Fight fear with focus

February 25, 2009

Many thanks to Terry Seamon for inviting me to contribute to his series “Leading in the Crisis” at Here We Are. Now What?

I found myself struggling to decide what to write about — with so much stress on all of us these days, what can I offer that can make a difference right now? I had a thousand ideas, and they all seemed useful in some way — but Terry didn’t ask for a book, he asked for a post. So how to decide which idea would be best?

And then I understood the real lesson. The fact that I couldn’t choose an article topic — that I wanted to write about everything — was a powerful reminder for me of how losing focus makes even everyday decisions difficult. Imagine that lack of focus playing out throughout businesses worldwide… that’s the stuff of nightmares. And it’s very easy to lose focus in times of fear. So now, more than ever, focus matters.

The article begins:

These are hard and frightening times — hard because of the financial crisis, frightening because so many of us feel powerless to do anything except watch the world slide away around us.

If this were simply a question of managing money troubles – cutting costs, revamping strategies, becoming more innovative – we’d know what to do without hesitation. But the real challenge we face today as leaders is helping people manage fear.

I hope you’ll head over and read the rest of the article at Terry’s blog, where you’ll also find the thoughts of others on how we can all keep on course during these difficult times. Let Terry know what you think of these posts, or come back here for more conversation on staying focused and managing fear.

Be tough

February 20, 2009

Thanks to Jim Cox for pointing me to this article about nice people getting the shaft from bad managers and unscrupulous peers. It’s not a happy story, but it’s an important one.

When I throw down in A Leader’s Manifesto about my conviction that no one should be allowed to manage badly, this is what I’m talking about. This is the kind of chaos that bad managers create. And that chaos is not only the responsibility of the nefarious Doug in the scenario linked above: it’s the spineless Kelly and her boss and his boss, and everyone up the food chain.

And it’s also a cultural construct that we all struggle against, which is that “tough decisions” can only be made by “tough people” — and that anyone who is nice cannot by definition be tough. I used to get this all the time from my bosses at Wizards of the Coast, who were convinced for quite a while that someone with my skills could not make tough decisions: Kelley’s too busy worrying about everyone else’s feelings, or whatever.

Trust me, I can be tough. But for me, “toughness” that creates chaos, rules by fear, allows decisions to be made based on whispered rumors and schoolyard deals, and substitutes yelling for conversation — well, that’s not tough. That’s just a lack of leadership.

There’s not a lot that Stuart could have done by the time he was actually laid off. But I’m willing to bet that Doug didn’t suddenly experience a dramatic personality change that day. My guess is that he’d done that kind of thing before, perhaps even to Stuart or someone on his team, and that he’d been allowed to get away with it.

And that’s where we can all get a little tougher.

My experience is that directly confronting backstabbing behavior — in a way that’s clear and non-aggressive — is often effective. I had a situation in a former job in which Executive A told me of a remark by Executive B that characterized me in an unflattering and weak way. So, right then, I asked A to come with me to B’s office, and then asked B if the report was true. “Because if you believe that”, I said in a neutral voice, “it will certainly affect our working relationship. It will cause you to withhold information and support from me, and that hurts our business. And so if you believe this, you need to help me understand what I can do to alter your perception, so that our work together isn’t jeopardized.”

“Oh, no!” B assured me. “I’m sure I never said that.”

A and B exchanged a look.

“If you did, it’s fine, I just need you to be willing to say it to my face so we can work on it,” I said.

“Oh, no, really….”

I honestly don’t know which of them was telling the truth. It doesn’t matter. I never had that kind of trouble with either one of them ever again.

Sometimes being tough means being right there in the moment, willing to engage with what’s happening, in a way that keeps open the possibility of progress but doesn’t ignore the possibility of bad news. That is a hugely vulnerable thing to be; the best mangers make it look easy and like the only reasonable approach. Find those people in your own organization, and watch how they do it.

Be that kind of tough as often as you can.

No one does it alone

February 18, 2009

Here’s a great post by Phil Gerbyshak about seeking feedback to be more effective in how you deal with people at work. I particularly like the emphasis on asking direct reports these questions — that can be a vulnerable thing for a manager, but trust me, it’s so much easier to manage people well when you don’t have to read their minds. I also like the specificity of asking “What is one thing I need to know about working with you?” The answer to that question might open a door to a much more effective relationship. Ask it with a smile, be open to the answer, and then use the information — and watch how much richer your interactions become.

Phil posted this article as a guest-blogger on Terry Seamon’s blog (and I’m looking forward to guest-blogging for Terry later this month as part of his series “Leading in the Crisis”).

And there’s a great example of the importance of relationship to business success. Terry and Phil have connected and made the choice to support each other — and in doing so, they’re also making their own work more effective, and opening doors to new relationships as visitors flow back and forth through their blogs. Old-school values tell us to “protect” our resources — our audience, our clients, our secret techniques for making managers better. But most of us don’t go that school anymore because we realize that success comes through sharing and supporting others. That way, we all get stronger.

Have you heard the saying, “Hell is other people”? Well, I think success is other people. That’s certainly where our success as managers begins.

You’ll find more of my ideas about work relationships in the Humans At Work Session 1 curriculum.

You’ll find lots of great ideas, tips and tools for managing at Phil Gerbyshak’s blog Slacker Manager, and a wealth of inspiration and conversation about leadership, courage and spirit at Terry’s blog Here We Are. Now What? I highly recommend both.

100 Best Business Books

February 12, 2009

I think all of us who are serious about improving our managing skills ought to read when we can. It can be tough to carve out the time, but there is a wealth of information out there — good ideas, practical skills, effective strategies, new ways of thinking that can really help us do our job more effectively, with less stress and more joy.

But there are more than a million business books available right now. So when your time is limited, how do you choose?

Well, you can start with the books in the Humans At Work curriculum, which is my “best of” list for managers looking to establish or improve the core skills of managing people well. I see them as the foundation of a good manager’s library. They are all books that I still read over and over again.

I’ve decided to add two more books to my “essential” list, and will be including them as program materials. They won’t be incorporated into the general curriculum; rather, I will offer them as “graduation gifts” to take managers into the next phase of practicing and expanding their skills.

I’ll talk about the second book in an upcoming post. Today I want to focus on The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten.

This is a great resource for every manager. Covert and Sattersten have identified books of big ideas and practical benefit in a variety of areas — self awareness, leadership, strategy, management, innovation and more. They provide cogent summaries of each book — the central concepts, perspective, and the benefits it can offer. They share their personal experience of, and response to, each book. And they point you to additional books and resources. This isn’t just a “list,” it’s a road map to help you navigate through the jungle of those million-plus books that none of us have time to read. I’m turning to it right now for insights on getting things done more effectively and staying strategic: another time, I’ll probably be diving into case histories or scorekeeping. This is a resource I can turn to in a variety of situations when I want to jumpstart my thinking in a particular area, or when I want to remind myself what smart people have already said on a particular topic.

I’ll talk about the other “graduation” book in a forthcoming post. Today, I encourage you to look through the “100 Best” table of contents, and read an excerpt, at amazon.com.