Friday, December 24, 2010

Reflections on 2010: The More I Know About Leadership Development the Less I Know

Sometimes it feels like the more I learn about leadership and leadership development the more I realize how little I really do know.

I have to admit, there have been times during the last year when I’ve allowed myself to get quite full of myself. We probably all have those moments, those little victories – an award, some recognition, a nice review, a big win, helping someone get to the next level, or just the satisfaction of knowing you showed up as a leader that day.

While it’s great to take the time to bask in those moments of glory, it’s also important not to let it go to our heads. Because it seems like when we do – when we start allowing ourselves to get all puffed out and feel like some kind of guru or role model- that’s when we uncover some blind spot about ourselves, screw something up, or discover some new ideas that challenges our deeply help beliefs. That’s when we’re reminded that the journey to great leadership has only just begun.

The best leaders seem to have a remarkable blend of self-awareness, humility, confidence in their ability to improve and succeed, and a thirst for new knowledge and skills. They listen, observe, study, and practice, and when they get good at something, they either move on to something else or want to get even better.

I had the pleasure of spending a day with the legendary Warren Bennis a couple years ago. If there was ever someone that has earned the right to be called a leadership guru, it would be him.

Instead of just giving a canned speech, signing a few books, and leaving early, I was amazed how this 80 plus year old legend was walking around the room talking to people and asking questions. I sat next to him and lunch expecting to pick up a few lessons, and instead, he spent the entire time asking my opinion about things. It turns out he was working on a new book, and was trying to soak up as much as he could from those in the room. It didn’t come across as work either – he really seemed to be enjoying himself.

I’ve also recently had the chance to get to know Francis Hesselbein this year, another legendary leader and still going strong in her 80s. Again, she struck me as having the same qualities: confident yet humble; self-aware and curious, and a life-long student, vs. a self-proclaimed “guru”.

One of my most memorable lessons in leadership development humility was a few years ago, when a attended a leadership program at Darden. Each of the participants had to complete a 360 degree leadership assessment as pre-work and bring the results to the program. I was feeling pretty cocky about my scores, that is, until the instructors revealed to the class (with his permission) who had the highest score. After being in the program for a couple days, he was one of the last participants I would have picked as a great leader. He wasn’t flashy or charismatic, just some unassuming mid-level government manager.

For the rest of the program, I spent as much time as I could with this leader. The more I learned about him, the more I realized how far away I was from where I wanted to be. He led from the heart, cared about his people but was tough when he had to be, and was responsible for turning one of the worst performing agencies into one of the best. The gap between his “9.9” and my “8.9” was a mile wide, and it inspired me to want to work harder to close that gap.

Looking towards the new year, I know there are a few things I want to get better at or learn more about in 2011, including:

1. The art of coaching. I want to get better at asking questions to help people discover answers to their own challenges.

2. New and more effective ways to influence and lead change. I’ve got a “bag of tricks” that has served me well….. up until now. It’s time to learn some new ones.

3. Leadership selection assessment methodology. There just has to be a better way to predict success in a new leadership role.

4. Leveraging social networking and informal learning for leadership development. I think we’re on the verge of something here. The fun part is, no one has yet to figure it out, despite claims by the “experts” that they have.

5. Talent mobility strategies. I thought I was pretty good at this, but barriers exist that didn’t before, and I have to figure out a way around them.

6. Fostering inclusion and diversity. I get the value of inclusion and diversity…. I just don’t think the methods HR has been pushing for the last 20 years (i.e., quota-like programs) are working. We need some fresh thinking here.

7. Strategic thinking. It’s a leadership competency that’s in short supply, and I need to get better at designing approaches to help leaders get better at it.

8. Performance management. It’s still broken. It always has been, and despite advances in technology, it’s no better than it’s ever been. Yet, I know there’s value in it.

9. Leveraging strengths. I’ll admit, I’ve not been a big proponent of the whole “strength-based” approach to leadership development. However, it’s an emerging trend, and I need to keep an open mind and look for ways to help leaders use strengths to improve weaknesses (not ignore or work around them).

10. New and emerging models for succession planning. As confident as I am in my ability to design and manage succession planning systems, I need to keep an eye out for who’s figured out how to do it even better. When someone does, it gives an organization a huge competitive advantage.

The scary (and exciting) thing is, that’s only what I’m aware of. So more importantly, I know I need to pay attention to the world around me, listen for understanding to everyone and anyone, and stay open to possibilities. That’s one of the things I love about this blogging and social networking thing – it’s opened all kinds of new doors to learning (Dave, Jennifer, Susan, how about chewing on some of these topics on our next conference call?).

How about you? What’s on your learning agenda for 2011?

I’d like to wish Great Leadership readers a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dear Company Leadership, I Have Been A Good Manager...

Here's a sponsored guest post by Anna Smith, from - the informal network for managers.

Dear Company Leadership,

Here is my Christmas Wish List:

• I (junior manager) would love to be challenged (more), trained (more) and mentored (more) by a senior manager.

• Help me become an integral part of the team. Tell me that it's not about me.

• Collaborating with other managers is awesome. Give me a chance to do it more often.

• Organizational values/mission, alignment, emotional competence, networking, team building, all the other stuff I need to know - teach me (again and again).

• Allow me to make mistakes.

• The bottom-line matters most, I understand that. Now help me re-humanize my workplace.

• Don't let me become a bosshole!

(I'm tempted to say that if I don't get what I want, I'll quit and work someplace cooler, but I'm trying to show some integrity here. Plus, the economy sucks and I'm not sure if the 100 Best Companies To Work For are hiring right now...)

Your greatest asset (one of them)


More from Dan:
I love Anna's manager wish list, and I'd like to add a few items, on behalf of the managers I'm responsible for developing:
  • A winning long term strategy
  • Clear direction and consistent priorities
  • The resources I need to execute on our strategy
  • Support and reinforcement from my own manager for the new leadership skills I've learned
  • Empower me to deliver results without micromanagement
  • A competent, supportive HR partner
  • The courage and strength to do the right thing
How about you? Anything you'd like to add to our manager's Christmas wish list? We'll make sure it's emailed to your company's senior leadership with a copy to the North Pole.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The 20 "Best" Leadership Blog Posts 2010

There's a list of the 20 best leadership blog posts from 2010!?

Unbelievable. I mean, I really, really like these blog posts.

Check it out: right here.

Thanks to DDI, the talent management experts,  for collaborating with me on this.

Happy reading!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Great Employees Trump Perfect Processes

Those that preach and practice Process Improvement, Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, and Lean Manufacturing like to tell us that:

• “There is no such thing as a poor performer, there are only poor processes”;

• “Don’t blame the person, fix the process”;

• “Bad processes beat good employees”;

• “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners”. No, wait, maybe that’s from Cesar Millan, the Dog Wisperer. But it’s close.

Gurus like Deming and Juran say that process is responsible for anywhere from 80-95% of good or poor performance, with people making up the remainder.

With all due respect to these very brilliant men, as well as the rest of those in the Quality industry, my response to this, based on over 20 years as a practitioner in talent management and my own experience as a manager is….. really?! I mean, seriously!?

I’m sorry, but do anyone other than those that teach and sell this stuff, and maybe criminal defense attorneys, really believe this?

Here’s a way to test the validity of the “no bad employee” school of thought: get a bunch of HR people or managers together for happy hour, offer to buy the drinks, and start sharing “describe your worst employee nightmare” stories. Then, after you’ve heard about a dozen of these, test the theory. Say something like, “Well, you know, there really are no bad employees, only bad processes. Have you thought about doing some process improvement work?” After the laughter dies down, say “just kidding”, and quickly offer to buy another round, before they hang you up by your underwear.

I’m not just picking on misfit employees here. You can conduct the same experiment and substitute the word “manager” for “employee”, and get even more passionate responses. Yes, Virginia, there are some really bad managers out there, and no amount of “process improvement” methodology is ever going to make them effective. Good managers can develop into great leaders. Bad managers should be removed.

One of the most important lesson’s I’ve ever learned in leadership development is from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great – you start with getting the right people on the bus. Everyone else follows, i.e., strategy, structure, processes, and training. Without the right people – great, “A players”, the rest is doomed to failure. The same is true in talent management – selection trumps training every time. No amount of training will overcome a poor selection decision.

I’m not saying process improvement efforts have no value – I actually am a big proponent. Improving processes can streamline work, improve efficiency, and eliminate waste. However, it makes me crazy when an organization or team will spend hundreds of hours in meetings covering walls with post-it notes in order to design idiot proof “perfect processes”, when what they really should have done is just remove the 1-2 idiots and turn the rest of their employees loose. It’s a cowardly way to avoid dealing with performance issues at the expense of everyone else.

Great employees – and great leaders – don’t need to be spoon-fed and have their work spelled out in detail. They use their brains, creativity, and resourcefulness to find a way, innovate, and adapt. In reality, by the time some team gets done documenting the perfect process, the world around them changes and the process is outdated. Even brand new employees, if they really are good, will outgrow your 100 page training manual before you’ve had a chance to teach it to them. They may see things with a fresh set of eyes and bring even better ideas to the table.

The key to success is to hire and develop great employees (and managers) – then empower them to deliver extraordinary results. Yes, the lack of clearly defined processes and roles may trip them up now and then – but you need to trust them that they’ll figure out a way - they always do. I’ll take a team full or A players over a perfect process any time.

I suspect there may be some dissenters out there – I’ll publish all opposing viewpoints, as long as they are civil. (-:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

31 Days to Become a Better Leader

With the start of a New Year looming, there’s no better time than now to commit to being a better leader in 2011.

Here’s a list of 31 activities that can help you become a better leader. Each one can be done in a day.

Please feel free to leave a comment to add to the list – who knows, maybe we can turn it into one of those desktop calendars.

1. Start a learning journal.

2. Read a leadership book

3. Subscribe to a leadership blog

4. Call a peer and offer to help solve a cross-functional problem

5. Delegate something meaningful to one of your employees

6. Take a leadership assessment

7. Schedule regular one-on-ones with your employees

8. Call a non-profit that’s important to you and volunteer your services

9. Ask for feedback or feedforward from your manager, an employee, or peer

10. Praise someone

11. Volunteer to be the first to try something

12. Find a mentor

13. Have a crucial conversation

14. Make a tough decision you’ve been putting off

15. Create a vision for your team or a project

16. Show some humility

17. Really listen to someone

18. Have a career/development discussion with one of your employees

19. Find a mentee

20. Thank someone

21. Offer to give feedback to an employee, peer, or your boss

22. Start a task force to seize a new opportunity or solve an important problem

23. Do a SWOT analysis for your function

24. Share your vision with someone

25. Teach something or do a presentation

26. Help someone feel more valued

27. Eliminate some low-value work or improve a process

28. Coach someone

29. Ask your boss to delegate one of his/her responsibilities to you

30. Find a peer coach

31. Develop an Individual Development Plan (IDP)

Note: Thanks, Sarah, for the post idea.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What to do About the Holiday Office Party

Here's a guest post by regular Great Leadership contributor Eileen Habelow:

The holidays are back, but the economy is still making its way – What to do about the holiday office party

It’s that time of year again. Time to start planning for gifts, employee vacation time and don’t forget, the holiday office party. Every year these management issues come up for debate, especially around whether or not to host the annual holiday party. The question arises: Does anyone really enjoy the holiday party?

Oftentimes the answer is yes. However, since the recession, personal finances and company budgets have become increasingly more of a concern for employees and management alike. What used to be a yearly holiday tradition may be perceived more as a luxury or even an improper use of limited funding and increased attention to unemployment rates. A focus on employee engagement and morale is absolutely critical in difficult times, but it’s difficult for managers to know when money is being well spent and when money is being wasted on outdated proprieties. And, a lot of that has to do with how the spending is perceived by the workforce.

In an effort to provide office leadership with some direction this season, Randstad conducted a survey of employee attitudes around the holidays. This is what we found:

• 93 percent of employees would rather have a bonus than a holiday office party

• Nearly one-third (29 percent) of employees think a holiday party is inappropriate during these economic times

What does this mean for company leadership? Although the holiday office party may be an annual company tradition, it may not be what some companies need most this year. While holiday parties often boost morale, they can have the opposite effect if they are unwelcomed or even resented by the workforce.

If your company is debating whether or not to host a holiday party this year, it may be prudent to take a step back and view it from your employees’ perspective. Has your company been through a series of layoffs this year? Have raises, promotions and bonuses been put on hold? If so, consider what message a holiday party might send to your employees and whether funds could be spent in better ways, or even saved.

Taking into account employee demographics may also help in the decision-making process. Although most prefer a bonus over a party, the majority of Gen Y and Millennials (83 percent) view the office holiday party as a morale builder and as a reward for hard work (80 percent). For companies made up of mostly young professionals and those that have been hit less hard by the recession, a holiday party may still be the perfect end-of-year gift. This is especially true if your company can afford both a party and an annual bonus.

In contrast, companies employing mostly older professionals (55 and over) may want to consider an alternative gift. Older employees, who are often more financially and professionally established, were more likely (59 percent) to wish holiday party funds be donated to a charity instead of spent on a party.

Whatever your company decides, keep in mind that as the economy fluctuates so do employee attitudes on spending. What may be the right choice this year may be different next year. Remind employees that this year’s decision is not a set-in-stone tradition and that feedback and ideas for next year are always welcome.

Eileen Habelow, Ph.D., is the Senior Vice President of Organizational Development with Randstad, a global provider of HR solutions and staffing.