2013: Making Dreams Instead of Resolutions

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“Make dreams, not resolutions” was a slogan I saw in my Twitter stream recently, and I’ve been quite captivated by the thought.  In that spirit, I offer these few words of encouragement as we head into a new year that—despite looming fiscal cliffs and on-going worldwide strife—is, as always, full of hope and new possibilities.

Resolutions are Duties, Dreams are passions

As a planner by nature, I’m a huge believer in setting goals and establishing plans.  Yet, oddly enough, this doesn’t extend to New Year’s resolutions.  While resolutions are a type of goal or plan, somehow there’s something very downcast and difficult about “resolutions.”  Too often, they seem to be about “giving up” something, rather than moving toward something with vigor and spirit—a duty or obligation rather than a passion.  This is why, I think, resolutions often go by the wayside after only a few days or weeks.  They don’t elevate our hopes or engage our dreams.

We all can be more organized, or manage our time better, or be more focused, or more responsive, or stop doing this or start doing that.  Those are all on our checklist as mature adults—and we should do our best to improve in each area.  But in terms of charting a path for the new year, they’re not going to truly inspire many of us.  What if, instead, our goal was to dream a new dream, or to re-invigorate an old one … even if it’s one that might strike some as impractical or unrealistic?  Maybe so—but that’s ok.  It’s your passion, and who knows where it might lead?

What If

… you gave yourself permission to pursue your love of foreign cultures by Continue reading

Gifts of the Season

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The holidays are a season of lights, and a season of gifts–gifts given, received, and cherished. In that spirit, I wanted to take a moment today to share with you some gifts that I have received from family, friends, and colleagues that have deeply touched my professional and personal life.

I have been truly blessed to have had many role models, guides, and mentors who have been so kind and caring to share their wisdom and their life’s example with me. To those named below, and to the many others not named but who have contributed a warm smile, a caring thought, or a helping hand, I thank you for all you have done for me and for the many lives you touch each day.

  • For my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – for showing me how to care for and about people every day, with kindness, support, compassion, and dignity
  • For my brother James – who showed me how to conceive and develop the systems and  processes you need; and for my brother John – who showed me that success is showing up and getting the job done day after day with excellence
  • For Kathy – who showed me that drawing clean lines and tidy policies is great, but reality isn’t always so neat and clear, and taking care of people’s needs is the important thing
  • For Vicki and Gretchen – who both taught me that having a good answer is important, but doing the hard work to prepare the fields in advance is what helps the answer be accepted and take root
  • For Doug – who showed me what thinking outside the box looks like, and that taking people out of boxes and putting them into positions where they can do their best work is really the only way to recruit and sustain excellence
  • For Jeff – who taught me that the best way to support the business is to know and love the business
  • For Martin – who showed me that the best “employee relations” starts with the question, “How can we help?”
  • For Paula – who encouraged me to say what I needed to say with a clear voice and a strong heart, and that people would respond to clarity and sincerity above all else
  • For Vicki – who taught me that executives are just like you and me–if you remember that they have their doubts and fears and want some peace and comfort and milk and cookies at the end of the day, you’ll be able to work with them all just fine

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and wishes and blessings for a year of peace, healing, happiness, and fulfillment. May we all have our milk and cookies and comforts today and always!

Leadership: For-Show, or For-Real?

Do we lead as good shepherds … or simply as hired hands?

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep. ( John 10: 11-15)

Today’s post departs from my usual focus on business leadership to examine political leadership in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s massive destruction in New York and New Jersey.  My comments reflect not the sentiments of any political party or ideology, but rather a deep disappointment with what I observe to be a failing of leadership from many quarters—as many succumbed to style over substance.

The Approaching Storm

As Hurricane Sandy approached, leadership at the local, city, and state levels seemed to do a very good job getting the word out to the people.  And then, when the storm hit as hard (or even harder) than expected, political leaders were everywhere to be seen—holding hourly press conferences, surveying the storm damage, and generally maintaining everyone’s spirits with calm pronouncements, heartfelt compassion, and a palpable presence.

At the worst of times, political leaders rose to the challenge and showed their finest colors.  For 24, or 48, or 72-hours, it was inspiring to watch. Resources were marshaled, hope was spread, and there was a clear sense of direction, engagement, and can-do, we’ll-repair-and-rebuild, by-your-side-every-step-of-the-way leadership.

And then a funny thing happened… as the days passed, and  the tv spotlights started to dim, the politicians–who seemed to be everywhere only days before–suddenly became harder and harder to find. Continue reading

Unleashing Potential

Do you have employees who you are penning into a limited role — but whose skills and background (if not current position) enable them to contribute great things to your organization, if only “discovered” and given the chance to excel?

An under-employed friend recently shared her frustration at not being permitted to contribute at the level which she is capable. Empathizing with her plight (one that is shared by millions), I wonder whether companies need to attend more directly to this post-recession phenomenon.  Is there a way to unleash the potential of this vast untapped reservoir of talent, energy, and ideas?

Point of Reference: The Survey Says

While pondering this, I noticed that SHRM’s latest national job satisfaction survey included a shocker.  For the first time, “opportunities to use skills and abilities” displaced job security (63% to 61%) as the most important aspect of job satisfaction.   The bottom line: we want to be secure, but even more than that, we want to be fulfilled in our work.  President Kennedy once defined happiness as “the full use of one’s talents along lines of excellence.” In this way, we all want to be “happy.”

Recognize These People?

Do any of these folks work at your company?

  • MBA-educated customer service rep—She has fifteen years of prior professional experience, but when she makes process improvement suggestions, she’s told “We tried that once and it didn’t work” (with the unstated subtext being, “Besides, managers make those kind of decisions here”).
  • Nondegreed manager—You’re happy to have him managing the day-to-day HR affairs of your large retail operation (keeping you out of expensive lawsuits on a daily basis)—but when it comes to managing a high-visibility nationwide project, those are tacitly reserved for designated “high potential” (degreed) junior executives only.
  • Receptionist-Playwright—Did you know that your friendly receptionist spent a dozen years as a budget analyst and project manager for a major bank and, in her spare time, is a playwright who founded and leads her own non-profit, community theatre group?

If so, you may have individuals who are vastly under-employed—i.e., highly under-utilized assets.

Unleashing Potential

So, what can be done?  Each company and individual circumstance is different, of course —but just using the three examples above, how would it improve your organization’s performance if …

  • You sought out the MBA-educated customer service rep, let her know that you appreciated her process-improvement suggestions, and you wanted her to keep them coming.  Separately, you ensure that the status-quo manager changes their tune and opens up to change in no uncertain terms.
  • You realize that you’ve advertised a senior HR director role for months without success—all the while possibly having an ideal candidate in-house.  You loosen the degree requirements, focus on who can truly do the job, and invite the non-degreed HR manager in for a serious interview / career planning discussion.
  • You’re reorganizing a chronically under-performing department and are about to advertise for a project manager to lead the effort.  Then, you remember the receptionist’s background and wonder if this is the sort of thing she has done in a past life.  When she jumps at the opportunity and hits the ground running, you smile in satisfaction (and relief at finally solving the problem).

With managers at all levels just as overwhelmed as their employees—having little time to think deeply about the latent skills, talents, and experience of their employees—the “what if” above might strike some as unrealistic.  But what if it’s not?  It might just take some time and a  commitment to dig a little deeper to see answers that might be right in front of us.

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.

Performance Reviews: Missing the Forest for the Trees

A discussion with a friend about his recent performance review reminded me that, as human beings, we’re all apt to “miss the forest for the trees” on occasion.  Sometimes we can do something well, and still miss the point of the exercise.  This is such a story.

The Story

Looking somewhat dejected, my friend handed me a copy of his performance review and asked me to read it.  Seeing his demeanor, I was expecting to find nasty comments or low ratings on the review.  As I read through it, though, I saw that it was clearly a very positive review, with a number of strong compliments –even ending with a handwritten note from his boss thanking him for his service and looking forward to even greater success in the coming year.

“I’m a little confused,” I told him. “This is a great review.”

“It is,” he replied.

“It looks your boss has done just about everything we would teach in a Continue reading

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