One Person at a Time

My favorite work as a leader is the time spent one on one, digging deep, helping to bring out the best in someone.  The other fun part is motivating large teams toward a vision and strategy to get something important done.  And then there is the in-between.

What I find most difficult as I have assumed larger roles with bigger teams is the strong desire to connect one on one, and the almost impossible task of getting to know everyone in a large organization to the depth that I would like.  I do my best to be as fully present as I can in each encounter, but it can be tough to do this well.   Intimacy is hard to scale.

This challenge hit me in the face this week.

I was talking to an extended member of my team who does important work in my organization hundreds of miles away and a few levels down the org chart.   I had not seen him in about 6 months. He said to me, “Karin, I think about what you said to me every day.”  Oh boy… I smiled and waited.  It turns out  that once he reminded me of the challenge I had given him, I recalled the entire conversation, including exactly where we had been standing at the time.  However, if I had been really on my game, I would have had immediate recall and perhaps have even been the first to bring it up.

I was so pleased that the conversation had helped him, and so disappointed in myself for the lack of proactive follow-through.

As timing would have it,  the next day I walked into my office to find the very large stack of books I had ordered to give away at an upcoming summit I was hosting for some of my team.  My intention was to inscribe them with a personal messages for each team member.  That seemed like a good idea weeks ago, but now with literal wildfires burning in the West, and other emergencies that were consuming my day, it seemed like a daunting task.

That evening, I dove in… and  was surprised to find that what had felt like a difficult time-consuming exercise turned into a calming and useful experience.  Somehow, moving deliberately through the team, one person at a time.. thinking about each person very specifically and the gifts they were giving, felt magical to me.  Time melted away in a peaceful meditation.   I left that night feeling tremendous gratitude for the people in my organization and their contributions to the work and to one another.  It also became obvious to me that I knew some folks much better than others, and had much work ahead of me to be an effective leader for them.

Can intimacy scale?  Tough question.  There are certainly ways to be completely present in our relationships even in a large team setting.  And, of course ways to do better with follow-up.  I also found value in thinking quietly about each person one at a time, and seeing what surfaces.

Would love your comments and ideas…

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One Powerful Word

The words we choose as leaders are powerful.   Helping our teams find the right words to clarify their thinking, can be even more powerful.   As with so much else in leadership and life, less can be more.  Sometimes, reducing the thought down to one powerful word can create vision and focus.

I have two friends both looking to lose a little weight.  One is following a strict regimen of counting every calorie eaten and burned, with special calculators and lots of optimistic conversation around how many calories we actually torched in each workout.

Another friend takes a simpler approach… just don’t eat anything “white.”

Turns out, they are eating very similarly– avoiding refined sugar, potatoes, bread.  Both are losing weight.  One is spending a lot more time thinking about it.

Reducing challenges down to one word can create for easy following.

One word can clarify priorities (customers, safety).

In team building, having each person pick one word metaphors to open the conversation creates imagery that culls out the issues quickly in a non-threatening way.

“Today this team is a _______.”

“I want it to be a __________.”

In coaching, asking the employee for one word  to describe their concerns helps to crystallize thoughts and clarify the issues.

For informal recognition, a powerful well-timed word, can be more memorable than a long discussion.

When supporting decision making, asking for a one word reason can help, “in one word, what differentiates this candidate from the others?”

Of course using the wrong one word without explanation can be devastating… “no”  and a few un-bloggable others come to mind.

However, encouraging people to find the right word can…

  • calm emotion and confusion
  • clarify thinking
  • reduce conversational clutter
  • creating a starting point for more useful words to follow

What techniques do you find work well to clarify thinking?

Saturday Salutation: A Trail of Blessings

There is a man who walks slowly down the trolley path near my home each morning.  I often see him on my morning run.  He ritualistically tips his cane to everyone as he passes, and says, “God Bless You.”  When he is not there, the crickets seem to sing more loudly.  Perhaps they are filling in the void left by his absence.

Namaste.

Mentoring in Circles

In my earlier post, Don’t Get a Mentor, I talked about my preference for finding a mentor organically rather than waiting for formal programs.  On the other hand, throughout the years, my favorite formal programs have always been in the form of circles.

These are groups with a leader as guide and a small group of people learning together.   I have experience with this in 2 contexts:  (1) as a formal HR program and (2) as skip level development for my own teams.  Both informal, with lots of options for customization.

HR Program

In this context  we paired execs  with cross-functional groups of leaders learning together.  This structure helped to create a space for natural relationships to occur… and if someone did not necessarily click with their mentor, they might develop a cool relationship with one or more of their peers.  We did all this in-house, at very low-cost.  We gave the groups tools, but also lots of latitude to do what worked for them.  Each group was given an action learning project (a real problem to solve) which worked quite well.

My internet research shows that there are a lot of companies offering support for this online these days. I would love to hear comments from anyone using these programs and the success that they have had.

With My Own Team

Over the years, I have had a lot of fun running mentoring circles in my own teams.   I do this as a skip level experience, giving me an opportunity to get to know 8-10 high potential managers by working together.  I always start with teaching them about “elevator speeches”, and having them create one.  Glass Elevators: Why Elevator Speeches Matter.

We talk about the business…and we all share the challenges we are having and share best practices.  The fun begins when we take field trips to struggling areas of the business and offer support.  We also do a project together to give back to the business.  I have found that these circles (called various names, usually “academies” or “leagues”), are a great way for me and my team to share our vision, work on work, and really get to know the managers in a deeper way.  An added win is having a direct report involved with this as part of their leadership experience.   I have seen a good track record of successful promotions coming out of these scenes.

Of course, some would argue it’s not “mentoring” if it is your own chain of command.  Perhaps.

Please share your stories of mentoring circles.  I would love to learn more.

Nemesis Mentors

The natural tendency when looking for a mentor is to turn to people who look like us, think like us, or value  the same things we do.

It’s easier, and often precisely how people are matched in some formal mentoring programs.

That can be fantastic.

On the other hand, what about seeking out a mentoring relationship with the person that REALLY frustrates, annoys and angers you? A nemesis who ignites and  challenges you?   Who questions your motives and assumptions? A person that makes you so angry at them, you wonder if you could really be mad at yourself.  One of those guys.

More tricky.

More entertaining.

And likely, more valuable.

In Greek mythology a Nemesis will “give what is due.”  That doesn’t turn out so well in some of those stories.  But what if what is due is just what you need?

I watch this dynamic at play in our church youth group.  And looking back, a similar phenomena happened back in my youth group days (but I was too involved to see it).

Unlike school where you can pick who you hang out with; in the church scene, kids are pretty much required to do stuff with everyone and be nice about it.

The kids that inevitably drive one another crazy, can help each other the most.  They think differently… they care about different things, and often have something that might be missing or underdeveloped in the other.  The growth happens when they spend time really digging in and opening up to one another.  I have seen some amazing peer mentoring magic happen here, one on one– after the storm.

At work, we are all trained to get along, be team players, and work collaboratively to get stuff done, “you don’t have to like each other, just respect one another and work as a team.”

But what about seeking out the person that most annoys you in the group or organization?  Of course, there is a 3.75% possibility that the guy’s just a real jerk.  I’ve met him.  But barring that, how about approaching that person with the Won’t You Be My Mentor? list?

Then, wait for the magic.

Won’t You Be My Mentor?

So… you want a mentor.  Now what?

Where? Who? How to approach?

First, let me say this.  I have NEVER been offended by anyone who has asked me for career advice , or wanting to know me better.  I love to help.    I have always said yes to anyone who approached me with the “M” word (although those folks usually don’t stick around.. when they approach that way it’s normally because someone told them to, or they just read a book).

Also, I have NEVER had someone tell me they are too busy to talk about such subjects.   Every time I ask, I get a great story, and often a life long friend.

If you are feeling scared… just ask.  The results may surprise you.

Once they say yes, like a good first date, have a plan.

Some questions to consider in your preparation:

  • Why are you here?  Why them?
  • What do you want them to know about you? (Once again, time for that Elevator Speech)
  • What do you want to know about their story? Ask some questions.
  • What is your big career plan?  What are your next steps?
  • What do they already know about you (what is your brand with them, with others?)
  • What worries you most… open up a bit…
  • Does this feel right?  If so, ask if it would be okay to meet again?

“Where There is Chaos, Seize Control”

One of my early bosses and mentors, Gail Parsons,  said this to me almost daily.

I was young and newly promoted in an HR role in the midst of a big merger. There was much organizational realignment.  Everyone had a new boss and a new team.  Most leaders were in the midst of relocating their families.

We were merging systems, polices, programs… you name it.

Every time I walked into her office with an idea, she would say the same thing: “where there is chaos…”

When I questioned the political ramifications of not getting the right buy-in she would say:

“Do we need this?  … Uh, yes.

“Is it a sound business decision?” Yes

“Do you have a strong implementation plan?”   Of course

“Is your team behind it?”  Yes

“Has anyone told you not to do it?”  No… but…

“Karin, look… by the time everyone figures out that we need to do this, your team will  already  be doing it… and have great results to prove it in.  Just do it well and tell me if you are going to break any big rules.   I’ve got your back.”

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So, this weekend, I called on Gail to offer some perspective on this time in our careers–and to ask what advice she would offer to new leaders today:

 “It’s all about understanding the corporate culture.  In newly merged companies there is often the opportunity to redirect the culture in an expedient manner.  There is usually so much confusion that one can seize control while no one is looking.  Control in this scenario is about getting things done.”
And…
“Where culture is well defined, get buy in to your ideas across, below and above organizational structure.  It is much easier to tear down than it is to build.  Be patient and resolved.”
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“Where there is chaos seize control,”

A once sentence mentoring program which encouraged me to…

  • Do what needs to be done
  • Not wait
  • Take risks
  • Be empowered
  • Ask before breaking the big rules
  • Do it well
  • Have their backs

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