Saturday, September 24, 2011

5 Tips For Becoming A Better Leader

Earlier this week I reviewed the book Designing for Growth, by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie. In it, they propose that today's business professional, whether entrepreneur or seasoned corporate manager, needs to be become a designer of sorts, irrespective of their daily function. It's not a new idea, since design thinking has become mainstream over the past few years.

I liked how the authors made their case that the traditional business approach to a problem is profoundly different than a design approach: imagine two student teams—one composed of MBAs and the other of design students—tackling the challenge of how a consumer products firm should think about and respond to changes in the retail world over the next decade. How would they approach the problem?

The MBAs would most likely do a sweep of published data and analyses by industry experts, perhaps interview them, and benchmark leading retailers and competitors. They'd then extrapolate, produce forecasts, present a set of strategies, including financial pro forma spreadsheets, and deliver the whole thing in a PowerPoint presentation.

The design students would take a different approach. Analytical reports would be a part of their investigation as well, but they would use the reports to develop multiple scenarios of possible future states. They'd go out into the real world and start observing and talking to the real experts: customers. They'd focus on human needs, develop sketches of different customer profiles, called "archetypes" or "personas," and use the scenarios to craft storylines and model changes in the lives of these various profiles. They might conduct a brainstorm around "the store of the future." In the end, they wouldn't issue strategies or solutions in a PowerPoint, but rather mock up a few concepts to be quickly prototyped. Those concepts would be tested with real people in an effort to learn and get feedback.

The authors follow up their assertion by pointing out that "...professional managers tend to follow a set of maxims that simplify their professional lives. Sayings like 'keep your boss in the loop' and 'it's sometimes better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission' are good examples. Unfortunately, some of the old, reliable tenets don't work anymore. Here are six common management myths..."

Myth 1: Don't ask a question you don't know the answer to

This one is borrowed from trial lawyers, and it traveled into mainstream business because it always seems career-enhancing to look smart. Unfortunately, growth opportunities do not yield easily to leading questions and preconceived solutions.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Start in the unknown.

Myth 2: Think big

There is always pressure to be sure an opportunity is big enough, but most big solutions begin small and build momentum. How seriously would you have taken eBay or PayPal? To seize growth opportunities, it is better to start small and find a deep, underlying human need to connect with.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Focus on meeting genuine human needs.

Myth 3: If the idea is good, then the money will follow

Managers often look at unfunded ideas with disdain, confident that if the idea were good it would have attracted money on its own merits. The truth about ideas is that we don't know if they are good; only customers know that. Gmail sounds absurd: free e-mail in exchange for letting a software bot read your personal messages and serve ads tailored to your apparent interests. Who would have put money behind that? The answer, of course, is Google.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Provide seed funding to the right people and problems, and the the growth will follow.

Myth 4: Measure twice, cut once

This one works fine in an operations setting, but when it comes to creating an as-yet-unseen future, there isn't much to measure. And spending time trying to measure the unmeasurable offers temporary comfort, but does little to reduce risk.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Place small bets fast.

Myth 5: Be bold and decisive

In the past, business cultures were dominated by competition metaphors (sports and war being the most popular). During the 1980s and 1990s, mergers and acquisitions lent themselves to conquest language. Organic growth, by contrast, requires a lot of nurturing, intuition and a tolerance for uncertainty.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Explore multiple options.

Myth 6: Sell your solution

When you are trying to create the future, it is difficult to know when you have it right. It is fine to be skeptical of your solutions, but be absolutely certain you have focused on a worthy problem. You'll iterate your way to a workable solution in due time.

A better maxim for growth leaders is: Choose a worthwhile customer problem. Let others validate.

These six new maxims will not simplify your life. They will make it more difficult. And that's a good thing!

Thanks to Karen-Michelle Mirko / Open Forum / American Express Company


7 Body Language Mistakes To Avoid

You've probably heard how important body language is. It can literally make or break a sale. In the business world, dollars are attached to the outcome, so it is important to make sure you take body language—as in everything you are saying non-verbally—into account.

Body language includes all the things that are being said by everything from your posture to the way you play with your hair in the midst of a conversation. Believe it or not, all these things express what you may not be saying verbally, and the person on the other side of the table is picking up on every non-verbal word!

Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make:

1. Looking at your PDA

If you are looking at your PDA when someone is talking to you, it's a clear signal that you are not interested in what they are saying. It's also a sign of pure arrogance. Turn the PDA off and put it out of site.

One tip here—if you need to take notes, avoid taking them on your PDA because it will look like you are texting. Instead, opt for using the old pen and paper. Ironically, even if you are doodling out of site on paper, you will be looked at more favorably than if you are typing notes into your PDA.

2. Clasping and rubbing hands together

If you are doing this it says you are nervous or uncomfortable. Rubbing your hands together may also be an indicator that you believe you have sealed the deal and money is headed your way. This could be seen as arrogant. Let your hands naturally rest at your sides or on your lap, depending on if you are sitting or standing. Also, avoid doing things like cracking your knuckles, which is believed to be a macho attention seeking behavior.

3. Dressing messy

There is cool, stylish and there is, well, just plain sloppy. If you look sloppy, it will come across that you are unprofessional and just don't care. It may also be an indicator of the way you do business. But if you are stylish and well put together, on the other hand, it shows that you are current and caring.

4. Clock watching

Whether it is looking at your watch or checking the time on the wall, it says to the other person that you have something more important than what they are saying. It will make the other person feel rushed as well. Forget the time and focus on the meeting at hand.

5. Arm crossing

Keep tabs on what you do with your arms. If you have them crossed, it makes you look defensive and closed off, or that you are disregarding what they are saying. Open your arms so that you appear to be inviting.

6. Eye rolling

You have to know that every word coming out of your mouth, no matter how sincere it may sound, will be instantly defeated with even a half a second rolling of the eyes. Save the eye rolling for when you are back in your car or office and out of sight.

7. No eye contact

When you are looking everywhere but at the person in the eye, it makes them think you can't be trusted and that you are holding something back. Make good eye contact to build trust and show you are engaged and interested.

In the business world you have just a minute or two to pull someone in. But one of these business body language blunders can take just seconds. Don't lose a deal or customer simply because you weren't on your body language game. Keep these tips in mind so that your body works for you, rather than against you!

Thanks to Mike Michalowicz / Open Forum / American Express Company


5 Things You Are Micro-Managing, But Shouldn’t Be

As an entrepreneur, it is probably hard to not micro-manage something going on in your business. After all, it's your baby and you want to make sure that everything goes as planned, correctly, and even exceeds expectations. While all that is understandable, you may be having a counterproductive effect if you are micro-managing particular areas of your business.

Letting go

There are some areas of your business that you will have to learn to let go of if you really want to see growth and have success. This may be hard to do, at least at first, but once you give it a try, you will probably be quite pleased with the results and feel more comfortable the more you do it.

Here are five things that you should never micro-manage in your business:

1. Creativity personnel

One of the fastest ways to stifle creativity is to have someone try and micro-manage it. If you want your creative employees to be come up with great ideas, give them some room. This is an area where you need to get out of your own way so that the creativity can flow.

2. Contractors

Whether you hire contractors to work in-house or you outsource, don't waste your time micro-managing them. Instead, focus on hiring qualified professionals in the first place, so you can feel confident the job is being done right. This is especially true when it comes to creative-types, like graphic designers. They are the experts, so you should let them put their skills to use for your company.

3. Delegated tasks

If you have chosen to delegate tasks to people, great. It can free up your time, so you can do more important tasks. But if you follow it up by micro-managing them to get those tasks done, you have defeated your purpose. Any task that you feel can be delegated should also be free from micro-management.

4. Sales teams

If you want to create stress and pressure with your sales team then micro-manage them. But if you want them to do their jobs well and sell, then simply give them the training and tools they need and back off. Sales people are generally working on a commission-based structure and therefore driven for the end results. You should not micromanage every step they make in trying to get the sale. Instead gauge their sales successes.

5. Administrators

Administrators work at making others people's jobs easier. If you are micromanaging them you are bringing back work to yourself that this person was hired to do. The end result is more work for you, and more frustration for the employee.

There are many reasons why you should avoid micro-managing, as you probably can imagine. It often makes people feel upset and defensive, and you will have the opposite impact that you are seeking. Anyone you have hired and made a part of your team should have the benefit of the doubt that they are qualified for the position for which you have hired them. And if they are not, then it may be time to re-think having them as an employee because they are costing you more, since you feel that you must micro-manage what they are doing.

Thanks to Mike Michalowicz / Open Forum / American Express Company


What Makes An Effective Leader?

I can't count the number of times I have heard, "OK, now what?" from people in my organizations—and from clients. It is human nature for people to want to know what's next when something they planned or expected goes wrong. It is also instinctive for most leaders to answer the question directly, with their best idea about what to do next, given their perception of the situation.

That may be precisely the wrong thing to do. A better response is, "We need to think about what happened and then get together and talk about it." Why? Because the odds are high that no matter how well-informed you might be as the leader of any organization, you don't know enough, and certainly not enough to make an important decision "just like that."

People in organizations usually filter information they pass on to the boss. They may not lie, they just "clean it up" and leave out some of the details. The problem is that the important stuff may be in those details, or in what was omitted. Subordinates figure it is their job to fix problems and not pass them up the line. Thus, they also feel they don't need to pass on all the ugly details either. They may also be afraid of the "kill the messenger" problem hurting them.

That means the best leader, even if he or she is the smartest person in the place, will be making brilliant decisions based on incomplete and flawed information. How do you think those decisions work out? Badly, that's how. Those are the decisions that make the folks down in the ranks shake their heads or roll their eyes to the ceiling and wonder, "How could they decide that?"

When your answer to "Now What?" is to think about it, and sit down and talk about it, the chances for getting good, useful information about what happened goes up a lot. If the "boss" can resist giving any impression of looking for who was at fault or who to blame, the quality of the information grows even better. Finally, if the leader actually seeks input and advice, or background information, before weighing in with ideas and action, the chances for a good, workable solution go up even more.

People usually have a pretty good idea of what went wrong, and why. They just are afraid to say so. Have a talk about it in a neutral location, over a table where there is no evidence of rank, and facts flow much more freely.

Effective leaders often have to be "servant leaders." They have to be coaches and cheerleaders and collaborative problem solvers even more of the time. Very seldom do leaders need to be stern taskmasters, and/or dictators. Get the people involved; get them to share, and share the problem with them. Collaborate on a solution, using as much of their input as possible. Only when a direction is emerging (or a tough decision must be made) should the boss/leader step up and say, "Ok, here's what we need to do." And then if delegation of work, action, etc., is required, do that too; clearly, with expected results and time frames.

Leaders are in their positions because when tough decisions must be made, he or she needs to step up and make them—and then follow through until changes are implemented.  And if the leader has gained good input and valid information—and incorporated his organization's thoughts and ideas into the action plan—the people will get behind it.

Now get out there and practice.

Thanks to John Mariotti / Open Forum / American Express Company


Identifying Good Managers Through Leadership Competencies

Managers need to have certain competencies to effectively influence the behaviors of others and ultimately achieve desired results. Some competencies come naturally, while others need to be learned and practiced. Organizations should spend time thinking through desired competencies and identify appropriate training options, such as for these 12 common leadership competencies:


1. Interviewing and Hiring


Leaders and managers need to understand the basics of interviewing and hiring. It is important to be prepared for interviews by becoming familiar with the job requirements and candidate qualifications. Being able to identify the right fit for open positions helps ensure the organization secures the best talent.


2. Delegation


Delegation is an art that leaders need to master. This can be difficult for the new manager because it requires handing responsibilities off to others. Learning to trust others to perform tasks takes skill and practice. Once learned, delegation can be very liberating for a manager and allows the manager to perform higher-level tasks.


3. Supervising


This is often a challenge for someone who has not had management experience. Training on what to do and what not to do when managing others can help minimize issues related to supervising skills.


4. Conflict Resolution


Conflict in the workplace is an inevitable reality. When not managed properly, conflict can affect relationships between individual people and groups of people. Leaders should be able to manage conflict and help influence win-win situations. This can be done by negotiating and collaborating with all parties.


5. Emotional Intelligence


Emotional intelligence is a leader's ability to manage his or her emotional response to people and situations. Emotional intelligence is a mark of professional maturity that can be learned, but can take years to develop and a lifetime to master.


6. Communication Skills


Managers need to have good written and verbal communication skills to effectively communicate with employees. There also needs to be structured organizational communication processes that all employees understand to ensure information is filtered throughout the organization.


7. Team Building


Leaders need to be able to build strong teams that rally around the vision of the organization. Leaders must understand how to manage team dynamics, team development, and team conflict.


8. Motivating


Leaders need to understand what inspires and motivates employees. There are many different motivation models that can be incorporated into a manager's strategy for employee motivation. It is important to remember that we are all motivated by different things. The trick is to identify what motivates employees and develop systems and processes that support those motivators.


9. Coaching


Being a good coach can be one of the most rewarding aspects of managing others. Helping employees build on strengths and improve weaknesses is an integral part of the professional development process.


10. Performance Management


Managing performance is critical to meeting corporate objectives. Managers need to be able to set expectations, write goals, hold employees accountable, and reward employees for good performance. This also includes coaching and disciplining employees when necessary.


11. Problem Solving


Managing people and processes requires problem-solving skills. Problems could be with employees, work processes, or product quality. Management must understand basic problem-solving techniques, be able to identify problems, and facilitate a process to resolve issues.


12. Agent for Change


Progressive organizations understand that change is constant and that in order to move forward, organizations need to continually improve what they do and how they do it. Organizations are being forced to make dramatic improvements, not only to compete but to survive in today's economy. Therefore, leaders need to be able to lead the charge on change initiatives.


Employee performance is how corporate objectives are met. Having the ability to identify specific leadership competencies can help create an environment that motivates, develops and manages employee performance.


Patricia Lotich is an MBA who is passionate about helping small business owners see their vision come to life by creating infrastructures that support business development and growth through strategic customer focus. She writes for, and is the founder of The Thriving Small Business. 

The Power Of The Mastermind

In his book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill introduced the concept of the mastermind. He defined a mastermind group as "the coordination of knowledge and effort of two or more people, who work toward a definite purpose, in the spirit of harmony."

People from all walks of life can come together in masterminds for all sorts of reasons: Business growth, personal growth, emotional support, motivation, to work on a specific project and to develop a sense of community. Masterminds go far beyond mere networking—they require commitment and a desire to learn, grow, support others and receive support.

Being part of a mastermind group offers five significant benefits:

1. Professional support

The group can help you develop business skills, give you insights and feedback on your projects and ideas, and stimulate you to think and do things you haven't considered before. They'll support and critique your vision, help you get clear on your plan of action, and point you toward reliable resources, suppliers, leads and referrals. 

2. Emotional support

Finding sources of support can be difficult for self-employed individuals and business owners. Mastermind groups provide a safe environment to be vulnerable and share your ideas, dreams, victories and defeats. They help reduce stress and eliminate distracting internal dialogue.

3. Clarity

Knowing where you are and where you want to be is important but knowing how you're going to get there is absolutely critical. It can be the difference between success and failure. A mastermind group can help you by offering a fresh perspective, pointing out your blind spots, reminding you of your priorities, highlighting the most efficient path, identifying opportunities and pitfalls and helping you create a clear, efficient action plan.

4. Efficiency

Masterminding with other skilled people can dramatically shorten your learning curve. New ideas and solutions arise effortlessly.

5. Focus

Most business owners struggle not because of what they know but because of what they don't know. A mastermind group can help you focus on the tasks and priorities you need for success, even when you're unaware of what they are.

Many different models exist. Some are democratic, while others are dictatorships led by a leader who makes decisions and facilities the directions and rules. Some are run like a business, with a business plan and a paid administrative person to handle notes and logistics. There are open-topic groups with fluid memberships, as well as event-based groups where as many as 100 people meet periodically for retreats, focus groups and presentations. There are even company-sponsored mastermind groups that focus on their company's interests, and purely social groups.

When joining or forming a mastermind group, you'll want to consider a number of things in advance:

  • Group size: Large groups offer a deeper pool of resources but developing intimacy can be difficult. Small groups can be intimate and easy to coordinate, but may struggle if one or two members are regularly absent.
  • Admission policies: Does the group admit new members? If so, what approval process does it follow? Do the current members vote? Does admission  require a unanimous vote? Do new members go through a trial period?
  • Meeting format: Does the group meet in person or by conference call? If conference call, do they hold periodic retreats or get-togethers? Where do they meet? How often?
  • Commitment: How long will the group work together? (A short, realistic initial commitment works best. After that passes, many groups hold a formal process in which members decide whether to recommit or leave.)
  • Group policies: How does the group handle confidentiality agreements, absenteeism, competition and conflict of interest, "firing" someone who's not a good fit, and complaints?
  • Mission statement: What's the group's focus, direction, and intentions for itself? Who does this group serve? Do the members share a group vision?

Mastermind meetings don't have to be complicated—a simple agenda usually works best. Most groups start with a basic check-in. Each person takes one or two minutes to tell how they're doing, what's new, and any important issues they want to cover during the meeting. (In a large group, only those who have issues to raise that day may speak.)

An alternative method involves deciding in advance which person's needs and goals will be the focus of the next meeting. That person usually must submit any information that needs reviewed to the group before the meeting in order to give the group a chance to really help. At the end of the meeting, the group will work together to create an agenda and assignment for the next meeting.

Great achievers know the synergistic value of collaborating on a regular basis with a carefully selected group of peers. Their encouragement, insights, strategies, and connections can inspire and motivate you to reach greater heights in a shorter period of time than you would on your own.

Murray is a business advisor, entrepreneur, mentor, speaker and New York Times best-selling co-author of The Answer. Murray has started or turned around 13 different businesses including Indian Motorcycle, American Brands, Dave and Busters (Canada). As a testament to his abilities, he bought the Indian Motorcycle trademark from bankruptcy and built it into the second-largest U.S. motorcycle company in the world; with sales exceeding $75 million in the first year and a business value of $300 million. He currently operates three businesses dedicated to helping people, organizations and companies attract more clients and discover new and untapped revenues in their business'. 

Thanks to Murray Smith / Open Forum / American Express Company


Don’t Be “That Guy” As A Manager

I'm noticing a lot of references to "that guy" these days. Maybe because I work at a college campus? There's no shortage of that guy references, including references to all kinds of things you shouldn't do in bars, on college campuses, in dating, in social media, in fantasy football, and on and on.

That guy is usually described as basically full on himself, socially clueless, arrogant, a jerk, completely lacking self-awareness, and gets drunk a lot. That guy references always include a list of specific examples of behaviors, in an effort to hopefully educate that guy readers (because there are so damn many of them).

The behaviors are usually not blatantly obvious - the idea is to point out common behaviors that not everyone is aware are obnoxious.

Although men tend to dominate the that guy market, "that girl" references are popping up as well. Let's hear it for equal opportunity.

Google "don't be that guy" or "don't be that girl", and see for yourself.

What about that guy managers?

It's easy to spot the obvious that guy managers when it's someone else – it's the Michael Scotts, the Pointy Haired Bosses from Dilbert, and the stars of the recent movie "Horrible Bosses". However, given our general lack of behavioral self-awareness, it's a lot harder to see it in ourselves. But have no fear – take the following Great Leadership "Are you that guy manager" quiz to find out if you have any of the tell-tale signs:

1. Do you often show up late to your own team meetings or one-on-ones, and then offer a half-hearted "sorry, but it's been a crazy day"?

2. Do you think you're funnier than any of your employees because your jokes always get the most laughs? If you answer yes to this one, then you'll probably also answer yes to…..

3. Do you think your ideas are always the best ones because your employees always agree to them and never question them?

4. Do you complain about members of your team in front of other members of your team?

5. Do you frequently complain about your manager, "the company", your peers, your suppliers, or your customers?

6. Do you make suggestive comments, swear, tell crude jokes, or frequently pick on your employees?

7. Do requests for information sit in your inbox for days, and then, when it's close to the due date, you ask one of your employees to respond with minimal notice?

8. Do you practice "management by walking around" at 4:45pm when you're employees are getting ready to go home, or during their peak workload hours?

9. In your one on ones or at meetings, do you find yourself doing most of the talking?

10. Do you have trouble remembering little details about your employee's personal lives? Like they names of their children? If they have children? Or your employee's own names?

If you answered "yes" to five or more of these questions, then you are definitely "that guy". There may be help for you, but you first need to admit there's a problem.

If you only answered "yes" to a few of these, then you're probably just slightly flawed, just as we all are. With a little self-awareness, desire and coaching, any of these little annoying behaviors can easily be fixed.

How about you? What "that guy" manager behaviors would you add to the list?

About Me:- Dan McCarthy I've been a practitioner in the field of leadership development for over 20 years. I'm currently the Director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics (WSBE). The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and don't represent the views of my current or former employers. Email me at danmccarth at gmail dot com with your requests for post topics.

Jack Zenger’s Top 10 Leadership Rules

Jack Zenger is an expert in leadership development. As co-founder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a consulting and leadership development firm in Utah, he has authored several books on the topic, including the bestseller The Extraordinary Leader.

"I've always been really fascinated by what allows some people to be highly motivational and inspire others to work at a higher level," he says.

Here are his top 10 rules for becoming a great leader:

1. Ask instead of answer

"Don't immediately give people the answer when they come to you with a question," Zenger says. "Instead, ask them what they think. It is the leader's job to develop his or her people. To just give them the answer is to have missed a real opportunity to show them that you respect them and their ideas."

2. Give positive feedback

"Make sure your ratio of positive comments to challenging comments is at least five to one," he says. "It is important to have positive interactions between you and your employees. The healthiest and most productive groups are ones where they are generally supportive and reinforcing and positive in their interactions.

"If you don't agree with an idea, ask the idea generator to think about it and talk about how it would play out. This will force your team to think through their suggestions and see where their failings are. Remember, as a leader, you may not always be right."

3. Engage

"When you come into your office in the morning, don't turn on your computer until you have walked around the office and connected with people first," Zenger suggests. "Leadership is all about motivating people, and motivating people is all about having a connection with them. There needs to be a bond."

"It is very easy to ignore your colleagues and go into your office and miss that opportunity to check in at the beginning of the day. There is real value in connecting with people and letting them know you care," say Zenger.

The Extraordinary Leader : Turning Good Managers Into Great Leaders By Joseph Folkman, John Zenger

4. Put employees first

"In every organization, there are four different constituencies: shareholders, senior managers, customers and employees," he says. "We are seeing examples of organizations who have consciously made the decision to put employees first, customers second, shareholders third and managers last.

"If you treat the employee with great dignity and respect, they in turn will treat customers really well."

5. Seek feedback

"Periodically, a manager should wander around their place of business, meet with an employee and ask, 'Tell me something you think I don't want to know and don't want to hear,'" he advises. "It may take people a while to figure out that you are serious, but then, they will tell you. If you can be appreciative to what they say, you will learn some things that are extremely valuable about what is going on inside your organization."

"One thing managers and leaders have in short supply is truth. Things get filtered as they go up in the organization. You have to work to get accurate data. People will tell you if you ask."

6. Be an example

"As a leader of an organization, you are the role model and people are watching you 24/7; you are never off-stage," Zenger says. "If you want the organization to be responsive to customers, you have to be responsive to customers. If you want your people to maintain good working hours, you need to maintain good working hours."

The Inspiring Leader : Unlocking The Secrets Of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate By Scott K. Edinger

7. Practice self-development

"If you want your organization to perform at a high level and improve over time, you have to improve over time," he says. "You need to practice self development and let the organization know you are working on planning more efficient meetings, making decisions more accurately and speedily, etc."

"You need to have a personal plan of development for yourself. If you do this, it provides a great example to everyone in the organization and says, 'No matter who you are or where you are, you can get better. I am going to keep on getting better, therefore I expect everyone in the organization to do the same thing.'"

8. Delegate with purpose

"Make sure your people know that you are not only concerned about them getting their work done, but you are also concerned about them as a human being -- about them growing in their career," Zenger advises.

"One way to do that is to delegate an assignment and tell them the reason you've asked them to do the task is because it will help them and their professional development."

9. Set stretch goals

"Nothing unites a group more than pursuing a lofty target," he says. "Try setting a stretch goal for your team. There is enormous reward and satisfaction when achieving your goal. Just make sure it is reasonable. If the goal is unreasonable, it can be de-motivating."

The Extraordinary Coach : How The Best Leaders Help Others Grow By John H. Zenger, Kathleen Stinnett

10. Listen

"The ability to listen well is at the heart of being a good leader," Zenger notes. "Try removing distractions when you are speaking with someone, start making notes when they talk and pay attention to body language to get a real sense of their feelings.

"Try not to just listen to the words said, but really think about the message someone is trying to convey."

Katie Morell is Chicago-based writer and frequent OPEN Forum contributor. She regularly contributes business, feature and travel articles to national and regional publications.


Thanks to Katie Morell / Open Forum / American Express Company



10 Unexpected Ways to Improve Your Leadership Skills

John F. Kennedy once said, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." And as an entrepreneur, it is important to remember that! Running your own business takes being a leader. But how does one improve their leadership skills? In more ways than you probably realize...

Beyond the Books

There are many ways in which you can improve your leadership skills, and a variety of them are probably right under your nose, only you don't recognize that quality in them. Here are 10 unexpected ways that you can improve your leadership skills:

1. Take race car training. You may think it is a solo sport, but you are so wrong! It is all about the radio communication with the pit crew. Master communications during intense (think 210 mph turns) situations and you can do it anywhere.

2. Join a rowing club. They make it look easy, but the skills you will gain here are timing and consistent team execution, valuable in any business. You will also gain team-building skills, and your biceps will probably even see some improvement.

3. Volunteer. Spend time learning how to motivate a group of volunteers when you can't use a paycheck. You may be surprised at the people skills you come away with.

4. Engage in organized sports. Take up something like -- soccer, football or softball -- and you will learn to find people's strengths and build on them. It will give you an eye for picking up on assets you might otherwise have missed.

5. Go skydiving. Seems risky, right? That's the point! You will learn all about taking risks and what all is involved to have a successful jump. Just like in the business world, there is more to it than simply taking a leap.

6. Go to karaoke. And while you are there, be the first person to get up and sing. Nobody wants to be the first person to get up on that stage, but doing it will make you feel empowered and more like a leader.

7. Go undercover. The television show "Undercover Boss" has demonstrated that company executives can become better leaders when they understand what their employees face on a daily basis. So go deep and see what you find!

8. Face your fear. What is your biggest fear? Take on that fear and face it. You will be amazed by how empowered and in control of your life you feel afterward. It takes courage to face a fear, just as it takes courage to start and run a business.

9. Watch movies. Hold a movie night and get a couple of movies that demonstrate great leadership, such as "Miracle," or "Remember the Titans." There are many good ones to choose from, and hey, it gives you a legitimate excuse to sit around in your jogging pants, munching popcorn!

10. Learn body language. One of the biggest determinants for being a successful leader is communication skills. They are essential! But most people focus solely on being able to talk and write, when nonverbal communication makes up the majority of how we communicate. Focus more on what is not being said, and you will have a better idea of where to go when leading. Whether you read a book, take a course, or tune in each week to "Lie to Me," learning about body language can be really helpful in business.

Great Leaders

The list of interesting ways to improve your leadership skills could go on and on. You may find that there are many activities you can do right now that will help you improve those skills. As Kennedy said, leadership involves learning. So your challenge is to keep finding ways to improve your leadership skills. And, as you see from this list, you can actually have some fun at the same time!


Thanks to Mike Michalowicz / Open Forum / American Express Company



The 3 Step Productivity Slump Reversal

I'm blissfully basking in my productive flow; last week was spent de-cluttering. From the cellar to the attic; it all got the treatment. The mice no longer have a place to hide and the dust mites go hungry. After a spout of qualifying for numerous awards such as good housekeeper of the year, most generous charity donor and recycling Queen, the clear house, office and mind give way to positive things. Firstly I feel good, I feel light, clear and in control, but more importantly in one way or another getting organized and taking control leads to a more productive and creative me.

Step 1: De-clutter your space

The week prior to my eclectic productive state, I was low, I had fallen off the wagon, my creative juices were absent and I had forgotten what were the productivity beliefs I wholeheartedly agreed to. But then there was a shift. It started by revisiting my goals. I reminded myself of the things that I want from my life. I thought of the goals that excite me; the ones that challenge me and I repeated to myself all the reasons why I want to achieve them.

Step 2: Remind Yourself of your Goals

Next I took restock of my positive habits, the yoga and meditation that calm and clear my mind, the exercise that invigorates me, and the healthy food that nourishes my body. I do have good habits but it wasn't always this way.

My youth was chaotic. I liked to refer to the chaos as spontaneity and I clung to this title for many years feeling like it represented my "Libertad". Throughout the years and with each additional offspring I reluctantly adopted routines and habits to help assist me with my parenting, then gradually in my career and throughout my life.

Step 3: Re-engage Positive Habits

What I discovered was that spontaneity and living life without the structure of routines may be fine when backpacking across Australia but try to run a household, a business, have meaningful relationships, study, write, exercise, meditate with this attitude. And that's just Monday's tasks!

I'm afraid I only know one way, and that way involves systems, routines and good positive habits!

Go with the Flow

Please don't get me wrong. If opportunity comes knocking and the change to do something out of the routine, away from the norm, I'll go all in and happily break the routine to feel the freedom and wind in my hair. Having children can regularly induce this state of non-conformity; I make my plans and set my goals and BAM! Someone is sick and needs their mama. Or someone is bored and needs a playmate. Or someone is naughty and invades ones workspace.

These are the times you use Branson's words and say, "screw it let's do it" and I get an opportunity to be spontaneous again.

So what am I saying?

I'm saying it's ok to break the rules and go with the flow of the moment, but then what? Then jump right back on that wagon with your goals set and your positive habits installed. It's a lot easier to get back on track after life throws a curve-ball or a little marble of interruption in your day when you have your goals and habits to support you. Strive for your goals but don't forget to be present and smell the roses every once in awhile. This will ensure that you achieve what you want to achieve as well as enjoy the journey.

In Summary: Productivity Slump Reversal

1. De-clutter. A clean sweep will always get things going in the right direction.

2. Remind yourself of your goals and why you want to achieve them.

3. Re-engage positive habits that support and encourage you.

Life is the journey people, don't forget to enjoy each day.

11 Traits Of A Great Employer

Darcy Breeman works for Edward Jones, a company that recently came in at No. 2 in Fortune's annual list of the 100 Best Places to Work. So what makes that investment company unique and why is it on the list? Well, just consider Bremen's story:

"I'm in the process of adopting a newborn and will be a single mom. Jones will send someone to my office to cover me while I'm gone and serve my clients... I can [then] come back and take a couple of appointments a day and then come home. If I want to bring my daughter into the office, that's fine. They [even] have an adoption reimbursement plan."


One thing I always tell small business people is that we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Big businesses have scores of smart MBAs coming up with great ideas and there is nothing wrong with cherry-picking the best.

So here then are some of those ideas. How do you measure up against the best of the best employers? Here's how to tell: You know that yours is a great place to work too if:

1. You offer a flexible work schedule: In this e-era, employees expect that they will be able to occasionally work where, and even when, they want. The 9-to-5 age is dead.

Offering flex-time, allowing people to make schedules that work for them, and being supportive of those choices is an easy and affordable way to attract great employees.

2. You make your workplace kid-friendly: Obviously, Edward Jones does this, but so does the company that was named the very best place to work in 2010, the software firm SAS. Aside from offering a laundry list of great benefits like unlimited sick days and a medical center on site, the company also offers its employees discount childcare and, in the summer, day camp.

Again, making a workplace kid-friendly or even pet-friendly is an easy, affordable, and welcome way to make your staff happy.

3. You foster a culture that is creative and fun: When you read or see profiles of high-flying, successful startups like Google or Facebook, what do you notice about the workplaces? One thing for sure is that they cultivate an atmosphere of looseness and creativity. For example, items like ping-pong and Foosball tables tend to be liberally spread around. At Facebook, people go from meeting to meeting on scooters.

Adding an Xbox to the break room or a basketball hoop in the parking lot are simple ways for small businesses to easily emulate these ideas.

4. You cultivate the whole person: Great workplaces appreciate that people have various skills and interests. They are about more than having that person do their narrow job every day. Instead of denying that people have interests outside of work, great employers use that.

At Qualcomm, employee benefits include "baseball games, surfing lessons, kayaking tours, white-water rafting, bonfires, bowling, and volunteering opportunities."

How happy do you think their employees are?

5. You don't tolerate jerks: We have all worked with jerks, heck, most of us have worked for jerks. But not at Robert W. Baird & Co. The investment firm has a rigorous hiring process that supports my favorite policy on this list:

Baird has a "No [jerks] rule."

6. You reward great customer service: The Methodist Hospital System measures the satisfaction of their customers (i.e., patients), "every quarter. If the hospital goals are met, bonuses for non-management staffers of up to $300 are handed out."

7. You understand people have lives outside of work: At the Johnson Financial Group, employees who have to go on leave due to a personal crisis continue to get full pay. CEO Richard Hansen says, "JFG will always do what is right."

8. Your mission inspires your people to do their best: Great businesses are about a lot more than just making money, and the best employers get their employees to buy into their mission.

Example: The mission of the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk is to "find a cure for diabetes." As one employee put it, "How many pharmaceutical companies can claim that their goal is to cure the very disease that keeps them in business?"

9. You listen: At CHG Healthcare, employee suggestions are not only welcomed, they are actually implemented. As a result, the company now has an on-site fitness center, daily fruit baskets, and a yearly wellness fair.

10. You have a good incentive program: Almost every company on the Fortune 100 list has some sort of creative incentive program that rewards employees for a job well done.

Do you?

11. You pay a decent wage: People work for all sorts of reasons, but the main one is pay. You cannot expect to be considered a great employer if you don't pay well. It need not be above the norm for your industry, just a good, honest, fair wage. If you don't, all of the fancy creative benefits in the world won't make up for the fact that your people will feel underpaid and unappreciated.

Bottom line: Almost any of the benefits listed here can easily and affordably be implemented by any small businesses, and all will make yours a better place to work.




17 Signs That You Are A Great Boss

We all like to think that we are good people to work for (well, most of us do), but is it true? I have been hearing from a lot of people about bad bosses lately – maybe it's the economy – and one thing I noticed is that few bad bosses actually see themselves that way.


So, which witch are you? The good, or the bad?


Here's how to tell:


1. You don't micromanage: There are few things more frustrating than the boss who not only is not happy with your work, but tells you how to do it to boot! Great bosses trust that the people they hire are smart enough to do their job, even if you might do it differently.


2. You know how to have fun: People work for all sorts of reasons, pay is just one. We work to learn new things, meet people, sharpen skills, get ahead, and yes, socialize and try to have a good time. The best bosses temper work with fun, knowing that the latter reinforces the former.


3. You push, but know when to back off: Employees usually want to be challenged to do their best, and if they like where they work, they will strive to give that. Great bosses are like great coaches – they know when to push and when to back off so as to draw out the best from their team.


4. You have good manners: Some of the items on this list are intuitive, others less so. Saying "please" and "thank you" may seem like a little thing but in actuality, it's not. The boss who does not say please or thank you usually makes people feel crummy. Having some manners shows respect and garners respect.


5. You treat employees like adults: Good bosses know, for instance, that if Megan says she needs to come in at noon on Thursday, she probably has a good reason. The best bosses treat employees like adults and expect that they will act that way. This too fosters mutual respect.


6. You are fair: The hallmark of the bad boss is unfairness. He or she plays favorites, has strange priorities, and makes life difficult. The opposite is also true. The great boss treats people equally to the extent possible and make sure that the workplace makes sense.


7. You also make exceptions: Yes, fairness is important, but not everything and everyone is always equal; just like you have to respect the differences in your children, so too do you need to do so in your staff. For instance, one month, Phil may need to get all of the extra overtime hours due to his financial situation. Making exceptions, when appropriate, is usually the humane thing to do.


8. You reward good, hard work: Rewards can come in all sorts of forms. Monetary is best of course, but recognition for a job well done can sometimes be equally effective.


9. You create a team: Great businesses are ones where people get behind a goal and pursue it in unity. That requires a boss who can motivate the team, sell them on the goal, and lead them in that direction. Which also requires that…


10. You lead: You are not in business to be your employee's best friend; instead, you are in business to create a business and make a profit. That requires that you have a vision for your business , sell people on that vision, and then lead them down the field in that direction.


11. You teach, and learn: The great bosses teach skills, business acumen, and sometimes, life lessons. They help employees get to the next level in their development. And by the same token, a really good boss knows what he does not know and is willing to learn some new tricks.


12. You listen: Bad bosses rarely listen. Good bosses always do. You may not agree with what you hear (and then again you might) but your people know that you are fair and are willing to hear out a different point of view.


13. You don't engage in petty office politics: Good bosses don't gossip (mostly!) They do not pit one person against another. They do not take credit for someone else's work. They don't feel threatened when someone makes a good suggestion.


14. You make people feel valued: Bad workplaces are typically apathetic places because the employees fell disconnected because they think that what they do and think does not really matter. In contrast, the great boss engages people so that they feel empowered, respected, and valued.


15. You set realistic, achievable goals: People who work for you know what is expected of them, period.


16. You criticize, and compliment too: A really good boss knows that both compliments and criticism are needed to keep the ship afloat and that too much of one or the other can throw things off-kilter.


17. You inspire: My best boss ever helped me realize, to quote the great Nathan Lane in The Producers, "There is more to you than there is to you!" The best bosses help people help themselves.


So, are you a great boss, or do you know one? Share your story below! 

Talent Is Important, But Winning Is The Goal

The easiest way to be a successful coach is to have the best talent -- it beats all the other ways.  And how do I know this, you ask? I tried several ways in successive years teaching little league.

One year I was lucky in the blind draft and got several of the best athletes (and one who was clearly the most talented player in the league).  He could pitch superbly, hit the ball hard and far, and when not pitching, he was a great shortstop.  Better yet, he had a great attitude and work ethic, and loved learning how to get better. Thanks to him, and several other talented boys, we easily won our league and the area championship.  I looked like a masterful coach with great game plans because the kids could execute them well.

The next year, I wasn't so lucky.  The blind draft went poorly and the talent we had was much weaker. Our draft choices left us with fewer of the large, well-coordinated kids and more of the smaller and less-talented ones on our team.  Needless to say, the season was not easy. I had to be a much better coach that year, using more intelligent game plans, and juggling players constantly to keep key positions covered with talented players while getting playing time for all the boys.

First, I had to convince the kids that they could win, which was no small task.  Then I had to help them to learn how: hustle, hard work, attention to the basics of the game, and have an opportunistic attitude about finding ways to score.  When you run a lot in little league and get the other team throwing the ball around, you often get to keep running, and therefore, scoring runs.  That was something my smaller, less coordinated kids could still do: run.  And they did.

Fortunately, they learned well, followed our plan, and in the end we won the league again -- just barely. But a league championship is still a big win, and the trophy didn't say "just barely" on it. It said champions!

Lesson learned: Having the best talent makes winning a lot easier.  With less than the best talent, it is still possible to win, but it requires a much more carefully crafted strategy, using the talent you have in the best ways, constant attention to good execution, and lots of hard work and hustle.

The second lesson from this experience, and one that is exhibited time and time again in college and professional sports, is that blending the talent with strategy is critical. The same is true in organizations of all kinds.  This integration of talent, strategy and execution manifests itself in any setting where a small number of "players" are interacting at once.

In basketball, when one player is seriously deficient, 20 percent of the five-person team creates a weakness that competitors can exploit.  This is often the ratio in business where management teams of five to six people are common.  One weak player is a challenge; two or more is a real problem.

A wise coach makes plans to compensate for a weaker player.  A wise manager or executive does likewise.  In both cases, the truly successful leader quickly decides whether the weakness can be overcome by learning, or whether the person must be replaced. Note that I said by learning.

People's basic behavior cannot be changed much once they are well into their mature adulthood (age 30, more or less).  The only way their performance can be altered is if they learn new behaviors and unlearn the older, less effective ones.  This idea of learning and unlearning is important since it presents a great opportunity to save a loyal, experienced person from imminent failure.  It can also be a dangerous trap because of relapses into old behaviors.

The conclusion of my little league learning can be summarized in a few points:

1. Having the best talent is the best way to win and it gives the leader a chance to excel.  Choosing, finding and keeping the best talent and maximizing success is a special skill-set for leaders.

2. Winning is possible without the best talent if the strategy and execution is designed to take advantage of the talent available and capitalize on opportunities -- but winning this way is lots harder.

3. A leader will almost always have a weak performer in a group. Maybe even more than one.  The wise leader learns to compensate for the weakness and help the weak performer improve through learning/unlearning. Or, if that doesn't work fairly quickly, they replace that person.

4. Winning is important, but the margin of the win is not as important.  Whether you get the big job, the big order, etc. by a little or a lot, the "trophy" seldom says, "just barely" on it.


Thanks to John Mariotti / Open Forum / American Express Company