Tightrope of Leadership; Balancing Positivity with Authenticity and Candor

Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them. —John C. Maxwell

By Jennifer Bezoza 

 

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Recently, I have been thinking about the delicate balance that leaders need to weigh in being both authentic to their voice and disposition, while also cognizant about what is useful and motivating to share with their team members.   It’s easy to understand at an intellectual level that leaders’ words and behaviors paint a huge horizon (if positive) or alternatively, a dark shadow (when negative).  Gallup conducted open-ended research from 10,000 people about what we most value from our leaders, and they discovered that people most value leaders for their ability to convey hope, stability, trust and compassion.  We want our leaders to paint a brighter tomorrow and give us hope that things will be better, that we will reach our goals and reach our potential.  We want leaders to cheer us and our organizations to the finish line.

But let’s be real. We’re all human beings who experience a range of emotions on a daily, if not hourly basis.  It is hard for leaders to maintain an inspiring and calm demeanor for colleagues and direct reports in the face of complex business challenges, big workloads, high stress, and typical organizational and business constraints.  It actually seems more unnatural for leaders to always feel upbeat and optimistic. Yet that’s generally what we want and need from leaders.  So how can leaders walk that tight rope of real while also inspiring?   Read below about two different client case studies that explore this delicate “tightrope” of leadership.

I recently completed an engagement with a leader who initially felt that “editing” herself from justified emotional outbursts, loose talking at the water cooler or frank disagreement with leadership decisions was akin to being fake and in conflict with who she was. 

 It took time and also substantive qualitative data from the 360 review to see how “letting it all hang out” was hurting her credibility, demotivating her employees and also making her desired promotion out of reach. On a positive note, she also saw that her words and behaviors had a huge impact on others; she grew in her desire to be an inspiring leader to others, and wanted to use her voice in positive ways.   This fundamental shift to focusing more on positively developing and inspiring others and less on speaking candidly at any moment was a game changer.

She was then able to slow herself down and reflect on her intentions before speaking, whether in meetings with senior leaders, on a conference call or merely reading her emails in an open workspace.  She now would ask herself the following questions: Will this be useful and productive? Or just entertaining, at the expense of other more substantive business and professional conversations and comments? 

Since the goal for her was to be an inspiring manager and leader, we needed to translate that to her behavior in every day moments and conversations.  Holding her tongue from a dramatic expletive became easier when it conflicted with her genuine desire to positively inspire others, even if that outburst was completely justified and a form of comic relief at times. 

As is natural with behavior change, it doesn’t happen over night and there are inherent relapse moments and errors; the distinction of change is recognizing the lapse, and getting back on track with the goal.  Often, I ask clients to reflect on how they will confront this type of situation going forward to reinforce the desired change.

For another client, leading an early start up organization, the challenge was not regulating his emotions and negative comments, but rather how much information to share with junior team members early on in a decision process.  As a collaborative, inclusive leader of a lean team, his initial instinct was to share preliminary thinking on various issues, with hopes of gaining further clarity.  What he quickly realized, however, was this type of openness created anxiety for team members and seemingly reduced his credibility.   
To help him to avoid this pattern of “processing out loud,” and appearing uncertain, he needed alternative approaches for brainstorming and thinking throughout the day.  We explored how he had generated his best thinking on decisions in the past, which led him back to an old-fashioned notebook and pen for preliminary processing and playing with ideas.  Not only did this introverted leader appreciate the quiet space for thinking privately, but also felt a lot better about showing up to the team with more developed options and thinking.  

At the end of the day, leaders are imperfect humans just doing the best they can in every moment.  Yet with clear intention and practice, leaders choose to bring their best selves so that others can do the same.  In my mind, this does not conflict with authenticity or realism.  The art of leadership is how to interweave the positive vision and encouragement with the dose of reality and candor. 

Making Difficult Conversations, Well, Less Difficult

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So often the anticipation of having a "difficult conversation" is worse than the reality of actually having the conversation. We build it up in our heads, avoid it and imagine the worst case scenario for it.  We may feel too emotional about a topic to hold a productive conversation or we may anticipate the subject may be too emotional for the other person so we may avoid it for too long.  

I recently had the opportunity to teach a few half day classes on behalf of Bluepoint Leadership for a financial services client; this particular client is going through a major transformation in how they provide technology services internally.   As a self-described "nice" culture, the organization's leadership wanted to enhance technology leaders capacity to confront business leaders productively and transparently, and help business partners to own the change implementation process alongside the technology function; thus, they needed to build managers confidence and competence in leading delicate conversations with the internal client groups they serve.  

 So often, what makes the difference between a difficult and productive conversation is our level of care and planning in advance of the conversation.  What I increasingly appreciate in reflecting on this topic intensely over the last several weeks is that our tolerance and savvy for difficult conversations grows exponentially the more we do it. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself and also practice answering with a thought partner when you are thinking about broaching a difficult conversation with someone else at work or in your life:

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5 Questions from Bluepoint Leadership for Overcoming Barrier of Having Difficult Conversation:

1.)  How could having this conversation positively advance the cause?

2.) What could be the worst case scenario of having this conversation?

3.) What would be ideal outcome of having this conversation?  

4.) Do you care enough about this person, this work and the beneficial outcomes to broach this topic?

5.) What is the most constructive, positive next step(s) you can take to prepare for the conversation? 

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In addition, I want to share four key steps in organizing your thinking for leading a difficult conversation where you want to drive change.  I came up with this acronym in teaching Bluepoint's 5 step model for difficult conversations, as I wanted to simplify the number of things you have to think about when you are already feeling anxious in anticipation of a difficult discussion.  These steps need not happen chronologically in every situation, but they certainly offer a logical flow if you do choose to follow the order of the framework laid out below.  

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ACED: A Framework for Leading Difficult Conversations: 

  • A ffirm the person.  This is about acknowledging and seeing this person three dimensionally.  It can be as simple as empathizing with what they might be going through, appreciating the relationship you have with this person, and/or it can be speaking to shared values you have around a particular project or outcome.  It also may be authentically acknowledging their past contributions and/or talents in some way.   
     
  • C onfront the facts.  This is the part of the conversation that often puts the pit in our stomachs!  Here is where we need to share what may feel like hard news or uncomfortable feedback.  How we share this information may make the difference between someone being receptive and open to change vs. being defensive and dismissive.  Key tips are speaking to observed facts, results and behaviors, and also discussing impact of behavior on others, yourself and/or the larger context.  It may be acknowledging the gaps and also the desired goals that you are working toward.
     
  • E xplore the options.   I equate this portion of the conversation to the coaching portion of the conversation.  This is your opportunity to expand the context and viewpoint of the person with whom you are speaking.   You want to think about widening the lens and allowing them to see from fresh perspective.  You also want to support this person to feel ownership and choice in how to resolve or move forward in this situation.  Open ended questions should be used throughout a difficult conversation, but should be leaned upon heavily in this portion of the conversation. 
     
  • D rive change forward.   This is final phase of the conversation where you need to do two things: 1.) enhance another person's confidence and motivation for working toward the desired vision and outcome and 2.) help them think practically about the immediate next steps for organizing 

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 In teaching this topic, I have had to ask myself whether I am fully seizing every opportunity I have to be a positive change agent as a coach and consultant, a parent, a friend and colleague, and as a concerned citizen.  I realize that with lots of practice, it has become much easier and even seamless for me to regularly confront difficult topics, and also to make those "difficult" conversations natural, respectful and even enjoyable. 

Especially in today's climate, where political outcomes and decisions in Washington, DC may have thrown us for a loop, it's grounding and affirming to be able to speak up and impact change in our sphere of influence.   It seems there is no better time to be able to navigate and confront meaningful topics, in face of an increasingly volatile national and international climate.  

Here is to many productive and meaningful conversations that lead to positive outcomes in 2017!

Want better results? Write better goals with the TIP Model!

One of the most critical elements to any successful coaching relationship is helping an individual to effectively frame his or her goals.  It seems so simple and straightforward, yet it involves surprising complexity to write effective goal statements.   I often find that successful goal-setting involves a playful creativity, an editor’s diligence for rework, and a scientific detachment to ensure that one's goals are three things outlined in the model below. 

GoALS SHOULD BE....

1.  PITHY – A rallying statement should be short and sweet, ideally 7 words or less.  Just as less is so often more in today’s overwhelming world, so too with a goal statement; the goal should be easy to remember and reflect upon throughout the coaching relationship.

2. INSPIRING – You know you have gotten to the right statements when you feel genuinely moved and absolutely thrilled and even shocked at the prospect of completing/realizing the goal statements.   Thus far, the end point has seemed completely elusive and unattainable.   To me, this is the most important and exciting aspect of any goal setting process.  A great goal incites you to imagine and believe in a new possibility that was not conceivable previously.

3. TANGIBLE –  Whether quantitatively or qualitatively, there needs to be a tangible means for you to know or feel that things have changed.  A quantitative metric is often the most clear cut way for the goal to be tangible, but it may also be a completed deliverable or a particular result or state of mind, that is qualitatively clear in nature.   What can be sometimes challenging about building this piece in is that a quantitative measure can often be in conflict with the inspiring part of a goal statement.  The tangible measure is often the “head” to the inspiration’s “heart” of the goal, and both need to be balanced in a goal statement.

After putting this to paper, I realized these attributes form the acronym PIT, which could sound slightly negative in one sense, but on other, it is about getting to the core of the client’s sincerest dream or intention that has often been too long deferred.  You have to get past the fleshy fruit to get at the seed for change.  And if you don’t like the analogy, flip it to the TIP model!  

Here are examples of well-articulated goals, both professional and personal, which hit the mark on all of the above.

  • Acquire 5 new client contracts
  • Spend 1 day a week on division strategy
  • Secure a publisher for first novel
  • Run half marathon in less than 2 hours
  • Feel a sense of ease 90% of time

We hope you will remember to check your goals against the TIP model the the next time you want to frame a goal for yourself or support someone else in setting goals.    Let us know if we can help you craft or refine your goal statements.  Here's to getting to the core of some very sweet fruit this Summer! 


New Product Based on Three Trends Here to Stay

Our newest professional development offering has been germinating for quite a long time based on trends we see as here to stay. This offering builds around these trends.  We'd love to tell you more, but you have to do a little reading below! 

Here's what we see: 

Lack of reading time: Even the most thoughtful and engaged professionals are not devoting a ton of time to reading.  According to research by the National Endowment of the Arts, reading has declined among every group of adult Americans, and particularly among business people.  A 2012 HBR article asserts that "deep, broad reading habits are a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy and personal effectiveness."  Reading is an under-appreciated  aspect of leadership development. Our approach builds accountability and community to change this unfortunate trend.

Inability/Unwillingness to take time out of office. Another trend we see is that leaders and organizations are no longer able and/or willing to send themselves or others to “training” for a week or even day(s) at a time.  (As we also know people are also taking fewer and shorter vacations in the U.S.)   In our new offering, we bring the training to the client's office and facilitate workshops that take just 1.5-2 hours of time out of the workday.

Development on the job. Research also shows that most learning and development should and does happen in the course of performing one’s job. Thus, we need training methods that are more in line with the pace of business and that allow people to learn gradually and practice new concepts and skills over time.   In our offering, we assign readings and reflection in advance of the session, and then our workshops invite action and application as follow up. Furthermore, since peers are reading with one another, there is a shared new language and culture to try new things out. 

So what is the offering really? 

We run professional development series for organizations, whereby we will select 3-4 readings annually for client organizations based on strategic priorities.  We will then facilitate 2-hour workshops with peer colleagues that allow for reflection, discussion and application of relevant tools on the job.  

We ask you keep our offering in mind with clients who have intellectually oriented workforce and who want to offer a perk to their employees: the gift of reading, reflecting and connecting with others on relevant new ideas. 





Four Levels of Learning Evaluation

For one of my coaching clients, a main goal is enhancing her skills in planning, facilitating and delivering learning seminars for maximum impact.     Having worked in learning and development for so long, I sometimes take for granted this skillset as intuitive and it's been fun to revisit and support my client in building her own set of competencies in this area.  

One model that can be helpful in building and evaluating any kind of learning forum, workshop or even a presentation is Donald Kirpatrick's "Four Levels of Learning Evaluation" model.   Dr. Kirpatrick researched and refined this model many times over his lifetime (I was sorry to learn that he passed away this year at age 90 and have found his work very valuable).  The model purports that you can evaluate an employee training/seminar/course at the following levels:

Kirpatrick's Four Levels of Learning Evaluation 

1.) Reaction - what participants think and feel about training experience
  (often evaluated through surveys)

2.) Learning - actual knowledge, skills and/or attitudes that are gained in the training
(often evaluated through demonstration of knowledge or test)

3.) Behavior - application of the resulting skills, knowledge and/or attitudes on the job
(often evaluated a 3-6 months after training through observation)

4.) Results - actual organizational outcomes individually and collectively achieved as a result of/in part because of training  (often measured in quantitative or qualitative metrics)

It is very difficult to practice all four levels of evaluation in organizations, and I would argue that most organizations still evaluate training at level one.  I wanted to offer a few tips that I often use in actually building a learning session from the front end, which won't necessarily bring you to level 4, but can help you to build a more impactful learning experience overall.

  • Start with the end in mind.  Articulate 2-5 learning objectives for your audience/participants prior to starting on any content development and design conversations for any type of talk or training.   This is a great reference point to keep referring back to for yourself or for the vendor or colleague you have asked to deliver the session.  
     
  • Review workshop materials through with real audience member(s) or stakeholder in advance.  Prior to delivering actual session, it's helpful to review the outline and format with an organizational stakeholder or participant to ensure the approach and content feels relevant and on point for the goals of the sessions.  This sounds so intuitive and simple, but you'd be surprised how often it actually does not happen! I have seen many valuable course corrections through this kind of ongoing dialogue in advance.  
     
  • Build in time for action planning.  For any kind of workshop I do, I always build in time for participants to jot down insights and also ask participants set at least 1-3 actions they will do as a result of participating in the session.   As we all know from experience, if you don't use it, you lose it!  This is what makes the final step key.
     
  • Educate managers on their role in training.  Research has shown that managers are a key link in whether training courses are actually impactful in organizations or whether they serve as "boondoggle" perk.  Thus, it's important for managers to hold employees accountable in applying the learning from a course to a real project immediately following their experience.  In addition, having employee participants teach his/her fellow team members key insights and techniques is also another great way for participants to more fully absorb the learnings.   This paves the way to creating a broader shared language/skill set, which will be much stickier for the group members.

 

 

Attend to Results, Process and Relationships

One of my favorite things on the job is to observe my clients in their natural work environment. This allows me to gain new insight into the individual’s specific professional context and also their behaviors on the job in real time.

I often will observe a client in a situation that is immediately relevant to their developmental goals.   So for example, this week, I had the opportunity to observe a client leading a professional development day for her team.  One of her goals is to gain more competence and confidence in leading meetings and trainings.   

When thinking about leading a successful meeting or work session, it’s helpful to think about driving for results in three areas:

1.     Results 
2.    Process 
3.    Relationships

    Interaction Associates Facilitative Leadership Model

 

Interaction Associates
Facilitative Leadership Model


This model comes from Interaction Associates, and is known as the facilitative leadership model.  When planning any kind of meeting or gathering with colleagues, this is a helpful lens for agenda development.  All too often, there can be a focus on work results at the expense of process and relationship building, or on the other side of the spectrum, there can be a focus on process and relationships which can come at the expense of getting into the real issues and opportunities. 

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Below are just a few of the areas where I often see opportunities for individuals to improve in their facilitation and leadership of meetings.  

Outline Clear Objectives – There can be a tendency to jump into discussion and not give people a clear road map in terms of what you hope to accomplish in the time together.  This is different than just outlining the flow of topics for the meeting.   In this day and age, where information flows freely and often via email and text, meetings are an opportunity to do more than just share information; they are an opportunity to “work” through real obstacles and challenges, plan and chart future directions, and build rapport and understanding of colleagues as people and professionals.  

Flex for Different Learning Styles -  It’s often the case that you will have a variety of learning styles in any group; some will be comfortable with auditory processing, while others will need visual and kinesthetic opportunities to process and digest information. While organizations today are enamored of power point, a white board or set of flip charts with can be an equally and even more useful way to bring the full group along with you.   In the observation this week, my client relayed new areas of focus for the year, as well as new roles and responsibilities and tracking procedures in several detailed word documents.   For those visual and kinesthetic learners in the group, it might have been helpful to have a visual drawing simplifying the areas of focus, or a simple visual diagram breaking down the new tracking procedure in steps.

Use Inclusive Language  – Meetings are an opportunity to build ownership and commitment within the team.  I often find that we are not always aware of how our choice of words or way of speaking can impact others.  I will never forget an observation I did years ago, with a leader who had recently assumed responsibility for a new division; my observation of him occurred during his initial meeting with them, where had come to talk to them about his vision for change.  In sharing his plans and expectations, he frequently used the word “I” as if it was his personal mandate.  The “we” was completely missing for the audience.  As you might imagine, the mood in the room was equivalent to a deflated balloon.  This vision felt imposed upon them as opposed to collaboratively owned and shared.  

Encourage Dynamic Conversations – It can be helpful to observe the dynamic of conversations in a room; for example, is the flow of conversation like ping pong between the leader and individual team members or is it more like popcorn-flavored, whereby there is active and spirited conversation flowing across all participants?  Are some members sitting quietly while others are dominating?   In my most recent observation, the dynamic was more like ping pong between the leader and individual participants, and there might have been more opportunity to engage the group with each other and have more of learning and dialogue be owned among the team members.  

Wrap Up Loose Ends - At the end of a meeting, it can be helpful to review key decisions, assign next steps and responsibilities, and also identify when and how to address the outstanding issues.  It’s often the case that meetings end so abruptly there isn’t time for proper wrap up.  In addition, if the meeting has a learning orientation, it’s helpful for group members “claim value” from the time together, and share what they are taking away from the conversation.  Not only does this help participants to reflect on the conversation and experience, but it also offers the facilitator a way to get immediate feedback about what did and did not stick for people.

Facilitation is both a science and art, and this requires ongoing learning and feedback.  For that reason, a good practice is asking participants to share both the + and the – in immediate time, and talk about how to adjust for greater value in the future.   

According to Patrick Lencioni, an expert in team dynamics and the author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team, meetings should be as engaging and interesting as watching a great movie!  If your meetings aren’t feeling this dynamic, it’s time you thought about changing things up for the better. 

From Outside In Coaching to Inside Out Coaching

One highlight for me this holiday season has been taking my 4.5 year old daughter ice-skating. New to the sport, she absolutely loves the feeling of gliding around the rink in ice skates;  her innocent sense of wonder has refreshed my own appreciation and understanding of the sport.

As a coach and parent, it has also made reflective on the most effective ways to teach others a new skill.    While guiding Brooke on the ice, I have found myself vacillating between wanting to let her just enjoy and learn experientially, and then alternatively, wanting to tell her all about the required stance, weight, movements all at one time.   Soon, I realized, however, that neither my “experiential” or instructive approaches were working.   I could not explain ice skating in a way that she could both understand intellectually and also carry out on her own.

All this internal tension and dialogue got me thinking about tennis and performance coach, Alan Fine, and his findings on coaching for performance.   After years of teaching tennis to kids and adults, he realized that 90% of what he was doing was not making a difference in his students’ game and in some cases, was actually making them worse.  This caused a fundamental paradigm shift in how he approached coaching.   Below are just a few of his key tenets that inspired his Inside Out approach to coaching.

  • In most cases, it is not lack of knowledge that gets in the way of performance; it is our lack of ability to do what we know.
  • There is a significant gap between what we think we do and what we actually do.
  • By removing interference in our mental state, we can significantly increase our performance.  (Interference might stem from our beliefs, our level of motivation and energy, and/or finally, from what we pay attention to in a given situation)

This third point above is particularly poignant for me.   We often understand what we need to do intellectually, but it is our thoughts, beliefs, energy and/or attention, that get in the way.   Good coaching is frequently about helping an individual to shift thoughts or focus in a way that clears the path for performance.  For example, we might ask the struggling tennis player to just watch how the ball bounces as she looks to make contact.  Instead of focusing internally on her beliefs about herself as a tennis player or breaking her natural backhand swing, she is in the present moment focusing on the movement of the ball, thereby allowing her body to do the necessary actions, intuitively and effortlessly.  It is about peeling back the noise, to free up the individual to realize their true potential.

The formula for performance in Alan Fine’s approach goes like this:

Performance =  Capacity –  Interference

This is in contrast to traditional models for performance which go like this:

Performance = Capacity + Knowledge

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So getting back to where I started, which is teaching Brooke to ice skate, I soon realized I was not the right person for the job.   Instead, I turned to an ice skating instructor, of course!   The first thing the instructor did, was to teach Brooke to fall safely.   Sometimes, especially for young children, knowledge really is the necessary ingredient for success!   And what skill could be more important in life than learning to fall and get back up again?

If you are interested to learn more on Alan’s inside out approach, check out his  book,  You Already Know How to Be Great or view this short video clip on the concepts discussed above.

Using Strengthsfinder Tool to Develop Teams

A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all.
— Peter Drucker

I have long been a fan of the Gallup Strengthsfinder assessment.  This tool is based on the Gallup organization’s research of thousands of professionals in the workplace.  What Gallup has identified in studying professionals over decades is that there are 34 signature workplace themes that essentially define how we think, what we attend to and what we feel compelled to do on a daily basis.

Recently, a coaching client asked me if I had recommendations for activities on an upcoming retreat with her new team.  Immediately, I suggested the Strengthsfinder for the reason that is an affirming individual assessment and also a strategic teambuilding activity.  In addition, at fourteen dollars and fifty cents, the book along with the online assessment is a great price.

Both as individuals and as a society, there is a tendency to focus on our deficits and what we are lacking in compared to others.   As Marcus Buckingham points out in this video clip, when our children bring home a report card with some As and Bs and two Ds, we are likely to comment only on the nearly failing grades and overlook the A grades.    We tend to focus on remediating deficits more than we focus on building on and developing strengths.   In my work with clients, I consistently notice the tendency to devalue our own talents; just because something, such as carrying on conversation with strangers at a cocktail party (emblematic of the Woo theme), comes easy to us does not mean it comes easy to another individual.  Too often, individuals are disappointed with their own list of strengths and are looking over their shoulders with envy to the individual who possesses strengths on the opposite side of the spectrum.

I had the opportunity to observe my client’s team as they reported out on their top five themes from the Strengthsfinder.  Each talked about which 1-2 on their list particularly resonated and then had the opportunity to get feedback about which ones stood out to their fellow team members.   The exercise gave the team a new language and frame of reference to understand themselves and one another in a positive light.

In addition, it allowed the team to think about the broader mix of strengths in the group and where the strengths overlapped and complimented one another.  It is helpful to examine the group’s strengths as it relates to the four main buckets of strengths: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic.  Then the team might notice patterns; for example, they might be strong in Strategic and Executing strengths, but weaker in Relationship Building and Influencing strengths.  This particular client will be hiring new team members and can use this data to hire individuals that will balance out the current mix of strengths.  In addition, the current team can use this information to work more collaboratively in ways not foreseen previously.

All in all, the Strengthsfinder tool is low-hanging fruit for any team looking to enhance team member engagement and performance.

Support Leaders to Learn on the Job

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
— Confucious

Recently, I met with a new client organization that is seeking to move to being a world class institution for developing leaders.  As I talked to this organization about their immediate plans, it became obvious that the immediate plan of attack is to add several new training programs over the coming months.  While training is an excellent, foundational investment for organizations, training must be connected to a much larger set of initiatives that are woven into the fabric of its overall business strategy, every day operations and it's organizational values and culture.


For better or worse, a full week of training or even a three day training classes seem like remnants of a long gone "benefit" for employment within a large organization.    Today, there are no shortage of free and low cost opportunities to learn through webinars, books, online communities and social networking sites.   In addition, human resource and leadership development professionals are increasingly thinking about learning as a continuous, sustainable process that must be supported through shorter classes with more experiential, relevant assignments, follow on coaching and reinforcement sessions, accountability peer groups and partnerships, as well as awareness and involvement from direct managers.  A recent study by the Personnel Management Association showed that training alone might increase productivity 22%, but when combined with coaching, it increases productivity by 86%.

I appreciate the practicality and simplicity of Center for Creative Leadership's  70/20/10 learning recipe for leadership development.  Put forth by researchers Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger, this model purports that growth comes as a result of the following ratio of learning experiences:

  •  70% of learning is provided through the use of challenging assignments and on-the-job experiences.
  • 20% of learning is developed through relationships, networks, and feedback.
  • 10% of the learning is delivered via formal training processes.

Validating this model, there is an  HBR blog this week based on Catalyst's recent findings as it relates to women's advancement in organizations.  What it shows is that while talented women often receive the formal training and relationship support in an organization, they are still much less likely to receive game changing work assignments, thereby stalling their perceived and actual readiness for advancement.

On a more uplifting note, there is a lot of potential for organizations to set this right going forward.   In addition, it can be more cost effective  to assign stretch and mission critical assignments to high potentials than it is to offer a "university "of outside training programs outside of the workday.   Also, this model forces better alignment between organizational strategy and the actual training and development initiatives that do get in place.  Finally, the required emphasis on coaching and feedback for high potentials ensures that individuals get more relevant learning on a continuous basis.

Apply Improv Skills on the Job

Work and play are used to describe the same thing under different circumstances.
— Mark Twain

As adults and busy professionals, we rarely take the opportunity to play.   Improv offers a  safe space to step back into “make believe” play, while also teaching  valuable and relevant concepts for teamwork, innovation and leadership.

This past week, I had the opportunity to take a two-hour workshop with Taren Starry, communications coach and founder of Improv on the Job.   I had taken a 6-week Improv class with her previously, and so thoroughly enjoyed the experience I went back for more.

I love the rush of standing before an audience and being asked to speak on a topic, which I could not have ever anticipated.  I love the mental acuity and focus, which Improv games like Zip Zap Zop require.  At every turn, you have to listen extremely carefully and build on the narrative, while adhering to the specific rules of the game.  I love how Improv exercises ask you to step out of your comfort zone and take on a persona that might not feel comfortable in “real” life, but which could actually be beneficial to access in different professional or personal situations.  Finally, I love that Improv forces you to get very present and embrace the uncomfortable and unforeseen circumstance.

Below are a few of the “rules” of Improv which I think can be successfully applied and leveraged to enhance collaboration, innovation and engagement in teams and the broader organizational culture.

1. Yes, and.  This is the first and most central tenant of Improv.  Yes, and is about accepting and building on what is expressed by your fellow actor; it  is also about  playing with whatever ideas are put forward.  At work, it is not uncommon for well meaning colleagues, managers and leaders to shut down good ideas and possibilities without fully hearing or considering what is being said (e.g., Yes, but, That won’t work, We have tried that, There’s not enough time or money).  Having been part of an Organizational Development team that took an Improv class together, it was amazing to see a subtle and positive change in the dialogue at team meetings.  Team members would explicitly refer to the concept of Yes, and in communicating on a topic. This not only created an element of fun and levity, but it also led to more creative solutions and approaches in several cases.

 

2. Your Partner Is a Genius.  Related to the concept of Yes, and, is the notion that your fellow Improv actors have valuable contributions to make and their ideas should be lauded and accepted with great enthusiasm.   This very attitude of acceptance and appreciation brings out creativity in all of us.   Similarly, at work, we often do our best working for someone that has great confidence and trust in our abilities.    When we  have faith in those we work with, we allow them to  stretch and achieve more than they thought possible.  As a wise mentor and boss once told me, her default way of managing people is to anticipate great results and create a positive self fulfilling prophecy.

 

3. Mistakes are a-okay.  In Improv, mistakes are natural and something that can be worked with. There is no judgment and no stopping in Improv.  You need to be able to professionally and skillfully react and move forward from a mistake and not allow that mistake to derail the show or the scene.  The audience is rooting for you and wants to see you recover smoothly and confidently.  Mistakes are natural and inevitable, and are always opportunities for growth and change.  Thus, we all could benefit to learn a more accepting attitude of our and others’ failures at work.  As long as we and our colleagues are learning and adjusting from our mistakes, we should be willing to have greater tolerance and support for risk taking.

Design Thinking: A Relevant Innovation Process

This morning, I had the opportunity to do a session on innovation and design thinking for a cohort of 12 leaders in the NYC Department of Education’s Chancellor’s Fellowship program.  Rather than teaching innovation and design through the review and discussion of intellectual concepts, I decided that the leaders would be better served by “learning by doing.”

I started the session by introducing a definition of innovation.  For a buzzword like “innovation,” with an infinite number of definitions, I wanted to share something simple and also something that builds on common elements.  Below is the definition I used with the group, and it is similar to Fresh Consulting’s perspective on innovation.

Innovation is the application of new thinking to a problem or need, which creates value

Innovation is not just about novel ideas; it is about embedding novel ideas in a working system, organization or marketplace.  Innovation implies that the new thinking is being put to use, whether in the form of a product, program, service, process or business strategy.

Design thinking is one answer on HOW to innovate.   Traditionally, we might think of design thinking as relevant for creatives and engineers who are looking to create new products.  For example, products such as the Swiffer, the Herman Miller Aeron chair, as well as the iPod, iPhone and iPad are all great examples of products resulting from great design process.

Over the last fifteen years, however, design thinking has become a relevant and useful toolkit for innovating in a variety of organizational contexts beyond just the conceptualization of new physical products.  Design thinking otherwise known as “human centered design” is about empathizing with your clients or end users, and digging deep into their needs in order to build creative and relevant solutions.    

Diverse organizations, such as JetBlue, Cirque De Soleil, and Fidelity Investments are actively using design thinking to envision and plan for the future, build new products and also better structure their operations to meet customer needs.  And because the field of education is so human centered, it is an ideal environment to which to apply design thinking methodologies.

So what did I do with this group to teach this group design thinking?  I used the Stanford Design School’s crash course in design thinking.  Stanford Design School generously makes their materials available so that the public can apply this toolkit to powering better solutions for customers and also to address complex global challenges, such as climate change, clean water and sanitation systems.

In this 1.5 hour workshop, leaders had to redesign the gift giving experience for their partner and learn design thinking by following the design model:

Empathizing with their partner’s past experience of gift giving

Defining a tangible problem that they wanted to tackle to help enhance their partner’s gift giving experience

Ideating in visual drawings what are potential ideas or solutions that could address the outlined problem

Prototyping a 3D representation of the idea that has the most emotional resonance for their partner

Testing their concepts with their partner and iterating based on corresponding feedback from their partner

Design thinking forced the group to get out of the typical tendency to present recommendations to stakeholders after investing a considerable amount of time  thinking about and analyzing a given problem on our own.    Design thinking forced an ongoing conversation between designer and user, and enabled consideration of a broader number of ideas through a faster iteration cycle.   Finally, design thinking allowed participants a new way to think and dialogue creatively, which is to think by drawing and building vs. the usual cycle of thinking in words and then in visuals.

One individual left saying they hope to use this type of exercise with their teams to ensure they are appropriately considering the user’s needs in designing user interfaces.  Another said she was relieved to know she could innovate more collaboratively with others earlier in the process, as opposed to feeling like it was up to her to come up with a brilliant solution on her own.  Indeed, innovation is a team sport, whereby “genius” solutions emanate from careful observation and empathy and reflection about  those you are trying to serve.

In closing, I will encourage you to

1. Observe your customers more often in their natural environments

2. Ask more thoughtful questions to get at needs, values and behavior

3. Brainstorm more visually and test your ideas with stakeholders and users more often and more quickly.

Why not be a designer in your own line of work? It sounds so much more fun, doesn't it?

Reflections on Listening and Getting Out of Our Own Way

Recently, I have been focusing on my listening skills.  Having attended a 5-day mediation training with the NY Peace Institute and as a result of participating in a Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) course, I have been reflecting on what it means to listen and respond compassionately in different contexts and to listen not just to one person at a time, but also to listen to two individuals and their dynamics between one another.

Not surprsingly, both of the curriculums include a lot of skill building in listening for the goals of building relationships and also enabling individuals (both kids and adults) to feel fully understood and appreciated.  Quite frankly, I thought I already knew a lot about listening based on my work as a coach; it is a skill I genuinely enjoy putting to work and practicing with my clients, friends and family on a regular basis.  I naively thought that integrating the skills of mediation and facilitated problem solving as a parent would be a natural extension of what I already do.  Boy, was I wrong!  What I realized is that it is always possible to listen and move a conversation with greater nuance and depth, and it is always possible get better at listening in a way that supports others to feel fully seen and heard. And finally, it’s always possible to do with greater consistency.

I feel like I could dedicate myself to writing a book on nuances of listening to connect with others, yet as a starting point, I want to focus on the different levels of listening we do, and invite you to reflect on the type of listening you are doing with colleagues at work, with  family members and friends, and with all those whom you come into contact with in your daily life.

Filtered Listening – When we engage in this type of listening, we are hearing another through the filter of our own experiences, knowledge and perspectives.  This type of listening is likely the kind  we all do and experience most frequently in our casual interactions. Filtered listening can be a valuable way to get to know another person and share experiences and perspectives with one another. In many cases, however, our own filters and stories can get in the way of us fully hearing another and can also lead the speaker to feel disappointed, judged and/or misunderstood.

Empathic Listening – This type of listening involves putting aside our personal opinions and judgments, in order to hear another person’s experience and perspective as fully as possible.  When we practice empathic listening, we are looking to hear another not just in the words, but also in their tone, body language, and their underlying emotions about what it is they are saying and experiencing.   This type of listening requires focused presence and attention, which is often a scarce resource today.

Listening empathically might involve an incorporation of any of the following skills:

Reflection – repeating back what you heard word for word

Summarizing – highlighting and repeating key elements of what you heard

Validating – naming the emotion that you sense the other is feeling 

Dynamic Listening – This form of listening can be practiced in a setting when there are at least two additional people present.  This type of listening involves not only hearing what each individual is communicating (or not communicating) in words and also through body language, but also listening to how what the individual is saying is impacting the other(s), and finding the key issues/topics of interest to hone in on for the benefit of their relationship.

How often do you find yourself practicing filtered listening vs empathic listening?  In what contexts or situations, might it be helpful to practice with different kids of listening?  What I find most interesting about listening is how regularly we need to be vigilant about refreshing and practicing our listening skills, despite understanding cognitively what we need to do.  Most simply, it’s about getting yourself out of way to focus on the other.

The Surprising Truth about Negative Feedback

Say the right thing at the right time
— Seth Godin, Rules for Giving Great Feedback

A great manager does many things well, including offering her people the right type of feedback to encourage, stretch and/or expand their thinking when they need it most.   Despite the common perception that positive feedback is the best motivator, research discussed in an HBR blog last week focuses on how both positive and negative feedback can be effective for motivating and enhancing performance, depending on the individual and her level of proficiency in a job.  The research, by Stacey Finkelstein (Columbia University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago), dissects the function of negative and positive feedback and also when and with whom it will work best.

Positive feedback, the research shows, increases peoples’ commitment to their work, by enhancing confidence.  In contrast,  negative feedback provides valuable information on how to improve.  For individuals who are new in a job and less confident, positive feedback is likely to help one remain positive and comfortable in facing a new set of challenges.   For the seasoned expert, negative or constructive feedback is more likely to give one unexpected insight on how to make incremental improvements, and with a track record of success, one is less likely to be discouraged or offended.

For one of my  executive coaching clients, regular delivery of feedback to employees—particularly constructive feedback—has not been something that has come naturally, even as his team and responsibilities have continued to grow in size and scope over the years.  As a personal development strategy at the close of 2012, this leader decided he wanted to incorporate a “feedback model” into regular one-on-ones with employees.

As we spoke recently, a month after setting about this new practice, I heard my client being critical of his ability to implement the feedback model consistently.  As we dug deeper, however, it became apparent that just by adding the topic of “feedback” to his agendas, he was becoming more observant of his employees in both the big and the small ways; while he may not have been “executing” against the feedback model in the way he envisioned, he was communicating more frequently with his team about what was and was not working, and he also was tuning into each individuals’ behaviors and results in a more nuanced way.

This also made him more reflective about the quality and quantity of feedback he was giving to each of his employees.  He noticed, for example, that he was able to give much more concrete feedback in domains where he had worked previously and to his credit, that he was spending more time with employees who were newer in their roles and dealing with detailed processes and systems that were being challenged by expedient growth in the organization.

For employees who were more experienced and high performing in their roles in functions less familiar to the leader, however, he was challenged as to how to offer “value” for his direct reports.  Should he gain more knowledge in this domain where he had not worked previously to offer that necessary “constructive” feedback? Should he bring in outside experts who can help them stretch and further refine their craft? Or should he assume the role of advisor and coach who asks forwarding questions and helps his star performer reflect on the bigger picture without judgment?

All of these are potential directions for this manager, and ones he is considering, all because he has put employee feedback on his list of reoccurring agenda items.

In closing, this experience was a good reminder that a model is purely that – it’s a template of what can work, not a prescribed approach. Relationships and conversations are just too complicated to be limited by formulas.   On the flip side, the story demonstrates how small shifts in awareness and prioritization can have profound positive results for a leader, team and the organization.