Obama offers leadership lessons

THE PRESIDENTIAL inauguration last week has reinvigorated the country with renewed hope, optimism and energy. The nation’s mood seems lifted. Like many others, I am struck by the leadership lessons our new president has already demonstrated, and can only imagine what lessons lie ahead.

As an executive coach, it’s my mission to teach, coach and foster “best practice” leadership with my clients. Thankfully, we all have a new role model for exemplary leadership in the new commander in chief.

What can we learn about leadership from Barack Obama? While there are many lessons, here are a few that I suggest business leaders take note of:

Don’t underestimate the power of motivated people. Obama has faith in the American people (as business leaders need to have faith in their people) and did a masterful job in getting them engaged and productive. Obama executed a record-shattering, grass-roots campaign by taking it to the ultimate end user — the people. To get commitment, in politics or business, leaders must first involve and engage people.

Inspire vision. We are hungry for leaders who are forward looking and focused on opportunities for positive change. While mindful of the lessons of the past, Obama clearly communicated his forward focus with, “Yes we can!” Much more inspiring than leading by fear, gloom and doom. Leaders such as Obama inspire us to bring the best of ourselves forward by speaking to our highest selves.

Surround yourself with talent, including those with diverse viewpoints. Obama has assembled an experienced bipartisan team. He didn’t simply choose “yes men,” or those who would mimic his style, beliefs or strengths. According to a recent Time magazine interview, Obama expects people to “challenge him when they think he is wrong.” Healthy debate is critical for sound decision making whether in business or running the country.

Set clear expectations. Obama has communicated to his team that he expects them to “respect, empower and include” others. When egos and “kingdoms” plague teams, performance suffers. Obama gets this. He was quoted in Time, saying, “I have a low tolerance of nonsense and turf battles and game-playing, and I send that message very clearly. … If you’ve got really smart people who are all focused on the same mission, then usually you can get some things done.” Well said!

Listen well before deciding. Obama is known for asking, “What’s on your mind?” He conveys he is open to the influence of others. He seems easy to talk to. Warren Buffett credits Obama as a “listener” who can “extract from other people a lot of information and take the best of it.”

Stay connected and be authentic. We can relate to the president — as a dad who takes his kids out on Halloween or shoots hoops with his buddies. He doesn’t hide away in the inner sanctums. Senior business leaders can learn here; hiding out in the ivory tower or penthouse office isolates you and sends a message to people that you aren’t one of them.

Foster collaboration. Obama works toward finding the “win-win” solution. Given his community-organizer background, we can learn from his ability to foster dialogue and bring together diverse viewpoints toward a common vision.

Be the calm in the storm. Emotionally intelligent leaders such as Obama are regarded as predictable, stable and reliable in the eyes of followers. It reassures us. We want leaders we can rely on to be the rudder in a storm.

Model what you want. He doesn’t talk “family values” — he lives them. Likewise, he doesn’t simply talk “community service,” he lives it by deeds (painting a teen center on Martin Luther King Day). He models responsibility and action, thereby creating an environment that makes people want to be engaged. During his campaign, many states had over a million knocks on doors on Election Day by devoted Obama volunteers — now that’s what I call getting people engaged. Imagine the possibilities and implications here for business.

And now the real work begins. Hopefully we can keep learning from him.

Managing Millennials

Many of my clients today share a common management challenge: how to lead, motivate and inspire new young employees. The Millennial generation (also known as the Internet, Nintendo or digital generation) are 80 million strong and by definition were born between 1980 and 2000. While this generation has a lot going for it, it presents generation gap challenges to older bosses and co-workers. Surveys claim 71 percent of millennials at “regular” jobs would prefer to quit their current job to work for themselves, and 60 percent of them plan to do so in the next two years.  So how does one manage them on the job?

The good news

Like no other generation before them, Millennials are well-connected, tech savvy and know how to collaborate. They are connected to each other in ways previous generations couldn’t imagine — via e-mail, blogs, text, instant messaging or MySpace. They know how to access information and each other — anytime, anywhere. If you need to access information or people, put your Millennial on the task!

They are multicultured. This generation tends to be more informed about, tolerant of and comfortable with the diversity associated with different cultures, races, sexual orientations and religions across the globe. Fairness and respect are huge core values for them — be prepared for them to stand up for them in your workplace.

They are confident and optimistic. For many the sky is the limit. Their parents nurtured high self-esteem and lofty career aspirations. Most have been told (and believe) they can achieve anything. They expect their workplaces to be optimistic, fun (like they’ve heard about at Google) and loaded with opportunities for growth and challenge. They expect bosses to actively mentor their big career plans. This can be a serious challenge for those managers of the old-school mindset of “Just do your job” and “You need to pay your dues.”

Most Millennials have little or no fear of the unknown. Information is a click away, and they are adept at creative problem-solving and confident with changing technology. Note: This also translates into their being more than willing to leave those companies where they are unhappy.

Tips for managing them

  • Keep them challenged. They have led highly structured, achievement-oriented childhoods. Soccer moms (and dads) shuttled this generation daily from karate to T-ball. Summer was spent at space camps, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or with volunteer projects. They are incredible multitaskers — the down side is that they are easily bored by menial and/or mundane tasks. They will respond best to workplace environments that are stimulating with challenges and opportunities for creativity.
  • Praise and recognize. This generation was largely raised by parents who took great care to reinforce to them how “special” they are. They will respond best to bosses (aka, their workplace parents) who give them plenty of recognition and positive feedback. Don’t ignore them or make light of their contributions. Be forewarned — HR people tell stories about “helicopter” parents who are calling in to complain about “Johnny’s performance review.” No kidding.
  • Define goals, expectations and success factors. The Millennials will respond positively to companies/bosses who provide learning opportunities and support in achieving their goals. They will resist those who solely lead as authoritarian old-school bosses.

If the boss relationship isn’t positive, odds are they will soon be looking for one that is more aligned with their expectations.

  • Let them bring some fun into the workplace. They are natural team players — put them on your social committee! They will thrive in a culture where humor and blowing off steam now and then (positively) is encouraged. One of their big challenges, however, is getting along with difficult people. The naysayers, the rigid and those unwilling to embrace change — they just don’t get them. They will need coaching and support about how to get along with difficult personalities.

My advice: Get to know them. Find out what they want to achieve. Make a conscious effort to regularly encourage and mentor them. Model professional and expected workplace behavior while challenging and supporting them. Let them know you are open to learning from and with them as well.

Baby boomers are exiting the workplace in huge numbers (half of all certified schoolteachers plan to retire within the next five years, and 60 percent of all federal workers are soon to retire). The Millennial generation, and the ability to manage and motivate them, will be critical to success.

Lessons From Wallstreet

Recent years have been ripe with lousy business headlines. Wall Street’s demise, an up and down economy, layoffs and crooks.

As a workplace coach, I am constantly preaching that debriefing and mining “lessons learned” is good business practice. What we are unconscious about, unaware of or blind to can kill us. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at a few lessons.

1. Don’t plead for taxpayer bailout money from your luxury corporate jet. The chief executive officers from the top three U.S. automakers made what will undoubtedly be one of the top PR blunders in business history.

2.  If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme was a classic lesson for all business people: Do your homework. Oh, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are more lessons from this headline but I don’t have enough space.

3. Don’t party on taxpayer money. Work on restoring public trust instead. Corporate vacation a week after taking $85 billion in an emergency bailout loan is a case study for the PR books. What were they thinking? And their response that this is “standard practice” was worse. Do they really think the general public is that stupid? Who among us would equate a bankruptcy scenario to “business as usual?”

4. Avoid unreasonable risks. Lending money to anyone who asks for it isn’t good business practice. Seattleites need only look in our backyard to Washington Mutual for this lesson.

5. Adapt and thrive (it’s true in nature and business).  See Apple and compare to Kodak, Polaroid and IBM.

6. What happens on Wall Street is felt on Main Street. From large to small, business is hurting, which means stores are closing and jobs are lost. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 73,000 retail stores closed in the first half of 2009. Unfortunately, the ball truly does roll downhill.

7. Think twice before hitting “send” with your snippy e-mail response. Former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo got into hot water after apparently clicking “reply to all” instead of “forward” describing his response to a struggling mortgage customer’s plea for help as “disgusting” and “unbelievable.” Mozilo’s nasty-gram fired back directly to the customer (who then posted it on the Internet — oops) made it clear to everyone who was truly “disgusting” and “unbelievable.”

May we continue to learn from our past and our mistakes.

Keeping Top Talent Engageda

IF YOU’RE A BOSS, how confident are you that your top talent isn’t actively looking for new work?

The ability to recruit and retain top performers is a key to any company’s long-term success. One recent survey identified that almost half (47 percent) of high-performing employees are actively looking for new jobs, yet only 18 percent of the “low performers” are.

Consider what it would mean to your business to lose key contributors, who would exit with their critical company knowledge or account relationships.

High performers are attracted to companies that foster a culture where they can be successful — one with like-minded people, leadership they admire, growth opportunities and meaningful recognition. Attracting and hiring talent is just the first step. The greater challenge is retaining them.

The top reasons performers leave companies: lack of leadership, recognition and engagement.

Frankly, it’s often easier to “manage” the mediocre than to “lead” creative, clever and talented people. One thing I have continually confirmed in my executive coaching practice is that the old school command-and-control style isn’t effective with most of today’s high performers.

What will work? Here are some strategies:

  • Engage hearts and minds. Performers need inspiration (a compelling vision); they want to contribute in a way that matters. They want “ownership” (and will often leave when they aren’t given it) and opportunities to bring the best of what they have to offer.
  • The best and the brightest resent being “micromanaged.” In my experience, it makes them crazy. If you hired the right person (with commitment, skills, talent and experience to do the job), let them do it. Provide clear expectations, the resources they need and get out of their way. Trying to constantly rein in talent will lead them to stray.
  • Block and tackle for them. Get rid of obstacles in their way. Do you want your best resource filling out forms, attending pointless meetings, or do you want them increasing business?

Few things frustrate high performers more than mundane systems and pointless process that waste their time, creativity and talent. Wise leaders of top performers focus on clearing out unnecessary administrative burdens that can bring talent to a screeching halt.

A good example: Greg Dyke, BBC director general, and his “cut the crap” program. He designed a clever game to engage employees in helping him get rid of any dysfunctional workplace bureaucratic rules or processes. He distributed yellow cards (akin to the “flag” on the field for cautioning soccer players) for them to pull out and “play” during meetings when they encountered an obstacle to success or when someone blocked a good idea.

  • High performers value continual learning and development. They expect companies to provide ongoing training, coaching and mentoring by someone they aspire to be (or someone who has achieved what they want to achieve). If that person isn’t you as their boss, you’re likely in trouble.

Talent will find someone to work for whom they admire, trust and aspire to emulate — a common reason why talent will ask to be transferred.

  • Compensate, recognize and challenge them. Talented employees know their worth and they expect you to know it, too. Towers Perrin researchers found that high-performing employees earn bonuses on average of 1.5 to two times larger than average-performing employees. Top performers require challenge to be satisfied and engaged. They respond well to incentives, provided the criteria are clear, fair and reasonably achievable.

Coach’s tip: Avoid incentives that are intangible (“Top 10 performers earn the right to participate in a drawing for …”).

Motivate your best by providing them something worthy of their sacrifice (like extra-long hours) to get to the finish line. Incentive programs that employees identify as a “joke” (the goals are unrealistic, criteria poorly explained, are unfair, etc.) do more damage than good.

While stretch goals provide healthy challenge, unreachable goals simply promote frustration and dissatisfaction.

  • Involve your talent in “big picture” strategy and problem-solving sessions. Top performers want, and need, access to senior leaders and for senior leaders to value their input. It deflates them when they aren’t asked to the “seniors” dance.

Few things inspire talent more than the CEO asking for their opinion, “secrets to success” or input.

  • Be straightforward and transparent. Don’t try to snow smart people and make any promises you can’t keep. If you ask them to take risks and push the envelope, be prepared to support them when they encounter resistance.

Either “walk your talk” as their leader, or your talent may soon be walking.  If you need help with this, I serve as an executive coach to clients throughout the world on Skype.  Call me: 360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com


Leadership Skill to Keep Talented Employees

In a recent survey by the Center for Creative Leadership, respondents placed talent acquisition/development at the top of the list of the primary challenges their organization is facing. Sixty-five percent of those leaders surveyed predict a major talent crisis over the next five years.

The survey results highlight the need for organizations to adopt new strategies and implement fundamental cultural changes to help address the looming talent crisis.

One effective method is to develop a coaching culture to cultivate, retain and grow existing talent.

Long-term, single-company loyalty and tenure are increasingly rare. Today’s most talented employees want (and need) an environment that supports and challenges them to grow and develop. Changing how we lead is an important part of this answer.

The days of being able to lead successfully with a top-down autocratic “edict” are gone. High performers in today’s work force simply won’t put up with it.

While changing an organization’s culture is never easy, it can be done. Success requires senior level sponsorship, significant resource deployment and organizationwide training (coaching skills are not innate).

A method to inspire, retain and develop today’s work force is introducing or expanding an organizationwide coaching culture. Coaching, by its nature, supports collaboration and continuous improvement. The focus of coaching is on changing behaviors for systemic impact on the success of the entire organization. Again, we can draw from a sports analogy — if only the defensive squad plays well (and not the offense or special teams), rarely will the team win. Likewise in organizations, the entire system has to work together to achieve its goals to be successful. Internal departments in companies are intricately interdependent on each other. Today’s cutting-edge managers understand that an effective coaching culture is ultimately determined by the collective performance of all of the parts.

Shifting an organization from a traditional “management down” culture to a collaborative, coaching culture can be difficult. Challenges often encountered include:

  • Individual personalities (i.e., defensiveness or “I only know how to ‘boss’ “).
  • Natural resistance to change (old dogs resisting new tricks).
  • Internal politics and history.
  • Lack of required senior level commitment and effective “sponsorship.”

A successful coaching culture needs to include:

  • Senior level sponsorship (those with the power to sanction change). This sponsorship will include providing clear vision, goals, objectives and expectations.
  • Effective feedback systems (measurement against benchmarks, providing accountability, acknowledgement and rewards).
  • Training programs to develop the coaching skills of internal managers and leaders.
  • An environment that rewards taking reasonable risks, including trying new behaviors and developing skills.

Remember, a shift to a coaching culture does not mean that leaders relinquish authority, responsibility or ultimate accountability. In contrast, a truly effective coaching culture is defined by (and is generally a result of) top management leadership managing through collaboration and effective coaching techniques.

Effective coaching has been identified as a core competency for today’s managers.

Today’s successful organizations understand the value and potential of this leadership style and continue to expand their own coaching programs and skills.

Senior leaders in organizations making cultural shifts can get help from a number of resources: trainings, seminars, and external professional resources. These provide expertise in managing change (including what it takes to be an effective sponsor) and proven tools to build or strengthen existing coaching skills within the organization.

I coach clients anywhere in the world via Skype.  I can help you find, keep and grow talent for your business.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com  You don’t have to do it alone.