Sometimes Followership “Trumps” Leadership

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Can I follow President Elect Donald Trump? This question has been a part of my inner dialogue ever since witnessing the shocking U.S. Presidential election results. Many of you (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike) may be wondering the same at this time when prominent leaders from both major parties are calling for Americans to put aside their differences and bridge the deep divides created by this election cycle. Love him or hate him, our democratic process has empowered him. Now he must lead…and we Americans should do our best to follow. Yet, how do you follow a leader you do not love? I offer a few thoughts on followership for you to consider in regards to this election, and potentially apply to your workplace as well.

1.      “Follower” is not a bad word – People love leadership. We often attribute positive results to “strong leadership” and we aspire to be leaders ourselves. Yet, followers tend to be those people who are, well, not leaders. They are sometimes considered second class citizens in our social hierarchy. Cast aside such beliefs! To lead, one must first be able to follow. Furthermore, every leader, even the President, answers to stakeholders and must follow at times. Once we recognize value in good followership, we can begin to practice it.

2.      Find some faith – Good followers adopt the belief that “no one shows up to work to suck.” That is, leaders are doing their very best in any given moment. If we don’t believe intentions are well meaning, it’s hard to trust and support. Mr. Trump has the very difficult challenge of making upcoming decisions where some 50% of his constituency will likely disapprove to some extent. Good followership in these moments is having faith that he and his advisors have diligently thought through their positions and acted on what they thought was best for most Americans (given no decision is perfect nor can all stakeholder needs ever be met). Likewise, leaders in your organization are probably doing the best they can…extending faith their way enables them to better serve you.

3.      Exhibit loyalty – Leaders are often working against the status quo. In doing so, they are sticking their necks out. Leaders need to know their followers have their backs through thick and thin. Mr. Trump’s campaign inspired a loyal base, and it also alienated many. He will need to work hard to repair trust with many Americans and inspire new loyalties. Good followership under these circumstances might start with simply not being outright disloyal. Then, if sincerity, courage, humility, and competence exists, one can extend loyalty gradually. In the workplace, it’s no different. Good followership is wholeheartedly extending loyalty to leaders when it has been rightly earned, regardless if we love them or not.

4.      Appropriately Dissent – All leaders are fallible. Part of good followership is respectfully pointing out our leader’s mistakes and challenging questionable decision-making. Undoubtedly, even The Donald will make some mistakes along the way. Americans must do their best to share the negative impacts of any newly enacted policy in a productive way. The emphasis being on productive! The same goes in the workplace. Leaders need your feedback to get better. However, be tactful and exercise political savvy when challenging authority.

5.      Take action – Implementation and execution are the bread and butter of good followership. Leaders depend on the hard work of followers to make their visions a reality. President Elect Trump, like President Obama, will be challenged in getting congress’ support for his initiatives. Will enough healthy compromise take place for Democrats to exhibit good followership and support? Or will we see more obstruction and polarization? In regards to our own organizations, we have similar choices. Good followership is having a bias for action, proactively taking on the tough assignments, and ensuring removal of obstacles versus acting as one.

Only time will tell if President Trump turns out to be a good leader. One thing is certain. The burden of leadership is great and a leader’s success largely encompasses follower support. In both our personal and professional lives, we should be mindful to exhibit good followership—even in circumstances we find less than ideal. Besides…your next leadership opportunity may be right around the corner, and how you handled yourself in challenging times may prove to be your “Trump” card towards seizing it!

Note: The intent of this article is to use current events to examine good followership, not to provide a forum to debate politics. Please be respectful of this in your comments.

Can a Llama Teach You Leadership?

Having finished cinching down the buckles of our llama’s saddle, my tent mates and I took turns loading our gear on the animal for the first time. It was a hot day and we were sweating greatly, yet as my eyes shifted to the trail ahead, it was clear the snow-capped peaks in the distance would offer something quite different. I am part of a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition where a group of thirteen senior executives are practicing the art of leadership by exploring the Wyoming backcountry together. We will navigate many miles of increasing elevation daily. We will learn new outdoor skills and how to care for the environment. Yet, most importantly, we will learn to behave in ways that inspire deep trust with one another.

A core part of the learning comes from the llamas themselves. Magnificently agile animals, they can leap over three feet high logs, with 70 pounds on their backs, and calmly stick the landing on the side of a wet cliff. It’s an amazing sight to behold. Much like humans, they also have different personalities, varying moods and preferences. Some are more dominant than others and “act up” if placed in the back of the pack. Others are almost cliquey in nature, and will only move efficiently when placed next to their best bud.

Similar to leading with a team of direct reports toward a goal, our group had to learn how the llamas wanted to be managed! We had to uncover the pack’s dynamics, assess their personal needs, and then adjust our management style to meet those needs. For instance, we quickly learned that a command and control style would often backfire immediately (as it does in most modern organizations). In fact, push too hard, and you just might get spit on in retaliation! However (unless you speak llama) it’s rather hard to communicate a vision and then empower a llama to drive results. The llamas needed a balanced approach to leadership; not only one that took into account the environmental pressures being placed on us to accomplish the day’s mission, but also brought them into the decision-making process. Over the course of seven days together, here’s what a bunch of llamas taught us:

1. Know when to give ‘em more lead, and when to reel ‘em in

We all took turns as a llama handler as we trekked across the remote and sometimes dangerous terrain. When guiding your animal, you hold onto what’s called a lead, which attaches to their bridle and gives you about 6 feet of rope to work with. Mastering how much of that lead you hold in your hands is an art and it’s constantly changing. When navigating tight areas, you might shorten it to just a foot or two so you maintain strong control. When crossing a fast moving creek, you might release all of the length, giving your llama the freedom to cross the danger as he sees best. The parallels to leading a direct report are clear. Sometimes they “don’t know what they don’t know,” and you need to provide strong direction and guidance to best help them. Other times, strong guidance works against you as a manager, and reports need space to find their own solutions. A great manager does not adopt a single style of leadership,  rather applies the right style based on the individual’s need and the task at hand.

2. Listen to your llama, sometimes they know best

On day five, we began our descent from roughly 11,500 feet. The terrain was steep, rocky, and the riskiest part of the week’s expedition. As we descended, it was unclear as to where a proper trail was at times. At one point we attempted to lead our llamas down a particularly steep part of the trail. We knew it wasn’t a great route, but it looked doable and appeared to be our only option. Then our lead llama just stopped in his tracks. “Not going that way” he communicated to us by digging his heels in and refusing to budge another step. At first we tried pulling harder, then we tried a gentle smack to the animal’s rear. Usually this would get your llama moving again but this time was different. He just sat there, looking at us like we were crazy. Then it occurred to us, maybe he knows something we don’t and we started searching harder for an alternate route. Lo and behold, there was a much better trail about 20 feet to our left! The llamas then followed us down safely. The lesson was clear, sometimes as a leader you must get out of your own way. There will be times when your followers know best. Perhaps it’s the front line manager who knows your customer’s needs better than you do. Or maybe it’s the brilliant middle manager who just needs space to voice  that next best idea to the company. The best managers know when to lead and when to follow.

3. Love your llama, and your llama will love you back

Finally, the llamas helped ground the importance of being a servant leader. When you are deep in the backcountry, you quickly realize how important the llamas really are. If one were to get injured or developed a saddle sore, we as a team would be carrying an additional 70 pounds between us. As such, we used an old cavalry saying to help guide our priorities of work each day; “First, take care of the horse, then the saddle, then the man.” This translated to first feeding and watering your llama, then setting up your group’s tent and collective responsibilities, then tending to all your personal needs. Repeating this process multiple times a day emphasized where a leader needs to be dedicating his or her valuable time. You simply won’t meet your goals without your follower’s dedication and team’s support. Yet, when your actions consistently demonstrate a willingness to put other’s needs above your own, you cannot fail to inspire respect, admiration and loyalty.

So yes, I believe that you can learn much about leadership from a llama. In fact, the greatest lessons often came from allowing a llama to lead you. Yet, like all successful relationships, it is a reciprocal dance of give and take. The llamas would be lost without us, wandering aimlessly without purpose, and we lost without them, struggling mightily under the limits of our human capacities. I offer that you go find those llamas in your life that need your leadership, then practice working the lead, listening deeply when challenged, and serving them every day. Do so, and you are destined to climb some impressive mountains together.

If you are adventurous business executive who enjoyed this post, I invite you to “follow” this blog or connect with me directly at  dspungin@allamericanleaders.com  so I can share with you upcoming NOLS/AAL expeditions that you may want to take part in.

Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

What do you believe most contributes to missed performance expectations in the workplace? Too lofty of goals to begin with? Not enough talent in place to do the work? Insufficient effort or a lack of incentives to properly motivate? Perhaps.  Yet, my experience is that the more significant culprit is one of two things: 1) a leader’s failure to clearly communicate expectations upfront or 2) a leader’s failure to provide proper feedback and coaching. This is not too surprising as these are challenging skill-sets to learn and can take a lifetime to master (effective coaching in particular).

There are a few key ingredients to demonstrating good coaching as a leader. First, coaching begins with practicing curiosity and a leader will benefit from adopting a coaching style that values inquiry more so than advocacy. This is unnatural for most managers who like to speak from their experience and advocate solutions based on their personal expertise. Yet, if leaders place a premium on listening before speaking, they are more likely to build trust with their coachees and help them develop their own solutions to challenges. Perhaps this highlights one of the greatest differences between management and leadership. Managers seek to control outcomes by problem solving and offering solutions to their people. A leader realizes his or her ultimate goal is to create more leaders. Thus, he or she ask questions that inspire and challenge. Leaders seek to build capacity in the coachee and lessen dependency on the coach’s expertise.

Indeed, if a leader must do one thing exceptionally well to be effective, it’s coach! Yet, because this is such a huge topic of discussion, we cannot possibly cover all that I would like to share with you in a short article. Thus, I am going to focus on one of the most difficult coaching conversations that managers seem to get wrong more often than they get right; delivering constructive feedback and then coaching towards improvement.

Oh the agony we feel when preparing for this coaching conversation! Do
we directly deliver the feedback and simply hope that they take it well? Or perhaps we should indirectly address the feedback, which will likely lower their defensiveness? No wait! Of course. We’ll go with the “feedback sandwich” and deliver a compliment, followed by the criticism, and finally, another compliment to keep their spirits high and save the relationship! While it must be noted that most everyone likes to receive feedback differently, I believe there is a universal approach that can set you up for success. One that reduces anxiety for the feedback giver, lowers defensiveness in the receiver, and ultimately inspires change. I call this framework: The Five Pillars of Constructive Feedback.

1. Create the right mindset

Why is it so unpleasant when we have to give constructive feedback to others? All that anxiety we often experience has to do with our own ego and how we might be perceived. Will they think I am a nitpicking idiot? Will they think I am just a clueless leader who isn’t seeing the whole story? Or maybe, I’ll be seen as the a’hole manager who is a demanding tyrant! Remember that providing constructive feedback to another has nothing to do with you, and it’s not about “fixing” the other person. Constructive feedback is a service and you are engaging in a conversation to help the other person reach his or her potential. If your mindset is to “fix” everything, your voice will communicate judgement and trigger defensiveness. Yet, if your mindset is to “serve,” that will also show up throughout the conversation and create trust. Nothing opens persons (coachees) quicker to your feedback than when they sense you genuinely care about them. To help promote this mindset when delivering constructive feedback, remember without humility, expect futility.

2. Ask permission

“May I give you some feedback?” It’s a simple question, but how often do we jump straight to the assumption that the other person is both ready and willing to hear us out. After all, you are there to “serve” them and you care about their performance. Why wouldn’t they want to listen to what you have to say? Yet, maybe the other person is not in the right frame of mind. Perhaps they are having a really bad day and no matter what you say to them, they will see your feedback as an attack. If you ask the question upfront, you are giving them power and they must choose to give it back to you. In that seemingly insignificant exchange, you have already established a mutual respect that will make the feedback recipient more receptive to you.

3. Remember SBI

This is a tried and true process that works like magic when done right. SBI stands for Situation/Behavior/Impact, and I find it incredibly useful in helping me to remember what’s most important when giving feedback.

 

(S) ituation – This is when you anchor feedback in time, place, and circumstances and it helps the receiver understand the context of your feedback. For example, “remember yesterday afternoon in the staff call, about halfway through the meeting, Bill asked me for my thoughts on our financial outlook.”

(B) ehavior – This is when you are specific to the behavior or non-performance you would like to see changed (again, so the other person may meet their full potential). Think of it like replaying a movie for the other person. For example, “As I began to communicate the importance of adhering to the monthly budget, I noticed you rolled your eyes slightly and then began to check your phone.”

(I) mpact – This is the key to your success. If you just focus on their behavior, expect defensiveness to ensue. Yet, if you speak to the impact on you or the team, you are creating space for a more empathetic conversation. Most people care about whether or not they are disappointing others. If you speak to how the behavior made you feel, you move the other person out of their head and into their heart. For example “This embarrassed me, as I feel it made us look disjointed in front of the team. Others picked up on the tension and I felt as if I was scrambling to regain credibility with them.”

4. Get curious and create spaciousness

Now is the point in the conversation where you might transition from advocacy to inquiry and facilitation. You have delivered your feedback, now give them a voice! How did they view the situation? How might have you contributed to their reaction? Are their deeper concerns that need to be addressed? Know that this is a tender moment for many, and you can possibly expect some level of defensiveness to ensue. Give them space to be heard and acknowledge their point of view. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, only that you empathize with their feelings, while respecting their point of view. Note that a common diversionary technique is to broaden the conversation to where their performance is no longer the focal point. Your job as a leader is to keep the heat on them in a respectful and supportive manner.

5. Coach towards the desired performance

It is important when you work with a coachee to determine a clear path to success together. However, there is no need to give him or her all the answers. It is important they discover on their own how they can improve. You might ask, “how do you believe we could avoid this challenge in the future?” Then after hearing them out, you might offer, “If you have an opposing opinion in the future, I honestly want to hear it rather than have you feel like challenging me will offend me. My expectation is that we have a united front when engaging with the larger team in these meetings, and, if we have differences, we should hash them out in private beforehand. Is that an unreasonable expectation or can we both agree on this moving forward?”

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

I also invite you to follow this blog so I can share with you on a variety of topics. Thank You!

Google’s Surprising Insights on Team Effectiveness

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After two plus years of rigorous research leveraging over 200 interviews focused on 250 attributes of 180 active teams, Google’s People Operations (think HR department with analytics capabilities) determined there is one question that every leader should be asking themselves if they are seeking to create an effective team…

How’s our psychological safety coming along?

Huh? Yes, I had the same reaction when I first read this excellent NY Times article on the research. You mean to tell me that building an effective team is not about selecting the right mix of talented people who possess unique skillsets that complement one another? Or that forming effective teams is not mostly about creating “team chemistry,” and aligning personality traits to where team members gel together naturally. Nope. Apparently, it’s not so much about who is on the team, but more about how people interact with each other. While Google’s researchers found five key findings that set its best teams apart from others, psychological safety was clearly the most important…and the more you read about it, the more sense it makes.

So what is psychological safety and how can we know if it exists within our team? The short answer is that psychological safety is the underpinnings that lead to a trusting environment. Do you feel safe with your fellow team members? Are they willing to both challenge and support you in a positive manner? Do they have your best interests at heart? Will they listen empathetically to your ideas and in a non-judgmental way? Can you be vulnerable with one another? To include sharing each other’s mistakes and shortcomings? These are just a few questions that one can use to assess the level of psychological safety within their team.

This is related to what we know from recent brain-based research, in that we as human-beings have a need for status and relatedness. When we come together as a team, we are constantly assessing where we stand within the team’s “pecking order” and if we are a part of the “in” or “out” group. This causes us to be guarded in our interactions and limits-our willingness to take risks with one another. We simply don’t want others to negatively assess our “competence, awareness, or positivity.”1 Perhaps more importantly, “in the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response.”2 When our bodies become inundated with cortisol and testosterone, and are focused on how to either fight against or flee from fellow team members, we can assume that trust will be degraded.

So what can a leader do to create the conditions for greater psychological safety to exist on their team? Here are a few ideas to consider:

1. Communicate expectations – If you are leading a group and have formal authority as well, be clear and upfront with how you would like team members to interact with one another. For example, expressing “team, I want you to know that I truly value everyone’s opinion, and, as such, I expect that you will bring your ideas forward, no matter how crazy they may sound or how contradictory they may be. Furthermore, this is a safe space to do so and I will not tolerate personal attacks in our interactions. We want to challenge each other and foster healthy debate, but not at the expense of our relationships. Can we agree to this?” If you are attempting to influence a team without formal authority, you might make a similar offer and then work towards norms that will allow for peer accountability and enforcement.

2. Be the example – A leader is always on a stage and team members are constantly looking to the leader and determining “what right looks like” in how they will interact with one another. If you as a leader are not present, not fully listening, discounting others ideas, interrupting, or ignoring certain voices…others will undoubtedly do the same. So after you clearly set expectations, work hard to model those expectations and give team members license to call you out if you are not! Perhaps the most important area where a leader needs to lead by example is in expressing vulnerability. If you don’t offer your shortcomings and where you have made mistakes to the group first, don’t expect anyone to let down their defenses either.

3. Lead through facilitation – A team’s culture will not only be shaped by the leader’s behavior, but also by what behavior he or she allows from others. A wise leader will practice upholding shared values and facilitating productive conversation. When an unfair interruption has occurred, someone might say “wait a second Jim, let’s hear out what Jane was just saying and we’ll come back to you once she’s finished.” If a team member has been noticeably quiet, the leader may practice inclusiveness by saying “Pranov, we haven’t heard from you yet; please help us to understand your stance on the issue.” If the team is dealing with a failure and assigning blame to each other, the leader may offer, “we all had a role to play in this, including myself. I want us to stop focusing on who is to blame and start focusing on what we have learned and how we can solve the problem.” The foundation of good facilitation is curiosity. Always be asking yourself, what’s most important right now and what questions or statements will help move the team forward together?

Google’s latest research on teams helps to confirm what many of us already knew, without trust there can be no team. And while the term psychological safety may be new to us, we all intuitively get it — people need to feel safe with each other to trust one another. The real value in this work is in helping leaders to identify where they need to focus their efforts in creating the conditions for psychological safety to exist. Thus, I offer that you reflect upon your own team….How’s your psychological safety coming along?

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  1. Rosovsky, J. (2015, November 17). The five keys to a successful Google team. Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
  2. Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Retrieved from http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

*All Rights Reserved. Reproduction, publication, and all other use of any and all of this content is prohibited without authorized consent of the author.

Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

As a leadership development professional, I am always astonished by the number of questions I get on “how can I hold others more accountable for their performance?” This is consistently a hot topic for managers as they seek out the next best practice for driving better performance results. Unfortunately, managers typically don’t like what I have to offer them on this subject as my standard response is…

“I can help, but it will require you to first examine where you may have failed as a leader.”

To which their reply is something to the effect of…

“But that’s not what I’m looking for! I want to focus on where others are screwing up and how we can better hold their feet to the fire.”

Like it or not, the first rule of leadership is everything is your fault. While for many this may sound just a bit harsh, it’s not far from the truth. As a leader, you are responsible for all your team does or fails to do. This is because leaders not only set the purpose and direction for the team, they also manage the culture that dictates execution. Thus, when mistakes happen, regardless if you are the one personally making them, you absolutely had something to do with it! Accountability is then fully owning your responsibilities and consistently communicating this ownership to others. Leaders demonstrate their accountability by assessing performance challenges as opportunities for growth and learning rather than failures to be explained, excused or avoided. In short, when mistakes happen, the leader looks inward vs. blaming outward.

Herein lies the greatest challenge most managers face when seeking greater accountability within their team or organization—can you set your ego aside, be vulnerable with your team members, and work towards tangible solutions rather than playing the blame game? This can be a challenging leadership behavior for anyone to exhibit and is infinitely more difficult when experiencing the stresses of a failure (or potential failure). The key to developing this leadership behavior is threefold: 1) The leader should learn to identify his or her own reactivity and defense mechanisms, 2) The leader should understand how accountable leaders choose to behave, 3) The leader should practice the accountable leadership behavior until it becomes his or her new instinctual response.

Let’s take a closer look at these three components of development and how one can leverage them to increase personal accountability.

1. Recognizing Reactivity and Defense Mechanisms

Think of the last time you failed at something in which others were depending on you. Perhaps it was a job related performance goal you failed to deliver on. Or maybe it was a failure on the home front in which you missed a spouse’s expectation entirely. Whatever the situation, try to take yourself back to that challenging incident. Now search inside for that moment of apprehension when you realized there was no way to save the day; you were simply going to fail. You likely felt embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and/or insecure. On a physical level your muscles probably tightened, your heartbeat and respiratory rate increased, and you may have even started to perspire. Mentally, it’s likely your mind started racing, alternating between beating yourself up for the mistake and searching for ways to avoid the inevitable consequences. Welcome to survival mode! What you were experiencing is the body’s fight-or-flight stress response and most people will do just about anything to avoid this discomfort, often through offering excuses or blaming others. This shows up in organizations in what many have come to label as “The Organizational Blame Game.”

Leaders must recognize that this instinctual response to avoid accountability lives in their DNA; one can’t avoid it! Rather than attempting to circumvent this natural hard-wiring, it is best to bring awareness to it. Leaders see their reactivity, own it, and then prevent it from hijacking their thinking any further. In that moment of pause, leaders then choose to react differently.

2. The Inspirational Leader’s Response

Exercising personal accountability for mistakes is going against one’s self-preservation instincts, which takes both courage and humility. This is very difficult for many to do, which is why accountability is uncommon. So when it does happen, we really take notice and it leaves a lasting impact on us. We may not be happy with a mistake that’s been made, yet we recognize accountable behavior as honorable and, thus, respect the leader’s exemplary character. This is counter-intuitive, so I offer that you pause for a moment to really let this sink in.

The practice of demonstrating personal accountability rather than playing the blame game is even more powerful when the leader assumes responsibility for what are clearly other team member’s personal failures. Your subordinates have the same reaction to failure that you do. They feel embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and insecure. When you take some of that burden off their shoulders, you lighten their emotional load and free them to work with you towards solutions rather than focusing on problems. This can be very inspirational and produces deep loyalty to the leader.

3. Making Accountability Instinctual

Adopting any new behavior is a challenging undertaking, so start with a single day. Try to go an entire day without offering a single excuse for anything or blaming anyone for your challenges. To be successful, you have to really pay attention to your inner dialogue. Note when things are not going how you would like them to go and how your mind is rationalizing the outcomes. Pay attention to any feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, worry, discouragement, and insecurity. This is when you are most susceptible to offer excuses and/or blame others. When you notice your instincts beginning to kick-in, override them with a single question..

“How have I personally contributed to this situation?”

Pause and reflect. Realize your contribution and own it. When you can complete a full day without offering excuses or blaming others, up the ante to an entire week. If successful, try to go an entire month. If you can go a full month excuse and blame free, you will have implemented a new habit of seeking accountability first. This will serve you well when you next face real adversity.

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

I also invite you to follow my blog so I can share with you on a variety of topics. Thank You!

The Key to Your Future Leadership

Hand the Keys

“Do you know anything about starting a vehicle?” An older women’s voice called out from across the post office parking lot. “Uhhhhmmm yes, a little” I replied, not wanting to admit that I am not the most mechanically gifted individual.

As I walked over to the women’s vehicle to help, I witnessed a parade of older gentlemen standing around with puzzled looks on their faces. “What seems to be the problem?” I asked….”Is it turning over?” “It just won’t start” said a man sitting in the driver’s seat. We’ve tried everything!” “It’s a rental” cried another man, followed by “it’s these keys…they don’t work!”

He then handed me his set of “car keys” that were admittedly unlike most car keys I am familiar with. They were the newer kind, no metal key to be found, just a plastic mechanism that is inserted where a traditional key might fit.  I placed the key fob into it’s not so obvious receptor and turned the ignition. Walla! The engine came roaring to life to the amazement of the senior crowd huddled around me. “Thank you!” cried the woman. “You have no idea how long we have been stranded here!” Feeling somewhat like a hero, I responded with “No problem at all; have a wonderful day” and then walked back to my vehicle.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, it dawned on me. Oh No! That’s going to be me one day! There will come a time when the world around me has changed to such an extent, that I no longer will be able to identify what I don’t know. Sure, I have my current blind spots, yet I do a decent enough job of actively seeking them out and recognizing where I am consciously incompetent. This is different though. Like the elderly people who couldn’t see the car “key” in their hands (no matter how they tried), there will come a day where I will have done things a certain way for so long, that my realm of possibilities will be limited. This will hamper my problem solving abilities, and thus, likely inhibit my ability to lead a team, much less an organization.

This same dynamic is unfolding everyday throughout businesses globally. The speed of change is so rapid that product/service relevance is often fleeting and any chance of sustained market domination is mostly a pipe dream. In fact, “Comparing the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 to the Fortune 500 in 2014, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists. In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 59 years later in 2014, and almost 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged, or still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).”¹ Why has there been such turnover? While there are many factors that led to each of these company’s demise, I believe there is likely one overarching theme among them all…insufficient innovation stemming from poor succession planning and training.

Innovation is often a young man’s game — the result of abundant energy, a fresh set of eyes, and driving ambition. Thus, if organizations desire greater innovation, it makes sense they would purposefully empower the next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, many organizational bureaucracies make it hard for bright young minds to wield any real power. While it is the Millennial who is likely more in touch with the current technology and latest trends, it is still the Boomer or Gen X’er who is making the strategic decisions. Moreover, it’s my experience that companies invest very little (comparatively) in the next generation of leaders versus focusing on the development of the current crop of executives. Many HR Departments balk at the idea of training an entire front line management team in leadership fundamentals, and instead see greater value in focusing those resources on services like senior executive coaching. As a result, it’s the ambitious Millennial manager (now averaging 4 or more direct reports²) who finds herself struggling to lead effectively. With upwards of 75% of the workforce projected to be Millennials by 2030, here are a few ways you can prepare your organization now for the inevitable transition of leadership ahead.

1. Train Managers to be Leaders Early in their Career – Most companies consider leadership fundamentals to either be “a given” or something to be learned on the job over time. Yet, I’ve been privy to work with some outstanding companies that saw the value in training their frontline managers with robust leadership development programs and have witnessed the results of doing so firsthand. It’s about identity. Formal title or position may give someone authority to manage, but learning to lead is a different set of skills. A well designed program (that’s aligned with the organization’s culture) gives the new manager license to try out new behaviors that inspire. Then, by the time they are in a middle management role, they are well practiced at creating an engaged team and they can focus on more complex skill-sets like cross-functional networking and influencing without authority.

2. Coach to the Middle – Why wait until someone is an “executive” to enroll them in executive coaching? I understand there are often budget constraints and most companies don’t have the resources to provide everyone with coaching, yet my experience is that even middle managers identified as “high potentials” are rarely given the opportunity to work with an executive coach. This is puzzling because one-to-one leadership coaching is the single greatest way to increase a person’s leadership capacity. In addition, a 2011 “global survey of coaching clients by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource Center concluded that the mean ROI for companies investing in coaching was 7 times the initial investment, with over a quarter reporting an ROI of 10 to 49 times.”³ Setting aside coaching dollars for the next generation of executives just makes sense (plus there are plenty of talented executive coaches willing to work for less than “executive” fees)

3. Create a Culture of Coaching – Speaking of coaching…External executive coaches can do wonderful things for your organization, but training your management team to be great internal coaches is even better. When senior leaders have deep industry experience, an existing positive relationship, and sound coaching skills — young leaders flourish in their development. Yet, many Boomers and Gen X’rs grew up at a time when the skills of professional coaching were still being identified and developed. They may understand giving feedback, performance counseling and mentorship. Yet, the competencies of deep listening vs. offering advice, asking powerful questions that encourage new perspectives, and promoting action and accountability are often foreign to them. All is not lost though. With just a few training workshops and some practice, most senior leaders pick up on these skill-sets quickly.

Three Keys to Building Leader Resiliency

Juggeling

Resiliency is a hot topic these days. Leaders are “juggling more balls in the air” than ever before and many can’t ever seem to catch up with the pace of life. The impact is that balls end up getting dropped, which leads to increased stress and, ultimately, to leader burn-out. Many think that they can avoid this modern reality by simply learning to manage their time more effectively. While I agree that most everyone can learn to manage their time better, to properly address these challenges requires a more holistic approach. We must also look at how leaders are managing their stress and energy levels.

Time, stress and energy are undoubtedly interconnected and, thus, leaders should learn to excel in all three of these domains in order to maximize their personal effectiveness and resiliency against burn-out. Think about your own experiences. Some days you might be dragging a bit and not able to get your entire to-do list accomplished. Despite your well-managed intentions, it just didn’t happen today. This in turn might lead you to start thinking about all the things you need to catch up with and as your mind starts racing, your stress levels rise. Later that evening, you lie awake at night trying to figure out what to do next, losing valuable sleep and waking the next day with even less energy than the day before. Sound familiar?

So what are some of the things we can do to reduce this self-perpetuating cycle? While there are many techniques that can help, I would like to highlight what I believe to be the single best thing you can do as a leader to increase your effectiveness in each of these domains.

1. Manage your time by practicing “worst first.”

Everyone has something they dread doing throughout the day. Maybe it’s that sales call or perhaps it’s knocking out that admin task that seems like such a waste of time. Whatever it is for you, you always save it for the end of the day. By then you’re exhausted, so you put it off until tomorrow. Get into the habit of doing it first thing in the morning before you take on any other task for the day. Not only will you manage your time better, but you’ll feel less stressed and more energized as you no longer have that monkey hanging on your back.

2. Manage your stress by finding a physical outlet.

Nothing busts through stress like physical activity. Why is that? Because stress lives within our bodies and it has to go somewhere. Yes, it is true that we are responsible for generating our own stress as it stems from our own thoughts (as opposed to the common perception that others are stressing us out). Yet, short of becoming a Zen master and learning to insert mindful behavior to reduce the body’s natural stress response, I have found nothing more effective for limiting stress levels than 30 minutes to an hour of vigorous exercise daily (CrossFit is my favorite approach). Leaders hold their boundaries firmly when it comes to making time to exercise. This means they schedule time on their calendar and protect it accordingly.

3. Manage your energy by maximizing your time off.

Think of your personal energy level as being like a car’s fuel tank; you can only go so long before you need to stop and refuel. Yet, not all fuel is created equal; there are various levels of octane to choose from. If you own a high-performing vehicle, choosing the low grade gas may have significant long term impact on your fuel injectors. Eventually, the car will run sluggishly. You also are a high-performing machine. When it’s time to refuel, put the right stuff in your system. Tempting as it may be, don’t just sit on the couch and catch up on your favorite TV shows. Instead, do the things that bring you the most energy. Maybe you love to travel, or spend time outdoors, or really invest in quality time with your family. Plan your downtime accordingly and you will increase your energy reserves.

Committing to mastering these three skills can greatly increase your personal effectiveness and resiliency as a leader. The key word is commitment. While we all might recognize the benefits of these skills/behaviors, only a handful of us will find the personal discipline to make it our reality. Yet, all new behaviors start with a personal choice. So as we close out the year, what new choices will you make in 2016?

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

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