Leaders Bring Out Your Best

I've written about playing to your strengths several times before (I admit it's a favorite topic of mine) and its opposite: dealing with weaknesses and failures. I've read and written about how some of the richest and most successful outsource anything they are not good at. Alison Levine, in her book On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership (also mentioned in my last post), brings strengths and weaknesses to another level.

Alison is an extreme adventurist who has climbed some of the highest mountains and gone on expeditions to some of the coldest and most remote places in our world. These activities—and the life and death nature of them—has taught her some extreme lessons about leadership and success that she applies to business, both in this book and in the talks she gives.

Alison explains how despite her training for an expedition, she was slowing her team down due to her short height and lower weight. Everyone had to literally drag a sled with gear behind them, across icy and unlevel terrains, by a rope tied around their waist. As hard as she tried to keep up and push herself, there was no way she could compete with her taller and heavier (in other words, stronger) team mates. She was the weak link and hated it.

After days of grueling work and putting her team at risk of frostbite or running out of supplies as they slowed down for her, Alison was silently moping in her tent when she overhead her team leader and another team mate. They were sympathizing with how hard she was working and were plotting to help her. She was astounded and acted surprised the next day when they made a whole drama about how unfairly heavy her sled was and "evening" it out.

Not only did the gesture—and lighter weight—make her feel better, but their approach taught her a valuable lesson about true leadership: leaders try to bring out the best in their team and position them for success. If this is not possible, they will creatively work with their team member to help them, but in a way that will not further demoralize them.

Since Alison wanted to say thank you and realized the team leader, due to his height, hated shoveling the snow to prepare for camp, she pretended she loved shoveling so that he'd let her do it for him. She realized that what was a weakness in other circumstances (i.e., her shortness), was actually a strength in this one and used it to help her team leader.

I've unfortunately experienced being in the wrong position and therefore "failing." It's not something I will ever forget or be okay with, but after reading Alison's retelling of this story, I realize how true leadership could have mitigated both my "failure" and how horrible I felt afterwards.

So whether you have staff or just team mates, who can you help overcome their weakness, thereby making all of you a stronger whole?

Progress is Multi-Directional

One of my favorite type of business books is what I call "business memoirs." These are first-person narratives where you learn how someone saved a business, built a successful business, or learned something. They are definitely "business books" but because they're told from a person's perspective, they are quicker and easier reads.

I picked-up a different type of business memoir last week called On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership by Alison Levine. Unlike most business memoirs that have a business at their center, Alison's story is about the leadership skills she learned on her various mountain climbing expeditions.

Alison takes us through the planning, the training, the challenges, the tragedies, and the successes she experienced in her many climbs of various mountains. This is not a world I have any familiarity with, so it was fascinating reading just for that insider view, but she also connected it to business and leadership skills.

As she explains, everyone on an expedition has to be both a leader and a team player since working well together and looking out for each other is often the difference between life and death. Failure in her world is often fatal and you are constantly pushing yourself past your body's natural endurance. And it's up to the leader to make the tough call: do you take the chance and fight the ever-changing weather or is it too risky and to keep your people safe, you insist they turn back so they can live to try again an other day.

One of the leadership lessons Alison shares is that sometimes you have to move backwards to make progress. She explains that the only way one's body can adjust to extreme altitudes is to climb back down to ground level, rest and recharge, and then climb back up until you get one level higher. Doing this enough times is the difference between making it to the top and not.

Most of us won't have life and death decisions on our heads (hopefully), but we can still benefit from not viewing "progress" from one direction only.

If we were to redefine progress as anything that helps us achieve our end goal, regardless of the direction or length of time, would that not be liberating? Since we judge so much of our actions and those of others by the progress that's made, perhaps we need to stop. 

Personally, think bigger picture: has this sideways or backwards step taught you something you could use to go forward? Has it helped you reevaluate your current plans and perhaps helped make the ultimate product/service better? If yes, then both are clearly "progress."

And since we have no way of judging whether someone else's backward action will help propel them onward faster or farther, we shouldn't judge their actions at all.

So have you been overly critical about your own "progress"? What can you reframe from this new perspective?

Acceptance Is Liberating

I came across the below tweet last week and after thinking about it on and off, it's made me realize something.

We all strive so hard to be better—to iterate, to improve, to fail wisely and learn from our mistakes—that we never allow ourselves to just be. Sometimes there's a reason things aren't ideal, and if it's intentional and/or what has to be for you to get to a better place, then that's okay and just accept it.

For example, I keep trying to get more sleep. I know how important it is, and should I ever forget, all the articles out there on health—and even leadership!—will remind me. Yes, I'm a better version of myself when fully rested, but that has not happened since before I became a mom. Maybe it's time I stop wasting limited mental bandwidth on what obviously will not change. 

We've all realized that multitasking is bad, that sometimes limiting what choices we make on a daily basis is good (the perfect example of this: Obama having a standard wardrobe so not to have to choose). But we have not taken that to the next natural conclusion: spending mental energy on what cannot be changed is bad also.

Sometimes just getting by and/or having it imperfect is an achievement in itself or all that you can hope for. I'd compare it to an MVP (minimum viable product), but then you'd have to constantly be looking for feedback and to iterate. Instead, if you really are doing your best and spending your time on the next most important thing, then stop dwelling on it and move on.

Whether it's personal choices and/or professional ones, stop the mental fretting. Whether you're not as refreshed and in shape as you'd like, or your career is not progressing as you'd like, or your business is progressing more slowly or had an unanticipated hurdle, it's happened. Is it worth wasting energy on what you can't change rather than focusing on what you can?

So what mental hangup will you now let go of?

Culture Needs Leadership

There are many books, articles, and thought leaders that argue about the differences between managers and leaders. I've read many of their explanations but the one I remember most goes like this: you manage process but lead people.

Stan Slap, in his book Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture (which I also discussed in my previous post), agrees with this statement since the employee culture he defines needs what only leaders can provide.

Managers, as per Stan, have to subvert their personal values in service to the company. If they happen to work for a good company, they will get to keep some of their values, but there will still be some tension and disengagement. Leaders, on the other hand, stay true to their values and inspire others to follow their vision and values so that they can do so.

As per Stan, the employee culture is all about self-preservation and to better handle change, they must first know what will remain the same. Since a leader can promise not to change his values or what he stands for, this will give the culture the assurance they need, allowing them to focus their energy more productively.

Stan's explanation of leadership and culture may be different, but it highlights what true leadership is and isn't. True leadership is not making grandiose speeches and proclamations to get the culture behind the latest strategy. Leadership is really standing for something, living by it regardless, and then figuring out how to make things happen without compromising those values. Not easy, but that's why true leaders are rare.

Is there someone in your life who either is a true leader or has that potential? How do they make you feel? What have they taught you?

The Creative Itch

I bought Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod based on an online recommendation and am glad that I did, since I enjoyed it a lot.

In addition to some really funny cartoons that had me and my family rolling, he has wise and down-to-earth guidance on figuring out how to be creative and successful—on your own terms—in today's crazy world.

As Hugh explains, we were all born creative and then lose the knack. When we get an itch to create something, that's that primal urge making itself heard. The more original your idea and the more different from what's "accepted," the more resistance you should expect.

I could really relate to how Hugh went about things. He kept his day job (copywriting) and worked on his craft on the side. He explains how this allowed him to walk away from any offers that would have compromised his art or forced him to cross the line he had set for himself.

He also explains why he's not worried about copycatters: he's already put in the hours to master his craft (cartoons on the back of business cards), so anyone else would just be starting and therefore always behind. The authors of Rework (the other book I read this past weekend and blogged about earlier) don't worry about imitators since they believe that what makes a product stand out is the part of you that you pour into it. Anyone who imitates the end-result will be missing out on this vital aspect and the lessons you've learned on the way there.

Some other wise tidbits Hugh shares are— 
  • relish your obscurity (when you can more easily do things your way), 
  • not to make your hobby/passion into a job (at which point you may no longer enjoy it), 
  • speak in your own voice (not jargons and "professional" speak), 
  • and to remain frugal (so you never have to sell-out your art). 
Above all, he explains how ideas don't need to be big, but they should be your own to be worth doing. So expect it to be lonely, to take hours and be hard work, but do it so that you have created something of your own.

What was your last creative itch? How do you plan on reacting to the next one?

Feed the Culture Organism

One of my favorite martial arts exercises was trying to go with my partner's flow. It wasn't about hitting or even blocking, just trying to be so in tune with his energy that I could mimic his movements.

In reading Stan Slap's explanation of culture in his book Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture, that exercise came to mind.

As Stan explains it, employee culture is an organism that exists in companies of all sizes and its primary purpose is to protect itself. There is no way to force it to do or go along with anything, and if you want any initiative to succeed, you have to figure out how to appease this organism.

What does it want?  Since its purpose is self-protective, it wants energy. Stan explains that to keep the employee culture happy and "fed" with energy, you need to do the following three things:
  1. help employees understand the past and context behind messages, 
  2. give them predictable rules to live by and make decisions by,
  3. and give them something they're proud to be part of.
Culture wants predictability, not because it hates change but because if it knows what's coming, needless energy won't be spent deciphering clues. That energy can then be diverted to what you want them to spend it on.

This also means two very important things—
  1. no one can be above these rules and accountability, not even "senior management";
  2. and if you have change coming, first prepare the culture for it.
Remember, to this organism, context and information are energy. Start by explaining what will remain the same and then explain why the change is necessary and good for them. And first sell the change to those most affected and have them sell it to the rest of the culture.

Company culture is something I've been interested in and reading about for a while, but this treatment and explanation of it is different and has gotten me thinking. Although I've held senior roles, I've occasionally taken a lower position for various reasons; these have invariably been mistakes. This book has made me realize one reason behind this.

As an executive, I was in the loop and often had to roll out change initiatives (I've actually been hired to do this several times). Since communication is a key part of my management style and key to any successful change, I would work hard to keep my staff and others in the know. I therefore did not realize how different and difficult it would be to no longer know what was coming.

So for the managers out there, how are you going to feed your employee culture the energy and information it needs to be healthy and productive?

Remember Your Why

With two males at home—one an adult and the other a teenager—I find myself often saying "What is your ultimate purpose here?" It's my way to get them to think beyond the moment's testosterone high and to realize (hopefully) that their current actions won't bring the results they want.

On days I'm feeling exceptionally tired and self-doubting, I ask myself a similar question to remind myself why I am juggling all that I am. It helps me keep going.

I remember once reading that you should track what you want to encourage. The same goes with spending time on what you really want—your why. So if you say something is important and you aren't spending time on that thing, then you're fooling yourself. For example, I keep saying sleep is important and every week, when I collapse Friday night, promise myself I'll do better going forward. This resolution has lasted at best until mid week, so since actions speak louder than words, I obviously consider the other things keeping me up at night more important. 

Same goes in business. Regardless of what companies stress, it's what they spend their time on and expect their staff to spend their time on that truly indicates what they value—and what will define their culture.

I reread Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson this weekend. This was my third time reading it (since I'll be using this book for the YourMBR alpha), and I still learned new things. If you have not read this book, regardless of who you are or where in your career you are, I recommend you do so at your earliest opportunity. It's that good and has that much to offer.

Although not the only thing that made an impact in rereading the book, the one related to this topic was their chapter on culture. They explain that culture "is a byproduct of consistent behavior." So the things you reward and focus on are the things your culture are really about. If you say customer happiness is important but instead of fixing problems, spend all your time on long-term forecasts (which they call guesswork and I agree), then you will not have happy customers or a customer-oriented culture.

So what are you spending your time on? And is this aligned with your why?

Redesign and Relative Risk

The next two traits that billionaires have, as per John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen in The Self-Made Billionaire Effect (first introduced in a previous post), is that they redesign business models and consider risk differently than others do.

When a billionaire producer finds a need or gap and acts on his vision, he probably won't follow the existing rules. He will rethink and redesign the business model so that it's better suited to scale and create the massive value he sees in that market.

And if it looks like they're risk lovers, that's not really the case: billionaires just consider risk differently. They look at the relative risk and are more afraid of losing out on the opportunity than failing. They also clearly know their BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement; i.e., the point to walk away) and never risk their "last penny." So what looks like risk from the outside is really premeditated and well-thought out strategy that has more upside than downside for them. They're also resilient so if they're wrong and do fail, they'll pick themselves up and try again (which is why they never risk their entire savings).

What we should learn from this is not to take anything for granted and to stay aware. Try to be in the present and question everything, including the things that were "always done this way." Try to find better or new ways to do things and don't be afraid to suggest them. If you believe in the idea strongly enough, go for it. Do plan, do think things through, but then act.

For those who manage others, allow your staff to question and try new things—better yet, encourage them to do so. Encourage smart risks and hire people who can think for themselves and challenge your thinking: these are the type of people that will help you and your team grow. And don't punish failure (unless it was negligent or malicious) since not only will that discourage future innovation, but if the talent leaves, you will lose what they learned from the experience.

Is there something you wish was done differently, either a process or a product? How would you do it differently and how are you going to share this?

Balance and Recharging

As I write this, we have just "sprung forward" time-wise and the weather seems to have finally caught up. The sun is out and it's made me realize what I have been missing the last few weeks: balance.

I take long walks both for exercise purposes and to clear my head (and apparently Steve Jobs did this as well). With the East Coast's never-ending winter and snow, I've had fewer walks and those that I did have were not quite as productive given the ice and puddles I had to be wary of. This has led to more headaches and stress since I've been spending too much time cooped up and staring at a monitor.

Balance is key. It allows you to recharge and have the positive energy to keep going and be productive. Otherwise you're fighting a downhill battle and your efforts will get progressively less effective and require more effort for the same results.

I also decided to allow myself to read fiction over the weekend and read the business books during the week. As much as I enjoy business books, they do make me think and learn (hence YourMBR and my blogging), and I just needed some balance.

This applies professionally too. Everything requires balance. If you're spending all your time and energy on doing something, building something, launching something, what will you have left over if and when you succeed? And will your success be the best it can be if you haven't achieved it with balance and the chance to recharge along the way? 

I've always had perfectionist and overachiever tendencies. I remember my parents telling me often, as I grew up, that too much of anything—even good things—was bad. Well, they were right. (Thank you, Mom and Dad.)

Do you have balance? If not, what is the one activity that you can do more of to achieve this?

Startups vs. Corporate Hiring and Assignments

I've been thinking a lot about the differences between the corporate and startup world (in part due to reading The Self-Made Billionaire Effect: How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value). 

In the startup world, one is often expected to wear different hats and be willing to "roll up your sleeves" and do whatever is needed. I can't tell you how many startup ads, regardless of the level or title they're hiring for, include language similar to this. Contrast this to the corporate world (or just mid to large size companies), where job descriptions and requirements are very specialized and where once hired, you often can't move from function to function without taking a demotion. 

And then there is the other corporate scenario, where a reorganization will leave you with a different job and you are expected to adapt.

So what's right? When is expecting staff to do whatever is required good for them and the company, and when is it setting them up for failure and unhappiness?

I actually don't think there is one right answer and it really depends on the situation: 
  1. If you cannot afford more than a handful of staff since you are a true startup, then hire people who like doing many things.
  2. Be clear in your expectations when hiring or if needs change thereafter, give the person hired an option.
  3. Determine how quickly/badly you need the new (or a different) skillset. If you have time, see if any in-house staff are interested in taking this on; if you don't have time, hire someone either short-term or long-term, depending on your needs.
Regardless of the situation, ask your staff first. Trying to keep staff happy and motivated—and showing you care about their input and career development—will actually help your company be more profitable and productive. More and more studies and books have addressed this hard to prove phenomenon.

And then of course it also depends on how much of a "stretch" the new ask is. The Self-Made Billionaire Effect includes a whole chapter on "leadership partners." Even the billionaire producers with their inherent dualities (that I've written about before) need the help of performer counterparts to actualize their visions past a certain point. 

No one can be good at everything or enjoy everything, so why not use inherent strengths and interest to help make assignments? You'll have happy and thriving employees, great morale, productive teams...and people looking forward to Mondays. All upside and all business common sense.

Encourage Ideas and Innovative Thinking

If you've been reading my recent blog posts, you've seen my interest in the successful and what enables them to succeed. The Self-Made Billionaire Effect: How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value by John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen, which I'm now reading, is a bit different. Although the authors do mention the traits that allow these individuals to become billionaires, their focus is on why corporate culture chases these "producers" away.

Sviokla and Cohen explain that there are two types of people: producers (those that create and innovate) and performers (those that specialize and execute). Most companies encourage performers and discourage producers, or silo one from the other. What this means is that the people who have the vision and imagination to spot a trend or a future unmet need are not encouraged to pursue this, either because it seems too far-fetched or because any potential ROI (return on investment) will take too long. 

All the producers who have become billionaires are able to incorporate these dualities: they have vision but can also execute; they are patient but can move quickly when the timing is right. Companies unfortunately do not handle such dichotomy—or the talent behind it—well.

What does this mean for you? Regardless of the size of your company or the seniority of your position, recognize these two things:
  1. Encourage ideas. Have a system where employees can suggest fixes and then pay attention, even to the seemingly crazy ideas. Since these suggestions come from those on the front line, the worst that can happen is that you smooth out some bumps your customers don't appreciate. But if you're lucky to have a true producer, the best that can happen is a pivot into an area that is ripe for future picking.
  2. Encourage creative and innovative thinking. We've all read how Google and other startups allow staff personal project time. Apparently rewarding your top talent with more work actually stifles their innovative thinking, which is stimulated by free time and mental drifting. So if you want your producers to come up with the next big thing (or any size profitable thing), don't overwork them.
Another really interesting thing they mentioned was how each of the billionaires they interviewed was very present: no cell phone, no distractions, no interruptions. They took this to mean they were very disciplined with their time and valued learning and curiosity.

So how will you encourage your staff and/or yourself to spend time creatively looking at problems and trends?

Waiting as a Conscious Choice

If you're super-organized like me, getting things done and off your to-do list is one of the things you live for. Getting things done ahead of time is even better and deserves an extra pat on the back. That's why reading Rory Vaden's chapter on procrastination in his book Procrastinate on Purpose was so mind bending. (I first introduced his book in my previous post.)

Multipliers, the people Rory writes about, make the most of the very finite resource of time and have figured out that there is an opportunity cost to doing things too quickly. Details may change, priorities may change, requirement may change...so by doing it early, you actually end up having to do it twice!

Since time is finite, in addition to determining whether something can be eliminated, automated, or delegated, you also have to decide whether something can wait. If it can, without jeopardizing results or quality, then let it wait until the answer to that question is no. Sometimes it will wait until you can batch it with other similar tasks to become more efficient (e.g., responding to e-mails every hour instead of every minute); other times the task may resolve itself and/or be postponed so many times, that you realize you can eliminate or delegate it. Either way, you can focus your present time on what cannot be delayed and what you yourself must do now.

I am still mentally coming to terms with this. I pride myself on responding to e-mails quickly, being ahead of schedule, and being on top of things. I've recently found myself forced to aggressively prioritize what I do and when since with a side business, my to-dos are now never ending. This has forced me to adopt what Rory wrote about without being aware of it.

For the first time in my life, I have short-term and long-term to-do lists and am okay with not getting everything done on a daily basis. There are times when I don't get to things that I actually should—one too many missed gym visits—but I don't beat myself about it as much as I used to. I just try to learn from it and be better about how I schedule my time going forward.

The one thing I have finally done after reading this is to turn off the volume on my laptop and phone when I'm doing work that requires concentration, so that I'm not distracted by incoming e-mail. Responding to e-mails when I'm trying to write, proofread, research, etc. has an opportunity cost. I knew this before but Rory made me realize how shortsighted my stubbornness was.

Well, it's never too late to learn and it's never too late to do better.

What can you delay until the time is right? 

Invest in Systems to Multiply Time

Are you super busy and have too much on your plate? As per Rory Vaden in Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time, instead of trying to manage your time, you should manage yourself.

Time management requires being more efficient or effective. Rory explains how this can only take you so far since it cannot create more time. The alternative, as practiced by the successful "multipliers" he interviewed, is to focus on tasks that have significant results long-term.

To get to that stage, we have to give ourselves the 5 permissions he discusses. One of them is to let go of the tasks that keep us "busy" without adding value. This includes eliminating and ignoring tasks like unnecessary meetings, revisiting previous decisions, gossip, long e-mails, multitasking, and many others. We also have to learn to say no (albeit nicely) and to stop overvolunteering or doing other people's work.

The second permission Rory addresses, which I want to focus on for this post, is the permission to automate and invest in systems.

Since time is finite, anything that wastes time and does not have inherent value ought to be eliminated. So if you find yourself doing something over and over, this is a waste of time and money and should be automated if at all possible. If you can't do that, yet there is a system or tool that could automate or streamline it for you, it is a worthy investment since it will free up more of your precious time in the future.

And if a system requires you to spend more time now—e.g., to set-up training documents for staff—that too is a worthy investment since it will mean less time wasted on answering questions in the future.

As a process person, this was music to my ears. I wrote about avoiding repetition in my previous blog and am always looking to remove redundancy from my life.

When you're busy it's tempting to focus only on your to-do list and getting as much as possible done day in day out. Thinking about implementing systems could feel like something too big to take on given your limited bandwidth. But what if that system will give you back more time in the future? Wouldn't that be worth the effort today? 

I recommend you do a monthly audit of your tasks. Take a look at where you're spending your time and if there's something that's a recurring task, what the steps are. Then determine if you personally need to do those steps or if—
  1. someone else is better suited for any step since they have the information more readily available;
  2. or better yet, if the data can be exported and therefore that step automated.
If you're not a process person, I would still try to do this audit and perhaps get your boss or a more process-oriented peer to help.

Every time you eliminate, delegate, or automate, you are "multiplying" your own time by making more of it available for what only you can do and for what will bring you significant gains in the future. 

So what can you do to multiply your time? And have you already implemented any systems?