What are the 3 words that managers find hardest to say?
They are possibly the 3 words that parents find hardest to say to children. They are 3 words that teachers very rarely say to their students.
They are not “You’re the Best”. They are not “I love you”. What might they be?
The 3 hardest words for a manager to say are “I don’t know.”
The need to act under the lack of full information does not give the excuse of not needed to do the work. One must do the work to examine the data that is available, to seek advice from wise counsel, to speak to others who have experience; but the analysis once done, must end. A decision must be taken by the leader.
Orchids are not Fragile
I am reading Nassim Taleb’s latest book “AntiFragile” at the moment. I received 2 gifts of this book for Christmas – I do hope it is not because I am generally seen as “fragile” and in need of some increased strength…
I remember a conversation with my friend Xavi, who runs a gardening business. We were talking about Orchids. He explained “there is a widespread idea that Orchids are difficult plants, they are fragile. This is not true. Any plant that has survived the millions of years of evolution to survive in its form today is in no way fragile. It is not suited to certain environments, but it is not fragile.”
Most complex organic systems not only survive uncertainty, chaos, disorder, time… they thrive. They grow stronger though dealing with their environments. There are forests that need fire – certain trees can only grow past a certain point if they face fire. A human muscle will atrophy if not used, it will grow stronger through being worked, through being damaged.
Modern education equates volatility with risk, equates non-standard with failing. Statisticians hate the outliers.
Nassim’s central idea is that we cannot predict risks, but we can predict a system’s capability to cope with risk. We cannot predict an earthquake, but we do know whether the 400 year old cathedral or the poorly built modern apartment block will fall first. We cannot predict a financial crisis, but we can predict which bank will fail first. We cannot predict loss of employment, but we can see which human will come back strong the fastest.
Leading in the Real World
The real world has surprises. Hemmingway said that the “true” parts of his stories were the most un-believable. Fiction is never as crazy as reality.
There are 3 things a good leader must learn to be able to do:
Act under Uncertainty
Take the Painful Decisions
Own the Decision
Acting Under Uncertainty
I teach a class towards the end of the course on the MBA program where my objective is to create uncertainty. As the students give their answers, I give no expression, neither verbal nor non-verbal as to whether I agree with their answer. This creates tension in the class. The students are used to a class where they say their answer and the professor either writes it up on the board or grimaces. If the professor writes it up, I got the answer right. If the professor grimaces, I change my answer until I get a nod and a note on the board.
I believe education from “The All-Knowing Professor” creates a dangerous tendency for future leaders. In the real decisions of life, there is nobody there to nod their head, nor to say “no” or “incorrect”. There are many people making lots of noise, and the leader needs to commit to their course of action without achieving 100% consensus, or 100% of the information that could prove the course of action. Leaders must be able to do enough work to be fairly sure they have a good course of action, and then commit to that course of action; and get others to commit.
If MBAs are learning always to wait for someone else to give then certainty, then they are not learning to lead. We need to ensure that tomorrows leaders are getting practice in the world of uncertainty. They are getting practice at having to move forward without all the information.
Taking the Painful Decisions
Odysseus must choose between definitely losing a few of his men by passing closer to Scylla, or possibly losing all of his men passing nearer to Charybdis, the whirlpool. There was no “good” alternative. MBA cases, video games, TV series tend to allow the hero to find a “good” outcome. They allow the business to survive with nobody losing their job. They allow the main character to finish the journey and get back to a comfortable life. If you have a good option and a bad option, this is not a decision. It is obvious. A leadership decision is always between 2 bad options.
Many of school’s choices are between a good and a bad outcome. Most of life’s choices are between two bad outcomes.
Own the Decision
When I was young, 12 or 13 years old, I was once caddying for my father. We were at a par 3 and we discussed what club to hit. I suggested a 7 iron. He thought it was not enough, but after a pause, took the 7 iron anyway. He had a look at the green, the flag. He took a few practice swings. He stood up to the ball. He swung the club making good contact with the ball. It soared up and was in line with the pin. It hung in the air for 2, 3 seconds… and then dropped… 15 meters short, landing in the sandy bunker.
He made a pained grunt and as he returned the club to me I said “sorry, I gave you the wrong club”. He said, “No, you are the caddy, but I am the golfer. I chose wrong.” At the time I remember feeling bad. I felt that I wasn’t “respected” by him, that he didn’t treat my advice as serious advice. Now I think that he acted then as he has always acted. He owned the decision. I gave advice, but at no point did it become my “fault”. He owns his decisions, whether in golf, in business or in life.
Learning to take responsibility for the choice, where it is the leader themselves who must choose, is a challenge. It takes psychological maturity to own a decision that cannot necessarily be justified with the data. It takes psychological strength to deal with the slings and blows of others who have not had to take the decision. Leadership is solitary. Any education of leaders must help the leader find the mental strength necessary to be alone.
Being alone and being lonely are different. Alone is a choice. Lonely is the desire to have someone else to take away the burden.
A good leader has mentors, friends, advisors… but when the decision comes, it is they and they alone who are responsible.
Increasing your Question to Answer ratio
In an uncertain world, the art of “Muddling Through” is of greater importance than the art of long-term strategic planning. Dealing with the chaos requires accepting the chaos, and then taking quick steps to understand the map, the compass. In management life, giving answers shrinks our understanding; asking questions increases our understanding, our capacity to adapt.
How many of your statements are answers and how many are questions?
The person asking the questions is in control of the conversation. It is hard to remain open to other’s ideas. It is hard to stop saying what it is that I want to say, and giving the other what it is that they need to hear.
The Best Questions…
The best Leadership Question: “What is the next right thing to do?”
The best Teaching Question: “What do you think? What other options do you see?”
The best Coaching Question: “You have achieved what you set out to accomplish. Imagine yourself there. What does it feel like?”
The best Friendship Question: “How are you?”
The best Parenting Question: “What was the best moment of your day?”
The best Sales Question: “(I understand that price is important.) What other criteria are important in making this decision?” (The implicit question: “What are you comparing this to?”)
Michael asks “What should you do when you don’t know what to do?” In the times when he felt lost, out of his depth, uncertain, unsure whether he was the right person in the role… All the great moments of self-doubt that I know I share…
His mentor’s answer?
“Do the next right thing.”
The full post at Michael Hyatt’s Intentional Leadership blog: “What to do when you don’t know what to do“. I think it goes further than that. This is not a recipe for rare moments of doubt. This is a powerful framing of leadership.
There is a time for Managers, and a time for Leaders
When a team is winning, the captain needs to be a manager. When the team is losing 3-1 at half time, the captain needs to be a leader. Doing the same but better is going to lead to a 6-2 final score. The team has to do something different. This is when the captain must lead.
However, when leadership is made into something too big, action paralysis sets in. Self-doubt assails the leader and leads to delay. Leadership needs focus.
Leadership is “Do the Next Right Thing”
Do. Action. Leadership is about action. Nothing changes without taking action. Knowing what to do but not doing anything is the same as not knowing what to do.
The Next. The professional knows where he is going, but never allows his mind to go beyond the next step. He knows that this will lead to a feeling of overwhelm and the little voice inside his mind will tell him to stop. It is only by keeping extreme focus on the Next that action is possible and sustainable. The amateur takes on too big a goal. He lives in a cycle of building frustration leading to a moment where he decides he will act. He now sets a massive goal for himself and for a day or two manages to exert maximum effort towards this overly ambitious goal. Three days later he realises how much work is still left and drops back into a depressed state and stops the action towards the goal.
Right. What is necessary. What is correct. What fits with your values and effectively moves you in the direction of your overall goals. Not what others think you should do. Not what you think others would expect of you. Not what you parents want. Not what your friends want. It is what you feel is right.
Do. The Next. Right. Thing.
“I will act now.”
The great failures do not come from a lack of strategy, or a lack of knowledge about where you would like to get to. Few people wake up in the morning with a goal of being unhappy and frustrated. True failure is lack of disciplined action. This is not the failure of not achieving a goal, not winning a game… but the hideous failure of having left a life unlived.
“You only need 20 seconds of courage in a life”. Where are my 20 seconds? How many do I have left?
I come more and more to the conclusion that excellent performance is not about complex innovations, but about small habits.
Excellent performance is about small habits
I am reading Leading with Emotional Intelligence by Redlan Nadler. He quotes from book The Extraordinary Leader by Zenger and Folkman. They found that doing 5 specific things really well put a leader in the top 10% of performance.
Small efforts in these 5 areas make a major difference.
Building Human Relationships
Dealing with Poor Performance
The table below gives specific examples of the difference between average leader behavior and top 10% leader behavior. If it doesn’t display properly via rss, view it on the blog here.
“Mary, thanks for getting the report to me.”
“Mary, great job on the report because it was well-written. I appreciate you checked-in with me on the process. I like how you collaborated with others.”
Building Human Relationships
Works in office on a project and then takes a break. On the way to get coffee, nods at a few people and walks past some without even looking. Heads right back to the computer.
Takes a break and stops at several people’s desks to check on how they are doing. Asks about projects and inquires about issues or challenges. Asks about family or hobbies.
Dealing with Poor Performance
John is not performing as I would like him to. “John, let’s make sure you do everything to get this right.”
“John, let’s spend time going over the next assignment together. You haven’t been performing like I know you can and I want to help. When can we meet?”
“I’d better work through lunch because I am behind and can catch up if I eat at my computer.”
“I am feeling tired and need to recharge. Going to lunch will help keep things in perspective and I will come back refreshed and better able to deal with these next challenges.”
“I don’t know what my boss thinks of me and how I am doing. I know she is busy and probably doesn’t need another interruption. “
“I am not sure what my boss thinks of me or how I am doing. I will schedule some time with her and clarify expectations and make sure I am doing what she wants. It will also give her visibility on my projects.”
It does not take that much longer. How do you approach these 5 areas? Do you manage upwards well? Are you clear on what is high performance in your role? Do you deal directly with poor performance… or do you cross your fingers and hope?
Confusion – “yes, but how does that address US foreign policy and the social responsibility charter and the challenges of globalisation… and the new tax situation?”
Fear mongering – “uff… this will be like X back in 2008 when it all went wrong”
Death by delays – task forces, committees: “let’s set up a task force to assess the merits of this idea”
Ridicule – personal attack on your credibility
How to get your idea through:
Don’t avoid the lions – make sure the critics are in the room, on the cc – gunfire draws attention. If nobody disagrees with you, you are either too much of a dictator, or your idea is too bland. You don’t stand for anything if you don’t cause a negative reaction in some people. Apple has its haters, they don’t try to please everyone.
Keep it simple – don’t let yourself be pulled into minute implementation details that cloud the big picture. It is your job to keep the conversations focused on the important criteria.
Understand “ego” – people will never want to accept that they are wrong. Don’t put them in a position where they have to accept that they were wrong. The best line of argument is “2 years ago you took the best decision based on the available information; but, something has changed. I ask you to revisit the decision with this newly available information”.
Watch all the audience – include all the people in the room, not just critics and supporters. It may be through one-on-one meetings, phone calls, distribution of reading materials.
Preparation – don’t wing it. The words you are comfortable with, may not be the words that help the listener see what they need to see. What do they need to know, feel and believe? Too many people fail because they speak what they think is important, not what the audience believes is important. Comfortable is not effective.
How do you promote your ideas in your family, work, school, charity? Do you risk having your best ideas shot down because you just “put them out there”?
Listen. Not just to the words. To the emotions of the other. To the real reasons underlying her position. To the hidden messages in their communication. To yourself. To how you feel. To your unconscious. It is a very very clever beast. It just doesn’t do directness very well.
Years ago, laziness was about shirking from physical labour. Avoiding chores.
The New Laziness
Today’s laziness is more insipid. It doesn’t look like physical laziness. In fact, only the individual self can know that they are being lazy. The new laziness is fear based. It is procrastination. It is self-sabotage. It is avoidance of standing out. It is taking the tested path. It is doing what everyone else does and then being frustrated when you get paid the same as everyone else, of how you will be let go when you are 40 and a 20 year old will do the same work, with more energy, and for less money.
“There are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practiced in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so there is no time at all to confront the real issues. This form of laziness lies in our failure to choose worthwhile applications for our energy.” Sogyal Rinpiche
Busy-ness on the wrong things is the new laziness.
There are three benefits that grow from you “acting” confident:
Attitude follows Behavior: Over time, you become more like you act—self-assured, confident, and convinced of the truth of what you are saying.
Emotional Contagion: Walk down an airport corridor and smile, and watch people smile back; change your facial expression to a frown, and you will be met with frowns. Act confident, people respond with confidence in you.
Self-Reinforcing Emotions: if you smile and then others smile, you are more likely to feel happy and smile. You may have to act confident and knowledgeable at first, but as others “catch” that feeling, it will be reflected back, making you more confident.
Remove the source of anxiety – avoid the stress. This is a poor coping strategy. There is no growth in capability. There will always be a reduction of my performance levels when the stressor is present.
Manage my level of anxiety – learn to auto-adjust down (relaxation techniques, visualisation) or up (“come on, fight this point! never back down!”)
Tolerate anxiety – Accept the existence of the anxiety without it affecting my level of performance. I learn to co-exist with the anxiety.
Enjoy the anxiety – Lean in to the stress! Accept the emotions and feel it 100% Some sports stars have learnt to deliver more than 100% in the most extreme situations – world cup final penalty, Ryder cup putt on the last green with the whole world watching.
This comes from work of Pep Mari (check out Pep Mari’s youtube channel, in spanish). Pep is the head of psychology for the high performance athletics center that is part of the Spanish government’s plan to help create a generation of Olympic gold medal winners.
How do you deal with anxiety? Do you manage your stress levels? Are there any stresses that you have learnt to enjoy? How did you achieve this?
The 7 most important words in management are: “I don’t know but I will find out”
When you are blocked for an answer and under pressure and tempted to guess… remember the seven important words.
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