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)

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

2

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!