Let’s Be Scientific

As leaders, we are required to constantly evaluate evidence and make decisions.  In doing so, we often succumb to “winging it” and making decisions on the fly, trusting our gut.  While this might work for some decisions, it does not work for long term success.

Instead, we need to be scientific in our analysis of data and in our decision making.  Below, I offer some general guidelines on how we can all be more scientific in our daily leadership activities.

Know the Difference Between a Belief and Science: The easy way to differentiate the two is that if something cannot be disproved, it is not science. We see this most often in people’s ideology and viewpoint when we ask the question: what would it take for you to change your mind?  Without a good, open-minded answer to this question, you are dealing with a person’s beliefs.  As someone’s beliefs are strongly influenced by confirmation bias and are difficult to change, we need to avoid making a decision based on beliefs.

Use the Scientific Method: When doing data analysis, we must always begin with a hypothesis and see if our data proves or disproves that hypothesis.  When we look at data and then try to create a hypothesis after the fact, we are usually hypothesis hunting – looking for a pattern that confirms our current thinking.  And we have not proved anything.

Be Skeptical of Conclusions Drawn from Data.  In analyzing data, we need to remember five fundamentals:

  1. As the astronomer Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  In other words, if something seems too good to be true, we need to have overwhelming evidence to prove that it is true.
  2. Popularity does not determine proof.  Just because a lot of people believe something to be true does not make it true.
  3. Correlation is not causality.  Just because two things happen at the same time or one after the other does not mean that one event caused the other.
  4. Small sample sizes do not usually determine anything.  In short, one or two anecdotes does not equal a trend.
  5. Data usually is messy.  When the data lines up too perfectly, it is usually too good to be true and shows either a flaw in the data or the result of some after the fact hypothesis hunting.

Consider the Base Rate: As I have written before: Use the Base Rate For Better Decision Making, we need to consider the base rate in analyzing our data and making a decision.  Just because something is now twice as risky does not mean much if the initial risk is infinitesimally small.

Evaluate the Decisions That We Have Made: We need to look at the decisions that we make and evaluate them.  Did we make the right decision?  Why or why not? Then, ask what we can do to make a better decision in the future.  Decision-making is not a pure science; but, we do well to make our decision-making more scientific.  This evaluation of our own decisions and re-calibrating our probability or views when we receive new evidence, has been shown repeatedly to improve projections and forecasting.  If we ignore our decision-making track record, we get too confident in our decision-making abilities and begin to make poorer decisions.  If we do not evaluate our decisions, we will end up being like those talking head ‘experts’ on television, social media, or the newspapers – ‘always certain, usually wrong.’

Summary

By being scientific and following these guidelines, we can make better decisions that will move our companies forward.

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Hold Opinions Lightly (While Holding Convictions Tightly)

“When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir?”

John Maynard Keynes

In a leadership position, we need to hold our opinions lightly.  We need to be able to change our opinion or viewpoint when new data or insight comes to our attention.

Unfortunately, like politicians, many of us get locked into our opinions and continue to hold and advance these opinions in order not to appear as a “waffler.”  Worse than that, many of us are subject to confirmation bias whereby we use new data to confirm what we already believe rather than to critically assess and then update our opinions.

Keeping an open mind as new data come in is vital:

  1. We need to avoid making judgments on first impressions or other similar snap judgments
  2. We need to continually update our views of other people as we work with them more.
  3. We need to get all sides to an argument updating our views as additional information comes in
  4. We need to not get locked into a first hypothesis that we may be working under

In addition, we need to express our uncertainty in our opinions and decisions – “I am 80% certain that this…”.  By expressing this uncertainty, we allow our team members to share their viewpoints and express their own uncertainty.  By expressing this uncertainty, we will be holding “grayer” opinions.  We will be less likely to see everything as black or white: this person is totally wrong, and this person is totally correct.  Instead, we will see things in shades of gray: this person’s views seem more accurate right now than that other person.

The challenge in holding our opinions lightly is two-fold:

First, we may need to unlearn that we have always thought is true and how the world works. 

“The illiterate of the 21st century will be those…who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

Secondly, we then need to have the humility and the courage to change our minds and then admit that we were wrong to ourselves, our bosses, peers, and direct reports.

“And science means that you must change your mind when the evidence changes, however inconvenient that might be.”

Environmental Activist Mark Lynas (Who campaigned for years against GMO foods only to change his mind after the preponderance of evidence emerged that GMO foods were safe)

Holding our opinions lightly is a challenge; but it is essential to ensure that we follow the facts and the data, keep our opinions current with how the world works today, and then make the best decision possible with all the information available to us.

Postscript

While we may hold our opinions lightly and sometimes change our positions back and forth, we need to be firm with our convictions and make sure that we never violate our principles and values in either our opinions or our actions.

Opinions lightly.

Convictions tightly.

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14 Basics to Master

Leadership training focuses intently on high level leadership skills – strategic planning, negotiation, managing stakeholders, projecting charisma, developing and communicating a vision.  These are certainly vital skills. 

But, to be an effective leader first requires that we master basic productivity and management skills.  Without these fundamentals, the most visionary and charismatic leader will fail.

Below, I offer a list of 14 mundane basics that we all most master to become a good, even a great, leader.  None of them are exciting; but all are necessary.

  1. Close Reading – necessary to understand complex documents and documents on subjects far outside our area of expertise.
  2. Speed Reading – needed to get through the overwhelming volume of information that assaults us each day in order to “detect the whispers of useful information in a howling hurricane of noise.” (The Economist)
  3. Writing – we need to be able to write clearly and simply in a way that our points are understood by the intended audience (Think: write at an eighth-grade level).
  4. Organization – especially managing commitments and follow up.  Without a system to ensure follow up we will not be able to create a culture of accountability
  5. Typing – We still use keyboards in this world of ours.  If we spend all day hunting and pecking with our fingers instead of typing, then we are not being efficient.  The one exception is those who are proficient at using voice software to interact with their computers
  6. Excel or Other Spreadsheets – Even after 40 years, spreadsheets remain everywhere in business; we need to be able to use them well to analyze and understand information
  7. Database Understanding – We need to understand how databases in general and our company database system (ERP) in particular work and what information can and cannot be gotten out of these systems
  8. Statistics – knowing the difference between correlation and causality; understanding the basics of probability; understanding data, especially how to use data in decision-making and how data can be manipulated to mislead.
  9. Smartphone Use – how to use our Smartphone effectively and have it link back to our computers, especially on keeping a calendar and reminders up to date
  10. Public Speaking – we need to be able to speak effectively in front of groups large and small to convey our message
  11. Psychology – understanding the motivations of people who work for and with us, especially in determining why someone or some team acts the way that it does.
  12. Accounting – we need to understand the basics of accounting: the debits and credits, revenues, profit, cash flow, and understanding a balance sheet
  13. Focus – we need to know how to focus on the most important and learn how to say ‘no’ to keep that focus and to learn how to avoid getting bogged down in unproductive activities
  14. How to Run a Meeting – we need to know how to create agendas, keep meetings on track, ensure everyone participates, and make our meetings productive

The first step to being a great leader is to be a good leader.  To be a good leader requires that we master these basics to move our companies forward.

What basics did I miss?

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Field Centric

As leaders, we can get wrapped up in so many different activities and meetings – meeting with the finance, human resources or marketing department; talking to investors, banks and insurance companies; strategic planning; looking at acquisition candidates or joint venture partners.  This is all the sexy stuff that we see business leaders do on TV or in the movies. 

Good leaders do not let these activities get in the way of what is most important – focusing on and appreciating the front line of the business.  Often referred to as the field, the front line of the business is where the money gets made; it is where salespeople win new customers and close deals; it is where the product or service gets produced, delivered, and/ or installed; it is where most of the employees of the company work.  As the late CEO of GE, Jack Welch, writes:

“The field is important, not the headquarters.”

Get Thee to the Field

We, as business leaders, need to get out into the field to truly understand our businesses:

  • Being in the field allows us to truly understand the nuts and bolts of the business.

“You have to understand what is happening on the ground.  You have to be able to see what works and what doesn’t and to adapt quickly.  Otherwise you’ll spend years running plays that have no chance of succeeding.”  Jonathan Starr  (Founder of Flagg Street Capital)

“The further you are from the combat, the dumber you are.”  David Petraeus (US General during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)

  • Being in the field keeps us humble, helping us to appreciate the difficulties, challenges, and hard work that produce the numbers we see each month on our financial statements.

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower (34th President of the United States)

  • Being in the field allows us to have an unfiltered view of the business:

“Leaders should maintain contact with the front-lines and with customers.  This allows for truthful information gathering unhindered by the filters (and personal agendas) of the different layers of management.”  Skills for Success: The Experts Show the Way

  • Being in the field brings the company together and improves morale.  It reduces the psychological distance between us in our corner office and the person in the factory, on the jobsite, or delivering the product.  It allows us “to shake hands and kiss babies”, showing our appreciation and thanks for the good job our employees are doing, especially during times of stress (such as recently during Covid-19).  If we are trying to change or strengthen our culture, interacting directly with people on the front line of the business is vital.

Conclusion

In all our companies, there must be a focus on and appreciation of the field – the front line of the business.  We can never forget that this is the one part of the business that makes money and pays for everything else.  As Stephen Covey says:

“The front line produces the bottom line.”

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Make Molehills

“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”

Unfortunately, too many leaders ignore this wise advice.  Instead, every minor issue becomes a major problem that needs to be addressed and resolved now.

Why?

Leaders make mountains out of molehills for two reasons:

  1. It allows us to take action and be the hero that resolves issues to make the company better.  It is very ego-gratifying.
  2. We are susceptible to “present bias.”  Present bias is the tendency to feel that an issue that is being discussed at this time is more important and urgent (and thus must be solved) than it really is. 

The Negative Effects of Mountain-Making

  1. The leader micro-manages and becomes involved in minor issues, re-aligning (at least temporarily) the priorities and focus of our teams
  2. Further, in pursuing the solution to the problem, the leader inevitably side-steps and undermines the processes in place within the company
  3. We increase stress within the business, putting employees on edge just waiting for the next issue that the leader allows to disrupt everyone’s day
  4. We give bad example.  When we make mountains, we create a culture within the company where mountain making is just the way that things get done.

In short, mountain making just makes it more difficult for the whole company to do its work.

Making Molehills

As leaders, we need to make molehills by:

  1. Taking a deep breath and responding thoughtfully rather than reacting when an issue comes across our desk
  2. Avoiding incendiary language and hyperbole in describing the situation or issue
  3. Realizing that more than 50% of such issues do not need to be addressed.  The issue just may need to be ignored (as too low of a priority).  The issue just may need to be watched and evaluated over time.
  4. Overcoming present bias and ensuring that every issue that we do address is first evaluated by its importance and then its urgency
  5. Letting our teams solve the problem in the time and place appropriate for the importance and urgency of the problem
  6. Ensuring that the problems are solved using the processes in the company

Conclusion

By ignoring minor issues and making molehills out of major issues, a good leader ensures that the company is functioning smoothly and is not subject to endless disruption and stress.  This gives employees the time and space to focus on getting their tasks done, continuously improving their processes, and moving our companies forward.

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The Four Stupidities of the Smart Leader

To be a good leader, we have to be intelligent: intellectually, socially and emotionally intelligent.  In a previous blog post, I even gave some advice on 8 Ways to Be As Smart As We Can Be.  Being smart, however, does not prevent us from doing stupid things.   Below, I discuss some of the stupidities intelligent leaders succumb to.

Confirmation Bias

According to Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

With confirmation bias, once we have latched onto a belief or opinion it takes a lot of mental work to change that belief or opinion.  It is mentally less taxing to just re-interpret new data to reinforce what we already believe than to use the new data to evolve or change our belief. And that is what we all do. 

All of us!

Research shows that confirmation bias is unrelated to intelligence and cognitive ability.  The strongest relationship between confirmation bias and intelligence is that the smarter we are, the better that we become in justifying our views and “proving” that we are acting rationally and without confirmation bias, even when we are under the spell of confirmation bias.

Curse of Knowledge

As leaders, we know a lot and we have usually studied and learned a lot.  With all the knowledge that we have gained, we often find it difficult to imagine what it is like for someone else to not know what we know.  This is the curse of knowledge.  Because we know something, it is obvious to us even if it is not obvious to the person trying to learn it. 

This curse of knowledge causes leaders to do stupid things in several ways.  First, we just assume someone else knows all that we know.  This causes problems when decisions are made by others who don’t know or don’t understand a key fact or concept.  Second, smart leaders get impatient with others who struggle to learn something that is obvious to the leader.  Third, the curse of knowledge leads to over-confidence and complacency; we know so much that we don’t need to learn any more.  As the academic and author Adam Grant writes:

The curse of knowledge is that is closes our minds to what we don’t know.

Complexity

Smart people and smart leaders are good at understanding complexity, and often they love complexity.  There is often nothing so satisfying and ego-gratifying as deciphering and interpreting an advanced and sophisticated idea. We see this with most government, academic, and consulting reports.   But this complexity comes with a cost.  Not everyone understands the complex argument, especially those people (think: production, operations, and service workers) who actually do the work to implement the idea.  The problem with complexity is only getting worse as the writer Jonah Goldberg asserts:

The upper class in this country is making the rules of the game more complex.  And the problem can be simply stated: Complexity is a subsidy.  The more complex government makes society, the more it rewards those with the resources to deal with that complexity, and the more it punishes those who do not. 

Having All the Answers

Intelligent leaders are often impatient leaders; they have the answers, and they want to make it happen now.  Unfortunately, by having (and stating) all the answers, intelligent leaders can turn their business cultures into the “genius with a thousand helpers.” 

A good leader asks more questions, even questions that he or she already knows the answers to.  By listening to the answers to the question, this leader learns whether the other person understands the issue, and it gives the other person a deeper stake in the answer to the question.

Antidotes

What is the antidote to the four stupidities listed above?

  1. Involve others in key decision and policy making, especially those people who will do the work
  2. Keep it simple.  Complex language and complex ideas just confuse people and just prove that we do not understand it well enough to make it simple.

“What things have you been over-complicating?  What are the top three things you need to simplify for your team to succeed?” Paul Akers

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Patience

The regular readers of my blog are aware of my focus on Decisiveness and Getting Things Done.

But, as in all things in leadership, balance is required.  Good leaders balance this decisiveness with a healthy dose of patience.  There are times when we need to act; there are times when we need to wait and be patient.

Specifically, there are three times when patience is essential to move our businesses forward.

Patience When Emotional

This is the hardest and most important time for us to be patient. When angry or emotional, we need to be patient, end the discussion or meeting, and come back to the issue later when emotions are not running quite so high. The Chinese say it well:

“If we are patient in a moment of anger, we will escape a hundred days of sorrow.”

Chinese Proverb

Warren Buffett probably says it better:

“Don’t do things in anger: ‘You can always tell a man to go to hell tomorrow.’” 

Warren Buffett

Patience in Problem Solving and Decision-Making

When our direct reports or teams encounter problems or obstacles, as leaders, we all want to jump in, fix the problem, and move onto the next task.  Instead, we often need to practice patience, only offer our coaching, and let the individual or the team sort out and resolve the problem themselves.  This develops the individual or team and builds confidence for future challenges.

Likewise, in decision making, we do not need to make every decision now.  A good rule of thumb (from the book: Skills for Success: The Experts Show the Way) is that 15% of decisions need to mature and be made at a later date and a further 5% of decisions need not be made at all – either the decision is not important enough or the issues resolved themselves.

Patience in Long-Term Negotiations and Strategy

As leaders, we need to think long-term and have the patience to let some problems or issues simmer for a while.  Perhaps, it might not be the time to solve the problem.  Perhaps, the issue may not be a high enough priority for us or our team.  Or perhaps, the problems or issues just need to play themselves out. 

In a previous life, I was involved in acquisitions.  We often would try to acquire a company, not agree on a price, and just wait for the right moment when the deal would come together.  In one deal, we tried to acquire a company in the Midwest in 1996, kept in touch, and then finally completed the acquisition in 2005 – nine years later.

Such patience in sticking to a long-term plan is often uncomfortable.  As leaders, we want to make a decision and get the job done. This patience is even more difficult when circumstances turn against us.  

Several years ago, there was a young, brilliant chess player who was rising rapidly up the ranks of chess greats.  He seemed like a future world champion.  But a former world champion doubted this, remarking:

He will never become World Champion (in chess) since he doesn’t have the patience to endure worse positions for hours in order to win the game at the end.

Conclusion

As leaders, we need to be patient to make decisions or take advantage of opportunities when it is the time to do so and most advantageous to us.  The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu sums it up well.

Do you have the patience to wait / Till your mud settles and the water is clear.

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Three Keys to Teamwork

The fundamental determinant of success on most projects and at most companies is teamwork.  Volumes have been written about how to foster teamwork.  My small contribution is to suggest that each of us, when part of a team, keep three fundamentals front of mind – simplicity, accountability, and humility.

Simplicity

In everything our team does we all need to embrace simplicity. 

  • How can we keep our team to the smallest number of people possible?
  • How can we make our objectives as straightforward and clear as possible?
  • How can we solve each problem as simply as possible?
  • How can we keep our language and communication as simple and understandable as possible?
  • How can we be sure that our product or process can be understood and used by the customer or colleague who will use it?

The more we add complexity to any project, the more we add ambiguity and confusion.  Keeping everything as simple as possible allows tasks and projects to be completed and implemented.  We can always make things more complex later.

Accountability

Every good student in high school or college dreads group projects.  Why? Because in any group, there are always 1 – 2 students who don’t do what they say and don’t carry their weight, requiring the good student to do far more than their fair share of the work in order to get a good grade on the project.

Unfortunately, this happens in business as well. 

Any successful team requires that everyone carry their weight and live up to their obligations to the team and each other.  Far too often, team meetings involve re-hashing work that should have been done by one of the team members and then re-adjusting the task or project schedule to account for the delay that person caused by not fulfilling their commitments.  Without a high level of accountability and each team member doing what he or she says, the task or project gets delayed or lingers incomplete.

Humility

To have great teamwork, we all need a healthy dose of humility.  Humility allows us to truly listen to and learn from the person or persons that are actually doing the work.  With humility, we realize that we do not have all the answers and need to go out and seek the answers from someone who does know.  This humility is reflected in the world of lean (and Zen Buddhism) through the catchphrase to be a beginner.

“Be humble: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’”  Shunryu Suzuki

Finally, humility ensures that the team is not overrun by the HiPPO effect.  The HiPPO effect, so common in the tech industry and with consultants, is where everyone listens to and blindly follows along with the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, even when the HiPP does not know what they are doing.

Conclusion

Constant reminders, either on a weekly basis or at the start of team meetings, of the importance of simplicity, accountability, and humility will keep these three keys front of mind and help integrate them into a successful team dynamic.

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Don’t Get Angry

The Ancients knew a thing or two about anger:

Whom the Gods want to destroy, they first make angry.” Ancient Greek Proverb

“Great anger is more destructive than the sword.” Indian Proverb

“The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life.”  Japanese Samurai Proverb

“The key to leadership is self-control… including the mastery of anger, which is more difficult to defeat than the greatest wrestler.” Genghis Khan

“There’s nothing manly about rage.  It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being – and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners.” Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor)

Let’s take the hint and keep anger out of our managerial kit bag.

Angry at Ourselves

The old adage about anger usually applies.  When we are truly angry, we are angry at ourselves.  As a leader, we may feel that our anger is justified – someone did not get their work done on time (@^%$#*&).  But, in most cases, the useful answer is to be angry with ourselves. 

  • Did we communicate the assignment and the due date clearly? 
  • Did we follow up consistently to ensure that everything was proceeding on time?

Our anger will inevitably be interpreted by our people as being unfair. Where we may see just cause for anger, our employees see that we are angry at ourselves for not communicating clearly or following up well.  And our people will feel, often quite correctly, that we are taking this anger out on them.

Cooling Off

When we begin to get angry, we need to force ourselves to take a “cooling-off” period. A day or even a couple of hours will assuage a lot of our anger and allow us to be clear-headed in finding a resolution to what made us so furious. Using anger or the leadership style of “the beatings will stop once morale improves” all but assures that morale will not improve.

“Don’t do things in anger: ‘You can always tell a man to go to hell tomorrow.’” Warren Buffett

Conclusion

There is good reason why anger is one of the seven deadly sins.  Anger is a strong emotion, and, as an emotion, it is nearly impossible to control.  Letting anger run its course damages reputations, relationships, and company morale, often permanently.

In short, as good leaders, we can never get angry.

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A Good Leader is a Good Storyteller

If only I could never open my mouth…until the abstract idea had reached its highest point – and had become a story!

Zorba the Greek

Since joining my current company, I have been emphasizing several concepts, such as “trust but verify” and “field-centric” (what happens in the operations is most important since that is where the money is made).  Among several concepts for sales, I have been pushing on “when the customer says yes, shut up and stop selling.”

It was early December, one of my direct reports and I were trying to convince my boss about some bonus payments for deserving employees.  After several minutes, my boss agreed.  I then proceeded to further explain why he had made such a wise decision to say yes.  After about 3 minutes of listening, he turned to me and said simply: “stop selling.”  Beet-red and embarrassed, I finally shut up.

This story drives home several points:

  1. I am far from perfect
  2. I need to remember what I preach and actually practice it
  3. Shutting up after getting the sale is a good thing to do

But, the broader point is that telling this story drives home the message in a far more memorable way then just writing: “When the customer says yes, shut up and stop selling.”

As leaders, we tend to rely on our logic and present dry facts about what we should and should not do.  We can do better; we can tell stories.

“Storytelling is by far the most underrated skill in business.”  Gary Vaynerchuk

Stories are vital to leadership.  A good leader needs to be a good storyteller.  Why?

First of all, the human mind appears to be primed to listen to, learn from, and remember stories.  Evolutionary psychologists would attribute this to the tens of thousands of years that our ancestors have been sitting around a fire at night sharing myths and stories.  When we hear a story, we are interested and engaged.

Second, stories move an idea from something abstract to something concrete and visual.  We have been trained to visualize a story in our head from the time that we were first read to as infants by our parents.  This visualization in our heads embeds the story deeper in our mind than mere facts can ever do.  When we hear a story, we are more likely to remember.

Third, as the old sales proverb states, facts tell, but stories sell.  Sales professionals have known about the power of stories for years.  A sales consultant colleague of mine, Paul McGhee, explains it well:

Selling is telling the right stories.  Some stories are best told with pictures, some with numbers, some with analogies, some with comparisons, some with customer quotations, some with 3rd party data and some with internally observed metrics.  You don’t tell every story every time.  But if you…tell the right stories at the right time in the right way – you win more.

Finally, stories can give context that helps make an idea more easily understood.  A story can be an example.  A story can be an analogy.  A story shares a little about the storyteller, humanizing him or her.  And, a story often explains the “why” behind the idea.  In short, as author Matthew Kelly writes,

If you wish to win people over to your team or to your point of view, do not go to war or argue with them – tell them a story.

By now, have I convinced you of the power of storytelling?

If so, it is time for me to shut up.

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Apology Accepted

As a leader, we will make mistakes or behave (in a moment of anger or frustration) inappropriately.  The usual response is to blame someone else, ignore the mistake or minimize the bad behavior, and then just move on. 

“I have many faults but being wrong is not one of them.”  Jimmy Hoffa

“I was wrrrr.  I was wrrrr. I was wrrrr…” The Fonz from Happy Days (Unable to admit that he was wrong)

Such behavior is destructive to our team and the culture we are all trying to build.

  • Everyone knows that the mistake was made or that the incident occurred
  • We are dodging accountability for our actions
  • We weaken our standing among our employees
  • We miss an opportunity to learn from the mistake or critically evaluate our behavior.

Unfortunately, too many leaders and too many politicians are like Jimmy Hoffa and the Fonz.  We do not have the courage and the humility to admit our mistakes and apologize. But, as Wharton Management Professor Maurice Schweitzer writes, apologies can move our companies forward.

“People are afraid to apologize for two reasons: one is loss of status; the other is that apologizing makes you more vulnerable.  And yet apologies are incredibly powerful in terms of rebuilding a relationship.  They help people move beyond an error.  They restore a sense of rapport among the parties involved.”

As leaders, we must instead be forthright, apologize for our mistake or bad behavior and any pain or difficulty that it caused, and resolve to learn from what happened and do better. 

“I apologize for the way that I reacted in our meeting on Monday.  My behavior was uncalled for and did not live up to the standards I have set for myself.  I am sorry and will work hard to earn back your respect and always behave respectfully and in line with our company’s values.  Thank you and please accept my apology.”

With such an apology, the door is now open for us, as leaders, to examine our behavior, to evaluate why the mistake occurred, to learn, and to move on.

The final stage of any apology is to do better – to behave better and to make better decisions.  In the words of the immortal philosopher Jay-Z:

“The best apology is changed behavior.”

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Humor – A Vital Leadership Skill

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower (34th President of the United States)

Having humor in the workplace is crucial to leadership success and to developing a positive, even fun, workplace culture.  There are two parts to humor that every leader must have:

  • Good humor
  • A sense of humor

Let me explain:

Good Humor

Good humor requires us to be courteous, upbeat, and positive even when angry or when things may be terrible at the company or, more likely, at home.  This is difficult, but essential.  It requires putting on a “leadership game face” even when we do not feel like talking to other people, let alone smiling.

The team takes clues from its leaders.  An angry, sour, annoyed leader will often bring the whole team down around him or her, even when these emotions come from someplace far removed from the office.

A Sense of Humor

“Humor, used skillfully, greases the management wheels.  It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages.”  Fabio Sala

As the quote above describes, humor is an important leadership tool in creating a more positive work environment.  Humor also humanizes the leader taking him or her out of the leadership rule and making him or her appear to be just a normal person who is pleasant to work with and be around. 

Of course, humor needs to avoid the “Third Rails” of sex, race, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.  But, a good joke or humorous comment or, often better, a humorous self-deprecating comment (but only if we have already established our competence and credibility) from the leader lightens the atmosphere in the office and makes the leader appear to be more human.

Use Sarcasm with Caution

In small doses, sarcasm can be funny and effective.  It can make a point about the absurdity of a situation.  It can allow us to be seen as one of the team.  But, sarcasm can hurt and is all too often negative and a way to be nasty without seeming nasty.  Such sarcasm goes against the goal of creating a positive and enjoyable workplace. Leader beware.

And Some Humor

In a blog about humor, we have to inject a little humor.  Below, see some humorous, maybe silly, maybe insightful, quotes to share:

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”  Groucho Marx

“There’s one way to find out if a man is honest – ask him. If he says, ‘Yes’, you know he is a crook.  Groucho Marx

“I intend to live forever.  So far, so good.”  Steven Wright

“If I agreed with you, we would both be wrong.”  Steven Tyler

“If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”  Woody Allen

“There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell them.”  Yogi Berra

“We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”  Yogi Berra

“People sometimes stumble over the truth, but usually they pick themselves up and hurry about their business.”  Winston Churchill

“The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”    Casey Stengel

“There are three signs of old age: loss of memory … I forget the other two.”  Red Skelton

“’Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”  Abraham Lincoln

“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”  Dave Barry

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.”  Dave Barry

“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.”  Garrison Keillor

“Sincerity – if you can fake it, you’ve got it made.”  George Burns

“It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.”  Moliere

Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.  That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.”  Jack Handey

“Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.”  Lily Tomlin

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”  Kermit the Frog

“If a man comes at you carrying a knife, you can be pretty sure he has a fork in the other hand.”  Danish Proverb

“What good is happiness.  You can’t buy money with it.”  Henny Youngman

“Marge, don’t discourage the boy.  Weaseling out of things is important to learn.  It’s what separates us from the animals… Except the weasel.”  Homer Simpson

“That’s a problem for future Homer.  Man, I don’t envy that guy.” Homer Simpson

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Seek Out the ‘Useful Answer’

“When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” 

Dalai Lama

In my company, as in many others, we have a formal system to review work that we have done.  Whether called post-project reviews, re-caps, or post-mortems, these reviews give the people involved an opportunity to reflect on the goods and bads and lessons learned on their work.

Unfortunately, these reviews can be useless if the employee writing the review opines about how he or she and their team did everything great and everyone else dropped the ball and caused all the problems.  This is the natural human response as we look to take pride in what we have done well and to deflect blame away from what we have done poorly.

“According to Attribution Theory, people explain their successes and failures by attributing them to factors that will allow them to feel as good as possible about themselves.”

Bradley Staats

To counter this universal human tendency, we require the employee writing the review to answer fully one question:

“What could we have done better to make the project or initiative more successful?”

Answering this question provides a useful and implementable answer that can benefit the employee and the company and serve as either a ‘lesson learned’ or as a reminder.  This ‘useful answer’ is so effective because it requires the employee to focus on his or her responsibility for the entire project or initiative even when they may not be in total control.

In the many reviews that we do, the ‘useful answers’ to this question are consistent:

  • We needed to communicate more interactively with the customer / end user to ensure that we were on the right path.
  • We needed to be clearer in our directives with the other parties, especially on their commitment and the due date.
  • We needed to follow up more consistently and insistently with the other party.
  • We needed to better understand and adhere to the schedule.
  • We needed to better anticipate and plan for the problems and challenges that occurred.
  • We needed to ‘raise the red flag’ and get a higher level of management involved when problems first appeared.

These ‘useful answers’ are crucial because the employees involved have 100% control over his or her own actions and can do better on each of these points on the next project or initiative.

These ‘useful answers’ are also great reminders that the tools and practices of good management and good project management are not that complex.  But, these tools and practices only work when they are used.

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When Negotiating, Selling or Just Persuading, Quality Over Quantity

Niro Sivanathan is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, who teaches Negotiations, Influence and Decision-Making.  His psychological insights can help all of us be better negotiators, influencers and decision makers.  In this blog, I let Niro’s words do most of the talking.

Avoid Irrelevant Points

Niro writes:

Diagnostic information is information of relevance to the evaluation that is needed. Non-diagnostic information is information that is irrelevant or inconsequential to that evaluation. And when both categories of information are mixed, dilution occurs.”

In summary, when we stray from our central argument, whether we want to add background information or share something interesting, we weaken our argument.  Psychologically speaking, the irrelevant information (non-diagnostic information in Niro’s quote) does not help persuade the other person, it just makes it more difficult for them to understand and thus to be persuaded.  Politicians have known this for years as expressed in the political proverb:

If you can’t convince them, confuse them.

And its contrapositive:

If you don’t confuse them, then you can convince them.

Quality Matters More Than Quantity

When we are persuading, we all think that adding further points will help our position.  Instead, adding more, but weaker, arguments worsens our position:

The psychological explanation for this is one of averaging. In this model, we take in information and those pieces of information are afforded a weight or score. And our minds do not add those pieces of information, but rather, average them out. So when you introduce irrelevant, or even weak arguments, those weak arguments reduce the weight of your overall argument.

In short, if we have three “A” negotiating points, adding three “C” negotiating points does not make our argument even stronger (three “A’s” plus three “C’s” is greater than three “A’s”) .  Instead, it means that the merit of our argument is now at the “B” level, not the “A” level.  Fewer strong arguments are far better than many average or weak arguments.

Niro again:

The take-away for communicators is to focus on quality over quantity.  You cannot increase the quality of an argument by simply increasing the quantity of your argument. The next time you want to speak up in a meeting it is important to note that the delivery of your message is every bit as important as the content. Stick to strong arguments.  Because your arguments don’t add up, in the minds of the receiver, they average out.

Conclusion

When negotiating, selling or persuading, keep it short and simple:

  1. Stick to relevant information
  2. Only communicate the strongest arguments

“If you pile on too many different reasons to support your case, it can make your audience defensive – and cause them to reject your entire argument based on its least compelling points. Instead of diluting your argument, lead with a few of your strongest points.” Adam Grant

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The First Two Steps in Process Improvement

Most process improvement initiatives fail miserably.  First, they do not improve the processes they were supposed to improve.  Second, they waste managerial and employee time, effort and attention.  Or, third, the process may be improved; but this improvement does not improve our business.

To succeed with any process improvement initiative, we need to start out correctly with the first two steps of elimination and simplification.

Eliminate

Before we begin any improvement initiative, we need to eliminate anything that is not absolutely necessary.  This means evaluating whether the task or activity to be improved is truly needed.  To do this evaluation, we need to look at the ‘why’. 

  • Why are we doing this particular task?  Why is it essential?
  • What is the end result of this task? 
  • Over the last several months what actions have been made or decisions altered as a result of this task?
  • How does this task or process deliver value to the customer? 
  • How does this task or process improve our business?

If the process or task only results in ‘nice to know’ or ‘just in case’ information, then the process or task needs to be eliminated.  European business school professors, Heiche Bruch and Jochen I. Menges, are equally aggressive in their push for elimination:

“Regularly ask yourself, your managers, and the whole company: “Which of our current activities would we start now if they weren’t already under way?” Then eliminate all the others.”

If the result of all these questions is that the task is essential and needed, then we need to go back and ask whether all parts of the task or process are needed. 

Throughout this evaluation process, we need to engage the team that is doing the task and the ‘customer’ (both internal and external) of the task.

Simplify

Congratulations, we have eliminated the unnecessary tasks and processes and the unnecessary parts of these tasks and processes.  Now, we are on to the next step: simplification.

Simplification is even more difficult than elimination because most of us as managers and leaders (and especially consultants!!) love complexity.  As the author Nassim Taleb writes:

“People who are bred, selected, and compensated to find complicated solutions do not have an incentive to implement simplified ones.”

But, we have to get beyond that and simplify everything that can be simplified:

  1. Look for the simple solution that solves 80% of the problem with 20% of the time and complexity (80 / 20).
  2. Reduce the steps and hand-offs in the process to the absolute minimum
  3. How can the process be done in 1 / 10th or 1 / 100th of the time.  Considering how to get something done extremely quickly, such as in a Nascar pit stop, can lead to radical simplification.
  4. Streamline, shorten and bullet point communication focusing on the 3 – 5 key concepts
    1. Use simple words and simple sentences – seventh grade reading level – to ensure that everyone understands
    1. Avoid synonyms which can cause confusion.  Is the goal the same thing as the objective which is the same thing as the target?  Choose one word, ditch the thesaurus, and ensure that the communication is understood
  5. Summarize reports with the key take-aways (the ‘what?’, ‘so what?’, and ‘now what?’) and put the summary in the body of the E-Mail so that it can be read on the phone.

As the painter, Hans Hofmann, so eloquently put it:

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

Conclusion

By first eliminating and then simplifying, we can focus our improvement initiatives on the processes and tasks (and the parts of these processes and tasks) that add the most value to the customer and to our business. 

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Top Three Things to Do Today to Be a Better Leader

To build a better business, we need to be better leaders.  This does not mean we need to rush out and get more training or education or bring in a consultant (absolutely not!!).  Instead, we need to focus on the basics.  Without further ado, here is my list of the top three things all of us can do today to be better leaders.

Number 3 – Be Positive

As leaders we need to motivate and support our team.  This only comes from sharing our positivity with the team by inspiring them, thanking them, and congratulating them.  Especially in challenging and stressful times, being positive is vital to ensure that we are doing everything possible (within our control) to drive our companies forward and allow for employees to continue to provide for their families.  The Canadian entrepreneur Peter Thomas express well the benefits of being positive:

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words.  Keep your words positive because your words become your actions.  Keep your actions positive because your actions become your values.  Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.” 

As the writer Herm Albright humorously puts it, there is one additional benefit to being positive:

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”  

Number 2 – Keep it Simple and Clear

The goal of a leader is to inspire the team and help sell to the customer.  But, nobody is inspired and certainly nobody buys if they don’t understand or are confused.  This is especially true in today’s world where everyone seems to thrive on complexity.  As a leader we need to cut through complexity and ambiguity and ensure that everything we do is understood, both the specific directions and the reasons behind what we are doing (the “why”).  We need to keep things short; we need to write and speak in simple and clear language, and we need to keep our team’s priorities to just a critical few.  As General Colin Powell says, insight (even genius) is in seeing and communicating the simplicity amongst all the complexity of our business.

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” 

Number 1 – Follow Up

Successful teamwork and a successful business all result from a group of people working together toward a common goal with each person completing their tasks to accomplish the goal.  Once we have been simple and clear in our directions and goals, we need to follow up relentlessly to ensure that our team completes the tasks and achieves the goals.  As executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith writes:

“People don’t get better without follow up.  So let’s get better at following up with our people.”

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Selling When We are Not in Sales

No matter what our title is, we are all salespeople. 

Whenever we are trying to…

  • persuade others
  • lobby for our point of view
  • satisfy a disgruntled customer
  • ask for a raise…

we are selling.

Below I offer nine suggestions (from sales training) as reminders on how we can all be better at selling even when we are not in sales.

  • Be Proactive: If there is a problem, issue, or delay, we need to tell the other person before they find out and have to ask us.  In negotiation language, being proactive maximizes our leverage, while asking for or explaining something after the fact weakens our leverage.
  • Keep It Simple: We understand our position or issue; but the person with whom we are communicating likely does not (although they will usually say that they do).  As such, we need to keep it simple and keep it clear so that they can understand us.  A confused person does not buy anything nor change their mind. 
  • Pre-Plan and Prepare: Good pre-planning and preparation ensures that we are keeping our message simple and clear.  In sales training, we first focus on understanding the customer’s hot buttons – what really matters most to the customer and will determine their decision.  We then prepare scripts and do role playing to ensure that we address these hot buttons as succinctly and clearly as possible.  Similarly, when preparing for a persuasive discussion, we need to prepare and practice to ensure that our key points will be understood and that we are addressing the customer’s hot buttons.
  • Be Liked:  The salesperson adage is that customers generally buy from people they like.  So, we need to ensure that we are liked and respected.  This means being kind and respecting the other person. 
  • Provide Compliments: We all like to be complimented.  Providing compliments, even some flattery, to the other person helps them to like us and keeps them in an open frame of mind where they can change their viewpoint to support ours.  If we lead off with negativity, the walls go up and the person will not be convinced.
  • Think Win-Win:  In sales, we teach that the customer is only listening to one radio station, WII – FM (What’s In It For Me).  Similarly in persuading and convincing, we need to look at the customer’s viewpoint and hot buttons, think about what benefit they will gain from supporting us, and present our arguments as Win – Win that will benefit both of us.
  • Be Humble: Despite what we see on television and in films, the arrogant salesperson usually loses.  Humility is far more fruitful.  This includes anticipating the other person’s concerns or issues and proactively addressing them.  This includes being less certain: we can lead with questions; we can present our ideas as a suggestion not a demand or requirement; we can present facts or insights as a reminder of “what they already know.”  Finally, we are humble when we let the other person feel like they offered the solution.  As former FBI Hostage Negotiator Chris Voss writes:

Persuasion is about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea.

  • Build Trust: We build trust by fully listening to the other person and respecting their viewpoint.  We build trust by being credible and having a strong history of having done what we had said we were going to do.  We build trust by discussing and admitting weaknesses in our product or argument (and then showing how the positive attributes overwhelm these weaknesses).  And we build trust by setting up a commitment or deliverable and then fulfilling that commitment on-time and with good quality.
  • Recap and Follow up: At the end of the meeting, we need to re-cap what was said, specifically any progress made, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.  Then we need to follow up in writing to record and confirm what was said and agreed to in the meeting.

By following these nine suggestions, we all can sell our ideas and ourselves better.  This better selling ensures that our good ideas are adopted and implemented, advances our careers, and moves our companies forward.

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A Time For Everything

“We all have times when we think more effectively, and times when we should not be thinking at all.”  Daniel Cohen

To be effective as leaders, we must do our good work in its proper time. 

  • We need to be aware of when (and where) to do our deep work – writing, preparing a presentation, reviewing a contract, making a sales call, leading a difficult, contentious meeting. 
  • We need to be aware of when (and where) to do our shallower work – catching up on E-Mail, paperwork, managing by walking around, etc.

Golden Hours

Be aware of those ‘golden hours’ in your workday when you are most successful at contacting and meeting with prospects.   Don’t waste this valuable time doing less productive tasks, such as paperwork.”  Roy Chitwood

In leadership as in sales, ‘golden hours’ are the times when we (and the people with whom we may be meeting) are most alert and engaged.  This ensures that the meeting is as productive as possible.  As we all know, tired and hangry people do not make for an effective meeting or sales call.

For most people, mornings are generally their golden hours as the psychologist Martin Seligman explains from his research:

“The basic rest and activity cycle (BRAC) is characteristic of human beings.   On average, we are at our most alert in late morning and midevening.  We are at the bottom of our cycle – tired, grumpy, inattentive, and pessimistic – at midafternoon and in the wee hours of the morning.” 

These golden hours also apply to our own individual deep work.  Our golden hours are the times when we should have that interview, review the 40-page contract, or write the detailed message to the team, the boss or the board.  Mid-afternoons or the times at the bottom of our cycle are the times to catch up on E-Mail, fill out expense reports, and do other shallow or rote work.

Schedule Our Deep and Shallow Time

During the times when we are most active and alert, we need to avoid all distractions and get the most important work done.  This requires the discipline to avoid phone calls, E-Mails, and other distractions and get to work.  For salespeople, this means being in front of a customer and not driving.

However, shallower tasks still need to get done.  We can schedule to catch up on these tasks for those times in the day or occasions when we are naturally less productive: right after lunch, while at an airport waiting for a flight, or even while driving.

I once had a top performing salesperson who had a long drive between customers.  To make the best use of his time, we would conduct our weekly update meetings while he was driving between customers.  I would control the agenda, so that he did not need to read anything while driving, and we would update each other during a time when he would normally be unproductive.

Create Slack

We need to create slack in our schedules for difficult work.  Most importantly, that means that we do not procrastinate and wait until the last minute. 

We might choose the perfect time to review that vital contract (or other deep work) – mid-morning right in the midst of our golden hour just as the caffeine is taking effect.  Perhaps today at that time, it just does not work for us.  We cannot concentrate; we cannot be productive.  If this is the case, we need to re-schedule for a time when we can give the contract the full attention it needs. 

Doing deep thinking and deep work when we are not fully engaged leads to wasted time, poorer quality work, and unneeded stress. 

Know Our Limits

As leaders, we also need to know our limits and know when it is time to go home and rest.  Two quotes from psychological research show well that work – life balance is good for both the individual and the business. 

“Unlike manual laborers, knowledge workers have about six good hours of hard mental labor a day.  Work late for too long and ‘people get dull and stupid…They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried.'”  Sara Robinson

“Productivity declines so steeply after fifty-five hours that ‘someone who puts in seventy hours produces nothing more with those extra fifteen hours.'”  Stanford University Research Study

Conclusion

By making the best use of both our most productive and least productive times of the day, we can get more effective work done to move our companies forward.  After all, as the author Sidney Madwed says…

“It is not the hours we put in on the job, it is what we put into the hours that counts.”

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A Happy Company

The American Psychologist and Author, Martin Seligman, is a strong promoter of positive psychology and well-being.  His five-part recommendation for increased happiness and life satisfaction consists of:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

This prescription (remembered with the acronym ‘PERMA’) works to make happy and successful individuals; it can work just as well to make happy and successful companies.

Positive Emotion

The first step to having positive emotions in our companies is to eliminate the negative emotions (pessimism, anger, annoyance, frustration, etc.) at our companies.  This often means either changing or parting ways with the cynic, the pessimist, the Debbie and Donald downers in our companies.  Without the negative people, we can focus on reducing everyone’s negative emotions by focusing our teams on taking the initiative to make things better.   As leaders, we then need to lead by example by emphasizing (through our actions and interactions) such positive emotions as support for one another, enthusiasm, laughter, fun, and good humor, all of which are critical to having a happy and productive workplace.

Engagement

Our companies cannot be all happy, kumbaya, TV sitcom places of business where nobody seems to do any work.  In good companies, good work gets done.   The best work gets done when employees and the team are focused, absorbed, and engaged on tasks that are critically important to the business and that these individuals do well.  This comes about by having our people working at their highest and best use.  This means streamlining process to minimize low-value added and monotonous processes and creating a workplace culture that minimizes unnecessary distractions and disruptions.  When people are engaged and working without needless disruptions, productive work gets done well in less time. 

Relationships

Positive, constructive relationships are critical to individual and company’s success and happiness.  Survey after survey has shown a direct correlation between having friends at work (even if just work friends) and employee satisfaction and productivity.  We spend 35% of our awake lives at work.  As such, our people and our team’s anxiety and stress is reduced significantly if we are spending this time with people we like and get along with.

Meaning

The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is quoted as saying: “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.”  To weather the daily, weekly, yearly challenges and difficulties in business, all companies need a purpose (a ‘why’) that is more than just to make money.  This meaning can be about serving the customer, making the world a better place through the company’s products or innovations, or providing for the company’s employees to enable their families to have better lives.  In any event, this meaning, this purpose, this why, helps employees get up every morning and come to work ready to do what is needed to make the company successful and to realize their own and the company’s purpose.

Achievement

A good and happy company also needs to achieve consistently.  This means being profitable, proving good customer service, and accomplishing the company’s goals.  As we see in sports, failing teams are rarely happy teams.  Achievement is fundamental to individual and company happiness because it gives us pride and self-esteem when we accomplish something and are part of a larger, successful, long-lasting entity. 

Conclusion

Martin Seligman’s prescription for a happy, successful, and flourishing life – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement – is valuable for all of us to keep in mind as we strive to make our companies happier and more successful.

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Best Version of Ourselves

The Australian Motivational Speaker and Catholic Author, Matthew Kelly, focus his message on people becoming the best version of themselves.  This message should resonate with all of us as leaders.

As leaders, we have strengths, and we have weaknesses.  We have great success, and we make mistakes and have failures.  To lead by example and to lead our teams effectively, we do not need to be perfect.  We just need to be the best version of a leader that we can be.

To be the best version of ourselves, we first need to banish all negative and childish behaviors from our lives.

A quick list of what we should never do includes:

  • “I Told You So”
  • Gossip
  • Criticizing Other People
  • Talking Behind People’s Backs
  • Being Impatient
  • Not Listening
  • Being the Smartest Person in the Room
  • Bragging
  • Taking Too Much Credit
  • Passing the Buck and Not Taking Responsibility
  • Not Admitting Mistakes
  • Being Unethical
  • Getting Angry
  • Being Ungrateful
  • Not Caring
  • Not Trying

By avoiding these and other similar bad behaviors, we become closer to being the best version of ourselves.  We become better people. And we become better leaders.

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