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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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Underdog In his latest New Yorker article, “How David Beats Goliath,”  Malcolm Gladwell tells stories of how outmatched underdogs beat their much larger, more experienced competitors. He begins with the story of an inexperienced 12 year old girls basketball team that went all the way to the national championship game by running a relentless full court press every game.  He moves onto the story of David slaying Goliath and cites some fascinating research by Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft who studied every war fought in the last 200 years that pitted strong and weak opponents against each other.  On the whole, the underdogs won 28% of the time. When they recognized their weaknesses and adapted their strategies to compensate for them they won 64% of the time.

Pretty stunning, huh?  Gladwell’s article got me thinking about what leaders need to learn from underdogs.  Over the past seven months, as the Federal government has taken a much more active role in stimulating the economy, reviving the financial services sector and restructuring the auto industry, we’ve been regularly reminded of Richard Nixon’s observation in 1971 (and Milton Friedman’s before that) that, “We are all Keynesians now.”  As we move through the downturn and into recovery, perhaps leaders need to adopt the mindset of, “We are all underdogs now.”  With that in mind, here are three success rules of underdogs that can help leaders facing long odds.

Kimball_hall The latest Leadership Lessons podcast features the insights of Kimball Hall, a terrific young executive at Amgen, a Fortune 500 leader in biotechnology based human therapeutics.  Kimball is the site manager for the 1,000 employee Amgen facility in Providence, RI where her team manufactures Enbrel, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

In our conversation, Kimball talks about what she’s learned in making the transition from an individual contributor focused on microbiology to an executive with responsibility for a 24x7 operation manufacturing a critical product. In addition to her role within Amgen, Kimball serves on the boards of a number of statewide organizations supporting the economic development of Rhode Island.    In our talk, she reflects on how her internal and external roles have shaped her as a leader.

Obama-pic1 Everyone’s talking about President Obama’s first 100 days and how he’s doing so far.  Since Obama is the ultimate case of a leader moving up to the next level, I thought I’d add my assessment by offering a report card on his performance as measured against the Next Level model of executive presence.  As outlined in my book, The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success, and summarized in the table below, executive leadership presence can be broken down into nine behavioral distinctions that leaders need to either pick up or let go of.  Reportcard And those nine distinctions match up with three big categories of executive leadership behaviors: personal presence, team presence and organizational presence.


So, how is the President doing after his first 100 days of leading at the next level?  Read on for a point by point breakdown and an overall GPA.

One of the basics in the senior leader’s communications repertoire is the town hall meeting.  Sometimes (oftentimes?), these meetings can really run off the rails.  When they do, it’s usually because the leader comes in without the answers that people care most about.  Another classic mistake is to come in with the desired information but to deliver it in a way that shows no connection whatsoever with the people in the audience.

Flubrief Fortunately for all of us, there aren’t many town hall meetings on the subject of what leaders are doing  to prevent a global pandemic of influenza.  But, that’s exactly what three senior leaders took on in front of the White House press corps that Sunday afternoon.  To share what the government is doing to deal with the rapidly developing outbreak of a new strain of swine flu, homeland security advisor John Brennan, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control Richard Besser and Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano took to the airwaves.  By chance, I watched it on CNN as it happened and I have to say it was a best practice example of how to conduct a town hall meeting.  (If you missed the briefing, you can watch it here. If you want more information on swine flu and how to stay healthy, visit the CDC website here. In about 20 minutes, these government leaders showed how it should be done when it comes to the what and how of conducting a successful town hall meeting.

Here’s what I saw in their briefing and what leaders can learn from their example.

In just about every presentation I’ve given to leaders since last fall, I’ve recommended that everyone order their own personal copy of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges. I’ll make the same recommendation to you. If you’re a leader and you don’t have a copy of this book, you need it. After you’re done reading this post, get on Amazon and buy it.

Bridges’ book is a manual (it even includes checklists) for dealing with the biggest challenge facing leaders today which is moving everyone towards a new reality. One of my favorite lines when I was a manager and remains so today as a coach is that it’s important to understand the difference between what should be and what is.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort these days to find examples of people that are stuck on what “should be” rather than what is.

Last week, I had the honor of keynoting the annual Executive Fire Officer Program graduate symposium sponsored by the U.S. Fire Administration.  One of the things I sometimes do is ask members of my audience what they think about an important question and then share their answers with you.

Looking for some clear lessons in productive ways to receive feedback?  Or, conversely, some excellent examples of how not to receive feedback?  Well, if you are, there’s this TV show that runs on Tuesday nights that is full of examples on both sides of the equation.  You may have heard of it.  It’s something I like to call American Idol.

Aa_logo OK, before you bail on me and think I’ve become a total pop culture bubblehead, let me explain myself.  Yes, I will acknowledge that Idol is one of my guilty pleasures. (After all, man cannot live by the Harvard Business Review alone. )  That said, if you watch it with a bit of a leadership development lens on, you can actually learn a lot about what talented people do or don’t do with constructive feedback.

I’ve identified at least six models for receiving feedback from watching the show.  Two of them are worth emulating and four need to be avoided at all cost.  Interested in which one might apply to you or some of the people on your team?  Read on.

In my line of work as an executive coach, one of the most frequent opportunities I see for smart and talented leaders to be even better is to improve their listening skills.  What is often the case with really bright people is that they have so many ideas and so much energy  they end up dominating conversations and creating a disconnect with everyone else in the room. You’ve probably seen this.  It happens all the time.

One of my clients is a newly promoted executive in his firm.  He fits the profile I’m talking about.  He is an extremely intelligent guy and an innovator in a very technical and fast moving field.  He is full of ideas and enthusiasm and can’t wait to share his ideas with you.  It’s all really charming in a way.  The problem is that his colleagues and the more senior executives in the firm have complained that he sucks the air out of a conversation by not leaving space for others to contribute.  Not a great situation for long term career development, right?

Score1 With my client’s permission, I want to share with you the technique he’s used to listen more and talk less over the past three months. I know from talking with his colleagues that it’s working and that they’re a lot happier with him now than they were at the beginning of the year. 

So, what’s the magic answer to his rapid improvement? It’s simple really. He’s keeping score. Here’s how he’s doing it and what he’s learned in the process.

One thing is for sure about living in 2009. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of what happens when people lose their grip on the boundaries that previously brought order to their lives.  Let’s take a look at a few examples that range from the seemingly ridiculous to the very serious to see what the common denominator lessons might be.

This past Sunday was one of the rare ones when I had the chance to watch all of Meet the Press.  After such a big week of news (let’s just throw in a North Korean missile launch for good measure), I was looking forward to the show.  In particular, I was interested to see the interview with the newly appointed CEO of General Motors, the 25 year company veteran, Fritz Henderson.

Sorry to say, but Fritz did not pass the “Mom believability test.”  You probably have your own version of that.  It’s when, as I did Sunday night, you call your mom to catch up on what’s going on in the family and the world.  Like me, my mom had watched Henderson on MTP.  Her verdict?  “He was terrible.  He didn’t answer any of the questions.”  Nothing quite like cutting to the chase.

So, what can we learn from Henderson and the situation at GM about matching leadership styles with the demands of the situation?

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