Breaking the Bubble

Breaking the Bubble

I, Brocken Inaglory [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I, Brocken Inaglory [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the great things about being a leader is we get to guide others down a path to achieving some really important goals and share in the success. If we’re really lucky, we get to pick our own team and can surround ourselves with high-quality talent who shares our vision. We can choose people who think like we do, have similar experiences and backgrounds to our own, and approach problems from a similar perspective. This can be a great thing to enhance team cohesiveness and unity, and let’s be honest, it’s nice when people agree with us and support our ideas. But it can come with a disadvantage as well. Surrounding ourselves with like minded people can narrow the scope of ideas presented on the team and potentially throw out an optimum solution to a problem without it being considered fully.

There have even been several high profile government and corporate scandals in the last few years where one of the root causes was “groupthink” and a reluctance to put forward or entertain alternate viewpoints. While I don’t think most leaders are headed down a road to ruin, I do think we can all benefit from opening the aperture on what we’re doing and making sure we aren’t “living in a bubble”.

Some things you can do to “Break the Bubble”:

  1. Engage in active listening. Really listen to what your team is saying. Are there dissenting opinions? Don’t let team members (or yourself) shoot down dissent without taking some time to think it through.
  2. Encourage critical thinking. Ask tough questions; think about potential outcomes and impacts. Challenge your team to do the same.
  3. Seek out alternate perspectives. If everyone on your team is in agreement, make your pitch to someone who’s not on your team to get a fresh look at it. Someone who isn’t so close to the solution may be able to ask some insightful questions or highlight a risk area you hadn’t seen.
  4. Ask the quiet guy in the back of the room what he thinks. Some people aren’t always as outgoing as the rest. They often have good ideas and just need a little push to share them. Some well thought out insights from someone who has been listening to what everyone else has been saying can sometimes break a problem wide open!

Ultimately, you’re the boss and decisions rest with you. Just because sought out some alternative perspectives doesn’t mean you have to follow them. Use the ideas you think are valuable and make sure to give credit where credit is due. Great things come from expanding your worldview, so “break the bubble” and see what else is out there!

Honest Self-Assessment

By ESO ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By ESO ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Evaluating ourselves is never easy to do, but it’s a critical part of being a leader. As times, technology and situations change and as people come and go from your team it is essential to ask yourself if you’re being successful at meeting your objectives or even if you could do them just a little bit better.

Several years ago I got a very valuable piece of feedback from my boss (If you’re keeping score at home, it’s the same boss from “You Can Lead, But Can you Follow?”). He told me my approach to persuading others was like hitting them in the head with a two by four. I had always known that I was pretty direct and often prided myself on being a “straight shooter” so I didn’t take that as a negative, and my boss didn’t mean it as a criticism, just some honest feedback. About a year later I was working on a project that required building consensus among some other organizations and getting a final approval from a relatively high level decision maker. I was having a hard time building that consensus and couldn’t understand why, as I had mountains of data that supported my team’s position. As the days dragged on with no progress I finally had to ask myself the question “Why isn’t my approach working?” Just asking the question opened the door for me to really evaluate the situation.  As I delved into the problem, I realized the senior leadership concerns were not about the data but were more along the lines of “is it worth the strategic and political risk to head down this path?” I realized I needed to build their trust that my team had the skills to assess and successfully manage those risks as they came up.  I remembered the boss’ comments from the year before and realized that there were areas I could improve upon in developing professional relationships. For the project to succeed I had to find a way to relate to the other principals in a way that built trust and confidence in the people on my team, not our understanding of the facts.

Honest self-assessment is extremely difficult but is the key to any true personal development. It does not need to be negative; in fact, it should come from a place of objectivity as opposed to trying to portray yourself in a positive or negative light. In my situation above, self-assessment was forced on me as I was hitting a brick wall trying to get the mission accomplished, but ideally we should all engage in self-reflection periodically to determine our strengths and areas for improvement as part of continuous personal development.

There are all kinds of opportunities for self-assessment. It can be as simple as comparing your performance to the goals given to you by your organization or that you set yourself. Did you meet them? Exceed them? Fall short in some areas but succeed in others? Make some notes on your self-evaluation and compare them to the feedback you’re getting from your boss or your team.

Look for the root causes of why you either met your goals or fell short. Don’t settle for the easy answer, look for alternate explanations. Once you think you’ve found the cause, dig deeper. Keep asking “why?”. Once you’ve fully assessed the root causes, are any of them areas requiring personal development?

Finally, there is a difference between second guessing your decisions and honest self-assessment.  This kind of self-evaluation is best done with a clear head and looking towards the future, so don’t dwell on the results of past decisions, focus on what your goals are and how you can best achieve them. It’s all about improvement!

Time is Precious

By aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Dr Who  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Dr Who Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I was having lunch with a friend I worked with a few years back. He was talking about a professional education course he was working on but was having trouble between work and family finding the time to complete the reading assignments. My advice was to carve out an hour a day, three or four days a week to get it done, even if he had to lock himself in the bathroom to do it. He laughed and said he’d give that a try.  Managing time is challenging for most of us, but it’s extremely important that we make time for the things we believe are important and try to spend as little time as possible on the things that are necessary, but not moving us closer to achieving our strategic goals.

This idea extends to our workplaces as well, starting with the boss. If you’re like most of us, your boss’ time is limited, especially the time you get to spend with him discussing your projects. Show up organized; tell him your goal for the meeting right off the bat, and try not to make him make decisions that you are capable of making on your own. If your boss likes to make the decisions, be prepared with options for him, make your recommendations and express your preferences as the one who has to execute the work.  Show that you value his time and he’ll probably be willing to delegate more authority for these kinds of decisions to you in the future. If you’re lucky enough to be the boss, this one is easy for you, but now your challenge is to develop this behavior in your team.

It’s also just as important to respect your follower’s time. Reduce busy work and administrative tasks to the bare minimum. Make sure meetings are productive and have an agenda. Keep meetings on task; don’t let side issues creep in. Delegate decisions and action appropriate to their level of responsibility and skill so that you don’t have to micromanage. You want to be able to focus on end results and where you want to take your team.

Finally, and most importantly, you have to respect your own time. Build your schedule to spend your time on the items that are the highest priority to you. Like many concepts related to leadership, this is simple to talk about, but often difficult in practice. In any endeavor where we need to interact with other people, we have to live with constraints. One of the ways I work with schedule constraints is by placing key strategic tasks that are very important to me outside of the regular work day. I review my notes every evening after dinner before I get involved in anything else. I don’t always do anything about them, but I always review them.  I would prefer to do it right as I get into the office every morning, but I never know what is going to happen and most days something gets in the way, so I moved it to a time I knew would work.

Time is precious. Respect other’s time, but just as importantly, respect you own.

What tools do you use to manage and protect your time?

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?