Be Intentional About Leadership

By Mary Jo Asmus

Many leaders put as much effort into defining how they want to “show up” as they would in buying a new refrigerator. In fact, some may give their leadership skills even less thought. These mindless leaders react to whatever captures their attention and desire in the moment, but don’t stop to think about their impact or how they want others to remember them when they are no longer around.

Being intentional about how you lead is hard work, but in a way it’s no different than learning to play the piano or getting better at your golf swing. It requires you to look to a future goal (“I want to be a concert pianist”; “I want to be able to compete at golf”; “I want to increase my level of influence”). You have to be diligent and work hard at practicing with deliberate action steps that are focused on the nuances of your strengths and gaps.

It takes courage, fortitude, and resolve to be intentional in your work as a leader. It requires risk, failure and the ability to pick yourself back up and go at it again.

The hard work is worth your efforts. The gifts that come back to you when you’re intentional are results and a legacy that others remember. You’ll create a world that is better than when you entered it.

To start you on your journey of intentionality:
Be visionary. This is what Stephen Covey called “begin with the end in mind.” Consider the following questions: What will it look like when you’re at your best as a leader? How will others describe you and the impact you made on them? What will they remember you for? No matter what you do and how you do it, you’ll leave a legacy. Why not make it one that you’ve crafted and been intentional about? Write it down. Revise it. Ask others what they think about it. But do have a personal leadership vision.

Be driven by your values. What values do you stand for? Knowing what principles and beliefs are important to you provides an anchor when it comes time to make tough decisions or take difficult action. Spend some time thinking about what’s important to you and what things you won’t compromise on. You can work with a mentor or coach on this, or you might already have an idea of what’s most important to you. Write down your top three to five values. Carry them with you or memorize them. They will be an important tool to help you become and stay a great leader.

Be courageous. It takes courage to follow a vision and to stand true to your values. Are you ready for the conflict it may cause? How will you react when you’re criticized for decisions you make based on your values? How will you respond to those who disagree? A personal vision and values sometimes requires you to follow the road less traveled, which isn’t always considered an asset in the business world. Make sure that your resolve is strong as it will only make you a better, more confident leader.

Be reflective on your progress at becoming more intentional. Refer to your personal vision and values regularly as you consider if you are on the path or straying from them. What steps are you taking to assure that your vision and values become incorporated into your daily routine? What happens when your daily routine blows up and you are under stress (do you revert to reacting rather than being intentional?). Who can help you stay true to what matters to you?

Being intentional about your leadership is a best practice for making incremental improvements in the way you lead. Start with vision, values, courage and reflection, and you are on your way toward becoming the best.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.

4 Reasons to be a Mentor

By Peter Cohan

Mike Bergelson, CEO of Everwise, a service that connects mentors and protégées, believes mentoring is a great way for big companies like his former employer to develop talent. A study by a former Sun Microsystems executive found that employees who received mentoring were five times more likely to be promoted. And a study of successful people like Warren Buffett found that the second most important reason they believe they’ve been successful is great mentors (Buffett’s was Benjamin Graham).

Everwise has developed an algorithm that has contributed to a “96 percent match satisfaction rate.” Assuming that’s true, Bergelson should be an authority on why people agree to serve as mentors. Here are his four top reasons.

1. Give Back

Successful people I have interviewed often say that they were helped early in their career by someone who had achieved greatness. Now they believe that they should “pay it forward.”

But why do they feel that way? Some feel that they are repaying a debt to future generations; others believe that if their advice helps a younger person, it will make a little piece of them immortal; still others see mentoring as going back in a time machine and giving a younger version of themselves the advice that they wish they had received.

This last reason highlights the importance of matching the right mentor and protégé. After all, if a mentor finds a young person with similar life experiences–such as emigrating from Chile or competing in triathlons–it will strengthen the feeling of giving back to a younger version of herself.

2. Learn From Process

Many mentors claim that they learn by teaching. This observation brings to mind the Seinfeld episode about mentoring. In case you missed it, George Costanza needs to learn about risk management so he asks his protégé to record herself reading the book to him. (Naturally, Costanza took the idea of learning from mentoring and turning it on its head.)

Bergelson said that many mentors learn through the process of teaching others and they find that mentoring makes them better leaders. He said that 94 percent of mentors agree to repeat their experience because they “take away a lot from the process.”

3. Meet New People

Mentors also like the idea of meeting new people whom they can add to their “I kmentorPuzzleSMnew when” list. After all, who doesn’t like the idea of bragging to associates that they knew [currently famous person X] before they became successful?

For mentors with this motive, there is also a potential financial benefit. The protégé might offer the mentor an opportunity to invest in an early-stage venture. And if that happens, the mentor may not only get bragging rights but a big slug of cash when he sells stock in the now successful venture.

 4. Get Exposed to New Ideas

Protégés also expose mentors to new ideas. For example, the protégé might discuss how her company is using a new approach to innovation, pricing, or customer service. Mentors may be able to apply some of these best practices to their own activities.

People are willing to mentor for free because they already have–in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs–met their physiological and safety needs and now seek esteem and self-actualization. Mentoring is a way to get there.

Peter Cohan is a strategy consultant, start-up investor, teacher, corporate speaker, pundit, and author.

Will You Leave Your Comfort Zone?

By Suzanne Lucas

Many new business owners rely on past experience to make decisions. How to break that pattern.

I live in Basel, Switzerland, which might have the best public transportation system in the world. It is clean, fast, on time, and can get you where you want to be. In fact, it’s so fabulous that I’ve lived here for four years and still don’t own a car.

So, I was somewhat amused to look out the window of my tram this morning and see at least 100 people, in business attire, with small suitcases, waiting for taxis. (There’s a huge jewelry convention in town.) The woman next to me on the tram noticed too, and we laughed. Those people will be standing there at least an hour waiting for a taxi to get them to their hotels. In the meantime, they’ll get cranky and hot (most were wearing black and it’s in the mid 70s today), and will arrive at their hotels far later than they would if they crossed the street and jumped on a tram.

So, why wait for a taxi when it would be far easier to take public transportation? I think the answer to this is indicative of problems small business owners face as well. Here’s what I think is going through their brains–and your brains–and how to fix it.

What is going through their brains: I know how taxis work. I don’t know how the tram system works. I’d have to ask somebody what tram to take. What if I make a mistake? I don’t speak German. Yes, I see the big information booth, but if I walk over there I will lose my place in the taxi line. Plus everyone else is in the taxi line. They will think I’m cheap and not hip if I take a tram instead of a taxi.

Here’s what goes through the brains of new business owners: I know how my old manager managed me, so I’ll manage people like that. There’s resources to help people like me out, I think, but I’m not quite sure who to ask or what to say and if I say it wrong, people will think I’m stupid. Besides, by asking, people will think I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing even though it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

Why do we do that? Why don’t we just ask the darn questions? There are resources out there, but sometimes they require us to step outside our comfort zones. Sometimes they require us to say, “Hey, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here. Can you help me out?” Sometimes it requires that we ask a question of (gasp!) a subordinate who has more knowledge and experience in that particular area.

If you start asking questions, you’ll find that there are fabulous resources. You’ll find that there are (probably) better ways to do whatever it is that you need to do. And if you are lucky enough to find out that you’re doing it the best possible way, you can go forward with confidence.

If those people waiting for the taxis were able to step outside their comfort zone just a little and walk to the information booth, they’d undoubtedly discover that there was information available in a language they speak, their hotel was less than a block away from the tram stop, and that a tram ticket will cost about five francs instead of the 40 to 50 they’ll have to pay for a taxi.

What will you find out if you step outside your comfort zone and ask?

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. Follow her at Twitter, connect with her at LinkedIn, read her blog, or send her an email.

When We’re Hungriest for Leadership

by Eric McNulty, Leonard Marcus, and Barry Dorn

Just three years ago we wrote a case study for Harvard Business Review based on a terror attack in our home city of Boston. That abstract, fictional situation has now come to painful life.

At the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, we study crisis leadership in many settings. We have seen graphic photos and heard compelling testimony about terror attacks around the world. Even for us, the horrific scenes of the carnage at the Boston Marathon yesterday are difficult to push out of our minds.

In the fictional case study we wrote, there was an explosion in the subway and a business leader had to decide whether or not to let his building be used as a triage center and temporary morgue. The expert advice was unanimous: in times of crisis, civic duty trumps private interests. Yesterday, the city of Boston resoundingly agreed: we saw many people step up to selflessly help others. Whether or not they would call themselves “leaders” at all, many did offer leadership.

It is in difficult times like these that we are hungriest for leadership, for people who can restore order, find the perpetrators, organize the aftermath, and help us find meaning and common purpose. People are wounded, whether physically or emotionally. Even those who only watched the events on television can feel the effects. Leaders, too, are affected — they’re only human. But leadership moments come unexpectedly for each of us.

Fortunately here, it seems that careful preparation helped civic leaders improvise a swift and effective response to the unthinkable. Boston officials have used past marathons and the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration to develop, exercise, and test their preparedness plans. They had also had been at the forefront of the Tale of Our Cities program, an outgrowth of a class project at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative that brought officials from London, Madrid, Islamabad, and Israel to share their experience with terrorist bombings. The city absorbed these lessons and modified its plans accordingly. For example, providing effective medical treatment in the aftermath of a mass casualty bombing is distinctly different from a more typical disaster such as multiple car collision. Multiple law enforcement agencies may see every patient as a possible “person of interest,” many physicians have limited experience with blast injuries, and the walking wounded can overwhelm the nearest healthcare facilities. Without careful preparation, leaders may do exactly the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing.

Every crisis is potentially two crises: the original event and the response to the incident. When leadership remains calm and composed, they can help avoid turning the reaction to the crisis into a secondary disaster. In this case, the response was sure and swift. In Boston, effective preparation and in-the-moment leadership kept a terrible tragedy from descending into chaos that could well have resulted in more injuries, greater loss of life, and the possible destruction of evidence. Medical professionals, police, and race volunteers provided immediate aid. The professionals called upon long-rehearsed responses and were able nimbly organize bystanders and volunteers. The area was cleared quickly and efficiently.

But leadership at a time like this is not just about the careful preparations and emergency improvisations of civic leaders and emergency responders. It’s about being the leader your followers need, no matter your position or your title.

People will mirror your behavior: Project calm and they will be composed. Demonstrate resolve and they will be strong. Be empathetic and they will support each other…and you.

We all go to the “emotional basement” in the face of a threat. It is an instinctual survival mechanism that serves us well when confronted with danger. However, the basement is not a place to dwell. Getting back to business as usual is a path up from the basement. Engaging in activities at which people can demonstrate basic competence helps “reset” the brain to a more productive mode.

It can be easy to get caught up in “what if” scenarios that bedevil leaders with potential threats around every corner. This is, unfortunately, the world in which we live. Random violence is possible and increasingly probable if not precisely predictable.

Nothing can bring back the victims or undo the injuries resulting from the violence in Boston. It is the job of leaders to help us see beyond the tragedy and pain, and heal. You must attend to collective resilience so that organizations and communities rapidly recover from tragedy. You encounter many people in any given day; take a day to slow down and connect with every single person you meet. Use their names. Ask about how the day is going. Try to meaningfully connect with each and every one of them. As Admiral Thad Allen said in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, collateral compassion is a good thing.

It is your opportunity to help others realize their strength and find hope in the darkness

Eric McNulty, Leonard Marcus, and Barry Dorn: Eric McNulty, Leonard Marcus, and Barry Dorn are faculty at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book, You’re It! Mastering High Stakes Leadership.

1 Out of Every 2 Managers Is Terrible at Accountability

By Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser

Out of all the things we expect of leaders — taking charge, setting strategy, empowering people, driving execution, you name it — what one single behavior would you guess is most often neglected or avoided among executives? Seeing the big picture? Nope. Delegating? Nope. Mapping out detailed project plans? Nope. Although many upper-level managers don’t do these things enough, by far and away the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable. No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.

In our database of more than 5,400 upper-level managers from the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific gathered since 2010, 46% are rated “too little” on the item, “Holds people accountable — firm when they don’t deliver.” Remarkably, the result holds up no matter how you slice the data — by ratings from bosses, peers, or even subordinates. It holds up for C-level executives compared to directors and middle managers. It is about the same in different cultures too; although accountability is a bit more common in some countries than others, it is still the most neglected behavior within every region we have studied.

When we first observed this trend, it struck us as counterintuitive. An epidemic of letting people off the hook is incongruous with the view of senior managers as tough, hard chargers intent on getting results. But episodes of Mad Men notwithstanding, this stereotype of executive leaders is seriously out of date. Abraham Zaleznik wrote about this myth over 20 years ago in his classic HBR article, “Real Work.” Zaleznik chronicled how he saw American managers, influenced by the rising popularity of the human relations school, turn increasingly from the substantive work of organizations — creating products and services, cultivating markets, pleasing customers, cutting costs, and getting stuff done — to what he termed “psychopolitics.” What he meant was that in the 1980s American managers became obsessed with managing their popularity, and were more concerned with greasing the skids, avoiding tough conversations, and maintaining a favorable image. Thus an interest in productivity gave way to process and procedures. Controversy and conflict about what needs to get done and how to do it was replaced with the ambiguity of politeness, political correctness, and efforts to not offend.

We think this trend has continued, and perhaps even been intensified as the workforce has become more diverse and especially as it has gotten younger. Over the last year blogs at US News, Daily Finance, Forbes, and articles like this one in the New York Times have questioned the work ethic and entitlement mentality of generation Y. The youngest members of the workforce, especially in the US, have grown up in a sheltered environment; they expect praise and recognition and can be indignant when it is not forthcoming. They are not particularly open to critical feedback. No surprise, then, that at a time when talent retention and engaging employees is de rigueur we get silly advice to management such as, “don’t give employees a hard time about their weaknesses, celebrate their strengths.”

But there is an even deeper explanation for the lack of managerial courage to hold employees to account for their performance. The evidence comes from experimental studies of cooperation and the problem of “free-riding,” which reveal the individual- and group-level outcomes that accrue when some team members don’t carry their weight and drag on the performance of others. The first lesson from this research is that within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice.

However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not. But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual. You know, the kind of stuff that in another era was considered commendable because it served a greater good than self-interest.

In this light, it is easy to see why so many people in positions of authority are soft on accountability. In an age of career management and “psychopolitics,” where personal interest reigns supreme, who wants to risk being the bad guy? The unfortunate consequence, however, is that no matter what short-term costs an upwardly ambitious manager avoids by not playing the sheriff, they are overshadowed in the long run by the creation of a culture of mediocrity and lackluster organizational performance. Add this up over time and across departments and business units and the aggregate costs of neglecting accountability can be staggering for everyone.

Darren Overfield is a senior consultant at Kaplan DeVries. Rob Kaiser is president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions.


10 Leadership Practices to Stop Today

By Paul Spiegelman

If you want to be the best in your industry, you have to get rid of your outdated management style.

You might not feel it day-to-day, but business management is in a major transition. The old days of command-and-control leadership are fading in favor of what might be better termed a trust-and-track method, in which people are not just told what to do, but why they are doing it. More formally, we’re moving from what was called “transactional” leadership to “transformative” leadership. And there’s no turning back.

Business owners certainly have a long way to go, especially in more established companies where old practices die hard. But you can see increasing evidence that by creating a company with a clear purpose and values, you’ll find your employees connect themselves to something bigger, and that increases productivity. In other words, a culture of engagement leads to greater customer loyalty, and better financial success.

Here’s my list of “old school” practices you ought to chuck, and “new school” practices to champion instead:

1. Out: Micro-management, or the need to control every aspect of your company. In: Empowerment, the ability to give your people some rope–even rope to make mistakes without blame.

2. Out: Management by walking around the office; it is no longer enough to be visible. In: Leadership by watching and listening, engaging in conversation, implementing the ideas presented to you, and distributing the results.

3. Out: Pretending you know everything. You don’t have all the answers, so why try to make people think you do? In: Knowing your leadership team members and trusting them. Choose great people who have the right skills and fit the culture. And get out of the way.

4. Out: No mistakes, or a “no tolerance policy” some still think works. In: Learning from mistakes, or being the first to admit an error.

5. Out: The balance sheet drives the business, and informs all other decisions. In: People drive the business, boosting customer loyalty, and profit.

6. Out: Job competency is sufficient. Do the job asked, and you’ll survive. In: Recruit “A” players who will go the extra mile. They’re out there.

7. Out: Invest in technology to increase productivity. In: Invest in people.

8. Out: Demand change; be very specific about what you want and when. In: Nurture change; your people can come up with the best ideas and you can give them credit for it.

9. Out: Fried food in the cafeteria. In: Wellness in the workplace.

10. Out: Incentives; pay employees more money and they’ll do more. In: Rewards; being valued matters more than money.

So ask yourself which of these out-of-date practices you’re still using. There’s no time like now to try something new.

Paul Spiegelman is founder and CEO of BerylHealth, which manages patient interactions for hospitals, and co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. Read more at @paulspiegelman


10 Reasons People Resist Change

The Harvard Business Review gives us 10 reasons people resist change.  Are you guilty of these?

Leadership is about change, but what is a leader to do when faced with ubiquitous resistance? Resistance to change manifests itself in many ways, from foot-dragging and inertia to petty sabotage to outright rebellions. The best tool for leaders of change is to understand the predictable, universal sources of resistance in each situation and then strategize around them. Here are the ten I’ve found to be the most common.

Loss of control. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory. It’s not just political, as in who has the power. Our sense of self-determination is often the first things to go when faced with a potential change coming from someone else. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership.

Excess uncertainty. If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it. People will often prefer to remain mired in misery than to head toward an unknown. As the saying goes, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” To overcome inertia requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision. Leaders should create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables.

Surprise, surprise! Decisions imposed on people suddenly, with no time to get used to the idea or prepare for the consequences, are generally resisted. It’s always easier to say No than to say Yes. Leaders should avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It’s better to plant seeds — that is, to sprinkle hints of what might be coming and seek input.

Everything seems different. Change is meant to bring something different, but how different? We are creatures of habit. Routines become automatic, but change jolts us into consciousness, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Too many differences can be distracting or confusing. Leaders should try to minimize the number of unrelated differences introduced by a central change. Wherever possible keep things familiar. Remain focused on the important things; avoid change for the sake of change.

Loss of face. By definition, change is a departure from the past. Those people associated with the last version — the one that didn’t work, or the one that’s being superseded — are likely to be defensive about it. When change involves a big shift of strategic direction, the people responsible for the previous direction dread the perception that they must have been wrong. Leaders can help people maintain dignity by celebrating those elements of the past that are worth honoring, and making it clear that the world has changed. That makes it easier to let go and move on.

Concerns about competence. Can I do it? Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid. They might express skepticism about whether the new software version will work or whether digital journalism is really an improvement, but down deep they are worried that their skills will be obsolete. Leaders should over-invest in structural reassurance, providing abundant information, education, training, mentors, and support systems. A period of overlap, running two systems simultaneously, helps ease transitions.

More work. Here is a universal challenge. Change is indeed more work. Those closest to the change in terms of designing and testing it are often overloaded, in part because of the inevitable unanticipated glitches in the middle of change, per “Kanter’s Law” that “everything can look like a failure in the middle.” Leaders should acknowledge the hard work of change by allowing some people to focus exclusively on it, or adding extra perqs for participants (meals? valet parking? massages?). They should reward and recognize participants — and their families, too, who often make unseen sacrifices.

Ripple effects. Like tossing a pebble into a pond, change creates ripples, reaching distant spots in ever-widening circles. The ripples disrupt other departments, important customers, people well outside the venture or neighborhood, and they start to push back, rebelling against changes they had nothing to do with that interfere with their own activities. Leaders should enlarge the circle of stakeholders. They must consider all affected parties, however distant, and work with them to minimize disruption.

Past resentments. The ghosts of the past are always lying in wait to haunt us. As long as everything is steady state, they remain out of sight. But the minute you need cooperation for something new or different, the ghosts spring into action. Old wounds reopen, historic resentments are remembered — sometimes going back many generations. Leaders should consider gestures to heal the past before sailing into the future.

Sometimes the threat is real. Now we get to true pain and politics. Change is resisted because it can hurt. When new technologies displace old ones, jobs can be lost; prices can be cut; investments can be wiped out. The best thing leaders can do when the changes they seek pose significant threat is to be honest, transparent, fast, and fair. For example, one big layoff with strong transition assistance is better than successive waves of cuts.

Although leaders can’t always make people feel comfortable with change, they can minimize discomfort. Diagnosing the sources of resistance is the first step toward good solutions. And feedback from resistors can even be helpful in improving the process of gaining acceptance for change.

By Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor at Harvard Business School and the  author of Confidence and SuperCorp. Her 2011 HBR article, “How Great Companies Think Differently,” won a McKinsey Award for best article. Connect with her  on Facebook or at

Working Remotely

Guest post by Scott Edinger

Who is more engaged and more committed to their work and rates their leaders the highest?

A. People who work in the office
B. People who work remotely

If you picked A, you might be as surprised as the investment firm I worked with recently, which found in reviewing results of a 360-degree feedback process that the answer was, in fact, B.

The team members who were not in the same location with their leaders were more engaged and committed — and rated the same leader higher — than team members sitting right nearby. While the differences were not enormous (a couple of tenths of a point in both categories), they were enough to provoke some interesting speculations as to why this might be happening.

It made perfect sense to me, though. Here is why:

Proximity breeds complacency. I’ve worked with leaders who sit in the same office with those they manage but go for weeks without having any substantive face-time with them. In fact they may use e-mail as their primary source of communication when they sit less than 50 feet away. It’s even worse if they sit in different parts of a building — or all the way on another floor. This is not to say that these leaders are in any way lazy — just that because the possibility of communicating is so easy, it is so often taken for granted.

Absence makes people try harder to connect. When I managed a team of professionals in nine different locations, I made a point of deliberately reaching out to each of them by phone at least once a week, and frequently more often. I’m not an anomaly here. Most leaders I work with make an extra effort to stay connected to those they don’t ordinarily run into. They can see that taking even a few minutes to talk about what’s happening in their respective worlds before addressing the tasks at hand makes a difference in maintaining the connection with a colleague. What’s more, because they have to make an effort to make contact, these leaders can be much more concentrated in their attention to each person and tend to be more conscious of the way they express their authority.

Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools. Because leaders of far-flung teams have to use videoconferencing, instant messaging, e-mail, voicemail, and yes, the telephone, to make contact, they become proficient in multiple forms of communication, an advantage in leadership that their traditional counterparts could well develop but not so automatically.

Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together. Having had to make such an effort to get the team together, these leaders naturally want to make the best use of their precious time. They take care to filter out as many distractions as possible so they can focus on the work to be done together. They also typically spend more than an ordinary work day together, socializing at planned luncheons, dinners, and activities. This level of focused attention is hard to replicate day to day. I’ve heard from some employees who work near their bosses on teams whose other members work elsewhere that the most time they spend with their leader is when the others come in for such meetings.

None of this is to say that working remotely is better than coming to the office. Or that virtual teams are better than traditional ones. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that they are exactly the same this regard: Someone working in the same office with their leader needs just as much effective communication as someone located in a different office. It’s just that, ironically, they’re less likely to get it.

Scott Edinger is the founder of Edinger Consulting Group. He is a coauthor of the October 2011 HBR article, “Making Yourself Indispensable.” Connect with Scott at

Lessons from Famous Leaders

The gospel of Steve Jobs has spread far from Silicon Valley, inspiring people in every field of business.  To some, Jobs’ life has revealed the importance of sticking firmly to one’s vision and goals, no matter the psychic toll on employees or business associates. To others, Jobs serves as a cautionary tale, a man who changed the world but at the price of alienating almost everyone around him. For those who, like Jobs, have pledged to “put a dent in the universe,” his thorny life story has forced a reckoning. Is it really worth being like Steve?  Get the full story and decide for yourself.

Sally Ride, the United States’ first woman astronaut, rode into space on the shuttle Challenger in 1983. Ride was a woman and a person to be taken seriously. She was smart, determined and not one to allow biases to hold her back. In obvious and not so obvious ways, she was a pioneering role model of a leader. A close read of the Times’ obit on Ride yields a number of lessons for leaders from her life.  Read about three of her most admirable leadership qualities.

Another four years has passed, and a bunch of athletically gifted people running, jumping, biking, twisting, swimming, etc., are going to dominate your 52” plasma for the next two weeks. So what’s the big deal? For the casual observer, The Olympic games represent little more than a fresh source of entertainment and a chance to demonstrate a bit of national pride, but for the astute CEO, there is no better case study in how to pull off the seemingly impossible, while delivering the ultimate consumer experience with elegance.  Read the four leadership lessons From the Olympics.

As the chairman and chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Vince McMahon, oversees a global professional wrestling empire with programming in 145 countries. After almost singlehandedly redefining both “wrestling” and “entertainment” in the 1980s, McMahon has successfully steered the company through scandals and even severe miscalculations. Around the ring, though, business continues to boom. In 2011, the company brought in $483.9 million in revenue. As WWE prepares to celebrate the 1,000th episode of its flagship program, Monday Night Raw, Bloomberg Businessweek asked McMahon for his managerial secrets to success.

Practices for Productive Leadership

1.       Know what problem you are trying to solve. This sounds simple and it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people can run around, working on something, but have actually lost sight of the problem they set out to solve.

If you keep the problem front and center, you exponentially increase your effectiveness. It helps you prioritize. It helps you focus. It helps you bring in the right help. It helps you ask the right questions.

If you lack clarity in the problem you are solving, then you are most likely wasting a lot of time and effort. It’s tough to hit a target when you don’t know what it is. On the flip side, you can save a lot of time and energy when you know exactly what the problem is that you are trying to solve.

2.       Get smart people on a cadence. It’s a lot easier to build your execution muscle if you decide on a simple cadence. For example, on my teams, I like to focus on shipping weekly.

I use a pattern I call, Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection. On Mondays, as a team, we identify three wins for the week. Each day, we identify three wins for the day.

On Fridays, we reflect on our results by asking, “What are three things going well?” and “What are three things to improve?” The goal is to take what we learn and carry the good forward. So every week we are getting better and better.

This very simple cadence creates an efficient and effective learning loop. As individuals, and as a team, we very quickly surface the bottlenecks and opportunities to improve our results.

3.       Set boundaries and buffers. The best solution for burnout is to avoid it in the first place. This is knowledge work, and as one of my mentors puts it, “Brains work best when they are rested and relaxed.” The way to set the boundary is to first decide the maximum number of hours you expect to work for the week.

For example, one of my best managers forced me to set a limit of forty hours. This meant I had to ruthlessly prioritize and focus throughout the week to flow the most value. I could no longer throw hours at the problem. Instead, I had to get clear on the priorities, choose the best things to work on, and spend my time more wisely.

At the same time, I had to make sure I was creating space and allowing for things to go wrong. I’ve never seen a project where everything goes exactly as planned, and nothing changes. With that in mind, it’s better to embrace the reality and design for it, and create space so you can deal with unexpected surprises.

4.       Lead with your why. The key to great results is passion plus purpose. Start asking yourself, “Why do you do what you do?” Find the meaning and make the connection between the work you choose to bite off, and how it lights up your life.

If you live for adventure, then make every project an epic adventure. If you love to learn, then by-golly make every expedition a chance to learn a new skill, conquer a new challenge, and add a new tool to your toolbox.

Share your “why” with others. It’s contagious. The most unproductive teams I know have no purpose. They have no juice. They have no joy. They do work, and every bit of work is a chore. Ironically, it’s not the nature of the work, but our mental models that make work meaningful.

5.       Give your best where you have your best to give. One question I get asked often is, what’s the biggest game changer I’ve ever seen when it comes to execution excellence. I have to say, it’s always the same thing. Have people on the team spend more time in their strengths.

That includes you. If you want more out of you, then do more of what you love. Do more of what you are great at. Do more of what you can uniquely do.

The most ineffective teams I ever see are when people are all “out of position.” People are constantly working on things they aren’t good at or things that they hate. It kills their energy. In knowledge work, this is the “kiss of death.”

6.       Focus on outcomes, not activities. I can’t stress this enough. When you focus on outcomes, you find the critical paths and the short-cuts. When you focus on activities, you throw time at things, but don’t necessarily achieve meaningful results.

As soon as you start asking yourself, “What’s the goal?” or “What’s the outcome?” you will quickly find yourself getting clarity on the problem. It will refocus your effort and energy in a more meaningful way. You can shave away needless activities once you identify what you want to accomplish.

7.       Ask better questions. I heard a colleague remark the other day that too many people still operate under an old leadership model. The leadership model of the 70s was command-and-control. That made sense for industrial type work or in the military. It doesn’t work well when it comes to knowledge work.

The people in the trenches are the closest to the problems and they are also closest to the solutions. In today’s world, the key to effective leaders is asking the right questions. Inquiry is your friend.

One of my mentors uses a small set of questions to guide investments:

  • o    Who’s the customer?
  • o    What’s the problem?
  • o    What’s the competition doing?
  • o    What does success look like?

It’s simple but highly effective. One of my favorite questions to ask is, “What are you optimizing for?”

Question: What leadership practices have you found that make you and your team more productive?

This is a guest post by J.D. Meier. He is the author of Getting Results the Agile Way and blogs on personal effectiveness and leadership at Sources of Insight.  Read more practices for productive leadership here.