Seeing the excellent in the difficult

Posted in Leadership, Work on February 3rd, 2011 by kjr – Comments Off on Seeing the excellent in the difficult

Earlier this week, I was able to help clear the LARGE flat roof of our Church. Now, in almost every other situation I’ve been dealing with of late related to snow, I will admit that there has been lots of whinging. (I love this word, look it up.) –and I have not looked forward to what has become the daily routine of moving snow, and now, ice.

But this was a different experience !!

I enjoyed it. Everyone else enjoyed it, too.

I have thought a lot about why that was, and how it relates to work and leadership. So, I broke this experience down and made some observations:

  • Risk/reward/meaning:  The potential for destruction (roof collapse) or damage (lots of leaks) were real to a building that was personally important to these people. The reward was the continuation of a place meaningful to everyone involved.
  • Know how: You could not take a snow blower up there; this roof has a rubber sealed top. A snow blower would cut that, causing leaks. It simply had to be shoveled, put on tarps and dragged many feet to the edge, and pushed then off the roof. Someone, and I don’t know, who had the idea of plastic tarps, teams of shovelers, teams of pullers, but someone knew how to get this done. Someone even told me an average shovel weighed 17 lbs. (Who would ever weigh a shovel full of snow anyway?)
  • Communication: Word went out the night before of the need – strong backs, lots of people, bring plastic (only plastic) shovels. 70 to 100 people showed up at the appointed time. 8:00AM.
  • Use of talents: Clear appointment to the task, after a conversation that went like this: “We need someone over there working to pull that tarp, would you want to help them?” It was clear, respectful, and the person was made to feel part of the decision process of what he/she was going to be working on.
  • Achievable: It was clear to see as time went on that we’d be able to accomplish the goal, actually sooner than originally thought possible.
  • Community: It involved many people, those who called, cooked, shoveled, pulled, moved snow again after it was dumped off the roof. I think it was community that added the ingredient crucial to enjoyment. Could 7 people instead of 70 have accomplished  this? Yes. Would it have had the same reward? Yes; would it have been as clear? Yes, but it would not have been as communal and would have lacked the sense of involvement – which generates enjoyment.
  • Commitment: I actually thought about those who lead this effort – trustees of the building/congregation’s physical welfare. They must have shown up at 7:00AM or earlier that day, and they were the ones who stayed to clean up carpets, sweep the last of the snow away from doorways, and put away tools (tarps and shovels) after the rest of us left.

Are we lacking all of the above in our work lives, even our personal lives? In the work we do, or the leadership roles we perform are we seeing and demonstrating:

  • We know the risk
  • We know or have access to the know-how
  • We are able to communicate what, when, and the expectations specifically
  • We are using people for their best. Placing them where they want to be so they can contribute and succeed – with involvement and respect for their wishes and ideas
  • We are working on “stuff” that is meaningful and achievable. Is the goal something we can sense and see, not an unknown illusion?
  • We are part of, and belong to, a community of others who share the same goal
  • We are lead by people (or leading people) with commitment to go the extra hour, prepare before others show up, stay late when others are gone. Not for praise, recognition, or reward, but for the benefit of the community and to push everyone to the goal.

These ingredients made a drastic change in approaching, completing, and now pondering a difficult job- one that as I was doing it alone made me whinge. But the things I outlined above made a difficult task… excellent. How can we do that in every aspect of our work, leadership, and life?

Ask For Feedback

Posted in Leadership, Work on November 8th, 2010 by kjr – 4 Comments

About 10 years ago, I spent some time at the Center For Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. In preparing for their program, I was required to send 10 anonymous surveys on my leadership competencies to 10 people- evenly split between peers and subordinates. Additionally, my 2 bosses were asked to fill out the survey and identify themselves.

That experience provided some of the most multifaceted learning about myself that I had experienced to date.

Feedback is a gift, and like all presents, you can use and cherish it, store in an attic, or toss it. Your choice.

Are you looking to feel good? I hope not.

After that experience, not all of which was positive and left me “feeling good” for sure, I tried in every situation to gather feedback from those around me.

One of my bosses gave me a very positive review on the survey and he focused on what I did well and what strengths I brought to the organization. The other review was, in my view, harsh, critical, and focused on what was lacking in my contribution. He and I did not always get along well and I had to process this while my emotions were rebelling against what he was saying.

I went to the first boss and shared both surveys and asked, “Which one is right?” His response: “Both of us are”.

What you think about yourself isn’t the only point.

Frankly, our own assessment of how well we are doing as a leader, without the input of those we lead, is irrelevant. If we don’t ask for feedback from time to time,  I would assume that means we are either insensitive or fearful. Does it indicate that our egos are in our own way?

My boss was right, the feedback received which I felt was harsh and critical was valid – even if it was wrong. Why? Because it was how that other boss perceived who I was and what I was doing. If I wanted to change that perception, then I needed to internalize what he was saying, and adjust my style, or approach, or attitude. What he was saying was more important than what I believed about what he was saying.

What’s good feedback?

This blog, and even more so the associated presentation on the 15 Axioms, which I share with various business and leadership groups, is formed and continually shaped by the feedback I receive.

Before each presentation, I hand out a stack of 3” x 5” cards and I ask people to give me feedback on anything they would like, but specifically I would like their assessment on 3 things:

Message: What is it, in one or two sentences, you believe I am saying?

Presentation: The slides, my use of the room, response to questions.

Change: What do you think I should change to make this more effective?

The change in my approach, content, colors, grammar, stories, and even punctuation over the past 4 years since I have done this, is dramatic. When you invite someone to tell you what they really think and give them a framework on how to do that, you will be amazed at the quality of feedback you will get.

Let me give examples of incomplete, maybe even poor, but well-meaning feedback received prior to asking specifically what I wanted:

Nice job, thanks for coming today.

Good presentation, you put a lot into it.

Didn’t really get what you were trying to say.

Slides are bland, spice them up a bit.

What do you do with these statements? Either you feed your ego because you had two pats on the back, or beat yourself up because someone didn’t really like what you had to say. But changes to your message, presentation, or slides is not possible.

Here are examples of actual good feedback I received from the last 15 Axioms presentation I gave:

Enlarge the font on your headings.

Message: self reflection and considering your journey in life (he or she got it).

Nice mix of life and work stories – more stories would help.

Add more pictures, especially personal ones, they make it real.

Don’t uppercase prepositions, no semi colon on … use a comma.

Is that great or what? I will make changes immediately from this input.

Do you want to know?

When you are in a position of leadership, you exert some level of authority over people who “follow you”. It may be positional, such as when you are the employer or boss (or a parent). In these positions people don’t necessarily choose you to lead them, but they will choose how much of themselves they will give you.

It may be influential, as when you are the chairperson of a committee, or a leader in a volunteer organization, a church, or community arts council. It may be the fact that by reputation you are someone looked to for advice, counsel, information, or approval– such as a teacher, speaker, or author.

You are always in a place where people want your expressions about their work, life, ideas, or assessment of them as a person. Great or small, what you say and do impacts others.

Do you know what they think of your approach to influencing and leading them? If you say yes, how do you know? What do you do specifically to get that feedback without fear of reprisal or disapproval?

If you are thinking to yourself, “I have an open door policy, they can come in and tell me what they are thinking, and they know I won’t bite their heads off.”- then I would challenge you to find a way to validate that other than asking them directly. Use a third party, give out anonymous surveys, bring in an HR professional who can facilitate a session with you and your staff to let them tell you directly. But, find out if you want to know how to become a more effective, open and honest leader of others.

Do you really want to know?

I do!!

It’s time for me to ask for your feedback on this blog. Please feel free to offer anything you would like, but I would appreciate if you could answer three things for me:

1. Does the messages in these posts and the root 15 Axioms get you to think about your leadership in work and life? If so, why? Add any specifics you’d like to share.

2. Is this blog visually pleasing? Again, why?

3. What suggestion would you have for me to improve anything? -Message, visuals, or style.

You can leave feedback in the comments section. They will not publish automatically; I see them first. You can leave them anonymously; that is fine. You can ask for a response – please leave me your email – I won’t publish that. But please take a moment and let me know what you are thinking. I do want your feedback.

Thanks, Kevin

Fear Is Not A Choice …..

Posted in Leadership, Work on November 1st, 2010 by kjr – 2 Comments

I mentioned in my post from last week about how fear can influence our behaviors and even at times our thinking. Fear is a standard in America today.

Outsourcing, off-shoring, the economy, work force reductions, the maliciousness of politics, terrorism threats, the intrusive nature of technology – a loss of privacy, and more, all serve to stimulate fear, and in so doing, modulate our decisions and behaviors.

Fear is not a choice, it is the instinctive reaction of self-preservation.

That threat generating fear may be real, or it may be perceived.  The imagined possibility of “the worst scenario” can impact us as much as a real and immediate threat of physical harm.

Fear is able to alter sound decisions, healthy behaviors, and worst of all prompts a violation of our personal standards of ethics if we allow it to over take us. I’ve known situations that caused good people to do wrong things, not because they became bad people, but they feared the loss of something.

I have seen three situations in my life that caused fear to propagate among people. The first was in the early 1990s. I worked for a company that went from approximately 49,000 employees to less than 42,000 in a few short years. The loss of almost 7,000 employees, most of which were located in our state, was devastating. It created almost caricature like responses in people.

Rational people became panicky and impulsive. Energetic leaders became lethargic and distant. Easy going managers became almost neurotic in their desire for details and information. Rumor mongering replaced good communications. Trust was replaced by suspicion and integrity replaced by guile.

The other two times were in different places and situations. The propagation of fear can occur among a work place, church community, school, or the nation.  Almost any place where people fear loosing something of value, be it pay, power, or passion, and it can provoke the worst in the best of us.

One of the most powerful examples of this in leadership comes from history. The Nixon White House. When Richard Nixon’s re-election was by all measures and predictions a sure thing, his perceived fear generated behavior in he and his staff of loyal people that was shameful. These were smart people, educated people, and people who I am sure went into public service for many of the right reasons.

Why does this happen and what can be done to mitigate those effects?

We must start with ourselves.

Our value to the business, the organization, the community.

It can happen if we find ourselves obsolete in our skills, knowledge, or willingness to put self aside.


When you first took to your career and/or became part of an organization, you had a mind to learn, grasp ideas, and the anxiety wasn’t fear.  It was the beginners mind wanting to devour what you could about the job, skill, organization, and relationships that would make you successful, to be a part of the organization’s community, and provide value and contribute in a meaningful way.

As time went on, was that replaced by complacence, arrogance, and/or a sedentary mind, content with what you knew and contributed so far, unwilling to take risk any more and start something new or uncomfortable?

We mitigate this by keeping a beginners approach to learning, contributing, and meeting people. Is that easy and uncomfortable? For most of us yes. Yet, as we start anew, we learn anew. We mitigate the potential to becoming obsolete.

We must view our contribution to the company we work for as a business proposition. Is what I am providing worth what I am getting paid? Does the application of my skills demonstrate a mutual investment? On my part the continued learning and on the part of my employer the recognition that I am able and even desirous of the opportunity to adapt to the demands, up or down, being placed on the enterprise.

Doing so lessens our fear, which allows us to be a leader to others at times when they need direction, trust, and hope.