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Alicia Blain

Managing Teams


Quote:  “You can’t lead without imagination”  ~  Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Imagination is seriously lacking in today’s corporate environment.  We are knee deep in a status quo that no longer serves us and that in many ways, makes us mediocre.  To change that, we need to spark imagination in all our employees.  But first, we must spark it in ourselves as team leaders. To create the spark you need to embrace experimentation.  I’m not talking about creating a department or a committee to look into experimentation.  I mean changing the way you lead your team so that experimentation is always encouraged and rewarded.  When an idea doesn’t work out, it isn’t perceived as failure but as a learning experience that enriches the team and the lesson learned can be utilized to fuel the next experiment.

Experimentation is the final but core concept in the C.A.R.E. System.  It is what ties it all together. In these posts, I have showcased Starbucks and its CIO to illustrate the key principles behind the C.A.R.E. System.  At the very core of Gillett’s success was his innate acceptance or need to experiment. None of the examples would have been possible if Gillett had not embraced experimentation. Let’s recap all the ways he experimented:

  • When he took on more responsibility in the face of daunting IT problems that needed resolution
  • When he went to work at a Starbucks retail store, not knowing what he’d find or how he would do,
  • When he showed the Executive team a live simulation highlighting the shortcomings of their existing POS system
  • When he proposed the new business unit called Digital Ventures,
  • When he chose an entrepreneur to run the new business unit,
  • When he made IT and Marketing equally responsible for the new business unit
  • When he asked employees for their ideas on making IT better,
  • When he let employees select their IT devices,
  • When he applied his knowledge of networks to help spark solutions in Starbuck’s retail business.

All of these examples illustrate that Gillett was open to experimentation. He may not have been comfortable with all of it but he chose not to play it safe.  At some level, he understood that taking risks was critical to Starbuck’s survival and he, as well as his CEO, faced the challenge and came out ahead.  I’m sure that there were ideas that didn’t work out.  In fact, the article highlights one. Apparently, Gillett is a big gamer or lover of video games. Actually,  he’s a guild master in the online video game called World of Warcraft.  That’s a pretty big deal in the gaming community. Instead of playing down that passion, he  set up a meeting between the executive teams of Starbucks and Blizzard, the owners of World of Warcraft so they could look into the possibility of doing business together.  After all, both companies had a huge fan base and Starbucks needed to find ways to engage customers online the way that Blizzard did. 

At the end, the experiment did not end up in a partnership.  But all was not lost.  The experiment sparked new ideas among the Starbucks executives that led to new offerings for their customers.  Embracing a spirit of experimentation almost always sparks the imagination and that leads to more possibilities for innovation.

For companies to be relevant in the future they must make experimentation a core objective for all departments.  It needs to be nurtured, rewarded and imbedded into the corporate culture.  More importantly, it is a pivotal component if we are to transform the way we lead.  Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce in less than 5 years.  As leaders preparing to pass the baton to the next generation leaders, I believe it is our obligation to embrace change and find new ways to lead.

So you may be wondering what happened to Ben and his direct reports? As I dissected the Starbucks case study, Ben was able to see real world examples of C.A.R.E. in action.  It sparked their curiosity and an eagerness to try new approaches in their organization as Gillett tried to do in his.  Ben, as CIO, made a very important decision that day.  He chose not to play it safe.  He realized the future required new ways of seeing things and new ways of leading.  The Millennials were their new audience not just as employees but as customers. He realized that if transformation was going to happen, it needed to include the Millennials in the workplace.  And he was ready.

I’ll end this series by quoting Seth Godin one last time.  In Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us, Seth writes:

“The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is.”

My questions to you are:  How safe are you playing your role as leader? What one thing can you do today to get you slightly uncomfortable? What one thing can you do to get to know a Millennial in your workplace? 

Like me, you’ll find that staying in your comfort zone as a leader is actually riskier than embracing a little discomfort to prepare for the future. Once you step out of your comfort zone and see all the possibilities that it offers, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner…

Quote: “ I don’t think we have any choice.  I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game.”   ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Connecting with our employees and customers and adapting our mindset gets us ready to play a different game.  But you also need action and to do that you have to be willing to RESHAPE your organization.  To Reshape is the third module in the C.A.R.E. System. To visualize just how you can begin to do that, let’s go to our Starbucks example.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

Here are 3 examples of actionable steps that Gillett took to reshape his IT team and their reputation.

1.     He forced collaboration between teams.  In the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership, we call this “Letting go of Silos”.  Silos are rampant across corporate America and they are innovation and motivation killers for most employees but especially Millennials.  One of the key Millennial characteristics is their collaborative spirit.  They work best in groups and the more you mix up the group the better. Imagine their surprise when they show up for work and see that business units barely interact with one another and they certainly don’t share and collaborate very much. In his pitch for a new business unit, Gillett forced the collaboration of the IT and Marketing teams.  Talk about silos that don’t normally have much in common.  The new unit was called Digital Ventures and Gillett hired an entrepreneur to run it instead of a corporate type. Now that’s playing a different game.

 2.     He let the employees choose their technology and propose new ideas. At a time when so many IT shops are still fighting the consumerization of IT here is a company that allows their employees to select from a wide assortment of technology, from Macs to PCs to smartphones to get work done. To be completely fair, the article did say that Starbucks modeled their Tech Café after the Apple Store. That brings up a good point.  We should always be scouting the market for techniques that work for others and how they can be customized for our specific organizations.  What I liked the most was that they welcomed feedback from the employees on all things concerning IT.  In the C.A.R.E. System, we call that IT Advocacy.  Millennials are the first generation of workers that actually want more technology than what currently exists in the workplace.  No matter what team they work for, they can be invaluable to an IT Dept.  But IT has to take the first step and request their help and then be open to the suggestions given. As IT Advocates, Millennials can be a wonderful test group for any new product, process, or upgrade that the IT Department is considering. If done properly, IT Advocates can be a great extension of the IT Department.  As IT partners, they also create a great fan base for IT in the company.

3.     Applying expertise from an unrelated field to solve a different problem.  Gillett had little retail experience before working at Starbucks and according to the article he had never worked on the scale of a Starbucks.  But he had worked for companies with big networks like Yahoo. Instead of disregarding that experience, he leveraged it to understand the retail giant and apply that seemingly unrelated experience at Starbucks.  Gillett is quoted in the article as saying:  “[…] big Internet, like Yahoo, had solved a lot of the technical challenges that big retail had yet to solve… If you think of all your stores like nodes on a network, and all your resisters as computers rather than cash registers, you can start to manage and deploy […] like Yahoo would a server farm […]”   Many examples exist in business of how breakthrough ideas and products are discovered when a solution that worked in a completely unrelated field is applied to solve a different problem.

 Sometimes, organizations are too narrow-minded in how they view and value experience.  Perhaps an employee in your team has expertise in solving problems in another field that can be the breakthrough idea you need to solve a problem.  You’ll never leverage that unrelated expertise if you don’t know about it or you don’t support it or you don’t find an outlet to try it out.  Experimentation is the subject of our last post in the series and a pivotal one for transformation to occur.

I know some people may be saying, “Duh. It’s the same thing.  A team is made up of a group of individuals”.  Yes, but do we manage the group or the individuals that make up the group?

I know it’s a subtle point but a leader’s perspective on that point has a palpable impact on whether they can attract and retain their most talented employees in today’s workplace.

The leadership models of the past and the ones most of us have cut our teeth on focused on the one size fits all theory.  That is, each of us has a leadership style that we are either comfortable with or have learned along the way and we apply that style to running our “teams”.   We don’t deviate much away from that style.  Actually, the more consistently we apply it the better since it shows we are treating everyone the same.  But does it actually show that?

I used to think it did.  After all, I was trained and compensated on how consistent my style was.  Everyone in my team knew exactly how I ran things and the subtle message was that they had to conform to that style if they wanted to succeed in my team.  I felt that my consistent, one size fits all style helped me weed out the non-performers, those people that were not , A-players, or at least they weren’t in my mind.

It wasn’t until I started hiring Gen Yers in my team and created a lab to figure them out that I questioned that approach.  I realized that I was leading the masses, the amorphous “TEAM” and not the individuals that made up my team.  By being consistent in my leadership style I was telling the masses how to conform. That gave me the advantage of running a very efficient and productive team. What I didn’t realize is that its side effect was creating sameness instead of variety. Now years ago, a lot could be said for efficiency and productivity and sameness. But as the pace of change increased and continues to do so at breakneck speeds, sameness is a creativity and innovation killer. 

What I discovered as I tried to make sense of Gen Yers  (certainly NOT the same as me)  was that if I wanted my team to be innovative going forward,  my leadership style had to take a more unconventional approach.  Instead of having my “team” conform to my leadership style, I had to understand and capitalize on the richness of skills, attributes and experiences that each person in my team brought with them.  Instead of leading the masses with a one size fits all style, I learned to understand, appreciate and leverage the unique, distinctive and one of a kind qualities each individual brought to my team.  That was a “massive” shift for me and a total game changer.

The days of one size fits all leadership are quickly coming to an end and are on life support.  Don’t try to hold on to it.  Let it go.  It’s a recipe for being left behind.  Embrace the unfamiliar so you can understand and capitalize on the unique talents each of your employees brings to the workplace.

In a recent blog, Seth Godin wrote a blog titled “Please consider Weird”.  In it he says that “The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass”.  He continues to say that the concept of mass is dead and that although that gets us uncomfortable it also provides us with a great opportunity.

The same applies to leadership. Although leadership of the masses (aka TEAM) is  our comfort zone,  we need to get uncomfortable to pave another way to harness the variety, creativity and innovation that each of our employees bring to the workplace. 

In a recent blog, Seth Godin wrote a blog titled “Please consider Weird”.  In it he says that “The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass”.  He continues to say that the concept of mass is dead and that although that gets us uncomfortable it also provides us with a great opportunity.

The same applies to leadership. Although leadership of the masses (aka TEAM) is  our comfort zone,  we need to get uncomfortable to create an opportunity to harness the variety, creativity and innovation that each of our employees bring to the workplace.

I think we do and we need to do it fast. In my last blog post I talked about how so many people have been approaching me lately about how unhappy they are in their corporate jobs.  I think the economic woes we’re facing are making people cautious about leaving a steady paycheck but at the same time, it’s highlighting just how pervasive poor leadership is within the corporate ranks.  When times were better, people had more career options and would leave a company when they got tired of its poor leadership. Today, they can’t and it’s putting a spotlight on just how de-moralizing poor leadership can be to a team.

Although leaders know they have the upper hand in this economy, they have to always remember that it won’t be like that forever. If they are lousy bosses, their employees know it and so does everyone else.

It’s not hard to re-imagine leadership so that you have happy employees. Any good leader will tell you that employees don’t want much – they want work that is fulfilling and they want to be respected and acknowledged for their contributions.  That’s it.  The problem is that many of us who have led for a number of years are sticking to some pretty outdated ways of leading that prevent our employees from getting those 2 simple things they want most.

So here are 3 things today’s hip and savvy leaders are doing to re-imagine how they lead in the 21st Century.

  1. They ask for advice.  Savvy leaders know that the days when they had all the answers are long gone.  Today, the employees in the trenches know more about what’s going on than they do.  After all, how current can you be when you’re stuck in meetings all day and most of your job requires you to ensure your team’s compliance with those countless regulations and policies required under HIPAA, SOX, MOUSE (just kidding).  Getting your team involved and listening to their ideas is instrumental for successful leaders in the future.
  2. They are willing to bend the rules. Let’s face it, the only way we are going to shed our old leadership comfort zones are to experiment with new ones. The only way to do that is if we bend the rules of how the game is played.  Now I’m certainly not advocating we go and break corporate rules and get ourselves into trouble.  I’m talking about breaking the rules we’ve used from the past to lead in the future. So for example, just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Just because our best practices don’t align with the new idea being considered doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test the “best” practice to see if                 something better should replace it.  Bend the rules and test the “what-ifs”.  Those  “what-ifs” are the secret to staying viable in the future.
  3. They learn. If you aren’t open to learning new things every day you will not make it as a leader in the 21st Century.  The pace of change is grueling and it’s constantly challenging what we know on any given day.  If you want to sit on your laurels and reap the benefits of the expertise you’ve developed in the past, you will become the poster child for poor leadership.  You need to be in constant learning mode to hold the privilege of leading a team going forward.  By your example, your team will know that they need to stay sharp and keep their skills up to date. And here’s a secret:  you know those pesky 20-somethings that drive you crazy?  They are a GREAT resource for you to keep you learning and to stay relevant with what is happening in the world today.

So how about it? Do you want to just take up space until you reach retirement or do you want to make a difference to the generations of up and coming leaders that are watching you for clues on how to be the best of the best? It’s your choice.  If we are to re-imagine what leadership is going to be in the 21st Century, it starts with us – the leaders that have the courage to be different, be bold and willing to shed the past to make room for the future.

Since I left corporate to start my business a few years ago, I’ve had a steady stream of inquiries from friends and colleagues about getting out of corporate. For some reason, over the last few months, those inquiries have increased significantly.  Now these are bright, talented individuals making very decent incomes who are absolutely miserable and disgusted with corporate life.  I point that out because many times people think it’s just the 20-somethings that are complaining about corporate life. No, folks.  It’s not just the Gen Yers – it’s Xers and lots of Boomers doing the complaining.

In every case , without exception, when I dig a little bit to find out what is at the root of the unhappiness, it turns out to be poor leadership.  There are many reasons given.  Here’s the top 10 list of complaints:

  1. My boss has no clue what’s going on in the team.
  2. My boss is a very good [fill in the expertise – salesperson, accountant, lawyer] but he’s a lousy manager.
  3. My boss doesn’t stick up for us and caves in to the demands of other departments or higher ups.
  4. The staff isn’t getting a raise but the higher ups are getting outrageous bonuses this year.
  5. My boss is so afraid of losing her job that she refuses to listen to new ideas we’ve presented that can help the team.
  6. My boss listens to people who are out of touch with the realities of what the team faces.
  7. My boss is not well respected by the higher ups or his colleagues and is ineffective.
  8. My boss is just holding on long enough to get retirement.
  9. My boss has a sink or swim mentality.
  10. My boss has no time for his employees.

Any of these ring a bell?  Which ones resonate the most with you?  What complaint isn’t on there that you feel strongly about? For me, the ones that would put me over the edge were #1, 3, 5 and 7.

After listening to so many people repeat these reasons over and over again, I wondered how so many leaders could be so clueless about how their employees felt? I realize that employees aren’t going to volunteer that information to their boss even if he or she asks. I also know that employees aren’t always forthcoming in giving that information on employee engagement surveys no matter how much the company tries to convince them their answers are “confidential”.

So I decided to post the top 10 complaints here in the hopes that leaders would read them and ask themselves 3 probing questions.

  1. Who is someone inside or outside the company that I trust that can give me an honest assessment of how I am perceived as a leader?  We all know people in our careers that are honest, trustworthy and discreet that can help us answer whether our perception of how we lead matches how others see us lead.  The answer might surprise you.
  2. Do any of these complaints describe my peers or bosses? Can any of them remotely describe me? Many times if you can spot these behaviors in others around you, it makes you stop and reflect on your own and causes you to take some time to be introspective.
  3. What is one thing I can do today to ensure that my perception of how I lead is aligned to how others see me as a leader?

Of course, to answer these questions truthfully require you, as a leader, to be objective about yourself.  But more importantly, it requires you to still CARE about being an effective leader. From the sounds of the heightened grumblings I’m hearing lately, that may be the missing ingredient.

So my question for you is: are you one of the leaders described in this Top 10 list?  What are you doing to make sure you’re not?

Drumroll, please…  The last & what I consider the worst of the 5 batty bosses at work is Mr. Snarly.

This is the angry, moody, obnoxious boss who spends his day screaming at everyone, regardless of whether it’s his team members, his assistant, his kids or the barista at Starbucks. He loves belittling people in meetings and has absolutely no manners or delicacy. He thrives on intimidation. Reporting to him keeps you constantly wondering when his tirade will fall on you.

Certainly not a fun person to work for.  It will amaze you how many Mr. Snarly’s still exist in the workplace today.  You would think with all the leadership advice out there & the money companies spend on mentoring their leaders & managers that a Mr. Snarly could never be allowed to exist & wreak havoc at work.  But they do.  And chances are, you will run into one if you are not already reporting to one.

That’s why it’s so important to ask probing questions during an interview especially for those first entering the workplace. Working for a Mr. Snarly right out of school is almost harmful to someone new to the grim realities of work. A young employee is not savvy enough or experienced enough to deal with Snarly’s tirades & unprofessional behavior. There are many seasoned professionals that can’t deal with that type either. But the point is to try & flush that out before you take the job.

If you don’t want to get caught working for Mr. Snarly, you need to ask probing questions when interviewing with your prosepective boss.  The person the position reports to has the ultimate decision in who gets hired. Here’s a insider tip. Most prospective bosses have interviewed hundreds of candidates over the years. They know that young people are  more focused on impressing them. They know that young candidates don’t know the corporate realities of being an insider.  After years of interviewing young people, they already know by heart the types of questions you will ask them – questions that are meant to impress them with your knowledge. 

What they don’t expect is for you to be a savvy interviewee & ask them questions like experienced candidates do. On the rare occasion a young person asks probing questions, the prospective boss immediately takes notice. I know I did when I interviewed.  Here is a person that is making the boss think about the answer instead of asking a question everyone else asks. This person will automatically stand out from the throngs of other interviewees they will see.  And that’s what you want.  You want to stand out & ultimately get the job.

So here are some questions you can ask your potential boss to make him think & take notice of you.

  • Can you describe your leadership style?
  • Give me an example of a famous leader you admire.
  • What are your top 3 pet peeves?
  • Do you enjoy mentoring your staff?
  • Give me an example of someone you’ve mentored in your team and what you liked and didn’t like about it.
  • How would your employees describe you?
  • What are 3 things you enjoy about leading your team and 3 things you don’t enjoy?

You need to listen carefully to the responses given since that will give you clues as to the type of person you will be reporting to.  Now that you know the list of batty bosses you can be better prepared.  You may hit the jackpot & find that you will work for a great boss.  If so, it is even more critical for you to do everything you can to stand out & get the job.  Great bosses are rare to find & when you find one, you want to work for them as long as you can.

If you currently work for a Mr. Snarly & can’t stomach his outbursts, now you have the questions you need to ask in your new job search.  Don’t get caught by surprise again.  For those college graduates interviewing for their first jobs, stay out of Mr. Snarly’s clutches.  Ask probing questions & know what you’re getting into.  The more you know, the less job shock you will experience when you start working. That means the quicker you can focus on making an impact on the inside & moving your career forward.  Instead of a deer in the headlights, you will walk into the spotlight with confidence & knowledge.

Have you worked for Mr. or Ms. Stupe?  Stupe is another Gen Y addition & it’s pronounced Stupee.  Short for Stupid. 

Yes, believe it or not,  you may work for a boss that’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

When I started my career, there was a saying, “Screw up to move up.”  Do any fellow Boomers remember that saying? We’d use it every time an incompetent person got promoted. Back then, like today, it is often easiest for a company to get the stupid person out of the day-to-day and out of the way by promoting him. Not a smart move, but it happens. Mr. Stupee is ineffective running the team. Somebody else, usually a direct report(s), is the brains of the operation and allows Mr. Stupee to get away with his incompetence.

Discovering that you work for Mr. Stupe was shocking back in the day & it’s even more shocking today.  This is the type of thing most young people don’t realize when they are interviewing for a job.   Because they don’t know what awaits them as insiders, they don’t know what to ask  to try & find out.  It’s so important to ask the questions.  Not only is it eye opening & valuable to know what you’re getting into but did you know it gives interviewees a leg up in the interview process?

More  about that in our next & last post in the series.  Batty boss #5: Mr. Snarly – the worst of the bunch.

Mr. Sleepless in the office.  That’s batty boss # 3.

This is the workaholic boss. You will get an email from him at 2:00 a.m. and he calls you from the office at 7:30 a.m., wondering why you aren’t in the office. His standards are pretty high and he’s not very forgiving with anything less than your best. If he’s putting in all those long hours, you should be too. If you aren’t, you will quickly get on his radar. These types are usually over-stressed, burnt out and impatient. They are tough to work for and are not very understanding of the personal demands or issues their employees may be facing.

So here’s a confession.  In my early years as a manager,  I was a Ms. Sleepless.  I’m one of those people that loves to work & can work non-stop if I’m not careful.  Early on in my career I expected my team to be working alongside me.  I had the attitude that “if I did it, you could do it, too”. With time, I realized I was burning out my team and myself.  Just because I liked to work non-stop did not mean I should & it certainly didn’t mean my team should either.  In fact, it wasn’t productive to do that.  It was a painful lesson to learn because I lost a lot of great people who got tired of working for such a work horse. 

In fact, the lesson was delivered by Nick, someone who worked for me a long time ago.  A brave soul who decided to speak up & share what everyone in the team was feeling.  Why did he do it?  Because he took the time to observe me and to see what made me tick.  For weeks before he approached me, he watched how I reacted to information and the best way to deliver that information in a way that was well received by me. He noticed that even though I was a workaholic, I was open to feedback from the team.  I was tough but I listened.

Nick could see that I had the potential to be a good boss if I just lost the Ms. Sleepless tendencies. So he spoke up.  He delivered the difficult message in an objective, non-judgmental way that I could relate to & digest.  And I did. Nick’s plan worked.

When I asked him how he knew his risky move wouldn’t backfire on him, his response was priceless.  He said he wasn’t sure it would work or not but he knew that by not saying anything, things would not change.  I’ve never forgotten what he said to me.

He said, “You are the gatekeeper of my career.  Good or bad, that is the reality. If I want to advance I have to make the relationship work.  To do that I had to figure you out.  Once I did, everything else fell into place”.  It’s a win-win for both of us.

And it was a win-win.  Because your boss – batty or not – is the gatekeeper of your career, it behooves you to figure him out instead of expecting it to be the other way around.  When you take the initiative to do so, the options of how to handle his battiness will surface.  You’re in control, not the other way around.

Next up, Batty # 4: Mr. Stupe (pronounced Stupee).

“I don’t have time to dilly dally & play around.  My deliverables don’t leave time for anything else”. 

With that comment, Jack, our VP in Finance,  voiced the first Yeah-But to corporate innovation – lack of time.   Ann, the VP of Customer Service, chimed in, ” I agree with Jack.  If you’re not crazy busy, you’re not working on the company’s top priorities”.

“Wanna put your money where your mouth is?”  I asked  “Neither one of you are spending 100% of your time on top priority activities.  In fact, I bet  you are actually wasting a lot of time on non-essential stuff.

“I’ll take the bet. What’s the wager?”.  Ann, you in”?  I knew Jack would take the bait.

“What are we wagering? ” she said as they both looked at me.

“Ok, for the next month, you & Jack have to track all work activities in your day. Down to the minutes & hours spent on even the most trivial stuff. You need to be completely honest & methodical in capturing all the details. Deal”?

“Yeah, But (there it is again!) what’s the wager?  Jack asked.

“At the end of the month, if you don’t find at least 20% of your time is wasted on non-essential stuff, I will put you at the top of the list for the new IBM laptops we’re rolling out .

If, on the other hand, you find that 20% of your time is being wasted then you assign someone from your teams to work on an idea we’re testing out in my team”  Do we have a deal”?

Jack & Ann practically said “I’m in” at the same time.  

“Great. Let’s touch base after 2 weeks to check our progress”?  I asked.

“Good idea.  I can’t wait to be the first show off my new laptop “.  Jack was smiling.

The day before our lunch, Jack & Ann walk into my office.  “Jack says, ” Carla will work on your project”.  Then Ann says ” Bill will represent my team.  Just let me know how long you need him”.

The shock registerd on my face.

“You won”, said Jack.  “I never thought we’d lose but what I discovered almost makes losing worth it”. 

“Me,too” added Ann. “I kept a detailed log of everything I did & last Friday I reviewed it. What struck me were the useless meetings I was attending. Either the meetings had no bearing on my deliverables or, they were better suited for my direct reports.  This week I decided to be selective in the meetings I attended.  I freed more than 20% of my time.

“For me, the time wasters were the interruptions in my day”.  Jack was sharing his discovery. ”People stop by and chat.  Five minutes here, ten minutes there, it adds up.  Early this week, I moved to a conference room where people couldn’t easily find me. I was more focused & productive. Between the meetings & the interruptions, I wasted way more than 20% of my time on stupid stuff”.

Ann’s next comment was the best.  “I realized that there is time to try new things. You just have to want to do it & you find the time.”

Can you relate to Jack & Ann’s discovery?  Are you really so busy you can’t try new things or do you just think you are?  How open are you to test yourself? 

Try a quick experiment.  For the next 2 weeks:

  • Keep a log of all activities during your working day.
  • Be honest & make sure you capture ALL activities.
  • At the end of the first week, review your entries & evaluate your findings. 

If you find you are not as productive as you thought,  you have 2 choices. You can re-direct the  time to your priority projects or use the time to try a new idea or new way of doing things in your team.  Remember what Ann said: There is time for innovation.  You have to want to do it & you’ll find the time.

Here’s a great quote to help keep this innovation Yeah-But at bay: 

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” – Michael Altshuler    Source: www.TimeMan.com

I always like to read about unique perspectives that people can apply to leadership in the 21st Century.  I was reading the February 4th edition of strategy+business & came across this article titled “Reaffirming Corporate Commitment“  which is a research study conducted by Hal Ersner-Hershfield (Northwestern University), Adam D. Galinsky (Northwestern University), Laura J. Kray (University of California at Berkeley), and Brayden G. King (Northwestern University). In the strategy+business excerpt of the research study, it talks about the effectiveness of conducting “what-if” scenarios of a company’s early days to boost employee morale.  They used FedEx as an example to illustrate what they meant. 

They showed how in the 1970′s, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx , literally gambled on the future of his company. Not  having enough money to pay for airline fuel, Smith flew to Vegas for a weekend, went to a blackjack table & gambled the company’s last $5,000. He was able to turn the $5,000 into $24,000 & was able to keep the company afloat.  In their research the authors correlate that gamble & conviction by the founder to keep the company afloat to the fact that  FedEx consistently ranks on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

The authors call this counterfactual thinking which looks at what might have been if past events had turned out differently for a company .  Being the movie buff that I am, I couldn’t help but correlate the concept of counterfactual thinking with that of  the great classic Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life“.  Remember the story: Jimmy Stewart was bitter & frustrated with his existing life & all the  sacrifices & challenges that life had thrust upon him. In a moment of desperation, he angrily wishes he had not been born.  The rest of the movie shows Jimmy witnessing the dire consequences of that wish &  how so many people had benefited from his being in the world .  In the end, Jimmy is ecstatic to be alive & comes to appreciate his life, warts & all. 

A powerful, uplifting story & one that makes us as viewers appreciate what we have & how we’ve touched people.  To me, counterfactual thinking can be the corporate version of  “It’s a Wonderful Life” .   What would have happened if Fred Smith had not gone to Vegas to save the company? FedEx would probably have folded & would not be on the 100 Top Best Companies to Work  list today.  That’s a powerful message to share with employees.  Do you think after listening to that near miss, the employees would appreciate working for FedEx even if it had a wart here & there?  You bet.  Just like Jimmy Stewart did.  Counterfactual thinking challenges employees to think about what would happen if their company had not been founded or had folded early on.  Very much like the reaction “It’s a Wonderful Life” gets from viewers everytime they see the movie, employees get a boost of appreciation for the company & their commitment & morale increase. 

It makes perfect sense but how many times do companies share their version of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” story with employees?  How many times is counterfactual thinking utilized by companies to increase employee morale?  According to the authors when this unique perspective is applied,  the palpable postive effect on employees is still evident two weeks later. The authors suggest that in today’s uncertain economic times, organizations can use the past to foster employee commitment to the current & future state of the company.

This made me wonder how many companies today were effective in keeping their corporate history alive?  How many of them do so consistently and as part of their corporate communication strategy? How well versed is the leadership in knowing the company’s past? Can you, as a leader,  provide your team with stories of critical turning points in your organization that changed its direction for the better?  What about a visionary leader who showed tremendous conviction despite incredible odds & saved the company from ruin & extinction?

Everyone is touched by stories & what better way to touch employees than by sharing the rich corporate history that most organizations have locked up in their extensive archives.  Get out those dusty archives & communicate key events in your organizations history that made a difference & contributed to its staying power. The authors of this research say it best when they say that “ By having employees focus on how things might have turned out differently and where they would be without their company, firm leaders can help foster a more positive view of the workplace and higher morale”.  

Employees today are desperate to hear good news & feel positive about their companies.  Maybe experimenting with a counterintuitive strategy or message can do the trick.  It certainly couldn’t hurt…

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