Steven's Own Words

Facing the Lions: How Far Can a Leader Go to Define Culture?

Facing the Lions: How Far Can a Leader Go to Define Culture?

In a recent past post, we talked about how we typically form culture by accident rather than design. Which is important, to be sure. But it also begs the question: When it comes to culture, what do we have the right to define, as leaders?  A client of mine had a recent conflict among her team. In one group — we’ll call them Group A — they were fond of using, shall we say, colorful language. The rest of the team — Group B — was not fond of that habit. My client told me, “Well, I’ll address it of course — but it’s not like I can tell them to stop being who they are!”  “Interesting. Is that how you see it, ‘asking them to be something they’re not?” I asked. “Well, until you replied with that question I did,” they sheepishly responded. The truth is, you absolutely CAN say: “We’re developing a culture that elevates the quality of our language. We’re choosing to be, in the words of Don Miguel Ruiz in the The Four Agreements ‘impeccable with our words.’”  We absolutely can decide to be impeccable with our language, and in doing so not be asking anyone to be anything they’re not. After all, we all change our language depending on our environment. We don’t sit in church and talk to the pastor, or to our grandmothers at the holiday table, the way we do with buddies drinking at the bar (well, at least I hope not). Our language is a choice and we chose all kinds of versions of that language depending on the environment and...
If You Had The Courage To Look, What Would You See?

If You Had The Courage To Look, What Would You See?

Have you ever had one of those bosses whose actions and words are out of alignment? Where they talk about collaboration and pretend to solicit your feedback, but you know full well they have no intention of ever taking it? I have several clients facing that very reality. It’s disheartening, and causes people to feel like, “What’s the point? They’re just going to do what they want anyway, they don’t really care what I think.”  And maybe they’re right — but that’s not what I came to talk with you about today. Embedded in that scenario is a deeper problem, wrapped in a solution, and rooted in this common reality: the qualities we dislike in others are generally the ones we possess ourselves. The Deeper Problem: A manager came to me with the above frustration. When talking later about the challenges of his staff, however, he painted the exact same scenario with one minor/significant difference: He was the one not taking in the wisdom of his staff. But! And this is a big and important but: his behavior wasn’t exactly the same, and anyway, he had very good reasons for doing so. When I asked if his leader had good reasons for doing so, he paused — a long pause — then said, and I quote: “Huh.” The qualities we dislike in others we most often possess ourselves. That’s why they’re so easy to identify! I know it’s not always exactly the same duplication, but let’s face it, there is usually a pretty strong resemblance. What we’ve seen modeled, we tend to model. So often it’s easy to send judgement upwards and get frustrated with those who are leading us, while...
A Useful Strategy for Every New Leader

A Useful Strategy for Every New Leader

If you’re a new leader, joining a new team — or you think you might be doing that some day — have you thought about your entrance strategy?  Every new boss, manager, CEO, and everything in between, has an entrance strategy — even if they’re not consciously aware of it. That strategy is how they make the transition from outsider to teammate; how they go from ‘one of them’ to ‘one of us’ — or, at least, how they try. Some people come in guns blazing, new smokin’ ideas to stir the pot and ruffle some feathers. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, largely depending on the personalities and needs on your new team. Some people come in quiet as a whisper, hoping to keep everything smooth and even keel; in their ideal world, the new team wouldn’t even notice a transition of leadership had ever happened! They want to keep things going as always. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, largely depending on the personalities and needs on your new team. Some people come in wanting to be everybody’s best friend. Work, schmerk! If you can hang and laugh together, everything will be fine! Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, largely depending on the personalities and needs on your new team. Do you notice a pattern emerging?  No matter how you make the transition — whether you strategize or fly by the seat of your pants — your success will largely depend on the personalities and needs on your new team. So why don’t you just…ask them? Ask them what they want and need in this new transition. In fact, this is the perfect time to utilize...
We Have Strategies for Everything Except This

We Have Strategies for Everything Except This

Have you ever noticed that in business, we have strategies for everything — everything, that is, except people? Think about it. Most leaders will sit down and thoughtfully design all kinds of strategies with their team: goals, growth, skillset, compensation plans…everything EXCEPT the team dynamic. Because that’s a tough conversation to have. How do we get along? What kind of culture/team do we want? How do we want to handle conflict? What language do we use? How do we want to feel about each other? All that touchy-feely stuff is something teams often avoid. But outside of the business world, it’s exactly those types of conversations that make great relationships. It’s only with our healthiest, most successful relationships that we talk about what we need, or how we communicate. We debrief after an argument with our significant other: When you said this, I felt this. We tell our friends we’d rather they didn’t say this or that. But we don’t do that in a business setting. Instead, we tend to interpret what we experienced and think we know what it meant. If someone said XX, he meant YY. We’re sure! We don’t take into account that in that circumstance the behavior might have been and outlier. It might not be who they really who they are. Businesses need to talk about people, because businesses are made up of people. Get a strategy for your team dynamic, and all those other strategies? They’ll thrive all the more.  Photo by Natalie...
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Last week a client said something fascinating: He said he didn’t really know his people. Prior to our work together, that is. A little context: He was the manager of a team he invited me to be a part of to help facilitate communication and improve functionality. Now that the work is successfully completed, he admitted to me in the debrief that, he came into the work believing he knew his team inside and out. He thought that he knew who would say what, and that our work was really just a forum for them to say it — to vent. He thought he knew pretty much everything they were going to say. It turned out, he told me, that he was very wrong. He was surprised to find that he didn’t know his people as well as he thought — and said, “that was a fantastic discovery!” Such a discovery opens you up for a wealth of new connections and interactions, because once you realize that you don’t know your people as well as you thought, then you can start to see them with genuine curiosity. We often operate from this premise that we know people. We think, “I’m a ‘people person.’ I read people really well.” We might even have evidence to support that. But in long term, I can pretty much guarantee — we’re not as good as we think we are. Which is why we need to ask more questions and come at all relationships — especially with those we’re leading — with a spirit of insatiable curiosity. Only then will you really be able to see them, understand them, and lead them to...
You Can’t Choose Success

You Can’t Choose Success

I heard John Mayer in an interview once make a brilliant statement: “The problem with success,” he said, “is that success justifies every stupid decision we’ve ever made.”The irony of some success is it doesn’t always come as a result of good choices. It’s like that old saying that good judgement comes from experience, but most experience comes from bad judgement. We want to believe that success is a by-product of doing everything right. It’s just not. Some success is the result of careful work and focused discipline. Some success comes as a fluke out of nowhere. Some success comes from the benevolence of others. And some success comes unjustly — to us, when it should have gone to someone else. Some failure comes as a result of our mistakes. Some failure comes as a fluke, out of nowhere. Some failure comes from the mistakes of others. And some comes to us unjustly. So since it’s clear that our success or failure is not necessarily the result of our choices, should we just give up? Grow cynical? Stop trying? Of course not. Because even though our choices might not affect our success in the way that we want, they always, without fail, 100% of the time, affect something else: Our person. Our Being. Who we are becoming, how we are showing up. Who we are is a result of our choices. Success or failure is connected, but only tangentially. And who you are decides how you’ll face that success or that failure — and in the end, that’s really the only thing that...
Leadership: A Skill or an Art?

Leadership: A Skill or an Art?

A lot of people seem to operate under the assumption that Leadership is an Art — that it’s an intuitive action and should therefore come naturally. That great leaders are ‘born’ with the skill to lead, just lying dormant within them until they come across a team. It’s an interesting take, considering how much discipline art itself actually requires. Ask any professional artist, in fact, and they’ll likely tell you that natural talent is only a small piece of the pie — discipline and perseverance have a much bigger effect on your artistic success in the long run. In any medium, art is a skill you must study and learn. Sure, some people are born with more natural talent than others — but talent can only get you so far, and it certainly isn’t the be-all, end-all. So the idea that art has to come naturally is as off-base for the writer, painter or musician as it is for leadership. A true leader needs training, needs to learn, needs to grow. It’s not going to just come magically. What’s more, we need to practice in the real world; we need to get it wrong, and make it better. The more you lead, and do your best to lead well, the better a leader you’ll become. It can be learned. Yes, some people are born already good at it, sure, but for most of us it’s a constant need to keep ourselves in check. And that’s a good thing — we should always want to improve, and it’s important to know that we can. Leadership is as much skill as it is intuition. Are you...
Following the Thread of Leadership

Following the Thread of Leadership

Can your team see the thread of your leadership at work? At a human level, people want to see, need to see, the connection between decisions being made and the reasons for those decisions.  Without that, they can feel like automatons simply complying with instructions — like their opinions and contribution don’t matter, without any real personal investment or self worth in the work. You see, people want to know their contribution matters and has influence, and ultimately they want to be able to draw a connection between their contributions and your decisions; a connection between your why and their personal why for why they work with you and do this kind of work. Even if they do everything they’re “supposed to,” it won’t be their best work if they are just going through the motions, with no connections to the personal. When they can see and understand the whys behind your leadership — and how it aligns with their expertise, values and/or dreams — that’s when they give 110%.  When people can’t see connection, they don’t get the value or the point. But when they do see it, not only do they get the value, they will give added value as well! Here’s a simple example.  Let’s say you ask your team to complete a survey — to learn what’s working and what’s not. That’s a common and reasonable request. But what happens next is what really matters.  For far too many organizations, what happens next is — nothin’!  Make sure you show and discuss with them how you are incorporating their input. If they give a survey and never see any changes, even if you did...
One Simple Step To Turn Your Office Culture Around

One Simple Step To Turn Your Office Culture Around

I once worked with a team that was — and there’s no gentle way to put this — highly dysfunctional. Most of the team was unhappy and in conflict with the manager, who couldn’t really see the problem. When I asked the manager about the problems the team had listed, he simply said, “Those problems don’t exist.” I asked him to elaborate, and he gave his side of the story. “It’s a startup,” he explained. “We’re building the ship as we sail it, so yeah, everyone’s busting their ass; it’s stressful, I know, everyone wants it to be more fun, but they signed up for this knowing it was an entrepreneurial adventure. All they really want is for it to be more fun!” Having heard both sides of the story, I was shocked. “It’s all about the fun?” I thought to myself. “Are you sure about that?” I asked. “Is that really the issue? Is it that simple?” He shrugged. “Sure! I mean, I guess. I mean, think so. Maybe.” It is amazing to me how often we operate on an assumption that makes perfect sense in our head, that the evidence from our perspective and bias totally supports — only to find out later we were off the mark, solving the wrong problem, judging people for truths that aren’t theirs. And we rarely think to verify. So I challenged the manger to make sure, to verify — to ask specific questions, to understand what his team really needed to thrive, what they really wanted. Specific questions like: “Help me understand your perception of our culture. How do you see this team?” “What’s the biggest obstacle to our success?” “How do you...
What Do You See?

What Do You See?

Paradox: a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true. – (Dictionary v2.3.0) We have trouble with paradoxes, don’t we? Is seems to me that so many people much prefer contradictions: opposing positions that allow them to be right and the other person to be wrong. A paradox, however, is when two opposing thoughts are somehow both true; it’s a positive thing, a yes-and, a both-are-right situation. A contradiction is when two opposing thoughts are just in opposition to each other, and one of them has to be wrong. Despite the fact that most people tell me they hate conflict, we tend to prefer contradictions; we can understand contradictions. Two opposing thoughts being true is a lot more difficult to hold — how can we both be right?  Who wins in that situation? It feels like unresolved tension. When two people disagree deeply, it’s easy to treat it as a contradiction — one of them has to be right. But the invitation of leadership is to step into the paradox — what if they’re both right? How would that affect how they treat each other? How would that affect how they discuss this issue? How would it affect how you lead them — what can you build on when you look for the truths rather than the inaccuracies, when the problem isn’t about finding out who’s right, but it’s learning how to hold an uncomfortable tension together long enough to understand the paradox? Just like with the image above: Some people see an old woman. Some people see a young woman. They’re both right, aren’t they? But you have to work to see...

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