Thursday, June 20, 2013

Will Your Leadership Put Your Organization on the Front of the Washington Post?

When I started working for non-profits twenty years ago, the guiding principle for everything was "Would we be embarrassed if this ended up on the front of the Washington Post?"  It is a simple rule, but it works.

Let's face it, there are times when you can explain why you are doing something with very logical, rational, productive, and economic reasons and so you feel like it might be okay to go ahead.  Honestly, my rule is even if I can explain something I do not want to put my organization in the place of needing to explain anything.  If I have to explain it for people to understand, it probably is not the "right" course of action.

So why are we seeing so many things on the front of the Washington Post that are embarrassing to individuals and organizations?  Do they not know about this simple rule?  Or is sheer fear for organizational survival (and individuals to survive in an organization) pushing people away from this rule?

If you want to lead your organization in a values-based way, you need to create that culture by valuing those who give you perspectives you do not have.Think about your staff.  Is the pressure on them to do things so strong that people are afraid to say no or voice a contrary opinion?  Worse yet, are you creating this culture without even knowing it?  Think about this, when was the last time someone said to you "we may not want to do that because..." and how did you react to that person.  (HINT: If you are a leader and you haven't heard that in the last 24 hours you have a problem.)

Leaders who value ideas and ideals and who have guiding values create cultures with the same.  Leaders who are looking for loopholes and people to justify what they want, create cultures where that is what they get.

There are many times, as a leader, that you may have an amazing idea and tell those who work for you, "we should..."  If they do not come back to you and say, "I heard you say X and I want you to know that X will cost Y in terms of dollars, staff time, or both" your employees are blindly acting and not independently applying the Washington Post test, the stated corporate values, or ideals.  This is very dangerous.  As a leader, you cannot know everything that is going on.  If your people do not trust you enough to give you relevant information when it is needed, you will eventually end up on the front of the Washington Post.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone justify their behavior by hiding behind a regulation, guideline, or statute's loophole.  Let me tell you a little secret, these things are written by humans and they are not perfect.  They have loopholes.  It does not take a genius to find it and exploit it.  If the problem is too severe, a new rule will usually be created to close the loophole.  That also will be written by humans, and again, it will not be perfect.  The US Tax Code is as big as it is and there is an entire industry of people employed around this continuing battle.  The fact of the matter is, not everyone values the idea of citizens financing the government (or how the government is using those funds) and so there will always be those for whom not paying taxes is their highest value.  Knowing that others are not paying their share slowly erodes at others' incentive to keep up.

I had the opportunity to work with an organization this weekend where the members are united behind a common purpose.  Everything from the corporate messaging to the volunteer management is checked on the common ideals and values of the members.  I would actually love to have the Washington Post do an article about how they are taking a corporate policy that is rule-based and encouraging members to understand not only the rule, but the purpose behind the rule (the WHY) and to act in accordance with the WHY (and the values) even when they could act otherwise and still be in compliance with the letter of the rule.  In this case, the rules relate to the health and dignity of the members.  The organization is encouraging the members to place the health and dignity of others above all else even if no rules are being broken.  This organization is encouraging members to consider their actions in light of a higher ideal.  This is such an amazing concept and yet, as I look around, it is so foreign in our modern-day life.

In any circumstance, the more aligned your values are with those behind a rule, the less likely you are to look for a loophole.  And as long as people are searching for loopholes (in anything) they will find them whether it is the Tax Code or The Washington Post test.  If you want to lead your organization in a values-based way, you need to create that culture by valuing those who give you perspectives you do not have.

What culture have you created?  When was the last time you stood up for a principle even though no actual rules were being broken?  What was the reaction?  Would you quit your job if faced with a conflict between your direction and your values?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Do You Struggle to Keep Between the Lines?

Living life is more like driving a boat than driving a car. When you are driving a car you must stay inside the lines. When you are driving a boat you pick something in the distance and steer towards it.

I was spending time with a friend I hadn't seen in years and I said this.  I've been thinking about it since.  On so many levels, I realize that the harder I try to keep my life "between the lines" of the path I have planned out the harder life is.  When I pick an end goal and keep open to opportunities that arise, things seem to fall into place.  Does that make me a slacker or procrastinator?  Maybe not.  I recently attended a lecture where the speaker said the days of "simple" strategic planning are gone and leaders must become adept at scenario planning.  When you plan for multiple scenarios, you are able to jump on opportunities that you might otherwise have missed if you were tied to one plan.

From a business perspective, where strategic plans are developed for multiple years at a time what will this look like?  Will it make leaders look less powerful if they admit they cannot control external factors?  Will they look noncommittal?  How will groups that struggle to come to consensus on one plan be able to agree to multiple courses of action and criteria for each one to be elevated?  Will board meetings start to look like the pick-a-plot books we read as children?  Will smaller organizations become more profitable because they are inherently more adaptable?

On an individual basis, this method is very appealing to me.  After all, there is a third option of doggie paddling in the middle of a lake that is the equivalent of being aimless in life.  Think about the boat, you are picking an end goal.  It is off in the distance and sometimes you won't be able to go in a straight line if something comes in your path.  You make a course adjustment to avoid the barrier and get back on track as soon as possible.  It might be the equivalent of accepting a developmental assignment at work because someone believed you had potential or networking with people in an area in which you have a common interest.  You don't know what you will learn, but you know that the experience will broaden your scope of understanding at the very least.

What does your life plan look like?  Do you look back on more opportunities missed than you would like?  Do you have a concrete idea of what your future will look like or a general idea that could be the combination of unknown permutations of qualities?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thank You for What You Do

Have you ever had one of those nights where you wake up in the middle of the night and worry about something completely unrealistic and out of your control?  I did.  Last night.  And this morning was rough.  And toddlers sense that type of thing so my son had a rough morning as well.  And I was scheduled to teach my fourth new content class in six days this afternoon.  Think you know where this is going?  I sure did this morning, and boy was I wrong.  Indulge me for just a minute.

Later than I would even care to admit, I finally dropped my son off at day care.  As usual, his classmates (all but one little boys and all energetic beyond belief) made me laugh and quickly remember that Jackson is the important one in my family.  (They like to welcome Jackson, start playing with him, and then look at me and tell me bye, bye.  I am thankful that he loves it there so much and luckily do not have an easily bruised ego.)  As I was walking to the metro, I tried to gear myself up for the day ahead and was struck with the thought..."what do you do when you have these days and your job is to watch 9 toddlers all day?"  And just like that, my perspective started to shift.

Then, during my class, I had the extreme honor of teaching to two people that have one of those jobs that may involve dealing with the aftermath of a person's death on a regular basis.  And yesterday that very thing occurred and they were discussing it at break.  Once again, this time with a little more force, I was struck with the thought..."what do you do when you have these days and your job is dealing with the aftermath of a person's death?"  I was physically shaken with relief at this point, to the extent that I am pretty sure everyone in the class could see it.

And one of those class members and I shared a very special bond.  Her husband and my father were both members of the military's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team.  You know, the men and women who take apart bombs for a living?  And I spoke to her about growing up knowing what my dad had done but not really understanding it until I was in my 30's, volunteering for the USO, and walked into the hospital room of an injured EOD man with a picture of him and his daughter on the wall that looked exactly like a picture I have of my dad and I.  You know the drill..."what do you do when you have these days and your job is to take apart bombs and save others' lives?" flashes through my head.  I thought to myself that I am so thankful that my job is so easy and felt a little guilty about it.

And then as I am talking to my mom, telling her about my day and how easy my life is, I mention that it is good to have four new-content classes under my belt in six days.  And I hear a subtle intake of breath on the phone that makes me think she is thanking her lucky stars she doesn't have my job.  Just for the record, knowing that I was teaching today was the only thing that kept me going today because I was looking forward to it so much and it is so fulfilling to me.

So what I figured out today, is that if you are really lucky, as I am, there is something about your job (or your family or your community or all three) that drives your passion.  Something that makes you keep going even when you have a rough day.  And all jobs require some special skills that only certain people have.  And that I am so thankful for the people around me who make the world go round without my appreciating (or sometimes even noticing) what they do every day.

What is it about what you do (either professionally, for your family, or for your community) that drives your passion?  Who would you like to thank if you could for their contribution?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Shaking Up Your Routine

In the past week my routine has been shaken and more is coming over the next two weeks.  Instead of stressing me out, it has actually energized me!  From the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) perspective, I have a preference for Perceiving.  In other words, always searching for more information rather than pushing for closure, spontaneity, and starting projects.  Like seemingly everyone in the Washington, DC area, I am usually tightly scheduled around a constant routine.  Teaching three new classes in less than a week and preparing for two new volunteer commitments has challenged me to stretch into new areas and use old skills with a new group of people.  Both things are extremely rewarding to me, in large part because of my Perceiving preference.

So how does a person with a Perceiving preference function in a predictable routine?  For me, there are things that have to happen at certain times.  There is barely enough time to get my work in during the hours my son's school is open when you count in commuting time.  For me, I am constantly striving to learn new things at work, volunteer my time with people who share similar values when I can, and learn new things with my son.  Right now, I would say I am at an all time high with all three and I usually don't even mind that they all seem to fall into a fairly predictable routine.  But when that routine is shaken there just seems to be a little extra spring in my step.  (For clarification, getting food poisoning and being sick for three days is not the kind of shaken routine I like.  What I like are those shaken routines where you are active and productive just in a new way.)

What does shaking up your routine do to you or for you?  Is it a bit of a buzz similar to the feel of a triple shot mocha from Starbuck's or does it feel like a weight on your shoulders?  How do you help yourself balance the push for closure and the need for spontaneity to make sure you are able to handle multiple types of situations that come along?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Engagement is a Personal Choice

Which came first - the chicken or the egg?  Increasing employee engagement has always been an organizational goal (it increases productivity and decreases costly turnover).  As times get harder and we have to ask people to do more with less and take furlough days we seem to also be pushing our managers to increase employee engagement.  Those who know me may think that this last sentence is dripping with sarcasm.  Actually, the more I think about it, maybe not so much.

Two recent campaigns at my condo building make me think that there really is more to engagement than an external push.  A few months ago, fed up with the conflicting information our owners had received from Harris Teeter and the condo board, an owner (Sarah) put together a simple form letter, left it on the concierge desk, obtained 400 signatures, and took them to the Arlington County Board to advocate for them to clear the way for Harris Teeter to move back into our building after a flood last year (when we were being told that the county was holding the rebuild up).  The board, kindly and publicly, let the owners know that they had cleared the way two months prior.  Within 48 hours, Harris Teeter had publicly committed to a time frame to move back in and work began within a few weeks.  One owner represented over 400 engaged owners and put the facts out to the public and caused action where none had been taken in almost a year.

Today I read a story on my condo's informal group today about an important vote that is occurring in August and they are struggling to get proxy votes.  The first I heard about this was as an aside two days ago from our management company.  Unlike the Harris Teeter situation, if this vote does not go through there will be a financial impact to each owner.

So why the difference in owner engagement between having a grocery store in our building and receiving an assessment?  Do we all care more about easy food access than our own cash?  I seriously doubt it.  Do we need to have Sarah as our board President if we want anything to ever be done right.  Personally, I would advocate yes, but I don't think that entirely explains the difference in engagement.

I think in every situation in our lives, we make a single decision to engage or disengage.  I would argue that Sarah disseminated great information in her usual pleasant and energetic manner and made it very easy for people to decide to engage.  Our board, over the last six years, has continuously disregarded owner concerns, publicly berated those who try to raise real issues, and withheld critical information.  Many well-intentioned owners have beat their heads against brick walls trying to make a positive difference in our community only to end up completely exhausted and cynical.  I have watched some dear friends try and on more than one occasion completely withdrawn from the entire thing because I didn't have that fight in me.  I made a conscious decision to disengage.

There are people in our history who never take no for an answer and find away around obstacles rather than stopping at them.  They are engaged regardless of the environment in which they are operating.  So the external environment cannot be the only determining factor.

Engagement and Disengagement are not in and of themselves right or wrong.  My mother used to say, "if all your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it, too?"  Granted this was before bungee jumping became popular, but her point was essentially, sometimes you need to make the decision for yourself to disengage from what those around you are doing.  Just like there are times you need to make the decision to engage when all those around you have given up.  (And no that doesn't mean I am running for condo board President, but I will sign my proxy.)

So that brings us back to leadership.  Yes, we can create negative situations in which people decide that it is in their best interest to disengage.  And yes, we can create incentive structures in which people decide that it is in their best interest to engage.  But the decision for an employee to engage or disengage at the office is ultimately that of the employee.  So what can a good leader to do?

  • Notice whether individual employees are engaged or disengaged.  If you have to wait for an annual survey to tell you the answer to this question you are not an engaged leader.
  • Work with engaged employees to capitalize on their engagement.  Especially in rough times, if you have an engaged employee you need to be developing that enthusiasm and energy!
  • Work with disengaged employees to find out what they need to be engaged.  Even in these times, it may not be more money.  But you will never know unless you ask.  (And asking on that generic annual survey does not count.  Nor do "Town Hall Meetings" where you do all the talking about why they need to do more with less and take furlough days.)
Engagement starts with the employee choosing to engage.  A leader's job around employee engagement is to reward engagement and to work individually with disengaged employees.  The same is true for volunteer engagement, political engagement, and educational engagement because at the core, engagement is a personal choice.  

Do you agree or disagree?  What else can a leader do to turn the tide?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wherever You Are

There is a song on my playlist that can instantly slow me down and center me, wherever I am.  Ironically, it is the acoustic version of "Wherever You Are" by Jack Ingram.  I like the acoustic version because it reminds me of a USO Visit I participated in where he and his band sang to a soldier with cancer and her husband who were in DC without their four children fighting against everything to get through their challenge.

This song means something completely different to me than it means to most.  It reminds me of how lucky I really am.  How generous some people are with their time and talent.  How strong some people are (the soldier).  What true love (the husband's) really looks like.  What a few minutes of your time can do for other people.  How challenges can be met head on.  And to never, ever, ever give up.

Today I needed that centering.  It was a great day.  I taught two new classes and I was really pleased with the way they went.  But I was starting to feel like the world is moving at warp speed and I needed to slow down and focus on where I am, where I am going, and how I want to get there.  (Talk about irony, today's first class was about developing an Individual Development Plan!)

In a serendipitous way, I noticed through e-mails and Facebook posts that several other friends are similarly balancing these fast-moving, life-changing, full-boar lives.  So tonight's post is dedicated to all of you out there who laugh when people say "I can't keep up with you," because you secretly know that some days you can't even keep up with yourself.  Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, here are just a few quick ways to slow down, center, and regroup.

Walk around the building or block.
Hold on to a small trinket that reminds you of someone close to you long enough to see their face in your mind.
Engage your mind in something completely off topic for about three minutes - no more than five.  (A song, a puzzle, a magazine article, a social media site.)
Reread an old e-mail thanking you for outstanding service.  Keep them in a special folder in Outlook or on your desk where you can find them when you need them.
Eat a snack or meal (depending on the time of the day).  Today, I literally went to lunch at 3 but it really helped.
Verify your schedule/project timeline and make adjustments that are needed (and notify people if more time is needed earlier rather than later).
Escape for a few minutes.  Listen to a song with headphones (focus on just the song), close your eyes and meditate, or literally go to a quiet spot and just download.
Reflect on what you're feeling/experiencing in a journal (electronic or paper), what you want to do with the feeling (sometimes it is capitalize on the energy!), and how others are reacting to your energy.  This type of energy can have a positive or negative effect on you and those around you.  Notice the differences between what a positive energy looks like and what a negative energy looks like.

Yell.  Okay, this one you have to do in a private place, but sometimes you just need to get out what a friend calls the primal scream.  And laugh about it and move on.
Open your mind to new possibilities.
Understand what you bring to the table and be proud of it.

Ask someone for help.  Not the "Calgon, take me away" type of ask but the "would you mind doing this for me?" type.  And then make sure you thank them for their help.
Run.  Not away, but get your heartbeat rate up through exercise.  It really does help clear the mind.
Exude confidence, calm, and capable through everything you do.  Even when it is the last thing you feel inside.  If you project it out others will mirror it back to you allowing you to receive it.

Productive people are often called upon or volunteer themselves to manage multiple projects.  That energy that comes with seeing success, productivity, and forward movement can have both a positive and a negative edge.  If you are one of those people, you need to learn to recognize when your energy is bringing positivity and when it is bringing negativity both to yourself and those around you.  Have tactics to move negative energy back into the positive realm and to constantly check in on your plan and progress towards it to readjust as necessary.

What do you do to center yourself when things are moving at warp speed?

Monday, June 3, 2013

What is a Weakness?

Most organizations have a standard list of competencies that they expect leaders to have.  Every book on leadership will list the competencies that the author feels are critical to success.  Yet every successful leader has had their own strengths and weaknesses.  So how do you develop yourself for leadership success?

Divide your list of competencies up into three categories: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Career Derailers. We know that you want to maximize and develop your strengths and fix any career derailers.  But what about the weaknesses?

If they are completely unrelated to the job you have now or want to have next, you can pass on focusing on them, for now.  But when you are ready to round out your portfolio, I suggest you start with cultivating and developing (and listening to) those who have strengths in the areas you are weak.  Yes, you could spend hours learning a new skill.  And if it is important to future success, you probably should have a working knowledge.  However, by developing and listening to someone who has that as a strength, you learn from them while they learn from you.  You also avoid the common mistake of setting up a straw man argument to easily disregard that which you don't truly understand.  This requires a great amount of trust on your part so the harder you work to develop good people the stronger your portfolio will be.

If you constantly develop and listen to people who are just like you, you are just hearing echoes of your own thoughts.  By developing and listening to people who are not like you, you are closing the gaps in your team's ability to perform.  Think about it from this perspective, if you were a pitcher turned coach, would you hire only pitchers because you know how important they are?  Ditto on the violin player turned conductor.  Every true team leader knows you need to have your bases covered and all the instruments in the orchestra to truly succeed.

So what is a weakness?  It is simply a gap you need to fill.  Not necessarily by your own study, but by a recognition of the value of the perspective and the cultivation of those with that strength.

What gaps do you need to fill?  Who do you know with strengths in that area?