How To Practice Personal Leadership

Personal or individual leadership is at the heart of every successful team. It is not only question of management, but everyone on the team needs to be able to show individual leadership and ownership. As Jocko Willink and Leif Babin wrote in their book Extreme Ownership, leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame for your misfortunes or lack of progress. It is all on you.

Most of the points I will be making here target people in managerial positions but they are often transferrable to leaders in wider sense of the word. Each of us should act as a leader irrespective of our formal position within the company.

Ego is the archenemy

Ownership starts with getting rid of your ego. Ego, and taking things personally, is the most likely culprit in blaming others and not taking ownership of your own work, mistakes, and life. Getting to a place where you stop equating how your environment reacts to your actions with who you are is the most important thing to do for any leader. Have you got some negative feedback? Don’t take it personally, just listen, think if there is some lesson learned for you, and implement if it makes sense. Don’t worry that negative feedback makes you a bad person. Have you failed in your project? Do a retrospective, consider what went fine and what went wrong, and learn from it. Again, failing of the project doesn’t mean you are a failure. Getting to this ego-less mindset may not be easy thing to do, especially for people who tend to overthink everything. It requires a certain level of confidence in your own skills and abilities that takes time to build.

In my early days as a manager, I struggled many times with failures of leading my team, with receiving surprising negative feedback, and I asked often whether I’m any good at leading others. Over time, as I built skills and went through numerous difficult situations I became more and more confident in my abilities. I had some successes under my belt. Being an introvert, I read tons of books to study different management approaches, I found a mentor, I went through some training, and most importantly I’ve got years and years of situations I could tap into when dealing with new problems.

I was pretty ego-less person with good amount of humility to start with but over time I was able to take things less and less personally. Business is business and it has nothing to do with who I’m as a person. Do I get stressed out when dealing with unknown or with people who make me uncomfortable? Of course I do. But that is fine. It is the price I pay for the learning opportunities these stressful situations present. The one thing you need to watch for is managing your own expectations of others. If you push your ego to the background you may expect others to be like that too and forget that we are all just human beings and not robots.

It is your fault

Remember, you need to own your whole world and that means you are to be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Only by adopting this mindset that you are the one who messed up and thus can fix things you can be a true leader. This is incredibly powerful, sometimes scary and humiliating, but also an empowering mindset.

Let’s say you asked someone on your team to do a task and they failed to deliver. Your fault! You probably didn’t explain well what needed to be done, or you picked the wrong person, or you didn’t provide good enough training, or you asked for something unrealistic and didn’t build a culture where people are free to say “no”. Ultimately, there was something you have not done that you could do to achieve successful income. So try better next time.

Or think about this example. You spent a lot of time working on a proposal for a new initiative and when presented to your boss he said “no”. Again, your fault! You shouldn’t blame your boss that he didn’t understand your brilliant idea. You probably didn’t provide the right level of details, or your arguments were not good enough, or you didn’t understand your boss’s priorities, or you came up with something that isn’t aligned with company mission. Whatever the problem was, it wasn’t your boss. You could have done something different to get the approval. Again, try better next time.

“Not blaming your team or your boss for you not being able to get things done is the first step to personal leadership.”

It may sound counterintuitive but not blaming your team or your boss for you not being able to get things done is the first step to personal leadership. With this mindset and with iterative learning you can make your next presentation to your boss more and more likely to succeed and the same goes to your leadership of your team.

Managing yourself

Discipline is a key to high performing teams. And discipline starts with you. Even though it demands control and asceticism, at the end it results in lots of opportunities and freedom. Just consider the discipline of waking up early and not sleeping for ten hours a day. It gives you a lot of free time that you can use whichever way you want. Or consider a discipline of continuous education and what that can give you in terms of increased potential, efficiency and even ultimately time savings.

For example, when I realized early in my life that I will spend most of my waking hours in front of a computer screen writing stuff (being it software programming, preparation of presentations, emailing, or book writing) I had the discipline to carve substantial portion of my time for couple of months to learn typing. No one asked me to do that. No one offered a training. It was me taking ownership of my own future. Since then I can write with all ten fingers without looking at the keyboard and it made me significantly more efficient and effective for the rest of my life. If you have a personal discipline, and if everyone on your team has it, then it is much easier to make the whole team a disciplined unit that follows agreed processes and thus being effective at getting the job done.

Believing in the mission comes next. Leader who doesn’t believe in the mission of the company or the team can hardly lead. Leading means that you are able to show the path to others and persuade them to follow. That is very difficult, if not impossible, unless you believe that it is the right path to follow. If you are not the guy on the top and the mission is being dictated to you it is your responsibility to ask questions and understand it. You don’t necessarily need to agree on every single point, but you need to understand what and why needs to be done and you need to accept it internally, “yes, even though I would do it differently, I’m with you and fully support the plan.” When you then get in front of the team you can present the mission not as something that “the big boss” asked us to do, but as something what “we have decided to do.”

Next aspect of managing yourself is the ability of staying cool under pressure and making the best decision under the circumstances with data that are known at this moment. It is so seductive to keep asking for more and more data before making a decision but it is hardly ever needed. Leaders should be able to make decisions without having all the data available. The danger of waiting for more data is that you postpone decisions to the point that they don’t matter anymore. Even not making a decision is a decision.

Second danger is that getting more data often leads to data overload and decision paralysis as often the different options look more and more similar, each has some advantages and you are getting more and more lost. Being decisive and a bit aggressive in decision making will mark you as a strong leader who is willing to make decisions, take risks, and move things forward.

Leading down

What is the primary responsibility of any leader when it comes to his team? I’m sure you can come up with a long list but in it’s core it is your responsibility as a leader to influence and get commitment from your team. It is your responsibility to make sure they listen, support, and then execute the plan and the vision of the company. So how do you get your team to support and execute the plan?

You need to get your priorities straight and focus on one priority at the time otherwise you risk the team running in thousands different directions and accomplishing nothing. There is nothing more damaging to the mission than co-equal priorities. When someone asks you what the top priority is there need to be one thing and not a list of five or ten “top priorities”. It is the ambiguity in what is important that dampers efficiency of the team

You need to build simple plans and communicate them in a simple language to remove any ambiguity and create clarity for everyone on the team. It is very easy to create complex plans that have tons of variables, require bunch of lucky coincidences, and assume everything to go right. It is very seductive to build these plans and communicate them in a way that almost no one understands since it shows how smart you are, how much effort you put into it, and that the project is a big deal. Unfortunately, the more complicated the plan the higher likelihood it will fail. And the more complicated language you use when explaining the plan the bigger chance not everyone on the team will understand what you are trying to achieve. When you build your plan, give it a several rounds of review and simplify, simplify, and simplify some more.

“Teams that are great at executing are disciplined and have rituals in place that create operational readiness.”

Teams that are great at executing are disciplined and have rituals in place that create operational readiness. The more you can simplify the processes, have rituals in place to automate behavior of the team, the more you are ready for when things go wrong or when there is an unexpected situation. Just consider something as simple as a fire drill. What is the purpose? The purpose is to have a simple process that is repeatable and easy to follow when the unexpected fire springs up. By doing regular drills you build the discipline in the team to react the right way when the need arises. So even though discipline and rituals feel like they are creating too many boundaries and may squash creativity, they can in fact give the team the ability and confidence to deal with whatever unknown may come.

To be ready for the unexpected you not only need to have a discipline, you also need to build contingency plans for the most likely scenarios. Having a “Plan B” is important if you want to keep moving fast in environment that is changing. If you don’t have a backup plan and you know that there are likely risks that can stop you in your tracks then you run into a potential of significant slow-down and panic when the risks materialize. If you have a backup plan and every one understand what it is then when an obstacle gets in the way of the team everyone is ready, no one panics, and the new plan is being implemented without a big impact on the project.

Lastly, when it comes to managing performance it is not about what you say, but what you tolerate that sets the standard. You can say thousands times that you expect everyone to perform at their best, but when the team sees that there is an underperformer in their midst and you are not doing anything about it they may decide that underperforming is the new standard. By tolerating a behavior that is not acceptable or not aligned with the culture you are trying to build, you are setting a new standard that others may decide to follow.

Managing up

I talked about managing up extensively in How To Manage Your Manager so for the need of this article when talking about personal leadership and owning your own future let me focus just on couple of key points when it comes to managing up.

You need to keep your boss informed with the right level of details. If you don’t get approval for your project or idea it is your fault. You didn’t provide the right arguments to convince your boss or the right level of details. This is especially critical when working across cultures. Each culture may have different expectations about how you present your idea. For example, in the US, you may want to start with the executive summary of the plan and only then get into details as of why you are proposing this. In some European countries, you may need to build your recommendation from bottom up and start with how you collected the data and what they show before talking about the plan. Understanding of how your audience, in this case your boss, processes information is a key.

“You need to lead your leaders. You are on the ground with more data and with better understanding of the real needs of the customers or the employees.”

You need to learn to lead your leaders. At the end of the day, you are on the ground most likely with more data and with better understanding of the real needs of the customers or your employees. You need to push this awareness up the organizational structure and lead your managers. If you don’t share what’s going on it is only you to be blamed when they make wrong decisions or no decisions at all.

One of my bosses once told me, “I gave the team a week to make a decision, they didn’t, so now it is my call. We need to move forward.” Funnily enough, on the next meeting with the team in question, I had to listen to them complaining about how he just made a wrong decision and that they believe things should be done differently. Well, if the team members exhibited personal leadership they would make the decision on their own and communicated to the boss on what they are doing and why. Knowing him, he would be completely fine with their approach.

You may disagree with your boss about a point and even argue about it, but in front of the team you need to stand as unified front. If you are a leader who acts with integrity you may and in fact you should argue with your boss when you have a different view of what needs to be done. You should present your arguments in a way your boss can absorb. If at the end you are not convincing enough and the agreement is to go with your boss’s plan, then it has became your plan too. You need to get in front of the team with a message of, “this is what we decided” and not, “I know it is wrong, but my boss wants us to do this.”

Ultimately, personal leadership is about being honest, showing integrity, taking ownership, being humble, listening, respecting people up and down the organization, being decisive, giving credit, and staying cool under pressure of modern business.

 

What is your take on personal leadership? Do you believe that it is you and only you who owns your world? Are there situations when this doesn’t apply and it is someone else who needs to take the blame and fix things?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Why Introverts Need To Learn To Accept Praise

Anyone who works in a management role in any sizeable corporation surely went through a training on how to provide feedback. Creating a feedback culture is often very high on a list of things leaders want to do. It is important to be able to guide your team so they achieve the required business goals while growing their skillset and capabilities.

In these training sessions you learn not only to provide feedback but there are couple of words said about how to receive a negative feedback. How do you act when someone gives you a well meant and constructive criticism? It is simple, you don’t argue, you don’t try to prove him or her wrong. You listen, and you say politely thank you. Feedback is a gift. You may even ask some clarifying questions just to make sure you got the message right but you don’t judge, you don’t argue. You just receive the message. Then when you have time to think it through you may decide to either ignore the feedback or to take action. It is up to you.

However, there is not much written about the troubles with receiving positive feedback. It might be cultural, since lots of the literature is written by US authors and in North America and some countries in Western Europe you are being conditioned from a young age to receive and in fact even expect positive encouragements and recognitions. No big deal, how difficult it can be to receive words of praise?

Very difficult. At least, when you are an introvert, or when you come from cultures that preach humility and focus on helping others rather than getting into a spotlight yourself. I’m an introvert who comes from a culture that tends to criticize more than praise. I have no problems receiving negative feedback and I always try to get the most from it and improve. What I struggle with is when someone tries to say something positive to me about the work I did.

I feel awkward. I never know what to say and I often believe that the praise is exaggerated. You know, I was just doing my job and is should be given that I did it correctly. Have you ever experienced some of these situations?

Your boss: “This was a great presentation, I was really impressed.”

You: “Umm, thanks. Just doing my job.”

Your colleague: “Thank you so much for helping me with this task. You are a lifesaver.”

You: “Umm, no problem.”

Your boss on a big meeting: “I want to thank Tomas who was leading the charge and made this happen.”

You: “Umm, yeah, it was a team effort.”

By itself, my inability to take praise wouldn’t be a big problem if it wasn’t for the side effects. If someone provides you well-meant praise, they deserve some sort of heartfelt response. More importantly, once you are in a leadership role it is your job to provide well balanced feedback (and that means positive praise) to your team. If you don’t like receiving praise, chances are you are not good and giving it either.

So what can you do to be more comfortable with getting words of encouragement and thanks? It is very simple, just say “thank you” and smile.

This simple act will accomplish several things:

  • It shows you appreciate the thanks – let’s face it, deep inside we all like being appreciated so you are not faking it. If you learn to react this simple way you may even start getting more comfortable with praise and enjoy it. By saying thanks and smiling the person giving you the positive feedback will also feel good. It is a win-win situation.
  • You don’t marginalize the praise – when you try to deflect a compliment by saying things like, “it was nothing,” it may hurt the person giving the praise. Chances are that what you did meant “something” to that person so if you marginalize the praise you are also casting a judgement on the person giving it.
  • It gives you a chance to listen – as with the negative feedback there can be a hidden gold in the information surrounding the compliment. Listen to why the praise is given to you. You may unearth some future opportunities to repeat the good job or even discover some talents you didn’t know you have. Outsiders may see things in you that you don’t, so listening to the feedback and not cutting it short or dismissing is important if you want to understand yourself
  • You embrace it but stay humble – there is always a danger you overplay the response the other way and hype it to the levels not intended. So when you embrace the praise make sure you stay grounded and humble. With simple “thank you” that is exactly what you accomplish.
  • You will learn to enjoy the small things in life – happiness starts with the small things. By accepting praise for small things and learning to enjoy it you will feel better about yourself and the World. You need to realize that others probably don’t compliment you without a reason. You did something that caused the other person to offer a praise so there is no reason why you should feel awkward about it. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal for you, but it might be for someone else. So feel happy for them.
  • It will remind you to praise others – once you realize how good this feels and you stop being uncomfortable about it you will also remind yourself that others may enjoy positive feedback and praise too. That will make you a better colleague and a better leader.

As the author and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith said, “some people have trouble accepting a compliment. Have you ever said something nice about a friend’s attire, and your friend brushes it off with “Oh this? I haven’t worn it in years.” The correct response is “Thank you,” not attacking your judgment and kindness.”

So next time someone gives you a compliment stop fighting it and stop inventing ways to deflect, but smile and just say “Thank You.”

 

What is your take on accepting feedback? Have you ever felt that you don’t know what to say when someone praises your work? What are your strategies of coping with this?

 

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Why Leaders Should Stop Obsessing With Happiness

What does it mean to be happy? Evolution provided an easy recipe for happiness. It is about satisfying a specific need. Are you hungry? Get something to eat and you will feel happy. Are you afraid of drowning? Get out of water and breath some air and you will feel happy that you survived. In short, you get happy when you get what you want.

Happiness and meaning

However, according to this study things are a bit more complicated. The authors claim that based on their study, “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.” Kathleen Vohs, one of the co-authors, mentioned, “happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.” This definitely puts a twist on things, especially considering the impact on workplace.

Will adding meaning to your life make you happy? It might, it might not. Daniel Gilbert in one of his TED talks notes that parenthood is a great example of this phenomenon. Having kids will bring a meaning to your life, but studies have shown that it won’t increase your happiness. In fact, it might be the other way around since it often means self-sacrifice. Taking care of the kids will probably make you feel less happy than having a nice meal in a good restaurant but you will be more fulfilled and feel true meaning of your life.

Additional aspect of your quest for happiness is a concept called the hedonic treadmill. A term originally coined by D. Campbell and P. Brickman describing a tendency of humans to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events in life. For example, a person gets a promotion or gets a raise and their expectations and desires automatically raise with it so there is no long-term gain in happiness.

In the western civilization we believe that everyone has the right to be happy and we often pursue happiness as the ultimate life goal. Unfortunately, very often those who work hard on “being happy” never really achieve the happiness they seek. It is a moving target. You may say, “I will be happy when I get a promotion.” When the promotion comes you may feel a fleeting satisfaction but you won’t be really happy. The target has moved. Now you need to start working on the next promotion, or on a new car, or a bigger house. The hedonic treadmill keeps you running.

Truly happy people, or let’s rather call them people satisfied with their lives, are usually those who pursue something else and happiness is just a by-product of that effort. They have a mission. It might be something truly big that moves the civilization forward, like curing cancer or solving the world’s hunger. Or it might be more often something much more personal, like having a good family, or helping other people in general. You could say that they have high engagement in life and as a consequence they are happy.

Meaning and engagement

This brings us to the corporate world. There is a decent amount of research that says that happy employees are productive employees. It feels like a common sense, so no reason to argue with that. We see more and more companies creating roles of “Chief Happiness Officer” or similar in an effort to put bigger focus on making their employees happy. However, as with pursuing happiness in the other aspects of life, this seems to be a wrong approach. It may create a temporary good feeling in employees when you bring in a new benefit, have a party, or redecorate the office. But it will dissipate quickly and ultimately it won’t make anyone happy in long run unless you fix the other aspects of work life.

True engagement comes when employees understand their purpose in life, have their personal mission, and this mission is aligned with the mission of the company. Simon Sinek would say that “the start with WHY”. This is how cultures in many non-profit organizations that depend on work of volunteers are set up. Let’s say you are someone whose life mission is to help children. You derive your intrinsic motivation from seeing the happy faces of small kids, seeing them grow and be successful. If you see a kid who you helped, you feel proud, you feel like your life has a meaning, you satisfied your need to help them and you feel happy. If you work for an NGO organization that has the same mission, you won’t need any perks, fancy offices, or happiness officers. Your value system and your life mission will be aligned with the mission of the company and you will be fully engaged. If you go and work for a tobacco company, no amount of benefits or leadership effort will make you fully engaged and truly happy. That job clashes strongly with your values and your life mission.

Employees need to understand that they are having a meaningful impact in the lives of others. They also need to see that someone (ideally their boss) knows them and cares about them as human beings, not just as about workers.

“Happiness is not a goal, it is a byproduct of having a satisfaction of fulfilling your life’s mission and living according to your values.”

As Daniel Pink wrote in his bestselling book Drive, the intrinsic motivation comes from three sources: autonomy, mastery and purpose. I would combine it with the concept introduced by Patrick Lencioni in The Truth About Employee Engagement. He proposes that the keys to employee engagement come in the form of people understanding their relevance (how they impact lives of others), measurement (so they understand whether they do a good job), and the opposite of anonymity, let’s call it visibility (whether they feel that others know who they are).

Moreover, I would sprinkle in the concept by Cal Newport from his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport suggests that we generally enjoy doing things we are good at, again mastery. Many self-help books suggest that if you want to be happy you should do that what you are passionate about. That often doesn’t lead to success, since being passionate about something doesn’t automatically mean that you are good at it and someone is willing to pay for it so you can make a living. I fully agree with Newport that the concept is wrong and I would argue that whatever you do, if you are really great at it, and it is aligned with your values, you will gradually learn to enjoy it and even be passionate about it. And that means you will enjoy happiness.

Focus on engagement not happiness

So what can you, as a leader, do to increase engagement and ultimately happiness of your employees? This is an incredibly broad topic and there are many answers. But if I would to distill it into couple of key points. I would suggest that as a leader, a manager or an HR practitioner your role is quite simple:

  1. You need to set a clear mission for the company or the team and be able to paint a picture of what the organization is all about and where it is heading.
  2. You need to hire people whose life mission aligns with company’s mission and thus who will be excited by what the organization is doing.
  3. If you already were handed a team, you need to help them understand what their values are, and what their life mission is. Coaching is a good way to do it. And you may need to accept that some of them will select themselves out.
  4. If it is too abstract to link meaning of the work to the mission of the company then show them how their work affects the lives of other people. The most satisfying moments come from being able to point to a specific person you helped.
  5. You need to show that you care about them as a person. Don’t limit your conversation to work related topics but show a genuine interest about what’s going on in their lives in general.
  6. You need to provide them the right tools, training and opportunities so they can learn and be really good at what they do. The better they are at something the more they will enjoy doing it.
  7. You need to give them enough freedom to get the work done the way they want to do it, thus providing enough autonomy,
  8. You need to treat them with respect like adult human beings. Way too often companies hire smart individuals only to treat them like five years old kids.

All this sounds simple but it is definitely not easy. Even something like coming up with a good mission for the company or a team is a non-trivial exercise since you need to take into account all the various stakeholders and there must be something that your employees, customers, partners, and stakeholders identify with. Very often organizations have missions that focus solely on the needs of one or two stakeholders (often customers and/or shareholders), and that makes it ultimately difficult for the employees to identify with the company goals and thus engagement suffers. If you manage all these aspects, you will have an engaged and consequently happy employees who will move the organization forward.

And if you still don’t agree with my argument why it is better to focus on engagement rather than on happiness I would ask you to consider this. Imagine that you are dead and how people would remember you. Do you want to be remembered as “a person who lived an easy life and was happy,” or as “a person who was a great friend and mentor, and who always helped others live fulfilling lives”?

 

Are you happy? How did it happen? Do you believe the ultimate goal in life is being happy or is it something else?

Spending Money Doesn’t Equal To Creating Value

Cost optimization. Budget cuts. Downsizing. Focus on the bottom line. There are so many things that you can do to get a healthy balance sheet. There are so many different ways how to cut costs and save money. There are also many ways how to spend money you’ve got. Some ways of spending money are better than others because they create value that can be harnessed in the future.

As everything in the universe, it is all about balance. Balance between being cost effectiveness and investing for the future. Just saving or spending money doesn’t create value. Value is created when money are saved and then spent the right way at the right time.

Spending versus investing

I always have to wonder when I hear about a company that is “investing” an exuberant amount of money on facilities and employee perks how much return on that investment there really is. If you call it investment then you surely want to get something in return. Otherwise, it is just pure wasted money. Curiously enough, you mostly hear this about companies who can least afford it – start-ups. Under the pretense of creating “a cool culture” these companies, often without proven business model, spend money they don’t even have. It raises a question of what sort of culture you are creating and what sort of leadership you are showing to your employees when you are spending money on things that matter very little or may not matter to the business at all.

So how do you measure the return on that investment? If you need a facility for presentation to potential customers you can calculate relatively well what the difference is and how having better facility translates directly to sales.

But what if you don’t use it to entertain customers? What if you use it as back office, shared services or development center? The return is then realized by your ability to attract and retain good employees and them producing good quality work. The thing is, working environment is important, but not the most important factor when it comes to employee engagement, retention, and hiring. There are way too many more important factors like vision of the company, meaningful and satisfactory work, team mates, compensation, company culture, management team, financial stability of the company, and somewhere at the bottom physical environment and perks.

It can act as a nice marketing ploy since the press and even your employees will share pictures and it will attract attention. However, once you satisfy the basics in a form of reasonably modern office space with the basic amenities in a decent location any additional dollar spent on it means you can’t spend it on one of the more important factors that would drive your business forward.

Consumers versus creators

I recently saw an episode of Columbo (a detective series) where one of the bad guys after buying a bottle of wine for five thousand dollars at an auction answers his assistant’s question “Do you really need that bottle of wine?” with a disarming “nobody really needs a bottle of wine for five thousand dollars. I just don’t want anyone else to have it.”

I think this illustrates beautifully the mindset that many of us have when making buying decisions. We don’t really buy things because we need them, really need them. We buy things because we want them, because we believe it will make us feel better or even happy. Sometimes they indeed make us feel better. At least temporarily. When it comes to money most of us are consumers.

Almost everyone is prone to succumb to the consumer mentality. For managers it is often easier just to say “yes” to any request for budget coming from employees (especially if it is small enough) than to be firm and stand by the principles. If it doesn’t generate value (the maximum value I can get on that dollar) then it shouldn’t be spend regardless how small it is.

Those who are creators will use the money they got not to buy a new Ferrari but to invest in creating value. They build a company, create jobs, and build products. They will use their money in a way that produces something that will eventually bring them closer to their goal or that will create something for other people to use.

“Managers needs to have a creator mind, focus on mission of the company, and don’t get distracted by the human desire to consume.”

So what does it all mean for you if you are in a management role? If a company acts as a consumer it will buy fancy cars, fancy equipment, have luxurious offices, and tons of perks for its employees. If a company’s management has the creator mentality they will rather invest in accelerated growth and getting the company to profitability.

Every dollar counts. It is often not about whether inviting employees for a free dinner every Friday, or buying a fancy couch to chill out area will cost that much money. It is about having a creator mindset and a tenacity to stick with the primary mission of the company and not getting distracted by trivial matters and the human need to keep spending money just for the sake of looking good or indulging ones desires.

 

What is your take on spending money in the business world? In fact, what is your take on spending money in general?

 

Don’t Take That Job If You Are Not Nervous

I recently had an interesting conversation with one person I was coaching on a career decision. We worked together for some time and he had a clear plan on where he wants to go with his career. Then rather unexpectedly, an opportunity came by that was exactly on his career path. However, it came up a year or two earlier than he thought he will be ready. This created an obvious ambivalent feelings. At one side it was huge push for his career, at the other it came with anxiety and feeling of not being ready. He summarized it nicely in “Tomas, I’m excited by the opportunity but also a bit nervous.” And my response was “Great!”

What is your career aspiration?

There are many articles written on the topic of not planning your career since in today’s fast moving world you can’t predict what will be in five years and you shouldn’t limit your options. You should just grab opportunities as they come. I can’t subscribe to that notion. Yes, planning your career in terms of “in ten years I want to be a CEO of our company,” is not a smart move since things are changing fast and in ten years you may not even be with the company and may work in completely different field.

What you should do when it comes to your career is to understand your career aspirations and have a clear direction you are heading in terms of “what am I good at”, “where can I contribute”, and “what makes me satisfied”. It should never be about getting a fancy title or loads of money since these are moving targets. If your career goal is to be a Manager, the moment you get there it will move and you will start thinking on how to be a Director. You will be always chasing something and ultimately be unhappy most of the time.

Having a career aspiration that focuses on things related to growing as a person and contributing to society is much more fulfilling and has a bigger chance to lead to constant happiness. To illustrate on my example, my career aspiration is to “build something and to learn something”. You can imagine how frustrating it is for my boss to have a career conversation with me, but that is the answer he gets. This career aspiration is aligned with my core values that are all around “being useful” and “helping others” and it satisfies my hunger for knowledge as I’m an incredibly curious person.

It is important to note that career aspirations are much broader than getting to the next level on the career ladder and they have overlap to your non-work part of the life. Your career aspiration might be even things like “freedom”, “financial security”, or “living and working according to my values”.

Once you are clear on what your career aspirations are you understand the general direction in which you are heading and can chose jobs accordingly. Sometimes it helps the conversation to have a specific type of job in mind, but don’t fall into a trap to make the title also the goal. In my case, I sometimes mention that my long-term goal is to get to COO or CTO type of role. These roles embody the type of work that would allow me “to build and to learn” and they give me a focus. They help me to understand what skills I need to work on. However, I do not have a specific plan how to become a CTO and if it doesn’t happen I won’t be disappointed. Once again, it is not about the title but about the type of work you do and what is at one company called COO can be at another called Head of Operations.

The importance of being uncomfortable

The only way you learn is by being uncomfortable. I’m so convinced about this that I already wrote on the topics couple of articles such as this one. Is it bad to be comfortable at your job? Not at all, but consider what is important to you. During our lives we go through various phases and our priorities change. Sometimes we live for our work, we want to prove ourselves, we want to have a great career progress, learn and grow. Sometimes we want a bit more stability, want to focus on our kids and families, and want to do a good job at work without the need to climb the career ladder.

It is important for you to realize in which phase you are and why. If you say that your focus at this stage of your life are your small kids then it is completely fine to find your sweet spot at work and be comfortable there knowing that you are good at what you do, you are doing a good job, but you don’t need to push your limits to get outside your comfort zone to get the next promotion. It is just not important to you at this stage in your life. At the other hand, if you feel that now is the time to move your career forward, you absolutely must get out of your comfort zone, keep challenging yourself to learn and go above and beyond the requirements of your job. That is the way you will grow and that is the way to get ahead.

So should you take the job offer if you feel a bit nervous about your ability to get the job done? It depends. But if you are in your “moving your career forward” phase then the answer is “Definitely!” In fact, I would urge you to not taking a job that makes you feel very comfortable. Chances are you will learn nothing, get bored fast, be unhappy and leave soon.

 

What is your experience? Have you ever taken on a role that you felt you are not qualified for? How did it feel? Have you even not taken a bigger role because you felt not being ready and later regretted that decision?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Why Leaders Should Hire Their Opposites

A lot was written about the need of hiring people that will support the culture you are trying to build. So called cultural fit. And a lot was written about inclusion and diversity with the idea being that the more diverse team the better for creativity, innovation and productivity. I will leave aside the problem of how do you reconcile these two ideas and focus today on how you as a leader can personally benefit from hiring people who are very different from you.

Cognitive biases

Based on popular psychology our perception of reality and our decisions are influenced by a wide array of cognitive biases. Here are couple of them very relevant to your ability to hire the right people to your team:

  • Stereotyping – happens when you attribute specific traits or expected behaviors to a candidate based only on them belonging to a certain group without having actual information about that individual.
  • Social comparison bias – nudges you to be wary of candidates who may compete with your particular strengths.
  • Status quo bias – urges you to hire candidates similar to the ones you already have on the team to preserve the social equilibrium and things to stay the same.
  • Ingroup bias – pushes you to attribute positive traits and give preferential treatment to candidates who you perceive to be from “your group”. This can be people with similar educational or cultural background, from the same school, town, class, etc. You are essentially following this logic, “hey we went to the same school, the best school in the universe, of course you are a great fit to my team”
  • Halo effect – probably the most frequently quoted bias that makes you transfer positive or negative traits you observe in a candidate in one area to another area even if they are in no way connected. For example, “this guys has a nice shoes… he must be great… at selling software.”
  • Fundamental attribution error – this one, especially when combined with Ingroup bias and Stereotyping, leads you to put bigger emphasis on personality-based explanations for observed behavior of the candidate and dismissing the environmental and situational influence. It may lead to this type of thinking, “so you were laid off, [from a company that just released hundred people,] you must have been selected because of poor performance.”

Why do I mention these? They are always with you and if you are not careful, they will result in you hiring your clones. You can easily end up having a team fully staffed with a little bit less smart versions of you and that is not a recipe for success of the team. What is worse, this leads to a situation where everyone on the team has the same opinions, you have a team of yes-men. You may have built a friction free environment that is very comfortable, but it doesn’t challenge you or anyone else on the team to grow.

How to build your team

As a leader you want to build a team that will get the job done, but you also want to build a team that will help you to grow as a person and as a leader since your better performance will again lead to the better performance of the team.

  • Hire to fill gaps in the team – I talked about it in How To Hire A Strong Software Development Team. You shouldn’t hire individuals, you should build teams. What I mean is that all of us have some strengths and weaknesses and you want your team to cover all the bases. For example, if you build software, you want someone on your team to be great at front-end user interface, some great at databases, some at backend logic, you want someone with good communication skills to talk to customers, etc. You don’t need every single person to have all these skills, but you want the team members to complement each other
  • Hire to offset your weaknesses – it is very similar with your own strengths and weaknesses. You should look for people who will fill the gap in areas you are bad at. The thing is, it is very likely that these people will be very different from you. They can’t be your clones. If you believe there is nothing you are bad at, then chances are you suffer from whole lot of cognitive biases, your judgement is impaired and you shouldn’t be in management in the first place.
  • Hire for critical skills – when designing a job profile don’t list all the skills and behaviors you can imagine as must-haves. Be very clear what is the critical skill or skills that you need to fill a gap in your team and to patch your weakness but leave the rest as optional. I described this hiring mentality in Hire For Strengths, Not Lack Of Weaknesses.
  • Hire for attitudes – as I mentioned in Effort And Attitude Beats Talent And Knowledge give proportionally higher importance to attitudes of the person and their capacity to learn. Ignore what their previous job was about, what school they attended, who were they born to and when, but rather try to understand whether their core values are aligned with the company’s and whether they can learn and adapt.
  • Hire to learn – when I’m hiring people to my team I always ask myself one question. “Is there something I can learn from this person?” If the answer is “no”, I tend to be very careful with extending the offer. Very often the answer is “yes”. The reasoning follows closely the previous point. I want to hire people who will supplement me in the area of my weakness and that means I can get better by tapping their area of strength.
  • Hire to get challenged and to grow – I strongly believe that the only way you can grow is by getting out of your comfort zone and get challenged. When I look at my management career the most progress in becoming better at managing people happened when I had on my team someone who was very different from me and challenged me regularly. I had to rethink my approach on how to manage people quite a lot and I always learned a lot from these encounters. I must admit that not all of them ended up well, but the lessons learned definitely stuck with me. Since I’m fairly introverted person the biggest challenge for me always was managing extreme extroverts especially when they are overconfident. I was even told by one such person that “you don’t know how to deal with me.” And he was right. Even though I was the boss, I felt very uncomfortable in our interactions and it took me some time to learn how to manage this person. This one person helped me greatly to improve my ability to manage people.

Everything in moderation

When I look at the example from my experience about hiring someone who was so much stronger personality than me that it overwhelmed me, I wouldn’t do it again. It was a useful experience that I learned a lot from, but it was almost too much for me to cope with and ultimately hurt the team. So yes, you should hire your opposites, but make sure you are still able to handle the relationship so it doesn’t burn you out or destroys the team.

 

Do you subscribe to the described notion that you should hire your opposites? How do you create a harmony in a team that consists of diverse individuals? Is there a better way for you as a leader to grow and learn?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Leadership Means Speaking Up

I know it sounds like a cliché but if you can’t say what you mean, you can’t mean what you say. To be a leader means to be clear with your expectations and feedback. You need to communicate in a way that doesn’t leave room for guessing. As I wrote in this article one of the most difficult things in management is to do no harm to the people we lead. We are hurting our teams without realizing it by withholding feedback, being too nice, and not being clear with our expectations.

You need to provide feedback

Feedback is critically important aspect of good leadership. You need to be able to listen to feedback on your own performance and decisions to build credibility and improve in the future. And you need to be able to give feedback to others to make sure they focus on the right things, produce at the top of their capabilities, and grow as human beings. You need to provide feedback in a way that won’t create an impression that you are questions their competence and that you are not confident in their ability to get things done. At the same time you need to be crystal clear in your message so it is received the way you intended.

You need to show that you care

For others to truly listen to your feedback they need to believe that you are on their side. They need to feel that you are providing the feedback because you care about them as human beings and you want to help. If they believe that you are just trying to demean them, put them down, or show off your ego, then your advice won’t be accepted regardless of the feedback approach you use.

You sometimes hear from managers “it’s business, nothing personal”, but that is a delusion. The moment you touch someone’s life of course it gets personal. As a manager you need to realize that and be able to connect at the emotional level.

You need to challenge

As a boss it is your responsibility to let others know what their business goal is and to challenge them if you feel they are not performing or not going in the right direction. Not addressing obvious performance issues is the most common mistake managers do. Even experienced managers often prefer not to say anything when they see a problem rather than addressing it directly. Why? There are various reasons but the most common ones are the fear of damaging relationships, spoiling the atmosphere in the team or becoming unpopular.

Radical Candor framework

Kim Scott came up with a nice framework she calls Radical Candor. The idea is anchored around the concept of Caring Personally and Challenging Directly. When people believe you care about them personally, they will accept a very direct candid feedback from you and will be more willing to act on it. They will be also more ready to provide similar candid feedback to you and even to each other. They will ultimately feel valued as human beings which will help their motivation and performance.

Kim Scott talks about what happens when one or both of these dimension are lacking. When you provide feedback directly to someone without caring about them, your guidance feels obnoxious and aggressive. It may work sometimes but ultimately this makes you a jerk and it won’t work long-term.

The worst example is when you don’t care about others and don’t challenge them directly at all. This usually happens when you just want to be liked and you don’t care whether the job gets done or the other person gets better. You can always blame them behind their backs, right? This approach is manipulative and insincere and shows that you care only about your own well being and nothing else. You are failing miserable as a manager.

The last example are situations where you actually do care about the person but are afraid or unwilling to provide direct feedback. You are so worried about short-term discomfort the feedback would bring that you rather keep quiet and exchange it for long-term suffering. You can see it on examples of parents who love their children so much that they are unwilling to discipline them when they do something wrong. As a natural consequence the kids don’t even know they are doing something they shouldn’t and thus never get better.

You need to be responsible

Leadership means being responsible. And being responsible means that you do the right thing even though it may make you unpopular and make people angry. In fact, if no one is ever angry with you, chances are you don’t challenge them enough. You might be a people pleaser and not a leader.

I will adapt an anecdote from Kim Scott’s work about training dogs. What do you do when you want your dog to obey? Do you endlessly explain that it is in their best interest to sit on our command and how to do it? No, you provide a simple command that is not prone to interpretation “sit!” As Kim says, the command “is not mean, it is clear”.

 

What are your thoughts on responsibilities of a leader when it comes to providing feedback and clarity? Would you take the risk to hurt someone’s feelings if the reward would be the person gets better? Or do you think there are better ways to do this?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.