Is Your Team Ready for the 21st Century?

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!

Willpower: It’s Not Just About Getting to the Gym!

By Tomwsulcer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tomwsulcer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was able to attend a speech given by former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. He made a statement at the beginning of his remarks about “limiting strategic goals to our resources and willpower.” This is not a new idea in the world of foreign policy, but I think it is worth exploring on a more everyday scale as we look at setting our own goals and objectives and leading our teams through achieving them.

I’m certainly not going to get into a discussion about foreign policy or politics here today! I’m mostly interested in discussing the idea of our “willpower” as leaders. I’m not advocating limiting our goals (and I don’t think Mr. Gingrich was either), but I do believe that there’s a certain amount of follow-through required to keep from being pulled away onto efforts that detract from our overall vision. Just like sticking to a diet or getting to the gym every day, it takes willpower to follow through on our vision and keep ourselves and our teams focused on achieving it. If we don’t have the willpower, we’ll fall short of achieving the goal.

No matter what our vision is, we need to ask ourselves, “Are my actions and decisions today aligned with my overall vision?” It can be extremely easy to gloss over this question when faced with all the problems that crop up. Some mental preparation can help us build that willpower before we need to make those daily decisions. A few specific questions that you can ask yourself to align your willpower with your goals:

1) Do you have a strategy to achieve your overall vision? It is a rare and gifted leader who can bring all his people and resources together to achieve a large goal without thinking about what smaller steps need to be achieved to get there.

2) Are all of your short-term objectives in line with achieving the larger goal? If they’re not, consider if they should still be objectives. If external forces are setting these objectives, consider how much priority they deserve if they don’t help your overall vision.

3) Are those short-term goals aligned in a united effort or are they working at cross-purposes? This is more common than you might think. A goal that sounds like a good idea today can actually take resources away from other initiatives and hinder your effort to achieve the big picture. Periodic re-evaluation of the impact short-term goals have on the overall vision is a must.

Finally, it’s important that you don’t set your sights too low as you create your vision. All too often, we limit our goals to what is “realistic” as opposed to what we really would like to accomplish. My message for you today is not to limit your vision, but to focus your willpower on following through to achieve that vision and reap the rewards that come with it!

If Patton Had an iPad

It’s pretty clear that the world is rapidly changing around us. Technology has enabled us all to work with mobility and connectivity that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Raise your hand if you’re reading this on your phone or tablet!

Unfortunately many managers and leaders have responded to this unprecedented freedom by implementing stricter controls and supervision over their team members. Instead of allowing individuals to maximize their time, effort and creativity to benefit the team; some leaders bind remote or traveling team members to the “office schedule”, demand more and more frequent status updates and review and correct products over and over again with little impact on the actual success of the project. This restrictive environment not only hinders the team member’s ability to get the job done, but prevents the leader from focusing on the overall vision of the organization. It also keeps the leader from thinking about ways to grow and expand into new areas.

But this post isn’t about what other people are doing wrong. It’s about what we as leaders can do RIGHT! As a leader you want to be focused on achieving results that further the vision and goals of your organization. This is true at every level, not just at the very top. Even if you don’t sit in the corner office, it’s still a good idea to be thinking about how what you and your team do achieves the vision of the organization.

Most leaders have heard the advice offered by George S. Patton decades ago: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” As a general officer, Patton had such huge responsibilities and span of control that there was no way he could interact in real-time with every subordinate unit at every level under his command. He achieved victory by telling his immediate subordinates what he wanted done and expecting them to achieve it. And they did. People have differing opinions about if Patton was a great leader or not, but I think his advice here provides a great model to take advantage of the freedom and mobility today’s technology offers.

Three things leaders can start doing today to use Patton’s advice to their advantage:

1) Clearly define the goals and objectives that you want your team to achieve. Having a clear definition of what success looks like will help you stay focused on achieving that end-state and avoid getting wrapped up in minutiae.

2) Clearly communicate the end-states of those goals to your team. Once they understand what you want as a final product, they’ll get the work done to get there, no matter where they are working from or what schedule they are on. (Team members who aren’t pulling their own weight or meeting deadlines is a topic for another day)

3) Mentor your team through the effort. Provide guidance, support and the tools they need to achieve the end-state. Don’t dictate how they should get it done, but if they are struggling, provide alternate perspectives and possible solutions to their challenges. Be available, but not over their shoulder.

These three ideas may sound obvious and not be new to any of you reading this. That’s the point. By remembering a few traditional leadership tenets, your team can be achieving results for you from home, the coffee shop around the corner or on the other side of the world.

Do you have any success stories where you took advantage of the freedom and mobility provided by new technology? Has Patton’s advice worked for you as a leader in the 21st Century?