis and what are some recent books/articles that resonated with them?
  • How have they trained to excel in their coaching role? How are they maintaining and sharpening their executive coaching skills on a regular basis?
  • Are they affiliated with a larger entity that offers support and guidance or are they simply a solo practitioner?
  • What is their approach to business/executive coaching and how did they form this opinion?
  • What are their coaching areas of expertise and when do they refer out to other professionals?
  • Will they leverage their coaching relationship to create other business opportunities for themselves with you? If so, what and why?
  • What else do they do professionally besides coaching and what percentage of their business is spent on non-coaching activities?
  • How successful is their coaching practice in terms of revenue growth and profitability?  What is their long term plan for their coaching business?
  • How long does their average client typically work with them? Why does the relationship usually end?
  • Do they use a coach and/or peer group themselves.  If no, why not?

Coaching relationships can become very personal and intimate as you reveal yourself to another person and begin to trust their confidence.  In some cases, especially with vulnerable leaders, the advice/counsel you are getting often becomes secondary to the growing professional and personal bond.   Because of this, it becomes very hard to exit the relationship, even if it isn’t serving you well.  I’ve seen many executives stick with a coach out of loyalty long after it has served their original purpose.  I advise you to be careful about whom you entrust with your leadership development and business future.  Just because someone says they can do something doesn’t mean they should be the one doing it.  Buyer beware!


Leadership Thought #457 – Eight Things You Can Do To End The Year On A High Note

Holiday Lights

Holiday Lights (Photo credit: ImageMD)

As we wind down another year, I thought it would be useful to share some best practices I have observed over the years by leaders who tend to end every year on a high note:

  1. Close as many big deals as you can before the Christmas vacation.  Redouble your efforts and offer incentives to get the deal done.  Put off tinkering with internal operational issues.  Nothing launches a new year better than a flurry of sales at the end of the previous one.  As a leader it makes you feel confident and secure;
  2. Personally reach out to your top 10 (or more) customers and thank them for their business.  Holiday cards and emails are a poor substitute for genuine relationship building;
  3. Say no to last minute unreasonable customer demands or at least negotiate more agreeable terms.  And, always walk away from a bad deal.  Some people, especially those who have somewhat one-dimensional lives will push just because they can.  It’s important to have professional boundaries and stick to them;
  4. Instead of procrastinating, have whatever difficult conversations you need to have and get them over with.  Don’t let the challenges of managing difficult people issues linger – they only get worse with time and occupy much needed mental bandwidth;
  5. Ensure you have a strong handle on your financial situation and make smart tax and cash flow decisions.  Don’t spend what you don’t have.  Do your best to avoid self-created financial crises;
  6. Spend the majority of your management time with your top performers making them feel appreciated and supported. No leader ever led an organization to greatness by getting distracted by his/her weakest links;
  7. Make sure there is an actual business/operational plan in place for the next year.  Hint: You shouldn’t be starting this just now.  It should have been months in the making.  Hit the ground running on January 2 and don’t look back;
  8. When you are spending time with family and friends during the holidays, be fully present in those moments.  Work will always be there when you get back.  If you execute on the previous seven actions and avoid unnecessary distractions, you should be in a good place personally to unwind, tend to close relationships, recharge your batteries, and count your blessings.

I have watched many a leader get stressed out in December and run around like a chicken with its head cut off.  Instead of focusing on the few things that actually matter, they try to get too much done in too little time.  There is too much stress and not enough enjoyment.  There are no business problems that took eleven months to create that will get resolved in one short month of work.  Do what you should doing to close out the year  in the most effective and efficient way possible and then focus on what truly is most important – your loved ones!

Leadership Thought #456 – Life Goes On

A fascinating aspect of our human existence is that despite what happens to us, in most cases, life simply goes on.  The world stops for no one regardless of the challenge or tragedy they are confronting.  Others may pause and offer support for a brief period, but they have their own journeys to tend to.  Of course, we all know how the journey ultimately ends but until that point we are forced to be resilient and navigate whatever twists and turns come our way.  No matter how far you climb the ladder of life there will always be some things beyond your capacity to control.  Sometimes all we can do is accept our circumstances and react in the best way we can.

There are always lessons to be learned.  Hopefully we are open and willing to embrace these moments for personal growth (although it may take some time).  Resisting what the universe is trying to teach you is a pointless endeavor.  I’ve grown to believe that one of the many benefits of aging is that it offers us an ever sharpening perspective on what is most important.  You begin adulthood in a very egocentric mindset and realize, with time, that how your actions affect others is much more important than getting what you think you want.  Your definitions of success will also change as you are humbled by life and watch others struggle with their own journeys.

One day we will be here and the next we will be gone.  We can guess when that will be but we will probably be off in our calculations.  If we are fortunate, we will be truly missed and appreciated by those we did our best to care about and love.  What’s left behind is the legacy we leave in and through them and others.  Life goes on and it always will.  Our opportunity for personal contribution will always be relatively short in the wide scheme of things.  The fact that we know this should embolden us to live the best life we can regardless of the circumstances.  Every day is a gift and opportunity and should be seen that way…

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Thought Provoking Quotes From Dr. Gordon Livingston

I have always been a fan of Dr. Gordon Livingston and his four books:  Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart; And Don’t Forget to Dance; How To Love; and The Thing You Think You Cannot Do.  I highly recommend all of them.  I often refer to each of these books for inspiration and guidance. Today,  I thought I would share some excerpts from his first book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, to help launch the week on a positive and thoughtful note:

“We are not what we think, or what we say, or how we feel.  We are what we do.”

“The three components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.”

“We are entitled to receive only that which we are prepared to give.”

“If we wish, as most of us do, to be treated with kindness and forbearance, we need to cultivate those qualities in ourselves.”

“Some ignorance is invincible.  People can become so wedded to their particular view of how things should work that they ignore all evidence that suggest change is necessary.”

“We do not control how we feel or what we think.  Efforts to do so are uniformly frustrating as we struggle against unwanted thoughts and emotions in ways that only exacerbate them.”

“…there is a fine line between expressing empathy and solidarity for those who suffer and endorsing a passive dependency.”

‘In some settings notably our intimate relationships, we gain control only by relinquishing it.”

“There are certain personality characteristics that are highly correlated with academic and professional success:  dedication to work, attention to detail. ability to manage time, conscientiousness…”

“Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have.  The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our knowledge that everything and everyone is evanescent.”

“Usually it is fear and its close cousin, anxiety, that keep us from doing those things that would make us happy.  So much of our live consists of broken promises to ourselves.”

“The disconnect between what we say and what we do is not merely a measure of hypocrisy, since we usually believe our statements are of good intent.  We simply pay too much attention to words–ours and others’- and not enough to the actions that really define us.  The walls of our self-constructed prisons are made up in equal parts of our fear of risk and our dream that the world and the people in it will conform to our fondest wishes.  It is hard to let go of a comforting illusion, but harder still to construct a happy life out of perceptions and beliefs that do not correspond to the world around us.” 

“Whatever obligations we have to our children, a conviction that we can achieve happiness amid the losses and uncertainties that life contains is the greatest gift that we can pass from one generation to the next.  Like all the values we wish to teach our children–honesty, commitment, empathy, respect, hard work–the supreme importance of hope is taught by example.”

“All significant accomplishments involve taking risks: the risk of failure in invention, in exploration, or in love.”

“Our feelings depend mainly on our interpretation of what is happening to us and around us—our attitudes.  It is not so much what occurs, but how we define events and respond that determines how we feel.”

“The traits that we display toward other people are major determinants of how successful we are in forming and sustaining relationships.”

“Virtually all happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children.  This is why patience and determination are among life’s primary virtues.”

“…it is the act that defines us, not the cause we use as rationale…If we believe it is better to build than destroy, better to live and let live, better to be than be seen, then we might have a chance, slowly, to find a satisfying way through life, this flicker of consciousness between two great silences.”

“Nearly every human action is in some way and expression of how we think about ourselves.  There are few behaviors that are self-esteem neutral.”

“We routinely invoke theories of accident, coincidence, and forgetfulness to explain behaviors that we do not wish to examine closely.”

“It is always easier to keep doing what we are used to, even if it’s evidently not working for us.”

“To know someone fully and love them in spite of, even because of, their imperfections is an act that requires us to recognize and forgive, two very important indicators of emotional maturity.”

“It is our fallibility and uncertainty that make us human.  Our constant challenge is not to seek perfection in ourselves and others, but to find ways to be happy in an imperfect world.  We are impeded in this effort if we cling to an idealized vision of the past that insures dissatisfaction with the present.”

“To be able to fully experience the sadness and absurdity that life so often presents and still find reasons to go on is an act of courage abetted by our ability to both love and laugh.  Above all, to tolerate the uncertainty we must feel in the face of the large questions of existence requires that we cultivate and ability to experience moments of pleasure.”

Mental health is a function of choice.  The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be…We are never out of choices, no matter how desperate the circumstances.”

“If we can relinquish the preoccupations and pseudo-explanations that are rooted in the past, we are free to choose the attitudes with which we confront the present and future.”

“If we approach others in a suspicious or hostile way, they are more likely to respond accordingly, thereby confirming our low expectations. Fortunately, the opposite is likewise true.”

“Coming to terms with our past is inevitably a process of forgiveness, of letting go, the simplest and most difficult of all human endeavors.  It is simultaneously an act of will and of surrender.  And it often seems impossible until the moment you do it.”

Leadership Thought #453 – Are You Bringing Positive Energy?

I find that one of the most recognizable traits of an effective leader is that they bring positive energy to a room.  You can feel it the moment they walk through the door.  I have been in banquet halls far from the entrance and felt the presence of certain people as they arrived.  It’s almost as if a small electrical jolt works its way through the crowd.  While most of us aren’t blessed with this type of “rock star” aura, we can certainly notice and work on the effect we have on others.  You are either adding energy to the group dynamic or diminishing it. It really is this simple.  Leaders must be a source of consistent positive energy if they want to get the most of out of their people.

Leadership can be hard at times.  Being in business certainly has its challenges.  It’s not always easy to stay positive when you feel like you are in the middle of the jungle trying to hack your way out the tall grass and overcome other nefarious obstacles.  However, this is the choice you made when you assumed the mantle of leadership. If it was easy then everyone could do it (and they can’t).  Whether you have 1 employee or 10,000 they are all looking to you for guidance and inspiration especially when it is hard.  Even when things are going well, you can quickly fall off track if lose sight of the importance of your role and the emotional impact you have on those around you.

A major source of positive energy is optimism but it must be genuine not contrived.  People will pick up on it quickly if you are trying to fake positive feelings about the industry, company, division, leadership team, etc.   Trust me, you cannot “fake it until you make it.”  In addition, it is fairly easy to pick up on whether or not someone likes and believes in what they are doing and the people they are doing it with.  I’ve seen leaders suck the life out a room who feel overly burdened by their responsibilities and not all that excited about their products/services and/ or lacking confidence in their business model or people (including themselves).

All great success stories usually involve an individual or group of people overcoming a significant challenge.  They also involve a leader getting a group of people to see that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Few things are more powerful to behold than a group of people bonded together around a common objective they believe to be worthy of their joint sacrifice and effort.  It’s critical to remember that the end result must always be perceived as a positive one.  Leaders who motivate people to tap into the best of themselves and embrace this opportunity have accomplished great things throughout the course of history.  All fires must begin with a spark.  Every spark is the result of some form of positive energy.

Are you bringing positive energy to your organization?


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