Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Nothing Mediocre – Inspired by Steve Jobs

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to be mediocre today.” And yet too often we spend our days in mediocrity. We don’t push ourselves to have bold thoughts and take bold actions.

Steve Jobs’ life is a reminder to strive to banish the mediocre from our lives.

Steve Jobs died at only 56 years old. Imagine the other innovations he could have introduced had his life not been cut short by cancer. His gift was dreaming about how much richer, more fun, more exciting our lives could be if only we had…something no one had previously known to covet.

President Obama said, “There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.” And as I read this morning’s papers, I was struck by all the tributes.  Bill Gates said, “The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had….I will miss Steve immensely.” Many noted that Jobs is the Thomas Edison of their (our) generation. A customer at Boston’s Boylston Street Apple store last night said, “I feel like he’s the current version of Leonardo da Vinci, because he makes the perfect combination of mechanics and beauty.” (Cheng-Cheng Yang as quoted in today’s Boston Globe). 

There is a sense, as conveyed at the end of the Globe article, Steve Jobs, Architect at Apple, Dies, that with Job’s death, Apple’s magic is gone.  “No one knows how Apple will fare without Mr. Jobs. But however successful the company’s future products, the delightful machines with the stamp of his genius, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever again seem quite so magical.”

Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet Networking technology and professor at the University of Texas said, “Steve’s big contribution to the computer industry was to take it away from the nerds and give it to the people.”  This statement of Job’s significance is perhaps my favorite quotable quote. It conveys the magnitude of Job’s impact.

There was nothing mediocre about Steve Jobs. Let his legacy inspire all of us.

How to get the most out of strategic planning

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Strategic planning has been a hot topic of conversation lately as companies focus on how to thrive — not just survive — in a challenging economy. Here are my two cents. Strategic planning is all about the questions we ask, the new insights that come into view, and the concrete, smart and actionable outcomes that come about. 

Strategic plans are often several inches thick and packed with data. We absolutely need the data to drive data-informed decisions. And even before we collect the data, we need to know which questions we want the data to help us answer. Ideally the data will lead us in new directions and drive important decisions not just confirm what we already know.

There’s a wonderful story about Albert Einstein proctoring an exam. One of his students was surprised by the test’s questions and said, “Professor Einstein, you accidentally gave us last year’s exam. The questions are the same.” Einstein replied, “The questions may be the same, but the answers are not.”

So whether you’re asking new questions or revisiting important questions you’ve explored in the past, what new answers are you discovering through your strategic planning process?

10 Ways to Be More Confident

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

I’m often asked by clients to help managers stepping up into more visible leadership roles.  They typically say, “He’s very smart and has great ideas…but he needs to be more confident.”

While there is no “confident” switch, there are ways to help us feel more confident. Here are ten suggestions:

  1. Focus on why you have the position, the seat at the table, the opportunity to speak at a conference…Think about your successes and accomplishments — give yourself a silent, in-the-moment pep talk!
  2. Don’t wing it when meeting people for the first time. There is no excuse today not to be prepared with insights about a prospective client (both the company and individual).  It’s easy to do a quick Google search or check someone’s profile on LinkedIn, yet it always impresses the other person, which boosts your confidence!
  3. Use that preparation to help you shape your point of view and then own it! Deliver your point of view eyeball to eyeball!
  4. Banish tentative language. “I think…” “We might…” “I’m pretty confident.” If you don’t sound like you believe in what you’re saying, why should anyone else care?
  5. Don’t fidget. No nail biting or cuticle picking or hair twirling or pen clicking or coin-rattling in your pocket.
  6. Stand tall. Excellent posture exudes confidence. If seated, lean into the conversation vs. retreating into the back of your chair.
  7. Smile. Remind yourself that you’re happy to be there, in that situation, at that event, at that moment.
  8. Anticipate conversation starters and questions that will demonstrate sincere interest in others. 
  9. Look confident. Dress the part.
  10. Beware of the “wet fish” handshake. When you enter a conference room or restaurant, put your hand out to confidently shake the other person’s hand. Have a firm (but still friendly) handshake and make eye contact.


The next time someone says to you, “you just need to be more confident,” remember these ten suggestions.

Silencing the Monday morning critics

Monday, August 29th, 2011

I just have three things to say to the Monday morning critics of the preparation for Hurricane Irene.


  1. Hindsight is 20/20: We saw what happened when we underestimated the impact of Hurricane Katrina. It was impossible to mobilize the needed support after the fact. Leaders in the East coast cities and states along Irene’s path weren’t willing to risk waiting. Two cliches pop into my mind, “Hindsight is 20/20,” and “Better safe than sorry.” Cliched but never more relevant.
  2. Predicting the weather is only part science. How many times have we (in the Northeast) been surprised by a snow storm that wasn’t anticipated that turned highways into parking lots?  Or, as we experienced with Hurricane Irene, by storms that were forecast as record-breaking that passed through with less damage than predicted. Not no damage…just less damage. Thankfully Hurricane Irene didn’t live up to expectations in New York and Boston, but that’s little comfort to the people whose loved ones lost their lives, or the coastal communities that were flooded, or the neighborhoods without power because of downed power lines, or the peoples’ homes destroyed by massive uprooted trees that were no longer able to stand tall in already saturated ground.
  3. In a time of epic natural disasters, we are reminded of the sheer power of Mother Nature. Grotesquely large hurricanes, earthquakes in our major cities, record-breaking tornadoes, and a year of unprecedented droughts and floods.  Reminders that we are just mere mortals.
And I have only one thing to say to the leaders who took the risk of over-preparing for Hurricane Irene. Thank you. I hope you show the same conviction the next time when we will still have to rely on flawed science, history’s lessons and a healthy respect for Mother Nature.

What are your “Four Questions?”

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

In the spirit of Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrated around the world this week, I’m dedicating this blog to the practice of asking questions — so important for families and also business leaders, managers and client service professionals.

In Jewish tradition, the youngest children at the Passover seder (the holiday dinner) ask four questions about the holiday’s traditions. We ask the same four questions every year (and have for more than three thousand years) and yet everyone gets excited to ask and answer the four questions. I grew up asking the questions in yiddish, hebrew and english. Today at our family’s seder table children and adults ask the questions because we recognize that all of us are still learning. We ask the questions in yiddish, hebrew, english and have added french, spanish and, this year, mandarin. Everyone actively participates — including my eight-five year old aunt and my six-year old cousin.

Why bother asking the same four questions each year? In addition to honoring tradition, asking the same four questions is part of a structure, a practiced and disciplined way of examining a situation.

Why bother asking the same four questions when we know the answer? At this time every year, we revisit the questions and answers, and both provide lessons for us. The essence of the answer remains the same but the context in which we explore the answers evolves in response to our lives and world conditions.

Why bother innovating how we ask the questions? Building on the tradition is part of the mandate of this holiday — to enlarge upon the telling of the Passover story. In addition, innovating encourages us to take a new look, to examine what we’ve done for years from a different perspective.

What questions do your children know they’ll be asked at the dinner table? What questions do your team members know they’ll be asked to explore during your weekly status meetings? What questions do you explore during your quarterly or annual planning sessions with your client?  How can you enlarge upon those questions? How can you innovate to make sure that everyone’s really paying attention?

Tip for managers: celebrate small wins

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

“Long, dark tunnel.” “No end in sight.” “A black hole.” We’ve all worked on projects that seemed never-ending. Managing those projects is even harder as you fight to keep your team members focused and motivated.

I thought about the “dark tunnel” struggle as I read Dan Heath and Chip Heath’s column in Fast Company, “Why True Grit Matters in the Face of Adversity”.  The authors talk about those goals that require single-mindedness.  “Grit is tough because you don’t get the psychic payoffs that come along with any exciting discovery or a shift in direction. You rarely get big wins to celebrate.”

Ah-ha! That’s where managers can make a difference. Instead of letting your team wait — and work harder and harder — for that far-away big win, you need to celebrate the small wins along the way. The Heath brothers describe some small wins in their True Grit story about an anti-smoking campaign in North Carolina, which happens to be the home of the pro-tobacco (and smoking) lobby.

Imagine you’re overhauling a website for a client. The small wins might be agreeing on the website outline, getting approval on the design, submitting revised website copy and, later, getting client approval, finalizing website art and graphics, confirming the format, submitting the test to the client, and ultimately the moment when the website goes live. Take advantage of each of those milestone moments to celebrate the small wins and acknowledge the individuals and teams who make each win possible.

Celebrating the small wins along the way is one way in which we nourish ourselves and our team members. We remind ourselves why we love doing what we do. We’re motivated to return the next day and work tirelessly to reach the next milestone, the next small win.

What project is your team’s long, dark tunnel? What small wins can you celebrate?

Leading isn’t about talking more (or louder)

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Which type of meeting leader are you?

Dan and Tom are both SVPs in the marketing group of a large technology firm. They each have a team of about 30 people and meet with their teams regularly.  But that’s where the similarity ends.

Dan’s meetings are painful experiences for Dan and his team members. As he does every week, Dan stands at the head of the conference room and takes his team through the meeting agenda. He shares with them updates about the business, notes budget and deadline changes. After speaking for about 30 minutes he invites discussion. He really wants his group to share their challenges, collaborate on solutions and ask questions, but inevitably there’s silence. “No questions….So everything’s good?” “No one has anything to share?” More silence accompanied by some uncomfortable body language as people look down at their notepads and squirm in their chairs. “Then that’s it…let’s get back to work,” he says as he ends the meeting.

Tom approaches his meetings differently. He distributes responsibility for different parts of the three-part meeting agenda to individuals on his team.  He makes it clear that he’s looking for a quick update followed by one or two thought-provoking and conversation-starting questions posed to the group. Tom waits for others to speak and then, when appropriate, he contributes (vs. dominates) the conversation. He may ask another probing question, or synthesize what he’s heard, or connect the dots of the various comments. He asks “one-finger” questions such as, “What’s one problem with the way we’ve been tackling this problem?” Occasionally, he reframes a doom and gloom comment that threatens to derail the meeting, by asking a constructive follow-up question. “Sounds like ABC is a serious concern. Is there a way that ABC may help us do XYZ?”  Then Tom gets quiet again and listens to the conversation.

Dan asserts his position by talking more than anyone else, learns nothing new and his team members are informed but not engaged.  Tom uses his leadership role to draw out the best of the people on his team, by listening, probing and challenging.

Two different leadership styles. Dan takes very seriously his role as a leader keeping his people informed — certainly important. Tom sees his role as shaping information through collaboration to boost insight and action.

Leading isn’t about talking more (or louder) than everyone else. Have you tried listening, synthesizing, connecting the dots, asking a one-finger question or reframing?

If you’re struggling in your leadership role and would like help becoming a more inspiring and effective leader like Tom, let me know:

Reputation-Building 101: What You Say and Do Matter

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

In the news this morning there were three short celebrity stories that begged a 101 tutorial on reputation-building or at least on avoiding reputation-busting. Beyond our seemingly endless curiosity about celebrity behavior, it’s worthwhile to think about lessons we can apply to our own reputations.

John Galliano apologized for his drunken anti-semitic rants after he was fired from his job as creative director at Christian Dior.  Dior was concerned that Galliano’s reputation for inspired dress design was being overshadowed by his now infamous reputation as an out-of-control and hateful drunk. Like Mel Gibson, Galliano will be going to rehab, hoping not only to deal with a drinking problem and bad behavior but also hoping to rehab his reputation. Clearly what Galliano says matters. What you say offers the world a peek at your values. Will what you say (in conversations, in interviews, in public appearances) enhance or tarnish what you want to be known for?

In the Boston Globe’s “Names” section, Lindsay Lohan was quoted about her desire to be “identified with great films and not her personal problems , ‘I don’t want that to be what I’m known for anymore — the tabloid stuff.'”  Lohan has blown any good will that people felt for this child star with her repeated bad behavior. Her name no longer conjures up an image of her film performances; rather our brains see a disheveled party girl. Clearly what Lohan does matters. Your collective actions frame how the world (your employees, managers, clients, colleagues…) see you.  Do your actions signal confident leadership or does everything about your behavior scream, “can’t be trusted” or “volatile.”

Charlie Sheen was back on the news within hours of his children being taken away from him. No need to recap his too-many-to-count missteps lately. He says he’s “winning” and in control. But the cumulative impact of his ego-centric words and actions is that Sheen is spiraling downward. While he was previously thought of as personally wild but with some impressive credentials, his reputation is now consumed by his decline. Clearly what Sheen says and does matters. What impression do your words and actions leave with the people watching and listening (your clients, managers, employees…)?

So how’s your reputation?  What are you doing to help or hurt it?

Focus on 3 Things You Love About Your Clients, Managers, Teams…

Monday, February 14th, 2011

In honor of Valentine’s Day, focus on three things you love about your client. (She remembers to say thank you, she asks great questions, she is very demanding but holds herself to the same high standards…). Then three things you love about your manager. (He’s always accessible, he shares recognition for our team’s good work, he has my best interests at heart…). Then your team members. (They do whatever it takes to get the job done, they ask great questions, they collaborate well as a team). Then the individuals on your team. Then your peers. Keep that love coming!

And once you’ve thought about the three things, try communicating them. Go ahead…you can always say you got swept away by the spirit of Valentine’s Day.

How to Be Known for Leading Great Meetings-Part 2

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Knowing that you’ve clarified desired outcomes and your agenda (discussed in Wednesday’s blog), you’re ready to focus on actively facilitating your meeting.

Every meeting needs someone in charge. When you’re “it” there are three ways to lead a great meeting.

  1. Engage and manage your meeting’s cast of characters
  2. “Park” distracting tangents
  3. Break through the clutter of endless meetings

1. Engage and manage your meeting’s cast of characters (really important!): If you’re looking for active discussion you need to anticipate ways to drive group participation. What open-ended , discussion-starting and thought-provoking questions can you ask? What exercises will encourage the individuals around the room to share their ideas or opinions? How can you make it safe for everyone in the room to speak?

  • Begin meetings with a warm-up exercise that helps people break-away from the work they’ve left behind at their desks. Use the warm-up to jump-start thinking or create a level playing field for the discussion so titles and hierarchy become irrelevant.
  • Respectfully listening to each person’s contribution will encourage people to speak. We respectfully listen by capturing ideas on a flip chart. Listen with your whole body and nod (genuinely) in receipt of the person’s idea. Repeat part of the idea and use that as a foundation for your next question. Dismissing an idea or allowing bullying behavior in the room will discourage people from contributing.
  • You encourage the less-than-confident person to share by encouraging them to talk about their area of expertise. Watch for body language and notice when someone wants to say something but doesn’t know how to break into the conversation. Create an opening for them. Go even further and reinforce their contribution by acknowledging their participation after the meeting.
  • Share the “stage.” During your meeting prep invite others to “own” a part of the discussion. Rotating speaks and getting everyone involved helps to raise the energy level of the room.  Whenever possible, whomever is facilitating should stand.
  • Don’t tolerate meeting bullies or toxic meeting participants. Set ground rules up front. State clearly that all input is welcome as long as it benefits the group discussion because it is the collective thinking that will lead to the best plan. When a negative influence criticizes others’ suggestions, challenge him to reframe his criticism as a positive idea. Demonstrate what you’re looking for. For example, if he says, “Forget it. There’s no budget for that.” Suggest that he say something like, “On a limited budget, we’ll need to think about…”  Another tip for controlling a meeting bully is to allow them to briefly comment. Acknowledge their comment (“interesting perspective”) and then refocus your attention — your line of sight — so that you physically end the conversation with the negative individual and invite others to talk.

2. “Park” distracting tangents: As the facilitator you’re responsible for moving the meeting from the start to the desired outcomes. During your meeting set-up, establish a flip chart labeled “parking lot.” When a question is asked that takes the meeting off-track, respectfully “park” that point on the flip chart. “You’re raising a really great point that we can’t fully explore during the one hour we have for today’s meeting. Let’s capture it on our parking lot. At the end of our meeting we’ll discuss next steps for all parking lot items.”

3. Break through the clutter of endless meetings:

  • Anticipate room set-up. The seating should be conducive to the meeting purpose and desired outcomes — both the chair/table-set up as well as who sits next to whom.
  • Make the meeting visually distinctive. Imagine if you welcomed people into a meeting that felt completely different from the moment they entered the room. Wallpaper the walls with easel paper. Have colorful paper tossed (not in neat piles) on the conference room table, with colorful markers vs. 8-1/2 x 11″ lined pads with ball-point pens. Spread out a few, fun and touch-inviting toys on the table. We know that our brains become super-charged and creative when we return to our most playful selves so go for the unexpected.
  • Vary the media integrating flip charts, slides, hand-outs and props.
  • Choreograph the meeting experience and pace: Vary fast-paced discussion with calmer discovery exercises. If people are seated for a long period of time, build in an exercise that has them “race to the walls” to write down their ideas.
  • Instead of the usual pizza or sandwiches for a lunch meeting, order fun or unexpected food such as Chinese food with chop sticks or ice cream sundaes. If most of your meetings are in the morning, schedule one for late afternoon and bring in wine and snacks.
  • Absolutely begin and end on time. Demonstrate that you respect the time of the other meeting participants.
  • Wrap up the meeting vs. just whimpering to a close because you’ve run out of time. Summarize what’s been accomplished. Establish next steps. Thank  meeting participants for their time and contributions.

Don’t lead one more ordinary, dull or pointless meeting. Start right now and think about how you’ll make Monday morning’s staff meeting feel different, more inspiring and engaging.