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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McK: The Leadership Journey of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was made into an effective leader—first from the inside out and then from the outside in—as he developed and changed throughout his life. That, as president, he refused to ignore the larger consequences of his actions on men and women who had little or no agency, that he saw beyond the immediate moment and owned the responsibility of affecting a vast future, and that he rejected an ethical callousness about the choices he made are demonstrations of leadership that we yearn for today. May all who aspire to lead with worth and dignity learn from the life and leadership of Abraham Lincoln.”” Are you ready to hear the call to action contained in his story?” Below is a blog from the McKinsey by Nancy Koehn: (Reading Time 21min)

The leadership journey of Abraham Lincoln

Hear the call to action contained in Abraham Lincoln’s story, and get to work. The world has never needed you and other real leaders more than it does now.

Many years ago, I made a short film for the Harvard Business School about the lessons that Abraham Lincoln’s life offered for modern leaders. I interviewed a range of CEOs, asking them what they’d learned from the 16th president. Their responses were wide-ranging and profound; many continue to influence my work on leadership.

I was particularly struck by what A. G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble at the time, said about how leaders are made. He pointed to three main ingredients. The first is an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and the cumulative experience a person acquires walking his or her path. The second is that an individual recognizes a moment has arrived that demands his or her leadership. The third is that the individual has to consciously decide “to embrace the cause and get in the game.”

Making oneself into a courageous leader, in the way Lafley describes, is perilous, compelling, and exhausting work. It also is some of the most satisfying one can do, and it could not be more important today. Like the turbulent Civil War that Lincoln found himself at the center of, the early 21st century cries out for effective, decent leaders. People of purpose and commitment who want to make a positive difference and who choose to rise: first within themselves, by claiming their better selves, and then on the larger stage, by staking out the higher ground.

Abraham Lincoln has something to offer each of us right now as we try to craft lives of purpose, dignity, and impact. Are you ready to hear the call to action contained in his story?

Discernment

Lincoln had humble roots and no formal education. By age 25, he also had a growing interest in politics, and needed a career to feed that interest while helping him improve his lot. Lincoln began borrowing the law books of a mentor from the Illinois state militia who was an accomplished attorney and state legislator. He studied by himself. A neighbor remembered Lincoln “was so absorbed that people said he was crazy. Sometimes [while he was studying he] did not notice people when he met them.”

We do not know exactly how Lincoln sustained his determination to succeed. What we do know is that from an early age he practiced great discipline in relation to the things that mattered. Some of the discipline was focused on practical ends: toward preparing himself to be a lawyer or bettering himself intellectually. Some of it was directed at managing his emotions. As his prospects expanded, he worked to comport himself with greater dignity and forbearance.

He earned a reputation as an attorney who was skilled before a jury. Not because he mastered the laws of evidence or finer points of precedents; he did neither. Instead, this reputation rested on his ability to concentrate a jury’s attention on the few essential points of a case while conceding the less important issues to his opponent.

Lincoln’s ability to relate to juries provides a useful lesson about discernment. Leaders trying to accomplish a worthy mission have to cultivate the ability to identify the one, two, or three essential issues facing them at a given moment. It is never five or ten. It is always one or two—maybe three—issues that really matter. Having identified these, leaders must let the remaining concerns go, either by giving themselves permission to turn their attention away from all that is not central to their purpose or by handing peripheral issues to others, including an adversary. Being able to do this—to concentrate on the most important issues while relinquishing the rest—depends on a leader’s willingness to recognize two things: first, he or she cannot do it all, and second, by saying no to that which is not mission critical, one is actually saying yes to that which is.

Disappointment

Lincoln, like many other leaders, didn’t blaze onto the larger stage at a young age. And even when he began to build a legal and political career, his path was marked by as many failures as successes. The making of courageous leaders is rarely swift and smooth. Indeed, the setbacks and the times that Lincoln spent not being able to gratify his ambitions were important ingredients in the wisdom, resilience, and empathy that he nurtured and then used so successfully.

In 1846, for example, Lincoln was elected to the US House of Representatives by a large majority. During his first year in Washington, he devoted most of his attention to attacking Democratic president James Polk’s prosecution of the Mexican-American War. When his term in office ended in March 1849, Lincoln returned to Illinois. There, he discovered that his political stock was lower than when he had left. His party had failed to elect its candidate to the congressional seat that Lincoln was vacating, and many of his supporters blamed him and his unpopular position on the Mexican-American War for the defeat. Lincoln fell into a depression.

Although he returned to the practice of law, Lincoln found the allure of politics irresistible and set about helping to organize the young Republican Party in the state of Illinois. The central element of the Republican platform was opposition to slavery’s extension. Within Illinois, Lincoln became a leading spokesman for this position (while accepting its legality where it already existed). In contrast, many Democrats, such as the US senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, supported slavery’s expansion.

In 1858, Lincoln challenged Douglas for his US Senate seat. The race attracted national interest, partly because Illinois was regarded as a battleground state—not only in skirmishes between Democrats and Republicans, but also between supporters and opponents of slavery. Lincoln lost, and was deeply disappointed.

Triumph and tragedy

Late in 1859, newspapers began mentioning Lincoln as a potential presidential candidate in the 1860 election. At the Republican Convention in Chicago, no candidate won a majority of the votes on the first ballot. Support for Lincoln grew as the convention progressed, and on the third ballot, cast on May 18, he won 364 of 466 possible votes, becoming the Republican nominee for president. A month later, the Democrats met to select a nominee. Party delegates split, with Northern members backing Stephen Douglas and Southern delegates supporting John Breckinridge. This splintering of the Democratic party greatly increased the odds of a Republican victory in the general election on November 6.

At about two in the morning on November 7, Lincoln learned that he’d been elected president. As he walked back home in the wee hours, Lincoln did not exult. Recalling the moment two years later, he said he slept little before dawn. “I then felt, as I never had before, the responsibility that was upon me.”

Lincoln’s election precipitated a national crisis. Convinced that the president-elect would try to abolish slavery, many Southern leaders believed the only way to protect the institution—and the way of life that rested on it—was to leave the United States and establish their own country. In early February 1861, representatives of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas met in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America, and adopt a constitution.

On March 4, 1861, before a crowd of 50,000, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address on the steps of the US Capitol. He knew the fate of the upper Southern states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, which had not yet seceded, might depend on what he said, and he took pains to reassure Southerners that he would leave slavery alone in the states where it already existed.

In spite of Lincoln’s efforts, tensions between North and South escalated. These came to a head with the president’s decision on Fort Sumter, a federal garrison in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Government soldiers inside the fort were running out of food. But sending provisions into what was now hostile territory risked Confederate attack. For weeks, Lincoln agonized over what to do. He did not want his administration to appear weak by not resupplying the fort and thus effectively surrendering it. But he also did not want to initiate open warfare.

After many sleepless nights and conversations with his cabinet, Lincoln ordered government forces to sail for Charleston Harbor with food, but no arms. On April 12, 1861, with the federal fleet nearby, Confederates bombarded the garrison with shells and gunfire. Within 36 hours, the commanding officer of the fort surrendered to Southern forces. The Civil War had begun.

Loneliness

From the start, the Civil War defied Americans’ expectations. Following Fort Sumter, for example, many Northerners and Southerners believed that victory was imminent for their respective side, and that few lives would be lost. But after the Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861, in which almost 5,000 Union (northern) and Confederate troops were killed or wounded, it became clear that the war would be longer and bloodier than most had anticipated. The day after the battle, Lincoln called for 500,000 volunteers; within days, Congress authorized an additional half million troops.

By late 1861, the Union’s general in chief, George McClellan, had reorganized troops around Washington, but then refused to move them south to attack Confederate forces. His Army of the Potomac—some 120,000-men strong—remained in and near the capital without seeing any kind of battle.

Worried about the general’s inaction, Lincoln began visiting McClellan at home during the evenings. On November 13, the president and one of his secretaries, John Hay, called at the general’s house. McClellan was not in, and the two decided to wait. When the general arrived an hour later, he hurried upstairs, ignoring his visitors. The president and his secretary remained where they were for 30 minutes before Lincoln sent word up that he was still downstairs. McClellan sent his own message back, saying he had gone to bed. Hay was appalled at the general’s insolence, voicing this to the president as they walked back to the White House. “It was better at this time,” Lincoln responded, “not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity.” As he came to understand, not all issues—including personal slights and insults—that came before him were of equal importance. Lincoln realized he had to keep his eye (not to mention his emotional energy) on what was central to his mission and not become distracted by what we would today label “sweating the small stuff.”

The president began to teach himself military strategy, borrowing textbooks from the Library of Congress, poring over field reports, and conferring with military officers. As he did this, it became clear to him that a Union victory depended on the North’s ability to exploit its greater resources—human and economic—in a series of interrelated attacks on the Confederacy. But how could he make his generals execute this strategy? McClellan effectively ignored Lincoln’s orders. Other commanders, often acting without top-level coordination, followed their own plans or simply waited.

It was a lonely time. Some of Lincoln’s loneliness flowed from the authority and responsibility he carried. The president knew that saving the Union rested critically on his shoulders—on ability to simultaneously lead on many fronts against many obstacles. This heavy realization isolated Lincoln from family, friends, and colleagues. Not only could these people not fully grasp what he was dealing with; not only did he have to be careful about entrusting his thoughts and feelings to others; but Lincoln also likely understood that no one else could travel the internal path he was taking as a leader. None could see the things he was discovering about himself and his impact, see the ways he was changing as the war stretched on, or, finally, experience his doubts and fears. These were essential aspects of his leadership, and they were his alone.

Virtually every leader will know real loneliness. This is intrinsic to the work; it can rarely be avoided or wiped away by specific action. Instead, effective leaders learn to accept such moments of isolation, using them in service to their larger mission by keeping their own counsel, reflecting carefully on a particular issue, or grappling with their thoughts and feelings.

Gettysburg

In early July 1863, the Army of the Potomac, now under the leadership of General George Meade, won a decisive battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, repulsing Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it attempted to invade the North. It was a critical victory that came at a fearsome cost. At the opening of the confrontation, a total of 160,000 troops from both sides had poured into the Pennsylvania hamlet. When the smoke cleared three days later, 51,000 Americans were dead, wounded, or missing; 23,000 of these men were federal soldiers, 28,000 were Confederates.

Audio The Gettysburg Address, performed by Tom Amandes from the film Saving Lincoln

Nonetheless, peace did not come. The war raged on—with seemingly no end in sight. Why, the president asked himself, could he not bring the conflict to a close? Why was it proving so violent? In early November, when he received an invitation to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of a new national cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln saw an opportunity to give voice to the larger issues he’d been wrestling with. His remarks totaled only 272 words. It took him less than three minutes to deliver them:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln’s speech is a first-rate example of a leader framing the stakes of the change. In hindsight, we can see that he used the dedication ceremony to connect the continuing turbulence—the Civil War—with the history and mission of the enterprise—the American polity and its central proposition. He then led his audience to the present moment, relating their action to “the unfinished work” in which they and all other Americans were involved. He laid down the gauntlet for every citizen who supported the Union: “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

In saying this, Lincoln presented the trade-offs of committing to the mission: a great civil war, a testing struggle, and thousands of deaths. He concluded by stating that as formidable as these costs were, they were the price of a mighty end, one with lasting significance: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Every modern leader navigating through a crisis can learn from the Gettysburg Address. We are unlikely to approach the eloquence and power of Lincoln’s language. But we can take from his leadership the critical importance of framing the stakes of a particular moment. This means connecting current change efforts to the history and future of the enterprise, locating these efforts in the arc of ongoing events, explaining each stakeholder’s role in the process, identifying the specific trade-offs of making the change, and understanding these costs in relation to the ultimate goal. The more turbulent the world becomes in the early 21st century, the more vital it is for leaders to interpret and frame this volatility in relation to a worthy purpose.

Transformational change

Lincoln had no silver bullets to save the Union. This was difficult to accept. But as the war stretched on, he began to understand that the complexity of the conflict and the magnitude of its stakes made a single, clear-cut way to end it virtually impossible.

This is an insight for today’s leaders. We are under pressure to move fast, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and make a big impact. But the reality of trying to accomplish something real and good gives lie to the seductive notion that there is one simple solution. Almost anything along our life journeys that is worth investing in, worth fighting for, and worth summoning our best selves for has no silver bullet. The bigger the issue, the less likely it is that a leader can resolve it in one or two swift strokes. Understanding this means abandoning the quest for the single definitive answer. Letting go of this quest frees leaders—emotionally and practically—to focus on the many possible approaches and actions needed to make a meaningful difference.

In the aftermath of the battle at Gettysburg, appalled by the human carnage, many Northerners thought the government should stop fighting and seek a settlement with the rebel states, one that recognized the legality of slavery. Against this backdrop, in mid-1863, Lincoln accepted an invitation from his old friend James Conkling to address a large meeting of Union supporters in Springfield, Illinois. As the speech grew closer, pressing responsibilities prevented the president from leaving Washington. So instead of returning to his hometown, he wrote a letter for Conkling to present at the gathering.

The letter, which was published in newspapers across the country, laid out the principal arguments of the peace faction and Lincoln’s careful response to these. Looking back, we can see that Lincoln was doing more than making the case for his policies. As any serious leader engaged in large-scale change must, he was also trying to keep the relevant lines of communication open. He understood that widespread transformation always unleashes waves of collective fear, discontent, and doubt—emotions that often translate into vocal, and potentially more destructive, opposition. He also knew that if left unacknowledged, adversaries have the power to derail even the worthiest attempts at reform, and thus it is a leader’s responsibility to identify and, when necessary, neutralize his or her most powerful critics.

But how is the person at the center of the change to do this without appearing weak, creating additional enemies, or potentially legitimating the very attacks he or she is trying to mitigate? These are complicated issues, so it is not surprising that leaders often avoid head-on engagement with their challengers, hoping instead that the rallying cry of the mission and the enthusiasm of supporters will overwhelm naysayers.

This is a risky strategy, especially when the stakes are high. It was to Lincoln’s credit that he understood the power of Northern elites, who did not want to fight a war to end slavery. The president also realized that to defuse this “fire in the rear,” he had to speak directly to the American public, and he had to do this by addressing the specific arguments his opponents were making against him. Finally, he had to explain his actions in terms of his larger purpose. Lincoln did all of this in the speech for James Conkling. Seen from the perspective of a change leader effectively communicating with relevant stakeholders and trying to alleviate serious threats to the broader transformation, the president’s letter was a tour de force.

Willpower

As the summer of 1864 wore on, without a Union military victory in sight, Northern morale collapsed. Politicians and journalists called for an immediate end to the war, with many predicting that Lincoln would lose the upcoming presidential election. “The people are wild for Peace,” said New York politician Thurlow Weed. They won’t support the president, he added, because they are told he “will only listen to terms of peace on condition [that] slavery be abandoned.”

The commander in chief began to waver. Perhaps, he told himself as he paced the White House hallway late at night, he should enter into peace talks with Southern leaders. On August 19, he drafted a potentially momentous letter to a Democratic politician and newspaper editor, ending the communication with this proposition: “If Jefferson Davis wishes . . . to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.”

Having written these words, Lincoln paused. He did not send the letter; instead, he stored it in his desk while he thought about what to do. Two days later, when the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass visited Lincoln at the White House to discuss helping slaves reach Union military lines, the president read the letter aloud to him. The black activist strongly urged the chief executive to keep it to himself. If he sent it, Douglass said, the missive would be interpreted “as a complete surrender of your anti-slavery policy, and do you serious damage.”

Lincoln returned the letter to his files. With renewed confidence, the president decided emancipation would remain an essential condition of any negotiations with the Confederacy. For a few days during the long, hot summer of 1864, Lincoln had considered backing away from his mission. But in the end—at the moment it really mattered—he did not. He held the line.

Historians and biographers have pointed to a number of Lincoln’s strengths and their role in his leadership. But one of the most significant of these strengths is not often mentioned, and this is that Lincoln simply kept going. Once he made a crucial decision, he saw it through, even when virtually everything around him seemed stacked against such a commitment. This adherence was not the result of stubbornness or self-righteousness. Rather, it came from the care that Lincoln exercised in making choices, including the slowness with which he acted when the stakes were high; from his growing depth as a moral actor; and from his sheer will to get up each morning and do what he could in service of his mission.

The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. But we, it seems, are not finished with the man who led the country through it. Not by a long shot. Lincoln’s journey was one of learning by doing, ongoing commitment to bettering himself, keen intelligence harnessed to equally acute emotional awareness, and the moral seriousness into which he grew as he attained immense power. It was also an all-too-human path marked by setbacks, derailments, and disappointments.

Abraham Lincoln was made into an effective leader—first from the inside out and then from the outside in—as he developed and changed throughout his life. That, as president, he refused to ignore the larger consequences of his actions on men and women who had little or no agency, that he saw beyond the immediate moment and owned the responsibility of affecting a vast future, and that he rejected an ethical callousness about the choices he made are demonstrations of leadership that we yearn for today. May all who aspire to lead with worth and dignity learn from the life and leadership of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Inside the Magic Kingdom: Leading the Discussion

Inside the Magic Kingdom by Thomas K. Connellan is a quick read. Below are great questions to start an action plan to lead like Disney:

Leading the DiscussionInside the Magic Kingdom.jpg

Post the question in full view of all the participants.

Pose one question at a time. After the conversation gets moving, try to take a back seat. Give the group control of the discussion. Avoid repeating the question unless the group gets off track-then refer back to the posted question. If people seem to be holding back, bring them into the discussion with a question: “Peg, what do you think about this?” Record all ideas suggested.

Summarize. Before you proceed to the next question, briefly summarize the main points you have discussed. Refer to the points that you captured in writing.

QUESTIONS

LESSON 1:

The competition is anyone the customer compares you with.

  • Recall a situation where you were very impressed with the level of service you received. How did it raise your expectations of other companies?
  • How does our company’s service compare?
  • Who are our direct competitors?
  • Who else might our customers compare us with?
  • What does that suggest about how we might change the way we do business?

LESSON 2:

Pay fantastic attention to detail.

  • What details get in the way of our being easy to do business with?
  • What details could be improved to keep our customers coming back?
  • What details in our workplace could become “hitching posts”?

LESSON 3:

Everyone walks the talk.

  • Think about the way people do their jobs here. Could we adapt the “aggressively friendly” concept to our company’s environment?
  • How might we expand customer service from a department to a tradition?
  • How could we individually do an even better job of “walking the talk” than we do right now?
  • What does “walking the talk” mean around here?
  • How would a customer’s experience be different if everyone here “walked the talk”?

LESSON 4:

Everything walks the talk.

  • Remember the gold-leaf paint on the carousel. What messages are being sent to our associates/employees about the value of customers?
  • Keeping in mind the importance of things unseen, in what ways could we remind employees that customers are “pure gold”?
  • Imagine that everything in our company walked the talk. What would that look like?
  • What’s one thing that could be changed so that it did a better job of walking the talk?

LESSON 5:

Customers are best heard through many ears.

  • How can we “put on our ears” to track customer satisfaction?
  • How could the process of gathering feedback be more creative and fun?
  • Remember the impact of immediate action. How could we improve our response time?
  • Identify and list aspects of our job(s) that involve customer contact. (Best used for a homogeneous discussion group.)
  • What formal or informal listening posts are we not using that we could be using?
  • How could we become more responsive to customer needs?

LESSON 6:

Reward, recognize, and celebrate.

  • How often does good performance go unrecognized?
  • In general, what’s the positive-to-negative feedback ratio in our company / plant/ department/ etc.?
  • How could we improve that ratio?
  • What is your individual ratio of positive-to-negative feedback?

LESSON 7:

Xvxryonx makxs a diffxrxncx.

  • Thinking about the typewriter with the broken key, how could our company apply this lesson?
  • In what ways have we personally experienced this lesson?
  • How can we communicate this belief to others in the company?

GENERAL QUESTIONS

  • What is the main message of this book?
  • What insights have you gained from reading this book?
  • What’s the one thing you’re going to do differently, starting today?

Ending the Discussion

In one or two sentences, state what you have accomplished as it relates to the initial questions posed. If the ultimate goal of your discussion is application, create an action plan that includes who, what, and when.

GT: 5 Things a Great Leader Would Never Do

The author talks about outsourced employees but I think you could use these for any employee. Are you doing any of these things? Below is a blog from the Growthink by Dave Lavinsky:

5 Things a Great Leader Would Never Do

Great leaders delegate. They get other people to do the work for them. They focus on vision and strategy, and getting their people to perform at their highest possible level. And when their people perform, the company executes on the strategy and achieves its vision.

While much about leadership has been written over the years, much of it has changed. Because many of the old rules and strategies, such as the “it’s my way or the highway,” strategy no longer apply. People are different today than they were even a decade ago. We have different needs and thinking, and nurturing your team to get them to perform is more complex.

In fact, when it comes to outsourced employees, leadership is even more complex. Because when you can’t look your employee in the eye, it’s hard to tell if they’re bought into your strategies and goals, and if they will perform to your standards.

What makes this so more important is that any good HR strategy nowadays includes outsourcing. Because outsourcing certain roles allows your company to achieve great progress at a significantly lower expense, and without increasing your fixed costs which decreases flexibility.

This being said, the following are five things a great leader would never do when managing their outsourced employees.

1. Rely exclusively on email. Email is generally the easiest way to communicate with outsourced employees, particularly if they live in different time zones. However, email is rarely the most effective communications method, particularly when you want to motivate people. Rather, make sure that occasionally you also use telephone calls and video calls using services such as Skype. By seeing your employee, and having them see you, you can gauge and influence their levels of engagement and excitement.

2. Give vague directions. If someone’s seen you do something several times, and then you ask them to do it, they might do a good job. But if someone’s never seen you do something, particularly when they don’t work in your office, they’ll generally fail wildly. Unless, that is, you give them precise directions. When you outsource a task, be sure to document precisely what you want done and why. This will guide the employee and set expectations for them to meet.

3. Wait to see finished work. When you outsource a project to someone, don’t wait until the end to judge their work. Rather, check in periodically. Ideally, break the work into pieces. For example, if an outsourced employee is responsible for creating a video, natural pieces or project stages might include: 1) writing the video script, 2) sketching or finding the images to be included in the video, 3) creating a video draft, 4) finalizing the video. If you wait to see the final video, you inevitably will be disappointed. Rather, check in after each stage and provide feedback. The end result will be infinitely better.

4. Fail to set deadlines. Employees, particularly outsourced employees who don’t see you, need deadlines. If not, they’ll generally take way too long to complete a task. When employees work in your office, they should have deadlines too; but, because you see these employees, if there is a deadline, you’ll simply remember to tell them. You don’t have this luxury with virtual employees, so make sure they know the deadline for each of their projects.

5. Fail to give time expectations. Even when you set a deadline, you still must set time expectations, particularly if you are paying your outsourced employee on an hourly basis. While two people can both complete a project in a week, for example, you’re clearly paying a ton more if one worked ten hours per day and the other two. So, at the beginning of each project, have the employee give you an estimate of the work hours, and have them check in periodically to let you know if their estimate is on track or not.

When you outsource properly, you can dramatically grow your company at a fraction of the cost as your competitors. But, make sure you avoid these leadership mistakes; when you do, you can effectively manage your outsourced workforce to get the most benefit from this key HR strategy.

 

BoF: The Business of Love and Passion 

Are you in the people business? Below is a blog from the Brains on Fire:

The Business of Love and Passion 

At Brains on Fire we believe with all our hearts and souls, it is possible to fall madly and passionately in love with the people you serve. And we believe that it’s possible for those folks to fall in love with you, too; and, yes, for you to become famous and grow your organization because of that love.

That’s exactly what we’ve done to grow our own business over the years. Not only have we fallen in love with our customers, we received the permission and indeed the honor to get to know and care for our customers’ customers. It’s our role as marketing matchmakers to help connect our customers with their employees and customers through shared passions.

Every business owner should be wildly romantic and passionate about your advocates; the employees and customers who help fuel your success.

What does it take to fall in love with your advocates, the customers and employees who are ready, willing and happy to fall in love with you? Start by following these Passion Principles.

  1. Love people. Never leverage people.
    We hate it when we hear companies talk about leveraging fans to tell their story. Think about it: Do you really use people you care about? Absolutely not. You listen to them. You get close to them. You see them frequently. You want to be a meaningful part of their life. You inspire them and in return, they inspire you.

If you want people to be in love with you and talk about you, you must fall in love with them first. Your clients, customers, donors, tribe, employees, advocates—what you call them doesn’t really matter—can and should become beloved heroes in your organizations.

  1. Love takes patience.
    For real and lasting relationships to take hold, you have to be in it for the long haul and not for a one-night stand (perhaps the marketing equivalent of a one-time purchase).

Loving your customers is not something you do for a limited amount of time. It’s something you do every single day. And the value of that effort grows exponentially stronger and deeper with time.

  1. Get people to talk about themselves.
    The passion conversation isn’t about getting people to talk about YOU, the brand. It’s about getting people to talk about themselves. Encourage others talk about themselves, their lives, their hopes and their dreams. Create platforms, online and offline, for the people you serve to share their own stories. Give them opportunities to talk and be willing to listen.

At Brains on Fire, we no longer consider ourselves to be in the marketing business. Instead, we’re in the people business. This makes sense for us because marketing nowadays is more about reframing the work you do in the world to inspire your employees and customers. The most successful word-of-mouth–driven businesses in the world have always been in the business of inspiring people.

Good stuff happens when you’re in the people business. We promise.

 

HBR: How Smart Managers Build Bridges

How do you manage conflict?  Are you improving your relationships with your directs? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Charalambos Vlachoutsicos

How Smart Managers Build Bridges

What do you do when the other person simply won’t budge from an entrenched position in which they have a great deal of personal and professional commitment? How do you bridge the gap between your position and his?

Most people try to win the other person over to their point of view by argument. The trouble is, in many cases they don’t have all the facts to fully understand why the other person doesn’t agree. What’s more, the gap may be down to differences in values or cultures that are not particularly amenable to reasoned arguments. Whatever the source of the differences or gaps, when you can’t win by reason, you start to get angry at what you see is the other person’s lack of it, which gets mirrored, and so the gap only gets wider.

The key to avoiding this dynamic is to stop trying to get the person to change and instead get them to open up. The information you get may well encourage you to moderate your own position and thus open the way for a mutually advantageous cooperation. Make them understand your constraints and get them to see what they have to gain by what you propose.

Of course, sometimes, no amount of understanding is going to get the other person to budge and you’re going to have to force progress. At this point, you have to work to bridge the gap in such a way that their main concerns are accommodated so that you can communicate and cooperate productively in spite of and within the limits of your differences. Typically, this involves talking responsibility for the action you wish to make while being prepared to share the payoff and the credit.

Once the gap is actually bridged and you move forward you will pretty soon see that your interactions generate change. Through the give and take of communication, all sides come to feel that at least some of the differences between them are actually smaller and easier to live with than they appeared to begin with.

I built perhaps my first managerial bridge when, fresh out of HBS, I joined our family’s business. Immediately on joining I realized that our warehouse constantly remained out-of-stock of at least five of the thirty-odd products our company carried. This not only caused a loss of sales of the items missing but also had negative repercussions on the sales of all of our products because it drove many customers into our competitors’ arms.

I went to our warehouse and met with the manager who was a very loyal, trustworthy person who had worked with us for many years. He was about 60 years old, knew all our clients personally and had a wide network of potential clients in the market. I asked him why he believed we faced this problem.

He answered that it was because our suppliers took a long time to deliver our orders and, given the global nature of our supply chain, there was nothing we could do about it. I talked to him a little about the notion of forecasting what amount of each product we would need to carry as minimum stock, in order to cover our sales during the time required between the date of placing our order and the date it would reach us.

His reaction was fierce: “If you want predictions go to the Oracle of Delphi,” he told me. “In Greece we do not know what will happen from one day to the next, so we cannot make predictions of how much of each product we will sell.” He would not budge.

Faced with this attitude, I stopped trying to get him to change. Instead, I asked for a worker, some red paint, a brush, and a wooden ladder. I obtained from the accountant the average monthly sales of each product, added a security margin of 20%, converted this quantity to the volume of space required for each product, and drew on the wall a thick red line at the point where the pile would probably be enough to cover sales of the product until our next order arrived.

I assured the manager that I respected his view that predictions in Greece were risky and — this was critical — assured him that the head office would take responsibility for whatever risks were entailed by my attempts to forecast “All you have to do is, whenever you see a red line appearing on the wall behind the stack of any product, is inform me”. Finally, I promised him a bonus for each day our warehouse carried stocks of all our products.

The immediate impact, of course, was fewer stock-outs. But the longer-term and more important benefit from the improvement was that the warehouse manager and I started talking more. He took to visiting me at my Athens office and to ask my opinion on other problems our Piraeus shop faced and to make useful suggestions on how best to address them. Thanks to my action in bridging I had been able to move from talking to the manager to talking with the manager.

Three Traps: Complacency, Cannibalization, Competency

The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation by Vijay Govindarajan is a great book to help leader innovate with simple and proven methods for allocating an organization’s energy, time, and resources across the three boxes:

Box 1: The present—Strengthen the core

Box 2: The past— Let go of the practices that fuel the core business but fail the new one

Box 3: The future—Invent a new business model.

Below is an excerpt on the three behavior traps. How do you manage them to the lead your organization to innovate?

Three TrapsThree Box Solution.jpg

While there were many within IBM who clearly understood the implications of both nonlinear shifts, their insights had difficulty penetrating the entrenched logic of the past. The dominant logic of the past exerts its hold on business cultures and practices in three distinctive but tightly interlocking ways. I think of their dynamic effects as traps that snare the unprepared. All three have common origins in mind-sets that focus excessively on past values, behavior, and beliefs.

The Complacency Trap

Current success conditions a business to suppose that securing the future requires nothing more than repeating what it did to succeed in the past. This is the complacency trap. Complacency shrouds the future in a fog of misplaced confidence, hiding from view a clear understanding of the extent to which the world is changing around you.

IBM’s extraordinary success driving revenues in its Box 1 mainframe business masked difficulties to come. Rather than face up to looming threats to the mainframe business, IBM applied temporary patches. One such patch ‘was to change the revenue model from leasing mainframes to selling them outright. S This produced a pleasing surge in near-term revenues that postponed IBM’s day of reckoning.

The loyalty of successful organizations to the past is often so potent that they become quite ingenious at ignoring the onset of fatigue in the Box 1 business. Instead of building the future day by day, IBM prolonged it’s past with what amounted to an accounting change. The resulting years-long period of bolstered revenues made it easy for the company to think that everything was just fine-four words that fairly summarize complacency.

Another way to understand how IBM fell into the complacency trap is that the company’s continuing Box 1 profitability delayed development of a sense of urgency that might have motivated a more prescient Box 2 judgment: that it was important to invest aggressively in the new enterprise model of client/server computing.

This is the dark side of success. No matter the industry or company, each great innovation spawns a steady accumulation of Box I-based structures, processes, and attitudes of the kind that blinded IBM to its predicament. IBM mainframes were not simply smart machines; they were smart machines that over the years had created at customer work sites whole new layers of enterprise management that had never existed before.

Mainframe computers were island fortresses, secured and operated by a newly empowered IT function and inaccessible, except through IT proxies, to the rest of the enterprise. If a technology can embody a governing philosophy, the mainframe’s philosophy was exactly opposite that of the open, accessible internet that was yet to appear. Even before the internet emerged as a business tool, there were pitched battles within almost every company about making valuable mainframe data accessible to and usable by employees with networked PCs. This increasingly loud demand clashed with the mind-set of IBM’s IT customers, who saw their mission as protecting the security and integrity of corporate data: allowing liberal access would lead to data corruption and to proliferating unreliable versions of the “truth.”

In fact, customers can play an important role in deepening a complacency trap. IBM had collaborated with its customers in creating what became an entrenched system of governance for computerized organizations. That system’s structures and attitudes were a self-reinforcing feedback loop amplified by IBM’s large-enterprise customers.

Ultimately, a more modern version of the mainframe emerged and made peace with the rest of the IT infrastructure. Today’s version powers big data analytics and other applications in many large enterprises. But in the IBM of the 1990s, mainframes cast a long shadow over the emergent model of more open, democratized network computing.

The Cannibalization Trap

The cannibalization trap persuades leaders that new business models based on nonlinear ideas will jeopardize the firm’s present prosperity. So, like antibodies attacking an invading virus, they protect the Box 1 business by resisting ideas that don’t conform to models of the past.

At its heart, the fear of cannibalization reflects a wish to keep the world from changing. It is perhaps easy to understand that wish, but it’s much harder to excuse it. The glib answer to those who suffer from this fear is to remind them that change is inevitable and the world will change either with them or without them. When a business allows worries about cannibalization to interfere with its strategy, it has overinvested in its past and is doomed to undermine its future.

Cannibalization is typically understood-and feared-as a near-term threat. As foresighted as IBM was in developing its personal computer in the early 1980s, forces marshaled within the company to protect the legacy business. Those who feared the PC believed it had the potential to threaten the mainframe computing model, perhaps by feeding the growing appetite to liberate enterprise data or by diverting attention and investment away from the company’s dominant business.

People who fear new technology are usually more right than wrong about its potential to supersede legacy products. The truth is, every Box 1 business has reason to fear, sometimes even hate, whatever shiny new thing is being launched. When Steve Jobs gave a big push to the Macintosh launch toward the end of his first stint at Apple, the group in charge of the incumbent Apple II felt threatened and undercut. It was as if cofounder Jobs had sponsored an insurrection.”

In reality, however, cannibalization should be understood as a long- term benefit. The new Apple Macintosh embodied features that soon enough would make its predecessors obsolete. If Apple hadn’t moved quickly, a competitor-maybe even IBM-would have filled the vacuum. Given its history, IBM’s embrace of microcomputing was unexpected. But it quickly set the standard for PCs and legitimized them as tools for both home and business users. While IBM’s marketing of the PC initially tilted toward home users, the real revenue bonanza came from businesses. Suddenly, at least part of IBM had reason to root for client/ server computing. No matter what anyone in the mainframe business thought about it, the client/server model had the shine of inevitability.

So, while companies must take the fear of cannibalization seriously as a problem to manage, it can’t become a reason not to act with foresight when new nonlinear strategies or business models present an opportunity.

The Competency Trap

The competency trap arises when positive results the current core business encourage the organization to invest mainly in Box 1 competencies and provide little incentive for investing in new and future-oriented competencies. In established companies built around a spectacular success, such as IBM’s industry-defining mainframe computers, it is natural to want to create a workforce whose skills dominantly reflect the legacy success. But a competency trap is a double- edged sword. IBM’s investments in Box 1 competencies helped its mainframe business. But Box 1 logic asks, why invest in skills not vital to the company’s current profitability? That is why Box 2 is necessary.

IBM eventually recognized that the dominant computing model it had exploited to achieve such great success was changing. Yet, despite having made significant investments in a robust R&D function, it was having chronic difficulty incubating new ventures. It struggled to find what IBM insiders called “The Next Big Thing.” The organization appeared to have succumbed to a “four monkeys” value system.

Believing that there were indeed systemic problems, then-CEO Louis Gerstner commissioned an internal inquiry to identify root causes. The inquiry, led by Bruce Harreld, IBM’s head of corporate strategy, confirmed Gerstner’s fears. Looking at a number of recent examples of flawed new-business incubation, Harreld’s team concluded that the company’s dominant Box 1 systems, structures, processes, and culture had:

  • Created a powerful bias for near-term results.
  • Encouraged a focus on existing customers and offerings to the extent that new technologies and nonlinear trends were either underestimated or escaped detection entirely.
  • Burdened new businesses with unreasonably high performance goals-especially damaging to ventures that targeted newer, riskier, but often more promising markets.
  • Motivated an unimaginative approach to market analysis that impaired the company’s ability to understand the sorts of “embryonic markets” most likely to spawn nonlinear Box 3 ideas.
  • Interfered with development of the skills necessary to adaptively transition a new business through its emergent and growth stages until it finally became an established enterprise.
  • Caused assorted failures of execution, many owing to the inflexibility of Box l=driven organizational structures, which leaders of new ventures “were expected to rise above … Voicing concerns over [such challenges], even when they were major barriers to new business initiatives, was seen as a sign of weakness.”

What the report didn’t say is important to note. IBM’s problem was not caused by a lack of research competency. On the contrary, its workforce possessed at least some expertise in a wide array of disciplines and technologies. Among its research projects were some that were quite promising and others that were highly speculative, unproven, and obscure. But for all the reasons listed, even ideas that managed to get traction were being ineptly developed and executed. What IBM needed was a well-designed process for enabling, supporting, and rewarding its maverick monkeys and likewise for managing new ventures onward through their developmental stages.

Such a process typically should incorporate a range of structural, cultural, and leadership remedies. At IBM-first under Gerstner and later Sam Palmisano-these distinctive remedies came together under the emerging business opportunities (EBO) framework, which created new structures, changes to the buttoned-down IBM culture, and more versatile and adaptive leadership behavior.