What to do when a high-performing employee seems off their game

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Q: What is the first thing you should do when you notice that a usually great-performing employee seems off his or her game?

1. Pull them in to talk

Early intervention is key. The last thing you need is for an off day to develop into a work funk. Maintaining a casual, friendly relationship with employees is a great way to keep your interpersonal radar on point. Even just noticing that someone is feeling down might be enough to get the ball rolling again. -- Tim Chaves, ZipBooks Accounting Software

2. Lead with compassion

When a star performer on my team seems to be off their game, my first action is open communication and genuine concern. I've learned to never make assumptions about someone's personal state. As a leader, when I show a teammate I truly care about them and that being off for a time period is OK, they usually open up and allow me to help. It's often something simple and easily rectified. -- Daniel Reilly, B2X Global

3. Be a human being first

It's important to approach the person with genuine concern for his/her well-being first -- not a concern over job performance. Do not ask for personal details they may not want to share. Rather, acknowledge that he/she doesn't seem like themselves recently (specifically -- down, distracted, tense, etc.), asking if it's something outside of work or an internal job issue, and how/if you can help. -- Lindsey Groepper, BLASTmedia

4. Check for burnout

It's rare to find an employee that can fire on all cylinders all the time. When I notice one of my star team members isn't performing as well as they usually are, I ask them some questions about their workload and how they're feeling. Usually, these bottlenecks can be explained by a feeling of stagnation that can be alleviated by switching things up a little. -- Bryce Welker, CPA Exam Guy

5. Focus on the big picture

We do everything we can to stay focused on what we call "rocks" -- the big, game-changing goals that really move the needle. When employees prioritize these goals, they’re able to make direct impact on the company, which can be highly motivational. I encourage everyone to fill their days with work that makes an impact. -- Lisa Curtis, Kuli Kuli Inc.

6. Have a heart-to-heart

Employers are often afraid to talk to their employees about what may be bothering them when they notice something is off. They fear getting too close to the employee and being vulnerable. The best way to see what's going on is to pull them into a room, let them know you've noticed something is off and ask them what's on their mind. Make sure you keep it confidential and let them open up to you. -- Dan San, Meural

7. Hold space

As a founder, I view my role as casting vision, setting the course, supporting my team and cultivating leaders. Everyone is off their game some days. It is my job to make sure everything is OK. I support their direct manager in finding quiet one-on-one v where they can ask what is going on in their lives in a safe way. Most times this is all it takes for an employee to share what is going on. -- Jennifer Mellon, Trustify

8. Be direct and transparent

I encourage organizations to practice radical transparency. When a usually great-performing employee seems off his or her game, I ask him or her directly and transparently, "You are a high performer who is valuable to the work our company does. But I sense that you're off your game lately and I want to check in to see that hopefully, I'm wrong about that. If not, how can I help?" -- Robert J Choi, RJC & Company Transformation Engineers

9. Make sure they have the right tools

Find out if they are missing any tools or introductions to make their job easier. If they still seem off their game you can have them download a time management tool and see the parts of the job they are slacking off on. Then, laser focus on those parts and see how you can help. -- Syed Balkhi, OptinMonster

10. Determine the issue and resolve it

As an entrepreneur, I've had my fair share of employees who have been "off" due to a variety of problems. The first thing that I like to do is find out whether he/she is having problems. If so, then I am compassionate and understanding and will offer limited PTO so he/she can resolve the problem. I find that if I am understanding of my employees, they will be open and honest with me. -- Kristin Marquet, Creative Development Agency, LLC

11. Take a learning moment

Take a moment to learn more about them and what they may be going through. Everyone has personal lives and as a founder you have to respect that these team members are giving up most of their lives to work at your company. The best founders I have worked with are also the most understanding founders. The more you understand someone, the better your relationship will be with that person. -- Sweta Patel, Silicon Valley Startup Marketing

12. Look in the mirror

The interesting thing about top-performing employees is that generally speaking, when you believe that they are falling short of expectations the problem could easily be you rather than them. Before approaching an employee that you feel is not performing up to snuff, make sure that your expectations are in line before creating an issue where one does not really exist. -- Ryan Bradley, Koester & Bradley, LLP

13. Pry and pry again

Pry a little, not too much, to obtain an answer. Try asking indirect questions to get to the bottom of the source of the issue -- it may be a personal issue in someone’s life or it may be an issue with the job, and sometimes the issue may be YOU, so be open minded and detach from any projection of the problem. -- Matthew Capala, Alphametic

14. Listen to their ideas

Many times, great employees will start to get bored with the routine of doing the same thing day in and day out. This makes them start to lose their passion. You can fix this by listening to their ideas and inviting them to meetings where they get the recognition for the idea. Make them feel heard and help them be seen in the company as the asset that they are. -- Chris Christoff, MonsterInsights

How would you respond to losing your desk?

Imagine you have worked in the same work setting for years, nested in your office or cubicle filled with your favorite photos and a plant you’ve nurtured despite fluorescent lights. Now you learn that your company is moving to an activity-based work environment -- also referred to as “hot-desking.”

No more desk, let alone your own office or cubicle. No desktop computer with sticky notes reminding you to smile. Now, each morning you will go to your assigned locker, gather your “stuff” and find a place to work in a free-seating setting where 150 of your co-workers are also choosing the space where they will work for the day.

In a recent survey, 66% of 400 Asia-Pacific companies declared they are moving to activity-based workplaces by 2020. You might expect to see these transformational workplaces at the Googles of the world. But if you work for a more traditional company, you might be freaked out when you are told to abandon your personal space and radically change the way you work.

I recently had the opportunity to work with an organization whose employees are in varying degrees of denial and panic as their entire work life is about to be upended. After seeing renderings of the new workspace laid out like a library, with a variety of tables and groupings, employees expressed their fears and concerns.

  • Not knowing where I’m going to sit when I walk in the door each day adds the pressure of another decision I have to make.
  • What if I prefer a certain space, but when I get there, it’s taken?
  • I’m afraid cliques will form. All the cool kids will stake out an area exclude me.
  • I guess if I sit next to someone who bugs me, I can get up and move somewhere else. But I’m already exhausted thinking about facing that unknown possibility every day.
  • I’m worried about being able to focus with all the distractions.
  • Losing my office means losing status and power.

Listening to employees’ reactions, the science of motivation has never been more relevant. Consider how a workplace designed for ABW potentially erodes the three psychological needs required for thriving at work.

The need for choice (autonomy). The argument is that an ABW environment gives you ultimate choice. After all, you get to choose where to sit every day, right? But you may not have a perception of choice because, if you could choose, you’d prefer a private space that you can personalize. You also wouldn’t choose the potential daily disruptions over a comforting routine. Your perception of choice is also eroded because you didn’t have control over the decision to move from a traditional workplace structure to the open, community-based one.

The need for connection (relatedness). The rationale for the new ABW setting is that it promotes collaboration, breaks down the hierarchy, creates community and stimulates cross-functional innovation -- all of which should satisfy your need for connection and belonging. Even if you appreciate the idea of building community and being exposed to other people’s jobs that can promote empathy and creativity, you may be more fearful of being marginalized, handling awkward situations or having to deal with people you don’t like.

The need for competence. An underlying premise of ABW is that people learn more by rubbing elbows with people who were stuck in a silo. You might find the day-to-day variety exciting as you sit next to the accounts payable clerk one day and the CEO the next. But it’s the little nagging questions that tend to erode your competence. You are unsure about the protocol for asking the person sitting next to you to lunch, especially if it’s the CEO. How do you handle phone calls? Do you have to whisper into the phone or run to another area? What if you need your computer for the call -- do you lug your computer with you? How do you suddenly function without paper or all your reference materials?

The science of motivation explains why your sense of well-being is threatened, as ABW is bound to challenge anyone’s psychological needs. However, motivation science can also provide an antidote. When you are faced with a major change, improve your chances of experiencing choice, connection and competence by asking:

  1. How do I awaken choice? Recognize you always have a choice and some control within stated boundaries. Take control over your own responses to the new situation. Choose to focus on connection and competence.
  2. How do I awaken connection? Find ways to act on your values and work-related purpose. Think bigger by focusing on how you can contribute to and build a community for the greater good. Advocate for changes or improvements that promote justice and fair play.
  3. How do I awaken competence? Appreciate what you might learn from this experience. Share what you learn with others who need direction or support. Be grateful for the opportunity to grow, demonstrate resilience, and gain wisdom from the experience.

Addressing your personal concerns by satisfying your psychological needs will help you successfully adapt to major change such as an activity-based workplace. As the world changes, perhaps your most important skill is learning to master your motivation by recognizing the opportunities you have to make choices, deepen connections, and build competence.


Susan Fowler is the co-author of the newly revised "Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard and Laurence Hawkins, and lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Self Leadership product line. She is also the author of the bestseller "Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does." Fowler is a senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Cos. and a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership Program at the University of San Diego.

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Be your best self every day in every way

When you change how you think about leadership, it changes how you think about life.

I believe that effective leadership isn't a position. It's a choice to serve others.

Effective leadership isn’t a conversation – it’s a philosophy. And it’s not a different philosophy for work and a different philosophy at home and a different philosophy with friends or with neighbors – it’s one philosophy.

Cheri Huber’s 1988 book “How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything,” describes this philosophy of life very well.

One’s plans, decisions, and actions must be aligned across every context, every role, and every interaction. This philosophy of life offers a better path than chasing the unattainable “work-life balance.”

Work-life balance is a myth. Separating work and life, today, is more difficult than it ever was. When you act in alignment with your best self, in every situation, there is no imbalance to address. You’re fully in sync, able to help others succeed, no matter your role.

This is a calmer, consistent, compelling path: Living your servant purpose and values, in service to others, every day.

In today’s three-minute Culture Leadership Charge video episode created exclusively for SmartBrief readers, I outline how to elevate your leadership philosophy, even if you’re not a formal leader at work. Clarifying your personal servant purpose, values and behaviors will simplify your life so you can serve kindly at home, in your community, and at work.

It doesn’t make sense to be different “people” in different contexts. So, don’t. Be your best self in every role, in service to others.

ubscribe to my free twice-a-month newsletter. Subscribers enjoy free resources including a preview of my Amazon best-seller, "The Culture Engine," which helps team and company leaders create a powerful, purposeful, positive, productive work environment.

And, subscribe to my YouTube channel, where you’ll find more short, crisp, and clear episodes of my "Culture Leadership Charge" video series.

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When you work for a bully

Do you remember the broad-shouldered guy on the playground who made a habit of chastising the skinny kid who struggled at sports? Or the popular, pretty girl, the one with the fabulous wardrobe and great hair, who had an acid personality? She offered up cutting remarks about the girls who weren’t wearing the latest fashions. Little did she know that in your case it was because your parents were barely making ends meet, or your sister suffered from cerebral palsy and needed costly therapy.

Do you ever wonder what happened to these schoolyard bullies?

They grew up to be bullies in the workplace.

When you work for a bully, the feeling is familiar, especially if you’ve someone who wasn’t at the top of the social totem pole in your youth. It’s the boss that expects the extreme and makes you feel less-than when it’s not delivered. This kind of leader revels in your success, but claims it as his or her own, with little regard for promoting your accomplishments to the larger organization. They are content to bask in admiration and allow others to attribute landing that high-profile client or meeting that impossible production deadline to their gifted skill set.

They show little authentic regard for the team that made those accomplishments possible. The five weekends that you gave up with your family to take a project to fruition aren’t even on their radar. Face it, you’re working for a self-absorbed narcissist who is desperately afraid that the truth will be revealed about the actual level of his or her capability.

Bully bosses come in many shapes and forms, which is why their presence and its toxicity inside the organization is so insidious. They are masters of their craft, stealthy in their approach. They can cause you to question if what you’re feeling is the product of your imagination or the true impact of being treated poorly by the person who is responsible for supporting your development.

There are variations of workplace bullies, but in my experience, they are grounded in three basic archetypes:

The loudmouth. This is the all-too-familiar “I know everything and am always right” kind of bully. Despite all evidence to the contrary, you cannot move them off of their position even when facts prove them wrong. This bully boss likes to surround him or herself with a bevy of accolytes that publicly parrot their point of view. Woe is the team member who voices disagreement, presents dissenting data or somehow takes the spotlight off of the boss. They are likely to be sidelined, have their capabilities called into question, humiliated in front of others, or worse.

The passive-aggressive. To satisfy this bully boss, you have to be a mind reader in order to anticipate their every need. With their desire for recognition, their need for adoration; and their necessity to be seen by others as more than they are, this boss is like a 50-gallon drum with holes in it that you cannot fill. What they lack most is a sense of true identity and authenticity, which can’t ever  be obtained externally. Psychological game playing and gaslighting are trademarks of their craft. They make you ask yourself, “Am I crazy?” And, the answer is, firmly, "No, you’re not."

The promise-breaker.  This is one of the more painful and below-the-radar bullies, and slowly ropes you in. They prey on victims who are hungry for an opportunity to grow and develop by working to gain their trust. Soon, it seem as though they want to do more for you than they actually do. For a while, you’re tricked into believing that they are an advocate for your career and will support you for future opportunities.

Then, you begin to experience the promise-breaker asking for unreasonable favors. They request, for example, that you work for a salary that’s lower than you deserve, but promise to make it up to you soon. Their explanation for the request seems reasonable at first. You hear things like “We  have a tight budget this year, but I really want to bring you on board” or “We’re just getting our business off the ground, so everyone has to make a sacrifice, but the future returns will be worth it.”

Before you know it, you’re like one young woman I know who was working 80 hours a week, to earn $400, while waiting for the “one day” when she’d be paid fairly for her efforts. That day never arrived.

Here’s the important thing to remember about bully bosses: They aren’t just born, they’re enabled.

They’re given permission for their bad behavior by every organization that rewards their results without examining how those results were achieved. They’re enabled by every leader who turns a blind eye to their reputation in the workplace and disregards the poison that the bully boss pours into the company culture. They are empowered by every colleague and peer who knows the truth of their leadership style and does nothing to defend their victims or demand their departure. They are also enabled by the teams that they assemble.

When someone on your team is bullied by the boss, it’s everybody’s issue, not just the victim. It’s a form of abuse that’s real and devastating, one that metastasizes with time, creating a hostile and demoralizing workplace culture for everyone. If you are standing by watching, you’re part of the problem.

Silence doesn’t rid the organization of this behavior. What does is a coalition that takes action.


Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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All the Common Excuses for Not Delegating Boil Down to Lack of Confidence

Leaders delegate important work when they trust their team and know their own worth.

Lessons in team chemistry from the San Francisco Giants

In the world of professional sports, there is no substitute for talent. But extraordinary talent never reaches its full potential without good chemistry, and good chemistry improves with great leadership. Here’s how Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants creates the conditions for chemistry to flourish.

1. Players are people first

This requires a fundamental shift in how management sees players. Professional sports is big business. Athletes who put themselves on the bidding block for millions of dollars become the unofficial “property” of clubs who will program and hone them into winning revenue machines. Players become “our most important assets,” “our payroll” and our “acquisition costs.” They are treated like “commodities” traded in the open market.

Property. Products. Assets. Commodities. How can we create impassioned teams that do amazing work when we talk about people in such objectified, dehumanizing terms?

Bochy sees it like this: “For me it’s about who you see first. Do you see a player or a person? An opportunity or a human being? A statistical profile or someone with hopes, dreams, needs and a family? A person or an asset that can be leveraged in a trade?”

What if our organizations were as human as the human beings in them?

The San Francisco Giants don’t see people as a commodity to be managed to grow revenue; they see revenue as a commodity to be managed to grow people and grow the community.

Bochy has figured out that chemistry is born from treating individuals as human beings, not units of production.

“I want our players to know that through all the frustrations, disappointments, victories, and celebrations I care about them as people. They aren’t toys we can pull out of the box and play with anytime we want. They aren’t robots who perform exactly the way we think they should just because we punch in a code based on some statistic. And, they aren’t pawns in a game. They are real people, with real lives, who have real feelings.

2. Mine the story behind the story

Great leaders make people feel significant simply by being interested in their lives. Nobody wants to be anonymous. When people are interested in us it says: “We value you because you are valuable. You matter.” It makes you feel like family rather than an insignificant weed waiting to be pulled for a better crop.

When Bochy talks to his players, they will tell you that he’s fully present, not somewhere else. He doesn’t just stop talking, he invites players to engage by asking “hospitable” questions and then, he gives them space to do so.

Bochy explains, “Nobody in our club wakes up in the morning and says, 'How can I screw it up for the other guys today?' But if a player does something to negatively affect me or another player or the team, it’s easy to demonize them without ever asking, 'What’s driving this? What’s behind the behavior?' If we don’t get to what’s going on underneath it, we might miss an opportunity to make a bad situation better.”

How many times have you missed an opportunity to lead or screwed up an opportunity to instill confidence in someone because you couldn’t get past the veneer?

The people you lead right now want to know: Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do you understand me? Do you care about me? Do you see the worth in me? The story behind the story isn’t going to present itself on the spreadsheets and printouts prepared by the statisticians. It is not on the resume or their Linked In profile. You have to be interested enough to go get it.

3. Expectations matter

Every team wants to make a run at the World Series. Many teams have the raw talent to do it, but only two teams get there each season. The challenge comes when what a team wants is not what it expects. There is a difference between what we can do and what we will do. The talent of a team determines what it can do. Expectations determine what it will do.

Bochy is no pushover. He expects a lot from individual team members. This creates an atmosphere where team members expect a lot from themselves. Players who expect a lot from themselves also expect a lot from other players. This cycle elevates the entire team. Here’s why.

  • Expectations elevate. Leaders elevate us with their expectations. They push us to see beyond what we see. Their expectations whisper: “I see something in you that you don’t yet see in yourself. But trust me, I wouldn’t put you in this position or ask this of you if I didn’t think you could do it.”
  • Expectations overwhelm doubt. Players (people) rarely bring their best selves to the game when they are faced with doubt, when they are operating out of fear. Who does? Doubt undermines confidence. Bochy is a realist, but he has an extraordinary ability to give people the “benefit of belief.” It’s about seeing the potential in players, who they can be, and then telling them with no BS that he has confidence in them.
  • Expectations clarify. Great players want to know where a manager is going, how she/he plans to get there, and how they fit into the equation. Everyone needs a north star. Bochy is laser clear about these things because he was a player. He knows it builds trust and instills confidence in a club.


Jackie and Kevin Freiberg are co-authors of "NUTS! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success" and the recently published "Bochy Ball: The Chemistry of Winning and Losing in Baseball, Business and Life."

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Nice guys are, well, nice guys

Professional golf may be the only sport that rates its players on being “nice when no one is looking.”

Golf Digest gives an award for being a “Good Guy.” To win the award, a player must be “nice when no one is looking.”

Being nice is inherent to golf. Competition does not preclude courtesy.

Fans know the good guys from the not-so-good ones. The ones who smile and make eye contact, and will pose for selfies or sign autographs, are fan favorites. The ones who won’t, aren’t. Pretty simple.

What we non-pros can learn from such behavior is how to behave in public. And this is important for leaders, especially. Why? Because leaders like golfers are always on stage, even in their off-hours. For this reason, making nice is not a “nice-to-do” (pun intended); it’s a must-do.

Now, no one is perfect. Bosses, like golfers, lose their cool, but like the nice-guy golfers, they apologize for their behavior. They also seek to make amends by acting more nice -- polite, courteous and approachable -- the next time.

And, guess what? You'll get nice in return, at least most of the time. And if you don’t, well, then suck it up. After all, not everyone plays by the same rules. But good guys always do.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. Global Gurus ranked him No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”

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Gabrielle Union Gives an Impromptu Pep Talk You Won’t Soon Forget

The never-shy star and entrepreneur gave us her take on leading without fear.

How are you listening as a leader?

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by C. Otto Scharmer.


Listening is probably the most underrated leadership skill. How you listen can be life-changing; not just business- or industry-changing.

At the heart of most examples of colossal leadership failures -- which are in no short supply -- leaders are often unable to connect with and make sense of the “VUCA” world around them; that is, a world defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Listening is important to us as individuals, not solely to leaders. If you are not a good listener, there is no way that you can develop real mastery in any discipline.

In my work, the most consistent feedback we have received from the hundreds of workshops, programs and innovation journeys we have facilitated is this: Shifting your mode of listening is life-changing. Shifting how you listen, the way you pay attention, sounds like a really small change.

But here is the thing: Changing how you listen means that you change how you experience relationships and the world. And if you change that, you change, well, everything.

It is truly amazing how quickly people can shift their way of listening and attending. What I mean by “attending” is this: Wherever you put your attention as a leader, as an innovator, as a change maker, or as a parent, that is where the energy of the system around you will go -- including your own energy.

But being a leader who listens takes work: practice, review, peer feedback and more practice. To become a better listener, you must understand the four archetypes of listening.

The four types of listening reflect the underlying principles of the opening of the mind, heart and will are:

  1. Dowloading: This type of listening is limited to reconfirming what we already know. Nothing new penetrates our bubble.
  2. Factual listening: We let the data talk to us and notice disconfirming information. Doing this requires opening the mind—that is, the capacity to suspend our habits of judgment.
  3. Empathic listening: We see the situation through the eyes of another. Doing this requires opening the heart: using our feelings and our heart as an organ of tuning in to another person’s view.
  4. Generative listening: We listen for the highest future possibility to show up while holding a space for something new to be born.

When you listen on Level 1, downloading, your attention is not focused on what the other person says but on your own inner commentary. For example, you may be planning what you will say next.

As you cross the threshold from downloading to factual listening (Level 1 to 2), your attention moves from listening to your inner voice to actually listening to the person in front of you. You open up to what is being said.

When you start to cross the threshold from factual to empathic listening (Level 2 to 3), your place of listening shifts from you to the other person. That is is, from your small vehicle (the intelligence of your head) to your larger vehicle (the intelligence of your heart). You step into the other person’s perspective. For example, you might think, “Oh, I may not agree, but I can see how she sees this situation.”

Finally, when you cross the threshold from empathic to generative listening (Level 3 to 4), your listening becomes a holding space for bringing something new into reality that wants to be born. You listen with openness to what is unknown and emerging.

What I have learned in my work is that the success of leadership and change work -- whether that’s organizational change, industry change or life-changing work -- depends on the ability of you, the leader, to observe your quality of listening and to adjust the quality of listening to what is needed in each situation.

Dr. C. Otto Scharmer is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation that helps leaders from business, government, civil society to innovate at the level of the whole system. His just-published "Essentials of Theory U" serves as a pocket guide for practitioners that distills all of the research and materials found in "Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future."

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Michael Phelps Even Brushes His Teeth Better Than You Do

The Olympic superstar is passionate about conserving the stuff he earned all those medals swimming around in.