Why Does It Matter?

“Why does it matter…?”

The better you become at asking this question to yourself, and answering it out loud before others speak up (if they will speak up), the closer you come to the essence of leadership.

Why does it matter? Because you care enough to answer the next, obvious question:

“How can I make it better?”

 

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When Are You A Leader?

I casually refer to our company’s most talented employees–the ones with passion for moving the company forward–as the company’s “leaders”. This includes some people on the executive team, of course, and it also includes some front line team members. By contrast, it also excludes some team members who have authority or are in traditional management positions.

You do not have to be in a “leadership” position to be a “leader”. I have known a few key decision-makers I would not call leaders. The question, then, is when does somebody become a leader?

I write about leadership and I am passionate about leadership, but I have never formally considered myself a leader, even if others have. “Leader” is not on my business card.

I have been in leadership roles for the last 20 years so at what point is it safe to say, “Yes, I’m a leader!” The short answer is, “probably never.”

“Leader” is not a goal any more than “great” is a goal. When is someone great? There are great people, sure, but did Jesus ever say, “I’m great, now. I’m a leader!” How about Martin Luther King, Jr? Gandhi?

There is a saying in martial arts that Black Belt is not the goal of training. It is the beginning. When you achieve your Black Belt, you have finally reached the level of “student”. Though there are people who hold the title of “Master” in martial arts, I have yet to meet a 6th degree Black Belt or above who believes he has “mastered” martial arts.

When are you a leader? Whenever you decide you are. But once you do, you are probably no longer a leader.

 

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Text And Drive Business

I think of a life lesson each day and share it on this blog. The lesson can be about anything I have learned and applied to my life (or am trying to apply), but it can not be a “fun fact” or just something I heard and am repeating but have not actually learned or applied. Here is today’s lesson…

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The collision shop where my car is being repaired sends me text updates. Things like, “The repairs are going great! We are waiting on X part to come in, scheduled to arrive tomorrow. ETA is still 10/21.” I can reply to the texts and ask for more info or just say thanks or ask them to call me. It’s great.

I hired a cat-sitter last year and every day, he emailed a picture of my cat and a full food bowl, and shot me a message detailing everything the cat did (or didn’t do) while he was at our place.

When I was a top-selling District Manager, one of the tactics my top store employed was to build a texting relationship with their customers, and the customers loved it. Customers would send pictures of their vacation and make jokes with their sales rep, and the sales rep would remind them when it was time to buy a phone. The customers, who had now become friends, would almost always show up. (A cautionary tale, too: later, the company realized the power of using texts and mandated and standardized regular text blasts which ended up damaging many of those relationships.)

One more: my salon lets me schedule my hair appointment on their website with an interactive calendar. I don’t have to call, be put on hold, and then work through several options. I just click and I am done. The day before, I get a text reminder and an email reminding me of the appointment and the stylist’s name.

Smart companies leverage technology in novel ways. I love the text updates my collision shop, hair salon, and local health food store send me. I am not a fan of the endless Twitter commercials and canned social media messages I see from my apartment complex or big, faceless brands. I don’t care about 5 Ways I  Can Save Closet Space. I care when the local Farmers Market is open or what cool, new thing the community is working on.

It is the personal relationship that seemingly impersonal technology can deliver that makes me feel valued, inspires me to want to buy, or compels me to return to a business.

How does your team use technology to build actual, personal relationships? How does your team use tech to damage those relationships or ignore them altogether? (Hint: if I can Tweet to Robert Downey Jr. and have an authentic reply or even a conversation, then why on earth should I not expect a response to a Tweet or text to my mechanic?)

 

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Who Should Lead?

I think about each day and figure out what lesson I learned from it. Then I share each lesson on this blog…

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The band Genesis had a string of successful hits in their early years when they were headed by Peter Gabriel (who went on to become a musical pioneer and legend on his own). They did not become one of pop music’s biggest icons, though, until they gave their drummer a shot at leading the band–a guy named Phil Collins.

Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins both led the band successfully, and both went on to build musical legacies of their own, but there is no doubt when Phil Collins took the reigns on Genesis, the band soared up the charts. The other two band members remained the same, only the lead singer changed. Incidentally, after Phil Collins left and another lead singer was chosen, the band disappeared into obscurity.

The same is true of The Commodores–one of the biggest soul/funk bands of the seventies and eighties (I guess I am dating myself here–clearly I was a child of the 80’s). The Commodores had moderate success as a funk band early on but again, their biggest hits came when they let their eager saxophonist take a shot at the lead vocals. Lionel Richie led The Commodores through their greatest period of success before venturing out to dominate the charts on his own.

What fascinates me about these stories is that the best leader was already on the team–they just needed a chance to shine. Sometimes the person in charge is not always the best person to lead the charge.

Even though these bands already had talented people in front, when they recognized the promise of one of their other team members and supported that person everyone enjoyed unparalleled success. Just as obvious, when the right leader left the band, neither band was able to attain its former glory (though the leader that left went on to do even bigger and better work).

Who is leading your team? If it is you, are you the right leader for your team right now? Tough question, but one that is worth pondering if the goal is the team’s success.

 

 

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Email Etiquette

I look back at each day and figure out what lesson I learned from it. Then I share that day’s lesson here, because I am a little crazy and narcissistic.

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Email (or instant messaging or texting) etiquette has been covered many times in many ways by many people. Still, I thought I would share four of my own guidelines for leaders that have helped me improve and streamline communication with my team.

1.  Do NOT assume content. I am still surprised when people complain about “the attitude” of something said in an email. Text has no attitude. I remind people not to assume emotional content. If someone did not type, “You are a jerk and I do not like you”, then do not fill in the blank with your own low self-esteem.

2.  DO assume intent (and assume it was good). If the same message can be read five different ways (e.g., snarky, funny, angry, indifferent, cheerful), then assume the way that makes you feel best is the way it was written. The only “attitude” an email has is the one the reader assigns it. Since people rarely go out of their way to ruin other people’s lives or day, if you have to assume intent, assume the message was intended in the most positive way possible.

3.  Do NOT assume everyone needs to know everything. Use your BCC function! Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) is different from Carbon Copy (CC) in that the original sender is the only person who can see who was copied on a message. BCC is great for sending a message to a big group, for example, so the message header is not cluttered with a bunch of email addresses to scroll past. BCC is also useful when you want someone else to know you sent a message (your boss, for example) but you do not necessarily want the recipient to respond to anyone but you (you might not want a vendor to have your boss’s email address, e.g.). Using BCC also helps prevent the “Reply All” syndrome. That is when someone clicks “reply all” instead of “reply” and spams every recipient with their answer, which was only supposed to go to the sender.

4.  DO assume everyone is grateful and always gets the joke (but they are busy). We all dislike email clutter so why contribute to the problem? Please do not send messages that just say “thanks, lol, or :-), etc.”. Assume everyone responds within the normal social context of any verbal conversation. I do not need 50 messages each day that are only responses to social cues. If I make a joke in an email, I just assume you understood it and thought it was funny. Incidentally, people rarely laugh out loud at written jokes, so “lol” is inappropriate on its face.

 

No one I know likes to feel as if they are drowning in email and everyone I know has more email spam messages than they would like. We can take some control back by explaining these 4 principles to our teams and start practicing them. Email, messaging, texting, etc. can be powerful forms of communication or waste bins for grammar overkill. If you have to send a message, why not make it a powerful one?

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Why Do You Have to Work THERE?

I look back at each day and figure out one life lesson I learned. I share each of those lessons on this blog. Here is today’s lesson…

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I used to run a successful sales team. When I moved to Tampa, I had to give up my job and find new work. While in that position, I had to hold back the promotion of one of my managers and risk losing one of the company’s best team members because they did not live in the district they were applying to manage.

Many companies cling to archaic work paradigms, such as physical presence=results, and miss the big picture (which is results=results).

The company could have promoted that manager (the manager did earn a promotion to my position after I moved away). The company could have kept me as well. They simply chose not to. It worked out great for me. I’m not complaining, just making a point:

It is difficult for a company to find extraordinary talent. It is NOT difficult for extraordinary talent to find a company. There is always work for talented people. The only question is whether talented people will choose to work for YOU.

I am happy my situation worked out the way it did–I have another great job now but I never understood why it had to be that way.

This week, I watched another leader nearly pass up an amazing candidate for because the person did not live in the area. I was dumbfounded, but still, I recognize that most leaders think in a very “local” sense. They believe remote work is a privilege to be earned and distributed to those “worthy”. This is exactly backwards in my opinion. The privilege, for a leader, is having the best person possible on their team. Personally, I wouldn’t care if my team members live on the moon as long as they figure out how to do excellent work.

Being location-ambivalent means I have a tremendous advantage over my competitors. I can pull applicants from all over the world, not just the 20 mile radius from the office.

If you think about it, most non-entry level work today is “knowledge work”–reporting, strategy, and communication rather than manual labor–flipping burgers or unloading trucks (Both things which obviously require physical presence).

We have technology to free knowledge-based workers–Skype, Hangouts, Slack, GroupMe, email, FaceTime, SmartSheets, Dropbox, and of course, the phone. For example, I can just as effectively run a sales team in Michigan from Tampa as I could from Michigan. With video chatting, email, instant messaging, collaborative work folders, and screen sharing, everything is at my disposal virtually that was there physically.

Yet we cling to the notion that communication is only effective face to face.

There are many ways to have a stronger, more agile workforce built from a broader talent pool. There are many ways to retain your most talented people while maximizing their freedom and ability to innovate and drive transformation.

Sadly, technology and change is scary to many otherwise excellent leaders.

To me, it is a shame to see a talented person looked over for a leader’s lack of vision, but at least I take heart knowing they will undoubtedly find great work wherever they end up. Luckily, I was able to convince the leader who almost tossed out a great applicant to take a second look. Hopefully, when you are faced with the same quandary, you will think twice, too.

 

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Go First

I share a life lesson I have learned each day. Maybe you can learn from it, too.

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In a small fork of the Chassahowitzka river is a series of springs and underwater finger caves through the limestone. The largest requires you to hold your breath for about 30 feet of pulling yourself through the cave (you can’t use arm strokes because the caves are tight).

We stood at the mouth of the first cave–a group of 6–and we were the first visitors for the day (a rare occurrence–the springs are a popular party depot for boaters). The water was crystal clear. The sun was just peeking through the trees. The caves were all ours.

Except… nobody wanted to go first. Caves are scary. Underwater caves are scarier. A couple of us swam down to the entrance. The visibility was spectacular. You could clearly see the cave exit point, but… even 10 feet can be an intimidating and claustrophobic journey through an underwater cave.

It was clear to me no one was going to work up the courage to make the first dive but this was the reason we came–to explore. So I took a deep breath, and plunged in. On the way to the surface, I bumped a rock and scratched my head–it’s a pretty good scratch and it stung all day. (Unfortunately, when you are paddle-boarding, there is no easy way to handle even minor injuries. Saltwater is not gentle on wounds.)

Anyway, after I went, other people followed immediately and suddenly cave diving was no big thing.

Somebody has to be the leader when others, who are otherwise brave, need someone else to show them the way. They want to see someone go first not because they do not think it can be done, but rather so they can imagine how it can be doneI do not think most people are afraid to go first (though they might say they are). I think it is because they are simply not in a creative mindset at the moment.

I left something out of the story which might be important. I was also the person with the least chance of success in the group. I was the oldest, tallest, and biggest one there, so if I could do it, then anyone younger and more limber should have been able to swim those tiny caves as well. By going first, I became an unspoken challenge, and of course, when there is a challenge, people will rise to it.

It cost me an ugly scrape on the head, but by going first, I set the tone of adventure and embracing new experiences for the day. Sometimes you have to go first because if you don’t… no one (has the) will.

 

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Where Does Customer Service Start?

I reflect on each day to find one lesson I learned from it. Then I share each lesson on this blog.

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Nicole and I live in a beautiful apartment complex. The grounds are well-maintained, our apartments have premium fixtures, we have a great veranda, and the community has outstanding facilities, like a resort-style pool and full workout areas with Yoga props, boxing bags, and more. All that is great but we can barely wait to move out.

Despite all the amenities and premium features, the company that owns it seems absolutely clueless (or remarkably careless) about their customer experience. As long as nothing goes wrong, it is a fine place to live. As soon as you have a problem (such as sprinkler heads breaking through the ceiling or the apartment rent payment portal being down), it is as if the management company races to show you how bad they can perform.

No matter how nice the polish is, if you stand on a rusty, deteriorating foundation then you will not be standing for long.

What really struck me today, though, was that I realized this philosophy of poor customer experience was not incidental. I thought surely someplace putting so much attention to detail on the grounds and interior must just be suffering from a rash of bad hiring or training practices. No company culture could be so dysfunctional that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to please customers at the root of their business.

Then I looked at the parking lot. Directly in front of our building, there is one available parking space. The other parking spaces are across the road or in front of the adjacent building (and there are only 3 spots in front of that building). There are three floors to the apartment building, which means everyone on the second or third floor have quite a long haul each week when they do things like unload groceries or have furniture delivered. (Incidentally there is no elevator, either, causing many of our packages to be dropped at our downstairs neighbor’s doorstep–an astounding feat of laziness by our UPS driver–but I don’t blame him for the apartment’s bad design).

The point about the parking lot is this: when there is only one decent parking spot, it creates a sadistic rush among tenants to secure and hold onto that spot. When you pull into the complex with 8 bags of groceries and you see that spot is taken (it’s always taken), you can not help but curse under your breath. Worse, you start paying attention to who holds the spot the most and begin questioning the fairness of the parking situation.

It is silly to stress over a single parking spot each day. And yet… that is the experience our apartment is literally built upon.

As a brand, company, or even just a team within your organization, when you start by encouraging your customers to hate each other, how can you expect them to love you? (Call centers with infuriatingly long hold times… I’m looking at you…)

Understanding that customer service starts even before a customer pulls into your parking lot is a good place to begin thinking about how your customer’s experience will end (in a blog post ratting you out or in a recommendation to a friend?).

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Great People Are Hard to Find

Each day on this blog I share a lesson I have learned. Here is today’s lesson.

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Before the interview started I knew Ted was over qualified for the position. It was an entry-level position. His last job was CEO of a national firm.

The title of Chief Executive Officer is lucrative and demanding and Ted excelled in the position, as well as all the positions that led him there, for several years. I was curious why he wanted to give that up. I even said, “You did notice this is an entry-level position, right?”

He laughed, understanding why anyone might be confused as to why someone would want to go from CEO to lowest position on the totem pole. I could actually relate more than he knew as I did something similar years ago. A CEO, it is assumed, has money, power, and respect. All of those are nice but what Ted really wanted was to live a life where his children knew his name and were excited to see him when he came home.

“I feel like my job for the last 10 years has been to fly around the country and apologize for other people’s mistakes. I just want to be recognized for my contribution and receive an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Then I want to go home and enjoy my time with my wife and kids. That’s all.”

What a powerful statement.

Unfortunately, the position Ted was applying for was put on hold and will not be filled for at least another month or two. I found that out right after the interview and shared Ted’s story with the owner of our company.

He said, “Ted sounds like a great person and great people are hard to find. We can’t hire him for that role but let’s meet and see if we can find a home for him somewhere in our organization.”

I don’t know where Ted will fit in but a good leader recognizes talent and when a superstar is dropped on the doorstep, that leader knows not to send them away.

Great people are hard to find so when you do find them, don’t send them away. Give them a reason to stay and contribute.

You can always try to find a place for talent and initiative.

 

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Shoot And Ask Questions Later

I make it a point to learn a life lesson every day. I share those lessons on this blog. Here is today’s…

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I had a “tough” conversation with an employee who strayed from our company culture (through no fault of her own). Managing independent remote workers presents unique challenges, such as how to handle lost or stolen equipment.

In this case, the employee replaced a fairly expensive item out of her own pocket before telling us it had been stolen. She tried to do the right thing, figuring it was her equipment, her fault, and it should be her loss, not our responsibility to pay for her mistake.

That says something to me about the team member’s commitment to the organization, but it was the wrong course of action to take. I should note the reason I think she is committed to our team is because we do things differently, including handling situations like this.

I applauded her effort to make amends on her own, but explained we do not do things that way here. We do not expect employees to pay for lost or stolen items (unless there is a pattern building or clear malintent). Plus, having an employee replace an item means they may choose something different from the tools we specifically provided based on form, function, and safety. Through their good intentions, they may open us up to unnecessary liability.

I thanked the employee for dipping into her pocket to save us money but we decided to reimburse her expense, and going forward she needs to be upfront and inform us right away of any missing or stolen item. When you have a team of independent remote workers, honest and open timely communication is a necessity.

She said, “Wow, thank you. I guess I am not used to this type of culture. Anywhere I have worked before, I would have been fired for losing something so expensive. I don’t know what to say. This is a great place to work and I apologize for jeopardizing that if I did. Thank you again!”

Now here is the real win. Rather than punishing and making an example of this employee, we chose to correct the behavior, set new expectations, and thanked her for trying to do the right thing. We started the call explaining our intent was to help her succeed here and ended the call asking if she needed anything else to help her be successful.

Instead of losing our investment in this employee (and our equipment) by letting her go or punishing her for her mistake, I suspect we doubled her investment in the company. My guess is she will do better work than ever and set the standard of integrity for other team members. We will gain a lot more than we lost in the long run.

Punishment is effective the way a bullet is effective. It stops whatever it hits and kills it. Respectful acknowledgment, correction, and reward is effective the way a good book is effective. It takes a little time to get through but at the end it expands knowledge, generates emotional attachment, and improves one’s character.

Books over bullets works for me.

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