Saturday, December 11, 2010

Busyness as a Form of Laziness

It is clear the future holds great opportunities. It also holds pitfalls. The trick will be to avoid the pitfalls, seize the opportunities, and get back home by six o'clock.
-- Woody Allen

A lot has been written about work/life balance and it stems from the general perception that our work and personal life are essentially separate and that they should be kept in balance (of note, in these discussions I've never heard anyone say their PERSONAL time was out of balance).

Of course, the Woody Allen quote above wasn't necessarily addressing the idea of work/life balance, but I think it's a great way to illustrate the perception that the ideal work/life balance is to overcome the day's challenges and be home by six.

The reason why there's a lot of conversation around balancing life and work is that many of us allow work demands to take priority over personal relationships, health, diet, spiritual development and leisure.

Virtually all of us do this on occasion -- when a major deadline is looming, when we take on more projects than we can handle, a crisis hits, etc. For a set period, we "burn the midnight oil," let the email accumulate, put the phones on "do not disturb," tell our friends we can't get together this week and our significant other that we won't be home for dinner. But this isn't a "balance" problem, really. It's doing what's necessary to address a short-term challenge.

The problem, of course, is when this behavior becomes a lifestyle, where we've crossed the line into work addiction or neurosis. When you avoid personal life this way, there's usually something or someone you're trying to avoid, such as a bad marriage, boredom or basic loneliness. Working late seems like a valid excuse -- but really just a rationalization -- for avoiding the problem.

But aside from temporary overload or chronic work addiction, I think more often many of us suffer from what I call "busyness as a form of laziness" -- a subtle form of procrastination. It's a (perhaps not fully conscious) choice not to prioritize or focus, to instead continuously check email, get sucked into social media, organize, create or catch up on projects that won't advance major business or personal goals, not delegate tasks that others should be doing, etc. We're worn out from all the activity, but don't seem to have much to show for it.

It's not that we don't know how to prioritize our time or know what activities are truly important versus "busy work." In fact, we may know exactly where our time is best spent and post personal and professional goals clearly in writing with key performance indicators on calendars and checklists. We've read all the productivity books and know about the four quadrants from Steven Covey's First Things First. We're goal-setters and strategic thinkers, by golly.

So if we know what we're supposed to do, why don't we do it? I find for me, fear is generally at the root of it. I'm not engaging in the important activities that will advance my goals out of fear of failure or fear of success and using "too busy with other things" as an excuse for not doing the important work.

To me this means that clarity in itself is not enough. Clarity must be accompanied by disciplined execution. And part of that discipline is developing an awareness of when "busyness as a form of laziness" is cropping up. Am I choosing busy work? Am I avoiding taking the actions that will advance my personal or business goals out of fear? What is it exactly that I'm afraid of?

Fulfilling a long-term vision means not only establishing with clarity what's important, but identifying and addressing what fears and activities masking those fears may be preventing you from acting on your vision.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Make Marmalade and Scrub the Floor

"I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It's amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor."
-- D.H. Lawrence

A frequently quoted saying that I've found true in my own experience is "mood follows action." A key element of leadership to me, then, is the ability to take right action (or sometimes ANY action) in spite of mood.

A negative mood can be turned around by "making marmalade and scrubbing the floor." Simply by changing our focus from ourselves, our fears, doubts and anxieties onto simple, productive action, we can break the grip of negative thinking -- if only for the moment.

In a previous post entitled "A Leader Manages The Mood of An Organization" I described various ways in which the entire "mood" of an organization directly reflects the mood of the top leadership.

That post begged the question, "So when I'm leading, does that mean I need to be in a good mood all the time?" In a general sense, yes. That is precisely what it means.

It doesn't mean you can and should feel good all the time -- or that you shouldn't display dissatisfaction with unacceptable performance -- but when in front of others who look to you for leadership and guidance, consistency of mood is important. If you've ever worked for a moody boss, you know how stressful it is. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. And in this case, that's not a good thing.

So, if I'm going to the office and I'm in a negative mindset, should I go back home? Maybe, but that's not always possible or advisable. A better path is to focus on right action. What's the next positive action I can take? Think of any action, no matter how small, that will make a difference for yourself or someone else.

Take an action step toward executing on one of your business or personal goals. Maybe it's a goal you've been procrastinating on. Even a very small action can bring a sense of accomplishment if you've spent months "thinking" about a goal but haven't actually done anything to act on it.

Maybe you've been letting papers pile up on your desk. Simply organizing them and cleaning your desktop is a productive action that will lead to a change in mood.

If all else fails, a friend of mine recommended the next time I'm in a negative mood to look at myself in the mirror and repeat the following phrase out loud: "This is serious stuff." Each time I say it, emphasize with emotion a different word in the sentence: i.e., THIS is serious stuff. This IS serious stuff. This is SERIOUS stuff. This is serious STUFF. I guarantee, if you do this, you will not be able to keep a straight face for long.

There are many types of marmalade-making actions. The most important thing is to do them.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leaders Discern What to Take and What to Leave Aside

Fushan Yuan Said: "Nothing is more essential to leadership and teachership than carefully discerning what to take and what to leave aside."
-- Zen Lessons translated by Thomas Cleary

In a crowded emergency room medical personnel conduct triage, sorting patients according their relative need for medical attention, focusing on those with the greatest need first, then attending to the rest. To be effective leaders, we must conduct triage on our daily plans and activities.

Achieving objectives and meeting deadlines requires focus. If you were the chief surgeon in the ER whose skills were required only for the most critical cases, would you waste time treating a kid with a head cold? Of course not. More than a waste of time, your decision could cost the life of a severely injured patient needing immediate attention who only you were qualified to treat.

Imagine yourself the surgeon and your strategic goals and objectives are the critical patients in the room. Busy work is the kid with a cold. While most of us don't face daily decisions on where to focus that are literally life and death in nature, if we took time to visualize ourselves in this ER scenario, would we choose our tasks differently?

Productivity and effectiveness are directly related to one's ability to discern the essential from the unnecessary. This requires paying attention to what you're doing, asking: why am I doing this? Will this activity advance me toward my stated objective? If not, set it aside.

It is tempting to engage in activities that make us feel like we're accomplishing something. Sometimes it just feels good to do something that we know isn't important but will produce a tangible result, here and now. Often, the really important tasks do not provide an immediate result, which makes them less appealing.

Another question one might ask is: if I didn't do this at all, would it really matter? It may feel good to clean out a filing cabinet that's full of obsolete documents. They're just taking up space after all. But let's say you don't need to use the filing cabinet or the space it takes up anytime soon. Those obsolete files have been sitting there just fine for a long time bothering no one. Leave them alone. They'll still be obsolete tomorrow. And the next day.

Some powerful lessons come from the Emergency Room triage metaphor if we relate them to where we spend our time as leaders:

• Focus first on that which requires critical attention
• Attend only to tasks that you alone are qualified to perform
• The kid with a cold will live without any treatment at all; he doesn't even belong in the ER

Friday, August 6, 2010

Leaders Make Themselves Dispensible

"Whatever you set your mind to do, you always should make the road before you wide open, so that all people may traverse it. This is the concern of a great man.

If the way is narrow and perilous, so that others cannot go on it, then you yourself will not have any place to set foot either."

-- Zen Lessons, Translated by Thomas Cleary

One of my personal goals as a leader is to make myself as dispensible as possible. This goes against the grain of my natural and human desire to be important, needed and, of course. . . indispensible. It is a leadership paradox: in order to be a truly indispensible leader, you need to make yourself dispensible.

Leadership requires getting things done through others, not doing everything yourself. Doing it yourself is not leadership -- no one is following, no one is learning and no one is growing from the experience of doing whatever it is you're doing.

A challenge I face -- and I know I'm not alone among the ranks of business owners --is that I often serve as a bottleneck in my organization. For example, a contract sits in my inbox needing my signature but I keep putting it off due to other, more urgent items needing attention. Meanwhile, I have a staff member who is stuck. She cannot take the next steps she needs to take to get a task done because the contract in my inbox must be signed before she can move forward.

If I were simply to train her on what to look for in contracts, then when satisfied with her competence in reviewing them, empower her to submit contracts to me for immediate signature without review (or better yet, sign them herself), I could put an end to the bottleneck. Of course, that would make me dispensible. But that's a good thing.

The quote above speaks to a key element of achieving dispensibility: make the road before you wide open so others may traverse it. To me, that means give them the tools, training and resources to do what you do. Then resist the urge to do it yourself. Let them do it.

In this context, leadership is a constant exercise in letting go. What am I doing now that someone else can do? How do I let go of this and let someone else run with it? In other words, how can I find one more way to be dispensible?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Best Leaders Don't Exist

"The best leaders of all, the people know not they exist. They turn to each other and say, we did it ourselves."
-- Zen Proverb

Invisible leadership is perhaps the most powerful form. It is difficult to practice, however, because we all have an innate desire for personal recognition. It is a well-known management axiom that people support what they help to create. Thus, if leadership is the art of enlisting the aid and support of others to achieve a common goal, then helping others get credit is a critical leadership skill.

I've never been good at tooting my own horn. As a consequence, at various times in life I've fumed when someone else stole the credit for my idea. I think that's a reasonable reaction at the beginning of your career when you need your good work to be noticed by those in a position to promote you. But when you're the one leading, instead of fuming when this happens, you should be celebrating. Job well done. That's invisible leadership.

Effective delegation is another means to invisible leadership. When others take the ball and run with it, the credit for the score is all theirs. Few take note of the coach that called the play or the quarterback that handed off the ball; they just notice the running back that made it to the end zone. If we always gave credit to the play callers, the other members of the team wouldn't be as motivated to score.

Creating an open-minded environment conducive to creativity and innovation from all levels of the organization is another great way to enable people to say "we did it ourselves." Quality management principles posit that the best ideas for continuous improvement come from the line-level worker, not management.

Finally, don't toot your own horn unless there is a specific benefit to the team, not you. Celebrate everyone's contributions except yours. Few people respect leaders that are constantly calling attention to themselves and their accomplishments; in fact, they have the most respect for those that are highly accomplished and yet humble about it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Leaders Keep Good Company

Zhantang Said: "When you seek an associate, it should be one who is worthy of being your teacher, one whom you will always honor and respect, and one you can take for an example in doing things, so there will be some benefit in your association."
-- Zen Lessons, translated by Thomas Cleary

One mark of effective leaders is the ability to choose associates who they believe to be smarter, wiser, or more competent in some way than themselves. It takes courage and confidence to surround yourself with others who may outshine you, but it is also the quickest path to success.

When I'm setting the course for an organization, I don't want to be the smartest guy in the room. It's okay for me to be the one with the vision, who is painting the big picture, but it is my team that should lead the "how" of it. Ultimately, if I'm the one with the vision and also the only one with the tactical knowledge of how to get there, I'll have to serve as both the horse and the charioteer. Clearly not the fastest way forward.

I have something I'm reluctant to post, a dirty little secret of mine. I have a business partner I brought on shortly after I started my business (that's not the secret). The secret is, in many ways I believe he is more effective, more insightful and more competent at doing what we do than I am. There, I've said it.

But I think he would agree that we also both have another dirty little secret. At one point, we hired an individual who was probably better at our jobs than either of us. She helped us through a challenging transition, but she was quickly hired away by a much larger organization with greater opportunities than we had at the time. We still use management tools she developed in her relatively short time with us, so we benefited even though the relationship wasn't long-term.

Effective strategy starts with effective people. As Jim Collins says in Good To Great: "First, if you begin with "who," rather than "what," you can more easily adapt to a changing world. . . Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. . ."

In my mind, the only way to grow is to "hire up." Continually seek more intelligent, more competent and more effective associates.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Asking the Right Questions is the Key to Effective Strategy

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Effective strategy-making begins with questions. Effective tactical plans also begin with questions, but the types of questions used in strategy are different from those used for operations.

Operational questions start with "who," "what," "when," "where," and "how." Who is going to do what by when? Where will it take place? How will we do it?

Strategic questions often begin with "which" and "why" because strategic decision-making is about making choices (which), then justifying (why) you made those choices. Which market? Which product? Which service? Why this market? Why this product? Or Why this service?

In other words, the purpose of strategic questions is to create a framework for leadership to make choices -- strategic choices. Any strategic question you ask should have many possible answers and, ideally, bring forth new information.

A mistake many businesses and non-profit organizations make is to try to be all things to all people. They think more stuff means more value. Not true. With limited resources, the only reasonable strategy is to keep your offerings limited in scope and aimed at your defined constituencies – you can be some things to some people.

Strategic questions are a tool intended to lead you to make strategic choices that put you on the most direct path to your desired future (vision). With this in mind, focus your strategy making efforts first on asking the right questions. The right answers will follow.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Omit Needless Words: Good Advice for Writers and Leaders

I was a journalism major. Our Bible on how to write was Strunk & White's Elements of Style. It's most memorable admonition: "Omit needless words."

The book goes on to say:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

Strunk and White were preaching "Thoughtful Reduction" decades before John Maeda coined the phrase in The Laws of Simplicity.

Applied to communication, both written and spoken, "Omit needless words" is not only good advice for writers but leaders. Our job is to make the complex simple, to articulate a clear vision that staff at any level can understand and implement.

As stated in my post "Haiku Strategy" Google's informal mission statement is: "Don't be evil." It's actual mission statement is: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Both say a lot in a few words about one of the largest and most complex companies on the planet.

The paradox of making communication simpler is that it is really hard work. But that shouldn't stop you. Spend less time crafting the content of the message and more time making it elegantly simple.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

For-Profit Leaders can Learn Something from Non-Profit Leaders

Most of my posts are relevant for all types of organizational leadership, but this time I'm going to focus on a leadership skill more prevelant in the non-profit sector, which is leadership through influence. I contend that for-profit sector leaders could benefit greatly from honing this skill, which is often overlooked in the corporate world, which tends to focus more on motivation through power and position than influence.

One of the hallmarks of most businesses -- despite the lip-service given to having "flatter," matrix style organizational charts -- is heirarchy. You have the CEO at the top of the pyramid with progressively wider layers until you reach the wide base of line-level workers. What distinguishes non-profit from for-profit management is that there are, in fact, two heirarchies -- parallel pyramids, if you will.

One heirarchy is the staff, which matches the for-profit corporate structure just mentioned, and the other is a volunteer heirarchy. At the top of the volunteer pyramid is the elected board of directors, with progressively wider layers of committees, working groups and task forces with the wide bottom layer being the dues-paying members or contributors that support the organization but don't hold a volunteer role.

A unique aspect of non-profit leadership is that the customers (members), not the employees, "own" the organization - although they reap no direct financial benefit from ownership. Furthermore, the volunteer heirarchy is the ultimate authority and has the ability to hire and fire staff and even change the mission of the organization. Thus, staff are employed solely at the will of the volunteers.

The challenge of this structure is that it is staff that best understands the business of the organization, as they run it every day. And it is the staff that is held most accountable for the success of the organization. Yet, staff must follow the dictates of individuals whose leadership positions are part-time (i.e., they have a day job), usually unpaid and temporary -- generally no more than a 1- to 2-year term in a specific role.

And the volunteer leadership is elected, not hired, so there is no means for maintaining true accountability. If a volunteer "checks out," or is acting in a way that is truly harmful to the organization, in many cases, there is little if any recourse available. In some cases, the only course of action available is for the board to request that the individual voluntarily resign. Sometimes they will. Usually, they won't.

While the non-profit sector is perceived by some as a "lesser" profession than the for-profit corporate sector (the thought being the best and the brightest can only be attracted by high salaries and stock options), to be truly effective, I contend non-profit organizations require a much higher standard of staff leadership and management than for-profit entities.


Precisely because of the non-profit CEO's inability to use a paycheck or the ability to hire and fire as a form of motivation within the volunteer hierarchy. To enlist others in the peformance of a common task, non-profit CEOs cannot simply dictate organizational policy because their position is subordinate to the volunteer board of directors. A more nuanced form of leadership is required, where influence, rather then power and position, brings results.

Non-profit CEOs are the ultimate influencer leaders. President Ronald Reagan was famous for saying, "There's no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don't care who gets the credit." Effective non-profit CEOs have that quote tatooed on their foreheads. They must be forever the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. (I've had to bite my tongue more than once when a volunteer leader has taken credit for my idea, saying something like "This is one of the key objectives of my administration.")

This style of leadership requires consensus-building, being able to "sell" your ideas by providing the benefit of your knowledge and experience, building confidence among the volunteers that you have the best interest of the organization at heart and can "see the big picture." This is a form of leadership that is more difficult than handing down policy from the corner office knowing the footsoldiers have to implement it or find another job.

The command and control form of leadership may get results, but what it may not get is commitment and confidence. Leadership through influence, which comes from trust and relationship building gets results, but it also gets commitment and confidence.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Leaders Aren't Special: Don't Be Intimidated

I find at times I am reluctant to call myself a leader. The reason is so many of the books and speakers on leadership talk of it in context to extraordinary leaders in history, such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and others. Or, they focus on elite athletes, winning coaches or CEOs of the world's largest corporations.

Furthermore, the described qualities of a great leader are ideals that most of us are unable to sustain in whole or in part: visionary, passionate, servant, charismatic, influencer, principled, etc. Of course, most of us have known -- and some of you may be -- individuals that deeply embody these qualities. But I think over-romanticizing these qualities of leadership may make us overlook the fact that many great leaders do not have all of these qualities, and in fact may have very few of them.

I think it's also safe to say some of the world's worst leaders had the same qualities we tend to ascribe to great leaders, as well. Hitler, for example, was visionary, passionate, charismatic, influential and principled -- though few today would agree with his vision or principles.

I believe a great leader can be not particularly visionary, even-keeled, introverted and unassuming. You probably know some strong, effective organizational leaders that match this description. They're not dynamic, charismatic or especially passionate in temperament, yet maybe they have integrity or intelligence that others respect and admire.

So, in my view, it's not really personality traits or qualities that define a leader. A leader is really just someone who can enroll others in accomplishing an objective. Leaders in the most basic sense are those who can influence the behavior of others such that willingly they choose to follow them.

Keeping that in mind, one of the key qualities of leadership is the ability to ask. Many people who end up volunteering for a cause, for example, say the only reason they choose to do so was because someone asked them. One of the most basic leadership behaviors, then, is simply asking someone to do something -- that is, making a request.

Now, that may seem obvious, but how often have you found yourself suffering in silence, taking on the entire burden of a project? Because of my perfectionist tendencies and the pride I take in completing a project on my own, one of the hardest things for me to do is ask for help. Yet, I realize, if I want to be a leader, I have to let go of that mindset.

I'm not sure why it's so difficult to ask for help, but for whatever reason, it's not the first thought that comes to mind when taking something on. Interestingly, I find that most times I ask others to join me in a project, they actually want to be a part of it. The reality is, most of us have an innate desire to be of service. So when someone asks for our help, we are flattered and want to contribute.

Leadership doesn't need to be intimidating. It can be as simple as making a request.

Let's talk online! Join the Zen Leadership Circle LinkedIn Group

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Leader Manages the Mood of an Organization

When I was in graduate school I interviewed the CEO of a trade association who was known in the profession as a visionary. He had adopted a unique management structure within his association, among other things. But what I remembered most about the interview was a single statement he made. He said, "It's the job of the CEO to manage the mood of the organization."

When I think about the work environments I have been in over the years, the attitudes of the staff were a direct reflection of the moods and personality of top leadership. Further, the way people behaved in the organization reflected the values of the chief executive.

In an organization I worked for years ago, the CEO believed competition was the best way for the "cream to rise to the top," and he managed the organization according to this personal value.

For example, he purposely created duplicate departments so that staff would compete to shine. It worked insofar as the fittest survived, but it also created an environment where individuals and departments refused to share information with each other in order to maintain their competitive advantage. Staff would falsely take credit for the work of others and would undercut each other doing "whatever it takes" to win.

The negative impact on the staff and on organizational efficiency seems obvious, but it also affected customer service due to confusion about which staff customers should work with since departments were duplicating efforts. Not to mention the staff customers contacted often couldn't answer their questions because they had been kept in the dark by their colleagues who were hording information for personal advantage.

On the other hand, the CEO had a strong personality, strength, unshakable confidence and provided clear direction for the organization. So, in spite of the inefficiencies and dysfunction, as an employee you felt that the organization was strong and moving forward. Thus his values combined with his personality established the "mood" of the organization.

In another company from my past, the general manager, although intelligent and highly skilled, was an unhappy person and brought his mood into the office. He clearly didn't want to be there and when he came in, neither did the rest of us. Job performance and customer service suffered. Ownership identified the problem and he was replaced by an individual that was not as intelligent or technically skilled. But he was enthusiastic, fun to be around and staff looked forward to coming to work when he was there. Profits and customer service quality quickly rose.

To effectively lead an organization, we need to be aware of our attitude and values, how they are passed down, show up in staff behavior and create the "mood" of the organization. If staff aren't demonstrating the values you would like to see, then it's probably time to take inventory of your own values and how you are demonstrating them. Likely, they're following your lead.

If staff attitudes are negative, once again it's time to take a personal attitude inventory. Does that mean as leaders we can't ever be in a bad mood when we're at the office? Yes, it does. If you can't maintain the "mood" you want the organization to have, stay home. Or at least keep your office door closed.

While goals, mission and vision statements are critical for organizational effectiveness, ultimately it's the mood of the organization that determines how effectively it moves forward. And as the leader, YOU manage the mood through your attitudes and values.

Let's talk online! Join the Zen Leadership Circle LinkedIn Group

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Strategic Adaptation

Having a vision is critical. Not straying from the "big picture" - the ultimate desired outcome - is essential to long-term success. But sticking too closely to the letter and detail of a plan can actually take you farther away from achieving your desired outcome.

An oft-cited quote from success expert Brian Tracy states: "When an airplane leaves Chicago for Los Angeles, it is off course 99% of the time. This is normal and to be expected. A pilot makes continual course courrections, a little to the north, a little to the south. The pilot continually adjusts the altitude and throttle. And sure enough, several hours later, the plane touches down at exactly the time predicted."

That is the idea behind strategic adaptation. For leaders, like pilots, most of the flight time the plane is off course. Like a pilot, we must make adjustments to the speed and direction of the plane in order to keep it on course. Yet the beginning and end points are precise, even though the flight path is not.

For an analogy here on the ground, if we are driving and hear of a traffic jam ahead on the road, we will seek a different route that will take us around the jam, but will ultimately take us to our final destination.

So it is with leadership. Strategic adaptation in business means when new information comes along like the a change in weather patterns or news of a traffic jam, we may have to change course. But our final destination (vision) remains unchanged.

Kodak is a good example of a company that applied strategic adaptation. If Kodak had decided to remain committed selling only film cameras as digital cameras came on the scene, rather than strategically adapting with its own digital products and support services, the company might not be around now. The company's vision -- ultimate outcome -- remains the same, but its path changed based on new information.

In my view, strategic focus is far more important than strategic planning. In fact, many strategy thought leaders believe strategic planning is (and has been) dead. Does that mean you shouldn't have a plan? Of course not. But as leaders, we need to keep our eye on the long view. As Steven Covey says, we need to "begin with the end in mind."

With this in mind, we set our flight path for the final destination but consistently correct course as weather patterns and ground conditions change.