how to lead a succssful project

Six Reasons Even the Best Project Managers Fail

The project is mission critical, and complicated with lots of moving parts across departments. You’ve assigned your rock star, PMI certified project manager to shepherd the process and the project is way behind schedule. She’s frustrated, you’re one missed deadline away from frantic, and your boss wants to know what she can do to help. What next?

Six Reasons Even the Best-Run Projects Derail

When great project managers fail, which they sadly sometimes do, the root cause is almost never a breakdown in a technical expertise. More pressure on the PM won’t solve these issues; neither will more frequent readouts or points of escalation. When your great PMs fail, take a step back and check for these surefire project derailers.

1. Lack of Executive Alignment

Of course, every exec in the room was “all in” when their boss said, “Fix this now, we need all hands on deck.” But what exactly does that mean?

What exactly are we fixing now and how?

What does success look like?

Which departments are going to do what by when and how will we know? If this is not clear at the executive level, you’ll never foster true collaboration a level or three below.

How does this issue rank in priority to the other top 3 issues everyone is already working on night and day?

When your PM goes out looking for support and resources, where does this rank? Are you sure all are aligned?

2. It’s Not the MIT (Most Important Thing). 

Closely correlated to number 1, your project team members are attending your meetings, agreeing to next steps, and then going back to their “real” priorities and day jobs. If your project is not what’s top of mind for their boss, it’s unlikely any tasks will be on the top of their to-do list.

3. The Team’s Full of B-Players

I’m guilty as charged. Perhaps you are too. Have you ever been asked to commit resources to a project that you feel is a distraction from your MIT? All “headcount” is not the same. If your project is failing, you may have more than one leader giving you less than their A team.

4. They’re Too Stressed to Put People Before Projects

The pressure’s on and the team jumped right in, no wasted time. Teams take a minute to gain trust and to build collaboration. If the team is failing, a quick time out to focus on the people issues might be just the trick. Go slow to go fast.

5. No One Wants to Hear the Tough Stuff

If #3 doesn’t apply, you have the A-team, everyone’s aligned on MITs and expectations, but you’re telling the team to stop complaining and make it happen– you might be missing the most valuable insights for true project success. Be sure you and your team are taking time to channel challengers.

6. PMs Don’t Feel Empowered to Have the Tough Conversations

No project succeeds without clear expectations and accountability. But so many of the PMs we work with share how hard this is without the support they need to lead through influence.  Here’s our INSPIRE methodology applied to Project Managers.

I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Model for Project Managers

Your turn. When great project managers struggle, or when important projects derail, where do you look first?

sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual Harassment: The Second Most Troubling Part of All These Revelations

The most troubling part of the recent sexual harassment revelations is that they happened.

We are deeply saddened by the constant parade of allegations and the deep pain being surfaced and resurfaced for so many. No one should feel threatened or demeaned at work. No one should be intimidated by sexual acts. No one should suffer in years of silence, humiliation, and shame because they were scared into doing something they regret by someone more powerful.

The Second Most Troubling Part

For us, the second most troubling part is that other people knew what was going on, and did nothing.

In the case of Matt Lauer, while we can’t know for certain what happened, victims report having informed management at the time (NBC management maintains no current executives were aware of past reports and they acted immediately once they were). Many of the other recent revelations (e.g. Charlie Rose, Louis CK) were followed by bystanders saying they were aware at some level and chose to stay silent.

It’s not just celebrities.

It’s “Steve,” a manager who observes his boss verbally harassing women on his team, yet stays silent.  And, “Jane” who tells the “girls” on her team to “just ignore” the inappropriate touching, “It’s no big deal. Let it go.” Or the co-workers who know John is sick of the homophobic jokes, but just ignore their peer’s banter, because John does too.

“Unless someone like you, cares a whole awful lot.

Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
-The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

We understand the fear that keeps people silent. Often, saying something means risking your career or reputation.

So does staying silent.

You can’t lead without trust. Staying silent or refusing to treat these situations seriously tells your team you can’t be trusted – not when it really matters. You undermine your credibility and erode team unity.

Moving Forward

We don’t need another policy. Most human beings know right from wrong.

We need courage.

We need to build cultures where speaking the truth is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

We need leaders to lead. To take a stand, even when it’s hard. To recognize that choosing self-protection over what’s right is exactly what perpetuates inexcusable behavior, degrades trust, and permanently damages relationships and results.

It’s going to take all of us to end this epidemic of harassment and distrust.

What will you do next time?

How to make 2018 your best year ever.

5 Ways to Differentiate Your Performance in the New Year

“But I exceeded all my objectives. Why am I not rating ‘leading?’ ”

It’s a frustrating conversation no matter which side of the desk you’re on. The truth is, in most companies, meeting or exceeding your objectives is not enough to stand out. In a stack-ranked world, you’ve got to make a bigger strategic impact.

5 Ways to Differentiate Your Performance in the New Year

Whether you’re looking for ways to take your own performance to the next level, or to help a frustrated team member stand out, here are a few proven strategies to make  2018 your best year ever.

1. Know what matters most.

Have you ever noticed it’s not necessarily the times in your career that you worked the longest or hardest that got the most positive attention? Sure sometimes there’s a correlation, but chances are it’s more a matter of finding that sweet spot where your skills and talents matched a strategic business need and pointing all your energy in that direction. You’ve got at least 37 priorities on your plate, you can’t exceed expectations on all of them. Talk to your manager,  know what matters most, and be sure you nail that.

Ask:

“What’s the most important thing I (or my team) needs to accomplish to really impact the business this year?”

Or, I know everything on this scorecard is important, but if I had to fail at something, which of these metrics matters the least, and what do you want me to really blow out of the water?

Or even, “Imagine we’re sitting here this time next year, and you’re blown away by my (my team’s) performance… what would I (we) have accomplished?”

2. Fix something broken.

What’s not working that’s driving everyone crazy? What process could be made more efficient? What can you do to improve the customer experience (not just once) but systematically? How can you make work more efficient not just for you, but for your peers as well? Find something broken and fix it.

3. Build a clear cadence of communication.

Be the guy that makes everyone’s lives easier through a clear cadence of communication up, down and sideways. Treat everyone’s time as a precious resource. Hold meetings that people actually want to attend. Come buttoned up to one-on-ones with your manager, with a clear agenda (this tool will help).

4. Strengthen strategic peer relationships.

Great work never happens in a vacuum. Invest time in building strategic peer relationships where you truly understand, and help one another to achieve, your interdependent objectives. Nothing frustrates senior managers more than dysfunctional turf wars that distract people from doing the right thing for the business and for your customers. Your competition is not the department down the hall, it’s mediocrity.

5. Invest in your own development.

I once had a mentor who said, “Some people have 10 years of experience and other folks have 1 year of experience 10 times.”  Even if you’re not changing roles, be sure you’re constantly learning and growing. Have a clear development plan that stretches you and helps you contribute more to the business each year.

If you want to truly differentiate your contribution–go beyond what’s necessary for today, and work to make a broader impact for your customers, for the business, and for those around you.

Your turn. What’s your best advice for building a year of truly differentiated performance?

See Also our Fast Company Article: 10 Common Excuses that Silently Damage Manager’s Careers

One awful but common leadership practice and what to do instead

One Awful (but Common) Leadership Practice and What To Do Instead

It’s nearly a leadership cliché:

“Don’t bring me a problem without a solution.”

You’ve probably been on the receiving end of a harried manager barking these words at you. You may even have said them yourself.

I’ve delivered many keynote programs and workshops where frontline leaders in the audience approach me afterward and proudly announce how they are in the habit of telling their people not to bring a problem without a solution.

Some of them even mean well. They believe that they’re helping their people. Others just want people and their problems to go away. They’re usually surprised at my response:

Please stop.

Unintended Consequences

Here’s the thing, if you’re in a leadership role, yes, your executives can fairly expect you to think things through and bring solutions (particularly when you’ve got bad news – see the D.A.R.N. Method). You’ve got the experience and responsibility to be able to own your problems and look for answers.

However, your employees are a different audience. Telling employees not to bring a problem without a solution is careless and lazy.

They may not know how to problem solve. They may lack critical thinking skills. They may not have the training or information they need to arrive at reasonable solutions.

The problem with telling people “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution” is that when they don’t know how to come up with solutions, you’ve essentially just told them, “Don’t bring me a problem.”

Now you’ve got people mucking about with problems they can’t solve and that they won’t bring to you. The problems fester, productivity and service decline, and everyone is frustrated.

There’s a better way.

Help Employees Learn to Think Critically and Solve Problems

The answer is definitely not to play the hero and jump in with answers. The immediate problems might get solved and work continues, but next time an issue comes up, your team still can’t figure it out for themselves and, worse, you’ve now taught them that if things get difficult, you’ll just figure it out for them.

Yes, you’re the hero, but say goodbye to your own productivity!

What they really need from you in these moments are your questions: the kind of questions that focus on learning and the future. Questions that generate ideas and solutions.

Examples include:

  • What is your goal?
  • What did you try?
  • What happened?
  • Do you need a specific skill or tool to be able to solve this?
  • What would you do next time?
  • What do you think will happen when you try that?
  • What will you do?
  • Super-bonus question – keep reading to learn this powerful tool!

Assuming that your staff have the basic skills, training, and materials they need to do their jobs, this conversation doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes. For a complex project, it might take the time required to drink a cup of coffee, but it shouldn’t take much longer than that.

Now, you might be wondering what to do if the person replies to one of your questions with, “I don’t know.”

Don’t despair – it’s time to use the super-bonus question. When a team member says, “I don’t know,” most managers will then jump in and supply the answer, but not you. There’s a better way.

“I don’t know” can mean many things. Rarely does it mean the person has zero thoughts about the issue.

More often, “I don’t know” translates to:

  • “I’m uncertain.”
  • “I don’t want to commit before I know where you stand.”
  • “I haven’t thought about it yet.”
  • “I don’t want to think about it.”
  • “Will you please just tell me what to do?”
  • “I’m scared about getting it wrong.”

Your job as a leader is to continue the dialogue – to ease the person through their anxiety and train their brain to engage. This is where the super-bonus question comes in.

With one question you can re-engage them in the conversation and move through “I don’t know” to productivity.

When someone says, “I don’t know,” your super-bonus question is: “What might you do if you did know?”

Before you judge this tool, try it.

Try it with your children, with your co-workers, or with the person next to you in a coffee shop. In any conversation where someone says, “I don’t know,” respond with a gentle, “What might you do if you did know?” and watch what happens.

It’s like magic.

The person who was stymied two seconds ago will start to share ideas (often good ones) brainstorm solutions, and move on as if they were never stuck. It’s amazing and hard to believe until you try it.

The super-bonus question works because it addresses the source of the person’s “I don’t know.” If they were anxious or fearful, it takes the pressure off by creating a hypothetical situation: “If you did know…” Now they don’t have to be certain or look for your approval and they become free to share whatever they might have been thinking.

If they hadn’t thought about the issue or didn’t want to think about it, you’ve lowered the perceived amount of thought-energy they must expend. You’re not asking for a thesis on the subject, just a conversational “What might you do…”

Our brains can do amazing work when we remove the emotional blocks. When you do this for your team, you train their brain to engage, to push through their ordinary blocks, and increase their performance. Ultimately, they will be able to have these conversations with themselves and will only need to bring the very serious issues to you.

You’ll know you’re succeeding in asking healthy questions when a team member tells you: “I had a problem. I was going to come and talk it over with you, but then I thought, you’re just going to ask me all these questions. So I asked myself all the questions instead and I figured it out.”

Celebrate those moments and encourage them to start asking those questions of the people around them. You’ve just increased your team’s capacity for problem-solving, freed up time to focus on your work, and…you’ve built a leader!

Your Turn

Before you bark “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution,” remember that when a team member has trouble thinking through a problem, good questions are your best solution.

Leave us a comment and share: How do you develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills in your team?

find the fire book Leadership Relationships Scott Mautz

Want a Tighter-Knit Team? Look to the Family For Inspiration

It’s our pleasure today to bring you a guest post from Scott Mautz, author of Find the Fire: Reignite Your Inspiration and Make Work Exciting Again. -Karin & David


Believe it or not, we’re actually now spending more time with coworkers than family; this is true of almost 80% of people who work thirty to fifty hours a week. So it’s probably not surprising that research indicates we’re increasingly viewing our coworkers as direct extensions of our family. Group dynamic researchers say the parallel should make intuitive sense considering that the first organization people ever belong to is their families, with parents the first bosses and siblings the first colleagues. “Our original notions of an institution, of an authority structure, of power and influence are all forged in the family,” says Warren Bennis, the late management guru.

So since we’re there already, why not take a closer look at the best (and worst) of family dynamics to create through-the-roof camaraderie?

It’s worth the pursuit. Studies show that top-rated places to work share a sense of camaraderie as a key ingredient in their success formula. And the “add-on” effects of camaraderie in the workplace are astounding; nearly 40 percent of survey respondents named their coworkers as the top reason they love working for their company, 66 percent said those positive relationships increased their productivity, and 55 percent said they helped mitigate their on-the-job stress levels.

Now, if you stop and think about the attributes of a happy family, you’ll soon realize the number of traits that would be applicable for creation of a close-knit group in the workplace. And while each unhappy corporate family is unhappy in its own way, happy corporate families are all alike. They:

  • Make heartfelt connections with one another, showing warmth and an interest to connect
  • Openly and honestly communicate (even over-communicate) with one another
  • Have a sense of watching one another’s back, and that “we’re all in this together”
  • Are fiercely committed to each other and put each other first
  • Share goals and values, uphold family codes
  • Enjoy each other
  • Have compassion and move towards rather than away from one another in crisis
  • Help each other grow and support each other

The idea is to keep the nuclear family metaphor front and center and to strive to embed family values into your own workplace culture. But as you do so, it’s important to be mindful of darker family theatrics that all too often play out at work. Research in workplace dynamics indeed confirms that people tend to recreate their own family dramas at the office. Do any of these situations seem familiar?

  • Over the top or desperate plays for approval from bosses
  • Backstabbing of and bickering with scene-stealing co-workers
  • Bickering in meetings like at the family dinner table
  • Shying away from authority figures
  • Harboring petty jealousies towards co-workers
  • Hypercritical judgment of subordinates or co-workers

The key is to bring all the best of a caring, family mindset to an organizational culture while leaving behind all the subconsciously engrained worst aspects. A failure to at least do the latter can lead to a substantive productivity drain. A two-year study by Seattle psychologist Brian DesRoches found that “family conflict” type dramas routinely waste 20 to 50 percent of workers’ time.

How might your behaviors change if you acted as if your co-workers were actually family? Would you exhibit the powerful “happy family” behaviors previously listed?

It’s a filter that can drastically change your day to day interactions with others and maximize meaning derived from your relationships in the process.

what to why

Why To Explain Why, Again.

Last week, we were wrapping up our final session of a six-month strategic management intensive with a group of engineering managers by helping them to synthesize what they’d learned. In addition to a number of more mainstream techniques, we asked them to craft strategic stories to pass along their key messages to the next generation of managers coming behind them.

They picked a leadership priority or approach they wanted to reinforce, and then found a real story from their personal or work life to make the message more impactful and sticky.

As you can imagine, this is not the sort of exercise that is necessarily embraced with a gung-ho attitude by engineering types. Even with a formula, this process was a stretch (that’s why we saved it to the last session so we couldn’t get fired 😉

They nailed it.

“Steve” picked the Winning Well principle of connecting “What to Why” to ground his story.

“When I was 17, I worked at Ace Hardware. It was my job to keep track of the inventory in the back and sometimes I ran the register. My boss had made it perfectly clear of what you would call a “MIT (most important thing).” If a customer asked for something they couldn’t find, our only response should be “I’ll be happy to go in the back and check for you.”

But on this particular day, I KNEW the tool the customer had asked for was not in the back because I had just noticed the issue when I was working in the back. When the customer asked me to go in the back and double check, I informed him that I was absolutely sure we were out and there was no reason to check.

My boss overheard me and when the customer left, he let me have it, and told me in no uncertain terms that if I ever told a customer we were out of something without going into the back to check, I would be fired.

I thought this was ridiculous, but I complied, AND thought my boss was a jerk. I didn’t understand why we would have such a stupid policy—what a waste of time.

Fast forward a decade to a few months ago. I was neck deep in renovating my house and I ran out of something I really needed to get the job done. My fiancé and I were really tired of all the mess and I just needed to get this done.  I ran over to Ace and asked the kid at the counter for some help finding what I needed. “Oh no man, we’re out,” the kid shrugged, and moved on.

And then, I found myself looking at this kid in disbelief and saying “Come-on, can’t you at least go look in the back?”

And then it hit me.

That’s WHY my boss had that “stupid” policy. To make frustrated customers like me feel just a little bit better—that someone cares enough to go one more step.

It’s tricky. We always make sense to us, and the “why” behind our intentions always seems so obvious–to us. If your  “why” really matters, why leave the understanding to chance?

Reinforce your “why” every chance you get.

Tips For Sharing Why

  1. Check Your Gut. Be sure you know why what you’re asking them to do what you’re asking them to do, and that it still matters.
  2. Reinforce. Share stories, dig for data, illuminate examples.
  3. Check For Understanding. Ask strategic questions to help your team see what you see, or just ask them what they heard.
  4. Repeat anything that’s important is worth communicating five times, five different ways.

Your turn. What are your favorite ways to connect what to why?

5 Top Leadership Articles 10-30-2017

5 Top Leadership Articles for the Week of October 30, 2017

Each week I read leadership articles from various online resources and share them across social media. Here are the five leadership articles readers found most valuable last week. Click on the title of the article to read the full text. I have added my comment about each article and would like to hear what you think, too.

4 Questions in 4 Days that Strengthen Teams and Elevate Performance by Dan Rockwell

Imagine little Freddy throwing a tantrum in the grocery story. Freddy’s mommy or daddy give him the candy bar he’s screaming for. What happens next time little Freddy goes to the grocery store?

You get what you honor. Freddy learns the value of throwing tantrums.

Celebrations, rewards, and honor tell people what matters

My Comment: This is the first in a series of four questions Rockwell asks. The question in this article is an important one: What small wins might you celebrate today? Celebration doesn’t require confetti every time. Micro-encouragement done specifically, quickly, and with intention is incredibly powerful in reinforcing behaviors. Remember: you get more of what you celebrate and encourage, less of what you criticize or ignore. What can you celebrate today?

Building a Collaborative Culture in Non-traditional Work Environments by Rachael Powell

Since its inception, the open-plan office has drawn its fair share of criticism. While initially conceived as a means to facilitate collaboration, some argue that the office layout style does nothing but cause distraction and dissatisfaction. Indeed, it’s fair to question whether there is such a thing as too much cross-pollination of ideas when employees are elbow-to-elbow.

But when it comes to your people, one size does not fit all. In answer to the loss of concentration many attribute to a noisy workplace, activity-based workplace design is growing in popularity among companies new and old. Organizations are establishing a variety of spaces to cater to a range of tasks, including nap pods, treadmill desks and even treehouse conference spaces. It’s possible to foster both productivity and collaboration in today’s non-traditional working environments.

My Comment: I’ve never seen a treehouse conference space, but it sounds like fun. I love the point that Powell is making: give your team what they need in order to be their best. That might be an open plan, it might be something creative, it might be energetic and full of ‘buzz’ or it might be quiet and focused. The mistake I see many leaders make is that they give their teams one of two things that don’t serve them. Either they create the environment that they personally prefer (in the erroneous belief that everyone is like them) or they follow the latest fad and copy what someone else is doing. Don’t try to be like ‘them’ – be the best version of who you and your team are.

The Hidden Barrier to Your Team’s Productivity by Jennifer V. Miller at SmartBrief

As a leader, you know that productive employees bring value to your team.

Recent findings from a white paper by consulting and training firm VitalSmarts highlight the magnitude of high performers’ productivity: they are 21 times less likely to experience tasks or responsibilities that “fall through the cracks.”

Moreover, the research found that these same employees were also 18 times less likely to feel overwhelmed than their less-productive peers. Somehow, these hard-working, productive employees have found a way to deliver results without sacrificing their mental health.

What’s their secret?

My Comment: The gist of Miller’s article is that high-performing employees are good at managing their time and they are good at navigating conversations with their colleagues. At a personal level, they have mastered achieving results and building relationships. If you want a more productive team, model the combined focus on results and relationships, train them in how to do it, and then celebrate their success and hold them accountable when it doesn’t go as well.

The Challenge of Frustration by Steve Keating

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss leadership with a group of mid-level managers. At the end of my presentation, I was approached by a significant number of the attendees who all had the same question.

The questions, while asked differently all had the same theme: What do I do when my “leader” isn’t a real leader at all?

The answer to that question is simple and complicated all at once. I’m assuming (I know that’s dangerous) that the people asking the question are truly leaders. That means they care about the people they lead, they understand that their own success is completely dependent upon the success of the people they lead and that they get as much pleasure from their people’s success as they do their own.

If that is the case then the answer to the question is this: Lead Up.

My Comment: We are big believers in leading in 360 degrees – being a positive influence, building relationships, and achieving transformational results with everyone you work with. However, there are also differences leading your team vs “leading up.” One of the most common frustrations we encounter here is with supervisors who don’t follow through with their commitments and potentially prevent you from completing your work in the process.

With a direct report, you would have an INSPIRE conversation where you notice the behavior, ask them what is happening, and invite them to a solution. When having an INSPIRE conversation with someone you report to, make sure, as Keating suggests, that you’ve built a relationship where the other person can trust you and your motivations.

From there, you can still notice the behavior (eg “I noticed that you haven’t given me the data yet.”) From there, you’ll want to supply consequences. (eg: “As we discussed, I will be happy to get you what you need and it will take me three hours from when I have the data.”) You might also note other commitments you have (“I’ve promised finance that I will have their information to them by 5 tonight, so I can start on this first thing.”) That helps them understand the consequences of their actions, but in a ‘can do’ way.

Employee Engagement is the Essence of a Human Workforce by Diana Coker

The definition of workforce efficiency is very subjective in nature. This is because employees may be putting in long hours at work but there are times when this isn’t enough. With artificial intelligence taking over our lives, the sole reason why human workforce is still given importance is due to its individualistic intellect. You might think that your employee is working dedicatedly but it may so happen that the individual is doing it in a mechanical manner. If this is the case, then why hire humans when robots ensure absolutely reliable results? This makes it important for the company to encourage the practice of employee engagement.

My Comment: If you’re not going to cultivate an engaged workforce, why hire human beings in the first place? It’s a provocative question. I’m sure there are some managers out there who would prefer the robots. That frustration is a stop on the path to losing your leadership soul. People are messy and can be frustrating, but guess what – you’re a human being too. Cultivate an environment that helps people release their creativity, energy, and strength toward your mission, product, or service.

Your Turn

What thoughts do these articles bring to mind? Do you see something differently than the author? Did you have a favorite leadership article this week? Leave us a comment and let’s hear from you.

strategic ambiguity

7 Ways to Lead Well During Times of Uncertainty and Change

Sometimes when you go to build your strategic plan, it can seem like there are more questions than answers. We’ve seen changing regulatory environments, disruptive technology, and natural disasters lead to a paralyzing cycle of “what ifs” that lead to inaction. One of the best skills you can develop as a leader is learning to help your team strategically manage through ambiguity and change.

Ways to Help Your Team Deal With Ambiguity

“Accepting that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not and should not stop people from being pretty sure about a lot of things.” – Julian Baggini

1. Ground Yourself In Confident Humility

Know your strengths and consider what behaviors have served you well during other times of stress and change. If times of uncertainty don’t lead to your shining moments of leadership brilliance, acknowledge that. Seek out team members who find change and ambiguity exhilarating to help you with your plan. Do your freaking-out in private. In uncertain times, nothing will calm and inspire your team more than your “game on” attitude.

2. Draw Strength from Your Mission

It’s easy to feel like everything is uncertain in times of uncertainty. That’s never true.  Reinforce your mission and core values–and communicate what’s not going to change, no matter what. Help your team draw strength from your bigger “why.”

Own the Ugly3. Know What You Collectively Know and What You Don’t

Chances are that you and your team know more than you think. Resist the urge to focus only on what everyone already knows. Write that down, but then add to the list of what each person knows or suspects based on their area of expertise. Then write down what you don’t know, and brainstorm ways to gather more information in that arena. A very useful exercise we use to help leaders navigate strategic ambiguity is our Own the U.G.L.Y. conversation. 

4. Don’t Waffle

When you make decisions, stop second-guessing them out loud. If you need to change course, do it boldly with strong communication and explanation. Otherwise, keep your boat sailing swiftly in the announced direction.

5. Encourage Risk Taking

Even if you’ve reacted poorly to mistakes before, admit that, and promise support in taking calculated risks. Put in place whatever parameters and checkpoints you need to feel comfortable in your world, but allow space for creativity and brilliant thinking. You need every single brain cell operating on full-cylinder at times like these, not censored with fear of making mistakes.

6. Envision Alternative Scenarios

When the future is uncertain, it’s easy to think that “anything could happen.” That’s seldom true. More often the most probable scenarios can be boiled down to two or three. Brainstorm those possibilities and develop contingency plans. This exercise goes a long way in calming minds and spirits while generating creative possibilities that could actually work across scenarios.

7. Engage Other People and Perspectives

The more people you engage in the solution, the less frightening the problem becomes. Enlist unusual suspects to weigh-in.  Engage some cross-functional collaboration. Benchmark externally. Ask your children (hey, you never know).

Most importantly keep your cool and focus on the possible.

Your turn. How do you lead well during times of strategic ambiguity?

10 Incapacitating Leadership Mistakes You Make When Youre Scared

10 Incapacitating Leadership Mistakes You Make When You’re Scared

“This guy opened his door and hit your car!” Sebastian, our 12-year-old, announced as Karin and I returned to the car, our arms full of office supplies. He pointed out a small scratch on the door. We laughed about it and how the guy was surprised to find someone in the car he’d just scratched.

The thing is, I don’t mind a few scratches on my car. You can’t speed something down the road at 60 miles per hour, expose it to rain and road debris and expect it to emerge unscathed.

If you’re scared of scratching your car, you’ll never leave the garage. The only way to keep a car in ‘showroom’ condition is to leave it there.

Your Leadership Showroom

Fear is part of the leadership experience. You may fear ruining relationships, damaging your reputation, or even losing your job. When you lead, you’ll probably have anxiety and fear as you face the unknown and take risks to move your team and organization forward.

It’s normal to have these fears.

But if you don’t learn how to manage the fears that come with leadership, you’ll stay in “the showroom.”

10 Incapacitating Leadership Mistakes You Make When You’re Scared

Unmanaged fear incapacitates you and leads to a range of leadership mistakes. These insidious mistakes are dangerous because they can feel rational.

  1. You don’t deal with the very thing that needs attention.

You know that feeling of unease that creeps up and prompts you to procrastinate or avoid doing something?

Listen to it.

But instead of doing what it says (avoiding the problem), use it as an alarm calling for your attention. The thing you feel like avoiding is exactly what should have your full attention. Dive in and get it done.

  1. You lose credibility.

Even if you don’t tell them what’s going on, your team will figure it out. When you’re paralyzed with fear, your leadership credibility slowly erodes.

  1. You feel like you’re all alone.

When you’re scared, you forget your team. This one is particularly brutal because it cuts you off from one of your greatest strengths. Your team is smart and by working together you can figure it out and get it done…but not if fear isolates you. When you’re alone or isolated, things grow out of proportion.

Reconnect with your team to get a healthy perspective and engage many more minds in solving the problem.

  1. You react and create chaos.

Have you ever had a squirrel get inside your house? They are scared and panicked. Every little noise or motion sends them scampering back and forth, climbing up the walls, knocking over everything. It’s chaos!

When you’re scared, you can do the same thing and leave your people frustrated and confused about their M.I.T.s (Most Important Thing) and expectations.

  1. You give up your ability to create the future.

When you’re motivated by fear, you stop building a positive future as you try to just avoid problems. You can’t inspire your team with a message of “Let’s try not to fail…”

Instead, examine and prepare for the actual (not imagined) consequences.

Your mind can play tricks on you and grow imagined problems to epic proportions. This is why listening to your fear is important. What is it you’re scared of? What would actually happen if that came to pass? What would you do then?

If you can find people who have been in the same situations and learn what they did, that’s even better. The point is to reduce the imagined problem to real-life, know you can handle it, and build a positive future together.

  1. You clamp down on information.

In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks with all sorts of pathological nonsense.

And yet, when you’re afraid, you often stop the flow of information (because you worry about communicating the wrong thing or aren’t sure who you can trust). This feeds into the isolation that cuts you off from the very people that can help you.

  1. You avoid risks and end personal growth.

When you worry too much about making mistakes, you don’t take risks. When you don’t take healthy risks, you stop learning new things…and you stop learning altogether. Leaders who don’t grow lose credibility.

Perfectionists and high achievers sometimes let fear paralyze them because they fear making a mistake. But even engineers launching a satellite into space know the margin of error within which they can operate.

Mistakes are a good thing. They mean you’re trying something new and stretching. Use them well.

  1. You won’t apologize, own, and correct mistakes.

When you’re frightened of being seen as a failure, you might not own up to it and apologize. Effective leaders have the humility to “Own the UGLY,” admit their vulnerabilities, and take responsibility for their mistakes.

  1. You become a victim.

Sustained fear erodes your ability to act. That’s the definition of a victim – “This happened and there’s nothing I can do.”

When fear leads to victimhood, one of the best antidotes is to re-empower your self. Do this by asking two simple questions:

What are the results I want to achieve?

What can I do to accomplish those results?

  1. You inspire fear in others.

This is the worst mistake of all because leaders recreate themselves.

Your team is learning from you. If you stay in fear-mode, it won’t be long before your team acts the same way and now you’ve multiplied the mistakes on this list across your entire team.

When you see your team afraid to make mistakes, over-reacting, and unable to build a positive future, it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and see if they’re feeding off your fear.

Your Turn

Don’t let fear keep you in the showroom. We need you out there, making a difference. You’ll get a few scratches along the way – and that’s okay.

Overcoming your leadership fears takes time and practice. As you practice, you’ll find the situations that caused you two weeks of anxiety will only give you two hours of serious thought.

People with an extreme fear of spiders don’t overcome it by diving into a tank of spiders. They begin by reading about them, by spending time near them in a safe environment and work up to maybe even hold one.

What is the easiest step you can take? Is it to share your concerns with your team? Is it looking for someone who’s been in the same situation? Is it to write down the situation you need to address and plan for likely outcomes?

Leave us a comment and share: How do you manage your leadership fears, stay healthy, and keep your people moving forward?

Four Powerful Ways to Get Helpful Feedback From Your Peers

I’m sure you ask your boss for feedback. And, I imagine you’re checking in with your direct reports regularly on how you’re doing. If you’re like many managers we work with, you may be less inclined to ask your peers for their perspective.

Why? Let’s face it, your peers are not always the friendliest source. In some companies, peers can feel more like “competitors” for resources, a position in the stack rank, or bonus funding. And it’s just possible peers in other departments are the folks most ticking you off: the finance guy who doesn’t see the value in funding your project; or the woman in IT who always has 10 reasons why what you want can’t be done.

Four Ways to Get Helpful Feedback From Your Peers

Your peers see how you act under stress and behind closed doors in ways you might not show your boss or your team. Like the time I regretfully let the F-bomb fly at a peer (#NotRecommendedWinningWellBehavior).

Are you seen as a team player? Do you share resources or just look out for your own team and objectives? How do you act when things don’t go your way? Chances are your peers have a pretty good sense of how you act when “no one is looking.” See also Eight Reasons Your Peers Rate You Low on Your 360 Assessment  

Here are four ways to get more helpful feedback from your peers.

  1. Make It About More Than You

    Like it or not, sometimes your peers may also see YOU as a competitor and question your motives for seeking out feedback. Your request for insight is more compelling when you ground it in a desire to improve the business or the customer experience.  “What do you think I could do differently to create an even better experience for our customers?” “I really care about our team effectiveness, what specifically do you think I could do to help our team collaborate better?” “This project is on such a tight deadline, what specifically can I do to make our work processes more efficient?”

  2. Model it

    Want great feedback from your peers? Start by being a great feedback giver. Be the guy who your peers can count on to tell them the real deal. Be generous with your specific and timely praise, and develop trust so that they are interested in what else you have to say. It will be that much easier when you turn around and ask, “And how do you think I could be more impactful?”

  3. Get Specific

    “Do you have any feedback for me?” Is likely to be met with a generic “No, man, you’re doing great,” response. This might feel good, but is not all that useful. Instead try, “What is one behavior I could change that would make me more impactful on this project?” Or, “I’m really working on improving my communication skills, can you give me one suggestion to help me improve my communication with you?”

    Once they give you one idea, then you can always say, “Great! Thank you. What else?”  Or you can take it one step further and conduct a  DIY 360.

  4. Respond

    If they’re right, act on it. And if you think it’s B.S., ask a few more folks for their perspective. The best way to get more feedback is to accept it graciously. Even if you don’t agree, always say thank you.

    See also: How Do I get my peers to trust me?  

Your turn. What are your best tips for soliciting feedback from peers?

5 Top Leadership Articles for the week of October 9, 2017

5 Top Leadership Articles for the Week of October 9, 2017

Each week I read leadership articles from various online resources and share them across social media. Here are the five leadership articles readers found most valuable last week. Click on the title of the article to read the full text. I have added my comment about each article and would like to hear what you think, too.

If You Can’t See It, How Can You Make It Better? By Seth Godin

It doesn’t pay to say to the CFO: These numbers on the P&L aren’t true.

And arguing with Walmart or Target about your market share stats doesn’t work either.

You can’t make things better if you can’t agree on the data.

Real breakthroughs are sometimes accompanied by new data, by new metrics, by new ways of measurement. But unless we agree in advance on what’s happening, it’s difficult to accomplish much.

My Comment: This morning I spent several hours with a company that appears to be making good progress toward their goals. They’ve clearly defined what success looks like. They’ve made several important changes to help everyone achieve the desired results. But when I asked them about their progress, they said things like “I think so…it really looks like it…it feels like we’re making great progress.”

“That’s what you think or feel. How do you know?” I asked.

What does success look like for your team or organization? How will you know when you’re achieving it? You can’t lead without the answers to these questions.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water…But Can You Make an Employee Engaged? By Jonathan Villaire

There’s an old proverb used by many to describe the leader/follower dynamic with respect to employee engagement: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” This is a way of saying ultimately people will only do what they choose, even if you show them the way. In other words, just as a horse has to choose to drink, an employee must choose to be engaged.

Well, yes and no. Getting the horse to drink is the desired outcome, but what happens up to and during that point will influence his willingness to do so.

My Comment: In conversations with owners, executives, and senior managers, we often have to explain that employee engagement isn’t something you do. Engagement is a result. It’s the result of good leadership, great culture, purpose, growth, encouragement, and efficacy. Stop trying to engage people and create the environment that produces engagement.

These Are the Secrets from “Best Places to Work” Any Company Can Use by Gwen Moran at Fast Company

Perhaps few things can make your workplace feel more inadequate than those annual “Best Places to Work” lists. They list posh benefits, campuses with dry cleaning services, and training programs that give employees leadership experience. How is a smaller company with a smaller budget supposed to compete?

The good news is that there are ways to take cues from what those companies are doing, scale them, then adapt and adopt them for your company…

My Comment: I think it’s safe to say that no employee ever engaged with their work or gave extra effort because of a dry-cleaning service. These sorts of perks, which are often unique to a specific company or environment, are the icing on a very good cake. Don’t focus on the icing. First, focus on baking an excellent cake. Then you can add the perks that are meaningful and available within your business. Moran shares essential elements from these best places to work that you can certainly ensure happen in your organization and team. For example, the first item on the list is something every leader can do, whether you lead a Fortune 50 business or a three-person team: help them grow.

9 Ways to Work with Difficult People (Infographic) by Emily Conklin at Entrepreneur

Co-worker tensions account for about 80 percent of workplace difficulties, but fortunately, there are many simple tactics to make life at the office easier.

Psychologists have found that a threat to a person’s self-esteem can quite literally feel like a threat to survival, so it’s important to encourage open and positive dialogue with colleagues to get your point across rather than igniting a flame.

Plus, staying in control of your emotions won’t only improve your mood at the workplace, but help you advance your career.

My Comment: This is an excellent list to address a common problem. I had to learn many of these tactics through trial and error and they work. People will usually treat you the way you allow them to. If you’re struggling with difficult personalities at work, check out this infographic and give yourself time (and grace) to practice.

What To Do When High Performers Take On New Challenges by Dan Rockwell

One of your best team members took on a new challenge. Performance plummeted. Now what?

My Comment: This is a great look at an issue that is frequently ignored. I’ve even watched executives punish high-performers who took on a new challenge and, predictably, didn’t perform as well while they learned how to master their new reality.

The thing is, you’ve got to challenge your high performers if you want them to stick around. In our Winning Well confidence-competence model, someone who is confident in their abilities and highly competent at what they do is ready to grow. But that necessarily means that they will move around the model to a place of lower competence…and maybe lower confidence too. Rockwell gives you excellent strategies to support your high performer in their new challenge.

Your Turn

What thoughts do these articles bring to mind? Do you see something differently than the author? Did you have a favorite leadership article this week? Leave us a comment and let’s hear from you.

10 questions managers should ask when their teams won't listen

10 Questions Managers Should Ask When Their Team Won’t Listen

One of the most challenging management experiences you’ll encounter is when it feels like your team won’t listen.

  • You share your vision of the future, what the team’s capable of achieving…and are met with shrugs and silent stares.
  • You share a new process to improve results…and everyone keeps on doing what they’ve always done.
  • You make recommendations grounded in real data…and they are ignored.

Leadership Opportunities

These times when it feels like your team won’t listen are great opportunities to build your influence. You might be tempted to turn to fear, power, and a raised voice to get things done, but I invite you to pause and look at what’s happening before you do.

When you learn from these moments your effectiveness will soar, but if you allow yourself to get so frustrated that you turn to fear or power to get things done, you lose credibility and trust.

Here are 10 questions to ask when you feel like your team won’t listen:

1) What do you want?

Whenever you have leadership challenges, the first thing to examine is your own desire.

There’s a big difference between wanting what’s best for the team and wanting what’s best for you. So what is it you really want?

If the answer is compliance “When I say jump, they better ask ‘how high?’ on the way up” – then you’re never going to have a team that truly listens. They will do things out of fear when they must and ignore you when they can.

However, if what you want for the team to achieve great results together…then keep reading.

2) Are you speaking their language?

Do the actual words you use mean the same thing to your team that they mean to you? Are you sharing numbers and facts when stories and demonstrations are needed, or do your stories need more data and explanation?

3) Have you listened?

When you don’t hear what people tell you, they naturally think you don’t care, they lose heart, and they’ll stop caring.

Not sure if your team is being heard? Ask a few team members to share with you: “Is there anything you’ve been trying to tell me that I’m just not hearing?”

Be quiet and listen. Thank them for sharing…and respond in time, even if it’s to explain constraints or why you’re taking a different direction. You don’t have to agree, but you do need to hear.

4) Are you credible?

If your people can say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” and they have evidence to back up their conclusion, well, expect to be ignored.

You build your credibility. You can’t demand it. Can people trust you? Can they rely on you? Take a moment and seriously consider the answer to these questions. If you were on your own team, would you trust you, based only on what you see and experience?

5) Do you know what matters to your people?

If the values you’re promoting conflict with your team’s values, you’ll have trouble being heard. I worked with a CEO who was disappointed that her employees were leaving work when they were scheduled to leave. She wanted people who valued going the extra distance to get things done. Her employees loved their work, but they also valued their family and friends and considered it nearly immoral to sacrifice family relationships for work.

6) Are you ordering people or inviting them?

Look at both the literal words you’re using as well as the attitude behind them.

Do your words and attitude communicate dignity and equal worth? Or do your words and attitude suggest that you’re better than everyone else and they should just do what they’re told?

7) Have you explained why?

Your team’s lack of response may be because they don’t understand the consequences. Why is this important? How does it make a difference to other people? To the bottom line? Even military briefings include the reasons and objectives behind the orders.

8) Did you check for understanding?

When you share a task and ask “Are there any questions?” you will likely be met with silence.

Don’t assume that silence means they get it. Silence could mean confusion, embarrassment, or that they think they understand.

Rather, ask your team something like: “Let’s make sure we’re on the same page. What are the three things we’re doing coming out of this meeting? Why does this matter? When will these be finished? Make sure they received what you thought you communicated.

9) Have you said it often enough?

I have coached many frustrated leaders who complain that their team is insubordinate or unresponsive.

So then I ask “When was the last time you shared this task or explained what was supposed to happen?”

Some of the answers I’ve heard include:

  • “At that off-site year before last…”
  • “We were in the hallway six months ago…”
  • “At the company meeting last January…”

If you’ve communicated something once, you haven’t communicated.

As hard as it may be for your ego to accept, your team members have other lives. They have constant challenges confronting them every day.

It’s unrealistic to believe that something you said one time, last year, is on everyone’s mind. If it’s important, be the drummer. Keep the beat and consistently communicate the MITs (Most Important Things.)

10) Have you said it in different ways?

People receive information differently. I’m a reader first, audio second, and video third. But many other people get much more from video or other visuals.

As you reinforce the MITs, use different communication techniques.

We recommend 6×3 communication. The idea is to repeat critical information at least six times through three or more channels. For example, you might use a staff meeting, a video, and one-on-one meetings for your three different channels.

Your Turn

When it feels like your team won’t listen, it is easy to get frustrated and give in to the temptation to yell louder. But effective leaders know that when it seems no one’s listening, there are likely other issues that need to be resolved.

If you feel like your team won’t listen, ask yourself these ten questions…and listen to your answers.

Leave us a comment and share: How do you ensure you’ve been heard when communicating with your team?