Start Small to Win Big (or Fail Quietly)…

green shootsI don’t know about the rest of you, but I have had to learn to avoid making some goals virtually unachievable from the get go. Lose 20 pounds! Improve efficiency by 35% in your area! Grow your business by (ridiculously large) percent!

The chasm between where you are and where the dream might put you can seem really wide. Some folks are great at ignoring obstacles and blindly plowing ahead, sustained by some mix of endless optimism or ignorance. Most people I know can’t do that, nor do I think they should. One person’s dream is another person’s fool’s errand.

So how do I have big dreams or goals, make progress and NOT kill myself, my colleagues or those around me? Start small! Continue reading

Career Management: “The Decision”

(Phil’s, not LeBron’s)

3AM and I can’t sleep. Restless. Can’t make up my mind. Maybe I can journal it out. Write. Keep writing. It’s becoming clearer, limited “upside” and big “downside” personally. Don’t take it, stay where you are.

That’s where I was about a month ago at 6:30am the day before I had to decide whether to accept a new role at Carlson. Fast forward to today and I’m actually working on my transition into the new role. So how did that happen?

The transition in question has me moving from my current teaching job as Director of the Consulting Enterprise into a new leadership role as an Assistant Dean for MBA Programs at the Carlson School of Management. I thought it might be interesting to apply a little scrutiny to my decision process. Since I give a lot of advice, let’s see if my own choices are consistent with what I preach. Continue reading

Distracting Performance Killers: Give them a “Ball of Yarn”

As in, sometimes you need to “give people a ball of yarn.”

Ever had that team member who messed stuff up, just couldn’t get it right? They can’t get stuff done on time, or it’s no good and needs major rework from other team members. These folks need to be given a ball of yarn. Like a kitty – give them a nice, enjoyable distraction that keeps them occupied. Stated differently, how do I make them virtually disappear without a big scene?

I spend the better part of my professional life trying to help people improve their skills and personal effectiveness. Having said that, some people just aren’t that strong and/or motivated in a given position. That doesn’t make them bad people, but for whatever reason, they’re a bad fit for the current role and can’t get it going.

For this post I’m assuming you’ve tried to redeem the person in question and it just hasn’t worked.

So who are we talking about?
I’ve developed a sophisticated, statistically significant, 2×2 matrix for colleagues to illustrate this point. Call it the “how good is this colleague?” matrix. You could also think of it as a quality of work life indicator. Put capability on one axis and motivation on the other and you get precisely 4 categories of colleagues. No more, no less. (As a consultant, I have to work in a 2×2 as often as possible or I lose my membership card.)

The category names are fairly self-explanatory. There’s probably more to say about this in a future post, but I wanted to lay it out as a set-up for talking about effectively occupying productivity killers.
Continue reading


Not having quite the success you’ve envisioned for yourself? Wondered why the last promotion went to someone else when your numbers are better? Someone else just get that job offer when you had more experience?

Maybe you have a “presence” problem.

I’ve always hated this term because it’s so fuzzy, but keep coming back to it. Back when I ran recruiting for a corporate development group, many a candidate got bumped for “lack of presence”. I was never satisfied with this answer and made people articulate a more specific set of issues. They would look like: lack of confidence, goofy/nervous body language – even to the extent of awkward levels of sweat, talking too fast or slow etc. All symptoms or small things we roll up to “presence”. Well as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to terms with the term.

I was just reading an interesting executive interview with Robert Selander (retiring CEO of Mastercard) in the NYT business section where this comes up. After commenting on attributes he values, like leadership and results, he mentions presence and gets into what he means:

Presence is learning to deal with different audiences in a way that allows them to get what they need out of this interaction and ensures that the well-being of the company is looked after.

Q. Isn’t that what some people describe as just good communication skills?

A. I think you can be a good communicator and you still may not have presence. There may be someone who is very articulate on a subject and they know levels of detail. When you get with a particular audience, it may not be appropriate to go into those levels of detail, or you may create doubt by even going into the subject matter. There’s inside information in a company, for example. You never cross that bright line, but you can get varying degrees of proximity to that line, depending on your audience.

Some people are not very good communicators, but boy, when you get them into their subject matter they know exactly where to go and how far to go. Others are brilliant communicators, but because of the connection between their thoughts and the synapses firing and the words coming out, there isn’t enough time and introspection. Therefore they will brilliantly communicate something that they shouldn’t be talking about. Presence is knowing what to communicate, and how.

I thought this was an interesting and useful way to think about it. Effectively communicating at the right level of detail, in the right manner to a particular audience.

To do this, you can’t have all the problems I mentioned above.  You need to know your content and be able to communicate it confidently.

He also mentions points in his career where some talented people were not fully appreciated because of their lack.

I realized this was probably the best branch manager I’d seen, but it would have been very easy for me to think he wasn’t, because he couldn’t communicate as well as some of the others who were fluent in English.

I think that was an important lesson. It is too easy to let the person with great presentation or language skills buffalo you into thinking that they are better or more knowledgeable than someone else who might not necessarily have that particular set of skills. 

So that was something that sounds obvious in hindsight, but as I was sitting there, boy, for me this was a thunderbolt. I think that’s another thing that sort of served me well, not letting the veneer distract you from the substance.

So what can we take from this?

Presence matters.

Whether you call it that, or confidence, polish etc. It sure helps. It’s not the only thing but it can sure carry the day in iffy situations. Pure content/expertise sometimes wins, but at the margin in a competitive environment (sales, interviewing, venture capital, promotions etc.) small differences matter a lot.  It affects how quickly you get opportunities and how (or even if) your voice is heard.

You can be petulant and say it shouldn’t matter, but we all make “lizard brain” level decisions about people without even realizing it. Gladwell talks about this in Blink and Cialdini gets into it in Influence. We are what we are cognitively. So you need to do what you can to help youself be as effective as you can.

 So if you think your presence could use improvement, work on it. How?

  • Ask five colleagues how you come across to them in person, meetings and as a presenter. You may need to be blunt in asking. People are often reluctant to tell you what they really think.
  • Diagnose some potential opportunities for development from their descriptions. See this older post on seeking and accepting feedback.
  • Pick 1-2 things from what they observe to work on.
  • Take stretch opportunities to work on them. Examples: If you’re a terrible speaker, force yourself to take speaking opportunities like toastmasters. If you don’t interview well, get a coach or find friends who are good to run you through the ringer. Nothing like having to do to learn.
  • Get follow up feedback.
  • Pick new things to work on.

I am NOT saying that presence matters more than content, execution and other important attributes. I AM saying it makes delivering easier and the lack of it may hold you back.

So work on your presence to improve your impact.

Seeking & Accepting Feedback

One of the greatest gifts someone can offer you is honest feedback. Truly. Most of the time, people will try to varnish the truth or avoid it altogether. Since it’s so rare a gift, it’s only right to treat it as such. Often you have to go get it, as not everyone will be forthcoming if you don’t ask for it.

So ask, but not too often

Identify a set of people whose feedback you want on a regular basis. Then go get it. It’s that simple. Don’t over think it. I see a lot of people get nervous about how and when they do it, asking themselves about the appropriateness of the request. Don’t worry about it. It will be immediately obvious to you if the request is making someone uncomfortable. Then it’s up to you whether you push on through or let it go. Below are a few considerations in asking.

Be diverse in the inputs you seek. Don’t just get your boss. Get colleagues, people in other departments etc. In particular, seek out people you think might have uncomfortable feedback. If you feel threatened by people you currently work with for political or evaluative reasons, then mine old co-workers.

Be specific about what feedback you are looking for. Don’t ask for people to comment on broad open ended questions. It will make them uncomfortable (more like evaluating you as a person than commenting on your communications skills) and lead to areas that may be off point.

Example: “Is there anything I can improve on?” isn’t as helpful as, “I’ve been wondering about my communication skills, have you noticed anything in my emails or presentations you think I could improve on?” The latter is more specific and likely to yield actionable feedback.

Ask for examples. Don’t settle for generalizations. Drive for enough detail to understand, evaluate and take action.

Example: “I don’t think you present well” isn’t that helpful. Get them to say “You just read the slides and never see if your audience is following along.” That is specific enough to understand what the action plan might be.

Ask people who can actually answer. This sounds obvious, but think about the type/category of feedback you’re looking for and make sure the person you’re asking has seen enough to have a “qualified” opinion. Another thing to think about is how observant or thoughtful the people you ask are. Sometimes, non-obvious folks are very wise and can offer keen insights. Political advice is often very useful from this type of connection. So target wisely.

Example: Asking someone you haven’t worked directly with about your leadership style won’t lead to anything useful.

Don’t get overly aggressive about seeking feedback. It’s great to want feedback, but seeking too much represents either lack of confidence, understanding or disingenuousness. All bad. I’m not saying don’t be assertive in seeking out advice. I am saying don’t check in too often. Use some judgment.

Listen & don’t argue

Having asked for feedback, actually let people offer it. It is perfectly appropriate to ask thoughtful follow up questions and to play out scenarios, but don’t debate. You’ve asked for a gift, it is being given. Don’t be ungrateful. As my grandmother would say, “that’s not attractive sweetie.”

As I mentioned, asking follow up questions is part of the process. As mentioned above, if someone is too general, feel free to ask for examples. A specific example can then be fodder for re-playing the scenario to explore and learn.

For example: You receive constructive criticism on how you handled a meeting. It’s good to ask your fellow participant how they felt, suggest alternative approaches you might have taken to get their feedback and understand how participants perceived the situation. It’s NOT OK to say “I totally disagree, Sally was way off base and I don’t see how I could have handled it differently”. You just made it worse. If this is how you plan to approach feedback, better not to ask.

I bring up the graciousness part because I see the lack of it with a consistent minority of people I give feedback to. I suggest that for those of you who wrestle with accepting feedback learn to bite your tongue. If someone actually cares enough to give you feedback, they care at some level. Don’t turn them off. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t invest the time in you.

Say “thank you”

I won’t belabor this given my comments above. Suffice it to say that gratitude and graciousness are far more compelling than indifference or rudeness.

Reflect & evaluate

Take time to think about what you have heard. If you don’t reflect, the act of asking and receiving is partly wasted. It only matters if you turn inputs into insights that  drive action.

After one or several discussions, it’s time to determine your sense of what’s important. Each perspective you hear is valid, but they may not all agree or be of central importance in your development. You have to decide what strengths are worth reinforcing and what improvement opportunities merit time. You can’t rock everything, so pick and choose based on your judgment and bandwidth. Think about what you agreed with, what was new, how could I work on that etc.

I do suggest you develop a plan for key areas you are working on. It can be as simple as 3 bullet point reminders on a post it about how to kick off a meeting, or as involved as a multi-year development plan for an involved skill set. But put it in print and track yourself.

Closing thoughts

 Asking for feedback is crucial to your development. Many leadership studies cite the ability to seek out and utilize feedback as one of the most important traits great leaders possess.

 Seeking out feedback and acting on it also comes with soft benefits. It demonstrates self-awareness, maturity and a drive to improve. It also exposes you to people in ways that might not come up in the normal course of work. It also opens deeper mentoring possibilities. It’s a win/win as long as it’s done sincerely.

Fake it ‘til you make it

Something I see a lot of people struggle with in their careers is having the confidence to lead. I hint at this in a number of my posts, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed head on. So here goes.

I was just reading a column in business week (“Acting the Part of a Leader”) by noted leadership author Warren Bennis that struck a few chords for me. Many people I chat with or teach have the mistaken impression (in my opinion) that people they perceive as leaders have tremendous confidence, are particularly wise or have some other higher powers that they aspire to have. They often are looking for “the answer” to how to get there themselves. I am certain I was that way years ago and I guess I still am in some ways.

Based on my own experience and backed by some scholarly research, here’s the secret: Most “leaders” didn’t start out that way. It is in fact achievable if you are willing to work at it, take some risks and be resilient when you get knocked down. In addition, you usually have a limited number of really high pressure situations in which to learn to perform. These situations are often thrust on you by circumstances.

Play the Part

Bennis makes an important point about leaders. They are usually “acting the part” of a leader. I suppose that some people naturally do the right things, but most I can think of (Lincoln, Roosevelt, MacArthur, Churchill, Alexander etc.) were masters of wearing “the mask of command”. They understood the part they were required to play to move people forward.

The same dynamic plays out in smaller groups and day-to-day experiences. Most of us won’t lead the free world or face life and death decision for multitudes. But most of us will face adversity in groups and have the opportunity to lead, even if quietly and not from the front.

I think this takes courage more than confidence – A willingness to “be out there” and maybe be wrong. I encourage people to put themselves out there. If it’s a little bumpy, that’s to be expected.  Confidence grows from experience. Do it more and you’ll get better at it.

I’d also add there’s a big difference between being nervous and showing your anxiety. Being visibly agitated doesn’t instill confidence in anyone. I haven’t met many people who were confident in every situation they face, but those who adapt and are able to project confidence are better able to bring teams along.

You often have to play a role that is difficult for you, but needed by the group to advance. In my own career I can think of many examples. The way you lead a small group of high performers is very different that how you lead a team that is underperforming and on a tight deadline. That’s part of what makes genuine leadership tough. There are common principles, but every situation is different. You need to try and be who you need to be given the context.

 So I guess my take-away is “fake it ‘til you make it”. There’s no reason you can’t be more effective if you work at it.

Leadership Podcast

For those of you who listen to podcasts while puttering (for me it’s on the elliptical machine at the club), I thought this recent Harvard Ideacast (Ideacast 133  – What business leaders can learn from today’s military) on leadership was interesting. It focuses on how the military currently works to develop a leadership culture. It is by one of the authors of the Frontline Leadership blog at Harvard Business Publishing online.

The observation I found most interesting was Colonel Tom Kolditz’s observation that leadership is not a skill or a role, rather it’s an “identity”. It has more to do with how you see yourself and the implications for how others then perceive you. There’s some nice discussion about leadership and followership, the idea of leaders needing to focus on followers needs to build trust and cohesion etc. Worth a quick listen.