Tag : Leadership

10 truths about skeptical employees

I was cleaning my office (!) and found a speech from 18 years ago given by Rod Oldham, of then Bell South, to students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.  In an age of disruption, some “truths” stay constant.

  1. We’re smarter than senior managers think we are.
  2. We think senior managers are smarter than they are.
  3. We hate it when you make us feel stupid.
  4. We have short attention spans.
  5. We have long memories.
  6. We’re desperate for direction.
  7. We want to be able to think on our own.
  8. We want the company to succeed.
  9. We don’t want to leave.
  10. We want to believe.

Staying away from drama

Last month I  was in a board meeting that went off the rails.

The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations,  approval hold-ups by the legal department,  problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”

People left frustrated, exhausted and angry.  Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.

And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence.   In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.

Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting  focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?

Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful.  Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama.  Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively

When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says  John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”

I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways.   Because  our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to  intellectually consider and discuss  alternatives.  There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.

Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.

Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.

I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems.  Want to join me?

Jackson Pollock painting or chessboard?

Most institutions — be they governments, corporations, education or health care systems — try to run things as if they were playing chess, each move orderly, sequenced.

But today’s word is complex, more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard.

So Independent Diplomat Carne Ross suggested at last week’s BIF8 innovation conference.

In a complex system it’s almost impossible for top-down leaders to create order, hard as they may try. Order emerges in complex systems from the bottom up, said Carne.

This metaphor is quite powerful to me. Are we leaders fostering participatory environments for people to create the change needed to succeed in an increasingly complex world?  Or are we playing chess, with top down hierarchies moving the pieces?  (And with the  implicit assumption that executives know best?)  Are we saying we want creativity but requiring employees to paint by numbers?

Change is a-comin. Are we brave enough to let go of status and certainty and create new participatory ways to work, to innovate, to prosper?

Strategy discussions: what’s the real issue?

An executive in a recent workshop kept hijacking the conversation by saying, “We just don’t have the resources to do that.” Over and over. Which kept stalling the strategy session.

Here’s how I got the group unstuck. It might be helpful to you when someone uses the common “Yes, but we don’t have the money/people/time” refrain about new approaches or ideas.

“You all are stretched to the limit,” I said. “And let’s remember that we find resources for priorities that are important to us. Things that aren’t so important don’t get funded. Maybe the real conversation here is that this program just isn’t that important to the company right now. Maybe you should together decide it’s not important, and stop frustrating yourselves by bringing it up at every strategy session.”

Radio silence. (And one executive quietly laughing in acknowledgement.)

The group decided that the issue is important and they figured out a way to get a basic approach working within the next few weeks.  It’s not the Cadillac or Four Seasons version, but it begins to provide value and address a real need in the company.

When someone throws objections, get  to the real issue and get out of the endlessly frustrating and unproductive ” why not” objections.

 

CEO Nancy Schlichting: find the disruptive people

“Find the disruptive people in your organization. They have the ideas that will drive change,” said Nancy Schlichting, CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, a $4 billion healthcare organization with 23,000 employees.

Speaking at the BIF8 innovation conference last week in Providence, RI, Nancy shared what has helped her transform an ailing health care system and create innovations in health care such as a new  $360 million health and wellness facility that feels more like a luxury hotel than a hospital.

Transforming healthcare is all about leadership, she said. Her leadership approach focuses on creating an “incredible” environment for every person to reach their full potential.  How she has created such an  environment:

  • Making a large organization feel small.  When the board approached her about being CEO of the health care system she was reluctant to take it because she likes being involved with people and creating working environments that are positive, personal and open-minded. The board assured her that being CEO of a health care would not preclude how she like to lead.
  • Saying yes to unusual ideas, like an employee who wanted to be able to creating fun drawings  on the disposable gowns worn by the kidney dialysis staff. “This woman creates this amazing designs on her own time on the weekends. On Monday mornings the staff can’t wait to see what she has that week for them.”
  • Helping people who are disruptors. These, she says, are the people with the ideas that can help you change and transform. One example she shared: a surgeon who wanted to put health kiosks in churches in the Detroit community.  Doing so has been a hugely successful way to help people learn about health and wellness.
  • Hiring people in with non-traditional backgrounds to help you see things in new and different ways. “This is essential,” Nancy stressed. One example: she hired Gerard van Grinsven, a long time Ritz Carlton executive to be CEO of the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, even though Bernard had no health care experience. His “otherness” has been a significant reason the new hospital has been so successful in its ambitious goals. (Here’s a link to a video of Gerard sharing his story about going from high-end hotels to opening a hospital.
  • Bringing together different thinkers. Creative ideas happen at the intersections, said Nancy. Bringing different thinkers together across silos creates better ideas faster.

Hearing her talk I was reminding of the wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught, “God Says Yes To Me.”  Imagine if CEOs said yes, yes, yes to more of their employees, especially the disruptive corporate rebels?

Not only would organizations be able to innovate and change more quickly, a wonderful sense of joy would permeate the workplace — even in high-stress environments in struggling urban areas, like the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

 

The appearance of diversity vs. the impact of diversity

Carmen Medina and I are on a mission to help rebels in the workforce be more successful. We believe these outsider thinkers inside big organizations have the answers leaders need to adapt, grow, thrive, even survive. As part of our journey into helping rebels we’ve been asking ourselves all kinds of questions to understand why leaders don’t listen more to rebels. Yesterday Carmen posted about her recent epiphany on Rebels at Work. Here’s her “aha” about diversity initiatives and rebels.

___________________________________________________

As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: “Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?” And I always gave the same answer: “Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else.”

I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I’ve been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It’s actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic “DUH” moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn’t that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.

 

Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization’s leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce–women, minorities–many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet you often hear leaders say: “It’s a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn’t quite know how to fit in.” or You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate.”

And that’s how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity.

The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.

Making things

If we made more things would we be happier?

In my research this summer professional people talked of how miserable they are at work,  working harder than ever but not seeming to get anywhere.  With no markers to show progress or few ways to show “completed” projects they feel demoralized, tired and uninspired at the very time we need more creative ways forward.

Is this why more people are painting, making videos, self-publishing, designing jewelry, refinishing old furniture, restoring cars, rebuilding playgrounds, staging community theater, using Pinterest, gardening, taking on home improvement projects themselves?  The feeling of starting something and then having something to show for our work can be so fulfilling.

I found myself recently ogling sewing machines, longing for my teenage days when I would save up money to buy a great Vogue pattern, beautiful fabric and special funky buttons, and then sew, sew, sew, creating something uniquely mine.  When I put on that new dress it was a sense of accomplishment, creativity.

I felt the same way when  I started writing articles for the local newspaper when I was a teenager.  I loved the making of an article — the research, the interviews, the writing, the editing — and then seeing the final finished product in my hands.

Psychology research has found that using our hands to make things decreases stress and relieves anxiety. It has also found that “purposeful creative or practical endeavors” leads to joyful, creative thought.

“When you make something you feel productive, but the engagement and exploration involved in the doing can move your mind and elevate your mood,” explains Dr. Carrie Barron in a Psychology Today article, “Creativity, Happiness and Your Own Two Hands.”

I suppose more of us could make things in our free time, something I’m going to try to do.

As for work, I feel that we have to work harder at giving people a sense of accomplishment.  Does anyone really have an inkling of  “joyful” accomplishment during annual performance reviews, the time when we’re supposed to be able to review accomplishment and plan what’s next? Nope.

Nor do most have any way of feeling like they’re making progress.  Knowledge workers especially face unending  tasks towards elusive fuzzy goals.  We have  big visuals to show how much has been raised to reach the United Way goal, but no way to see how our team or organization is progressing.

Setting the right goals and ways to measure progress is difficult.  This is why so few exist. It takes smart, committed leaders to set those and keep people focused on them.   The focus part is most important. Too often our organizational plans  are  long, long lists of unending priorities.  Employees feel like rats on a treadmill, going faster and faster and not making progress.

  • What if we could make more work a series of doable projects where people could create a finished project in less than three months or less?
  • What if we restored a “making things” mentality to work, rather than a “meeting about things”?
  • What if more people were makers vs. implementers?
  • What if more people had a sense of joyful accomplishment at work?

Let’s try.  I think it might be easier than sewing.

 

 

Without an irritant there can be no pearl

Thanks to Michael H. Samuelson, author and founding CEO of The Health & Wellness Institute, for allowing us to share his 5th observation from his eBook, ” Wellness in the Workplace 2.0: 10 Key Observations from 35 Years in the Field.” His current title is one we love, “Chief Irritant.”

Let’s be honest. It’s much easier—and certainly safer—to sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action than it is to do something. That is, of course, unless you have passion, commitment, laser determination and God on your side.

Well, actually, skip that last one. She’ is on everyone’s side. At least that’s the pitch that supports the military-industrial complex (we should have listened to Ike) and looks nice on all of the banners.

Let’s just stick with passion, commitment and laser determination. When these three driving forces are present you can’t sit still, you can’t wait for someone else, and you can’t shut up. You stir and spit, shout and stomp your feet. You seize the torch that has been passed to you and your generation. You are Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. You take the crown out of the Pope’s hands and you crown yourself. Time is fleeting, daylight is burning, there are causes to advance and worlds to conquer!
“Emperor” too much? Okay. How about CI? Chief Irritant. You are the sand that produces the nacre that builds the pearl. So, let someone else sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action…just below the surface there are pearls in-waiting and you are the irritant that makes it all happen.

Let the spitting begin! Caution:

Sophocles was right, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” As I have stated before, there are times when the boon, the prize, the newly found wisdom you bring to “fix things” is rejected. No matter the treasure, it is still disruptive in a world that knows not, or little, of its existence or value. What you may view as “The Answer” may well be viewed by others — particularly those in control — as the newest problem (read: YOU) to be dealt with, swiftly.

It’s no fun being spat upon. Trust me, on this one. I’ve been there. I’ve stimulated copious amount of spray, toweled off, and lived to irritate again. Being a CI is not always an easy ride but I like to modestly think—modestly—that along with picking up a few dents in my armor, I’ve also triggered the formation of a few pearls here and there…

10 Ways to Succeed as a Chief Irritant…Without Really Trying

1.    Fasten Your Armor (you’re going to need it)

2.    Pursue Your Need for Popularity Elsewhere

3.    If You’re Not the Boss, Find a Champion in the “C” Suite

4.    Practice “No-Oblique-Speak”

5.    Compromise on Tactics…Not Ethics or Integrity

6.    Irritate Without Judgment or Arrogance

7.    Beware the Ides of March (et tu ______ )

8.    Have a “No Jerks Allowed” Rule…Embrace the Spirituality of Imperfection

9.    If you think everyone around you is a jerk…Look in the Mirror

10. Repeat after me, “Spit is Good”

5 questions about rebel thinkers

Eric Pennington recently interviewed me for his Epic Living blog. Here’s the conversation. Click here to see the original.

Why do rebel thinkers so often feel miserable inside of their organizations?

Three overwhelming reasons. Restlessness, loneliness, and self-doubt.

We’re a restless bunch, always seeing new ways to do things better, easier, faster, better. Yes, I say better twice because we’re wired to keep raising the bar on excellence. Needless to say our ideas and relentless energy often exhaust or threaten our colleagues and bosses. So people often keep us at arm’s length, even those who appreciate the value we bring. This can feel lonely and lead to self-doubt, “Why aren’t they moving now on  this idea? Am I off base? Am I not communicating the value well enough? Is it me or is it the idea? Why can’t I just slow down and take it more slowly like everyone else? Do I belong in this organization?”

What value do most rebel thinkers bring to the table?

 Rebels have the courage to name the elephants in the room, see new ways to solve problems, bring outside ideas into the organization, and be the first to try new approaches.  My research has found that rebels call out problems others are afraid to (92%) and challenge assumptions and sacred cow practices (92%), both of which are essential to real innovation, but often shunned in organizations.

The other overlooked value rebels bring is devotion to duty. Rebels care more about their organizations than most people. That’s why we ask the difficult questions that most people feel more comfortable avoiding, and risk being snubbed for suggesting unpopular ideas.  We want our organizations to be the very best and we believe that our colleagues and we have what it takes to achieve more than our competitors.

(see the following chart for more)

GoodvsBadRebels
Why are many managers afraid/intimidated by rebel thinkers?

We tend to trigger three threats that are wired into every person’s pre-frontal cortex, including those of our bosses.  Our ideas often threaten managers’ sense of status, certainty and autonomy.

An overwhelming number of managers believe that they are supposed to create the strategy and have the answers — and employees are meant to execute on those ideas. Not question them. I’m the boss. I’ve got the senior vice president title. Hence, I know more and you should respect me for it.  It sounds silly in this day and age of empowerment and collaboration, but protecting our status can lead all of us to act in illogical ways.

We humans are also wired to crave certainty. So when we rebels present innovative ideas that have no best practice precedents or haven’t been Six Sigma’d we trigger fears about certainty. Managers worry, “How will we know this will work? What if we make a mistake?” You get the picture.

The last threat is autonomy. Our managers like doing things their way. To suggest something different is to violate their sense of control and autonomy over what they know and like.

What are the consequences of not engaging with the rebel thinker?

Missed opportunities, a complacent corporate culture, and a talent deficit.

Rebel thinkers see risks and opportunities earlier than most people. This is a tremendously valuable competence in age of such rapid change and smaller windows to seize and capitalize on opportunities. One way to look at rebels is as your “intrapreneurs” bringing entrepreneurial thinking, speed, and competitive instincts inside the organization. They spot ideas and see ways to make them real.

The other consequences are that shutting out rebel thinking sends a signal to the organization that creativity, diversity of thinking and change are not welcome. When that happens, your best talent usually leaves, and the culture becomes complacent. Not rocking the boat. Accepting good enough as good enough.  In today’s hyper competitive world, few organizations can survive with a “good enough” approach.

What is most surprising about corporate rebels?

Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives, nor are they “troublemakers.” They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference to their organization and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. My research found that just 27% want formal recognition. What they do want is to be asked their opinions more often and be invited to work on teams to solve specific issues. They don’t want to just talk about ideas, opportunities and problems, the want to make things happen.

The second surprising thing is how many closeted rebel thinkers there are in companies. People are yearning to do more – and they know more about what to do than most executive teams realize.