Redefining Leadership

By Seth Hufford

The ability to think beyond our day-to-day  and gain perspective on the context in which we operate is an empowering cerebral exercise – and something that is uniquely human.  So when engaged in meaning of life conversations with family and friends, I find that the subject often turns to the era of human history that we are currently living through.  How will historians describe this time?  It will be recorded (in digital format, of course) that in one generation we have seen a shift from an industrial to an information age.  This rapid change has had and continues to have a tremendous impact on lives and on our society.

With the shift from industry to information, the world is increasingly complex and connected; the options are endless.  Putting my two-year-old son to bed the other night, I thought about the options my wife and I had to fill the evening with…and how much that had changed since we were his age.  Back then, our own parents may have put a record on the turntable, watched a drama on one of the three TV networks, or curled up with a book or the evening newspaper.  Now, my wife and I can “virtually” go anywhere in the world from the comfort of our home.  We can access millions of digital songs online, watch any type of program on hundreds of cable channels – whether live, from the DVR, or on-demand, or choose to access instant news and information from thousands of sources around the globe.  The choices are dizzying…and so is much of our world.  To function in this age, we need to be prepared to make sense of complexity and to manage change.

So the question is then not if or when we need to develop and practice new approaches to operating in today’s world, but rather how we should go about doing it.  This “how” question can, at least in part, be answered by a change in how we define leadership.  We often still hold on to an industrial model of leadership – the person at the top of the organization or society gets things done and everyone else follows – that does not work in today’s day and age.  It is time to let go of the old and begin using a new definition for leadership that reflects the reality of the information age.

One constant in my experience of running leadership development programs over the past decade was the wide variation among participants about a consistent definition of “leadership”.   A room filled with ambitious professionals, all of whom considering themselves to be “leaders”, resulted in a different understanding of leadership from each and every person.  It was only after reading Ron Heifetz’s book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, that I gained some much needed insight.

Heifetz separates the term “leadership” from the term “authority”.  He refers to authority as providing protection, direction, and order.  Authority often comes from the position or role that you have – formal authority (such as the President, a mother, a police officer), but it can also be informal (think of the person in your office who everyone seeks out for the latest information – he or she may not have a high ranking title, but does have informal authority as a source of information).  Leadership is then more about managing change – mobilizing people to tackle tough problems.  By defining leadership as an activity, Heifetz allows leadership to originate from multiple positions in an organization or society.

Separating these two concepts of leadership and authority is a start to changing how we think about leadership in our era.

Gone are the days when we look to the “leader” at the top of the organization or society to provide the solutions to all of our problems.  One only needs to look to the world of politics to see how people are still struggling to adjust their definition of leadership.  How many times have you heard people say, if only we were able to get our candidate elected, things would be better. To my own regret, such sentiment amounts to no more than wishful thinking and only leads to disappointment – not to mention it absolves everyone from owning a piece of the problem.  By contrast, the definition of leadership as an activity permits people at all levels to bring about change in a fast-paced world – not, as in this case, just the candidate running for office.  Additionally, this is the reason that so many companies are investing in emerging leaders within their ranks – business knows it cannot fall behind in generating new solutions at all levels to the challenges it faces.

How is redefining leadership relevant in your day-to-day?  If you are trying to solve all of the problems yourself and expecting people to follow you – in other words, being the industrial age leader – you are bound to fail.  In the information era, you need to think about the resources around you – and how they can be used to address the challenges that you face.  Realizing that you don’t need to have all the answers is a big relief – but it doesn’t make leadership any easier, it just changes your approach.

Continue your transition to the information age, by redefining leadership yourself.  For one day, keep track of how many times you use the word leadership when you are actually referring to people in positions of authority.  You will be surprised at how often you are using the word “leadership” when you are actually talking about the concept of “authority”.  On another day, keep track of how many times your colleagues are interchanging “leadership” and “authority” as concepts.   Finally, let these new definitions marinate for a couple of days and then rethink one or two new strategies for approaching a current problem – ones that don’t rely on the people in positions of authority to provide all of the solutions.   Allow this new definition of leadership to assist you in managing change in today’s world.

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Creating Effective Teams

Written By Seth Hufford

Today’s workplace finds us in team environments more often than not.  These teams exist both within our work functions and across business functions.  If you are responsible for directing the work of a team, you know it is not an easy job.  By paying attention to the following four areas, you will find yourself on the way to creating an effective team.

rope  team
The temptation is to rush right into the project or projects at hand.  However, it is essential to take a step back and build the foundation for working together.  Start by creating a collective purpose of what the team is hoping to accomplish by gathering input from all team members.  Assist the team in defining outcomes to ensure that everyone agrees on what success will be.  Develop and be clear about the process or processes that the team will follow in working together.

A FIRST STEP: If you are just convening a team, you can begin your initial meeting by asking everyone to share what they hope to accomplish in the team.  Even if you have an already established team, you can use an upcoming meeting to ask team members to share their views on how the team is doing thus far.

Communication is a key element of leadership.  In order to make your team as effective as possible, foster open and direct communication by inviting differing and conflicting viewpoints.  Being purposeful and thoughtful about the language we use will result in a common understanding.  Practicing active listening will ensure that team members are heard and feel that they have made valuable contributions.  Encouraging team members to ask questions will clarify what people have said and draw out additional information.

A FIRST STEP: Do some work prior to the next team meeting by talking individually to team members, in person, or by phone if the team member works off-site (avoid email as it lends itself to greater communication misunderstandings).  Ask each team member what questions are lingering about the work for him or her.  Rather than answering these questions right then and there, collect them – see what patterns emerge in all of the questions – and use the next team meeting to address them.

Encourage team members to build relationships with one another.  Understand the agendas and perspectives of others by recognizing the competing priorities that each team member faces.  Manage disagreements by bringing conflicts into the open in order to resolve them collaboratively.  Know your team members’ capacity to handle change and how to deal with resistance that may surface.

A FIRST STEP: An easy way to establish working relationships among team members is to build in time  at the beginning and the conclusion of meetings for people to air what’s on their mind – both work-related and personally (i.e. I had a nice weekend camping with the family).  Also, take breaks in your daily work routine to informally check in with team members about how they are doing and what they are thinking.

To get the best out of the people you are working with, take the time to assess the strengths and development needs of the team members.  Encourage team members to give direct feedback in a timely manner – balancing what people are doing well with areas for improvement.  Value the diversity of experiences and approaches that people bring to the work and use it to strengthen the team’s capacity.  Encourage people to step out of their usual roles and to take risks by approaching problems in new and innovative ways.

A FIRST STEP: Early on in the team’s formation have members submit to each other one area of expertise or strength that they are hoping to provide the team and one area of development or learning that they are hoping to take out of working with one another.  By having a record of these, people can keep track of whether they are delivering on their strengths and working on their area of development.  They can also get support from other team members and be valued for what they are bringing to the team.

Our fast-paced and results-oriented culture often does not allow space for creating and maintaining a way to work together in a team environment.  If you keep your concentration on the four areas detailed above, you will be on your way to creating an effective team.  Remember, investing time in people will result in better projects.

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Five Steps to Cultural Transformation

Transforming Culture is not for the faint of heart.  It requires effort and work.  Here are a few ideas on how to make it work for your company.  This is not an exhaustive cultural transformation cookbook, however it should get you on your way to making a difference in your company.

Distance Runners Wanted:  Sprinters Need not Apply

When my college soccer team fitness test changed from 3500 meters (two miles plus about a lap) in 12 minutes to a five-minute mile, I was ecstatic.  It meant moving from two 5 and a ½ minute miles to one five minute mile.  While it is still a distance run at fast pace, it was a lot less pain to endure by half.  The simple truth of the matter was that it took more discipline to run the longer distance than the shorter one.  The thought of either distance today makes me nauseatingly short of breath – ahh the glory days.  While not as physically demanding, transforming culture requires the same amount of discipline that my distance running friends possessed, and that I despised.  Sprinting is easier.  It does take skill and ability, but the race is over in less than 15 seconds.  Not so for cultural work.  Cultural transformation takes leaders who have the tenacity of my distance running colleagues.

It does not happen overnight.  It takes time and discipline.  It is not necessarily an activity that takes rocket scientist intellect, rather a person who will eat, live, and breath the cultural transformation effort.  This is why most efforts fail.  People do not have the discipline to keep it on their radar, let alone anyone else’s radar screen.  The key to doing this is making it into a mission beyond a goal on your MBO plan for the year.  You have to care about it as something that will be for the betterment of the people in your organization.  I know, I know, I am asking you to care about work.  Well… you should.  We spend far too much time there not to be happy in what we are doing.  Bottom line is cultural work has to be tied to a greater vision about how work and life could be at your company.  It requires PASSION.  The passion displayed by goal scorers at the World Cup or the announcers who yell GOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLLL!  for five minutes afterwards. (Do you blame them?  After all, goals are few and far between in soccer.)  Passion is the fuel that gets us over the hurdles that life throws in our way.  Cultural change must be a passion, not a project.

Listen Intently and Understand Your Organization

Opening your ears and shutting your mouth is one of the best ways you can make significant progress in understanding your culture.  I occasionally tell clients to WAIT. I instruct them to ask themselves the following question: Why Am I Talking?  It is a simple truth, but listening intently will help leaders understand what stories are being told about the organization.  Stories are symbols and metaphors that represent how people feel about organizational culture.  They are a great barometer for reading how your culture is doing.  Are the stories about your organization more positive than negative or vice versa?  Are they told as war stories at happy hour, or as inspirational stories of a great work culture?  Nordstrom’s and Southwest Airlines are examples of the latter.  Look no further than the Top 100 companies to work in any state or nationally to hear stories of great places to work.  Listening for anecdotal evidence will allow you to informally benchmark where your organization is and where it may need to go to close the gap to cultural excellence.

The point of all this listening is to understand what kind of culture you currently have at your organization. You should make it part of the leaders’ routine to create special time to listen to subordinates in each meeting they have.  Leaders need to ask questions like, “What do you like about working here? Or What would improve your experience working here, if you could ask for anything?”  By doing this you are gathering qualitative data on what the culture of your organization is like.  The next step is to do this listening more formally.  Undertake a cultural survey.  This will provide you with quantitative data on how your organization is doing culturally.  It will give real teeth to your development efforts.  I would recommend orgSCAN by Echo Strategies as a very user-friendly, thorough instrument for this purpose.

Stop Moving the Target

The big complaint I hear from C-suite leaders as well as their followers is that the development of core purpose and values is a waste of time because they just collect dust on someone’s desk or bookshelf at work.  In those instances the cynical part of me wants to hold up a mirror to them and say, “look here and blame that person.”  Core purpose and values have to be more than documents, they must be the DNA that drives how people act.  This is a leadership issue.  If you can’t enact your core values at work, how do people know what the expected behavior is?  You have to set up a stationary, dependable cultural target for people to hit.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, says that core purpose and values need to be committable beliefs. In other words they (Zappos) are willing to hire and fire people based on their core values, independent of their specific job performance.  They planted the Zappos flag on the hill and said this is what we stand for.  This process has to be an authentic effort that has follow-through and leadership from the C-suite.  I have seen too many companies get their employees engaged in a robust core values process, then drop the ball by not following through to make them real guidelines used daily as the measuring stick.  This leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy that it was just a waste of time.  The brunt of that responsibility has to rest with the leadership.  Organizations need to risk defining who they are.  Everyone knows the value in niche marketing in sales, but how about in cultural development? Strive to be amazing at a few things culturally – you can’t be all things to all people.

Link Cultural Targets to Bottom Line Targets – Make the Connections Clear

This is one of the rules that most people really struggle with.  How do you take something fuzzy and intangible and link it to your earnings?  Great question; the smartest organizations figure a way to do it.  Let me point you to some general resources first, and then show you a way to map it.  Several studies have been done which empirically link strong cultures to higher earnings.  One of the grandparents of all cultural studies was done by Daniel Denison out of the University of Michigan’s Organizational Psychology Department. The study conducted on 39  different companies over five years demonstrated that the cultural and behavioral characteristics of organizations have a measurable effect on a company’s performance.  Organizations with a participative culture not only perform better than those without such a culture, but the margin of difference which widens over time, suggests a cause-and-effect relationship between culture and performance.

The work of John Kotter and James Heskett at Harvard produced four major findings, highlighted in their book Corporate Culture and Performance (Free Press, 1992). These are:

  • Corporate culture can have significant impact on long-term financial performance.
  • Culture probably will become an even more important factor in determining corporate success or
    failure in the future.
  • Cultures that inhibit long-term financial strength are common and develop easily, even in companies full of reasonable and bright people.
  • Corporate culture can be managed and changed.

So the research exists to support the case, now you need to know how to map it in your culture.  One way is to map the logical pathway.  This is a process that helps illustrate how a cultural behavior can lead to increased financial performance.  A very simple pathway may look like the following:

Don’t Just Play for Chips – Play for Real Money

The last step to cultural transformation is to play for real money.  Occasionally, I participate in a small pot Texas Holdem’ Game.  High roller that I am, I have noticed something, as probably all of you have if you ever played poker.  If you are just playing for chips and there is not real stake involved (e.g. money), people do not play a serious game.  They dump their chips in like they are not worth anything…. because they aren’t.  Attach a real monetary value, even as little as a $5.00 buy-in, and suddenly  you have a game on your hands.  The same holds true for cultural transformation.  In order for an organization to make progress, leaders need to link the targeted cultural behaviors to real consequences.  The most basic connection is to incorporate the cultural targets into an employee’s performance evaluation.  Make it part of their job to engage in the cultural behaviors you require.  After leaders have shown their employees via logical pathway mapping why they should buy-in to a cultural value, they need a little help staying accountable, as does everyone.  This is where tying cultural values to real performance appraisal measures is a must.

The five steps listed above will help get you on your way to making real change in your culture.  The key is to keep the effort in front of people and be vulnerable enough to risk showing your passion for a workplace where people can thrive, not just survive.

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How Becoming a Wallflower at the Dance Can Blow Up Your Company

Leaders in your company are “can do” people.  They take charge of situations — talk often and loudly.  They are the prom queen/king at the dance.  They are in the midst of the crowd showing their dance moves to the masses.  I want to tell you why the wallflower at the dance has a unique way of seeing, that the prom queen/king does not have.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government have coined a phrase that captures the wisdom in being a wallflower.  They say that we need to “Get off the dance floor and up on the balcony. ”  What does this mean?  Simply put, it is about getting out of daily operations on a regular basis long enough to observe what is going on in your business.  Sounds simple enough, yet so few actually practice it successfully.

Imagine what the wallflower sees as he/she is perched on the balcony at the school dance.  They see the larger patterns that are going on.  They see how people are entering and exiting the dance floor.  Who is dancing with whom.  They see what songs get more people out on the dance floor.  They see the bad seeds spiking the punch bowl.  Their removed view helps them to see the integration of all the parts into the whole that is the dance.  They see things that the movers and shakers on the dance floor cannot from their viewpoint.  So what am I getting at, or am I just a frustrated nerd who is trying to justify his meek behavior in high school.

What I am getting at is this.  We need to assume both positions.  The great thing about real life we discover, is it is not black or white — either, or.  It is, as Jim Collins calls it, the “Genius of the And.”  We need to be people who get stuff done (on the dance floor,) and those who regularly step back and reflect (take a spot on the balcony.) We can be both.  Life and leadership at work is too complex not to take time to understand the nuances and subtleties that are going on all around us.  Getting on the balcony allows you to more clearly decipher the subtleties of the situation that we wish we would catch the first time around, instead of having them come back to bite you afterwards.  One of these subtleties could be understanding who the hidden stakeholders are in a given project that could sabotage the project if not actively brought into the process.  Another could be considering how people far down stream from a decision will be affected, and how that will hinder effectiveness of an initiative.

So how does one get on the balcony?  Here are several basic ways to start cultivating this discipline.  Note the words cultivate and discipline.  Very carefully chosen words.  This is a process that takes time and effort to develop.  These ways of seeing take time to make part of your normal routine.

1.  Set up a weekly time to reflect on the past week’s work activities and where you need to concentrate your efforts next week.  For those of you who think this is just about plugging new dates and planning your next week it is not.  It is about first reflecting on what is going on, then gauging where you can have the most effective input the next week.  Leaders need to get off the merry go round regularly to see how the dynamics of the spinning are affecting themselves and others at work.  I recommend using Friday morning because you want to use some fresh brain-power to get this done, and it is timely enough to motivate you to set up your next week.  One tool to help you  is to think of every project or task in which you have been involved this past week and list them.  Next, look at each item and ask yourself, what is going well?  What needs to be cleaned up this week?  And Who could I ask about the initiative that would expand my view on it?

2.  Get others views on the subjects at hand from trusted confidants.   Some former presidents had their kitchen cabinets, those who informally gave them feedback on important matters, but were not officially charged to do so.  You can also do this be walking around and listening to others informal feedback, to understand the undercurrents of the culture (MBWA).

3.  Here is a real pearl of wisdom:  actually pay attention to what your boss and your boss’s boss are seeing.  They are responsible for seeing the larger picture.  The may be privy to information or pressures you are not aware of.

4.  Finally, slow down enough to listen to other people.  Good listeners have a higher EQ, because they are good observers.  This brings back to why wallflowers’ way of seeing life can be a lens with which you want to become familiar.   Viva la Wallflowers!

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Changing the Stories Will Change your Culture

Leaders often make the comment  “I don’t know where to start to change the culture.  It’s just such a difficult thing.”  This is true.  Changing the culture is a difficult thing,  but not an impossible one.  Here is one action you can take as a leader, to help make a difference in your culture — change the stories being told.   Stories are a powerful communication tool used at your organization whether you are aware of it our not (Awareness is a big deal — see the last post.)  Stories are a major contributor to what messages people hear about your culture.  You have all heard the urban legend of McDonald’s using some kind of mystery meat in their hamburgers, or Proctor & Gamble’s logo is somehow a satanic symbol. None of these have ever been proven in any way, shape, or form, yet they still survive today as tale people tell.  Those stories shape culture.

Why is this important for you to know?  Because as a leader you can have an active role in shaping the culture of your organization.  Listen to the stories about your culture that are told.  Do you like them?  If they are good ones continue to propagate them.  If not, you have two choices to change the stories,  that I have learned over the years:

1.)  You yourself do something dramatic in your culture  that  is story-worthy in a positive sense;

2.)  Find others in your organization who are doing story-worthy things and start telling their stories.  Bring them up often and everywhere.  Keep finding new stories to tell.  You don’t want to be labeled a “broken record.”

Stories are an easy way to start shaping the culture in the direction that you think it should go.  After all, 50% of a leader’s job should be about actively shaping the culture within which his/her followers operate.

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Leaders and Emotional Intelligence

I am struck over and over again, by the lack of savvy some in leadership positions have.  Your chief job as a leader in any walk of life is to understand and shape the culture in  your sphere of influence.  Too many leaders in organizations think their job is to get stuff done.  This is only partially correct.  Their job is to get stuff done through others while maintaining a sustainable work environment.  The key to the latter part of the mandate is to be highly aware of what is going on around them.  I have encountered many leaders in my work who have really turned their leadership up a notch, by paying attention to social and emotional cues going on all around them.  One the other day just mentioned that “Since I have become more aware of my impact on others, I can see a pathway to being more effective.”  So where do you go to become aware?  Daniel Goleman’s work around emotional intelligence is a great start.  Just google Goleman and emotional intelligence  and you will be on your way.

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