Bring Back My Old Inbox

Lately I’ve found myself reminiscing about how much I miss by inbox. Now, I don’t mean my Outlook inbox or the Gmail inbox on my phone. Actually, they’re the problem. It’s the other inbox. What I really miss is the wire basket that, for the first twenty years of my career, sat on the front-left corner of my desk right above the wire out-basket. What I didn’t realize then was the important role it played in my management development, how it served to bind my employees and I together socially and how it helped to maintain a healthy life-work balance for me. Here’s how it worked.

Several times throughout the day my secretary would stop in my office to deliver fresh mail and pick up items I’d put in an inter-office routing envelope for delivery. Inevitably, I’d ask how her day was going and for a short time we engaged in meaningful conversation about how she was doing. Sometimes the conversation was about her office workload while other times it was about events in her personal life. It may have been a bit of unproductive time for both of us but we engaged in face-to-face conversation. That inbox facilitated communication that strengthened the social fabric of our unit and the company.

By the late 80’s I had a PC and was able to schedule my appointments and write and send my own memos. I didn’t need my secretary and I could get a lot more done in less time. Although I could walk a short distance to my colleague’s office, it was faster and easier to send an email. We were more productive, we thought. We also talked less.

That inbox also enabled one of my first and most memorable management development opportunities. At the time, I was a young technician in a small but important unit in a large company. I had been to management development classes but had few opportunities to manage and to practice what I had learned. That was until my boss went on vacation and I was asked to serve in her capacity for a week. That meant that I had to open the mail in her inbox, read important memos, attend meetings and decide what needed immediate action and what could wait until she returned. I was able to experience her job by managing her inbox for five days. That was a meaningful assignment that I thoroughly enjoyed and have not forgotten. Today, with comingled business and personal emails, 24-hour access and the expectation of others that we’re always available, not only would it be difficult to do, but having someone handle my mail during my absence wouldn’t be needed. A developmental opportunity is missed and a new problem is created.

People today tell me all the time that they’ve lost a healthy balance in their lives. Work has crept into every corner of their waking time. It’s growing harder every day to escape the intrusion of work emails or texts. The line between work “on” and “off” has become blurred. That wasn’t the case with my old wire basket. Issues then were no less important to the future of our company than they are today. However, my inbox didn’t go home with me. The company and our problems could wait until the next day.  When I left the office, work turned off and life turned on. We didn’t have another option. We had clear separation and a healthy balance between the two. Time away from work was a time for rest and recharging.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is a wonderful thing and I don’t want to turn back that clock. But we tell ourselves that we’re more productive because we can work when we want or that we can create a better organization if we can conduct business after we’ve left the office. Rarely is that the case. Rather, it serves as a convenient rationalization for the trap we’ve found ourselves in.

Sometimes we need to slow down to go faster. To perform at our best we need good rest every night. For companies to perform at their best their employees need to rest also. Realizing that clear separation is both healthy for associates and for the business, some companies are taking bold steps to develop policies that limit or prohibit what work can be conducted off hours. They develop leaders who delegate effectively and are not missed when they’re gone.

Call me old fashioned if you’d like. I probably am. But I still think we all lost something of ourselves when we gave up our wire inbox for technology that promised to free us from the burdens of work. Company leaders should ask themselves if their employee’s work habits are in their best interests and that of the company’s. If there are doubts, it’s the leader’s responsibility to protect their employees, even from themselves if necessary. Now, has anyone seen my old rotary dial phone?

If you’d like help bringing balance back to your organization contact me off this site and let’s begin the conversation.

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Rethinking Servant Leadership

It seems these days the wires aren’t as hot with servant leadership articles and blogs as they were just a couple years ago. In one way I’m OK with that. In another I’m not. I don’t like it when good concepts are turned into fads. While I have nothing against the attention a fad brings to an issue, it’s disappointing when leaders fail to assimilate the concepts into their culture before moving on to the next “hot” program.

Although the term “Servant Leadership was coined back in the 70’s, the principles have been around as long as the bible and as I’ve said before, real leadership has always been of a servant nature. As social beings we’re naturally wired for it. It’s the model we’re given to build healthy and strong families. So, before another good concept drifts into the past, I thought it would be good to revisit a few principles that we shouldn’t lose.

  1. Servant leaders provide a vision and place a high value on subordinating self to the larger team. They set clear expectations for themselves and others and then ask: How can I help? What do you need to succeed in your role?
  2. Servant leaders support and facilitate those they serve. They’re committed to other’s success and hold others around them to a high, but fair standard of performance. They expect a lot and provide an exceptional level of support and encouragement to those willing to accept the challenge. They also expect others to hold them to the same standard.
  3. Servant leaders actively pursue maximizing the potential in others. Through coaching and opportunities for growth they help others find their place in the organization or outside of it if necessary.
  4. Servant leaders expect others to accept personal responsibility. They don’t coddle and they don’t tolerate helplessness or inaction. They expect everyone to perform up to their potential and encourage everyone to expect the best from their teammates. Failure to do ones part is less of a personal failure than it is a failure to serve the good of the team.
  5. Servant leadership isn’t a one-way street. Leaders don’t settle for being the only servant in the room. They won’t be taken advantage of and expect teammates and others to exhibit the same qualities. They are teachers through instruction and modeling. They expect to create a culture where the people they serve will also serve others. It’s foolish and frustrating to serve others who enjoy being served but refuse to serve others.
  6. Servant leaders don’t dodge or shrink from the tough issues. They challenge the self-serving behaviors and actions of others firmly but with grace and compassion.
  7. Servant leaders are fully aware of their own behavior and response to situations. They understand the influence their style has on others.
  8. Servant leaders know they’re not the smartest people in the room. They are passionate about building a team. They see themselves as conveners of the gifts and talents inherent in others and harness it in pursuit of the organization’s goals.
  9. Servant leaders are not soft or weak. They understand the place for humility in leadership without compromising their own identity. They put themselves in a position of serving others without giving up their role and requirement to lead.
  10. Servant leaders recognize that their leadership style extends beyond the company to include customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. It’s an attitude, not a program, that influences every human interaction the company has.

Fortunately for many companies, this is already common behavior. Unfortunately for others it’s not and they miss out on the powerful benefits a service-style culture can bring. Leading is difficult when it doesn’t flow from our human nature to serve one another. When we all can say we’re leading by the golden rule, we’ll have gotten what we need from servant leadership and once again we can say that it’s just old fashion leadership we’re practicing.

If you’d like to talk about how to create a high performance, caring and compassionate leadership style, reach out to me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Goals, Ethics and Underachievement

OK. I admit it. I’ve been accused more than once of being too optimistic and positive about business outcomes. I know, when I believe we can accomplish something that’s never been done before, I can fall into the trap of not being a realist, not having the truth of why it won’t work. It’s especially the case when it’s been tried before and it didn’t work. Thinking big with a fundamental belief in the greater potential of people and companies is now being referred to by critics as “the cult of positivity”.

A few years ago the Wall Street Journal printed an article titled “The Power of Negative Thinking”. It claimed, “In American corporations, perhaps the most widely accepted doctrine of the “cult of positivity” is the importance of setting big, audacious goals for an organization”. It identified two problems associated with large challenging goals; unethical behavior and underachievement.

It seems to me that unethical behavior to achieve a goal would have more to do with the culture of an organization than the goals themselves. Goals can’t turn good people bad any more than the sight of a bank can turn people into bank robbers. But companies can. Compromising ethics in the pursuit of goals is not an accident, it’s a choice and that choice is deeply rooted in the cultural values and beliefs of the organization.

The WSJ article went on to say that goals may also be the source of underachievement. It cited a study in which New York cab drivers were found to make less fare on rainy days than in good weather. According to the researchers, once they hit their “mental target”, their goal of a good day’s earnings, they went home. This isn’t goal underachievement, its goal achievement and a great example of how small expectations produce small results.

We’ve all experienced it. After a long day at the office, we get home with barely enough energy to get through dinner and then do little except sit in the recliner until we fall asleep. While that’s not always bad, it is an example of what happens when we perform without a higher, more inspiring goal. Don’t be surprised then, when small goals are set for your employees, that once they achieve them they shut down. It’ll look like it’s the limit of what they can do, but more than likely, it’s the limit of what you or they expected of themselves.

It’s reported that “sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst”, a strategy called “defensive pessimism”. This sounds to me like a defense mechanism against the sting of missing a bold target. Under-promise and over-perform. It’s a cultural trait of organizations and individuals to either cover for a lack of confidence and efficacy or to avoid criticism.

Of course, optimistic goal setting must include consideration for the possible outcomes and downsides. Planning for only the best outcome, ignoring the risks and failing to prepare contingencies would be reckless and irresponsible. But expecting the best is absolutely necessary to get the best.

So, if we believe what we read, we have two problems with large, challenging goals fueled with optimism: they contribute to either under performance or unethical behavior. While both claims are entirely possible, it’s crazy to place the blame solely on the bold and aggressive nature of the goals.

 Companies come in all shapes and sizes and their cultures are as unique as fingerprints. Like people, there are good and bad. Let’s not make goals the reason to set our sights low. If you’re truly concerned about potential adverse consequences to very challenging goals, remember, the problem may lie somewhere else. Likely it’s in the belief system of the organization.

Success isn’t luck. It’s not random outcome. If it was, then why plan at all? The odds of success or failure would be the same. Great success results from dreaming beyond the horizons everyone else sees, inventing the paths to get you there and believing in yourself enough to expect it.

It was nearly fifteen years ago that Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good To Great, encouraged business leaders to set Big Harry Audacious Goals (BHAG) as a unifying focal point for team spirit and performance. You’d think that if setting our sights high, sometimes very high, drove unethical behavior and underachievement, someone would have warned our most successful and respected companies about it.

If you’d like to create a culture of high performance individuals who challenge conventional boundaries, respond to the post or use the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Test Your Assumptions When Planning

It’s fall and the time of the year again when most business leaders head to the conference room for their annual planning process. For some it’ll involve new goals and strategies. For others it’ll just be a budget. However you approach it, the process of planning involves a lot of assumptions, many of which are taken for granted. We often give little thought to the assumptions that influence, sometimes in a big way, the direction and distance the business will go in the forthcoming year.

These assumptions are our truth and yet, they’re likely not the truth at all, they’re just assumptions that we’ve elevated to the level of hard facts and then taken for granted. We get locked onto our assumptions and to some extent that’s OK. Assumptions are how we make sense of what we hear and see around us. They provide a framework for our work and allow us to operate in a complex world with new information coming at us from every direction. However, nothing in our world remains constant and if we don’t closely examine the assumptions by which the company runs, we’ll soon find ourselves left behind.

The foundational building blocks of any business plan are the assumptions. They are the undergirding of every strategy, idea and budget. The Rand Corporation defines an assumption as “an assertion about some characteristic of the future that underlies the current operations or plans of an organization.” Certainly market research, competitive analysis, industry research and more are important. But those things are really just input into the conclusions and assumptions we draw from it. Like the report that’s been distributed throughout the office forever that no one seems to need, assumptions have a way of surviving long after their useful life is gone. It’s for these reasons that every planning process should involve some degree of assumption validation. Testing assumptions isn’t a difficult process, but it is a deliberate activity you should include in your planning calendar. There are several simple but important steps to follow.

Seeking Different Assumptions

  1. The first step involves creating the environment where team members feel comfortable and are expected to challenge key assumptions in the business and the plan. Let them know that you’re no longer sure that everything you believe as factual about the company or marketplace is still accurate. This is easier said than done because by definition our assumptions are our truth and when a question is raised about one of them, it’s normal to defer to the subject matter expert in the room, the keeper of the assumption, who will reassure the team that it’s still the case and you can move on to the next question.
  1. Ask yourself – What are the key assumptions that drive the plan, that if inaccurate, would take planning in another direction? These are the assumptions that are central to how the business interacts in the marketplace.
    • What do you really know about customer attitude toward your company?
    • Is there a continuing need for a product or service to remain in the portfolio (we all have some that should go, but we hang on to them thinking we’ll suffer harm if we eliminate them)?
    • What features or services do customers value most?
    • Why do your customers buy from you?
    • Is there a significant customer base?
  1. Once you’ve considered the list of key assumptions, you have to get comfortable with the next question – How do we know? I have a friend who likes to say that in any conversation with an employee or customer, you’re always just two questions away from the truth. The truth is we stop asking too soon. Reflect on the history of each assumption – Where, when and who did it come from. Does it still serve your best interests? The answer to these questions can take some time to answer so it’s good to begin this process early or, better yet, make it a part of communication throughout the year. I’ve seen too many plans forge ahead with old assumptions because there just wasn’t enough time to dig into them further. Even when there was some doubt about their accuracy, pushing it off for another year conveniently took the team off the hook of dealing with the work that might have had to occur if the assumption was proven inaccurate.
  1. Be honest with yourself. If you’re not sure the assumption is accurate but you don’t have the time or desire to dig deeper to find out, say so. At least you’ve got something to follow up on, maybe as a part of the annual plan. Guessing is acceptable so long as you’re willing to bear the risk and potential consequences of the decision.

In summary, don’t get carried away calling into question every assumption. Pick a few big ones that are long in the tooth and take the time to validate their accuracy. In another time you can look at a few others. The worst case would be, you’ve put in time to validate that you’re in touch with the key drivers of your business. That in itself is a pretty good outcome.

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Climbing to New Heights – Acheiving “Nearly Impossible” Goals

Michelangelo said “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our goal is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” Such is the case with many strategic planning processes.  During the annual planning process, goals, strategies, action plans and budgets are developed. It’s a neat and organized process but the implication is that when the goal is set, a plan or at least a fairly solid idea exists for how to deliver the results. Sales organizations know all to well that after they provide a sales forecast they’ll need to answer the question “What’s your plan to get it?”

The problem with this model is that the goals are based largely on what is known today. It satisfies our mind’s need for structure and certainty and enables us to complete the plan. Making matters worse is that compensation and rewards are often tied to the goal. This is certain to result in plans that are safe and achievable, but low in potential results.

High-performance individuals and organizations though, have found that break-through performance is not achieved by an attitude of determination and grit, but rather an attitude of confidence and optimism. They take on opportunities and face challenges larger than they’ve ever seen before, not with the knowledge for how they’ll accomplish it, but with the internal confidence that they’ll grow into it. They’re not intimidated by what might stop other organizations. They hear the same news, live in the same economy and face the same problems, but they do so with a calm resolve and belief that they’ll find the answer. It’s not risky when they know they can do it.

Goals and Motivation
One of the wonderful characteristics of human beings is that we are goal oriented. We are able to achieve great results when we’re motivated. The more attractive and exciting the goals, the more energy and creativity we have to solve them. Goals set in the context of what we “believe” we can accomplish are not motivating goals. In an effort to make goals achievable, we often remove the catalyst to motivation and energy.  When the internal self-efficacy of an organization is low, it’ll expect little of itself. For our own sanity and to avoid disappointment, we won’t let ourselves expect something we don’t believe we can create. Therein lies the big problem with large, seemingly impossible goals. If the expectations and confidence of the organization are low, so will be its reach and results. The goals of the organization will be limited and the creativity and energy of the organization will match what, in its collective mind, it believes it can cause to happen.

Creating Disruption
Setting large goals throws our system out of order. They challenge what we “know” and push us beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone. They send us on a journey where the path and outcome are unknown.  It creates a problem for us, a gap between what we believe we can accomplish and the picture of a challenging but potentially beneficial future.  It’s a gap that our minds are programmed to close. If we’re drawn to the challenge we’ll move forward into uncharted territory seeing solutions and possibilities beyond the tried and true. But if the goal is too intimidating or unattractive, we’ll move backward to the old performance level, fully able to rationalize the decision. We get either drive and ideas to move toward what we want in the future, or ideas and drive to stay where we are.

The Role of Coaching and Leadership
The solution is to build an organization of individuals with high self-confidence and a strong belief and expectation in their ability to achieve great outcomes. This is arguably the most important coaching responsibility leadership has. It’s a concept with tremendous potential for improving individual and organizational results but one that’s overlooked in most organizations.

Leaders should keep asking themselves, not “where do we think we will be?”, but rather “where do we want to be?” They need to keep creating gaps between where they are and where they want to be. They need to awaken the potential capability of the organization with goals that challenge the organization to go where it’s never gone before. Then, with an energized workforce, inspired by a compelling new future and encouraged by leadership, let the human creativity and energy that’s unleashed invent how it will be accomplished. With the right leadership I’ve seen organizations “surprise” themselves by accomplishing things they once thought unachievable.

Sea World doesn’t select the smartest dolphins in the ocean for its attractions. It selects dolphins and then through inspired coaching and training is able to accomplish incredible feats of performance. Likewise, truly great organizations don’t have fewer problems than other organizations. They don’t start out with the most brainpower, better employees or more money. In fact, sometimes they face incredible odds. But they have a way of looking at things, a way of seeing big challenges as exciting opportunities, and a way of hanging in there that almost guarantees success. They live by an attitude of optimism and, when challenged with an almost impossible goal, have an expectation that what they don’t know, they can figure out. It’s all a matter of attitude.

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