Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential

Recently, I came across some notes from a book I read in 2011 that I’d like to share — What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential by Robert S. Kaplan:

Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential

Vision and Priorities

In the press of day-to-day activities, leaders often fail to adequately communicate their vision to the organization, and in particular, they don’t communicate it in a way that helps their subordinates determine where to focus their own efforts.

  • Have you developed a clear vision for your enterprise?
  • Have you identified three to five key priorities to achieve that vision?
  • Do you actively communicate this vision, and associated key priorities, to your organization?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Write down, in three to four sentences, a clear vision for your enterprise or business unit.
  • List the three to five key priorities that are most critical to achieving this vision. These should be tasks that you must do extraordinarily well in order for you to succeed based on where you are positioned today
  • Ask yourself whether the vision (with priorities) is sufficiently clear and understandable. In addition, ask yourself whether you communicate the vision and priorities frequently enough that your key stakeholders (e.g., direct reports and employees) could repeat them back to you. Interview key employees to see whether they understand and can clearly rearticulate the vision and priorities.
  • Identify venues and occasions for the regular communication, reiteration, and discussion of the vision and priorities. Create opportunities for questions and
  • Assemble your executive team off-site to debate the vision and priorities. In particular, consider whether the vision and priorities still fit the competitive environment, changes in the world, and the needs of the business. Use the off-site to update your vision and priorities and to ensure buy-in on the part of your senior leadership team.

Managing Your Time

Leaders need to know how they’re spending their time. They also need to ensure that their time allocation (and that of their subordinates) matches their key priorities.

  • Do you know how you spend your time?
  • Does it match your key priorities?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Track your time for two weeks and break down the results into major categories.
  • Compare how this breakdown matches or is mismatched versus your three to five key priorities. Make a list of the matches and mismatches. Regarding the mismatches, write down those time allocations that are 2s and 35 and could therefore be performed by others-or should not be performed at all.
  • Create an action plan for dealing with the mismatches.

For example, commit to delegating those tasks that could just as easily be performed by someone else. Decide, in advance, to say no to certain time requests that do not fit your key priorities.

  • After a few months, repeat the preceding three steps. Assess whether you are doing a better job of spending your time on critical priorities.
  • Encourage your subordinates to perform these same steps.

 

Giving and Getting Feedback

 

Leaders often fail to coach employees in a direct and timely fashion and, instead, wait until the year-end review. This approach may lead to unpleasant surprises and can undermine effective professional development. Just as important, leaders need to cultivate subordinates who can give them advice and feedback during the year.

  • Do you coach and actively develop your key people?
  • Is your feedback specific, timely, and actionable?
  • Do you solicit actionable feedback from your key subordinates?
  • Do you cultivate advisers who are able to confront you with criticisms that you may not want to hear?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • For each of your direct reports, write down three to five specific strengths. In addition, write down at least two or three specific skills or tasks that you believe they could improve on in order to improve their performance and advance their careers. Allocate time to directly observing their performance, and discreetly make inquiries to gather information and insights in order to prepare this analysis.
  • Schedule time with each subordinate, at least six months in advance of the year-end review, to discuss your observations and identify specific action steps that could help them improve and address their developmental needs and opportunities.
  • Write down a realistic list of your own strengths and weaknesses. Make a list of at least five subordinates from whom you could solicit feedback regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Meet with each subordinate individually and explain that you need their help. In your meetings, make sure to ask them to give you advice regarding at least one or two tasks or skills they believe you could improve on. Thank them for their help.
  • Write down an action plan for addressing your own weaknesses and developmental needs. If you have a direct superior (or trusted peer), consider soliciting advice regarding your developmental needs and potential action steps. Depending on your situation and level in the organization, consider the option of hiring an outside coach.
  • Encourage each of your direct reports to follow these same steps regarding their direct reports and themselves.

Succession Planning and Delegation

When leaders fail to actively plan for succession, they do not delegate sufficiently and may become decision-making bottlenecks. Key employees may leave if they are not actively groomed and challenged.

  • Do you have a succession-planning process for key positions?
  • Have you identified potential successors for your job?
  • If not, what is stopping you?
  • Do you delegate sufficiently-
  • Have you become a decision-making bottleneck?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Create a succession-planning depth chart for your business unit or organization. This document should include at least two or three potential successors for your own position.
  • For each potential successor, write down their key development needs and specific actions you might take in order to develop their capabilities in relation to potential future positions. Work to develop and shape these specific development plans.
  • For those key tasks that you have committed to finding a way to delegate, begin matching those tasks with specific candidates on the depth chart. Make assignments.
  • Categorize delegated tasks in terms of their levels of importance to your enterprise. Based on this analysis, note which tasks need to be done at extremely high levels of quality, and which can be done at “sufficient” levels of quality. Ask whether you have calibrated your level of involvement to this categorization, and remember that “involvement” should often take the form of coaching the subordinate, rather than a direct intervention. Make a commitment to “picking your spots,” to ensure that your direct interventions (beyond coaching) are justified by an appropriately high level of task importance.
  • Ask your business unit leaders to perform this same exercise with regard to their direct reports.

Evaluation and Alignment

The world is constantly changing, and leaders need to be able to adapt their businesses accordingly.

  • Is the design of your company still aligned with your vision and priorities?
  • If you had to design the enterprise today with a clean sheet of paper, how would you change the people, key tasks, organizational structure, culture, and your leadership style?
  • Why haven’t you made these changes?
  • Have you pushed yourself and your organization to do this clean-sheet-of-paper exercise?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Identify a key business unit or function to tryout the clean-sheet-of-paper exercise. Create a small task force based on the selected names from the succession-planning depth chart exercise. Attempt to draw professionals from at least two to three different business units and/or functional areas. Give the team a specific assignment, and emphasize that they should assume that there are no sacred cows to be protected. Make clear to them that while you may not follow every piece of their advice, you want their candid views and most likely will implement at least some of their suggestions.
  • Agree on an appropriate time frame. Take into account that this assignment is not in place for doing their day jobs. Make clear that you are available to answer questions or give guidance, but you plan to stay away from this process in order to avoid influencing their analysis and conclusions.
  • Debrief the group regarding their findings. Also, conduct a post mortem to determine what you and the task force learned from the process of doing this exercise.
  • Develop a specific action plan for implementing at least some (if not all) of the group’s recommendations.

The Leader as Role Model

Your actions are closely observed by those around you. They send a powerful message about what you believe and what you truly value.

  • Do you act as a role model?
  • Do your behaviors match your words?
  • How do you conduct yourself under pressure?
  • Is your conduct consistent with your stated values?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Write down two or three key messages you believe you send with your behavior (versus your speeches). Seek advice from key subordinates and advisers who directly observe your behavior, in order to answer this question: is there a disconnect between the messages you wish to send and those you are in fact sending?
  • Do this same exercise for your key direct reports. What messages is each of them sending about what is truly valued in your organization? Again, make discreet inquiries, if necessary, to do this analysis. Incorporate this work into your coaching of these executives.
  • Think of a situation in which you felt enormous stress at work and regretted your behavior. Write down the one or two issues that created the stress you were feeling- acknowledging that these issues may have had nothing to do with work. How would you behave differently if you could replay this situation? Write down one or two lessons you take away from this exercise.

Reaching Your Potential

Successful executives develop leadership styles that fit the needs of their business but also fit their own beliefs and personality.

  • Are you pursuing a path that is consistent with your assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, and passions?
  • If not, what are you waiting for?
  • Have you developed your own style at work?
  • Do you speak up, express your opinions, and conduct yourself with confidence?
  • Do you encourage your people to be authentic and express their opinions?

Suggested Follow-up Steps

  • Make a list of your three greatest strengths and your three greatest weaknesses. Get advice from your senior, peer, and junior coaches or advisers in order to make sure your list reflects “reality” in relation to your current job and aspirations.
  • Develop a specific action plan to work on your weaknesses. Action steps might include specific job assignments, seeking feedback within your organization, and/or getting an outside coach.
  • Encourage your subordinates to do this same analysis and action planning. Discuss these plans in your coaching sessions for subordinates.
  • Think of a situation in which you were at your best, when you performed extremely well and felt great about your impact. What were the elements of this situation? What tasks were you performing, what was your leadership approach, what was the context, and what other factors enhanced your performance? What lessons do you take from this, regarding your passions, values, and other key elements that help bring out your best performance?
  • Think of a time when you brought out the best in others. What was your motivational approach? What was your leadership style? What other elements allowed you to bring out the best in others? When you reflect on this situation, what lessons do you learn about yourself, including about your philosophy and values, as well as how you might best motivate others in the future?
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HBR: Stress Test Your Company’s Competitive Edge with These 4 Questions

“Competition is a multifaceted concept that plays out in different ways. Therefore, executives need to keep an eye on all four types of competition in order to remain competitive in an ever-changing world.” Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Carsten Lund Pedersen and Thomas Ritter:

Stress Test Your Company’s Competitive Edge with These 4 Questions

As uncertainty is increasing and competition is becoming more fierce, executives need to have a broader understanding of competition itself in order to sustain an edge. Executives should be thinking about four different types of competition to maintain relevance in a changing environment, which originate from our work on competitiveness, strategy, and strategic change.

In the figure below, these four competition types are positioned along two dimensions, which reflect two distinct questions: (1) “Are there customers for which to compete?” and (2) “Are we being outcompeted?” These questions will help you identify the type of competition that currently exposes you to the greatest existential threats. Executives who consider and discuss all four types of competition will uncover important insights, and such an analysis can help move your strategy forward.

The four types of competition.pngThe four types of competition

The table below provides an overview of the four types of competition and the four key questions that help identify important strategic issues:

Competition for relevance. The first, and most fundamental, level of competition relates to competition for relevance. Here, executives must ask: “Does our offering meet and satisfy actual consumer needs?”

Technological developments are often interesting to discuss in relation to relevance. For instance, numerous smartphone apps have been developed that do not solve any actual problems. A current example of uncertainty around relevance concerns blockchain, i.e. the technology behind virtual currencies such as bitcoin. On the one hand, it has been questioned whether blockchain is essentially hype, or whether it really fulfills an actual need among the mainstream public. On the other hand, if the blockchain technology really lives up to its promises of securing transparent and secure transmissions, then it will also challenge the relevance of intermediaries such as brokers and bankers who may no longer be needed. In other words, the technology can make brokers and bankers irrelevant. Consequently, the blockchain technology is a great example of the uncertainty that often accompanies new technological developments — it can either remove the relevance of established organizations or it can prove to be an unsustainable alternative without sufficient mainstream relevance.

Competition for dependence. When relevance is established, executives face another level of competition: competition for dependence. This refers to the notion that organizations also compete against consumers’ abilities to satisfy their own needs and their jobs-to-be-done. In other words, consumers can often create a solution for themselves, thereby making the organization’s offering obsolete.

An example of the difficulties of competing for dependence can be seen in the rise of the “DIY-economy,” which was particularly pronounced after the 2008 recession. At that time, many consumers adopted a new level of frugality, such that they took on previously outsourced tasks and became more self-reliant. For example, many consumers started to dye and cut their own hair; brew their own espressos; wash their own cars; clean their own houses; and walk their own dogs. This “insourcing” of household chores hurt many of the small, service-oriented businesses that had previously handled these tasks. However, some organizations have been able to capitalize on self-reliance. For instance, Target has run marketing campaigns that glorify do-it-yourself alternatives, while IKEA has become synonymous with enabling consumers to do the work themselves.

Competition for preference. Given relevance and dependence, the next battle is to compete for preference. Organizations compete to gain customers’ preference for their offerings over those of competitors.

An example of competition for preference is the retail industry, which has long been a battleground for customer preferences. Interestingly, customers have varied preferences for retailers depending on the product category. Therefore, the retail market is actually several markets. For example, customers may prefer Target for product category A, Walmart for product category B, Staples for product category C, and Amazon or Alibaba for product category D. Consequently, the battle with competitors for customer preference often takes place on the specific product-category level. Moreover, this form of competition can lead to price pressure, which may have a damaging effect on industry profits. However, the battle for customer preference is not solely fought in specific product and price categories — it is also fought in the domains of location and promotional expenditure.

Competition for excellence. After successfully competing for relevance, dependence, and preference, organizations must consider competition for excellence. At this level, the challenge is to sustain the organization’s advantage while continuously seeking renewal.

An example of a failure to compete for excellence is illustrated by how Nokia, in the midst of their success, failed to keep up with the competitive threats from Apple. Despite being a leader in the mobile phone market with a market share of over 40%, Nokia experienced a dramatic decline that led to a sale of its mobile phone business to Microsoft in 2013. The demise was partly caused by a competitive shift towards software and ecosystems rather than hardware — and Nokia did not appropriately adapt to this environment due to conservatism and a belief in their existing strengths. Put differently, Nokia’s past success acted as a blinder to peripheral threats coming from unexpected sides.

Which types of competition threaten your company.pngHow to use the four questions

How can executives actively ask these four questions and compete on all four levels to ensure renewal and sustain corporate performance? Executives can introduce three initiatives:

  • Put the questions on the agenda and regularly challenge your strategy: The four types of competition should be used as a checklist for regularly challenging the strategy. Asking questions about the strategic plan is necessary for stress-testing a strategy and for applying a moderate amount of stress to your strategy.
  • Let different employee types discuss the four questions: It can be beneficial to invite different types of employees to discuss the four questions, including employees at different hierarchical levels and different types of project managers.
  • Implement strategic projects for all four types: The four types of competition can provide a categorization tool for different types of projects from which an organization can compete. For instance, companies can have a project where they collaborate with users to develop or refine a specific product or feature. Such an approach would improve the “competing for relevance” and “competing for dependence” dimensions, as it would secure user relevance while proactively co-developing for dependence.

Competition is a multifaceted concept that plays out in different ways. Therefore, executives need to keep an eye on all four types of competition in order to remain competitive in an ever-changing world.

 

HBR: How to Make Sure Your Emails Give the Right Impression

Have you thought the way you write emails might affect your reputation? Are you sacrificing quantity for quality in emails? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Shani Harmon.

How to Make Sure Your Emails Give the Right Impression

Given the avalanche of email we receive each year — 121 messages per day, on average — it’s no wonder that we have become somewhat desensitized to its impact on our professional brand. We’ll spend hours polishing our LinkedIn profiles and revising our résumés, but hastily hit send on an unintelligible missive simply because we’re in a rush. “Sent from my device, please overlook typos” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for shoddy communications.

Have you ever thought about the brand you’re conveying through your emails? You should. Every email you send affects your professional reputation, or brand. Don’t make these all-too-common mistakes in your communication:

Your emails are too long for anyone to digest. Are your messages typically the length of all 12 installments of Crime and Punishment? Do you include all the backstory a reader could ever want to know? While context is critical to guiding the reader’s interpretations, remember that what they need to know is inevitably a subset of everything you could tell them. Given that the adult attention span is a mere eight seconds, it’s important to make every moment count. Get to the point.

You’re including way too many people. Do your Cc habits ensure that a cast of thousands is in the loop? If so, ask yourself who is truly the essential audience for the message. In many organizations, overuse of Cc reflects a political culture in which people cover their tracks by overinclusion. Remember that each message you send contributes to everyone’s inbox, including your own, especially when one of your recipients decides to Reply All.

You’re dashing off incomplete thoughts. While there’s a lot to be said for brevity, there’s a big difference between being concise and being terse. Do you find yourself shooting off one-liners that pick up in the middle of a thought without considering whether the reader can follow the thread? Do you end up with a high volume of clarifying questions in response to your messages? If so, that’s a clue that your emails need more composition and more context.

You’re burying the lede. It shouldn’t take a symbologist to find the important message hidden in your email. Make sure your readers know what the ask is and why they should care about responding. Despite our compulsive relationship with it, responding to email is not a sacred duty. If you want your readers to digest your message, and perhaps even take action on it, make it easy for them to do so.

When it comes to composing an email, I think we could all take a cue from Mark Twain’s writing style: He developed a unique and memorable voice, relentlessly edited himself, and was easy to understand. As he said, “Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” Take the time to truly craft your messages, and you’ll find that your results improve accordingly. Sacrifice quantity for quality. Not every email merits your attention.

However, the one characteristic of Twain’s brand that I wouldn’t emulate is his being a curmudgeon. We already have a negativity bias toward email messages. As has been demonstrated in the emerging field of social neuroscience, without the social cues — voice tone, facial expression, and physical gestures — that we rely on to interpret communication, we are prone to conclude the worst. Don’t skip the niceties, or your audience may assume a message that wasn’t intended, and you’ll be forced to do damage control.

The next time you start to write an email, follow a few rules:

  • Use an intuitive subject line that clearly states the purpose of the message. Bonus points if you include a header, e.g., [ACTION] or [INFORM], that helps the reader understand the expected response.
  • Provide a clearly stated request right at the beginning of your email in case your audience fails to read beyond the preview pane. At least you’ll increase the chances that people will understand the essence of your message.
  • Bold the names of anyone who’s been assigned a task or asked a question in the body of the email to increase the likelihood of it getting the needed attention.
  • Take the time to be nice. It will help your audience truly hear what you intended to say.

The next time you’re in your email account, take a closer look at your sent folder. Everything you need to know about your email brand is contained within. If you don’t like what you see, tomorrow is another day. There’s always another chance to shape your email reputation.

 

Honoring America’s First Forester on His 150th Birthday

Peeling Back the Bark

The following is an op-ed piece by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis that appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on August 9, 2015, in honor of Gifford Pinchot’s 150th birthday on August 11. 

Born just after the guns of the Civil War fell silent, he died the year after the first atomic bomb was dropped. He was, in his own words, a “governor every now and then” but a forester all the time. Indeed, Gifford Pinchot, born 150 years ago on Aug. 11, served two terms as Pennsylvania governor but is best known as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (established 1905), which today manages 192 million acres. He also created the Society of American Foresters (1900), the organization that oversees his chosen profession, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (1900), the oldest forestry school in America. And just south of Asheville, in the…

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The 5 A’s to Dealing With Problems

Why Lead Now

As a millennial, I’ve grown into a world where people expect things to be dealt with quickly, and they want as much information as they can get in the process. Just look at Domino’s pizza tracker. Why just wait for your pizza, when you can check when it’s being prepped, in the oven, and out for delivery?

This speed, and thirst for information, is transposed onto complaints and problems. According to a Lithium-commissioned study by Millward Brown Digital, survey, 72 percent of people expect a response to a Twitter complaint to a company in less than an hour.

To make sure I’m always ready with a response when someone complains, I like to remind myself of “The Five A’s to Dealing With Problems”. They provide a simple process that I can follow to connect with the disgruntled person in front of me, make them feel better…

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HBR: Does Your Company Need an Instagram Storefront?

Are you using Instragram as a marketing tool? You can share with Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Here are some ideas on how to use Instragram as Building Supplier Dealer. Post photos of your overstock items, promote your customer’s deck design, or post photos of new products at your store. Below is a blog post from the Harvard Business Review by Mitch Joel .

Does Your Company Need an Instagram Storefront?storefront_deals

As the internet continues to make it easier to connect with potential customers, some entrepreneurs have decided that Instagram isn’t just for “selfies,” but for marketing. Blogger Jason Kottke reported last month on Kuwait’s “booming Instagram economy,” where anyone with an Instagram account is simply putting a price tag on an item, taking a photograph, and selling it via the photo sharing online social network.

Everything from Manga to make-up , and more is being sold in this very simple and direct platform, leveraging additional free technology like WhatsApp (customer service), PayPal, and Square(transactions) to make the business infrastructure as simple as possible.

Not unlike eBay and the power-sellers it spawned, Instagram has the scale, stability, and user trust to create a viable marketplace. Once upon a time, if you wanted to sell online you needed a sturdy e-commerce site with analytics, a robust hosting facility, and a web team to create, design, merchandise, market, and more. Today, you need a couple of free accounts on some of the major online channels along with the persistence to keep at it. Is this the digital equivalent of a garage sale, or the next generation of business?

The answer is likely somewhere in between. It’s doubtful that those in the upper echelons of the massive consumer packaged goods companies are going to care about this, or that Sephora and Walmart see this as a competitive threat, but the barriers to entry for someone to start and market a new business continue to be lowered.

These Instagram businesses may not be the next big thing, but they could well be the nascent stages of what is the next big, small thing in business today. On April 23rd and 24th of this year, the American University of Kuwait hosted a two day conference, featuring case studies, how-to’s and networking for those wondering what it takes to build a business on Instagram. The Insta Business Expo , featured a slew of new entrepreneurs who built and grew their respective businesses through Instagram.

While this may seem inconsequential in the grander scheme of global economics and business, consider the global reach of Instagram, the burgeoning ability to use 3-D printing to create or augment existing products, and the desire from consumers for more unique products and services . There is also potential here for more traditional brands to try moments of commerce; an Instagram storefront could help validate a new product line or market ancillary products.

Instagram should not be underrated as an engine of marketing, considering the engagement beautiful images can generate. Today’s Instagram entrepreneurs have uncovered an easy way for brands to quickly share new inventory, and a very simple way to conduct business from a smartphone. If your brand has the goods, you might want try out an Instagram store of your own.