“Loving Critics”

Posted in Work on October 28th, 2010 by kjr – 1 Comment

In my last post I wrote about the idea of Listening Proactively, taking responsibility to hear what’s being said and the associated need to put self aside. Sometimes it becomes critical who we listen to.

One of my current “Core Books”, A Leaders Legacy, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner contains a chapter titled “We all need loving critics”. Their premise is that once placed in a leadership position it is difficult for a leader to find people who will give them honest, direct, and perhaps hard to hear feedback simply because that person wants that leader to succeed and not out of self-interest.

It is relatively easy to find people who will criticize you because they want to inflict damage, most likely in terms of inciting unrest among others in your organization, or by inducing self-doubt in you. They may be motivated by self interests, but will, of course, serve it up masked by expressed concern in what’s best for the organization, or what’s right and good, or by prefacing the remark with  “I don’t mean to be negative, but….”.

“Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers”

John W. Gardner, 1912-2002

It’s also possible to find those who out of self interest or fear of loss will express only reassurance and continued praise and will defend that leader even when it is most obvious he is making a big mistake, or doing something that will do others damage.

Neither of these can be considered, “loving critics”, but when you, as a leader, can find the co-worker, associate, or peer, who out of no self-interest will look you in the eye and say to you, “that is not wise”, or “that will harm what is best for us all”, you have attained a true gift and asset.

If asked to number our critics, I think any of us who have lead others will have no trouble developing a list of names. Truth is we cannot accomplish something of merit and value without attracting critics.

But asked to list loving critics, the people who you know will not harm you, nor will they blindly follow you when they know you are going awry may be more difficult, and I would suspect contain far fewer names.

I have been blessed with at least 3 who come to mind quickly when I think of loving critics. I often ponder a time when one of them came to me after a long project review during a time of difficult economic turmoil in our organization. There were threats of project reductions resulting in layoffs.

I was being over cautious, meticulous in reviewing tasks, time, and money. I was concerned for the future of the people, and wanted everything “buttoned up” – or so I told myself.

After about the fourth stressful project review someone I trusted, cared about, and knew “had my back” came into my office. Let’s call her Susan. Here’s how I remember the discourse.

Susan: “Who was that masked man?”.

Me: “Huh? What are you talking about?”

Susan, (without much mercy): “You are intimidating, browbeating, and even scaring some of these very fine Project Mangers.”

Me: “Susan, you need to understand, I want to make sure this organization is valued, this is all for their benefit, we can demonstrate our organization is the best and shouldn’t be messed with in any reorg, or workforce reduction if that happens.”

Susan: “Wrong, you’re scared too, just like all of us. You are not behaving like the person they’ve respected and trusted for 3 years, and you’ll loose it completely if you don’t change your approach. Trust them, be honest with them, they’ll do the right things.”

Then she left my office.

This to me is a poignant example of a loving critic. Can you name your own?

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; …

Proverbs 27:6

Listen, Proactively

Posted in Life, Work on October 21st, 2010 by kjr – 2 Comments

If you’ve visited my 15 Axioms Page , you will remember the key part of the definition to the word proactive is taking the responsibility.

I think this is crucial to effectively listening. In fact, I would suggest that listening is not a part of good communication; rather good communication is a subset or part of listening with responsibility – proactively.

How does one do this – take responsibility to listen? There are books, seminars, and perhaps whole bodies of research devoted to listening. Yet it comes down to each of us finding our own ways to practice effective listening when we are in the heat of the frantic pace of our days. Here are 6 of mine that I try to keep in mind:

First, turn off the self-talk.

Did you ever find yourself in a conversation and all of a sudden you sensed the silence and you knew it was now your time to say something, but you have no idea what the other party to this conversation just said? Your mind had been occupied by thinking about other things. Maybe you were already thinking about what you were going to say next, or perhaps whatever had been said 5 minutes ago triggered a memory and the voice in your own mind was telling you other things – things about yourself completely unrelated to the discussion at hand. That’s self-talk. Turn it off – purposefully think about turning a switch off so that the only voice you hear is that of the other person you are engaged with.

Be There

We live in an age of distraction, from background noise to Blackberrys and iPhones. Being attentive means focusing and not thinking about where we need to be tomorrow, next week, or the next hour. It is putting aside our world to engage in the place the other speaker is trying to take us to.

While talking to someone, did you ever find yourself looking at the desktop to see what email just came in? Or the caller ID screen to see who is trying to get a hold of you on the phone? Or glancing behind the speaker in your office to see who is walking by?

All of these things keep us from being present with the conversation going on and with the person it is going on with. In today’s world being in the moment is hard work, very hard work.

Sit up straight

Your mother was right. We hear better when we are sitting up straight. Posture (“body language” ) is also about 70% of letting the other person know you care, are paying attention, and you “get it”.

Break down your own barriers

I am sure all of us have co-workers or others in our lives who cause us to put up barriers when we are engaged in dialogue with them. It may be a personality type, it may be bias we carry, it may be history of some other conflict we’ve had with this person.

When meeting with them, we lift high the barriers to listening with responsibility. All of our unwillingness to acknowledge a good idea or correct point coming from “this guy” is in high gear. We’ve flipped a switch in our head that lights up and flashes – INVALID PERSON:  DON”T BOTHER – and we don’t allow ourselves to listen.

Remember you are taking the responsibility – it’s up to you. There is a wonderful line in the Desiderata that reads:

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.

It sums it up really well.


One of the best things we can do is re-phrase back to someone what they’ve just told us- in our own words. Start out with the phrase: “Let me see if I have this right…” You learn, they feel important because they feel heard.

Think about it, why did you take notes in school? -You put down in your words what a teacher or lecturer just taught. Often then we studied with others and shared those notes and understandingl this helped us make sure we got it right. Re-phrasing is the same principle. You are taking verbal notes, sharing them with the other person, letting that person add, refine, or correct your understanding.


Okay, so I think I can “hear” those who know me well rolling their eyes at all this post :).

Truth is, Listening Proactively is like playing an instrument. We need to practice or we lose it. And just like playing a difficult piece on an instrument, it must be broken down and repeated over and over again. Proactive listening must be employed most often, not with those who we easily get along with, relate to, or simply like a lot. It must be practiced time and again during the difficult and “crucial conversations” that take place in work, leadership, and life.

Don’t Delay

Posted in Work on October 14th, 2010 by kjr – Comments Off on Don’t Delay

…delay is loss

The year was late 1998. I was part of the team leading the efforts to migrate systems into the new millennium. No doubt many of you will remember the famous (or infamous) Y2K.

We approached the CEO of the company I was working for and suggested we incorporate efforts to initiate development of systems and applications to take advantage of the emerging technology phenomenon called “The Internet”.

Here is a summary of his reaction as I remember it:

No!! This is nothing but a fad, a flash in the pan. We’ve just come off some of the best years in our history. We’re spending money now on refreshing systems and hardware for Y2K. We’re going to wait and see what happens with all this. I am not spending a dime on this thing now.

By March of 1999, the .Com bubble burst, and burst BIG. That burst convinced our CEO even more that the Internet was nothing but a “flash in the pan”.

In September of 1999 we lost one of our biggest customers- a large- very large technology firm. Believe me, you would know the name. Why?

Here again is my recollection of what they told us:

Your prices are the best, your customer service excellent, but we are a technology company; you have no Internet presence, you don’t even own a URL with your company name yet. We can’t be in that position. Think how that looks to our customers and employees when we are banking our future on online applications and technologies.

Our competitors started taking even more customers – not just the tech firms.

Things changed then.

Yet, it still took six months for us to hire knowledgeable people, ramp up, design, and implement systems to service customers and consumers (very different roles in the healthcare business) – via online sites and portals. It was almost another year before we had any Internet presence that was substantive.

Don’t be too hard on our CEO; his thought process was sound, he was charged with prudent stewardship of stockholder resources. The Internet seemed like a playground of games and seedy sites at this point, and those businesses based on the web were going under or losing money – fast. Amazon started up in 1994; its first quarter of profitability? 2002. And in 1998 & 1999 Amazon was losing money at a rate you could hardly comprehend as a CEO of a Fortune 500.

But when does “prudence and wisdom” morph to become “fear and over-caution” and how do we know when to move, spend, invest, or pull back and wait?

How do you make those decisions? How do you know the difference?