Every Ending Is a Brand-New Beginning

As 2019 comes to a close, I’m taking some time to reflect on the significant events of the past year and to anticipate the exciting things yet to come.

This is a long-standing tradition of mine and perhaps of yours, too. At the end of each year, Margie and I write a letter to all our friends, wishing them a happy holiday and catching them up on what’s been going on in our lives over the past 12 months. We’ve been doing this since shortly after we got married in 1962, the year Margie graduated from Cornell. That’s more than 57 years!

Together, all of these letters tell the story of our lives over the past half-century. What’s amazing is that by looking back, we can see how problems that once seemed insurmountable were the necessary conditions for wonderful new developments. A few choice examples spring to mind:

1967

This was the year I earned my PhD in education from Cornell. I had anticipated finding a position as a dean of students. Even though I had great interviews with several universities, none of them hired me. This was a blow to my ego and sure looked like an unhappy ending. But I ended up taking a position as the assistant to the dean at Ohio University, which was an important new beginning. At Ohio University I met Paul Hersey. Paul liked my writing and asked me to coauthor a book with him. That led to our development of Situational Leadership® and my career as an author and leadership expert.

 

2007

Fast-forward 40 years to the year a raging wildfire burned our house to the ground. What had every appearance of being a tragic ending was in fact an inspiring new beginning. Margie and I moved up the street into an even better house, this one with a view of the hills to the west. Now we never get tired of watching breathtaking sunsets from our back patio.

 

2019

This year one of our company’s superstars, Howard Farfel, is ending his 18-year career with Blanchard, seven of those years as president. I have real mixed feelings about Howard stepping down. I don’t know a nicer human being or finer gentleman than Howard. He’s had a powerfully positive impact on our company, and his smile and sense of humor will be sorely missed. But this ending marks a thrilling new beginning: My son, Scott Blanchard, will be taking leadership as Blanchard’s new president. As anyone who’s heard Scott speak knows, his love and passion for our company and the work we do is second to nobody’s.

I’m excited about 2020 and I hope you are, too. Before the new year, take a few moments to reflect on the things you’re leaving behind in 2019. Even if some of those things make you sad, remember that what looks like a finality isn’t really the end—it’s the beginning of something brand new.

 

Make a Difference by Giving to Others this Holiday Season

I often talk about how important it is to reach out to others in love and service on a regular basis. But during the holidays, we need to be especially focused on giving, serving, and caring for people. I want to offer up a few ideas on how simple it can be to make a real difference in someone’s life this holiday season.

At our company’s headquarters, our “Giving Tree” is set up in the main lobby. We choose a couple of families in our local community each year who could really use a lift over the holidays. On the tree are gift tags for the family members—kids, teens, and adults—with requests for specific things they need or would like: slippers, a sweater or jacket, a certain toy or book, etc. Lots of our associates take one or two tags off the tree and return with gifts to be distributed to these folks who otherwise may not have expected much in the way of gifts this year.

Making a difference doesn’t have to involve money, though. Think of ways you can offer your time or talent. Bake cookies for people in a group home or halfway house. Get a group together to sing holiday songs at a retirement center. Spend a few hours serving meals at a shelter or working at a food bank—places that are extra busy this time of year.

Writing a personal note to someone you care about is another no-cost way to make a difference in someone’s life—especially if it’s someone on your list who “has everything.” A heartfelt note written to a parent, a sibling, or a long-distance relative or friend may be the most important gift they receive this year.

My good friend Colleen Barrett, former president of Southwest Airlines and my coauthor on Lead with LUV, is remarkable in many ways—and something she is known for are her thoughtful, handwritten notes. When Colleen was at Southwest, she sent out more than 1000 handwritten notes every year to staff and managers. She had spies everywhere! Colleen wrote notes for every reason—to celebrate work anniversaries, weddings, new babies, graduations—to sympathize when someone had been in an accident or lost a loved one—or to praise a worker who had gone above and beyond for a customer. Even though she is retired, Colleen’s handwritten notes of kindness to others continue to flow.

Remember: real joy happens when you get in the act of forgetfulness about yourself. Giving is not about you. Don’t give a gift because of how good someone was this year, or what they did to help you. Just give because they deserve it. And don’t serve because you expect something in return. Do it because you care, and because it’s the right thing to do. Your reward is simply joy—the joy that comes from giving.

So this holiday season, find a way to make a difference in somebody else’s life. Reach out to a family member. Reach out to a friend. Reach out to a neighbor. Reach out to a stranger. Because that’s what it’s all about. And when you do it, you’ll get into the moment. You’ll feel the joy. And you’ll realize that life really is a special occasion.

Three Best Practices to Help People Learn

One of the hallmarks of great organizations is their commitment to constantly retraining and educating people so they have cutting-edge knowledge in their work.

But how do you assure that your investment in learning pays off and produces measurable results? You can’t just send people to a seminar or give them an online course and hope for the best. Our research at Blanchard reveals three best practices that turbocharge learning.

 

Best Practice #1 – Use Spaced Repetition to Make Learning Stick

Spaced repetition is a learning technique where you don’t learn something in just one sitting. You’re exposed to the information periodically over time, so that the learning sinks in.

My friend John Haggai calls spaced repetition “the mother of all skills” because it’s so effective. Advertisers use this technique all the time; they call these repetitions “impressions.”

To be learned, information almost always requires repetition over time. But why? It’s sort of like putting something away in your garage—it’s not very useful unless you’re able to retrieve it! After your brain stores information into memory, you need to revisit that information a few times, so that you can recall it when you need it. This is how short-term memory becomes long-term memory.

To make your learning stick, take notes and review them within the first 24 hours of taking them. Be sure to think about what you’re reviewing. Don’t just re-read your notes; try to recall the main points without looking at them. Then—within a week—teach what you learned to someone else. This will force you to recall what you’ve learned.

 

Best Practice #2: Tap Learning Power with Cohort Groups

Learning flourishes in a social environment where conversation between learners can take place. Several studies examining group learning have shown that people learning in a collaborative environment acquire more knowledge, retain that knowledge longer, and have better problem-solving and reasoning abilities than people working alone.

At Blanchard, we’ve seen hundreds of instances of the power of group learning in our Master’s in Executive Leadership (MSEL) program at the University of San Diego. Every year our students are amazed by how effectively their cohort groups help them learn to become great leaders through role-playing, assessments, presentations, and collaborative projects.

By learning in groups, people develop teamwork, communication, and decision-making skills faster and more effectively than they would learning alone. The social aspect of group study helps people keep their commitment to learning. Accountability to the group keeps procrastinators on track. People learn faster by drawing on one another’s knowledge of the subject.

Group interaction is a key strategy for learning that works. As I always like to say, “No one of us is as smart as all of us.”

 

Best Practice #3: Design Learning Journeys to Drive Results

The best learning experience isn’t a one-time thing—or even a one-methodology thing. Our research shows that optimal learning is more of a process than an event. Such processes are called learning journeys.

We define a learning journey as “a training and development experience that unfolds over time.” These learning journeys can be customized to the needs of a business, department, or person.

For example, a person might begin their learning journey in a classroom or with a webinar. Their next step might be to engage with a discussion group. Next, the learner might go back to their workplace, apply the new concepts, and see how they work. The journey might continue with a return to the group, where the learner would share their real-world findings. From there, they could continue with follow-up classroom or e-learning, then take their new knowledge and skills back to the workplace for more real-world application.

By blending theory with real world experience, learning journeys are highly effective in driving sustainable business results.

 

An Organization That Learns, Thrives

In the long run, only smart organizations survive. Leaders in high performing organizations understand that knowledge exists in knowledgeable people; they know that unless its employees continue to learn, even the smartest organization will not say smart.

So, be smart and apply these learning practices. I guarantee you’ll be making a wise investment in your organization’s knowledge capital.

We’re All in the Customer Service Business

Even in our competitive business environment, organizations that pride themselves on great customer service continue to be few and far between. To test that thesis, answer this: How often do you receive exceptional service—the kind where you can tell that the person serving you actually cares about keeping you as a customer?

I rest my case.

Now just for fun, let’s see what happens when I turn it around: When was the last time you gave one of your customers that same kind of exceptional service? If you work in the retail, foodservice, or hospitality industry, or as an online customer service representative or another frontline position, you may deal with hundreds of customers a day. How do you think they would rate your service?

Perhaps you don’t think of yourself as having customers because you aren’t in a customer-facing job—you’re a middle manager, you work on a manufacturing line, or maybe you spend your day looking at spreadsheets in a cubicle. Think about the internal customers you interact with. And parents, teachers, and coaches have customers, too.

In reality, we’re all in the customer service business—and every customer deserves special care. No matter what position you hold, or who your customer is, you can make a positive difference in that person’s life. And doing that may be simpler than you think. Read on!

One of my favorite real-life customer service stories begins with my friend Barbara Glanz giving a speech to hundreds of employees of a major grocery chain. At the end of her speech, Barbara challenged every attendee to think about something small but special they could do on the job—starting the next day—to make their customers feel important.

About a month later, Barbara got a call from a young man named Johnny who had been at her speaking event. As he introduced himself, he mentioned he was 19 years old, worked as a grocery bagger, and had Down syndrome. Johnny told Barbara that after seeing her speak, he went home and talked with his dad about what special thing he might do for his customers. They decided to focus on the fact that Johnny loved to read and collect quotations.

That night, Johnny chose one of his favorite sayings, typed it as many times as it would fit on a single page, and printed 50 copies. He cut the printed lines into strips and signed his name on the back of each one. The next day as Johnny finished bagging each customer’s groceries, he dropped a strip of paper in their bag and said, “I’m putting my favorite saying of the day in your bag. Have a great day!”

After a few weeks had gone by, Barbara was surprised to get a call from Johnny’s store manager. He wanted to let her know that Johnny’s small gesture had changed the store’s whole atmosphere. A few days earlier, the manager had noticed a huge line of customers at Johnny’s station but only a few at the other checkout counters. He tried to get people to change lines, but he kept hearing “I want to be in Johnny’s line so I can get his quote of the day.” One woman shopper even told the manager, “I used to shop here once a week, but now I stop by every day to get one of Johnny’s favorite sayings.” Johnny’s little gesture made a big difference to his customers, his manager, and his store.

To help spread Johnny’s message to more people, Barbara and I wrote a little book called The Simple Truths of Service: Inspired by Johnny the Bagger. It’s filled with true stories about simple acts of service that made a difference and helped build customer loyalty.

Just like Johnny, we all have the ability to make a difference in the lives of our internal and external customers. Remember that the best competitive edge in business isn’t product or price. It’s the way we make our customers feel.

You are in the customer service business. What simple thing can you do today to make your customers feel special?

When the Thrill Is Gone: Dealing with Decommitted People

One of the biggest challenges managers face is how to respond when they notice a direct report has decreased motivation or confidence to do a job. We call this decommitment.

For the most part, leaders avoid dealing with decommitment, largely because it is such an emotionally charged issue and they don’t know how. When they do address it, they often make matters worse: They turn the not-engaged into the actively disengaged! It doesn’t occur to many leaders that something they or their organization is doing or failing to do may be the cause of the eroded commitment. Yet evidence suggests that’s often the case.

Lack of feedback, lack of recognition, lack of clear performance expectations, unfair standards, broken promises, being yelled at or blamed, and being overworked and stressed out are just a few reasons people lose their motivation and commitment.

So how do you, an enlightened leader, deal with a decommitted direct report without making matters worse? The most effective way is to catch decommitment early—the first time you see it—before it gets out of control and festers. Then take the following steps to get back on track.

Step 1: Prepare Before You Meet

Before meeting with your direct report, clarify the specific performance or behavior that you want to discuss. Do not attempt to address multiple issues at once. Gather all the facts that support the existence of the decommitment. If it’s a performance issue, quantify the decline in performance. If it’s a behavior issue, limit your observations to what you have seen. Don’t make assumptions or bring in the perceptions of others—these are sure ways to generate defensiveness.

Now identify anything you or the organization might have done to contribute to the decommitment. Have you ever talked to the person about their performance or behavior? Have you made performance expectations clear? Does the person know what a good job looks like? Have you been using the right leadership style? Is the person being rewarded for inappropriate performance or behavior? (Poor behavior in organizations is often rewarded—that is, nobody says anything.) Is the person being punished for good performance or behavior? (People often are punished for good behavior—that is, they do well and someone else gets the credit.) Do policies support the desired performance? For example, is training or time made available to learn needed skills?

Once you have done a thorough job of preparing, you’re ready for Step 2.

Step 2: Schedule a Meeting, State the Meeting’s Purpose, and Set Ground Rules

Scheduling a meeting is vital. It’s important to begin the meeting by stating the meeting’s purpose and setting ground rules to ensure that both of you will be heard in a way that doesn’t arouse defensiveness. For example, you might open the meeting with something like this:

“I want to talk about what I see as a serious issue with your responsiveness to information inquiries. I’d like to set some ground rules about how our discussion proceeds, so that we can both fully share our perspectives. By working together to identify and agree on the issue and its causes, we can set a goal and develop an action plan to resolve it.

“First, I’d like to share my perceptions of the issue—what I’m noticing and what I think may have caused it. I want you to listen but not to respond to what I say, except to ask questions for clarification. Then I want you to restate what I said, so that I know you understand my perspective. When I’m finished, I’d like to hear your side of the story, with the same ground rules. I’ll restate what you said until you know I understand your point of view. Does this seem like a reasonable way to get started?”

Using these ground rules, you should begin to understand each other’s point of view on the issue. Making sure that both of you have been heard is a wonderful way to reduce defensiveness and move toward resolution.

Once you have set ground rules for your meeting, you are ready for Step 3.

Step 3: Work Toward Mutual Agreement and Commit to a Plan

The next step is to identify where there is agreement and disagreement on both the issue and its causes. Your job is to see if enough of a mutual understanding can be reached so that mutual problem solving can go forward. Both of you probably won’t agree on everything—but see if there is enough common ground to work toward a resolution. If not, revisit those things that are getting in the way, and restate your positions to see if understanding and agreement can be reached.

When you think it is possible to go forward, ask, “Are you willing to work with me to get this resolved?”

If you still can’t get a commitment to go forward, you need to use a directing leadership style. Set clear performance expectations and a time frame for achieving them; set clear, specific performance standards and a schedule for tracking performance progress; and state consequences for nonperformance. Understand that this is a last-resort strategy that may resolve the performance issue but not the commitment issue.

When you get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, it is normal to feel great relief and assume that the issue is resolved. Not so fast.

If you have contributed to the cause of the problem, you need to take steps to correct what has been done. But you may not be in a position to patch things up if it was the organization that created the problem. In this case, a simple acknowledgment of how your direct report has been impacted may be enough to release the negative energy and regain the person’s commitment.

Once you finally get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, you can go to Step 4 and partner for performance.

Step 4: Partner for Performance

Now you and the direct report need to have a partnering for performance discussion in which you jointly decide the leadership style you will use to provide work direction or coaching. You should set a goal, establish an action plan, and schedule a progress-check meeting. This last step is crucial!

Resolving decommitment issues requires sophisticated interpersonal and performance management skills. Your first try at one of these conversations is not likely to be as productive as you would like. However, if you conduct the conversation in honest good faith, it will reduce the impact of less-than-perfect interpersonal skills and set the foundation for a productive relationship built on commitment and trust.