Archive for April, 2008

Documenting Soft Values

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Measuring and documenting are a way of life in business. We keep close tabs on sales, profits, rate of growth, and return on investment. In many ways, part of being an effective leader is setting up systems to measure everything that matters. It’s the only way we can know for sure how we’re doing.

When you think of the importance we put on measurement, you would think that we would be more attuned to measuring the “soft-side values” in the workplace: how often we’re rude to people, how often we’re polite, how often we ask for input rather than shut people out, how often we bite our tongue rather than spit out a needlessly inflammatory remark. Soft values are hard to quantify but, in the area of interpersonal performance, they are as vital as any financial number. They demand our attention if we want to alter our behavior — and get credit for it.

When my children were young, I decided that I wanted to be a more attentive father. So I asked my daughter, Kelly, “What can I do to be a better parent?”

“Daddy,” she said, “you travel a lot, but I don’t mind that you’re away from home so much. What really bothers me is the way you act when you are home. You talk on the telephone, you watch sports on TV, and you don’t spend much time with me.”

I was stunned, because one, she nailed me and two, I felt like an oafish dad who had unwittingly caused his daughter pain. There’s no worse feeling in the world. I recovered quickly, however, by reverting to a simple response that I teach all of my clients. I said, “Thank you. Daddy will do better.”

From that moment, I started keeping track of how many days I spent at least four hours interacting with my family without the distraction of TV, movies, football, or the telephone. I’m proud to say that I got better. In the first year, I logged 92 days of unencumbered interaction with my family. The second year, 110 days. The third, 131 days. The fourth, 135 days.

Five years after that first conversation, even though I was spending more time with my family, my business was more successful than it had been when I was ignoring them. I was beaming with pride — not only with the results, but also with the fact that, like a skilled soft-side accountant, I had documented them. I was so proud, in fact, that I went to my kids, both teenagers by this time, and said, “Look kids, 135 days. What’s the target this year? How about 150 days?”

Both children suggested a massive reduction in “Dad time.” My son, Bryan, suggested paring down to 50 days. Their message: You have overachieved.  I wasn’t discouraged. It was an eye-opener. I was so focused on the numbers, on improving my at-home performance each year, that I forgot that my kids had changed too. An objective that made sense when they were 9 and 12 years old didn’t make sense when they were teenagers.

Soft-side accounting has other benefits. If you track a number, it will remind other people that you are trying. It’s one thing to tell your employees or customers that you’ll spend more time with them. It’s a different ball game if you attach a real number to that goal, and people are aware of it. They become much more sensitized to the fact that you’re trying to change. They also get the message that you care. This can never be a bad thing.

Everything is measurable, from days spent communicating with employees to hours invested in mentoring a colleague. All you have to do is look at the calendar or your watch — and count.

Once you see the beauty of measuring the soft-side values in your life, other variables kick in, such as the fact that setting numerical targets makes you more likely to achieve them. Another measurement that I tracked was how often I spent 10 minutes each day engaging my wife and each of my kids in one-on-one conversations. Ten minutes is not a long time, but it’s a significant improvement on zero. I found that if I measured the activity, I was much more likely to do it. If I faltered, I always told myself, “Well, I get a credit toward the goal, and it only takes me 10 minutes.” Without that measurable goal, I was much more likely to blow it off.

Life is good.



Is It Worth It?

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

When I wrote an article for some time ago, I said that in many ways war can be seen as a metaphor for much of what happens in daily business life. In fact, ten different versions of The Art of War by Sun Tzu have been listed in the top 1% of all books on

Corporate leaders, not military people, are the major buyers of these books.

As organizational leaders reflect upon the ongoing war in Iraq, it might be a good time to look for learnings from combat that we can all apply in our daily business interactions.

I have had the privilege of coaching many successful leaders. One of my former clients (who I will call “Joe”) is now the CEO of one of the world’s most valuable corporations. When I worked as his coach, he was the chief operating executive at a smaller company. He had many of the strengths that most of the top executives that I meet possess. He was brilliant, dedicated, high in integrity, committed to the company, dedicated to serving customers, innovative and consistent in achieving results. He was also viewed as somewhat stubborn and opinionated.

Joe’s “area for improvement” was not particularly unusual. I recently described the most common problem of the executives that I coach. I replied, “winning too much”.

Joe was a wonderful client and is still a friend. After 18 months, he achieved very positive long-term change in behavior as judged by his key stakeholders. He was seen as much more open and less opinionated and judgmental. He was viewed by almost everyone as a more effective leader. At the end of our time together, I asked Joe, “What did you learn from this coaching process in the past year?”

Joe replied, “Most of what I learned from you, I learned in the first day. I learned to stop, take a breath and ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’ before I spoke.”

He smiled and said, “Unfortunately, in many cases, when an executive like me makes a suggestion, it is taken as an order. When I was able to stop and think before speaking, in about half the cases, I concluded, “Do I believe that I am right? Maybe. Is it worth it? No.”

When listening to news about the war, it might be good for all of us to review the behavior of the key players in this drama. For each decision ask, “Does this leader believe that he is right?” then ask, “Is it worth it?”

In some cases the answer may be “yes”. Sometimes it is worth it to go to war to defend what we believe to be right. In other cases the answer might be “no”. Sometimes “winning the battle” is not worth the cost. As you listen to the leaders speak (on all sides), think not only about the war. Think of the interactions that preceded the war. For example, think about the way that the Americans, Brits, French and Germans have treated each other in the past few months.

These lessons from war may not just apply at work. They might also apply at home.

Nathaniel Branden taught me a wonderful exercise to help determine if something was really worth it. He asks his clients to complete the following sentence (over and over again) with a list of benefits: “If I get better at (the behavior the client may want to change), then …”.

I have done this exercise with hundreds of leaders. When leaders participate in this exercise, one of two things happens. Either can be very useful. In some cases the leaders begin to realize how important this change is. They finish the exercise with a commitment to do better. In other cases the benefits don’t seem that important. The advantages of changing don’t merit the effort. In these cases I suggest that they work on something else.

The first time I did this exercise, I observed an executive who was highly judgmental. He completed the sentence, “If I become less judgmental …”. The first few completions were mainly sarcastic or cynical comments. By the sixth completion he had tears running down his face. He said, “If I become less judgmental, maybe my children will speak to me again.”

This leader learned a great lesson. Sometimes “winning” and “being right” just wasn’t worth it. He also learned that becoming less judgmental was definitely worth it.

War provides an opportunity to observe leaders making critically important decisions in the ultimate high-stakes environment. As you watch each leader on television ask yourself, “Does he believe that he is right?” then ask, “Is it worth it?”

Try to differentiate between the need to “win” and to “be right” from the need to fight a noble battle for a just cause.

More importantly, the next time you are ready to go to war – at work or at home – don’t forget to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”

Life is good.


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