Staying The Leader You Must Be

It was a tough couple of weeks. The cocktail of challenges was impacting our performance. We needed stronger results… now. I didn’t realize how much my stress showed on the outside. A trusted leader on my team, shared bluntly: “You’re changing.”

The words stung with fierce truth. He was right. Succumbing to the leadership squash sandwich, I was taking on familiar, but unwelcome behaviors common in such scenes. I was showing up weirder.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
~ E.E. Cummings

I was worried for our mission, our cause, and our careers. My passion to protect my team took on an ironic intensity. My supportive style had morphed into frantic control. I began inviting myself to calls and requiring more rehearsals before executive readouts. Instead of trusting my competent team, I scrutinized each page of every PowerPoint deck. My efforts to protect them from my stress had backfired.

I had stopped leading like me. The words still echoing from the first conversation, my phone rang again. I now knew my team was tag-teaming this intervention.

“I joined this organization because I believe in your leadership. Your rare style works. Stay the course. We believe in you, in us, and the mission. Every one of us has your back. Just tell us what you need.”

Time to be the leader I must be.

What My Team Reminded Me About Being A Leader

  • Showing up tough is weak
  • Servant leaders must also receive
  • Great teams hold their leader accountable
  • I want to know the truth
  • Great leaders tell the truth
  • Courage means staying true to your style
  • My team needs me to lead like me

When times are tough, it’s easy to doubt our instincts. Under times of pressure, authentic leadership matters most. Tell the truth. Involve them in the situation, and trust them to be part of the solution.

Lead Me Please: Developing Leadership Standby Skills

This weekend, I attended the TEDxWomen’s conference in Washington, DC. The theme was “The Space Between.” Women and men sharing amazing stories about the magic that can happen in the convergence of extremes.

“One day you will want to say, this is actually the right thing to do. And when you turn around, they are following you. I just want you ready for every single moment of leadership that comes your way.”

As I sat fascinated by the courageous stories of powerful women, I kept thinking, “huh, that sure wasn’t on their life map.” For most of these speakers, they weren’t out looking for opportunities to lead. They didn’t have a five-year plan to get onto TED. They found themselves in situations that ignited their passion wars, accidents, loss, violation of human rights. Their life got disrupted. They took action. They began to lead. Most of these women don’t fit the image of a traditional leader. I doubt most were in anyone’s “binders of women” or succession list. And yet, when they started doing the right thing, people followed.

Why Prepare?

So often, I hear people say. “Oh, I am not a leader.” That may work fine in most circumstances. The world needs great followers. But what happens when your passion erupts, and everyone is looking at you. You must prepare to be a leader because someday…

  • Life will bring you a disruption you can’t ignore
  • You will need to take a stand
  • Your heart won’t be able to turn away
  • No one else will care as much as you
  • Your passion will trump that voice in your head that says, “I am not a leader”

How to Prepare to Lead

Charlotte Beers shared her stories of why preparation matters, in her talk on the Space Between EQ and IQ. She also offers 3 vital skills everyone should cultivate to prepare for the toughest scenes in life. Personal Clarity: Getting underneath the personal traits and experiences driving your behavior Memorability: Honing your communication with a keen focus on the listener, “it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear” Persuasiveness: Harnessing your passion to attract others to follow I connected with Charlotte to ask for her advice. “What advice do you have for persuading reluctant leaders that they should and can prepare to lead?” Her answer…

When you want to lead in a can’t UNLESS you’ve been practicing stepping out to lead on many small things. Watch who you are in those moments and rehearse saying it with clarity, memorably and persuasively. You’ll blow it sometime. So what, it’s only work.

In today’s connected world, I am not sure “if leaders are born or made” is the relevant question. We can all have a platform. The bigger question is, will be ready to use it?

Hot Mess Leadership: When Image Becomes Dangerous

The term“hot mess” typically refers to someone disheveled on the outside with some redeeming qualities on the inside. Urban dictionary defines a “hot mess” as

” when one’s thought or appearance are in a state of disarray, but they maintain an undeniable attractiveness or beauty”

Leaders can go a long way by getting clothes that fit, shoes that shine, and well-kept hair and nails.

Work on your magnetism. Refrain from stupid outbursts. You will have another leg up.

It’s important to avoid being a “hot mess”.
Cleaning up the outside matters.

The more dangerous problem is when the “hot” is on the outside and the “mess” is on the inside.

In other words, you look the part,

You have a strong leadership presence.

But, you don’t operate with integrity or care about your team.

It’s tricky, because your connections or image may open doors.

A seat at the table must be used carefully.

A Few Signs You’re a Hot Mess Leader

  • You spend more time planning your outfit than your presentation
  • You make your team cater to your maintenance needs
  • You learn all you can about your boss, but know very little about those who work on your team
  • You never get past the small talk at events
  • The spend more time on networking than leading
  • (what would you add?)

The truth is, as leaders, sometimes we are “hot” and sometimes we are “messy” on both the inside and the outside.

We need good mirrors for both.

leadership retreat idea: speed mentoring

Speed Mentoring: Jump Starting Deeper Connections

Finding a great mentor is hard. A lot goes into making mentoring work, but above all it starts with finding a great connection.

I spent today launching a new mentoring circle, with a bit of a twist. Instead of a pure skip-level experience, all of my direct reports were involved, along with high-potential managers from across the organization.

We worked together on business problems, identified key priorities and challenges for the coming year, and came up with some fantastic strategies and plans. There is so much power in collaboration.

And then we tried something new “speed mentoring.”

Speed Mentoring

As a caveat, this is a group that has worked together at various levels. Some of us have deeper relationships and have had developmental discussion before, some were just getting to know one another. We asked in advance, and the team agreed they were game to try something new.

The Design

Although none of us had any experience with “speed dating” we were intrigued by the concept of short, focused interactions to look for areas of common interest.

Each participant was asked to come prepared with any ideas and questions they had for the leaders on the team. The mentees were in complete control of the conversations, and could use the time however they wished.

We set up small tables around the room, and each of the leaders manned a station and the mentees flowed through spending 10 minutes at each station. The mentees controlled the conversations, and each took on a different flavor.

The Questions

I was intrigued at how deep the conversations went in just 10 minutes. Each mentee took a different approach. Nearly all conversations sparked dialogue that will continue.

  • “What’s my “brand with you?”
  • Why wouldn’t you promote me?
  • What’s the biggest mistake you ever made?
  • What makes you fail?
  • What are you working on developmentally?
  • Did you ever take a job that was a bad fit? What did you do?
  • What characteristics are you looking for in a leader?
  • How do you think I am doing?
  • Just what makes you so passionate about leadership development?

The Feedback

The feedback we received was amazing. I was worried that the time was too short, or that the feedback from so many people in a short time frame would be overwhelming. Participants agreed that it was “intense” but would do it again with the same design.

  • “It was helpful to see the patterns and consistency in the feedback”
  • “I could tell everyone was being really candid and had my best interest at heart”
  • “I liked that we could control the questions and decide where we wanted to take the conversation with each person.”
  • “It was great to see so many different perspectives on the same question”

The conversations continued later that day, on a break or walking to dinner. Can you mentor in 10 minutes? Of course not. Can you spark a connection worth exploring further? I believe you can.

The best is yet to come.

Full Potential Leadership: Convincing Them to Bet on You

Are you truly building your full potential? The choices you make now, will impact what jobs are available down the road. Moving up too quickly in one functional area may limit the diversity of skills you learn, and turn you into a specialist with limited future potential.

As Joanne Cleaver, says “over is the new up.”

When a strong, smart employee comes to me looking for help being promoted, I almost always encourage them to also consider “jumping out of an airplane” and trying a lateral job they appear to know nothing about. I ask them to think more broadly about their full potential.

I ask these sorts of questions:

  • Are you building yourself into a specialist, or building a reputation as a leader with broader capacity?
  • Have you tried moving into a new discipline
  • What are your unrealized gifts?
  • Which of your skills are the most transferable?
  • Should you consider moving sideways to expand your perspective and skills?

And, I am truly grateful for the times in my career bosses and mentors challenged me in that same way and inspired me to work toward my full potential.

I’ve told my story of moves across HR, customer service, marketing, sales.. more than a few times. The truth is, I was able to take leaps across functions because other leaders have taken risks on me. My favorite line from a Sales Senior Vice President years ago, “Karin, don’t tell me you don’t know sales you’ve convinced us all to buy-in to these HR and leadership programs trust me, you can sell.”

So, I tell, my story, and people listen and then the natural question but, “how do I convince someone I am qualified?”

The truth is, I can’t break that down. I don’t exactly remember that part and I don’t have a great answer to this question and time and time again. I get stuck.

Time to Ask a Full Potential Expert

So, suppose you believe it’s important, and are prepared to take a risky move.

How do you convince someone to take a risk on you?

So I reached out to Joanne Cleaver, the author of The Career Lattice: how Lateral Move Strategies Can Grow Careers and Companies asked for some help.

They want to “lattice up”, but no one will give them a chance? What should they do?

Here’s her response:

The best way to make your case to a potential new boss is to show how you have already achieved results with a skill or responsibility analogous to the new challenge. For example, if you are trying to switch from a technology role in which you often interacted with marketing, to a marketing role that is a liaison to technology, show how you have managed a project from the point of view of marketing.

Build a concise case study that shows what you can do. (Simply saying, ‘I can do that!” isn’t enough.” )

Here’s how to build a case study:

•       Problem

•       Process

•       Solution

•       Results

•       One sentence each

Voila! You have shown yourself in action.

Use this case study formula to document your accomplishments as you go. You can use case studies in cover letters and interviews as you get to know potential new bosses.

Career lattices the emerging model for career paths because they are both flexible and sustainable. The skill of managing your career laterally is essential for working Americans of all ages and at all career stages, as I illustrate in The Career Lattice. By continually evolving your skills, abilities and peer network, you’ll qualify for tomorrow’s jobs today.

Great advice.

Have you convinced someone to take a risk on you?

Growing Leaders Salute:Interview with Dan McCarthy

As my regular readers know, on Saturdays I do a “Salutation,” about something warm and positive going on in the world. As I am meeting kindred spirits through my writing and leadership, I realized that some of the warmest stuff happening is coming from the people passionate about growing leaders. And so, I am expanding my normal Saturday gig to include a “Growing Leaders Salute:” interviews with great leaders dedicated to growing great leaders. Thanks, Dan McCarthy for being my first honoree.

Q: You have an interesting background both working within companies and with companies as a consultant as well as interacting with leaders through your blog. How do you feel these varied experiences have informed your leadership philosophy?

A: While I enjoy writing, I wouldn’t have anything to write about if it wasn’t for the work I’ve done inside companies, working with real managers, as well as my own experience as a manager. Writing about these experiences helps me get clearer on who I am and what I stand for.

Blogging has enabled me to widen my reach, but just as importantly, it forces me to stay current and continuously learn, by interacting with readers and networking with other leadership bloggers like you.

Q: Why do you write? What inspired you to write a book?

A: I’m lucky in that my work gives me a sense of purpose. I help to develop great leaders, and great leaders have the ability to have an extraordinary impact on their employees, their employee’s families, their organizations, and their communities. I feel a great sense of responsibility – I take it seriously – and I also get a great amount of personal satisfaction.

Deciding to write a blog – and then a book – was again an extension of that purpose. With a company, I might be able to reach and impact a few hundred leaders and aspiring leaders – maybe up to 1000 indirectly? But with writing, I have the potential to touch millions.

Q: Who have been your most significant mentors? How have they influenced you?

A: I’ve been fortunate to have had good, supportive managers. I’ve learned a little bit from each one of them. There’s not one that stands out more than the rest. Actually, I’ve only had maybe 1-2 bad managers, and as flawed as they were, I still learned a lot from them.

Q: You have worked with so many leadership compentency models over the years, acrosss a variety of industries. In your mind what are the top 3 leadership competencies
Hmmm, hard to say, it’s all so dependent on the organization. But if I had to pick 3, they might be leading change, leadership presence (which would include authenticity), and listening.

Q: What is the most important advice you would give to new leaders?

A: Ah, what a timely question! I just wrote a post that’s scheduled to appear on the 9/27 SmartBrief on Leadership, and then in my own blog on 10/1, called “25 Tips for Managing Your First Direct Reports”. I know 25 sounds like a lot, but I could have written another 25! But if I had to pick one, it would be Embrace your role as a LEADER.

This one’s not as obvious as it sounds. I managed employees for over 20 years before the light went on for me and I realized what an extraordinary and rewarding responsibility leadership could be. Don’t take it lightly.

Q: What is the biggest mistake you see leaders make when developing others?

A: Well, if you asked me “what’s the biggest mistakes managers make”, I’d say it’s that they don’t develop their employees – and that’s too bad. But let’s assume we’re talking about leaders – those managers that have the best intentions but like all of us, stub their toes now and then. I’d say it’s feeling like they have to have all of the answers, instead of seeing their role as asking great questions. Giving advice is easy – but when you do, you’re missing out on a chance to develop. Asking the right questions gets employees to see things from a different perspective, and come up with their own answers.

Q: What makes you “skip to work?” (feel fully engaged, energized and ready go?)

A: Coffee. Lots and lots of good, strong coffee. (-:

Q: In your book you list “The 10 Greatest Management Theories, Models, or Methods.” How would you articulate your leadership philosophy? What is most important to you?

A: I wrote a post about this in 2008. In fact, everyone should take the time to write down their leadership values, rules, philosophy, etc.

As I look back at it, I think I’m still following each of these rules:

Dan’s McCarthy’s Leadership Rules:

  1. I fully appreciate and embrace the awesome responsible that comes with being a leader and never take it lightly. I’m responsible for the success of the unit I lead, and contribute to the success of my company. I have a huge impact on the success and lives of my employees. I also have an indirect impact on the community in which I’m a part of, and that my employees are a part of. So if I screw up, it’s not just me that impacted, I’m messing with the lives of others that are depending on me.
  2.  As a leader, I hold myself accountable to the highest standards of behavior. When making a decision, I ask myself “would I be comfortable with the details of this decision plastered all over the Wall Street Journal or company intranet?” I look at myself as a role model, for my team and others. If there’s even the slightest chance of offending someone, then I keep it to myself. If I see a wrong, I’ll speak up. I won’t “let my hair down” after hours or off-site – as a leader, there is no “on” and “off” switch.
  3.  One of the most important things I’m responsible for is the development and growth of my employees. It’s up to me to make sure they are engaged in meaningful and challenging work that helps them stretch and grow. And in order to help develop others, I need to development myself.
  4.  I’m responsible for creating a team of “A” players. My goal is to hire, retain, and promote only the best. If someone is a C player, my job to is turn them into an A player or help them find another role where they have a better chance to be an A player. I will hold my team accountable to the highest standards or performance and behavior, and offer no apologies for expecting my team to work harder and behave more professionally than other teams around us.
  5.  It’s my job as a leader to ensure my organization’s work is strategic. That is, all of our goals and activities need to be aligned with the overall goals and mission of the larger organization. I owe it to my organization and to every member of my team to ensure our work is meaningful, and will have little tolerance for non-value added work.
  6. Any organization I lead will always have a strategy and goals. Any individual I lead will always have a set of objectives and a development plan.
  7.  I understand and embrace the importance of team meetings and individual 1 on 1s. These meetings are not a nuisance or distraction – they are the day-to-day manifestation of leadership.
  8. I need to be an advocate for my peers and my manager. Their success needs to be as important as my own success. I’m responsible for their development too.
  9. I should be positive and optimistic – about my company, our products and services, our clients, our goals, other departments, etc. I’ll challenge when appropriate, but it will always be with the intention of constructive improvement. Humor is OK – cynicism and sarcasm are not.
  10. As a part of a leadership team, it’s up to all of us to challenge, debate, and speak up when we disagree. But when we leave we leave the room, I’ll respect the final decision, publicly support it, and do all I can to help successfully implement it.
  11. My employees are bright, capable, responsible adults and I need to treat them that way. I am not all-knowing or blessed with superior judgment because of my title. I don’t need to be aware of all details, be involved in all decisions, or dictate how they do their work. Treating employees like children and micromanaging is the ultimate form of disrespect and poor leadership.
  12.  I’m still working on this one – but I need to listen and ask questions, and be open to possibilities. Listening as a leader means fighting the natural urge to evaluate and react, vs. listening to truly understand another’s worldview and consider the possibilities. (Then I can evaluate and react)

Q: What advice other advice do you have?

A: To me, the most rewarding aspect of leadership is developing others. At the end of the day, other than a maybe a handful of individuals like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, few will remember your business accomplishments. But – we all have the ability to help our employees achieve their goals, to help them grow, and to help them reach their full potential. Those are the leaders that will always be remembered.

I’ve been to enough retirement parties, and when the great leaders are celebrated, those are the kind of things they are remembered for, not their business accomplishments.

So what do you want to be remembered for as a leader? What would you like to hear people who you managed saying about you? Now, start doing those things today and tomorrow!

Post-Mortem of Success: Questions that Drive Sustained Results

Most great project managers know that it’s important to do a post-mortem after any major undertaking. In my experience, a post-mortem is much more likely to occur when something went terribly wrong. I have heard (and said) in the heat of frustration, “we just need to get through this now, but afterwards we need a very careful post-mortem.”

In this funny and insightful post, Lee Cash, shares the challenges with a traditional post-mortem and how to overcome some of them, The postmortem: what it is and how to survive one.

Postmortem: noun:

  1. An examination and dissection of a dead body to determine cause of death or the changes produced by disease
  2. Discussion of an event after it has occurred
  3. A blame fest where, if you’re not careful, you get attributed with everything that’s wrong in the world

In essence, post-mortems are an attempt to review a recent calamity that has befallen the business with the noble intention of isolating the offending causes and making sure they never happen again. The practice nearly always takes the format of a face-to-face meeting (if possible) and involves all of the key players who had a role in the “hiccup”, and hence why you’re all now sitting in a room waiting for the fireworks to happen.

The post-mortem seems less urgent after an over-whelming success. Most of us just celebrate, and then merrily race off to fight our next crises, or build our next remedial action plan.

Why Do a Post-Mortem of Success?

I recently had a celebratory conversation with a leader who was experiencing some fantastic results after months of challenges and struggling metrics. This was turnaround at it’s finest. I was delighted with the progress and wanted to recognize him. We did all that and then, I asked, “what is working and why?”
That’s where we got stumped.
He had theories, I had theories the truth is, so many action plans and efforts had been applied to the problem, we were unsure of which were contributing to the solution.
A bit scary was it the entire cocktail?
How do we isolate the variables?
How would we sustain the progress if we didn’t understand what had worked?
How could the lessons be applied to other areas of the business if we didn’t understand them?

How to Approach a Success Post-Mortem

We decided a deliberate approach was in order. Yup, I ended that celebratory meeting by giving the guy more work. Why, because I believe in the long-run it will save everyone time.

He’s spending time…

  • considering and discussing. what were the expected outcomes of the various interventions?
  • observing: what behaviors have actually changed?
  • measuring: doing deeper dives into the analytics to look for patterns of improvement
  • listening: to folks about what feels better now and why?

Taking the time to understand what is working may be even more vital than learning from our failures.