Think about how much information is thrown at you every day. Most of it is useless, but some of it can be great learning pieces. Now think about whether you actually apply the things you learn. And therein lies the problem.
The issue isn’t that people aren’t learning. It’s almost impossible to not learn in this age of instant information. However, people aren’t putting action behind the knowledge they acquire.
You may read the posts on this blog and think they are great, but if you’re not actively using it to better yourself as an employee, develop as a leader, or change your organization as a whole, you’re wasting your time.
Once information is applied, then you have transformation. Without application, you’re just a useless machine that can spew out random facts. In SGR’s Executive Book Briefings, the bridge between obtaining information and applying it is referred to as the “Knowing-Doing Gap”.
Maybe the hesitation is that it can be overwhelming to start applying new information. You want to change the world—or your organization—but don’t know where and how to begin. These pointers may help:
- Start with yourself. Don’t expect anything to change if you’re still thinking or doing things the same way. Let the change start with yourself. As Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” You’ll be surprised at the trickle effect this will have on the rest of your organization.
- Implement one game-changing plan at a time. When you have so many new ideas to enact, it can become very overwhelming. Prioritize your game plan and start tackling the most important objectives. Once you’re through with one, move on to the next one until you’ve accomplished all of your goals.
- Review if your changes are working. The work isn’t over once you have applied what you learned. You must analyze whether those changes are effective. If the changes work, great! (But you still need to keep reviewing periodically to ensure those changes don’t become outdated.) If not, then tweak your idea until you reap the desired results.
Depending on the scope of the change you’re trying to make, you may have to implement a plan and then review it before moving on to the next step. Either way, take baby steps and don’t get discouraged because transformation means you’re on the road to innovation.
How do you initiate changes in your organization?
“We need strategic leaders!” is a pretty constant refrain at every organization. We may understand what strategic leaders are supposed to do, but the key question is: How can I do these things better?
Suppose that three things on your list of behaviors strategic leaders do are: anticipate the future, think critically, and make good decisions. How would you improve your ability to do those things well? You have to break those behaviors down to precise steps which you can take.
Anticipate the Future
To be better at anticipating the future, try this:
- Study the periphery of your industry. Innovative ideas usually come from the outside, not the core.
- Search beyond the current boundaries of your business. This is a key to innovative thinking. There are many things from other sectors that will not work, as is in your sector. However, sometimes with just a subtle change, a new idea emerges that will work well for you.
- Build wide external networks to help you scan the horizon better. Don’t get so involved in your own private world that you don’t network widely with other people. Having positive relationships with others brings fresh perspectives to us.
Critical thinkers don’t have to be negative—they are differentiated from the prevailing circumstances, and that allows them to question presuppositions. A mentor once told me, “There will always be a long list of people who are willing to do your thinking for you, if you let them.” Never do that. Think for yourself. Practice these behaviors:
- Reframe problems to get to the bottom of things. Ask yourself, “What is the root cause?”
- Challenge current beliefs and mindsets, including your own.
- Ask yourself, “How would __________ approach this?” Fill in the blank with different people, including some with whom you don’t always agree.
Make Good Decisions
We’ve all heard of “analysis paralysis”. While it’s important to think carefully, at some point, you have to make a decision and take action. As a leader, you have to develop processes and enforce them so that your team can arrive at a “good enough” position. To do that well, you have to:
- Make sure you are really looking at the heart of the matter.
- Balance the need for speed and accuracy. It’s an art, not a science, and you’ll never be perfect. Strive for balance.
- Learn the skill of being able to consider all of the stakeholders and diverse views, but take a stand even with incomplete and/or contradictory information.
Becoming a better strategic leader takes practice and discipline. Make it a habit to work through these questions regularly and you will find your ability to function as a strategic leader begins to grow.
I didn’t see it, and quite frankly, I don’t want to. Apparently, Miley Cyrus managed to ignite a Twitter frenzy with over 300,000 tweets per minute related to her “performance” at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Praised by some and mocked by others, if attention was her goal, she exceeded even her own expectations.
I do not dislike Ms. Cyrus. She is quite talented, and I’m sure has many admirable qualities. The reason I have no desire to view her stage antics, however, is because such behavior doesn’t meet my personal standard of excellence. I have no wish to watch a young woman degrade herself personally while communicating to impressionable younger women that such behaviors are admirable and imitable.
In essence, our standards of excellence are not the same. In the context of television viewing choice, that’s really no big deal. That’s why there are “off” and multiple “channel” buttons on remote controls. But what if she and I worked for the same organization? Is it appropriate for our workplace standards to be miles apart? Obviously, the answer is a resounding, “No!” So, how can organizations effectively use standards to maintain corporate integrity?
- Develop standards that align vision, mission, and core values. If standards are arbitrary and are not aligned with your organization’s reason for existing, it will be hard for employees to see how those standards are relevant to job performance. “That’s the way we do things around here,” doesn’t have to be used as a threat. Instead, such statements can be offered with an encouraging tone to reinforce your vision, mission, and core values.
- Communicate standards consistently. You should utilize as many outlets as possible to communicate employee standards and expectations. Reminding employees of your code of ethics or core values on an annual basis is admirable, but the adage “out of sight out of mind” rings true.
- Begin with the end in mind. The time to begin discussing standards begins before an individual is hired to join your team. You should discuss standards during needs assessment and creation of job descriptions so that you can relate clear expectations related to organizational excellence during the interview phase. By the way, that process reminds existing employees of why you do what you do.
- Live them. If leaders compromise standards, how can we expect employees not to? If one of your standards is integrity, then choose integrity even if others do not. If excellence is a standard, then refuse to deliver sub-par work. If honesty is a standard, then choose to always tell the truth.
Incorporating standards is not easy in a culture where absolute truth is a moving target. However, standards do not have to be moving targets within the context of your organization. With them, you have the opportunity to create clear expectations. Without them, you might ignite the next Twitter frenzy. And that’s not always a good thing.
This post was prompted by this article from Slate.com about Microsoft: The Poisonous Employee-Ranking System That Helps Explain Microsoft’s Decline by Will Oremus. Oremus quotes from a Vanity Fair article by Kurt Eichenwald. Here’s the key excerpt:
At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor….
For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door….
“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.” Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate.
It seems that there are a lot of ideas through the years that look like they are good for companies and organizations, and good for society overall. But over time, we see the consequences of decisions made, and it is not always all that wonderful. You know… “unintended consequences”.
Though I disagree with parts of the policy approach, I have always liked the phrase: “No child left behind.” The idea is that every human being has worth, every human being has dignity, and every human being has something to contribute to our community and society.
If we are always asking “how can we cut the ‘bad folks,” then we don’t think often enough about “how can we lift the ‘bad folks’ out of the ‘bad’ level?” And a society that is increasingly surrounded by those who have been cast aside — yet again — is a society that in the big picture is headed downhill.
Maybe we need a new initiative: no employee left behind.
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis
This weekend, I was helping my daughter get moved into her apartment at Texas Tech, and we had to go to the store to get some paint—teal paint to be exact. (Only Pinterest could incite someone to want to decorate their apartment in teal.) You’ve probably seen the machine at a paint store that drips a few drops of concentrated pigment that turns a base paint into the exact color wanted. Of course, it’s computerized so that the machine drops the exact amount based on a perfect formula to create a consistent product every time. It’s a rather impressive machine. I think the person (probably a team) that invented it deserves every penny they’ve earned from it.
In some ways, it’s a picture of what good leadership brings to a situation. For example, leadership is catalytic. Just like the pigments change the product and make it into something that it would never be without it, leadership changes situations. If your leadership and your presence isn’t changing the way things are done and raising the performance of others, then you aren’t leading; you are just managing.
However, as I watched it work, I found myself thinking, “That’s not really how leadership works because no two situations are exactly the same.” There’s no perfect formula for leadership. What works in one setting, with one person, with one city, with one department won’t necessarily work the same way when conditions are different. And conditions are never quite the same. Perhaps that’s why no NFL coach has been able to win a Super Bowl with two different teams.
When it comes to mixing paint, formulas ensure quality. When it comes to leading people, formulas alone won’t ensure success. Leadership formulas can certainly be helpful patterns. They give us templates to “size up” a situation. But, to be a successful leader in each unique situation requires the flexibility and the ability to improvise. That’s why one of my favorite authors, Max DePree, entitled one of his books Leadership Jazz. Great leaders improvise like great jazz players “jam” with other musicians. Sure there’s a musical score, but that simply provides the foundation for creating something that is completely unique in that particular moment.
Paint stores offer a promise based upon a formula. They promise that if the right formula is used then the color of your paint will be the same time after time after time. Leadership can’t make that promise. However, leadership makes a better promise.
Good leadership promises that the leader will be attentive enough, flexible enough, and persistent enough to take the unique dynamics of every setting—and make it something better than it was without good leadership.
You practiced that major presentation all week. You memorized your speech front and back. So you walk into the room, face the crowd, and take a deep breath. Why is nothing coming out? And why are the words that are coming out not sounding the way you rehearsed?
Surprisingly, you may be bombing the presentation because you’re overthinking it, and there’s research to prove it!
According to a study done by University of California Santa Barbara, overthinking can be detrimental to human performance. Without getting too technical, here was the result of the study:
Participants were shown a series of kaleidoscopic images for about a minute, then had a one-minute break before being given memory tests containing two different kaleidoscopic images. They were then asked to distinguish images they had seen previously from the new ones.
“After they gave us that answer, we asked whether they remembered a lot of rich details, whether they had a vague impression, or whether they were blindly guessing,” explains Lee. “And the participants only did better when they said they were guessing.”
So basically, when people thought less, they remembered more.
This doesn’t mean you should go through life “winging it”. If anything, it’s a reminder that as long as you practice and make the proper preparations, you should be able to perform just as planned—even for crises and other emergencies that may come your organization’s way.
Simply take a deep breath, calm your nerves, and trust yourself!
If you’re a trainer, you recognize them—employees who attend training sessions, but do not want to be there. They shuffle in, toss their training materials on the table, lay back in their chairs, cross their arms, and silently communicate with an expressionless glare, “I dare you to teach me something.”
What can we as trainers do to mitigate these types of behaviors and attitudes without further alienating an already disengaged participant?
- Clear Expectations – One of the first steps you can take is to clarify expectations with the training coordinator well in advance of the training event. When he or she communicates the training event, he or she can do so positively, using terms like “opportunity” and “development” versus terms like “mandatory” and “remedial”. The training coordinator can also spell out why the training is important and contribute to a culture of development versus a “we have to get through this stupid stuff because that’s the way it is” culture.
- Be Prepared – When you show up unprepared, you communicate to participants, “You are not very important to me.” In essence, lack of preparation contributes to further disengaging already disengaged participants. Being prepared allows you to confidently facilitate the topic while keeping learners engaged. Preparation is not just limited to topic. You should arrive early and make sure all support devices and materials are good to go.
- Build Rapport – Walk around the room and greet participants as they settle in. Name tents are a plus, but if none are provided, then carry a small notepad around with you. Diagram the room and write down first names as you meet people so you can call them by name throughout the training event. Obviously, this isn’t possible if your crowd size exceeds thirty or so, but even in a lecture format, you can still meet a sampling of people and reference them by name throughout the training event.
- Maintain Rapport – Do not stay at the front of the room the entire time. If you facilitate small group exercises, walk around. Ask questions. Clarify directions. Affirm participants’ work. If a group refuses to engage, sit down with that group and facilitate that particular exercise.
- Do Not Take it Personally – Finally, if a participant just refuses to budge, do not let his or her lack of engagement ruffle your feathers. During every training session, I invite participants to take an ethical approach to the training event. I say something like, “Remember, you are on the clock, so please apply the same energies in this training event that you apply to your job every day.” I can make the invitation, but I cannot force an employee to engage. If they choose not to, I do not allow myself to be derailed by their unethical choice to waste their employer’s time and money.
Let’s keep the conversation going! How do you encourage less than enthusiastic employees to engage?
I consider retired Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Robert Gaylor, to be one of my mentors even though I have never met him. As an Air Force First Sergeant, I frequently attended ceremonies where Chief Gaylor was the keynote speaker. So, I had many opportunities to listen to his three keys to success: Aptitude, Opportunity, and Attitude. His message made sense to me, so I’ve applied it in my life and have even passed it on to others.
It’s what we have learned thus far. But more important, it’s what we are going to learn. We must never cease being a student. Once we stop gaining knowledge, we die. Today, information is literally right at your fingertips. It’s tough to make excuses in today’s world. Another mentor of mine taught me that if your last formal education is more than five years old, you’re outdated. Wow! That’s a very high standard.
We must view opportunity differently. Most of the time, opportunity is prefaced with great or wonderful. We hear people say things such as, “That assignment is going to be a great opportunity”. There are times, however, when opportunity involves a great deal of sacrifice and hard work. It may even include moving to another city, or worse than that, taking a pay cut. We must look at opportunities for personal growth, even if it means taking a step back. In the end, these will help you reach your goals.
This key is probably the most important one. Attitude is the glue that holds everything together. Without a positive attitude, you won’t find many opportunities. Take it even further, someone with a negative attitude won’t know what an opportunity is if it slapped him or her in the face. That person will be too busy complaining and playing the victim. Be better than that. Show others, especially in turmoil, that you will still have a positive attitude.
I added this to Chief Gaylor’s three keys. I’ve learned that I must invest in myself to become successful. I can no longer depend solely on others or my organization to teach me new things or send me to different training seminars at their cost. I now view everything I do as an investment to my future. Yes, that means having to spend my own money on formal education, seminars, books, and the like. It’s up to you to develop yourself. Invest your money, time, and energy— you’re worth it.
If you’re reading this blog, you are probably already doing some or all of these things, but perhaps you can do one of these better. Don’t stop growing! Continue the journey towards success.
This past week, I was looking for insight into this question: “Why has the United States slipped down in the innovation rankings for the developed countries in the world?” There is not much doubt about this reality—we certainly have slipped. There seems to be no consensus on why, but I ran across an article that prompted a little reflection (including a little self-reflection) by Nancy Artz: Why is America Falling Behind in Innovation?
Here’s the key quote:
Why is America falling behind in Innovation? Perhaps you are thinking of an oft-cited explanation such as a decline in math and science literacy, taxes on business income, insufficient government funding of basic R&D, or a reverse brain drain in which U.S-educated Indians and Asians are returning to their native countries. Innovation guru, Doug Hall, offers another reason: Baby Boomers. Too many boomers, according to Hall, have an end-of-career mentality. With only a few years before retirement, these business leaders often lack a sense of urgency to develop innovative offerings or otherwise transform their firms for long-term success.
This seems like a promising explanation to me. I know some Boomers who think and act this way. It is as though they have already left work—at least mentally and emotionally, they’ve left.
I suspect I have had thoughts like this myself at times. Have you?
It reminds me of the counsel Sheryl Sandberg offers in Lean In. She writes about women who kind of “leave work” when they first start thinking about having children. That is, they leave work emotionally and no longer show up to work with the kind of drive they had before they started thinking this way. This happens a few years before they actually have children. Ms. Sandberg’s advice:
“Don’t leave until you leave.”
In other words, work all-out, all-in, right up to the last moment you walk out the door. Really work! Think about innovation, tackle new initiatives, keep driving for change for the better, for constant improvement. Work hard, work with high energy, work with thoughts of and energy toward creative innovation right up to the very last minute you finally do actually leave. Work until you leave, and don’t “quit” work even a split-second before you leave.
Pretty good counsel. And, as I reflect on this observation about Baby Boomers, I wonder: “Have we lost the innovation edge because so many people have lost their personal innovation impulse, their constant thinking and striving for innovation before they should—before they leave/retire?”
In other words, don’t retire before you actually retire. Don’t leave before you leave.
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis