The Importance of Giving Direct and Effective Feedback

leadershipOne of the most common challenges I see among leaders is unwillingness to have difficult conversations. It is a very common issue for leaders to be unable to be direct with others about failures to perform and their roles in problems. I seldom see swift, effective feedback that communicates disappointment with another person’s behavior. The trouble is, none of us grow without pain.

The thing is, people are far more resilient than it seems. In fact, people aspiring to leadership will actively seek direct feedback, even if it hurts. I don’t have specific data about exactly what stops leaders from being direct, but after working with them for so many years my observation is that the issue is more about fear of being rejected, abandoned, or simply not knowing how to proceed that stops leaders from being as direct as they could be.

Direct conversations don’t have to be dreaded, awful experiences. Magic can show up when you are very committed to another person’s well-being and success and you deliver very direct and specific feedback about shortfalls. One of the “Operating Principles” we recommend using is “Be direct and sensitive.” The sensitive dimension speaks to the importance of staying connected with the other person and keeping your intention to contribute to them top of mind while you are providing feedback. Very direct communication is possible when connection is maintained.

If change is needed within your team, or from a specific team member it requires intervention in the current mindset and change does not generally happen without some form of resistance, upset, and pain.

However, it is actually insulting and/or demeaning to another person to assume they cannot handle the truth. I’m not saying they will be thrilled to hear it, but the vast majority of people come to work every day intending to be successful contributors. Almost no one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says “I’m going to be a jerk at work today.” Unfortunately, most of us have jerky things we do and no one ever tells us. They gossip around the water cooler instead and nothing changes.

The issue can become trickier with peers, e.g. leaders of other divisions and departments, etc. This can feel very risky in the sense that if I give you very direct feedback about your failures and shortcomings, you may think you can do the same back to me. The dynamic can play out as “I won’t call you on yours if you don’t call me on mine.”

The typical starting place for leadership improvement in this area would be to go start giving direct feedback to others. However, I am going to suggest a different place to start. Instead, start with yourself. Go ask for some tough, direct feedback on what drives other people nuts about you. It may sting, but it will give you insight on where you can improve and increase the effectiveness of your interactions. It will also give you perspective on effective, (and ineffective), ways to be direct with others.

No one will stop doing the dysfunctional things they don’t know they are doing. After you have spent a little time receiving feedback and observing how it lands with you, then take on giving more powerful feedback to others. If you can build this skill the results will definitely be worthwhile.

Leadership: Naming Problems

leadershipJohn Dewey said that “a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” My correlate to that is “a problem mis-named is a problem stuck!”

I often see Clients and Vistage members wrestling with an issue at great length with no visible progress. In fact, it often gets worse. They’ve named the issue, involved others in its resolution, and worked diligently without success.

A recent example is a firm that constantly struggles with cash and has pretty much used up their first round funding. The CEO has been talking about, and meeting with, his team to discuss their “financial crisis.” He has declared they must raise a new round of equity immediately and wants all of the team focused on cutting costs everywhere. One of the sharper executives, who has tired of the continued drama, shared the following view with me, “I’m deeply troubled about going to our investors for more money when, if nothing changes, we will burn through that cash as well!”

The real issue is that the company has a “sales crisis.” They have not clearly defined their distinct competitive advantage or core competence. They have not built reliable channels of distribution and their sales team is very ineffective. Unfortunately, by calling their problem a “financial crisis” and focusing everyone on raising money and dramatically cutting costs, the CEO is accelerating the very issue he has named.

I once heard wise advice that says “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” Translating that back to our definitions, when your perspective on a problem is not leading to breakthrough results, rename the issue. If this CEO called everyone together and declared a sales crisis, everyone could then bring their creative problem solving to each of the areas related to sales and determine what’s missing or not working. By developing a well-stated problem and supportable action plans for change that everyone can get behind, he could most likely get sales moving rather quickly. Additionally, his ability to raise added funds would be greatly enhanced. Potential investors would see that the company is in action on a viable plan and would be encouraged about the company’s future.

As you look at your own situation, where are things stuck or moving slowly? What are you complaining about without any changing occurring? How are you and your team talking about the problem? See if you can boil it down to a name or statement that describes your focus.

The antidote to your stuck problem is to dig under the issue with the inquiry “what’s underneath that?” Continue with this line of questioning – “OK, now what’s underneath that?” Stay with this until a new perspective opens up. You will know it’s a very new view because you will immediately start seeing opportunities for action. A whole new strategy may quickly emerge.

I will be so bold as to declare that a problem correctly named will call forth its own solutions!

Manage Your Brain or it Will Manage You

leadershipAs discussed in my recent blog series, all you really have to effect your leadership is your thinking, listening and speaking. An essential ingredient of growing yourself and your leadership is gaining self-awareness and the ability to self-observe and intervene while you are in the heat of the action. If you can’t self-observe, you can’t hear/see how you are thinking and communicating, and whether you are even connecting at all.If you can’t self-observe, you will be unable to give yourself a new brain assignment that self-corrects your instant, automatic and largely unexamined reactions.

In our work, we invite clients to consider their brain as a “Mental File Cabinetwhich stores every experience from every one of our five senses at every moment. The catch in that is that you have all sorts of filters, biases, and predispositions that severely limit what gets into your Mental File Cabinet. Further, your Mental File Cabinet has strange and unique filing procedures and cross-referencing.

When you encounter a new experience your senses provide a scan and the brain does a quick “Google Searchto find a match with what’s already in your Mental File Cabinet. For new information, the match may be rather sloppy and yet, the instant the match happens, learning stops. “I know what that is.”The trouble is, given your unique filters and the unreliability of the match of new things, you may be very disconnected from what is really being said and what’s going on, rendering you ineffective at best.

“The person who is most present to the way that it is and the way that it isn’t will emerge as the leader regardless of who is in charge.”- Unknown

Reframe your relationship with your “File Cabinetfrom automatically reacting to thoughts arising from your past records to being in charge and managing your File Cabinet intentionally. In a recent article and YouTube video Deepak Chopra stated: “The truth is that each of us is the user of our brain, and as with any mechanism, the user’s intention makes all the difference.Applying our 2130 Partners Operating Principles also provides a basis for intentional mental re-framing.

Start listening to the thoughts that run through your head as you speak and especially as you listen to others. Notice what they say and even keep notes for a while until you get good at it. We call this self-observation. Begin to develop your ability to articulate what’s in your heart and soul about your world. What kind of relationships do you intend to have with your team? What are the desired qualities of your relationship with your significant other and other family members?

Now engage with others by starting with your intention. You may say it, particularly at first, or just think it to “set your mind straight”as my mom used to say. Notice when you start to veer off course, catch, and correct.  Manage your brain with your declared intentions. With practice it will rewire and begin to reshape your words and actions. Enjoy how quickly your effectiveness grows.

Leadership: Integrating Your Inner and Outer Worlds

leadershipIt seems to me that the bulk of what passes for leadership development currently is actually training to improve your ability to be someone else. By that I mean training to fit yourself into what the world seems to want. The issue isn’t confined to just leadership training. Reading resumes has become almost worthless because counselors have taught most people to write them in a way that claims credit for all sorts of spectacular results and uses lots of key words that show up in headhunter searches.

Author, speaker and workshop leader David Whyte offers the following perspective: “…human beings have never had the luxury of choosing between an untouched and interior foundational self and the necessities and often overwhelming revelations of the outer world.”

Since effective leadership is so dependent on trust, how will you get people to trust you if you don’t put all or at least most all of your cards on the table? How much of what you call “yourself” are you willing to make available to others? Easily said and not so easily done.

What if you committed yourself to be all you can be? To be fully self-expressed and let the world choose how much it wants of you? Does that question scare you to death? Does it bring up “what if nobody wants what I have to offer when I am just me?”

I have recently been reminded of two situations where a firm was willing to hear what a young person said they were interested in, wanted to work on, and thought would be valuable for the firm. While no one understood it at the time, both firms were really on to something. In fact, one of these two people is now President of his very successful firm. One of the keys to their current success is what he has brought to the firm’s strategy as he did what he loved, the way he loved to do it. I suspect we will see much more of this evolutionary process over the next couple of decades as the millennials assume leadership.

If you are willing to get to work on integrating “your interior foundational self” and the “outer world” start sharing things that you may have been unwilling to share before, especially about your fears and concerns, your dreams and aspirations, and things you love in life. We have been doing this in one of my Vistage groups using collages to spark the inner self and then sharing what the collage means to us as a way to facilitate putting language to expressing the inner self.

The more you share and find that you don’t “get your vote cancelled,” the more your confidence will build. Further, you will start attracting the kind of people who appreciate who you really are and shedding those entanglements in your life that aren’t for the real you.

I personally aspire to Janice Joplijn’s line “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” For me that means if I have nothing to hide, I’m totally free…a delightful place to be!

What’s Possible in Giving up Old Stories?

leadership developmentDavid Whyte asks the beautiful question, “what if that story I have been telling myself is not true anymore?”Complementary to that question, I often reflect on what’s available in my life as a result of having given up old stories, most of which had me as a victim at the center at the time I told the story the first time.

My wife Suzanne and I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to experience a marvelous “payoff”from having given up our various stories about the people we were previously married to, the events around the end of those marriages, and the other people who were involved in various ways at the time.

Suzanne and I had a major two week speaking project in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and two hours before leaving for our flight over, Suzanne fell and broke her ankle and we found ourselves together in the ER at a local hospital. We had major decisions to make and no time to think about it. She was in major pain and we didn’t know what was going to be involved. On the other side we had big promises at stake on a project we had been planning with the folks in Malaysia for the last year.

The people who rushed to the hospital and came to the rescue were Suzanne’s previous husband and his current wife. He agreed to help me get Suzanne’s car home and she stepped in to stay with Suzanne through what became a long afternoon and night of pain and surgery.  This support allowed me to leave without knowing what was going to evolve for Suzanne’s repair. In addition, it allowed the two of us to keep our promise and deliver most of the work in Kuala Lumpur over the next two weeks. Their commitment contributed hugely to our wellbeing but also to delivering value to nearly 250 business leaders in Malaysia. In addition, they brought meals to Suzanne at home as she convalesced over the next week until other family members could step in.

What strikes me most is the gap between these extraordinary acts of service by two people who are totally family in our lives and the way many no longer married people tell their stories – “you know, that witch, that…(fill in your choice of derogatory terms we have all heard).” At best, people refer to “my ex”as opposed to the mother or father of our children. The loss of possibility leaves all involved deeply short-changed.

I once, while I was still grieving, heard it said “if you don’t love them now, you never did.”On closer examination I find that to be at or near the center of unwillingness to give up that old story. If I admit to myself that I love them, how do I explain what happened to us, the pain we and others close to us experienced at the time, and why we are not together. Well, what if you give that up and work on letting go of your old stories in favor of love, life, and possibility?

photo credit: Marcus Hansson via photopin cc

Leadership Development Part 3 – Your Speaking

leadership developmentEffective leadership requires intentional thinking, listening and speaking. In the past two weeks I have covered thinking and listening and today I will focus on the more commonly discussed dimension – speaking.

As a leader, what you communicate, how, and when is critical to your organization. It will be impossible to cover all the facets of this here in a short blog, but there are some keys to keep in mind:

  •  What you communicate with your words, body language and attitude often has unintended consequences.
  •  Being aware and responsible for the “emotional wake” you leave behind you is essential to staying connected with your team.
  •  Curiosity and inquiry are more effective than domination, negativity, and ignoring.

Let’s explore each of these starting with the unintended consequences.

Unintended Consequences

Each of us has a different point-of-view, perspective and understanding of the world. (For more on this see my blog on the enneagram.) What’s extremely obvious and clear to you isn’t even making it on the radar of some of your team members. And if it is, it could easily be misunderstood and create unexpected consequences. Now these could be positive or negative, but the point is, as a leader, what you say will create an outcome. Because for the most part we are on “automatic pilot” our behaviors and speech are typically instant reactions and largely unexamined. This means your comments may yield outcomes far different than your intentions.

Emotional Wake

The term “emotional wake“ was coined by Fierce Conversations and we think it’s critical for leaders. As a leader, your position in the group has more authority and more impact and the emotions that go along with your words are greatly amplified. It is difficult to overestimate the wake you leave behind you. It’s important that you become more aware of the type of wake you leave. Cleaning up the unconscious emotional additions to your messages will positively impact how well your team functions when you are not there. That, in turn, will increase their effectiveness in reaching the goals and “Yonder Star” you are sharing with them.

Curiosity and Inquiry

If your communications demonstrate vulnerability, openness, and interest, they will invite dialogue about what your team is up to and how they see things. You are more likely to gain insight into their focus, why they are making the choices they are making, and their real priorities. You are much more likely to inspire creativity, innovation, and collaboration. The opposite will happen if you speak in an assumptive or punitive way. People will start to hide things from you, will be afraid of you, and dysfunctional dynamics will take root within your team and organization.

If you are ready, start investigating your own speaking style. First, try to be more reflective and intentional before going into meetings about the outcomes you want to have and how your attitude will impact your team. Second, try speaking less and being more curious. See what you can discover about how people have been hearing you and how this has been impacting their priorities and actions. You might be surprised at what you find out.

photo credit: Baltic Development Forum via photopin cc

Leadership Development Part 2 – Your Listening

leadership developmentLast week I started a 3 part series on leadership development. In it, I said that, “in developing your leadership effectiveness you really only have 3 areas to impact – your thinking, your listening and your speaking. In this post, I will examine the second piece, your listening.

This series was inspired by my recent work with Vistage Malaysia where I spoke to 15 different groups of executives in the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia area over a two week period.

One of the key pieces we worked on in accelerating their leadership development was asking them to pay attention to and understand how they listen. This is something we work on with all of our clients, because we have found most have never realized that you can strongly influence another person’s experience and behavior simply by taking charge of the way you listen to them.

The way we worked on this was actually a fairly simple technique. In each session participants were asked to give their brains a particular assignment that set up how they would listen to their exercise partner’s sharing for 60 seconds. After a bit of practice, nearly all of the roughly 250 participants were able to cause a very positive or negative experience for their partners and all they did was listen. In addition they learned that they could pretty accurately hear and repeat the content, feelings, and intent in their partner’s story in just one minute through this practice.

So why is this valuable for leadership? How many of you have seen members of your team coming toward you and thought, “oh not now, I don’t have time for this” or something along those lines? The reality is that as a leader, people need your perspective, input, approval and more. You can have much more effective and efficient conversations with your team if you learn how to manage your listening.

Follow this simple pathway to create outcomes that are not just more of the same that you have been experiencing:

1)      Select someone with whom it would be valuable for you to have more productive conversations

2)      Take careful note of the thoughts in your Mental File Cabinet regarding having conversations with that person, e.g., “every time we interact we end up arguing”

3)      Consciously create and practice productively listening to that person. You do this by “brain priming” or setting up how you will approach the conversation with something like, “I’m curious about and interested in how they see the issues we address.”

4)      Engage in a conversation for a desired outcome

5)      Listen for their content, feelings  and intention

6)      Keep practicing choosing the design of your listening for that person/conversation

It’s always good to start these practices with a person or situation that is not your biggest challenge. Start small. Pick someone that you would like to improve things with, and that seems achievable. As you develop your skill you can graduate to more challenging people and situations.

photo credit: highersights via photopin cc

Leadership Development Part 1 – Your Thinking

leadership developmentIn developing your leadership effectiveness you really only have 3 areas to impact – your thinking, your listening and your speaking. Since your thoughts shape your speaking and listening, that is your key leverage point, so let’s start there.

Two recent events have reminded me of how completely our thoughts dominate and shape our experience and that, in turn, controls our leadership and relationship effectiveness. Before getting to the events let’s set some context. When delving into the arena of thoughts we like to talk about it by saying that each of us has what amounts to a Mental File Cabinet. Several characteristics of the ‘Mental File Cabinet” are:

1)    Filters: that color your world and are unique to you

2)    Storage: contents, essentially of memories and data, that are unique to you

3)    Filing: the contents stored have a system of cross-referencing and connection that is unique to you

4)    Retrieval: is selective, based on your filters, and is typically instant, automatic, and largely unexamined

The first recent event was an extended trip to Malaysia leading 14 workshops for Vistage groups of executives and two days of Vistage Chair workshops. The focus of that work involved examining how our thoughts set up our listening and speaking and that they are all we have as “tools” for growing our leadership and contributing to others’ growth and development. The second event was sharing by three clients who recently completed the Landmark Forum in which they are clearly seeing their lives and go-forward actions much differently.

From our perspective, it appears that the Landmark Forum has given these clients the ability to unpack their Mental File Cabinets, examine the unique contents and cross-references, and either discard or refile the contents in more productive ways. This offers them more opportunities to shape their thinking newly and thereby be able to alter their speaking and listening in more productive ways. They are able to rethink their “default actions” and redesign the bases of their relationships in a way that will set up new possibilities.

In working with the many wonderful folks in Malaysia, I used several of the “Essential Notions” from our book “Accelerate… including our “Productive Dialogue Zone” (also called the “Leadership Effectiveness Zone”) and our Leadership Choice Point model. We worked through applying those notions to real life situations to see how past frustrating outcomes might be altered with new thinking. We then practiced giving ourselves specific brain instructions to produce first unproductive and then unproductive listening. The objective was to notice how dramatically different the experience was for the person attempting to speak into that kind of listening. The results for both the speaker and listener were dramatic. The exercise is only effective, however, when the listener takes control of the way their Mental File Cabinet is organized, intervenes in the instant, automatic and heretofore unexamined ways they have been listening, and chooses their listening newly.

So what’s the payoff of unpacking my Mental File Cabinet? No matter what pathway you find for yourself, the challenge is to intervene in the instant, automatic and largely unexamined way that your brain has collected and stored information and how it gives it back to you as you attempt to negotiate any new situation. The folks at Conversant call it “fast past matching” by which they mean that when confronted with new information, your brain will do a very fast and often sloppy internal Google search. As soon as it has identified a “match” learning stops. If you can learn to be more observant then you have more choice, which then provides you with more options for moving forward.

If you are truly committed to your development as a leader, then finding your path to managing your thoughts and your thinking processes is really critical.

Personal Excellence

Very happy to be part of the March edition of HR.com‘s epublication, “Personal Excellence.” Please see my article, “The Fallacy of Empowerment” on page. 14 by clicking here

 

personal excellence leadership development

Leadership: The Role of the CEO

CEO leadershipLeadership and the qualities of good leaders are often debated and there is no single definition on which everyone seems to agree. Let’s narrow the focus to the role of the CEO.

We really like our colleague Mary Marshall’s definition, “the role of the CEO is to grow the company and grow their people” – period. Related to that, she always counsels CEOs, “only do what you can only do.”

Whether you are a CEO or have another role, how willing and able are you to test your approach against Mary’s counsel?  I recently encountered a CEO who often says, “I’m great at delegation. In fact, if I were going to write a book, it would be about how to delegate.” Yet, as the leader of an 8-figure organization, she was spending time on a job description for an open position, getting it into an email, and building a page on the company web site about the position. Surely her Marketing and HR people could have taken those tasks on! This situation illustrates both pieces of what we are talking about:

  • The CEO was certainly not growing her people by doing these tasks rather than eliciting their expertise and responsibility for getting them done.
  • While her attention and time were focused on these tasks, she was not able to address much more strategic issues.
  • She was doing tasks that multiple people could do vs. things only she could do.

Many business owners, entrepreneurs and leaders struggle with being “control freaks.” If you have built an organization, at some point you probably had to do much of the work yourself. If you are successful with those early stages and the organization grows, it can be extremely difficult to shift your focus and your habits. The behaviors that gave you success in the early going become your own limitations and a constraint on your organization’s growth.

Before you dismiss this as something you would never do look back to the quote from the CEO in question about delegating. She sees herself as a master at delegation to the point where she believes she could write a book about it. What if you think you are great at delegation, empowerment, and developing leaders and it simply is not true or at best you are very limited at this point in your career?

If you are really willing to challenge your own self-assessment, get feedback from people who will be direct with you.  Ask them to tell you about how you are doing on the following:

  • Are you growing your company? How are you doing it?
  • Are you growing your people? What concrete steps are you taking to do this?
  • Are you doing what only you can do? This one might be the hardest to explore and others’ perspectives may surprise you.

Ask yourself:

  • Go through your daily, weekly and monthly tasks. Is it really true that you can’t give more of them away to your team?
  • What are you going to stop doing? No kidding.

Do this homework and your effectiveness and your team’s growth will follow!

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