Tag Archives: leadership

Trying to catch them while they’re young!

Today, I am speaking to a group of high school student leaders. I think this is part of my mission now. Working with youth, and particularly those who are trying to excel and do great things, is powerfully motivating to me.

Today, I will speak with a group of students from E.C. Glass High Schools. Here is the link to the Prezi presentation I use as my outline.

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Mentoring: Avoiding Task List Target Practice. Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part article.  The first installation was published on June 6, 2010.

This post  is for leaders — from students to mid-level managers like me — dealing with workaday problems.  It is about the importance of seeking mentoring to inspire you to in times of frustration.  It is for people who have been frustrated for so long, they may have forgotten how to reset the Attitude button and release themselves from suffocating frustration at work.

My favorite gems from AL, with my own perspective woven in, included:

  1. A manager, even a great leader, has only a small role in an employee’s career success.  Ultimately, the employee is responsible for using the opportunities given her or him.  And it is that individual’s responsibility for having the “fire” in her or his belly. Continue reading

Get unstuck: Avoiding Task List Target Practice. Part 1 of 2

This is part one of a two-part article.  The second installation will be published on June 7, 2010.

This post  is for leaders — from students to mid-level managers like me — dealing with workaday problems.  It is about the importance of seeking mentoring to inspire you.  It is for people who have been frustrated for so long, they may have forgotten how to reset the Attitude button and release themselves from suffocating intellectually.

For weeks, I wrestled with some turbulent leadership learning opportunities.  It seemed at every turn, the reality of our progress was subdued by a few key colleagues’ ability to make it seem like failure.  As a result, I was, by definition, “stuck.”  Folks in my Accountability Group worried openly about me, and my usual laid-back demeanor was wound tight.

I faced more than a reasonable number of issues in which I felt compromised, undermined, or simply overruled, even though I was responsible for setting and leading a team in accomplishing objectives.

I started last week with the belief that none of the grinding, intense work I — and numerous other staff — were putting in was netting us enough productivity or, to be frank, appreciation.  In the last year or two, our business unit has undergone extraordinary change, from who sits in each proverbial seat on the bus, to how we manage our business processes and track productivity, to how we assess what success looks like.  We went from a larger staff to a smaller one as we launched major new initiatives.  We went from young guns anxious to correct the boss to young guns being bosses.  My self-congratulatory takeaway is that progress and change, and both measuring and sharing productivity,  are fearsome threats to the ineffective and unfocused among us.

At any rate, a couple days ago, my outlook changed.  Why?  I had  lunch with a person I admire and respect deeply, and who is one of the most intelligent leaders I know.  I shall query him and question him, and call him AL.  This meeting was like getting an iPad for Father’s Day when all you rightly and happily expected was a card; it was a huge treat. Continue reading

Trust: A new thought for relationships

Familiarity breeds contempt.  [This quote manifested itself as I completed writing the blog post below.  It belongs here at the start, but I found humor in how I only had this “revelatory” moment after expressing fully the thought below.]

Trust is not about the truster believing in the other party.  Trust is evidently about being comfortable confronting the other party, perhaps even to the point of being downright aggravating.  If you are in a committed relationship, consider for a second: have you ever been in a heated discussion with your significant other and wished — or even suggested — she or he would talk to you the way they communicated disagreement with less-trusted folks, like their co-workers?  Have you wished your boss would talk to you the way she or he talks to your customers when they disagree?  I know civility is losing ground to stress-induced verbal confrontation as a means of dialoging in the United States, but too many of us treat the people closest to us — those we need and trust the most — the worst.  We go well beyond “clear and effective communication” an approach contemptuous familiarity.

UNFORTUNATELY, TRUST HAPPENS

Recently, I have been involved in a number of discussions in which I expected a less-familiar conversant to challenge me more; and in a few others in which I expected a closely-acquainted conversant to find no reason for pause.  As the more distant person went to great lengths to be polite or respectful of my opinion, the dearer friend not only removed their gloves, but they swung away with no regard for how I might receive their harsh words.  And in both cases, my only deduction to explain causation is that TRUST HAPPENS.  As it does, the varnish of considerate communication seems to peel away to reveal a rawness that can be disconcerting.  You might find yourself wondering, “who is this person, and where is the guy/woman I thought I knew?”

As trust grows, conflict between two people, or within a group, seems to grow, not decrease.  I listen to many young people talk about relationships and how important it is that they “trust” the other person.  They mention it almost before they mention love.  I sit in meetings in which managers and leaders spend inordinate amounts of time figuring out how to increase trust between the customer and the organization.

And now, I have a different perspective on trust.  Gaining trust strengthens the relationship to the point where the engaged parties don’t use that trust to extend more latitude to the other.  Quite the opposite.  In our society, we use it like a weapon.  Now that you trust me, let me tell you how I really feel.  My wife, who knows me best, says I can be downright unrelenting sometimes.  And when she points it out, I find that I am not only communicating candidly, I am taking advantage of our trusting relationship to vent, blow off steam, unload about things that happen at work, during a really bad racquetball game, because I didn’t sleep well.  I haven’t cared or been more kind and generous BECAUSE of trust, I have instead forced her to accept the fury I might rather direct at others.  But . . . . then they won’t like me.  I trust that she still will, eventually.

IT IS TIME TO GET IT RIGHT

Therefore, I am going to spend some time trying to offer a new level of candor from the outset of a relationship.  And I further expect that, as a result, fewer people will want trusting relationships with me.  But the relationships that prevail will be far more enjoyable because the most contentious opinions and ideas we might discuss will have been dealt with while the person is figuring me out.  I hope my wife and some of my closer associates notice!

Reversing my relationship management approach will mean I won’t be subject to, or use, the type of brutal directness that can come with “trust.”  Instead, the more seasoned my relationships become by time and shared experiences, the more harmonious they will become.

Does this ring true for you, or am I alone in recognizing that trust can create some funk in my strongest relationships?

New job for me: hello world, its AVDAR calling!

Yesterday, I accepted a new job with my current employer, Lynchburg College.  The new title, associate vice president for development and alumni relations (AVDAR), is more than a mouthful, and I shudder at how that’s going to work on a business card.  But at the end of the day, it means I triple the number of people reporting directly to me, and it puts me squarely in the path of our entire donor cultivation and stewardship process.

I relish the opportunity, and as much as anything, I feel compelled to excel because of the degree of responsibility with which I have been entrusted.  Its interesting though, because I have been quite interested in folks’ reactions to the news, which broke yesterday.

Most have been congratulatory, to a surprising extent even, but I haven’t decided whether the frequent refrain, “you deserved it,” is praise or damnation.  Many have seemed truly welcoming of my increased involvement in the college’s fundraising efforts.

I guess much of what is ahead for me, the folks who will depend on me for guidance and leadership, and the donors and prospects, depends on how well I deliver the message of, and build trust in my vision.  It may be scary for some, but its, inarguably, the opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.

As skills go, I believe I have what it takes: understanding of relationship management, deep experience in alumni relations and university administration, great working relationships throughout the community, solid public relations experience, and enough battle scars to have thickened my skin to bear most of the oncoming “input” bystanders love to give.  I will also get to truly test and sharpen the leadership skills others say are so clearly present within.

I also now have the opportunity to see whether my belief in teamwork, valuing every perspective, and decisive action based on broad input can be applied to an extremely diverse set of jobs and personalities.

I also know, perhaps most importantly, the knowledge I need to gain far overpowers what I already know.  Humility not being my strongest trait, this new experience will be solid antidote for that.

The next chapters remain to be written, but I like the odds.  Game on.

Leadership: Its about what you leave behind

Tonight, near the very end of a great vacation, I dined on fresh green beans and the star of the show, stuffed shells in meat sauce.  It was sublime.  And it was prepared completely by a nine and eight year old.  My daughters reminded me, perhaps even taught me, about the power of a legacy.  They demonstrated the impact a powerful leader can have on the world, in microcosm.

How do I make the leap from stuffed shells to leadership?  In a word, my wife.  As I prepared my plate, I expected a plate of maudlin food that I would nonetheless rave about.  Instead, what I tasted was honest, delicious stuffed shells, flavored with delicate spices, perfectly mixed cheeses and rich sauce.  If I had tasted this blind in a restaurant, I would gladly pay money to enjoy the rest of the plateful.

MOTHER AS LEADER

But the journey to this point is the real story here.  Their mother, my wife, has not only lavished these girls — and me — with love, but she has taught them skills that will prepare them for self-sufficiency later in life.  If you had to boil down a leader’s job to one sentence, is that not it?  To teach those you work with to perform competently and flourish even in your absence?

In short, she has demonstrated, in our home, leadership skills that have helped her in several demanding corporate management positions.  Every day, she quietly imparts upon them wisdom she has gleaned from her mentors — parents, grandmothers, teachers, pastors — and from her own journey.  Today, I realized that she has done it all in a way that has motivated, even excited, our daughters to do it for themselves.

So, it quickly became clear to me.  My wife, while holding down a full-time job, serving as the family CFO and COO, and balancing my ridiculous schedule with our other priorities, has also done an astounding job of motivating, educating, creating inspired vision, and building a commitment to high quality.  And she did it with two pre-adolescent girls who have not even figured out what they want to do in the morning, much less with their lives.

A LOVING TEACHER MAKES A GREAT LEADER

I wish I could bottle the constant, gentle pressure she has applied every day for the past nine years.  That is the level of commitment it took for both of us to enjoy a gourmet meal this evening.  It would be rather inaccurate to say she didn’t help prepare it.  Instead, I submit that she has been preparing tonight’s meal since 1998, when our oldest was born.  The preparation has included daily lessons on life, personal values, faith, and a thousand other things we want them to know when they finally depart this house and stand on their own two feet.

And even their preparation has been preceded by many years that her mother and grandmothers poured into her.  And generations past flavored this meal by virtue of the legacies they passed on to their successors: our forefathers.

So you can understand that as I helped myself to seconds, I tasted family reunions past, vacations of years gone by, the love of mothers teaching their children in front of ancient stoves.  Pinches of love, pounds of compassion, mounds of caring, and an undying commitment to preserving the pride of generations succeeding on the shoulders of our predecessors.  That is what I tasted.

LEADERSHIP IS AN EVERY-DAY, ALL-DAY PURSUIT

So as leaders, we must take my wife’s example.  We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of expedience and convenience.  We cannot be insistent on quality today, while allowing mediocrity to persist tomorrow.  We must believe with confidence that what we are teaching, and insisting on from ourselves and our peers and colleagues is based on righteous values.  It’s our job to tirelessly coax maximum accountability out of others, while remembering that what we are really doing is two-fold.  First, we are honoring the legacy that we inherited by giving our complete selves over to passing it on.  And second, we are living and teaching with the passion, values, motivations and commitment to quality needed to maintain and grow that legacy.

That is our job, and my wife taught an enormous life lesson to my kids, but she taught an even bigger one to me about leadership.

And so I close, ready to return to work from vacation, rested, sun-dried, and ready to recommit myself to growing the legacy I inherited both professionally and personally.  And that didn’t come from the beach or golf course, but from the woman who stands with me every day.  I am indeed blessed to have such a strong leader in my life.

Part III: Snowballing

This is the third post in a week-long series focusing on Danny Meyer’s book, Setting the Table. For information on ordering Meyer’s book from Amazon, see my July 28 post.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

Meyer by now should be clearly recognized as more than a foodie with a dream of opening a restaurant with nary a business skill.  He is a visionary in the food, management and common sense arenas, and his book has satisfied much more than my gustatory needs.

But tonight, as this series enters the home stretch and I prepare to seek my next writing project, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight three points that gain momentum, each building on the previous point’s orbit, avalanching toward success.

CONSTANT, GENTLE PRESSURE

First is Meyer’s “constant, gentle pressure” maxim.  As a manager of people with vastly different styles and strengths, I frequently find the need to apply correcting force to redirect, slow or undo challenges created by individuals pursuing their own vision instead of the one we built together (goals).  Or more often, they misinterpret the path of greatest promise in favor of the familiar.  Its easy to let “being perfect” get in the way of “being great.”

Meyer’s clarifying point really resonated with me.  It had not occurred to me that correcting the same issues repeatedly might just be normal.  I saw it as a flaw in my managerial DNA, and often wondered how to correct it.  I find it much easier to sleep at night knowing that my “daytime deja vu” is a byproduct of  different people and personalities mashing their own interests together.

One personal weakness I discovered was my willingness to “negotiate” . . . OK, soften, my vision.  My reasons were noble, but also a mixed message for staff who were committed.  I may have been too accommodating of voices that slowed progress by insisting that doing things the old way kept us from alienating the minority who valued those methods. I was trying to manage concerns that too much change, too quickly, would destroy what commitment to a sharply different set of priorities and principles I had built within the team

Where we once relied on staff to try to meet engagement goals, I wanted to focus on voluntary self-governance by, and constant feedback from, our constituents.  Where we once allowed monotonous, cookie cutter programming, I wanted to spice things up with a constantly-changing set of satellite events around the center of our universe — traditional alumni programs.  Where we previously found reasons to aim low and succeed at achieving that level of performance, I chose to give each staff member the opportunity to maximize his or her strengths.

But on one important count, I sacrificed the force with which I demanded constant commitment to my vision because those other changes compelled me to allow staff to weigh heavily in how quickly they transitioned to the new lexicon, the new pace of play – to use golf parlance, and to a new leader.

But after spending three years of applying gentle pressure, Meyer’s insistence that all three components are essential, I am committed to applying that gentle pressure more consistently.  I am more excited about this personal development goal than you can imagine.

HE WHO HAS THE VISION TAKES THE LEAD

The second point in this cascading roll toward growth is Meyer’s mentor — and my favorite character in the book — Pat Cetta.  He very visually and succinctly helped Meyer understand a critical aspect of managing people and priorities: re-centering the salt shaker.  Instead of describing it here, I encourage you to seek out Setting the Table, and feast on the wisdom and wit of Pat Cetta that is sprinkled throughout the book.  I will simply say this: its the managers job — the art of his or her job, in fact — to constantly re-focus staff on the single vision.   This leads naturally to discuss of creating the vision, hiring people who buy into the vision, and assuring that you constantly refine the recipe for success while allowing the essential success factors intact.

COMMITMENT TRUMPS INTEREST

Finally, but most importantly, I emphasize commitment.  Tenacity.  Stick-to-it-iveness.  Grit.  Mental toughness.  Guts.  All the components of moving a career forward, especially for entrepreneurs, can be measured on paper, assigned a monetary value.  Overhead and fixed costs are known quantities, labor costs, marketing costs, even the highly volatile raw materials costs can be assigned a value within a tight margin of error.  The single variable that MasterCard would call “priceless” is commitment.  Many business start-ups have failed chiefly because the owner was more interested in owning a business than he or she was committed to making the vision real.

My favorite demonstration of the difference between commitment and interest is the story of the pig and the chicken deliberating whose role was more important in preparing breakfast.  As the chicken explained how breakfast just didn’t measure up without the eggs she produced, the pig chuckled smartly, and quickly put an end to the matter.

The difference between us, said the pig to the chicken, is that you are interested in making breakfast a success, while I am outright committed.  You will live to lay many eggs on many days, but I?  I must make the ultimate sacrifice for breakfast.

Similarly, leaders must always choose between being interested in their business or being committed to it.  And so in closing, I leave you with perhaps the most meaningful Meyer quote in the entire book.  One that speaks to me so personally, I almost wonder whether he has been inside my brain as I have pondered career opportunities and choices throughout my life.

“Often [during a particularly trying period in his career], I wanted to throw in the towel, and I fantasized about traveling back to 1985 . . . But I had chosen the appropriate path and I knew there was no going back.”

Meyer is defining that point where your journey offers you two options.  And without making comparisons to Frost, instead of having to choose a path, I suggest you must choose your level of commitment.

THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION

Is it time to turn around and start over, returning to a simpler, easier time?  Or is it time to commit and see what greatness might lay ahead?  Avalanches, like fire, can have a cleansing effect, a clarifying impact on your vision and your chances of making it a reality.  Are you committed?  If not, isn’t it time to do something powerful for yourself?