4 minutes | Feb 11, 2021
A few weeks ago, I was assembling a new desk in our studio. Mostly the project was going smoothly, but one pesky bolt wasn’t fitting onto a brace for the desk. The wrench I had clearly wasn’t working well for the job, but I figured I could just force it a bit instead of having to go all the way back to the garage to get the wrench I really needed. I pressed on with the wrongly-sized wrench, only to have it slip out of my fingers and slice into my thumb. This resulted in me having to stop the work, address the minor bleeding, get a bandage, and then eventually make it back down to the garage to get the wrench I should have gotten in the first place. This of course took way longer than if I had just started with the right tool. The entire rest of the assembly also slowed down since I had to be mindful that I didn’t lose the bandage and risk dropping blood on the furniture. You’ve done something like this too, right? Sometimes it’s just easier to use tool you already grabbed than to stop and get the tool you need. I fear this happens sometimes with leaders when it comes to the skill of coaching. All of us have heard about the importance of having good coaching skills. It’s an essential tool in the toolbox of every leader — one of the most important ones, in fact. It’s useful, powerful, even inspiring, when used well. But it is only one tool and, just like an actual toolbox, one tool isn’t enough for every situation. Feedback for leaders is also important. So is training. In some situations, being directive is right. Facilitation is essential when trying to surface new ideas. And of course, so is accountability when expectations aren’t met. If you go onto our website and look in the episode library, there are more than 60 categories of skills databased from podcasts episodes I’ve aired over the years. One of those categories is called “Coaching Skills” but there are a lot of others. In fact, of the over 500 episodes I’ve aired on the Coaching for Leaders podcast, only about two dozen directly address what I would call coaching skills. Don’t get me wrong…nobody is happier to see a lot more leaders appreciating and using coaching skills in recent years. Yet, I fear that I and others have unintentionally sent the message that coaching skills are critical, while other skills are perhaps secondary. After all, I’m the one who named a podcast “Coaching for Leaders”. But the podcast could be as easily be called Training for Leaders, or Management or Leaders, or Conversations for Leaders, or probably a dozen other words that would reflect the full repertoire of skills that most leaders need. This is one of the reasons I’ve always appreciated the Situational Leadership model created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. They challenge leaders to first assess the situation and then respond with the appropriate behavior. Just like you would do if tackling a house project. Determine what’s needed first. Grab the correct tool, second. If your coaching skills aren’t getting people where they need to go, it could be that improving your skills might help. But it also could be that you’re using the wrong tool for the situation. I hope that you’ll use coaching a lot as a leader. It’s a wonderful place to begin from — and it will serve you and others well throughout your career. And, I give you permission to not be so coach-like, if the situation dictates something else. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
5 minutes | Jun 12, 2020
Changed My Mind
When I was 16 years old, I discovered that the police department in the town I grew up in had an explorer program. Since I was interested in a career in law enforcement at the time, I attended a meeting and quickly joined. I was never a sworn police officer - nor have I ever done any of the difficult work in policing. However, I did spend two years volunteering in uniform at community events, riding along many times with police officers on patrol, and even graduated from a junior police academy. I once witnessed a police officer get assaulted right in front of me. I had an up-front view of how complex the job of police officer is and, although I concluded that law enforcement wasn’t for me, it shaped a lot of my worldview - especially from the perspective of the police. If you’ve ever listened to the Coaching for Leaders podcast, you know that I often ask experts at the end of interviews what they’ve changed their minds on. It’s a question I also pose to myself. It’s relevant to speak on the events of the day, because George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police has direct implications for how many of us in organizations do better. In the recent years, and reaffirmed in the last month, I’ve changed my mind on at least three things. First, I used to believe that, unless there was substantial evidence to the contrary, we should generally give police departments the benefit of the doubt, since excessive use of force seemed rare and isolated. On this belief, I was wrong. Thank goodness for smartphones with cameras. They have opened my eyes to what Black folks have been saying for years about police brutality. After seeing hundreds of these videos in recent years, it’s clear that many of these incidents are deeply rooted in systemic racism, not only in our policing, but in American society as a whole. Yes, of course police work is dangerous, but so is commercial fishing, agriculture work, and construction. Yes, there are police leaders who have taken significant action to address racism in policing, but many also have not. I’m done giving police departments the benefit of the doubt. Second, I used to believe that, it’s just a reality for us as a society to accept some “bad apples” in our police forces. Comedian Chris Rock points out that there are some jobs that are too important to allow for bad behavior. Take pilots for example. No airline allows a margin of error for a certain number of crash landings each year. No nuclear power plant allows its engineers an acceptable number of meltdowns. No hospital allows surgeons a quota for ignoring the needs of certain patients. I’m left with the uncomfortable conclusion that, particularly on this issue, racism is why I haven’t held police officers to the same standard I would expect of any other professional dealing with life-safety issues. As a result, I’ve changed my mind on allowing a different standard in policing - and in my thinking. But the most important thing I’ve changed my mind on is my own contribution. If George Floyd’s murder had happened five years ago and you asked me who killed him, I would have said, “Four police officers.” I’ve changed my mind on that, too. Today, I know his blood is also on my hands. While my contribution is different than the people who physically killed him, I and others with privilege contributed to his murder by: Not speaking out against the militarization of America’s police departments. Not recognizing that we need better options for responding to complex situations in our society other than just sending in armed officers. Not pushing any of my elected representatives on this issue. Not having enough empathy for my Black brothers and sisters who have been doing everything imaginable to get attention on this, for years. I don’t know where this leaves you, but it leaves me with the commitment to do better on what I’m often inviting others to do:
5 minutes | Mar 5, 2020
Apps and Operating Systems
Most of the devices we use each day have two essential software components: apps and operating systems. The best apps usually do a few things really well. The browser app on my iPhone makes sure I can view websites easily. The task management app makes sure I don’t miss a deadline. I just looked and I have 149 apps on my iPhone. I have no idea how that compares with the general population, but my guess from casual interactions with others is that I’m not alone with a large quantity of apps. That also means lots of updates. It seems like at least 2-3 of them get an update, just about everyday. Often, these fix a problem with the app or make it better in some meaningful way. All of these apps run on top of Apple’s iOS operating system. Unlike individual apps that do one specific thing, the operating system provides a broad foundation for the entire device to perform well. Operating system updates happen less often. They also take longer to install — usually 5-10 minutes instead of just a few seconds. When the operating system gets better, the entire device gets more useful and also opens up the potential for apps to do a lot more. While iOS alone doesn’t make the iPhone useful, it provides an essential foundation for everything else. The overall strength of iOS has enabled a robust ecosystem of apps from developers to flourish — and turned the iPhone into the most successful consumer product of all time. The reason I’m illuminating this distinction is because I get this question all the time when I open up applications for our Coaching for Leaders Academy: What’s better for me? Hiring an executive coach or applying for your Academy? If you can appreciate the difference between updating an app and updating an operating system, it will illuminate how I respond to this question: Talented executive coaches like my friend Tom Henschel are really good at contracting with leaders and organizations to help them get better at a couple of key areas over a short period of time. When there’s a specific behavior or skill that’s holding you back (or would benefit from focused refinement) coaching is a great way to go. Good coaches are masters at catching things quickly that aren’t working and noticing the thinking errors that you may be making. They will challenge you and help you change your behavior quickly, assuming you are willing and ready. That’s just like getting an update for an app. It’s specific, it’s focused, and ideally, it’s done in a fairly accelerated period of time. Unlike coaching, our Academy is far broader in focus. While we do zero in tactically on specific commitments, the overall aim is comprehensive leadership development. The Academy helps leaders get really good at articulating what the future should look like, assess where there are today, and develop a practice of implementing tactical commitments that help them and their teams achieve results. Plus, they learn how to give and receive objective perspective from others who are outside of their organizations. A leader with a strong foundation in these areas has the ability to do a lot with it — and the potential to take a lot of other people along with them. While coaching is usually done one on one, our Academy members work together with me and the same 5-6 colleagues over an entire year. It means that, each person moves slower than they would with one on one coaching, especially in the initial stages. But it also means that they get a far broader perspective, because they benefit from (and implement) the discoveries their colleagues are making along the way. While I’m always thrilled to see people getting results from their commitments, the real achievement is at the end of our Academy year when leaders have made behavior change a practice for themselves and their teams. That’s an operating system update. It takes longer, but it’s a comprehensive change that enables leadership development as a consistent behavi...
3 minutes | Feb 20, 2020
A client told me recently that his manager was concerned about a behavior he’d observed in customer meetings: You’re not jumping in fast enough. My client agreed with the feedback. He even offered to me that he’s noticed the awkward silence in some meetings when people look to him, expecting his input. As we started discussing what he might do, I couldn’t help but empathize with the situation. Early in my career, I noticed that same awkward silence in some meetings when people would turn to me. Like my client, it was an annoyance early in my career, but become a more apparent issue after a few promotions. At the management level, it’s important to be able to jump in. At the executive level, it’s essential. Sadly, the unstated assumption that’s sometimes made in western business culture when someone doesn’t speak up is either that they aren’t sharp — or they aren’t engaged. Ironically, sometimes those of us who are naturally quieter in meetings are the ones thinking most deeply about the issue at hand. Then, when we’re suddenly turned to for a recommendation or decision, we’re caught off guard. I’ve come away from a handful of meetings in my professional life feeling like I just got punished for thinking too much. Years ago, I stumbled on this tactic: Always have a question ready. Whenever I didn’t know what to say next, I’d immediately ask a clarifying question. This resulted in three benefits: First, the perception that I wasn’t engaged or thinking quickly enough started to change. In fact, after doing this awhile, some stakeholders actually started asking me for my questions, since they often helped us achieve better outcomes. Second, it gave me time to think. I realized that one of the reasons I previously hesitated to give input was because I didn’t have all the information. Being curious yielded more information, making recommendations and decisions easier. And finally, it got me used to jumping in. Now as a learned skill, I ironically have the opposite challenge of sometimes jumping in too quickly. If this is a struggle for you too, I invite you to always have a question ready. If you do, it’s lot easier to jump in when it matters most. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
2 minutes | Feb 13, 2020
The Cheshire Cat
My son and I are reading the original Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. This exchange appears in the book: Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?” The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?” I’m often asked for advice on what to do next in complex situations. The question I find myself asking is: What’s the outcome you want? The most common response to that question is: Hmmmm. Often followed with, “Good question,” or “I probably should have more clarity on that,” or “I hadn’t thought much about it until this moment.” Like most animals, we are good at seeing what’s right in front of us. Unlike most animals, we have a capacity to envision a different future. There’s nothing wrong with walking around aimlessly. In fact, we should all be doing more of it. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, says: Not only do you need to spend time thinking, you need to spend time not thinking – absolutely daydreaming. So, daydream away. And then, when the time comes to make an intentional turn, decide first where you’re going. If you do, it’s easier to see which road to take. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
3 minutes | Jan 30, 2020
Did You Notice What I Didn’t Say?
One of our Academy members reached out to me awhile back. He was handling a delicate situation in his organization, requiring him to navigate tons of internal politics. He needed to suddenly give a lot of people a company line he didn’t exactly agree with. He didn’t have ethical objections to the change, but it noticeably didn’t align with the path he’d been cultivating for his team. He knew people would officially accept it, but also that some of his most trusted employees would ask him questions in private. The complex politics of the moment were such that it simply wasn’t appropriate for him to say anything in the short-term, even in private, that deviated from the official message. He was part of a large bureaucracy and playing the long-game. His question to me: How do I say something when I shouldn’t say anything? It reminded me about a discussion I had years ago with a former boss. I was making a courtesy request for something that I thought was a formality. Instead of the “yes” I was used to, I got an uncharacteristically quick denial, followed by silence. Surprised, I asked for a bit more explanation, only to get basically the same response, worded in a slightly different way. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, since I had a great relationship with my boss and he regularly shared his thinking behind almost every decision. Before I determined how to proceed with the conversation, he offered this: Maybe you noticed what I didn’t say. I instantly understood: I see you, I’m with you, but I can’t touch this politically right now. I am an optimist who believes in transparency and trust in organizations. And I’m a realist too. As much as I’d love to convince myself that every leader, customer, and organization is ready for full transparency, sometimes the moment isn’t right, and may do more harm than good. Use this sparingly with the right people. However, when you’re playing the long-game, sometimes it’s helpful to acknowledge what wasn’t said. Like that country song goes, occasionally you say it best, when you say nothing at all. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
5 minutes | Jan 23, 2020
A Drop of Honey
This past weekend, I had to do something I’ve been dreading for awhile. It’s been looming over me. It’s been staring at me (literally) for years. The old paint cans needed to go. Several painting projects over the years had littered our garage with half full cans of paint. And, since I’d placed it on my 90-day personal plan, I begrudgingly decided to do something about it. I had our children help me move the cans out of the garage (curiously, they were also not excited about this project). I cataloged each color by photographing all the cans. And then, loaded them all up into the back of our vehicle to take to our designated hazardous waste disposal site. When I arrived there, I was sore, tired, and resentful that this had already taken more of my Saturday that I originally planned. After all, I had committed to doing this, but I had not committed to being happy about it. The employee at the drop-off site took one look at me and said: You’re not supposed to be transporting that much paint at one time. He immediately went onto tell me that the rules only allowed him to accept about a third of what I’d brought. To drop off the rest, I’d need to make return trips, since there’s a daily drop-off limit. In retrospect, I should have known there would be a limit, but it didn’t occur to me to look it up before I got on the road. These limits are smart and sensible. Without them, there would be all kinds of carelessness and attempts to dump industrial waste or otherwise abuse the system. In my specific case, this sensible rule didn’t seem to make much sense. Either way, the paint was going to end up at this site — but under the rules, I’d be coming back over three days, burning more gas to harm the environment more and opening up additional chances that the paint would spill in transport. Plus, taking more of everybody’s time and paperwork. So, the well-intended rule was, at least in this case, counter-productive. I hesitate a bit to share a story like this, because on its face, it’s completely inconsequential. I had to make a few extra trips to the landfill to rid myself of too many paint cans from our beautifully painted home. Talk about a first world problem. But the exact same kind of thing happens everyday in organizations all over the place. The well-intended policy or procedure doesn’t make sense (or actually causes harm) in a specific situation. Since no rule can address every possible situation, wisdom is needed. One of the many definitions Merriem-Webster has for wisdom is a bit of “good judgement.” On more occasions than I’d care to admit, I’ve expressed anger about well-intended rules to people who didn’t make the rules, but are being paid to enforce them. Most of us have lost our cool with a customer service representative who, like many of us, is simply attempting to do a good days work, handle the next situation, and follow the guidelines of their organization. So when the opportunity comes for a bit of good judgement, we get to make the choice. Do we lead with an attack — or do we lead with kindness? Abraham Lincoln is believed to have said: A drop of honey gathers more flies than a gallon of gall. Easy to say. Hard to remember when you’re sore, tired, and feeling resentful. After getting my lecture about bringing too much paint and the details on when I’d need to come back, I had the conscious thought of all the Dale Carnegie courses I’d taught over the years. So, I started with this: Wow. Thanks for telling me. So sorry — I wasn’t aware what the limit was. I’ll plan to come back on Monday. And I added: How’s your day going? This started a conversation that ended with this a few minutes later: We’re closing in 15 minutes. If you drive around and come back in the line in 10 minutes, I’ll see what I can do about the rest. Translation: We both know the rule. We both why the rule is here. In this case, a bit of wisdom should prevail.
2 minutes | Jan 9, 2020
Mark Twain once received this telegram from a publisher: NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS. He sent this response back: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES. Twain’s point is as important for leaders as it is for writers. Being concise takes discipline and, ironically, time. All of us put ideas together in different ways. Some leaders like to just write it all out. Others think best by talking things through out loud. Some of us do our best idea generation while out on a long run. Regardless of how you do your thinking, make a clear distinction between thinking and messaging. The burden is on you to parse out what’s most important in your communications. Don’t leave that effort and interpretation to others. Start by discovering the length of your communications right now. Go back and do a word count on the last staff email you sent, or check the total time on your last voice message. Maybe even have somebody track how much you talk in a few, critical meetings. Once you know where you land, set a boundary that encourages you to be concise. For example, my own boundry for the audio of these journal entries is five minutes. If you are willing to take the burden off others to parse your message, they’ll be much more likely to hear what you’ve said and act in alignment with your intentions. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
5 minutes | Dec 13, 2019
About fifteen years ago, I was sitting in the lobby of a building at a client site, waiting for an appointment. An employee walked into the lobby and started a conversation with the security guard. It seemed they knew each other well and the she either didn’t notice me or have any care about her conversation being overheard. They exchanged a few pleasantries and then she said this: When I got my job here, I was so excited. She went onto describe that she had worked really hard to land the position and did her best to make an amazing impression in her first year. She continued: At the end of the year, I received my performance review: meets expectations. She told the guard that while she was disappointed she hadn’t gotten a higher overall rating, she recognized that perhaps there was more she could have done. So the second year, I busted my butt. She went onto describe how she volunteered for assignments, took tons of initiative, worked late hours — and several other key factors that aligned with getting an “exceed expectations” on the next review. The second year’s rating: Meets expectations. I could hear the pain in her voice as she recounted what a difficult blow that was for her at the time. Not only did the review come back the same, but apparently there wasn’t any acknowledgment that she had done anything different. After I worked through the anger, I decided on a different tactic. She went onto describe that in the third year, she basically gave up. I came in late some days. I left early more than I should have. I stopped volunteering to help. Basically, I just did what I had to do — and nothing else. The third year’s rating? Meets expectations. It became apparent from the context of the dialogue that this had been years ago. She continued: So that’s when I realized that I could basically just show up here and do the bare minimum. I’ve got three years to do until I’m fully vested in the pension — and then I’m out of here. I never saw the woman again and have no idea if she made it the last three years. I went onto do work with the organization and, without revealing any identifying details (it was a large enterprise), later shared this story in some of the training I facilitated for managers. The reaction from most people was similar: What an awful attitude to show up with for your entire career. I agree. That was also the reaction I had the day I heard the conversation. But I think it misses the leadership lesson. There are always two sides to every story. I have no doubt that if we tracked down the manager who gave those early reviews, we’d hear a lot more detail that would change the narrative. Yet, while perhaps an extreme example, the story lined up pretty well with what I heard from other employees in the organization at that time. Regardless of the work quality, there were many examples of people who felt they were ignored. If we take her story at face value, she didn’t start her career with such a negative attitude. Apparently, she came in wanting to perform, but the culture there eventually taught her otherwise. As we’ve discussed on Coaching for Leaders many times, the best managers balance a care for people with coaching that helps highlight what people do well and helps them get better when they fall short. Less effective are the managers who only give praise — but are fearful to be candid. And even the managers who only criticize — well, at least they are paying attention. I had a manager once when I was working a part-time job who only criticized. And I still learned lot from him — mostly in an effort to avoid getting criticized. All those things are better than the worst possible way to manage: to not really say much of anything. If that might be you, I invite you to begin saying something. Regardless on how eloquent you are, you’ll likely be doing better than if you said nothing at all. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcast...
5 minutes | Dec 5, 2019
How to Prevent Micromanagement
Most of us have had that manager that annoyed us to all ends with micromanagement. They were in our face every three hours about a task because we weren’t quite doing it right and it had to be done their way. As a result, it’s been my experience that most managers have some level of healthy concern about not becoming that person. That’s a good place to be. Until it’s not. I actually find the opposite problem more often the issue. Out of concern to not become a micromanager, people tack completely to the other extreme and don’t manage much at all. Occasionally, a superstar employee comes back constantly with amazing work. More often, people miss the mark — especially those who don’t have as much experience. Yet, we’re hesitant to step in, even if it means we’ve got to pick up the pieces ourselves later. After all, we’re supposed to empower people to take ownership over their work and have autonomy and all those things Daniel Pink taught us* about how to motivate people, right? This is where a distinction is critical. There’s a difference between autonomy and independence. Independence means we hand off something and do little to nothing to connect with people before they complete the work. Independence is a wonderful place to get to. It’s awesome to be able to deputize an employee to do great work and then get back a result that’s way better than anything you would have done. However, that’s not the place start a working relationship. And it’s certainly not the place most of us are with with many of the people we lead. Autonomy, in contrast, gives a person the right level of ownership over their work. I also allows for active coaching and management as they learn new skills, make mistakes, and come up short. Micromanagement is bad, sure. What’s worse? The other extreme. Little management at all. I have worked for micromanagers and I have worked for people who have not engaged much. The first is more uncomfortable, but having done both, I’m sure which is worse. At least with a micromanager, you learn something and know where you stand, annoying as it may be. Effective managers give people the right amount of autonomy and are there along the way to help them stay on track and support them. This begs the question: Alight, but how do I determine the right level of autonomy? That’s different in every situation. These two variables will help you decide what makes sense: First, consider experience. How successfully has this person executed this work before? If they’ve never done anything close to what you are asking them to do, both they and you should expect that you’ll check in a lot more often. Of course you can provide autonomy in these situations, it’s just less autonomy than if they had done the work a dozen times before. That’s because this is the point where they want (and probably expect) more time and direction from you. The second variable is to consider the visibility or importance of the work. If the work is for an internal customer that is less sensitive about it being done perfectly, that lends itself to more autonomy. If the work is central to a deliverable for a top client, that lends itself to less autonomy. These two variables change with every task or project. Even if you have a very experienced employee who normally you don’t check in with often, you’re going to define less autonomy up front if they are working on the most important deliverable for the organization’s #1 client. The key is that you as the manager discuss up front, before the work even starts, how much autonomy they have in the context of their experience and the visibility of the work. Micromanagement happens when people don’t expect it. When you’ve agreed in advance to check in daily, that’s not micromanagement. It’s you and them doing what you already said you would do to help them get better. In Gallup’s most recent book, It’s the Manager*, the message is clear:
3 minutes | Nov 21, 2019
Appeal to the Nobler Motive
I began my career working in a neighborhood education center. Early on in my new job, a parent called one day to inform us that her daughter, who was struggling with math, would not be continuing in our program. I spent a minute or two chatting with the mom. It wasn’t about the money. The child just wasn’t motivated to do the work and she didn’t see the point in continuing to take everybody’s time. Later that day, my boss (who knew way more about the girl’s struggles with math than I did) heard about the call and took me aside. When she discovered that I hadn’t done much to advocate for the child, she didn’t pulled any punches. She took a step towards me, waved her finger in my face, and raised her voice: You call her back now and you tell her she’s wrong. The demand was so blunt that I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t. Of course, she didn’t literally expect me to say those words, but she did expect me to advocate for the child - and she wasn’t going to let me off the hook until I did it. My boss knew from experience that if this girl stopped now, they’d likely never get serious about math. Feeling like I had little choice, I made the call. Twenty years later, I remember little about the conversation except that I went in with the intention to advocate for the child. Somehow, I convinced the mom to keep going until the child’s confidence in math improved. I would not recommend this style of management. My boss got away with it because she was a top performer, but also because she did something amazingly well that Dale Carnegie taught in How to Win Friends and Influence People*: Appeal to the nobler motive. Once it was clear I had turned the situation around, it was like her demand never happened. She made it a win for the child — and me. You did that. You changed that child’s life. Incidents like that happened again and again in the year I worked for her. She pushed my colleague and I super hard, every day. When we performed well, she was the first to tell us. When we screwed up, she was in our face with tons of observation and coaching, until we got better. And when we had a big win, she’d broadcast it far and wide. She’d talk about the kids lives we changed and helped us build our brands within the company. Both of us got fast-tracked for promotion, because of it. The first week I worked for this boss, I didn’t want to come back. By the time I came under a new boss a year later, I immediately missed her. I had quickly learned that she would fight tooth and nail for any employee who was making a big difference for kids. Lots of people give feedback. Some do it gracefully; some don’t. But few tie it to the nobler motive — the bigger, larger reason behind the numbers. Be the kind of leader who appeals to what really matters and, even when the feedback is tough, reminds people why they’re really there. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
5 minutes | Nov 14, 2019
You’re Not Helping
A client reached out to me recently and shared a struggle he’s been having. His organization is going through a difficult time — for reasons that have nothing to do with him, his team, or his part of the organization. Strong headwinds are at play for the entire industry that will likely take several years to play out. He mentioned that in the recent past, a few higher level leaders have swooped in for site visits and promised resources and changes to help his team better weather the storm. However, these espoused resources never seem to materialize. Of course, this has only made the problem worse. Members of this person’s team, already struggling to find motivation during a difficult time, get quickly aggravated by promises of help — only to later discover that the promises are empty. I couldn’t help but empathize with this leader, since I’ve seen this happen before. A usually well-meaning, senior leader comes out for a site visit and make promises to help with something. And then nothing happens. I also find myself empathizing a bit with the senior person, too. I’m sure there’s a least a few times in my career when I, hopefully well-meaning, promised things I didn’t deliver on. When you are visiting a team or site that you don’t see everyday and are surprised about a resource they don’t have, there’s the tendency for a lot of us to want to be the hero and deliver something that helps everybody out. Sometimes we don’t follow through as senior leaders — and sometimes, we do follow though, only to discover that the situation is, of course, a bit more complicated that we first thought. Good intentions and effort aside, the complexity sometimes requires us to put things on the back burner. Yet another reminder of these wise words from the book Difficult Conversations*: Intent does not equal impact. Our conversation ended up surfacing two actions this leader could take to minimize this issue, going forward. First, we decided that when a senior leader comes for a site visit, making a simple request in advance could help. The invitation might sound something like this either over the phone or privately, at the start of the visit: You’ll likely hear some frustrations from my team today, since it’s a difficult time for all of us. I know you want to help support us in the best way possible. If you see a way to help and you’re certain it’s something you can do immediately, we’re really grateful for that. If, however, you see a place to help and the resources/budget aren’t available today, it will help me immensely if we can chat offline first. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking and then find the right way to roll it out, once the resources are in place. Some senior leaders will get that message loud and clear. Some won’t. That can’t be controlled — but you can still make the request. Second, in the spirit of teaching people how to help you, some people simply don’t know what to do if they can’t swoop in to save the day. Rather than just telling people what they shouldn’t do, it’s often useful to also be directive on exactly how they can help. An invitation like this can go a long way: Thank you for being here to support us. Here’s the way you can help my team the most during this visit. Spend time asking questions about their work. You’re going to hear frustrations. Listen to them. Don’t try to solve them. Once you’ve listened, even if it’s unclear what you can provide right now to help, show them they’ve been heard. They need that right now — and it will also help me a lot in the coming weeks. I’ve rarely seen a senior person push back on an invitation like this. They may not execute it well, but they’ll likely do better than if you said nothing. It’s a lot easier to get irritated with the “You’re not helping,” complaint than to do the more proactive work of asking for help. Teach people how to help you, so you’re more likely to get the support you need.
3 minutes | Nov 7, 2019
If You Can, Move Your Feet
This week, I’ve heard lots of bad news. This has included things like an unexpected layoff, dealing with a mental health challenge, losing a major business deal, and an unwanted result from a doctor. The fact that bad things are happening in the world is obviously not news, but it’s personal when it’s someone you know and care about. As I heard about these different situations from the people who were sharing them, I was struck by the odd coincidence that all of them, not knowing each other, had already made some sort of substantial movement to address whatever had landed in their lap. I found myself in awe and, despite the challenges ahead, amazed by how willing everyone appeared in working through whatever the situation was. It reminded me of a passage in the book Difficult Conversations*. This legend is retold: After observing O Sensei, the founder of Aikido, sparring with an accomplished fighter, a young student said to the master, “You never lose your balance. What is your secret?” “You are wrong,” O Sensei replied. “I am constantly losing my balance. My skill lies in my ability to regain it.” It’s virtually impossible to lead the kinds of lives that many of us lead and not get knocked off our game pretty regularly. A lot of the time, it means we look a bit awkward. Sometimes, like a few situations I’ve heard about this week, we get knocked flat on our face. For all the things we have influence over in our lives, there are infinitely more things we can’t control. What is controllable is what happens after we get knocked to the ground. We can stay there, forever. We can stay there for awhile, and then get up. Or, we can just get up. Having done all three of those before and stayed on the ground for years at a time, I’m not attempting to pass any judgement on what you should do in any given situation. Had I had some of the things happen to me this week that I heard about from others, I’d still be on the ground. The invitation here is the simple reminder for all of us that, even in the midst of chaos, we get to choose if we get up -- and when that is. When we can get up, rarely does it solve the problem, but it allows us agency to own it. Maybe that’s why this bit of wisdom, attributed as an African proverb, has inspired me more than once: When you pray, move your feet. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
3 minutes | Oct 31, 2019
Be a Stress Engineer
Years ago, I was instructing a training course for a group of engineers building fighter jets. During the introductions, several the participants introduced themselves as stress engineers. I was curious what a stress engineer did, so naturally I asked one of them about it later. Turns out the job involves analyzing the various materials used on the aircraft and then testing how much strain they can handle. As you’d imagine, figuring this out is pretty important when building an aircraft. If you’ve ever watched out the window of a plane going through turbulence, you know how much a wing can (and should) bend when exposed to stress. It’s super important that these materials are flexible. If they weren’t, they would have to be so heavy that it would make flight almost impossible. So, understanding and managing stress actually enables flight in the first place. Think about that for a second. Managing stress enables flight. Otherwise, it would be nearly impossible. It’s interesting how we accept this reality when building things like aircraft, vehicles, and strutures — but when it comes to our own careers and lives, we view stress only as a problem. A lot of us view deadlines as roadblocks instead of checkpoints that keep us moving forward. We get nervous when speaking in front of a large audience instead of thinking about how that fear could be reframed as excitement. We work towards early retirement, expecting the the excessive stress we take on for the next decade will pay off in some kind of stress-free existence later. No doubt, just like on an airplane, excessive stress is a problem. If a major medical situations hits, you lose your job, or a crisis happens in your life, those are serious problems that any of us would struggle with. And, the opposite is also a problem. No stress, no deadlines, no obligations — sure, it’s nice on vacation for a week or two, but over time, even if you could create that reality, it wouldn’t be healthy. All of us know people who’ve tried to eliminate stress from their life (like through traditional retirement) and declined in health and happiness. Be like a stress engineer. Don’t waste time trying to eliminate stress. Instead, anticipate where it’s likely to come from, notice when you handle it well and when you don’t, and build your commitments to align well with the optimal stress level for you. When you align stress with intention, you’ll be flying high for a long time. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
4 minutes | Oct 10, 2019
The Irony of Selfishness
A decade ago, I responded to an inquiry from a new client who had reached out to talk about being more effective. During our first meeting, it became increasingly apparent that he was working a lot. At some point in the conversation, we got into detail on his schedule. He was woking 12-14 hours, most days. “Most days” meant virtually everyday. Monday through Friday. And Saturday. And Sunday. On Sundays, he would come in to work for a few hours in the morning, leave to spend time with him family mid-day, and come back to work in the late afternoon. He wasn’t an executive or even a senior manager. He was a very experienced, individual contributor with a lot of talent. He was also exhausted and close to a breaking point. As we talked more, I learned that the excessive hours had emerged gradually over a few years. While he had started at the company with a more typical schedule, things kept getting busier. We discovered that he struggled with putting boundaries on requests. Because of this, others kept asking more. He eventually allowed so much on his plate that he found working 80+ hour weeks almost essential. What prevented him from pushing back or asking for more resources? He didn’t want to appear selfish by not helping his colleagues. While not normally this extreme, I see this patten a lot. Many of us justify taking on tons more because we don’t want to be selfish. After all, it’s our job to step in and help, to be a team player, and “support our family” as some organizations say. This is problematic when it comes from a place of avoiding asking for resources because it seems selfish. Ironically, in attempting to avoid selfishness, we end creating more of it. Merriam-Webster says that being selfish is: Lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure. Making a choice to do a ton more for our organization and not asking for the right resources is selfish — because we get the pleasure of avoiding tough conversations and mostly other people pay the price for it in the long-run. Our family and friends pay a price when we take on tons more work and don’t get a promotion, a salary bump, or more vacation time. Suddenly they get less of us, and nothing else. In the long-run, they lose. Our organizations pays a price when we eventually feel resentful about all we’re doing for a role without anything in return. This eventually results in our disengagement or departure. In the long-run, they lose. When we eventually move on from our position, as most of us do, taking on tons more and not getting the right resources means we’ve misrepresented what a typical candidate for our role can reasonably accomplish. When we’re holding a role together through shear personality and willpower rather than the right systems and resources, things fall apart quickly when we’re gone. Contrary to popular belief, that is not a win. Things falling apart shortly after we leave doesn’t mean we were brilliant. It means we failed to put the right resources in place for the work to be sustainable. What motivates us to do this then? The selfish the pleasure of being the hero. There are many, appropriate times in work and life that we all jump in to help. When this comes from a place of transition, margin, growth, or joy, what a wonderful gift to give to others and our organizations. Let’s just beware telling ourselves that we’re doing the world a favor by not asking for what we need. When there’s full transparency on what resources are necessary to do the job well, we’ll find more happiness over time and the people around us win too. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
4 minutes | Oct 3, 2019
Get Your Emails Read
When I first started the Coaching for Leaders podcast back in 2011, it didn’t even occur to me to reach out to well known experts to appear on the show. At some point after the first year, I got a little braver. (Not smarter, but braver.) I started sending out some invitations, asking experts to appear as guests. Based on the lack of responses, most of these emails probably went ignored. I still remember well the response from an assistant of a well-known expert who wrote back and thanked me so kindly for reaching out, but said that sadly she couldn’t make the interview work with this person’s schedule. While I knew that was probably code for “your show isn’t big enough” I was oddly thrilled that someone actually read an email and considered the request at all. About a year later, I saw that this same expert had a new book coming out. I thought it might be a good time to reach out again, so I pulled up the prior conversation in my inbox. I noticed that the subject line of the email I sent a year earlier was this: Invitation to appear on Coaching for Leaders It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. Nobody, especially back then, knew or cared about appearing on my show. They were instead wondering the same thing that all of us wonder — especially when we get a request for time from someone we don’t know: What’s in it for me? I drafted a new email with this subject line: Invitation to promote your new book This time, I drafted a message with only the relevant information about the show that would matter in the context of this expert getting traction for their work. I hit send. Three hours later, the interview was booked. For a long time, I’d made the mistake of sending too many emails that were written from the point of view of my interests. After booking this interview, I realized how critical it was for me to be making requests that spoke to the interests of the recipient. I had spent a year writing invitations that completely ignored one of the principles I’d been teaching at Dale Carnegie: Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. I’ve discovered this is critical for subject lines. If the subject line doesn’t provide immediate, apparent value to the recipient, it’s far less likely to get attention, if it’s opened at all. You don’t need to be a creative genius to get results with this. Consider the value the recipient gets from message. Here’s an example of an average subject line: Agenda for today Instead, make the value of the same message more apparent with a subject line like this: 3 key points for your 1pm meeting The value of that subject line is more more specific and apparent. Draft at least one email today will a subject line that demonstrates value to the recipient. If you do, your emails are much more likely to be noticed, read, and acted on. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
5 minutes | Sep 26, 2019
Giving the Gift of Feedback
When I was about six years old, my dad bought a Tandy 1000 computer from Radio Shack as a Christmas gift for our family. I remember learning how to use the floppy disks, how to connect the dot matrix printer, and the intricate details of swapping memory boards to upgrade from 128K of memory to 256K. We spent countless hours playing games, learning MS-DOS, and occasionally pulling our hair out in frustration as we navigated this new world of personal computing. It spurred my interest in using technology to make our lives better. Without it, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten as excited about technology or ever used to reach others as much as I do today. My dad’s intention behind this gift was great: introducing us to technology that was likely to be a part of our future. The context was right too: I was just old enough and it was Christmastime. My dad was also great about encouraging me to explore learning the hardware and software on my own. Even though I had no idea what it was when it first came out of the box, it ended up being one of the best gifts I ever received. That’s the kind of gift every person wants to be able to give. A meaningful gift that, decades later, the other person will still remember and appreciate. Sadly, it almost never works that way. For every gift like that Tandy 1000, there are countless gifts I’ve received in my life that I can’t even remember — and some that I returned as fast as I could. In retrospect, it really had nothing to do with the person giving the gift. Mostly, it was about my readiness to receive the gift. I suspect the same is true for you. A friend asked me recently if I had any advice for teaching others how to give feedback to help people improve — and I couldn’t help but think about how feedback is very much like giving a gift. First, the intention must be genuine. Feedback should be given to help someone get better, not to make us feel better about ourselves. Most of us have made the mistake of buying someone a gift that we’d like instead of considering what the other person really wanted. The best feedback considers first the recipient. What I can offer them that’s meaningful? How do I say it in a way that shows I care? That means instead of saying, “You’re wrong,” we say, “I see it differently than you do.” Second, the timing should be right. Handing someone a gift when there isn’t any context for it is awkward. Feedback, in the same way, should come with some kind of context. If that’s not obvious to the other party, it’s your job to frame the context. And then third, and perhaps most importantly, allow them to accept the gift — or not. My dad got that right with our Tandy 1000. A few of our family members really dove in. Others didn’t. That was OK. Once a gift is given, you don’t get to decide what someone does with it. They may tell people about it for decades, they may not remember it, or them may be processing the return right after you leave. That’s just like feedback. Once given, you can’t control what the other person decides to do with it. Sometimes they’ll take it to heart, sometimes they’ll do nothing, and sometimes, they’ll fight you. If that person is someone you manage, there are of course implications for those different responses, but you can’t possibly control whether they decide to accept your gift of feedback. Instead, aim to be the kind of person who gives meaningful feedback in the right context — and then allows the other person to decide what they’ll do with it. If you do that, you’ll create relationships where people don’t feel controlled by you and you’ll become more genuine in your feedback, that’s not expecting anything in return. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
4 minutes | Aug 29, 2019
Green Lights Always Change
Many years ago, I was standing in the lobby of a customer’s building, waiting between meetings. An employee I had worked with years earlier noticed me and stopped to say hello. She explained that she was now working directly for one of the top people in the company — and invited me to come up and see her office the next time I was in the building. So, I accepted her invitation. I’ve long since forgotten most of that second conversation, but something she said made it abundantly clear that I had a green light to ask this question: Do you think there’s a chance your boss would be open to a quick chat to explore if we could help more people in your organization? Most of the details of what happened next aren’t significant for this entry. This part is: A few weeks later, I was briefing the entire executive leadership team of a $10 billion business. I wish I could tell you that I was some kind of genius, but in retrospect, the green light in the situation was obvious. It wasn’t so much that I noticed it, but that I acted on it. The hard part here is that the lights in most organizations are rarely green or red, but actually some shade of yellow. That’s why most of us spend time planning, taking measured steps, and testing progress. And most of the time, that’s absolutely the right decision. The missed opportunity for a lot of us is that we’re so conditioned to move regularly and methodically, that sometimes we keep doing that same thing when the green light is apparent. We hesitate when the customer says: These are the best results we’ve ever had. What else do you recommend we do? Or we don’t follow up when the boss says: Let me know what resources you’re going to need next year. Or we don’t say where we need help when a colleague wonders: What can I say to others that will make this go easier for your team? Or we’re not willing to say something when an influencer in our industry asks: How can I be helpful to you? I’ve sat through more than my fair share of these green lights. I was passed over for promotions earlier in my career because I didn’t move on things quickly enough. I’m not suggesting that you try to create green lights where they don’t exist. You’re probably better off, both on the road and in your career, erroring on sitting through a green light than in making the mistake of running a red one. Reading the tea leaves of what shade of yellow the light is today in your organization or industry is super hard. I don’t have a good answer for how to do that. 90% of the time, you’ll never know for sure. But I’m pretty sure these days about two things: Every once in awhile, it’s abundantly clear that the light is green. Once it’s green, it’s going to change back to yellow or red again, very soon. Be cautious when you’re not sure the color of the light. But when it’s really clear that the light is green, don’t wait around for it to change. That’s the moment to go like hell. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
4 minutes | Aug 23, 2019
One Alternative to Standing Meetings
There have been many meetings I have attended in my professional life that have not lived up to the intention that was hoped for when someone first put that meeting on the calendar. No meeting is more likely to cause this kind of disappointment than the standing meeting. This is the staff meeting when we all get together at 10am on Tuesday mornings because, well…because we always get together at 10am on Tuesday mornings. A lot of people get frustrated with standing meetings because they can easily degenerate into glorified reporting sessions. This sounds like everyone going around the room and mostly talking about what’s happened in the last week and what they are doing for the next week. Then, everyone disperses to go about their work, only to repeat the process next week. How do you know if you’re guilty of this? If you or someone on your team started the agenda for the next meeting by duplicating the Microsoft Word document from the last meeting and just changing a few words, you may be facilitating a glorified reporting session. I used to have little sympathy for managers who ran these kind of meetings. However, as time has gone on and I’ve worked with more and more leaders who tell me their side of the story, I’ve come to two conclusions: First, in some organizations, it’s simply an expectation (if not a directive) to get people together at some regular interval. Second, I’ve realized that a lot of people have literally never seen another way to run a standing meeting. If you find yourself in this place, especially if you’re the person leading the meeting, here’s another way to approach this. Instead of having a standing meeting, hold a learning meeting. A learning meeting is about problem-solving, not reporting. A good learning meeting will get people motivated to engage and walking out doing something better. Here’s the structure of what a learning meeting might look like. Each attendee talks about a recent accomplishment. Each attendee shares something they’ve discovered recently that might help others in the room. Each attendee says where they would like or need assistance right now. Let’s break this down… Starting by asking people to talk about a recent accomplishment has two benefits. It encourages people to talk, since most people are more comfortable talking about what they’ve done well vs. where they failed. It also raises the energy in the room by reminding people what’s working. Asking each person to then do the second thing, sharing something they’ve discovered recently that might help others, gives people permission to do something that most already like to do: share something cool you’ve discovered with other people. It also encourages generosity by asking people to take an action is the interest of everyone else in the room. Each person benefits from something they’ve likely not heard or considered before. Finally, by asking people where they would like assistance right now, you zero in on where they need new learning. Others in the meeting can then offer to help. If you really want to double down on helping, each time you meet go into detail on having the whole group collaborate to help one person specifically. Then rotate to a new person each time. Yes, this requires a level of trust with the group. If that trust isn’t there today, this is modular, so you can start small. Begin the next few meetings just by asking people just to share a recent accomplishment - and gradually work the other pieces in, as people get more comfortable. If you are willing to run a learning meeting, you’ll get more dialogue and energy during the event. More importantly, people will walk away with something they can use, immediately. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.
5 minutes | Aug 15, 2019
Who Says So Other Than You?
You may have discovered this journal because of the podcast I’ve hosted since 2011 called Coaching for Leaders. Although for many years producing and hosting Coaching for Leaders was very much a hobby, the listening audience has grown quite substantially to the point where we are now passing 10 million episode downloads. One of the interesting side effects of producing a popular podcast is that I get pitched all the time by potential guests and their agents who want to appear on the show. Often, I get 4-5 of these pitches a day. This is a wonderful problem to have. While I at least glance at everything that comes across my desk, I ignore the vast majority of these pitches. There are lots of reasons for this, but a big one is credibility. Most people approach a pitch with some version of, “Here’s the beautiful website that I have, and the amazing book I’ve written, and how much wisdom I have to support your listeners.” And sometimes, all those things are true. What I can’t help but wonder when I get messages like this though, is who says so other than just you? One of the most common skills I taught leaders during my time as a Carnegie instructor was how to facilitate question and answer sessions. Most people, when asked by an audience about their proposal, recommendation, or request, frame their responses with their own opinions. There is a time and a place for your opinion. If you already have a lot of credibility with an audience, your opinion can go a long way. However, a lot of us find ourselves needing to influence individuals and groups where we don’t yet have a lot of credibility. When that’s the case, opinions aren’t good enough. In those situations, credibility comes from providing evidence. One of the best ways to do that is to cite an independent, third party that is respected by the audience you want to influence. Here’s an example of the kind of pitch that most people make — one without third party credibility: Next quarter, I recommended we invest in a new, customer support platform. It’s going to help our customers get personal attention from us and respond more quickly and effectively to maintain great relationships. It will almost certainly help us retain more customers if we have a system that helps us show up as more human and personal. Not a bad claim — probably true for a lot of businesses that are growing quickly. Now, consider this version of the same pitch: Next quarter, I recommended we invest in a new, customer support platform. Last week, I spoke with two of our association partners who have already made this move in their organizations. Both of them reported increased customer retention and one has tracked data showing a 10% increase in retention over the last six months. The request is exactly the same in both cases. In second example, the perceived risk to the person you are attempting to influence is lessened by demonstrating how an idea like yours has already produced results for another organization they know and respect. People rarely say this out loud, but almost always an audience you don’t already have a lot of credibility with is asking the question: Who says so other than you? The mistake that people make when citing third party evidence is tracking down sources that are impressive to the person making the pitch, but not necessarily to anybody else. The key point is to find and cite evidence from third parties that are already respected and trusted by your audience, not just you. If you don’t have credibility with an audience today, find the third party evidence that will support your ideas. You may still not get what you want, but you’ll earn the attention and consideration of others more consistently. Dave's Journal is available by audio on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify.