"Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the guru." -- Charlotte Joko Beck

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Telling it like it is

It’s been a terribly long time since my last post and I apologize for that. I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while and visiting my mother recently reminded me of the topic.

A couple of months ago as Hurricane Irene was trundling her was up the East Coast and residents were being warned to prepare, I called my mother in New Jersey to see how she was doing. I was staggered by something she said, something I never thought would ever come from her lips. She said, “I love my Christie.” She was talking about Governor Chris Christie.

Now understand, in the more than 52 years since I’ve left this woman’s womb, I have never heard her say a thing about anyone in a political office. Never known her to vote, or even have any awareness of who was in office at any given time. I didn’t even know she knew who her Governor was, or even cared!

So what happened that would get this politically unaware septuagenarian to proclaim adoration for someone she barely knew existed?

It was something he said in a press conference earlier that same day. Commenting on news footage he had seen on people partying on the Jersey shore despite rising surf, strengthening winds and ominous cloud formations, Christie said. “Get the hell off the beach in Asbury Park and get out. You’re done. It’s 4:30, you’ve maximized your tan. Get off the beach.”

This wasn’t some polished speech, clucked over and modified by speechwriters, press secretaries and a hoard of flacks and other hangers-on trying to preserve the Governor’s image and their own careers. The comment was raw and genuine. It was a gut-reaction from a man who was angry and perplexed by the stupidity he was witnessing. Because of its simplicity and authenticity, it won Christie world-wide notoriety as the comment was picked up by national press and repeated over and over again in international media channels.

What he said wasn’t profound, thoughtful, or even powerful in the words themselves, but it instantly endeared him to millions that had never heard of him before. So much so, that I believe this simple comment may have brought just enough attention to Christie to get the Republican party to try to convince him to run for president. He declined the honor, but now people are talking about him for a Vice Presidential bid.

I admit I haven’t tracked Christie’s career, his voting record, or his history of enactments in my old home state, but I’m sure he’s done lots of good stuff to earn such a high opinion in the party. But I think it was this refreshing, yet rare, glimpse of an American elected official actually telling it like it is that will earn him future votes.

Being genuine, being authentic, being real, and telling it like it is. Isn't that what people look for in a leader?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Milking it for all its worth!

A senior vice president recently had a baby. Since the doors in all the executive offices in this organization have windows and, thus, offer no privacy, a separate room – sans window - was set aside so that new mothers could, um … well, pump.

This is a necessary function and part of the beauty of child bearing. I am actually in awe of the fact that a woman can produce food for her young from her own body. It’s a beautiful thing.

I commend the organization’s management team for recognizing their error when designing their office space and ignoring the need for privacy. The office space was obviously designed by men because they never considered this special privacy need for their female staff. I can say this, because I’m a man and admittedly would not have thought of this particular need either. But, then again, I would not have put windows you could see through on private offices - especially for senior management. I do understand that everyone has a need for privacy at some point - whether it is to have a meeting on a sensitive topic or change your shirt after spilling your coffee (the latter is usually me, by the way).

Anyway, our now-enlightened management team quickly compensated and allocated this private room, complete with comfy couch, so the senior VP can collect her offspring’s nutrition. One would think all would now be well. Not quite.

After leaving the lactating room, this woman has a tendency to roam around the office carrying her full bottles. She will stop by people’s desks or offices and chat while waving her body juice in the air. She has shown up to meetings, bottles in hand, and sat them on the board room table while conducting business. This might not be so bad if the bottles didn’t have giant labels on them that say, “My Mommy’s Milk” or if she didn’t say things like, “Sorry I’m late, but I had to pump!” She gets away with it because, well, she is a senior VP!

When she doesn’t bring them with her, she leaves them places. On her desk. At the fax machine. On the counter in the kitchen. Sometimes, she wields her seniority in the organization and asks junior employees to go get her juice and put it in the fridge for her because she simply didn’t have time to do it herself.

To make matters worse, she has begun conducting meetings in the lactation room! While she is pumping! Sometimes with outside visitors, not just internal staff! Can this possibly be appropriate in a business environment?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against breasts. I’m rather fond of them. They are among some of my favorite things in the whole world. But there are times and places for everything.

Every mother certainly has a right to pump at the office, but the rest of the staff has a right also. The right not to be grossed out by their boss!

If you ask me, this leadership style is just in bad taste.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Quiet Leader and a Life Well-Lived

This past weekend, in one of the most difficult days of my life, I said farewell to a truly inspirational leader and a dear friend. I only had the honor and pleasure of having Steve McCullen’s presence in my life for a few years, but in that brief time, I quickly learned how special a gift that was.

Steve was one of the warmest, most caring and generous individuals I have ever known. He was deeply devoted to his family – his wife and four wonderful sons. If you ever need a testament to the kind of person someone is, just look at the relationship they have with their children. Steve and his family had the most enviable relationship. I’ve never seen a family where teens and young adults would rather hang out with their parents and their parents’ friends on a Saturday night watching cheesy, old movies than go out partying. They hung out with dad because they wanted to.
Steve had the same relationship with nearly everyone around him -- at work, in his personal life, and even with people who just happened to be fortunate enough to come in contact with him.
People were inspired by Steve’s perpetual optimism, his enduring sense of humor and his aura of sage calm. Throughout his career as a county police officer, junior cops would seek him out as a mentor, senior cops would seek him out for advice and entrust him with special assignments.
Steve was what Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco would refer to as a “quiet leader.” A quiet leader is one who leads by example, who instinctually does the right thing, and who empowers others by trusting them.
Admittedly, I had never really looked at Steve this way before. I just knew him as a heck of a nice guy. But this weekend, as I was reading the tributes written by family members, former coworkers and other friends – and even his hair stylist – I learned a lot about how others had seen him. Many called him mentor, and even hero.
That’s when I realized that he was a role model for me as well. Without even realizing it at the time, I had been trying to emulate many of his traits.  
I never saw Steve in a bad mood. Even over the past 10 months when fighting his battle with cancer, he was endlessly optimistic, maintained his humor and kept working tirelessly to rebuild his strength. I think he got through these past months easier than the rest of us.
Steve, my friend, you touched a lot of lives and made each one better for the contact. Your quiet leadership was an inspiration to many. Your kind heart and generous spirit lives on in those you have left behind.

Your work here is done. Now rest, my friend, and know that you had a life well-lived.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Don’t bring me a problem...

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, currently the center of media attention himself, claims he did not know that members of his staff were hacking into the private email and telephone accounts of celebrities and others. Just because he owns a zillion newspaper and media outlets doesn’t mean he has any idea about unethical practices going on in the newsrooms. 
Personally, I believe him. I believe he really did not know that this was happening. But I also believe the lack of this knowledge was his own fault.
Reports about Murdoch’s corporate environment have revealed that people were afraid to tell him about problems. Out of fear for their jobs, fear of retribution or just afraid they’d get chewed out, they avoided telling the boss that things were wrong. Is it possible that Murdoch really didn’t want to know? Or did someone misunderstand a corporate edict?
I have worked for several bosses who had a policy of, “Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution.” While this may seem intimidating, to me it seems a way to empower people and to development their leadership skills.  “Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution” doesn’t mean “don’t come to me if you don’t have a solution!” The captain still needs to know if the ship is sinking.
This is the way it ideally works.
·         People don’t go running to the boss with every little thing. They handle what they can at their level and fill in the boss later.
·         If the solution needs someone of higher rank to implement or if they do not have the authority to implement the solution themselves, they propose the solution and request the boss’s support.
·         If there are a variety of solutions, they offer them up for the boss to choose which one to implement.
·         In more complex situations, they have a discussion with the boss on what’s been tried or what is recommended and ask for input, advice or an alternate solution.
The employees develop problem-solving skills, confidence, and their own leadership. The boss is free to focus on larger issues that require that particular rank or level of authority. Most importantly, a sense of trust is developed throughout the organization.
The captain of a ship does not personally maintain the engines, put fuel in the boilers, repair leaks, plot the course or even steer the ship. Instead, he or she trusts the crew to make the day-to-day operational decisions to keep the ship functioning and on course to their destination. Problems that arise are handled at the lowest possible level.
But you will notice one key element in making this environment work – the boss is always informed. This is why so many organizations require various periodic reports on the status of operations, sales, profits, personnel matters, news, and so on. These reports go up the chain so that the boss is always apprised of what is going on.
This is important because, no matter what happens, the boss is always ultimately responsible.
So, which scenario would you prefer?
“Captain, we have a problem. We hit an iceberg and punched a hole in the hull. Water is coming in and we’re sinking. What should we do?”
“Captain, we hit an iceberg and there’s a hole in the hull. Water was coming in, but I had it shored up and a temporary patch put in. We’ll have to weld it, but I’ll need your authorization to secure the area while we do the work. Meanwhile, I’ve got the crew cleaning up the excess water.”
“Captain, I am sorry about the ship sinking. An iceberg punched a hole in the hull and water was coming in. We were afraid to tell you because we thought you’d get mad.”
I certainly don’t know for sure that went on in Murdoch’s organization. I cannot imagine that a captain would not want to know when a problem arises that could sink the ship. I also cannot imagine people in any position of leadership that would not have taken action to stop the problem – i.e. plug the leak, stop the unethical practices. Other managers knew about it and were afraid to tell the boss, but also didn’t take any action themselves.
It’s a Titanic mess.
I hope they brought a lot of towels.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Backed into a Corner by Missing Vertebra (You can’t make this stuff up!)

This one happened a couple of years ago, but I still cannot believe it. A non-profit in Washington DC had an in-house team of meeting planners who were responsible for all of the organization’s high-profile events, including big fund-raisers and legislative conferences.
Their biggest event of the year was coming up – the one that secured the majority of the organization’s annual funding. The event starts on Sunday. It is now the Thursday before the event and the meeting planners have not sent out invitations, registration information, or an agenda. As a matter of fact, they are still looking for speakers!
Needless to say, the event was a complete failure and almost caused the dissolution of the organization. Worse, this was not the first time the meeting planners had dropped the ball.
Senior management finally decided to do something about it and discharged the meeting planners.  You could almost hear cheers throughout the office on the day they walked out the door.
Now we all know that firing someone can be a very uncomfortable ordeal. Few people enjoy having to let people go – and the ones that do, I don’t want to work for. Neither do you, I bet.
But difficult as it can be, sometimes it has to be done. And it takes a strong leader to do it right. Among various other traits, such as compassion, integrity, and authenticity, fortitude is paramount. A leader must have the courage to stand up to convictions and be truthful with the employee. The individuals have a right to know why they are being let go, and, if for no other reason than common courtesy, they need to know where they need to improve.
In this particular case, however, management did not have the necessary spinal column required for the task. Instead of being honest about why the meeting planners were being fired – incompetence – they said it was due to budgetary issues and a reorganization of in-house functions. They said, “We’re going to contract out the meeting planner functions from now on.”
So, out the door they went, decided they knew what the organization needed, formed their own company and put in a bid for the job. The bid was a good one, within the price range the organization could afford, and full of the kinds of details that show knowledge of the organization’s needs.
Guess what happened! Yep, you guessed it!
Management hired them back! They feared a lawsuit if they did not accept what was otherwise a legitimate bid on the job. Because they weren’t truthful when they fired these people, there was no documentation of professional incompetence. The meeting planners would have had a good case for a discrimination suit if they chose to file one. Management saw the potential for trouble and bit the bullet.
Now, they still have the same incompetent meeting planning services, but are paying significantly more per hour than they were before. All because they were too weak to be honest!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Risky Business

During the many weeks since my last blog, we have witnessed some spectacular examples of leadership – at both ends of the performance spectrum.
We witnessed the travesty of Congress in their inability to perform their one most vital function of passing a budget for the federal government. As a body, they proved themselves to be nothing more than a flock of elected sheep. Not a one had the courage to stand up to their “party” and push for the common good. Well, perhaps that isn’t quite a fair analogy. For the sheep, that is. A more appropriate analogy might be of a gang mentality. During the budget war on the Hill, the gang members fiercely battled each other, whether or not they believed in what the gang was doing. They were afraid for their own safety – i.e. their own political careers – so they mindlessly went along with the gang instead of standing up for what was right or working to find a solution to their differences.
And they each tried to blame the other’s rigidity on the potential consequences of shutting down government services. It’s amazing how quickly they came to an agreement on a continuing resolution – which, by the way is a cop-out since it does not address budgetary concerns at all – when the media started talking about the one thing that would get the American public in an uproar: stopping pay for our military and their families. Neither party wanted to take a chance on being blamed for that.
At the height of all of this hoopla, I found this little ditty floating around on Facebook. I do not know who the original author is, but I wish the genius would step forward and take credit:
Dear Congress, Last year I mismanaged my funds and this year I cannot decide on a budget. Until I have come to a unified decision that fits all of my needs and interests, I will have to shut down my checkbook and will no longer be able to pay my taxes. I'm sure you'll understand. Thank you very much for setting an example we can all follow. 
Meanwhile, on the better side of the leadership spectrum, was one of the most difficult decisions that the leader of a world power could make – the decision to send a military strike team into an ally’s sovereign territory to root out a dire enemy. Kudos to President Obama for having the spine needed to finally rid the world of its most evil terrorist, Osama Bin Laden. I don’t care what your party affiliation is or where you stand on Obama’s overall performance record, this was the act of a true leader.  Of course, we cannot overlook the amazing performance of our Navy SEALS who actually went in and got Bin Laden! They made me proud to be a Navy veteran – even more so than I already am.
Real leaders are willing to take risks. It is not that they are careless. On the contrary, a real leader takes great care in evaluating the pros and cons of an action. But unlike our risk-averse Congressional representation, true leaders do take action! Sometimes that action is not the popular choice. But having the fortitude, the strength of character, and the integrity to do the right thing even when no one is watching, is what counts.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Monkee see, Monkee do? Better make sure your leader is trustworthy.

You wouldnt think that profound words about honesty and integrity would come from the lips of a 1960’s-era pop star, but Peter Tork of The Monkees summed it up quite well. He said, “You should be a hero to yourself. And if you're not... check it out.” In just these few words reside the entire concept of being honest with oneself and having integrity.
Honesty and integrity are the most important characteristics I hope to find in a leader. More than 88 percent of the population agrees with me, according to a survey conducted by the authors of The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner. After interviewing more than 20,000 workers, they summarized that: It’s clear that if we’re willing to follow someone — whether it be into battle or into the boardroom, into the classroom or into the back room, into the front office or into the front lines—we first want to assure ourselves that the person is worthy of our trust.
Honesty and integrity.  Different words with strongly interrelated meanings. Simply put, honesty means making your words fit reality – speaking the truth about the past. Integrity means making reality fit your words – doing what you say you are going to do.  
I could point out lots of examples, especially in the political arena, where honesty or integrity has been doubtful. A former Presidential candidate spoke about the danger she faced during a trip to Bosnia. She said, “I remember landing under sniper fire …we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” The media coverage of that time, however, clearly showed her and her daughter casually walking and greeting people–not dodging bullets. When her embellishment of the facts came to light, people began to doubt whether or not they could trust her. I believe she ultimately lost her race for the Democratic nomination because of this.
There are many other examples, but I think you get the point.
On the other side of that coin is Peter Tork – a man without a deceitful bone in his body – who continues to be a hero to himself and to others. He is a cancer survivor and recently celebrated his 30th anniversary of being clean and sober. I have never seen him at an event where he wasn’t reaching out to help someone caught in the trap of addiction. His honesty and integrity are boldly apparent and that helps put people at ease around him.
Peter’s a good friend of ours and he’s getting ready to go back out with the The Monkees for an anniversary tour. Next weekend, he’ll be performing with his blues band, Shoe Suede Blues, here in Maryland at Club 66 in Edgewood, Saturday, April 2. We’re holding a special Blues Brunch on Sunday, April 3, noon to 3pm, with Peter and his band – a little casual, hang-out time, an acoustic set or two and special surprises. Join us if you can. Details are on Peter’s Website: www.petertork.com
Meanwhile, take a lesson from this Monkee. Before you follow the leader, make sure he's worth following.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A fine 'welcome aboard!'

When I was assigned to my first ship as a Navy Journalist, I met with each person in my chain of command to check-in and be indoctrinated. Everyone tried hard to make me feel welcome. Everyone, that is, except the Executive Officer.

I remember Commander K_______ very well. He kept me standing at attention in his office while he flipped through my meager service record consisting of boot camp and military journalism school. Our first conversation went something like this:
“A G-D Journalist, huh?”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with a G-D Journalist?”
“Well sir, the Navy says this ship merits a Journalist billet, so here I am.”
“Don’t give me any of your lip, son! We don’t need no G-D Journalist onboard this ship! We used to have one about 18 months ago. Do you know what happened to our last Journalist, Seaman Verrico?”
“We kicked his butt out of the Navy cuz he was a G-D fruitcake! Are you a fruitcake, Seaman Verrico?”
“Hmmph!  Well, let me tell you something right here and now. Don’t try to pull any of that crap you learned in school on me either. I have a degree in journalism and I know what’s right and what’s good and what isn’t!”

The message was clear. What he communicated at that first meeting was that nothing I could do would be good enough. Over the subsequent months, every project I worked on was rejected, torn apart and returned bleeding with red ink. He would not be satisfied with anything. I could do nothing to please him, so why bother to try?  But I didn’t give up and I kept trying. I never succeeded and when he transferred the following year, I was greatly relieved.

For many years I thought of him as one of the biggest jerks I ever worked for. He acted this way with everyone, so it wasn’t just me. I could not understand why he would consistently try to demotivate people. What could possibly be the purpose of such a tactic? How productive could that be?

But now that I look back on it with the experience of many years, I realize that what he did was to challenge us to prove him wrong.  I think he felt that if he kept pushing people they would keep trying harder to fight back. Those that did would do well in the Navy. Those that gave up didn’t belong there.

Interesting. I think in the long run he made us stronger.

He was still a jerk to work for, but I think his tough-love leadership style made me a better sailor and a better professional. Thanks, Commander!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Amid the Destruction are Lessons in Decency

While our hearts and prayers, and aid of a more tangible nature, go out to the people of Japan, we also have to give them our awe and respect. 
For the past couple of days, we have been riveted to our televisions and the images of the devastation caused by a huge earthquake and tremendous tsunami, particularly in the city of Sendai. We’ve seen the destruction to businesses, homes and industry. We’ve seen the bodies washing ashore and the injured being carted away. We’ve seen families crying and searching for missing loved ones.  And we’ve sat on the edge of our seats as the engineers desperately try to contain the reactors at damaged nuclear power plants.
But you know what we haven’t seen? Looting.  Rioting.  Disorder of any kind. Why not? Because the Japanese people do not believe in it!
Could you imagine an American city beginning an organized evacuation only 5 or 10 minutes after the initial alert? Where police can focus on helping people instead of having to enforce the law, keep order or prevent people from taking advantage of a situation?
Let’s face it. The Japanese people have a much stronger sense of community than we do. I am certainly not saying that we are all self-centered. We certainly come together in times of great need and we are very generous with our time, energy and possessions when others are hurting.
But one of the images that still haunts me from the days of Hurricane Katrina is the crowds of people raiding a department store and walking out with plasma television sets, gigantic stereo systems and other high-end electronics (all useless because there was no power, mind you). Worse, they were laughing the whole time they were doing it.
This kind of thing is unheard of in Japan. Their cultural teachings are dominant even in the face of disaster. I strive to be as selfless and community focused as they are. I think we have a lot to learn.
CNN’s Marnie Hunter posted an interesting article about the differences between us. Check it out.
Meanwhile, find out how we can help our friends in the Far East.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sea Change! Unexpected leadership encounters on a cruise ship.

When your spouse reaches a certain milestone birthday -- say, the half-century mark, for example -- you should splurge to make it a big deal and celebrate in style. Especially if you want her to still be your spouse. So I recently took my wife on a cruise to the Caribbean for a few days.
Onboard this floating resort where they force-feed you every 17 minutes or so, we found that people become more outgoing and friendly, and even a bit silly at times. Where else can you see an x-ray technician, an accountant, a PR guy, a carpenter and a couple of retired soldiers -- all men, mind you -- enthusiastically win an Olympic synchronized swimming tournament?
[Yes, I am wearing my gold medal with pride!]
But people don't just hop out of bed and say, "Gee, I think I'll dress up like one of the Beatles and dance around like a fool tonight!" or "I bet I could win that belly-flop contest if I make another pass through the buffet line." Somebody has to come up with this stuff and convince you that you want to do it.
Those somebodies are the ship's activities staff -- a handful of young, fit, good-looking and cheerful souls who are out to make sure you let down your hair, and throw your modesty and decorum overboard. 
I have to say that we encountered the best of the breed on our cruise. They greeted us by name, sent hand-written notes to our cabin for my wife's birthday, and made us feel special. Hats (and wigs) off to Tania, Ashley, Luis & Von who treated us like royalty, encouraged us to take part in all kinds of fun activities and helped us to let go of the day-to-day stress we left behind in Washington DC. This is what a cruise vacation is all about!
We were so impressed by them, we made a point to go to their boss and tell him how great they were. We told him how they made our vacation truly enjoyable. We mentioned how professional, upbeat, energetic, and hard-working they were. We even said we'd come back knowing they were onboard.
You would think that a boss would be happy to know that his staff is pleasing his customers. You would think that he'd brag about his staff to the rest of the crew and to other guests. You would think compliments from the guests would show up in performance evaluations and possibly equate to a raise or promotion. You would think...but you'd be wrong!  It seems the wind was blowing in a different direction altogether.
Instead of agreeing with us, he frowned and said, "They don't work half as hard as others on this ship," and walked away from us!
Wow! Now that's leadership for ya!
Not only do you not support your staff; not only do you disregard their abilities and successes, but you dismiss customers who have taken the time to compliment them. Did I mention that this guy is the Cruise Director? Yep! He's supposed to be the most cheerful, upbeat, positive person on the ship! He's supposed to be the primary interaction with the guests. The frontline face of the company.
What signal was he sending?
Well, he could have been saying that he didn't believe his staff was that good [which I find hard to believe]. Now that's a message for the marketing department -- "We hire the mediocre!"
But even if it were true and there were personnel issues behind the scenes, that's where it needs to stay. Behind the scenes. The face to the customer should be a positive, supportive one. Don't lie, but a smile and a simple "thank you" or "that's kind of you to say that." would have been all that was necessary. No matter what your feelings are about an employee -- especially one of your own subordinates -- you should never reveal internal matters to external customers!
I think the real message revealed itself in his reaction. Here we are saying what a great job his staff was doing, but not what he was doing personally. Was that bit of green around the gills a sign of seasickness, or maybe a little jealousy?
Well, Mr. Cruise Director. I have to say that your leadership style just took the wind right out of our sails.