Own Your Inspiration

Nobody else can

Lately, a few special friends and acquaintances have been asking me about the slowdown in my blog and other writing projects. By slowdown I mean SLOW down.  It’s not that I have been any less interested nor that writing satisfies me any less. It’s just that in the last few months, I haven’t been motivated to create anything new or particularly interesting as I’ve been caught up in one thing or another.

Along this same time period I have allowed myself to become so busy with tasks that I have quite a stack of reading collecting. These include magazines of all types, articles, blog posts, you name it. If it is something that I want to sit down and mull for a while it has gone on the stack. Until a couple of weeks ago where I finally had some “spare” time and let myself take an article off of the top of the stack.

Amazingly, as soon as I started reading again, I started writing again. It helps to have a few special friends that also continue to push a little, but without something to spark the ideas, there is nothing to write. Only then did I come to the realization:

 If I’m not reading, I’m not writing. Or as a very insightful friend reminded me, if there is not input, there will be no output.

As a leader, you can get caught up in the tasks that have to be accomplished and become entirely focused on the day-to-day grind of getting work done. As issues arise, you can deal with them as you always have and get the same results that you’ve always gotten. But if all of the opportunities and issues were as simple as that, nobody would need your brain. And organizations are desperate for brains.

There are many ways to rekindle your own inspiration.  Roger von Oech, the author of the classic “A Whack on the Side of the Head,” points out that “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” To do this, you have to allow yourself some time to think. Leader after leader with whom I’ve worked has said that they would be much happier and much more effective if they just had time to consider options and create new ideas. Important point: Your time is your time. If you have zero time to think and reflect, it is because you haven’t chosen some of that time that you own and devoted it to the pursuit of thinking.

It might also be that you don’t need to free up additional time, but rather repurpose what you are already doing. For example, avoid following up on email or being on a phone call at the gym. It’s pretty silly looking anyway, but if you’re on the treadmill, or taking a walk, or driving to and fro, it’s possible to unplug from everything and simply mull over a problem or opportunity.

What works for me is to be intentional. We often let thinking time be the time we have left when everything else is completed. But how much more effective could you be with “everything else” if you had some time to think? It is possible to make thinking the first priority rather than the last. I have moved reading, for example, to the very first thing I do now when I get up in the morning. No email, no perusing social media, no television. I take the next thing from the stack of what I want to read and go for it.

What sorts of things do you do to prioritize thinking? What works for you?

Inspiring Leadership Creates Revenue

Bloomberg Business Week and the Hayes Group published a survey a while ago identifying the top 20 Best Companies for Leadership. The list includes many of those you would expect like Southwest Airlines, 3M, Zappos and General Electric.

In a comparison of what organizations value in leaders there were a number of significant differences. For example, both groups valued the ability of leaders to think strategically and to execute as the top two dimensions. However, for the majority of respondents, next in value  was decision-making followed very closely by technical expertise. For the Top 20, the third most important was inspiring leadership while technical expertise came in last.

In a comparison of financial results, the Top 20 beat the S&P 500 consistently. For 2008 where the S&P dropped 37%, the Top 20 averaged a gain of 1.6%.

It may be that those companies at the top understand that they cannot succeed by sheer expertise alone. The primary difference between technical expertise and an ability to inspire is the difference between a high individual contributor and a highly effective team.

Expertise alone will only get a leader so far. The ability to inspire others to join in the journey is the ability to exponentially increase the effort toward a common goal. That increased effort not only creates a more engaged workforce but a more successful company overall.   ­

Brainwriting versus Brainstorming

Developing Great Ideas

By special request (you’re welcome Angela) I want to revisit a way of coming up with new ideas that I mentioned a year or so ago. When faced with the need to develop multiple options for solving a problem, many leaders use the tried and true methods we have all learned for “brainstorming.” The theory is that, using the creativity of a group to build on one another’s ideas, the outcome of a brainstorming session can be both innovative and practical. The reality however is often different. Just suggest to your team that you are going to do a brainstorming exercise and watch their faces. Often you will see lots of rolled eyes and exasperated expressions of “Here we go again.”

Brainstorming is no more or less perfect than any other facilitation technique. In fact, as a creativity process, there are some typical problems with traditional brainstorming:

  1. The one who is the loudest is heard the most
  2. The one who is documenting the contributions is unable to fully participate
  3. The one who is documenting the contributions has editorial power
  4. We don’t know what to do with the ideas once we get them

Brainwriting addresses these concerns. As a process, you should consider brainwriting when you have one or two dominant people who typically take over the session or when you simply need to change up the process for generating ideas. Brainwriting follows these steps:

  1. Brainwriting groups should be 4-6 people. If the team is larger, break into smaller groups.
  2. Give each person a sheet of paper to start the process
  3. Each person puts their first idea at the top of the sheet using as clear and concise a sentence as possible.
  4. When the idea has been written, it is put in the middle of the table. If the participant has additional ideas they can take an additional sheet, write their idea, and put it also in the middle of the table. This continues until everybody has contributed as many ideas as they can easily come up with
  5. Once all ideas have been added to the pile, each person randomly takes one sheet. Reading the idea at the top the sheet, the participant now adds any variation of that idea, or relevant comment related to the idea that comes to mind.
  6. When finished, each sheet is passed to the left.  This continues until the sheet has made at least one full circle. It continues on around the table until there are no more ideas to add
  7. When a sheet is finished it is set aside and the next sheet is taken from the middle of the table. This process continues until all sheets have been examined.

 If done correctly, each person in the group has now contributed ideas and perceptions on other ideas. If sheets are identical or near identical, they can be combined. The group can also now take the sheets and put them in order of an agreed upon priority, whether it is “Most Effective,” or “Easiest to Implement,” or “Most Engaging.” The group can decide on the criteria for prioritizing either before or after the brainwriting.

The biggest challenge to this approach is that some people will inevitably decide that it is too much “process” to wade through. These are almost always the same people that would have dominated the conversation in a brainstorming session. Commit to at least giving it a try and see if the ideas are more in depth and more diverse in viewpoints than usual. If so, this is a tool worth having in your toolbox.

Thought for the Week: Confidence for 2012

If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.  Abraham Lincoln

According to the National Leadership Index for 2011, recently published by the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership, American’s confidence in their leaders has dropped to the lowest point since the Index was created in 2005. While this measure has been declining steadily, the drop from 2010 to 2011 was significant in itself. While none of the sectors investigated improved over the last 12 months, only two remained above average (Military and Medical). Not surprisingly, confidence dropped the most for leaders in Congress, and the lowest area of confidence was…Wall Street. Confidence in business leaders in generally dropped as well and leaders in Education suffered their second year in a row with a statistically significant decline.

ConfidenceInterestingly enough, most Americans are still optimistic. The report also states that 77% of Americans agree or strongly agree that we have a leadership crisis (9% higher than in 2010) yet 75% believe that leadership can also turn things around. At the same time, this number has also dropped nearly 10% over the past two years.

This means that it’s time to make 2012 the year of confidence building.  In fact, I believe this is the greatest leadership imperative that exists at this time.  Everybody needs a certain amount of self-confidence, but leaders have to build confidence in others as well.  As a leader you do this through:

1. Communicating a positive view of the future. Acknowledge the concerns, but don’t focus exclusively on communicating them. People know these are challenging times…what they are looking for is hope.

2. Listen to your people. There are great ideas out there among those who are working on the front line. Pay attention to them.

3. Celebrate every success. Even if you believe it is a small contribution, remember that your followers are making an effort. A simple “nice job” is all it takes sometimes to encourage those who look to you for leadership

The lack of confidence in leadership is not going to change by chance. It will change by the concerted and intentional effort of folks like you to lead your people out of the mess.

CEO Report Cover

Get a free copy of the Special Report "CEO New Year's Resolutions 2012: A Focus on the Future



Thought for the Week: A Focus on the Future

Change behavior, not people. Change processes, not standards. Change results, not goals. Mike Ferretti, CEO, Great Harvest Bread

CEO Report CoverThe year 2011 is rapidly coming to a close and, while it’s somewhat artificial to consider January 1st, 2012 as a special day where we are allowed to change, it is still a milestone that causes us to reflect on the past and plan for the future.  New Year’s resolutions are a tradition where we reveal our intent. By itself, a resolution doesn’t change things, but it sets us up to go on record with our priorities for the coming months.

Northwood University has just published my newest “CEO New Year’s Resolutions:  A Focus on the Future” for 2012.  It’s a free report that you can read or download by clicking on the link above or by visiting www.Northwood.edu and choosing the button at the top left corner on their homepage.

For this report, I contacted 50 CEOs of a diverse collection of organizations. These include franchise organizations like Great Harvest Bread listed above, large company CEOs like Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Jere Brown of Dimension Data Americas, non-profit CEOs like William Jones of Focus Hope and Viveka Rydell of PDI Surgery and leaders of tech companies like Andrew Schrage of MoneyCrashers.com and Sam Shank of HotelTonight. There are manufacturers represented like Ron Beebe from Euclid Industries and community organization leaders like Mike Woody from the Midland Tennis Center as well.

While this is not a statistically significant sample of all CEOs nationwide, it is still interesting and informative to see the consistency of the message in this report. As you read it, you get the impression that the leaders of many of our organizations are not cowed by current economic and political conditions but are instead focused on bringing growth and stability to their business in order to benefit their shareholders, their employees and their communities.  As I say in the introduction to the report, these business leaders also don’t represent the “1%” nor do they represent the “99%.” Instead, they represent the heart of American free enterprise.

I hope you find the time to check out the report. I would love to hear your feedback and comments.

Thought for the Week: Be Aware of the Spiral of Silence

A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.

Abba Eban

On the one hand, it is the leader’s job to not only hold a compelling vision but to communicate it in a manner that others will see the benefit of following. The leader has to deal with conflicts and differences of opinion and consider alternatives. And at the end of the day, the leader has to decide what direction to pursue and then enlist others to not only move in that direction but to own it and buy into it.

On the other hand, a team (and leader) who has decided that the answer they are after is the only answer runs the risk of coming to a consensus-of-error. Like an individual, teams can begin to be so convinced in their inherent ability to succeed that they ignore important signals along the way that may indicate a course adjustment (or abandonment) is necessary. It is a dilemma that extends beyond the specific leader because the group momentum can overwhelm the efforts of any single individual trying to reset the course.

Consensus can lead to groupthinkI.L. Janis first wrote about this issue in 1972, coining the term “groupthink” to look at the tendency of leaders and teams to ignore dissenting voices in favor of consensus. E. Noelle-Neumann in 1974 added the “spiral of silence” to this understanding as a way to explain how perfectly intelligent people, once having achieved consensus, refuse to budge even when it is clear the decision was wrong. The longer the issues are ignored, the more difficult it is to bring them up. In short, the two descriptions together propose that members of the team are unlikely to express personal concerns about team problems if they believe that other team members are likely to disagree.

I could (and perhaps will) write a lot more on this someday, but the point is this: Achieving consensus is difficult yet necessary in order to move groups forward. However, once consensus has been achieved, a new demon arises in the form of subdued and inhibited dissent. There may be members of the team who individually have views that are crucial to hear, but will not bring them forward for fear of damaging the consensus and sense of “team” that is developed.

As a leader, there are a number of things you can do:

1. Let your team or organization know that you believe in the vision and you believe in the direction and yet you are fully aware that things change and the unexpected happens. Challenge them to be the ones who point out when the current way of doing things needs to be examined.

2. Have regular “what are we ignoring” conversations. Most leaders will avoid this because it’s frightening to ask the question, but periodically checking in with the group will often allow individuals who see a problem to speak up. Assume that there is likely to be at least one important issue out there that everybody has an inkling about but nobody wants to say.

 3. Use multiple modes of communication. Invite people to speak with you one-on-one, or to send email or text. Provide some form of anonymous communication as well that will ease the fears of the individual who is afraid to step forward.

 Finally, don’t underestimate the power of group norms. The individual with a different idea or a strong concern, may be inhibited the most by the reaction of the group. Make sure that there are ways for group members to speak with you individually as well as within the group. And then listen to what they have to say. A course correction will not kill your culture but a lack of openness to different ideas almost surely will.