Think Strategically, Act Strategically

Think Strategically, Act Strategically

By User:Nina Silaeva (личная работа) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Nina Silaeva (личная работа) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I was at dinner with a group of people this week and we were discussing a project that one of them was currently engaged in. It’s an extremely large effort with lots of people, several geographically distributed locations, many levels of management and some very high stakes on a successful outcome.  The discussion was centered on some creative differences that one of the geographically separated locations had with what “headquarters” wanted to see.  While differences of opinion are expected on large teams, this division had created a firestorm of emails, phone calls and meetings that were grinding progress to a halt. What was being proposed was unique and expedient, which are often good qualities, but were ultimately counter to the strategic vision of what the expected product would be. At some point an appropriate leader in the corporate chain would step in and make a decision in favor of the strategic vision; the question was, when and how high up the chain would it need to go?

This got me thinking about all the things we have to deal with every day as leaders and how we can ensure that we are being true to the organizations strategic vision. While true strategic thinking is not easy, it is often just as difficult to act strategically in support of our vision. Acting strategically means maximizing team effort on achieving our vision and minimizing effort on tasks or projects that don’t support it.  It also means that, as leaders, when we inevitably have to resolve conflict on the team, we need to do so in a way that best provides for a successful outcome of the strategic vision instead of what may be the most expedient way to end the conflict. We all make decisions every day that have an impact on achieving successful strategic outcomes; some questions we can ask ourselves to help prepare for these kinds of decisions:

  1. What are the strategic outcomes we want?
  2. How will we know if we are achieving them?
  3. Are all of our efforts directly or indirectly related to achieving the strategic outcomes?
  4. Can we stop doing the things that don’t support the strategic outcomes and refocus resources?
  5. Have the strategic outcomes been communicated to every member of the team?

I think the last question is an extremely important one. If the team understands and buys into the strategic vision, it is more likely they will adhere to it as they accomplish their tasks and provide recommendations. If they incorporate the strategy in their own problem solving, they’ll be more successful without requiring input from the leader.

The message I want to leave you with is, be true to your vision! If you believe in it, coordinate your decisions and your team’s actions to achieve it. Anything less will leave you feeling short of achieving the goal you started out with. You thought this was a great idea when you came up with it and it most likely still is. Give it the respect it deserves and make it a reality!

What is Your Personal Development Plan?

By Marine Institute (Marine Institute) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Marine Institute (Marine Institute) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Today I was writing a letter of recommendation for someone who worked for me a while back. She is moving from one career to another but many of the skills are transferrable. She is formally educated for this new position, but as I wrote the letter, I found what was most significant in my recommendation were the areas in which she had not had formal training, but in some of those intangible areas like interpersonal relationships and critical thinking. It got me thinking about how we can all develop those types of skills even if they’re not part of our formal training or education.

Most of us are familiar with a one-size-fits-all corporate training plan or development plan that the organization has put together to guide our development. It may be tailored a little bit to each individual’s position or specialty, but for the most part it’s not very personal and it usually involves going to certain training courses at certain times in your career. It also may not address your needs for development at this specific time in your career. I’d like to propose an alternative you can start today to initiate yourself on a path of personal development:

1)      Make a list of the areas you believe you are strong in your field and a list of the areas you’d like to improve your skills in. The lists don’t have to be long, just as long as there is at least one item on each list

2)      Pick one of the items on your “strong” list. Mentor your subordinates or some of your peers who may need some help in this area. Teaching others is a great way to reinforce your skills. As a bonus when you help someone else out, you give value to them and bring the whole team up!

3)      Choose one of the items on your “improvement” list that you’re really interested in to focus on for the next two weeks.

4)      Do something to learn more about your “improvement” area.  Don’t go spend a lot of money on a training course or anything like that. Find a blog, download a podcast or find a book in the library.  Spend a few hours of your free time over the next two weeks exploring this topic, take some notes, write down some short term steps and long term steps you can take to grow in this area.

5)      When the two weeks is up, evaluate what you’ve learned. Are you stronger in this area than when you started? Is it an area that has stoked an interest in you to learn more? If so, make a bigger commitment to improving that area. If you think you’d rather work on something else, give that new topic a try and re-evaluate after two weeks.

Ideally your two lists and the notes you make from your two-week explorations will grow into a personal development plan, but don’t worry about getting it written down into something formal right away.  The most important thing is just to identify a few areas you’d like to develop further and take some steps today to get there.

What are the areas you would most like to see your followers develop their skills in?

You Can Lead, But Can You Follow?

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Follow Mum  Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Follow Mum Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There I was, about to walk into the boss’s office and close the door. He had just made it very clear the outcome he wanted the team to achieve today. The problem was that he had a severe misperception of the roadblocks being placed in front of the team by an outside organization. The outcome was possible, but the approach wasn’t going to work.  The project lead tried to explain it in the meeting, but the boss was convinced of his approach. I was his deputy; I couldn’t let him fail because he didn’t understand the whole situation. I figured I might be coming out of this conversation looking for a new job, but I knocked, walked in and closed the door. It was actually a civil and insightful conversation, which I mainly attribute to this particular boss being one of the best leaders I’ve ever known, and though it was challenging, I was able to convince him of what he was missing and got our team going in the right direction. It also cemented the trust between us and our professional relationship for years after.

As I’ve mentioned before, unless you are fortunate enough to be the guy at the top, even as leaders we all have a boss that we have to report to.  This means that as leaders, we also need to be good followers. This can get tricky sometimes.

There is more to be a good follower than just taking orders and getting the job done.

A good follower will anticipate what the boss is looking for. He will understand the boss’s vision and intent and try to act the way the boss would want it done without having to bother the boss with the trivial details. This means as a follower, you need to have a solid understanding of the boss’s vision and intent as well as the authorities that he has delegated down to you.  See the post “What Keeps Your Boss Up at Night” for more.

Just as important as taking direction from the boss with a smile, is being straight with the boss. There are going to be times you have to tell him things that he isn’t going to want to hear. You may have heard of the “one challenge” rule.  It’s pretty simple, when the boss makes a decision you disagree with, you take one opportunity to try to convince him otherwise and if he sticks with his decision you go execute it and say nothing more about it. I sort of disregarded that in the situation above, but it was a pretty dire situation and I played the technicality that I wasn’t the one who initially challenged him.

I know that challenging the boss is not an easy thing to do. It’s okay if it takes a few minutes (or hours, or days) to get your courage up to do it. Try not to wait until it’s too late for a positive outcome to still occur. I’m a big believer in the saying “Bad news doesn’t get better with age!” so try not to leave your boss with no options because too much time has elapsed.

To be fair, after that conversation described above, there were several times I felt the need to do the same thing with my bosses.  Sometimes I’ve been successful at convincing them, other times I’ve left with the same orders as before looking for a way to make it work.

You owe it to your boss to be straight with him. Your efforts may not always be received in the spirit of honesty and trust that you intend. Just shake it off and keep being an excellent follower. The folks you lead will follow the example you set for them!

What other aspects of followership do you consider important? Comment below!

Don’t Lose Your Balance!

By Mbiama (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mbiama (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This summer I did something for the first time since I became an adult in the working world; I took an actual, no kidding, real vacation.  It didn’t hit me until I was 40 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean that I was on “vacation”. Before this summer every leisure trip I’ve ever taken had been associated with a work trip, or was in conjunction with seeing family or friends for an occasion or holiday. Never had I taken a trip solely for the purpose of enjoying myself!  As I floated weightlessly in the cold California water I realized that for far too long my work-life balance had been way off.

It was an odd time for self-reflection, but I decided to go with it. Looking back I had become one of those guys who spent way too much time at work. I tried to be the first one in every morning and often was the last one out every night. I used to take pride in the fact that I wouldn’t have taken all my days of leave each year. I guess it made me feel like I was dedicated to the job. It made me realize there are many times where we as leaders emphasize work-life balance to our people, but often through our own example set an expectation of imbalance.

Regardless of what you say to your team or how often you emphasize balance to them, they will take their cues from your actions:

If you’re in the office until 10:30 every night they will believe you expect the same of them.

If you go back to your desk to make a few calls during the office party, they’ll all feel they should get back to work.

If you send an email from home at 2:30 in the morning, they will wonder if you wanted them to be awake to answer it.

If you cut your vacation short to come back to take care of an issue, they’ll believe you expect the same of them and it will be clear to them that you don’t trust them in your absence.

I’m not saying there aren’t times where the team needs to pull an all-nighter or that as the boss you may need to put some extra time in. Just remember your team will be following your lead and it’s important to be conscious of how your actions are perceived even if you have the best intentions.

The best thing you can do as a leader is to make sure your words and actions match. If you need the team to sacrifice some personal time to get the job done, just say so and hold them to it.  If you want them to achieve a successful work-life balance to keep them refreshed, energized and at the top of their game, you need to tell them that and set a clear example of balance in your own life.

The good news for me was that I finally recognized the imbalance in my life and I got a valuable opportunity to think about some ways I could improve as a leader. I promised myself I would definitely not wait too long to take another vacation!

How do you maintain your own work-life balance?

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Be Doing It!

By User:Yskyflyer (own work (2 feet from my computer, On my Desk)) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Yskyflyer (own work (2 feet from my computer, On my Desk)) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it, being a leader is tough even in the best of circumstances.  The saying goes “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!” The truth is, everyone CAN be a leader and there are ways you can prepare yourself to make it a little easier. Before you even start your first day leading a team, you should develop your personal leadership philosophy. Engaging in a little self-reflection before you take the reins will help you deal effectively and consistently with situations as they occur. It also provides a foundation to start from when the unexpected happens.

So you’ve decided developing your own personal leadership philosophy is a great idea and you’re asking “How do I get started?”  Here are some things you can think about to get started today. I suggest writing the answers down and reviewing them in a few months to see if your perspective has changed. Each of these items could be a blog post on their own (and probably will be in the future), but for now, just write down your initial thoughts on each of these questions:

  1. What are your priorities as a leader and how do they rank in relation to each other? For example, is producing a perfect product more important to you than putting it out exactly on time? When everything is going well, you may not have to choose between priorities, but which do you choose when circumstances dictate you can’t have both?
  2. How will you communicate these priorities to your team?
  3. How will you interact with people? Are you open to being approached informally by team members? Do you prefer setting up an appointment?
  4. How will you develop key skills in your team and prepare them for increased responsibility? How will you set them on a career development path?
  5. How will you recognize your superior performers? How will you deal with an under-performer?
  6. What are your positions on unique situations like working from home, time off for little league games or other family events?
  7. Finally, what actions can you take to ensure your decisions and direction is consistent with the answers to the questions above?

Don’t feel boxed in by what you decide here today!  You’re not making every decision for the future right now, you’re just thinking through a framework to understand your own leadership style before you’re faced with a big decision. Over time you will definitely learn and grow and it’s valid to re-assess your personal leadership philosophy based on the experience you gain from success and from making mistakes. As a leader, you’ll have plenty of both!

If you’re willing to share, post your answers in the comments below. What other questions are you asking yourself as you develop your personal leadership philosophy?

Is Your Team Ready for the 21st Century?

By Hans-Werner34 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hans-Werner34 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Every leader understands the importance of making sure their team has the skills they need to accomplish the goal. If the team doesn’t have the right skill sets, a good leader will find a way to get people trained so that they do.  Training can encompass a lot of things, from specialized technical skills to general interpersonal skills.  There are some more basic skills that everyone needs to have to some degree, and if you as a leader don’t make sure the members of your team have them you’ll be holding yourself back from meeting your goals.

This year The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published it’s the first “OECD Skills Outlook” and there are several themes that should get us all thinking as leaders about the types of skills our people need to be successful. The report starts by talking about how technological innovations over the last half-century have affected almost every aspect of life.  These changes have increased the demand for some skills in the workplace and reduced the demand for others. One of the many graphs presented shows that between 1960 and 2009 demand for routine manual, non-routine manual and routine cognitive skills in the workplace has dropped 5%, 7% and 10% respectively while the demand for non-routine interpersonal and non-routine analytic skills has grown by approximately 15% each.

The report states “In addition to mastering occupation-specific skills, workers in the 21st century must also have a stock of information-processing skills, including literacy, numeracy and problem solving, and “generic” skills, such as interpersonal communication, self-management, and the ability to learn, to help them weather the uncertainties of a rapidly changing labour market.”

What this tells me is that the rapidly changing technical environment impacts us as leaders to ensure that our team members are well-equipped with these skills to operate effectively, autonomously and in a timely manner as the environment changes around them.

While I believe the “generic” skills mentioned above are important, I think the Big Three of Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving and the ones most critical to initially evaluate your team on. I’ll provide the definitions from the report to give you a starting point:

  • “Literacy is defined as the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential”
  • “Numeracy is defined as the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.”
  • “Problem solving in technology rich environments is defined as the ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks.”

The report (all 466 pages of it) goes into great detail on how individual nations fare in each of these areas, the gaps between the skills required and the skills possessed and the challenges in filling these gaps. My goal today here is not to delve into those kinds of details, but just to think about if your team has the levels of these skills you believe they should have and if not, how will you as a leader find a way to grow those skills in each of your team members?

Final Thought: If your team is fully equipped with these skills, have you prepared yourself as a leader to evaluate the products and ideas they come up with?

Reference: OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing.

Who’s in Charge Here?

By CEJISS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By CEJISS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all been there, You’ve either volunteered (or been volunteered) to work on a project with a team of folks from across the organization, or the boss has had enough of a particular issue and told you all to go “work it out.” The last time you were involved in one of these projects everyone made small talk with each other around the table until crunch time, then it was mayhem.

Often we find ourselves in a position where we have to accomplish a goal with a group of individuals who have been pulled together informally, but we have not been given authority over the people or resources we need to be successful. Or, we may find ourselves as part of a “committee” where no leader has been designated. Despite a lack of clear lines of authority, the boss expects success. Sounds painful, right? Well, it can be, or it can be an excellent opportunity to step up and exercise some informal leadership skills.

Taking on an informal or peer leadership role can be a great way to develop some of the more subtle skills that great leaders have. Your whole approach to leading a team will change when you don’t have “Because I said so” to fall back on.

Intrigued? Tell me more, you say? You’ve decided you’re going to take charge at the next meeting instead of letting everyone stare blankly at each other? Good for you! Here are some things you can do to help your ragtag team be successful.

  • Keep the focus on the end state your team needs to achieve.
  • Find out what interest your teammates have in being on the team. How did they get on the team? Are they representing a functional area? How important is the team’s success to them as individuals?
  • Focus on solutions, not positions or policies.
  • Brainstorm potential solutions. Allow everyone’s voice to be heard.
  • Find a balance between meeting and doing the work. Overly frequent status meetings put the focus on meeting and keeping track of status to the detriment of individuals performing their role.
  • Build trust. I know this is easier said than done, but this is where letting people be heard and focusing on solutions can help. Also, give credit and recognition where it is due.
  • Build consensus and accept compromise.  It may not turn our exactly according to your vision, but if it meets the goal it may be good enough.

So now you’re ready to step up and take charge the next time you see an opportunity! The question is, will you?

How have you approached being an informal or peer leader in the past? What were successful approaches? Any unsuccessful experiences?

What Keeps Your Boss Up at Night?

By Paul Clarke (originally posted to Flickr as Tim Berners-Lee) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Clarke (originally posted to Flickr as Tim Berners-Lee) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this something that you ask yourself as a leader? I think this is a very important question for young leaders to ask themselves occasionally, especially those in a position that have another leader they report to (let’s face it, this is most of us). The most successful leaders I’ve found are the ones who think a few levels above their own in the organization.

It’s important to be able to understand the vision of the person at the top. If the organization you work for is healthy, this has been communicated down to you clearly through things like mission or vision statements, organizational priorities, policies and/or authorities that have been delegated down to you along with other messages that spell out what the big boss at the top is looking to achieve.

In the military, this idea is called “Commander’s Intent”. Knowing and understanding this “intent” can be the key to making timely decisions for your own team to support the overall organization without having to go ask for permission on every decision you make. One of the advantages to showing you understand “intent” is being given increased autonomy and decision making authority for your own team as you build trust with your superiors.

Some questions you can ask yourself to better understand the big boss’ “intent”:

Do you really understand what your organization’s mission and vision are? Not just reciting them, but what do they mean in terms of actions the organization takes?

What are the big boss’ top priorities? What methods does he use to set those priorities? Where does your team fall within those priorities?

What keeps the big boss up at night? Does she have concerns about some aspect of the organization? Is there a milestone coming up that may have some significant risk associated with it?

If you work for a VERY large organization and the scope of this seems overwhelming, try asking these questions about your immediate boss’s boss.

Make sure you get some feedback on your interpretation of “intent”. After you’ve come up with your own answers, talk to your immediate boss to get their perspective. See if your answers match. There may be something you’re not aware of that has bearing on the “intent”.

I’m not advocating ignoring your duties to focus on the rest of the organization. This isn’t something you should spend a lot of time on, but you should revisit occasionally. Use this perspective to take action leading your own team. Can you start an initiative with your own team that will advance the boss’ priorities or address their concerns? If you can’t achieve your idea with your own team, can you collaborate with another team to make it a reality?

If you’re fortunate enough to be the big boss, there’s question you can ask yourself as well: Have I communicated my “intent” to the organization so that the leaders of all of my teams can advance my priorities without direct intervention? If the answer is yes, you’ll have much more time to be focused on where you want the organization to be in the future, instead of what everyone is doing right now.

Get to it…LIKE A BOSS!

Are We Our Own Worst Enemies?

By Crosa (Flickr: Scream) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Crosa (Flickr: Scream) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all worked for them, ineffective or “toxic” leaders. As long as there have been leaders, there have been the kinds who bully and belittle their people. Most leaders who act this way don’t even know they’re doing it. How can we understand the difference between an effective leader who motivates and enforces standards and one whose tyrannical style actually detracts from the mission? My goal today is for all of us to engage in a little self-reflection on our own leadership styles.

Everyone has their own leadership philosophy; what’s wrong with a boss who might be harder on his folks than someone else? Isn’t a little “tough love” warranted now and then? There are indeed times when a strong stance is required. Good leaders are able to keep a balance of holding followers accountable without completely demoralizing them in the process. Ultimately, toxic leadership is counter-productive and undermines the very goals you’re trying to achieve. You don’t get maximum performance from your team; you get just enough to keep you from flipping out on them. Once you reach this point it’s difficult to lead them back to a place of excellence.

So how do we keep ourselves from reaching that point? As I mentioned before, self-reflection is the key. There are a few ways you can tell if you’re exhibiting “toxic” behavior as a leader.

First, have you found yourself becoming reactive and defensive to feedback from your followers?

Have you found that personal initiative within the organization declines and you end up micromanaging every activity? Has “Just tell me what you want me to do” becomes a common refrain from your subordinates?

Have people stopped bringing you bad news? Or any news at all?

Even if you answered no to all of these questions, there are a few things we can all do (and remind ourselves to do) to keep ourselves from going down a road towards being ineffective leaders.

Set clear priorities and communicate your intent. Empower subordinates to act within the bounds of both. Taking advice from T.E. Lawrence, it’s better when your people do something “tolerably than that you do it perfectly”. Recognize when they do perform admirably within the parameters you’ve set, even if it’s not the perfect outcome you had hoped for.

Foster Ideas and allow people to speak freely. Ultimately decisions are yours to make as the leader, but you’ll get more innovation and creativity out of your people if they feel like they will be heard, even if you don’t choose the solution they put forth.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Bad stuff happens. Correct it and move on. If disciplinary action is required deal with it fairly and don’t take it personally.

Don’t be afraid of honest mistakes, they happen. Thank people for pointing out their own mistakes and work with them to develop corrective action. This is not the case for cases of theft, fraud or dishonesty. Allowing these to happen can ultimately cause your endeavor to fail and must be dealt with as a matter of discipline (a topic for another time).

Finally, put the success of your people achieving the goals you’ve given them above your own personal success. If the goal is achieved, your own success will come along with that.

One final note (actually more of an opinion on my part): Being stuck in a “toxic” mindset is frustrating, stressful, and ultimately no fun! Take some time to do some self-reflection, if for no other reason, to help you be more relaxed and less stressed.

What other aspects of leadership do you self-reflect on?

Who Are You a Mentor To?

I hope that question brings to mind a list of people in your life. If not, don’t sweat it. You’re probably already mentoring someone and just don’t think of it that way. You should! Being a mentor is one of the best ways you can “give something back” by sharing your insight, experience and perspective with someone who is facing challenges similar to those you have faced. It’s something I find to be truly rewarding in life.

In the past I’ve seen people make mentoring out to be far more formal than it needs to be. At its best, mentoring is simply guiding and advising another to help them be successful. Mentoring doesn’t need to occur solely in a supervisor-employee relationship; in fact, my personal experience is that it is often most effective if the mentor is outside of the direct supervisory chain of the individual being mentored. No matter what your business or skill set is, there’s someone out there who can benefit from your experience.

There are a number of ways you can mentor others. Relating a similar problem you faced, offering an alternate perspective, sharing best practices or “pro-tips” are all ways you can share your experience with someone else. Mentoring also provides an opportunity to pass down and encourage organizational culture and values in an informal way. It could even give you a chance to start grooming your replacement for the day when an exciting, new opportunity comes along. Mentoring isn’t one-sided either. When you mentor someone, you get a valuable opportunity to get another perspective on something you may be struggling with as well.

So now you’re fired up about finding someone to mentor! But who? I recommend you actively seek people to mentor who you wouldn’t normally interact with on a daily basis. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to guide the people you work with everyday. There is probably someone out there who can really benefit from your experience and knowledge that you haven’t even met!

As you get started, think about who your mentors have been. There have been people who believed in you and guided you along your journey. What valuable lessons did you learn from them and what style did they use to present it to you?

Chances are you are already mentoring someone and don’t even know it.  Make a conscious decision to develop that relationship and share your experience and insight with that person. Don’t limit yourself to mentoring just one person, especially if you are in a formal supervisory role. It’s important that as you mentor you provide the same opportunities for everyone to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

When you see an opportunity to mentor, jump right in and do it.  Most likely it will be appreciated. If not, you made an honest attempt to try to help someone and there will be other opportunities.

Don’t forget to maintain your own mentors as well! Your own development as a leader is still important while you help others along their path.

Get out there and mentor someone today!