Java with Joe: Telling the Truth in Organizations: 7 Guiding Principles

Most of us have been taught from a very young age that we should tell the truth. Our parents and teachers have tried hard to help us understand that “honesty is the best policy.” How old were you when you first heard the story of George Washington and the cherry tree? 

But if the importance of honesty has been reinforced since we were children, why do so many people…including those in positions of authority…have such a hard time telling the truth? Conversely, why are people who speak truth to power so often attacked? Why do we need laws to protect “whistle blowers” who pull back the curtain on dishonest organizations?

And speaking of organizations, why do so many seem to have a real problem with the truth?

I understand that telling the truth isn’t always simple. I understand that “telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is a high bar…and I appreciate that it may not be the appropriate standard in every case. But let’s be clear: lying, covering up, deliberately being misleading, and other dishonest tactics should have no place in our public life or in our organizations.  

Organization leaders should always strive to tell the truth, even if it is painful to do so. Equally important, they should enable and indeed reward the organization’s people to tell the truth…again, even when the truth hurts. In high performing organizations, there’s no such thing as bad news. There’s only news that can make you better or validate the path you’re already on.

So, with all this in mind, here are a few thoughts for you to consider.

Guiding Principles for Telling the Truth in Organizations

1. Be Predictable: When leaders consistently tell the truth, whether they’re delivering good or bad news, they become predictable and build trust across the organization.

2. Be On-time but Be Time Sensitive: When truthful information is disseminated widely and in a timely manner, it stifles rumors. If you wait too long to get the information out, you may well lose control of the story. Sure, you need to think about whether people are ready to hear what you’ve got to say …whether, for example, they’re in the right emotional state to really listen…but that said, don’t wait for the “perfect” time.

3. Don’t Shoot the Messenger: Those who tell the truth about embarrassing mistakes or issues need to be rewarded, not punished. So, recognize them and tell stories about them. That’s how you build a culture of trust…and get the information you need to get things right the next time.

4. Follow Up Quickly: When mistakes or problems are revealed, be rigorous about looking for ways to improve the situation. Success depends as much on finding ways not to repeat mistakes as it is on how to replicate success.

5. Publish the Process and the Results: Be transparentabout the steps you’re taking to resolve difficult situations, and let people know what solution you finally end up with…and why.  Do that consistently and you’re on your way to higher levels of trust, engagement, and performance.

6. Share the Pain: When the truth hurts, don’t be afraid of sharing your own feelings. When you’re viewed as authentic, you’ll also be viewed as more trustworthy. Chances are others are feeling the same pain.

7. What You Tolerate is What You Believe: As a leader you can stand up in front of people and say what you believe. It won’t mean very much, however, if people see you tolerating untruthful behavior in others.

Again, let’s be clear: setting a high bar for yourself and others when it comes to telling the truth is critical to building a culture of trust. It’s critical to building a culture where people give their best…and become their best. “Honesty is the best policy” is far more than a corny saying: it’s a pretty good guide to becoming an effective leader and building a superior organization.

How do you handle situations when a person comes forward with a mistake that has happened or with an organizational problem?

When was the last time you recognized and told a story about someone who brought forward an issue that needed to be addressed?

How do you think your people view you in these situations?

Jave with Joe: When It Comes to Communication, OK Is Just Not OK.

 I’m often asked, “What are the most important skills a leader needs to have?” Obviously, there are hundreds…indeed thousands…of books, articles, and blogs devoted to this topic, and while they are different in some respects, there’s also considerable overlap. For example, most “experts” agree that leaders need to be good at making sense of what’s going on in the business environment, at anticipating threats and recognizing opportunity. They need to be good at building high performance cultures, shaping effective strategies, and pulling the right levers to enable their organizations…however large or small…to execute those strategies successfully.  

And of course, most people would agree that effective leaders must be able to persuade, motivate, and inspire the people around them…which comes down to the ability to communicate effectively. If you can’t communicate your ideas in a clear, compelling way, you’ll never fully engage your employees, and if you can’t do that, your success will be limited…no matter how much opportunity is available, no matter how brilliant your strategy may be.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas that might help you develop your communications skills.

Tailor your message.

If your goal is to persuade, motivate, and engage, you need to connect with your audience, and that means you need to tailor your message accordingly. And to do that effectively, you need to know your audience. You need to walk in their shoes and figure out what they care about. What gets them excited. What scares them. What they already know and what they need to know. Remember, communication is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Listen more; talk less.

You can’t get to know your people by talking at them, no matter how important your message. So you might want to spend more time listening instead of talking. Ask questions. Be present. Ask if you can take notes, to make sure that you capture and retain people’s ideas.  The more you listen, the better your own ideas will become…and the better you’ll be able to convey those ideas in a way that resonates with others.

Beware of information overload.

This is a particular problem when you’re delivering an important message via a formal presentation (as opposed to a conversation with one or just a few other people). We’ve all sat through Power Point presentations where the slides (probably lots of slides) were jammed with bullets, graphs, charts, and data. How successful were those presentations?

Today it’s easier than ever to gather information. Sometimes it seems as if we’re drowning in data. The real challenge today is how to create meaning from all this information and complexity. What goes into your message and what gets left out or put aside for another day?  What does your audience need to know right now? Again, knowing your audience is critical here. That’s what allows you to make the right choices…put the data and information into the most appropriate context…and focus your message most effectively.

Prepare and practice.

Whenever you’re delivering an important message, whether it’s in a one-on-one conversation or a presentation to a thousand people, never, never wing it…even if you’ve delivered a similar message many times. Again, you need to think carefully about your audience and tailor your content accordingly.

And if you want to really engage with your audience…if you want them to stay with you all the way on an exciting, compelling journey…you need to practice what you’re going to say. In detail. Out loud. Over and over again, so that any unnecessary content gets weeded out, the narrative smooths out, and all the dots get connected. Too many leaders think “I’m a good presenter,” and rely on an outline of key points to get them through a presentation. For most of us, the result is that we ramble, we lose the thread of our message, we go down too many rabbit holes that leave the audience wondering how much longer it will be before they can break for lunch. That’s not good enough.

Deliver message. Repeat message six times

One of the most frustrating things for leaders is the sense that they delivered their message effectively and got great feedback, but nothing seems to have changed.  People are still doing the same things. They’re not following the new direction.  The message…apparently delivered effectively…seems to have been a waste of time.

But here’s the thing. Very few people will listen to a presentation and then immediately begin to make changes to their work or behaviors. The fact is that in most cases we all need to hear a given message several times before it really sinks in and we’re ready to act on it. My rule of thumb is that after listening to a message twice, people will hear it. After listening to the message twice more, in a different environment, they will internalize it. After hearing it twice more, they will get engaged and act differently.

So, finally…here are a few questions for you to consider.

How would you rate your communication skills? Would your people agree?
When was the last time you asked for some feedback on your communication skills?
What might you start doing today to grow your skills in this critical area?

Java with Joe: Changing Jobs…A Servant Leader Approach

I’ve recently been asked by a number of followers of Java with Joe, many of them “millennials,” about the topic of changing jobs…and more specifically, if, when and how to make that change. It seems clear that even the thought of making a career move can leave people confused and apprehensive. It’s that old fear of the unknown. While I don’t think this brief discussion can completely eliminate that stress, here are a few thoughts that might be helpful.                                              

First, there’s the question of when to make a move: “How do I know that it’s time?” To get a handle on this, it might be helpful to remember that the decision to change almost always starts with some level of dissatisfaction with your current state. In the case of a job change, the dissatisfaction is often pretty obvious. You don’t have a good relationship with the person to whom you report or possibly with the people you work with. You feel undervalued and undercompensated. You don’t see any opportunities for growth and vertical mobility. Maybe you just hate going to work in the morning.

But sometimes the dissatisfaction is less a burning platform than a smoldering flame. You’re paid pretty well. You get along well with your colleagues. Your manager is ok. The work itself is interesting, at least most of the time. And yet, you just have a feeling that something isn’t right.

So how do you figure out if you’re dissatisfied enough to make a move? One way is to approach the whole question through the lens of Servant Leadership, and more particularly, its underlying concept of service to others. Whether or not you’re in a leadership role…formal or informal…having service to others as a core value gives you a solid platform on which build a career, and a life. And it can help you make important decisions about your career and your life.

So, try asking yourself if your current position allows you to really serve others…your customers, your colleagues, the organization as a whole. Think hard about how much of your whole self you’re using in your current role. How has all this changed since you’ve been in the role? Even if everyone around you thinks you’re doing fine, what does your gut tell you? If the answer…the real, deep down answer…is that you’re no longer fully utilizing your talents…if you have much more to give than the current job allows… then it’s probably time for you to make a move.

Here’s a different way to approach the same question, an exercise I call “Standing in the Future.” Look out 3-5 years and ask yourself what you’d like to see yourself doing. Write a news story about yourself, your life, your work. Fill it with details and even quotes. Think of a compelling headline. When you’re done, ask yourself if you see a realistic path from where you are now to where you are in that story. If you can’t see that path, then maybe it really is time for you to start looking for a job, an organization, a role that will serve as a better jumping off place for your future.   

Once you’ve decided to make a move, the question of how immediately arises. You can certainly go on line to access various job-related sites, like,,, etc. And you can check out the career opportunities listed on the websites of companies/organizations you might be interested in. But as much as it may be a cliché, the best way to find a great new job is through people you know…networking.

If I look back on my own career, this is one area where I definitely could have done much better, and many of my friends have told me they feel the same way. Indeed, for many people, just the word “networking” is enough to make them feel slightly nauseous. It conjures up the idea of reaching out to people they haven’t talked to in months (or years) to ask for help. Not a pleasant vision.

In my experience, what prevents people from networking effectively is that they wait until they need help to connect with the people who could help them. If you haven’t talked to someone in two years, it’s no wonder that you’re uncomfortable about now reaching out to ask for help.

It seems to me that this is less of a problem for millennials than for previous generations. Growing up with social media seems has made it much more likely that millennials will build and maintain connections with a broad network of friends and acquaintances. But based on the questions I’m often asked, it seems clear that they too want to avoid taking advantage of the people in their network. They want help, but they don’t want to use people.

I would suggest that if you’ve been living the core value of serving others, this issue will take care of itself. In other words, if you’ve found ways to serve the people in your network…if you’ve helped and supported them in the past…you won’t really need to ask for help when you yourself need it. All you’ll need to do is tell them you’re thinking of making a job change and they’ll be there for you.

So…if you’re thinking about making a job change, I hope these ideas will take at least some of the stress out of the whole process, from deciding when it’s time to actually implementing your search. In the meantime, ask yourself these questions:

Are you still doing your best work in your current job?

Does the job offer you the opportunity to make full use of your talents?

Does it offer a path to the role you want to have…the life you want to be living… a few years from now?

Are you finding ways to serve the people in your network, so that you’ll feel comfortable asking them for help when you’re ready to launch a job search?

Java with Joe: You May Not Manage Any People, But You Can Still be a Servant Leader.

First, I want to wish all of you a very Happy New Year. It’s a safe bet that at least on the national front, we’ll be confronted with a fair amount of turbulence in 2019, but I hope we can all find ways to reach out to one another and treat one another with a bit more patience, a bit more kindness.  

In the places where we work, the stress of trying to perform at the highest level sometimes leads to very different behavior. A close friend of mine­—let’s call her Linda—is a 33-year old graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, currently working as a Marketing Manager in a mid-size professional services firm. Articulate and quick witted, Linda has real executive presence, and she has consistently been recognized and rewarded by the firm for her outstanding performance. She’s also a good corporate citizen, willingly going the extra mile to take on activities that are not part of her core responsibilities.

But as the old saying goes, “There are always ants at the picnic.”

In Linda’s case, she’s been finding it difficult to work as collaboratively as she would like with some of the firm’s business development people. Her job is to promote the company and its offerings, and she needs the input of those folks do that job as effectively as possible. All too often, however, as Linda says, “I ask them to turn something in… but because they don’t see it as part of their core business line and it doesn’t directly affect their bottom line, they’re less engaged.”

For her part, Linda is reluctant to push too hard. As she says, “These people don’t report to me. They’re at the same level in the company as I am, and most of them are actually older than I am, with longer tenure at the firm. So my leverage is really pretty limited.”

This is a common problem for people whose success depends on people who don’t actually report to them. This includes people in staff roles who don’t actually manage people, even if their title says Manager, Director, or VP. It also includes people who do have direct reports, but whose roles have a significant cross-functional component. In other words, it’s a common problem for lots of folks.

I’ve faced this problem many times myself. As Chief Human Resources Officer, for example, I had direct influence over the HR folks, but in order to move the ball forward on many major initiatives, I needed the cooperation and buy-in of senior leaders in other functions and areas of the business. Like Linda, I often felt as if my leverage was somewhat limited.

But that doesn’t mean that you have no leverage. If and when you find yourself in this sort of situation, my advice is to remember that even if you’re not a manager, you can still be a leader—a Servant Leader. Instead of focusing so much on how these other people could help you, try to focus more on how you might help them. In Linda’s case, for example, if she focuses on the fact that she needs—and isn’t getting­—the cooperation of these other people, she’s likely to grow more and more resentful of them, and more and more dissatisfied with her job. That’s not a great place to be.

But what if she focused more on the fact that by doing a better job of promoting the company and its offerings, she’s making it easier for them to attract and retain clients. In other words, she’s in a position to really serve those people and help them “raise the bar” and succeed. With that in mind, her challenge becomes not how to manage those people or how to push them into giving her what she needs. Instead, the challenge becomes figuring out how to help them see that she wants to help them­—that she is actually in a position to help them.

How to do that? It starts with a conversation, even a brief one­—a conversation in which Linda does much more listening than talking. Ask what the other person needs from Marketing in order to drive more business to the firm. Ask what potential clients want to know about the firm or a new offering—what kind of information is most likely to pique their interest. Then, at the right moment, maybe offer to come back with a new promotional idea based on the person’s input and ask if they’d be willing to provide feedback.

This approach won’t always work. Let’s face it: some people are too wrapped up in themselves to engage in real collaboration with others, even when that would benefit them in significant ways. They think they’re too busy or their work is too important; sometimes they’re just afraid of having someone else get credit for anything. But in my experience, most people will collaborate in a meaningful way when the opportunity to do so is presented to them in the right way.

So, as we move into this new year, why not look for ways to be a true Servant Leader, even when—and maybe even especially when—you’re working with folks you don’t actually manage. If you can build those kinds of mutually supportive relationships, you’ll not only be more successful, you’ll also find going to work a much more satisfying experience. And remember, it all starts with a simple conversation.

Java with Joe: Delivering Bad News…a Servant-Leader Approach

When I stepped into my first executive leadership role at Digital Equipment Corporation, I received some valuable advice from the person I was replacing. He said: “There are two things about this job you’ll need to learn right away. One, how to apologize; two, how to deliver bad news.” He was right, as it didn’t take long before I had to do both!

Conversations that involve delivering bad news are never easy; they’re never fun. But if you’re a leader at any level, those conversations come with the job. So the question is, as a Servant Leader, what can you do to make those conversations less painful and more productive, both for you and the other person?

The first piece of advice I’d offer is don’t kick the can down the road. In my experience, many leaders are so uncomfortable about delivering a tough message that they just put the whole thing off, thinking that maybe the situation will improve on its own. But of course, this almost never happens, and by waiting, the problem at hand often gets even worse, and the eventual conversation even more painful.

So don’t put the conversation off just because you’re uncomfortable, but don’t rush into it either. Give yourself time to gather all the necessary information. That way you’ll feel more confident going in and be much better prepared in the event that the conversation produces a negative response.

Preparing for that tough conversation should also involve getting your head in the right place. Maybe because winter is on its way and it’s a long way to fishing season, let me throw in a little fly-fishing example here. Let’s say that you know a nice fish is sitting over there beside the river bank, right under the overhanging branches of a big tree. As you get ready to cast, there’s a powerful temptation to look at those branches, right where you don’t want your cast to land. But I can pretty much guarantee that if you give in to that temptation, that’s exactly where you’ll end up, all tangled in the branches of that tree.

The point is, when you’re preparing for a tough conversation, it’s hard not to focus on just how painful it’s going to be. But if you go into the conversation with that mindset, you’re almost guaranteeing that the conversation will indeed be painful.

A better approach is to go in with the idea that the conversation is an opportunity to help the other person succeed—even if you’re letting them go and they’ll have to succeed somewhere else.

Another part of getting your head in the right place beforehand is to think about how the other person is likely to see the problem you plan to address. Will they see the problem the same way as you do? Will they even recognize that the problem exists? How can you frame the discussion so that you both end up on the same page?

As for the conversation itself, your natural inclination might be to cut to the chase and keep it short. You might think that this is the best way to minimize the pain, but in my experience, this approach almost always leaves the other person feeling like they’ve been treated badly. A better approach is to give the other person a warning that something is up and if possible, give them a little time to prepare, and even to feel as if they have some measure of control. You can, for example, say something like, “We need to talk about an issue that I think is important. Is there a time later today or tomorrow when we can sit down together?”

When you do begin the conversation, it’s ok to acknowledge that you’re uncomfortable, saying something like, “Conversations like this are never easy, but it’s important to you, to me, and to the team.” On the other hand, I’d avoid anything that sound like the old, “This hurts me more than it does you.” In other words, don’t make yourself the victim. In fact, one of the most important things for you to remember is: the conversation is not about you. Delivering bad news is uncomfortable for almost everyone; that’s why we avoid doing it. But as Servant-Leaders, we need to deliver the messages that people need to hear so they can learn and grow.

As you go forward with the discussion, it’s important that you empathize with the other person. Give them time to process what you’re saying. Slow things down. Sometimes it helps to say something like,  “I know this is a hard message for you. Go ahead and take a moment before we continue. When you’re ready, just let me know.” As you go along, ask for the other person’s response. In some cases, they may actually change your perception of the situation, and if that happens, don’t be afraid to say so, but in any case, it’s important that you really listen to what they have to say.

Sometimes you’ll find that the other person just isn’t able to accept what you’re saying. Rather than keep pushing and run the risk of creating an even more emotionally charged situation, you might be better off to say that you’ll circle back with them at another time. Say that you hope they’ll take the time to think about what you’ve discussed and come into the next meeting prepared to figure out a path forward.

No matter how the conversation goes, you should really try to end it on a positive note. Sometimes this means coming to some agreement on what steps the other person needs to take to rectify the situation, and what you can do to help them succeed. Sometimes it means just leaving the door open for a continuing discussion. The point is, you don’t want to just hit someone with bad news and then abruptly send them off to lick their wounds.

And finally, let me say this: tough conversations are a lot easier when the people involved trust one another. If you’ve taken the time to earn the trust of the people around you, it will be easier (if not easy) to be the bearer of bad news. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, you earn people’s trust by being clear about your own values, by being consistent in acting on those values, by being honest about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Remember, being credible is not just about your expertise, it’s about your truthfulness and your willingness to say you don’t have an answer or admit that you’ve made a mistake. Reliability is about whether other people will believe you’re going to do what you say.

So, with all this in mind, are there conversations you know you need to have but have been putting off? How can you create the right climate to have them? How can you get your mind in the right place, so that the conversation will not be about you? How can you make the conversation, however difficult the topic, lead to something positive for the other person and for your organization?




Java with Joe: Managed by a Millennial…You’ve Got to Talk About It.

                                      By the year 2020, at least half of the US workforce will be millennials, born between 1981 and 1996. Many of those folks have already stepped into management roles, and many others will soon follow—and this inescapable demographic reality poses a variety of challenges.

For example, what happens If you’re one of these millennial managers, maybe in your first management role,  and you find yourself tasked with leading people who are 20 or even 30 years older than you are— people with vastly more experience, some of whom may well feel that they should be managing you?  On the flip side, what happens if you’re in your 50s or even your 60s and you suddenly find yourself with a 35 year old manager whom you have a hard time thinking of as anything other than a “kid”?

Based on my own business experience and my experience as a consultant working with very diverse organizations, I’ve found that these three simple principles can go a long way toward taking the tension out of such situations. See what you think.

1. You’ve got to talk about it! Nothing gets in the way of building trust more than not communicating how you feel about a situation. Leaving people to create their own stories around their observations and assumptions is almost certain not to create an environment of open and honest communications.

Early in my career, I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, at the time one of the largest and fastest growing computer companies in the world. “DEC” believed in putting young people into significant management roles,  despite the fact that at that early stage of their careers, these young managers often found themselves way over their heads. The assumption was that they’d figure out  how to succeed and get the job done. So there I was, in my mid-20s, suddenly promoted to be the HR Manager for a five-state region based in Minneapolis, a long way from my mentor and the other support resources available at our headquarters back in Massachusetts.

Many of the people I was supposed to lead were indeed much older than I was, and I admit that I wasn’t really sure how to build trust across those age gaps. What helped me succeed was an older person in my group who took the initiative and raised this issue of the age and experience difference.  As he began, I tried to brush off the conversation but he wouldn’t let me. He said, “Joe, we have to talk about this because I want you to be successful, not just for your sake but because I only have a few years left in my career, and I want those years to be meaningful for myself and for the company.”

So the conversation began, and eventually I asked him what he needed from a leader and he told me. The most important thing, he said, was to have his experience and opinions valued. He also suggested that I have one-on-one meetings with everyone in the group and ask them the same question—and he stressed that in those conversations, I needed to be open and authentic about the awkwardness that a significant age difference could create.  I did my best to follow his advice, and if I could point to just one thing that helped me open up communications and build trust with the people on my team, it would be that advice.

So if you find yourself with direct reports twice your age, talk to those folks about what that age difference might mean—to them and to you. Be open and humble: don’t be afraid to admit to them, and to yourself, that you can learn from all that experience they’ve acquired over the years.

And conversely, if you find yourself with a manager who is decades younger than you are, look for the strengths they bring to the table, and try to help them succeed. One way to do that is to step up and open a conversation about the age difference, if they don’t seem to feel comfortable doing so.

2. Don’t make assumptions about technology. It’s no secret that millennials and baby boomers have grown up in totally different worlds when it comes to technology. That said, if you’re a millennial manager it’s a mistake to make assumptions about what the older people in your organization do and do not know about technology. When you find out—as you very well may— that they are more capable than you think, it could be pretty embarrassing.  And if you’re one of those older folks, your best bet is to be open and honest about your technology skills—and if necessary, put your hand up and ask for some training.

3. Don’t ask people how long they want to continue to work. I’ve found that very little is more threatening to an older employee than a young manager, perhaps in total good faith, asking them how many more years they intend to work. But if you’re a young manager, how do you plan for the future without asking that question? Well, if you build trust by following Principles 1 and 2, and if you’re open and honest about your responsibility as a leader to grow talent and build a succession plan for the group, it’s been my experience that people will generally tell you about their own personal plans. Be a little patient, and feel your way into the conversation, and you’ll get there.

And again, on the flip side, if you’ve got a few years on your manager, and you’re thinking about what the future might hold, I would encourage you to be open about your goals and preferences. This too is a case where you’ll certainly want to ease into that conversation, but if you can get there, it can set up a situation where you have the opportunity to share your knowledge and experience and prepare others for a smooth transition. And that will be very rewarding for you and the organization.

So, millennial manager, have you talked with your people about any significant difference in age and experience? And if you’re someone who suddenly finds themselves with a much younger manager,  what have you done—what can you do— to make the situation less awkward and more productive?

Java with Joe: So You’re Not an “Emotional Genius.” Relax, You Can Get Better.

If you’re already in, or about to take on, a leadership role, chances are you already have the intellect, the business expertise, and the technical skills to do the job. But what about the so called “soft skills?” What about your Emotional Intelligence?

While the concept of EI has been around for over 50 years, Daniel Goleman really popularized it in his 1995 best-seller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, in which he argued that EI actually accounts for as much as 80% of success in life. Over time, Goleman’s work has certainly been subject to debate, but in my experience, the basic concept holds up. Are people correct to say that some leaders, notably lacking in Emotional Intelligence, have been successful? Of course. Just think about Steve Jobs. But in my view, leaders with well developed emotional intelligence—as well as the other necessary skills and traits—will generally be more successful at building organizations that tap the full potential of their people. And over time, that’s what leads to higher levels of performance.

When I talk about emotional intelligence, I’m talking about our ability to recognize and understand our own emotions and those of other people—and to manage our emotions to minimize their negative and increase their positive impact on others.

Underlying this whole discussion, of course, is the assumption that the leaders actually care about the way they are impacting people.  I have worked for and around leaders who knew their behavior had a negative impact on others, but who really didn’t care. This is, to say the least, a terrible combination.

Some critics of Goleman’s work have argued that it’s impossible to measure EI with rigorous scientific validity. But as a long term HR leader and practitioner, I think there are common sense ways to tell if you or someone else has EI issues. If someone is frequently involved in negative interactions with others, if those interactions clearly leave the other person upset, angry, or resentful, there’s an EI problem.  And since the leading driver of employee engagement is how a person feels about their leader, you can see how that EI problem can ultimately lead to a broader problem of organizational performance.

Ok, but if someone is EI-challenged, are they—are you— stuck with that problem, or can a person develop a higher level of emotional sensitivity?  In my experience working with leaders at all levels, the answer to that last question is definitely yes, although like any other form of personal development, success takes commitment and work. For an excellent book on the subject, check out Annie McKee’s Becoming a Resonant Leader, and in the meantime, let me offer a few thoughts of my own.

Find time for management reflection. As we’ve already discussed, emotional intelligence starts with being aware of, and understanding, our own emotions. One of the best ways to develop this self-awareness is to keep a simple record of your interactions with other people. I know: you’re really busy.  But trust me, this will be time very well spent.

So take 5-15 minutes, a couple of times a day, to write down the specifics of interactions you’ve had. Include both positive and negative interactions in these management reflections. Try to capture briefly what you said and what the other person said, what you were feeling as the interaction unfolded, and how the other person reacted, not just verbally but in their body language. Believe me, over time, the physical act of writing this stuff down (preferably the old fashioned way, with a pen on paper) will make you much more sensitive to what is going on as you engage with others.

(For a compelling discussion of how great leaders, both contemporary and historical, have drawn on the power of solitude and reflection to guide their most important decisions, and how you can develop the same discipline, see Lead Yourself First by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin.)

Focus on your core values. Closely tied to emotional awareness is a deep understanding of our core values—what matters most to us as human beings, as leaders and how were those values formed?  Unfortunately, many leaders haven’t done the work of digging down and really figuring out their core values. In my work with leaders right up to those in the C-suite, I often ask them to articulate those values—and I’d say that at best one out of three can do so with any real depth.  Frankly, it’s so rare when someone can do it that I almost feel that it’s an unfair question.

So, think about the leaders you most respect. Why do you respect them? What values do they consistently demonstrate? Then look at your EI journal, and ask yourself what values you have demonstrated in those interactions. What seemed to really matter most to you? Finally, make a list of your top values, and for each one, write a brief behavioral definition.

Identify your emotional triggers. Being predictable, as an individual and certainly as a leader, is key to building trust with people. And a key to being predictable is managing your own emotions, which in turn requires an ability to deal with your emotional triggers. These are the things that put you in a problematic state—the things that set you off, that push your emotional buttons. And here’s where the understanding your core values is crucial, because those triggers generally set us off because in that moment we feel that someone has crossed a line when it comes to one or more of those values.

One of my core values, for example, is respect. I think it’s crucial for me to treat others with respect— and for me to be treated the same way. I know that whenever someone says or does something that seems disrespectful to me, my gut reaction is to get angry. In that moment, if I’m not very careful, I’m in danger of saying or doing something that only makes the situation worse. But knowing that, it’s a little easier for me to take a deep breath and mentally, if not actually physically, to just step away. That way I can come back later and have a more meaningful conversation.

Create an outlet. Much of my time spent in the HR function was to serve as a sounding board so leaders could vent before they engaged another leader with whom they had an issue.  I strongly suggest you find a confidant with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings, someone who will listen supportively but also give you honest feedback.

Manage your expectations. Developing your emotional intelligence takes time. If you work at it, in a conscious way, you will learn from both your positive and not so positive interactions. You’ll get better at recognizing—and not reacting reflexively to your emotional triggers. You’ll learn to read the emotions of other people and treat those emotions with empathy.

So why not start that journey today?

Some key questions: Can you articulate your personal values and how they were developed? What are your triggers? What are you doing on a regular basis to reflect on them?


Java with Joe: Leading as a Servant: Yes,There’s a Risk, But It’s Well Worth Taking.

One of the first postings I made to this blog dealt with the subject of why people are often fearful of adopting the principles of servant leadership. Some three years later, the issue continues to come up in my conversations with leaders at all levels, so I think it might be worth another look.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with what it means to be servant leader. It means putting the success of your organization and its people ahead of your own personal power. It means giving up the idea that your job is telling people what to do and then making sure they do it. Instead, it means seeing your role as engaging your people around a mission that creates a sense of higher purpose for their work , then clearing away the obstacles that prevent them from being and becoming their best selves at work.

Being a servant leader means trusting the people around you to make good decisions, and giving them room to grow (even if that means that sometimes they will fail). It means supporting and celebrating them for the value they add, consistently applying what Jim Collins refers to as the Window and Mirror concept—looking “out” to give credit to others when things go well, and looking “in” to take responsibility when things go wrong.

Some traditional command and control leaders do actually apply some of these concepts, at least some of the time, but when it comes right down to it, servant leadership and command and control leadership are two very different animals. Recognizing that difference, more and more people these days seem to gravitate toward servant leadership. In part, that’s because it seems like a better fit for their personality and their core values. But it’s also because of the abundant evidence that “servant led” companies—and companies that apply servant leadership principles, even by another name—actually outperform companies where command and control is the dominant leadership model. (To look at some of that evidence, you might start with Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, by James Sipe and Don Frick; or Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose, by Raj Sisodia and Jag Sheth.)

And yet—to get back to how we opened this discussion—many people who aspire to become servant leaders are actually fearful of doing so. Why?

Essentially, it comes down to their being afraid that deviating from a traditional command and control leadership model will make them look weak in the eyes of the people who report to them—and even worse, it may have the same effect on the people to whom they report. And let’s be clear, if those fears are realized, there’s some significant risk involved.

There’s the risk that your own team will lose confidence in your leadership and start to feel adrift, and that as a result performance will suffer. And there’s the risk that other leaders—and in particular, your boss—will lose confidence in you. If that happens, you can probably say good-bye to that promotion or that prized assignment. In other words, if you work in a primarily command and control environment, becoming a servant leader could conceivably put your job, and by extension your career, at risk.

But then, you have to ask yourself: Is this a risk I should take? Obviously that’s a question only you can answer, depending on your own personal situation. But I think a strong case can be made that the answer to that question is Yes. In my mind, more often than not, leading as a servant is worth the risk.

For one thing, the worst part about facing any risk is just managing the fear involved. But quite often, the fear associated with any given risk is way out of proportion to the risk itself. We often manufacture fear, letting ourselves imagine the worst possible outcome, even when that possibility is actually quite small. This is often the case when we talk about becoming a servant leader.

Take the fear that if you move in the direction of servant leadership, your team will lose focus and its performance will suffer. Is this a real or manufactured fear? Of course, anything can happen, but as I’ve indicated above, servant leadership works. Servant led organizations typically outperform command and control organizations on virtually every key business metric, as you’ll see if you look at those books I recommended. So let’s suppose you start behaving like a servant leader—setting out a clear vision for your organization but at the same time becoming more genuinely collaborative; giving your people more room to take the initiative, but at the same time giving them more room to make mistakes, and helping them learn from those mistakes. At first the people you lead may wonder if you’re really serious, and they may be slow to trust that you really want them to take more responsibility. They may test your commitment in ways that are not always easy for you to handle. But trust me, if you stick with the program, eventually most of your people will be energized by what you’re doing and the results will be dramatic.

And what about the risk and attendant fear that the other leaders in your organization, including your boss, will lose confidence in you, damaging your chances for advancement. How big is this risk, actually? Well, in my experience, there’s a good chance that your adoption of servant leadership principles will go largely unnoticed, at least at first.  (Just don’t come in on Day One wearing an “I’m a Servant Leader” sweatshirt!) And while it’s certainly possible that other leaders will have doubts about the path you’ve chosen when they do take notice, as your team’s performance starts to take off, the results should overcome those doubts. Who knows…those other leaders may even start to follow your example. After all, as the saying goes, “The flame of a single candle can light a thousand others.”

But what if your fear turns out to be real? What if your boss just doesn’t get it, results notwithstanding? What if you’re basically told to “act like a leader,”  to “get tough,” and “take charge.” This is, unfortunately, a real possibility. And if it does happen, you’ll have to make a difficult choice. You’ll have to look deep into yourself, and ask whether you’re willing to be someone you don’t want to be in order to stick with that job and that organization. If the answer is no, in the end you may need to make a move. Maybe you can find someone to work for in the organization who seems more likely to see the wisdom of the servant leadership model. But maybe you’ll have to just get off the bus and move to another organization.

So—is there a risk in becoming a servant leader, if you work in a command and control organization? Sure, but being a leader always involves risk. How you handle risk is in fact what determines what kind of leader you are.

And that’s what it always comes down to: what kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of leader do you need to be in order to follow your true north?

As always, your thoughts are most welcome!



Java with Joe: Building a Winning Team

Like many of you, I’ve worked and played on many teams, right from the time I was young. Some of my happiest memories are of the athletic teams I played on, from elementary and high school right on to my four years on the football team at Northwestern University. And later, in my career as an HR practitioner in three very different industries…technology, health insurance, and healthcare delivery…I worked on, led, and supported a great many teams, some with just a few members working side by side in the same office, and others with thousands of members scattered across multiple countries.

So almost inevitably, I’ve spent a fair amount of time wrestling with the question of why some teams win and some don’t, why some consistently perform at a very high level and others always seem to come up short.  And my guess is that you’ve grappled with the same question yourself.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a ton of research into the subject of team performance.  Some of this work focuses on internal issues, such as member selection, role clarification, communication processes, and so forth. Some focuses on how teams interact with other entities inside and outside of their own parent organization.  And of course, much of it deals with what it takes to be an effective team leader.

It’s definitely worth digging into this rich body of literature, but for today, I’d like to keep it simple. So let’s start with the idea that good teams are made up of good team players.

In my experience, good team players share three essential attributes. First, they have humility. No matter how self-confident they are, they keep their ego in check. They are genuinely interested in more than their own success. Second, good team players are hungry, eager to step up to make a contribution and add greater value. They’re always thinking about and asking what they can do to make the team more successful. And third, they have emotional intelligence. No matter what their personality, no matter whether they’re naturally introverted or extroverted, they know how to connect with the other members of the team.

How can leaders build these qualities into their teams? Clearly, one step is to select team members who already possess those qualities. The problem here is that team leaders don’t always have complete control over the selection process, and even if they do, they may need to include some people on the team who aren’t as strong as they’d like in these areas but who possess other necessary skills and qualities. In that case, as a leader, you have to make it clear from the start that you expect everyone to behave in accordance with those qualities, then provide the necessary coaching, modeling, and recognition/reinforcement that shapes those behaviors.

Will this work? In my experience, most people can grow in these areas, but some just can’t. If and when their behavior becomes an obstacle to the team’s success…if for example, you have someone on the team whose ego keeps creating significant problems with the other members…you’ll have to manage that like any other performance problem, which may ultimately include asking those folks to step off the bus.

This gets us to the question of what it takes to be an effective team leader. The first point I want to make is that good team leaders are good team players. They’re humble, they’re hungry, and they’d score high on any test of emotional intelligence. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs on Servant Leadership,  you might note that the characteristics of a good team member that we’ve just listed are also key characteristics of servant leaders. By definition, servant leaders put others first. They see their role as doing whatever they can to help the other members of their organization develop their full potential and maximize their success.

More specifically, Larry Spears, the author of hundreds of articles and books on servant leadership, has identified 10 characteristics of a servant leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. It’s easy to see that many of these are variants or sub-sets of the three characteristics of a good team member that we’ve just listed.

OK, so if you want to be an effective team leader, you should practice being a good team member, which involves being humble, hungry, and using your emotional intelligence…all of which is closely related to being a servant leader.

Now, taking this discussion a step further, it seems clear that if you want to be an effective team leader, you also need to be clear about what characterizes a good team, as well as a good team member. Again let’s keep it simple.

I think the single most critical attribute of an effective team is trust. Trust among the team members, and trust between the members and the team leader(s). If that trust is lacking, fear will get in the way of the team’s performance. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of reaching out to ask for help. Fear of being blamed, even for problems not of the person’s own making. That kind of distrust and fear cramps a team’s engagement, creativity, and ability to collaborate. Inevitably, performance suffers.

So, as a leader, how do you build trust? In simple terms, you act as a Servant Leader. You commit yourself to helping your team members succeed; you put their interests and the interests of the organization ahead of your own. You respect the integrity of your team members. That means you set a high bar for their performance, but you give them room to grow, which in turn means that you allow them to exercise appropriate autonomy. And it means that even when people come up short…which they sometimes will…you treat the situation as an opportunity to learn, without pointing fingers.

What else? If you want to build the trust that’s so critical to a winning team, you never take credit for what others have accomplished. And you never reward or even allow others to do so.

Obviously, there’s much more to be said on this subject. But I hope this at least some food for thought. After all, much of the work that gets done in organizations small and large is done in a team setting. If we can make our teams 10%, 20%, 30% more effective, just think of how much more our organizations can achieve.

So what’s your definition of a winning team? How would you rate yourself in terms of humility, being hungry, and emotional intelligence? What are some immediate steps you can take to help build trust in your team?

Java with Joe: Lead from Where You Are…Make This Your Year

These days, many of our traditional ideas about leadership are changing. For example, if you think that the only people who really make a difference to an organization’s success are those at the top of the org chart, you might want to reconsider.

In today’s world, change…often technology driven…is constant and often (to use a cliché) disruptive. As a result, the pace of business has accelerated, and organizations have a pressing need for more timely decision making. In this environment, the traditional top down, bureaucratic, command and control model just doesn’t work as well as it once did. Which is why more and more organizations are coming to understand that decision making…and leadership in general…needs to be much more widely shared.

What this all means is that today’s business environment is loaded with opportunity for anyone willing to step up and lead!

Another idea about leadership that needs to change…one that’s related to the idea that organizations need to tap a much wider pool of leadership talent…is the idea that leaders need to be charismatic, larger than life people. That may have true at some point in the past, but today…not so much. As regular readers of this blog know, I believe strongly in Servant Leadership, which depends far less on personal charisma and personal glory than on a commitment to helping others succeed. Again, as regular readers will know, servant-led companies typically outperform their competitors on a wide array of critical metrics, which goes a long way toward explaining why Servant Leadership principles are being adopted by more and more organizations.

The point is that you don’t need a “big” persona to be an effective leader. And you don’t need a big title either. Not every leader has accepted this, of course, especially if they’ve got one of those high visibility positions in the org chart. And not every organization is ready to open the doors to a wider pool of leaders. But I think the tide is running against those people and those organizations. I think this is a great time for any one who aspires to help their organization succeed, anyone who truly wants to help the people around them succeed, to step up and be a leader.

If this is your year to take that step, what can you do to increase your chances of success? Here are a few ideas on that subject.

Embrace Who You Are.

Self- awareness and acceptance is absolutely critical to being an effective leader.  In my career, I’ve seen many people who are naturally introverted try to remake themselves into extroverts, in order to fit the model of the charismatic leader. This is a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, as I’ve already said, there’s plenty of room in today’s world for a different kind of leader. And second, trying to make yourself into something you’re not almost never works. So, if you’re more of an introvert, embrace that fact. (You might want to check out Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference by Jennifer Kahnweiler.) Leverage the strengths you have, like active listening, thoughtfulness, and cultivating relationships. Be yourself…or rather, be your best self!

Build Relationships Right Away.

Don’t wait until you need people’s help to seek others out. Get involved now. Ask people how you can help them succeed. You’ll make a lot of friends that way, and these friends will be there when you need them for support. And if you have some relationships that could use a little repair work, find a way to make that happen, and do it now. I’ve learned never to underestimate the power of an apology!

Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers.

Many people ask questions without really being interested in the answer. For these folks, the question is just an opening gambit, a way to set themselves up to take charge of the discussion. I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of thing more than a little annoying. The fact is that asking a good question and then really listening to the answer is a great way to expand your own knowledge and build a truly collaborative relationship with your colleagues. Most importantly, it’s a great way to uncover the best possible solution to important problems…and doing that is what makes you an effective leader.

Add People to Your Team Who Will Challenge You.

Effective leaders are wary of being trapped in a bubble of their own making. It’s much easier and much more comfortable to surround yourself with people who see things your way. That may even make it easier to come to quick decisions…but it won’t necessarily lead to the best decisions. To get outside of the bubble and get the variety of perspectives necessary to effective decision making, you need a few people on your team who are willing and able to challenge you and push you. If you really want to increase your team’s creativity, you need to add some people who can play devil’s advocate.  If you don’t have those people on your team now, go find some…and in the meantime, reach out to some people outside of your team and ask them for feedback and suggestions about your ideas.

Take the Initiative.

As I’ve said in previous blogs, if you’re a leader at any level, you need to remember that you’re the CEO of your own organization, no matter how large or how small. What you do can make a difference not only to your own organization but to others. But that assumes that you take action, that you speak up, that you do what you can, when you can.

In that regard, I love this quote from Polly Labarre, founding member of Fast Company: “We have got to get past the bias in business that says big change only comes from big leaders. The most world changing innovation often starts very small.”

So…is this the year you step up and lead from where you are?

As you get ready to take that step, here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself:

How comfortable are you with your strengths and weaknesses? What should you work on?

What relationships do you need to build or rebuild? What steps might you take to get started?





Java with Joe: 7 Non-Defenses to Workplace Harassment 

This may be the Holiday season, but there’s nothing joyous or jolly about the virtually daily news stories recounting how women have been and continue to be harassed and preyed upon in the workplace. The only thing worth celebrating in those stories is the fact that women are feeling more comfortable (which probably isn’t exactly the right word) in speaking out on this issue. As a result, maybe we’ve reached a cultural inflection point—one of those moments when something in the culture changes so much that the old ways of thinking and acting are simply no longer sustainable. Maybe.

In any case, it seemed to me that this might be a good time to reflect on how each of us, as managers, should react when dealing with a case of workplace harassment. Aside from the fact that the issue is so much in the news right now, there’s the fact that this is also the season of the office Holiday party—an occasion that often seems to stimulate some people to drink too much and think too little, with a corresponding increase in inappropriate behavior toward their colleagues.

So, with that in mind, here are seven “non-defenses” that are often used to justify or excuse incidents of sexual harassment.  While harassment issues are often complicated and often require consultation with more senior leaders, HR, and perhaps the legal department, as managers—at any level of the organization—we are the first line of defense. We have an obligation to set the cultural tone and make it clear that we want and will insist on a work environment in which all of our people feel safe.

Ok, so now let’s take a quick look at some of the arguments you may run into when you’re confronted with inappropriate behavior.

  1. There’s no law against what I did.

Just because certain behaviors don’t rise to the level where they could be prosecuted doesn’t mean that they should be tolerated in the workplace. Most employers have policies that prohibit unacceptable conduct—behavior that is sexually suggestive, explicit, or otherwise inappropriate, even if it may not reach the level of a criminal act. Deal with that kind of behavior right away, by making it absolutely clear that your company expects—that you expect and will enforce—a standard of conduct that may be higher than the standard required by law.

  1. It happened after work, offsite, and off the clock.

Irrelevant. Workplace harassment is actually not limited to the workplace. The organization can be held liable for harassment that occurs at company-sponsored social events, and even in environments wholly independent of work, such as if a supervisor calls someone at home and asks for sex.  It’s the inappropriate behavior that matters, not where it occurs.

  1. I had no bad intent.

This is another irrelevant “non-defense,” because again, it’s the behavior that counts. Just because an employee acts without malice or ill does not mean that the behavior is OK. The law is very clear on this. Individuals do not need to intentionally make someone uncomfortable for the behavior to be considered unacceptable or illegal.

  1. The person never complained before about what I was doing.

Again, irrelevant. Individuals often wait to report something until it becomes a pattern, or until other circumstances make them feel better able to speak up. In the current environment, many women have spoken very eloquently on this subject.  The point is that just because someone doesn’t immediately report behavior that they find unacceptable doesn’t make that behavior acceptable. As leaders—and just as caring, compassionate human beings—we need to be clear about this in our own minds, and we need to act accordingly.

  1. It was only a joke!

There’s plenty of room for humor at work, but there’s nothing humorous about remarks that in any way target someone’s race, gender, or religion. This is again behavior that is simply unacceptable in the workplace, and as the CEO of your own organization, however large or small, you need to address it firmly and directly, whether or not the offended party voices a complaint.

  1. The harasser is one of my top performers.

My personal experience, and I suspect yours as well, is that employers are far more likely to discount bad behavior when the person involved is a senior leader or a top performer. But I firmly believe that we need to hold these people to an even higher standard than other employees because of their visibility and influence. From a moral and ethical perspective, this double standard is just wrong. And from an organizational perspective, it breeds cynicism about the organization’s values, undermines employee engagement, and ultimately has a negative impact on performance. As a leader, you can’t avoid the fact that what you do and do not tolerate has a tremendous effect on your organization’s culture—and on your own credibility as a leader.

  1. The behavior was not unwelcome.

The fact that someone didn’t resist a particular behavior doesn’t mean that the behavior was welcome. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the person’s response was truly consensual. Regardless of the legal issues involved in “he said, she said” situations, and being mindful of the need to respect the rights of all the parties involved, this is yet another case where you and your organization need to enforce a higher standard of conduct.

Going beyond compliance to service. One last note. All leaders have an obligation to comply with—and ensure that their people comply with— their organization’s code of conduct and harassment policies, and more broadly, with all harassment-related legal requirements. But I believe we all have an additional, higher obligation—a deep-seated responsibility to consistently behave like servant leaders, doing everything we can to help the people in our organizations thrive both personally and professionally. If we keep that obligation in mind, we’ll intuitively know how to respond to inappropriate behavior when it occurs, and more importantly, we’ll be taking steps every day to keep that behavior from happening in the first place.

So, as you examine your role within your organization, here are some questions to consider:

  1. What am I doing on a regular basis to create a safe work environment in my organization? What am I doing to specifically make it safe for people to come forward with complaints?
  2. What about my own behavior? Do I ever, consciously or unconsciously, behave in ways that could be construed as harassment?
  3. Am I prepared to speak truth to power on the issue of harassment? Have I done so in the past? If not, why not?


Java with Joe: Choose to Succeed

Successful leaders may have different styles, and different approaches to decision making, communications, and every other aspect of their role, but they all have good judgment, confidence, and the ability to inspire others. They challenge the current state, and they know how to get things done. You would think that these core qualities and skills would pretty much ensure success in any situation.

And yet, it’s not uncommon for once successful, high profile leaders to flame out at the top. I spent much of my career at Digital Equipment Corporation, where Ken Olsen, the company’s founder and CEO, built “DEC” into a $14B leader in the computer industry. He created a company culture with a highly engaged workforce that delivered outstanding products and best in class customer service. In 1992, Fortune Magazine named him one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs.   And yet, just five years later, the Board asked him to step down as the company went through a tremendous downsizing before being acquired by Compaq.

So what causes a successful leader to sometimes fail?

Sometimes it’s a case of a leader who is, in effect, a “one trick pony.” In the technology world it’s certainly not uncommon for someone to start a company, create a breakthrough product, attract funding—and then prove incapable of actually building a sustainable business. And it’s not uncommon for someone who has been wildly successful growing a company to move on to a struggling organization and fail miserably at leading a successful turnaround.

Some of you may remember Billy Martin, who many years ago managed the New York Yankees. Known for his fiery personality as a player, he was first hired to get the young players on a losing team to believe in themselves—which he did. But then, as the players matured, the same extreme style that motivated them became unbearable to them, and Billy was fired by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Of course, the rest of the story is the when the Yankees started losing again, George rehired Billy to turn things around. Then the same pattern occurred and George had to fire him again. In fact, this same pattern of hiring Billy, winning, and then firing him because his players outgrew his style, happened four times!

While it’s certainly true that some leaders are essentially “built” to succeed only in certain circumstances, I think there’s a broader explanation worth examining. According to Barry Z Posner, author of The Leadership Challenge, “The Achilles heel of all leaders is believing they will never fail…” Or, to reach back into the sports world, again, here’s a great quote by Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners: “There is another side [to ego] that can wreck a team or an organization.  That is being distracted by your own importance. Ego… makes people insensitive to how they work with others and it ends up interfering with the real goal of any group efforts.”

In other words, it’s easy for leaders—and especially highly successful leaders— to start thinking that they have it all figured out, that they know more than anybody else about just about everything that affects their business. When this happens, they may become caught up in doing things their own way, to the point where they stop listening to others, especially when what those others are saying contradicts their own gut instinct and argues that change is necessary.

I can’t say that for sure that this is what happened to Ken Olsen. But the fact is that Ken was slow in recognizing that the personal computer would revolutionize how computing was done by the large organizations that were DEC’s customers. And he was definitely slow in seeing that the personal computer would become as common as the telephone or the television, in the process totally transforming the dynamics of the computer industry in which DEC had for so long been a leader. I’m sure there were people at DEC urging Ken to get ahead of this huge tsunami of change—and I can only assume that he didn’t listen.

Why should he? After all, he had built a $14B company.

It’s not easy to see that things have changed and you may not have it right anymore. It must be even harder when for a long time you’ve been successful doing it your way. It takes an ability to be really honest with yourself, to admit that you don’t know all the answers, and to have the confidence to reach out to your people, ask them for honest feedback, and engage them in becoming part of the solution.

If you want to develop this capacity for self-understanding, you can start by engaging in management reflection—time when you consciously step away from your busy schedule filled with day to day responsibilities and devote yourself to thinking deeply about your own strengths and weaknesses, about how you react when you make mistakes or encounter difficult situations. I firmly believe that is, as leaders, we take the time and do the hard work of becoming more self-aware, we have a much better change of not getting too locked into our old ways of doing things.

As leaders, we can choose —and I do believe that this is, or at least can be, a choice—to be open to new ways of thinking and behaving.

Let me know what you think.

How would you categorize your strengths? Are they useful in every situation? How often do you ask for feedback and act on the input you receive?


Java with Joe: Get Powerful—With Positive Power and Influence

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that leadership is one of its frequent topics. What constitutes good leadership? How does an individual develop the qualities necessary to be a good leader? How does an organization support good leadership?

Whether explicitly or implicitly, discussions about leadership often seem to involve the question of power. That’s because, whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we often think of power as the power to do something—the capacity to get others to do what we want them to do, to exert control, to deliver results. These connotations of power imply the ability to coerce, and that’s not something everyone is comfortable with.

Personally, I like to think of power in a different way. Rather than think of it as a form of control over others, I like to think of power in two ways. First, there’s power over myself—the power that comes with self-discipline, with self-awareness, with persistence and passion. And second, there’s power as the ability to help others succeed, to deliver results not by driving others but by enabling others. Whether you call this Servant Leadership, Values-driven Leadership, Level-5 Leadership, or anything else, it comes down to something quite different from power as the ability to coerce.

As I’ve said before, there’s nothing “soft” about this kind of power. In their book on “Servant Led” companies, James Sipe and Don Frick compared the ROI of 11 publicly held, servant-led companies to the 11 “great” companies in Jim Collins’ Good to Great, as well as to the pre-tax return of the 500 largest public companies in the US. Over a 10-year period, the servant-led companies significantly outperformed the others.

This kind of power—the power that comes from self-awareness and self-discipline, the power to succeed by helping others succeed—this kind of power is values-based. It depends on a leader’s being committed to and consistently acting on the basis of values such as humility, empathy, caring for others, listening, persuasion, and true collaboration.

But here’s something I find quite interesting. In hiring situations, and also when I’m asked to come in and help an organization achieve higher levels of engagement, I often ask people, “What are your values and how were they shaped?” And whether I’m talking to front line employees or C-suite executives, it’s amazing how few people can answer that question.  Even after taking some time to think it over, they really seem to have trouble coming up with anything solid, in the sense that they can actually explain what they mean by a given value, and talk about when and how they’ve demonstrated it.

That’s a problem. If you don’t know what values are most important to you, how can you assess whether you’re living by them? How can you decide whether they’re likely to make you the kind of leader—the kind of person—you aspire to be? How can you look at an organization and decide whether you’ll be a good fit?

Most of all, how much more powerful, in the best sense of the word, would you be as a leader if you were clear about your values?

And by the way, the less aware you are of your own values, the more likely you are to say one thing and do another. How many leaders have you encountered who say that they value collaboration when most of the time they act as if the only opinion that really matters is theirs? Believe me, when you fall into this trap, the people around you will notice—and they’ll be much less likely as a result to trust you, respect you, and yes, follow you.

What it comes down to is that having high levels of self-awareness around your values can be the groundwork for becoming a very powerful person, in the best sense of the word.

So, here are a few questions to consider. When was the last time you took a hard look at yourself in order to be able to articulate your values and how they were shaped? Have you ever shared your values with your team and have they every had the chance to share theirs with you? Is there anything holding you back from doing the above?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.


When the last, seemingly endless, presidential campaign finally came to a close, I think most of us—regardless of our feelings about the results—could at least agree on one thing: “We’re all glad it’s over!”  Most of us were exhausted by the frequently nasty rhetoric that threatened to permanently divide us from friends and family.  I assumed, like many, that after the inauguration we’d begin to feel better about each other again.

Clearly I was wrong. We’re now six months plus into the new administration, and passions remain as high as ever. Sadly, in some cases the nastiness has even turned violent. There is certainly a desire by many for political civility and constructive dialogue in the country today, but the truth is that that goal has never seemed harder to achieve.

As many people have pointed out, part of the problem is that we can’t even seem to agree on the basic facts involved with any issue. It’s one thing to come at the facts from different perspectives, but if you can’t even agree on what those facts are, there’s not much chance that you’ll engage in anything resembling a constructive dialogue.  There was a time when most of us trusted journalists like Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley to give us the facts, but that time is long past.

Much as I think the term “fake news” is overused, there’s no doubt that some of what passes for news is inaccurate, biased, even just made up. In other words, some of the news that gets pushed our way is indeed “fake,” and I think some of that comes from both ends of the political spectrum. And of course, sometimes even the most well-intentioned journalists make mistakes. They’re under more pressure than ever to get their stories into the ever accelerating news cycle, and that can lead to mistakes.

The problem is that in the current political climate, stories that are simply not true—whether because of an honest mistake or because of biased intent—those stories all too often get embedded in people’s thinking, even after they’ve been corrected.  In other words we can all fall into the trap of believing what we want to believe. It’s almost as if we’re saying, “Don’t bother me with the facts,” which again is not an attitude that’s likely to lead to constructive dialogue.

It turns out to be pretty easy for any of us to grab hold of a story that just seems to be true, because it supports a position or viewpoint that we already hold. And of course, in today’s fragmented media environment, it’s also easy to find tons of “information” that seems to support any case or viewpoint we want to manufacture.

I certainly don’t have an easy solution to all of this, although I suspect we’d all be better off if we reminded ourselves periodically that “Some stories are just too good to be true.”(My father—who read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Youngstown Vindicator every day—used to say that all the time.)  But I do think that if we really want to engage constructively with our fellow citizens (which of course is a big if), we need to at least try to identify the core assumptions and even biases that we bring to our own thinking. But that’s not easy to do: some things make so much sense to us that it’s hard to look at them and question where the information came from in the first place!  We should probably be especially careful when something we read or hear fits seamlessly with what we all believe. Again, some stories are just too good to be true.

All this being said, there’s a lot to be said for today’s spirited political debates. Our history shows we are not strangers to deep political disagreement.  But in today’s divided climate, civil discussions demand that we not only hold high standards of others, but also of ourselves.  So with that in mind, what if we gave the following steps a try:

  1. Find at least one person whose political and social perspective is different from ours, but who shares a desire to get some constructive dialogue going.
  2. As we engage in this dialogue, examine our own biases and at least try to identify some set of core facts, ideas, and values on which we can agree. It’s also helpful to at least clarify, acknowledge, and maybe set aside for another day the things on which we agree to disagree.
  3. Question and make a real effort to verify every easy claim, including (and perhaps especially) those that come from sources we’re most inclined to believe.

Do I think any of this is easy? No. And even if we go through this process of self-examination, will it be easy to change someone else’s position? There’s a ton of research that shows that the answer to that question is also a resounding No.  But do I think it’s worth making the effort? Absolutely.

That said, here are a couple of interesting points taken from an article in the Washington Post last year on “How to change someone’s mind, according to science”:

The research suggests that using specific examples is a big help (in changing someone’s opinion). Successful arguments use the phrases “for example” [and] “for instance” more often.

….hedging – using language like “it could be the case” – is actually associated with more persuasive arguments. While hedging can signal a weaker point of view, the researchers say that it can also make an argument easier to accept by softening its tone.

The bottom line for me is that I believe firmly that we’d be better off as individuals, as citizens, as business leaders if we made the effort to engage in a constructive dialogue on the issues that divide us, even though the chances of our changing one another’s minds are limited.  Whether it’s in a business, political, or even a personal context, I think we absolutely must do everything we can to communicate with and listen to one another.

As always your thoughts and reactions are welcome……

Java with Joe: Slow down to go fast!

My mother was a very wise person, but she never could really understand what I actually did as an HR executive. We were talking about this one day, after I’d had a tough conversation helping a senior manager understand that his newly acquired MBA wouldn’t result in an immediate promotion, and I said, “Basically, Mom, I help people manage their expectations.” Her immediate response was, “Now that I understand! People get really upset when their expectations are not met, even when those expectations were probably unrealistic in the first place.”

I’ve certainly found that to be true when it comes to helping organizations develop higher levels of employee engagement. In fact, some of the hardest work I’ve done over the years is helping executives manage their expectations around change in this area. Most executives see themselves as problem solvers. They take pride in scoping a problem, identifying the root causes, and executing a solution. Then it’s on to the next problem. This mindset is reinforced by the fact that so many organizations remain  focused on short-term/quarterly results­—and reward leaders who deliver them.

But, while transforming an organization from dis-engaged to engaged will produce immense long-term value, it doesn’t typically include immediate positive results. The fact is that this kind of transformation requires significant culture change, and culture change is rarely, if ever, a quick fix. An organization’s culture is made up of a complex web of attitudes, emotions, behaviors, and institutional memories, and that complexity makes significant change hard to achieve and even harder to sustain.

In other words, it takes time to build an engaged enterprise, and the more disengaged the organization, the longer it takes. Unfortunately, that fact is hard to accept for “can do” executives whose expectations for rapid improvement in the engagement status quo are not immediately met. Not surprisingly, these folks tend to get frustrated when the organization invests time, effort, and resources in solving the organization’s “engagement problem,” only to have its engagement scores move just a few points or maybe even stay flat—not just for one or two quarters, but possibly even for a year or two. When that happens, as it often does, the response can be, “You (the HR leader) got the strategy wrong.” Or, “Maybe the data’s wrong. We should find a new survey vendor.” Or, “Maybe we need a new initiative of some sort that will make people happy.”

I encountered this at Cleveland Clinic when after the first year of our engagement initiative our engagement scores remained totally flat…and the CEO told me that this was the worst news he had heard in five years! The good news is that he agreed to stay the course, so we worked even harder to help leaders at every level focus on engagement, and continued to roll out programs that resonated with our employees. The following year we had a big spike in our engagement scores and momentum finally started to build for long-term improvement.

In my experience, managing expectations is critical to the success of any major culture change initiative. You need to help the organization’s leaders understand that it takes time to overcome the skepticism and even outright cynicism that many employees feel when the organization starts talking about engagement. You also need to help them understand that a successful engagement initiative will typically involve considerable experimentation: promising ideas for new engagement-related programs need to be “socialized” first with managers and employees, then tested using a kind of rapid prototyping approach in which you try the program, get employee feedback, tweak it and get more feedback until it works. That all takes time.

Much of that time involves planning. When you look at organizations that have won the coveted Baldrige Award for quality, what you find is that their leaders typically spend as much as 65%-70% of their time planning. In other words, they “slow down to go fast.”

They lay out a framework for change. They build a coalition and support for that change, which is socialized around the organization. They are clear about who will play what role in executing the change initiative, and they make sure those people have the necessary skills and experience to do so successfully. And when the strategy or particular programs need to be adjusted or recalibrated…and that’s almost always the case—the leaders make the necessary adjustments and stay the course.

The bottom line is that if you view building engagement as a matter of banging out a basically tactical solution to a straightforward problem, and if you expect to see positive results quickly, you’re probably going to be disappointed. And when those unrealistic expectations are not met, it will be hard not to just reach for another tactic…which will not give you those quick positive results either.  Even worse, the decision may be to drop the whole initiative and move on to another problem.

There’s another possibility too. Your initiative may actually generate a quick bump in your engagement scores, just because you’re doing something different. In that case, your leaders may decide that the problem is solved, and again decide that it’s ok to move on to another issue.

Either way, you’re only going to increase the level of skepticism, cynicism, and disengagement in your organization.

So, do the hard work of setting realistic expectations—for yourself and your colleagues. Take the time to make a plan, socialize the changes you decide to make, and ask for, listen to, and act on your employee’s input at every step in the process. Slow down to go fast…and you’ll come out way ahead!