Raising Other People’s Children

I think it was listening to Tim Ferriss (1) interview a retired soldier who put forth a fully formed definition of leadership that struck me as being both concise and insightful (2):

“Leadership is raising other people’s children.”

I’ve been trying to find a workable, usable definition of leadership (3) for a long time (because I’m weird). I thought, “Hang on, we aren’t parents at work. And the people working with and for us certainly aren’t children.” So I rolled it over in my mind for a while and tucked it away. Apparently it stuck.

Then last week I listened to a TEDTalk where former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford eschews grades and over-parenting in favour of high standards and empathy. She has had to deal with so many children leaving home for the first time who were unable to tie their own shoe laces, let alone function as adults in the world. Also, their over-bearing parents who can’t let go. She describes a chart for successful parenting that looks like this:

Successful Parents Low Empathy High Empathy
High Standards Authoritarianism Sweet Spot
Low Standards Neglect Spoilage

…and it struck me that you very well could lay this chart over a leadership context and get the some useful results:

Neglect looks like high customer and employee turnover, waste, and a poisonous culture. Spoilage results in “happy” but ineffective employees. Think Silicon Valley, where a pool table and crepe bar are supposed to take care of employee moral and increase productivity, but instead results in employees playing pool and gaining weight.

In authoritarianism, the load for all decision making lands on the leader. There is a lack of accountability, bottlenecks, an inability to innovate, be proactive, or even make “common-sense” decisions.

The most valuable quadrant – high standards / high empathy – is also the smallest sweet spot (4)

If you’re not convinced empathy is as important as standards, go and watch the Superchicken TedTalk, where a Harvard study describes how teams with high empathy scores consistently outperform teams with high IQ scores. Teams that are aware of the emotions of its members, give everyone an opportunity to contribute, and where it’s okay to ask for help don’t just do better by a little bit – they do better by orders of magnitude. (5)

So what? Julie Lythcott-Haims gives us a very concrete action: make your kids do family chores.

It makes them aware that they’re part of a team (family) that depend on each other, lets them practice initiative (looking around to see what needs to do next without being constantly told), and prepares them to be independent adults. The kind that can do their own laundry and change the tire on their own damn car. Self-confidence based on lived experience. (6)(7)

Here’s another perspective: think of the mental load a leader (parent, spouse) already has in their role as a leader. Most people get punished promoted for doing good work by getting more work.

If, on top of being competent at their own job/role/duties/chores, keeping their word, creating a vision for the future, and inspiring others, they also have to direct and coordinate action on a day-to-day or even hour-by-hour basis, then they’re not going to do the other stuff very well. (8)

What does this mean to adult leaders leading adults?

  • Hire people that know how to do their own chores. Maybe they didn’t graduate from the best schools with the best grades, but you won’t have to supervise them every moment of every day. You are going to have to dig a little in the interview, but as a hiring manager that’s your job. It’s a learn-able skill. Also, it’ll make doing your so-called “real work” easier to do.
  • Learn to delegate. Very often we don’t get a choice about who works for us. So start giving away the work you shouldn’t be doing. Especially the organizing and planning of, or even better, the stuff you don’t like doing or aren’t very good at. It’ll suck at first (kind of like helping your kids do their homework without actually doing it for them), but it’s worth it.
  • Care: You can’t fake sincerity. So you’re going to have to actually care about people, ask questions, and listen. And you’re going to have to do it before you need it. That means spending time getting to know them, building the relationship, learning what motivates them and what they care about.
  • Train. Train your people. It’s a great way to show you care. But what if you train them and maybe they leave for a better job? What if you don’t train them and they stay?

(1) Choudn’t find the reference, but if you know it shoot it my way? Thanks.

(2) Of course it was an Non-Commissioned Officer (Sergeant & the like), because the best ones have a way of digging gems out of mountains of bullshit.

(3) The closest I’d come until now was “The Leadership Challenge”, which is still an important, original work. I’ll distill it here for you here if you don’t have time to read all 500+ pages: a) keep your word, b) be competent, c) have an idea of where you want to go, and d) share that vision to inspire others.

(4) Professional militaries have recognized this for a while. The U.S. Army Manual of Leadership defines leadership as “providing purpose, direction, and motivation” where motivation depends on trust, relationships, and influence.

The purpose and direction here echo what The Leadership Challenge calls vision and inspiration. The manual goes on to say: “Accomplishing the current mission is not enough—the leader is responsible for developing individuals and improving the organization for the near and long-term.”

(5) Just for giggles I did an online version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, widely considered a test of empathy. I didn’t think I’d score in the top percentile, but I didn’t even get close. That hurt a little. Women in general do better than men on this test, by the way.

(6) Otherwise there wouldn’t be books with titles like “Things Your Parents Should Have Taught You”.

(7) Also stop doing their homework, you’re not doing them any favours. In fact you’re creating an adult that is useless without someone telling them what to do next every minute of the day. If you really care, and you have to, sit down with them and make the work through it out by themselves.

Yes, painful for you too, not just them, but it’s setting the example: you are willing to actually spend your precious time on this because it’s important. Not just because you said it’s important. It’s left for an exercise to the reader about how this translates directly into being a good leader of adults.

(8) If you want to be a better parent, partner, and husband: it’s not enough to “do your share” of the chores, start doing them without being asked. Better yet, take over some of the planning and organizing. That’s an even better example you could be setting for your kids. Yes, I’m especially talking the men here. Again, it’s left as an exercise to the reader about how this translates into being a good leader.

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(Re) Starting Your Career #5 – Do What You Said You Would

Over and over again trust, credibility, and integrity come up as characteristics of effective leaders. Many words have been written about trust. It’s one of those words like integrity that has hundreds of meanings to different people. But the reality is quite simple.

In order to be an effective leader, the people you’re leading must trust you. In order to be trusted, you must do what you said you were going to do. I’ll say it again, because it’s that important:

Credibility results from doing what you said you would. Like most basic truths, this is both simpler and more complicated than it sounds.

Credibility means doing what you said you would. It really is as simple as keeping your word. Here is the complicated part:

Credibility means keeping your word even if it costs you. Doing more than you expected to do or losing out on something else if that what it takes.  It means keeping track of your commitments so you don’t “forget”. Unintentionally breaking your word is still breaking your word.

It means being disciplined enough to know what you can say yes to, and most importantly when you should say no. Keeping your word even to people you don’ t like. Saying no even when it means disappointing somebody you do like.

It means being very very selective about what you do say yes to. It means doing your best in all those circumstances. Even when what you want to do the most is just get “it” done and off your plate so you can move on to something else.

It means being transparent about where you are progress-wise. Reporting on progress is part of the commitment. It means being blunt and honest even when it hurts or is uncomfortable. It also means admitting when you can’t keep your word, and being transparent about what you can and will do going forward.

Credibility is your most valuable asset as a leader. Don’t believe me? Go read “The Leadership Challenge”. Or “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Then come back and tell me why trust isn’t at the top of the list. If people don’t trust you, nothing else will get done. Everything will be a struggle, Conflict, not the healthy kind, will abound.

Now, go examine your commitments. Choose only the most important ones.  Choose carefully. Do those first. Honestly manage the others. Then thrive.

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, to be effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business. 

On the Importance of Trust and Relationships

Trust and relationhipsHere’s an article I wrote for RESULTS.com on discovering the importance of trust and relationships in business (and life). Enjoy!

Why Are You Hiding Your Values?

I was in Rogers on Tuesday (they’re a local  cell phone service provider), on the 29th anniversary of my engagement to my bride, trying to get her a phone upgrade.  I thought it would be a simple process, and a nice gesture on our “asking” day.

Silly me. Three hours later we walked out with a new phone, bitter and disappointed at the service we received from Rogers. The only reason I didn’t switch was because the clerk couldn’t get through to her own customer service to cancel my contract, and I didn’t want to spent my entire anniversary waiting for this to get sorted out. But that’s not really what I want to talk about today.

While waiting I noticed the Roger’s one-page strategic plan lying on the counter. It seems I’ve inherited my grandmother’s faculty for reading upside-down. At least somewhat.

That skill had something to do with why she spent a few years living in Argentina after the war. There’s also something about her burning her then-dead German husband’s papers on the roof of the apartment in Switzerland under cover of doing laundry before fleeing. That’s also another story.

I asked the clerk if I could take a look at her company’s values, and she said no. She hid it furtively. As if she’d been caught doing something wrong.

This puzzles me. If a company is going to go through all the time and effort of discovering a set of expected behaviours for the company, then why can’t its customers see it? Are they embarrassed? Are they afraid that customers will laugh? In Roger’s case, given my treatment by them that night, that might realistic.

I began wondering how many other companies have values that they’re not willing to share with their customers, suppliers, and partners. Are they afraid to be held accountable to them? If you set out values and expected behaviour for everybody in your company, and you know that that’s not who your company really is, then I might understand your reticence.

I challenge you to publish your values. I dare you to make a public commitment. Commitment that is necessary for accountability and results. If you’re not willing to make that commitment, maybe you need to go back to your executive retreat and have another think.

If it turns out you don’t have any values, besides just making money, which I doubt, then don’t make something up. You’re not fooling anybody. Share who you are as a company, and be willing to be held to it. Otherwise the public will make up its own stories about why you behave the way you behave, or treat them the way you do.

Then make sure there’s a way for your clients, staff, suppliers to tell you when you are – and aren’t – living up to them. Listen. They’re already talking about you anyway. If you’re not hearing them it’s because you’re not listening.

If you’re not willing to fire employees behaviour that  consistently violate your core values, or you’re not willing to fix internal systems that consistently violate your customers humanity (such as making a phone upgrade a byzantine, three-hour gauntlet of bizarre rules and contractual obligations that require approval from an unreachable customer service representative in some overwhelmed call centre), then don’t waste your time.

There is a direct line between integrity and execution. If you don’t understand the this linkage between vision and engagement, values and execution, purpose and urgency, then stop wasting your time. Don’t waste it on “values” and “strategy” if you’re not going to follow through, or are doing it only because all the other “good” corporations are doing it.

That’s how I got started smoking – because the “cool” kids were doing it. It took me more than 29 years to quit and permanently damaged my health. But that’s another story.

My Own Personal Values

For the record, here are my own personal values:

  1. I will keep my word
  2. I will not lie, steal, cheat, hate, nor tolerate those who do.
  3. I will leave this world better than I found it.
  4. I will deal with reality, and face my fears. The only easy day was yesterday.
  5. Family first and last