People Don’ t Listen to What You Say

Truths About Leadership Nobody Wants to Hear Part 3

“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” Andrew Carnegie

In the course of my work I often get to ask people what their “priorities” are. There are two problems with this. The word “priority”, much like “integrity” or “quality” has so many meanings to so many different people that it’s meaningless.

Photo Credit: Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería
Photo Credit:
Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería

Second, as “Think Like A Freak” points out, simply asking people what’s important to them doesn’t necessarily work. Not that people are being deliberately deceptive. They’ll just often give you the answer they think you want, and then go do what they really want to.

So I’ve started asking my clients to start tracking how they spend their time. There are a couple of ways to do this: Set a time for a regular interval and write down what you’re doing when it goes off. Set an alarm a given number of times at random intervals during the day and write down what you’re doing when it goes off. Or just be really disciplined about writing down how you spend every moment.

It’s a bit of a pain, but it’s a very interesting exercise in self-awareness if you’ve never done it before. You can do it for yourself is you like. At the end of a week look for the patterns and figure out what they tell you, if anything. FYI the random interval timer gives the best data sampling.

What’s the point? Show me documented evidence of how you spend your time, and I’ll tell you what your priorities really are.

Our Blind Spots

This exercise is not about judging and shaming. If you want to spend ten hours a day cruising the internet for cat videos then fill your proverbial puss-in-boots. But if you tell others (or more importantly yourself) that “family”, “career”, etc. are the most important things in your life, and you spend 10 hours a day cruising the internet for cat videos, then you might have some decisions to make.

We all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves. Most of us think we’re the only ones that don’t, because, well, it’s our blind spot. We watch what others do, not just what they say, but we all don’t watch ourselves.

So what?

People are watching you. Not just listening to the words that come out of your mouth. How you say things, your facial expressions, your eye contact, your body language. They watch your work – the quantity, quality, and timeliness of your work. Who you spend time with, what you spend time on, and the decisions you make when deadlines loom and budgets escape their cages. How you treat customers, which suppliers you use, and who you hire and fire.

Especially who you hire or fire – how fast you do it, for what reasons (stated and implied), who gets promoted, who gets training, who gets chosen for special projects, who gets assigned to what work, and so on.

You say more with these actions than you ever will with a poster of company values in the lunchroom. And if your actions and the poster are inconsistent with each other, guess which one they’ll believe?

The Hard Work

Deciding what not to do. It’s really really hard. So hard that many people go look at cat videos instead. But it’s liberating.

Take a look at your to-do list now. What’s been hanging around the longest without being done? If it’s still really important then do it. Actually spend time moving it forward. If not, cross it off your list and don’t look back. You’re free now – you have more time to do what’ really important.

Then do that again tomorrow…

Leadership Truths Nobody Wants to Talk About Part 2: Your Authority is Meaningless

With a nod to James Clear, “6 Truths About Exercise Nobody Wants to Believe” for the inspiration

What are you going to stop doing?

Stop Wasting Time on Email

Email is not work, and it certainly isn’t collaboration. It’s good for confirming facts and capturing decisions already made. It’s horrible for making decisions. Here’s why: The Bad News About Using Email to Collaborate

Your Second Most Valuable Personal Resource

Barrack Obama has one colour of suit. That way he doesn’t have to spend any time in the morning decision which shoes, belt, tie, or shirt match. They all do. Fewer decisions to make at the beginning of the day. He also has the same breakfast every day. He has more important things to do, apparently.

It’s part of his personal strategy of reducing decision fatigue. He learned that the more decision you make in a day, the worse each next decision is. So he’s spent years reducing trivial decisions he makes keep his strength for the more important, complex, and challenging ones.

Making decisions burns energy. Holding two or more options in your mind and comparing them is one of the most expensive executive activities our brain engages in. Stress, poor nutrition, poor fitness, and insufficient sleep will also contribute to a fatigued brain.

Making Good Decisions

We have only so much energy we have for decision-making during a day. The more fatigued we are the poorer decisions we make, and the more easily we fall into decision-making traps. Which contributes to stress, lack-of-sleep, etc.
It’s kind of the opposite of a self-licking ice-cream cone. It’s more like a death spiral.

One of the frequent complaints I hear from busy executives and managers “lack of time”. When we dig a little deeper if often comes down lack of focus and poor time-management habits. They’re trying to everything and end up accomplishing nothing. Currently I have nine clients, seven of whom are doing well. Who’s businesses are growing and improving as we work together.

Take Care of Yourself

Most of them are physically active and robust. They’ve learned to take care of themselves. They exercise, they eat well, they don’t smoke (except for the occasion cigar when on vacation in Cuba), they have good sleep habits, and they don’t drink to excess.

smoking ncoYou don’t have to do all these things to be a good leader. Being perfect is not a prerequisite to success. Goodness knows I’ve met a few smoking, drinking, swearing men and women that get the job done and have the respect of their team. Even been one on occasion. But it’s harder.

Business is not Olympic diving. You don’t get points for difficulty.

Eat That Frog

If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, you can go through the rest of the day knowing that probably nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. The frog in this case might be the thing you’ve been procrastinating about the most, or that task that will have the greatest positive impact on you life right now.

Tackle tackles things first, and and second things not at all. Tackle the work that requires your best focus and brain-power when you’re at you’re best. And if you have two big frogs to eat, eat the biggest, ugliest, oldest one first.

Guard Your Brain

Husband your decision-making energy carefully. Guard it jealously like you guard your time. Be conscious of your physical and emotional states, and how they affect your behaviour and decisions.

We Have To Do Everything NOW, So We Can Fail Faster

Seventh and last in a series about communication and change management.

I’ve got a lot of renovation projects started around my house. We installed hardware floors eight years ago, and still haven’t put the baseboards in. I know it was eight years because the night we put the last nail in is the night my god-daughter was born. In fact, we baby-sat her older sister while Mom & Dad (who’d been helping us) went to the hospital to deliver their latest.

When everything is a priority, important things get missed
When everything is a priority, important things get missed

The outside of the house is half painted, the garage needs new gutters, and I have the bricks but not the sand to re-lay the back patio so that it slope away from the house instead of towards it. I started that job when I took the old wooden patio out. I don’t remember how many years ago that was.

There’s lots of things we could be doing, and yet nothing seems to get done. We’ve gone from doing a little here (let’s get an estimate on finishing the tiling on the back landing) to doing a little there (oops, the playhouse needs repair! Let’s turn it into a garden shed while we’re at it – the kids are all grown up and don’t need it anymore.)

It’s demoralizing really. Lots of activity, no sense of progress. Companies and teams can suffer from the same organizational schizophrenia. When everything is important, then nothing is important, and nobody is clear about what to do next.

Fix #7 Focus

There’s a saying about how the cobbler’s children go barefoot because he’s too busy making shoes for everybody else. So I took my own advice. I stepped back to figure out what I was trying to accomplish over all. Then I picked one thing to do to get me closer to that.

Sooner or later we’re going to need to sell the house we’re in. The kids will all be moved out soon. The house is too big for just the two of us. Maybe we’ll find a little place out in the country. Or the mountains. Or maybe next to a slow-moving river in a little valley out on the prairie.

Regardless, we’re going to need to get our investment plus maybe a little extra out of it. We were never going to get there if we kept doing the same thing we are now, which is trying to come up with the perfect plan and budget.

Pick One Thing

We picked one project and we’re focused on that. We’re installing the baseboards,  re-painting the wall, and moving around some furniture and pictures. Then we can get our offices set up, and get some extra closet space to make the kitchen more livable. But the baseboards are going in. We’ve spent the last two weekends working, and the progress is tangible. At the end of today the pronouncement was “Let’s keep going!

It is so easy to plan everything out to the Nth degree, and let slip the time we could actually be doing things. Time is the one thing we cannot run down to the hardware store and get more of.

Decisions are Expensive

Making decisions is expensive. Holding two competing ideas, alternatives, or options in your brain at the same time, and choosing between them, costs the brain a lot of energy. Our ability to make quality decisions degrades with each subsequent decision during the day. Save your decision making energy for when you really need it. Once you’ve made a decision, act on it!

“Do Not Do” List

Leader’s make decisions. Those decision include what not to do. And that has to be communicated as explicitly as what you are going to do.  What if you made a “Not” list? List all the things that you’re not going to do? If need be, you can even make a “Later” list, as in “This might be next, but I’m not going to spend time and energy thinking about it now.”

Start With the End in Mind

Have a vision for where your company / team / organization is going. Then pick something, usually the most urgent “do now” stuff, and get it done. Something that if you focused on it for a set time would give you the best chance of getting closer to your goal. Give yourself a deadline. Remove all other distractions. Then do it until it’s done. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Focus precedes success, which generates momentum, energy, enthusiasm, and that elusive “employee engagement”.

What’s on your “do not do” list?

Consensus versus Decision Making, and Why You Need Both

So I’m at the cottage this week, internet’s been out for a day and only intermittent now. So in honour of my vacation and spending time with the family I’m going to share an article I wrote for last month. It’s all about the difference between consensus and making decisions.

Hope you’re having a great summer too.

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

When It’s Time to Let Go

Taking a break at the cowboy coffee house in Cochrane, Alberta

I was talking to my motorcycle mechanic about my latest acquisition, when a quote from Drucker came to mind:

If we did not do this already, would we go into it now?” If the answer is no, the reaction must be “What do we do now?” Very often, the right answer is abandonment.

I spent two years rebuilding my last motorcycle’s carburetors. I’d never done it before. I figured it would be a fun project to do with my buddy. It turned into an epic trial spanning multiple spare parts, nested layers of mechanical failure, and mishaps such as screws dropped into the engine. I could have taken that time, got a weekend job driving a cab, and bought myself a new bike.

The upside was that I did get to spend time with my buddy, mostly in an unheated Canadian garage. So when he found a $100 bike last fall, and it ran well, I jumped at it. Cosmetically it looked bad, but I’d rather be riding than busting my knuckles turning wrenches.

Third ride out, however, it started backfiring, stalling, and losing power. I took it down to my local mechanic who, after a quick inspection, identified about $2000 worth of work. Only two out of four cylinders were firing, the chain rusted out, there was an oil leak, and the carburetors were also leaking. This last one got my attention, as memories of busting knuckles in a cold garage came flooding back.

So I sold it to him for $200 in trade. He’s going to break it down for parts. For the money I would have spent fixing that one up I’d still have a bike that was only worth $100. I’m better off saving my pennies and spending that money buying a new, better looking, mechanically sound bike that I can actually enjoy riding. Sometime before another two years elapses.

As leaders we have to ask ourselves the tough questions:

  • What parts of your business are sucking up more time and energy than their worth, draining the life and joy from the rest of the company?
  • Which employees have you kept because you have an emotional investment in them unsupported by performance or results?
  • What opportunities are slipping away from you because you’ve been focused for too long on fixing something that’s not working and that isn’t your core business?

The Only Thing That Has Ever Changed the World

This RSA talk on the 21st Century Enlightenment grounds us back to thinking where we *should* be going, and is a thought-provoking bit of animated lecture (which is also fun to watch!).

Some highlight from just the first four minutes:

  • If you want to be happy throw away all those self-help books and surround yourself with happy friends
  • We are bad decision makers
  • We are very very bad at predicting what will make us happy, but also bad at understanding what made us happy in the past.
  • Recent insights into human nature help us make better decisions.

The only thing that has ever changed the world? Watch the clip and find out.

Other posts about change:
How to Persuade – and what doesn’t work
Take Care of Yourself First – because performance isn’t the only thing you’re judged on
When You Screw Up (and you will) – turning failure to your advantage, or at least take the sting out

How Executives Make Decisions

What do you find if you go through interviews with 6,500 executives and figure out what drives the best decision makers?  What behaviours do you want to hire for if you’re looking for somebody to fill a key role in your organization?

Bias to action, passion to succeed, and resourcefulness.

The best executives and leaders are curious and learn at light speed. They are humble and have no problem abandoning dumb ideas.

They guard their time jealously  – deciding not what to spend their time, learning just enough to dismiss an idea or decide to spend more time on it

The best have a habit of disciplined systematic analysis. Whether it takes minutes or weeks, or it’s done on the back of envelope, or a thorough, disciplined, formalized decision-making process. Whether their choosing a summer camp for their children or deciding the strategic direction of a multi-national.

They build long-term relationships with people they trust that they can instantly tap for advice and support.

The best take responsibility. While they get input from everywhere and everybody this does not mean they rely on consensus or vote. They want to be challenged, but will decide based on what they think is best. When they make a poor decision, they take the heat and learn from it. The bias for action needs is  balanced by humility.

Then they execute. Strategy without execution is useless, execution without strategy is aimless. Success requires great execution, over-communication, patience, resourcefulness, and persistence.

Decision Making – It’s the Process Stupid

Why is process so important to making decisions? Good decision-making process includes exploring uncertainty, including contradictory viewpoints, giving more weight to skill and experience instead of rank.

Bad process doesn’t allow good analysis to be heard.

Good process uncovers bad analysis.

When Emotions Decide

I don’t trust my instincts. At least I’m sceptical of them. Impulsive decisions based on emotion & feeling have led me astray in the past. When things are important to us, we can become emotional. When we’re emotional, we’re not always at our best.

Yet human beings are emotional creatures. Every memory has an emotion associated with it. The stronger the emotion, the more vivid the memory. Our emotions, feelings, memories, values, and beliefs drive our behaviour and our decisions. Even when we’re not aware of them as we make those decisions.

As leaders and managers we need to take our own and others’ emotions into account, especially if we want to have any chance of influencing  behaviour.

So how do we know when we should listen to our gut? Consider these four tests for when to trust your instincts.