Four Ways Leaders Misstep With Their Wardrobe

It’s a tender topic and one I approach with care. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not referring to clothes that aren’t in good condition, unattractive or meant for the beach. When it comes to dressing as a leader, missteps can be far more nuanced than that.

Our perception of leaders is often influenced by how they dress. Our work attire telegraphs so much about who we are and how we lead. But it can also inhibit career progress.

In my work as an executive coach, I often conduct 360 interviews with a client’s peers, direct reports and senior leader. Sometimes they say that my client’s clothing needs a rethink. Interestingly, some even express frustration borne out of a perception that a leader ought to know better. Here are four wardrobe missteps, illustrated through real-life examples.

  1. You might not have allowed your wardrobe to grow with you.

I worked with a banker in wealth planning who was a strong leader but created confusion because her clothing did not align with her level of seniority. Her wardrobe consisted of traditional business attire, specifically multiple navy pantsuits. Many of her peers felt she portrayed the look of someone who had just graduated, not an experienced executive. Her wardrobe needed more variety and modernizing to become contemporary.

Initially, she responded to the feedback by asking questions to gain clarity and then shrugged it off, relaying why it wasn’t important to her. Then, she disclosed that she had created a self-imposed moratorium on shopping for clothes until she knocked off a few added pounds. That sounded reasonable enough.

This story has a surprising ending. After she had time to digest the feedback, she told me that the feedback had been transformative. It changed how she saw herself. It wasn’t just that she freshened her wardrobe but she also recognized that she was due to make bigger changes in her life, including at work.

  1. You may not be dressing with your audience in mind. 

Dress codes vary by industry, but standards can be different even within departments of the same company. I was asked to work with a high potential insurance executive principally because his career ambitions were stalled. He was recognized by senior leaders for his talent for innovation, but we learned from interviews that his casual attitude and clothing were a hot button: He was seen as a rule breaker in a very conservative insurance culture.

To be fair, he worked in operations where the dress code was casual. He didn’t interact directly with clients, and interactions with other stakeholders were limited to the phone. In those instances, his casual dress was appropriate. But he also regularly traveled downtown to headquarters for senior leadership team meetings. Showing up regularly without a blazer made his superiors hesitant to promote him because it would mean greater visibility and more face-to-face interaction with stakeholders.

He surprised me when we met for our next coaching session. He showed me the three new blazers that he kept behind his office door for when he needed them. People around him didn’t expect that he would be willing to flex in this way, and his new wardrobe choices sent an important message about his adaptability to the right people.

  1. You stand out, but maybe not in the way you hoped.

Many of us like to express our personality through what we wear, but sometimes in the interest of standing out, we can go too far and alienate people we work with. I coached a marketing whiz in a large telecom company who dressed untraditionally in colored suspenders, fashion-forward shoes and edgy haircuts. The common view held by those he worked with was that it was pretentious and too quirky for their culture.

When he and I talked it through, he recognized that he was dressing for where he wanted to be and not where he was. He had fostered the sort of look common in an advertising agency, not a telecom company. He impressed everyone by switching up his wardrobe and finding a balance between fun, serious and eclectic. He could see the difference it made to be perceived as approachable.

  1. You haven’t yet optimized your wardrobe to save time and space. 

Naturally, our desire to change the way we dress doesn’t always originate from other people’s constructive feedback. Sometimes we initiate a change because of our own needs.

That is the case with my current client, a strategic planning executive for an international company. With her promotion to vice president, her travel commitments accelerated and she found that she was spending too much precious time coordinating travel outfits for different weather, seasons and cultures. It was getting in the way of her feeling productive and it was frustrating. On more than one trip, she brought too much clothing with her and it created an inconvenience. That’s when she decided to engage an image consultant to help her create capsule wardrobes. Comprised of a select number of clothing items that can be used in a variety of ways, this streamlined approach makes it easier to identify pieces that work together, and thereby reduced her closet, saved her time and minimized her luggage.

It’s important to be mindful about your clothing at work and consider your needs and the expectations of the workplace you are in. My hope is that by being aware of these missteps, you’ll be able to adapt and lead, confident in what you wear.

This article first appeared on Forbes.com here. Photo credit: Cleo Vermij.

 

Good Habits: What’s Lacking In Leadership Development

There’s something wrong with how we develop leaders. Learning what we need to do to step up our leadership, whether it’s because of a recent promotion or leading a disrupted marketplace, is helpful. But we don’t always do what we are convinced we should. Old habits get in the way.

Knowing what to do isn’t the same as doing it. Enjoying beautiful photos of food in a cookbook when you’re hungry is not the same as making those meals and satisfying your appetite. You’ve read the recipes but your stomach is still growling. What we want to do and know to do doesn’t always translate to action.

When it comes to forming new habits, we aim to behave in ways that will stick. Making behaviours automatic is what a habit is.

Employers have taken us partway there. Companies have worked for decades betting on the leadership competencies and behaviours that will lead a business to future success. They evaluate their leaders’ performance against these same behaviours. But it often stops there because, although people know what’s expected of them, what’s still elusive is how to continuously make the change.

As humans, we are naturally inconsistent and persistently habitual. You may have weekly Monday morning meetings with the team or run a meeting in a routine way. This can be useful if it’s valuable, but it can also be maddening to be consistent when you want to form a new habit.

I’ve spent years learning how to form habits with deliberation, and I’m learning to see myself as I am. I’ve noted where I went off the tracks and where I’ve thrived, revising what I know about myself as I go. That’s how you can determine your profile as a deliberate habit creator.

A few important things you’ll need to learn about yourself to master the game of habit building include how you motivate yourself, your strategies to succeed, your strategies for self-sabotage and the strengths and limits of your own willpower.

The Confusion About Habits

Like others, I first read about habits in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Successful People. First published in 1989, it was a bestseller and still has a hold on people’s imaginations. Covey’s habits were habits of the mind, such as being proactive and seeking to understand and be understood.

Today, we live in an age where research in brain science and neurology and a strong interest in healthy lifestyles have captured our attention, and it’s advanced our understanding of the mechanics of habit creation. Furthermore, knowledge about the self-limiting behaviours that hold leaders back from their full effectiveness makes turning our attention to changing our habits very appealing.

Although we are told in books and movies how successful people got to where they are so we can do the same, copying their formula doesn’t work. One size doesn’t fit all. We aren’t motivated in the same ways, nor do we all enjoy the same rewards. So, here are a few vital keys to make you the potter of your own clay:

1. Focus on smart design, not just willpower.

Habits that sync up with your goals don’t get formed without a deliberate strategy. I guarantee that leaning into your willpower as your single strategy won’t get you there. When starting out, we aren’t as clear about our drivers or even when we can lean into our willpower, so it’s key to be patient with yourself as you learn what works for you. Be sure to write down any information or insights about yourself, as you will be building your own habit profile.

2. Shape your environment by creating cues. 

A cue is the start of the design. It sparks the sequence of actions you will follow. So many people know they need to expand their internal networks but don’t “find the time” to do it. Counting on your memory as a reminder doesn’t help. You need reliable cues.

At 12:30 p.m. each day, a leader I coach grabs her lunch in the company cafeteria where she starts a minimum of one conversation with someone she doesn’t know. This is a big win, especially because she dropped her long-standing habit of eating a quick lunch at her desk.

3. Get it out of your head and into the world.

Too many executives I’ve known start habit building with an intention they keep locked up in their head. It may work for a day or even a week, but then it disappears. The secret is to get it out into the world.

For example, a hospital foundation CEO wanted to resist getting distracted from her daily priorities. So, she began creating a daily list first thing every morning and sharing it with her executive assistant. She sorts the urgent from the important and refers to prepared questions she habitually goes to when she’s considering deviating from the list.

4. Determine whether you need to make it social. 

Are you someone who will forge a new habit on your own, or would you prefer it to be social? When an accounting firm partner I know wasn’t taking care of her health, she pledged that she would walk the stairs at work. And then she didn’t.

Although she saw herself as autonomous, she didn’t expect that making this activity a social one with a buddy was necessary. If you’re in a similar boat, consider finding a habit buddy who is equally committed to their goal.

When we change our habits, we take ownership of our behaviours in visible ways. Learning to turn leadership behaviours into habits is what’s missing in leadership development.

A version of this article was published by Forbes here. Thank you for the image You X Ventures.

What To Do When You’re Overworked

“No one takes their foot off the pedal when they’re in the game.” 

Be forewarned, this idiom tells us, you need to go full tilt without letting up if you’re going to be successful, meet the deadline, or delight the client. As the belief goes, maybe those people who slow down “just don’t think like champions.”

That’s what a new client of mine said was the reason why he was exhausted at work. It resonated with me because my own work ethic used to be driven in this way. When I used to work intensively for years, I didn’t see the point of pausing or celebrating my milestones. It just slowed me down. When people around me insisted I take better care of myself or leave time for other interests beyond work, I felt they were distracting me from getting things done. My resistance seems nonsensical to me now, all this time later, but for many, this is still their reality.

For so many leaders, keeping your foot on the accelerator is an admonition not to slow down no matter what. Although giving up may not be a great idea, the belief in going without stopping can be dangerous. I’m not referring to the few who end up fully burned out and hospitalized, but there’s an agreement in the workplace that ceaseless change and churn will never stop, and we all know that it’s unsustainable. Just yesterday an executive told me that although it was crazy at work, he was going to take some time off to re-energize because “it never stops.” The charged-up velocity of change has many more people lamenting and asking themselves how much longer they can go on this way. The “slow season” is no longer. There’s only one season — it’s full-on.

Leaders often say that they don’t want to pull back because they want to model productivity. Ask yourself what you are really doing when you stay at work yet again dragging yourself from meeting to meeting with your head down, shoulders rounded, and maybe even shutting yourself away to “get work done” in your office. It’s easy for others to see when someone is working late most of the time and is tired and frustrated. Your emotional skills as a leader are what we know now as a social contagion. This means that if you are grouchy, showing stress and frustration, you’ll soon see it spread and reflected in the culture.

You don’t need an executive coach to tell you that this is real. You or someone you know probably lives this. The question on leaders’ minds is what to do about it. There are many good strategies to consider. Consider these three.

  1. If you’re feeling that you are doing too much, you most likely are. Capture your activities in an audit of your own making, documenting how and with whom you’re spending your time. I’ve observed many leaders discover that they have been over-involved with their team, for example. There’s an opportunity to pull back and nudge your rock stars forward without your full involvement. Too often, CEOs who are new to the role or leaders who have assembled a brand new team have let close stewarding go on for too long. Think about efficiencies for you while nurturing those around you. Where else can you elevate yourself to fly at the right altitude doing high-value work while providing new opportunities for others?
  2. How do you start your day? Do you set yourself up to be hooked by urgent matters? If you’re searching for business problems and urgent matters, as many do, you are looking to be helpful, but ask yourself if your work is really moving forward. Instead, begin with your strategy and then reverse engineer it so that your daily to-do list sets you up to achieve strategic objectives.

A client of mine was a fastidious list maker and then gave it up, priding herself that she could store her to-do’s in her head. It was one thing she started doing before she became a CEO for the first time. Then when she took a job as CEO, she continued to keep much in her head until she realized that she was prioritizing fighting other people’s fires. Without a written list she committed to of what she wanted to accomplish each week and day, she was easily taken off track.

She’s back at list-making now, and it didn’t take much effort to restart the daily habit. They say that our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction. It can be much easier than people imagine. Consider the productivity hacks that have worked for you and assess if it’s time to bring them back. Winging it just means you are receptive to whatever comes up. There’s not much strategic thinking in that.

  1. It’s necessary to give yourself a break, no matter how strong you enjoy your black coffee or how long you claim you can keep going on with little sleep. What often holds leaders back is their belief that they’re indispensable. Don’t believe your own good press. You wouldn’t tell your own team to postpone their vacations indefinitely, would you? Or encourage them to avoid organized social activities at work because it’s busy? Start planning so that you can absent yourself from a meeting or take the two-week vacation you are owed.

Perversely, if you don’t let up, you’re likely underperforming and dragging your people with you.

This article was first published here on Forbes.com. Photo credit: Matthew Henry.

Leadership: Why Execution Alone Isn’t Enough

“Being social at work is a waste of time.” When I heard these words from a leader regarding their approach to working with people in the workplace, I instantly recognized it to be a commonly held view, notwithstanding that it’s rarely said with the same degree of bald clarity.

It’s the belief of those who are driven to deliver yet haven’t yet updated their approach from when they were a single contributor. That’s a problem for them and their organizations. Without strong, trusting relationships, success is only temporary and limited to when things are going well. Watch out for when situations become problematic.

I attended the opening of a major exhibition of Brian Jungen’s art, the ingenious visual artist known for eviscerating Nike sneakers to create colourful indigenous masks. When the museum’s CEO took the microphone, he shared that the exhibit was only possible because of the lengthy relationship between the curator and the artist. Museums trade on relationships just as much as they do knowledge and taste. The artist and museum’s interests may be mutually beneficial, but it might surprise you to learn that without longstanding trusting relationships, many exhibits wouldn’t have happened.

Just as in the art world, relationships in any workplace are the grease that makes the wheels turn. It’s the social linkages — not just hard work and a dogged determination — that make it all possible, even in situations of mutual benefit.

So why do so many get stuck making it all about “getting it done” with their heads down and their proverbial sleeves rolled up?

To answer that, you’d need to look at who gets promoted inside of workplaces. I’ve worked with leaders whose careers rose swiftly, principally because of their ability to execute brilliantly. It’s no small feat to build a reputation for getting things reliably done and on time. The trap for emerging leaders is that it’s easy to have a hard focus on delivering and forget the importance of relationship building because results are what many businesses value.

A client of mine in the biotech industry earned a reputation as a formidable producer. Nevertheless, she felt frustrated that the cross-functional teams weren’t working as well together as they could. With the focus on results and the expectation to collaborate too, the missing puzzle piece was the lack of strong interpersonal connections.

What’s more, speed in some cultures is the name of the game, and what gets lost is the need for deliberate trust-building across the silos. When mistakes happen, people get blamed. Rooting out who is at fault is the first priority rather than collaborating for problem-solving. This scientist came to see that she and her peers can have a positive impact on the team climate with greater availability and openness that would reduce persistent misunderstandings. The solution didn’t rely on process clarity alone, but on trust-building too.

Let me tell you a story. A fundraising campaign pitch for a youth leadership summer camp I attended as a young girl found its way to my inbox. I knew I wanted to contribute funds and revive an old community to enroll others to do the same. So I sent an email to three people from the greater community. I’m not a professional fundraiser, so I leaned on what I knew about people, relationships and getting results. Two said yes to the request and showed enthusiasm, a sign of commitment. I didn’t receive a reply from the third person, and he didn’t donate. That’s because trust and rapport had long disappeared with time. Whereas my email requests showed competence with the ask, that was table stakes. Rapport and a relationship were the difference between results and none. Social persuasion depends on a foundation of both to gain commitment that produces results.

Language gives us access to ways of thinking that may be hidden from us. With that in mind, here’s a helpful vocabulary and a list of useful approaches to get work done more effectively. Each is vital to good leadership.

  1. Take on social fluency. Engage and get proficient in interpersonal relationships that are mutually satisfying and that include give-and-take, trust, and the expression of compassion.
  2. Develop an affiliative leadership style. This is the approach to leadership where people come first. You do this by taking an active interest in the whole person, developing connections between you and between others, and doing what you can to create a harmonious climate.
  3. Lean into vulnerability. Admitting when you don’t know (but will find out) is a means of building trust. When I’ve coached leaders who have fudged the answers more than they should, they’ve learned from their multi-rater reports that in fact, others often knew they were pretending to “know” and it eroded their credibility. It’s amazing how winning it can be to show what you don’t know.
  4. Bring joy to it. Most of us have serious jobs, and people rely on us to do well. But being serious at work as a default without play and joy leads to disengagement on the team and a workforce that puts time in without feeling satisfied.
  5. Become more likeable. Yup, this can be learned. The way to grow your likeability is to be friendly, connect over shared interests, be genuine, ask questions of others and show empathy.

Leaders who rely on their expertise alone and make do with transactional relationships lose out on being included in the trust network. By seeking out social linkages, there is an opportunity to become a collaborative leader. These leaders know how to create a climate where people talk openly about mistakes and letting go of silos. Those who show strong managerial ability and foster quality connections create cohesion where there isn’t any and make genuine collaboration possible.

The key to creating a collaborative leadership culture is the shared belief in the mission, the expression of mutual support, and strong connectivity, a requisite for the practice of holding honest conversations. Executing alone doesn’t get you there, but the expressions of genuine relationship-building can.

Image creds go to Patrick Fore. This article was first published at Forbes.com here.

 

Before You Leave Your Job: An Eight-Step Checklist

When I look back at the transitions in my career, I admit that I didn’t always know how to leave well. The blend of excitement I felt about the possibilities in the future, and my hope and nervousness about how it would work out took me away from paying full attention to what to do in the last few weeks before departure.

It’s tough to keep your feet on the ground and your focus on the work after submitting a resignation. But it isn’t impossible, and what’s more, it’s vital for you and your organization.

Here are dos and don’ts to keep in mind once the exit clock starts clicking:

1. Do have the right mindset.

It’s leaderful to do an exemplary job finishing up right before you leave. You need to have your wits about you to resist submitting to the temptation of believing that the years of work you’ve given should be enough and speak for themselves. Take the long view, and spend time finishing up with deliberation and grace.

2. Do review any incentive, bonus or other monetary compensation agreements.

Understand what the impact of your resignation will have on your monetary entitlement. Experienced executives and employment lawyers worth their salt will tell you that failure to review your contract could result in an unwelcome surprise of relinquishing entitlement to bonus, stock vesting, or other compensation. This is a case of “what you don’t know might really hurt your pocketbook.”

3. Don’t check out and disengage.

It’s easy and even natural to place your focus elsewhere when you know you’re leaving, but it’s unfair to your branch, department and division since you are still their leader. Leaving a legacy is less of an abstract notion and more tangibly real when the end of your time in the role is close. Carry yourself as a professional and be mindful of your legacy. If it’s a less-than-agreeable ending, once you’ve resigned, it’s important to manage your emotions. After all, it’s your reputation at stake, and that is far more important than your short-term emotional state.

4. Don’t leave the work of separating your personal property to the last minute.

Take care of ensuring that your personal data is separated from corporate documentation. Bring it home with you before your last day to avoid delays in retracting that personal information, especially if it’s information that is housed on a company cell phone or a company laptop. There’s not much worse than being unable to access personal information when you need it because it’s stuck in a bureaucratic labyrinth. Getting it untangled is no one else’s priority other than your own.

5. Do what you can to navigate relationships down and across.

Consider what your team needs to know from you. Create a checklist, and stick with it. And what about your horizontal alliances with colleagues? With a month to go before a marketing leader I know left her job for another employer, she made a point of meeting with each chapter of the inclusion groups in the company network she pioneered and where she had an outsized presence to encourage them to carry on doing their important work without her. When she shared this with me, I admired her commitment to take the time to ensure continuity. When I think about leaving, well, I often think of her.

6. Do keep your boss updated.

You know your boss and what she worries most about. Is the bench strength of your team well-positioned for the future? Assure her that all your approvals that have been in the queue are signed off. Draft a multi-page document of everything you do and discuss it. It may sound odd, but your boss is likely to be surprised by much of what’s on that list, especially if they are located far from where you are. Don’t forget to add to the list what you’ve been doing as a cultural ambassador.

7. Do spend time with your successor to set them up for success.

Ask yourself what you can do for the transition to go smoothly. Run through the strategy and budgets with an eye for identifying the watch-outs. Offer your insights about the informal networks and who the decision-makers, allies and advocates are. So much of this history can’t be read in a manual or in a series of emails and takes a long time to figure out, such as the history of the team and its relationships with those in adjacent functions. Above all, be a confidence builder, letting your successor know that they are ready for the role as you lead alongside them.

8. Do show appreciation.

If you aren’t the type of leader who regularly acknowledges the people with whom you work, it may be too late to start now. However, you should still resist telling your entire career story at the goodbye party, and leave time to personalize your acknowledgements for the people who contributed to your success. The way you thank people will leave a lasting impression and show you to be the people leader you are. Appreciating others makes it more likely that they will want to stay in touch with you at your new place of work. Beyond continuing the friendships, it can be very useful to maintain contact and include them in your strategic network.

There is lots to do, but it’s far more than a tidying up list (although leaving everything organized is a big part of it). When you plan your exit, you are showing that you care about continuity and the success of the business. Demonstrate that you know how to let go.

Your departure date is an exciting and risky time. It’s important to be mindful to sidestep the pitfalls you will be facing so that you leave well. Finish just like you started: strong.

This article was first published on Forbes.com here. Thank you to @autumnstudio for the image.

How To Stop Ruminating And Build Your Confidence As A Leader

While working with a senior leader I was surprised to learn that what was stopping her from taking on a new sizeable challenge at work was her incessant rumination about a situation that happened long ago. She was overthinking it, and it was undermining her confidence.

Rumination is the habit of hanging on to the negative things that happened in the past and retelling the story to yourself again and again. According to Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith in How Women Risewomen often blame themselves for what they did (or didn’t do) in the past, while men tend to show anger and lay blame on others. Rumination can be tough to detect in both women and men who do it because it operates as an internal monologue that we can’t hear. Most corporate leadership development programs don’t address rumination, but its impact on leaders is nevertheless real.

Why Do We Ruminate?

There are many reasons why we repeat unpleasant stories to ourselves. In the moment, we may think we’re doing something purposeful by extracting the learning from a situation by going over it repeatedly. Yet after a while, the learning stops, and the self-criticism can exact a toll on our confidence. Or we continue to go over the negative story because we don’t feel we should let ourselves off the hook for something we regret. We may believe it’s right to feel bad about ourselves.

Still others may not be aware that they’re ruminating. It’s understood that girls start to ruminate in adolescence, so it can be the air that they breathe when they reach adulthood. That’s the impact of perseverating over something negative.

In their book, Helgesen and Goldsmith offer amusing and memorable commentary on the meaning of the word “rumination.” Ruminants are cows, goats, deer and other animals that eat only plants and work hard to extract the protein from them. They predigest their food, and then they chew it before it’s finally digested. That’s essentially what we do when we return again and again to “chew the cud” of our negative stories: We turn them over and over in our minds.

In the case of my client, she was ruminating about a situation that happened six years ago when she was criticized at the start of her new role. During our coaching sessions, I encouraged her to catch herself each time the situation came to mind, and she learned that she did it far more often than she’d estimated. When I first asked her whether she ruminated about the situation, she said no, but as her awareness grew, she recognized that she did and expressed an interest to work on it so rumination would no longer restrain her.

With time, she came to see that the story was acting as a cautionary tale that impaired her ability to view herself objectively when faced with the decision of whether to accept a new assignment. She feared that she would disappoint herself and others from the very start and that history would repeat itself with the same players. Does that sound familiar?

Getting Unstuck

It’s easy to read about self-limiting behaviors and think that we can self-manage them by simply spotting the behaviors. But it takes resourcefulness and action to lead ourselves in a healthier direction. Men and women all ruminate to some degree, but there are strategies that can help stop the ruminating before it gets out of hand and hardens the way we think about ourselves and our capabilities.

There are many ingenious ways to stop the ruminating early to avoid getting stuck. Here are three:

1. Identify what’s at the root of the story.

We can blame ourselves even when it’s unjustified. Is the root of the story about being criticized or your quest for perfection? Figure out what’s really bothering you.

2. Consult others, especially those who were involved.

Others who are part of the story may be more objective about what happened than you are. There’s a time when I wish I had consulted others. Early in my consulting career, I conducted a workshop helping people identify the psychosocial barriers to medical rehabilitation. Some people pushed back loudly on the content. It wasn’t until years later that I was recognized by someone in that training session who told me how transformative the training had been. I was caught off guard by her praise. She picked up on my surprise and said that the resistance I received wasn’t noteworthy in their culture and that the resisters often challenged new information. I remember thinking about how much time I’d wasted because I’d been needlessly ruminating about the experience.

3. Talk it out to gain a new perspective.

Even though my client returned again and again to her story about being criticized and knew that she wasn’t to blame, it wasn’t until she talked it all out that she could view it from a new perspective and say that she was ready to let it go. And she did.

Rumination And Self-Reflection

Rumination and self-reflection can be confused with one another, but they’re different. Rumination is unproductive and occurs when you have involuntary thoughts that linger far longer than what’s needed to problem solve. As you ruminate, you’re likely adopting a fixed mindset about your potential where you come to believe that you’re either good at something or you aren’t and that there’s nothing you can do to develop yourself. The impact of ruminating often is taking fewer risks, so making safe decisions becomes the game.

Self-reflection is part of the thinking process where we adopt a growth mindset and appreciate that with more effort and practice, rather than withdrawal and feeling bad about ourselves, we can succeed. The impact of reflecting on our effectiveness is a healthy appetite for risk that’s often necessary for learning, creativity, general well-being and leadership.

This blog post is revised from the original, published by Forbes.com. Thank you to Matt Thornhill for the photo.

How to Reach Better Collaborative Solutions in Less Time

Everyone knows cross-group collaboration doesn’t happen nearly enough in most organizations. Though for many companies, it has been the holy grail. It’s been understood as a vital approach to problem-solving as companies grow larger and more become global. Collaborative problem-solving is essential to avoid critical mistakes in decision making and to facilitate greater engagement. Yet there are plenty of reasons why it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

For one thing, group leaders and their teams may not admit to the limits of their knowledge. They imagine that their problem-solving and planning don’t require input from other groups.

For some, it’s arrogance. Others may feel threatened by having to partner with another function.

And for others, it’s a blind spot. Whatever the reason, unlike those who are attuned to reading the wider field to acquire greater understanding, they may be overconfident about what they know and presume they can solve a challenge or complete a task on their own. Unfortunately, their decision making isn’t likely to lead to innovative solutions without input from others who have different knowledge and perspectives and may fail in the execution phase down the road, especially for those the change affects who weren’t included.

Groupthink Challenges

Yet inviting others to collaborate is often the cause of another problem. It’s been said that the first casualty of collaboration is the loss of divergent thinking. It’s ironic but true.

More and different views may not be voiced or heard. When you’ve collaborated with others, you’ve likely experienced many instances where everyone in the group follows the views of the person who spoke first. Or they may follow the longest-serving employee, the most senior or the rock star with a stellar track record for getting it right. Although people across groups may think differently, the group may not be receiving the full advantage of diverse group membership. A group can acquire the bad habit of encouraging different viewpoints and discussion to focus on what everybody knows already, overlooking the critical information that one or more may have.

This is why affinity among group members over time is a double-edged sword. It enables trust, but it also establishes routine, and with that, the comfort that’s been created often leads to the avoidance of risk-taking and the disruption of established group norms.

Intermittent Collaboration Wins

I was happy to see that social science research has discovered what some of us have observed in our work – that intermittent collaboration can be the ideal condition to work through complex problem-solving and produce higher-than-expected quality solutions. It offers the best of both worlds by offering the best solutions while avoiding groupthink.

In the study “How intermittent breaks in interaction improve collective intelligence,” researchers compared the solutions of group members working on their own to those who were in constant contact and also those groups that collaborated intermittently. The intermittent, collaborative group whose members also worked on their own generated the best solutions individually and as a group.

Perhaps that surprises you. These groups did as well as the constantly interacting groups to produce high-quality solutions on average without the benefit of more time together. The constant collaborators did not find the very best solutions as often. Just as interesting is the finding that there was greater learning among people of different performance levels when the group interacted intermittently than when they worked constantly because they weren’t as constrained by the group’s influence.

Cross-Group Collaboration

The implications can offer us a positive way forward. Whereas it’s a commonly held view that groups that work together closely are more likely to be high-performing groups, these findings urge us to take another look at our presumption and challenge it.

The findings are also encouraging. Whenever we bring leaders across the organization or a sector who aren’t part of each other’s operational networks and don’t work together, we can have more confidence in the quality of their solutions.

As the creator of a cross-group problem-solving program for leaders that produces greater organizational coherence, I often hear participating leaders remark that the solutions provided are at a surprisingly high level.

It also means that we have discovered a useful strategy that could make a meaningful contribution to solving for collaborative overload. Instead of burdening people and taking up their time by asking them to join your committee, it could be more productive for everyone involved to engage select individuals in intermittent exchanges.

This article was first published on Forbes.com here. Credit for the image goes to Paul Talbot.

How To Become An Energizer In Groups

I’m participating in Seth Godin’s Marketing Seminar with a lot of other individuals. It expands on his book This Is Marketing. I’ve been reading his blog and books about modern marketing for years. Similar to good marketing practices, influence and persuasion for change are crucial to leadership.

The seminar is designed so that the value we get is dependent on the exchanges we have with our peers. For me, it’s also a laboratory to observe what people do to help each other break through impasses and nudge their peers in the cohort to go further in their thinking.

That behaviour is called energizing and the people who do it are “energizers”, a term Rob Cross writes about. Whether they have the title of leader or not, energizers are informal leaders. They earn their following because people enjoy asking for their view, and many of their ideas are adopted and because of how they make people feel. Knowing how to energize others is valuable wherever we work interdependently with others.

An Energizer’s Impact

Energizers are vital because they encourage greatness, are able to clear the way to see what’s possible and spark others into action. When I work with energizers I often put more discretionary effort into my work. I aim higher and do more because I see that someone cares about what I do, whether or not they share my particular interests and change objectives. They view what I’m doing is important, and they offer me their attention and encouragement in return.

It’s exciting to be in a group with energizers because their energy spreads and others adopt the same behaviours. This serves to strengthen group performance. It’s easy to understand why.

The Skills Energizers Do Well

  • They show up as positive people champions. They may express themselves as persistently invested in engaging with another person and their success. They also might energize by inviting others to think more broadly and more boldly.
  • They ask compelling questions. I’ve observed that people can ask any question on their mind, generate impossible ideas they want to discuss or pull the conversation to where they want it to go without regard for someone’s forward movement. That approach can miss the mark.

What energizers do well is ask compelling questions that are rooted in what the other person needs. For example, a good question turns your focus on the person’s situation or challenge fully. It doesn’t offer a judgement about what you consider to be good or not so good. Also, energizers ask questions that are stripped down. Too many times, a question is really two or three questions embedded in one. That isn’t as effective because the other person can become unclear about what you’re asking. You also flatten the power of the question by lengthening it.

  • Their view of the future is rooted in reality. With every interaction, energizers show that they care enough to contribute and be helpful, not serve as a distraction.
  • They regularly make introductions between people. Energizers link people together either because they are working through the same problem, or they know one person who could help the other. They are super connectors.
  • They are magnificently responsive. They don’t typically bottleneck decisions. Their responsiveness is exciting.

Cultivating A Culture That Promotes Energizers

So how do we create a climate where energizers proliferate? As leaders, we have the opportunity to design group gatherings to deliberately promote energizing behaviours as the group norm.

I lead a group series called Give & Get, for leaders across functions. As the name suggests, participants are guided in an activity to problem solve together, build trust and generate better solutions. They behave as energizers because it’s built into the design of the unique group gathering. You don’t need to have a close relationship with someone to energize them. Energizing behaviours themselves facilitate trust.

In the book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker discourages people who lead gatherings of any type from being what she calls ‘chill hosts’. She goes on to describe situations in which hosts abdicate their role with the purpose of creating a power-free dynamic, though that’s not what actually happens. Power remains, and confusion sets in.

Who Gets To Be An Energizer?

You might marvel at where energizers get their energy. To find the source of it, we can learn from an outstanding musical performer Jimi Hendrix. At Woodstock, band drummer Mitch Mitchell, having never performed in front of a large crowd before, looked out and the audience and was overwhelmed by the sea of people in front of them. That’s when Hendrix invited the band to focus on the audience’s energy – to take it, use it and then “send” it back. They performed for a full two hours without stopping and closed the festival. Energizers like Hendrix draw from what is around them and recycle energy to others.

Anyone can be an energizer. You don’t need to be a charismatic “rah-rah” extrovert. There are many ways to capture people’s imaginations, create a positive connection, and get people to feel hopeful, leading them to action.

Energizers help us to see how easy it is to affect others, one person or a group at a time. Any of us can energize; it’s easier than you think. Visionary leadership is having people see what’s possible to move them to take action. So many of us are seeking to be sparked.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Forbes.com here.   Credit for the image goes to Park Troopers.

How Mentors Can Turn Around A Failing Mentoring Program

Having mentored many people over the years and advised plenty of programs, I’ve seen their uneven results. Few people today are surprised that mentoring is offered as a structured program rather than just organically and casually. That’s because there are so many more mentoring programs now than before. Women in the technology sector, startup founders and those in financial services are among the professionals who are benefiting from programs that have become almost ubiquitous. Many more women and men could benefit from having a mentor available to them, yet let’s not confuse greater numbers of programs with greater quality.

Not All Programs Are Equal

A mentor is someone who takes a personal and professional interest in someone with less experience and is committed to their growth. They offer them encouragement, challenge them to go further and give them tools and advice, some of which may stick for a lifetime. People often ask me where they can find a mentor to support their career and develop their leadership. Workplaces have them, some were started by professional associations, and others are offered by schools. Not surprisingly, there is a great variation in how they’re designed and managed. Some are well considered so that participants are carefully matched and fully supported. Others are too laissez-faire about how matches are made, and inexperienced mentors are left on their own to figure it all out. And there are programs that are far too prescriptive to allow for a variety of approaches about how to mentor, the frequency of meeting and even the domain of what to talk about.

Whatever the case, many programs don’t get renewed after their inaugural year because too many pairs stopped meeting beyond their first or second time. Or, less obviously, some programs continue to chug along year after year without much oversight or evaluation. The sponsoring business or organization is just pleased to report that they have a mentoring program.

Here’s my advice on how mentors can turn around a failing mentoring program.

Give Them Appropriate Resources

Among the other reasons why mentoring programs fail are that too often they’re resource-poor, with coordinators taking on the management of such programs in addition to all their other tasks, or they’re without the right number of administrators to manage the number of mentorships. It may be easy to pay lip service to leadership’s good idea to have a mentoring program to increase engagement, accelerate the talent pipeline or enable professional success, but it can often fall short of realizing real impact and leave people with the view that mentoring isn’t meaningful.

Of course, success isn’t all about the program specifications. Mentors themselves can benefit from learning how to elevate their game and be at their best.

Clarify What’s In It For You As A Mentor

Surprisingly for some, good mentoring doesn’t usually start with the mechanics of how it’s done. That typically comes later. A good mentoring relationship usually begins with a mentor who is clear about their reasons for offering their time. If you’ve participated in a program yourself, you know that the focus is often on the mentees, who are asked why they would like to be mentored and maybe encouraged to set goals. But what about mentors? If participating in a mentoring program is strictly charitable work, a mentor is likely to drop their commitment as soon as they seek to recover time in their busy schedule. What seemed like a good idea at the start might not in time with competing priorities and without an understanding of what motivated them to participate in the first place. That’s just disappointment for everyone waiting to happen. And it happens a lot.

Mentees deserve better and many mentors could be far clearer about their interests. Not only will it increase the probability that they’ll keep their commitment, but it also will likely translate to their greater satisfaction.

Mentors are usually motivated to help others, but they sometimes focus on the needs of the mentees to the exclusion of recognizing needs of their own. When people are encouraged to think about what drives them to be a mentor, too many mentors don’t know. Look at it this way: Wanting to be helpful might be the foundational reason for your involvement, but there are many other reasons to want to contribute in this way. Here are a few common ones. See whether any resonate with you.

• Wanting to learn about another generation — their drivers and choices and what they think about the work they do

• Seeking exposure to new ideas

• Believing that influencing the new up-and-coming leaders is vital

• Believing that mentoring a younger person is invigorating and that it can renew a sense of optimism and enhance work life

• Having curiosity about a different part of the company that’s innovating at a rapid rate

• Wanting to expand the ties between your own function and another area of the business

• Wanting to enhance your skills as a people developer

• Wanting to learn the barriers that members of underrepresented groups face and champion them

The more that mentors know about their genuine purpose for getting involved, the less likely they are to communicate mixed signals to their mentee about their availability, which is a constant source of misunderstanding across programs of many types. Mentors may also find sustaining their involvement right through to the end without distraction far easier, no matter what shows up to compete for their attention.

Naturally, good mentoring means putting your focus on the person you’re supporting. But first, get straight about your motivations and what you want out of it.

 

A revised version of this article appeared on Forbes.com on Feb 8 2019. Thank you to Christopher William  Adach for the photo.

What Stops Women From Mentoring

I enjoy speaking on panels about women leaders. There’s often a feeling of colleagueship and sisterhood among the panelists and a sense that it’s not just us, that we’re surrounded by our tribe.

During a panel I was moderating about mentoring as a means to promote women in industries and occupations where women are under-represented, a young woman asked a great question, “Are our expectations of senior women too high?” The young lawyer in the early stages of her career went on to tell us about a time where she sought out guidance from a senior woman lawyer at her boutique firm and was rebuffed. It caught her off guard. It just wasn’t at all what she expected would happen, nor what she thought should happen, and there were plenty of women there who seemed to feel the same way.

Is it fair to expect that senior women take an active interest in other women’s careers? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since I heard it being asked.

I’ve been a mentor to plenty of women and men and I’ve known lots of senior women who find joy in being allies, advisors, mentors and sponsors. They seek it out and find it rewarding. Yet there are women who don’t initiate or accept the responsibility to actively participate in other women’s career development. That shouldn’t be surprising. Just as not all women think alike, they don’t all act alike either. Just look at election results, for example. We know that women don’t vote as a block and they don’t act the same at work.

There are many reasons why some women don’t offer the developmental support that mentoring provides. They may be closed to it because they aren’t natural givers or don’t have relational savvy. They may not have the bandwidth to take it on, and not least of all, their understanding of how they see their role as women who’ve achieved a great deal in their career may not include opening the door wider for others to follow. And there’s much more to it still.

Some younger who look to senior women for the connection and learning and career benefits that a high-quality give and receive relationship offers expect to get support because they share the same gender. But that isn’t how all women see it. Some may have minimized the significance of being a woman in a company or industry where they have until recently been ‘an only’. Many feel scrutinized for being female and may take pride in their hard work “without anyone’s help”. If they are the only woman, racialized person, or individual with a disability, they may want to downplay their ‘only’ status. They’ve have gone out of their way not to view themselves through a gender lens. Instead, they worked hard to fit in, not stand out. I know of many cases where women insist on exceptional performance from everyone and drive very hard to get it. Women can sometimes hold both genders to a tougher line because they’ve had to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard to garner credibility and respect from others.

This may not make sense to you if you haven’t faced or witnessed discrimination early in your own career. But for those who have, they can find themselves distancing themselves from other women doing what they can to prove they made it in the workplace because of their performance, not because of any special treatment. Having their gender define a good deal of their identity is something they go to great lengths to avoid, not embrace. This is just one of the several ways gender bias can fuel conflict between generations of women.

Women are more likely to put their job before their career. This explains why some senior women show a disinterest in helping high-performing women who show promise. Senior women may neglect the importance of growing their networks and of building currencies of exchange with others who are junior.

Think too about the impact of those senior women who lacked having a mentor themselves. Or possibly for those who did have mentors or sponsors, it’s likely it was an older male supporter because there weren’t many women at the top. They didn’t have the experience of receiving a woman’s mentoring on the unique challenges faced by their common gender.

We need to also look at the greater context of work today to understand why some women don’t want to mentor.

Women persistently find themselves on an uneven playing field. There are so few women in the C-Suite and on boards, that scarcity can often place a chill on woman-to-woman dynamics. Without the reliability of equal pay for equal work, and far fewer opportunities to reach senior leadership levels, the workplace dynamic can set women up to compete with one another.

At the same time that women are frustrated that the salary gap hasn’t closed and we’re living with many examples of poor workplace practices related to sexual harassment, things are changing for the better too. We can’t overlook that there have always been women who support one another. Today, there are far more conversations about how to close the gaps of inequity at work sparked by the #Metoo movement. There are many more diversity and inclusion indexes and many more mentoring programs in the workplace. Women in male-led industries are organizing events where women are given a platform to speak on issues that affect women at work.

Women supporting other women is powerful. There are legacy reasons why it doesn’t happen everywhere and consistently across industries. Nevertheless, when women raise each other up there’s reason to be hopeful. Long may this continue.

A revised version of this article appeared on Forbes.com. Thank you to @mrsunflower94 for the photo portrait.