50+ Best Leadership Skills (2019)

Best Leadership Skills

50+ New Leadership skills

This blog explains how leadership skills improve software teams skills to transform their mutual ability to deliver great software on time. And also explores 50+ Best Leadership Skills used in 2019.

 

I was working with an organization to improve its technology development process, which was going too slowly for the CEO. The problem was not that the goals for improvement were too aggressive. It was the constant destructive conflict due to a clash of the Titans.

 

Whenever the CEO met with the leaders who worked with him, each meeting was filled with arguments that had repeated themselves many times over. There were passive-aggressive personal attacks in those meetings and in the hallways. 

 

In the struggling days of the start-up, they had to work in temporary trailers in a field. The trailers were often way too cold in the winter and way too hot in the summer. They worked long hours.

 

Now, they were in a real building that the company owned. The company had grown to over 500 people. They started out making customized software for select customers. They now had a product line with multiple customers. They were successful.

 

Finding the Root Cause

Find leadership

To find the root cause, I interviewed each of the leadership team members, including the CEO. I asked each of the three questions:

  1.  What were three highlights that were personally meaningful to you in the last ten years of the organization?
  2.  What was the overall goal of the organization in those ten years? 
  3.  What is the overall goal for the next ten years? 

 

The answers to these questions soon formed a pattern. Within a week, I came back to the CEO with the root cause behind the troublesome team dynamics.

 

Everyone had the same answer to the question “What was the overall goal of the organization in those ten years?” The obvious unifying goal was often stated as a single word: survival.

 

The stories people remembered very fondly from the previous ten years were all about overcoming tremendous obstacles to survive difficult situations. The organization almost ran out of money multiple times.

 

They almost lost key customers multiple times. They had all crammed into hot, badly ventilated, cheap trailers to get the work done in relentless hours of overtime. Together, they had overcome each of those challenges to survive.

 

There was a very telling thing about the stories of the past. None of the stories that people remembered fondly were about the previous eighteen months. All the stories were from before they had finally achieved economic success. They now had large, steady customers.

 

They had secured significant funding. There had been no recent danger of running out of payroll or of losing customers.

 

What were the goals for the next ten years? People had wildly different answers. The most common answer was “I don’t know.” The root cause of the trouble became clear. In the past, the conflicts were constructive because they were all headed for the same goal of survival.

 

All the decisions had time limits. The conflict was about how to get there. Those conflicts produced positive friction. Then, a decision was made and they moved. Success from each survival instance built trust in each other to face the next survival challenge.

 

Now the team was without a compelling organizational goal. Coupled with the lack of that compelling goal was that any deadlines the team faced now were not real compared to the adrenaline rush of knowing that unless they did something miraculous, they would run out of money by the end of the month.

 

The leadership team had run a ten-year journey of survival. They had now crossed a line. They had arrived. However, they were now thirsty for something . . . something more.

 

Set Expectations of Excellence

Set Expectations

As a leader, you need more than a compelling mission for your organization. If you tolerate sloppy work or bad behaviors, your lack of action normalizes those behaviors.

 

Exceptional leaders are fearless in setting their expectations of excellence in clear language before and during a project, as well as in the way they handle deviations from the expectations they have set forth.

 

If a leader sets forth an expectation that “Quality is job number one” but has no repercussions when there are constant quality problems, then that expectation is just something written on the wall.

 

Deviations must be handled with sound judgment, especially when you say that you actually want to go against your definition of good for a specific case. If an organization consistently makes a decision to go against its own definition of good, then one of two things is very wrong: the definition or the ability to judge.

 

The trick we face then is to be able to set our expectations wisely so we can have a much better chance of getting those true expectations met, or even exceeded.

 

Also, we must ensure that the expectations do not limit leaders in their ability to apply judgment to specific circumstances without undercutting the expectations they have set forth.

 

The Case of Teams That Are Late with Quality Issues

Quality Issues

Customers are unhappy because they never knew when to expect delivery and because when they received a delivery they knew that they would be spending at least a few days and sometimes longer sorting out quality problems before they could actually use the software.

 

However, because it was across the board, leadership knew that it was an issue that had to be solved at the leadership level. Somehow, they were at least part of the cause of the problems.

 

The key thing the executive leadership needed to figure out was how to properly define what guidance to give and what questions to ask to provide the proper expectations of excellence. They wanted to make sure that what they asked for was also what they really wanted and needed.

 

I want the most aggressive plan you can build. What is the earliest date you can get this done? 

Hurry up and get this to test so we can start finding the defects! 

leadership plans

When teams presented their plans, the management often told them that the plans were not aggressive enough, and they asked for earlier dates. The teams said, “We will try.”

 

When a team makes a plan that truly is “as aggressive as possible,” the only possible positive outcome is to deliver exactly on time. The likely outcome is to deliver late—which is what these teams did.

 

When managers asked about progress, they did not ask questions about quality. They just asked how close the teams were to delivering to test.

 

The teams did do what they were asked to do. They created what they called “happy plans.” If everything went perfectly well and there were no interruptions and no changes needed then they could maybe deliver to that date. They built a plan where they could never finish early.

 

The situation was made worse by the statement about hurrying the product into testing. The team did exactly what the leader asked for and skipped solid development practices and hurried it into the test. The testing process took a long time because there were so many defects to find.

 

Using testing to find and fix problems is the slowest way to build a high-quality product. It is extraordinarily hard to predict how long testing quality will take. The other problem is that testing alone was absolutely insufficient. Quality issues always escaped.

The testing process

  1. The results were not what they wanted, not what they needed.
  2. They were, however, absolutely what they asked for.
  3. The Carpenters Did What Was Asked of Them
  4. TopShelf’s problem was very similar to the issues I had with the carpenters I hired many years ago.

 

My nineteenth-century house had a lot of character and of course, required a lot of work as well. During this period I hired a number of carpenters. For some reason, they all were unable to meet the needs I had. All the carpenters had the same issues! This alone was a warning sign that I should have noticed.

 

They would often start the job and then disappear for days. My house would be in disarray for long periods while I waited for them to finish. I would hurry them up and sometimes that worked, but if I pushed too hard, they finished but left my house a mess that I needed to clean up.

 

One day I had the sudden realization that the problem was me. I usually started the initial contracting session with language like this: “I want this job started as soon as possible. When can you start?”

 

Their usual answer was that they could start tomorrow or next week. They were good to their word and did just that. And the job would take weeks of them stopping in for a few hours here and there.

 

I realized that the problem was what I was asking for.

 

I changed my language and questions with the next project with a carpenter whom I had worked with before (and thus had had all those issues with). But this time I said, “I enjoy your company very much, but not the disruption to my house. I want you to start this job when you can be here without interruption.

 

I want the job done well, but in fast contiguous days. Also, do a great quality job. I want the house to be better and cleaner than when you started. This is different from what I asked for before, and this is very important. Can you do this?”

 

This initially confused that carpenter, and subsequent carpenters and plumbers. They had not heard that language before. However, each subsequent contractor provided me with dates they could accomplish this amazing feat.

 

They all delivered per my expectations. Although the “start date” was much further in the future, the actual work finished faster. Moreover, the disruption to my household was greatly reduced.

 

I was delighted that I finally figured out that I had been hiring the right contractors all along.

Thoughtful Creation of Expectations of Excellence

 

Whether you desire to reset expectations or you are forming a new organization or simply a new team, the creation of your expectations of excellence should be done in a thoughtful manner. The following are considerations in forming your expectations of excellence.

 

Consider the Context of Your Organization

organization’s vision and mission

What are the organization’s vision and mission? Are you leading a group in a risky new enterprise or is this a critical project building on existing technologies?

 

What things are most important for your organization to avoid? What are the most important values you want your employees to demonstrate?

 

For example, I worked closely with an organization whose mission was dedicated to connecting young people to the natural world. Its key interest was setting expectations around the skills and behaviors of the instructors who would be working with young people in outdoor wilderness programs.

 

The results were very different from the times I worked to do this in high-technology development organizations.

 

The outdoor wilderness group focused on personal energy, learning, high ethics, and extraordinary outdoor experiences. The high-tech companies’ expectations were focused on collaboration, high quality, and high-performance standards related to customers and products.

 

Take a View from the Outside Looking In

Another important view of your context is to take a virtual step outside your organization and look at it as would your customers and the general public.

 

For example, looking at Apple from the outside, we know from the company’s marketing and actual products what it wants to be known for. It wants to be known for excellent design and high-quality products that work together well in a whole ecosystem.

 

From all the blogs written about how Apple works, we know that those expectations of excellence are very well defined for the organization. The bar is set high.

 

What attributes would you like your organization to be known for? Consider what it may be known for right now. Are you happy or is a change needed? Top Shelf executives did this exercise, and it was a humbling experience. This was a key driver for them in establishing a new set of expectations of excellence.

 

Engage Key Opinion Leaders in the Conversation

Opinion Leaders Conversation

Whether you are doing this for the first time or trying to inject new energy into what you already have, it is vital to not do this alone. Seek a conversation with people you trust both inside and outside of your organization.

 

Inside your organization, you want to engage in a conversation that helps form and develop your ideas.

 

Also, by engaging in the conversation you are setting the stage for your key internal opinion leaders to make your expectations of excellence be part of the fabric of how they think as well. They will own those expectations and help them come true.

 

Engage in conversations with people external to the organization. How do they view your organization now? Do they see you the way you see yourself? Engage them to make your relationship stronger. Also, engage them to clarify your thinking and your confidence in what you believe.

 

Make Your Expectations Concise and Memorable

Expectation

I was once asked by an organization to help get a project back on track that was very off track. I asked the executive in charge to make his expectations very clear to the team.

 

I quickly found out what part of the problem was. He came into the team meeting and started to show a slide deck of 200 slides of his expectations for the initiative.

 

The team struggled through the next full day of planning.

planning

I left the meeting, went back to the executive, explained the problem, and suggested that he return and write his top five expectations on the whiteboard. After we discussed this for an hour, he was ready.

 

He came back and wrote his expectations on the whiteboard. The team discussed those expectations with vigor. After he left the room, the team had multiple breakthroughs and developed a plan of attack that everyone, including the executive, was excited about.

 

Provide Detail

The slogan “Quality is Job #1” is concise, and in many ways it is memorable. That is important; however, without proper detail behind it, it is unlikely to make any difference.

 

You must provide examples of what good is when you say the quality is job #1. Leaders should be ready with examples of what they mean by quality, especially for the most important aspects of their organizations. They also should have examples of ways that quality can be measured.

 

TopShelf Defines What Good Means for Their Division

leadership team

TopShelf’s leadership team followed the steps outlined in the previous section. The process was extremely valuable in establishing improved relationships with their customers and with TopShelf team members.

 

No one likes delivering late. The team hated making a low-quality product just as much as the customers hated receiving it.

 

The work the TopShelf leadership team did was to get everyone aligned on what made good sense for the business and to set the foundation for how to follow up. 

 

The following is a summary of excerpts from the key expectations that now formed the foundation of work everyone was expected to achieve. “We will delight our customers.”

 

We want our customers to smile when any one of our employees walks into their offices. We expect our customers to know that when they receive a new release of software it will meet their expectations of content and quality.

 

Everything we do should focus on our customers’ experience. When a team is building the plans and designs for the customer, they repeatedly ask themselves, “Will this help the customer with its problems?”

 

When we do the designs we ask if this design will help our customers do better work. When we review and test our ideas, we will think about if our customers receive this, will they smile?

“Our focus is on speed to value.”

 

The whole world seems to be focused on going faster. Our speed has a purpose. That purpose is to give the best value we can at the fastest speed possible. When we examine how to pursue our objectives we will work to ensure that they look for the biggest value we can bring our customers.

 

We will look at design alternatives that provide a focus on that value, but further focus on our ability to deliver with speed.

 

We will look at methods that enable our teams to focus and provide incremental releases with increasing value.

We will use data to ensure we understand where our bottle-necks are and know if we are addressing them. We have more than a need for speed. We have a creed for speed.

 

“Quality is our top key to speed.”

Quality

Quality problems lead to customer dissatisfaction. Speed doesn’t matter if we crash.

 

Also, quality problems lead to many of us being engaged in rework. Every time we engage in rework we lower productivity.

 

We will consistently invest in training to develop our abilities in our domain, our methodologies, and our customer needs. We will use data to understand where any of our quality issues are and work to catch them earlier and easier in our process.

 

We do not expect to be able to prevent all defects, but we do expect that we will all work to have a smart focus on quality such that it is a key for us in customer delight and key for us in maintaining our speed to value.

 

“The dates we provide to our customers are sacred commitments.”

Thus, the dates you provide to leadership must be credible! These dates must be commitments to yourself, to me, and, most of all, to our customers.

 

The message is simple: Make commitments you can keep. This message does not contradict the need for speed. You must build smart, aggressive plans. Smart plans mean that we have pushed ourselves to look at every possible way to deliver value to our customers as soon as possible.

 

Once we have made a smart, aggressive approach to delivering value, we are focused on making a smart commitment. A smart commitment means we look at all the risks; we look at our historical data for how long things take. We take into consideration all the other commitments we have already made.

 

No surprise is a key element of this. Teams need to track their plans closely such that when the inevitable problems arise, they can address them early. If there are going to be problems with making a date, there is an early warning.

 

If we make proper commitments, we should rarely be late. We should often be ready to deliver earlier than the commitment we made.

There are no benefits to delivering late. There are many benefits to delivering early.

 

TopShelf Transformed

TopShelf Transformed

TopShelf executives did two very important things. They began to ask for what they really wanted and needed.

 

They became experts at setting their expectations of excellence. They also gave their teams expert help in raising their skills on both planning and quality practices. They made it clear what good would look like and followed up with detailed examples.

 

Since those changes, the teams have consistently delivered on-time, high-quality releases. Further, the client list for Top-Shelf has grown significantly. Regardless of whether the culture matches what is written on the walls, what is important for you as a leader is to be very clear on your own expectations of excellence.

 

Good managers know what is written on the walls. They might even do a reasonable job of trying to ensure that those things are true.

Good managers

Exceptional leaders stand out because they will go beyond the stated organizational values and make them their own. The examples provided so far in this blog are from leaders who worked to get their own expectations clear.

 

The expectations they set were personal. These leaders also ensured that everyone in the organization they were leading knew that those expectations were important.

 

Set the expectations you want from your organization. If you make it clear that you expect troublesomely, you will get it. If you make it clear you expect tremendously, there is no guarantee, but you are much more likely to get tremendous. The key is to make it personal and make it important.

Consider your own expectations of excellence.

  1.  What are disappointments you have had for whatever it is you are leading?
  2. For these disappointments, take a moment and reflect on what role you may have had in setting expectations to get exactly those disappointments.
  3.  What are your personal expectations of excellence?
  4.  How do you let people know what your expectations of excellence are?

 

Expecting Excellence Every Day

Expecting Excellence

What happens in the halls and in meetings and many other interactions in the organization define the true expectations of excellence. If those interactions are not congruent with what is written on the walls, the hallways will win.

 

As a result, people will become cynical and leaders will have a more difficult time managing trouble. It is much harder to point to what good is with inconsistent reinforcement of the organizational expectations of excellence.

 

When the formal expectations of excellence match the daily interactions, a powerful foundation is formed that enables the whole organization to rise to expectations of excellence.

 

What is happening is that the leaders are not just creating expectations of excellence, they are consciously forming a culture of excellence that makes the desired behaviors of leaders and team members a natural experience of how they do work. This is the key to preventing trouble from occurring in the first place.

 

This foundation also makes it much easier to transform trouble to tremendous whenever trouble does occur.

 

Consider the difference when a troublesome person such as the maverick, the cynic, or the diva is the only person behaving poorly in the organization as opposed to being just one of many problematic people. It is much easier to point to that single person as a problem.

 

As a leader, you are much more likely to get what you want if you know what you want and you ask for it. It is most powerful when you have multiple ways and opportunities to reinforce those expectations.

 

The culture of an organization is formed by a number of common interactions that occur in that organization every week. Which of the following interactions in your organization support or detract from your expectations of excellence?

 

How projects are started. The way in which projects start is a spoiler alert for how projects actually run. Do you ensure that projects start exceptionally well? Or is it more like the way I used to encourage the carpenters to get started, in a hurried messy way?

 

Project review meetings. Do the meetings focus on reinforcing your expectations of excellence? Or does the focus neglect nine of your ten items and just focus on one specific trouble area?

 

For example, if the quality is your number one priority, but all the questions you ask about are scheduled, you are undermining your number one priority.

status meetings

Weekly (or even daily) status meetings. Are the meetings repetitious and dull? Do the topics have a rotation to ensure that all areas of expectations are addressed periodically?

 

How meetings are run. Are the meetings run in the way you want projects to run? Do they start on time and end on time? Are people treated in the way you expect clients and other stakeholders to be treated?

 

How bad news is received. If bad news is always received with anger, it is likely you will not be told the bad news as soon as you should be.

 

Formal reward and recognition. What happens when fire starters are rewarded for their heroic firefighting? What criteria are your formal rewards and recognition based on?

 

Do you find ways to be able to thoughtfully represent the values you want to be emulated? If your number one value is teamwork, are teams or individuals more likely recognized?

 

The training budget. What do your training budget and process say about your expectations of excellence in regard to the skills you want your group to have? What roadblocks, such as an insufficient budget for classes and too many levels of approvals, have you put in the way of training?

 

How easy or hard it is to get the resources you need to do the job

job

How hard is it for people to get the tools or other resources needed to do their jobs or improve the performance of the jobs they are doing?

 

In some organizations, the process of getting new tools or other resources is a complete mystery. If the process is a mystery, it’s less likely anyone will ever ask. This may save expenses, but it is very costly in productivity.

 

Project postmortems. Too many organizations call project postmortems “write-only documents”; that is, someone writes them, but no one reads them. How project postmortems are done and how the results are used can be a key definer of organizational culture.

 

Yearly performance reviews. Sometimes these are key drivers to how people think about their jobs. Sometimes they are just an annual annoying check-box event that leaders and team members get through as quickly as possible. Yearly performance reviews can be dangerous when given specific results are tied to large bonuses.

 

These are too often tied to one measure at the exclusion of others, which in turn drives the leadership behavior in the wrong direction. How do they work in your organization?

 

You most likely can make the list longer. The point is if you take the effort to define what good is for your organization if you define your expectations of excellence, the interactions that happen daily and throughout the year should also reflect those expectations. 

 

Drives Organizations

Drives Organizations

Like it or not, meetings set the tone for an organization. If they drone, they can drain the energy from an otherwise good organization. In contrast, if meetings pulse with energy, the potential for greatness grows.

 

A key part of exceptional leadership is knowing this, taking ownership of it, and working to constantly refresh and improve the drumbeat that drives organizations. Take a moment and consider the following questions.

  1. How many meetings per month do you regularly attend? •
  2.  How many times do you leave meetings feeling energized? •
  3.  How often do you feel like you lost a bit of your life and want that time back?
  4. I have conducted surveys similar to this in many organizations, and the percentage of meetings that are labeled as energy draining is depressingly large.

 

It is not because people do not know how to run meetings. I was once asked to come to an organization to teach a class on how to run meetings.

 

I asked the group of thirty leaders to break into groups of six and provide me with their top recommendations on how to run great meetings. As expected, the leaders did an excellent job and provided a well-known list of best practices for running great meetings.

 

They knew how. The question was, “Why didn’t they do that?” There were many answers, but the solution was simply that they needed to go beyond the basic best practices of sending out agendas, making sure each agenda has a purpose, starting on time, ending on time, etc.

 

They needed to become masters of the rhythm that drove their organization. What follows are the keys to mastering your ability to drive the organizational rock and roll rhythm you desire.

 

Take Ownership of the Meetings You Own or Run

Ownership Meetings

This may seem obvious, but it is too often not. I once conducted a survey of all meeting attendees on the value of a weekly two-hour meeting that twenty people attended.

 

The survey came back with 100 percent of the people saying the meeting had no value to them, including the chair of the meeting. It turned out they all inherited this meeting from previous leadership and it kept going for two years with no value. It was immediately canceled.

 

This may seem like an outlier, but it is not. Many of the people who talk to me about poor meetings are those who own them. They seem to have forgotten they can and should take control.

 

Introduce Variety into Your Meetings

Meetings Plans

Vary the rhythm. Many weekly meetings are the same every week. Unless your desired outcome is boredom, vary it. Rotate agenda items. Consider different styles for the weeks.

 

A steady purpose is important, but you can achieve the purpose in many ways. Many leaders doing this build a list of potential meeting topics and styles for those topics. Before each standing meeting they pick which ones are most important to set the pace for that day, that week.

 

Consider the Types of “Feelings” You Want Your Meetings to Produce

Do you want your meeting to have a calming effect? Are you looking for the meeting to produce clear action and commitment to those actions for the upcoming week? Do you want to set the stage for breakthrough thinking?

 

Having the forethought to consider this before your meetings and achieving what you set out to represent a truly exceptional difference between good management and great leadership.

 

Conduct Anonymous Surveys

Surveys

Periodically, conduct an anonymous survey with questions similar to those provided at the beginning of this section. Find out what people really think. Work to become a master facilitator. Once you achieve that, keep working toward better. The difference it makes for setting the organizational culture is critical.

 

Recognize Results, Not Sweat

Fighting fires are admirable unless you created the fire in the first place. Too often, teams are rewarded for fighting fires that they started. Consider this organization, in which two teams were doing very similar work and leadership wanted to build a culture of delivering great products on time with high quality.

 

The Firefighting Red Team had followed the old culture of hurrying up and getting their product into the test phase. The test phase was taking a long time because there were so many defects to find.

 

They released to customers and the customers were calling leadership team members to get the problems addressed and fixed faster.

 

The Red Team project leader was often before the organizational leadership, giving status updates on how his team members were fixing the problems and the actions they were taking to recover the schedule. The Red Team was working significant extra hours finding and fixing defects.

 

All the Red Team members were extraordinarily proud of how responsive they were. They went into work early and they left late. They complained about dealing with customer phone calls on weekends, but they complained about pride. 

 

It was obvious to all that the Red Team was working exceptionally hard to delight the customers. You could see the sweat.

 

Meanwhile, the Green Team project leader encouraged her team members to work differently. They did prototypes they reviewed with customers. They did detailed designs that they inspected in detail for correctness. Team members diligently discussed and reviewed each other’s work to ensure the highest quality.

 

Testing of the product found no defects, nor did the customer. This customer also called organizational leadership. Unlike the other customers, this customer called just once, and it was to say thank you.

 

The Green Team project leader was only occasionally in front of the organizational leadership team. Her reports were often succinct, with the basic message that everything was on track to an early, successful delivery. The Green Team delivered on time, with extra content, no customer problems, and lots of customer delight.

 

There were only occasional late nights and weekends. Team members were proactive in talking with the customer about possible issues. They were responsive, but it was not visible unless you watched closely. There was no sweat.

 

Consider that you are the leader of this organization that had the Red Team, the Green Team, and various other projects. Be aware that there are many project leaders and many team members who are watching your leadership for what defines success in this organization.

critical questions

As the leader, these are the critical questions that you would face in this situation.

  1.  Does the Green Team or the Red Team leader have the most name and face recognition among your leadership team? Consider also the overall organization. 
  2.  Which team leader and which team are most likely to be publicly recognized and perhaps rewarded?
  3.  Which team leader is likely to be promoted?

 

Unfortunately, in too many organizations the Firefighting Red Team is rewarded and publicly recognized for its great effort, for its sweat. For example, in one organization after the product finally was released to the field, months late, the Red Team was given a big thank-you-for-the-extra-effort party.

 

The Green Team wasn’t invited. The Green Team leader in that example soon left to join an organization that recognized her abilities. Meanwhile, the Red Team leader was promoted and encouraged firefighting (and thus, albeit indirectly, fire starting) in all the leaders who reported to him.

 

In the rarer elite organizations, they reward the results, not the sweat. In those organizations, they hold up the Green Team results as the exemplar that they are shooting for. They hold lessons-learned sessions where the Green Team project leader and key team members present a “how we did it.”

 

The Green Team project leader is promoted. The results here are more teams that follow the exemplary model of high-quality, on-time results that delight the customer consistently.

 

Leaders will continue to practice those behaviors for which they are promoted.

Leaders

These actions are critical leadership moments that have a great effect on the long-term future of the organization. Consider the organization you want. The key challenge for busy leaders is to be able to see past the sweat and be able to recognize the results.

 

Use Skills Gaps as Opportunities to Grow the Culture You Need

Skills Gaps

There are times when you put up the high bar of your expectations of excellence and people simply cannot reach it. The way to keep the bar high is to give people the skills they need to reach it.

 

First, determine if it is a problem of talent. For talent, I am not referring to skill, but the ability to learn, the ability to excel in the domain the employees have chosen. If you are engaged in improving your organizational culture and find a gap with individuals who were successful before, it is almost certainly not a talent problem.

 

If it is not a talent problem, it is more likely either a skill or attitude problem. Note, however, that sometimes an attitude problem is masking a skill shortfall because many people are afraid of saying “I don’t know how to do that.”

 

If it appears to be an attitude problem and you cannot tell if it is a skill shortfall. Often, this will resolve the situation with either an “Okay, I will do this” or the individual being removed from the organization. Sometimes, it results in the confession, “I don’t know how to do this”—which brings us back to this section.

 

In my experience, most of the time it is not an attitude problem or a talent problem. It is simply that people in the organization have not been asked to do work in the way leadership is now urging.

 

For example, when TopShelf managers put forth their up-dated expectations of excellence, they really were asking people to work differently. Their first expectation of “delight the customer” was not new. Everyone knew that was the top priority before, and it remained the top goal.

 

That goal was at least partially successful because customers did love the features of the product, even if they didn’t like the quality issues or the lack of predictability on commitments made.

 

TopShelf was now also asking for things that the members of the top shelf division had not done before. They had not made sufficiently detailed plans to be able to make accurate commitments before.

 

This called for a set of planning methods that no one had undertaken before. Also, the majority of members had only done work where testing was the sole way to develop a product. TopShelf was again asking for new methods to be applied.

 

To be successful in getting your organization to be successful at meeting your expectations of excellence, you must provide the opportunity of time and resources to learn new skills. This includes various shapes of training and the opportunity to fail— and learn from that failure.

 

The following are five ways to build skills in your organization to meet the high bar you are setting.

 

1. Training

Training

Gathering the team and having everyone learn the basics of a planning methodology is often an excellent place to start in skill building.

 

When planning for a training budget and selecting who to give the training too, stay focused on your key purpose. It is not simply acquiring, for example, a course on planning; rather, focus on your culture and the specific success you desire.

 

2. Coaching

Coaching

Coaching moves the action from the classroom to the actual work. When organizations are working to acquire new skills, an expert who has achieved the results you are looking for in multiple organizations is the expert you are looking for.

 

The coach needs to be with the people learning new skills. The more often the coach is there for critical events to provide strong detailed guidance, the more rapid the improvement will be.

 

The best experts customize all the coaching to be focused on achieving the results within your specific organizational culture. It should not be focused on achieving fidelity to a specific methodology.

 

Too often, leaders are successful infidelity to a methodology and completely miss the value the project is supposed to be providing.

 

3. Mentoring

While coaching can be quite a labor intensive for the coach, mentoring is where an expert provides occasional guidance. Mentoring is often more focused not on acquiring specific skills but on helping leaders better execute those skills to create the environment, and the culture, they desire.

 

In the top shelf example, the leadership team had an expert mentor providing the leadership team itself guidance. They also had an expert coach provide foundational training followed by on-the-spot coaching for major events.

 

4. Clear Role Modeling

Role Modeling

TopShelf leaders had to face themselves in the mirror when looking at the organizational performance. As stated before, because all the teams were delivering late, that pointed to the leadership. When the leaders looked closely at the problem, with the mentor’s objective help, they saw that they were asking for the wrong thing.

 

They also saw that they were a role in modeling the wrong thing. They were consistently late to meetings that they had arranged with their project leaders. They often showed up unprepared and sometimes even asked “Why am I here?” when they had asked for the meeting in the first place.

 

TopShelf leaders knew that to have their teams perform to their expectations of excellence, they would also have to change.

 

5. The High Bar, Mistakes, and Learning

The final critical enabler to learning is this trifecta of values. As stated before, if you want to learn to occur, you must hold up the high bar of your expectations. This must not relent even when teams are falling short. Do not reward the sweat. Reward the results.

 

Do not punish falling short. There will be shortfalls, but from each shortfall, there will be learning—because you will always encourage learning with key questions about how the individuals and teams will improve with the next iteration.

 

Failure hurts.

Let us have no illusions or platitudes around it. If we strive to be exceptional leaders, we will engage in bold projects, and bold projects are not safe. They have risks. There will be failures and they will hurt.

 

Further, as leaders, we will strive to mentor, coach, prod, and encourage those who follow us to excel at the expectations of excellence we have established. Some will fail. It will hurt.

Failure

I have not met any leaders who haven’t had large, public failures and have not experienced the pain of frustration and sometimes embarrassment of that failure burn through them.

 

The key action of exceptional leadership, when confronted with failure, is to gather the great from the shrapnel of failure. The challenge is to use the experience as a learning opportunity for yourself and the whole organization.

 

Consider the case of a failed project I witnessed, which I call the “Case of the Team Divided.” The project team was about 100 people in a very large high-technology company of over 50,000 employees.

 

The team started well with great energy. The team was rich in cultural diversity and included many of the brightest people in the company. The leadership had given this team the task of building a new paradigm of technology to base future products on.

 

Unfortunately, the project team had a small schism occur early in the project between two of the strongest technical people on the project. One person preferred a rapid prototyping method he called swashbuckling speed.

 

The other lead technical person was looking to follow a rigorous engineering process. Which was correct? It was never resolved, and the small schism grew into a giant emotional chasm as the project progressed.

 

The first major technical review failed horribly. The team missed on their promises of what content would be delivered. Further, it didn’t work. The anger and finger-pointing among the team members were evident in the room with senior managers attending.

 

They did not disband the team. They used the following steps to bring the team together and as a way for the leader and the team to gather the good from the shrapnel of their failure.

 

The Need for Mountains

Mountains

If you see people having the same arguments over and over and again, it is almost always a battle about what the next steps should be, or what the overall solution should be. The root cause of this repetitive argument is not about being deadlocked on which solution is superior.

 

If those people battling took time out of the battle to dig deeper they would often find that the individuals deadlocked have different goals in mind. They are headed to different destinations.

 

Gather the People

Gather the People

The key for a successful learning event is to set a meeting on the calendar with ample time to work through the key lessons learned.

 

This should incorporate the original idea for the project, the key assumptions the process was based on, the planning process, and the skills and talents of the people working on it. People should properly prepare and be ready to celebrate the learning to take place.

 

Team members were reminded in writing and at all-hands meetings preparing for the post-mortem about how it would work and what the goal was. There was not any punishment, but there was a high bar set to figure out how to fix it. The team gathered. People were worried, but also optimistic based on the tone the leadership set.

 

Take a Moment to Recognize and Whine About the Failure

frustration

I know Edison said that each light bulb that didn’t work was progressing. However, out of those 10,000 “successful” failures, I expect there were at least one or two bulbs flung against the wall in frustration. Whining breaks are an important element of failure!

 

Start the meeting with time to recognize any of the pain associated with the failure of the project. Make it quick, though— there is real work to do. 

 

The facilitator set the stage for team members to speak personally and specifically about what the failure meant to them. It was not to be a blame session disguised as a whine. It had to be focused on personal experience alone.

 

The swashbuckling proponent shared how embarrassing the failure was to him and how he felt he had been a contributor to the failure. The rigorous engineering zealot shared a similar story.

 

Many team members contributed to this segment. In a de-brief later, attendees commented that this was the key section to the successful recovery. It was not sufficient, but it started the path to success.

 

Triage the Failure to Find the Great, the Useful, and the Horrible

Triage Failure

Hopefully, after the whine break, everyone can put emotions aside. This step is a scientist’s view of the failure. I have not yet seen a project where all elements of it were a failure. Triage the elements and find which parts are great, which parts are perhaps useful, and which parts belong on the refuse pile of historical interest only.

 

The team was able to triage fairly quickly. The group used data to understand which of the technical components were ready for production, which components needed work, and which ones to throw away.

 

Increase the Value of Your Process

Value

The next step is to reflect on the process used for the creation of the project thus far. See where any holes in the process have contributed to the failure. Seek ways in which you can increase the value of the process, even if that increase in value is finding your way to failure faster!

 

The team members came to the recognition that some of the components required the swashbuckling prototype approach and others needed the engineering approach, and always there was a point where they needed to come together. The schism was disappearing.

 

Do Not Make Your Development Process Risk Free

 Risk Free

Avoid the critical mistake of trying to make the process risk free. Many processes become large, unwieldy, and so completely safe that the bold has been completely squeezed out. They were so safe they were doomed to fail.

  1. Think of 100+ Ideas You Can Build on the Rubble of Failure
  2. The keystone habit of this action of exceptional leadership must be the ability to generate lots of new ideas based on what you just learned.
  3. The team members walked into the postmortem workshop depressed about the failure and worried about the future.
  4. They left the workshop with over 100 ideas of how to move the project forward and plans for 30 of them to be put into immediate practice. The schism was on the way to disappearing. They were ready for the challenge.

 

Conducting a postmortem of failures in this way rewards your expectations of excellence. By involving others, you ensure that each person is learning his or her own lessons as well as the lessons from others.

 

If failure is not dealt with in the proper way, it often leads to many of the worst traits from the taxonomy of trouble. Punishing the failure will lead to an abundance of cynicism. Ignoring the failure will make it seem that success and excellence are not important.

 

Doing a proper postmortem propels your organization forward with style!

REFLECTION POINTS

Consider the list of interactions that strongly affect organizational culture. They are repeated here for your easy reference.

  1.  Project review meetings How projects are started The formal expectations of excellence 
  2.  How meetings are run Weekly (or even daily) status meetings 
  3.  How bad news is received 
  4.  The training budget Formal reward and recognition The questions asked by leadership in the hallways 
  5.  Project postmortems How easy or hard it is to get the resources you need to do the job 
  6.  Yearly performance reviews

 

I encourage you to talk with a peer and discuss the following questions and your answers to them.

Which of these factors are the most important influencers in your organization? 

 

Lead Leaders: Growing Proven Ability

Lead Leaders

The most fundamental problem of leading leaders is that they can be unleadable too and in whole new ways. As one CEO told me, “The higher up a manager is in the organization, the more fog there is around that manager’s performance.

 

It is very hard to judge how well they are doing.”

The problem with the fog is it takes longer to see if the leader is the root cause of the problem.

 

The Special Challenge of Leading Leaders

 Leading Leaders

Leading a team where everyone works with you personally has many challenges. Typically, the ability to lead people personally and directly will begin to rapidly diminish at X number of people. The X number will vary with the leader, the people, and the situation. I have not personally seen that number exceed thirty people.

 

Note that I am not talking specifically about how many people are directly reporting to a manager on an organization chart. That situation does apply here; however, I am talking more broadly.

 

For example, there are people with very few others directly reporting or even none reporting to them on an organization chart. Yet, often these leaders are responsible for initiatives that involve over 1,000 people.

 

Thus, there are many situations where a leader will be leading a very large body of people. These people may include individual contributors, team members, and leaders.

 

In many situations, you may be leading leaders of leaders. Although there are many similarities between leading leaders and leading individual contributors, there are significant differences that deserve consideration. The following are the key differences. There is increased distance between you and much of the work. 

 

Thus, you will often be one or more levels removed from where the trouble is and even distant from the indicators of trouble. There could be troublesome projects or people who could be a risk for your whole organization. The good news for you is that the leaders you are leading should take care of it without needing your intervention.

 

The question is whether they are doing so fast enough. If the leader is not dealing with the trouble or dealing with it incorrectly, how would you know? And what actions should you be taking, if any?

 

 You do not know how the work is actually done. The skills that are involved in large initiatives are very diverse. Good leaders may actually know the names of even a thousand people who work for them. However, they will not know all of their backgrounds, nor will they know the details of how the work should be done. 

 

Troublesome leaders have a large impact. If a leader is the one creating trouble, the depth and breadth of the impact of the trouble grow significantly. The impact of that problem is amplified in a number of ways. First, it is likely that the trouble is affecting significantly more people than when it is caused by an individual contributor.

 

Second, the impact lasts much longer. A leader always has an impact on the people he leads. The impact lasts longer than the tenure the leader has with those individuals. What lessons have the leader’s followers learned? Are those lessons good for the organization?

 

Your breadth of responsibility increases. Many good managers find that they are like the legendary vaudeville act of the plate-spinning madman.

 

That person gets plates spinning on a tall stick and then runs from stick to stick to get and keep more and more plates spinning until many crashes, with much laughter from the audience. The same happens to many leaders without the laughter around them. 

 

With great power comes great . . . pressure. The more you are responsible for in leadership, the more intense the pressure most people feel. More and more people are looking for you to make decisions.

 

This includes the people you are leading, the people who sponsor you as a leader, and your peers as well. The impact of these decisions is greater. It is likely that if you are leading leaders, you do feel that pressure. Remember that the leaders you lead also are feeling their own.

 

There is an increased need for autonomy among the people whom you are leading. This is true when you are “simply” leading team members. It is even greater when you are leading leaders.

 

The more responsibility they have, the more autonomy those leaders require and should have. People need the space and capacity to make their own decisions, to make their own mistakes, and to complete excellent work, with a sense of great personal satisfaction that “I did it all by myself.”

 

Set Your Specific Expectations for Leadership Excellence

Leadership Excellence

In many organizations, it is obvious to almost anyone when there are troubles in the ranks of leadership.

 

One example of an obvious symptom of trouble is destructive conflict among leaders that leads to conflicts between the teams that they lead. Another symptom often seen is where individuals who work in a matrix organization get different priorities and directions from the different leaders they work with.

 

In the organizations where there is a significant issue in the leadership, the most common root cause is that the leader of the leaders has not clearly thought about the expectations for how the leaders working for them should lead.

 

If they have thought about those expectations, they are not acting upon those thoughts. Even if there is a strong idea, it has not been clearly articulated. This is the most important preventive measure in ensuring that the leaders you lead will more likely be tremendous than trouble.

 

Some leaders think that their expectations should be obvious, but unfortunately, they are not obvious. There is a great diversity of ways to lead. This is one of the reasons why there are so many blogs about leadership!

 

Also, within that diversity of ways to lead, exceptional leaders know that different circumstances call for different styles of leadership. The key is to make your expectations of leadership known.

 

What follows are my personal expectations of leadership excellence. It is fine if you wish to start with my list, but the most effective expectations are those that are specific and personal to you.

 

What truly motivates people is typically not money. It is critical for the leaders to engage each other in conversations about the purpose of their organization and of each of the projects that make up their mutual success.

 

For example, in the medical device industry, there is considerable work in the best organizations to ensure that everyone knows that the primary concern is to treat patients expertly and safely with the equipment they create. They are aware that the customers of their systems could very well be themselves or their children.

 

Take the long view. As a leader of leaders, you must have a longer view than any of the leaders working for you. The CEOs of larger organizations must be focused on creating next year’s business while other leaders focus on delivering today’s products, services, and promises.

 

To be clear, I expect everyone to be engaged in thinking about the long-term success of the organization. Each leader must be able to articulate the direction the company is going in and how the success of today contributes to longer-term potential.

 

The ability to provide services to customers is constantly changing in all industries. Besides being focused on satisfying today’s customers, leaders must be looking to the distant horizon. 

 

Your job as a leader is to grow the talent of the organization.

job leader

John Wooden won a thus far unmatched ten NCAA basketball championships as a coach. Whenever he was asked what was the most important factor, he replied without hesitation, “having the most talented players.” Hidden behind that short quote are very important concepts. The first is that you want to recruit and acquire talent.

 

That is obvious. The more important concept is that it is your job as a leader to grow the talent of each individual whom you lead. It is your job to provide each person you lead with inspiration, guidance, discipline, correction, training, and, most of all, the opportunity to make mistakes and to excel.

 

Expect the leaders who work for you to challenge you. If I am making decisions about our direction that you disagree with I would expect you to challenge me. I prefer you to challenge me politely and be able to back it with facts.

 

If you can’t do that, and you only have an emotional gut feel, I still expect the challenge. Further, if I ask a leader to deliver a project with a key set of attributes by a specific date and that leader doesn’t challenge me, that leader has made a commitment.

 

I do not expect that we will always have harmony. I expect a constructive, collaborative conflict. Each of you who are leaders has significant talent and ambition. I expect each of you to have more ideas than we could possibly accomplish. I expect my leaders to be competing for the rare top talent performer positions in our organization.

 

I do not expect harmony. However, I will not tolerate destructive conflict. We will argue our positions with data, facts, and intuition. I expect that some of the discussions could be loud and emotional. We will stay focused on our common goals. We will make decisions through a process that strengthens our relationships and trust in each other. 

 

Get things done. You are still responsible for the ultimate success or failure of the overall group and initiative. Is that enough said? As an individual contributor, you are responsible for getting your stuff done. As a leader of individuals, you are responsible for getting stuff done through the people you lead.

 

As a leader of leaders, you are absolutely still responsible for the success and failure of each of the leaders you are responsible for. I challenge each leader to get things done while growing the talent of his or her teams and collaborating with his or her peers. It is a high bar of excellence. I expect nothing less.

 

The most critical part is that exceptional leaders know what they expect, and they let the leaders lead know what those expectations are.

 

Trouble Spotting: The First 100 Days

clear expectations

Setting clear expectations of leadership excellence clears much of the fog that obscures your view of a leader’s performance. This, of course, is not the whole story. The next step is to follow through on those expectations in a way that ensures that your expectations are being met and, better yet, exceeded.

 

There are two distinct phases of spotting trouble with the leaders you lead. The first phase is when they have just come under your leadership. Many people consider the “first 100 days” to be the most critical. I believe that number varies considerably with the pace and stress of your own organization. The second phase is, naturally, the ongoing work of leadership.

 

The following are techniques for spotting potential trouble in the first phase of a leader joining your organization.

Ask them to report on the strengths and weaknesses of the organization that they are joining.

 

When a new leader joins you, I would recommend you set the leader on a mission to interview as many people as is rational in both the team of people they will be leading and across the whole organization. This provides a unique opportunity to do multiple things.

 

First, you can get a fresh perspective on how the organization is performing. Second, you will be able to quickly judge much of the leader’s character and how she thinks about things from the report she provides you.

 

Third, you are providing the new leader rapid socialization into the organization. Fourth, you are setting the expectation clearly and strongly that you listen to the people she is leading and working with.

 

I would do this even with people who were already in the organization and are being promoted to new positions.

 

It is perhaps even more important in these situations. They will think they already know about the organization. Taking this listening tour will provide each of them with a whole new perspective.

 

Moreover, people who have been promoted often have a hard time getting other employees to think about them as having this new role in leadership. The listening tour rapidly changes that perspective.

 

Start the leader with a difficult challenge.

Start leader

I encourage you to give new leaders difficult immediate challenges with clear sets of expectations and deadlines. I also prefer that they will need more than the team that they are leading and have to collaborate with others within and even external to the organization in order to meet the challenges.

 

You may consider this “throwing someone in the deep end to see if he can swim.” You would be correct. The timing for doing this is perfect at the beginning. Typically, when you bring a new person to work for you as a leader, this is the time when you can provide the most attention to him.

 

The more important thing is that you really do want to know not just if he can swim but how he swims and if there are any troublesome attributes. This approach will help you see any of those troubles and see them early.

 

Engage them in conversations about the most difficult challenges they are most likely to face while leading in your organization.

If you have been leading the overall organization for any length of time, you will most likely know where the trouble spots are and what issues are almost certain to arise. Provide possible scenarios to new leaders and ask them how they would respond to the situations if they do arise. Provide examples of what has happened in the past.

 

These conversations are fascinating. You will learn a considerable amount about how these new-to-you leaders think. You will learn about how they are likely to handle situations.

 

Also, your conversations will be active opportunities to model how your working relationships will be. The way you provide guidance here will be a model for how you will provide guidance later.


Trouble Spotting: Ongoing Leadership

Ongoing Leadership

After the initial new-to-the-organization phase, a pattern for how you work together will be established. 

 

As the leader of leaders, you will, of course, have many things to do. You won’t have the time even if you had the desire to be constantly investigating whether your leaders are doing a great job. In fact, you are expecting it.

 

However, you still want to be continually honing your trouble-shooting radar. All the techniques in that blog still apply. You want to be able to see trouble coming and be able to deal with it before it is obvious. It is obvious you have trouble when you repeatedly have issues with on-time, quality deliverables.

 

It is obvious when the top talent in the organization is complaining about a leader, and even worse when these talents are fleeing the organization to find better leadership.

 

Here are a few specific ways to determine whether there is trouble before it has greatly impacted your organization.

The leader’s negative attitude days are noticeable. Consider the impact when one of your leaders is cutting off other leaders or their own team members in conversations. Consider how it reflects on you if a leader you are responsible for is dismissing other people’s ideas or concerns with no conversation.

 

It is amazing to me how many leaders tolerate leaders who work for them and display such negative attitudes. I know there are reasons to be cynical or sarcastic. I know that some days are worse than others. I know that sometimes, one can feel like a victim and just need a minute or two to whine that it is unfair that some negative thing happened.

 

Do not tolerate this as a daily habit, nor even a weekly habit. If leaders are acting that way with you or in the meetings you are leading, it is likely to be happening even more in situations with the people they lead.

 

The energy levels of the teams they lead are lower than the rest of the organization. It is important to watch the energy levels of your leaders and of those whom they lead.

 

As I noted in a previous blog, it is important to walk around and talk to people. You can also notice energy levels. Be careful not to react to a single set of events or days but do watch the trends over time.

 

If a set of people seems demoralized, it is almost certain to be that they are, and it is their leader’s responsibility to address the situation. Circumstances do not make up the motivation level of the team. It is always the leader.

 

Engage in a listening campaign.

listening

Ask team members how it is going and then listen. It is surprising to me how many organizations have situations where leaders feel it is inappropriate to walk around and ask about how projects are going.

 

They do not want to undercut their leaders. I understand that, but you are not undercutting anyone if you are giving advice or direction.

 

It is your responsibility to understand how your organization is working. It is actually fine to ask people directly how well a leader is performing. If you have concerns, ask before they are in your office telling you why they are quitting.

 

scheduling

She scheduled a private meeting with Tom and prepared her concise, nonjudgmental concerns to discuss with Tom. She noted her observations. She also reported the key points she heard from people she talked to in the organization. She did so without identifying the people.

 

This meeting led to a lengthy series of discussions between Jane and Tom throughout the week. They ended up canceling many meetings because they knew they needed to remedy a few problems and they needed a plan to do so.

 

Building Jane and Tom’s Bridge to Success

The first problem they had to remedy was the broken trust between Jane and Tom. Tom’s initial reaction to Jane’s comments was some denial and some anger. Jane was deeply concerned about this. She wanted Tom to take the issues seriously and act upon them. She started to lose trust that Tom would do well in the organization.

 

Jane was focused on building a loyal customer base and creating a great workplace culture. She brought Tom in because of his experience in helping organizations keep pace with a growing customer base.

 

However, this meeting caused her to wonder if he was bringing the strict disciplinary cultures of his previous organizations, which were not known for having great workplace cultures, to her organization.

 

In their ensuing conversations on this topic, Jane realized that she had not had a discussion about her expectations of excellence in leadership for her organization. She discovered that

 

Tom believed that he had been hired as a “turn-around manager.” He assumed incorrectly that the organization was failing and that rapid changes needed to be put in place and enforced.

 

This explained many things. They then discussed Jane’s expectation for Tom, which was to help the company accelerate growth based on its current success. This delighted Tom and led to completely new discussions with great insights from Tom about the stresses that would come with rapid growth.

 

Tom apologized for how he had been approaching the situation. To rebuild the bridges that Tom had broken, they designed a listening campaign.

 

The Listening Campaign

 Listening Campaign

The final part of the bridge to Tom’s success was the listening campaign. Tom realized that he essentially needed to reboot his relationship with many people in the organization.

 

Tom had not employed the listening campaign at the start of his new role in Jane’s company that I detailed in the previous section in this blog. Tom did this now.

 

Tom did report that it initially was not easy for him. He realized that his previous roles were under very different circumstances that called for quick actions.

 

He found that his listening campaign truly changed his perspective on the organization. More important, he found that it established deep trust with those whom he needed to work with to grow the organization. The most excellent news is they did.

 

In many ways, this is the definition of mentorship. This blog’s reflection points focus on mentorship.

  1.  Think of the most powerful mentor you have had in forging you to be the leader you are today. What was it that made that relationship special so you were able to learn so much? 
  2.  In the mentoring you have done, have you been as good as or better than the best mentors you have worked with? What are the key things you could do to improve your mentoring by an order of magnitude?
  3.  In what ways could you grow your own skills by mentoring others?
  4.  If you have managers reporting to you, which ones could use help?
  5.  What is stopping you? 

 

Exceptional Self-Leadership

Self-Leadership

Consider the stressed, tired, overwhelmed manager. Will she notice the early warning signs of trouble? Will he be able to handle the situations from the taxonomy of trouble in a way that transforms the troublesome to tremendous? How can you handle the maverick, cynic, or diva when you are consistently having a “difficult day” yourself?

 

It is possible, but it is also unlikely.

If you truly want to be an exceptional leader who can consistently provide great value, to have a positive impact, and even to transform troublesome situations to tremendous, then the focus must start with your inner game of leadership.

 

The following are some of the symptoms of someone who has not yet taken control of his or her own leadership.

I have worked with many leaders who identified deeply with this list of symptoms. Many of them were actually very good leaders. Nevertheless, they often felt like they were constantly battling to accomplish what needed to be accomplished.

If you are like these leaders, you rated most of these items as “often” or worse.

 

The rest of this blog describes a number of mindsets and methods to take full ownership of your leadership.

 

Find Your Leadership Sweet Spot

On a tennis racquet, there is a miraculous zone known as the sweet spot. If, when swinging your racquet, you miss the sweet spot it will jar your arm, and you are much more likely to miss the spot you are aiming for. Further, missing the sweet spot repeatedly will tire you more quickly.

 

When you hit that miraculous spot, your body follows through swiftly and smoothly, and the ball is much more likely to spring off your racquet with great speed toward the spot on the court you desire.

 

The sweet spot on a tennis racquet is where multiple forces are designed to come together to create a harmonic response. The same is true for leadership. When you do work that misses your leadership sweet spot, it is jarring and more quickly drains your energy. When you do work from your sweet spot, it provides more energy to you than you put into it.

 

This is also an intersection of three forces that you can control to come together to create a great harmonic response. Let’s look at these three elements.

 

 Passion. This is the type of work that energizes you. You like this style of work and like doing the work in this area. This is the work that puts a smile on your face. You know you are passionate about an area of work when you find that when you are engaged in its time can pass quickly without you noticing. 

 

Competence. Competence is simply having the skills needed to make the work successful. When you have passion and competence the work done will provide you with great pleasure and pride. You may not necessarily start with the skill level needed, but if you have the passion it is likely you will acquire it. Further, it is likely you will keep improving.

 

Value. To do work that truly energizes you in the long run, the work that intersects with your passion and competence must also be work that provides value to others.

 

Exceptional leaders are very conscious of what work fits in their sweet spots and what does not. They will work to create ways to grow their sweet spots.

 

They will also try to attract the work they want to go to the center of their leadership “racquets.” When I have mentored leaders to take more control of their own leadership, this is often one of the first things we work on.

 

I ask them to track a week of their activities and to note which activities feel like they are hitting the sweet spot and which activities are jarring. People find this a surprising exercise because they are always learning things about themselves and their work that they didn’t know.

 

Many who have done this exercise learned that there are other factors that affect their sweet spots. Everyone agrees that the three listed are critical. Some people have found other things that are important to them as well, such as the physical work environment, the people they work with, or the financial stability of the organization.

 

Some discovered that they have more than one sweet spot. They uncover different areas of work where passion, competence, and value intersect. Many learned that their sweet spots evolved over time. After a period their passions changed and, thus, unlike a tennis racquet, their sweet spot moved!

 

Most importantly, they learned that they can make their sweet spots bigger! By taking ownership of their leadership, they guided more work to hit their sweet spots. As they grew better at this, they found ways to also grow their sweet spots through more passion, more competence, and more reciprocal value to those they served.

 

How to Supercharge Your Energy

Are people more likely to be drawn to a happy, positive leader projecting energy or to an obviously tired and stressed leader?

 

The answer is quite obvious. Yet, most people act as victims of their own energy levels. So many leaders have told me “I would have gotten more sleep if . . .” or “Those meetings I attend drain me, if only . . .” or “The weeks are so stressful, I am completely drained by the end.” The list of excuses for a low energy level is a long and tiring one.

 

Exceptional leaders are energetic. Certainly, exceptional leaders do get tired. It is not that they are all endowed with a natural gift of infinite energy. The difference is that they have endowed themselves with a very specific gift. This is the gift of finding the best ways of energizing themselves and avoiding the things that drain their personal energies.

 

Consider what happens when we have lower energy, or even feel tired:

  1. We work slower.
  2. We get more easily distracted.
  3. We are more easily stressed.
  4. We make more mistakes.
  5. All of which means we work slower on the next day cleaning up those mistakes.
  6. All of which could lead to not sleeping well and sleeping less.

 

Which leads to lower energy, which leads to more stress, which leads to an endlessly exhausting loop.

energetic

When people are feeling relaxed and energetic, they typically have a much more productive time. The following things generally result from working from a place of high energy:

  1. Clear thinking.
  2. Faster action.
  3. Fewer mistakes.
  4. Less rework caused by previous problems created when tired.
  5. People enjoy being around you.
  6. You sleep more soundly as there is less stress.

 

All of which leads to higher energy, which leads to an endless energizing loop.

Anyone who has been on an airplane knows that the flight attendants always encourage the passengers with the standard speech:

 

“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. If you are traveling with someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.”

 

I have been told by a friend who is a flight attendant that you must do this because once that mask descends there are less than eight seconds before you are unconscious. Putting your oxygen mask on first is a good idea and a good metaphor for a crisis situation. 

 

For daily living, it is more useful to think about your personal fuel management system. Consider your fuel tank, your reserve systems, and how to keep them near full fuel and what to do when you are running low.

 

It is up to us as individuals to take control of our “fuel management system.” Be aware of the energy boosters. Be aware of the energy drains. Be aware of the size of your fuel tank. Take actions to improve. Each investment in improving this system will pay back many times over!

 

There are four key ways to master ownership of your energy levels: 

Do things that energize you. This is not as obvious as it sounds. It takes the effort to recognize the activities that give you more energy both inside and outside of work.

 

The real trick is consciously taking the time to do those things. Too many people fall into habits of convenience (such as, “Oh let’s just watch another movie,” instead of taking a walk through the woods).

 

Track the things that fall into your leadership sweet spot. Track the things that energize you and the things that drain your energy. Doing this for a short time will provide insights that may surprise you.

 

Manage the energy drains in your life. Are there activities you do at work that seem exhausting? Are there people you sometimes interact with who just seem to drain your energy? Exceptional leaders are very aware of these and use various techniques to minimize the energy drains.

 

Make a list of the drains and brainstorm ways you can counter their effects or reduce how frequently these occur. This may seem selfish but decreasing the energy drains and increasing your happiness and energy is a gift to everyone!

 

Be prepared for energy dips. The first two items are proactive actions you can take. Even with those actions clearly, managed, there are times of the week, even during each day, when it feels that your energy has just fled.

 

Be prepared. Carry your favorite energy snacks. Hydrate. Take a brisk walk. Make some of your one-on-one meetings walking meetings. What are your best techniques?

 

Give yourself the gift of empty spaces. Some good managers are proud of being too busy to get enough sleep, to go for walks, or simply to pause and stare at a distant horizon. The exceptional leaders cherish these moments and work to create these spaces for themselves, often on a daily basis.

 

Some good managers believe it is a badge of honor to be tired and stressed, as it is an indicator of how hard they are working. Meanwhile, the exceptional leader is like organized lightning, with both a calming presence and an intensity that raises the whole energy of the situations they engage.

  1. I know which leader I strive to be.
  2. Which leader do the people around you think you are?

 

Take Control of Every Week

Hopefully, you see the wisdom of taking control of your leadership sweet spot and of supercharging your energy. To best be able to take control of those keys, you must take control of your time.

 

The best way to do this is to have a regular planning process. I personally have a process for planning a very long period of time, such as a decade, one for planning my year, one for my month, and also one for planning my week.

 

If you can’t control the time in your week, the rest won’t matter. Your weekly personal planning process should focus on controlling (or at least greatly influencing) where the time in your week goes.

 

This example process has ten steps.

Relax

Relax into the week. Take time to consciously prepare your mindset for the week. It is useful for many people to have a key phrase or two to be a reminder of traits they are working on.

 

For example, some leaders simply use this step to remind themselves how the week ahead is a choice of what things they choose to do and the attitude they bring to how they will do those things.

 

Review and refresh upcoming family events. Many leaders who have excelled at work find that they need to put family events first on their planning processes or they make costly mistakes in squeezing out some of the really important things in their lives.

 

Look ahead at least two months and determine if there are any major things you want or need to do for the benefit of the family.

 

Look at the upcoming week and think about family. Refresh in your mind upcoming events. Add any new events if needed. Note any actions taken at the end of your planning session.

 

Look at your main upcoming work goals and events. It is so easy to get pulled into the mundane of the day to day and lose track of where you really want to go. Look ahead. Think about your major goals. Think about major events. Note if there are any significant things you need to do this week.

 

Review your calendar for the upcoming week. Review the events already on your calendar. The upcoming week has almost certainly had more requests come in for your time via meetings or requests for you to do specific things.

 

It may have grown over the weekend. Note which of the items are in your sweet spot and fitness goals, which ones really don’t, and which ones fall into a bit of a gray area. You don’t need to decide yet!

 

Consider your key stakeholders. If you are a CEO or a project leader, you have key stakeholders who can help or hinder the initiatives you have in mind. Determine whether there is anyone you should contact this week to build momentum toward your goals.

 

Take a moment to consider those you lead. How is the group energy? Are there any spots that you are concerned about? Are there any people who could use some “trouble prevention” or “trouble correction” actions?

 

Note that in all these steps you should be thinking about whether you can ask others to help you. Asking for help is one of the key steps for growing your leadership sweet spot.

 

Consider the specific things you are working on. Is progress on track? Is any extra effort needed in key spots? Should you be asking for help in any areas? 

 

Take Ownership of Your Leadership:

Ownership Leadership

 

We work in the organizations we work in because we accepted positions there. No one forced us to do the work that we do. The person you really work for is you.

 

I find that the people who have truly accepted this idea deal with the most common difficulties in simple, eloquent ways. The following example provides a template for how to transform troublesome stakeholders above and beside you into tremendous collaborators.

 

The Case of Too Many Bosses

When you have multiple stakeholders, it is rare for those stakeholders to agree on what your top priority is. Managers doing this poorly react to whoever is the loudest on that day.

 

The other poor reaction is to simply work harder. These are reactions based on fear of repercussions from taking ownership of personal leadership power.

 

The proper action is to recognize that if there is no agreement on your priorities, then the only one who is going to set them is you. The fact is, you are already doing that, even if it is based on the process of “who is the loudest.”

 

If you take ownership of this reality you can set the priorities and then publish what the priorities for the organization are.

 

The next step is to provide a way for new priorities to be set. Work with the multiple stakeholders so that they know the challenges each of the other stakeholders face. Provide a process for them to come to a consensus on how they can change the priorities of the organization you lead.

 

The final key to this is that you are one of the stakeholders for your organization. Take ownership of your leadership power.

 

REFLECTION POINTS

Owning your personal leadership power is the most powerful tool you will ever have in transforming the troublesome to the tremendous.

Do you own your power of leadership? Consider the following questions.

 

Track the things you do for a month. How much of the time do you feel like you are working from your leadership sweet spot where you get more energy out of the activity then you put into it? 

  1. Do the people you work around look at you as “often over-whelmed and stressed” or more like “organized lightning”?
  2.  Do you generally take control of where your time goes? Are others getting great impact and value from the time you are spending? 
  3.  Have you consciously worked to improve in any key areas? Do you have a process for improvement that you are improving? 
  4.  What steps are you taking to improve your ownership of your leadership? 

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