Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Leader's Primary Task is to Change Themselves

I have yet to meet any really good leaders who have not done their share of personal work.  While there are  many keys to great leadership, there are a few that are indispensable.  Personal growth is one of them.  We MUST have a level of self awareness in order to be great leaders.

We have to know when we are lying to ourselves or rationalizing, and be practiced enough to catch it quickly.

We have to have let go of a certain amount of our ego so we can take blame for things we did not do, and give away all of the credit.

We have to cease making decisions out of fear (or at least catch ourselves pretty quickly).  Fear based decision making and great leadership simply cannot coexist.

We have to make friends with the unknown.  In order to allow others to make mistakes and learn through their failures we have to be OK with outcomes that are not under our control.

We have to posses a level of emotional intelligence.  We must be aware of our own emotions, and not only recognize them, but also be willing to admit to them.  This will also enable us to draw the line between empathy and sympathy.

We have to be comfortable enough with our emotions that we can show them to others.  We can be sad, angry, afraid, or uncomfortable, and not project those emotions onto others.

We have to approve of ourselves, and love ourselves enough that we don't have to constantly seek them from others.  This will enable us to navigate the right path for us, and do the right thing, even if it means disapproval from others.

We have to know that we only learn from those who disagree with us, and so continue to challenge ourselves.  That might mean reading; joining a professional group (or starting one); therapy or a personal coach; or any number of ways to keep learning and growing as a leader.

Much of my own personal growth came from 2 years of training at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center; AA step work (some of the hardest and most productive work EVER!); and working through some of my many mistakes and set backs, to come out a little stronger, a little more at peace, a little more patient, a little more accepting, and taking myself a lot less seriously.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Great Leaders Admit Mistakes and Faults

I think we all have the ability to "see the speck in another's eye, and fail to see the log in our own"... Meaning that as people we can very easily see other people's shortcomings, and the 'easy' fix to many of their problems, while we have no clue as to how to fix our own problems.

As leaders, it's kind of our job to judge others, and we can often see exactly what they need to, or could do, and we have to communicate that.  However I've learned (from both sides) that this is easier said than done.

From our standpoint as a leader the steps that can or should be taken are as clear as day, and often relatively easy.  I've attempted a couple of different styles of conveying my thoughts to my team members.  And only one of them has been really successful.

First I tried just telling them what they should or could do... I've also had my leader/manager try this with me... with mixed results.  Most of us don't want to be told exactly what to do.  Our ego's don't want to accept it; we often reject those suggestions outright, and can walk away thinking 'who do they think they are telling me what to do!?'

I've also had the experience (from both the Leader and team member's perspective) of having a leader hint around and try to get me to see what they saw as the right thing to do... even going so far as saying 'I don't want to tell you... I want you to figure it out for yourself'.  I found it very frustrating, and I'll bet my team members found it just as frustrating when I did the same thing with them.

The best way I've found to have my team members 'hear' what I have to say is to be human with them.  To show empathy; to show them that I care about what's important to them; and to admit my shortcomings.  I've spoken about the first two previously (and probably will again), so now... just the last one.

Leaders genuinely connect with team members by being human.  My team members listen when they hear me talk about the mistakes I've made.  I admit to them that I messed that up too!  I often give them examples of mistakes I've made, as well as how badly I messed things up and what it took to fix it.  I find that talking about my mistakes allows my team members hear the fix I found for myself, and then talk with me about possible fixes for them... It opens them up and puts aside their ego (at least for a time), allows for a little trust, and honest conversations.  Most of the time we end up moving forward together with a plan that we both feel good about.  We can then reconnect and talk about whether or not we are getting the results we hoped for, and how to proceed from there.  It becomes an experiment that we are conducting together as partners.  We are both transparent about what's going on, and so gain an even deeper connection.

At least this is my experience...

Oh, and I thought this post was a good quick read...


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Sunday, December 18, 2011

How Transparency Builds Trust

It took me a long time to figure this out, and I find that transparency goes hand in hand with trust.
I’ve learned that in order to earn trust and loyalty we must be transparent.  There should be very few secrets.  There are really only a handful of things that everyone can’t know.  For instance, we can’t talk with everyone about other team member’s personal problems, or anything we are working with them to correct, like  behavioral problems.  There may be some financial information that we might decide not to share with everyone.

There are also conversations with an assistant or my leader that are about me, or other team members that should be private... so make them just that... private.  Have those conversations away from the workplace so your team doesn’t see you having ‘secret’ conversations or ‘closed door’ talks.  Occasionally this is fine, and too much of it starts to tear away at the trust we are trying to build.  Everyone else’s mind is just as crazy as yours, and it doesn’t take long before people start mistrusting us.

Beyond that, I have found very few instances where it did not benefit me (and team morale) to be very open and communicative about what was going on.  That includes, at least for me, rules that have to be followed.  

A good example of this (where I work) is how much a team member can/should get for an annual raise.  There are company as well as regional guidelines to have to be followed.  For the first few years in my leadership role I did not share how and why a team member’s raise was determined.  I did of course talk extensively to them about where they stood in their development, where I thought their growth opportunities were, and from there we came up with a plan for achieving their goals.

After a couple of years I started to get feedback from the team about how they felt about their raises.  From there it was an easy step to begin describing the process I had to follow, and how their raise was determined.  

There were two ways I could have approached this with my team.  One would be to describe the system as something that was ‘put upon’ us, and that even though ‘we’ didn’t like it, it was the system we were stuck with.  In this way I could put myself on the side of the team member, and make the whole thing an ‘us vs them’.... with me siding with the team.  This approach can create loyalty to the ‘leader’, however this kind of loyalty looks more like friendship.  It also makes it very difficult to set standards and, when needed, hold people accountable to their actions since the team members see you as a team member and not their leader. The problem with this approach is that we end up taking the low road... in that we are not standing up for ourselves and supporting our leaders and company.  It’s divisive and fear based.

I feel that a goal of leadership should be to unify, not divide.  So... the other approach is to try to bring each team member onto the company team.  We’ve all agreed to work here, and in agreeing to accept our paycheck we implicitly agree to follow the rules.  If there are rules we don’t agree with or think are unfair or arbitrary we can work to change them.  Until then, we work within them (or make the decision to leave).  I describe the process to the team members so that they fully understand it..

Since pretty much every team member I hire is able to do any of the ‘tasks’ of my job (with some training), it seems to me that part of my job is to help them develop the mindset of a leader.  I hire them with the expectation that they will be moving into a leadership role sooner or later.  Explaining that we are part of a larger team, and why we make the decisions we make helps to unify us as a whole.  I feel taking the time to explain how things work goes a long way in building not only trust among my team members, but also helps to allow them to picture themselves in the role of leader.  Everyone understands both where they stand, and at least the next steps in getting them to where they want to be.

Starting this process with newly hired team members is, I find, much more productive than waiting until they show an interest in picking up more responsibility (if only to make more money).  I believe that having this level of transparency on my team has played a big part in how many people started as team members and are now in store and team leadership in the area.  In the last 4 years no fewer than 10 people I have hired off the street as my team members are now in leadership roles at the store and team level.  I don’t know anyone else at Whole Foods (at least locally) who can make that claim.  It’s not me... it’s doing my best to create an environment where great people can flourish.  It’s trying to be a leader...

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Life as a series of surrenders?

A teenager at an AA meeting once described life as a series of surrenders.  He was wise beyond his years...

We can barely control our bodily functions, and sometimes we can control what words come out of our mouths.  So little of what happens is under our control... if we cannot accept that fact we end up frustrated and/or angry much of the time.

Until we accept, or surrender to the fact that so much is out of our control we cannot embrace or change whatever is happening.  Once we accept that things are the way they are; that the people around us will do what they do, we have a chance to work with what is happening in order to make a change.

A good example of this is what Whole Foods Market seems to be doing with animal welfare standards, along with their work with the Marine Stewardship Council.  Whole Foods has been criticized for selling products from producers that may have questionable practices.  However I think that the company knows that they cannot change these industries from the outside.  In order to create positive change in the way animals are treated they have to create relationships with the people they would like to see change.  That means, in the short term, selling seafood and meat from producers that don't meet the standards the company would like to see.  However it is only through working with and developing a relationship with those producers that any future change can happen.

As leaders we certainly can't control the behavior of our team members.  Many people will try, through threats of a consequence, or simply commanding, however the fact is we cannot make anyone do anything.  What we can do is work to create trusting relationships with the people around us.  Once they know that we are working for their success (and they are working for their success), they will come to want to do what we ask them to do.  Even more, I've found that my team members will go beyond what needs to be done and find new ways to improve things simply because they want to be a part of a successful team; that is once they know that my goals for them match up with their goals for themselves.

I recently talked to my store team leader about trust.  His thought was that when he goes to lead a new team everyone starts out with an empty 'trust' account, and each person has to earn his trust.  I couldn't disagree more.  In order to be trusted we need to trust!  For my team members, I trust that each of them is doing the best they can with the tools they have (and having built relationships with them I know what each is capable of so I don't ask too much of them and put them in situations they cannot handle).  I trust that each of them wants to do a good job and be part of a successful team.  I trust that if any of them has a problem or issue they will feel comfortable talking to me about it.  I might not be able to fix it, or give them exactly what they want, and (I hope) they trust that they will at least be heard.

I should probably say that my definition of 'trustworthy' matches Andy Stanley's (I love his leadership podcast)... you are trustworthy as long as you are the first one to tell me about your mistakes.  In talking to my store team leader I said mistakes are not just ok... they are expected!  If you are not making mistakes then you are not taking any chances.  And if we are not taking chances and trying new things we cannot be moving forward.  We can't expect forward movement without making some waves!
Surrender to what is.  Stop fighting or resisting.  Only then can we affect change.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Developing Our Listening Skills Part 2

We have goals while listening to our team members.  If we expect any sort of buy-in, or want them to get behind our goals they have to feel that we have heard them.  So, I guess I should add some things that we should avoid saying when someone is speaking...

Yeah, I hear you but (anything)
Yeah, we've tried that and it didn't work (whatever 'it' might be, and even if you have)
Shut up and listen!
Here's what you need to do...
I don't care... 
Yeah we all have problems
I don't like that idea
We can't do that
That won't work
Tell me about it...
That's just part of life/working here/anything
That's not what's happening
That's not how you feel
It's not OK to feel that way
Yes you can (when the speaker states that they cannot do something, even if you believe/know they can)
OK, but it doesn't matter...
That's not important
Cool story bro, tell it again...

In my experience, once one of my team members feels heard and understood, I can give constructive feedback, disagree, redirect them, and make suggestions about how they might act in the future, and THEY WILL LISTEN!

Some years ago while I was taking a class at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center, Mariah Fenton Gladis told us to replace the word 'but' with the word 'and'.  She said that it doesn't matter to the listener what we say before the 'but'... the 'but' discounts everything you said before it.  The listener is not very likely to really 'hear' what we said before the 'but'.

When we use the word 'and' both things (what we said before 'and' and what we say after) can be true.

For instance:
You're a really good team member, but...
You're a really good team member, and...

I really respect your work, but...
I really respect your work, and...

Over the years I've found this to be great advice.  Using 'and' allows us to genuinely compliment someone AND say something constructive in a way that allows both to be heard.
Reflect on times when you were not heard.  How did you feel?  How did you feel towards the person you were talking to?  Do your best to hear and understand when you are listening.

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