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Leadership Lessons Ripped from the Headlines

Through his work as an executive coach, leadership strategist, speaker and author, Scott Eblin has become known as a thought leader in identifying the behaviors that executives need to pick up and let go as they transition into new and larger roles. President of the leadership development and strategy firm The Eblin Group Inc., Scott is a former Fortune 500 executive, with a coaching client list that runs the gamut from Astra Zeneca to the U.S. Navy. He is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success which Business Book Review calls a “fascinating read” that “is full of potentially career-saving advice.”

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Coastguard1 For the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity each Fall to talk leadership with the newly promoted admirals of the U.S. Coast Guard and their Senior Executive Service counterparts from the Department of Homeland Security. I’ll be joining the group again this October and will be bringing a new perspective to the conversation. That perspective comes from a once in a lifetime opportunity I had last weekend patrolling the Florida Straits with the captain and crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Venturous.

Last year, I wrote a similar post to today’s titled What I Learned on an Aircraft Carrier. Some of the lessons from the Venturous are in the same ballpark, but there are a number of new ones.  I attribute the dichotomies to the difference in scale (The USS Harry S Truman has 3,000 to 5,000 crew members and is 1,092 feet long.  The USCGC Venturous has 80 crew members and is 220 feet long.) and mission. As they patrol the Straits of Florida and the Caribbean, the crew of the Venturous may be intercepting drug runners one day, rescuing boaters the next and picking up Cuban migrants the next.  I was only with them two days and, by the end of the second day, the crew had picked up a raft full of Cubans. I was in email correspondence with the executive officer, LCDMR Blake Novak,  a few days ago and he wrote that by the end of the week that started with my stay onboard  the Venturous had picked up a total of 80 migrants. For Coasties, it’s all about being prepared and adapting to the current reality.

In today’s post, I’m sharing a few of my high level lessons learned and this overview video of my time with the crew of the Venturous.

In the days and weeks to come, I’ll post more videos of specific tasks (or, as the Coast Guard calls them, evolutions) and additional reflections on what I learned onboard. For now, here are the headlines on some of my leadership takeaways from Venturous Commanding Officer Troy Hosmer, XO Novak and their crew:

The Lost Art of Killing Time

by on August 16, 2011 11:30am
in The Next Level

Keywest1 This past weekend, I had the great opportunity to spend a couple of days with the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Venturous on patrol in the Florida Straits.  I’m organizing my thoughts, pictures and videos from the trip and will have more to share on that in the days and weeks to come.

Today, I’m writing about the end of the trip. For operational reasons, the Captain needed to drop me off in Key West early Sunday morning about 10 hours earlier than the original plan of late afternoon. I stowed my bags at the Coast Guard station and set out for the day with my wallet, my cell phone and absolutely no plan whatsoever. 

By the end of the day, I had:

Caddies If you’re a sports fan (guilty as charged), you’ve likely heard by now about golf caddie Stevie Williams’ interview after his new boss, Adam Scott, won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last weekend.  It’s the talk of the sports world this week.

Williams, in case you don’t know, was Tiger Woods’ caddie for 13 years and carried his bag for most of the professional wins he had before Woods’ career and life imploded a few years ago. Woods fired Williams a couple of weeks ago and pointedly ignored him on the Bridgestone practice tee early in the week. It was an interesting scenario, then,  when Williams’ new ride won the tournament in which Tiger finished 37th.

Williams made it that much more interesting when he – the caddie! – gave an interview to CBS on the 18th green.    In an interview with David Feherty, Williams said,  "I’ve caddied for 33 years — 145 wins now — and that’s the best win I’ve ever had."  That was on Sunday. On Monday, he apologized for going “over the top” in the interview.

Still, it was great TV. Mainly, because most of us can relate to the fantasy of sticking it back to someone who stuck it to us. The fantasy and the reality, however, are two different things. Williams needed to recognize that winning with Scott was a good time to shut up. That can be hard to do when emotions are running high.  Here are three signs that it’s a good time to shut up. Steve Williams missed them. Maybe they’ll help you avoid sticking your foot in your mouth.

A Strength When Overused

by on August 8, 2011 9:30am
in The Next Level

Bicep1 One of the great truisms in leadership coaching is that a strength when overused becomes a weakness. For example, the strength of confidence, when overused, looks like arrogance. The overconfident leader is so convinced of his or her world view that they quit questioning, listening or observing anything that might challenge it.

This idea is on my mind this morning for a couple of reasons. First, like many Americans and people around the world, I’ve watched dumbfounded these past few weeks as overconfident politicians were willing to take our economy to the brink in service of a worldview. The second reason is a New York Times book review I read over the weekend on The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy.

If you’re mathematically inclined, you’ll enjoy the review. I’m not, but I did anyway. Here’s my big my take away from the review by John Allen Paulos. Paulos writes that Bayes’ theorem comes down to three questions:

  • “How confident am I in the truth of my initial belief?

  • On the assumption that my original belief is true, how confident am I that the new evidence is accurate?

  • And whether or not my original belief is true, how confident am I that the new evidence is accurate?”

Those seems like three very good questions for leaders to regularly ask themselves.  What difference would it make to the quality of your decisions and the impact of your leadership if you and your team asked those questions on a regular basis? What other questions should you be asking yourself to make sure your strength of confidence is not tipping into arrogance?

Heavyedits One of the things I enjoy the most in my work as a coach is helping my clients come up with regular practices that will make them better leaders. One of my guiding principles as a coach is the line from Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  I’ve learned over the years that if my leadership clients can identify a few key things to do on a repeated basis, they can quickly make positive changes in their effectiveness. The secret is to find some things to do that are in the sweet spot of easy to do and likely to make a difference.

Take the recent example of a client I’ll call Bob. One of the big messages in a 360 degree survey I conducted for Bob is that he comes across as a micro manager who jumps into solving his teams problems and gives them the answer when they’re not looking for the answer.  This was not a revelation to Bob.  When we were talking about it, he even referred to himself as a “micro data collector.”

He also agreed that for the good of his team and his own future opportunities he needed to change his ways. One simple repeatable practice that we came up with was for Bob to keep track of his questions to answers ratio in conversations with his team.  The goal with this one is to raise his awareness of when he wants to provide an answer and to build his skills in the alternative behavior of asking open ended questions like, “What are your options?” and “What do you think you should do?”

Then we came up with a practice that’s going to hit Bob in the wallet if he doesn’t change his ways.  I call it curing the curse of the V-Bobs.

Dangersign With a shout out to the folks at SmartBrief on Leadership for pointing it out, I recommend to you a deeply reported article in Fortune magazine about how and why Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler was pushed out of his job last year.  It’s an excellent, real life case study in the “Why Smart Leaders Fail,” genre.

Some of the usual culprits show up in the Kindler story.  He micro managed, was indecisive, ignored voices of experience, acted like a prosecutor in meetings and lost his temper with executive staff and even board members. 

In spite of all that, perhaps the biggest reason for Kindler’s downfall was that he trusted the wrong person. He hired his head of human resources, Mary McLeod, in 2007 just three years after she had been fired for cause at Charles Schwab. It only took her another three years to play a major role in helping to bring her new CEO down.

Here’s how she did it.  They’re five signs that your HR chief is trouble and they’re not just unique to this particular situation at Pfizer:

The Leadership Theory Lack

by on July 29, 2011 9:30am
in The Next Level

Today’s post is a guest post by David Burkus, the force behind the LeaderLab blog where he focuses on how to put leadership theory into practice.  If you like, what David shares in this post, you’ll love his new book, The Portable Guide to Leading Organizations.

Airport bookstores are crowded with books on leadership, and each one seems to promote a “leadership lack.” They’ll each begin with phrases like “The most pressing issue in organizations is that leaders lack integrity…or empathy…or strategy…or even humor. These books continue by laying out the author’s simple framework for developing the perfect leader. On and on the dialogue goes to the point where readers become be confused because the 21 Unassailable Edicts of Leadership are different than the Seven Routines of Really Efficient Leaders.  It would be a poor move to add to this confusion. With this in mind, we will admit that we do not believe our “leadership lack” to be the most pressing issue in organizations, just the easiest to fix.

Leaders lack an understanding of leadership theory.

These airport leadership books provide decent advice that is easily digestible. And because it is easily digestible, leaders continue to gorge themselves on it until there is very little room left for real, solid theory. Most see theory as complex and hard to digest. When leaders think about leadership or organizational theory, they think back to the 400+ page textbook they had to buy in business school. “Seems like quite an undertaking,” leaders think. So they cheerfully hand their money to the cashier and board the plane with the latest, pocket-sized “leadership” book.

Leaders lack an understanding of leadership theory because it isn’t presented in pocket-sized form.

Apple-google A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post titled "Are You an IBM or a Dell?"  Today's post continues with the tech ID theme and is inspired by an article in the New York Times by Randall Stross. In it, he makes the point that the big decisions at Apple are made by one person, Steve Jobs relying on his gut and sense of design.  In contrast, the big decisions at Google are made by groups of people relying on data.  As Stross frames it, it's the auteur vs. the committee.

I thought it was a great article because it makes the point that there is rarely only one right answer about how to get things done. In my own case, I'm more naturally inclined to the Google model where decisions are made by lots of people providing input based on fact based arguments. On the other hand, I'm writing this post on my iPad, totally love my iPhone and am the last person in my family who is not working on a Mac. I can see both sides of the argument.

So, which side do you come down on? Auteur or committee? What are your thoughts on when it's best to go with the edict of the genius and when it's best to go with the wisdom of the crowd?

One More Question

by on July 25, 2011 4:30pm
in The Next Level

Sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference. I see this all the time in coaching leaders. In fact, it's usually the simplest things that make the biggest difference.  Here's an example from my executive coaching files.

One of my clients was a senior executive I'll call Sam. He was brilliant in his technical domain, not so much in the people domain. I actually worked with Sam on a couple of occasions. The first time our focus was helping him establish better connections and engagement with his team. Based on the feedback we got over a number of months, he improved a lot on that front.

The second time I worked with Sam was after he had been promoted to senior vice president.  The issue now was how to work more collaboratively and effectively with his executive level peers.  Sam and I knew each other pretty well at this point so I thought we'd nail things pretty easily and quickly.  Boy, was I wrong.  Sam wasn't that enthused about engaging with his peers.

After about six weeks of getting nowhere, I showed up at his office for an appointment and was getting nothing from him in the conversation.  Lots of one and two word responses to my questions, lots of dead air, no questions back to me.  After about 15 minutes, I started putting my things away and suggested we try again in a couple of weeks.  Sam's response was a true to form, "OK."  As I walked toward the door, I asked him  if I could share an observation.  Sam said, "Yes."  I replied that, "My observation is that you're the most difficult person to have a  conversation with that I've ever met."  Sam looked stunned and puzzled and asked why.  My response was that in most conversations I had been in in my life, one person would say something and the other person would reply with some information or perhaps ask a question of the first person.  I told him that he didn't do much of either one of those and that made it difficult to have a conversation with him.

We were scheduled for a phone call a couple of weeks later and I wasn't expecting much from that either. Boy, was I wrong again.

Carmageddon1 Even if you don't live in Los Angeles you've probably heard of Carmegeddon.  This past weekend, a 10 mile stretch of interstate 405 was closed for a bridge demolition.  As Reuters reports, there was a full-on, flood the zone PR campaign mounted by local municipal leaders to encourage residents of the LA area to stay home and not get anywhere close to the 405 during the closure. The fear was epic traffic jams as the 500,000 cars that drive that stretch of the 405 on a weekend day looked for alternate routes.

I've been in SoCal this weekend as I came out a few days early for a group coaching session for a client on Tuesday. With a front row seat to the potential traffic apocalypse, I'm happy to report it was a non-event. Everyone apparently got the word, stayed close to home and enjoyed various 405 promos and events at local merchants and restaurants. Locals have been talking about how pleasant the weekend has been without traffic. Comedian Bill Maher might have summed it up best when he tweeted, "How's everyone coping with this terrifying apocalyptic nightmare of having to ... oh my God ... stay home with your family?!!!"

The weekend was a success in no small measure because of the job that L.A. municipal leaders did in influencing public behavior. They did a masterful job of communicating their message in a way that got people to do what they wanted them to do. Here are three communication lessons from Carmegeddon that are worth thinking about the next time you have to get an important message across:

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