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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: https://tsw.winningworkplaces.org/

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.

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