How do we fix leadership?

Photo of a class of adult students asleep with their heads on the desksThis is a follow-up post to an article I wrote on LinkedIn last week asking “Where’s the Future of Leadership?”

How can we improve the working lives and careers of all employees and support bottom-line results?

It’s a simple question, and it has a simple answer: we need to develop the skills and confidence of first-line managers and leaders. And the old ways of doing so aren’t working.

We need a new model of leadership education.

The old way relies on “best practices” that are themselves old, arising out of an industrial-era command-and-control hierarchical approach that’s no longer relevant.

The old way either ignores first-line leadership training altogether, or it relies on an intensive educational process that puts cohorts of aspiring leaders through a set curriculum. Everyone’s on the same page at the same time, which inherently limits individual opportunities to learn from other people’s varying levels of understanding and experience.

The curriculum in these programs is set and therefore inflexible, limiting in-the-moment teaching of important concepts and skills based on the students’ needs and situations, and failing to take advantage of the facilitator’s own evolution and ongoing learning.

And these programs often teach with case studies, which themselves have two important drawbacks.

First, case studies are historical. Situations such as Enron, Volkswagen, and Wells Fargo (classic business-school case studies) are presented as self-contained big-bang events. But that’s not how they happen. These corporate meltdowns unravel gradually in small incremental steps. Case studies don’t provide insight into these small steps, and therefore don’t teach practical, useful ways to spot problems before they mushroom out of control.

Second, case studies are extremely difficult for an emerging leader to translate into their individual situations and experience, and so have little practical relevance for their leadership growth.

So what do students learn from case studies?

They learn to debate history. They don’t learn to identify and divert or mitigate problems at the initial, something’s-just-starting-to-go-wrong stage within their organization and its culture.

The old way of leadership development is also expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. High-value programs generally come with correspondingly high prices, putting them out of reach for any significant population of first-line managers and leaders in the organization.

But it’s exactly those first-line managers and leaders who have the highest impact on your employee population as a whole, and therefore – let’s be real! – on the overall success or failure of both your day-to-day work and your mission-critical strategic initiatives.

What I realized in asking this question is:

We badly need a new approach to developing our leaders.

We need a model that delivers foundational leadership skills training in ways that leverage the flexibility offered by technology to maximize student-facilitator interactions and minimize the impact on students’ busy schedules.

In practical terms, this means short, focused video lessons, concise handouts, and hands-on exercises and practices that participants can use immediately in their workplace.

It means extending the curriculum with weekly live videoconference calls. These must be structured, addressing additional topics relevant to the participants’ in-the-moment experience and needs, and never allowing any one person to suck up all the air in the room (sadly a fairly common experience in many group programs). These calls should be recorded for review or for those who can’t make the live call.

Each participant should also receive at least one personal coaching session, timed according to foundational content in the teaching materials. Weekly “office hours” time allows them to come to the videoconference space and receive in-the-moment coaching on any leadership situation they’re encountering or any questions they have about the material.

Finally, offering rolling admission into the program creates vibrant, supportive interaction. Since each participant is at a different point on their learning and leadership journey, they can actively share their different perspectives and discover how to mentor – and receive mentoring – from different types of people at different stages of the process.

Finally, the program must be deliberately affordable: low-ticket and ridiculously high-value.

These are the answers that emerged for me when I asked that question of how we can improve the working lives and careers of all employees and support bottom-line results. And therefore, that’s the program that I created.

What’s your answer to this question?

gljudson Leadership

Vision, mission, strategy, tactics – what’s the difference?

A six-level pyramid: vision-missino-goals-strategy-tactics-actionVision, mission, goals, strategy.

Tactics and actions.

Do you know the differences, the nuances, and how to move from one to the next?

If you do, you’re well ahead of most people – including, I’m sorry to say, many C-level executives.

Yet strategic thinking is the unanimous number-one wish of those same senior executives for first-line managers and leaders.

Unfortunately, strategic thinking is completely off the radar for most of those first-line managers and leaders. No surprise: up until now, their (your?) career has been focused on executing tasks, and not on thinking about where those tasks fit into the bigger strategic picture.

And I get the struggle and confusion; it can be hard to discern the line between strategy and tactics – or, for that matter, between goals and strategy.

Here’s a quick guide through the pyramid, from vision at the top, to action on the ground.

Vision

Speaking of confusion, vision and mission are also frequently interchangeable (though they should not be!). If you look at what most companies post on their websites for vision and mission, would you really be able to tell which was which if they weren’t labelled? Often … not.

So here’s where we start.

The vision is an idyllic view of a future possibility, relative to the company’s work in the world.

It’s unattainable by any one person or even the largest organization.

For instance, my vision is of a world where people wake up looking forward to their workday because their jobs are meaningful, interesting, challenging, and even exciting.

Clearly, I can’t accomplish that by myself!

Mission

The mission is where this business will do its part in making the vision a reality.

I’m on a mission to make corporate life more fun. Not just livable; not just bearable: fun. Work shouldn’t suck. The corporate life shouldn’t be a rat race.

I can accomplish this within my sphere of action and influence.

Goal

The goal addresses the how of achieving the mission.

I have many options for goals that would address my mission, from corporate event planning to executive retreats to … well, I’m sure you see my point.

The goal I’ve defined is to train and support first-line managers and leaders, because they’re the ones who have the most impact on the most employees in the company, and they’re the ones who will become the senior leaders of the future.

(Note in case of confusion: yes, there are also goals that fall into the strategic, tactical, and action phases as well. This is the big, top-level goal.)

Strategy

My strategy to achieve this goal is to create accessible, affordable training and support programs for individual first-line leaders, and custom programs for corporations, and to make these programs available to the largest reasonable number of individuals and companies.

I hope you can see that there are other perfectly do-able and impactful strategies that I could choose instead. For instance, I could focus on going into large corporations to conduct long-term leadership training programs for emerging leaders. Or I could create weekend leadership retreats. Or I could create self-study programs. Or I could write a book. Or I could become an employee of an organization and influence it from within, instead of from outside as a consultant.

Tactics

Tactics are often broken down by category – for instance, product and service development and delivery; marketing; sales, operations; and so on.

Looking just at marketing, my tactics include developing and delivering a free online workshop every other Wednesday, in which the attendees learn something about strategic thinking (yes!), and I get a sense of whether they’d be successful in my group program. (To be completely clear, since this is a common confusion, this is a workshop, not a webinar … #notawebinar! … and you can learn more about it by clicking here.) I also have social media tactics, program delivery tactics, and so on.

The all-important key is that the tactics must directly support the strategy, which in turn must directly support achieving the goal. And of course the goal must support the mission, which must support the vision.

Action plan

We’re finally at the task level: what steps must be taken to support the tactics.

This is where most individual team members have lived for their entire career, up until being promoted into a management and leadership role.

And this entire top-down / bottom-up pyramid sequence should make it very clear why it’s such a challenge for them (for you?) to make the shift from task-oriented thinking into strategic thinking.

gljudson Strategic thinking

Conflict-avoidant? Get over it!

Cartoon of male swimmer escaping from a sharkLast year, I was part of a family Thing.

You probably know the sort of Thing I mean.

Words were spoken that shouldn’t have been, and other words weren’t spoken that should have been.

Then the situation devolved into a Bigger Thing because it wasn’t raised as a Thing until weeks later – by email.

One of the participants is, according to her own assessment, afraid of conflict, and therefore avoids it like the proverbial plague. (Or a man-eating shark; pick your preferred analogy.)

I get that. I’m not especially fond of conflict myself.

But I’ve learned that if I allow my fear to keep me from facing what’s happening, if the situation is frustrating or upsetting enough it will inevitably come out later, and almost certainly in a more destructive way.

And for me, if I can’t trust someone to raise an issue in the moment – no matter how difficult it may be for either or both of us – then I can’t trust that person at all.

How is this relevant for you as a leader?

You already know the answer, right?

Don’t avoid conflict with your team, your peers, or your manager.

If you’re fearful of conflict, educate yourself on negotiation, mediation, and conflict transformation techniques. Practice. Role play with someone you trust. Get a coach.

Do something. Because, whether with your team, your peers, your manager, or your family and friends, conflict un-addressed will undermine trust and undermine – perhaps break – the relationship.

gljudson Conflict

What happens next?

Yellow neon sign on black background - cursive "everything is connected"No task, activity, project, team, department, or even company operates independently.

Everything interacts with everything around it.

That’s not a metaphysical or mystical concept; it’s just reality.

The more aware and intentional you are about how what you’re doing impacts what someone else is doing, will be doing, or needs to do – the more effective, efficient, appreciated, and successful you’ll be.

When you ask yourself What happens next?, you’ll do things differently in order to make it easier for next to happen – whether it’s your next or someone else’s.

gljudson Strategic thinking

Are you a speechifier?

Photo of angry man and angry woman leaning on a table facing each otherThere’s a lot of standard, cliché-ridden instruction out there on how to be a better listener. Most of it hovers around the tried-and-true “don’t listen to answer” directive – meaning, of course, don’t do what we all do: listen with half an ear whilst formulating our response (rebuttal, argument, disagreement…).

Or, put in more positive terms, “listen to hear.” Listen to understand the other person’s perspective, listen to get a sense of where they’re coming from, listen to achieve what I call “professional empathy.”

It’s all good advice, and the world would be a better place if we could do this just a little bit more often. (I’m not asking for always, just for a little more often!)

The challenge, of course, is that when we’re riled up about something we’re deeply interested in, profoundly disagreeing with, or sincerely passionate about, it’s hard to listen in those ways. We’re jumping up and down inside, bursting with our desire to speak out and wrapped up tight in our certainties about our position, opinion, desires, thoughts, and perspectives.

Then we become speechifiers. It’s no longer a conversation, or even a debate; it’s two people holding forth, orating almost independently of each other – or, more accurately, orating at each other.

The more the other person orates at us, the more entrenched we become in our own argument and opinion – and the more frustrated and angry we’re likely to get.

And it’s harder and harder to remember to listen to hear instead of listening to argue.

I’m going to suggest an even-more-radical approach that will be even harder to accomplish.

Are you willing to be changed?

I first heard this question on the very first episode of Alan Alda’s Clear and Vivid podcast. He was talking with the comedian Sarah Silverman, and the conversation was enchanting, engrossing, and educational (as are most, if not all, of Alda’s podcast episodes).

[Y]ou’re not really listening unless you’re willing to be changed by this other person.

I had the podcast playing in my car, and I nearly swerved off the road. Whoa. Now THAT is listening.

I’ve heard him say it many times now. He talks about how it’s affected him as an actor as well as off the stage, and it’s clear it’s an important value for him – and a profoundly impactful approach for his life.

I can’t say I’ve adopted it wholeheartedly, but I’m working on it.

What about you? Are you willing to be changed?

gljudson Better conversations

Is leadership training worth it?

Photo of a class of adult students asleep with their heads on the desksHave you put your emerging leaders through a leadership development program?

Or maybe you’ve attended such a program yourself – or even taken the plunge to get an MBA?

Was it worth it?

I’m asking that very seriously, because from where I’m sitting – looking at the programs, talking with people who’ve taken them – I’m sincerely not convinced.

I think most leadership skills development programs available today rely on old models of education and old models of what leadership really is.

This old way relies on “best practices” that are in and of themselves old, arising out of an industrial-era command-and-control hierarchical approach that’s no longer relevant. Making matters worse, they often employ training techniques that are similarly out of date.

It relies on an intensive educational process that puts cohorts of aspiring leaders through a set curriculum. Everyone’s on the same page at the same time, which restricts and even eliminates opportunities to learn from fellow leaders’ varying levels of learning and experience.

Because the curriculum is set, it’s inflexible. This limits – or even eliminates – in-the-moment teaching of important concepts and skills responding to students’ real-world situations. And the facilitator’s or instructor’s own developing understanding and ongoing learning has no outlet for expression within this teaching model.

Furthermore, these programs often teach from case studies, which have two important drawbacks.

Case studies are by definition historical. Situations such as Enron or Wells Fargo (classic business-school case studies) are presented as self-contained big-bang events. But that’s not how they happen. These corporate meltdowns unravel gradually in small incremental steps. Case studies don’t provide detailed insight into those small steps, and therefore don’t teach useful ways to spot problems before they mushroom out of control.

Largely because of this, case studies are really hard for the emerging leader to translate into their actual situations and experiences, and so have little practical relevance to their leadership growth.

So what do students learn from case studies? They learn how to debate history.

They don’t learn how to identify and divert or mitigate early-stage problems within their own organization and its culture.

The old way of teaching leadership is also expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. High-value programs generally come with correspondingly high prices, putting them out of reach for any significant population of first-line managers and leaders in your organization.

But it’s exactly those first-line managers and leaders who have the highest impact on your employee population as a whole, and therefore – let’s be real! – on the overall success or failure of both your day-to-day operation and your mission-critical strategic initiatives.

What if there were an affordable, flexible, practical way to provide high-impact leadership skills training to the people in your organization who need it most – who need it before they falter, stumble, and fail, who need it so that they become high-potential leaders leading high-performing teams?

gljudson Career development

Is leadership really your thing?

"Bitmoji" illustration of Grace as a leadership geekI’m a leadership geek. (My LinkedIn profile says so!)

But that doesn’t mean I think everyone should be a leader.

I’m a self-employed business owner, too. (My taxes tell me that! ha!) And I certainly don’t think everyone should be self-employed or own their own businesses.

One of the things I emphasize over and over again, and have for pretty much my entire life (yes, going back into childhood), is that we all get to be who we are. We get to have our own interests, our own ways of being smart and creative, our own ways of working and living.

Which also means we get to be leaders in our own ways … AND we get to be individual team members if that’s what works better for us … AND we get to be specialists if there’s a subject we want to dive deeply into … AND we get to be multi-passionate if we have hordes of topics that fascinate us.

And so on.

The proverbial square peg doesn’t fit into round holes very well. It’s uncomfortable, it scrapes off important parts of who we are, and it’s not likely to lead to a fulfilling, meaningful, successful career (or life).

If you want to be a leader, great. I’m on your side, I’ve got your back, and I’m here to help you be the best leader you can be.

If you don’t want to be a leader, that’s great too. I’m on your side, and while I’m not the right coach or consultant for you, there are plenty of good people out there who could offer exactly the help you need – if that’s what you want.

Don’t wander into a career path just because someone else laid it out for you. Don’t follow a professional trajectory that society, your family, your boss, or even a trusted mentor has told you is “the one” to follow – unless it feels good and right for you.

Challenge yourself, of course. Push yourself to grow, and accept that growth requires change and change requires feeling uncomfortable and even scared sometimes.

But don’t keep taking steps down a path that isn’t yours.

gljudson Career development

Does employee engagement matter?

Photo of a young African-American woman sitting at a computer and staring out the windowThere’s a lot of flutter and angst around employee engagement and the latest trend of employee experience. Questions abound on everything from how to measure engagement on through to how to improve employee experience, leading to the ultimate dilemma: is it really worth the effort?

Do happy employees actually improve the bottom line?

For those of us who care about whether employees are happy and believe they’re making a difference, the intuitive answer is, of course, YES.

But intuition doesn’t generally lead to budget allocation.

Fortunately, there are studies that provide actual facts. A recent example started with research on which companies among the largest in the U.S. have top ratings for employee wellbeing (based on salary, benefits, work-life balance, training, and professional development opportunity, among other factors). It then looked at how these top-ranked companies perform relative to those with lower rankings.

The good news for those of us who care about our employees: these top-ranked companies really do perform noticeably better, as a group, than those lower on the scale.

Just Capital is the author of one such study; they’re a nonprofit that ranks the Russell 1,000 index (consisting of the largest companies in the U.S.) on these issues of employee wellbeing. Just’s CEO, Martin Whittaker, commented in a Fortune magazine article a few months ago that it’s basic human nature: “A better-rewarded workforce produces at higher levels.”

Does this sound obvious to you? Me too. But, as I mentioned above, things that are intuitively obvious don’t necessarily translate into funding!

So now what?

This is important information if you want funding for professional development programs in your organization – whether for yourself or for your team.

The data from Just Capital, along with other research from Gallup as well as the financial advisory firm Parnassus Investments (and you can find more with a little Googling), helps you build a strong case for investment in what CEOs and CFOs sometimes view as “squishy” and with little clear return on investment.

Combine this information with the cost of failing leadership spreadsheet available for you to download (just click that link and you’ll have it), and you’ll be well prepared to present a proposal for the training and support you want for yourself, your team, and anyone (everyone?) else in your company.

Whether you’re a first-line manager and leader, or a seasoned executive with managers reporting to you, it turns out that making sure the people working for you are interested and challenged by their jobs really does matter to your company’s bottom line. So … what are you waiting for?

(Interested in learning more? Here’s a recent article from Fortune magazine on the Just Capital study: http://fortune.com/2018/12/21/investing-stocks-zillow-worker-friendly/)

gljudson Career development

Should work be more fun?

Lunch box with happy faces all over it and two happy face plush toys popping outDo you bounce out of bed every morning, eager to get to work?

Congratulations, if so. And if so, I’ll hazard a guess that either you have a great boss, or you work for yourself.  (Or maybe both, eh?)

But for a lot of people – an awful lot of people – work isn’t much fun at all.

I’m not talking about the inevitable really-rather-not tasks that even those of us with great bosses have to do. Setting that aside, why isn’t work more fun?

Surprise! It’s about leadership!

Okay, that’s no surprise. You don’t need studies and statistics to tell you this (though there are plenty of both out there if you want them).

You’ve worked for someone, so you know your boss makes the difference between whether you feel like going to work, or calling in sick.

Why aren’t we doing a better job of making good leaders?

The fundamental problem is what’s often referred to as the Peter Principle: the idea, presented in the book of the same name, that individuals are promoted through the ranks until they reach their level of incompetence.

In other words, until the skills that got them here (to their most-recent promotion) won’t get them there (to success in this new role).

(The weird thing is that although the book The Peter Principle was published in 1969 (which you’d think would be long enough ago that something would have changed by now), the concept was first discussed in the 1700s. Geez.)

This is glaringly obvious when someone is promoted from team member to team leader.

As a team member, you’re responsible for executing on a task list. Those tasks may well be challenging and important, even crucial, to your employer’s success, but it’s simply tactical work for which you’re directly responsible. You – and everyone else – can clearly see whether or not you’ve done what you’re supposed to do.

As a manager and leader, you have a whole new, very different, and much less black-and-white set of responsibilities. Leadership is an endless gray area, highly subjective, and not directly task-oriented.

Trying to approach leadership and management in the way you’ve been successful up till now – as a series of tasks to be executed – doesn’t work. You’ll tend to micromanage, fail to delegate, and struggle to communicate. And since you’ve almost certainly never been exposed to strategy – strategic awareness, strategic thinking, strategic planning – you’ll frustrate your new managers (who expect leaders to understand strategy), and find yourself feeling less and less competent to do the job you were so excited to be given.

Meanwhile, your team will feel less and less inclined to come to work.

It’s not your fault

If all this sounds familiar, either for yourself, your current (or former) boss, or someone you know – it’s not your fault, or theirs.

The fault lies with the mid-level and senior leaders who fail to understand the gap between individual contribution and leadership.

Or maybe they just figure they had to fumble their way through, so why shouldn’t you?

Possibly they don’t realize or remember the depth and severity of the struggle and its impact on everyone, not just the individual leader.

But it IS your responsibility

It’s up to you to take control of your career and your destiny as a leader.

If you want the role, then learn to be good at it. Don’t settle for stumbling around until you somehow “get it.” Take responsibility for learning and growing into the type of leader you’re proud to be.

This quote from Andy Grove, co-founder and former CEO of Intel, says it all:

As a middle manager, you are in effect a chief executive of an organization yourself … As a micro CEO, you can improve your own and your group’s performance and productivity, whether or not the rest of the company follows suit.”

Whether you’re currently in a leadership role, or you aspire to be a leader, don’t leave your learning and support in anyone else’s hands. It’s up to you to take control of your career and your destiny as a leader.

gljudson Leadership

Should we ever ask why?

Multicolored arrows aiming outward in a circle from a question markIn my last post, I made the point that “why” questions can sound accusing and put people on the defensive – especially if the situation is tense to begin with.

And that’s true.

But this doesn’t mean you should never ask “why” questions. Sometimes they’re the exact right question to ask.

In fact, sometimes “why?” is a really important question to ask.

Why are you doing that?

If I’ve learned anything in my years of self-employment, it’s to always check why I’m choosing to do something.

It’s all too easy for me to grab onto a shiny new idea – whether it’s a program I suddenly want to develop, or a new technology tool I discover – and think that THIS is THE thing I should be doing.

I’d be willing to bet you’ve done that on occasion, whether in your career or your personal life.

The problem – as I’m sure you can see – is that we can quickly get sucked into a significant detour away from where we really want to go.

So ask yourself and your team why you’re undertaking a particular initiative. Does it align with your strategic direction, at the team, department, and/or organizational level?

If it doesn’t, and you have control over whether the initiative should be undertaken, consider either modifying it, or tossing it out altogether.

If it’s outside your control and you have the type of relationship with your boss that makes this sort of pushback possible, I highly recommend asking, “Why are we doing this, again?”

By the way, it’s useful to review all ongoing and repetitive tasks from this perspective. If you ask “why are we doing this?”, you may well find that there are things you can stop doing. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Why are you spending so much time?

Are you familiar with the Pareto Principle? As the Wikipedia article says, this idea – also known as the 80/20 rule – states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort.

So don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (Apparently so many people have said this that no one knows who said it first.)

Almost everyone has at least some perfectionism in their personality. If a particular task or project is dragging out, or you and your team are starting to feel cranky and resentful about getting to the finish line, it’s time to ask why you’re continuing to spend time on it.

I’m not advocating for sloppiness, incompleteness, or poor quality in any way. And some projects just have to keep on going.

But is this one good enough as is?

Others?

These are my two top answers to the “can we ever ask why?” question.

Do you have other examples? Drop me a note and let me know – they might show up in a future post!

gljudson Strategic thinking