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What We Can Learn About Leadership from Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen

Ellen DeGeneres has had a tough month. Multiple news outlets have been circulating employee and celebrity stories accusing Ellen of not living up to her declaration of “be kind to one another”. I don’t know if these stories are true, but they are certainly compelling given various instances shared of Ellen being more mean-spirited than kind-hearted.

Ellen’s current predicament is a great leadership lesson for all of us. It’s not the words you say that matter, it’s the actions you take. Behind everything great is a quality that brings it to life—action.

This reminds me of an interaction I experienced several years ago at a chapter meeting for the National Speaker’s Association. A well-known speaker was presenting to the group the importance of building rapport with an audience when he happened to mention the town he grew up in. Immediately, I felt a connection to this speaker; he grew up in a small town in upstate New York just ten minutes from my hometown.

“What are the chances?!” I thought.

Right after he finished speaking, I excitedly approached him to share our mutual connection of small upstate New York towns when he totally blew me off. He was so concerned with getting his books ready for the audience to purchase, that he missed an opportunity to really make a connection with someone right there in front of him. It was ironic since his speech was about building rapport. Yet the minute he walked off the stage, it was like he got out of character and stopped playing the part.

Interestingly, last year I re-met this speaker at a national conference, and he was friendly and engaging. So perhaps the previous year, I caught him in a moment of stress, and he wasn’t his best self. But as leaders, we need to be mindful of how we show up. People are always watching, and every interaction we experience has the opportunity to reinforce our positive message, or, completely negate the message we just professed. These interactions matter, and although we all have bad days, these negative exchanges can have a long-term impact on our relationships.

People don’t follow what you say, they follow what you do.

To be exceptional leaders, we need to put action behind the messages we convey. We need to walk our talk, not just declare it. It’s in the moments of action (or inaction) that we build trust and cohesion with our employees or chip away at trust and our integrity. Our words matter, but our actions are what bring them to life and demonstrate our message.

Everything great intention needs action to bring it to life:

  • It’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you need to demonstrate it.
  • It’s not enough to say you’re building a great place to work; you need to create a great place to work.
  • It’s not enough to say you value your employees, you need to show them.
  • It’s not enough to say you value respect, you must be respectful.
  • It’s not enough to say you are open to others’ opinions, you must listen.

People trust you when you do what you say you will do. This is how great cultures are created and how leaders become truly influential.

Effective leadership is less about doing, and more about being. It’s not a role you play, it’s a practice you cultivate. It’s the everyday actions you put behind your leadership that makes all the difference.

And you know what, Ellen is right about one thing—kindness matters. But don’t just say it, do it.

Five Self-Care Practices that Improve Leadership

Five Self-Care Practices that Improve Leadership

The past few months have been one of the most challenging times I’ve faced in my adult life. Back in March when our school system announced that schools would be closed for two weeks, I remember panicking about what I would do with my kids for two weeks while I worked. Little did I know, that almost four months later they would still be home!

Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids. I love spending time with them, but on my schedule. Suddenly becoming a full time stay-at-home mom and teacher in addition to working full time was a recipe for disaster. And that’s pretty much how it played out. My husband and I struggled to balance our three kids’ different Zoom calls and assignments with our businesses. There were no breaks. When I would take a short break from work to get some lunch or more green tea, I would have three kids hanging on me asking for snacks or complaining about their siblings.

We were exhausted. My well-planned, organized, compartmentalized life was suddenly turned upside down. Of course, I was grateful that we are all healthy and well during the pandemic. But the everyday reality of the struggles and challenges was really taking its toll. About three months in, I remember saying to my husband that if I didn’t have a break, I think I might have a breakdown.

You get the picture. And perhaps you can relate. It’s times like these that I remember why it is so important to take care of myself and give myself a break. But that was hard during the pandemic when you can’t go anywhere or meet up with anyone. I was exhausted and struggling to show up as my best self.

As we came out of the self-isolation, my husband gave me a gift on my birthday at the end of June—a complete day to myself. He took our kids to his parents’ beach house and I had a full day all to myself. It was glorious. I relaxed, read, exercised, practiced yoga, rejuvenated, and felt like a completely different person by the end of the day. I felt more positive and resilient. I could handle the pressures and challenges of life in a healthier and more rational way.

How does this impact leadership? In all the big and small ways. Our energy is the one thing that we can control that impacts our everyday actions, behaviors, and mindset. These past few months have highlighted for me how important my energy is to show up as my best self at home and at work. When I am depleted, tired, and stressed, I lose the mental capacity to handle challenges in a productive and healthy way. I struggle to lead my life and my team effectively. Things feel hard and grueling.

When I am rested and refreshed, I have the energy to bring my best to work. I am focused, composed and present. I am more resilient and productive. Our habits are impacted by the mental and physical reserves we have available to get through our day.

While it may be more challenging for some of us to practice good sleep, exercise, and self-care habits while in quarantine, as we begin to transition to a new normal, there are several practices that can support self-care, maintain our energy and show up as our best as a leader and human:

  • Work Rituals: creating a practice for the beginning and end of your workday can help you harness your energy and increase your productivity. A productive day begins the night before. This means taking 10-15 minutes to review your projects and tasks and prioritize the top two actions you will focus on the next day. Doing this the night before allows you to jump into your most important task in the morning without procrastinating. In the morning, set aside 10 minutes to review your plan for the day and prepare any materials (files, phone numbers, etc.) you need to successfully execute your projects.
  • Schedule Productivity Sprints. We each have a peak time of day when our energy is highest. For most of us, that is in the morning hours. During that time, schedule a block of time where you focus on one—and only one—task and block out all interruptions. I call these productivity sprints because you can get more done in this focused time than most people get done in a week. Instituting productivity sprints can transform your productivity and utilize your peak energy times. The ideal length of a productivity sprint is one to two hours.
  • Meditate. I never thought I would be a meditator. I’ve always been very action oriented, and didn’t think it was possible to quiet my mind and sit in silence for any amount of time. Five years ago I took a transcendental meditation course that proved otherwise. When I stick to my meditation practice, I feel calmer and more resilient. It feels like my brain took a nap. The feeling is addictive—when you really fall into a deep meditative state (which doesn’t always happen, but gets easier with practice), you crave that silence. Even a few minutes of meditation can help calm your mind and help you to be less reactive.
  • Sleep. Most people don’t get the sleep they need to function properly. I know when I lose even an hour of sleep at night, I can feel the negative impact the next day. It feels harder to make decisions and stay focused. Writer Keith Jones wrote an article for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global on Why Sleep is so Important.
  • Schedule a personal work retreat. I started this practice about three years ago, and it has been a gamechanger for my productivity, energy, and results. About three times a year, I schedule a personal offsite at a small bed and breakfast for two to three days. During this time, I focus on one major project (right now that is writing my book) and sequester myself to get into deep focus while also relaxing. I might also get a massage, take a walk, and read to rejuvenate. This is a time to focus on a strategic goal in my business that is challenging to accomplish during a normal workday.

I believe all leaders would benefit from even a day each quarter to reflect, reset and plan. Whether it’s a solo retreat to reflect and adjust the goals for your team, or a team retreat where you take the team offsite for a day to refocus and plan, a quarterly retreat can boost your productivity, energy, and focus, while at the same time giving you the quiet and space you need to make your best decisions and plans.

If I’ve learned anything during this pandemic it’s that we all need time to ourselves to rest, reflect, and rejuvenate. I’ve seen the negative effects when I don’t make this a priority, which is why I am committed to finding ways to preserve my energy and mindset, even in the most difficult of times.

The Three Most Important Leadership Actions During a Crisis

The Three Most Important Leadership Actions During a Crisis

I’m writing this article from my walk-in closet during the second week of being at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now it’s the quietest place in my house as we navigate this new normal. My regular office is being used by one of my three kids who are being “homeschooled” while my husband and I balance running two businesses virtually. I’m not sure how much learning is happening right now, but we are doing our best to manage this challenging situation. This is real life. It’s messy and it’s difficult.

Each of your employees has their own situation and challenges during this unprecedented time. Some may have elderly parents who are at higher risk, some find themselves teaching their children while they juggle work, and others may have a spouse who is self-employed or recently laid off. Each situation is different, yet many of us are experiencing the same emotions of fear, uncertainty, and frustration.

Many of my clients have been working overtime to get their employees set up remotely so they can continue to serve their members and clients as effectively as possible. Some are strategizing how to handle the uncertain economic outlook as we navigate this change. These are all Important and urgent responsibilities that leaders need to navigate. But leadership is not just about solving problems.  There is another important responsibility that we should not forget while we continue to ensure our operations run as smoothly as possible: caretaking the culture.

Now more than ever it is important for leaders in organizations to put leadership into practice. Leadership is not a title or position. Leadership is a verb—it requires action. Just like a garden requires water, soil, and sun to thrive, relationships require cultivation to thrive. This means leaders need to show up, connect, support, and provide clarity; especially during challenging times. Exceptional leaders will rise to the challenge and seamlessly do what they do best: connect with each human being who is on their team and listen, support, and encourage. But I fear mediocre managers will hide behind their laptops and focus on technical work rather than the important actions required of great leadership.

Below are three areas to focus on to be an exceptional leader and manage your team in this uncertain time:

1. Acknowledge and address emotions.

This is so important during this time, and cannot be overlooked. Employees aren’t looking for a cheerleader to tell them to think positive and everything will be fine. It’s important to provide hope for our employees, but only after we have acknowledged their feelings. Each manager must connect individually with each of your employees (preferably through video if you are working remotely) to understand the impact this challenging situation has had on them personally. This means scheduling a one-on-one video call with every one of your employees to ask them how they are doing during this challenging time. Not only will this allow your employee to express their fears and challenges so they can work through those uncertainties, but knowing this information will allow you to support each individual better.

I led a virtual leadership session this morning where we spent 45 minutes allowing the twelve leaders to share how this virus has impacted them personally, and how they are navigating the changes. By the end of the 45 minutes, the leaders were more positive and were sharing tips with each other on how to work in a virtual environment more effectively. One of the worst things leaders can do in a crisis is to gloss over the hard part (emotions) and focus on plans of action. People need to feel heard and understood before they can move to problem solving. You simply cannot ignore human emotions and fears. Your employees will appreciate that you care about them and their families, and they will respond with more discretionary effort. The Kubler-Ross Model—Stages of Grief is a great resource to understand how humans process not only grief, but big changes such as mergers, layoffs, and pandemics.

2. Create Clarity.

Communication is always an important part of leadership, yet during challenging times, clear and frequent communication is more important than ever. In this virtual environment, the best way to create clarity and keep the lines of communication open is to create structures to support dialogue.

  • Virtual meetings: I recommend at least one team meeting each week and regular check-in calls with your direct reports. One of my clients is holding a morning and end of day check in call with their teams every day. In the morning, they set the goals for the day (creating clarity for what needs to get done) and in the afternoon they check-in on progress. This has kept their projects moving along on schedule. Mediocre and poor managers tend to take the easy route by retreating to their virtual office while focusing on their own technical work. Exceptional leaders know that the effort they put into creating communication structures will keep everyone engaged and on track.
  • Office Hours: Another great practice for supporting your employees is to create weekly “office hours”. Much like a professor has office hours where students can drop in to get help or ask questions, leaders can offer specific times during their week where employees can schedule individual time with you.

3. Caretake the Culture.

It can be challenging to keep a team engaged when they aren’t interacting in person every day, but it is possible to create connection virtually. Here are five tips for ensuring a positive, engaged culture during this challenging time:

  • Connect with each employee individually, preferably through video, at least once a week.
  • At the start of each meeting, take some time for a short teambuilding exercise. Some of my favorites:
      • One Word: ask each person to share one word to describe their state of mind. This is a great exercise to gauge how your employees are feeling.
      • New or Good: What is something new or good that has happened in the last week?
      • Questions: pick one question that each person answers. For example, “What is the best vacation you have ever been on?”
      • Positivity exercise: give everyone one minute to write down anything positive that has happened in the past week. Ask each person to share one before the start of the meeting.
      • Ask each person to share a strategy or tip for working successfully from home.
  • Hold a virtual coffee or “happy hour” at the end of the week where everyone can bring their favorite drink and catch up socially. It’s important to build in time for people to connect outside of the typical task-focused meetings.
  • Send a handwritten card or a small gift in the mail to each employee to let them know you are thinking of them. You can order a book, bookmark, coffee mug, journal, or even a box of chocolates right from Amazon (if you search “gift for employee” on Amazon, you will see some great options).
  • Recognize milestones like work anniversaries, birthdays, marriage anniversaries, and baby milestones at the start of weekly team meetings. Encourage employees to share a picture with the milestone. For example, while “homeschooling” my three kids last week, they all (finally) learned how to ride their bikes. A huge win, as it gets them outside more!

  • Communicate and encourage boundaries. Some leaders worry that their employees won’t work hard enough when working from home, but a two-year study from Stanford University showed that employees in the study were 13% more productive when working from home. As leaders, it’s important to encourage employees to set healthy boundaries like taking breaks, stopping work at a certain time, and not checking emails after hours. Model this behavior for your staff and share with them how you create healthy boundaries so you can take care of yourself mentally and physically.

Being human and transparent during this time will allow you to deepen your connections with each employee and keep them engaged in their work. Remember, it is your responsibility as a leader to provide support, remove obstacles, and create connection on your team. It takes even more effort to do this in a virtual environment. And this is our job as leaders. Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility, and it takes daily effort and consistent practices to show up as an exceptional leader each day for your team.

Your Leadership Energy Matters

A few years ago, I switched to a new chiropractor. When I entered the office for my first appointment, the receptionist barely looked up as she unenthusiastically muttered, “Yes?”. Her unfriendly greeting had an immediate impact on my mood as I felt my energy drop. Needless to say, her lack of welcoming energy and friendliness had an impact on my entire experience at the office.

I’m certain you have experienced this before—the customer service representative who has no business being in a customer service role. First impressions matter; and it only takes a few seconds for someone to pick up on the energy (or lack thereof) of the person across from them. We train our member service representatives to be friendly and knowledgeable to provide the best service. Yet it still mystifies me how many organizations don’t hire people in customer service roles who actually like interacting with people. Customer service roles are often the first point of contact a customer has with an organization, and can leave a lasting impression; whether good or bad. There is another important position where our energy matters—leadership.

When you are a leader, you are being watched every day, whether you like it or not. Your employees, your colleagues, and your manager are all impacted by your actions, your words, and your energy. Even subconsciously, people are picking up on your energy at work. Do you consistently appear overwhelmed and stressed out? Are you tired or irritated? You are likely transferring that energy to those around you.

Every morning, when you walk into the office, what kind of tone are you setting? Are you greeting your employees with a warm “good morning!”? Your enthusiasm and warmth have to be genuine, but many leaders are not purposeful with how they show up at the office each day.

When you come to a meeting with your colleagues or a coaching session with one of your employees, are you completely present, listening and connecting to the person in front of you? Or are you distracted or inattentive?

We should always be conscious of the energy we are putting out into the world. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a bad day or that we have to be positive and upbeat all the time. Certain situations may not call for an upbeat or friendly demeanor. But it does mean that as leaders, we should be aware that our mindset, energy, and language impacts everyone around us. Our employees look to their leaders for cues on how to behave, and we need to be aware that we are sending as much of a message with our energy as we are with our words and actions. As leaders, we have a responsibility to model the behaviors we want to elicit from others.

Your energy can be impactful outside of work too. I have been conscious of my energy when I walk in the door at home after work. Although sometimes I arrive home tired and stressed from a long day or a terrible commute, before I walk in the door, I consciously release that energy and put a smile on my face to greet my children. I’ve noticed that when I enter the house with positive energy, they give me positive energy (and behavior) back. People often mirror our energy and mindset back to us.

So next time you are entering the office, a meeting, a coaching session, or walking around the office, pause and think about the energy you want to consciously spread to others. Your level of positivity and engagement can impact the mindset and engagement of those around you.

Read This Book to Have an Awesome Year

Before the year began, my husband and I took a mini-vacation to a bed and breakfast in West Virginia to relax and unwind. With three young kids at home, it’s not often we get away together alone. One of our favorite things to do is read by the fire. On this trip, I read two books cover to cover, and one impacted me so much, I want to share it with you.

In studying success for over 25 years, there is something I have discovered that is a common theme in high achievers—they have a bias for action. They have the same fears, doubts, anxieties, and challenges as everyone, but they push through the negative mind chatter and get themselves to do things they may not feel like doing. Success and confidence are not innate qualities, they are the result of small actions that compound over time.

In all honesty, my default is laziness. If I didn’t consciously push myself through the barriers my mind creates, I would sit around every day watching Hallmark movies, eating Lindor truffles, and drinking cappuccinos. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these things, but compound them daily over time, and they would not lead me toward my best self. My guess is that your default is also laziness. I know this, because of all the leaders—of all the humans—I have ever worked with, been friends with, or had a conversation with, no one has ever said that sticking to their goals was easy peasy, lemon squeezy (this is a current favorite phrase of my almost seven-year-old).

Sitting by the fire two nights before New Year’s Eve, I was reading the book, The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. I had seen Mel’s Ted Talk a few years ago, so I wasn’t in a rush to read the book. Frankly, I thought the “5 Second Rule” she preaches was too simplistic to be of value. But as I read the book and the case studies from people around the world, I became enthralled with the concept and couldn’t put it down. There was one piece of research that Mel shared that really stuck with me, and made total sense based on my own personal experience. She said that in the quest to reach our goals, thinking is not the problem; we rarely make decisions based on logic. Research has shown that we make 95% of our decisions based on our feelings, not on our thoughts. I reflected on the choices I make each day, and realized that if I didn’t push myself, I would absolutely choose to watch Hallmark movies while drinking cappuccinos and eating chocolate all day.

Left to my feelings, here is how I would make decisions each day:

  • Do I feel like getting up an hour early today? No, I’d rather stay in my warm bed.
  • Do I feel like working out today? No, it’s too much effort.
  • Do I feel like writing two blogs today? No, it takes too much thought.
  • Do I feel like eating a healthy salad for lunch? No, that doesn’t sound delicious!

You see how that works? We make 95% of our decisions based on how we feel in the moment, and our feelings are rarely in our best interest. Change requires us to have the courage to make choices that feel hard and challenging. So what do successful people do? They make decisions before their feelings set in and hijack their life. Mel Robbins’ “5 Second Rule” is about counting backwards—5-4-3-2-1—and then taking action immediately, before your feelings set in and your mind rationalizes why not to do something.

It’s not that successful people aren’t lazy. Most of us would rather take the easy way out rather than have to put forth effort to accomplish something. Successful people make the choice to push through, despite their feelings. It takes bold action—quick action—to move past your feelings and toward your goals. It’s our daily practices that will lead us toward our best self. No one is perfect every day, but if you consistently take action before your feelings set in, those small actions will compound to lead you toward better health, better relationships, better leadership, and a better life.

  • Do I feel like tackling that hard project first thing in the morning? No, but I know if I do, I will get it off my plate and get to leave work on time today.
  • Do I feel like having that tough conversation with my employee? No, but I know it’s necessary to maintain a cohesive team.
  • Do I feel like taking 45 minutes to teach a task I can do in 10 minutes? No, but I know if I delegate it now, I will free up more of my time in the long run.

This morning, when the alarm rang an hour earlier, instead of hitting snooze, I jumped out of bed before my feelings convinced me I needed more sleep. It may seem like a small action, but I started my day off in control—in control of my actions, in control of my goals, and in control of my life.

Three Pillars of Exceptional Leadership

Three Pillars of Exceptional Leadership

One of the biggest challenges professionals face when promoted to a leadership role is where to focus their time and energy. In a sole contributor role, we are rewarded for technical expertise and skill. The transition to leadership can be very different and challenging, as many professionals have not been prepared and developed to master the competencies that are necessary for success.

I remember the first time my vice president gave me feedback after I had been promoted to assistant director of human resources. It was about two months into my new leadership role, and she called me into her office to tell me to stop doing my old job. In my previous role as human resources generalist, I performed several technical jobs like processing payroll and benefits. While I wasn’t still processing payroll every two weeks, anytime someone had a payroll or benefits issue, they were still coming to me to fix them. My boss told me I needed to start delegating; fixing payroll and benefit issues was not my job anymore, and I was expected to coach my employee to perform those functions. She wanted me to focus on creating leadership programs to develop our management team. This was a big shift for me, as I had always equated my value as my technical HR expertise. But in my new leadership role, the competencies required and the value I needed to contribute were vastly different from my previous role.

For many new managers, leadership can feel less tangible than their previous technical role. We aren’t sure where to spend our time, so we become fixers (jumping in to solve problems our employees should take care of) instead of facilitators (facilitating dialogue and coaching employees how to handle challenges themselves).

Leaders need to focus their time and energy on the right areas to facilitate a positive, result-driven team—creating a positive and productive culture. There are three key pillars of exceptional leadership that are important for building trust and commitment, and for producing sustainable results.

Create Clarity: the first pillar is to create clarity. This means consistently sharing the vision and the path for employees so they know where to focus their attention. Leaders need to inspire employees by sharing how their contributions fit into the strategic goals, and then set clear expectations, goals, and deadlines. It is necessary to create clarity daily so employees understand the priorities. This requires the skill of zooming in and out. Zooming out to see the broader strategic picture of what needs to be done, while anticipating obstacles and adjusting priorities, and then zooming in to focus yourself and your staff on what needs to be done in the short-term.

Caretake the Culture: the second pillar is to caretake the culture—develop a relationship with each employee and understand how to adjust your leadership style to bring out each employee’s best performance. This is a very important part of leadership; leaders should be spending a significant amount of time coaching, developing, and providing honest, consistent, meaningful feedback. When an employee struggles, managers should be there providing support and direction. Leaders also need to be approachable, and foster cohesiveness and constructive conflict among their staff. Your job as a leader is to create a positive and results-driven culture—in your functional area, as well as the overall organizational culture.

Consistency and Results: leadership is not effective unless you can facilitate consistent results. This means modeling accountability for your staff, creating structures, following through, and being on top of your own priorities, as well as continuously focusing your staff on the daily goals to lead to results. Leaders must be able to coach employees to focus, remove roadblocks, and make timely and thorough decisions.

To be a successful leader, you must focus on the people side of the business more than ever before, and get results through people. This is why delegation is key. Leaders need to appropriately delegate tasks so they can focus on the most important priorities of creating clarity, caretaking the culture, and delivering consistent results. Not everyone is meant to be a leader. Leadership is a privilege and a huge responsibility. True leadership is in service to others, and requires mastering relationship competencies for success.

Why I terminated our family Au Pair

In August, our family welcomed an Au Pair from Italy who was supposed to be with us for a year. With a busy household of three young kids with many activities, my husband and I were hopeful this was the answer to our struggle of sport schedules, work travel, and two businesses. Having an extra set of hands would reduce some of the stress of managing five different schedules.

Within two weeks of arriving, our ideal vision of a life with our Au Pair had faded to the reality of stress, disappointment, and unfulfilled expectations. A week into her stay, we gave her some candid and supportive feedback about how she could engage better with the kids, and how we needed to increase the driving lessons because her driving skills were much lower than we had expected. A week later, during her fifth driving lesson with my husband, he had to grab the wheel to avoid a catastrophic accident. We realized we could never trust her to drive our kids, which was one of our main goals of the program. We sat down with her and our local consultant from the Au Pair company and respectfully shared the news that we weren’t a good fit for each other. She was upset and disappointed, as were we, but we felt confident in our decision. It would be easy to avoid the conversation and convince ourselves that she is a nice girl and we should try to make it work, but the bottom line was that her skill level was not a fit for our needs. Dragging it out for another two months would be stressful and unpleasant for her and for us.

Although most people were supportive and understood our decision, we were criticized by a couple of people who thought we should have given her more time to adjust. We felt strongly that the issue was not the adjustment period; her fundamental skill level was not a match for our needs and we would never feel confident or comfortable with her driving our children anywhere. Being a nice person didn’t make her effective at the job.

Despite the criticism, we stood by the decision to part ways, which was the best choice for our family, and ultimately the Au Pair. Keeping her in a situation that did not fit her skills was not in her best interest either. Being an only child, she was overwhelmed by three small kids, and would fit better with a family with less kids who did not need a driver.

This type of situation occurs often in our organizations—should we keep someone who is not meeting expectations, or terminate employment. These decisions are not always easy, but they are the hard decisions that leaders must have the courage to make. Keeping a low performer because they are a nice person and people like them does more damage than good to your culture. Choosing to preserve relationships over making hard decisions can frustrate your high performers, increase turnover, and have a negative impact on engagement.

Although these situations can be uncomfortable, we can handle them with respect and kindness. As leaders, we need to set expectations, provide timely and meaningful feedback, and provide coaching and support. It is our responsibility to do what we can to effectively lead an employee to better performance. And if performance isn’t improving, we can part ways with an employee with compassion and kindness.

It is important to take into consideration the whole system when making important people decisions. Sometimes that means a decision that is best for the company over our own department, and sometimes that means letting go of someone who is not a good fit for our team. Keeping an employee who is not a good fit not only has a negative impact on our teams and culture, but also on that individual employee. Releasing that person to find a better fit for their skills is the kind and respectful thing to do. In our case, keeping our Au Pair because she was kind and we felt bad wasn’t helping the fact that we needed someone who could engage with our kids, set limits, and take them to activities. Keeping her was not the right choice for our family system.

Time and again I have seen leaders accept mediocre or low performance to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or situation. I have frequently been called upon as an executive coach when the CEO or senior leader has reached their frustration point and been asked to coach a leader who has been ineffective for 10, 15, 20 or more years. Many times these ineffective leaders have received little or no feedback on the impact of their actions, performance, or behavior. The organization has worked around them, and both sides have suffered. It is our responsibility as leaders to be honest and direct with people so they can improve or find an organization where they will be more successful.

Our Au Pair left two weeks ago to join a new family in New York who have two children and don’t need a driver. By parting ways, our Au Pair was able to find a family where she has the skills to be effective and successful. And we can now find an Au Pair who will meet our needs and be fully successful in our family.

Why Great Leaders Invest in Themselves

I just returned from five days at the National Speakers Association conference in Denver, Colorado, where I had the opportunity to learn from the best speakers in the world on how they grow their businesses and stay relevant for their clients. These sessions were invaluable—hearing what worked, what didn’t, and the different approaches speakers take in working with clients and making an impact. I took copious notes which sparked many ideas I hadn’t thought of before.

This conference is one of several professional development sessions I attend each year to develop myself as a professional and business owner. In fact, every year I increase the amount of money I allocate for professional development. I have seen a direct connection between my personal and business growth and the amount I invest in myself.

Most of us didn’t receive any management training before—or even after—we were promoted to a leadership role. Most professional jobs—whether it’s a chef, a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor, or even your local barista—require some kind of training or certification. Leadership is the exception. There is a common practice that is contributing to mediocre and bad cultures in organizations; promoting technical superstars into leadership roles. This practice does a disservice to the person being promoted, their employees, and the overall culture. The competencies required in a technical role are different from what is important in a leadership role. And we need to invest in our managers and executives to teach them modern leadership skills that bring out the best in employees and build exceptional organizational cultures.

The best leaders proactively seek out professional development and never stop investing in themselves. And it doesn’t matter the level of leadership. The most successful CEOs, executives, directors, managers, and supervisors never think they have learned all they need to know. Smart leaders understand that they are never done learning. Learning is a lifelong process that never ends. I am amazed at how many executives feel they don’t need professional development once they have attained an executive role. The work doesn’t end when you are a leader. In fact, it’s just beginning.

The best keep getting better. The best leaders always think there is more to learn.

Below are some ways to invest in yourself:

Read and listen. Consistently read books and articles that help you develop your leadership skills and spark new ideas. Listen to podcasts. There are so many powerful podcasts where leadership influencers are interviewed. I listen while I’m in the car so my commute becomes learning.

A few of my favorite leadership books:

  • The Success Principles by Jack Canfield
  • The 5 Levels of Leadership by John Maxwell
  • Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
  • Leadership from the Inside Out by Kevin Cashman
  • Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

A few of my favorite podcasts:

  • The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast
  • The School of Greatness by Lewis Howes
  • Lead to Win by Michael Hyatt

Magazines:

  • Success
  • Harvard Business Review
  • CEO World
  • Forbes

Attend conferences inside and outside of your industry. Regularly attending conferences gets you out of the office (an environment of distractions and meetings) and into a space of learning, innovation, and growth. I am always amazed at how different and energized I feel after attending a conference where I learn about better ways of doing things and have the space to think differently. Conferences in your industry or functional area are helpful to build skills and educate yourself on trends, and conference outside your industry can bring fresh perspectives and new ideas.

Attend local events. Your industry association will likely have one day events and conferences for professional development. Don’t wait to be asked to attend. Take charge of your own development. Research your association website and ask your manager to attend an event.

Find an internal mentor or coach. You don’t have to leave the office to develop yourself as a leader or professional. Find a leader in your organization who you respect and want to learn from, and approach them about forming a more formal relationship. Be prepared with how you would like to use your time together and have specific questions ready. You want to take ownership of this relationship and not leave the work for the mentor/coach. Sometimes these relationships naturally form and aren’t always a formal relationship, so utilize the expertise, experience, and coaching of well-respected leaders in your company.

Great leaders are always evolving. In order to successfully fulfill the responsibility of leadership, we need to consciously develop ourselves so we can serve others.

5 Books to Help Elevate Your Culture This Year

Most organizations are average—they are stuck and not growing. Average organizations have average leaders. It is still standard practice for many organizations to promote employees for their technical skills, rather than their ability to lead and inspire other people. This practice perpetuates mediocre cultures.

I believe there are three main reasons organizations are average:

  1. Employees are promoted for technical proficiency, and not leadership proficiency
  2. The leaders are conflict avoidant
  3. Cultural health is not a strategic priority

To elevate the culture of your organization, you must set the standard for leadership and performance. This starts at the executive level.  The one thing the executive team must do today to positively impact the leadership quality of the organization is to declare that you will no longer promote for technical proficiency. To create an exceptional culture, you must start by creating exceptional leaders. This means instilling hiring and promotion practices that focus on leadership qualities, not technical skills. It also means we must train managers and executives to be influential, modern leaders. 

Organizations don’t transform, leaders do. Cultural transformation begins with the personal transformation of the leaders.

Below are five excellent books that can help set you on the path to creating an exceptional culture:

  • The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. This is one of my favorite leadership books of all time. Lencioni argues that cultural health trumps everything; that you can have the best marketing, sales, and technical abilities, but if you don’t have a healthy culture, it will impede your success. He shares tangible strategies for improving communication, team cohesiveness, and clarity in the organization.
  • Firms of Endearment by Sisodia, Wolfe, and Sheth. Every executive leader should read this book. The authors share compelling statistics of how companies that focus on passion and purpose are significantly more profitable. If we focus on building relationships with people, we build successful, healthy organizations.
  • Conscious Capitalism by Mackey and Sisodia. This book, co-authored by the CEO of Whole Foods, promotes authentic leadership that is centered around values and people. This modern philosophy is exactly what we need in business today—to not just focus on profits, but to focus on elevating how we do business with our employees and the world.
  • Dare to Lead by Brenè Brown. We need more honesty in organizations, and we need brave leaders to step up and have the courage to lead with honesty and whole-heartedness. Brenè shares four skills to help leaders take off the armor so you can create organizations where employees feel safe, seen, heard, and respected. A must read!
  • The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. A classic book that identifies the five root causes of politics and dysfunction on teams, and how to overcome them. The dysfunctions are: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. Lencioni shares strategies for creating a high performing team.

It is possible to create a culture of exceptional leaders. It won’t happen overnight, but with consistent effort, it can happen. The first step is to make a decision—everything great that ever happens always starts with a decision.

If you want to be an exceptional organization, to make a bigger impact for your employees and your customers, make that choice.

It all starts with you.

These five books will prepare your mindset for elevating your culture and provide specific strategies for making it happen.

Five Signs You Have a Mediocre Culture

A lot has changed over the past thirty years–we can jump on Amazon and have anything delivered to our door in a day, we have hundreds of channels at our fingertips, and we can Google the answer to any question in a matter of seconds.

But there is one thing that has not changed much over the years—mediocre leadership. While the world has moved at a fast pace, mediocre leaders and mediocre cultures are the norm. Sure, there are some influential, modern leaders in business today, but unfortunately, they are the minority. In organizations around the country there are still ineffective, traditional, uninspiring leaders.

Why does the mediocre leader live on? Because most organizations and cultures are mediocre. It’s like a temperature setting in your house—if the thermostat is set to 68 degrees, when it gets warmer, the air conditioning kicks on to bring the temperature back down to its setting. This is what happens in organizational cultures every day. If some brave employee speaks up, tells the truth, displays excellence, or goes against the grain, the culture overtakes this one brave soul and brings him back to reality. A mass of mediocrity is no match for a few high performers.

So how do you know if you have a mediocre culture? Below are five signs.

Your managers spend more time and energy disciplining or tolerating low performers than focusing on the best employees.

One sign of mediocre leadership is managers who spend a considerable amount of time dealing with poor performers. Great cultures don’t tolerate mediocre performance—they coach their employees to peak performance, and step in to coach and support them when they don’t meet standards. Great leaders make tough choices when necessary—they won’t keep an underperforming employee because they know the impact it has on their high performers and the overall culture. Mediocre leaders tend to avoid crucial conversations, and when they do take action, they approach the employee with a command and control style of leadership rather than approaching the situation as an opportunity to coach.

 Your managers avoid confrontation.

Mediocre leaders avoid dealing with challenging situations because it’s uncomfortable. Rather, they take the path of least resistance by accepting complacency and settling for less. Mediocre managers reward compliance rather than honesty and candidness. They do not speak up, because they don’t want to rock the boat. They make excuses for low performers and are slow to take action. Influential leaders realize that although difficult conversations are uncomfortable, they are necessary in creating a high-performance culture. They don’t delay action. They focus on the bigger picture by dealing with issues early, so they don’t develop into larger challenges. Exceptional leaders are bold and courageous leaders.

Your managers are traditional, not modern.

Mediocre managers employ a command and control style of leadership. They don’t see the importance or value in employee engagement; they think employees are rewarded by their paycheck. Mediocre managers don’t see the value in feedback, empathy, coaching, or appreciation. They tend to micromanage and drive results through fear. Influential leaders understand that employee engagement leads to higher productivity, which leads to results. Exceptional leaders spend most of their time coaching, appreciating, supporting and developing their employees. They understand that they, as the leader, have the ability to create an environment that fosters teamwork and collaboration, and by connecting with each employee and adjusting their management style, they can develop employees to consistently deliver their best performance.

Your managers like doing technical work, not leadership work.

Mediocre leaders spend most of their time putting out fires, dealing with interruptions, and drowning themselves in lower level technical work. They often complain that they don’t have enough time to coach employees, give feedback, plan, or be strategic. The reality is, most mediocre leaders don’t enjoy the “leadership work” and would much rather deal with technical work because they equate their value with their technical expertise. And this is precisely why they are not effective leaders. Exceptional leaders understand the  value they contribute is how they lead their team. They spend more of their time thinking about the future, asking clarifying questions, coaching their employees through challenges, and communicating a clear path. They avoid the temptation to get drawn into the technical work they are an expert in, and make developing employees, planning, and coaching their priority. They are on top of their most important priorities, and create clarity for their team by consistently communicating those priorities and checking in on progress.

You have a hard time keeping high performers.

Mediocre managers create mediocre teams. They accept complacency, so high performers become frustrated by the lack of progress and results, and ultimately adjust their level of effort down, or leave the organization. Mediocre managers perpetuate average performance. Since they themselves are average, they don’t instill higher levels of performance in their staff. Exceptional leaders set clear standards and deadlines, and expect their employees to work at a high level. They challenge their teams in a positive way, and reward them for hard work. They focus more time on making sure they keep their best employees, and send the message that average performance is not acceptable.

A high-performance culture starts with the actions of the top leaders in the organization.

It takes bold and courageous CEOs, executives and managers to step up and change the temperature setting of the culture and declare that mediocrity is no longer acceptable. Exceptional leaders don’t just talk about creating a high performing culture, they take the actions necessary to create the culture.

People don’t follow what you say, they follow what you do.

If you don’t reward exceptional performance and instead accept mediocrity, your culture will remain average. If you declare a higher standard, and take action by rewarding high performers and coach the low performers to a higher level of performance or out of the organization, you will begin to transform your culture over time.

Leadership is not easy. It requires consistent focus on people and the greater organization. It requires having courageous conversations for the sake of the culture. Exceptional leaders are the caretakers of the culture. They understand that every decision they make or don’t make has a lasting impact on the culture. They choose every day to step up and lead at a higher level.