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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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How to Push Back on Your Boss

by on December 13, 2010 4:00pm
in The Next Level

Obama-clinton-presser Anyone who's worked in organizations for any length of time has had the experience of being told to do something by the boss that seems like a bad idea. A recent example might be the experience of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs who looked outside his office last week to find Barack Obama and Bill Clinton asking him to unlock the press room so they could conduct an impromptu press conference on income tax reduction extensions. They got a lot of press alright but a lot of it was for Obama leaving the podium after 5 minutes and Clinton continuing for 20 more. A mixed bag of coverage at best.

Based on this behind the scenes account from the New York Times, it sounds like Gibbs had some concerns and tried to push back on his boss. You may not be in the position to have to redirect the wishes of two US presidents at the same time, but if you're working with or for leaders who are powerful in their own right, there are inevitably going to be times when they ask you to do things that are against your better judgment. 

Here are some thoughts about how to push back on your boss when that happens:

Musk-space This is the time of year when leaders tend to look back on the past 12 months and ask, "How's it gone this year?"  If you're Elon Musk, you'll probably need a little more time to answer than the average leader to answer that question. In case you haven't heard of Elon Musk, he's a cofounder of PayPal, the CEO of Tesla Motors and the CEO of SpaceX.  From what I've read lately, Musk has had a pretty good year.

Meritbadges Last week, while teaching at Georgetown’s leadership coaching program,  I was reminded of something that shaped me as a kid and a leader that I haven’t thought of in a long time.  In a segment where the students share their favorite coaching tools, Graham Segroves from the Leadership Education and Development department of the CIA, acknowledged a resource that was helping him with his newly adopted physical activity of cycling (one of the requirements of the Georgetown program is that the students take on some sort of physical activity that’s new to them). Graham’s tool for learning about cycling? The Boy Scout requirements booklet for the Cycling merit badge.

Graham explained that as a kid he had been a Scout  and that all of the merit badge booklets have the same format.  (Graham was an Eagle Scout as it turns out.  Me too.  You need to earn 21 merit badges for Eagle so you learn the drill over the years.)  They start out with teaching you the basics of the subject and require you to demonstrate proficiency around those basics.  In the case of cycling for instance, you have to show that you can identify the basic parts of the bike, can do basic maintenance and that you know the safety rules and hand traffic signals.  As the requirements build, you have to plan and go on increasingly long bike rides culminating in a 50 miler.  All of this is accomplished with the guidance of a qualified merit badge counselor.  (If you want to see the requirements for other merit badges, they’re all listed on this web site.) 

It was fun to be reminded of the methodical and sequential approach that the Scouts have for the merit badge process.  If you think about it, the whole process of starting with learning the basics of any discipline and methodically working your way up to some level of mastery makes sense for undertakings far beyond Scout merit badges.  It led me to consider, “If there were a merit badge for organizational leadership, what would the requirements be?”

Here’s a really rough cut at the first draft of the requirements for the Organizational Leadership merit badge.  No pride of authorship here.  Would really appreciate your suggestions.  Let’s have some fun with this.

Inc-work-2011 Winning Workplaces is collaborating with Inc. to recognize "Top Small Company Workplaces" that have built corporate cultures that foster a productive work environment and satisfied employees. The winners will be featured in the June 2011 issue of Inc. Magazine, the premier publication for entrepreneurs and business owners. In addition winners will be featured on Inc.'s and Winning Workplaces' websites and will gain additional exposure through a nationally distributed press release.

To see if your company qualifies for the award please visit:

Every so often, The New York Times will run a long feature on the CEO of a large business.  I love those articles because they’re great opportunities for data mining on leadership.  One of my favorites was one they ran a few years ago on Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer.  This weekend, they ran a feature on Ballmer’s early days colleague from Proctor and Gamble, General Electric CEO, Jeff Immelt.

Immelt The article, “G.E. Goes With What It Knows: Making Stuff,” centers on how Immelt is leading the company away from financial services and “soft services” like broadcasting and back to its historical roots of technology driven manufacturing. There’s a lot to learn from the article about how Immelt is doing that, but one quote from him in particular stood out for me:

Any executive who wants to change things, he says, should be guided by “a point of view about what’s going on in the world, and you invest around that point of view.” 

It sounds like Immelt may have been one of the star pupils of Noel Tichy (who was quoted in the article) and others who ran G.E.’s Crotonville leadership center back in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Immelt was on his way up.  As Tichy argues in his book, Leadership Engine, effective leaders have a teachable point of view that they share as a platform for action.

For Immelt, a big component of his teachable point of view has been G.E.’s ecomagination campaign to promote energy efficient products.  Seeing that clean energy was going to be a growth market, Immelt launched ecomagination in 2005.  The campaign was seen as a gimmick when it started and internal surveys found that employees weren’t really buying it.  Immelt stuck with it and today, G.E. sells $20 billion a year in products that qualify for the ecomagination label.

Clearly, Immelt having a point of view mattered for G.E.  If you’re a leader, how do you develop, share and lead change with a point of view? Here are some thoughts based on the Immelt article, Noel Tichy’s work and my own observations in coaching leaders:

Holiday-party It’s that time of the year. The holiday office party season has begun. As my friend Dan McCarthy highlights on his Great Leadership blog, office parties are making a bit of a comeback this year. They can be fun. They can also be dangerous.  It’s amazing what a casual setting, rich food and alcohol can do to people’s judgment.

So, if you’re a leader who’s hosting or attending a holiday office party, remember you’re still (maybe even especially) on stage while you’re at the party.  Just in time for the weekend, here’s a handy checklist that you can clip and carry in your pocket or wallet.

10years Ten years ago today, December 1, 2000, my wife and I started our business, The Eblin Group.  In a commencement speech at Stanford a few years ago, Steve Jobs made the point that you can never connect the dots prospectively.  You can only connect them retrospectively. It's only by looking back that we see how things developed and how one thing led to another. A ten year anniversary seems like a good time to look back.

Take a look at the U.S. and the world for example. Ten years ago, Bill Clinton was president and not many people had even heard of Barack Obama. There weren't many people beyond intelligence agents who knew who Osama bin Laden was. In the past ten years, we've had two major wars and a near meltdown of the global economy.  Who would have guessed any of that at the end of 2000?  Mark Zuckerberg was in middle school and hadn't gotten around to inventing Facebook.  Hard to say if Steve Jobs had the iPhone in mind back then but I doubt even he had a vision of someone like me typing this post on their iPad. 

In our family, like yours, there have been a lot of changes in the past 10 years.  Births, deaths, graduations, health challenges, recoveries, joys and setbacks, friends gained and lost.

In our business, we've grown from landing our first coaching client on December 15, 2000 to having coached hundreds of leaders in individual and group programs over the last 10 years. I've given something north of 300 speeches and presentations on leading at the next level and the second edition of my book on that subject just came out last month. This is my 463rd blog post and I've probably written close to 300,000 words on my blog over the past two years.  I'm not writing any of that as a horn tooting exercise. My point is who knew? I certainly didn't back in 2000.  It's been a time of great learning for me and a time of great good fortune.  All of that comes down to the good fortune of the people I've had the opportunity to learn from, work with and become friends with. 

As I look back and connect the dots, there are a lot of things I notice.  Here are a few of them.

The Video Book Club is back from a brief hiatus with one of my favorite books,  Difficult Conversations.  It’s full of practical and proven ideas for moving from talking past each other to talking with each other to solve problems. It’s also a book that can help you learn more about yourself and your unconscious tendencies. My copy is full of notes in the margins.

In this video clip, I talk through one of the main ideas in the book.

Diplomacyposter A good piece of conventional wisdom for leaders used to be to never do, say or write anything down that you wouldn’t want to read on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.  Times have changed though. As this week’s WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 U.S. State Department documents shows, there’s a pretty good chance that your recorded thoughts and actions can end up all over the internet in no time flat.

As reported in the New York Times and other major publications, the State Department memos contain some rather embarrassing details of how diplomacy gets done and some very candid assessments of individual world leaders.  For example, according to a summary in the Financial Times, the documents describe French president Sarkozy as having a “thin skinned and authoritarian personal style,” Russian president Medvedev  as “Robin” to Prime Minister Putin’s “Batman,” Afghan President Karzai as “an extremely weak man who does not listen to facts,” Italy’s PM Berlusconi as “feckless and vain,” and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il as a “flabby old chap.”

Since most of those observations could be made firsthand by anyone who follows international news, you sort of have to wonder what the value was in writing them down.  In any case, they were and now the apologizing is underway.  While it’s unlikely that your closeted skeletons will suddenly appear on WikiLeaks (although the probability of someone’s Facebook page or blog is much higher),  you’ve likely faced situations as a leader where your true thoughts inadvertently come out (You’ve probably learned the hard way that the recall button on that e-mail you just sent by “Reply All” doesn’t actually do anything).  In spite of all the lessons you’ve learned, it will probably happen again in the future.  If not that, then you may end up on the receiving end of someone else’s unintended candor.

Here are some suggestions on how to apologize in the first instance and why and how you should accept the apology in the second:

Tsa-issues So, yesterday, I went through airport security for the first time since the full body scanning machines and enhanced pat down procedures were put into effect.   Honestly, it was no different than it was the other twenty or so times I’ve gone through security at Dulles this year.  If anything, it was faster. (That might have had something to do with going through security at 5:30 am). Took my shoes off, coat off, put them in the bin, briefcase on the belt, walked through the traditional electronic portal and was directed to the belt to pick up my stuff.  Zip, zap, out of there.

There was a guy in front of me who was pulled into a private cubicle for a pat down but it looked like everyone else was sailing right through.  Which, I have to say, was quite a bit different than what I would have expected based on the media coverage over the past couple of weeks. You would think everyone going through security was having a close encounter of the TSA kind.  Not the case.  What is the case, however, is that the TSA could have done a better job of preparing their staff and the public for the changes.  Since leaders have to navigate their stakeholders through change on a more or less continuous basis, it seems worth it to take a look at the body scan/pat down controversy to see what we can learn about communicating change.

Capitolhill The orientation process of newly elected Members of Congress started this past week.   A long time ago, in a more bipartisan age, I helped organize a week long orientation program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for the freshman congressional class of 1986.  If I remember correctly they had spent an orientation week in Washington and them came up to Cambridge for a week of policy briefings.   I haven’t heard whether or not this year’s class is headed to the Kennedy School.  One thing I’m pretty sure of, though, is is that after a week of meetings and briefings in DC this past week, a lot of the new members heads are spinning from learning about all the things they have to get organized in a short amount of time.

A lot of what they’re facing is similar to what faces any new leader coming on board in a large, complex organization.  To succeed, you’ve got to get your feet on the ground quickly, determine your priorities and line your resources up against them.  The research shows that most new executives have about 18 months before they’re deemed a success or failure.  Since new members of the House will be up for reelection in two years, they’re operating on a similar time frame.

Earlier this year, a colleague shared a book with me called Setting Course, that’s produced by the Congressional Management Foundation.  It’s a guidebook for new Members of Congress and provides a step by step plan for getting up to speed quickly.  I was thumbing through it this morning and paying particular attention to the Do’s and Don’ts summaries at the end of each chapter.  There’s a lot of sound advice there.  Here are seven first steps, I pulled out that, with some situational tweaking, seem to apply to any new leader, not just new Members of Congress:

Leaders Can Change the Weather

by on November 17, 2010 10:00am
in The Next Level

Weather1 Lately, I’ve been in a lot of conversations with leaders about what’s different about moving into more senior and visible executive roles.  One guy in a group last week summed it up by saying, “I change the weather.”  When I asked him to explain, he said he’s been noticing that his team and extended organization take their cues from him and reflect whatever he’s projecting.  If his outlook is sunny and bright, the organization is sunny and bright.  If his outlook is stormy and cloudy, the weather in the organization is pretty much the same.

While you may not have thought of it in terms of a weather forecast, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon from one end or the other. Most people who have been around organizations for any amount of time have worked for a boss where the question on everyone’s mind was, “What kind of mood is he in today?”  It’s the same dynamic. The boss controlled the weather.

So, if you’re the boss, it’s worth thinking about what kind of weather system you’re creating.  Warm front or cold front? Sunny and pleasant or stormy and blustery?  What kind of impacts do your weather systems have on the team’s results? Have you even been aware that you’ve been creating the weather?

If you’re interested in becoming a more effective leadership meteorologist, here are a few things to pay attention to:

Last week I spent an afternoon talking with about 60 newly promoted executives of a well known global company.  The group had flown in from around the world and the topic was how to lead at the next level.  The framing question for my work with executives is what do you pick up and what do you let go of to achieve the different results that are expected of you in a bigger job?

One of the first things we talked about is the need to pick up confidence in your presence and let go of doubt in how you contribute in your new executive role.  To get the conversation going,  I shared this question combined with a story -

How many of you have been in this situation?  You’re the newest member of the leadership team and it’s your first regularly scheduled team meeting. It’s you and 10 or 12 other people gathered around the conference table and it’s that part of the meeting where everyone is going around the table giving their 3 or 4 minute weekly update.  The way the table is set up that day, you’re at the far end of one side of the table and the check-ins start with the person opposite you and then the ball is passed to the right until, thirty minutes or so later, it’s your turn. Of course, you’re not hearing a whole lot of what’s said in that 30 minutes because the little voice inside your head is jabbering away with helpful comments like:

You’ve got nothing.  These people are all so well informed and you don’t know beans.  You’re going to look like an idiot when it’s your turn.  How did you get here anyway?  There must have been some glitch in the succession plan that got you onto this team.  Everyone here is smarter and more experienced than you.  Geesh, they’re even better looking than you are.  I hope you don’t screw this up.  Please, don’t screw this up.

Most of the people in the room laughed a little nervously or sheepishly when I played out the scenario.  I asked them what they were thinking and a guy nearby looked up and said, “Thank God, it’s not just me.”  He’s right – it’s not just him and it’s not just you.  Just about any time you move up into a new leadership role, you’re going to feel the nerves as you get your feet on the ground and figure out how the new game is played.  The goal is to get through that period as quickly as possible so you can confidently do what you’re expected to do.

Based on some of the advice from senior executives featured in my book,  The Next Level, here are three tips on how to pick up confidence and let go of doubt:

Florence1 Perhaps you've heard the story about the Renaissance era traveler who came upon a group of three men smashing rocks by the side of the road.  He asked the first man what he was doing and the man said, "I am engaged in the daily drudgery of smashing large rocks into smaller rocks." The traveller then asked the second man what he was doing.  With more energy and enthusiasm, the man said, "I'm shaping these rocks into bricks."  Finally, the traveler asked the third man the question.  With a fire in his eyes, the man joyfully replied, "I'm building a cathedral to celebrate the glory of God."

It's all about perspective and intent.  Today, I got a different perspective by climbing to the top of the cathedral in Florence, Italy.  Construction on the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore began in 1296 and ended 170 years later. It's capped by a 375 foot high duomo which is the largest brick dome in the world.  If you have eight Euros and some cardiovascular endurance, you can walk up 464 steps that lead to an outdoor platform at the top of the dome.  From there, you're treated to a 360 degree view of Florence and Tuscany. 

Florence2 As I was walking through this ancient city searching for dinner tonight, I started thinking about the kind of leadership that must be required to start a project you won't live to see the end of.  It's easy to look at a cathedral and conclude that you'll likely never work on something like that.  That doesn't mean, however, that your leadership can't build a legacy that outlives you.

Here are a couple of examples that might hit closer to home.

The Power of Courtesy

by on November 9, 2010 10:30am
in The Next Level

If you fly in the US very often, you know that you kind of have to put on your armor to get through the cattle call type feel of navigating through crowded, noisy airports and squeezing onto a plane where it's likely that you're going to have the head of the person in front of you almost in your lap when they recline their seat.  Not a lot of fun really.

Brusselsairport Guess that's why I was so impressed by the experience of connecting through Brussels yesterday.  It's the cleanest, most open, quietest airport I've been in in a long time.  Maybe ever.  The waiting area at the gate was the picture of calm.  When the gate agent announced it was time to board, everyone quietly got up and moved gracefully into line.  There was none of the jostling for position that you typically see at the gates at my home airport of Dulles.

Maybe everyone was calm because the process of getting through security was so pleasant.  Yes, pleasant.  There was a bit of a line, but everyone was cool about that.  After I put my bags through the scanner, I walked through the electronic portal and it beeped.  Since I fly a lot, I usually know what I can have on my person without making it beep.  When it did in Brussels, a very courteous guy asked me with a smile if I could step to the side so he could search me.  He told me everything he was going to do, maintained friendly eye contact, patted me down and then scanned me with his electronic wand.  It turns out that my passport had some sort of magnetic strip that set off the machine.  We laughed a little about that.  He wished me a nice day and sent me on my way.

The Heroes of Walter Reed

by on November 5, 2010 10:00am
in The Next Level

Janey Yesterday, on a rainy afternoon in Washington, DC, I had the privilege of doing something that I wish every American had the opportunity to experience.  Through her company, Hooks Book Events, my friend Perry Hooks arranged to give 200 copies of a new book about women combat veterans called When Janey Comes Marching Home to wounded warriors and their families going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  Along with the book’s author Laura Browder and its photographer Sascha Pfalaeging, Perry and I and a few other folks who were helping out had the opportunity to meet and talk with some of the soldiers and the people who are supporting them.

They’re heroes and to explain why they are I want to share a few of their stories with you. 

So, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have expected me to have some sort of leadership lessons post on yesterday’s mid-term elections.  I’m waiting to see how the various players respond in the next couple of days before I get to that topic.

Mcnabb-redskins One that I’m very clear on, however, is that the Washington Redskins are still one of the go-to resources for real-life lessons on how not to lead.  You may recall that about this time last year, I wrote a post titled Learning What Not to Do from the Leadership of the Washington Redskins. That post, which mainly focused on team owner Dan Snyder, went a little viral.  It was picked up by a bunch of Redskins fan sites and led to my five minutes of fame in an interview with DC’s Fox TV affiliate.   It’s the only post I’ve ever written that received dozens of comments that all agreed with what I wrote.

I must acknowledge that, at least from my limited perspective, Snyder has changed a lot of the things I criticized last year (not that I’m taking any credit for that). He’s improved the fan experience by adding high def jumbotrons in the end zones (and even took out some seats to do it). He publicly owned up to accountability for the team’s lackluster performance at the end of last year. He fired his lackey and hired a professional general manager. He appears to have removed himself from the day to day management of football operations. You have to give him credit for all of that.  And, of course, he hired a Super Bowl winning coach in Mike Shanahan to lead the team from the sidelines and a five time Pro Bowler in Donovan McNabb to lead the team on the field.

Leading the team on the field unless it’s a closing two minute drill to beat the newly energized Detroit Lions.  Down by five points in the closing minutes last Sunday, Shanahan benched his Pro Bowler and replaced him with second string QB Rex Grossman who was intercepted by Detroit’s scary good defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh who ran the ball back for a game clinching touchdown.

You can argue about the intelligence of Shanahan making the substitution. Rabid sports fans are known to disagree after all.  What doesn’t seem open for much debate, however, is the poor leadership that Shanahan showed in the hours and days after the game.  While he’s put his own unique spin on them, there are three  “leaders don’t do this” lessons from last year’s post that Shanahan is demonstrating this year:

Weeklyleader Last week, I had a thoroughly enjoyable conversation with Peter Mello.  In addition to being an executive coach and the founder of the Weekly Leader blog, Peter is a fantastic interviewer (Watch out Charlie Rose!)  Along with his colleague Pam Fox Rollin,  Peter produces a weekly podcast in which they discuss what’s going on in the world of leadership and share resources that they like.  Peter also interviews a leadership practitioner each week and, this week, I’m the guy in the seat.

The conversation flew by.  It was fun to talk about what’s new in the second edition of  The Next Level. What was more fun was to talk about some of the questions Peter asked that you don’t normally get in an interview.  We ended up talking about how my grandfather was my leadership hero, how I almost botched  a big step up to the executive level and why I can’t wait to read Keith Richard’s new autobiography, Life.

You can download the conversation for later or stream it live.  Either way, I hope you enjoy it.  Thanks, Peter, for the opportunity to talk with you.

Leadsummit In case you haven’t heard, I want to let you know about a terrific free online leadership event this week.  On November 3 & 4, I’m very excited to be joining 30 leadership experts including Marshall Goldsmith, Jim Kouzes, Nancy Duarte (who’s written one of my new favorite books, Resonate), Keith Ferrazzi and Charlene Li for the Leadership & Influence Summit.  All of us speaking at the Summit have recorded 6 to 20 minute videos in which we share our best tips for leaders. In addition to the content being free, the cool thing about the Summit is you can watch the speakers on your own schedule anytime on November 3 and 4. Registrants for the Summit will also have the option to access the videos on an archived basis later.

I’ve registered for the Summit and can’t wait to hear what my fellow presenters have to say.  I hope you’ll join us. You can register for the Summit here.

Adm-allen-me This morning I had the opportunity to meet and learn from someone I’ve admired for the last five years – former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen.  Admiral Allen was the opening keynote speaker at Government Executive’s Excellence in Government Conference.  (I had the opportunity to speak and work with a terrific group of government executives later in the morning in a session on Leading at the Next Level.)

Adm-allenMost Americans first became aware of Admiral Allen when he led the disaster response to Hurricane Katrina following the dismissal of FEMA director Michael Brown. This past summer, President Obama appointed him to lead the interagency response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Allen was the Atlantic area commander in the days following 9/11 and played a key role in the Haitian earthquake relief efforts last January as Coast Guard cutters stationed off Haiti provided the first U.S. relief in the hours after the quake. With a resume like that, it’s easy to understand why Admiral Allen was asked to speak on “Leadership in a Time of Crisis.”  You’d be hard pressed to find a leader who’s led more crisis responses with more distinction than Allen.  He packed a lot of practical wisdom and experience in the 30 minutes that I was able to hear before I had to go set up for my session.

Here are three of his crisis leadership lessons that stuck with me:

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