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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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Is This Your Best Work?

by on March 10, 2010 12:00pm
in The Next Level

Yesterday, I was talking with a client who is frustrated with the amount of errors he’s receiving in financial reports provided to him by members of his team. When he reviews the reports, he regularly finds obvious errors that anyone with experience in the field should have caught on a simple review themselves. 

It’s difficult in situations like this to not blame the team member for sloppiness or laziness. Sometimes those kinds of reasons are the root cause.  Oftentimes, though, it’s due to a lack of a process to eliminate errors from the system or a lack of understanding of how the work supports bigger picture objectives.

Henrykissinger One of the quick-hit, easy to implement solutions that my client and I talked about was for him to get in the habit of asking his team members, “Is this your best work?” when they pass a report on to him. Of course, that question can lead to all kinds of useful conversations about what the standards are and need to be, why and when someone’s best work is required and what processes would need to be put in place to ensure that the best quality work is being produced. It also has the beauty of putting the responsibility for producing quality work more on the team than the leader. That’s how teams learn and grow in their capacity.

The situation reminded me of a story I’d heard about how Henry Kissinger motivated his staff to do their best when he was Secretary of State. The story is told by retired ambassador Winston Lord in a oral history project conducted at George Washington University:

Have you ever watched a great musician or athlete or speaker and say, “Wow, they must have been born with so much talent, I could never do that.”  Well, don’t be so sure about that. As Geoff Colvin explains in his book, Talent Is Overrated, the difference between you and that person you admire basically comes down to one thing – practice and lots of it.

In this week’s Video Book Club review, I show off one of my most prized possessions, my red bass guitar to make a point about why I ended up being a coach instead of a rock star. Colvin actually explains it all in his book.  I’ve practiced coaching a lot more than I’ve practiced the bass. The good thing about Colvin’s book is he offers useful advice for how to get better at the things you’re most passionate about.

Darpa You may not have heard of DARPA, but if you’re reading this article, you use at least one of the things they invented. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency and back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, they came up with a communications network called ARPANET.  Today, it’s a little thing we call the Internet. That GPS device you use to find the nearest Starbucks?  DARPA invented that too. Simultaneous translation devices, stealth aircraft technology, and coming soon to a highway near you, self-driving robot cars – all invented by DARPA.  Needless to say, they’ve got some pretty smart and innovative people at DARPA. 

DARPA hit my radar screen last week when I was in Monterrey, California to speak to a group of high potential commanders and captains at the Naval Postgraduate School. (Ironically enough, the topic was our Life GPS® model – that’s goals planning system, not global positioning system.)  At the end of my talk, where, as usual, I tossed out a lot of open ended thought starter questions to the group, one of the participants, Captain Duane Ashton, came up to say hello and offer me his business card. Later in the day, I took a look at Capt. Ashton’s card and noticed that he’s a program manager at DARPA. I also noticed that there were some questions printed on the back. Here’s what’s printed on the back of Captain Ashton’s card:

What Are We Incenting?

by on March 5, 2010 11:30am
in The Next Level

Diane-ravitch There was an interesting interview this week on NPR’s Morning Edition with a former assistant secretary of education, Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was a vocal supporter of the No Child Left Behind program that put performance standards in place for school districts across the country. Based on her research and observation over the past several years, she now opposes the policy and has written a book called The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

One of the things that intrigued me about the interview was Ravitch’s take on why she thinks the program has failed. She says it’s the combination of measurement and punishment. Of the two, she has no problem with measurement. In fact, she supports it. Her point is that when there is punishment like job loss or school closures associated with the measurement, the players in the system are incented to game the system. According to Ravitch’s analysis, the effect of this in No Child has been for some school systems to dumb down their student testing or to adjust the scoring scale so it looks like their results are better than they actually are.

During my group’s trip to the USS Harry S Truman earlier this year, we got to spend about 20 minutes on the flight bridge with the Air Boss. Along with his teammate, the Mini-Boss, he’s the guy who leads everyone involved in flight operations on the ship.

In this clip, he talks about how they sequence the planes for landing and launch. There’s a real emphasis on systems in running safe, efficient and effective flight operations. One of the things you notice right off the bat when you’re on the deck of an aircraft carrier is that the crew is wearing different color jerseys – red, green, white, purple and yellow. There’s a systemic reason for that and the Air Boss explains why that’s the case in this clip.
Hockey-ca It’s Wednesday and I still find myself drifting back to the gold medal hockey showdown between Canada and the U.S. on Sunday’s closing day of the Vancouver Olympics. Like a lot of other casual hockey fans, I found myself utterly swept away by the excitement of the U.S. comeback to tie the game in the last seconds of regulation and then the game winning shot in overtime by the latest Canadian hockey hero, Sidney Crosby. Equal to the excitement was the emotional experience of watching the Canadian fans in the arena sing “O Canada” with their winning team and all their hearts. (On Monday morning, the New York Times ran a moving article on what hockey means to Canada. It’s worth reading.)

As I watched the Canadians celebrate, I doubt I was alone in thinking that sometimes it’s better not to win. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a second that the Americans didn’t play their skates off and give it everything they had. It would have been great to see them win. But, no one wins all the time, and, sometimes, intentionally or not, you serve the greater good when you don’t win.

In the world outside of sports, it’s easy to get caught up in a “must win all the time,” approach and mentality. There are a lot of factors in our culture and in the personality traits of many people who end up in leadership roles that reinforce a reflexive response to win. Especially when you’re in a long term relationship with the other party, it’s important to mindful of other options besides going for the win.

Here are four of them:
Egomonster Every so often, I’ll read something that makes an impression on me and then a day or two later read something entirely different that somehow connects to the first thing I read. This morning was one of those times.

Last night, I was skimming the Sunday New York Times (after watching a thrilling gold medal hockey match between Canada and the U.S. Have to say I’ve never been so moved by another country’s national anthem as I was when listening to an arena full of Canadians in red jerseys singing “O Canada” with all their hearts after the gold medal ceremony. Way to go Canada. Really happy for you.). But, I digress. The article that caught my eye was a profile on Gretchen Rubin, the author of the bestselling book, The Happiness Project.
Toyoda With the ongoing spate of stories about Toyota’s safety recall and this week’s congressional testimony by Mr. Toyoda himself, it’s easy to forget that it was just a few years ago that the company was enjoying a twenty plus year run as a quality leader in the automotive industry. During that time, they expanded their operations in the United States and now, on a direct and indirect basis, employ about 170,000 Americans. In my family, we own two Toyotas and are very happy with them. My guess is the company will recover from its current crisis.

Still, there are some pretty big leadership mistakes that have been made at Toyota lately. I don’t think their mistakes are unique to Toyota. As Jim Collins outlines in his latest book, How The Mighty Fall, even the most successful organization’s fortunes can turn quickly. Often it is the success that established them in the first place that can lead to trouble down the road. With that idea in mind, here are three things I’ve noticed about the Toyota situation that I think are lessons for leaders in any field:
Ursula_burns In case you missed it, there was a terrific profile in the Sunday New York Times on the new CEO of Xerox, Ursula Burns. The article, and her quotes within it, focused on one of my favorite topics, leadership transitions. There’s a lot of valuable perspective and advice in the article. I want to pick up on one particular aspect in this post. How do you handle it when you move from being a member of the team (no matter how big) to the leader of that same team? 

The setting as described in the Times is a Xerox sales meeting in Orlando with several hundred reps.  Burns is “an old friend to many of them, and there are plenty of hugs to go around for the people she’s grown up with during her 30 years at the company. But there is also a new distance, a new curiosity about what she will do, given that she is no longer just Ursula. She is Ursula M. Burns, the C.E.O.”

That passage describes in a nutshell a phenomenon that many leaders experience at least once if not more in their careers. Whether it’s expected or not, you end up leading people you’ve worked with for years. Earlier today, I was interviewing two women who are senior executives in the financial services and pharmaceutical industries for the upcoming second edition of my book, The Next Level.  Both of them offered some great advice on how to lead people who used to be your peers.

Here it is:

What It Takes to Build Leaders

by on February 22, 2010 1:00pm
in The Next Level

Leadership-fish Last Friday, I heard a presentation on a study that anyone concerned with building leadership as a competitive advantage should take a look at. It was from Richmond Fourney, a senior consultant with Hewitt Associates working on their biannual study of the Best Companies for Leaders. Joining him was Suzanne Danielle, the director of talent management for Lockheed Martin which ranked 16th of the top 25 North American companies for leaders. 

You can get a summary of the study from Hewitt (conducted with Fortune magazine and the RBL Group) here. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some high level conclusions from the research along with a bit of commentary.

The research says that there are Four Disciplines that the top companies for leaders follow:
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