A path lit by words

Where writing and "real life" converge


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Doodle your way to creativity

A recent LinkedIn post described how teachers are encouraging doodling in the classroom to increase information retention and recall, and to deepen comprehension. It reminded me of a blog I wrote some years ago, after the New York Times ran an article titled Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Multiple studies quoted there suggested that juggling email, texts, phone calls, and all the other information that bombards us destroys our ability to concentrate and focus. Electronic multitasking, it said, “inflicts deep cuts on creativity and deep thought.” That is a problem not just for schoolchildren but also for executives and managers, since creativity has long been considered and remains a critical leadership competency.

Back then, I asked how we might reverse—or better yet, avoid—the damage and, in its place, foster creativity. One answer I found was surprising. Before we could text on our phones or check email (or our brackets during March Madness), when we were distracted or bored, we doodled. Doodling is good for us. It helps us remember things because it forces our brains to expend enough energy to stop us from daydreaming but not so much that we don’t pay attention.

Dashe & Thomson, purveyors of change management, training, and communication services, suggest that drawing has three benefits: It makes you a better thinker, as it aids recall while allowing you to see things from different perspectives; a better explainer, using pictures and stories to enhance communication; and a better information processor because drawing requires you to engage multiple senses.

Take that, electronic gadgets! Or not. Because if you look up doodling today, you will discover that the very instruments we demonized in 2010 have been put to use to help us doodle…electronically. There are stand-alone gadgets and many apps that work on your smart phone or tablet.

If doodling has changed, the importance of creativity has not. According to Joel Basgall in 5 Reasons Innovation is Crucial to Staying Ahead of the Competition, creativity is integral to innovation and innovation is what keeps a company competitive. As long ago as 2008, the Conference Board and the Americans for the Arts conducted a survey on workforce readiness called Ready to Innovate.  It asked three major questions:

  • Are U.S. businesses and K–12 school systems making the link between creative skill sets in the workforce and innovation?
  • Are businesses finding the creative talent they need to generate the innovative solutions and products demanded by the marketplace?
  • And what efforts are both of these groups making to train employees in the needed creative skills?

It concluded that educators and executives were not wholly aligned on the creative readiness of the U.S. workforce, based in large part on the limited availability of high school courses that help develop the creative skills employers seek: creative writing, music, dramatic arts, and studio arts. Most school districts offer them as electives, if at all.

Is it any wonder that reports in the intervening years indicate that creativity and innovation have not improved, or that businesses that seek creative talent are hard-pressed to find it? As funding for the arts diminishes ever more rapidly, shouldn’t we be worried that current and future employees will have no organized way to develop the creative skills that will keep our economy robust and our businesses successful?

Encouraging doodling in our schools is a meager solution, but soon it may be all we can afford. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost much to stimulate your brain the old-fashioned way: Pick up a pencil and doodle.


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The manager’s dilemma: Is it good to be “nice?”

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 24, 2016.

An article in the Harvard Business Review pushed my buttons. The title was How nice bosses get ahead.

Nice is a wimpy word, an imprecise word. It pussyfoots. It equivocates. Nice is vanilla, neither a strong compliment nor a biting insult. We default to it when a person or situation is uninspiring or dull. “Nice” is how our teenage friends described a boy or girl who wasn’t smart or attractive, or a party that was just okay. It is the word we apply to a vacation that wasn’t memorable, a performance that was unremarkable, or a potential residence we didn’t connect with. “Nice” is often followed by “but.”

Citing research conducted by Wharton’s Adam Grant and others, the article portrays nice bosses as warm, kind, fair, and agreeable. It concludes that “creating a leadership model of trust and mutual cooperation might help create a culture that is happier, in which employees help each other, and (as a consequence) become more productive in the long run.”

That’s nice, but…

Gallup, in The State of the American Manager, is much more precise:

“Great managers possess a rare combination of five talents. They motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create a culture of accountability, build trusting relationships and make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company.”

Most people, I believe, would choose a manager like that over a nice one. Regrettably, however, Gallup alleges that 82 percent of managers are “miscast.” Only one in ten people have the right combination of talents to be a manager. Another two in ten people have elements of managerial talent and can be developed into good managers.

That is sobering news, given that Gallup also tells us that at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units is attributable to managers. Every year low engagement—around 30 percent for the past sixteen years—costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity. That means poor managers are costing us more than $300 billion annually. We had better be concerned about more than how nice they are.

A better quality to demand of our managers would be “empathy,” the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.” In a classic Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader?” Dr. Daniel Goleman identified empathy as one of the five essential qualities of emotional intelligence.

“… empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings—along with other factors—in the process of making intelligent decisions… Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.”

 

Goleman and others have tied emotionally intelligent decisions to high individual performance and measurable business outcomes, from reducing union grievances, to preventing turnover, to improving productivity and increasing sales.

Helping their organizations strengthen the managerial ranks is an ideal opportunity for Human Resources to add strategic value. Activities where HR should take the lead include:

  • Analyzing engagement survey reports to determine which managers turn in the best results. Dig deeper into the data and supplement it with interviews and focus groups, to understand exactly what managers with highly engaged subordinates do differently. Use the information to develop a manager profile that works in your company and actively recruit for critical attributes, internally and externally.
  • Assessing current managers against your manager profile. Determine who is a natural fit and who can be coached to become a high performer. Have honest discussions with managers, using specific examples that illustrate their performance, and work with them to determine if they are in the right job. Provide appropriate career options for those who don’t make the grade and those who opt out.

 

  • Taking a hard look at leadership development and manager training programs. Goleman says that people can learn empathy and the other elements of emotional intelligence, but not in the same way as hard skills, that is, not through logic or by reading a book. Soft skills take “motivation, extended practice, and feedback.” External programs or specialized consultants can help you upgrade or expand your current programs to work more effectively.

 

  • Leveraging good managers to help train the others. Enhance your training efforts by “seeding” the audience with good managers. Not only will all managers hear the same message, but the good managers will function as role models and advocates. Hearing from and observing peers who are already successful is a powerful way to help those who are less proficient recognize their shortcomings.

 

  • Augmenting the annual engagement survey with engagement efforts and metrics that are tracked on a continuing basis and can be communicated regularly. Show managers how they compare to their counterparts in other units. Encourage them to develop short-term and long-term plans to increase engagement, and include progress against plans as measures of their performance. Again, expect successful managers to share their knowledge and help others build strategies and plans.

 

  • Rewarding managers for the actions they take to increase engagement with both their subordinates and their peers. Build specific engagement results—not just overall scores—into managers’ performance goals and weight them significantly relative to other performance areas. Make it clear that engagement counts.

 

Finally, don’t assume that managers are engagement experts. Make sure they fully understand the factors of engagement and the significance of their influence on each of them. Among those defined by most experts are:

Culture and Values

  • A work environment based on honesty, authenticity, and integrity
  • An attitude that employees are valuable and deserve to be treated fairly
  • Trusting and supportive relationships with co-workers who are competent, collaborative, and friendly
  • Open communication, in good times and bad, so that employees feel involved and informed

Career and Professional Development

  • A clear line of sight to how the individual contributes to the organization’s mission, vision, and goals
  • Challenging and meaningful work that takes full advantage of employee strengths and skills
  • Access to the information, tools, and conditions employees need to be successful in their jobs
  • Opportunities for learning, growth, and development, as well as confidence in the fairness of advancement and promotion decisions

Performance and Rewards

  • Rewards that are perceived by employees as fair relative to the market and to others in the organization for the work they do
  • Clear performance expectations and a sense that rewards are performance based
  • Ongoing, real-time feedback that is two-way
  • Praise, recognition, and appreciation for their ideas and opinions

When all is said and done, technical skills and cognitive abilities have become threshold skills on the path to becoming a manager. Successful organizations insist on social awareness, the ability to sense people’s emotions, anticipate their reactions, interpret body language, and listen carefully for the message behind the words. Such managers are more effective at leading and motivating a wide variety of employees, a capability that leads to increased engagement, retention, productivity, and profits. When faced with that choice, merely “nice” managers will not make the cut.


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Six Tips for Becoming a Change Management Superhero

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 2, 2016.

It’s easy to recognize a new change manager. You can tell by the panic in their eyes, their trembling hands, and the beads of sweat on their brow. Believing themselves inadequate to drive the initiatives essential to business transformation, they might even be wailing, “I can’t do it! I don’t know anything about change!”

It’s no wonder change leaders are uneasy. Although all organizations face change, many are only beginning to realize that they can control it. As a result, it may not be obvious who is best suited to fill the challenging role of change manager. Hence, the senior team calls on the “usual suspects,” the same individuals they count on to lead special projects, task forces, and the like. That isn’t necessarily wrong, but change management requires much more than project management skills.

Individuals who have been tapped to lead change ask me, “What does it take to be a successful change manager?” Here are six tips.

Learn the fundamentals of change management. You have to start somewhere, and it only makes sense to school yourself in the philosophy, principles, models, and tools for change. These can be found in many excellent books, including Leading Change by John Kotter, Making Sense of Change Management by Esther Cameron and Mike Green, and Change Management: The People Side of Change by Jeffrey Hiatt and Timothy Creasey. Becoming familiar with the field will calm your fears, raise your confidence, and enhance your credibility as you promote change to others. While you’re studying, make sure you understand the basics of project management.

Get familiar with the current state of your business and industry, as well as the case for change. Make sure you understand your organization’s business strategy, its challenges, and its short-term and long-term goals. Pay particular attention to the business rationale for change. Determine which units and individuals will be impacted and how, and focus on those with the most to lose as well as the most to gain. Helping others see why change is an urgent business necessity and what the new, improved organization will look like post-change is one of a change manager’s most important roles.

Research your organization’s track record for change. If this is your organization’s first formal change initiative, or if other major initiatives happened before your time, you may not know how proficient your organization is at change. Find out who led earlier projects and take advantage of their experience to learn the how, who, when, and why of circumstances that threatened or thwarted change efforts. Does the C-suite present a united front publicly but sabotage efforts behind closed doors? Is your organization skilled at communicating but weak when it comes to training delivery? Simply asking past project leaders, “What would you have done differently?” can yield a wealth of valuable information.

Find out how senior leadership feels about the upcoming change. As the change management leader for your organization, you should have full access to the C-suite and their direct reports. Senior level support is mandatory for project success. However, it is rare to find full consensus, rarer still to identify the dissenters before all hell breaks loose. Proactively getting to know the executive team and where they stand on the initiative you are undertaking will help you identify—and possibly avoid—potential obstacles before they become divisive and disruptive. Building rapport with this group early on will serve you well, as you likely will need their advice and support throughout the project.

Get to know the project team and their consultants. Like senior leaders, individual members of the project team have opinions and agendas. As a possible outsider and often a late addition to the project team, it is important for the change manager to take time to meet with team members to learn their history with the organization, the jobs they have held, and their experience with systemic and strategic change. Their personalities and profiles, their fears, and their biases about the current initiative will affect the decisions they make. As the change manager, your awareness will allow you to discern conflicts and influence outcomes.

Assess how you stack up against the skills and competencies of a change manager. Some organizations name a change manager before they fully grasp the extent of the necessary skills and attributes. Others write a profile so unrealistic that John Kotter himself wouldn’t qualify.

Characteristics of a successful change manager include:

  • 360-degree influence—personal presence and the respect of superiors, peers, and subordinates
  • Strong communication skills—the ability to promote a clear vision to different audiences, altering one’s style, language, and approach
  • A “big-picture,” strategic mindset—knowledge of the business and its people, and the wherewithal to translate change into an organizational context
  • Conflict-resolution skills—tactics that may be applied to win over opponents, bring competing parties together, and craft a win-win agenda
  • Personal willingness and talent for change—to serve as a model of behavioral change, influencing others to pursue self-discovery and self-development
  • Passion for the current change—the best person to persuade others to support a change is an ardent champion of the effort

An honest assessment of your skills, conducted privately or with help from trusted colleagues, will give you a clear view of your areas of strength as well as your shortcomings. Take steps to shore up your weaknesses or enlist associates who have the skills you lack.

Keep your ear to the ground. It’s important to listen…to hall conversations, to rumors passed on by friends and colleagues, to managers complaining about disgruntled employees or ineffective training. Not only does listening provide early warnings about misconceptions and burgeoning issues, it will help you begin to identify allies and supporters who may join the change team as it expands. You may feel alone at the beginning, but ultimately the change team will grow to become an extended network that will participate in training and communication activities.

In a world where two out of three major change initiatives fail, one finding stands out: Organizations that consciously manage change, by activities like communicating, leading by example, and engaging employees, as much as double their chances for success. That is an astonishing statistic, and one that makes the role of change manager vital to business survival.


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Leaders: On telling your story

once upon a time

When Blessing-White‘s recent article, The Importance of Narrative, arrived in my inbox, I clicked on it right away. Writers are keenly aware that the business world has a love-hate relationship with people like us—we are welcome in good times, but too often expendable, a luxury some companies choose not to afford. So I was curious to see what a business consultancy had to say about narrative.

The Blessing-White article endorses our central belief in the power of story. It encourages business leaders to share their personal stories with employees “to show who they are in a way that builds trust and expands their credibility, while allowing their direct reports to be inspired and engaged by them.”

Hmm, said my inner cynic. I’ve heard those words before. I’ve lived in a business world filled with stories: Those aimed at the external audience (developed by Marketing, in order to sell) and those meant for a company’s internal audience (Employee Communications, designed to guide and/or change behavior). In that world, stories can be deceitful and manipulative. They aren’t always true.

Then there are leadership stories created by the media. They give us legendary CEOs like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch, and notorious CEOs like Bernie Ebbers, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, and Ken Lay. Some CEOs fall in between—think Ted Turner and Larry Ellison. Their stories are colorful, frequently inspiring, and too often cautionary.

Blessing-White’s article is refreshing because of its emphasis on truth and its apparent focus on the unsung, not-famous senior leaders who step up every day to empower, engage, and inspire—in short, to lead. It espouses honesty and openness, the willingness to be vulnerable, and a commitment to show respect for one’s audience. And wonder of wonders, it quotes Joseph Campbell, best known for The Power of Myth, who defined the purpose of myths as “a way to make sense of life in the world and establish a shared set of rights and wrongs.” That is a noble challenge for leaders—not just of our corporations, but of our government and organizations of every kind.

Even better, stories can create a vibrant and compelling vision for the future. To quote Blessing-White, “Stories explore the possibility of where we can take ourselves and our organizations with a little imagination and a significant effort. Your way of editing the story of your business and its goals for the future makes you the editor, author and storyteller all at once.”

Kudos to global consultancy Blessing-White. The world will be a better place when more leaders lead by your model.