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June 2010


Leaders have to optimize their time, nurture and leverage their energy, and express imaginatively and meaningfully their selves.

Don’t take it all too personally

People are sometimes gruff, or distracted, or communicate ineffectually. If they’re doing it spitefully, unprofessionally or inappropriately, they should be confronted.

If it’s just blather, or froth, don’t personalize it excessively. As the old saw reminds us, “You would worry far less about what people thought of you if you realized how infrequently they actually do.” Most of the time, their behavior is because of self-absorption or personal issues, not a read-out of what they feel about you.

I have clients chasing me daily when they need me to alleviate some perceived or actual distress, being then arthritic taking tough decisions they know should be taken. It’s not personal when they’re chasing me, and it’s not personal when I’m chasing them. Relationships are evaluated over time, not in spasms. Most interactions reveal how the other person is feeling about what’s going on for them, not you.

Appropriate reaction: Let them know how it’s coming across, and ask for a better reaction, and frame the request in terms of common goals and interests. But do it peacefully. It doesn’t merit distress.

Offer and accept feedback about what is observed, not what is generalized.

If someone tells you there is a stain on your dress shirt (assuming there is), okay. If they mention a typo in your text, fair enough. If they point out that they are having difficulty following the thrust of your argument, no problem. That’s a personal confession, and you can make it easier to follow.

If they say, “You aren’t clear.” Or, “You have no self-respect,” take another tack. Just say you have a rule to not reply to generalizations. It would be nice if they would explain where there is a lack of clarity, or how your shortage of self-respect is manifesting itself. It’ll lead to a far more constructive dialogue, and you will have taken the wind out of the sails of any strutting.

Similarly in giving input, stick to observable behavior, own your own assumptions and reactions, and invite exploration, not self-defense. So say, “When you cut off a sentence before it’s completed, it gives me a sense that you’re not interested in what’s being said. This makes me concerned and I then find it harder to relate to your own points. Could you help me by waiting until the person who’s speaking is done? I’d hate to lose your enthusiasm for contribution, but equally I’d like to be able to fully tune in to others too.” That may be tough, but will be more useful than, “Could you let others speak? How inconsiderate! You just can’t seem to listen.”

Let someone know that they’ve been 10 minutes late for each of the last 5 meetings, and that’s more powerful than, “You’re chronically tardy.” All you actually know is they aren’t on time for this meeting — so keep it about that.

Consider yourself a “work in progress” and use external benchmarks not internal cheerleading

If you’re a “work in progress” then a setback is illuminating. You didn’t expect to have reached nirvana or God-like status, so you’re not unduly humiliated to learn you still have something to learn. Rededicate yourself!

If you feel you have to be on a pedestal, then you will cling to the pedestal, and shun the learning. Also by looking to external stimuli as a catalyst for learning you are part of something bigger than yourself. When you opt primarily for internal cheerleading and hype to keep you going, you’ll become more militant, strident, whiny and character disordered if the rest of the world doesn’t join your chorus with an appropriate “Hosannah”.

So it’s great to catch yourself doing things right, to buck yourself up and even let appropriate self-appreciation for a job well done seep into yourself. But let at least as much of it be about the quality of service and response and value delivered “out there” and you won’t have to blow your own trumpets quite so loudly. Others will take care of that for you.

Equally though, don’t fall in love with the press release. The PR master Ben Sonenberg once said his job was to put very large pedestals under very small people. Your job and mine as leaders is to put large purposes under people willing to stretch and grow towards them…and that includes ourselves (hopefully).

Beware of lavishing time on incidentals rather than essentials.

Beware of the siren call of technology. While none of us wish to be Luddites and to decry technology and social media, if you’re manically posting on Facebook once an hour, following two dozen people on Twitter, I’m sorry but you’ve misplaced the script somewhere.

Just because it’s posted, doesn’t mean it merits attention. Listening to the superb ideas on TED (www.ted.com) is a far cry from trolling through the web for every hack, quack or self-appointed “opinion leader”.

Equally, even venerable publications have a lot of churn — and a lot of what is published is hopelessly generic. So be clear about your interests, your expectations, and selectively focus on those sources that give you a real “return on energy”.

Divide what you dive into, in three camps: 1) entertainment 2) stimulus and 3) applicable ideas. If a fair amount of your “surfing” during work hours doesn’t land you in the third category, recalibrate!

Break the “Crackberry” addiction

How many Board meetings and other allegedly “critical” meetings have we all seen where people are feverishly texting, thumbing their “Crackberry” as if sending off nuclear launch codes to the Pentagon, or typing away with scant attention to what is being shared or discussed? Extolling an attention deficit disorder is a dangerous strategy when you need to align, commit together and effectively collaborate. If it’s not important enough to pay attention to, why is being presented?

There needs to be a moratorium on gadgets when key people are together to have key, hopefully decisive and mission-furthering conversations. Too many meetings are “filler” — rather than being a site for key decision making. If all decisions are made subsequently, brokered in hallways etc, then indeed any sense of team or common purpose is being undermined and made a nonsense of.

So the rule should be: we discuss, we debate, we commit, in real-time. We make it brisk and we make it decisive. We don’t come together to inhabit space together, or to fritter away attention. Full engagement is the imperative, it’s not an “option”.

Establish priorities and “next steps” above all

We always have enough time for anything we really want to do. If you tell me you don’t have time to mentor or coach, you have to explain how you have time to kill passion, to confuse, to alienate or to confound.

If you say you don’t have time for customers, how is it we have time for bureaucracy, or rework, or lack of discipline re agreed, documented key processes we claim are key to our success?

And if you say you have “no time” for family life or the things that we claim really matter to us, then we have to ask what kind of leader allows the “urgent” to overpower the “enduringly important”? The inability to prioritize is a cardinal demonstration of poor leadership. Before you admit to having ‘no time’ explain to yourself and your team why you have ‘no priorities’.

Instead try this: Ask if you only had two days this week, what would you personally ensure you did or got done? Or if you had to give an account of the value delivered on the job this one day, and you HAD to be home by 6, what would you ensure was tangibly progressed? Leadership is not about manic activities, it’s about acutely transformative choices of this type.

All overwhelming projects, no matter their scope or size, have one thing in common. They live or die on the “next steps”. Establish those, deliver those, drive those, follow through on those, and you can certainly move the needle in the direction you want. Re any project or goal, tell us what you WILL accomplish THIS week.

Make it about “stature” not “status”.

It’s all too easy to assert our position, to ask for deference to our hierarchical position. But you can’t “command” engagement and commitment, only compliance. Engagement and commitment are choices — you can only earn them, enable them, invite them, ignite them. It requires enrolling others.

And your stature as a leader is based on various “demos”. Do you make people more capable by being on your team? Are they able to achieve more in concert than they could on their own? Do you point to a vision they are excited to advance? Do you role model the behaviors you demand? Do you ask of yourself first what you ask of others in terms of professionalism, acuity, discipline or focus? And do you ensure people win if you win and the team wins — that what’s good for the organization will be good for them too?

And are you someone they believe? Are you able to face facts with creativity rather than defensiveness and uplift people’s expectations of themselves in response to them? If that’s not quite true of you yet, that’s fine. But admit that, and move dynamically and measurably in that direction. People don’t need you to be perfect — just credible and authentic.

Be a real professional — make your work your craft, your passion, your dedication. People respond to passion — they are turned off by dilettantes and short-term transactional utilitarians.

Don’t listen too much and seek to make waves not “pals”

It’s important to listen to colleagues, to the market and to customers — just not too much. Why? First, people give you a read-out of the present, and leadership is about inventing the future. No one “asked” for an Ipad, overnight package delivery, or 24 hours cable news. Someone intuited what people “need” and what they would “love”.

Moreover, people often don’t tell us the whole truth, and often don’t know their own desires and preferences enough to report them. So you listen to establish a relationship and a base-line. But you use that as a launching pad, not a cul-de-sac.

If your ideas are universally admired, they’re probably not “ideas” but “pale imitations” of prevailing orthodoxy. As marketers will say, they don’t want something “liked” by 100% of customers, but something loved by about 10-20%. Schrager’s hotels are disdained by more people than they are loved by, but still net north of $20 million a year. I.M Pei’s upside down Pyramid at the Louvre is as detested as it is admired — but it will remain a landmark. Don’t be contrarian just for the hell of it — but have the guts, the conviction and the imagination to be an “original” — as long as it’s for the love and connection with a key demographic that will drive your success.

Where and how will you dramatically differentiate, for whom, and to what end? If there’s no answer, you have no real enduring business. The answer can be cost, pricing, packaging, supply chain, customer connection, service delivery, technology, partnerships, processes — but it better be something! And it had best be linked to your greatest capabilities.

The real art

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts,” said Henry David Thoreau. That’s what leaders have to do. They have to each day, create a basis for the future they are taking a stand for.

We are told fortune favors the bold. That means really that you may succeed or you may fail, but your chances of success by taking bold action far outweigh diffidence, or iteration.

That said, fortune does not favor the arrogant. Even the greatest geniuses are undone by their own private Waterloos. Fortune favors those humble enough to learn, and bold enough to act on that learning, and to perhaps even to transform it.

Leaders affect the quality of the day of those they lead and those they serve. Your business has to make a difference, that’s the real art. The greater that difference, the more powerful your proposition and the more execution can turn your base metal into gold. Absent that, you’re spinning wheels and may eke out a profitable survival through either the ineptitude of your competition or the inertia of your markets. But don’t count on either of those lasting.

So make each day a bedrock for your vision to be built upon, and look for the “big picture” in all the “little pictures” that hourly, daily and weekly make up the tapestry of your business.

Take your time and thereby retake your life

Don’t dash through museums, or special evenings, or critical family moments. Savor them. Similarly don’t dash through client critical meetings or moments of truth. Make them count!

Yet, whenever you can cut the Gordian knot of complexity, do so. Take the swiftest, simplest route to where you’re headed.

When people ask me in consulting relationships how much time it will take to deliver a business outcome, my answer is, “As little as possible. That said, I assure them we won’t rush in the slightest. We have great urgency but are not in a rush. That’s the paradox to embrace.

Do everything fast — but “fast” is relative to the nature of the opportunity, engagement, or situation. The “fastest” I may wish to rejoice in someone’s company I haven’t seen may be a leisurely week-end of intensive time together. And the longest I may wish to spend wasting my time with someone who clearly doesn’t wish to be helped, is five minutes. Put a “stop loss” on what doesn’t add value — including pointless gossip, mindless worry, or deadening time wasters or energy leeches. And deploy that time to “wallow” in what counts, what matters and where value truly resides.

So have a drink with friends before dinner, and linger over coffee. Stay to share appreciation after a play rather than “dashing” to avoid some meaningless traffic. Listen to a colleague when they need you, and pass on when they’re just bantering — save the time to be there when you’re really needed. Look at and really see your loved ones, and listen to those you serve. Add fifteen minutes to your tennis match, so you can cool off and enjoy the afterglow, rather than perspiring all over your business clothes as you frantically dash out. It’s not the quantity of time but the quality of focus that matters most.

Know where to be “loose” (leave yourself the freedom on a holiday to linger by the pool) and where you need to be “tight” (delivering on a client commitment when promised, bringing groceries home in time for dinner).

Don’t dawdle over empty channel surfing, but create time to go the film festival with your pals. Have the time to read the analysis but delete “copy all” emails that are pointless.

Spend time on your health and take that walk. But perhaps the three daily coffee breaks aren’t needed therefore.

Life is revealed by our choices and the focus of our time. No more, no less.


These are areas I’ve coached people on, reminded myself of, mentored my team regarding. They’ll work if you work them. They are reminders of “uncommon sense”. They are ways leaders can gain leverage…they are ways of moving the world — your world — in the direction of your convictions, your goals and perhaps your dreams.