Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I've moved!

Thanks for following my posts here. I have a brand new site, www.bretlsimmons.com

Please visit me and subscribe to my posts there.



Friday, June 19, 2009

Senator John Ensign: My two cents worth

I live in Nevada, so news that one of our US Senators, John Ensign, had an extra marital affair is big news. Senator Ensign was a rising star in his party, holding a top leadership post until he resigned it soon after admitting publicly to his affair.

So let me state the obvious – Senator Ensign screwed up. He made a terrible decision that showed tremendous lack of foresight, judgment, and respect for the people of Nevada that trusted him to have the integrity to represent them and advocate for their best interests. The leadership issue here is that he somehow felt exempt from the standards he rightly held others to. Unfortunately, that seems to be a pretty pervasive phenomenon these days.

He needs to hold himself accountable for his behavior, which in my opinion he appears to be doing. And we need to make sure he is held accountable.

Beyond that, we need to forgive the guy and move on to monitoring his job performance. Do good people do bad things? Of course they do. I do, you do, and we all do. Anyone that denies this is a big a hypocrite as Senator Ensign was when we was involved in his affair.

I don’t think the guy should be forced to resign unless we discover a broader pattern of bad judgment and behavior on his part. But the citizens of Nevada should give serious consideration to whether or not they want this guy to be a role model for leadership when he comes up for re-election.

Enough said – for now.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Courage: An example

Ever heard of Paris Welch Romero?

Me neither.

But I just read about her in the Wall Street Journal and thought she was a perfect example of someone with real courage. The link to the article can be found here.

She called out the mortgage mess long before it happened and wrote a letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) sounding the alarm. Her concerns fell on deaf ears, both with the OCC and her employer.

Ms. Romero went on questioning loans made to borrowers who could show no income, had lousy credit, or didn't put a nickel down. But she was rebuffed by her employer and eventually laid off. Her comments to the OCC had little impact on
her life. (WSJ article)

She goes on to say that mortgage CEOs "lied". Of course they did. But it took the collusion of a lot of folks with no courage to let them get away with it. People that should have spoken up did not. Yea, I know they were under pressure, just like Ms. Romero, but that is no excuse.

At the end of the article she is quoted as saying: "We have a complicated world structure that we are undermining. We need to impart integrity into our economy," she said.

Our economy won't get integrity until our leaders get integrity.

And our leaders won't get integrity until WE get integrity. We must accept responsibility and hold our leaders and ourselves accountable.

There is no one to blame (Peter Senge).

Give yourself permission

I’ve had several blog posts that reference Tina Seelig’s excellent book What I wish I knew when I was 20. The most recent one was her observation that the primary barriers to success are self-imposed - I strongly concur.

The book is great, and I highly recommend it. If you don’t want to know the punch line, click away now because I am getting ready to share with you the most important thing she wished she knew when she was 20 (ok, so I already gave it away in the title to this post). Here it is:

Give yourself permission to challenge assumptions, to look at the world with fresh eyes, to experiment, to fail, to plot your own course, and to test the limits of your abilities (p. 175).

Wow, let’s all stand up and give Tina a big “HELL YES!”

Over time I’ve become aware that the world is divided into people who wait for others to give them permission to do the things they want to do and people who grant themselves permission. Some look inside themselves for motivation and others wait to be pushed forward by outside forces. From my experience, there’s a lot to be said for seizing opportunities instead of waiting for someone to hand them to you. (p. 57).

Are you waiting for someone to give you permission to pursue a life of excellence and abundance? If so, why would you do that?

Give yourself permission to move beyond your comfort zone, take risks, and go for opportunities. It is never too late to start, but the clock is ticking.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Service-Profit Chain

When I get a chance to do corporate training, I will often ask the group of managers to write their answers to these two questions:

· What is the one thing that should probably be the top priority of most businesses? Put another way, what matters the most to a business – to your business?
· How do you get or accomplish what matters most? Put another way, if you are the owner or manager of a business, what is the most important thing you should be doing on a daily basis to accomplish your top priority?

Do you think all managers in the room write the same thing? No way. One of the obvious implications is that they are not on the same page at work.

I get a variety of answers to the question “what matters most?” The first thing most groups mention is profit. Some of the other common responses are customer service, quality products, and employee morale. But I rarely hear the answer I am looking for- growth. (By growth I mean growth through excellence and not growth through acquisition.)

If money does not hit the top line, it will NEVER hit the bottom line.

You can take that to the bank. Too many managers are managers of costs, the line items, and they forget the one line that matters the most – the TOP line.

I saw the service-profit chain years ago and immediately bought into its logic. Please understand this is not a “universal law” that applies in all industries all the time (e.g. airlines, WalMart), but for many businesses, especially small business, it does apply very well. Here is how the logic flows:

· The priority of a business should be growth through excellence.
· The key to growth is loyal customers. If we don’t have customers, we don’t have revenue. It’s MUCH less expensive to keep an existing customer than to get a new one.
· The key to customer loyalty is customer satisfaction. Satisfied customers are those whose expectations have been met. But a strategy of customer satisfaction is competitive mediocrity because a simply satisfied customer is indifferent – they are open to being retrained by our competition about what to expect. Instead we want to strive to exceed our customers’ expectations – impress their socks off and delight them. That is competitive excellence, and it does not happen by chance but by purposeful design.
· It is our employees that impress or disgust our customers – not us as managers. We can’t get employees to impress your customers by policy alone.
· If we are constantly turning over employees, we are barely in a position to satisfy our customers, let alone impress them.
· Satisfied and committed employees are more likely to stay with us. These employees are in the best position to impress our customers.
· Internal service quality – meeting and exceeding the expectations of our employees – is the key to ensuring they are satisfied and committed. It is sheer folly to think that employees that are disgusted with us will then go out and impress our customers. Only delighted employees produce delighted customers.
· The key to internal service quality is not policy but system design. As managers, we experiment with the systems we control – hiring, training, rewards, job design, etc – for the purpose of improving employee attitudes.

So, what is the number one thing we need to do on a daily basis if we want to grow our business?

Take care of and impress our employees.

And we expect this to work its way through better employee attitudes, retained employees, delighted customers, loyal customers, higher revenues, and healthier profits.

Because I believe so strongly in the logic of the service-profit chain, it suggests that I should practice a very specific style of leadership. Stay tuned, I’ll talk more about that in future posts.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The primary barriers to success are self-imposed.

The title of this post is a quote from Tina Selig’s book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 (p.67). I like this book, so much so that I am going to make it one of the required readings for a new course I am developing on Entrepreneurial Psychology. I included a quote from Tina’s book in my previous blog post on quitting your job.

I strongly agree that most of the barriers to abundant living, however you define abundance, are between our ears. We are capable of doing incredible things once we decide we want to do them. That doesn’t mean that we won’t experience resistance, failure, and pain along the way, but real excellence can only be experienced once we decide to do something different, something other people are not willing to do. Excellence is a form of purposeful deviance.

Tina goes on to say this:

If you want a leadership role, then take on leadership roles. Just give yourself permission to do so. Look around for holes in your organization, ask for what you want, find ways to leverage your skills and experiences, be willing to make the first move, and stretch beyond what you’ve done before. There are always opportunities waiting to be exploited. Instead of waiting to be asked and tiptoeing around an opportunity, seize it. It takes hard work, energy, and drive – but these are the assets that set leaders apart from those who wait for others to anoint them. (p.70)

Do this because it is the right thing to do, both for yourself and for those around you; however, don’t expect all around to stand and applaud. Be prepared for many of those around you to discourage you. But don’t use any of this an excuse to wrap yourself in the safety and comfort of conformity and mediocrity.

Press on.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Entitlement vs. Responsibility

I hear a lot these days about the so called millennial generation, young people born between 1980 and 2000. In our workplaces, that would be the folks under 30. There are a lot of people out there claiming expertise on how to market to and manage millennials. The assumption is that this group is fundamentally and even radically different than everyone else. In my professional opinion, the hype far exceeds the scientific evidence, but that’s nothing new.

Entitled is one of the most common terms I hear used to describe these young folks. To be honest, I’ve used it myself to describe an attitude I see amongst my students. A fair number of them want all of the rewards but as little as possible of the accountability for effort and performance that comes with the rewards.

But I’m not sure there is much new under the sun here. I’m sure I had a pretty similar attitude when I was 22, which is one reason why I flunked out of Oklahoma State University the first time around. And is anyone familiar with the parable of the Prodigal Son?

And in all fairness, I continue to meet some of the most brilliant, impressive, and inspiring young people I have ever met in my life. It is an honor to spend time with them and to have the opportunity to shape their thinking on things that really matter (e.g. leadership).

I like to contrast the rhetoric of entitlement with the rhetoric of responsibility.

Entitlement comes from an attitude of “don’t you know who I am?” It is inherently egocentric because it begins by making sure that others know who you are and what you are entitled to. Once others recognize who you are, then you are free to “name and claim” your proper privileges and rewards.

The rhetoric of entitlement sounds like this: “I am an adult, so you need to treat me like one.” Some of the implicit ideas that follow are “I can do what I want to do,” “You need to do what I want you to do,” "You need to engage me," and “I’m the boss, you are not.”

In contrast, responsibility begins with the assumption that “you will know who I am when you see what I do.” It begins and ends with a drive to do the right thing and has little concern for title or status. It is inherently purposeful rather than egocentric.

The rhetoric of responsibility sounds like this: “I will do what needs to be done because it is the right thing to do.” The implicit ideas that follows are “judge me on the merits of my behavior,” and "I will engage with you."

When you behave consistent with the rhetoric of responsibility, people come to the correct conclusions:

You are an adult.

You are a leader.

Don't tell me who you are and what you think you deserve - show me.

The Sigmoid Curve and the Paradox of Change

I love Charles Handy’s work (e.g. The Age of Paradox). In earlier blog posts I have shared his thoughts about sensible organizational behavior and his wonderful story about The Road to Davey’s Bar, which is a parable of change. His thinking on the sigmoid curve is burned in my brain, and I promised I would share it with you, so here goes.

The sigmoid curve – or S-curve – is really about the nature of change in general. The s-curve is often used to illustrate how change affects technology or product life cycles, but I think it applies to any system where we are interested in performance over time, including our own personal performance or career progression.

Things start slow in the beginning. For a while it may even seem like we made a bad decision or started down the wrong path. Then at point A, things start to take off. From point A to point B is a period of accelerating growth and performance. But at point B, we begin to experience the asymptotic limits to growth. And by point C, we experience the pain of inevitable decline. If we wait until point C or even point B to realize that what we are doing will no longer work, we face tremendous hardship and competitive peril.

Luckily, there is life beyond the curve. The secret to constant growth is to
start a new sigmoid curve before the first one peters out. The right place to
start that second curve is at a point where there is time, as well as the
resources and energy, to get the new curve through its initial explorations and
floundering before the first curve begins to dip downward (p.51)

But there is paradox of change here. The paradox is that at the point where we NEED to be changing and switching to the technology or routines that will take us to the future, all the messages from our environment are sending us the exact OPPOSITE message – look how great we are, folks can’t get enough of what we are doing, there is no end in sight!

Our task as leaders is to not only sense the need for the second curve, but also to get others to share our understanding of the need for change and to develop a sense of urgency for a radically different future when people still want to revel in the success and comfort of the present.

As leaders, “the discipline of the second curve requires that we always assume that we are near the peak of the first curve and should therefore be starting to prepare for the second” (p.57).
The paradox of success, that what got you where you are won’t keep you where you are, is a hard lesson to learn. Curvilinear logic means starting life over again, something that gets harder as one gets older. Therefore, it is often better, in organizations, to entrust the curvilinear thinking to the next generation. It can see more clearly where the first curve is heading and what the next curve might look like. It is the job of the elders to give that cohort permission to be different, and then, when the next curve is established, to get out of the way. (p.60).
Will you lead change and take the folks you have been given the privilege to lead where they need to go? Or will change drag you around by the nose to uncomfortable and potentially perilous places? You must be able to successfully lead yourself through change and overcome it's paradox if you want to have any hope of leading others through change.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Leadership Credibility

Do you know the difference between personal credibility and leadership credibility? I want to highlight the differences in these concepts and also show how they illustrate the difference between honesty and integrity, which people often confuse. My source is a fantastic book by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner called Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand it. I think Kouzes and Posner write some of the best stuff out there on leadership.

Personal credibility means you DWYSYWD – do what you say you will do. This to me is honesty, which for a leader is absolutely necessary but not sufficient. Even a despot can have personal credibility. I’ve worked for a few people that had impeccable honesty but were not seen as good leaders. The problem was even though they were honest they were speaking and acting in ways that nobody but themselves valued.

Leadership credibility means DWWSWWD – do what we say we will do. This can only arise when leaders develop legitimate and strong relationships with followers. Leaders with leadership credibility speak and act consistent with the values of constituents. I see this as integrity, which in contrast to honesty, is values based. The leader with integrity speaks and acts in ways consistent with what we stand for and they continue to do so even when they might be under heavy pressure to do otherwise.

Forgetting the we has derailed many managers. Their actions may have been consistent only with their own wishes, not with those of the people they wanted to lead. When managers resort to the use of power and position, to compliance and command to get things done, they are not leading, they are dictating. (Kouzes & Posner, 1993).

Do you have leadership credibility - integrity? You can’t answer this question on your own. Only your followers can answer this question about you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How to recognize moral leaders

Last night in my Organizational Behavior class, we finished up our discussion of leadership. I am passionate about leadership, and I love teaching it, but I honestly think it is difficult for the majority of my younger students to fully appreciate how critical a proper perspective on leadership will be to their future professional and personal lives. I am of course biased, but leadership is not just another topic in the book. In all fairness, many of the older and more experienced adults I encounter also, in my opinion, lack a proper perspective on leadership.

The following quote from James MacGregor Burns comes toward the end of my presentation on leadership.

“The true test of moral legitimacy is grounded in conscious choice among real
alternatives. One way to recognize moral leaders and to guard against immoral ones is to observe if they engage in learning the true needs and values of their constituents. If they are more intent on telling than on listening, it is likely that they are up to no good.” (James MacGregor Burns, 1978)

If your leader is more intent on telling than listening, they are likely up to no good – you can take that to the bank. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; they are up to some good – their own good and not yours.

If your leader does not take the time to listen to you, for whatever reason they simply don’t care about you. And just to be clear, that is NOT a good thing. Your leader may already be manipulating you for their own self-interest. If that has not happened yet, get ready, because at some point it probably will.

Why would you want to work for someone like that? Ok, so times are tough and jobs are hard to come by, and you feel lucky to have the job you have. Just don’t use that as an excuse to rationalize your compromise with mediocrity. Start looking – now – and keep looking until you find a company that will treat you the way you deserve to be treated.

Don’t waste any more time that you have to working for idiots and assholes. Move on.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gates on Leadership

Today, I found this text of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ speech to the graduating class of West Point on May 24, 2009. I thought it was excellent and wanted to make excerpts from it part of my blog record. I won’t post the whole speech, but if you are interested you can find the entire speech here. This will be my longest post ever, so I apologize for deviating from my standard format.

Here are the points he makes in his speech that resonate strongly with my own philosophy of leadership:

1. Being a leader is a privilege; it does not make you privileged. Never consider yourself above those you have been given the privilege to lead or exempt from the rules they must follow.
2. Think of yourself as a resource, not the source. Always ask yourself “how can I help?”
3. Have the courage to say and do the right thing to further the shared purpose, even if no one else around you will do the same. Always see it as your responsibility to say what people need to hear, not what you think they want to hear. Fight with ever fiber of your being the insidious and pervasive phenomena of groupthink, and encourage others to do the same.
4. Be a life long learner and never consider yourself as having “arrived.” There is always something new to learn – pursue it like a dog after a bone for the purpose of improving your ability to serve those you have been given the privilege to lead.

Here is the excerpt of his speech:

"I’ve come to believe that few people are born great leaders. When all is said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you, based on the choices you make. And in the time remaining, I’d like to talk about some of those choices, and how those choices will be shaped by the realities of this dangerous new century.

I would start with something I tell all the new generals and civilian executives that I meet with at the Pentagon. It is a leadership quality that is really basic and simple – but so basic and simple that too often it is forgotten: and that is the importance, as you lead, of doing so with common decency and respect towards your subordinates. Harry Truman had it right when he observed that one of the surest ways to judge someone is how well – or poorly – he treats those who can’t talk back.

In this country, going back to its earliest days, the American soldier has been drawn from the ranks of free citizens, which has implications for how those troops should be led and treated.

Two anecdotes from our country’s founding capture the independent thinking of the American soldier and the greatness of the Army officer who led them. During the Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a redoubt being repaired. The commander was shouting orders but not helping. When the rider asked why, the supervisor of the work detail retorted, 'Sir, I am a corporal!' The stranger apologized, dismounted, and helped repair the redoubt. When he was done, he turned toward the supervisor and said, 'Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your Commander-in-Chief and I will come and help you again.' Too late, the corporal recognized George Washington. The power of example in leadership.

On another occasion, Washington was making his rounds and came across a Private John Brantley drinking some stolen wine. Brantley invited Washington to have a drink with him. The general declined, saying, 'My boy, you have no time for drinking wine.' Brantley responded, 'Damn your proud soul – you’re above drinking with soldiers.' Washington turned back, dismounted and said, 'Come, I will drink with you.' The jug was passed around, and as the general re-mounted, Brantley said, 'Now, I’ll be damned if I don’t spend the last drop of my heart’s blood for you.' A lesson in the independence of the American soldier and his loyalty, when treated with respect.

A second fundamental quality of leadership is doing the right thing even when it is the hard thing – in other words, integrity. Too often we read about examples in business and government of leaders who start out with the best of intentions and somehow go astray.

I’ve found that more often than not, what gets people in trouble is not the obvious case of malfeasance – taking the big bribe or cheating on the exam. Often it is the less direct, but no less damaging, temptation to look away or pretend something did not happen, or that certain things must be okay because other people are doing them; when deep down, if you look hard enough, you know that’s not true. To take that stand – to do the hard right, over the easier, more convenient, or more popular wrong – requires courage.

Courage comes in different forms. There is the physical courage of the battlefield, which this institution and this army possess beyond measure. Consider the story of Lieutenant Nicholas Eslinger, Class of 2007. He was leading his platoon through Samarra, Iraq, when an enemy fighter threw a grenade in their midst. Eslinger jumped on the grenade to shield his men. When the grenade didn’t go off, the platoon leader threw it back over the wall. And then it exploded. At the time of this incident, then-Second Lieutenant Eslinger was only 16 months out of West Point. He would later receive the Silver Star.

But, in addition to battlefield bravery, there is also moral courage, often harder to find. In business, in universities, in the military, in any big institution, there is a heavy emphasis on teamwork. And, in fact, the higher up you go, the stronger the pressure to smooth off the rough edges, paper over problems, close the proverbial ranks and stay on message.

The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers. To stick your neck out after discussion becomes consensus, and consensus ossifies into groupthink.

One of my greatest heroes is George Marshall, whose portrait hangs over my desk at the Pentagon. As I said here last April, Marshall was probably the exemplar of combining unshakeable loyalty with having the courage and integrity to tell superiors things they didn’t want to hear – from 'Black Jack' Pershing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As it turns out, Marshall’s integrity and courage were ultimately rewarded professionally. In a perfect world, that should always happen. Sadly, it does not, and I will not pretend there is not risk. But that does not make taking that stand any less necessary for the sake of our Army and our country.

The moral principles of leadership I’ve just discussed are timeless – they apply to any military leader in any generation. So do a range of other choices you will face about the leader you aspire to become. I refer to those relating to the kind of judgment, wisdom, and mental skills – the intellectual attributes, if you will – that will be most needed to be successful as an Army leader in the 21st century.

It has always been one of the hallmarks of the U.S. military to push decision making down to the lowest possible level. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we rely on our junior- and mid-level combat leaders to make judgments – tactical, strategic, cultural, ethical – of the kind that much more senior commanders would have made a generation ago.

The Army has always needed agile and adaptive leaders with a broad perspective and range of skills. Now, in an era where we face a full spectrum of conflict – where high-intensity combat, stability, train-and-equip, humanitarian, and high-end conventional operations may be occurring in rapid sequence or simultaneously – we cannot succeed without military leaders who are just as full spectrum in their thinking. We will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as one might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.

Maxwell Taylor – who was an Asia specialist in the 1930s before becoming the famed commander of the 101st Airborne Division and later Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs – once observed of his fellow academy grads that, “The ‘goats’ of my acquaintance who have leapfrogged their classmates are men who continue their intellectual growth after graduation.

To this end, in addition to the essential troop commands and staff assignments, you should consider, and in fact embrace, opportunities that in the past were considered off the beaten path, if not a career dead end. Those might include further study at graduate school, teaching at this or another first-rate educational institution, being a fellow at a think tank, advising indigenous security forces, becoming a foreign area specialist, or service in other parts of government – all being experiences that will make you a more successful military leader in the 21st century.

In 1974, when I left the CIA mother ship to take a staff job at the National Security Council, I was told by my boss at Langley that there probably would not be a job there for me when I returned. My career as a CIA officer was considered over. So you never know when taking some risk in your career will pay significant future dividends.It is important to remember that none of what I have talked about these past few minutes is alien to the best traditions of Army leadership – particularly at times of great peril for this country:

Grant and Sherman were not exactly spit and polish soldiers – and in fact left the military for a stretch before they returned to lead the Union Army to victory. George Marshall spent 15 years as a lieutenant and never commanded a division; and Eisenhower spent years toiling in obscurity as what General MacArthur later called a “clerk” in the Philippines.

Just over a half century ago, no less an Army institution than General Eisenhower said here at West Point: “Without the yeast of pioneers, the United States Army, or any other organization of men” – and today we would add women – “cannot escape degeneration into a ritualistic worship of the status quo.” Keep Ike’s admonition in mind in the years ahead – be a pioneer in the assignments you take, the learning you pursue, the assumptions you question.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, reflecting on his service as a Union soldier during the Civil War, later said that “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” I hope that as a result of coming to this place, in the instruction you have received, and in the friendships you have formed, that your hearts, minds, and spirits have been touched in a way that will prepare you for the trial by fire that may await you.

In closing, as I said last April, know that I think of each of you as I would my own son or daughter. I feel a personal responsibility for each of you. I have committed myself and the department I lead to see that you have everything you need to accomplish your mission and to come home safely to your families and to the honor and gratitude you will have earned. Know, also, that your countrymen are grateful for your service, and will be praying for your safety and your success.

A final thought. We all seek a world at peace. After each war, we always hope we have fought the last war, the war to end all wars. I believe that such hopes ignore all of human history. I believe that for so long as we seek to be free men and women, for so long as the bright light of liberty shines, there will be those whose sole ambition, whose sole obsession, will be to extinguish that light.

I believe that only strength, eternal vigilance, and the continuing courage and commitment of warriors like you – and your willingness to serve at all costs – will keep the sacred light of American liberty shining: A beacon to all the world.
You have taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and we, the American people. The nation stands in awe of you. And I salute you.

Thank you."

Coping with stress

The next intentional activity from The How of Happiness is developing strategies for coping with stress. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude, the second was deliberate optimism, the third was to stop overthinking and comparing ourselves to others, the fourth was practicing acts of kindness, and the fifth was social support.

It is actually the negative response to demands at work, or distress, that we have to cope with. The positive response we can have to these same demands, or eustress, we don’t cope with but rather must learn to savor. The majority of my research has been focused on the concept of eustress.

My colleague and I use the “bathtub analogy” to illustrate how we conceptualize distress and eustress:

Two basic things are necessary to achieve a comfortable bath: the level of water
in the tub, and the temperature of that water. Two things determine the level of the water in the tub – the flow of water into the bathtub, and the flow of water down the drain over time. Similarly, both hot water and cold water flow into the bathtub simultaneously to determine the water temperature. If we compare the way stress is commonly studied to the bathtub, the current approach is like studying a bathtub with only a cold water faucet (distress). We have identified the sources of this cold water (stressors) and we can tell individuals how to either decrease the incoming flow of cold water or increase the flow of cold water out of their bathtubs (distress prevention). We also know a great deal about the physiological, behavioral, and psychological consequences of sitting in a bath of cold water for long periods of time. Herein lies the problem: a more complete model of stress should acknowledge that there are two faucets (hot and cold) and that managing both are necessary if you want to get the water level and temperature just right for a comfortable bath. Few individuals take a totally cold bath (distress) or a totally hot bath (eustress). Similarly, few, if any stressors, are appraised as purely positive or purely negative. It’s usually some combination of the two. (Nelson & Simmons, 2009).

Coping, then, deals with stock and flow of the negative things in our lives. Problem focused coping and emotion focused coping are the two most basic approaches to responding to distress. In problem focused coping, we try to manage the stressor or cause of distress. In emotion focused coping, we hope to manage our response to the stressor.

For example, I personally find it very stressful to drive on interstate highways (yes, I am odd). I don’t mind driving, and I don’t mind driving fast, but there is something about the combination of driving fast in heavy traffic that sends me out of my skin. I’m not worried about my driving – I am a great driver - it is all the other morons on the road that worry the heck out of me!

So I practice problem focused coping by avoiding driving on the interstate as much as possible. I have lived in Reno, Nevada for the past 3 years. I moved here from Fargo, North Dakota. When I moved, I had no way to avoid driving on the interstate, and I did just fine. But since I have lived here, I have only been back on the interstate to get to places in town a handful of times. Fortunately, in Reno, they have two wonderful streets called Virginia and McCarren that can get me almost anywhere in town. When I selected where I was going to buy a home in Reno, I deliberately chose an area of town where I could access my workplace without ever having to drive on the interstate.

Yet when I have to drive my daughter to California for volleyball tournaments, I cannot avoid the interstate. As a problem focused strategy, I car pool with another parent and let him do most of the driving. But when it is my turn to drive, I have to practice emotion focused coping. I realize that this anxiety is all between my ears, so I do whatever I can to take my mind off driving – e.g. engage in conversation, listen to the radio, roll down the window and feel the breeze on my face.

At work, I try to avoid the things I know from experience distress me, and when I can’t avoid them, I make the best of it and focus very hard on controlling my emotions (e.g. keep my mouth shut).

And as much as possible, I try to expose myself to the things that provide me pleasure and challenge. Back to the bathtub analogy – I prefer mine warm and invigorating.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Road to Davy’s Bar

In an earlier blog post I shared a quote from Charles Handy about sensible organizational behavior that I just love. I promised I would share his parable of change called The Road to Davy’s Bar. It’s a long quote, but I hope you find it as useful as I do.

The Wicklow Mountains lie just outside Dublin, Ireland. It is an area of wild
beauty, a place to which, as an Irishman born there, I return as often as I can.
It is still a bare and lonely spot, with unmarked roads, and I still get lost.
Once I stopped and asked the way. “Sure, it’s easy,” a local replied, “just keep
going the way you are, straight ahead, and after a while you will cross a small
bridge with Davy’s Bar on the far side. You can’t miss it!” “Yes, I’ve got
that,” I said. “Straight on to Davy’s Bar.” “That’s right. Well, half a mile
before you get there, turn to your right up the hill.”

His directions seemed so logical that I thanked him and drove off. By the time I realized that the logic made no sense he had disappeared. As I made my way down to Davy’s Bar, wondering which of the roads to the right to take, I reflected that he had just given me a vivid example of paradox, perhaps even the paradox of our times: by the time you know where you ought to go, it’s too late to go there, or, more dramatically, if you keep on going the way you are, you will miss the road to the future.

….. The world keeps changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are are seldom those that keep you there. If you think they are, and that you know the way to the future because it is a continuation of where you’ve come from, you may well end up in Davy’s Bar, with nothing left but a chance to drown your sorrows and reminisce about the past (pp 49-50, emphasis added).

Handy then describes a powerful concept about the basic nature of change called the Sigmoid Curve. The logic of the Sigmoid Curve is burned in my brain – stay tuned because I will share it sometime soon!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What do you profess?

Yesterday I talked about the things that I “profess” when I teach organizational behavior. These things I profess represent my core beliefs about the practice of my profession, which I see as developing future leaders and managers.

To be honest, even though I have professed these things for years, yesterday was the first time I have ever written them down in a single and concise list. Some of the beliefs I listed developed decades ago, while others really only became central to my philosophy in the last few years. I anticipate, in fact hope, that my now stated beliefs will continue to evolve as my understanding of what makes people tick at work continues to develop as well.

So what do you profess?

What are your core beliefs about how to achieve excellence in the practice of your profession? If you were given the opportunity to speak on a regular basis to people what were interested in or new to your profession, what would you tell them? Are your core beliefs consistent with and help you daily accomplish your purpose?

If you are like me, just getting this stuff on paper might be pretty tough, and getting it to a point where you are comfortable with it might take numerous iterations. Try to get your list to the point that you could share it with others with both clarity and conviction; there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that you truly believe these things and feel very strongly about them.

What is it about what you do, how you do it, and why you do it that makes you authentic and compelling? Get to the point in your clarity and conviction that your hope would be that whoever heard you “profess” these things would remember them forever.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My bottom line

Tonight is the first meeting of another 3 week course in organizational behavior. Even though this is my bread-and-butter course, I only get to teach it in the summer because of my other teaching obligations. But I LOVE this course because students are continuously surprised about the power and relevance of the material. There are very few courses where students can walk out and apply the material in their lives today.

Early in my career I was fortunate to be in a small group meeting with the president of the Academy of Management. Someone in the group asked him his advice on how to become a better teacher. His response was simple – have something “to profess”. Belief in and care for the message matters, and people respond positively when you speak from your passion.

Here are some of the main things I “profess” when I teach organizational behavior:

· We usually only notice the behavior of other folks at work when they have done something wrong or unexpected. When that happens, we automatically search for an explanation for the behavior we just observed. Our knee-jerk reaction will be to blame the individual, but the real explanation for the behavior will always be a combination of some things about the person (e.g. personality, attitudes) and things about the system or process (e.g. training, staffing, equipment) which they do not control.

· System or process factors, more than person factors, are the strongest drivers of behavior at work. But it is easier to blame people than to fix systems. If you want to be the most effective leader you can be, stop blaming people and fix your systems.

· People are an open book. Over time, if we know what to look and listen for, people will reveal to us their personalities, attitudes, and values. But for this to have value, we have to be informed observers. If we can’t “read”, we will miss the story. We need to understand our people so that we can encourage them to partner with us to fix our systems.

· Personalities are relatively fixed and stable by the time folks get to us as adults at work. We can’t change people’s personalities, so don’t even try. But we do want to understand personalities, first our own, then the personalities of those we work with, so that we can adjust the thing we have the most control over – our own behavior.

· Attitudes, on the other hand, are not fixed and can have a strong effect on performance. We need to listen for specific attitudes (e.g. satisfaction and commitment) so that we can take specific actions to change those attitudes. The most effective ways to change employee attitudes are always found in changes to the system (e.g. job re-design, better training, and a change in rewards).

· Purpose is powerful. Make sure you and the folks you have been given the privilege to lead clearly understand why their work matters.

· Do the right thing. This is the most basic definition of leadership. Yet reasonable people can and will disagree on the right thing to do, usually because we have different missions. When this disagreement occurs, remember the purpose.

· As a leader or follower, strive to be a resource, not the source. Always be thinking in terms of “how can I help?”

· Create interdependent, not dependent relationships with people at work. Whether leader or follower, strive to be a partner and not part of a superior-subordinate relationship. Partners give 100% effort to their work, but they also see it as part of their responsibility to always be looking for ways to improve the system or process they are working on. The paradox of partnership is that even if we are not invited into partner a relationship that does not relieve of us the personal responsibility to behave as partners.

· Unless and until you we assume full responsibility for ourselves, we force others to assume responsibility for us. We can never be true partners at work until we assume full responsibility for ourselves. There is no blame.

· There is no substitute for caring. Trust is fundamental to our effectiveness as leaders. The most important thing people want to know about when they are deciding whether or not to trust us is our intentions toward them. Over time, it is pretty clear by our words and deeds what we really care most about – ourselves or the people we have been given the privilege to lead. We get a fundamentally and sometimes radically different response from people when they know we care about them. You can’t fake this either.

Wow, that was more than I thought it was going to be! But there is so much more. People do fascinating things at work, and organizational behavior helps us understand why we do the things we do.

And only with understanding do we have the opportunity to create a unique future for ourselves and those we have been given the privilege to lead.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sensible organizational behavior

Do you highlight or underline a book when you read? I often do. I highlight things that jump out at me or for whatever reasons really make an impression on me.

I find it fascinating to look back through a book I read years ago and see what I highlighted (ok, I am a nerd). It can be easy to forget how we got where we are, how we became who we are.

I’ve been thumbing through some of the old books on my shelf recently, by gurus like W. Edwards Deming, Peter Drucker and Charles Handy. The “old” stuff they wrote 20 years ago is still contemporary today. It is a testament to how forward thinking these folks were.

I’m going to share more nuggets from their works in the future, but I have to get this quote from Handy’s The Age of Pardox in my blog now because it is so simple yet so powerful.

A common cause, the willingness to deny oneself in the interests of that common
cause, and trust that the other party will do the same – these are the
essentials of sensible organizational behavior (p. 120).

The concepts of purpose and trust resonate with me as strongly as any other at this point in my thinking about organizational behavior. "Why is this important?" and "What are your intentions toward me?" are two of the most basic questions a leader must address to those she/he has been given the privilege to lead. I’m very grateful to credit Charles Handy for helping to shape my heart and mind on these issues.

Handy tells a great parable about change called The Road to Davey’s Bar. Stay tuned for that one.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Social Support

Wow, it has been a LONG time since my last blog entry. The end of the semester is crazy busy. That’s an excuse, I know, but I’m sticking to it.

The fifth intentional activity from The How of Happiness is developing social support. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude, the second was deliberate optimism, the third was to stop overthinking and comparing ourselves to others, and the fourth was practicing acts of kindness.

Developing social support means having an adequate stock of people that you can call on to help in times of need and stress. There is a large body of research that shows it is one of the most effective coping mechanisms available. We can get social support from friends, family, colleagues, supervisors, subordinates, professionals (e.g. our doctor), or spiritual advisors (e.g. our minister).

And the relationship between friends and happiness is reciprocal. People with friends are more likely to be happy; likewise, happy people are more likely to have friends. We are most likely hard wired to seek out and maintain strong, stable, and positive interpersonal relationships.

Here are a few suggestions for developing friendships:

· Make time. Be available to others so you can offer support and encouragement if needed. Consider creating rituals (e.g. coffee breaks, lunch) where you can get together and stay in touch on a regular basis.
· Communicate. Be a good listener, but don’t neglect sharing of yourself. Be transparent with no hidden agenda and nothing to hide. If asked, be prepared to give your honest opinion.
·Watch your motives. There is no substitute for caring. We trust people that have our best intentions in mind. When we have a chance to influence others, it will always come down to a choice between favoring our self-interest or the interest of others. Over time, our words and deeds paint a very clear picture of us and people can tell if we do or do not care.

In my opinion, while it is good to be friendly with everyone at work, I think we should develop most of our closest friendships outside of work. This is especially important as we assume the privilege of leading others. The best leaders consult a wide variety of people – friends as well as foes – before making important decisions, and they do the right thing regardless of what their friends might think.

We have to be caring and authentic while remaining absolutely fair. Impressions are powerful, and even the slightest impression that we might play favorites at work can undermine our credibility.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The pinnacle of learning

I am passionate about leadership; consequently, I am passionate about learning. The best true leaders are life-long learners. With humility, they admit that there are limits to what they currently know and understand, so they are always open to new ideas and insights.

For me, learning is the development of experience, insights, knowledge, and understanding that eventually leads to a change in behavior. Unless and until we do something different, we just have not learned. I know some would take issue with this view, but I like it.

I think a lot of folks confuse the concepts of information, knowledge, and understanding. We often use these terms interchangeably when talking about learning, but they are very different and the differences are important.

Understanding is the pinnacle of learning. We are overwhelmed with information, develop some knowledge, but honestly truly understand relatively few things. We can quote list after list of "whats" and "how-to-dos", but the why remains elusive.

I think most folks want to know how things work. They are obsessed with how to get their employees to do things differently, and often by copying how other “excellent” companies deal with the issue they are interested in. But how is the wrong question.

If all we ever do is copy what others do, then the best we can ever hope to achieve is competitive parity. We will always be playing catch-up with the real leaders in our industry or field.

The right question is why? When we understand why things work the way they do and why our employees do the things they do at work, then and only then do we have the opportunity to create a unique future for ourselves and our employees. Then our competitors will be left looking at us asking “how are they doing that?”

Purse the “whys” at your work like a dog on a bone. Leverage that learning, and create the unique future you want and your employees deserve instead of copying someone else’s present reality.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The merit myth

My state, like many other states right now, is facing a severe budget crisis. Education in general, and especially higher education, is in line to see some enormous budget cuts.

As I follow this issue in the local press, I am not surprised by the suggestion that we need to have a way to reward and retain the "good" teachers and fire the "lousy" ones. This idea is called pay-for-performance or merit based pay and it is very popular.

Sounds like a good idea, right? Wrong. Most people would be surprised to learn that there is virtually no research based support for the efficacy of pay-for-performance.

I personally have never understood the logic behind a system that purposes to label a few people “winners” and the vast majority of people “losers”. I’ve always favored the approach where we encourage folks at work to cooperate with each other and compete against the folks in other companies. When “we” win by spanking the competition, then rewards are shared among everyone.

Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer have done a good job exposing the myth of merit in their books. Here is what Sutton has to say about the competition set up by pay for performance systems in his book The No Asshole Rule:

Alpha males and females turn into selfish and insensitive jerks and subject their underlyings to abuse; people at the bottom of the heap withdraw, suffer psychological damage, and perform at levels well below their actual abilities. Many organizations amplify these problems by constantly rating and ranking people, giving the spoils to a few stars, and treating the rest as second- and third-class citizens. The unfortunate result is that people who ought to be friends become enemies, cutthroat jerks who run wild as they scramble to push themselves up the ladder and push their rivals down.

…..Winning is a wonderful thing if you can help and respect others along the way. But if you stomp on others as you climb the ladder and treat them like losers once you reach the top, my opinion is that you debase your own humanity and undermine your team or organization. (pp 104-105)

The logic of merit is so appealing; one of the reasons why the myth is so pervasive. I must admit that I too advocate an approach to management that is based on identifying and rewarding desirable behaviors. Yet I always preface this advice with the warning that this approach can have unintended consequences in the form of undesirable behaviors as people chase the rewards set before them and forget about the larger purpose of their work.

The key is to make cooperative behaviors a big part of what is expected and rewarded as performance.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The power of kindness

The fourth intentional activity from The How of Happiness is practicing acts of kindness. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude, the second was deliberate optimism, the third was to stop overthinking and comparing ourselves to others.

Healthy relationships are very important to our happiness. Happy people have better relationships, so building relationships is a powerful strategy for becoming happier. Being kind to others is a simple and effective way to expand and strengthen our network of relationships. Kindness works for a number of reasons:

· It helps us perceive others more positively
· It helps us perceive ourselves more positively
· It can take our mind off our own problems
· It can lead to a chain of reciprocal positive events. Helping others may lead people to like us more and be more likely to offer us help in our times of need.

Be intentional and strategic in practicing kindness in order to maximize the benefits. Do too little, and you won’t feel anything. Do too much, and you will feel overburdened.

Do something new, and continue to add variety to your acts of kindness. Make it a habit, but don’t let it become routine. And make sure to acknowledge the acts of kindness you witness others doing. If someone treats you with kindness, thank and compliment that person, then consider telling someone else about their kindness. When you are ready, move outside your comfort zone and find someone new to be kind to – it can be as simple as saying “hello” and taking the time to talk to them and learn more about them.

Work can be stressful at times, sometimes daily! If you have a bad day, let it go. Make a deliberate decision to get back to practicing kindness to others the very next day. If you can’t think of anything else, then just bring donuts to work! That always works for me :)

Finally, don’t forget to be kind to yourself. And isn't it interesting that one of the best things you can do for yourself is to do good things for others?

Monday, April 27, 2009

The first job I quit

I started working for McDonald’s Corporation in Tulsa the day I turned 16 in 1977. I left the corporation in 1986 to enlist in the US Air Force, where I spent the next 7.5 years of my life. My friends and family thought I was nuts to enlist in the military, but it turned out to be a great move for me because I completed both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees while on active duty and earned the GI Bill money that I would later use to help fund my doctoral studies.

During high school, I worked as much as 30 hours a week at McDonald’s to help my mother make ends meet. The day I turned 18, McDonald’s made me a shift manager. I continued to work part-time for McDonald’s for the next 4 years while I went to school full time at Oklahoma State University. When I dropped out of school at the age of 22, I went full-time with McDonald’s in their management development program.

I LOVED working for McDonald’s. It was a fun job, and the McDonald's I joined in 1977 had tremendous corporate values that I took to heart. Because I worked for the corporation and not a franchise, I envisioned a career path that would take me out of local restaurant management and up through the corporate ranks on a local, regional, and ultimately national level. I thought it would be my lifelong career, and I was excited about the possibilities.

I was a pretty good manager, mostly because I had been lucky enough to work for some very good people. I eventually ended up running a store in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma that was extremely successful. The store was in a great new neighborhood and we had an endless stream of good employees and loyal customers. We had so much money hitting our top line that it was almost impossible for us to not have an excellent bottom line.

I was considered a promising up-and-coming manager and I was hopeful that I would soon be able to make the move from single store management to multi-store supervision – the first real step up the corporate ladder that I so badly wanted.

As a result of doing so well in Broken Arrow, the corporation picked me to turn around their most troubled store. The store had already eaten two managers before I got the job. It was the oldest McDonald’s in the state of Oklahoma. The facilities were run down, and the top line sales had evaporated as the neighborhood around the store had transformed over the years. I knew from my training that wishful thinking was not going to return this store to profitability – it was going to take money to improve the facilities and begin the long process of attracting good employees and customers back to this store.

But my operations manager had other ideas. His name was Tim Rich, and he too had aspirations for climbing even further up the corporate ladder. But for him to look good, my store had to turn a profit that it was just not capable of without cooking the books or cheating the system, which I was not willing to do.

At an end-of-month meeting, Tim put the ultimatum to me. I was told that if I did not deliver a certain profit percentage next month, I would be replaced. He was not asking me to cheat, but he knew as well as I did that the number he asked for was impossible without cheating.

Sound familiar?

For some reason, I did not hesitate. When he threatened to replace me next month, my reply was “Why wait? Replace me now.” He did. In just a few days I found myself as an assistant manager in a different store. And 6 months later, I quit the corporation and was on my way to serve my country.

Less than a year after I quit, McDonald’s Corporation sold the store I was fired from. I was right about that store. I did the right thing by refusing to cook the books or cheat my customers and employees.

By the time I was 25, I had quit my first career - one that I really loved. Although I did not know it yet, I was about to learn that you can quit and survive; indeed, sometimes you need to quit to thrive.

When I joined the US Air Force, once again I LOVED it, and thought I would make a career of it. Yet I would quit my second career about 7.5 years later, for very different reasons, but with even better results.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Is it time for you to quit your job?

One of my favorite books is one that is also not widely read, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff. Courageous followers are interdependent with, not dependent on leaders. We become interdependent by first assuming full responsibility for ourselves. We also have to have the courage to serve purposeful leaders, challenge those whose behavior or policies have wandered off purpose, and to take moral action, including quitting, if necessary.

Chaleff outlines four reasons why we might lead to leave our current job:
1. Personal growth
2. Group optimization
3. Principled action: If we have failed to serve the purpose in some important way, we should be willing to resign the position given us in trust
4. Principled action: If our leader has wandered off purpose and all our attempts to bring her/him back on purpose have failed, we should quickly move on.

I tell my students that I hope they get the opportunity to quit a job for the right reasons early in their careers. They need to know that that can survive quitting and in the long run will actually thrive by doing so.

In her excellent new book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, Tina Seeling says this about quitting:

Quitting is actually incredibly empowering. It’s a reminder that you
control the situation and can leave whenever you like. You don’t have to
be your own prison guard, keeping yourself locked up in a place that isn’t
working. But that doesn’t mean quitting is easy. I’ve quit jobs that
were a bad match and abandoned failing projects, and in each case it was
terribly difficult. We’re taught that quitting is a sign of weakness, although
in many circumstances, it’s just the opposite. Sometimes quitting is the
bravest alternative, because it requires you to face failures and announce them
publicly. The great news is that quitting allows you to start over with a
clean slate. And, if you take the time to evaluate what happened, quitting
can be an invaluable learning experience. (p. 79).

That is great advice. I have quit five jobs so far, and while it has been difficult at times, I have always landed on my feet and am better off today because of it. I'm in the process now of preparing to quit my current job if I want to!

And I ran across a new blog the other day that I just love! Rebecca Thorman writes about life and career advice for the millennial generation. Her post “Don’t burn bridges is bad career advice” is right on! I strongly agree with her point that the ability to start over enables unlimited opportunities, and when we have options we are in a stronger negotiating position.

“Work exists for the person as much as the person exists for work” (R.K. Greenleaf).

Let's find our purpose at work, assume full responsibility to serve that purpose, and our work will make us better people.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What it takes to be a career commander

I picked up the book Me 2.0 by Dan Schawbel yesterday and am really liking it so far. I hope to be able to use it in my Entrepreneurial Psychology class this summer because I like the idea of encouraging students to develop their personal brand.

His concept of being the commander of your career really resonates with me because it assumes a high degree of personal responsibility. According to Dan, to be a career commander means (pp. 37-38):

To be an active leader in and out of the workplace
To learn from mistakes and failures, while never holding grudges and always putting bad experiences behind you
To know no bounds and persist against all odds
To stand tall and have a memorable presence
To be an agent of change who seeks to lead by example
To care for others, show respect, and follow the Golden Rule
To take pride in yourself and your accomplishments
To always give back and support those you cherish most

That is extremely sage advice from anyone at any age, yet Dan is a very young man. There is a tremendous work ethic captured by these suggestions.

When Dan advocates “to take pride in yourself and your accomplishments,” I’m pretty sure he would caution against hubris. It is one thing to be self confident and quite another to be self aggrandizing. The ability to speak in a matter-of-fact way about our strengths and skills, as well as our limitations, is the sign of a healthy self-esteem.

If I could add one thing to Dan’s list, it would be to never become a “yes” person. Find your own unique voice at work, and consider it part of your responsibility to continually offer suggestions about what you could do to help improve the work that you do.

There is no substitute for performance, so always deliver more than what is expected of you. But there is also no excuse for acquiescence to bad leadership or ineffective processes. If you run into that kind of stuff, do everything you can to help make things better, but if things don’t improve then don’t hang around long. Shake the dust off your feet and move on.

To borrow from Dan’s military metaphor, always consider yourself in excellence boot camp.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Attitude check

Is your purpose to serve those you have been given the privilege to lead or to be served by your subordinates?

Are you more concerned about maintaining and overseeing your fiefdom, or are you more concerned about partnering with others to build a healthy, purposeful work environment for everyone?

There are limits to what we can achieve when we focus primarily on ourselves. By serving others and teaching them to do the same, we multiple the value of our contribution and ultimately our own reward.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy thinking

The third intentional activity from The How of Happiness is to stop overthinking or ruminating about problems and stop comparing ourselves to others. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude and the second was deliberate optimism.

It is very difficult if not impossible to be envious and happy at the same time. The more frequently we compare ourselves to others, the more we expose ourselves to potential unfavorable comparisons. Over comparing ourselves to others can leave us chronically vulnerable, threatened, and insecure.

I honestly rarely ever compare myself to others I work with. I can always find someone that makes more money, has a nicer office, publishes more and higher quality research, and teaches better than me. Instead, I focus on trying to identify the objective standard of performance that I need to achieve to remain competitive in the marketplace. I know how much I need to publish and how well I need to teach to be able to find another good job if I wanted one. I am only interested in the performance of my colleagues in as much as I might be able to learn something from them that could improve my own performance.

And when things go wrong at work, we just have to get over it and move on. But how you move on is critical. Rumination and regret are a waste of energy.

Learn to view failure as a tremendous opportunity to learn. Failure is a signal that there is a gap between where we are and where we need to be. Learning to live with the creative tension these gaps present us are the key to continuous learning and improvement.

In her excellent new book What I Wish I Knew When I was 20, Tina Seelig calls the ability to view failure as an asset the “secret sauce” of Silicon Valley or similar creative environments.

Failures offer learning opportunities and increase the chance that you won’t
make the same mistake again. Failures are also a sign that you have taken
on challenges that expand your skills. In fact, many successful people
believe that if you aren’t failing sometimes then you aren’t taking enough
risks. (p. 72).

Let’s find ways to keep ourselves and those around us encouraged as we learn to transform our problems and failures into success and satisfaction.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Creative tension

I learned the concept of creative tension from Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. It is probably the best business book I have ever read. I think folks that can see the big picture and practice the systems thinking Senge describes in his book will live their lives and lead their organizations fundamentally different and significantly more effective than those that don’t.

This is a powerful concept. If we are genuinely striving for excellence, then there will always be a gap between “the way things could/should be” and “the way things are”. How we deal with that gap is critical.

These gaps create tension in our lives. We don’t like the feeling that we are not what we could be or should be; consequently, we are highly motivated to close these gaps so that we can return to a state of satisfaction with ourselves.

The first way to close these gaps is simply to avoid them. If we don’t continually strive for excellence, for something different and better, then we never have to live with this tension.

Another way to deal with the tension is to pull the goal down to meet our current reality. We talk ourselves into believing that things are “good enough”, and even if they are not, there is certainly nothing we could do about it anyway.

The best way is to learn to live with the creative tension as we pull ourselves and our organizations UP toward the goal. The challenge is that it takes TIME to close these gaps – sometimes a lot of time. There are some things in my life that I have been working on for decades. I’m better than when I started, but I still have a way to go and the goal is worth my continued investment of time and effort.

If we are going to strive for excellence, we have to learn to live with creative tension. It’s the only way to continuously learn, grow, and improve. We owe it to ourselves and to the people we have been given the privilege to lead.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The fundamental act of leadership

More than three decades ago, James MacGregor Burns won a Pulitzer Prize for his book entitled “Leadership.” If you have a passion for leadership, you should read this book. The ideas he wrote about thirty years ago are what I label today as “contemporary.”

For Burns, purpose is paramount.

Some define leadership as leaders making followers do what followers would not
otherwise do, or as leaders making followers do what the leaders want them to do; I define leadership as leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of both leaders and followers. (p.19).

It is entirely legitimate for followers to have expectations of leaders. It is the responsibility of leaders to become aware of and care about the expectations of their followers; however, I believe followers have a responsibility to communicate expectations to their leaders even if leaders do not initiate or invite the exchange.

Leaders don’t define purpose; rather, they identify the need for purpose and champion its power to motivate people to perform.

The leader’s fundamental act is to induce people to be aware or conscious of what they feel – to feel their true needs to strongly, to define their values so meaningfully, that they can be moved to purposeful action (p. 44).

Love it!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fairness matters

One of the most important concepts I teach my students and try to practice myself is organizational justice. I think fairness is HUGE. The two types of fairness I focus the most on are distributive justice – fairness of the outcomes – and procedural justice – fairness of the process or procedures used to determine outcomes.

Procedural justice is the more important of the two.

For example, research shows that perceived fairness of procedures used to allocate pay raises is a better predictor of satisfaction than the absolute amount of the pay raise received.

Here are some things you can do to improve your practice of procedural justice:

· Be transparent: Put ALL your cards on the table for ALL your people to examine ALL the time. We don’t trust people that we think are hiding things from us. And we don’t trust leaders that cut secret backroom deals with their favorite folks.
· Be unambiguous: Describe in simple, matter-of-fact ways what you want your folks to do. Make sure your expectations are clearly and specifically stated. For example, if it is important to you that your folks be “on time” for work, clearly state what you mean by “on time”.
· Be consistent: Now that you have clearly stated your expectations and policies, make sure they apply to everyone, all of the time.
· Be correctable: If for whatever reason your policies or expectations are not working, change them! Change them for everyone, and put it in writing.
· Be inclusive: As much as possible, make sure everyone that is going to be affected by a decision is given a chance to provide input. We can live with our leaders making decisions we disagree with – as long as we have a voice.

Remember, as leaders we are always on stage. Our people watch everything we do and say for clues about what to expect from us.

Abandon yourself to fairness – it will have a powerful affect on you and the folks you have been given the privilege to lead.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Accept Responsibility for Yourself

Yesterday I expressed my strong belief that followers have a responsibility to hold leaders accountable for their behavior and policies. Even if our leaders don’t invite this shared accountability, it does not relieve us of our responsibility. If we don’t practice this attitude and behavior as a follower, we won’t encourage it in others when we are given the privilege to lead.

Right relationship is built on the foundation of personal responsibility. We simply can’t enter into purposeful partnerships with others at work if we are not first assuming full responsibility for ourselves. Challef nails this concept in his book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders:

“By assuming responsibility for our organization and its activities, we can
develop a true partnership with our leader and sense of community with our group. This is how we maximize our own contribution to the common purpose. Assuming responsibility requires courage because we then become responsible for the outcomes – we can’t lay the blame for our action or inaction elsewhere. But before we can assume responsibility for the organization, we must assume responsibility for ourselves” (pp. 37-38)

Unless and until we assume full responsibility for ourselves, we force others to assume responsibility for us.

We can’t hold a paternalistic image of our organizations and our leaders. That creates dependent, not interdependent relationships and relieves us of the need to be fully responsible for ourselves.

Before we look outside, to initiate values-based, purposeful action to improve processes or to challenge inappropriate behavior in others, we simply must look inside ourselves first.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shared accountability

What is your first reaction when you hear someone at work talking about accountability? If you are like most people, your gut reaction is probably negative. Accountability all too often ends up as a search for someone to blame and punish when things go wrong.

But that’s not the way it should be. Accountability is an essential aspect of right relationship.

At its best, leadership is shared among leaders and followers, with everyone
fully engaged and accepting higher levels of responsibility and accountability
to each other
(Daft, 2002)

In our current paradigm of leadership, we don’t have any problem with the idea that leaders hold followers accountable. Followers expect to be held accountable. Highly effective leaders share their expectations with followers, help enable them to meet or exceed those expectations, and then administer the rewards or consequences that were earned.

On the other hand, it is a huge paradigm shift to think that it is part of the follower’s legitimate responsibility to hold the leader accountable. Yet for right relationship to exist between leaders and followers that is exactly what has to happen.

The best leaders invite their followers to hold them accountable.

And the best followers have the courage to hold their leaders accountable even if they are not invited to do so.

When leaders and followers are purposeful actors (as opposed to egocentric actors), shared accountability is considered necessary rather than threatening.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Deliberate optimism

The second intentional activity from The How of Happiness is cultivating optimism. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude.

Optimism does not mean pretending that we live in a perfect world and ignoring or discounting the challenges and troubles we currently face, have faced in the past, and most likely will encounter in the future. Optimism is all about anticipating a positive future in the midst of our current circumstances. To be optimistic means that we expect things to go our way.

“Being optimistic involves a choice about how you see the world. It doesn’t mean denying the negative or avoiding all unfavorable information. It also doesn’t mean constantly trying to control situations what cannot be controlled. Indeed, research shows that optimists are more, not less vigilant of risks and threats (they don’t have their blinders on), and optimists are very much aware that positive outcomes are dependent on their efforts (they don’t wait around for good things to happen).” (p.111)

As I write this, I’m not sure if I will have a job three months from now. The state I live in and work for is experiencing a severe financial crisis and there are massive budget cuts proposed for our university. Yet I remain optimistic, not that the politicians will do the right thing and save the university and my job, but that whatever happens I am going to (eventually) land on my feet. I don’t pretend that my situation will not involve potential hardship and sacrifice, but I have an overwhelming confidence that I will survive this challenge and emerge better prepared to overcome the next one life sends my way.

Optimism is not the same as hope. Hope involves focus on a very specific valued goal and the specific ways and means to achieve that goal, while optimism is broader and involves a more open time frame. Hope is usually described as more affective (how we feel) while optimism is more cognitive (how we think) in nature.

So while I am optimistic that whatever happens with the university budget I am going to land on my feet, I am hoping that I get to keep my job because I like it.

Let’s stay optimistic at work and in life by purposefully reminding ourselves of our strengths and virtues. One way to do that is through an exercise called Reflected Best Self. Find people that know you well and that you trust to give you an honest opinion and ask them how you add value and make a positive contribution at work. Take their feedback and construct a portrait of your best self, a list of your strengths and virtues. Take this written portrait and put it in a place where you will see it every day (e.g. near your home computer, on your bathroom mirror, on the kitchen cabinet).

Now construct some specific goals on how you can leverage your best self to enhance your organization’s purpose. Let’s put the focus on how we can help and encourage others. Write those goals down and once again, put them in a place that you will see them every day. When you accomplish those goals, make new ones.

Expect something positive to happen to you and those around you when you practice these habits.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


One of my favorite books on leadership is Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree. His philosophy of leadership really resonates with me. I use a number of his thoughts and quotes in my presentations on leadership.

Here is something he wrote that I must admit I have not focused much on, but seems especially relevant these days:

"Leaders must take a role in developing, expressing, and defending civility and values. In a civilized institution or corporation, we see good manners, respect for persons, an understanding of “good goods,” and an appreciation of the way in which we serve each other.

Civility has to do with identifying values as opposed to following fashions. Civility might be defined as an ability to distinguish between what is actually healthy and what merely appears to be living. A leader can tell the difference between living edges and dying ones.

To lose sight of the beauty of ideas and of hope and opportunity, and to frustrate the right to be needed, is to be at the dying edge.

To be part of a throwaway mentality that discards goods and ideas, that discards principles and law, that discards persons and families, is to be at the dying edge.

To be at the leading edge of consumption, affluence, and instant gratification is to be at the dying edge.

To ignore the dignity of work and the elegance of simplicity, and the essential responsibility of serving each other, is to be at the dying edge.

…. To be a leader means, especially, having the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who permit leaders to lead." (pp, 21-22).

Can you tell the difference between “living edges and dying ones?” When the pressure appears to be on, which one will you take a stand for?

Monday, April 13, 2009


Yesterday I closed my post on excellence with the question “Are you encouraging or discouraging excellence?” Said another way, are we helping those we work with to have the courage they need to pursue excellence, or are we thwarting that courage?

In his book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, Ira Chaleff defines courage as “the ability to step forward through fear.” He goes on to say:

• Courage means accepting responsibility
• Courage often means nonconformity
• Courage means pushing beyond the comfort zone
• Courage means asking for what you want and saying what you think
• Courage means fighting for what you believe

Man, I love this.

Through our words and our actions, let’s not warn others that they better “sit down and shut up” when they want to make suggestions on how to improve inferior or broken systems at work. Let’s help others step forward through the fear of striving for excellence.

Whether leading or following, let’s strive to encourage, not discourage, those around us.