Trust++

The importance of trust and the impact your actions have on the relationship between yourself and your co-workers is something I’ve written a fair bit about in the past. Taking this a little bit further (cause when am I satisfied leaving a topic 110% beaten to death… #email) I wanted to talk about the more nebulous “how” of trust establishment.

There are a hundred and one articles written on trust and trust establishment all over the internet (It might be closer to 270M actually, based on google’s results at the time of writing). I read about half of those while I was trying to figure out what I should be including in this particular blog post. It’s funny how as you start going through all of them they all kind of blur together and end up saying basically the same thing:

Do what you say, and say what you intend to do.

or even as vague as

Be trustworthy.

Good one internet … good one…

Once you get past the euphoria of drinking from the well of infinite knowledge that is “The internet”, you might end up feeling a little empty. I know I did. I knew that this was something that isn’t just a simple “A and then B” scenario or a checklist you can follow, but something a bit more fluid, something that requires a particular finesse, something that can’t really be taught. Or can it?

The same types of ideas all crossed my mind when I was thinking about developing the feedback approach I’ve written about on multiple occasions, or even the “If no one is looking are you still a leader” article, and many of the same concepts begin to show themselves.

You can come back to the same Simon Sinek quote regarding trust and how

Simply doing everything you’ve said you’re going to do doesn’t mean people are going to trust you, it simply means you’re reliable.

We all have an inherent feeling of what trust is. We all sort of collectively agree on what things do and don’t constitute being trustworthy, and yet so often there are situations, in both social and business settings that result in two parties completely missing the boat on each other and ending up feeling like they were completely let down. Resulting in the exact opposite of what you wanted.

In an attempt to prevent this exact situation from coming about, I pitched the idea of pulling together other people’s approaches from the internet and instead focused on the types of things I do on a regular basis. I ended up landing on a simple set of three progressively more intimate activities that (generally) lead to a trusting and balanced foundation for my work relationships.

I wondered if codifying these activities would make it feel like my behaviour was no longer genuine, or if by applying a formula it cheapened the relationships I had already established. I eventually decided that no, it wouldn’t / it wasn’t. Firstly, I didn’t even realize there was a method to my madness while developing these thoughts, and secondly, the spirit of what I was doing was still rooted in a genuine desire to do the right thing and create a bond between myself and the people I work with / for.

When you break it all right down, I’ve found that most of this is based on establishing positive communication and following through on expectations. Easy right? I think so, here’s the A, B, Cs and 1, 2, 3s of trust establishment as I see it:

Giving

Creating a connection with someone founded on trust when you’ve just been introduced to  them isn’t often the first thing we think about. Typically this takes time, effort, and energy to make something happen. If the relationship you’re looking to cultivate is work-based well now you’ve added the complexity of a mandatory or imposed set of restrictions on top of the usual social challenges. Luckily, there are some things you can do to facilitate this entire process.

One of the first things I look to do when conducting that first meeting is look for an opportunity to provide something to the other person. It doesn’t matter terribly what it is so long as it’s genuinely given and comes with no expectation of anything in return. The monetary value of the thing isn’t really important, and more often than not I’m actually looking to give something with little to no value. An idea, for example, a cool website I frequent, the location of a great restaurant, some knowledge of a work related process which the individual isn’t aware of are all good examples. The actual thing matters less than the fact that you provide it and provide it in a timely manner. This is where ‘say what you do and do what you say’ kind of matters. The most important thing in my mind is that you aren’t responding to a request, but instead responding to a need they weren’t aware was even there.

To further demonstrate this point, I wanted to link this youtube video I was introduced to by a colleague and found some of the points they made particularly relevant to this discussion (take note of the waiter example provided early on in this video):

Responding

The next two points are a bit more esoteric in terms of how to go about accomplishing them. My hope is that once you’ve been armed with the knowledge of their existence, you can anticipate what it is you should be doing and more readily deal with the situations that require them.

It may not be right away, it might come at a funny hour of the day, or it might come at a time when you’re absolutely slammed at work. Whenever the time, there will be a point in your newly fostered connection with someone that they’re going to need something. I’ve found that time and time again, one of the best things you can do to dramatically increase the level of trust someone puts in you, is respond to these requests as immediately as humanly possible.

There’s the old saying about first impressions which I’m sure you’re all aware of, and it holds true here as well. There’s a dramatic difference in the perceptions people have of you when you ensure you’re available to respond to this very first request in a timely manner. Keep in mind, this isn’t to say you need to solve whatever problem they’re bringing to your attention, or immediately write them a research paper they’ve asked you to provide, or what have you. The simple act of responding (quickly) to the request triggers a powerful, positive response in the person who sent it.

Your team member is providing you with an opportunity here to prove yourself, don’t waste it! Really this comes down to you sending the message to them: “You’re important and I want you to know that I’m interested, invested, and prepared to support you when you ask for it.”

Anticipating

This last point really relies on your ability to actively listen, and more importantly, remember. Dale Carnegie has been quoted many times for saying:

There is no sweeter sound to any person’s ear than the sound of their own name …

While I agree with the sentiment, I also think that there is no sweeter food for the soul than to know someone is thinking about you when you aren’t with them. As a leader of any kind, proving to your team that you’re thinking about them even when you aren’t together is one of the most noble things you can do to prove their value to you.

The next time you get together with a member of your team, prepare something you know they’ll need or appreciate even before they’ve asked for it. The equity you’ll gain through this one, potentially small, act will pay dividends for a very long time. Sure this could all be written off as some ramblings of a nerd waxing poetic, but time and time again I’ve seen a discernible difference in the depth of trust you can develop in relationships both inside and outside of the workplace.

Michael Lopp has a fantastic discussion about active listening and giving some of his most precious commodity (time) to his team. Focusing on this basically free technique to connect with his people allows him to keep his fingers on the pulse of what they need, often before they know it themselves (it can be found here). I love the premise of his 1:1s. I especially like how dedicated he is to keeping his commitment to his team to meet. Honestly, if you don’t give your people the chance to connect with you, when did you expect it to happen? Oh, maybe during that annual meeting you scheduled to divulge upon them some sacred knowledge related to their performance that they weren’t aware of already … *cough* no … that’s not likely… but, I digress.

The point here is that the initial building blocks of trust can be laid down early and fairly easily, but it’s the continued commitment to proving yourself worthy of someone else’s trust on a regular basis that really allows you to level up.

Take the time to find opportunities to give your team something they’ve told you they need, respond to their requests promptly, and commit yourself to anticipating and positioning yourself to support them before they even know they need it. That’s where the real trust is built, the rest of it is just proving you’re reliable.

 

No one is looking, are you still a leader?

Firstly, I’m going to intentionally misquote Mark Twain here and tell you that “the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

Secondly, Lets kick off the first post of 2016 with a quote Simon Sinek delivered during his First Why and Then Trust TED Talk (one of my favorites).

Leaders reminds us of why we’re here in the first place, they remind us why we came here. Authority tells us what to do and what goal to achieve…

Simon Sinek

When we talk about leadership, or leading people, or really just people in general, we’re dealing with a huge topic. When you consider the quote above, however, there’s a certain clarity that’s achieved in that one of the statements feels obviously like a goal and the other does not.

Here’s another quote, this one from my wife:

The person you really are is how you behave when no one is looking.

– My Wife

I love that last one especially. It just has this immediate resonance. You read it and immediately either sympathize or completely reject the notion (hopefully not the latter?). I think it can also be paraphrased to say that:

The type of leader you are is how you act whether or not your team is looking.

– No one (I literally am making this up as I go)

Unfortunately, there’s no checklist of things that can be followed in order, or some kind of habitual set of patterns you can apply to any or all team-based situations. You just can’t. It’s about individuals. Each one of them has their own “night-befores”, their “kids with colds”, their personal goals, and their own ambitions. You have to take into account that all these individuals are often representing just one of the facets of a team and then add to that the emotional intricacies that make up that team’s unique dynamic.

That’s a challenge for sure. How do you reconcile the delta (i.e. the gap) between applying cookie cutter management principles in real-life situations that are only marginally applicable, and devoting yourself to becoming completely invested in the outcome of every single interaction you have with your team? The latter would completely encompass your life and the former would make you feel like an automaton. I believe there’s got to be a happy medium. Some way of making those you work with feel comfortable without destroying your ability to do the other parts of your job.

Any leader will attest to considering a million different variables at any given opportunity you have to interact with the people with whom you share a work space. There are behavioral heuristics and habits that will support your ability to succeed here for sure, but which ones are relevant and when? Everyone has their own take on what a “good” leader is. While this is a topic that I’m passionate about, I don’t consider myself to be an authority by any means, I’m just a dedicated learner trying to pick up the good habits and drop as many of the bad ones as I can.

Part of our reality is that we’re working in a world that’s even more connected now than ever. Your work day may be 9-5 but do your colleagues expect you to completely disappear after you proverbially “punch out”. You’re dealing with a double edged sword in that the number of chances you have to rise up are ever increasing while at the same time the frequency with which you can be required to rise up are also commensurately increasing. So even now, when no one is looking, are you still a leader?

Consider another quote from Simon’s Ted Talk:

The survival of the human race is fundamentally based on the ability for each of us to surround ourselves with people who believe what we believe. When we’re surrounded by people who believe what we believe, something remarkable happens … trust emerges. Make no mistake of it, trust is a feeling, a distinctly human experience. Simply doing everything you’ve said you’re going to do doesn’t mean people are going to trust you it simply means you’re reliable. Our very survival depends on our ability to surround ourselves by people who believe what we believe

… We are more confident to take risks
… more confident to experiment (which requires failure by the way)
… more confident to go off and explore explore

Simon Sinek

And here we are back at Trust once again … granted we’re back based on another quote by Simon (see my other post for context), but still, I think it’s relevant. Especially since the other day I was asked a “pointy” question while out for coffee with a colleague:

What do you do when you are starting out with a new team (or project)?

Now that’s a biggie for sure…

See, everyone has their opinion on what qualities make a good leader both as a team member or as a leader themselves. Thinking about it, I could have copped out and said “Just be yourself” but then what kind of a leader would I have been in that scenario? That was rhetorical; I’d have basically been leaving him out to dry. He wasn’t asking for a pep talk – he was asking for a strategy. Dropping a top 10 list on him without any real grounds for action wouldn’t be helpful either (those usually fall back into pep talk territory).

I know I have a tendency to go on just a little bit (maybe more than a little bit), so let me get right down to it. Keep in mind my response was geared towards a software team, but I think most of the answers hold true in other industries as well.

Here is what I said:

First and foremost, you can’t tell people what/who you are or aren’t. Behave in a way that you want to be perceived (even when no one is looking) and people will understand what’s up. Your actions are pretty much the only thing that will define your team’s perceptions of you.

Period.

2

There’s a corollary here in that I believe you should jump at every opportunity to prove to your team that you are trustworthy. I think Simon would agree, no? A year or so ago I was preparing to speak in front of something like 300 prospective computer science applicants who were currently in high school. My co-presenter and I were creating some slides including one with some descriptions of who we were. I remember editing his content specifically removing “all-around-fun-guy” from the description and telling him:
“<Name>, if you have to tell people you’re a fun guy, you most definitely aren’t.”

At the start of a project you need to be confident enough such that your team believes, “Hey, this guy has got this. Whatever I need, he’ll take care of it”. Demonstrating your uncertainty or making a mistake may be okay in the future, but especially when everyone is getting used to the new dynamic it’s especially important to crush it. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have all the answers, but it does imply that you maintain a cool head and start proving to them who you really are and what you are about. This can literally imply that you keep your mouth closed a good portion of the day, but there’s two reasons for that:

  1. Listening is the best way to get to know the dynamic of what’s going on in the team
  2. That old saying about keeping your mouth closed and having someone suspect you’re an idiot or opening it and proving it to them.

You’re in the role you’re in for a reason. Take some time and feel out what’s up before flapping your lips and throwing your weight around. Granted it may be the project you’re joining is in trouble and they’re looking for some fast or direct guidance, however even then you can trust that the team you’re on has many of the answers you need – you just need to listen to hear them.

Now, it seems like it should be obvious, but it’s important to quickly recognize and come to terms with the fact that your team members will potentially deliver things in a different way than you would. You need to deal. No one likes a micro-manager, not you and not your team. So don’t, just don’t. Acknowledge that everyone will bring something different to the table and that’s a really great thing. Embrace it. Like the A-Team (#datingmyself), having specialists in different areas while still maintaining a consistent level of skill across the board makes for a great environment for everyone involved – and a great environment for collective improvement.

Your decisions should always be made with the project’s success in mind. “What?”, you say, “Put the project’s needs ahead of the team’s?”. Well no, not at all. When I talk about the project I’m talking about every aspect of it. Defining what makes a successful project is a difficult thing not only for a client, but for companies as well. Is turning a profit enough of a factor to claim a project was a success? If the project comes in over budget is that still true? What about over time/deadlines? Whatever the group determines is the basis for a successful delivery should be used to guide the decisions to make throughout the project life-cycle. Furthermore, if you don’t know how to define success, that’s probably something you want to sort out sooner rather than later.

This all leads me to “Do it first and be recognized for it afterwards”. One of the tenets I strongly stand behind is that aptitude is a fantastic metric to use for hiring, but not for advancement. Either someone has done something, or they haven’t. It’s up to their leaders / managers / executives / whatever to provide them with the engagements they need to prove their capabilities, and not just talk about their aptitude. It would be a disservice to someone who possessed an incredible amount of aptitude if they were promoted without the opportunity to demonstrate it. In my experience, really great people don’t want their accomplishments cheapened by promoting them before they’ve had a chance to reveal their prowess and be properly recognized for it. Your job is to help provide them with that chance.

3

Everything mentioned here is leading you towards the ability to empower your team and have them feel like you trust them as much as they (should) trust you. Lots of these ideas stem from the Lead People, Manage Expectations post I had done last year, but it’s all still relevant and it all paints a bigger picture. The team will rally behind someone that has their back and their best interest at heart, especially if you never ask them to do something you wouldn’t personally do (again, prove this to them – point #3 in the post linked above).

So with that lengthy and wordy diatribe we’ll end this round of discussion and head back to our respective desks, hopefully feeling a bit more enlightened and ready to face the challenges ahead.

Sometimes writing this stuff down acts to give me a bit of clarity as well, so thanks to everyone who reads … you guy’s give me a reason to keep writing…

a reason to stay motivated …

even when no-one is looking.

Direction Sense

First off, sorry this post was so late. #LifeHappens

I wanted to start this post with a question I drop around the house … a lotYou know what the problem is?

I’m sure my wife thought the name of this blog was initially going to be You know what the problem is? (that’s a far cry from Zen of Zero #paynoattentiontothemanbehindthecurtain). She’s affectionately mentioned (more than once or twice) that I need to write a book where every page is a different thing that frustrates me to which I obviously have a clear, effective, and concise solution.

I haven’t gotten around to actually writing that book, so I’ll just pose the question again, this time to all of you:

You know what the problem is?

Well, I suppose you have your own ideas (we should collaborate on that book by the way) but I’m thinking about all those times you’ve been asked for something without being given any real direction regarding what’s expected of you. Think about how many times you’ve worked through something and then ended up getting feedback like:

You’re close, but that’s not quite it

or

Less of what you’ve got there and more “something else”

It’s the worst, right? I agree.

There are going to be many times you’re working on a project and someone isn’t quite sure what needs to be done, but they’re engaged and working with you to accomplish a common goal. That’s ok, in fact, it gives me the warm and fuzzies. However, it’s the times you’re left adrift without a paddle and no idea which way is up that become especially frustrating.

It would be nice to hit the ground sprinting every day, wouldn’t it? Come in, have a clear understanding of what it is that needs doing and off you go. The challenge most of us savor in our day-to-day comes not from an attempt to divine what someone else needs, but instead from our ability to use our creativity to solve an issue that’s been revealed to us (if only it could be this clear every day).

orienteering

As a leader, there’s a balance between providing enough information to know what direction someone is supposed to move in and, at the same time, allowing enough freedom for someone to figure out exactly how they’re going to get there. It’s the reason why orienteering is fun and following the instructions from a GPS is annoying (albeit sometimes necessary). You can draw a similar comparison between providing guidance and straight up micromanaging your team.

Focusing your communication on providing clarity with regards to your goals (not solutions) and really just knowing what you want done is paramount. It feels like a simple thing (knowing what you want), but its critically important to the confidence your team will have in you and the resulting benefits to their efficacy. To pull a quote from the book Scaling Up:

We have the answers, all the answers; it’s the questions we do not know

I recently had an opportunity to work with a co-worker with whom I don’t normally collaborate. In all honesty I was looking forward to it. This guy is known to be a real performer and knows how to get things done. He is a complete ass-kicker when it comes to getting results and consistently delivers great work for us. Who wouldn’t be excited to have a chance to work with someone like that, right? The scope of the work was right in the sweet spot, come up with some prelim ideas for implementing a solution, contrast a few different approaches, and suggest a potential way forward. I love this stuff!

So off I go to get started. We have some napkin-level-of-detail discussions to get going and eventually I realize I need to find out:

Am I supposed to provide level of detail A, or level of detail B for this effort?

After some failed attempts to get additional information I was left with no clear understanding of either the content I was supposed to be providing, or the format in which it should be provided. Not exactly a shining moment.

The biggest issue I was dealing with had nothing to do with development or arch. The question I needed an answer to was more about understanding how I’m supposed to deliver the content and not what the content was (as it turns out, that was also unclear, but I digress…)

I was sitting on the other side of the table. I was in the shoes of any frustrated colleague I’ve worked with over the past little while. Most importantly, I was being provided with some reinforcement in terms of the types of things that I do, and don’t want to do when I’m running a project of my own. I wouldn’t allow the blame to fall at the feet of anyone other than myself when it comes to work I’m supposed to be doing, however, sometimes the feeling of uncertainty or the lack of clarity that I was feeling on this particular project is the exact kind of thing I strive to remove when I’m working in a more typical role as a lead or architect.

As an aside, the most frustrating piece of the entire engagement wasn’t that I was a bit lost trying to figure out what I was going to deliver, but rather that my deliverables were eventually tossed out never to be seen again by anyone.

Solving problems is the fun part of my job, it’s the reason why I get up and go to work every day. However, the challenge of solving those problems needs to start with an understanding of the problem I’m trying to solve. Furthermore, when I’m leading a team, making sure that the people on my team know what they’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis or that as many obstacles as possible are removed from the front of them is kind of the only thing that matters when it comes to the value I’m delivering.

  1. Telling people what you want in enough detail to give them a strong sense of directionand
  2. Providing so much detail that you completely hamstring their ability to flex their creative muscles and, you know, actually enjoy the work they’re doing.

Balancing this level of direction isn’t really all that challenging per se if you have the right people working on the right projects. Aligning those two things is a really key factor in any project’s success; take the best ruby developer you’ve got and force them to work on a Java project without support and see how that goes (answer: not good – if that wasn’t abundantly clear).

threethings

So, back to that question: You know what the problem is?

It’s some combination of…

People are too busy to properly delegate …

People don’t actually know what it is they want…

and

People haven’t been given enough direction themselves to know what it is they’re supposed to be asking for.

I say that we, as a group of proactive, engaged, and supportive leaders, we collectively try and change these trends, shall we?

Let’s start with a few simple tricks to keep us on the right track:

  1. Understand and track your capacity to take on additional work (Inbox Zero Shout-Out)
  2. Make sure you have an understanding of what it is you’re trying to get accomplished before you bring other people on-board
  3. Clarify when you need additional direction before simply agreeing to complete some nebulous task

To paraphrase a once-upon-a-time-funny-guy

Of course!

Of course I would get clarification before starting … of course I would have a good idea of my goals before I was floundering around in the dark … of course I would only accept new work when I wasn’t bogged down with 100 other things… of course…

but … but maybe … Maybe since the opposite of all these things happens on such a frequent basis we’re back in the familiar realm of common sense isn’t that common.

This leads us to the problem really eager people have when it comes to just saying no. Saying no isn’t always the easiest thing to do and it’s made even more difficult when a request comes from someone you respect. We read about this all the time when “experts” tell us not to attend meetings if there’s no value, not to agree to deliver something against a timeline we can’t possibly meet, and not handing out development estimates on the spot. “Just say no”

Granted, we understand that it is not always easy, however we also understand how immensely valuable it can be. Having sat on the other side of the table for this one engagement, I was on the receiving end of a really good reminder of why that is. There’s always a next time. Next time you can be sure that I’ll be mentally reciting those three points above and making sure I’m getting the direction I need before I sit down to start working. After all, you wouldn’t go orienteering without a compass and a map, so why treat your projects any differently?

 

Possibly the best leadership book I’ve ever read (Part 1)

After I got into the writing of this post I realized that the whole thing was too long for 1 entry. As a result I’ve broken up the initial piece into multiples which I’ll be posting weekly until the series is done.

It’s funny, over the past year or so the OBS book club has been focusing almost exclusively on books focused on leadership and self-improvement (no, not “self-improvement”) and it has provided us with some pretty profound insights into what makes good and bad leaders as well as good and bad organizations. Thinking back to some of the books we ready like “Start with Why” or “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” and though the tone in each book is different many of the underlying messages are actually the same when it comes to what makes great organizations great. Sharing a workplace with like-minded people who have business goals that are aligned with your own should result in some measure of success. Granted, Sinek would chalk this alignment between employees and leadership up to trusting each other while Maister would say:

If an organization’s leaders want their people to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must establish credibility by proving that they are prepared to change themselves: how they act, measure, and reward.

…but the idea is the same.

Both books are referencing the idea that you need to practice what you preach and stand by your word to earn credibility with the people that work both with, and for you. Another way to think about this is that both books are really speaking to a leader’s conviction to

Do the right thing…

Even when its hard or not immediately obvious…

Which results in eventual trust

It feels automatic that we’d agree with such an obvious statement, doesn’t it? Isn’t that EXACTLY what we want not only our leaders, but the people they mentor to be able to demonstrate? You can’t teach strength of character, but through modelling and strong leadership, the hope is that at least a few good habits get picked up by the next generation, or in this case, the next generation of leaders. The ideas around how we can lead such that we maximize the opportunity for our teams to grow is the subject of the book in question and hence why I’m writing to you all right now. Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post.

So what’s the big deal? Well I found it interesting to discover that this book (which I’ve gone through multiple times) was written over 20 years ago, it has no references to business / markets / strategies / corporations / etc. and is, in fact, about parenting. Think about it, what is parenting but the most important leadership job you could ever apply for. Counterintuitive to nearly everything we try and apply process against, this most important role comes with no on-boarding manual, no interview process, and no prerequisites with regards to qualifications or experience.

Alive 9 months ago? Check! … Aaaand you’re in!

Enter: Kids Are Worth It.

In my opinion this has the potential to be a huge addition your leadership toolkit (provided you’ll allow me to make a few small substitutions – more on that later)

Barbara Coloroso released the first edition of “Kids Are Worth It” back in 1994. Consider that for a second. 1994? That was before the internet. Before the dot-com bust. Before everyone and their dog had the ability to share their ideas immediately and be exposed (subjected?) to the scrutiny of the world wide web. It’s almost crazy to consider that so much of this book is still applicable in the workplace of today.
So what about this book really grabbed my attention? I enjoyed it’s simplicity, its directness, and quite frankly its lack of long drawn out references to research conducted so long ago that there is no way it could be considered even remotely relevant. How many times have you read a book (let’s say this year – for argument’s sake) and the author is quoting research performed 6 / 7 years ago? How often, then, do you also take a second to think:

Do I even believe that? Is this even still a thing?

Barbara doesn’t go into any of that. She provides anecdotes which quickly get to the point and immediately follows it up with resolutions and strategies to correct or support different behaviors. Now granted, many of the examples are related specifically to families and, not surprising, children, but for the purposes of this post lets do a quick swap of:

Parents <—-> Leaders

Children <—-> Team

Now before anyone throws their hands up and gets all enraged about comparing your team to children (despite how appropriate it may be), go back up and re-read what I’m actually saying here:

We’re not drawing a comparison, we’re swapping these labels to demonstrate how the concepts in this book translate from a family to your workplace (arguably a different kind of family).

The core concept of this book relies around three kinds of leaders (NB: we said we were substituting – stay with me):

  1. Jellyfish – No firm parts at all and reacts to every eddy and current that comes along. Structure is almost nonexistent; the need for it may not even be acknowledged or understood.
  2. Backbone – A living supple spine that gives form and movement to the whole body. Structure is present and firm and flexible and functional
  3. Brick wall – A nonliving thing designed to restrict to keep in, and to keep out. The structure is rigid and used for control and power both of which are in the hands of the leader

Coloroso immediately points out that the underlying difference between these leaders is:

… the kind of structure that holds them together. This structure affects all the relationships of the teamteam member to leader, leader to team member, leader to leader, and team member to team member …

We’ve probably all had an opportunity to work with one or more of these kinds of leaders or been part of teams matching one or more of these descriptions in the past. I found it fascinating how immediately transferable the concepts felt in terms of the teams I’ve seen operate at many different companies in many different industries. In addition to these team or leadership descriptions, the basic characteristics of each team type were provided along with a particularly interesting set of messages the Backbone leader specifically should be providing to their team on a daily basis (adjusted slightly for context):

I believe in you

I trust you

You can handle situations that arise

You are listened to

You are cared for

You are important

I feel that the best leaders with which I’ve had the opportunity to work have actually done a good job of communicating most, if not all, of these messages as frequently as possible. Actually, I feel like the best leaders do a good job of communicating these messages without the use of words. The 1000:1 ratio with words is well known, but best felt when you’re given a task slightly outside your comfort zone, put in a position to succeed and are provided with the tools and support you need without anyone expressly saying “I know you can do this, I believe in you” (though I still buy into that as well).

six leadership messages

It comes back to doing the things which may initially be challenging and potentially counter-intuitive in a “business environment” but result in increased cohesion among the team and ultimately increased trust… #simonsinekherewegoagain

… and really, isn’t that what we want to develop in all of the teams we have the opportunity to be a member of?

Lead People, Manage Expectations

Lead people, Manage expectations

So, we’re going to go on a quick departure from the Book Report post I had put up a few weeks ago in favor of something a little more personal (we’ll include a few obligatory tie-ins, natch).

So, right around the time I had published the last post I was prepping a presentation for a client with two other developers. We had received a fairly open request to help get them up to speed on what basically amounted to “give us the lay of the land regarding web development”. The business relationship manager that initially connected us (the team) with this particular request also hadn’t really provided us with much direction other than “Just answer the questions they put fowrard”.

It was your textbook definition of “consulting” – Little to no direction, big expectations, short timelines. Nothing the group of us couldn’t handle, of course, but as the date drew a bit nearer, people were on edge, content wasn’t ready, and the pressure of the rest of our responsibilities started to creep in.

The evening before we were due to present I was chatting with the guys in the slack channel (if you don’t know what that is … you probably need to – more on that in another post) we created to manage the effort and make sure we were all aligned in terms of what needed doing (with no useless meetings cause #thatshowweroll). Bouncing some ideas back and forth resulted in frustrations getting voiced regarding the aforementioned lack of direction. Blowing off steam is something that we all do from time to time, and one of the guys was exercising his right to do so.

A few messages later and a couple of direct shots directed at me and I realized the conversation wasn’t going to be productive… time to switch mediums. We moved the discussion to an Appear.In chat room and started to hash it out. We took the opportunity to refocus, zoom in on the things that mattered, and put together a plan that allowed everyone to finish up in time keeping the amount of extra curricular effort down to a minimum.

There was a visceral difference in the way he was sitting, holding his posture, and discussing the solution we came up with by the end of the conversation compared to the beginning. We were past it. Moving the convo back to the slack channel we wrapped up the night’s discussion with the following two emotes:

[11:55pm] Team-Guy: is feeling less stressed

[11:55pm] Me: is happy. 

It got me thinking.

It actually pulled me back to the book that was sitting beside me on my computer desk (a.k.a. Teams are Worth It). That discussion, that’s what teamwork is all about. That’s what leadership is all about, really. My job wasn’t to write or deliver the content, it was to make sure everything the team needed was in place so they could do their job effectively. It’s so much like the the six messages Barbara suggested you should communicate to your team on a dialy basis. It also reminded me of an email I had written to my management team over a year ago discussing what real leadership looks like and the 10 items I felt were most important.

It’s basically the guiding set of principles I keep with me and remind myself of as often as I can when running any kind of team or group effort. It was my Leadership Mantra and I figured now was as good a time as any to share it with you all.

My Leadership Mantra (a.k.a. my Leadership Top 10 – but TopX lists are played out)

Leadership Mantra

  1. If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late.
  2. If you need or want something to happen, own that responsibility and make it happen.
  3. Never put yourself in a position to have to take something away from your team. Never ask for something from your team you aren’t prepared to give / do yourself.
  4. Do not be self-deprecating to ease tension. We are here to raise each other up, not pull each other down.
  5. Act in the interest of and with the intent of protecting the team. Remove roadblocks and sources of friction. Advocate for your team.
  6. Really listen. Don’t just wait for your turn to start talking. More often than not there is value in hearing perspectives other than your own.
  7. Be open to new ideas / different opinions. Everyone should have  an opportunity to provide value in their role. Our different experiences all bring different benefits to the team. (i.e. Don’t place too much value in titles and org chart positions)
  8. Empower each team member to be as autonomous as the project / project schedule can allow. Strive to understand individuals’ perspective or motivations will go a long way towards getting buy-in from your team.
  9. Always be looking for growth opportunities for your team members. People should leave better and stronger than when they joined.
  10. Lead People, Manage Expectations

Shout out to all the leaders who have contributed towards my growth and helped me create this list (Major Winters, Brian McKay, Craig Plysiuk, Ria Neuendorff, and my wife Jessica)

Don’t give them an answer, just tell them what you believe

For the past two weeks I’ve been preparing for a presentation I’ll be delivering to an out-of-province client. Doing so has brought back some old memories from a few years back when I was coaching someone for an interview they were really hoping to nail. I created this post to talk about something that ended up being a really powerful moment in my career and a real eye-opener in terms of taking advantage of certain opportunities to shine. It was the kind of thing you look back on, and only now can you understand the profound effects it’s going to have (or already has had) on your life. Before I start droning on about my delusions of grandeur, I’m probably getting away from myself a little bit here…

I’ll first explain a few things about the organizational structure here at Online. It’s generally flat with only a few managerial and executive positions. A handful of executives, couple of directors, throw in one or two administrative staff and that’s really it, not bad for a company of like 300ish people. The remainder of the positions are filled by the consultants.

In addition to the management roles described previously, we also have a number of senior individuals (from the consulting pool) who have been identified as ‘leaders’ and act as mentors for the less experienced consultants within the organization. The idea is that while we hire all kinds of great people, the people who are more experienced are assigned between one and six group members (mentees) to whom they can provide advice and guidance. The mentees have a clear and direct connection to some of our best people and have a real opportunity to become even greater. YES!

Get it? Good.
Don’t? Well it’s not super important you understand how this all works anyway.

Before anyone reads this and starts thinking:

Hey wait a minute… if you work for a good company you wouldn’t need just ONE person to act as a mentor for the group members … EVERYONE can contributing to everyone else in different ways / areas.”

You’re absolutely right.

At the same time, that’s also exactly how this works; while it’s true that everyone is assigned a mentor, you always have the option of talking to anyone within the org who you believe could provide value – you just get the added benefit of starting with someone dedicated to checking in on your well-being. The idea here is that if we’re falling back to Simon Sinek’s idea of the circle of trust, having someone immediately on day one that you can turn to and start establishing a closer relationship built on trust is just straight-up all upside.

Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway … Long story painful, as it turns out, I’m in one of those mentor roles.

We’re aware that with great power comes great responsibility, and while being a mentor is really worthwhile experience for me, it’s also a lot of work. As a result, there’s still some organizational processes around the selecting who should and shouldn’t be promoted to a mentorship role. It was during a conversation with of the members of my group that I had this really awesome experience. Ironically (like Alanis style, not Merriam Webster style), this discussion was regarding their interest in becoming a career mentor themselves.

The two of us sat down to go through some examples of questions he might be asked during the interview portion of the application (more on the process another time – and my not-so-humble opinion on the usage of interviews ((Me? Not so humble? Naaaaaah))). I posed a few questions to this particular mentee starting with:

“Why do you want to do this job?”

His response? He started telling me about how he likes working with people, his ability to connect and understand others, and his interest in growing the skills of his co-workers.

Well hell, that’s pretty damn good, no?

Sure it is, if you were going for a generic response better geared towards succeeding in interviews held on those little benches in the middle of a shopping mall. We weren’t talking about becoming a store clerk here, we were talking about succeeding to a mentorship role in this great company he works for. His eye contact was only so-so, body language was leaving him bent over in his chair, and generally I just didn’t buy in. So, I leaned forward and asked him to tell me a story about his son.

He started… and the difference in delivery was immediate…
2His eyes brightened, his posture improved, he smiled, it was like I was talking to a completely different person. It was incredible. I sat there smiling, let him finish. and then we broke down the differences between the two responses he gave. We discussed the difference between simply telling me what he thought I wanted to hear (his first answer), and what he truly felt and believed (the second). When he was communicating from somewhere deeper, something that mattered to him, something with which he had a real connection, suddenly there was some real power and conviction in the message he was sending out.

The issue was that at first he was concerned about saying the “right” thing to the “right” person in order for them to believe he was the obvious choice for the role. The key thing to understand is that if you are, in fact, the right person for the role then telling them what you believe will only confirm this to the person on the other side of the table. Conversely just giving the right answer could result in succeeding to a position, landing a contact, etc. that you only thought you wanted but in reality weren’t truly suited for.

It comes down to understanding yourself. Understanding what got you here. Understanding that the person you are is the result of the sum of your experiences (and the experiences of your parents/predecessors/etc.) and that is a valuable thing in and of itself. For those that sometimes struggle with trusting their own instincts, I often suggest turning to a (somewhat) well known piece written by Portia Nelson called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters (if you haven’t read it I literally can’t recommend it enough). It has been an amazing catalyst for change and clarity in a ton of situations that I’ve faced over the years. I think I also like it so much because it really highlights the difference between fault and responsibility so clearly (something else I’ll have to get on my soap box about one day).

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As I go to back to prepare for this presentation, I have to reflect back on what got me here, why the client had selected our proposal for their short list, and how I’m going to absolutely rock their socks next week.

Next Level Feedback – How-To

For Part 1 of this post Click Here

Alright, continuing on from last week…

We’re all on board with the fact that feedback is valuable, we all want better feedback, and we can probably do a better job of writing it than we have been, yeah? Good, then we’re on the right track!

Next up … the hard part … HOW!!

Lots of processes you read about online are great at identifying the reasons why you should do something but often don’t go into enough detail to really support the hypothesis or provide a clear way forward to assist in making any real change to the habits you currently have in place. You should KNOW this isn’t that kind of blog, right?

The fact is, upping your game from where you are to where you want to get to can be accomplished by focusing on the strategies mentioned in part 1 and following through the steps outlined below. Before we jump right into it, however, lets talk about why I think this particular process so great, and why I think it really unlocks your ability to up your game!

There are lots of books written on the ideas of managing people and businesses, or even specifically on providing valuable feedback. This list is a sample of some of the books I’ve read, most of which are pretty good with the exception of Crucial Conversations and (ironically) Thanks for the feedback. These books put a stronger emphasis on the people and practically disregard applying any one particular method over another. The idea that values and relationships come before process or rules is absolutely critical (check out Start With Why as a bonus read for a deeper look at this exact point – or watch this video for the “short short version“). The interesting thing, which may be obvious to some, is that when you look at some of the common themes presented throughout most of these books, you end up with a pretty short list:

Honesty, Trust, and Transparency

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This feels a bit like: if people trust you, believe that you have their best interest at heart, have the capability to understand where you’re coming from, and you’re willing to put your name on those opinions (lending some additional credibility) in a forum that can be reviewed by both the receiver and their managers, then they’re more likely to take your observations and grow from them.

Hmmm … this suddenly feels a like one of those obvious information is obvious moments doesn’t it?

I subscribe to the ideas put forward in the Alan Fine and Dale Carnegie books as guides for how to engage with people and help them realize their own potential. Luckily, we can also derive a few strategies for facilitating the creation of the best possible feedback with ideas merged from those two books as well.

The first key to great feedback … is to avoid writing it at all

Wait, what?

I mean this in the most literal way possible. When you’re sitting down to write feedback don’t write anything down at first, someone else can (and probably should) do that for you.

3

One of the biggest breakthroughs I had in coaching people on this topic is when I realized just how powerful a facilitator can be. Acting as a record keeper and assistant during an initial brainstorming process. This is true brainstorming. Sit down with a facilitator you can trust (there’s that word again) and suddenly the words just start spilling out of your mouth probably faster than they can be recorded (make sure its all getting captured before moving on, however, your ideas are all gold!). It’s amazing how much of an improvement you’ll see in your own feedback when you advance from writing on your own to using a facilitator. It’s so easy to give yourself an “out” when you’re sitting there drumming your fingers on the keyboard or tapping a pen/pencil on your notepad. There is nothing stopping you from just throwing your hands up and saying “Bah I can’t think of anything!” and then finding yourself doing something else within a few minutes.

To start, we’re going to come up with a list of themes or concepts that can describe the person for whom you will be providing feedback. This is just a list words, don’t worry about the grammar, don’t worry about phrasing, don’t worry about antagonizing language, just get it all down. Pretend as though you were posed the following question:

Give me the first set of words that come to your mind when you think of … <Mr. Black>

Positive things, negative, it doesn’t matter. Just get all the descriptors you can think of out of your head and into the hands of your facilitator. The idea here is to get enough points down to be able to describe the person in 20 words or so.

For example, here’s a list:

  • Project Management Skills
  • Organization / Organized
  • Leader / Leadership
  • Task Completion
  • Communication
  • Time Management

These concepts aren’t associated to things they excel at or need to improve on. Are they a fantastic Project Manager, or do they need all the help they can get? Are their communication skill excellent, or lacking? We’re not worried about any context, stories, or extra words at this point. When the list is done, you can move on to step two.

Context is key

We talked about this a bunch in the last post. Without context, the receiver won’t have any clue what it is you’re talking about. We need to make sure that isn’t the case. Now we mentioned the first step was a good brain storming session with a facilitator, and one of the keys there is that the facilitator doesn’t provide any opinions on the results. Next up … context!

The faciliator’s job is to ensure the completeness of the information provided. This is a definitely a skill that requires practice, but asking questions that demand answers will definitely help to flesh out the categories noted in our previous step. Leading with questions like:

“How so”?

“In what way could they be [better / improved / more like ____ / etc.] (this counts for both areas for growth as well as strengths)

“Compared to the [best / worst] person in the same / similar role how do they compare at ____”?

Leading (or being led) through this exercise should result in a conversation where your feelings about the individual are put forward in a way that feels natural and un-hindered by the constraints of typing, sentence structure, or even tact. The idea here isn’t to write your masterpiece, its to make sure that when you do sit down to write it everything you need is already there.

Some of the most valuable things to focus on when providing this additional context are:

  • Why the category you’re discussing matters (to you).
  • Managing the perception people have as it relates to the category at hand
  • How you feel they could improve in the future
  • Frequency of their successes or failures (as a result of the trait)

Remember, the goal here is growth … you want to make sure you’re truly celebrating the individual’s successes as well as assisting them in overcoming their weaknesses (perceived or otherwise).

Give me an example

We have now created for ourselves a list of categories and provided an explanation as to why those categories are relevant (to you). You know what really pushes your feedback right to the peak?

Examples

Nothing says …

I care enough about your continued growth that I can literally cite moments, meetings, deliverables, or conversations in which you really [excelled/failed] while working with me

…like an example of when / why / where / how / with whom something happened.

It proves you were paying attention and valuing the contributions of the individual. Remember we’re being timely with our submissions here – so the success/failure (however small) recently happened. It also acts as an additional support to the contextually relevant stuff you provided in step two!

Clean up after yourself would ya?

When you’ve finished all the work leading up to now, you’re just about ready to put this thing out there. Last order of business is, at the same time, the easiest as well as the most important. Now is when you need to go through all the content you have, add in your own flavor, and start to massage the language (not the message) to up the likelihood that the receiver believes that you believe in their growth and will respond positively to your feedback.

It’s really crucial to practice, practice, practice till you get better at this last step. Forget what you know about the sandwich method, everyone who’s been on the receiving end of it knows that its not genuine anyway (especially if you can’t think of a good top or bottom “bun”). Forget about softening the blow; I’m not suggesting you behave rudely or degrading to anyone. In fact, quite the opposite. What we’re looking for here it a genuine, truthful, and honest write up that recognizes someone’s strengths, challenges their areas for growth, and proves to them that you care enough to spend some time thinking about their abilities and potential for even greater successes.4

I have been told that his approach is a complete game-changer when it comes to writing feedback. It’s been nothing but a huge success working with my clients and co-workers leveraging this method. It’s so incredible and empowering to see someone go from frustrated to immensely proud after working through a particularity challenging write up. Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t some degree of difficulty in working with this. Following the steps is easy enough with a facilitator, learning to facilitate is a bit more challenging (but as I said above, hugely rewarding).

Shoot me an email if you get a chance to try this method in either role, or leave a comment if you’ve previously tried it and can vouch for its effectiveness!

Happy writing!