The Art (and Work) of Listening

I talked about listening as a key action that can help build trust (full post here) but wanted to dive in a bit deeper because it is so important.

I think we’ve all heard that we should be a good listener, right?

  • Listen to your school teacher
  • Listen to your parents
  • Listen to your significant other
  • Listen to your boss
  • Listen to a friend

…and the list goes on.

Listening truly is one of the most important ways we can build relationships, and lead effectively.

I am reminded of this blog post by Lolly Daskal, which I first read a few years ago.  The whole post isn’t very long, but I want to share a few highlights:

1) The most basic human need is to understand and to be understood.

2) The essence of listening is in silence:

Do not judge

Do not question

Do not fix

3) For many, being silent feels like being inactive. But listening is the act of paying attention, the act of consideration.

…all of which are such insightful points about listening.  Think about each one for a minute.  Such good stuff.  I agree completely with all three!  Leadership and trust are built on this understanding.

So why, then, don’t more people listen?  Why is this such a difficult skill to master? Continue reading

Lessons I Learned from a Rock on the Beach

A few weeks ago, I was walking on Indian Beach along the Oregon coast.  A spectacular, beautiful day, looking much like the picture above (and yes, that is a picture of Indian Beach).  As my wife and I walked down the beach as the waves rolled in, we were looking for shells that had been washed ashore, that we could take home to show the kids.

Suddenly, I saw it.  The most perfect black rock you’ve ever seen.  It was a little smaller than a golf ball and was glistening perfectly in the sun.  Perfectly clean, perfectly black and perfectly smooth.  It looked as though it belonged in this family of rocks:


My mind immediately started thinking:  “how did this rock get so perfectly smooth?”

The answer was simple:  waves and sand, smoothing out the stone over a long period of time.  It definitely took a long time, I concluded.  Awesome.  I was very pleased with my meaningful souvenir and shoved it in my pocket as we continued walking down the beach.

However, I didn’t expect some additional lessons that I would learn from this ‘perfect’ rock…

At the base of the trail to leave the beach, there is an immediate uphill climb (where the forest meets the sand, the left-hand side of the picture), there was a whole bunch of black rocks just like the one I had claimed as my perfect rock.  They were all sizes and various shapes – but all smooth.  All worn by the waves and the sand.  Suddenly my perfect rock wasn’t feeling so special…

My next realization came when we got home.  I got out my perfect rock, but for some reason, it wasn’t what I remembered.  It wasn’t quite as perfect, as smooth, as black.  Now that it was dry, and not glistening in the sunlight anymore, the luster had faded away.

But this is still “my rock” and I still love it, because it has taught me a few very important lessons:

  1. The principle about waves and water making a stone smooth?  Absolutely true.  In our careers, becoming the smooth stone we all want to be will take time, and it will require experiences (sometimes rough).  Stay patient.  Stay positive.
  2. If I consider myself the black rock I found on the beach, safe to say that co-workers and associates are the other group of black rocks by the trail head.  We are all in it together.  We are all just trying to smooth ourselves over the course of our careers.  Leaders remember this, and recognize it in others.
  3. My perfect rock wasn’t so perfect in the end.  Leaders are well served to remember that sometimes things aren’t as perfect as they seem.  Take some time, let the luster fade a little bit to understand the real beauty of the ‘rock’.

So now my rock sits on my desk as a constant reminder of these important lessons:

rock at desk


Maybe it is the perfect rock after all.


Keep Your Eye on What Matters Most

I heard a speech in 2009 about a very important principle of leadership:  the importance of keeping an eye on what matters most, even in the face of an immediate or important crisis.

The following story was shared to illustrate this principle***:

On a dark December night 36 years ago, a Lockheed 1011 jumbo jet crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing over 100 people. This terrible accident was one of the deadliest crashes in the history of the United States.

A curious thing about this accident is that all vital parts and systems of the airplane were functioning perfectly—the plane could have easily landed safely at its destination in Miami, only 20 miles (32km) away.

During the final approach, however, the crew noticed that one green light had failed to illuminate—a light that indicates whether or not the nose landing gear has extended successfully. The pilots discontinued the approach, set the aircraft into a circling holding pattern over the pitch-black Everglades, and turned their attention toward investigating the problem.

They became so preoccupied with their search that they failed to realize the plane was gradually descending closer and closer toward the dark swamp below. By the time someone noticed what was happening, it was too late to avoid the disaster.

After the accident, investigators tried to determine the cause. The landing gear had indeed lowered properly. The plane was in perfect mechanical condition. Everything was working properly—all except one thing: a single burned-out lightbulb. That tiny bulb—worth about 20 cents—started the chain of events that ultimately led to the tragic death of over 100 people.

Of course, the malfunctioning light bulb didn’t cause the accident; it happened because the crew placed its focus on something that seemed to matter at the moment while losing sight of what mattered most.

So, an important lesson for all leaders:  keep consistently focused on what matters most.

Don’t lose sight of the big picture.  Don’t let an urgent issue (no matter how big or small) take our attention off the big picture, the most important stuff going on.

It is especially important to remember this during times of transition and change.  As a leader, always keep the big picture in the forefront of your mind.  Help others to do the same.

My advice on how to do this, especially in times of crisis & urgency?

  1. Reflect. Each day remind yourself of the priorities and big picture.
  2. Connect.  Share with someone you trust, what you are thinking/feeling and your action plans.  Help keep each other on course!
  3. Inspect.  Examine what you’re spending your time and energy on.  Does it fit within the big picture?  Write stuff down. Keep detailed notes & communication to ensure information won’t be ‘lost in translation’.

It is a HARD task, to keep the big picture in mind while so much is going on around you.  But as a leader, you need to do it.  You need to lead others, as they struggle with the same thing(s).

But you can do it!  Others will look to you!  Work together to succeed!

***(Detailed description of the flight and crew found here;  details of the crash found here.  Full description found here – pay special attention to the section entitled “Cause of the Crash”.  Official report can be seen here.)

The Most Dangerous Threat to Culture & Leadership

Team.  Department.  These terms describe a group of people together.  We are all working together, right?

At first glance we may be, but have you ever noticed someone who just isn’t quite “part of the team”?  You may be noticing the first signs of a dangerous threat to your own culture and leadership:  isolation.

One of my favorite TV Shows, Lost, had a great scene early in the series that dramatizes the effect of isolation (scene takes place shortly after their plane had crashed on a desert island):

As you lead your team, you may not feel such a dramatic impact or risk of isolation, but maybe you did notice people who exhibit signs such as:

  • closing their office door
  • working with earbuds in, seemingly all the time
  • “too busy” for things like team meetings, team lunches or workplace activities
  • demonstrating a “just leave me alone to to my work” attitude in any number of ways

On the surface, these things seem pretty harmless.  But if left unattended, that kind of behavior can become contagious; it will start to erode your team’s culture, and undermine your own leadership.  It is important to address early on.

There are many causes of isolation, but a few environmental factors can make it more likely:

  • someone is new to the company
  • someone is new to the team, or department
  • someone works remotely, or in a different location
  • someone has done their job for a really long time and doesn’t really “need” anyone else for help
  • someone who just wants to come in to work, do their own job and go home

Individuals in these categories may simply be more likely to isolate themselves.  Many times this happens so subtly over time that they don’t even perceive it.

But I guarantee your team will be much better off if you eliminate isolation.

My advice to you, as a manager?  Be aware of these causes of isolation – if you identify possible risks or warning signs, take action!  Build trust with that person.  Connect.  Work with them and talk to them on an individual basis, in a meaningful way.  That is the heart of leadership.  Connecting with people.

What do you think?  How have you overcome isolation in a team you lead?

Comment below!

Team Meetings People Actually Look Forward To!!!

Let’s say you are a new leader, with people reporting to you now… or… you have been a leader for a while, but inherited a new team.  o-BUSINESS-MEETING-facebookEither way, you know you probably should hold team meetings on a somewhat regular basis, right?  RIGHT!

But why, exactly?  I mean, most meetings you have been in (team meetings or otherwise) have been pointless, redundant, or ineffective, right?  Probably also right.  <siiiiighh>

Why do meetings get such a bad rap?  We just say the word, and people cringe.  In fact, I would guess that most of your schedule is packed with meetings, right?  Interesting!

The key to effective meetings is to be purposeful and deliberate.

We will talk about overall meetings, or general business meetings, in a future post (good article here if you’re interested).  But for now, I would like to focus on the first meeting you should focus on:  your team meeting.

This meeting should be the best meeting you hold!  It should be a highlight and a help to you in your work as a leader.  First step:  take control!  You own it!  Drive it!  Make it an exception to the “pointless meeting” stereotype!

The purpose of a regular team meeting should be to a) build trust, b) connect people, and c) make progress on the work (a and b will help accomplish c.  I promise).

Here’s how: Continue reading

Employee of the Month program – more dangerous than helpful…?

I was asked a really good question the other day: “I would like to start an Employee of the Month program – how should I go about it?”  Excellent question!

I will  share thoughts on recognition and rewards in the future, but let me share my thoughts on an Employee of the Month program…

(shared some initial thoughts on recognition here; one of my favorite resources for recognition is the “Rewards and Recognition” section of the Achievers Employee Engagement Blog)

Here’s my take: I do not recommend adopting an Employee of the Month program.  

Wait.  WHAT?  Don’t do it at all? Why?

Because most I’ve seen are done in a way that does not build trust and engagement – rather, it is either meaningless or de-motivating.  The opposite effect of the real purpose!

I have three guiding principles that will increase effectiveness of a recognition program used instead of a traditional Employee of the Month:

  • The best programs don’t have “just one winner” 

The idea that only one person can win can be de-motivating to all others, especially if “I never win” or “I never even have a chance” or “so and so always wins”.  For some, this attitude comes out in the form of complaining and poking holes.  For most, this is a more quiet impact of frustration and annoyance; it certainly does not make them try harder to win.  Not only will you avoid a headache in responding to these complaints, you’ll avoid undermining the entire program.

My advice:  create a program where there is no constraint on the number of winners.

  • The best programs are as transparent as possible

Transparency is key, both in the criteria to win an award and the process for selection.  The biggest thing I don’t like about a small team selecting one winner is that it can be a “black box”.  No one really knows what happens or how decisions are made – hence concerns of favoritism, etc.  Once again, this becomes a frustration and annoyance to most employees and does not inspire greater performance.

My advice:  create a program where there is no approval process.

  • The best programs have specific meaning behind the recognition

Remember this simple concept:  you will get more of what you reward.  As a leader, it is very important you decide what you would like to recognize.  Basically, you will see more of whatever you reward.  If you don’t want people to recognize others for “being awesome” or “showing up on time” then you will want to set that out early on.  Describe the purpose, and what they should be looking for in others  (maybe call it a “teamwork gold star” or “collaboration gold star” if those are the behaviors you would like to reinforce…).

My advice: tie the recognition to your company values or behaviors.  

With those three guiding principles in mind, here’s where I would start if I were building something from scratch:  I like peer-to-peer awards best, giving as many as are submitted that month (yes, that’s right – no limit to the quantity).  Read off the winners publicly, thank them for what they did, with some specific details included.  If you would like to have a tangible “thing” to go with it, you could do something nominal like gold stars or a sort of internal currency.  You’ll find that the measure of the prize actually doesn’t matter quite as much as you’d think (like, a $100 prize doesn’t get tons more traction than a $10 prize).  It’s the act of thanking and recognizing that is so important.

Remember, the act of recognizing another person is actually just as valuable, if not more so, than receiving it myself…

If you want to go one step further, you can have a monthly raffle for all those who received or gave a gold star.  If you like the idea of giving something away that is a little more valuable (in terms of $$$), at least that makes it equal for all, and transparent.

There are some good starting points for your own recognition program.  Remember – the act of recognizing that thanking others is vital to an organization’s culture.  It’s a necessary skill for leaders to practice often.

What do you think?  Does this resonate with you?  …or…  Have you seen an “Employee of the Month” program that really worked well?

Please comment below!