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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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Marriage1 Last week, I got a call from an executive in a client organization. He had just had a conversation with an important customer who said his team wasn't showing up like they used to and didn't have that can-do spirit anymore. As we were talking, he said he felt like the relationship with the customer had gotten into a rut and was wondering what his team could do to charge things up again. I said to him that the situation reminded me of one of those articles that ask  "Can this marriage be saved?"  We had a good laugh about that but then realized that maybe we were on to something.

Think about it. A lot of the problems leaders deal with in their work come down to the other party not feeling loved and appreciated. Same thing with marriages. Customer feeling like you don't care as much as you used to? They're not feeling loved and appreciated. Employees leaving for grass is greener over there opportunities? They're not feeling loved and appreciated.  If you're really honest with yourself, you probably worry yourself sometimes whether or not you're loved and appreciated.

All of this got me thinking about a book I heard about years ago by Gary Chapman called The Five Love Languages. It's a how to guide on keeping your marriage strong or getting it out of the ditch if it's gone off track. I took a look at Chapman's five love languages this morning and concluded that they've got some application to saving customers, teams and leaders as well as marriages.

Here's how:

The Upside of Troughs

by on March 25, 2011 12:30pm
in The Next Level

Troughs This week I attended a conference where one of the keynoters was an interesting guy named Clark Aldrich. Clark is a designer of business learning simulations and knows a lot about how people solve problems. It turns out that one of the keys is you have to go through a lot of troughs to make progress.

When Clark is designing a business simulation game, he like to set things up so the participants go through a lot of peaks and valleys in their problem solving experience. You know the drill. You solve a problem and then another one pops up. You get stuck on that for awhile and then you try a different approach that works. Much like real life, it’s the process of going into and out of the problem solving troughs that creates learning that lasts.

The big challenge that Clark deals with is that (this is more or less a quote), “In corporate America today there is very little tolerance for troughs so I have to really even out the peaks and valleys in the game.”  What caught me ear in that statement was the word “today.”  So, I asked Clark, from his perspective as a simulation designer, what’s different about corporate America today that five or 10 years ago. 

His answer was really telling.

Not as Easy as Advertised

by on March 23, 2011 12:30pm
in The Next Level

A few weeks ago, New York Times Columnist Nick Kristof was arguing for the imposition of a no fly zone over Libya and cited a quote from retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak to make his case.

"I can't imagine an easier military problem," McPeak told Kristof.

As we know now, it's not as easy as advertised. The military aspect of the exercise appears to be going well. But, as widely reported, there are big problems with defining objectives, determining who's in charge of the joint operation, what the end game is and lots more.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on The Questions Leaders Need to Ask About No Fly Zones. After a few days of the no fly zone operation, it seems a lot of those questions still need to be answered. You can read the full treatment in the original post but here are the basic questions:

  • What’s the goal?
  • What’s in scope and out of scope?
  • What are the required steps?
  • What are the true costs?
  • What are the pros and cons?
  • What are the possible side effects?

Sometimes I coach executive leaders who are known for underselling the complexity of what they're asking their team to do.  Their team members know when they hear, "This will be easy.  It shouldn't take you anytime at all," that they should be getting themselves ready for something really hard.

One of the jobs of a leader is to help the team define the nature of the work that needs to be done. Often it's not as easy as it might look at first.  If you're the leader, you can raise the chances of longer term success by raising the questions that clarify the goals, the roles and responsibilities, the plans and processes for the work and the norms that define how everyone will work together.

What questions do you think need to be asked at the beginning of a complex endeavor?

Two-people-texting1 One of the most e-mailed articles on the New York Times website for the past several days has been one titled, “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You.”  My guess is a lot of grown up kids are sending it to their parents to prove that they’re not the only ones who don’t always answer the phone or respond to voice mail messages. The article describes how phone habits have changed over the past five years as people shift to text messaging, email and Facebook to communicate with their friends, families and colleagues. Nielsen Research notes that spending on cellular voice traffic is trending downward and that text traffic spending will exceed voice in the next three years.

I thought about this article last night when I was in a conversation with some old and new friends at a conference I’m attending. Somehow we got into a debate about whether the way people learn new skills and behaviors is changing as a result of the internet and virtual communications technology. On one side of the debate were the folks who were saying that the only real learning is that which comes from a live person teaching one other person or a group of other people in person. I was on the other side of the argument.  We spent a good bit of time and energy going back and forth about how quickly the learning styles of the human species can adapt. My point was that disruptive technologies like the phone or the internet cause people to change their learning and working styles pretty quickly. Of course, the great trump card in a discussion like this is to ask, “What research have you read that backs up your point of view?”  Darn, I just couldn’t up with any academic citations on the spot.  (Perhaps if I hadn’t had that second glass of wine.)

A guy I'm sitting with this morning just told me that his son is in a good medical school where attending lectures is optional. They're all online and the students can watch them when they want.

Here's the thing...

Westminster A brief article in the Financial Times of London recently reported that Mark Prisk, England’s enterprise minister, is drawing up a plan in which government ministers and senior civil servants would have to complete a week’s work assignment in a small business. Prisk’s own staff has taken up the plan. One of his directors, for example, recently spent the better part of a week oiling sprockets at a bike factory in Brentford.

Prisk notes that the typical hour long visit that government officials frequently make to small businesses “can be helpful, but it doesn’t allow you to get under the skin of a business.”  In his own case, Prisk spent a week with a manufacturer of adjustable beds and making sales calls for a company that manufactures devices that measure domestic energy use. 

The point, of course, is to deepen the level of understanding among senior government officials about how the rules they make and enforce affect the businesses that have to follow them.

Washing-dishes The New York Times recently ran an article about what Google has done lately to share the practices of its best managers throughout the company.  Being Google, a bunch of statisticians started looking for correlations in the words and phrases that came up again and again in performance reviews, feedback surveys and recognition nominations.  The end result was a simple yet elegant list of eight things that the best Google managers do. 

I’d argue that at least five out of eight involve washing the dishes.  Here’s what I mean by that:

Networking-coffee A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called Five Principles for Building a Strong Network. It proved to be pretty popular and I've been practicing and coaching on those principles ever since.  Today, I want to share twelve steps to having a good networking conversation.  With the idea in mind that experience is the best teacher, I'm going to draw on some lessons learned from networking conversations I've had lately both as both the inviter and the invitee. 

Consider this as one person's step by step process to a great conversation.  You may have your own (and I'd love to hear them), but here are mine:

Fighterjets Every so often, a word or phrase will pick up so much buzz that everyone starts talking about it at once.  This week, the catch phrase “no fly zone” has achieved that status. As the Libyan dictator Gaddafi and the forces rallying against him continue to battle, more and more commentators and legislators are calling for a “no-fly zone”  over Libya. Establishing a no fly zone may or may not be the right thing to do.  One thing is for sure, though;  it’s not as easy to do as it is to say. That’s the case with most buzz words and catch phrases – easy to say; harder to do.

The US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made clear why that’s the case at a congressional hearing earlier this month:

"Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses ... and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down… (In the case of Libya, it) also requires more airplanes than you can find on a single aircraft carrier, so it is a big operation in a big country."

As I’ve written here before, I often admire Secretary Gates for his clear thinking and plain speaking. In this case, I think he’s offering a good example for all leaders who need to influence the thinking of people who are convinced that the latest buzz word or catch phrase is the answer. Buzz words and catch phrases mean different things to different people. A lot of the people who talk about them really don’t know what they’re talking about.  In the case of the no-fly zone conversation, Gates began the education process by talking about what one requires.

The next time you find yourself leading a lot of people who are excited about the latest and greatest buzz word or catch phrase, do yourself and the organization a favor by asking a few questions to ground the conversation.  Here are some suggestions:

Roadsigns One of the most popular aspects of my company’s group coaching program, Next Level Leadership™ for high potential leaders is the senior executive guest speakers who come in for a lunch time “what I’ve learned” conversation. They talk about what they’ve learned over the course of their career and what they’ve had to pick up and let go of as they’ve taken on bigger jobs. 

We recently hosted an executive who’s responsible for about a billion dollars of annual revenue in his company. He had some very solid and practical rules of the road about what it takes to be a successful senior leader.

Here are four of his leadership rules of the road:

Exec-mountain If you've been around organizations for any length of time, you don't need a research study to tell you that newly hired or promoted executives often struggle in their new roles.  You've likely seen it with your own eyes.  A recent survey of 320 executives and talent management professionals conducted by the Alexcel Group and the Institute of Executive Development does a great job of explaining what makes executive transitions so difficult and what can be done to ease the path.

The big headline from the study is that over 20 percent of internal promotions and 30 percent of external executive hires are deemed failures within two years. The big reason they fail? More than 75 percent of the participants in the study cited poor interpersonal skills such as relationship building, influencing others and communications. When paired with the second big reason for failure, the challenges of navigating complicated organizational systems and processes, a picture begins to emerge. Newly hired or promoted executives need help in getting up to speed quickly.

The top three things that help the most, according to the study respondents, are mentoring or informal buddy programs, a customized "good start" plan for the executive and working with a coach who understands the organization. The March issue of Next Level Thinking will include access to the full executive summary of the Alexcel Group/Institute for Executive Development study.  You can click here to subscribe.

In the meantime, what trends are you seeing around new executive success and failure? When they succeed why do they? Why do you think they fail? What is your organization doing to help them succeed?

How to Get a Quick Win

by on March 2, 2011 8:30am
in The Next Level

Trackwinner As the author of The Next Level, the coaching engagements that I’m asked to take on often involve supporting an executive who’s taking on a bigger job, leading after a reorganization or some other situation where the stakes are high and the expectations are different.  As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s important to get off to a strong start in a job like this.  Building some momentum with a few quick wins is a good way to do it.

You’ve got to be careful out there, though. Going after the quick win doesn’t mean putting yourself in the position to be a hero.  If you do that, all you’ll do is tick people off.  Mark Van Buren and Todd Safferstone do a nice job of cataloging some behaviors to avoid in their Harvard Business Review article, The Quick Wins Paradox.

So, it’s good to have a list of what not to do when you’re searching for a quick win, but what should you do?  Based on a decade of coaching leaders who need to get off to a strong start, here’s a short list of what I’ve see that works when you’re in search of a quick win:

Oscars2011 There’s an old joke that my adopted hometown of Washington, DC is Hollywood for, well, um, not so attractive people.  So, of course, to see all the beautiful people in one place one watches the Academy Awards.  I’m a big movie buff (Witness my post from a few months ago on The King’s Speech.  You may want to bet with me in next year’s office Oscar pool.), so I usually watch the Oscars.  Last night was no exception.

One of my favorite parts of the broadcast  is seeing how people who spend their careers onstage respond when they have to get up to present or receive an award. Another aspect I enjoy is when the winners from the more minor categories give their speeches. Some of the most spontaneous remarks come in those moments. 

Since leaders find themselves “on stage” with regularity (actually, if you’re a leader you’re always on stage whether you realize it or not), let’s see what leadership do’s and don’ts we can mine from Oscar night.

Cchristie If you’re looking for a brilliant piece of analysis and reporting on a leader who’s making waves, check out Matt Bai’s feature article in The New York Times Magazine on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  No doubt, you’ve seen Christie on TV over the last year delivering “can’t believe he said that” zingers about what it’s going to take to solve the fiscal crisis in his state. As Bai explains in the article, the Governor’s basic message is that his state and its municipalities cannot fund the pensions and benefits of public employees and retirees at the current rates of commitment and remain solvent.   That position has put Christie in a battle royale with the New Jersey Education Association. It has also made him a rising star on the national political scene.

Bai’s article provides the background of the mechanics of the fiscal crisis in New Jersey but it main focus is on what Christie does that makes him an effective communicator. You can agree or disagree with the substance of Christie’s message. Either way, there are lots of leadership lessons to be gleaned from Bai’s reporting on Christie’s approach to delivering it. Here are five that stood out for me:

Jack-griffin The New York media world was abuzz last week with news of the termination of veteran publishing executive, Jack Griffin, from his job of CEO of Time, Inc. a little more than five months after he got there.  Just to make sure the situation was clear to all involved, Time-Warner CEO, Jeff Bewkes released a statement that said,  “Although Jack is an extremely accomplished executive, I concluded that his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner.”  None of that leaving to pursue other opportunities and spend more time with his family stuff there.

If you’re interested in the back story, you can read all the details in the New York Times or Howard Kurtz’ column on The Daily Beast.  The quick summary is that Griffin quickly got himself cross-ways with an entrenched and proud culture at Time, Inc.  Julia Kirby of the Harvard Business Review offers six lessons from the Griffin episode. In the spirit of leadership learning, I’m offering my Five Ways to Avoid Being Fired in Five Months.  Here they are:

Would You Want to Work for You?

by on February 18, 2011 11:00am
in The Next Level

One of the regular features in the Financial Times is an interview with a business leader called Twenty Questions. The hook is that most of the twenty questions are asked in every interview so if you’re a regular reader of the FT (if you’re not, I recommend becoming one),  you can see how different CEOs answer the same questions. 

Mirror1 Today’s Twenty Questions segment is with the CEO of NCR, Bill Nuti.  I’ve known a number of people who have worked at NCR over the years and I’ve heard from them that it’s a pretty tough culture.  There was nothing in Bill Nuti’s answers that dissuaded me from that point of view. 

I mentioned the interview to my wife this morning (she’s very patient) and that I was thinking about writing a post about how leaders shape the culture of their organizations.  She said, “That’s nice.  How would you answer those same questions?”  I hate it when she comes up with stuff like that.  I started answering the questions for her and was a bit embarrassed that I didn’t like a lot of my own answers.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  So, in the spirit of Socratic self discovery, here are the questions from the FT’s Twenty Questions approach that hit home with me. If you answer them honestly, you might come up with an answer to another question, “Would you want to work for you?”

Armycol Last week, I had the opportunity to join a small group of leadership coaches for dinner with retired US Army Colonel Steve Dwyer. Colonel Dwyer is enjoying a second career in the private sector after spending thirty years as a soldier, most of it in Army Aviation.  He shared a lot of interesting stories and insights with us that night.  The one that really stuck with me was the years long process he went through to get his philosophy of leadership down to three simple rules.

Steve told us that when he was promoted to captain, he went from commanding around 45 soldiers in a platoon to about 150 in a company.  He decided that with the broader scope of command that he had as a captain that he needed to make his expectations clear.  He spent a lot of time writing up a three page, single space list of rules and expectations for his company.  He posted it on the bulletin board and nobody paid any attention to it, not even Steve. 

Learning his lesson when he was promoted to a major in charge of 1,000 soldiers in a battalion, Steve decided to get all his rules on one page. With the help of a very small font and dramatically reduced page margins, he managed to do it. He posted the rules and everyone ignored them including Steve. 

By the time he was promoted to colonel and commanding a brigade of 5,000, Steve told us he finally realized that another page length list of rules and expectations wasn’t going to do anyone any good.  Reflecting back on what had worked for him and others in his career as an Army leader, Steve boiled it all down to three simple rules of leadership. The don’t require a lot of memorization and with a little adaptation apply to leaders in any field. Here they are:

Book-budboss One of the more on target book titles I’ve heard lately is From Bud to Boss by Kevin Eikenberry and Guy Harris. Kevin and Guy have put their finger on and bring their considerable expertise to bear on a very common challenge – how to go from being the buddy of your peers to being their boss.  In their new book, which launches February 15, Eikenberry and Harris provide practical advice for first time supervisors on the internal and external changes that have to be made to succeed as a new supervisor. 

The authors have been kind enough to share a preview copy with me so I can say from firsthand observation that it’s full of useful exercises, tools and approaches that new leaders can use for everyone’s benefit.  Kevin and Guy have also put a lot of thought and time into web-based resources that enhance the book.

If you’re a new leader or know someone who is, I encourage you to check out From Bud to Boss.

First World Problems

by on February 14, 2011 10:00am
in The Next Level

Egypt10 My college senior son and his friends have a phrase they use with each other when one of them starts griping about something that is really inconsequential. After one of them rants for a while, another one will call a stop by reminding the one who’s ranting, “First world problems.”  It’s a perspective reset. The recent events in Eqypt are such a reset. Last week, I got a reset of my own.

I was in Atlanta for a meeting with some coaching colleagues. On Friday night, we piled into a couple of taxi vans for a 30 minute ride to dinner at the home of one of our hosts. I sat up front with the cab driver, Ismail Akubar.  Ismail was a friendly guy and we quickly fell into a non-stop conversation that lasted the length of the ride. Here’s what I learned from Ismail.

He’s 41 years old (looks ten years younger) and grew up under a dictatorship in Somalia.  After years of civil war, he left Mogadishu in 1991 just before the Black Hawk Down incident.  From there, he spent seven years in a refugee camp in Kenya.  He came to Atlanta in 1998.  I asked him out of all the places in the world that he could have moved to after the refugee camp, why Atlanta?  He smiled, laughed softly and said, “I didn’t have a choice.  I was part of a refugee relocation program and Atlanta is where they sent me.” 

Ismail’s first year in Atlanta was challenging. He didn’t know anyone and didn’t have the credit history to sign a lease. After about a year, he found a Somali friend with credit who co-signed a lease for his first apartment. He got a job at the Hertz service counter at the Atlanta airport which he had until the 2008 recession. He’s been driving a taxi since then.  He told me that compared to working at Hertz, driving a taxi is a little like gambling because you never know when you’re going to get paid. It can be a long wait between fares.

Presenting with Passion

by on February 11, 2011 10:30am
in The Next Level

Book-nakedpresenter On my way to Atlanta this week for a series of meetings, I read a new book by presentation expert, Garr Reynolds called The Naked Presenter  (Reynolds lives in Japan and uses the public baths where everyone gets equal by getting naked as the main metaphor for his book.  Definitely an attention grabber!)

Reynolds mentions lots of speakers who he believes are great presenters.  One of his heroes is Swedish public health expert Hans Rosling. Since public health is a topic that involves lots of statistics and scientific studies one might conclude that it would be a tough challenge to present that information in a passionate and engaging way.  If that’s what you’re thinking, think again.

Last night, a colleague of mine shared a video of Rosling presenting that the BBC has posted to YouTube. In it, Rosling is visually demonstrating that the world is getting healthier and wealthier over time.  It’s only a few minutes long and I encourage you to take a look at it for two reasons – What he’s saying and How he’s saying it.

Tnl-kindle Yesterday, I found out that the Kindle version of The Next Level is in the top 2% of the most highlighted books on Amazon’s Kindle.  In case you’re not familiar with the technology, you can highlight passages in a Kindle book just like you can in a physical book.  The only difference is the Kindle highlights get captured in the cloud.  That means you can get really cool lists like these top five highlighted passages from the Kindle edition of The Next Level:

1.    The difference between responsibility and accountability is the difference between doing and leading.

2.    She needs to restructure her time and perspective so she can more clearly see what is important to the business as a whole and how her function fits into that bigger picture.

3.    Who is the audience for my message? ·  Where are they now in terms of their thinking?  ·  What, if anything, do I need to do to change their thinking?

4.    When you’re operating as an executive, your accomplishments will be more about influencing outcomes than directly creating outcomes.

5.    Her job is to define what the results should be, not how to accomplish the results.

(By the way, the she and her in points 2 and 5 refer to Amy, the composite character in the opening case study in chapter one. )

So, of those five highlights which one speaks to you most directly and why?  If you’ve read The Next Level, what favorite passage have you highlighted that’s not on this list?  One of the great joys in my life is knowing that some of the ideas I share through my writing are making a difference for people.  If you have a story about The Next Level, please share it in the comments.  We’ll all learn in the process.

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