Leadership is a Partnership

Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people. I have believed this statement my entire career—and it might be even more important now than it was 35 years ago. Workforces are more diverse, workplaces are less centralized, and technology continues to revolutionize how business is conducted and how people communicate. The most successful leaders are the ones who partner with their staff.

Partnership starts with clear and frequent communication. Leaders must establish a rhythm or consistent schedule of discussions with team members. I suggest that leaders meet at least once a week, for 30 minutes with each direct report. That might sound like a lot of extra work, but I guarantee if you spend this time you’ll create trusting relationships with your team that will improve morale and productivity in your department.

Use these meetings to work with your team member to set clear goals, to praise progress on tasks, to redirect efforts if necessary, and to celebrate the completion of each project. It is critical that the leader and team member participate equally in these meetings, speak their truths, and listen with the intent of learning something—not judging.

Some of you reading this might be saying, “This isn’t new information.” You’re right it isn’t—but it is such a simple truth of leadership that I want to remind people again and again. You’ve probably heard me say that the information I provide for leaders is just common sense. But I also say that my philosophy isn’t always commonly practiced.

My goal is to have every leader start having these important conversations with their teams. I urge you to partner with each team member to help them be successful. So, I provide this reminder for you to be a leader that makes this common sense, common practice. You’ll soon realize how a small investment of time spent partnering with your people will build a stronger, more self-reliant team.

The Way You Think Can Change Your Life

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of people engaging in what I call “ain’t it awful” conversations. Believe me, I understand that with things going on like the terror attacks around the world, the controversial Presidential campaigns in the United States, and even the weather, it is easy to slip into a negative mindset. But hand-wringing and downbeat discussions aren’t going to change anything. In fact, it can make things worse by taking all your thoughts into a downward spiral.

Now is the time for positive thinking. I always loved working with Norman Vincent Peale because he used to say “Positive thinkers get positive results.” That is such a powerful message, and we need to keep it in mind to be able to rise above the negative and focus on the positive. We are free to choose our thoughts—and thoughts guide our behavior. It is essential to keep uplifting messages in our head so that we are able to think more clearly, make better decisions, and approach life with a better attitude.

I don’t want to minimize the difficulties we all face in life such as illnesses, money problems, stress at work, and a hundred other things that can drag you down. But I know that a peaceful mind will give you more energy—and that will help you get through tough times.  My wife, Margie, uses a gratitude exercise to help her focus on the positive. Each evening she writes down the top three positive things that happened in her day. Sometimes it is as simple as getting a much-needed rainstorm in our time of drought, or reconnecting with an old friend. The point is that she ends her day with positive thoughts and a peaceful mind.

Try it for yourself. I encourage you to think about it from two perspectives—your personal life and your work environment. I think you’ll be surprised how this simple shift in thinking will change your outlook on life for the better.

Learning from Failure

“Success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal” is one of my favorite quotes from my friend Don Shula, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins football team and my coauthor on the book Everyone’s a Coach. This philosophy drove a great deal of Coach Shula’s behavior during his long career as the winningest head coach in NFL history.

Don had a twenty-four-hour rule. He allowed himself, his coaches, and his players a maximum of twenty-four hours after a game to wallow in that game’s outcome—to fully experience either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. But once the twenty-four-hour deadline passed, they had to put it all behind them and focus their energies on preparing for the next game.

A colleague recently shared with me how she used this technique at work to turn a big mistake into a learning moment. One of our sales teams used an Excel spreadsheet saved on a shared drive to track revenue and bookings. The database provided an easy method to run reports by type of product sold, sales by person, and other key categories. Everyone on the team was able to access the document easily any time they needed information—that is, until the day one team member accidentally deleted the entire file! When the employee shared this news with her boss, she thought she might actually be fired.

The manager had a better idea. She calmed the employee down by asking her to start brainstorming how they might recreate the data. Together they came up with a few options: ask the IT department if the file had been backed up so they could just request a copy; check to see if anyone had copied the file onto their desktop, or recreate the file from scratch. This activity helped the employee start thinking in a positive manner instead of beating herself up. The manager did one more thing: she gave the employee permission to go ahead and lament her mistake as much as she wanted to—but only for twenty-four hours. After the required time, they would meet again to discuss next steps and to talk about what they both had learned.

What a difference a day makes. At first, the manager and employee were discouraged to find out the IT department didn’t have a backup—but then they discovered the manager had saved a copy of the file to her desktop a week earlier. So the employee needed only to update a week’s worth of data and the database was back in business.

Of course, the employee learned to be extremely careful when closing a shared file. But the biggest learnings proved to be the foundation for an ongoing trusted working relationship:

The employee learned:

  • she could be honest with her manager;
  • her manager trusted her to solve problems;
  • she and her manager worked well as a team; and
  • twenty-four hours is plenty of time to feel bad about a mistake.

The manager learned:

  • the importance of keeping her cool in the face of disaster; and
  • how to empower her employee to turn a problem into a victory.

As a result, their respect for each other grew and they went on for years, sharing successes and treating every challenge as a learning moment.

Give the twenty-four-hour rule a try. Celebrate successes but don’t get a big head—and don’t get too down on yourself when you don’t succeed. Keep things in perspective and remember: success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal.

Make it a Summer of Learning

If you want to be a great leader, you must make personal growth a conscious choice and a continuous journey. In the book I wrote with Mark Miller, Great Leaders Grow, we say that growing to a leader is like oxygen to a deep sea diver: without it, you die. Not a physical death, of course—but if you stop growing, your influence will erode and, ultimately, you may lose the opportunity to lead at all.

Simply knowing how to do your job today doesn’t secure your success tomorrow. It’s important to keep up with today’s rapidly changing work environment so that you can offer new ideas to keep your organization successful in the future.  Make time to read books and articles, watch videos, and listen to podcasts or audio books. Talk with peers or work with a mentor outside your normal work circle. Sign up for an online course or a workshop at your company. Join an association or a special interest group. The learning opportunities are endless—however, the time to invest in these activities is not.

Many organizations enjoy a slower pace during the summer. Or maybe you take your vacation during the summer. Either way, why not utilize some of that time and make this your summer of learning!

My wife, Margie, loves listening to audio books. She listens to business books, books that support her photography hobby, mystery novels, and a lot more. The great thing about this is she can do it sitting on a plane, riding in a car, or taking a walk—just about any time. I encourage you to do the same. Use some of your downtime to invest in your own knowledge. Take a book or article you’ve been meaning to read on that long flight or even to the beach. Listen to a podcast while you are exercising or sitting somewhere quietly enjoying the view. Get up a little earlier than usual and watch a TED talk online.

Keep in mind that your learning doesn’t have to be focused on your work. Trying new hobbies is a learning experience and exploring new interests stimulates your thinking in general. You might think of a great idea for a home improvement project while you are practicing your golf swing. And that yoga class you’ve been promising to try for the past few months might provide the relaxation and focus you need to come up with an original recipe for dinner that uses healthy ingredients your family enjoys.

Be creative and open to life’s opportunities—because when you stop learning, you stop leading!

Hello, My Name is Ken—and I’m an Egomaniac

I want to share a method for getting your ego out of the way and clear your path to becoming a servant leader. There are two sides of the human ego that can cause trouble. One is false pride—when you think more of yourself than you should. When this occurs, you spend most of your time looking for ways to promote yourself. The other is fear—when you think less of yourself than you should. In this case, you spend time constantly trying to protect yourself.

I love to start meetings with an Egos Anonymous session. It is a simple but powerful opening activity with a format similar to one used in many 12-step programs. Individuals stand up, introduce themselves, and then share an example of how they have let their ego get in the way of being their best. For example, I would say, “Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m an egomaniac. The last time my ego got in the way was…” and then I might talk about when I took too long to apologize or when I was impatient with someone I care about.

When you make this kind of admission in front of others it is an act of vulnerability that enables people to see you as you truly are, which builds trust and improves relationships. Try it yourself. Reflect on a recent situation where you reacted badly or in a way that was inconsistent with the person you want to be. If you are like most people, you’ll realize that your ego-driven episode was a result of either false pride or fear. You may have felt a need to win at the expense of others, or to be seen as smart, or to be accepted as part of a group. Both false pride and fear are damaging and can limit your effectiveness as a leader. The first step to changing your behavior is to identify the issue. Only when you realize you are operating out of false pride or fear will you be able to change.

To keep your ego in check, I recommend that you ask yourself a couple of questions. First, ask “Am I here to serve or to be served?”  If you believe leadership is all about you—where you want to go and what you want to attain—your ego is probably causing problems in leadership situations. But if your leadership revolves around meeting the needs of the organization and the people working for it, you are acting as a servant leader.

Next, ask “What am I doing on a daily basis to recalibrate who I want to be as a leader?” This could include how you enter your day, what you read, what you study—everything that contributes positively to who you are. Consider your daily habits and their impact on your life. Take time to explore who you are, who you want to be, and what steps you can take on a daily basis to get closer to becoming your best self.

Let’s face it; at times we all have poor reactions to situations. We need to continually monitor our behaviors so that we can make improvements. Your leadership journey begins on the inside—but ultimately, it will have a tremendous impact on the people around you.

Start now: “Hello, my name is…”