Active Questions As A Way To Trigger Change

Have you ever wondered why so many people are unhappy with where they are even though when compared with others they should feel happy and lucky? Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a positive and lasting change for yourself and others? In fact, have you ever felt that things go bad for you, other people are trying to hurt you, your boss is an idiot, your team mates don’t appreciate you enough, your kids are purposefully getting on your nerves, and generally the universe conspires against you? Well, it may not be the universe who fights you, it might be you fighting yourself.

It is about mindset and attitude

As you can expect being happy is a matter of personal preference. Even in the most difficult situations you can still chose to be happy and positive about life. I will never forget my experience from rural Kenya when visiting some of the villages when the locals had to walk many miles to get fresh water, with no electricity, really harsh environment, very little to live on and still, they were smiling, working together, their kids truly appreciating every little thing in life. When I came back from that trip many people commented on changes in my behavior. I guess I just realized how lucky I’m that I live in the middle of Europe and that life is actually good.

Considering the fact that I was rather depressed youngster and always worried about something and today I would define myself as an eternal optimist and always positive person I strongly believe you can learn to be happy. Just make these little habits your daily routine:

  • Always see the silver lining on any problem you encounter – believe me, there always is something positive you can take from any experience. If it comes to worst there are at least some lessons learned that will help you in the future.
  • Always assume that others mean well and work to the best of their abilities – assuming anything is never particularly smart, but if you have to, assume that the other person means well. What’s the point of thinking that everyone you meet is trying to screw you or is lazy or just trying to use you all the time? Life is much more enjoyable when you learn to trust people. Of course you don’t want to let other people actually walk over you but very few really want to, so why to let that influence how you feel about others? And if someone really does you harm make sure that you learn from it and don’t allow him to repeat that. You know, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” type of stuff.
  • Always enjoy the small wins and learn to appreciate details – you don’t need a big promotion or win a lottery to appreciate what you’ve got. Just learn to pay attention to small details you encounter every single day. Did you just had a stroke of luck and got home in ten minutes because of no traffic? Nice! Is there your favorite movie on TV tonight? Excellent! Did just your boss thanked you for a good job? Superb! There are so many things that go well for you, just learn to recognize them and appreciated.
  • Always keep smiling and use positive vocabulary – as a student of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) I learned quickly enough how powerful words really are. If you keep telling yourself that things go always wrong, people are after you, life is bad, guess what? Things will really go always wrong, people will not like your presence and life will be bad. The story we tell ourselves in our heads is reflecting on our mood, on body language, and on the way how we interact with our environment. If you keep telling yourself that things are great, given time, they will be. And the funny thing is they don’t even need to change. What will change is you, your attitude, and your view of the world. Ultimately, you are the only person you have control over.

The moment you are in a leadership role the importance of positive attitude cannot be overstated. As John C. Maxwell writes in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership “Attitude is one of the most contagious qualities a human being possesses. People with good attitudes tend to make people around them feel more positive. Those with a terrible attitude tend to bring others down.” So if you want to get independent and objective feedback on what your attitude is just look at your team. Are they positive and upbeat, seeing obstacles as a way to learn and opportunity to shine or do they blame the world around them for their mishaps? They are an excellent mirror to your own attitude and to leadership you provide.

Passive versus active questions

It sounds simple but not easy. So what tools do you have at your disposal to really get where you want to be? What can you do to create these wins, finish your goals, and see a visible progress to be able to feel good about yourself? I recently finished reading Triggers: Sparking positive change and making it last by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter and I found it very helpful to learn some tools and ways to trigger a change in yourself and to release your full potential. Specifically, I love the concept of active questions.

Goldsmith and Reiter introduce concept of passive and active questions. Passive questions are essentially describing a static condition and thus don’t have the power to trigger change:

  • “Do you have clear goals?”
  • “Do you know what you want in life?”
  • “Did you exercise as you promised?”
  • “Do you know what company strategy is?”

When you think about these questions you realize a tendency of blaming others or the environment for negative outcomes:

  • “My boss didn’t give me clear goals.”
  • “My parents want me to marry and settle down.”
  • “It was a crazy day and there wasn’t time to exercise.”
  • “We don’t have strategy. My manager never told me. CEO needs to come up with a better plan.”

You can see that with answers like these you are voluntarily giving the power to influence your own life to other people. You are losing influence and you are blaming others for it. This of course leads to you feeling miserable and not in control.

On the other side are the active questions. These are questions that force you to think about how you personally can impact the world around you, how you personally can influence what is happing to you. Just consider the previous questions reworded like this:

  • “Did I do my best to have clear goals?”
  • “Did I do my best to figure out what I want from life?”
  • “Did I do my best to exercise today?”
  • “Did I do my best to learn what company strategy is?”

You are moving the action from others (who are not under your control) to the only human being you have 100% influence over = you. “Did I do my best to exercise today? Hmm, I guess not, since I missed my usual workout in the morning and didn’t bother to figure out an alternative plan. I have some time now, so here I go!”

Goldsmith has introduced a very simple way to help you trigger a change in yourself. I have used the table below for couple of weeks to find out what my real priorities are and to push myself focus on what really matters. Every evening I would rate myself from 0 to 10 on whether I did my best in several categories I deemed important at the time. You can see that I very deliberately put there some tangible goals but also some questions more targeted towards my attitude. It sounds simple, but I can tell you it is not easy to see every evening how little you do on things you thought are important. As Goldsmith says “we may not hit our goals every time but there is no excuse for not trying,” and I was amazed how little I was trying on some of the areas.

Did I do my best?

So how does it come all together?

The active questions are a great way how to realize what your inner motivation is, how self-disciplined you are and can help you improve your self-discipline by reminding you what is important. If this exercise itself is not enough, realistically it may not be, it is a good idea to get a coach who will help you through this tough time by holding you accountable to your words.

The key ingredient to be able to change is not only to know what you want to achieve but to realize that they only way you can trigger a positive change is with a positive attitude. And if you are in a leadership role your attitude is the most important tool you have for influencing your team.

 

Have you ever worked with the active questions? What is your take on the importance of positive attitude and how do you think it varies across cultures?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

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

Effort And Attitude Beats Talent And Knowledge

I recently read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell and as always when reading his books it made me think about how the ideas he describes reflect the reality of my own experiences. And as always it is a mixed bag. Nonetheless there is one aspect of the when the underdog wins over a supposedly mightier foe that aligns with what I’ve seen in my professional life of a manager and a leader. The focused effort and can-do attitude of determined underdog beats a raw talent and theoretical knowledge of complacent rival hands down most of the time.

Knowledge

Theoretical knowledge is a good basis but by itself won’t get stuff done. What I have seen over the years is that pure knowledge gives you a good starting point but you cannot just hope that it will get you to the finish. I work in software development industry. Lots of the young people who come to interviews boast an impressive academic record and have good theoretical knowledge of programing languages and have memorized some of the standard design patterns or algorithms. What distinguishes the best from the mere good ones? The effort they put into not just memorizing the knowledge but also the practice of using it in real life scenarios. The best of these developers have practical experience with building software applications and understand what from the theory is important and what is nice to have.

Talent

If you rely just on your talent chances are you won’t get anywhere. Even the most talented person is not able to utilize his talent to the full extend without the right attitude and focus. Over the years I have worked with many talented people who from childhood sailed through their lives with ease because of the in-born talent and IQ. They were smart, they were talented, they were satisfied with what they have and they became lazy. Nothing wrong with that as long as they were happy with themselves but I always found it sad as I saw the raw potential they had if only they (or someone) helped them realized that with a bit of effort and the right attitude they can be so much more.

Effort

Effort put into things is the way how the great distinguish themselves from the mere good ones. Over the years I managed hundreds of people and the one consistent thing I could see was that if someone puts more focused effort into improving himself or building something more often than not the results are way above the initial expectations. It is the internal drive and sometimes even single minded dedication that distinguishes the best from the rest of the team. No distractions, no workarounds, just pure hard work on the right things is what can help even the underdog to win over the more talented but complacent ones. It is that effort that will get your knowledge to the next level and not the other way around.

Attitude

Attitude closely links with effort and only by combining these you can build skill at the master level. Obviously for you to be able to put effort into something you need a rather unique attitude. You need to be able to recognize what to focus on, you need to be able to understand your own limitations and have means to gather feedback on how you are improving and you need to have a so called growth mindset to believe that you can change and you can make a difference.

And don’t blame your parents or genes if you don’t have that attitude. You can learn it if you really want. In my past life I was a software developer. Rather introverted guy who considered interaction with the rest of the world a nuisance. At some point I realized that to survive in tomorrow’s world I need to build a different set of skills and attitudes. Over the period of several years of focused effort and couple of external events I reshaped my skills to focus more on people and communication. I also went through a profound change in my world view and learned to be the ultimate optimist who sees the positive in everything and everyone and who’s curiosity and need to learn something new and change is never satisfied.

 

What does it all mean when building your team? What do you focus on when hiring people to your team? Where do you focus your coaching and mentoring efforts? How do you help people who are complacent to realize their potential? I’m not going to provide answers today (I may in some future post) but these are the questions you should ask yourself and find some answers that work in your individual case.

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Getting Stuff Done: The Right Attitude

So much advice was given about working smart rather than working hard. It may sometimes create a picture of a vast number of brainless robots working sixty hours a week instead of reading a book to get all the wisdom and somehow create a bigger success by working on the right stuff, the right way in half the time and have twice the success. It sounds great, sadly it very rarely ends up that way.

Working smart helps

I’m not saying one should be a mindless drone and just work hard in hopes of succeeding. You need to ensure you work on the right things and you need to constantly look out for ways how to work smarter and how to be more efficient in the way you get stuff done. You might be hardest working person on Earth but if you don’t focus on the right things you will get nowhere. What are the “right things”? These are tasks that not only get the actual job done but they also have aspect of giving you a chance to improve or learn new skills. In this context even making a presentation about your product for the twentieth time may give you something new if you constantly focus on improving the week points from previous attempt.

Over my career I interviewed hundreds of people for various technical and management positions. Based on what I have seen my conclusion is that “years of practice” just don’t matter at all. I could talk to a software developer with 10 years of experience who turned out to be no better than someone with 1 year of experience. How is that possible? This person was working on one product for last 10 years. He was doing a good job, but there was zero opportunity to learn and grow. So in fact he had 1 year of learning experience and 9 years of limbo. Keep in mind, he could be doing magnificent job, he could be key to the success of his project, he could be working really hard, but it doesn’t change the fact he was working on the wrong stuff.

I like the term “deliberate practice” coined by a psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. He proposes that the true genius is in working hard on the right stuff. If you want to be a great tennis player, great pianist, great developer or a great manager you won’t get there just by constantly practicing things you already know. You get there by deliberately practicing the things you need to improve. Eventually, you will build a broad portfolio of skills that will help you succeed.

Working hard is a must

No pain, no gain. Working smart is a good start but you cannot take shortcuts. You have to put in the hours of hard work if you want to succeed. I know many really smart people who don’t have particularly big success in life simple because they just rely on their talent too much and got lazy. They have a huge potential if only they would decide to give it a try. At the same time I know many people who by working on the right things and working really hard stepped out of their own shadow and are the top performers in their teams and have a great success in life.

In my former life I had a guy on the team who started as a junior developer with less than impressive educational background. But his relentless focus on learning and improving combined with incredible persistence and willingness to work really hard made him in couple of years a true expert in his field. He would take no shortcuts, which annoyed me when we were under tight deadline. To give you a nice example, most of the modern software development tools provide a means to build the skeleton of the software application for you. They will create all the required files, link all the libraries, create the template for your classes, and do bunch of other “only developers would understand” stuff. This guy would ignore all this and wrote everything from scratch. Instead of having the basis of the application done automatically in 1 minute he would spend a whole day writing it manually. However, at the end of the day he would know exactly why each specific thing was there, what happened if it wasn’t, and how to optimize it. He truly understood.

Doing what you love is the win

The key to success at the end lies with working hard and working smart on the things you love. That is what will make all the effort worthwhile. That is what will make the deliberate practice easier and that is what will help you succeed. I started my career as a developer. I believe I was doing a decent job, I would spend nights and weekends getting better and better at the craft. When being asked to do project management, to lead people and move to the management role I took the opportunity just to test the waters. I wanted to try and see if that is something that would be fulfilling. I didn’t take it for money, I didn’t take it for fancy titles.

To my surprise I found out that being a professional manager is actually even more fulfilling than writing code. Suddenly I found that working with people, helping them to grow and achieve their goals brings me lots of personal satisfaction. I stopped coding over the weekend and I started to read books and articles about managing people and leadership. I would spend time coming up with initiatives to engage my team and test different approaches how to work with people. I would get regular feedback to identify what I need to improve as a leader and then deliberately put myself into a position to practice that skills.

Chicken and egg is the problem

Here is the interesting thing. Even though I claim that you should do what you love and follow your passion, chances are that you first need to get good at something to turn it truly into passion. The better you get at something, the more you enjoy it. The more you enjoy it, the more you are willing to invest into it to get even better. So the true trick is to stick with something that looks like you could love it, focus on deliberate practice, work hard and eventually you will be good at it and you will love it.

I’m not a particularly sporty person but some of my friends are and this is what they said. Let’s say you decide to do something for your health and start jogging, or maybe you decide it would be really cool to run a marathon. The first time you go for a run you are excited about it but you get tired really quickly and come back home destroyed and demotivated as you just realized how bad you really are. If you just keep pushing and run every day after couple of weeks and months you will get into a great shape, you will be able to run faster and longer distances and you will just love it.

What is your philosophy? Do you work hard or do you work smart? Or both? What is your recipe for success?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Getting the perfect hire

There was so much written about the topic of recruitment and how to hire the right people to the organization. And there is a good reason for it! As I wrote in blog post Everyone is a recruiter, recruitment is one of the keys to a successful organization. You just need to get it right otherwise you will constantly struggle. So what should you focus on when hiring a new team member?

What to focus on

Expertise – obviously you want to hire someone who is able to do the job. You should expect a basic level of technical competence. How deep expertise the person needs to have really depends on the role. For some roles the expertise is the most critical part (especially when you want to bring type of expertise not available in the team yet), however for most of the roles the expertise is “only” important but not critical. What is more critical is capability.

Capability – you want to hire someone who will be able to grow with the organization, someone smart and capable who will constantly improve, be innovative, be able to solve complex problems and learn the needed expertise fast. So capability and future potential trumps the expertise but there is something even more critical.

Attitude – this is the most critical item you need to focus on. I love the quote by Lou Holtz (American football coach) “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” The person might be super smart, the greatest expert, but if he is not passionate about the work, if he doesn’t want to do his best, you will not get the results you expect. At the other hand if he has the right attitude “he wants”, he has the potential “is capable”, he will learn the expertise. That is how stars are made!

Communication – you are building a team and that means people need to communicate. In today’s global world the ability to communicate, formulate your thoughts, present your ideas and do it in such a way that you get support is super important. You might find the smartest person but if he is unable to communicate his ideas to the rest of the team then it is a lost opportunity and you won’t be able to get the best out of him.

Cultural fit – you need to hire for the company values. You need to find people whose values are in line with yours and with those of the organization. That is the only way how to build a sustainable organization, how to make sure the team has a common sense of ownership and pushes in the same direction.

How to do it?

Don’t compromise on requirements – you should never ever compromise on what you need. Don’t lower the bar! If you need a senior developer then hire someone with capabilities of a senior developer. Don’t take shortcuts (like hiring someone with skills of a junior developer and just giving him the fancy senior developer title) and don’t crumble under pressure. Yes, you need the person fast. Yes, there is a push from the management. But none of it matters. If you compromise now, you will have to compromise every single day the person will be on board as he won’t be able to do the job you need him to do.

Don’t oversell or overpromise – the best way to attract the person who will stick with you is to be yourself even during the interviews. Why try to attract a person by over promising and hire on a false pretense? Yes, he may start but very soon he will recognize that things are not as promised and it will have a significant impact on his motivation. By overselling the company or position you just crossed one action item (getting the person) and created tons of other action items for you for the future when you will be required to spend time with the person to keep him motivated, keep him focused, keep him in the company.

Don’t underpay or overpay – always offer a fair compensation that is in-line with that person’s market value and is at par with his future peers with similar skillset that are already on your team. Don’t try to overpay even if you need the person really badly. You can always persuade someone to join by giving him more money, but if he is not compatible with the organization, doesn’t share the values and doesn’t want to join just for the sake of the job, then he won’t give you 100% and you just brought on really expensive troubles.

Don’t hire copies – don’t try to hire copies of yourself or copies of the best person on your team. Hire the right person to have a balanced team. You don’t need, and in fact you don’t want, to hire ten superstars with twenty years of experience. It is unlikely that these guys would work well together. You need a team that has someone who is a strong leader, a strong substitute, someone with great technical expertise who can teach others, someone who solves any problem, someone who is willing and able to learn, someone who won’t complain about a boring tasks, someone who will research new things, someone who will be willing to work with old technology, someone who will do what is needed even if boring. And these traits don’t need to be bundled in a single individual. The simple rule is to build a team that is great today, but that has also enough junior members and potential to be great also in the future.

That’s it. I’m pretty sure there are many other aspects of what to focus on when hiring a new team member and I don’t pretend to have all the right answers. Keep in mind that I’m coming from technology companies where people are the single most important (and often most expensive) asset and can make or break the business. And when you are still not really sure whether to hire the candidate this simple trick may help. Ask the hiring team who spoke with the candidate if there is anyone who is really enthusiastic about him and willing to put their reputation on the line. If no one raises their hand then continue to search.

Twitter type summary: “When it comes to a fight between expertise and attitude, the attitude will win with both eyes closed and one hand behind its back.”

What are your tips and tricks on how to hire the right people to the team? Anything in particular you always focus on that you believe is a key to the right hire?

It’s not my job!

There are not many situations that irritate me more than people reacting to a request by words “It is not my responsibility” or “It is not my job, someone else should do it.” And sometimes it doesn’t even needs to be spoken but it is implied by acting (or not acting).

Let us consider a rather trivial example. You have a meeting with ten people. After the meeting everyone leaves and there is an empty cup on the table (someone just forgot it there). Now, what happens?

You have a person who sees the cup and decides to ignore it. It is not his job so why should he take it to the kitchen? It may be laziness, feeling of being too important for such a menial job, or just simple “I don’t care” attitude.

And now look at second person, someone who sees the cup and without a word grabs it to put it to a dishwasher. It is like a reflex for this person and she is not even thinking about who should do that. That shows a great sense of ownership, a desire to keep things neat, a way of thinking that will most likely show also in other aspects of her life and work. The way she works with customers, with the team, how is she approaching her job. She simply sees that something needs to be done so goes and does it without a word or thought whether she is the one who should do it.

Who would you rather have on your team?

The same can be seen in software development. A developer may say “It is not my job to test the code I just wrote, QA department should do it.” “It is not my job to review code of my colleague I need to focus on my own code.” Or manager saying “Why should I talk to this person who needs help, he is not from my department.” If you have culture like that you are in troubles. It shows a lack of ownership for the product, the company and the job. It shows very low team spirit and it is something you want to fix.

So what do you do? If this is happening you need to get back to basics and talk about values of the organization, why they are important and what does it mean to do things the right way. And obviously, you don’t just talk. You lead by example. Even if you are a team lead, a manager, a director you still need to be able to get your hands dirty when you see a job that needs to get done regardless how menial it may seem.

And if someone still doesn’t see why they should do work that is outside of their job description then reminding them that only by expanding their current tasks can they learn new things, develop and grow, should do the trick.

Let me finish with a personal story that illustrates what I’m talking about. I was heading an office of more than hundred and fifty people. On the team I had an office admin who was among other things responsible for accepting mail and deliveries. What happens when such a person takes a day off? Well, mail is still coming, someone has to take care of it, and no one else has it in a job description. What did I do? I just sit for a day at the reception desk and handled the mail, welcomed visitors and other small tasks that needed to be done. At the end it had a negligible disruptive effect on my day and my ability to get my real work done. And the best part? By doing it, I was more visible to the team. I lead by example. People would talk to me more as I was the first person they saw when coming to the office. And I learned something small about a job of a receptionist…

What does this mean for you? Do you see similar situations around you? How do you react? And how you do to improve the environment when people just don’t care?