The Leaders Notebook

Hard questions, ambiguity and opinion for leaders

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Blog Housekeeping- And the Cost of Free Services

September 22nd, 2012 · Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

There is an action step needed for those of you who are reading here based on an RSS feed.  If you get my postings via email- then no action is needed.  But there is also powerful cautionary tail here about the value of “free” in the internet economy. So- action step first- then the story.

If you subscribe by RSS, please go to your RSS reader and unsubscribe.  Then go to and click on the RSS icon to re-subscribe.  As usual, you will have to tell the system your preferred RSS reader.  That’s all!

If you subscribe by mail- no action is needed.  If you are on RSS, you will continue to get my postings until Feedburner discontinues services- something that is likely to happen without notice.

A Cautionary Tale About Free Services on the Internet

I moved from newsletters and other, primarily outbound forms of writing a few years ago.  To me, an RSS subscription was the ultimate way to ensure that those who wanted to read my work could do so, and that those who were not interested any longer could unsubscribe anonymously.  If you need a primer about RSS- have a look at this YouTube video.

Like many new bloggers, I went to the most trusted name for establishing RSS services- Feedburner.  Feedburner would allow a new subscriber to decide if they preferred an email when a new posting was up- or – that content sent to an RSS reader- a choice that I as publisher wanted you to have.  The timeline since has been rocky.  I will spare you the gory details since if you care about them you likely already know them.

In short, Google acquired Feedburner and integrated it into their suite of free apps.  You could here the collective cheer of bloggers everywhere!  But alas, it was not to be the rosy future we thought.  Mail services were taken down, with a promise of return after they were improved.  None have been reinstated in the 5 years since.  Google has slowly provided less and less support- now none.  Many bloggers (yours truly included) no longer have access to their feeds to manage preferences or migration, based on Google’s method of migrating the feed into the business apps package.  It is now clear that Google is abandoning Feedburner, and the associated content feeds to the chaos of the completely unmanaged web.  See this article for more details.  Full disclosure: The article is written by a competitor service that I use, but the facts presented are pretty potent.  In fact, Google simply took down, leaving those who published there (or subscribed there) without access to their information or the ability to migrate their services.

Granted, unless you are in the web publishing business, an RSS feed is probably not mission critical.  But there is an important lesson here about depending on services offered for free.  The early days of the internet were a rush for “eyeballs”, sticky content and page feeds.  Free was good because it drove volume.  But Google is not the only service provider to wake up to expenses that were ever growing for a product that provided only ancillary percentages of ad revenue.  Free supported the default dot-com strategy of “Get big fast”- but is not sustainable as big becomes a reality.

This week, Google had a glitch in their metrics engine and all Feedburner users suddenly had subscriber counts of zero.  It was cold comfort to know that the subscribers were still there- but that the publisher had no visibility into traffic.  Although there has been a promise to repair the issue, no ETA has been provided.  If they are on the same timeline as bringing back mail options, you will see publishers leaving in droves.

So, without access to my feed, I have to ask you, those of you who subscribe over RSS, to cancel your current subscription and re-subscribe.  It is an opportunity to review the quality of the writing and decide if you want to take the 30 seconds or so needed to reset your subscription.  This is not a bad test for a web publisher to go through.  If the writing is not good enough- the content not useful, then the effort is not worthwhile.  In that way at least, free (as my blog and 99.999% on the internet are) is a good test- but it is a test for me, not for you.

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Would You Put Your Life on the Line to Lead?

August 1st, 2012 · Follow the Leaders, Playing a Bigger Game

Telegraph photo of Tahmina Kohstani

Telegraph photo of Tahmina Kohstani

Tahmina Kohistani is not likely to win any medals.  Her best time in the 100 yard dash is 3 seconds off the championship pace- and she will not have the advantage of running in shorts and an athletic shirt.  She is the lone female athlete from Afghanistan.  The fact that she is in London, despite the vitriol and abuse she suffered through training is a testament to her courage, and that of her coach.

For those of us who blog in the business world about leadership, it is easy to forget that most real leadership happens outside of corporate meeting rooms and factory floors.  And there have been hundreds, if not thousands of entries about leadership lessons from the Olympic games- most examining dedication, focus and discipline  Here however is a story of courage and attitude. For all the complaining and political brouhaha about the games- perhaps they are still worthwhile if only for stories like this.

Think you know something about courage and dedication?  Read this story in the London Telegraph.

There are other controversy’s about women athletes as some are competing who do not have the skill as a matter of inclusion for women.  There is a heated debate about Saudi women competing in the judo competition that centers not only on their junior skills, but the impact of a headscarf on safety and competitive fairness.  But given that they are from a country where most women are not allowed to participate in or even watch sports, I count it a victory that the discussions are even taking place.

I tend to stay away from social issues and politics here- except as they relate to issues of leadership.  But here is proof positive that a suit, title, corner office or even an Olympic medal is not necessary to lead.

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A Constructive Use for Fear

March 19th, 2012 · Playing a Bigger Game, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

Fear can be a powerful motivator.   But how it is used tells us a lot about a leader.  There have been a number of leaders (both fictional and real) who were masters at using fear and intimidation to get results.

Have a look at the YouTube clip to the right.  Talk about emotional intelligence!  You only need to see the look on the commander’s face before Vader even gets off the ship  to know how well Vader uses fear and intimidation to his advantage.  His value systems may be in question, but Darth Vader is very aware of the power of fear.  The rest of the clip does nothing to improve his image.  The problem with this kind of leadership is that it is not sustainable and creates enormous organization damage in the wake of successful delivery.

Luckily, the web has provided us with a more positive version of using fear as a motivator, in the form of a fourth grader with a helmet cam on her first ski jump.  If you have not seen this video, which has been a viral hit on the web, I suggest you have a look.  It is much more uplifting and hopefully more instructive than the first.

In his famous gothic novel, Dracula, Bram Stoker gives us a memorable statement about starting change.  His character, Abraham Van Helsing, says to Jonathan Harker, a man facing a very unpleasant and frightening task, “…a moment’s courage and it is done.”  Listening to what sounds like the parental coaching for this courageous young girl at the top of the hill, I can imagine lots of way for this to go wrong.  But the parents (or coaches- whoever the adults were) did not pressure the kid.  Something in her wanted to go and was working its way to the surface.  Her desire to go was larger and in the end more powerful than her fear.  You can even here her rational mind try to provide distraction by ask questions about the slope and the process.  Inherently she knew that it took a moment of bravery to start the process- and then there would be no stopping it.

Perhaps most instructive of all was how this young skier, once committed to a very intimidating experience, kept her cool and remembered her coaching to make a successful and safe first jump.  And notice how quickly her fear turned to excitement and pride.  We do not know how her second time will go, but in the moment it is hard to view the video without wanting to celebrate with her.

Leaders face these moments every day.  The high-risk path is not always the high reward path.  Neither is the safe path always a cop out.  And the ability to tell the difference is critical. To recognize a major challenge, one that generates fear and trepidation but also is the clear growth step, and channel the fear into a moment’s courage is a critical capacity for leaders.  Unfortunately, few of those major steps forward are dealt with in 15 seconds or so of adrenaline.  Organizational leaders must often make the big decision that will obligate their company to years of change and challenge.  The dot-com run up showed us how much adrenaline can drive those decisions- as did the run up to the real estate melt down.

But the leader who can set aside the use of fear as a motivating factor for others while channeling his or her own fear and focusing on the rewards and risks will have courage to sustain the enterprise through a longer, if no less intense, organizational change.  Better to say “A moment’s courage and it is started- then we have to stay present and focused all the way to the end.”

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Is it a Dream or a Vision?

January 23rd, 2012 · Follow the Leaders, Great Questions, Organizations at Their Best

It is that time of year again.  The crowds at the gym and walking paths have begun to thin from their Jan 3 crowd levels.  The meetings about new goals and objectives are receding and the day to day work of execution is moving back to center stage.  Airplanes have fewer holiday travelers and more of business travelers as we all go to work on making those visions for the new year realities.  But what of those who are already NOT at the gym?  What about those of us whose good intentions for a new way of living or a new business goal or a major process change are already being reabsorbed into the inertia of how we have always done things?  Often the culprit can be found in the difference between dreams and vision.

I do not want to hate on dreams here.  Dreams are important.  They provide a brief connection to a hoped for future that is usually very different from our current reality- and our current trajectory.  But dreams are fleeting and as soon as we wake up or change focus, current reality asserts itself powerfully, in the form of an overfull inbox, a pipeline report or distribution analysis.  When we promise ourselves a dream without doing the work of turning it into a powerful, sustainable vision, we set ourselves up to be part of the 99% whose resolutions and new business plans are done by February 1.

So instead of writing about resolutions this year, I am offering some ways that a vision is different from a dream.

A Vision is Future Focused – One way we turn our dreams into visions is to focus on what we want, instead of what we do not want.  My colleague and friend David Emerald at the Power of TED talks about this in terms of outcomes.  And one of his most refining questions is “How will I know that I have what I want when I have it?”  The not-so-subtle shift to focusing on how life will be different when I have what I want is a not-so-sneaky way we set ourselves up to earn the rewards.  Whether it is the fact that I will be able to wear my skinny jeans or that my global customer base will demonstrate their renewed loyalty with orders and timely payment- focusing on the recognizable benefits of the outcome helps us remember why we are engaged in the struggle.

A Vision Includes a Game Plan– Whether I am the only person involved in the change, or thousands are impacted and therefor have influence on how things go, one way to distinguish dreams from visions is that visions include a road map for how the new future will be brought into being.  One staple of the offsite retreat is to give a group of people a seemingly impossible task.  The facilitator says clearly what the outcome is and provides all the raw materials, but provides no insight as to how to undertake the task.  Usually, frustration and anger ensue before the evening is out.  The apparent impossibility of the task creates distraction from the design of a solution.  Invariably participants start looking for a trick in the instructions.  In short, they are unwilling to consider that it is possible and therefor are distracted from finding a way to execute.  A vision includes sufficient understanding about how the idea will become real, be integrated into business as usual and overcome the obstacles in the way to create some confidence that it is possible.  Otherwise, the focus of those not fiercely dedicated to the change is on its impossibility.

A Vision has Appropriate Resource – It is easy to think of money here- but money is the easy part.  Resource comes in many forms.  Program and change leaders with sufficient organizational influence to get the cooperation of those who will be impacted is a critical resource.  Endorsement with more than words and budget from the senior-most levels impacted by the change is also critical.  The right match of skills to the challenges that the change team will face- and the ability to change makeup as the challenges change contributes resource.  Perhaps the most frequently overlooked resource is full disclosure about the number of organizational, process or cultural “sacred cows” that will need to be grilled for the company picnic to see the vision become reality.  For this reason, I recommend to clients that projects NOT be formally launched until after the planning phase is complete.  It is easy to be optimistic about making a change real when I have only focused on the dream.  And it is equally easy to kill off a dream on the altar of how difficult (impossible?) it will be to execute.  Having full disclosure on both makes a decision to go forward or not more informed, more credible and more inspiring if the decision is to go.

Here is a very personal example.

I got it in my head last year to do a through hike of the Ouachita Trail this spring (It is 223 miles through Oklahoma and Arkansas wilderness).  The dream was easy.  Thoughts of idyllic days in the woods, enjoying the cool spring weather and solitude in nature made the idea all the more attractive.  I could imagine myself arriving at the eastern trail head that is near my home after the 2 plus weeks being greeted by family and friends and how I would feel knowing that I had accomplished the feat.  it became even more compelling when I thought to do it as a fund raiser for some of the charitable organizations I support.  But the dream took on new meaning when I began to examine the amount of equipment I would need.  And although I have been walking regularly, my first experience with even a lightly weighted pack made the amount of training I would have to do to be in shape for such a trip evident in a way that only sore hips and lower back can.  Planning my calendar so that I can be truly out of touch for that time introduced more challenge.  I have more to do to be certain I truly understand what will be required to make this trip work.  In the end, the desire to make the trip will have to outweigh the expense, pain and change that will be needed in how I live day to day- or I will have to admit that it is just a dream and let it go.

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A Surgeon’s view of Coaching

November 1st, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, Playing a Bigger Game

New Yorker Magazine ran this article on coaching in their October 3 issue.  It is surprising for a few reasons, not least of which is that it is written not by a coach but by a surgeon.  Realizing the importance of continuous improvement, he decided to find someone to observe his work and then engage with him about how to get better.  This despite the fact that he was considered at the top of his profession.

The article is long, tracing through the doctor’s thinking process about engaging a coach. as well as his experience working with the one he chose- not all of it easy or comfortable.  For those considering working with a coach or wondering why anyone would ever want to engage one- this is a great article.  The title under the article’s lead art says it well: “No matter how well trained people are, few can sustain their best performance on their own. That’s where coaching comes in.”

And, for my fellow coaches, there are some wise and interesting points that may run against what is considered dogmatic for those of us who earn our living as professional coaches.

  • In most coaching engagements, we get little time to observe our clients actually working.  Our information comes from, and is filtered by, our client or perhaps from stakeholders we check in with from time to time.  The author’s view of his coach was primarily as outside and objective eyes and ears that could observe first hand.
  • By sitting in during surgery, the author’s coach could share observations about what he saw, and the impact of those things that drew his attention.  The examples in the article make it obvious that the coach was not just a smart guy and disciplined observer, but someone with enough familiarity with his client’s field of expertise to be able to be specific, to the point and informed.  This is a hot debate in the coaching world.  Psychologists and personal coaches will often claim that executive or leadership coaching is no different from more personal forms of coaching.  But a coach who has no familiarity with the environment in which his or her client works is limited in the topics s/he would even know to watch for or notice.
  • Lastly, the coach’s expertise is not left out of the conversation with the author.  Strict coaching convention often argues that answers and solutions must come from the client; however, that also limits even incremental improvements to those that a client can see for themselves.

I found this a wonderful example of true partnership in service to improving the work of a professional who already had mastery in his field.

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Lessons from the Arts Community

October 19th, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, Organizations at Their Best

This week, I attended the Arkansas Arts Council awards banquet.  I thought I was there to honor Martin and Melissa Thoma as they accepted their award for Corporate Sponsorship of the Arts in recognition of the tremendous amount they do both personally, and in services in kind.  Governor Beebe was entertaining and on point as always.  I was happy for my friends and their well deserved recognition.  What I did not expect was to get a lesson in leadership.

Nicole Capri, Resident Director and Director of Education at The Rep was recognized in the Arts in Education Category.  In her acceptance remarks, she thanked and credited her teacher and mentor, Joel Ruminer– which was already a nice touch.  I may have been the only person in the room who did not know it, but Joel is evidently an icon in the dance community who Gregory Hines once recognized as the best tap teacher he ever met.  In her acknowledgement, Nicole shared with the packed house the wisdom she got from Joel just before she taught her first tap class:

  • Be very specific.  Tell them exactly what you want.
  • Never apologize for expecting excellence.
  • And, don’t forget to tell them when they did a good job!

Not a bad mantra for leaders in all fields.

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Become A Leader Virtual Leadership Conference

September 17th, 2011 · Follow the Leaders, Organizations at Their Best, Playing a Bigger Game, Thoughts on Life and Leadership

I was not planning to start blogging again until October; however, I want anyone reading to have access to the inaugural Become a Leader virtual leadership conference.  Information on BALO and the resources offered are that the preceding link.  This is an amazing undertaking that is designed to make the kind of serious leadership development capacity that larger firms have available to smaller and not for profit organizations.  Go wander the site, have a look at the blogs and other presenters.  Then follow the link below for information about the BALO conference.

This series is being offered free of charge thanks to a partnership with Polycomm- but space is limited.  the link below will take you to a web invitation, courtesy of MyBrainshark with all the details.

Click here for a web introduction and invitation

OK- back to my extended summer hiatus.  I will be blogging actively again in October.

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PonderThis: What Do You Reward?

July 22nd, 2011 · Organizations at Their Best, PonderThis

What does the way a leader rewards employees say about the organization?  Rewards are powerful, no matter what behavior we are rewarding- or why!  Have a look at the two video’s this week from major league baseball games.

First have a look at this kid who managed to get rewarded for sulking, anger and selfishness.  He is just a kid being a kid.  It is not surprising to see this kind of response.  But instead of this being an opportunity to learn about how to deal with unhappiness and disappointment, adults watching from a distance need to rescue him from his own feelings, teaching a very different lesson.

Now, click this link to see what happens to a fan at a recent Brewers/ Diamondbacks game  You will have to scroll down the page to see the video.

Three things caught my eye as instructive here:

We reinforce behavior with rewards. A reward for poor behavior is equally as powerful as a reward recognizing positive behavior (and sometimes more so).  What do we reinforce in an organization when poor performance is rewarded.  Usually it happens in an attempt to encourage or relieve a boss from the need to have a more challenging conversation.  Sometimes, it is a wink wink decision by a board to reward a CEO whose results were dismal as a way of avoiding the need to deal with publicity or a lawsuit.   Either way, someone has learned that poor behavior, bad attitude or emotional bribery work.

Ironically, doing the right things can evoke cynicism. If you watch the second video carefully, you will see that like most people near a foul ball at a ball park, the kid is caught up n the enthusiastic scrabble for the ball.  As he celebrates his victory, it is an usher who points out to him that the ball was being tossed to another kid in the stands.  Comments below the clip are full of people who want to minimize or denigrate the kid’s behavior since someone else pointed out the right thing to do.  But notice the kid’s reaction.  No argument, no tantrum, no rebellion or sulking.  He just went with no struggle or reservation and presented the ball to the other kid.

Note the role of cell phones in both clips.  In each case, some friend or family member has called to report that whatever is happening is getting TV coverage.  You can see some subtle changes in behavior, especially in the first video, based on the awareness of being watched by friends or family.

So- what do you reward at your company?


Happy Summer!

I will be taking a break from blogging through the end of August as I take holiday and some “light duty ” time with family.  Look for regular PnderThis entries here again starting in September.   what about you?  Are you taking a break this summer?


PonderThis is published to arrive in your RSS/ mailbox on Fridays as a concept to ponder over the weekend and goes to thousands of subscribers on 4 continents.

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Been in These Meetings?

July 19th, 2011 · Playing a Bigger Game, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

I found this piece on meetings this morning by John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun.  It is a very funny take on the stereotypical caricatures found around a meeting table.  Sad to say his description is all too true.  And of course we love to denigrate meetings.  Last week there was a piece on having all meetings standing up and in no more than 10 minutes.  The number of gimmicks suggested to fix meetings is endless and in most cases- worthless.

Want to fix meetings?  Functional meetings happen when functional people gather to do work and are willing to hold themselves and each other accountable.  That is why they are so hard to find.  Clear outcomes and a sold agenda are great tools- but unless the team is willing to agree on rules of engagement that foster open debate and honest disclosure- no real work happens.  Sadly, like children who largely imitate what they have seen before, we tolerate the meeting characters that McIntyre describes and even become one.

I know, I know.  This sounds like airy-fairy soft stuff.  It is one of the hardest things I have to get teams to understand.  Ground rules with teeth, self enforced with firm empathy make for productive working environments. If your approach to self governance is timid, so will be your working processes.  Put the energy you direct into complaining and frustration into calling out the issues and getting everyone accountable.

There is really only one reason for a meeting- to debate, argue and explore possibility to either co-create work product or agree on a way forward.  All the reporting can be done on line- but email is a poor forum for advocacy or decision making.  Meetings are the best forum for public discourse and debate.  Whether the team makes the decisions or there is a leader who is in charge, the debate provides a vehicle to understand the full extent and implications of an idea, challenge or opportunity.

One thing I can tell you for certain.  Every time I have had an executive complain to me about a meeting he or she has to attend as poorly designed or run and a waste of time- I ask one question.  “Have you said anything to the person who calls/ runs the meeting?”  I am still waiting for the first “Yes”.  When it comes to meeting culture- dysfunction sustains dysfunction- and usually creates sloppy results.

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Requesting Your Vote – Changing Organizational Change

June 7th, 2011 · Playing a Bigger Game

I have written here in bits and pieces about frameworks for leading organizational change and had lots of feedback about putting it together into a single document.  Rather than a commercial white paper, I put a proposal to write a manifesto up at ChangeThis.  (Long time readers will remember that I published a manifesto there the last time we had a serious theme emerge- delegation and micromanagement.  This was back in the dark ages of a newsletter so some of you may not have been reading then.  That proposal resulted in a published manifesto:  Redeeming Sisyphus: Get out of Control! Get More Done!)

ChangeThis is an independent web publisher.  Their charter is to publish well supported “manifesto’s”, avoiding diatribe and the kind of polarizing vitriol that so often passes for public discourse. Many of the manifestos are by best selling authors who with to either test or pre-publish a book.  Michael Pollan, Seth Godin (who originated the idea for ChangeThis) and Stan Slap have published manifestos there.  But most are written by people like me, who have a supportable, provocative idea and a desire to tell the story.  Topics are far reaching and often a goldmine for fresh points of view.  I suggest that you include a regular stop or subscription at ChangeThis, (along with TED Talks) for thoughtful and provocative brain food.

A Request:
In order to be approved for publication, my proposal needs enough votes- so my request is that you go to the proposal page, and if you are so moved, vote for my proposed manifesto Changing Organizational Change.

Thanks for your consideration- and in any event I think you will find a worthwhile regular stop.

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