Jul 04

Let Freedom Ring

With all of the strong range of opinions I’ve seen people express over the past few weeks, across a variety of topics, I continue to pivot back to wondering what our founding fathers would have thought about all of it. They recognized America as a great experiment, and that the nation can and would continue to evolve over the course of time. Of all the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin is certainly one of the most famous, and perhaps the most influential in the discussion and debate over the Constitution.

As the weeks of debate were drawing to a close, and members of the Continental Congress prepared to weigh in on their approval of the document, Franklin presented the following argument:

I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves…

Franklin recognized that it took compromise on the part of some of the greatest statesmen the county would ever know to establish our new government. They were never going to see eye-to-eye on every single subject, and understood that some model, albeit flawed, was better than no model, and ultimately Franklin concluded that “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”

Inherent in that model was an underlying respect and understanding that others can and will have different beliefs and opinions. And to further ensure the ability for citizens to coexist without the threat of criminal prosecution because of their personal beliefs and opinions, one of the first acts of the newly established government was provided through the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

Newspapers, while few and far between, could print what they wanted without fear. Speeches could only be heard as far as your voice would carry. News took days to travel from city to city. And because of the logistical limits in how individuals might express their beliefs and opinions, I wonder if the founding fathers ever envisioned the threats of social persecution that seem to exist today. Today, the barriers to publishing your beliefs and opinions have become nonexistent, as technology enabled megaphones now allow an individual the capability to reach a global audience in an instant. With that capability comes tremendous responsibility, because the power and influence someone can leverage can have enormous consequences. We have started to reduce ourselves to massive electronic shouting matches, rather than use these new platforms for constructive and meaningful debate. I have a wide range of friends on Facebook, with many degrees of beliefs and opinions. I may not agree with everything every friend states, but I respect their right to state it, and I have not “unfriended” anyone in the process.

Compromise suggests an imperfect result, that no party involved got everything they desired in the outcome. We live in a nation founded on compromises, and as imperfect as it was, provided the foundation to provide the means to continue to perfect it. That process will continue long after we’re gone, as the challenges the nation faces continue to evolve over time. We must keep one eye on our past to understand the progress we’ve made since the Constitution was adopted, and the other eye on our future, and ensure we continue the journey for our children and grandchildren. Our nation has worked through challenges related to gender, race, and now sexual orientation. Each at their time was controversial, and there will continue to be controversial issues in the future. We must harness our energy for constructive debate, not shouting matches. Similarly, recognize that while you may not agree with them, that others are entitled to their beliefs. We must work towards common ground that will allow us to continue to build off the good work that our forefathers set in motion, as imperfect as it was. Franklin recognized it then, and we must continue to recognize it now.

 

 

May 25

Land of Opportunity

Happy Memorial Day to all of us in the United States! It is a great time of year, as students start winding down the school year, and we kick off the unofficial start to the summer vacation season. Second to the Fourth of July, it might also be the most patriotic holiday of the year. Many cities and townships will have community events, parades, and activities that bring us together. We will also participate in solemn ceremonies that honor the memories of those who have served and given the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Whether you participate in one of these ceremonies or not, take a moment to reflect and thank those who have helped make this the “land of the free and home of the brave.” Too often, myself included at times, take our liberties and freedoms for granted, and this holiday is a great reminder of how important those that have served, and continue to serve, are to our day to day lives.

We also refer to ourselves as the “land of opportunity.” Perhaps just as important, and perhaps just as forgotten, we are blessed to live in a country where an individual can take themselves as far and as high as they want when they embrace the opportunities that enter their lives. A colleague of mine often says “Opportunity plus hard work equals success.” Success will not be handed to you in a gift wrapped package. Success is achieved when those willing to work hard and persevere take full advantage of an opportunity presented to them. It begins at a young age, and continues through your entire life. You get an opportunity to try out for a sports team as a youngster, and no one is going to just give you a spot on the roster, you have to work hard to earn it. You have opportunities to grow as a student, and no one is going to just give you an “A” or hand you a diploma, you have to study and work hard to receive it. Throughout our professional careers, we have and will be presented with many opportunities – new jobs, promotions, etc., and those that are successful will be those who are willing to make the effort, and work hard in order to advance within your company, industry, or the workforce in general.

We often joke at times as to the Millennium generation, and how they expect everything handed to them once they enter the work force. In fairness, they have grown up in a time where instant gratification is a big driver in life – information at your fingertips via the internet, immediately connected with one another via smart phones, on-demand television and streaming videos as soon as you feel the impulse to watch something. It is easy to see why you might expect the same in your career path. My response to those who have only recently entered the workforce, or even those who are still a few years out, but already plotting their path to the executive wing of a company, is that while we are fortunate to have all of these advances, and things can truly happen instantly, they came about because we are blessed to live in a land of opportunity, and those who created those advances worked very, very hard to accomplish those things in order to become highly successful.

So, as you’re relaxing on this three day weekend, and taking a break from the office, first, be sure to thank those that served, and paid the ultimate price, so that you could live in a land filled with wonderful opportunities. And then, when you go back to work on Tuesday, remind yourself that hard work and determination will eventually get you where you want to go. The determination and commitment of our armed forces opened the door for you – be sure to step through and take full advantage of it.

The following originally appeared in May 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

Apr 25

Ban The Selfie Stick

Ok, maybe I’m old school. Maybe, for as much as I have embraced the advantages of technology I still like the simpler things. However, one thing I feel rather certain about – technology advances are eroding our general ability to engage in dialogue with one another. I’ll admit it, I text when I need to, and tweet on occasion (@OnTheBallTheory). However, while all of the texting / tweeting / Snapchatting / Instagramming (and I’m sure many others) options are useful, and have certainly found a place in our day to day lives, the art of actually caring on a conversation will go the way of the typewriter and rotary phone if we are not careful. (You remember what a typewriter and a rotary phone are, right?) The poster child of this phenomenon is the Selfie Stick, and let me share an example as to why.

Years ago, before cell phones became common place, before GPS replaced your atlas, and when film was still prominent in cameras, my wife and I took a three week cross country trip by car. We were visiting Yosemite National Park and out sightseeing for the afternoon. I guess it was obvious that the two of us were together, and my wife was approached by two women who had just gotten off a tour bus. They had a quick conversation, handed my wife their camera, and then stood next to me for the picture. I was easily two feet taller than they were, and I’m guessing I might have been the tallest person they had ever seen in person, and wanted to capture the funny moment. They smiled, said thank you to both of us, and went on their way. The entire exchange was no more than a minute, but the encounter, and the fun, polite nature of the interaction, has stayed with me for many years since.

Jump ahead to just a few weeks ago, as my son and I went with his Boy Scout troop on a weekend outing in Washington D.C. It was the height of the cherry blossom season, the weather was perfect, and while the Mall was packed with tourists, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. At every turn, however, there was someone taking a picture – with a Selfie Stick. A picture of themselves, a picture of a small group of people, all with some historical backdrop in view. Our troop walked the Mall from end to end for hours that Saturday, and not once was anyone in our troop asked to take a photo of them or their group. I finally got to a point where if I saw someone struggling with their Selfie Stick, I’d stop and volunteer to take the picture for them. Each one took me up on the offer, and all almost seemed amazed that someone would even go out of their way to help them. Has it come that hard, and/or are people that unwilling to engage in conversation anymore, for something as simple as taking a picture?

Maybe technology made this inevitable. Perhaps sending an email in place of a phone call was the predecessor to this, and now that we are so mobile with tablets, smart phones, and our prized Selfie Sticks, that this phenomenon of non-human interaction has pushed this out of the workplace into our daily personal lives. Communication is such a critical part of our day-to-day existence, yet with each passing year we become more and more passive about it as a society. I’m fearful that if the current trend continues, our verbal conversations will even be reduced to 140 characters per exchange because we won’t know any better.

Please let me know your thoughts – am I on to something here, or completely off base? Is the momentum so great that I should just throw in the towel and accept it for what it is moving forward? I’ll challenge you to make observations for a day on this topic – does anyone have a conversation in the elevator on the way to the office anymore? While waiting in a store? At a train station or airport? As I mentioned at the outset, these great technical advances have a proper time and place in our lives, but I’ll gladly chew your ear off during a nice, long talk if given the opportunity instead.

The following originally appeared in April 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

Mar 25

Leadership, Tournament Style

When my wife and I first started dating over twenty years ago, she started to ask me about my sports passions. I reassured her that while I enjoy watching a good game, she would not be a football widow each autumn. I also promised her that she would not loose me to a softball league in the summer. I did forewarn her, however, that each year, the last three weeks of March are sacred to me.

As most of you are aware, since we are in the heart of it right now, those last three weeks represent to me one of our nation’s greatest and purest sporting events – the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. And while I love college basketball, and the family or inter-office bragging rights of having a reasonably intact bracket after the first weekend, the best part about the tournament is watching how it brings out the best in the players, both as athletes and as people.

You’ve probably noticed a trend over the past several years, and that inevitably there are a handful of upsets where a lower seeded team beats a higher seeded team. And while having a team of tremendous athletes is very important, it is mental portion of the game that allows teams to advance. Unlike any other sports championship, the NCAA tournament is an opportunity to showcase teamwork, maturity, and above all, leadership on the basketball court.

Regardless if a program has a marquee, Hall of Famer at the helm like Mike Krzyzewski, or is run by a new up and coming coach, when they are interviewed after a victory, the coaches ultimately talk about the heart that their team played with, the courage to never give up, and the leadership of their starters. Ultimately, a coach can run all the drills they want during practice, and design plays on the fly in a time out huddle, but the leadership of players on the floor, and the ability to execute, is what causes the winners to emerge.

Other than perhaps the most elite programs in the nation, the athletic talent across these the teams in the tournament is fairly consistent. When these upsets happen and otherwise bust up your bracket, the differentiator in most cases was these softer skills. Success occurs when leaders emerge, the players are unselfish, and operate as a cohesive team on the floor. They set aside the odds that are stacked against them, they don’t listen to the nay-sayers that perhaps think they don’t have any business being here, and they welcome the challenge to prove something. Often they come up short, but it’s not for a lack of effort and drive. Those that do pull off an upset, however, have those success traits to thank for their achievement.

Imagine if businesses and communities approached their work and projects in the same manner as college basketball tournament teams. They don’t play for profit margins, these teams play for pride. When the measurement for success is pure and simple, people will bond together, leaders arise, and great things can be accomplished. Once we start to cloud what and how we measure success, it becomes that much more challenging to achieve your goals and objectives.

In the famous 1983 run towards their NCAA Championship, the battle cry of the North Carolina State Wolfpack was “Survive and Advance” – they were an underdog team that rose to the occasion nine times in a row to first win the ACC Tournament, and then on to win the NCAA tournament. They didn’t look ahead to the next game, they focused on the challenge in front of them at that moment, and in each game, a different leader surfaced who helped drive them to victory. The strength of Jim Valvano as the coach of that team was in building a roster of men with character, players that lead by example, and were driven to win. On any given night, they were not the most athletic team on the court, but they played with the most heart.

So for the next two weekends, as you watch your brackets fall apart and your chance at winning your office pool dwindles, embrace the fact that you get to watch teamwork and leadership in sports at its finest. There are many lessons to be learned from these college kids.

The following originally appeared in March 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

Feb 25

Leadership of One

A typical day in my work week is spent engaged as a Senior Project Manager, providing oversight for a given client’s technology initiative. From a functional perspective, I serve in the traditional role of project manager, monitoring the project schedule, budget, and scope of work. More often than not, I also find myself serving as a leader at the client site, giving resources direction, and sometimes even mentorship and advice as to their role on the project, within the client’s organization as a whole, and perhaps even industry / career guidance. My clients view me as a trusted advisor, and I work hard to find the right balance of professional and personal that allows me to connect with people in a positive way, and see projects through to their successful completion.

Like millions of other Americans, I also work for myself. I am technically the owner of a small business having established an S-Corp for my business affairs, but at the end of the day I am self-employed. I have been at it now for over eleven years, and, knock on wood, things have gone pretty well thus far. As with any career choice, it has its risks and rewards. I have the luxury of focusing on local clients and avoiding the road warrior consulting model, as I had earlier in my career. However, finding work that meets my criteria is harder, and opportunities are few and far between. I get to be my own boss, but have not had a performance review to discuss my professional strengths and weaknesses in a dozen years. I don’t need approval from anyone to proceed with a particular company expense, but the full burden of generating revenues rests squarely on my shoulders.

I am currently in a bit of a dry spell, having actively pursued some prospective projects for a few weeks now, but nothing that has closed yet. You quickly go through phases of first being happy to have a little down time to recharge, then energized to chase after a new project or client, and then anxious when some time has passed and find that you are still looking for the next opportunity. I’ve been fortunate that during the self-employed portion of my career this has not happened to me often. However, when it does, I remind myself that I have to stop and look in the mirror and provide the same leadership and mentorship advice to myself as I would anyone else. Without a boss or colleagues within my own organization, I have no one else to turn to but myself to work through these situations. Bill Bradley once said that “leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” Sometimes you need to look inward and unlock your own potential to become even better, and keep driving forward. This is the Leadership of One.

Have a Plan

The first thing I was ask someone in my situation is whether or not they have a plan. Each night before I go to bed I make sure I have a game plan for the next day. Who I am going to reach out to? Who can I reconnect with? What prospective clients do I want to target? What firms can I partner with? Sometimes, when I’m really lucky, a lead falls out of the sky right into my lap. But more often than not, the leads come from your network, referrals, and industry connections. In addition to the planning to find the next project, there is also the financial planning. What happens to me financially if I go a month before finding the next project? Two months? In the current job market, even as things appear to be improving, there is never any certainty. Many recommend having at least a few months of personal financial cushion in case the unexpected happens. This rule of thumb applies even more so to those who are self-employed. Be willing to ask yourself the hard questions and challenge yourself as to whether or not you can weather a financial storm. Those who can lead themselves to find new clients, and be disciplined enough to be financially prepared, will have greater success in the world of the self-employed.

Be Persistent

If you are self-employed, you are most likely a highly driven person. Most of the time the drive is out of desire to achieve a personal goal or objective for yourself. If you were leading or mentoring someone else who is self-employed, you would encourage them to keep at it and be persistent. Sometimes I refer to it as turning over rocks – if you look under enough rocks, you will eventually find what you are looking for. It then just becomes a numbers game, and with your persistence, you will make the right connection, be in the right place at the right time, and the circumstances will be such that next thing you know you will be engaged by a client and billable again. If you think these comments are a lot of rah-rah, then keep this in mind – if you are not persistent, if you just sit back and expect the next opportunity to come to you, your life among the ranks of the self-employed will be very short lived. Every morning, the leader in my mirror tells me to keep at it. Do not let up your pursuit of the next client or project.

Be Patient

Finally, I’ve put in a full day of emails, phone calls, and searching my network for other potential opportunities. Sometimes I feel like I have nothing to show for it, but it is never the case. The leader in the mirror reminds me that the seeds for future opportunities were planted today. Sometimes those seeds blossom and bear fruit very quickly. Other seeds I first planted years ago, but were worth the wait when the right opportunity presented itself. As eager as you may be to find the next project, and as persistent as you work to secure it, I would remind others that you do have to balance that persistence with patience. If you have the right plan, you can afford to be patient. The clients have needs, the work is out there, and it is the right balance of persistence and patience that will land you the right engagement for your skill set. In the same way the leader in morning mirror tells me to go after them, the leader in the nighttime mirror tells me it’s ok, don’t let up, but give it some time.

Working for yourself can be stressful, and at times even take an emotional toll on you. However, even when taking that into consideration, I constantly remind myself that if I can be successful leading others and providing value to client resources and team members, I must also be capable of leading myself. If on any given day I begin to doubt that, I just check in with the leader in the mirror.

The following originally appeared in February 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

Jan 25

Block and Tackle Project Management

I recently had a meeting with a prospective client that asked me to describe my project management style, and to his surprise, my response was that I consider myself a “block and tackle” project manager.  The answer seemed to have caught him off guard for a minute or two, and opened the door for me to elaborate on my comment.  While I do stand 6’ 6” tall and played offensive line in high school football, my notion of “block and tackle” project management is not to suggest a rough, relentless style.  Additionally, my use of the term is not the typical buzz phrase that may even cause some to roll their eyes in referring to “the easy stuff” on a project.  However, while the quarterback is considered the offensive leader on the field, I personally believe an offensive lineman has many characteristics of a project manager.  So with that in mind, here are some of the thoughts about “block and tackle” project management that I shared with the prospective client:

Clear a Path for Your Teammates

When I serve as Project Manager for a particular initiative, I don’t view the project resources as working “for” me, but rather “with” me.  The notion of working as a project team grows from the fact that no individual has the skill set, expertise, and/or time to effectively accomplish the task at hand.  The team, therefore, is made up of a variety of skill sets, perhaps even specialties, and usually a deadline by which the work needs to be accomplished.

The same is true in football.  We’re all teammates, but have different skills as members of the team.  When I take on the “block and tackle” project management mentality, I take into consideration that there are others on my team that have very valuable skills, and my role is in part to can help ensure they have as clear a path as possible to accomplish their individual tasks and make forward progress.  Typically in my case the “skill players” might be data architects, system designers, server administrators – all roles that I have familiarity with, but not the detailed level of skill or expertise to perform myself.  By comparison, what skills can I as a project manager bring to the table?  Planning, scheduling, budgeting, communication, risk assessment and issue resolution to name a few.  Focusing on those tasks, the blocking and tackling for our team, plays a tremendous role in helping to make the skill players successful.

Watch for the Blitz

During the football game, it’s a third-and-long situation, and your quarterback is most likely looking to throw a pass.  The defense, in an effort to pressure him, is likely to blitz and try to sack him, or at least make a bad pass.  As an offensive lineman, you’re trained to anticipate that scenario and proactively do what you can to prevent the risk of a sack from occurring.

The same is true for a project manager.  Part of your role must include having the wherewithal to look ahead at scenarios that may unfold during the project, understand the risk and impact of not reacting, and then take proactive steps to mitigate the risks as best as possible.  The absence of this skill can put the success of the entire team in jeopardy.

Win as a Team

When you are an offensive lineman, you eventually learn that you are not in the spotlight role on the team, and highly unlikely to be the hero of any given game.  Personal accolades are few and far between, and the skill players are far more likely to be named the game’s MVP.  Therefore, as an offensive lineman, you understand that it is not about you as an individual player, but that the number one goal is to make the team successful and win the game.  You know you can’t win the game alone, and you are very dependent on the skill positions to play as well as possible.  Good project managers fall into the same category.  The team meets the client’s expectations, not the project manager alone.  The team completes the project on time and on budget, not just the project manager.  Being a successful project manager means having successful team members – and you succeed or fail together.

I think the client liked what I had to say and how I described by project management style.  It would be an interesting and challenging project that would include subject matter experts from within the company, process consultants, and systems architects / developers.  They represent a number of skill position players for the initiative, and hopefully I will be able to contribute as well.  My client contact invited me back to meet with some of his colleagues that I would be working with, so all the signs look positive at the moment.  In the meantime, I’ll be reviewing their playbook to make sure I can be effective as soon as I’m called into the game.

The following originally appeared in January 2015 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Dec 25

The Leadership of Jesus

When your BEALEADER post occurs on the 25th of each month, there is a chance it will occur on Memorial Day, or at least close to it.  The same holds true for Thanksgiving.  However, when it comes to your December posting, there’s no avoiding the fact that your post will be on Christmas Day.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, and wanted to try to find some way to incorporate the holiday as best as possible.  There are a few ways I could have gone with this, including a rather light-hearted Santa Claus as a leader at the North Pole thejesus-christ-11vme.  However, I decided to take a leap of faith and approach this month’s post from a spiritual perspective.  I know some people think you should avoid religion and politics in discussion, but for today, it just seems fitting to explore this further, and I’m willing to take that chance.

I will openly acknowledge now that I am not well versed in this, and used the writing of this post as an opportunity to read some more, reflect some more, and try to capture some takeaways from that exercise.  In our end-of-year hustle and bustle, caught up in last minute gifts and parties, I didn’t want to lose sight of the foundation of today’s holiday – the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  During my reading, I didn’t have to dig too far to embrace the fact that later in his life Jesus possessed many critical leadership traits. I came across a number of articles and books on this topic, including The Training of the Twelve, by A. B. Bruce, which examines in great detail, the leadership of Jesus and his relationship with the disciples.  In fact, considering the breadth and longevity of his preaching to this day, it could be argued that Jesus is one of the most enduring leaders in recorded history.

Man of Conviction

We always discuss how strong leaders must have a passion and strong interest to achieve something.  Furthermore, leaders not only need to motivate themselves, but energize others in the process.  Can anyone argue that Jesus fell short in this area?  He is in fact a model of conviction and passion that many look to emulate.  His conviction was so strong, that it has motivated generations for centuries, and continues to do so today.

Leading by Example

While the words of Jesus reached thousands during his lifetime, he paid particular attention to his interactions with the twelve disciples.  In the training of the twelve for the work of the apostleship, hearing and seeing the words and works of Jesus occupied an important place.  From the time the twelve were chosen, they entered on a regular apprenticeship, in the course of which they were to study in the intimate daily fellowship with Jesus.  Through his example they learned what they should be, believe, and teach, as His witnesses and eventual ambassadors to the world.

Empowerment of Followers to be Leaders Themselves

In an earlier period of his life, Jesus labored single-handed, as His miraculous deeds were confined for the most part to a limited area, and were simpler in nature.  But by the time the twelve disciples were chosen, the work of the kingdom had grown in size to require organization and division of labor.  The teaching of Jesus was beginning to be of a deeper and more elaborate nature, and His activities were taking on an ever-widening range.  The disciples, however, became more than just traveling companions or servants of Jesus.  They became students of Christian doctrine, occasional fellow-laborers in the work of the kingdom, and eventually the chosen trained agents to propagate the faith on behalf of Jesus after His time on earth.  Jesus bestowed upon the twelve unlimited powers of healing, as they were instructed to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils.”  As apostles, they took on an even greater leadership role, preaching the gospel, not only to Jews, but to all nations.  Had Jesus not empowered the twelve in the way He had, His message would have faded away within a generation or two.

Man of Courage and Character

How often did Jesus demonstrate a willingness to engage when others would not?  How often did He enter a situation that was risky, or challenging, or unpopular with others?  Jesus exemplified the traits of courage and character as someone who showed the willingness to go first, be fully committed, and at times “go it alone”, because He believed it was the right thing to do.  His actions were the ultimate examples of courage and character, as many look to Him for courage and strength within themselves.

So thank you for sharing a few minutes of your busy holiday with me.  It was refreshing for me to author this post, in that while many consider themselves followers of Jesus, it was interesting to reflect upon His inherent leadership traits as well.  I hope at a minimum I was able to reinforce some common themes from our ongoing leadership discussions.  Ideally, however, I hope I was able to do more than that, and helped to reflect a bit on the foundation of today’s holiday.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

The following originally appeared in December 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Nov 25

Thank You, Mr. Gilmore

More often than not, when we think of leaders we think of “wow” factor, helping to guide others towards the achievement of a grand idea or vision.  Occasionally, the impact of leaders can be far more subtle, and the effects of their leadership may not be evident for months, or even years.  It is only in hindsight that we realize how even the smallest doses of mentorship and leadership at the right place and the right time can have powerful, lasting effects.

I always think of November as a month of traditions.  The Thanksgiving holiday is the cornerstone of those traditions.  But for me, it also always includes a college football match-up between Lafayette College and my alma mater, Lehigh University.  It is the nation’s most played rivalry in college football, and this past weekend marked a significant milestone as the two schools met for the 150th time.  It was so historic that the two schools traveled from their respective cozy confines in eastern Pennsylvania to play the game in New York at Yankee Stadium.  I was fortunate enough to attend along with three college friends who had not gotten together in a number of years, and enjoyed quite a bit of reminiscing.  It actually made me reflect upon how I ended up at Lehigh in the first place, which brings us to the heart of our story.

In high school, while I was involved in a few extra-curricular activities, my main focus was on my studies and classwork.  Math and science classes seemed to be a more natural fit for me than other classes, and I found myself gravitating towards an engineering major when it came time to look at colleges.  By the time junior year rolled around, I was having regular conversations with my guidance counselor, Mr. Gilmore, about options and colleges that may be of interest.  In hindsight, not only was Mr. Gilmore getting to know me better as a student, but also as a person.  The interactions were always brief, perhaps no more than 5 minutes at a time, but they were always engaging, and very personable.

By the fall of my senior year, I had visited a number of schools, narrowed down the list, and started the application process. (Yes, this was before the days of applying on line to dozens of schools).  Mr. Gilmore and I continued to have regular conversations, and told me to be patient as we went into the spring.

In identifying top engineering schools, I knew that getting into MIT was not likely, that Rensselaer Polytech (RPI) was a stretch, and that I had a decent chance of getting into Lehigh.  I decided to apply to RPI, Lehigh, and a few others.  By that March, I had been accepted by Lehigh, but wait listed at RPI.  I struggled between whether I should wait and see with RPI or not, and decided to bounce it off of Mr. Gilmore.

After explaining the latest update with Mr. Gilmore, he responded with the following:

“So, do you want to just study and be a good student, or do you want to experience college life outside of the classroom”

I knew I didn’t just want to study, and study, and study some more.  “I want to experience college life outside the classroom” I replied.

“Go to Lehigh” Mr. Gilmore said.        

That was the end of the conversation.  He didn’t have to say anything else, and within the week, I let Lehigh know that I would be there that August.

What I didn’t know then, but realized years later, was that Mr. Gilmore saw raw qualities in me that had yet to mature, and knew that the opportunities for those qualities to shine would be much greater at Lehigh than anywhere else I had applied, including RPI.  Over the next four years at Lehigh, while I learned a great deal in the classroom, I learned much more outside the classroom, including leadership opportunities of my own, as well as regular collaboration with students, faculty and staff that truly helped me grow and mature.

All along, throughout the entire college application process, Mr. Gilmore got to know me better and better, knew exactly where I needed to go, and all he had to do was give me a gentle nudge in the right direction.  When I think about all of the things that have unfolded in my life as a result of going to Lehigh, and the domino effect of subsequent opportunities since then, that conversation with Mr. Gilmore may have been the most pivotal 30 seconds of my life.

Throughout my career I have reflected back on those fateful 30 seconds with Mr. Gilmore.  Every once in a while I find myself in a similar situation, and try to see if I could replicate the soft touch approach with others, whether it be career guidance to a direct report or colleague or coaching young children in youth sports.  Over time I’ve become convinced that a series of small doses of leadership can result in tremendous long term benefits.

So, in this month of traditions, after having enjoyed a college milestone with fellow alumni and enjoying Thanksgiving with family and friends, it’s also a moment for a special thank you to Mr. Gilmore.  Your subtle style of leadership had an impact greater than you can ever imagine, and for that I am forever grateful.

The following originally appeared in November 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Oct 25

Ambition: A Critical Leadership Ingredient

Every now and then I stumble upon a “are leaders born or made” article, and I suppose there are arguments to be made for either side of that discussion.   However, I do believe the following two statements are true:

  • “Born” leaders are also ambitious by nature
  • You can’t be “made” into a leader unless you have the ambition to do so

If you believe those two statements, then you have to conclude that ambition is a critical leadership ingredient, regardless of the path you may have followed to a leadership role or position.

So what is ambition?  A search on the term “ambition” will uncover a variety of answers to that question, but it can be generally be defined as “an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.”  It’s the second half of that definition that makes the difference, because otherwise it’s just goal setting, daydreaming, or wishful thinking.  All leaders, born or made, must have the willingness to strive to attain an achievement, accomplish a goal, or turn a vision into a reality.

Not Interchangeable

Let’s be clear – “leadership” and “ambition” are not interchangeable terms.  While I do believe all great leaders are ambitious, you have to agree that all ambitious people are not leaders.  Leadership guru Simon Sinek authored a blog posting a few years ago on this topic.  The article specifically called out politicians who are clearly ambitious, but perhaps lacking the leadership skills needed for a President, Governor, or other elected officials.  He goes on to say the same holds true for many CEOs and Presidents of large public companies.  While they may be personally ambitious, their inability to lead a company, especially in tough economic times, can be devastating to their organization.

Another distinction Sinek draws out is the difference between those who are ambitious without leadership skills will focus on themselves and their personal goals, as opposed to true leaders, who will leverage their drive and ambition to help a group or organization attain a common goal.

Sometimes ambition can camouflage false leadership, as the person will have the appearance of wanting to “do good”, or help others, but in fact all of their actions are driven by personal greed, self-promotion, and a disregard for the collateral damage their actions cause in the pursuit of their own goals.

Unambitious leaders?

Can you imagine, by comparison, an unambitious leader?  I think the term is a classic oxymoron – in my opinion, you simply can’t be a leader if you are not ambitious.  Leadership requires drive, passion, and ownership, all of which are by-products of ambition.

Ambition can be such a powerful tool for a leader.  Sometimes unplanned opportunities present themselves, and a true leader will seize the moment and take advantage of that opportunity.  Plenty of strong business leaders can point to ambition and unplanned opportunity to thank for their company’s success.  Military leaders seize opportunities, and their ambition and drive to do so can change the outcome of a battle, or even the war itself.  While outnumbered and poorly skilled compared to their British counterparts, the American military leadership had far more drive, passion, and ambition to be victorious in battle, which proved to be a tremendous advantage in eventually winning the Revolutionary War.

Ambition is the fuel for change, and strong leaders help focus it to achieve great things.  Without ambition, Henry Ford does not become an auto industry leader and fulfill the vision of making cars affordable to the average American family.  Without ambition, the Apollo program, under NASA’s leadership, does not land a man on the moon.  We didn’t have to do those things, we choose to do those things – grand visions requiring tremendous drive and passion, and strong leadership to achieve them.

Looking ahead

America has historically embraced ambition.  From the earliest colonists, through the Industrial Revolution, and into the post-World War II baby boom, ambitious Americans have seized opportunity and led us to being an incredibly prosperous country.  But has that ambition plateaued?  Has the pendulum swung from the ambitious “go get it” culture of our parents, grandparents, and forefathers, to the entitled “give it to me” mindset of some of today’s youth?  If you agree with my original premise that leaders must have ambitious qualities, and are also concerned that the historically ambitious culture of the US is diminishing, does that mean leadership within our society and culture are also at risk?  I’m sure there will always be a subset of those with drive, passion and ambition – I just hope the right ones step up to be the leaders of tomorrow.

The following originally appeared in October 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Sep 25

The 11th Hour Project Manager

I’m struggling this month.  I recently started work on a new client engagement and the work is well underway.  It is structured as a program, and I am now the seventh of seven project managers, each with a portion of the program to manage.  All seven of us are senior PMs, could probably manage the overall program if need be, and are good, hardworking resources.

The engagement is critical to the client, with a goal of being completed by year end.  My involvement stems from the fact that the program as a whole is behind schedule, and they are trying a “divide and conquer” approach.  Each of the PMs has anywhere from 3 to 7 individual projects within the program, and all of projects are at different phases of the project lifecycle that we are following.  The PMs are part of an IT group, and are working in concert with a systems compliance team, as well as the respective business owners for each application that we’re working on.  All of the IT and compliance resources are also matrixed, which invites other challenges in terms of competing projects and milestones that have to be met within the program as a whole.

Yes, the engagement is as dry as it sounds, but the client works in a regulated environment, and the work is a necessary evil that has to be completed in order for the company to remain compliant with government agencies.  Additionally, there are three program sponsors, one from each of the three groups engaged (IT, compliance and the business), and they don’t always see eye to eye, either.  Even at this late stage of the game.

I’ve been involved in this type of validation and compliance work before, but usually on new systems that are moving into production, and only one or two systems at a time.  For this engagement, the systems are already in place, but need to follow a more rigorous documentation process to ensure they are working correctly.  Yes, it is as dry as it sounds.

The foundation of my struggles is that I’ve joined this initiative in the 11th hour.  I can perform the tasks and responsibilities I’ve been assigned, but the die has otherwise been cast in terms of being able to influence the approach or strategy of getting the work done, and creative ways of being efficient at the program level.  Over the past few weeks, the engagement has sucked the creativity right out of me, to the point where authoring this month’s posting was starting to become a challenge.

Perhaps you have been in this situation as well.  If you are anything like me, it becomes frustrating, because you have a particular leadership and management style, approach, and/or strategy, and it has been successful for you in the past.  The challenge for me is finding ways to adapt to the environment, work within the constraints, and find ways to be successful in consideration of the circumstances.

Understand the Mandate

One question I always ask when being brought on board for a project is “What is the mandate?”  I always like to know what business conditions exist that are causing this project to be undertaken.  It can be very telling as to the resources that are made available to the project, how well funded it is, and what prioritization others involved in the project will make this work compared to other work they are responsible for.  In this case, the project is required for this client to remain compliant from a regulatory perspective.  They wouldn’t willingly engage in this work if they didn’t have to.  With that in mind, and knowing that the IT and compliance teams are highly invested in the success of this program, it became very apparent, very early in my involvement, that to the business owners, this is just another thing they have to do.  It’s probably not in the business manager’s annual goals and objectives to participate in this engagement, nor do I think the project tasks are their highest priority on any given day.  My strategy of overcoming this is to stretch beyond thinking about the normal one or two steps ahead in managing project tasks, but actually four to five steps ahead, and provide as much lead time and visibility to required tasks as possible.  Historically I have found that while being very busy all day long, most managers will make sure they stay on top of their assigned tasks if given enough time to fit it into their schedule.  If I can give them a heads-up with more lead time, they will find a pocket of time in which to get the work done.  The projects within the program that are struggling the most seem to be the ones where the business owner is not well engaged, and “doesn’t have time to do it…”   I’m trying my hardest to avoid that.

Influence What You Can

As I mentioned, I’m certainly too late to the party to really make a contribution at the program level, but I can focus on the individual projects I’ve been assigned and make a difference.  This engagement in particular is not one where someone could splash land in the middle of the program and make a bunch of waves to rock the boat.   I have quickly built relationships with the technical project team members, and some of the compliance staff.  I’ve tried to be as timely as possible with communications to the team, and regularly reach out to see how I can help them and/or remove obstacles that are keeping them from reaching respective milestones.  Some things are out of my control, and as we march towards year-end, I’ll need to be prepared to be nimble and flexible to keep my work on track within the constraints of the program.  I will not use the program level challenges as an excuse, but rather continue to react and adapt within my projects, remove any dependencies from resources on other projects, and keep my team on track as best as possible.

Leverage Relationships

Fortunately, each of the other six project managers was at one point in my shoes – they were the “new” PM to the program and had to go through the learning curve that I’ve experienced the past few weeks.  I was encouraged by the IT Program Manager when I first came on board to leverage them as much as possible, as chances were that one of them has encountered any and all of the issues and challenges I will face while engaged here.  For me, as with every project and client engagement, I’ve already picked up a few things along the way.  It’s been helpful to avoid the “rookie mistakes” within this program, while still having some autonomy to put my style and approach on the projects I’m responsible for.  It’s helped keep me on track thus far.

Ultimately, despite the struggles and initial challenges, I am starting to hit my stride as far as my individual projects are concerned, and doing my best to not get caught up in the program level politics or broader issues amongst the sponsors.  For this engagement, I will look to make the most of the circumstances, and perhaps if I do well enough with these projects, they’ll extend me for a subsequent phase of work that I can influence from the beginning.  But for now, the clock is ticking, and it is time to get back to work.

The following originally appeared in September 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.  This article has since been selected as one of the Top 10 Articles for all of 2014 by BELEADER based upon page views on their site.

 

Aug 26

Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

During a BEALEADER chat in late June on the topic of ego and self-image, Lee Iacocca was mentioned during the chat as an example of a leader who had “swagger”, but not so much swagger as to come off as arrogant.  As a fellow alumnus from Lehigh University and long-time fan of his career, I have a copy of each book he has authored over the years.  (In Iacocca, An Autobiography, I realized I still had hope in college when he mentioned he got a “D” in Physics his freshman year – it made him seem mortal!) The BEALEADER chat prompted me to put a re-read of Where Have All The Leaders Gone? on my summer reading list.

Where_Have_All_the_Leaders_Gone _book_coverWhere Have All The Leaders Gone? was published in 2007.  While it is slightly dated in terms of the current American political landscape, and with many changes in the United States over the past seven years, it is still a worthwhile, quick and witty read.  Considering the timing of the publication, the book is rather critical of politicians at that point in time, and it would interesting to see if Iacocca would be as critical of politicians today.

Almost immediately in the book Iacocca jumps into his framework of leadership qualities which he calls the “Nine Cs of Leadership”.  In his words, “they’re not fancy or complicated – just clear, obvious qualities that every true leader should have.”  As I read the list over and over, as simple as it appears, the list is rather thorough in covering all of the key attributes we look for in our leaders, and a good scorecard for accessing the success and failures of today’s leaders.

Here are the “Nine Cs of Leadership” as Iacocca outlines them:

  1. Curiosity – In Iacocca’s opinion, no leader should think that they are such a big shot that they have learned everything they need to know.  Additionally, a leader should not surround themselves with “yes” people.  We live in a constantly changing world, and we are faced with new ideas and challenges each and every day.  Ask questions.  Listen to others that may challenge ideas. Be open minded.  Allow your mind to explore and look to learn something new every day.
  2. Creativity – Imagine where we would be as a culture and society without creative leaders?  Leaders need to be willing to try something different.  Go out on a limb and take risks.  You may fail on occasion, but you’ll never succeed if you don’t try anything at all.
  3. Communication – Iacocca’s definition of communication is “honest straight talk.”  While being a good speaker and a willingness to listen are also critical to success, it’s more a matter of the truth and content of what you say, and not necessarily how you say it.  There is no value in a great speaker who is full of hot air and can’t be trusted.  Effective leaders must engage in honest dialogue.
  4. Character – For leaders, this is knowing the difference between right and wrong, and having the guts to do the right thing, even if it is harder and/or unpopular.  From a political perspective, is a leader willing to do the right thing even if it means losing power?  From a business perspective, is a manager or director willing to do the right thing, even if it is not as profitable for the company?  Character is one of those softer skills / attributes that is very hard to teach, but critical for success.
  5. Courage – Courage goes hand in hand with Character.  Courage in this context is not “tough talk”, but a willingness to engage when others may not.  It may be because the situation is risky, or challenging, or unpopular, but a strong leader needs the willingness to go first, go all out, and perhaps go it alone, because they believe it is the right thing to do.
  6. Conviction – Leaders must have passion and a strong interest in getting something done.  Leaders not only need to motivate themselves, but also energize others to feel passionate about themselves and their contributions.
  7. Charisma – Iacocca describes this as “not being flashy, but having that magical quality that inspires people to follow you.”  For me, it is the personal qualities that create connections and relationships with others.  You believe the leader is real and genuine.  They emit an energy that gets you energized and excited about something.
  8. Competent –  This is the “talk the talk, and walk the walk” attribute – leaders, and the people leaders surround themselves with, need to be able to examine problems, identify solutions, and deliver results.
  9. Common Sense – Last but not least – Common Sense includes the ability to appreciate the realities at hand, and the ability to reason.  Sometimes our “leaders” (both political and business) seem completely out of touch.  When you are out of touch, even when you possess other attributes listed above, your ability to be an effective leader is compromised, because your actions have to take place in the real world.

Iacocca puts forth this litmus test for leaders – “the job of a leader is to accomplish goals that advance the common good.  Here’s the test of a leader:  When he leaves office, we should be better off than when he started.  It’s that simple.”  It seems to be harder and harder these days to find leaders that have all of Iacocca’s Nine Cs.  Perhaps the pressure to be a leader in a public role is becoming too great, and the challenges that need to be addressed too complex.  But in the spirit of Iacocca’s Nine Cs, perhaps we need to get Creative as to who we look for to fill these key leadership roles in the future.  Maybe we need to think out of the box, and have the Conviction and Courage to find effective leaders in both politics and business that can affect necessary change.  Be Curious, and willing to challenge today’s leaders if you don’t agree with them.  It seems like the Common Sense thing to do.

The following originally appeared in August 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Jul 25

Best Advice For New Leaders: Lessons From “Big Brown”

540f59bd8cd62.imageWhen I first saw the July topic was “Best Advice for New Leaders”, I couldn’t help but think back 25 years ago when I was fresh out of college, diploma clinched tightly in my hand, and off to the races for my first job.  My field of study was industrial engineering (IE), and had spent summers as an IE intern at Big Brown, otherwise known as United Parcel Service.  Working at UPS is not what I would categorize as the typical work environment, but the nature of industry, and the size and scope of UPS created opportunities to learn and grow right at the very beginning of my career.  Since then, throughout my career, I have been able to apply many of the lessons learned from UPS on recent projects and client engagements, as well as pass them to others along the way.

Before sharing some of my personal lessons learned from UPS, here are a few background facts about UPS in 1989:

  • UPS had a strong “promote from within” policy for management – all managers started their UPS career as delivery drivers before working their way up and into the office.
  • 1989 was the first year that the Teamsters had a national contract with UPS – prior to that, the contracts were regional, and strikes, while disruptive to local UPS operations, did not cripple the company.  Tension between union and management employees began to increase the year leading into the contract.
  • In 1989, overnight package delivery, which we completely take for granted today, was still in its infancy.  FedEx had taken a commanding lead in the industry as the first to market, and UPS was working very hard to close the gap in market share.

The summer before my senior year, one of the main responsibilities as an IE intern was to ride with drivers and measure their work for a given day.  We wore the same brown uniforms, and walked stride for stride with the driver in an effort to measure how far they walked, the number of customers they dealt with, and the number of parcels they carried, as well as many other metrics (how many of you remember what a COD package was, or signed for a package on paper and clipboards?).  The results of these measurements were compared with a company standard for a given geographic territory to see how the driver was performing.  Urban areas had less driving, and more walking, whereas more rural had more driving and less walking.  If I wasn’t in shape when I started the summer internship, I certainly was when I went back to school in the fall.

When we were not on the road with drivers, we were in the office working on reviewing and summarizing recent studies.  Additionally, in this tense contract year, every once in a while there was be a day where more drivers were absent than expected.  The operations team would call other district offices to request someone to backfill for the day.  The manager I reported to as an intern seemed to be a popular candidate to backfill for drivers.  During one particular week, he had been called three days in a row to help the operations team.  On that third day, as he was packing up his things to head out of the office, I started to pack up my things and offered to help him for the day.  Despite a late start, between the two of us we managed to finish the route before the end of the workday.

At the end of that summer, our district manager pulled me aside and offered me a full time job after I graduated.  He had a number of interns working in the office, but I was the only one to whom he had extended an offer.  As we talked, he explained that one of the reasons I received the offer was my willingness to help out with deliveries that particular afternoon.  In his opinion, the foundation of UPS’s success was its commitment to customer service.  Managers are pulled from their desk jobs to backfill for drivers because no job in the company is more important than meeting the needs of their customers.  As leaders in the company, they were fully aware of how critical it was to put customers and overall company goals (market share, customer retention) ahead of their personal or even departmental goals.  Since then, as a consultant, and especially over the past ten years as an independent contractor, I always reflect back on that summer and remind myself of the importance of customers first.

After I graduated, I returned as a full time employee.  However, as mentioned earlier, all managers, even if you are recruited out of college and hired as manager, still had to serve as a driver first.  I started in July, and was behind the wheel until the first of the year, including the busy holiday season.  I got to experience the job first hand, day in and day out, for nearly 6 months.  In 25 years, it was certainly the most physically taxing job I’ve ever had.  However, the experience was also one of the most rewarding.  In hindsight, it was the best training for my longer term role that I could have asked for.  I truly understood the “bread and butter” of the business.  I learned how to do it well, and I regularly engaged with customers, both happy and angry.  For that period of time, I was the face of UPS to those customers – the driver that they dealt with, and as a result, the recipient of either their praise or complaint.  When I moved back to the office that January, some of my responsibilities overlapped those from my summer internship.  However, I realized that my approach to the work during that summer was very “textbook” – it made sense on paper, but perhaps didn’t have that flavor of practical sprinkled on top.  When I did the same stop-watch efficiency studies after driving, I had an entirely new appreciation for the job.  It truly was the best corporate training I’ve had in my career.

My take away from that experience, and have applied time and again as a consultant, was to make sure you really understand the jobs of those you are consulting to and/or advising.  Too often we get caught up in what looks good on paper without understanding the practicality of a recommendation or decision.  Projects are successful not only because you finished on time and on budget, but because what you implement works.  Good leaders will be sounding boards in this process to make sure that changes that impact their team make sense and are actually achievable.  You cannot effectively do this if you do not really have a grasp on the work that your team does day in and day out.

Many years have passed since my time at Big Brown, but I consider myself a proud alumnus and my career greatly benefited from having worked there.  I don’t think the brown uniform would fit me anymore, but the lessons learned and memories will last my entire career.

The following originally appeared in July 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Jun 27

Accountability and Leadership Go Hand in Hand

A few weeks ago, #bealeader’s weekly chat on Twitter focused on the topic of Accountability.  The timing of this was extraordinary, as I had recently taken over a client project that was at that dangerous intersection of being salvaged or going right down the tubes.  What I quickly realized after the chat, and in connecting the dots on the project, was that one of the main reasons it was heading south before my involvement was that it suffered from a lack of accountability.  My predecessor, has nice as he was, did not hold anyone on the team accountable, nor did he hold himself accountable.  Everything seemed to be the client’s fault, and tension was starting to grow stronger between the parties involved.

As the new project manager, I realized that a few things had to change if the project was going to be salvaged and put back on a successful path forward…

If you hold yourself accountable, the rest takes care of itself

In our day to day lives, we are accountable in so many ways.  We are accountable to our manager or boss at work.  We are accountable to pay our bills, rent or mortgage.  We are even accountable when we are behind the wheel, driving safely and legally.  But when we drive down the road, are we obeying the rules of the road because we are afraid of getting a ticket from a policeman, or because it is the right thing to do?  Do we pay your bills on time because we are afraid of a collection agency chasing after us, or because it is the right thing to do?  When we hold ourselves accountable for our actions and decisions, whether it is as simple as driving down the street, or as significant as managing a strategic project at work, we don’t have to worry about meeting the realistic expectations of others.  Accountability is much like trust – it takes work and effort, needs to be constantly maintained, and can easily be broken.  However, when you make it a habit and second-nature to hold yourself accountable before all others, it becomes much easier over time, and the rest takes care of itself.

Accountability By Example

As I assumed the project manager role at this client, it became clear that one of two things could happen with the project team members.  One option was to simply hold them accountable for their contributions and performance on the project.  The second option was to start by holding myself accountable to the team, and work with each team member to set meaningful goals and objectives.  My objective was to ensure they felt ownership of their contributions to the project, and that they would in turn hold themselves accountable for their work.  Throughout my career, it has been my experience that people generally want to do a good job with the tasks assigned to them, especially if they feel a sense of ownership for that work.  Similar to “Leadership by Example”, if team members see their manager or director holding themselves accountable for their actions, and for the performance of the team as a whole, they are more likely to hold themselves accountable.  In just a few short weeks, my project team members are performing to a higher standard, meeting timeline due dates and delivering higher quality work.  A key difference is that they are now part of the process, have ownership of their work, and are respectively holding themselves accountable to meeting client expectations.

Win as a team, Lose as a team

Just as a leader or manager would expect team members to be accountable and take ownership for their actions and decisions, the leader must take ownership of the team’s actions as a whole.  In this particular case, as the new project manager on this client initiative, the client looks to me to ensure that the project team as a whole is delivering to their expectations.  I have in turn taken ownership of their performance as a group, good or bad.  If it is perceived that the team is performing below expectations, then I am accountable to work with all the members of the team to address the issues and improve performance.   Individual performance is an internal project team matter to address, and ultimately the client’s primary concern is the success of the project as a whole.  That being said, when we lose, we lose as a team, and I am accountable as their manager.  And when we’re successful, we win as a team as well.

 

Being self-accountable is just a natural, interwoven aspect of being a successful leader.  It has made a world of difference on my new project, and in less than a month, the turnaround on the project team has been recognized by the client.  I can’t imagine how someone could be a strong leader and not have self-accountability as a parallel trait.  The two go hand in hand, and seem to complement each other so well, even when you are just driving down the street.

The following originally appeared in June 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

May 27

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, General Grant

I hope you are in the middle of enjoying a fun and relaxing Memorial Day weekend with family and friends.  As Memorial Day has gravitated over time to mark the unofficial start of summer in the United States, it is still an important annual event to pause and reflect on all of those who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln “gave the last full measure of devotion” to our country, so that we as a nation can continue to enjoy liberty and freedom each and every day.

The approach of this weekend got me to think about the origins of Memorial Day.  As it would turn out, Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day”, and started shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War in the late 1860s.  It was organized by Union veterans, and the ceremony typically was to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers as a tribute to their sacrifice.  This observation became an annual ritual, and occurred at the end of May in part based on flowers being in bloom across the country at this time.  After World War I, the observance was expanded to honor all those who died in all American wars, not just the Civil War, and the holiday began to take on the name Memorial Day.  It was not until the 1971 that Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, and scheduled to take place on the last Monday in May each year.

This made me think further about Decoration Day,grant-ulysses-general and the fact that had the Union not won the Civil War, they may not have started the Decoration Day tradition.  Furthermore, the Union probably would have not won the war had it not been for the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant.  This made me want to dig deeper into key leadership traits that Grant possessed, from his time as a cadet at West Point, and all the way through his presidency.  Compared to most books about Grant, Cigars, Whiskey and Winning: Leadership Lessons from General Ulysses S. Grant by Al Kaltman is a great, light-hearted read that is a wonderful collection of anecdotes and lessons learned during Grant’s military career.  The beauty of this collection is that while the Civil War took place 150 years ago, many of Grant’s leadership lessons still apply today, for business, home, and volunteer activities.

Surround Yourself With Good People

As most legends describe Grant, he is portrayed as being quite a heavy drinker, and as a result, many questioned his ability to lead the Army into such important battles.  When Grant was promoted to brigadier general, he named John Rawlins as his adjutant.  Rawlins was historically quick to defend Grant.  In a letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne, Rawlins strongly emphasized that statements about Grant’s drinking were false, and could have originated only in malice.  However, in June 1863, while in the midst of the Vicksburg campaign, Rawlins became concerned, and had reason to believe, that Grant had taken to the bottle.  Even though Grant was the commanding officer and superior within the ranks of the Army to Rawlins, Rawlins took Grant to task in challenging his drinking.  At one point in his letter to Grant, Rawlins wrote “This may surprise you, for I may be (and trust I am) doing you an injustice by unfounded suspicions, but if an error it better be on the side of this country’s safety than in fear of offending a friend.”

Grant’s lesson learned was an important one – to surround yourself with men and women of unquestioned integrity, and have the courage to tell you when they think what you’re doing is wrong.  You may not like or agree with the message they are conveying, but you will be better off for having heard it.

Management By Walking Around (MBWA)

This would be a favorite of business author Tom Peters – Unlike some of his predecessors at the head of the Union Army, Grant made great efforts to make himself accessible to the troops under his command.  He often engaged the rank and file in conversation and lighthearted humor.  His connection to the troops helped build their trust and loyalty to the Army’s commanding officers, and in turn was instrumental in the Union’s victories on the battlefields.  The lesson learned from these experiences is that it is important for managers and supervisors at every level in an organization to circulate through “work areas” (Are battlefields and offices synonymous? Maybe in some companies!) and see for yourself what’s happening with the resources that report into you.  Just being seen by “the troops” can be a morale builder when they see the interest you have in their work and commitment to the organization, as well as opportunities for dialogue that might not otherwise present themselves.

We Win As a Team

In early 1862, Grant lead a successful, aggressive campaign at the Battle of Fort Donelson, a victory that helped elevate him to the rank of major general, and opened the Cumberland River.  This was a strategically important avenue for Union troops to invade the South.  During the campaign, however, Grant requested that General William T. Sherman, who at the time was a superior officer in the Union Army, to send reinforcements and supplies to Grant, which ultimately helped win the battle at Fort Donelson.  With every wave of supplies and reinforcements that reached Grant, Sherman included correspondence offering any assistance he could provide, and stated that if he could be of service at the front that Grant could request him to do so, and that Sherman would waive rank.  The lesson to be learned from the Battle at Fort Donelson is that you should never let your title or position get in the way of accomplishing a larger task, especially when your job involved helping others do theirs.  When you are not concerned about who individually gets the credit for the work, a great deal can be accomplished by the group.

Grant would be the first to admit that he faced his share of challenges throughout his career, specifically in his time away from the military between the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.  However, when he reenlisted in the Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, it became an opportunity for him to apply many of the lessons learned thus far in his career, and those lessons translated into key victories for the Union over a four year period.  So this Memorial Day weekend, when we pause to remember all the fallen soldiers from all American wars, taken an extra moment to thank General Grant and his leadership during the Civil War.  Without his stewardship over the Union Army, we might not be celebrating this weekend at all.

The following originally appeared in Memorial Day weekend in May 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Apr 27

One Part Solid Manager + Two Parts Strong Leader = An Excellent Solution

The debate of comparing managers and leaders is a long standing one.  Some people use the terms interchangeably, but to others the definitions are drastically different.  More often than not, “manager” is used to describe a workplace role or title, with a set of definite responsibilities and their success or failure is monitored in very quantitative ways.  By comparison, “leaders” transcend roles and titles, existing all across an organization, and contribute value in very qualitative ways.

However, this I think most can agree upon – highly successful managers are also very strong leaders, and the traits in those individuals are an inseparable mixture of both the qualitative and quantitative that achieve excellent results and solutions.  Typically it is a combination of art and science, as there is no one repeatable formula that you can manufacture in the lab to produce these outstanding manager/leaders.  Nevertheless, they all have a set of common traits that influence their respective successes.

One Part Solid Manager – a dose of Tactical

Solid managers are good tacticians.  There are a variety of terms we could use to describe managers – good corporate soldiers, administrators, and those that ensure that things are being done correctly to achieve results.

Managers focus on resources.  This can range from processes, inventory, financials, and even human resources, but all of them from a quantitative perspective.  Good managers are effective planners, and leverage their resources to outline the activities and schedule needed to achieve a goal.  They have controls in place to monitor performance, identify areas that fall outside of expectations, and implement measures for course correction.  These typically fall into a few dimensions:  Is our group over budget or not?  Is our project behind schedule or not? Do we have the staff to support critical service levels or not?  All of these topics are vital to a department or company, and successful organization have strong mangers who can track financials, milestones, and customer service performance.  These allow us to ensure the short term success of the organization.

Two Parts Strong Leader – add doses of Vision and inspiration

Leaders, on the other hand, have an eye further down the road.  Leaders help establish a vision of what a team, department, or organization can be, help raise the bar, and inspire others to reach for it.

Leaders focus on people.  Leaders look to innovate, and do so through a collaborative approach based upon respect for the effort that others can provide and builds mutual trust by creating opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and willingness to contribute.  Organizations expand and grow due to leaders to challenge the current state, and serve as change agents to think of ways to do the things they do today even better tomorrow.  Great leaders are guided by principles and ideals, and leverage a moral compass to ensure the right things get done.  Many people consider these the “soft skills”, but ultimately are the qualitative aspects of this important mixture.

An Excellent Solution of Endless Possibilities

Now just imagine mixing the visionary and the tactical.  Imagine having the ability to have a great idea, inspire others to want to contribute towards its success, and possessing the detailed skills to ensure everything necessary happened for the idea to be realized.  Imagine having the organizational drive to delivered value to a company every day, yet be creative enough to continue to look for ways to transform existing processes and exceed expectations.  Henry Ford is a great example of this potent mixture – as legend has it, American consumers at the time wanted “faster horses”, but Ford had a vision of how Americans could benefit if they had access to an automobile.  But beyond that vision was Ford’s equally powerful attention to detail in mastering the benefits of mass production and the assembly line to actually produce cars that the average American could afford.

The compound that results when mixing solid management and strong leadership has endless potential.  Within our respective companies, these are typically the rising stars of the organization, as they have gone above and beyond with a new product, service, or idea, and successfully implemented it.  The most notable of these have actually gone on to create new companies, and even new industries.  Their vision without the dose of firm management skills would likely be an unrealized idea.  Conversely, managers without strong leadership and vision might have bred faster horses back in Henry Ford’s day.  The compound that results from mixing management and leadership is the catalyst for revolutionary results.

The following originally appeared in April 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Mar 25

Complex Challenges Require Leadership Solutions

Every day we encounter problems and challenges in our lives.  Most are fairly simple and straightforward, and can be solved on our own.  Companies and small organizations deal with mid-size to larger problems.  In these cases, typically some type of management structure is in place, and teams of people are able to work together and achieve results and solutions.  This can occur on occasion, even in the absence of strong leadership, although the results may be far from ideal.

But the largest, most complex problems occur at an industry level, national / world government level, or even across society as a whole.  Strong leadership is a critical requirement to even begin to address these challenges, let alone identify and implement viable solutions.    The key traits that a strong leader must demonstrate to solve these complex problems include vision, passion, and commitmentTo illustrate this, one of my favorite historic examples of a successfully implemented solution to a very complex problem/challenge is the race to land a man on the moon in the 1960s.

Vision

At the outset of taking on a complex problem, a leader must establish a clear vision of the goal and what the end state solution will look like.  NASA was established during President Eisenhower’s administration, but the clear vision set by President Kennedy to land a man on the moon set a specific direction for NASA moving forward.  Kennedy’s vision also served as a catalyst for space exploration as a whole, embraced innovation, and set out to accomplish a goal that mankind had only dreamed of for centuries.

However, what became quickly apparent to leaders at NASA was that they didn’t have just one problem to tackle, but tens, if not hundreds of challenges to address.  More leaders had to emerge within NASA, responsibilities had to be delegated, and each individual challenge needed its own vision and path forward for its solution.  The respective leaders also had to ensure that all their individual visions and solutions could integrate together to achieve the master vision as established by President Kennedy.  The challenges of launching men and equipment into space, navigating and docking with different spacecraft, dealing with zero-gravity, designing spacesuits and astronaut equipment, landing on and taking off from the moon itself, and returning to Earth, all had to be addressed.  There was a vision of how each of those solutions would be enabled, and collaboration among leaders to ensure they would work together and achieve a common goal.

Passion

Once the vision was established, and the goalAldrin of landing men on the moon well understood, the leaders involved pursued the goal with relentless passion.  Designers, engineers, and scientists changed their career paths to be part of this historic journey.  Every spaceflight during the 1960s, from the Mercury program through to Apollo, was a passionate step forward in establishing the building blocks to get to the moon.  With each mission, another individual solution was tested and verified, and refined as necessary.  As the years passed, the closer NASA got to achieve the common goal, the more passionate they became about achieving it.

The passion over reaching the moon was so intoxicating that it completely captivated the nation, and the world for that matter.  The early success and planning of NASA leadership were highly instrumental in this.

Commitment

Finally, as important as it is to establish a vision, and to pursue it with passion, complex problems and challenges need a leader’s solid commitment to see the effort through to the end.  Quite often these efforts can be multi-year endeavors, and it can be easy along the way to lose sight of the long term goal in the midst of the day-to-day activities and tasks.  To be successful, leadership must continue to reinforce the commitment and resolve for all involved in order to achieve the vision.

Attempting to address these challenges can and will have their share of setbacks.  Sometimes a setback can be so severe, it can run the risk of eroding the team’s passion, and not achieve the final vision.  The mission to land men on the moon was no different, as many setbacks caused NASA to evaluate and learn and rethink their approach along the way.  The most notable of these was the tragic fire and loss of life during training for the flight of Apollo 1.   NASA’s commitment and resolve afterwards were stronger than ever, and ultimately achieved President Kennedy’s original vision within months of his goal.

Looking Ahead

What else could we accomplish with this model?  What prevents us today?  Too often we have competing visions that prevent a lack of clarity and direction.  Without a clear vision and direction, people will be less likely to be passionate about their contributions, have less collaborations in working through their challenges, and ultimately lack the commitment to see a possible solution through to the end.   However, as with the race to the moon, once we get behind a strong leader with a great vision to address a complex challenge, you can just imagine what is actually possible to achieve.

The following originally appeared in March 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Feb 14

Communities Are Looking For Leaders Like You

As important as leadership is in the corporate world, it is equally important, and not nearly discussed as often, in our communities.  With the increased pressure placed on towns and school across the country to manage budgets and keep spending to a minimum, there is a greater and growing need for local organizations, typically driven by volunteer efforts, to help make up the difference.

In both direct and indirect ways, you, your family, and your neighbors, are impacted by these groups.  Especially if you have young children in your family, think of the categories of organizations that you interact with and/or can affect you on a regular basis:

  •  Local township committees (planning and zoning boards, parks committees, sometimes even your elected officials)
  • Places of worship
  • Parent/Teacher Organizations at local schools
  • Youth recreation sports and leagues
  • Civic groups (Lions, Elks, Masons, Rotary, etc.)
  • Chamber of Commerce

Have you ever found yourself disappointed with one of these groups?  Dropped out if you were once involved? Watched participation and/or membership decline?  All too often these things happened because the organization did not have the proper leadership to grow it, mature it, sustain it, and/or have a succession plan for the next leaders to help take over.

Believe me, I think it is wonderful that people are willing to volunteer their time and energy to these causes.  They are typically well intended by contributing their time, but may not be equipped with strong leadership skills.  Sometimes, unfortunately, people even get involved because they like the “power trip” for themselves, and do not make the service to others their priority, which can make matters even worse.

In my opinion, there are clear distinctions between the traits of leaders and managers.  To quote Peter Drucker, “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”  These organizations typically need both.  If a club or organization you are involved with seems to be struggling with doing the right things, ask yourself:

  • Is there a clear vision of what the association or activity is aiming to accomplish?
  • Has that vision been clearly communicated to other members or participants?
  • Is the leader open to your ideas and suggestions, and works to incorporate them?
  • Is there a strategy or plan in place to guide others to achieve those goals?
  • Has the leader been able to get support and resources to realize the vision successfully?

If the answers to these questions is “No”, and it is an association or activity you care deeply about, how do you help change that?  For starters, you don’t need to be in the “head role” to be a leader within an organization.  You can start small within that group and help make a difference.  The small successes can grow and blossom into larger successes as more participants see the opportunities and get excited about achieving goals.  Make sure to engage others and get their input, and empower them to take action.  Chances are they may have been as frustrated or disappointed as you were, and happy to see an opportunity to contribute.  Ask the manager / director of the organization if there are areas within the group where they are struggling.  They many know subconsciously that they are not a strong leader, but don’t want to admit it, or not comfortable asking for help.

So, organize a workshop or luncheon, chair a PTO committee, coach a team, and get involved.  Your leadership skills and interest will begin to rub off on others.  An injection of your leadership can help cure what an organization is suffering from.  You may think you don’t have the time in your busy schedule for this, but if you believe strongly enough in it and are passionate about it, you will make the time.  #bealeader in your community – your family and neighbors need you.  Help make a difference!

The following originally appeared in February 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.

 

Nov 27

The Pilgrims Were On The Ball

I am finding myself trying to tune out all of the Black Friday commercials on television, and not get pulled into the light-speed rush of starting the Christmas season before the turkey is even on the table.  I’m trying to at least enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday for what it is and stands for, and have been finding myself reflecting on the true struggles and hardships suffered by the Pilgrims their first year in Plymouth.

These people were believers and ultimately achievers (1’s by definition) as they set out to establish their colony and live freely. They were determined to succeed and worked together to accomplish their objectives. Through their sacrifice (the ultimate sacrifice in many cases), hard work, and their alliance with the Wampanoag their first spring, Plymouth Plantation began to flourish.  They demonstrated many of the Eight Traits in creating their new home away from England.  They were by no means perfect, but they believed, and ultimately achieved their goals.

So, as you struggle to find a parking spot at the mall because of the 4’s that can’t drive or park straight, or get frustrated with the 4’s arguing with the people working the checkout counters in the stores, think about who was really on the ball at the original Thanksgiving.

Oct 04

No Shortage of 4’s in Washington

Put your political preferences aside – Congress (both houses, both parties) and the President do not seem to be on the ball, and appear they do not know the ball even exists.  They violate all eight traits that serve as a framework as to whether someone is on the ball or not:

  • There are problems they cannot solve nor attempt to prevent
  • There is no clear plan to attempt to address the problems
  • There is an absence of true leadership to help move the issues forward
  • No one seems truly motivated to take real action, just a lot of posturing
  • The is absolutely no collaboration – there has been a growing divide between the parties, and all are to blame for the political tensions
  • There is zero communication – is it just a series of soap box sound bites aimed at angering the opposition
  • No one is holding themselves accountable – this has deteriorated into nothing more than school yard finger pointing
  • NO ONE is using common sense – that seems most obvious of all…

Over the years as the framework and model for the On The Ball Theory continued to mature, it was not my vision that someone or some group would actually go 0-for-8 on the Eight Traits that help determine whether you are really on the ball or not.  It’s actually rather depressing.

I don’t know if anyone ever really said our government was “designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots”, but Washington is certain filled with #4’s these days, and our forefathers must be rolling over in their graves.

Oct 04

New Approach

Greetings,

I’m going to try a new approach to the On The Ball Theory blog and website.  My original strategy was to write sections of the book, and post them in order over time.  What I have found is the ideas for posting, etc., do not always match the original outline, and has resulted in “posting paralysis” and months have passed since my last post.

So, now I’m going to try to post ideas and thoughts as they come to me, and use separate pages and the menu share sections of the book.  It is a work in progress, so feedback is welcomed and I appreciate you taking the time to visit the site!