Let’s teach our children to become leaders

You don’t have to try very hard these days to worry about the need for leadership. Just turn on the news. There seems to be no end to the political upheaval, violent extremism, threats of nuclear proliferation, dangerous environmental disasters, corporate misbehavior and poverty around the world.

As for me, I watch my 2-year-old grandson playing while trying not to obsess about it. Where are our leaders?

An objective definition of leadership is “the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.” Viewed through that lens, perhaps the problem isn’t so much a lack of leaders, but that we’re seeing charismatic individuals leading us in directions that have terrible implications for humanity. In other words, we’re letting some bad apples get the better of the apple cart.

When most of us think of great leaders, who comes to mind? Abraham Lincoln? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Maybe Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or Jane Addams?

The historical figures we cherish as great leaders were not perfect people. They didn’t possess superhuman talents, and they didn’t know everything. But each of them was so sure of something that it propelled them forward against many odds and at great personal risk. Each was willing to put themselves on the line for what they believed would benefit humanity.

It would be a mistake to think that being a great leader requires headline-grabbing actions. Consider Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first black supervisor and a leader in the (then) new field of computer programming. It took more than 50 years for her story to come to light in the movie "Hidden Figures." She and her colleagues were not perfect, and they didn’t know everything. They worked hard to develop their unique talents, and believed in the country’s nascent space program so passionately that they pushed against significant social and legal barriers to participate.

In fact, most “great leaders” probably didn’t think of themselves as such. They were more concerned with the change they wanted to see, and the change they wanted to be.

So how can we cultivate a new generation of leaders to match the achievements of those from the past? Whether you are thinking of your role as a parent, mentor, teacher, supervisor, or CEO, my advice is the same: Be the leader you want those around you to become.

Stand for something. Think about your values. Be open about them. And then invite those who look up to you to think about and share theirs. Be respectful when their values do not align perfectly with yours. Even better, ask them why they feel the way they do. You might learn a thing or two, which brings me to ...

Be open to new ideas. Know-it-all types get us into trouble, every time. Good leaders know when to balance unshakeable faith with new ideas and information. They are driven by what is right, rather than with being right. 

Serve. If you are of a certain age, you remember when John F. Kennedy (another imperfect individual who is remembered for his leadership) said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” How do you serve your community? Whether you are a trustee of a major philanthropy or you volunteer at the local soup kitchen, let those who look up to you know how it makes you feel. Better yet, invite them to work side by side with you to see for themselves.

Try. Fail. Try again. Given the current conversations about anxiety and fear of failure, I think we may have lost sight of this concept. Demonstrate for others your willingness to go outside your comfort zone, without knowing how things will turn out. Thankfully, there are many ways of doing this without jumping out of an airplane or swimming with sharks. Find an experience you can share. Go to a cooking workshop or public speaking class together, or try a kickboxing workout or guitar class. Cultivating the ability to try new things on a small scale builds the ability to take risks on bigger, more important things.

Ask for and accept help. The very definition of leadership is being inclusive of others. Every leader in every age has had teachers, colleagues, supporters and assistants. Demonstrate your willingness to share the burden and the glory.

Own up. Take responsibility. Show others that you take responsibility, even when it is embarrassing. When you apologize, do so with humility. When you accept the consequences, do so with grace. On the flip side, give credit where credit is due.

Simple, yes, but not always easy. It is tempting to hide in our corners, believing that we are paralyzed by rhetoric designed to divide us into idealogical camps, as if were impossible to find a common human thread. But that wouldn’t be very leader-like, would it?

Instead, turn off the TV and close the newsfeeds on your phone. Engage in life and take your kids with you. Expect to fail, expect to apologize, and expect to be frustrated. You won’t be disappointed. Then expect to see your children (or employees or mentees) outpace you at every turn, becoming passionate, values-driven leaders willing to take risks you never would have considered. You won’t be disappointed on that count either.

I will leave you with good news. There are amazing young leaders around us, right now, working hard for humanity. Malala Yousafzei, now in college, continues to travel the world advocating for girls’ rights to education. Aja Brown, who in 2013 was the youngest mayor ever elected in Compton, Calif., just started her second term.

Naisula Lesuuda is the youngest woman in Kenya’s parliament and a leading advocate for women’s rights. Qin Yuefei and his fellow Yale graduates founded Serve for China, a nonprofit that helps villagers build roads, connect to clean water and the internet, and improve local schools. I could go on, but you get the idea.

And lest you think these are the outliers, consider this: Crowdpac, a nonpartisan crowdfunding platform that supports broad and inclusive political candidacy, reports that twice as many candidates signed up in the first 40 days of 2017 as in all of 2016, and that more than 60 percent of those running for office on their platform are millennials. Now that’s good news about the future of leadership.

 

Dennis C. Miller is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach, executive search consultant, author and keynote speaker. He is the managing director of The Nonprofit Search Group, with more than 35 years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country. Dennis is also an expert in board governance, leadership development, philanthropy and succession planning. In addition, he is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator and leadership performance coach. Dennis can be reached at dennis@thenonprofitsearch.com

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Communication is about people, not technology

The context of US political and policy communications has undergone a seismic shift with President Donald Trump’s frequent use of Twitter. Can business leaders rely on electronic and social media as a primary mechanism for seeding the ideas that build effective teams and cultures?

Laura was recently appointed to a high-profile role with international responsibility and a diverse group of employees geographically dispersed around the globe. It’s a dream job, one in which Laura can apply her considerable experience to make a huge impact on her company’s success by serving customers and generating repeat business. But the stakes for Laura and her team are high. They need to reverse a three-quarters-long downward trend in sales and address growing customer attrition.

After taking the new position, Laura realized that she’d inherited a group that had rarely met in person and had not gelled as a team. Some of the leaders working for her had never even been in the same room together, relying instead solely on electronic communications. Therefore, Laura’s first leadership decision was to conduct an in-person strategy and team building session, which would bring all of her team’s key decision makers together for the first time.

Unfortunately, just weeks after her appointment, Laura’s company instituted travel restrictions in an effort to cut costs. When we met to plan the team session, the meeting appeared to be in jeopardy.

“I’ve gotten 8 calls today alone from employees asking me if the meeting is still on,” she told me. “I know I’m taking a risk, but this session is critical to our success, so I’m moving forward with it. With the tough goals we have ahead this quarter and next, I need these folks to look each other in the eye and commit to achieve them.”

“I can’t lead by tweet.”

Like most good leaders I know, Laura understands the difference between communication and conversation. Today’s social media and electronic technology offers leaders a great way to share information or give directives, but rarely are they an adequate replacement for the activities that build real relationships and establish the foundation required for a strong team culture. For that, you need conversation, and a forum for the intimacy of idea exploration and exchange.

Research shows that most human communication occurs in the non-verbal form, which cannot be gleaned through text or tweet. And, despite our access to sophisticated technology, emojis are not replacements for visually reading facial expressions, anymore than 140 characters constitutes a robust conversation.

With the extreme reliance that most organizations place on electronic forms of communication, it’s important for leaders to be aware of its limitations and take extra precautions to assure that they are communicating directly and unambiguously as much as possible. Here are some important communication considerations:

You’re not working with every available tool

The use of email, texting, intranets and other forms of electronic communication offers access to only some of the available forms of human communication. The risk of others misinterpreting your message or gaining an incomplete understanding of it is huge, so careful crafting of verbal and written communications is essential. It’s important to know what you want the ‘take home’ message to be and what impressions you want to avoid.

Therefore, the ability to critically think, write and verbally communicate now has equal value to the technical competencies that are required for success in your functional area.

Sleep on it

It’s tempting to quickly dash off an email or post something on your company website, but taking time to carefully review it and having a few other people examine important communications before they’re sent is essential. I once had an editor who insisted on reading important articles that she planned to post after thinking about them overnight. She often made corrections that improved the final product after having a chance to sleep on it.

As a general rule, the more you feel a communication is urgent, the more important it is to carefully review it. If you don’t have time to "sleep on it," at least employ the 15-minute rule: Wait 15 minutes after composing any communication and re-read it before posting or sending. Think about the message from the receiver’s perspective, which will give you a sense of the impact of the message. That may be very different from your intent.

Know the color of their eyes

Many leaders rely on technology to reduce the cost of doing business, which allows for the creation of global teams. However, it’s important to budget for periodic in-person meetings to maintain a strong team culture. At the very least, well-designed video collaboration activities is a must if you truly want to foster healthy communications across your team and cement peer-to-peer working relationships.

Find ways to develop personal connections

One of the most frequent complaints that I hear from clients whose teams are virtual is how hard it is to establish the kind of personal connection that you might otherwise experience with someone who is working in the same office. With team calls, for example, individuals will log or dial in at the appointed time, and business will be discussed. But once that’s completed, everyone goes back to his or her own job in regions around the world. There’s no easy way to drop by a co-worker’s cubicle for a chat if they’re in London and you’re in Los Angeles.

One leader I know devised an interesting approach to the problem of geography when working to build his team. Each Friday, he holds a "social hour" conference call, during which 15 minutes are devoted to resolving any lingering business issues from the week, and 45 minutes are dedicated to discussing a pre-assigned topic. One week, for example, the team discussed their favorite films and the personal insights they gained from them. Another week, team members discussed a book they’d read, and what they’d learned from it.

The leader feels that the process has resulted in better team collaboration around work related issues, a greater understanding of the diverse backgrounds represented on the team and deeper personal relationships among co-workers.

Generational differences can and do affect communications

With five generations in today’s workforce, it should come as no surprise that the generations differ in their communication styles and preferences. However, particular attention should be given to millennials, who represent the largest share of the American labor force, according to the Pew Research Center.  Because they are often tech-savvy and drawn to electronic forms of communication, leaders may actually need to encourage millennials to devote more time to in-person communication. For this cohort, texting is more socially acceptable than conversing in person.

While millennials may be an easier generation for leaders to reach via technology because of their reliance on it, they may also be the group most likely to overlook the importance of nonverbal communication. As a result, they’re more susceptible to missing important cues and insights that could be gained by walking down the hall to a colleague’s office to chat rather than sending them a message through email.

Technology offers an abundance of valuable new tools for collaboration, but they should not be mistaken as a substitute for the in-depth interactions necessary for effective leadership.

 

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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3 factors that make Costco America’s best employer

Costco Wholesale moved in front of Google to earn the title of America’s best large employer this year. To determine America’s best employer each year, Statista and Forbes survey 30,000 workers at US organizations, asking them questions about their work experience. Costco has consistently appeared in the top three. Clearly, Costco is doing something right.

When Costco opened a location in our area, my wife and I became members. Invariably, we stop in for a few items and come out with a loaded cart. Our customer experience has always been positive.

Recently, I’ve been learning about the corporate side of Costco, pouring through articles and analyst reports. I’ve spoken with Jim Sinegal, Costco’s co-founder and CEO from 1983 to 2011, and interacted with Ryan Watkins, a young Costco warehouse manager across the country in Oregon.  In early August I traveled to Seattle to attend a portion of Costco’s Annual Managers Meeting, where I gave a keynote speech based on my book "Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work." (In the spirit of full disclosure, Costco purchased 1,100 copies of Connection Culture for its leaders.)

At a time when the percentage of engaged employees in America is stuck at around one-third and American-style capitalism has fallen out of favor in the eyes of many, Costco represents what’s possible, the very best of America. It provides a model corporate culture that other organizations should strive to emulate.

What is culture? What types of culture exist? Is there a best culture?  

Culture is a vague concept to most leaders.  When my colleagues and I set out to make culture clear so leaders could become more intentional about developing and maintaining a healthy culture, we came up with the following simple definition:

  • Culture is the predominant attitudes, language and behavior of the organization. 
  • Attitudes are the ways people think and feel that affect behavior. 
  • Language is the words people use to describe their thoughts and feelings. 
  • Behavior is the ways people act

Our research discovered that there are three types of cultures that leaders and workers need to be aware of. The first is the “culture of control.” In this culture, most people feel controlled by one of more of the following: autocratic leaders, micro-management, too many rules and/or bureaucracy. The second is a “culture of indifference” in which most people feel that the people they work with don’t care about them and see them merely as means to an end.

Both cultures of control and cultures of indifference make many people feel unsupported, left out and lonely. With the prevalence of these organizational cultures in the U.S., it’s not surprising that two-thirds of American workers are disengaged.

The best culture we discovered is a “Connection Culture.” In this culture, most people describe feeling connected to their supervisor, colleagues, their work, the organization’s leaders and the people the organization serves. When people feel these connections, they thrive, individually and collectively. Connection Culture is created when leaders communicate an inspiring vision, value people and give them a voice (i.e. Vision + Value + Voice = Connection).

A Connection Culture provides five benefits to organizational performance that I’ve written about, which, taken together, add up to a powerful source of competitive advantage.

 America's Best Large Employers 2017
Statista

Costco’s Connection Culture

Costco has one of the highest degrees of connection I’ve personally witnessed in my 15 years of focusing on issues of organizational culture. I believe it helps explain why Costco is America’s best employer. Let’s look at the three elements of Vision, Value and Voice and how they provide the foundation of Costco’s Connection Culture.

1. Communicate an inspiring Vision

In the context of a Connection Culture, my colleagues and I define vision as having three parts: mission, values and reputation. The vision of Costco is that the organization helps people make ends meet, helps businesses be more efficient and serve customers better, and is a positive force in the communities where its warehouses reside. 

Costco’s values are summed up in a phrase “always do the right thing, even when it hurts.”  Costco lives this out in the way it faithfully serves its members, the way it treats employees like family and the positive things it does for communities. Because Costco deliberately lives out these aspirations, its reputation is stellar. As a result, Costco’s members trust the company will provide quality goods and services at an attractive price, and will be safe for its members and the people they love.  The level of customer loyalty Costco has developed with its members is the envy of every retailer. 

2. Value people

Value exists in a culture when people are valued as human beings rather than being thought of and treated as means to an end. Costco values people. Compared to competitors, it provides generous compensation and benefits to its employees. Costco provides career opportunities for its employees. The fact that Costco’s senior executives started out working on the front lines in warehouses is a testament to upward career mobility. The job security Costco has provided also shows that it values employees as human beings. 

Valuing people has been stress-tested at Costco, too.  The times Wall Street criticized Costco for its generous compensation and benefits, Costco’s leaders didn’t cave in. Instead, it continued to do what was best for the long-term by giving raises to its people.

During difficult economic seasons, Costco tightened its belt, rolled up its sleeves, and worked harder and smarter so that its employees would continue getting raises. No jobs were cut when Costco merged with Price Club. At the warehouses, the local leaders hold programs to help employees move up in responsibility and they teach managers to “greet before delegating.”

A word you will hear frequently at Costco is “family.” The intentional attitudes, language and behavior at Costco make its people feel like valued members of the Costco family.  

When I spoke with former CEO Jim Sinegal, he emphasized that valuing people is the right thing to do and it’s a good business practice. Costco’s low employee turnover is a case in point.  Furthermore, longtime Costco employees develop friendships with each other — a factor which has been shown to boost employee engagement and performance.  

3. Give people a Voice

Giving people a voice to express their ideas and opinions then considering them is a third way Costco strengthens its Connection Culture. Sinegal told me a story about the time in Costco’s early days, when it was opening a warehouse in downtown Seattle, and the local liquor license inspector questioned everything. As the inspector’s inquiry stretched out, Sinegal blew up at him in frustration. A colleague of Sinegal’s had to be sent to convince the inspector that he had gone temporarily insane.

Looking back, Sinegal wishes he could thank the inspector. His thorough questioning helped Costco become better prepared for what it would face ahead during its decades-long expansion. The bottom line is that difficult conversations and questions can be gifts in disguise. Costco embraces this attitude of humility and honesty and that posture makes the company smarter and stronger.

While attending Costco’s Annual Managers Meeting, I saw another manifestation of the Connection Culture element of Voice. Costco continuously taps into the ideas and opinions of its employees around the world to identify ways to improve its delivery of goods and services to members and improve efficiencies that reduce costs. Video after video was shown of employee ideas that have been implemented, along with estimates of the economic benefits associated with each. The creativity and ingenuity of Costco employees was a sight to behold.

In highlighting these stories, Costco leaders celebrated these improvements while at the same time disseminating practices that could be replicated across the company.

Surviving and thriving

The company’s Connection Culture provides a competitive advantage that will help it sustain its impressive track record of superior performance and weather the difficult seasons that all companies face from time-to-time. Some of its competitors have been reported in the press to have toxic cultures that harm employees. These organizations may continue to perform well for a while, but eventually their lack of connection will lead to managerial failure that sabotages performance. It’s only a question of when.

Meanwhile, the Costco leaders of today are preparing future generations of Costco leaders in the ways of connection and that will help ensure the Costco family, and its service to its members, not only survives but also thrives. 

 

Michael Lee Stallard speaks, trains, and consults for business, government, healthcare and education organizations. He is president of Connection Culture Group and author, most recently, of "Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work." 

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How to make incentives work

The VP of sales whispered to me, “I’m about to be embarrassed.” I looked at him quizzically. He continued, “I’m about to announce the incentive plans for selling our new product. I didn’t realize you’d be here. I know how you feel about incentives.”

I nodded in agreement. I am an outspoken, and published, advocate for the body of evidence proving how detrimental external rewards are on performance. Whispering back, I asked, “Why are you offering incentives?” I could read the consternation as he searched for an answer. “I don’t know. It’s what we always do when we release a new product.” My one-word follow-up question deepened the burrows on his forehead, “Why?”

After that meeting, the VP and I had a fruitful discussion about the role of incentives. I hope you might benefit from these ideas—especially if you are about to incentivize someone’s behavior, or you are the one being incentivized!

Ask why incentives are needed

Engineers ask “Why?” at least five times to find the root source of a mechanical or electrical issue. Ask “Why?” to understand the underlying reason for relying on incentives to motivate behavior. For example, before offering a $2000 bonus to sales reps with the highest sales on a new product…

  • Ask: Why are we offering this incentive?
  • Answer: To increase sales.
  • Ask: Why assume sales reps won’t sell the product without an incentive? Is the product flawed? Do your customers not really need it?
  • Answer: No, the product is good and our customers want it. But, our sales reps get in the habit of selling what they have, not the new stuff, so we need to incentivize them to sell something new. (If the answer is, Yes, the product is flawed and our customers don’t want it, then there’s a good chance the incentives are a disguise for bribing people into immoral and unethical behavior.)
  • Ask: Why would sales reps not take advantage of a new product? Have they had enough exposure to the product to advocate for it? Are they lazy? Are they bored? Are they content and not needing to generate more sales? Are they so conditioned with incentives that they don’t care about customer needs? Are they not aware of the benefits the new product offers clients?
  • Answer: We haven’t done a good enough job of providing the rationale for the product, the problems it solves for our clients, or the opportunities this product presents for building meaningful relationships.

The “why” in this case led to a deficiency in the way the product was introduced to the sales team and an alternative solution to incentivized selling.

Frame incentives differently

When compared to sales teams with higher-quality motivation to sell, sales teams motivated by contingent rewards consistently underperform. If you are still afraid to eliminate incentives, or don’t control the use of them, you need to learn to reframe them. You need to frame incentives so reps are less likely to internalize them as their reason for selling.

Frame incentives as the organization’s way to shine a light on how important the product is. For example, provide rationale for why the product was developed in response to customer requests and needs. Describe why the product is essential to your organization’s success and helps satisfy its values and purpose. Explain that incentives are merely the company’s way of highlighting the importance of the new product—not to be confused with the reason to sell it. Allow sales reps to find their own values-based reason for selling the product from the information you provide.

Conduct meaningful conversations

Use incentives as a good excuse to have a meaningful conversation with your reps to assess their motivation for selling the product. Ask how they feel about the incentive. You might be surprised. This particular VP of sales was shocked to discover that many reps are insulted by incentives. Good reps often pride themselves in selling the right thing to the right customer -- not for a reward, but to demonstrate their expertise, skill, and service approach to their work. Acknowledge their high-quality motivation and make that their focus, not the incentive.

One rep admitted that incentives created a ton of pressure. She explained that $2,000 was enticing to her as a single mother with limited resources. She felt she should strive to win the bonus; experiencing guilt if she didn’t go for it. But, those feelings gave away to more guilt as she found herself “pushing” the product for the wrong reasons and risking her clients’ trust. Her excitement at having a new product in her quiver of client solutions was replaced with pressure, which affected her overall performance.

Incentives are like fool’s gold -- shiny objects that take away a sales rep’s focus from more meaningful reasons for selling the product. They also take away a sales leader’s focus from the true role of a leader. Defaulting to incentives is a lazy way to lead. Paying people off may seem a simple and fast way to generate sales, but you pay the price in lost energy, creativity, and sustainable performance.

But if you leverage incentives to generate deeper thinking about the value of your products and services, to highlight your organization’s purpose, and to have meaningful motivation conversations, the fool’s gold might be transformed into something truly valuable.

 

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains "Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling "Self Leadership" and the "One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.

How to make incentives work

The VP of sales whispered to me, “I’m about to be embarrassed.” I looked at him quizzically. He continued, “I’m about to announce the incentive plans for selling our new product. I didn’t realize you’d be here. I know how you feel about incentives.”

I nodded in agreement. I am an outspoken, and published, advocate for the body of evidence proving how detrimental external rewards are on performance. Whispering back, I asked, “Why are you offering incentives?” I could read the consternation as he searched for an answer. “I don’t know. It’s what we always do when we release a new product.” My one-word follow-up question deepened the burrows on his forehead, “Why?”

After that meeting, the VP and I had a fruitful discussion about the role of incentives. I hope you might benefit from these ideas—especially if you are about to incentivize someone’s behavior, or you are the one being incentivized!

Ask why incentives are needed

Engineers ask “Why?” at least five times to find the root source of a mechanical or electrical issue. Ask “Why?” to understand the underlying reason for relying on incentives to motivate behavior. For example, before offering a $2000 bonus to sales reps with the highest sales on a new product…

  • Ask: Why are we offering this incentive?
  • Answer: To increase sales.
  • Ask: Why assume sales reps won’t sell the product without an incentive? Is the product flawed? Do your customers not really need it?
  • Answer: No, the product is good and our customers want it. But, our sales reps get in the habit of selling what they have, not the new stuff, so we need to incentivize them to sell something new. (If the answer is, Yes, the product is flawed and our customers don’t want it, then there’s a good chance the incentives are a disguise for bribing people into immoral and unethical behavior.)
  • Ask: Why would sales reps not take advantage of a new product? Have they had enough exposure to the product to advocate for it? Are they lazy? Are they bored? Are they content and not needing to generate more sales? Are they so conditioned with incentives that they don’t care about customer needs? Are they not aware of the benefits the new product offers clients?
  • Answer: We haven’t done a good enough job of providing the rationale for the product, the problems it solves for our clients, or the opportunities this product presents for building meaningful relationships.

The “why” in this case led to a deficiency in the way the product was introduced to the sales team and an alternative solution to incentivized selling.

Frame incentives differently

When compared to sales teams with higher-quality motivation to sell, sales teams motivated by contingent rewards consistently underperform. If you are still afraid to eliminate incentives, or don’t control the use of them, you need to learn to reframe them. You need to frame incentives so reps are less likely to internalize them as their reason for selling.

Frame incentives as the organization’s way to shine a light on how important the product is. For example, provide rationale for why the product was developed in response to customer requests and needs. Describe why the product is essential to your organization’s success and helps satisfy its values and purpose. Explain that incentives are merely the company’s way of highlighting the importance of the new product—not to be confused with the reason to sell it. Allow sales reps to find their own values-based reason for selling the product from the information you provide.

Conduct meaningful conversations

Use incentives as a good excuse to have a meaningful conversation with your reps to assess their motivation for selling the product. Ask how they feel about the incentive. You might be surprised. This particular VP of sales was shocked to discover that many reps are insulted by incentives. Good reps often pride themselves in selling the right thing to the right customer -- not for a reward, but to demonstrate their expertise, skill, and service approach to their work. Acknowledge their high-quality motivation and make that their focus, not the incentive.

One rep admitted that incentives created a ton of pressure. She explained that $2,000 was enticing to her as a single mother with limited resources. She felt she should strive to win the bonus; experiencing guilt if she didn’t go for it. But, those feelings gave away to more guilt as she found herself “pushing” the product for the wrong reasons and risking her clients’ trust. Her excitement at having a new product in her quiver of client solutions was replaced with pressure, which affected her overall performance.

Incentives are like fool’s gold -- shiny objects that take away a sales rep’s focus from more meaningful reasons for selling the product. They also take away a sales leader’s focus from the true role of a leader. Defaulting to incentives is a lazy way to lead. Paying people off may seem a simple and fast way to generate sales, but you pay the price in lost energy, creativity, and sustainable performance.

But if you leverage incentives to generate deeper thinking about the value of your products and services, to highlight your organization’s purpose, and to have meaningful motivation conversations, the fool’s gold might be transformed into something truly valuable.

 

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains "Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling "Self Leadership" and the "One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.

Experiment and take risks

The Leadership ChallengeThis article is excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from "The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations," (6th Edition) by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Copyright (c) 2017 by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Pivotal Software had long employed agile methodologies in their software development process but rarely used these practices in other parts of the organization. After taking a training course on agile development and lean startup principles, Cathryn Meyer was eager to put the concepts into practice. “I decided to take a more agile, iterative approach to a new project I was leading,” she told us.

Her challenge was a project to standardize the job titles used across the company into a coherent, simple structure. In the past, similar projects had involved a few HR people diagnosing the problem, coming up with a solution, and finally pushing it out to the organization. “Usually, the solution was developed in a vacuum,” Cathryn lamented, “and if it wasn’t perfect upon reveal, too bad -- it was too late to change it.”

The lean approach I took with this project was very different. It involved identifying the end goal and a hypothesis for reaching it, conducting mini experiments to test the hypothesis, and using the feedback to learn and iterate on a solution. The project team recognized early on that none of us knew the ideal solution to our problem. We designed experiments to help us look for good ideas everywhere and gather as many possibilities as we could.

Cathryn and her team sent brief surveys to employees to gather opinions and ideas. They spoke individually with staff to probe deeper. They researched external best practices. They called in an expert on lean methodologies to gain feedback. “The result was a proposal we felt confident in,” she said, “one that had gone through multiple iterations based on feedback obtained from various sources. We finalized the proposal knowing that we had made the best possible choice based on the information we were able to gather.” Ultimately, Cathryn’s team gained approval from the necessary stakeholders because of the thorough and thoughtful process they had followed.

Their next challenge was implementing the new job titles across the organization. Cathryn broke down the implementation process into small chunks based on job function: “Implementing the new job titles one function at a time was an effective way to make incremental progress against our end goal while gaining further support for our approach with each successful milestone.”

Learning from their experiments in those initial phases gave Cathryn the inspiration to start streamlining and consolidating job families, further modernizing the company’s job title methodology. “This had always been an area that I knew needed work,” she told us. “After gaining momentum with our initial proposal, it gave me confidence to seize the initiative and make the necessary changes.”

Early on in the process, many people told us that our task was impossible and we’d never find a solution that met everyone’s needs. We took on this challenge with gusto and refused to give up, even when our research gave inconclusive results. We continued to learn, experiment, and tweak until we came to the best solution. I now know that I can challenge convention and confidently lead a team through a new way of doing things, even in the face of adversity.

To achieve the extraordinary, you have to be willing, like Cathryn, to do things that have never been done before. Every single Personal-Best Leadership Experience case speaks to the need to take risks with bold ideas. You can’t achieve anything new or extraordinary by doing things the way you’ve always done them. You have to test unproven strategies. You have to break out of the norms that box you in, venture beyond the limitations you usually place on yourself and others, try new things, and take chances.

Leaders must take this one step further. Not only do they have to be willing to test bold ideas and take calculated risks, but they also have to get others to join them on these adventures in uncertainty. It’s one thing to set off alone into the unknown; it’s entirely another to get others to follow you into the darkness. The difference between an exemplary leader and an individual risk-taker is that leaders create the conditions where people want to join with them in the struggle.

Leaders make risk safe, as paradoxical as that might sound. They turn experiments into learning opportunities. They don’t define boldness as primarily go-for-broke, giant-leap projects. More often than not, they see change as starting small, using pilot projects, and gaining momentum. The vision may be grand and distant, but the way to reach it is by putting one foot in front of the other. These small, visible steps are more likely to win early victories and gain early supporters. Of course, when you experiment, not everything works out as intended. There are mistakes and false starts. They are part of the process of innovation. What’s critical, therefore, is that leaders promote learning from, and building upon, these experiences.

Exemplary leaders make the commitment to Experiment and Take Risks. They know that making extraordinary things happen requires that leaders:

  • Generate small wins
  • Learn from experience

These essentials can help leaders transform challenge into an exploration, uncertainty into a sense of adventure, fear into resolve, and risk into reward. They are the keys to making progress that becomes unstoppable.

 

James Kouzes and Barry Posner are the co-authors of "The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations," whose sixth edition was released in 2017. They’ve co-authored more than a dozen other award-winning leadership books. Their awards include receiving the Association for Talent Development’s highest honor for their Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance. Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, and lectures on leadership worldwide to corporations, governments, and nonprofits. Posner is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he served as dean of the school for 12 years. For more information, visit The Leadership Challenge website.

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Helping summer interns (and you) get the most out of the experience

The Young Entrepreneur Council is an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. Read previous SmartBrief posts by YEC.

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1. Help them develop the skills they need

Internships should not be about adding a brand to a resume; rather, they should be about adding bullet points. Understand their goals and make sure they have the opportunity to own a deliverable so that they can tell a meaningful story from the summer. The better their experience, the more likely they will be to sing your praises, both growing the brand and encouraging future interns to join. -- Aaron Schwartz, Modify Watches

2. Create specific roles for them

Often, interns are around and what is given to them is an afterthought. Instead, plan as though they are a regular employee, and structure the work and role accordingly as though they were there for the long term. This will get more work out of them and help them learn more. -- Andrew O'Connor, American Addiction Centers

3. Give them time off

For our summer internship, we only require our interns to come into the office three to four days a week. This lets them have a balance between work and enjoying their summer break. We also emphasize that we don’t want them to be doing work outside the office so that they can really step away from work on their days off. Working a block from the beach doesn’t hurt either. -- Bryanne Lawless, BLND Public Relations

4. Take advantage of their flexible schedules

Summer interns are great as they often have a more flexible work schedule due to a lighter class load. Because of this, we can include our interns in more hands-on projects, have them attend events with the company and assign more responsibility that not only helps the company but provides a meaningful experience for your intern. -- Leila Lewis, Be Inspired PR

5. Throw them in the deep end

The best way to learn is by doing. We give interns difficult challenges that might be above their capabilities, but we encourage them to be resourceful and ask a lot of questions. If they rise to the challenge, we offer them a full-time job, gaining an employee that we know is talented and already knows the company’s processes. -- Russell Kommer, eSoftware Associates Inc.

6. Be flexible with schedules

We let our interns decide what their weekly scheduled looks like, all that we ask is that they give us at least 20-25 hours. This lets them decide when they can make time to come in and be helpful, which also means we get 100 percent of their dedication and focus. -- Kelsey Meyer, Influence & Co.

7. Establish mutual goals

It's important to set concrete expectations of both the company and the intern from the start. You want the intern to set clear and concise goals of what he or she expects to get out of the internship. But you also need to convey what you, as an employer, look to get out of the intern. Most importantly, you are looking for that person to go above and beyond what either of you expected. -- Justin Lefkovitch, Mirrored Media

8. Help them see the bigger picture

It's important for interns to understand the bigger picture and to see that what they are doing in the moment will eventually contribute to an end goal. Give them clear tasks and projects to work on, and make sure they understand how this fits into the big picture. Talented interns will go above and beyond what you expect of them no matter the time of year. -- Brian David Crane, Caller Smart Inc.

9. Write down expectations

Having a formal structure for what we are doing, including writing down expectations on both sides, builds the best value. Everyone knows what they are doing and why. Writing it down makes it more geared toward accountability and measurement. -- Drew Hendricks, Buttercup

10. Give them work on experimental processes

Rather than having interns do all the jobs no one else wants to do, I prefer to give them a real project that will benefit the company — often experimental development work or a novel marketing approach. The company benefits, and the intern gains valuable knowledge and experience. -- Justin Blanchard, ServerMania Inc

11. Encourage questions

Encourage them to ask a lot of questions. The interns will gain a better understanding of the business, and asking questions will increase their confidence by making their voices heard. Having an outsider with a fresh set of eyes is a great resource for create ideas. -- Patrick Barnhill, Specialist ID Inc.

12. Offer them unusual perks

Young summer interns are easily impressionable. Simple and unusual perks, such as free pizza or cool gear, will build a strong bond with your intern and generate better returns for you. Your summer intern will love coming to work and will be more motivated to succeed. Your competitors are offering an opportunity to gain experience -- you are doing that and building a highly motivated team member. -- Diego Orjuela, Cables & Sensors

Write (and share) your comeback story

One of the most powerful tools that a motivational speaker can have in his or her arsenal is a “setback to comeback” story. In essence, this is a story in which the individual experienced a powerful, potentially debilitating setback or set of circumstances and yet managed to turn that perceived deficit into the basis of their future success.

Whether it’s Jim Rohn speaking of life as a penniless husband and father who was inspired by a mentor to set goals and create a plan for success, Les Brown describing his adoption by a domestic servant and adolescent diagnosis as “educable mentally retarded” while still finding success in music, politics and inspirational speaking, or Tony Robbins recounting his rocky childhood without a father (who had walked out on the family) or enough food to eat and how that motivated him to want to help and feed others, audiences rally around and connect deeply with messages of individuals who overcame hardship and pain and used that to achieve great things.

The reason that such stories motivate us is plain. We all get bogged down in mediocrity (or worse) and often find it difficult to pick ourselves us and move forward with purpose and direction. These stories remind us that others have had it worse, often far worse than we. If they could find a way to turn things around and become wildly successful, then perhaps we can too.

If such storytelling is so powerful, then why don’t more people find ways to integrate it into their conversations? In particular, why don’t more leaders use this tool to inspire their people, build engagement, shift mindsets (from fixed to growth) and strengthen resolve?

Perhaps we feel that we simply don’t have such a powerful or noteworthy message to deliver. If we were raised in average to above average conditions, with a loving family, a decent income, a good education, a strong social network, etc. then what do we really have to offer that will excite and motivate others?

I believe that such thinking is limited. Everyone has some form of “setback to comeback” story. It may not involve adoption, familial strife, economic hardship or some combination thereof. Still, we all have had to overcome challenges to get to where we are today.

Maybe we struggled in school in some fashion and found a way to get by. Perhaps we were in a relationship that had all the indications of permanence only to have it fall apart suddenly. Perchance we found ourselves in the wrong crowd and or developed a dependency that limited us. Or possibly we had a harder than expected time landing our first job, keeping that job, or achieving the kinds of initial success that we envisioned. And even if none of these happened to us directly, we know of (or could easily find out about) others that have whose stories and lessons we could borrow and share.

Another obstacle to storytelling is that we think that it ought to be relegated to great story tellers, people with oversized personalities whose enthusiasm just overtakes the room and whose story of rags to riches rings a deep chord within us. Many of us, whether we’re introverted, shy, of average temperament and personality, etc. just don’t seem ourselves as being able to deliver that kind of passionate message.

This, too, is a narrow view. For starters, many of the best speakers are also naturally shy, introverted, and/or shun the limelight under normal circumstances. Many have had to overcome fears and their own inborn personality in order to get up in front of a crowd and deliver high-energy content. But let’s not confuse good, inspirational messaging with pumping up hundreds of people.

Some of the best messages have been delivered to small groups or even one-on-one to individuals. Often, they have been shared quietly and in the moment. The key thing is that they have been shared. And because they have, others (and the storyteller, too) have been inspired to rethink things and take purposeful action. 

Comeback story

So now that we have addressed some of the primary objections, we can begin to focus on how to develop and deliver an inspirational message of overcoming problems to achieve success. The following tips may help.

  1. Recall your setbacks. Obviously, no “setback to comeback” story can be written without the setback component. Sometimes, these occurred recently. In other cases, the greatest, most compelling setbacks took place years ago, if not decades. Review your life story for moments, whether at home, in school, at work or with family/friends, that presented challenges.
  2. Identify the keepers. Once you have a list of a few things, seek to whittle it down to the most compelling one or two setbacks. In many cases, these will be the ones that were hardest for you to overcome.
  3. Make the message universal. Great messages are the ones that can be used by others to think more and do more. Craft the message so that it has the most universal appeal and/or offers the most actionable blueprint for others.
  4. Fine-tune your message. Make sure that your message has a clear beginning, middle and end with a strong rising action, climax and falling action. Begin with the problem, how it developed, and what you or others did to turn things around. Emphasize the nadir of the challenge and how you felt at that moment. Then describe what it was like to rise above the challenge and achieve a breakthrough. Use colorful descriptors.
  5. Think about how to share it. There are many ways through which to share your message. It can certainly include getting up in front of a crowd. It may be that you choose to write it down, or record it on video privately. Regardless, find ways to get it out there.
  6. And who to share it with. Consider who most would benefit from hearing your story and see if you could target, through social networks, particular media, and the like, folks with whom your story would most resonate.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and organizational consultant following a career as an educator and school administrator. Read his blog at impactfulcoaching.com/blog. Download a free chapter of his upcoming leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss."

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How to succeed instead of barking up the wrong tree

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty … I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Barking Up The Wrong Tree bookThat quote from the 26th president of the United States is more than a century old, and his admonition can feel quaint as we stumble about, obsessed with the next nugget of information, the easiest, quickly, least intensive way to fix something, advance in life or entertain ourselves.

That impulse is understandable and sometimes even important in a world where we also like to burn ourselves out. But there’s something tying together these twin impulses of easy gratification and overwork: The mistaken belief that big changes can -- easily -- be accomplished in one fell swoop, whether through a burst of output or the right lifehack.

Eric Barker’s “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” (May 2017, HarperCollins), the book adaptation of his long-running blog, might be mistaken as a promise to fulfill all your life and career hopes and dreams. It is not. Barker’s book can be a guide, a way to weed out some of the worst advice and reflect on yourself and your goals, but it cannot solve your life for you.

I’ve long admired and learned from the way Barker synthesizes the science, social or otherwise, about human behavior and outcomes and gives people practical ways to inform themselves and take action. This is not easy to do with credibility, and sometimes even means revising your earlier advice as new science becomes available. Talking about career and life success can also lead writers to rely on platitudes, something Barker said he was keenly aware of in writing this.

You want to be positive, useful and helpful, he told me, but you also have to be truthful and "intellectually honest."

I recently spoke with Barker about the book, his approach and the long journey he’s taken from a blog idea to a powerful brand and, now, published work.

The origins of “Barking Up The Wrong Tree”

Like many things on the internet, Barker’s blog started as a way for him to share what was on his mind. He described a career "at a crossroads," which included being an undergraduate philosophy major, writing screenplays and getting an MBA. After graduating, he started to notice that "the maxims of success" everyone hears about were contradictory, or didn't apply to him, or were mixed in among piles of research or the rest of the internet. "The good answers are equally buried in with the bad answers!" he told me.

At first, the blog featured abstracts from scientific studies. As time went on, Barker began to combine various sources of thinking and research, advancing next to interviewing researchers directly to get further into their work and insights. That’s how the blog evolved -- and the book is a way to explore these ideas, note which work and which don't, and do so "in exhaustive detail."

"To be great, we must be different."

That quote, early on in Barker's book, stuck with me throughout my reading and even into my conversation with Barker. This doesn't mean one can't do well by following the rules and guidelines, but it does offer a challenge -- and an opportunity.

I asked him how he worked to define "success," as the precise definitions of the words we use are cricial to this book and most of our discussions about careers and leadership. "I address this directly in the work/life balance chapter, where one of the biggest problems I think people experience comes right down to that definition," Barker told me. Society has this idea of "success" that doesn't necessarily leave room for people's goals to differ from the public standard based on context, or strengths or wants.

Having a personal definition of success matters. So does having a strategy, though not all are productive. Barker cites the "collapsing strategy," in which everything rises or falls based on one metric.

"The problem with that, that's kind of like saying, 'Screw happiness, screw my health, my relationships, the only thing that matters is money, and I want to make that number go up. And I'm going to devote every hour of my day to that. Well, guess what? You'll probably be successful at making that number go up. Of course, you'll find your're miserable, you're divorced, your kids don't want to talk to you, and you're going to have a heart attack."

Another common mistake in the pursuit of success is what Barker calls "sequencing." Essentially, you decide to focus on one area, then shift to another, and so on, regardless of the demands of the moment.

Barker instead pointed me toward the researchers Nash and Stevenson, who devised the four key metrics worth seeking in a successful life:

  • Happiness
  • Achievement
  • Significance
  • Legacy

Keeping track of all of that looks tough. "But if you look at your hours, you look at the time you're spending in your day, and you're making regular little donations into each one of those four buckets, then you're doing pretty well," Barker told me. "So, we can have four metrics we can use to kind of determine success, but the specifics of the goal are specific to the person. You don't have to be a billionaire, you can be a stay-at-home mom -- either one has a definition of success, and that's something we need to tailor to our goals and our strengths."

OK, success. Got it. What do I do next?

Barker's book can help you examine the common beliefs about networking, career aims, risk-taking, perserverance and grit, and more. He does so by looking at all of the ideas, not just the ones you might think are correct or that he mgiht think are correct. There are a lot of ideas in this book -- here is just a sampling of the topics covered:

  • How successful are valedictorians?
  • What can we learn from people who literally cannot feel pain?
  • Why gangs and pirates are more cooperative than you might think?
  • When you should quit, and when should you push forward?
  • Why Paul Erdos had little of what you might call social skills but was the greatest collaborator mathematics has ever seen.
  • The good and bad of baseball (and fishing!) legend Ted Williams’ legendary focus and competitiveness.
  • When is working more worse than working less?

The book is probably best as a straight read-through, at least the first time around. I base this off my own reading and talking with Barker about it. You can jump into, say, Chapter 5 and not feel lost, but again, we're trying to build a habit of contributing to each of those four buckets mentioned above, not simply improve one area at the expense of the others.

Risk, trends and contrary examples

One reason success is so difficult to plan for is because, well, life has variables and outliers. Trends don't account for every individual experience, and one can usually make a counterargument even if in the long run the other side wins out.

This extends into much of the research Barker talks about. For instance, nice guys don't necessary finish last, as trust and fairness are incredibly important to the fabric of a society -- even, maybe especially so, to pirates and.prison gangs. At the same time, many nice people do have worse outcomes. This seems confusing, right? Barker quotes Adam Grant, who did the research into these nice people called "Givers".

"I looked at the other end of the spectrum and said if Givers are at the bottom, who's at the top? Actually, I was really surprised to dicsover, it's the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom but also at the top of most success metrics."

While there are also lots of jerks who do well, particularly in the short run, Grant found the "Givers" at the top also made more money.

In another chapter, Barker documents a Boston College researcher's look at salutatorians and valedictorians. Nearly all graduated college, a majority going on to finish graduate school, and they've generally enjoyed success. "But how many of these number one high school perfomers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero," Barker writes. These high performers do well within the system, so why would they break it.

A third example from Barker: Research by Gautam Mukunda has shown that when we think of great leaders, we're really thinking about two types: "filtered" and "unfiltered." The former are like those valedictorians, following the process through and through. The unfiltered leaders aren't reliable in this way. They will change or break systems.

Being a maverick sounds great, right? And certainly, if you look at your strengths and goals and see that conforming to the system won't help you, you might want to become a maverick. But Barker has a word of caution for these care-free sorts, as these people can have qualities that "were often negative at the mean -- qualities you and I would consider 'bad' -- but due to the specific context, they became positives. Like [Winston] Churchill's paranoid defense of the British stage, these qualities were a posion that under just the right circumstances could be a performance-enhancing drug."

"Barking Up The Wrong Tree" is full of these examples of how research into both sides matters, and how context matters and that individual results may vary. In all these cases, though, it's better to have all this information than to make a decision without it.

One of Barker's strengths is being able to work through all this science and research without making it abstract and impenetrable, but also without condescending, oversimplifying or making leaps beyond that of the text. These questions don't have easy answers, and all one can do is bringing "intellectual honesty" to the questions, helping people see the truth, whatever it is.

But sometimes the science is muddied by new findings, or even reverses itself. Social science is imperfect. Barker’s had to deal with this in the blog, and he’ll probably have to continue doing so. But, as he pointed out, it’s not like any science stands still, whether social science, medicine, or otherwise.

"Science is always progressing, and we're always learning new things," he said.

What can’t this book do?

Any helpful business or career book, like "Barking Up The Wrong Tree," will spur you to rethink how things are done and why. It will give you ideas and insights you wouldn't have encountered elsewhere. But such books are guides at best, not answers in themselves..

As I wrote last year, citing David Burkus’ “Under New Management,”

“If you’re seeking inspiration on doing things differently and smarter, this type of book might help. Notably, though, it won’t guarantee success or prescribe a specific solution for your organization – that hard work is up to you.”

If you're looking for a way forward, but don't expect all the answers to be magically delivered, "Barking Up The Wrong Tree" -- the blog and the book -- might be for you. As Barker told me, "This is meant to be, ''Here’s the best we’ve got right now,' because that's the only thing that's honest, and fair."

 

James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and other fields. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.

How compassion helps renew your leadership purpose

Years ago, when I was a 23-year-old assistant HR manager at a large department store, one of our sales associates suffered a heart attack and died while at work.

At the time, I was out of town, attending my grandfather’s funeral. Upon my return to work, my boss, Mary, told me what had happened and carefully gauged my reaction. She was concerned about me suffering two losses in quick succession. When I assured her I was OK, she asked me to check in with Scott, the department manager of the gentleman who had died.

Scott had also experienced two recent losses, with the death of his mother coming just a month before the passing of his co-worker. Mary thought it would be helpful for me to talk with Scott because we were the same age and socialized outside of work.

Later that day, as Scott walked into my office, I thought, “What in the world can I possibly say to this man that will help him?”

There we were, two young people trying to figure out how to navigate a fast-paced work environment that, frankly, required us to “get on with it.” In the end, I settled for a simple, direct approach. I asked Scott how he was doing, offered my support and then settled in to simply “be” with him in silence for a few moments of acknowledged sadness. Given my inexperience in such matters, it was the best I could offer in the form of compassion, but it seemed to suffice.

Suffering has a way of creeping into even the most benign of workplaces. And leaders are in a unique position to “both create and alleviate suffering,” write authors Monica Worline and Jane Dutton in the book “Awakening Compassion at Work.”  Worline and Dutton have researched the topic of compassion in the workplace and conclude that, unlike the positive psychology concepts of gratitude and happiness, compassion is an interpersonal concept that is linked to the darker side of the human experience.

“Compassion goes hand-in-hand with suffering,” the authors write. Even though the topic of suffering is a heavy one, Worline and Dutton point out a positive element: the chance for leaders to renew themselves through the display of compassion.

Breaking the cycle of continual leadership stress

Leadership is fraught with the stress of daily decisions and competing priorities. In the article “Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion: A Leader’s Road Map to Renewal,” authors Annie McKee, Frances Johnston and Richard Massimilian put forth the concept of learning to manage the leadership cycle of “sacrifice and renewal.”

They write that “leaders cannot sustain their effectiveness if they cannot sustain themselves. Leaders must deal with ‘power stress’ caused by a combination of responsibility, constant self-control and the inevitable crises, both small and large that the leadership role demands.”

Failing to do so causes what McKee, et al. call “Sacrifice Syndrome,” a cycle that leads to continued stress and eventual burnout. One way to help break the cycle is to exhibit compassion, which rests on caring about others in a profound way. Doing so puts the focus on someone else, which allows you to set aside your problems for the moment. I certainly found this to be true when I sat down with Scott to ask him how he was doing after the sad events that had transpired in his department.

The unexpected benefit of compassion in business

Compassion can exist within the business environment. McKee and her colleagues see an unlikely connection to a key business skill: inquisitiveness. They write that leadership compassion springs from a natural source.

“Compassion is natural. Why? Because compassion starts with curiosity about other people, what motivates them and how the world outside of our own actually works.”

This curiosity -- to know someone not because of the salacious details we might glean, but to genuinely walk alongside them in their time of suffering -- is what makes a great leader. “Generosity grows for the suffering that may sometimes make work life messy and difficult. Leading with compassion restores our belief in a better future so that we can feel our way forward together,” offer Worline and Dutton.

The power of tuning in

You may have heard the phrase “Are you a human being or a human doing?” Far from just another thing on your to-do list, dialing in to others can actually help renew your energy and refocus on your leadership purpose.

“To lead with compassion requires that leaders weave more attention to the full human state of others into their work relationships” write Worline and Dutton. Tuning in to someone requires you to simply “be” in the moment, hearing what someone is saying. Observing for what they are “saying” with their body language, but not their words. Intuiting for the right words of comfort to offer.

This is the approach I took with my colleague Scott. After a couple of minutes of conversation, it was clear he did not wish to explore his sadness while at work, so I settled for a few brief words of support and let it go at that.

All humans experience suffering.  We can’t expect the pain to conveniently check itself at the door when employees arrive at work. Compassion isn’t the easiest of emotions to display for some, but demonstrating care for a person who’s suffering elevates a person from “manager” to “leader.”

Who is suffering today, and how will you care for them? How will you renew yourself through compassion?

 

Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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