Archive for May, 2008

Delegating With the Right Questions

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

I worked with an executive who was a very dedicated and well-organized leader. In the past, she always took pride in her ability to juggle a high-pressure job and still maintain a sane personal life with her husband and two young kids. As a devoted mother, she always tried to be home by 6:30 each night to spend time with her children. Her staff considered her to be a great boss. She was an excellent listener and kept her door open to everyone.

One unexpected outcome for her openness and inclusion was that she began to make more and more excuses for working late. Soon she was regularly at her desk until 9:30 or 10 p.m. At first, she thought it was simply because she loved her job. But as she analyzed the problem, she realized it had nothing to do with her love for her work.

Her staff depended on her too much.

One of the potential dark sides of power is creating dependency. Great leaders know how much they depend on the people in their organizations. They don’t just count on the power of their positions to get things done; they personally create the kind of loyalty and respect that inspires people to “take the hill” even under the most difficult circumstances. But dependency is a two-way street. The more the leader is respected and admired by the staff, the more the staff may feel the need to gain the approval of the leader.

The currency of access can be seen as a sign of importance and acceptance. Staff members often assume that if their leader chooses to spend her limited time with any one person, that person’s ideas and opinions must be uniquely valued. In some cases this may play out as a grab for face time with the manager and can lead to a dependency that becomes trouble.

This executive had created an environment where getting face time with her was as easy as going to the ATM. This developed into a never-ending spiral where she could never leave the office. People were always coming by, saying, “I just need a couple of minutes of your time.” As we all know, a “couple of minutes” always means more than a couple of minutes. She tried to give her staff whatever they needed. It just seemed as if they needed too much.

She came up with a wonderful idea–one that I hope will help you the next time you feel trapped by a staff that wants more than you can give. She set up one-on-one meetings with each of her direct reports to discuss their responsibilities and her responsibilities.

First she asked each person, “Let’s review your key areas of responsibility. Are there places where I can let go? Are there other instances where my help can make a big difference?”

Her staff acknowledged that they really didn’t need her input on many decisions. They had just gotten used to checking in, in a way that was probably not the best use of anyone’s time. Each person was also able to focus on areas where her involvement was having a real positive payoff.

Her second question involved her areas of responsibility. She asked, “Do you ever see me doing things at my level that I don’t need to be doing? Are there activities that I could be delegating to others?” Every person had at least one good idea of how she could let go of part of her work, helping her simultaneously save time and develop the skills of each member of her staff.

She thanked everyone and implemented almost all of their suggestions. She realized that while part of the problem was their need to depend on her, another part was her need to feel important and needed by them.

Follow this course, and face time will have as much value as Confederate paper. Within a year or so, employees will be developing on the job so well that they may need to have a discussion about how they need less face time and more out-of-my-face time from you.

Life is good.


Upcoming Events:

May 29, 2008 - Helping Successful Leaders Get Even Better - and Helping CEOs ‘Pass the Baton’ - Register

June 9, 2008 - San Francisco - Institute of Management Consultants

June 12, 2008 - London - “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” The Comedy Store

June 19, 2008 - Minneapolis - Training and development professionals - all day

July 1, 2008 - San Diego - ASTD

July 8, 2008 - Webinar: “What Happy Coaches Know … The Science of Happiness” free - register online

August 1, 2008 - Dartmouth - Tuck Executive Program

Why We Don’t Do What We Say

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

What happens after that terrific seminar or planning session? Does everything go back to business as usual, or does everyone apply the best of what they learned?

A few years ago, I taught a series of one-day courses for the top 2,000 leaders at one of the world’s most admired companies.

As part of the program, each executive received confidential 360-degree feedback. I asked all of the participants to use that feedback to pick one or two areas for personal improvement, talk with their coworkers about what they were going to change, and ask for suggestions on how they could become more effective leaders. Then they were asked to follow up with co-workers by having short ongoing dialogues to help ensure that this process led to a positive, long-term change in their leadership behavior.

In confidential surveys after the course, almost all of the participants enthusiastically agreed that they were going to do what they were asked to do. A year later, almost 70% of the leaders actually did something related to their commitments. About 30% did absolutely nothing. The good news for the 70% was that their co-workers reported that they had become more effective leaders. As for the 30% who did nothing - well, at least they weren’t seen as getting worse! I suppose that qualifies as good news too. But the do-nothings raise an interesting question.

I have had the opportunity to follow up with the leaders in the 30% category and ask them why they didn’t do what they said they would do. Their answers seldom have anything to do with ethics or integrity. In spite of recent examples of terrible ethics violations, the huge majority of leaders I meet are highly ethical people. They are not liars or phonies. They truly believed that they should change and that this was the “right thing to do.” Their answers usually don’t have anything to do with lack of intelligence or understanding either. They are all very bright people. They not only agreed with what they committed to do, but they also understood what to do and how to do it.

So why didn’t these leaders do what they said they were going to do? Why do we often fail to do what we know we should do?

The answer can be explained by something they tell themselves. It’s something I have told myself for years. I am going to predict that you have told yourself the same thing - maybe often, maybe for years. You may be getting a little skeptical right now. You’re probably thinking, “This guy doesn’t know my mind. What is he talking about?” We will see how accurate my guess is.

The interior monologue sounds something like this. “You know, I am incredibly busy right now. In fact, I feel about as busy today as I have ever felt in my entire life. To be honest, I just feel constantly overcommitted. To be really honest, given what is going on at work and at home, sometimes my life feels a little out of control. But, you see, I am working on some very unique and special challenges right now. I think that the worst will be over in four or five months. After that, I am going to take a couple of weeks off and get organized. I am going to start working on my personal development. Then I am going to start spending more time with my family. I’ll start exercising and eating right. When I do, everything is going to be different - and it won’t be crazy anymore.”

Have you ever told yourself something like that? I have, and so have most of the leaders whom I meet every week. Many of us have been saying this to ourselves for years.

That’s why we haven’t been doing what we know we should be doing. We are waiting until life isn’t crazy. We are waiting until we “have some time.” We are waiting for a day that may never appear.

I have learned a hard lesson trying to help real leaders change real behavior in the real world. There is no “two or three weeks.” Things don’t calm down or slow down. Look at the trend line. There is a good chance that tomorrow is going to be even crazier than today.

So here’s my suggestion. Ask yourself two very hard questions.

First, what change is going to make the biggest, positive difference? And second, what am I willing to change now? Not next week, not next month, not when everything starts to make sense. Now.

Don’t worry so much about everything else.

Just change that.

Life is good.


See my upcoming events

Words as Power

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

If you’re a CEO, have you ever noticed what happens when you’re thinking out loud in your organization? When the leader sneezes, everybody else may get pneumonia. This is something every boss needs to consider before opening his or her mouth, because the same dynamic occurs all day long in the workplace — to the point where even the manager’s praise can create confusion.

For example, I advise my clients to be very conscious of their tendency to grade or rate people on the quality of their suggestions. Bosses do this all the time. If a direct report makes a suggestion, the boss will say, “That’s a great idea!” That’s nice to hear, of course. We’ll go home that night and tell our significant other, “You’ll never believe what the boss said about my idea today.” But if we hear, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” the power of the comment is multiplied. The wound may linger forever.

And when the response falls in between, that can be the worst. Does it mean we’ve scored a 4 out of a 10, and the boss expects better? Is the boss turning against us? If praise given can be potent and inspiring, then praise withheld can be potent and disorienting.

That’s the problem when we openly judge what our colleagues say to us. It can set off a chain of events beyond our control, which defeats the purpose of talking to people in the first place.

Perhaps the most outrageous story about a leader’s unappreciated power comes from the CEO of a telephone company. He was driving home thinking about work when he passed a solitary phone booth on a quiet residential corner. “That’s an odd location for a phone booth,” he thought. “I wonder how much money it earns us.”

The next day, he runs into a midlevel employee in the hallway, someone on the operational level, not a manager. He says, “I’m curious. How much do we make on that phone booth near my house? It’s not a big deal. Don’t spend a lot of time on it. Just send me a note.”

The employee looks it up and starts to write that note. His manager walks by and asks, “What are you doing?”

“Oh, this is for the CEO. He stopped by and wanted to know how much we make on the phone booth by his home.”

“You can’t send him a little note. There’s no comparison of this phone booth with other booths in the area.”

So the question gets bumped up to the next level, and the next, and you can imagine the result. About two months later, an executive vice president and the original manager walk into the CEO’s office with a phone-booth study in a three-ring binder that’s as big as a phone book. The CEO looks at it with a blank expression and says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He later told me that this one comment had cost his company over one million dollars!

Most bosses are smart enough to sense the impact of their statements. They know how a harmless suggestion can be taken as an order. That’s why they couch their musings in carefully calibrated language intended to signal that they shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The trouble is, no matter how much sweetener is sprinkled on the conversation, when the CEO is involved, it’s never a fair fight.

When they’re asserting their authority, CEOs are not shy about throwing their weight around. It’s when they’re trying to be democratic and fair that CEOs forget how much they still weigh. If you’re the boss, there’s no point in pulling your punches. They still carry a lot of wallop. On occasion, it’s much smarter not to punch at all.

So bite your tongue. Sometimes — more often than we know — it’s less confusing for the boss to simply say thank you or nothing at all. Because whether you intend it or not, whatever you say has the power to knock folks out.

Life is good.


An Exercise in Listening

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

We all like to think of ourselves as important.  Here is a story about how to become really great in the eyes of the people you meet.

Two highly accomplished lawyers are sitting at the bar at Sparks Steakhouse in New York. One is my friend’s lawyer, Tom, and the other is Tom’s law partner, Kevin. They’re having a leisurely drink, waiting for their table to open up. Sparks is a landmark steakhouse where a handful of New York’s rich, powerful, and glamorous are in attendance most nights. On this night, the A-list name is superstar attorney David Boies, who argued the U.S. government’s case against Microsoft. He makes a beeline to the bar to say hello to Kevin, whom he knows from previous cases.

Boies joins Tom and Kevin for a drink. A few minutes later, Kevin gets up to make a phone call outside. Boies remains at the bar, talking to Tom for 30 minutes. “I’d never met Boies before,” Tom said. “He didn’t have to hang around the bar talking to me. And I have to tell you, I wasn’t bowled over by his intelligence, or his piercing questions, or his anecdotes. What impressed me was that when he asked a question, he waited for the answer. He not only listened, he made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”

Tom’s last 13 words perfectly describe the single skill that separates the great from the near great. When Kevin inexplicably disappeared, Boies stuck around and made a lasting positive impression on Tom. The two attorneys have different practices; the chance that Tom could somehow help Boies one day is virtually nil. Boies clearly wasn’t looking to score points. In showing interest, asking questions, and listening for the answers without distraction, Boies was simply practicing the one skill that has made him inarguably great at relating to people.

I’m not sure why all of us don’t execute this precious interpersonal maneuver all the time. We’re certainly capable of doing so when it really matters to us. If we’re on a sales call with a prospect who could make or break our year, we prepare by knowing something personal about the prospect. We ask questions designed to reveal his inclinations, and we scan his face for clues.

The only difference between us and the super-successful among us - the near great and the great - is that the greats do this all the time. It’s automatic. There’s no on-off switch for caring, empathy, and showing respect. It’s always on.

So why don’t we do it? We forget. We get distracted. We don’t have the mental discipline to make it automatic.

Ninety percent of this skill is listening, of course. And listening requires the discipline to concentrate. So I’ve developed a simple exercise to test my clients’ listening skills. Close your eyes. Count slowly to 50 with one simple goal: You can’t let another thought intrude into your mind. You must concentrate on maintaining the count.

Sounds simple, but incredibly, more than half of my clients can’t do it. Somewhere around 20 or 30, nagging thoughts invade their brain. They think about a problem at work, or their kids, or how much they ate for dinner the night before. This may sound like a concentration test, but it’s really a listening exercise. After all, if you can’t listen to yourself (someone you presumably like) as you count to 50, how will you ever be able to listen to another person?

Like any exercise, this drill both exposes a weakness and helps us get stronger. If I ask you to touch your toes and you can’t, we’ve revealed that your muscles are tight. But if you practice each day, eventually you’ll become more limber.

Once you can complete the exercise without interruption, you’re ready for a test drive. Make your next interpersonal encounter-whether it’s with your spouse or a colleague or a stranger-an exercise in treating the other person like a million bucks. Employ these tiny tactics: Listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish the other person’s sentences. Don’t say, “I knew that.” Don’t even agree with the other person.

If he praises you, just say thank you. Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however.” Don’t let your eyes wander elsewhere while the other person is talking. Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking intelligent questions that show you’re paying attention, move the conversation forward, and require the person to talk (while you listen).

Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is important. If you can do that, you’ll uncover a glaring paradox: The more you subsume your desire to shine, the more you will shine in the other person’s eyes. You may feel like a dullard as you listen quietly, but invariably the other person will say, “What a great guy!” You’d say the same thing about anyone who made you feel like the most important person in the room.

Life is good.


Upcoming Public Seminars