"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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Share Your Light and Grow Brighter

I love this story told by Ella Fitzgerald.
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt ... she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. Sh...e told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn's superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again."

Too many people believe they are in constant competition with each other and can only be successful at someone else's expense. We're always so busy trying to be the best, to stand out, to show we're better than anyone else so that we get the job, we get the kudos, we get the reward.
I know you have seen managers who take credit for the success of their subordinates, and/or blame the workers when things go wrong. I've worked for a few of these myself. At one organization I worked for as a public affairs officer a number of years ago, there was an administrator between me and the agency's front office. The policies of the organization was that this individual was responsible for reviewing and approving every press release and article drafted by the communications office before going to the Secretary for final approval. This person considered it the lowest of her priorities. She never advanced them in a timely manner and rarely gave them more than a cursory glance when she finally did get around to them.
On one particular occasion, we had an important press release that needed to go out. I had submitted it for the administrator's review two days prior, but when the Secretary hadn't yet seen the expected product, she called the administrator on the carpet for the delay. After her conversation with the Secretary, the administrator stormed into her office and sequestered herself behind its closed door for several hours, after which she emerged with the press release covered in extensive hand-written edits. She told the Secretary, "You see what I have to go through? You see how much work it takes to clean up the garbage they produce?"
Fortunately, the Secretary was not fooled and my staff and I didn't get any lashback. Unfortunately, that's not always the case and, sometimes, when people get thrown under the bus by their supervisor or coworker, the damage is done. 
Not to generalize, but it seems that people who treat others in this way are insecure in their own abilities and are afraid to be outshone by others. They never consider that the success of their team reflects on themselves just as much, if not more, than their own individual accomplishments. 
A true leader, however, understands that our individual power as like a light. It loses nothing by being shared, and only gets brighter when others around us shine as well.  Marilyn Monroe apparently understood this, and so should we all.

You shine when your people shine, so give the credit where it is due and help others to succeed.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What example do you set?

I had an important reminder recently that there are more important things than whatever is going on at the office.

I always stress to others about the importance of work-life balance, and to take care of the most important things first – especially their own health. If people aren’t feeling well, I send them home. If something is left undone because they are sick, it can either wait or someone else can pick it up.
So, I should have known better when I came down with a sore throat a couple of weeks ago.  In my mind there were things I had to do, so I still went to work. I didn’t take time to slow down. I didn’t even exercise a telework option, when certainly those things that I was convinced I was absolutely the only person who could do, could have been done from home. But I got up, got dressed and went into the office sounding like Froggy from the original Little Rascals. I sounded worse than I felt, or so I thought.

The sore throat turned into a full-blown head cold.  Nothing overly debilitating, so I took some over-the-counter stuff, hit the Vitamin C for a few days, and continued on. The head cold migrated to my chest, and still I was going in to work. When I was home, I continued to work on some hot deadline projects for the office. I even wound up working two out of the three days of Labor Day weekend. I was able to do that because I shared my cold with my wife, so with both of us sick, we cancelled our social plans and were home anyway.

Tuesday morning, as I got onto the commuter bus, I felt like a truck hit me. I had no energy, and was struggling to breathe without coughing. And I was sweating, but surely it was because it was so hot and humid that day.
When I arrived at the office, several people took the time to tell me that I looked and sounded like crap. But I toughed it out and stayed at work for most of the day. After much cajoling, I did ultimately leave about an hour earlier than usual, and stopped at the urgent care clinic on the way home.

Good thing I did.
Diagnosis: severe bronchitis and early stages of pneumonia!

Lesson learned. I took the next day off and rested, took my meds, and have been taking it easy ever since. There were a few small things that others were relying on me to do my part of, so I did work on those couple of items from home, but mostly I rested.
Pneumonia is nothing to fool around with. Things could have gone much worse. But there is more to this than ignoring my own health for the sake of a few projects that several other people could have done.

Contagion is a significant issue, especially with flu season coming up in the near future, so we need to look beyond our own selves and think about the health of others. This is why health officials encourage people to stay home. No work would get done at all if the whole office gets sick! With my bronchitis, there obviously was potential to infect others, since I had already gotten my wife sick. Thankfully hers never progressed past a basic head cold because she was smart enough to rest over the weekend.
But there is even more to this than the contagion factor and the potential to get others sick. There is the example I was setting.  

It’s the same example we set when we send emails late at night or on weekends, or while we’re on vacation. I know one senior manager who seems to live on his Blackberry and sends email day and night, weekends, holidays, and everything. He also calls people at home or on their cell phones. He claims that he doesn’t really want to bother people when they are off, but he wants to relate info before he forgets it.
It sounds so innocent, doesn’t it. All we’re doing is showing a dedication to our work. Not letting a minor illness keep us from doing our jobs. Not neglecting work when we’re not there. Just a dedicated employee who cares about the organization and it’s mission. Right?

Our behavior influences those around us. If we come to work when we are sick, placing work as a priority above our own health, we are setting an example. If we don’t take time off – really off – we are establishing a standard.

People will believe that we expect them to do the same. It sets up an office atmosphere where employees feel pressured to show up for work no matter what. They feel guilty if they don’t put work ahead of everything else, including their families or even their own health.
This makes for a very uncomfortable and unhealthy environment.

Surely we don’t really expect our folks to be working when they are off, and certainly don’t want them to come to work if they are sick. But what was the unintentional example I set when I dragged myself into the office?
When I look back at the best leaders I ever worked with, they made it very clear that health and family were the priority. They took time off themselves. After hours, they were off the clock, unless there was a true emergency. And they never came into the office when they were sick!

We cannot promote a healthy work-life balance for our fellow employees if we do not walk the talk ourselves.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Let the experts do their jobs

Every organization goes through it. The hiring process can be a grueling affair. You send out an announcement, screen through possibly hundreds of applications trying to weed through all the padded buzzwords and grandiloquence to select applicants to interview. Then follows possibly multiple rounds of interviews, trying to determine who truly has the right skills and experience you need to get the job done. You pick, of course, the best of the best and are confident they know what to do.

Why, then, do some managers feel the need to not only tell these top-notch, skilled individuals what to do, but how to do it? Sure, there’s a learning curve at first to understand particulars of the organization and the job.
Micromanagement is de-motivating. It takes away a person’s incentive to apply themselves, to use their skills in the best way they know how – because the boss is going to tell them the “right” way to do the job anyway.

It’s even worse when the employee has been doing their job well for years, has a proven track record of success, and a new manager comes in and assumes the employees need to be told what to do and how to do it.
Here’s a fresh idea. How about telling the employees what the mission is, what objective needs to be met, and then get out of the way and let them do it?

This is the basic principle behind the concept of servant leadership. A true leader understands that the role of leadership is to enable the work, not to “control” it.
The premise of servant leadership inverts the traditional organizational chart where the boss is at the top with a hierarchical structure below, decreasing in importance.

The servant leadership structure places the senior leader at the bottom, providing the foundation that supports the rest of the organization. He or she oversees the budgetary and other resources to make sure the staff has what they need, and focuses on removing barriers to success. They create an environment where people are encouraged to use their own initiative to accomplish the task instead of worrying about what the boss will say.
Most importantly, servant leaders let their expert staff do what they’re trained to do.

These concepts are not new. The principles go back centuries and are mentioned in Chinese writings from 5th century BC, in Islamic teachings, and in the Christian Bible.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Mark 10:43
I am sure that you, like me, have worked under a variety of managers throughout your career. Think back about those who you consider the best. Were they servant leaders?
Share your stories here.
If you want to know more about the modern movement in servant leadership, read some of the work of Robert K. Greenleaf, Daniel Goleman and Daniel H. Pink. I’ll be writing more about this topic in future blog posts. The concepts are part of the basis of many of my motivational leadership workshops, and I'll be speaking a bit about this in my joint keynote presentation with psychologist and emergent communications expert Tim Tinker on June 13 at the National Association of Government Communicators 2014 Communication School in Washington, DC.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Just Call Me A Silly Goose

Several people have asked me recently about the image of the geese on my website and my professional Facebook page, and about the goose lapel pin I frequently wear.

My interest in geese stems from a paper I read a number of years ago about the behaviors of geese and how they interacted with each other. “Lessons from the Geese” originated from a 1972 lecture by Baltimore science teacher Dr. Robert McNeish. Although this idea has been floating around for more than 40 years now, it still provides profound lessons for each of us.

Here are the basic lessons we can learn from geese:  

1. As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the birds that follow. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock has 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
  • Lesson -- People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier, because they are traveling on the thrust of each other.
2. When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.

  • Lesson -- If we have as much sense as a goose, we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.
3. When the lead bird tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose takes over at the point position.
  • Lesson -- It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each others’ skills, capabilities, and unique arrangement of gifts, talents, or resources.
4. The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front.
  • Lesson -- We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater.   The power of encouragement – to stand by one’s heart or core values and to encourage the heart and core values of others – is the quality of honking we seek.
5. When a goose gets sick, wounded, or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation to catch up with the flock.
  • Lesson -- If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we’re strong.

When I was a kid, it was pretty common to call someone a “silly goose” as a light-hearted insult. In retrospect, I guess it was a compliment all along.

Have you seen people acting like geese? I'd love to hear your stories. Please share them here or on my Facebook page.



Saturday, March 8, 2014

Back in Balance

There comes a time in everyone's life when they find themselves not listening to their own advice. Here I am a teacher of motivational leadership, interpersonal communications and work-life balance -- yet I let myself become frustrated by micromanagement from upper levels.

For a while, I became the weakest kind of leader where I gave up trying to create a better work environment and instead I found myself complaining to coworkers and subordinates. Even as I realized this was not the proper way for a leader to behave, I allowed this venting to become my dominant demeanor at the office and starting to creep into home life.

I finally took a page out of my own book and reevaluated the situation.

The secret to maintaining balance is knowing when you've lost it.

Senior managers, when looking to hire staff, go through an extensive screening process to find experts with the background and skills necessary to do the job. Some of these managers, however, do not trust the people they hire to do the job they were hired for. Some managers feel they are better experts themselves and insist on directing even the smallest aspect of a task. Sometimes, new managers come in to a position and feel they must demonstrate their authority by taking over every decision. Or they don’t feel the staff hired by their predecessors would be loyal to the new management, so they don’t trust them.

These are all signs of weak leadership. I would bet that everyone has had a boss like this at least once in his or her career.

Remembering the profound words of Maya Angelou -- words that I myself have cited in so many trainings in consultations that I gave to others -- "I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it," I realized that I did not have to let the incompetence of others reflect upon my own level of performance or lower my own standards. I did not have to get angry about what I felt were irrational demands or interference with the way I accomplished a task. More importantly, I did not have to let any of it get the best of me.

I set my sights on accomplishing whatever I could and letting go of those things that were completely beyond my influence. I sought solace in my family and refused to let the petty issues at the office impact my home life. Since we all need an outlet, I found new avenues for my creativity and made time for some artistic projects I had put off for way too long.

More importantly, I threw myself into efforts that would make a difference and would help others. In the past year I have taken on more speaking engagements and more clients for leadership and communications training. Helping others in this way validates me to myself, counterbalancing the way the micromanagers would try to make me feel.

With things back in balance, I can now find time to devote to important efforts, like getting this blog back online and hoping that someone will find benefit in the lessons I share.