Category Archives: Communication

Pope Francis I’s First Moments: Matching Word and Deed

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The world was witness to a remarkable series of events today with the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the head of the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Francis I.  Just two days ago, I reflected on leadership lessons culled from past popes, here.  I’d like to extend those remarks, focusing on the leadership notes that played out in my eyes in Francis I’s first moments as a world figure – in which he succeeded brilliantly, I believe, in matching word with deed (any leader’s most telling task).

Setting a Tone
Biographical reports on the new pope universally remark on his humble nature – regularly avoiding the trappings of his office as cardinal by taking public transportation to work, and living in his own apartment instead of the bishop’s palace.  This humility came through loud and clear in his first action – choosing to wear a simple, wood cross instead of an ornate, bejeweled one.  Most tellingly, before he gave his first blessing, he humbly asked for the crowd’s prayers and blessing on him, that he might be strengthened by those he will lead – servant leadership of the simplest but most powerful order.  (Wishing the crowd a “good night and a good sleep” in the manner one would speak to an old friend or family member was a simple and endearing moment of the same nature).

Drawing in Your Flock
Putting aside the worldly powers of the papacy, it is – in its essence – a spiritual role, meant to draw the faithful to God.  Rather than offering a sermon or Continue reading

Failing to Prepare the Ground

preparing ground

Do your planning and prepare your fields before building your house.
Proverbs 24:27

I’ve recently been observing a business saga that I fear isn’t destined to end well.  Sam, a sales and product development director, is preparing to submit an exciting new product proposal to his company.  If accepted, it could transform a significant aspect of company operations and further enhance its industry-leading standing.  Unfortunately, I believe Sam’s proposal is likely to be rejected for, as ground-breaking as his concept is, he has failed to prepare the ground so that the project might be accepted, take root, and bloom.

The Good

Sam’s idea represents the culmination of years of blood, sweat, and tears to understand and serve the needs of his customers.  The concept addresses their needs in a way that gives both his customers and his company a platform for growth and collaboration, and it pushes the state of the art in their field forward by several steps.

The Bad

The success of the venture depends heavily on a partnership with another organization.  However, the leadership of Sam’s company has a very negative Continue reading

Rebuilding Relationships

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At a recent business dinner, the conversation was lively, the atmosphere cozy, and the mood light, as someone rose with glass in hand. “I’d like to offer a toast to Patty, for the terrific way that she has supported us this past year.”  Looking over the clinking of glasses and the round of warm congratulations sat an embarrassed but clearly gratified Patty.  This simple scene represented the culmination of a years-long journey to rebuild tattered relations between the groups present — and therein lies our story.

The Back Story

For more than a decade, relations between marketing and one of the lines of business had been frayed, sometimes to the breaking point—reflecting in large part the contentious relationship between the heads of both groups. Words like toxic, angry, skeptical, uncommunicative, antagonistic, and the like could be used to describe the tone between the groups at various points.  How did things move from this paralyzed state of affairs to the happy dinner scene above?  In a word, hard work—a series of steady, persistent actions over the course of years.

Lessons Learned

Several steps — some intentional, some happenstance — served to break the logjam and help move the relationship between the groups forward.

  • Change in Players—The first key event was the departure of the marketing head (for reasons unrelated to this situation).  The hard feelings between the two heads had become so entrenched that no Continue reading

Lighthouse Leadership

I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:16)

This week, Hurricane Sandy’s massive power left millions seeking a light in the darkness (both literally and figuratively).  The news photos and stories of devastated communities longing for relief brought to mind the image of a lighthouse—a beacon of light, hope, and safety.  It strikes me that this is a good and proper depiction of the role of leaders in both good times and bad—pointing the way forward, toward light and safety.

Organizational Needs

I’ve had the occasion recently to help two organizations implement performance management and employee development systems.  In both cases, they were organizations run by experienced, dedicated, and charismatic leaders, with strong leadership teams, and healthy and positive employee cultures.  Remarkably, though, in both cases, leadership felt that well less than fifty-percent of their employees had a clear understanding of the organization’s direction, why they made the decisions that they made, and where they were heading—a circumstance that the leaders attributed to poor communication on their parts (sins of omission, if you will).

It really struck me that two otherwise high-performing, well-respected leaders openly acknowledged they needed to do a much better job of communicating the organization’s vision and direction to their employees (instead of taking for granted that “everyone knows where we are headed”).  After coming to this realization, both were determined to redouble and refocus their communication efforts.  And both were certain that this would have any number of tangible and intangible benefits to performance, productivity and morale.

It is axiomatic that everyone looks to their leaders for direction.  These leaders believed firmly that if their employees had a clearer sense of where the organization was going, they would advance in that direction much more confidently, quickly, and directly (and with considerably less anguish and costly uncertainty).  This is leadership time well-spent, they reasoned.

Lighthouse Leadership

Strong leaders serve as lighthouses for their employees, offering:

  • Light—shining forth, cutting through the fog of an uncertain environment
  • Hope—giving confidence that the organization has a plan (or at least a direction) for the future (and a path for getting there)
  • Safety—reassurance that someone is standing watch, guiding their ship toward safe harbor

Even in good times, the leaders I worked with this week recognized the need to communicate vision and point the way forward with clarity and confidence.  In difficult times—of economic, operational, and environmental distress and uncertainty—this is doubly and triply true.

Let us remind ourselves often of the need for clearly communicated vision—and let us help leaders point the way with confidence. May we all help steer our organizations to safe harbors.

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Our thoughts and prayers are with all those suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Delegation, Trust, and Satisfaction

Recently, I saw an episode of Restaurant Impossible that reaffirmed an important lesson about managing:  everyone wants their boss to trust them, and there’s nothing like delegation to show trust.  When trust isn’t present, it can crush an employee’s spirit … and organizational performance, right along with it.

Restaurant Impossible

On the Food Network show, Restaurant Impossible, chef Robert Irvine works with once-thriving and now-floundering restaurants to turn them around (in 48 hours or less!).  Each episode features innumerable business lessons about failing to listen to customers, slowly degrading quality standards, and not keeping up with industry trends—and the stories are often heart-breaking (i.e., owners who have put their lives into an establishment, only to see their dreams slip away slowly day after day as business declines and debts mount).

This particular episode told the story of a once-successful family steakhouse that had lost its way—with the husband-and-wife ownership team working more and more hours and seeing fewer and fewer customers.  Chef Irvine helped the husband see that his need for control was one of the central problems in the operation. Example:  He spent hours each day portioning out the meat into 8 ounce filets, 12 ounce chops, etc.  When asked why he couldn’t have his chefs do this as part of their daily routine, he replied: “Because I have to do it.”  When asked how long his chefs had been with him, I was stunned by his answer: “25 years each.”

25 years and he didn’t even trust his chefs to trim meat.  Not surprisingly, they Continue reading

Celebrating the Right Heroes

As Labor Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about those whose labors we honor in organizations.  Another recent spate of embarrassing revelations about once-revered leaders has made me even more skeptical of the “cult of personality” that can so quickly and easy develop around an organization’s stars.  Instead, I believe that we would be much better served to honor the unsung heroes amongst us.

Feet of Clay

I recall a favorite high school English teacher remarking that “we all have feet of clay.”  So true.  In recent months, we’ve come to find out that:

  • a bicycle racing champion, whose personal story has inspired millions around the world, would be stripped of his record-breaking titles due to overwhelming evidence of cheating;
  • a football coach, whose name for decades was synonymous with integrity and leadership, looked the other way while a longtime aide repeatedly committed horrendous crimes against children on the very campus on which the coach held virtual god-like status;
  • the CEO of a global bank who, with his team, was widely considered the best in the business, fell asleep at the wheel and allowed outrageous bets to be laid that cost stockholders $6 billion and counting.

So often, organizations create myths about their leaders and star performers that raise them to rock star status, fame, and fortune.  Before continuing this pattern, we might do well to consider some of the dysfunction and disillusionment (see above) that this hero-worship brings about when the (almost) inevitable fall from grace does occur.

True Organizational Heroes

Since this blog is all about hopefulness and forward progress, how can we refocus our energies in the right direction and celebrate those who truly should be celebrated?  That part is simple, but hard to do.

It is saying “thank you” to the men and women who show up every day and do their jobs to the best of their abilities; the people who serve the customers, get the shipments out the door, and make the trains run on time.  We might not recognize them with huge bonuses (or any bonuses at all, sadly), or set them up for magazine profiles, and laud them at corporate events.  But they are the ones who truly make the business possible, and they are the ones we must thank. And honor. And respect.

One of my favorite quotes about work and life—which I’ve used in this space before—comes from David Cone, a former major league baseball all-star.  Cone was once asked what it was like facing the pressure of pitching in a big game.  He smiled thoughtfully and answered, “Let me tell you about pressure.  Pressure isn’t pitching in a game.  Pressure is what my dad did — getting up every morning for 40 years to go to work, rain or shine, to support your family.  That’s pressure.  This is nothing compared to that.”

Indeed.  Let us commit to remembering this and appreciating those who make our organizations what they are by showing up and taking care of business every day.

The Power of Clarity

Are our managers weighed down by doubts about their roles and the organization’s purposes? Simple clarity can help release powerful performance.

I was reminded again last week how important it is for organizations to communicate clear roles and purposes.  Simply knowing where the organization is going and what it expects of you dramatically affects how you feel about—and how you do—your job.  So simple … and so easy to forget.

The Situation

As I was helping a group of front-line supervisors implement a new performance evaluation system, the question of “trust” kept coming up.  At first, it was difficult to get a handle on what exactly the issue was.  I kept talking about how the system would free them to coach, mentor, and support their employees—and they kept asking, “Really?”

The system itself was pretty simple, so I was confused, until it finally became clear that they weren’t questioning the system—only their role in it.  The “really” was, “Are you sure that the organization really wants us spending our time coaching and mentoring? They’re really going to let us do that?”

Clearly there was some emotional baggage to overcome before any new system could take hold.

The History

In the last ten or so years, they had experienced a number of short-term leaders.  With each new leader—some more communicative than others—the role of the front-line supervisor had shifted, leaving them confused and dispirited.  The common theme, Continue reading