Thursday, March 07, 2013

Riding Out the Storm

No matter how successful or seemingly secure any business appears, there are no longer periods of calm seas for leaders in any industry.

A broad statistic reinforces: More than half the companies that were industry leaders in 1955 were still industry leaders in 1990. But more than two-thirds of 1990 industry leaders no longer existed by 2004.
Leaders today need to be at home navigating a ship through 40-foot waves — oceans that will never again be serene — and still be able to guide their crew safely from port to port. They must remain highly effective in an environment of extraordinary, ongoing stress.
In his book, Better Under Pressure, Justin Menkes sought to identify the qualities that define leaders who excel in this environment of duress. He gathered performance data for approximately 200 candidates being assessed for the CEO role at major U.S. corporations. These candidates were divided into three groups, with the top-performing quartile labelled "highly successful," the middle two quartiles characterized as "average performers," and the bottom quartile as "highly ineffective."
What emerged was that certain attributes — three in particular — were highly consistent within the top performers, regardless of industry or job type. And, even more interesting, these attributes were almost totally absent among the bottom-performing quartile.
To perform their best in today's turbulent atmosphere, leaders must possess this highly unusual set of three traits that often run counter to natural human behaviour:
  1. Realistic optimism. Leaders with this trait possess confidence without self-delusion or irrationality. They pursue audacious goals, which others would typically view as impossible pipedreams, while at the same time remaining aware of the magnitude of the challenges confronting them and the difficulties that lie ahead.
  2. Subservience to purpose. Leaders who see their professional goal as so important that they measure their lives by how much they contribute to furthering that goal. What is more, they must be pursuing a professional goal in order to feel a purpose for living. Their level of dedication to their work is a direct result of the extraordinary, remarkable importance they place on their goal.
  3. Finding order in chaos. Leaders with this trait find taking on multidimensional problems invigorating, and their ability to bring clarity to quandaries that baffle others makes their contributions invaluable.
According to Menkes, in today's business environment of ever-escalating competition, leaders with these traits are critical to the survival of companies.
The good news is that these three capabilities can be learned. By learning about these attributes, you can become aware of them and choose to build them in yourself. And this can help you bring out the best in those you lead.

Simple Pleasures

Mothering Sunday this weekend was really special. My kids, unprompted by their dad (or so I am led to believe) all spontaneously acknowledged the day, and in so-doing acknowledged me in the most wonderful way. My 16 year old son, untypically non-grunting and up early, brought me a cup of tea in bed; my 14 year old diva daughter told me she loved me and had picked out a movie to watch with me while I relaxed in the afternoon, while my little one presented me with a beautiful home-made card and hugged the breath out of me. In the moment of receiving, I put aside my usual busy agenda of catching up with the housework, email and grocery shopping and gave way to the beauty of the simple pleasures of life with my family.

They say the best things in life are free.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt it is true.  Life is filled with simple pleasures, the little satisfying events we never really anticipate, but always take great pleasure in.  They are true gifts in life. We all know this to be true, but how often do we take the time to really enjoy them and melt into their moments? On Sunday, I took the time to write down my simple pleasures – it felt like a wonderful personal brainstorm of everything in life I really enjoy – and it only took me a few minutes to surface them. Here are the first 20 I wrote down:
  • Luxuriating in a bubble bath with a good book
  • Walking my two cheeky Labradors with my husband on a cold sunny Sunday morning
  • Holding hands
  • Laughing with my girlfriends over a frothy cappuccino
  • Fresh sheets on the bed
  • A roaring fire
  • Visiting the fabric department of John Lewis
  • Karaoke with the kids
  • Bed time reading with my 10 year old daughter
  • Family suppers full of chat and teasing
  • My dad’s jokes
  • Paddling in the sea
  • Finishing a chapter of my book
  • The smell of the baker’s shop
  • A gorgeous view
  • Watching old episodes of Outnumbered
  • Preparing Sunday lunch for the masses
  • Exploring a new city
  • Writing a personal  letter to a loved one
  • Dancing to Take That while cooking!
The very act of writing my personal simple pleasures made me smile. Try it for yourself, then most importantly – go and make one happen immediately. Just step off the fly wheel for a few minutes and consciously luxuriate in your own simple pleasures. As Oprah Winfrey once said “remind yourself that this moment is the only one you know you have for sure, so make it special.”

Special Days

I was inspired recently in hearing about a Canadian software company that regularly has periods it calls “4 hours silence.” The idea is that during these times no one is allowed to interrupt anyone else – the intent being to promote periods of unfettered concentration. It’s a well known time management wisdom that interruption causes inefficiency, and it was interesting to see a company actually institutionalise this idea.

It led me to think of what other workplace practices could be challenged by introducing experimental days. People regularly complain about email overuse, ineffective meetings and many other habitual working habits. By introducing specific experiment days or weeks, it may help to focus attention and at least challenge some of what have become norms.  

So how about an internal email free day, encouraging people to pick up phone or even walk to see their colleague rather than relying on the ubiquitous email - which can socially isolate people who sit next to each other or in the next office.

Or an internal meeting free week. Many people suffer a surfeit of ineffective meetings. In some organisations that overdo meetings I’ve even come across professional meeting attendees – people who seem to do nothing other than go to internal meetings. By not holding internal meetings for a period it will help to reassess their value and discover what’s necessary and what really isn’t.

An answer the phone within 3 rings day is another idea I’ve seen work well – and it’s very appreciated by customers and suppliers in particular. All too often you try and contact people by landline or mobile only to be re-routed to voicemail. It’s all too easy to get the impression in some organisations that no one is in – or maybe they’re all attending one of those internal meetings! Voicemail is just too easy to abuse, so why not have periods of no voicemail and encourage real-time communication.

On a different tack what about a periodic dress-up day. Dress down has become a permanent feature in some organisations, not just an occasional liberation. How about instituting the very opposite, a day when everyone comes to the office in super smart work attire. It would certainly provide a talking point and you never know – a sharp suit might just sharpen the mind for some important decisions.

Of course there are many offices that are like ghost companies these days. Everyone seems to be out or working at home. In these cases I’m not sure these experimental days would make much difference. So my last suggestion is a turn-up day. Too much working at home can also isolate people. A day where absolutely everyone comes in would create a real buzz – hopefully about more than which hot desk to sit at, particularly as many companies don’t have enough desks for everyone anymore! 

Bad workplace habits can set in all too easily. Introducing some radically different days or periods will at least encourage debate and ideas about what effective working practices really mean, and it will keep everyone on their toes.