Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Peter Drucker's Quote and the 7 Rules of Applied Leadership

"Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership." - Peter Drucker

Are things in the work world really as dire as in that quote? Didn't human society evolve from the realization that community and cooperation brought more benefit than detriment to each individual as part of a greater whole? And if the first part of this quote is indeed true then what does leadership in the work environment really mean?

I've had the good fortune and have benefited from working at many companies in my career. These organizations included some that were big and some that were small, some well known and some just starting up, some domestic and some global and located in 3 different major metropolitan geographies. I've also had mentees from these and many other companies and places. Based on the what I've witnessed myself and gathered from all these sources I reluctantly (and unfortunately) agree that there is a lot of truth in the Drucker quote. Why is that the case? And how does leadership help?

To answer these questions we need to first examine why friction, confusion and underperformance occur in the first place. Then see what steps are part of applied leadership (for what is leadership if it is not applied - impelling action in some form). Leadership is more than just a balm but a catalyst that creates a far more desirable, productive, high performance work environment.

I cannot cover in a single blog post all the reasons why there is organizational dysfunction. For simplicity sake I will keep the explanation very high level: People come to work with a variety of motivations and understandings that often compete with one another.

I realize I'm making sweeping generalizations for the sake of brevity. Here are some examples of competing themes that often are at play at work:
  1. Team members don't have the same understanding of the company vision or mission.
  2. Team members that have the same understanding of the company vision and mission will disagree on what steps to take to achieve that vision.
  3. Some people aim to extract from the world the maximal benefit for the minimal effort.
  4. Others will give up benefits in order to enjoy the path of least resistance. (i.e. people who are 'lazy').
  5. Many companies want to extract the maximum productivity from workers for the absolute minimal cost.
And the list goes on and on. All these motivations existing in one place are in direct contention thus causing friction and confusion between people in that place. For example, if one person's desire to do less work causes someone else to do more work than they perceive is fair and both these individuals perform at a lower quality for a higher cost than the company wants to bear you are guaranteed friction.

What does applying leadership in order to have a highly functioning team mean?

It means the following:
  1. Successfully inspiring individuals to see their part in delivering on a greater, unified, well understood vision and mission.
  2. Demonstrating that cooperation, while sometimes sub-optimal in the short term for certain individuals, will benefit all in the long term.
  3. Communicating clearly. Listening deeply. Being decisive.
  4. Hiring great people and coaxing greatness out of those already there.
  5. Granting autonomy while creating a safe space for making and learning from mistakes.
  6. Tirelessly seeking to improve.
  7. Celebrating successes.
There are of course many other important qualities of a good leader such as interpersonal skills, persuasiveness, etc. I've only listed the ones that are particularly important to overcoming Peter Drucker's naturally occurring dysfunction. All these steps take a lot of work.

By doing whatever is necessary to create and communicate a common mission, instilling a sense of "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" and explicitly expecting greatness from every single person on your entire team you as a leader (and frankly, every single person on a team can be a 'leader') will significantly reduce confusion and underperformance. Friction will melt away...

Perhaps the existence of this type of environment is the true measure of a great leader.

"A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them." - M. D. Arnold

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How to deal with a difficult person

Photo license: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

Conflict is a part of life. Whether in our personal or business lives we encounter people that we find 'difficult'. We may characterize this type of problem simply and say "we just don't see eye to eye". Or perhaps we may feel that this person was put on this earth simply to make our lives utterly miserable.

Sometimes we can brush this troublesome person aside in our minds and focus on other things. But usually, especially in a work setting where your success depends on this individual, it can lead to great stress. A lot of my mentoring conversations involve helping mentees deal with one or more difficult people they regularly encounter.

I have one useful tool to suggest that will either resolve the conflict or at least oftentimes lessen its impact. That tool is empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Seth Godin recently posted a wonderful article on the subject. It's quite short and worth the read - click here. Seth posits that deciding another person's actions are motivated by stupidity or evilness is rarely helpful. Instead it's far more useful to focus on the context of the situation and the motivation of the person you're dealing with.

Let me quote from that article: "If you want to know why someone does what they do, start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from."

The amount of conflict with another being is inversely proportional to your understanding of that being. You don't have to agree with that individual. That's ok. Just seek to understand - always. It's unlikely to change that person's behavior but it will put a far less vexing frame around them in your mind. And over time that mental reframing alone may transform that difficult person into an ally.

"The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend." 
- Abraham Lincoln 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Roll the Bones

"Why does it happen? Because it happens.
Roll the bones." - Neil Peart

In many mentoring conversations and blog posts I've discussed issues around the weighty topics of luck and fairness. Whether the subject is about a mentee being passed over for a promotion, enduring job interview rejection or having a perceived inability to be a natural born speaker or leader - ultimately the individual wants to understand why things are the way they are and could they have done something to prevent whatever pain they are currently experiencing. Could they have taken less risks? Could they have studied more? Could they have been better networkers? Or has it all already been decided by a force out of their control?

The question of "why?" is one of the most enigmatic and motivational questions of the human race. Scientists use that question to drive themselves to devise experiments to explain what they observe in the world. Clergy use that question to drive the faithful even closer to their faith. Teachers use that question to open minds. Many times politicians use that question to close minds.

I am neither politician nor clergy. If anything I aspire to be a part-time teacher through mentoring. I cannot even begin to answer that question for my mentees in a truly meaningful way. But what I can do is wonder along with them if that question even matters.

"Bones" is a slang term for dice. In fact "dice" were originally made from the ankle bones of certain animals and called "knucklebones" leading to that nickname.  Dice have been used since before recorded history most often in games of chance. Humans, it appears, have had a very long and romantic relationship with the concept of luck. It's all fun and games until it's not.

If you've been reading this blog you'll know I'm a big believer in someone's ability to "make their own luck". I've often offered many quotes along the lines of "luck happens when preparation meets opportunity". All still true but what happens if, for example, opportunity never comes knocking? Bad luck. I believe you can minimize the influence of luck but you can't eliminate it completely. And when luck happens "to" you then you need to deal with it the best you can. "Why did it happen?" is no longer a question that matters. It happened. The sooner you deal with the situation at hand and plot your course for a better future the sooner you've worked to minimize the impact of luck.

Bad luck is also not a reason to avoid rolling the dice, trying new things or taking a risk. Other very famous and very powerful quotes remind us: "nothing ventured, nothing gained" and "if you've never made a mistake then you've never tried anything new" [Einstein].

Dealing with bad luck, making mistakes, taking risks in search of greater rewards is all part of the human experience and that's all reason enough. "Why?" isn't a question that can always be answered or even always needs to be answered. "It is what it is" as they say.

I wish you all a heart full of courage to persevere no matter the situation and a world full of good luck!

"Why are we here? Because we're here.
Roll the bones." - Neil Peart