Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: June, 2012

Reflections on Life and Leadership: Defining Moments

Public officials often become best known for their response to a particular crisis or event.  Somehow their response to an issue or circumstance becomes an indelible part of their public legacy.   For John F. Kennedy it was his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The destruction of the World Trade Center gave Rudy Giulliani the opportunity to become “America’s Mayor” as he responded to the events of 9/11. And while responding to such visible and dramatic crises such as these may create a public legacy, such defining moments are not the domain of President’s and politicians alone.  Every would-be leader faces defining moments regularly and is presented the opportunity to having an enduring impact on the lives of those around them.  The real challenge is to recognize such moments for what they are.

These defining moments, regrettably, have a way of getting lost in what seems like the routine of our lives.  Being absorbed in the tactical roles of our lives we fail to see the strategic impact of our behavior, decisions, and demeanor.  We wake to a speed of life and anxiety that we’ve come to accept as normal.  We must get busy “doing” and reacting.  In the fury and noise of our routine we do not see the strategic opportunities presented to us.  An employee has a personal problem affecting his or her performance and we react with a manager’s response citing policy and performance demands rather than investing a bit more time, energy, and compassion in the individual which might well return them to the point of productivity and create a deeper sense of corporate loyalty.  A child faces a disappointment or setback and as parents we resort, in our fatigue and frustration, to a message of “do better” or “chin up,” rather than investing the time and energy to address the cause of their circumstances rather than the symptoms.  This is not leadership.

Leadership is no easy thing.  Books and popular culture often glorify the successful public response of a given individual to a set of circumstances.  Yet they fail to recognize the dozens of things “every day” leaders must do to be effective.  Genuine leadership recognizes both the defining moments of “routine” decisions.  Hiring.  Firing.  Managing conflict.  Preparing.  Responding to a client complaint.  Seeing the unspoken pain in a child, friend, or employee’s eyes when others do not.  Finding opportunity when no one else does.  These are the daily defining moments for leaders.  To recognize the opportunity and privilege of such apparent burdens is difficult.  And responding appropriately is an imperfect science.  Yes, leadership may require us to do things we would prefer not to do, like say “no” to a client’s request, disappoint a child, or enforce a policy that makes us seem disingenuous.  Yet those too are defining moments.

The genuine leader seizes the defining moments of routine as well as crisis.  He or she recognizes taking on such a role makes one the “lightening rod” of a given circumstance.  In the mundane and routines of work, parenting, community service, as well in moments of great crisis, genuine leaders are aware of the moment.  They seize the opportunity others miss and in doing so have the opportunity to make a dramatic difference in their family, community and business.   So take a moment to consider what are the defining moments you will face in your life today.  Consider how you will respond.  To do so is to write your own indelible legacy in the lives of others.


Keep the Faith.

Reflections on Life and Leadership: Of Fine Wine and Springsteen

A few days ago I had the privilege of enjoying a great meal, some very good wine (Picket Fence Pinot Noir!) and engaging conversation as part of a group of professionals celebrating an accomplishment. Around the table sat attorneys, investment bankers, commercial bankers, and several educators, an eclectic assembly it seemed. Perhaps it was a combination of the fatigue or the exhilaration from working through the issues of a very complex financial transaction (or perhaps it was just the wine), but the conversation passed quickly from the banal courtesies of “thank-you” and “couldn’t have done it without you” to rather deep reflections about what drives people to achieve.

The conversation sprang from an interesting challenge as someone asked each of us to share something about our high school experience. He wanted to know what we thought was our “crowning achievement” of those four years. The conversation revealed varied backgrounds, some with great “privilege,” private schools and indulgence, others from rural roots and limited means, and others with a “middle class” normalcy. There were several State Champion athletes at the table (not me!), one or two valedictorians, and several who struggled to find their “most notable” achievement. I couldn’t decide between not getting caught skipping school to buy beer when my best friend turned 18, getting Sue V. to go the Eagles concert with me (I had good tickets), or my purchase of a 1973 Mustang Grande (with a vinyl top baby!).

The conversation included discussion about the role of education, particularly high school, in shaping us, as well as whether it produced a “chip on our shoulders” driving us to achieve. But whatever the answer, it became clear everyone suffered from measuring achievement by his or her own definition. That blindness became apparent when dialogue and frustration about the focus of several people’s children became part of the conversation. Several people acknowledged difficulty in dealing with a child whose talents, values, or goals varied from their parents in a significant way. Several had “gifted” children who seemed to lack “ambition” or “focus.” These children were not motivated by the things that motivated their parent at the same age. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

One might think the issue here is how parents can motivate their children. It isn’t. The real issue is our how our own perspective and experience creates expectations for others about what is “right.” As leaders and managers, we have the responsibility of achieving certain goals. We lead a team to achieve that goal and believe what motivates those team members is the same thing as what motivates us. We use rewards and penalties in the hopes that we will get certain types of behavior while failing to consider if individuals on our team are truly impacted by those tools. Cash bonuses drive some people. Others seek regular communication of praise and appreciation. Still others want to be part of a group larger than themselves. Some people simply want a job, a steady paycheck and to be treated respectfully. Leading as if everyone on a team has similar goals, needs, and aspirations is like increasing the speed on the treadmill so you can run “farther.”

Although leaders must find the means to motivate individuals on their teams the organizations they work for often limit their ability to do so. Rewards and penalties are institutionalized within a culture. Meaning some organizations may provide cash incentives but don’t pay for continuing education. Hence the individual who is motivated by cash may find his experience in the organization very meaningful while the one who thrives on learning new things is dissatisfied. Leaders cannot always deliver the motivations needed by their teams. So what then? Team member selection and understanding organizational culture then becomes essential. Although we cannot “choose” our children, we can choose those we invite on the team. Selection of team members must include more than simple understanding of what an individuals competencies and experience is. It must also include clear communication of what “matters” to the company and to the candidate. In doing so we give our teams and the individual a much higher probability of success.

Bruce Springsteen wrote a ballad titled “Glory Days.” It is a remembrance of high school set when a man encounters an old friend. They sit and talk of achievements and experiences that shaped them. It is a melancholy song with the refrain:

“Pass you by glory days. In the wink of an young girl’s eye, pass you by, glory days.”

As leaders we must be realize time and opportunity can pass us by if we fail to recognize the varied interests of our teams. We must relate to them as individuals in the context of a team goal. We must select them in the context of our organizations culture and without being blinded by our own experience and motivations. We must lead them with the tools given us by our organizations. To fail to do so is to invite frustration and dissatisfaction into our lives and the lives of our teams.

Keep the faith.

Reflections on Leadership: Sales Leadership and “Over-Managing”

In today’s economic environment producing an above average ROI is a considerable challenge for leaders, particularly sales leaders.  They are often presented with the responsibility of motivating an emotionally fatigued workforce with achieving goals that may seem utterly unreasonable.  They must challenge team members to higher levels of performance, often times, with diminished resources and higher priced products.  In such times companies both large and small may resort to enforcing an organizational process that requires leaders to “over” manage.  The thereby add to the fatigue of their teams while producing only nominally better results. Genuine leaders, especially sales leaders, must resist the temptation to make everything within the process of equal importance. They must walk the delicate balance of “keeping the main thing the main thing.” The customer, it seems, is the main thing.

Few businesses would contend they are not “customer focused.”   Managers and executives within most organizations make such statements as “the customer is always right” or “we wouldn’t be here without the customer.”  They then proceed to place obstacles between themselves and customers and prospects by making demands of their staff that have precious little to do with the customer.  Salespeople are asked to spend precious energy planning, reporting, meeting, and documenting all of which takes time away from engagement with a customer or prospect.  Technology planning is often built on what IT department budgets or design with little regard for how the technology enhances the client “buying experience.”  Accounting and financial departs create a web of bureaucracy designed to control costs but actually create obstacles for the sales person to interact with the client. There is a place for reporting, meeting, budgeting, and cost management, and especially, risk management.  Yet they must all be done in the context of the customer experience.

Sales people, if they truly are “sales people”, want to sell.  They do not want to be accountants, report writers, or much of anything else.  They want to be in front of a customers and prospects. So in leading sales people, leaders must recognize there are generally only three things the sales person can or should control.   They include:

  • The number of sales calls they make.
  • The things they do on the sales call.
  • The people or companies on whom they call.

Anything that is inconsistent with those three points detracts from their interaction with clients and prospects unless it equips them to:

  • Make more sales calls
  • Be better prepared when they are on the sales call.
  • Get better at getting in front of people or companies.

Sales leaders must avoid the dangers of being outside these constraints.  They must courageously challenge those within the organization who would make demands on the sales team that detracts from this focus.  Sales leadership must play its part in achieving organizational goals, cost management, risk management and regulatory compliance.  But such matters must not be mistaken for sales leadership.  And the opportunity cost associated with every moment the sales force is engaged in such actions is a moment when someone else is calling on your organization’s customer.

Keep the faith.