The value of values

Did that title turn you off?What are your core values?

I understand.

Values are an eye-roller for many people. Organizational leaders love to create their core-values lists, but … how real are they?

And when it’s just a bunch of nice-to-have / wish-we-followed words framed on the wall, who can blame people for rolling their eyes? Especially when we witness the mis-alignment between those nice words and the organizations’ actual actions!

Nonetheless, let me ask you: can you recite the values of your organization?

And if not – and before you tell me how they really are just a bunch of nice-to-have words on the wall – let me ask you another question.

What are your values? Have you thought about it at a deep, personal, meaningful level – and then written them down?

Values identification is part of my process with my clients. It’s eye-opening for them, and over time they find they’re making better, more aligned decisions, both strategically as well as tactically. When they identify the real values behind what they do and why they do it, they take a step closer to having a true North Star to guide every choice and action.

Recently I listened to a podcast interview of past Deloitte CEO Barry Salzberg, which reminded me that … I had never actually written down my own values.

(Salzberg’s concepts of the values tree and values hierarchy are fascinating, and the podcast – Resilient from Deloitte’s Strategic Risk Services managing partner Mike Kearney – is an engrossing look into the challenges faced by CEOs and other senior executives; I highly recommend it.)

To say I was a little embarrassed by this awareness is an understatement.

To say I was startled by how challenging it is to codify my values in writing, for real, no fooling around, no dodging reality, no wishful thinking, is another understatement. (Is a value really a value if one doesn’t always practice it? I haven’t finished answering that question yet.)

And to say I’ve been blown away by what I learned – that everything I do, personally and professionally, from knitting to making dinner all the way to strategic planning and execution with clients, is tied together and always has been by my principle value of integrity – is no exaggeration whatsoever.

Which leads me to this challenge for you.

What are your core values? What’s the one unwavering value you hold? How is it reflected in who you are and what you do? How does it influence your decisions and actions?

If you’re like me from a few weeks ago, you’ll read this, nod, and go on with your day.

If, on the other hand, you take the time to work with this, I’d love to know what you learn. You can reach me through my connect page – and since one of my values is connection, you can be sure I’ll reply.

gljudson Management & Leadership

Don’t follow me, I’m lost too!

Where are your leaders leading you?A colleague, having read my recent post “Leadership, Power, and Conflict,” shared his definition of leadership with me.

“A leader is someone who has followers.”

He added, “So, if you want to be a leader, you need to do two things: (1) Pick a direction and (2) Get people to follow you.”

Simple, thought-provoking, and  eye-opening, this demands that we ask ourselves: in what direction are our leaders going?

Whether we’ve chosen someone as a leader (mentor, teacher, respected celebrity, political figure … ), or we’ve been assigned a leader (our manager, our organization’s executive team … ), is that person going in a direction we want to go?

If not, why are we following them?


gljudson Management & Leadership

End the tyranny of the urgent!

Tyranny of the urgent over the importantThe tyranny of the urgent over the merely important – it’s a very real thing for many of my clients and, admittedly, often for myself as well.

One of the key tools I use to keep that tyranny from running (and ruining) my schedule and my life is the weekly Reflective Review process that I write about in an Action Paper. (Click the link to access the paper; links open in a new tab, and there’s no email required for downloading.)

Urgent whack-a-molesWhile that process absolutely works (you’ll also see an enthusiastic review from a beneficiary of the system), it does, as she comments, take some effort. My clients – and I – needed a quick, simple way to avoid the endless time-sucking apparently-urgent tasks that pop up during the day like a bizarre procession of whack-a-moles.

What would help create focus on what’s most important in this moment?

I’ve posted these three simple questions on the wall directly in front of me, just over my computer screen.

  1. Is it necessary to do this thing?

    What would happen if you didn’t do it?

  2. Can someone else do it?

    What would happen if you delegated it?

  3. Is this the single most important thing to do right now?

    What would happen if you postponed it?

If reading these questions makes you feel a tad uncomfortable, welcome to a large and illustrious group. The questions challenge our perfectionist tendencies as well as our desire for control.

Yet if you can bring yourself to answer them honestly, you’ll find the entire structure of your day and week – and maybe even life – will change.

For the better.

Because you’ll be doing what truly matters to you.

gljudson Management & Leadership

Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer

Are there stupid questions?It’s an old saying. “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”

Despite the passionate counter-statement “There are no stupid questions!”, there absolutely are questions that invite a stupid answer.

How does that happen?

All too easily.

A question asked without providing context for how the answer will be used significantly reduces the likelihood that there will be a real exchange of relevant information.

Which is a long way of saying that, without context, a question begs for a not-very-useful answer (a.k.a. a stupid answer).

It’s not the fault of the person answering; it’s the fault of the person asking.

I think we’ve all experienced how frustrating it is to be asked something without any context, but here are two brief examples.

At a party some years ago, someone came rushing into the kitchen asking for a towel.

Responding usefully to that request was impossible without knowing what the towel was for: to wipe a baby’s face, dry a plate, or – as was the case in this example – clean up dog slobber? Or something else entirely?

I recently spoke with a colleague who had been asked about the project close-out process she’d done for a client. My colleague was given no insight (no context) into why the question was being asked; she was only told that the client’s Program Management office was requesting the information.

Needless to say, even though she knew the project had gone smoothly, my colleague spent several days with a knot in her stomach wondering if she’d done something wrong. Furthermore, her answer was a bare-bones recital of the facts; without knowing the why behind the question (the context), she had no way to ensure that her answer was relevant and complete.

Asking for a towel without providing input into why you want the towel means there’s a high likelihood of getting the wrong sort of towel. One doesn’t wipe dog slobber off the floor with a towel intended for your good china.

Asking for project-closeout procedures without providing input into why you want that information will, again, elicit a potentially incomplete and not-very-useful answer. My colleague never did learn the “why” in this case. If she had known, she almost certainly would have been able to provide additional information that might have offered completely different insights for the people asking.

“Ask a contextless question, get an irrelevant answer” isn’t as catchy as the original phrase, but it’s more accurate and more useful.

gljudson Better conversations

Sticks, stones, and name-calling

Sticks, stones, and name-calling“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

It’s a familiar refrain we learn from our parents as children, meant to soothe the pain of being called nasty names by playmates.

However, if you’re like most of us, you’ll remember that it wasn’t particularly effective either in helping us feel better or in stopping the name-calling.

The reality is that nasty names really do hurt – quite literally. We know now from brain imaging and neuroscience that emotional pain impacts the same areas of the brain as physical pain, and the experience is just as harrowing.

It would be nice if this were irrelevant to us as adults, but unfortunately – it’s not. Name-calling, also known as ad hominem attacks, are almost as prevalent in the office as they were on the playground. Applying the Latin term may make us sound more sophisticated, but the actual experience is still painful and, in truth, not a whole lot more mature.

Ad hominem: it simply means referencing the person instead of a specific action or idea.

Someone makes a mistake. “I can’t trust you to do anything right!” is an ad hominem statement.

Someone has an idea with which you disagree. “I can’t believe you’re stupid enough to think that will work!” is an ad hominem statement.

Describing someone’s character or personality is never helpful in creating change.

Not only do the negative names hurt (and therefore instantly shut down receptivity in favor of defense), but there’s no way for someone to understand what should change in order to be more acceptable.

Correcting mistakes requires training, focus, and/or greater attention to detail. These are all teachable, coachable skills – but they won’t be learned if someone is called “untrustworthy.”

Brainstorming ideas requires an open mind for all involved as well as information about the context within which ideas might be put into execution (resources, time frames, market conditions, etc.). Calling someone “stupid” when they are, in fact, merely uninformed doesn’t help them learn; instead it teaches everyone to avoid innovation and creativity.

Even in those instances where an employee is a misfit for the organizational culture and objectives, calling their character into question is neither appropriate nor helpful.

And yet, if we’re to be honest, we see it all the time (and maybe even do it ourselves, even if only in the privacy of our own thoughts).

It takes effort to understand where someone is coming from and what information or skills they lack, and then offer training, coaching, mentoring, or other assistance to help them improve.

It’s a lot easier to label someone – in our thoughts or out loud – as stupid, incompetent, or untrustworthy.

But that doesn’t feel good to anyone. Equally important, it doesn’t improve anyone’s chances of success, from the individual to the team and all the way to the organization itself.

Notice your own tendencies for ad hominem attacks. Notice your own reaction when someone directs an ad hominem attack at you.

And then you can impress them with your knowledge of Latin even as you coach them (and yourself) to do better.

gljudson Better conversations

Leadership, power, and conflict

Leadership, power, and conflictI know someone who equates leadership with power-over, and vehemently rebels at any sign that his business partner wants to encroach on his territory or take an active leadership role in their business. (I’ll call him James.)

I once worked with someone who didn’t have and didn’t want an official leadership title, but who by the simple force of her personality, intelligence, and insight was a powerful thought leader within the organization. (I’ll call her Samantha.)

I have a client who has grown into her leadership role over the last two years, learning that her fears of being seen as bossy or incompetent were unfounded, discovering that she enjoys and can easily hold her own in the company of her fellow CEOs, and realizing what it means to be a respected leader in her industry. (I’ll call her Jenny.)

What is leadership, anyway?

There are almost as many definitions of “leader” and “leadership” as there are people defining it. A Google search highlights an extraordinarily unhelpful definition:

the action of leading a group of people or an organization
“different styles of leadership”

the state or position of being a leader
“the leadership of the party”

the leaders of an organization, country, etc.
plural noun: leaderships
“a change of leadership had become desireable”

So, where does this leave us?

Often, though not always, it leaves us in conflict, usually because of misinterpretation and misuse of the power that comes with leadership – however we may define “leadership”!

James, who believes that leadership means someone has or wants the power to control him, sees guidance or even suggestions as threats to his independence. He disengages because he doesn’t recognize that he has the power to listen, understand, and contribute without being coerced or forced into choices with which he disagrees. Conflict arises as he rebels and refuses to collaborate, misusing his personal power in his vigorous efforts to keep himself free from others’ control.

Jenny, who feared being bossy or incompetent, sought to be liked by everyone and left her team confused about strategic direction. She has power by virtue of her experience, skills, and her position as CEO, but she was abdicating her responsibility to actually use that power effectively. Conflict arose within her staff, manifesting as workflow bottlenecks, dropped communication, and unexpressed frustration. The good news is that when she spent the time and energy to grow in her professional role, she was able to correct those issues and bring her staff with her into a cohesive, collaborative team.

And Samantha, who was comfortable with herself, her skills, and her opinions, and with her ability to communicate those opinions with conviction, was a powerful influencer, guiding decisions and strategy within her organization without ever assuming an actual leadership title. There was no doubt among those who worked with her (including the organization’s official leaders) that she was someone who exercised power effectively, strategically, and without creating conflict.

So, where does this leave us?

Before we can be leaders – and indeed, before we can be led! – we must define for ourselves what leadership means.

Is leadership what James believes: threatening, coercive power-over?

Is leadership what Samantha embodies: based on intelligence, technical skill, and personal confidence?

Is leadership what Jenny has grown into: decisive, yet collaborative; self-aware of her skills and experience and also of the gaps that need to be filled?

If we are to be leaders – whether we have the title or not – we have to define what we mean by leadership, both for ourselves (how we want to show up and create impact as a leader) and for those who lead us (what we want them to model in their words and actions and how we expect them to impact us).

Despite what James believes, leadership in and of itself is neither bad nor good. Like any tool (and leadership is a tool), it can be used well – or badly misused. James’s experience taught him that leaders are abusive; Samantha’s experience taught her that leadership can be subtle and a natural extension of innate capacities; and Jenny’s experience evolved from a place of leadership as lonely and coercive, to leadership as unifying and strategic.

All of these are true, of course, because we all know leaders who behave in these ways.

The question is, what do we expect from ourselves?

What leaders are we willing to follow?

And how are we willing to examine our beliefs about leadership so that we can, as Jenny did, grow in leadership capacity?

gljudson Management & Leadership

Don’t clothe the skeleton!

Don't clothe the skeleton!“So, I’m going to tell them that I know this has been hard for them. I understand how the disagreements we’ve been having have triggered a lot of unpleasant memories of things that went badly wrong under past leadership. For instance, I know Sam really feels – ”

“Wait! Stop!” I said.

My client and I were planning an upcoming meeting with his leadership team. They’d been struggling with communication breakdowns, significant disagreement about business direction, frustration on all sides, and a lot of pent-up anger released in less-than-helpful ways (to say the least).

My client was just as frustrated and, yes, angry as the rest of them, yet he also saw that as a leader, it was his responsibility to begin the healing process. He was outlining what he wanted to say in an important meeting scheduled for the next morning.

So why was I asking him to stop?

Because he was about to go too far in his explanation.

In attempting to demonstrate that he truly understood and empathized with their frustration, he was going to do what most of us tend to do: step across a subtle line from understanding  into telling and over-explaining .

Especially in times of conflict, we all make up stories about what other people think and feel; it’s natural, and when we’re conscious and intentional about it, we can develop insight and empathy.

The challenge comes when we start believing that those stories are actually true, especially when we add in lots of detail. If we use those imagined details in conversations with them, we run a real and serious risk of alienating them even further.

“Give them just the skeleton of your perception,” I told my client. “Give them just enough so they feel your understanding and empathy. Then they’ll experience an internal sense of ‘yes’ – they’ll be agreeing with you, even if they don’t say anything out loud.”

He was nodding, and I went on.

“If you give them too much detail, you run the risk of being wrong in your estimation of what they’re feeling – and then they’ll move from that internal ‘yes’ to a much louder internal ‘no!’ and right back into all the frustration and anger. And you’ll be worse off than you were to begin with.”

Whatever the situation may be – whether it’s a conflict, as in this case, or a marketing message, or any situation where you think (a.k.a. believe) you know what someone else is experiencing – the best way to demonstrate your understanding and care is to give your audience just enough information for them to agree with you. They’ll add in the details for themselves; you don’t need to provide them, and you shouldn’t provide them.

Or, as I said to my client, “Give them the skeleton. They’ll put the clothes on from their own experience. And they’ll feel much more understood and empowered than if you try to dress the skeleton for them.”

gljudson Better conversations

Hearing – or understanding?

Hear or understand?“I hear what you’re saying.”

Whenever someone says that to me, I always want to reply, “Sure. I hear the birds chirping, a car driving past, and someone on the phone 20 feet away. So what?”

People are hesitant to say, “I understand you.”

Maybe they don’t understand.

Maybe they fear they’ll be misunderstood as saying, “I agree with you,” when, in fact, they don’t agree.

(Understanding does not equal agreement.)

Maybe they’re so entrenched in their subjective opinions and feelings about the situation that making the effort to understand feels too threatening and not worth the time.

The reality is, though, that when we understand someone – not just hearing the words they say, but truly understanding their point of view – options and opportunities open up that would never be possible otherwise.

Yes, it takes more effort than just hearing their words.

Yes, it requires empathy – which, in a heated moment, may seem like more than you can offer.

And yes, it’s always worthwhile.


gljudson Better conversations

Why “thank you” isn’t enough

Thank you isn't enough“Thank you.”

It’s the nice thing to say.

It’s what our parents taught us.

Even when it’s no more than a polite reflex, it’s still a real expression of gratitude or appreciation.

And when you’re in a casual situation with someone you don’t know or with whom you don’t have an ongoing, meaningful relationship – such as the clerk at the grocery store, or the customer-care person on the phone – a quick “Thank you” is just fine.

But when you’re talking to your employees, your peers, your spouse or partner, your kids, or your colleagues, just saying “Thank you” isn’t enough to convey true appreciation.

Thank you for what? What did the person do, specifically, that caused you to feel good about them and their effort?

To your employee:  “Thank you for handling that customer. I appreciate how you were able to calm him down and help him be happy with his purchase so we didn’t have to give him a big refund.”

To your peer at work:  “Thank you for picking up my projects while I was out sick. I know it was a lot to take on right in the middle of your own work.”

To your spouse or partner:  “Thank you for taking out the garbage.” (Yes, even if it’s something they’re “supposed” to do, offering appreciation for doing any task is appropriate. Appreciative acknowledgement is a big part of keeping relationships, especially close relationships, running smoothly.)

To your kid:  “Thank you for taking out the garbage without needing to be reminded.”

To your colleague: “Thank you for the referral. That was a perfect fit for me – I so appreciate that you’ve taken the time to understand my work!”

The impact of appreciation

I seriously doubt I need to tell you how good it feels when someone appreciates you and what you’ve done.

And of course there are any number of studies showing this to be true on many levels.

Appreciation helps engage employees, creates better leaders, and can even save lives. One study showed a significant increase in coronary disease in those who felt un-appreciated in their work.

I’m obviously not suggesting that you offer unearned, phony appreciation.

But taking a moment or two to notice what someone has done well, and to be specific about what you noticed, makes you feel good as well as the other person.

Changing behavior

Have you ever had an employee who wasn’t performing up to your standard?

Have you ever wished your friend, spouse / partner, or child would do something differently (or do it at all!)?

Have you ever wanted to help someone change their behavior in any way?

Noticing and appreciating their efforts to do things better makes a big difference in their ability to initiate and maintain change.

Even if it’s your employee’s job to handle irate customers and even if it’s your partner’s or kid’s job to take out the garbage, those simple words expressing thanks specifically for what they did gives them so much more motivation to keep making that effort.

And maybe even to make additional efforts!

gljudson Better conversations

I must be getting somewhere…

Activity versus progressAt a planning and strategy meeting the other day, a client gloomily confessed that she’s going to have to do something about one of her employees.

“She’s always very busy, but she’s not getting anywhere,” she said. “She’s great at writing reports …”

“That say nothing,” I finished for her when she trailed off.

We’ve all been there: the challenge of the employee (or – ahem! – even ourselves, on occasion) who is constantly doing things, but doesn’t ever seem to get things done.

The to-do list that never ends, but also never seems to get you, your team, or your organization any closer to your goals.

It’s called confusing activity with progress.

Activity, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily productive. Just because you’re at your desk every day for eight (or nine, or ten …) hours straight doesn’t mean you’re moving closer to your goals.

There’s a big difference between focused action on important tasks and the sort of work a colleague once called “administrivia” – which, really, is anything that doesn’t move you closer to your goal.

Focus is key. And it’s all too easy to lose focus in this crazily over-busy, instant-gratification, everything-is-urgent world. Between email, text messages, phone calls, social media, and unnecessary meetings, it’s a wonder anyone gets anything done.

Those who do get things done – real things that create real results towards real goals – are the people who have learned to focus.

Because just being busy doesn’t mean you’re actually accomplishing a damned thing.

The question of how to maintain focus isn’t an easy one. There are, after all, all those other things that grab our attention and seem urgent, even though they’re not important.

That’s why I wrote the Action Paper entitled “The Discipline of Reflective Review: 7 questions to improve your focus, increase your productivity, and achieve your goals.”

You can download it here.

gljudson Management & Leadership