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Leadership Thought #465 – Everyone Is A Critic

When you lead others, everyone is a critic to some degree.  It’s next to impossible to be fully aligned with another person 100% of the time.  As a leader, knowing this, you can’t fall into the trap of listening to every dissenting voice. The path to mediocrity is littered with individuals who gave up their leadership power unnecessarily and allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.  This doesn’t mean you avoid soliciting feedback, quite the contrary, but you need to be able to filter this feedback and trust your own judgment.  The world looks much different when you are actually accountable for your decisions.  It’s easy to be an expert when you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your actions.

You can’t browse the internet, pick-up a newspaper, watch TV or listen to radio without being bombarded by the opinions of so called experts.  In an office environment, you can multiply this by the number of one-off conversations that take place during the course of any given day.   In my line of work, I’ve encountered many middle managers, stuck in their careers, who often believe they are the brightest person in the room.   While they may in fact be highly intelligent (not always the case), they often lack the true courage of their convictions.  It is much easier to be an expert on the sidelines or in the stands than run the risk of actually competing on the field.  It takes minimal energy to snipe behind someone’s back as opposed to thoughtfully advocating for your position and effectively dealing with alternative points of view.

This morning I listened or read many different opinions on how President Obama should deal with Russia’s incursion into the Crimea.  Of course, many of these people aren’t foreign policy experts or have any real inside understanding of the current geopolitical power dynamics involved.  Have you every noticed that most talking heads haven’t actually ever run anything or achieved any significant level of significant professional accomplishment in the field they are commenting on?  They often stalled within the system they are now commenting on.  Even worse are the journalists/media personalities who wax and wane on every topic as they are actually qualified to do so.  They never miss an opportunity to stir up discontent and/or tell us everything wrong with what the leader or institution in question is doing.  Rarely, if ever, do they provide a thoughtful or realistic alternative.  If you are not accountable you can say anything.  We, the public, love this because it validates our own predisposition to form strong opinions without the facts or a selective understanding of only the facts that support our own often ideological position.  Thinking before acting is hard work and many of us prefer shortcuts instead.

Don’t get me wrong; some level of criticism is healthy.  No one is above reproach especially in a free and democratic society.  Weak leaders crush dissent.  They feel threatened when someone disagrees with them.  Just look at Putin. To confuse his weakness with strength is a mistake.  Leaders should welcome different opinions and perspectives. Feedback is essential for innovation and growth.  However, leaders also need to be able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; the informed thoughts from the misinformed ones; those positions that have the best interest of the organization/institution at heart versus those are personally motivated.  Making the right decision isn’t always easy.  Standing your ground in the face of opposition will test your professional mettle.  Everyone is a critic.  But also remember, that only a much smaller number of us ever risk the criticism in the first place.

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Leadership Thought #428 – There Will Always Be Naysayers; Move Forward Anyway!

If I had a $100 for every time sometime told me something couldn’t be done by me or others, I’d be a rich man at this point in my life.  The cold reality of life is that most people are followers and more comfortable with the status quo than the prospect of changing anything.  There is also a big difference between rhetoric and action.  I’d be equally wealthy if I had a $100 for everyone I met who talked a good game but then failed to follow-up with any real action.  It seems as if a majority of people are content to sit on the sidelines of the game that is their own life and leave their fate to the decisions/actions of others and then complain about it.  Like most fans, people have strong opinions about what should or should not be happening, but then they don’t have the courage, talent or fortitude to play the game themselves.  It is a vicious circle and misery does love company.

Don’t ever let other people talk you into mediocrity and out of success.  Instead of just focusing on obvious obstacles such as time, money and talent, spend your energy on reaching your goal regardless of the inevitable constraints.  This doesn’t mean you become foolhardy and take silly or unwise risks.  However, depending on your risk profile as a person the definition of what this means is certainly open to individual interpretation.  What it does mean is that at some point you have the courage to bet on yourself and follow your passion and/or lead with your talent/ability.  Just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.  Just look at the history of mankind and you will easily come to the conclusion this is not true.  If the world was run by naysayers we would still probably be living in caves and dying before we reach the age of 30.  The biggest obstacle to progress is our own thinking.

The next time you find yourself thinking about a better way of doing something or elevating your personal/professional status, go ahead and think through how to get it done, come up with a plan, and then do it.  Of course, you should solicit feedback from those around you, but filter this information based on who it is coming from.  Pay the closest attention to the input from others who have actually achieved something with their lives.  Don’t be unduly influenced by the always available crop of naysayers.  Do your best to surround yourself with “can do” people who will properly balance reality against opportunity and potential.    Listen hard to what the latter group has to say, then look in the mirror, check your gut, and move forward anyway, if it still makes any sense whatsoever. What’s the worst that could happen?  Even if things don’t always turn out as planned, you are building your character, learning from your mistakes and better equipped to be successful the next time.  It’s your life, live it proactively!  Avoid the naysayers….and move forward in the direction of your future happiness.

Leadership Thought #346 – Are You Listening?

Most people I know aren’t good listeners. They are more focused on what they think and what they have to say about something rather than actually listening to what’s being said. I have a colleague who states that as a leader you need to “listen until it hurts” and I completely agree with him.  It’s basic human nature that the level of satisfaction any of us have with a given conversation is directly related to how well we feel the other party was actually listening to what we had to say.  Except when we are in a classroom no one really enjoys being lectured to or talked at.

The number one complaint I get when I interview employees is the general sense that there is a lack of good communication.  When you drill down on this issue it’s not so much that important information isn’t being communicated but more a case of the dialogue being a one way street from the top down. For people to feel fully vested in something they need to feel that their voice has been heard in the deliberative process.  They need to feel like their opinion matters in the wide scheme of things.

The best leaders learn how to master the art of effective listening.  They fight their impulse to always dominate the conversation.   Instead of seeing themselves as the go to person on all significant decisions, they learn to ask really good questions, listen to the answers and facilitate constructive dialogue among the affected parties.  They make people feel like their opinion matters.  They also leverage the expertise/talents of others to make sure the best possible decisions are being made weighing all the important variables and other relevant considerations.

Never limit your organization’s capability to what only you know or feel about an issue.  Always strive to broaden your feedback loop and tap into the collective and unique talents of your people including your clients.  I’ve met some very smart people through the years who have only ever gotten so far in their careers because of their inability to listen and learn from others (who they often deem less intelligent than they are).  Life rewards people who listen well and build consensus. It inevitably frustrates people who think they know it all and have the market cornered on good ideas.

Leadership Thought #300 – Never Get To the Point Where You Think You Know It All

I often meet business owners/leaders who think they have it all figured out.  Whenever this happens a red flag goes up for me right away.  The best leaders I know are in a constant learning mode.  They are very aware of what they don’t know and need to learn.  They soak up information like a sponge and are energized by new thoughts and ideas.   Leaders who are unwilling to admit their own shortcomings or lack of knowledge are eventually confronted with the very reality they are ignoring.  It may take time, but it always happens.   It’s even worse if they are completely unaware of where they fall short and end up getting blindsided.  In leadership positions, ignorance is not bliss.

Leaders aren’t supposed to know everything, but they are supposed to be highly inquisitive and always in search of a better way of doing things.  A good leader is always asking questions.   They intuitively know that their organization is just a reflection of them.  It stands to reason that if they are getting smarter, then the organization is becoming more intelligent as well.   Smart people are also attracted to other smart people and want to work in an environment that cultivates ongoing learning and development.  It becomes much easier to recruit talent if they feel they will not only get better by working for you but also have a say in the future direction of the company.

“Know it alls” were annoying in grade school and this only gets amplified in adulthood and the workplace.  No one wants to be engaged in a long term one way dialogue with another person.  The luster eventually wears off as you realize the other person has no real interest in what you have to say or what others think.  The moment you feel you have it all figured out as a leader and that everything you disagree with is a fad or wrongheaded ,then it’s time to sell your company and/or do something else. 

Most leaders need to reinvent themselves every 5-7 years to keep their company vital and competitive.   You don’t make progress by standing still or looking to the past for answers.  It also helps if you broaden rather than narrow your sources of information.  Innovation requires questioning what you are doing and why you are doing it.  The best way to ensure this happens is to be in a constant learning mode and encouraging constructive feedback.

Leadership Thought #199 – Encourage Constructive Feedback

Many leaders often have a hard time getting real honest feedback about their performance.  There are many reasons for this, but fear is usually the primary obstacle.  Most people have a hard time commenting critically to others who have the ability to directly influence their work situation.  While some leaders I’ve met through the years certainly justify this fear, the majority of them would much rather hear the truth (or someone else’s version of it) rather than walk around in a bubble with no contrary view of reality.  They are smart and self-confident enough to know this is important.  They also know it is happening anyway just indirectly or behind their backs.

As a leader you have to model the behavior you want to see and take steps to change this dynamic:

  • First, this means actually asking for feedback and encouraging different points of view;
    • When challenged don’t slip into defensive or explanatory mode but rather become inquisitive and seek to understand the other position
    • When you are wrong, accept it and admit it
  • Personally acknowledge you don’t have all the answers, but commit yourself and your team to asking the right question to get at the best solutions
  • Commit to hiring and promoting people on your management/leadership team who are smarter than you and push them to push you
    • avoid/fire sycophants and “yes men”
  • Encourage constructive conflict in your management meetings although keep the conflict focused on the issue not the personalities
  • Establish a continuous quality improvement mindset throughout the organization where work teams and individuals are expected to challenge the status quo and report back their results
    • Reward people who get better results and change what’s not working
  • Create institutional vehicles that establish regular two way communicationwith the field or front lines (this includes both employees and customers) and acknowledge and then act on the information
    • Anonymous survey instruments seem to work best with employees
    • Employee and customer focus groups are also effective
  • Seek out a coach, mentor and/or peer group that will  provide objective feedback and push you to achieve the results you set out to achieve

To some extent those in positions of authority will have to always deal with the power dynamic related to their position.   Power can be exercised in many ways, but is most effective when it is used judiciously to create an environment of accountability, trust and honesty.  High performing leaders always strive to achieve the best outcomes regardless of who gets challenged and/or who gets the credit.

Daily Leadership Thought #143 – Honesty Shouldn’t Be Optional

I’ve seen more damage done in organizations and families by people saying what they think the other person wants to hear rather than telling them the truth.  The whole concept of “white lies” has become commonplace and most people go through life telling them on a daily basis. Instead of dealing with realty (or at least our version of it) we prefer to not to risk the discomfort and awkwardness of being honest.  You see it everywhere: parents praising kids for mediocrity or even worse failure; family members supporting decisions they disagree with; friends saying something is okay when it really is not; employees pretending to buy-in to ideas they don’t agree with; bosses espousing confidence in strategies they are unsure of, etc.

The problem with not being truthful is that it often comes back to haunt you.  This usually happens in several ways: 1) you slip up and the truth leaks out anyway making you look like a hypocrite; 2) you try and bottle your true feelings up inside which never works long term and ultimately ends up with a blow up at an inopportune time (and usually the result of an unrelated issue); 3) you knowingly watch others suffer the consequences of bad decisions/actions and end up resenting them for it; 4) your bond with the other person withers rather than strengthens over time as the secret forms a chasm between the two of you; and 5) you suffer the collateral damage and inner turmoil of being disingenuous.

We’ve all heard the old adage that “if you tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you’ve said.” I’ve found this to be true in my own experience.  It can be quite embarrassing to be caught in a lie.  In addition, the problem with any behavior is that it can become a habit if you are not careful.  If you become comfortable with not being truthful, people eventually pick up on it and stop believing what you have to say.   You run the risk of being perceived as a superficial person lacking depth and integrity.

I’m not advocating you go out of your way to hurt other people’s feelings or use honesty as a license to be mean-spirited.  You should always check your true intentions before providing feedback.  After all, most of your comments are formed on the basis of opinions not facts and opinions can be wrong.  Some things are better left unsaid.  However, when another person seeks your advice and counsel be honest with them.  Just make sure you confirm with them that this is what they want.  Don’t feign support for ideas/decisions you don’t believe in.  When you are asked a direct question give a truthful (and always respectful) answer.  You owe that to your fellow human beings and yourself.   Being honest may cause bumps in the ride of life at times, but long term the journey will be much easier to navigate.

Daily Leadership Thought #101 – 8 Steps To Avoid Impulsive Decision Making

I meet a lot of people in my line of work who pride themselves on their “gut level decision-making.”  Rather than striving to make the most informed decision they trust their own experience and judgment to drive the organization forward.  In my experience, they need to be careful that they don’t end up driving the business or their life off of a cliff or into a dead-end.  I certainly respect personal experience and there are some people who definitely have a knack for making good “seat of the pants” decisions, but experience and confidence alone, are not enough to consistently grow a company or lead a life.   At some point you run out of answers and/or luck.

There is certainly a place for being impulsive and trusting your intuition.  We’ve all have examples of being forced to make tough decisions with limited information and time.  However, more often than not this pressure is self-inflicted.  Thankfully, most of us don’t operate in a battlefield environment where all you have is your training, experience and gut.  I urge you to take the following 8 steps before jumping into any major business or life decision:

1) Consult colleagues and peers who have previous experience with the issue or a similar type issue – look for examples you can learn from;

2) Solicit feedback from people who will be directly affected by the decision;

3) Take some time to carefully think through the pros and cons of the issue/decision and then rank the top five in each category based on impact and likelihood to happen;

4) Consider the worst possible outcome and what you would do should this happen;

5) Make sure the decision is aligned with your core values as a person and you truly “believe” it is the right thing to do;

6) Estimate the time, costs and skills required to be successful and then increase this by 25%  and then assess whether or not you can carry the burden – do your financial due diligence;

7) Make sure you have the personal capacity to provide the leadership required and a plan to address any potential knowledge or performance gaps;

8 ) Have an exit strategy – what would make you pull the plug?

I know this all sounds like considerable effort, but it is worth it.  Time spent on the front end will save you on the back-end.  I realize not every decision is a major one and you may shortcut some of the steps some of the time.  However, it is almost always better to think before your act.

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