Great Managers

Author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham has made a career of urging leaders to focus on people’s strengths.  Last week, I read an article (“What Great Managers Do”) that Buckingham published in the Harvard Business Review about 10 years ago.  As with most of his work, this article encourages leaders to identify and develop their people’s strengths, and then get each of their people in the right spot in the organization so they can best use those strengths.  The article contained two thoughts in particular that I’d like to share with you:  first, the “triggers” that activate each person’s strengths, and second, how each person learns best.

First, Buckingham argues that sometimes a person’s strengths haven’t effectively been activated, and that a leader needs to “trigger” those strengths to turn them on.  Learning to squeeze the precise trigger that turns on a person’s strengths is a key skill for a leader to develop.  A “trigger” might be the time of day that a person works best (night owl vs morning person), it might be substantial time with the boss (you), or it might be just the opposite, the ability to work independently without contact with or interference from the boss.  There are a multitude of triggers, but according to Buckingham the most powerful trigger by far is recognition.  But recognition is a bit more nuanced than it may seem at first.  The specific skill that managers and leaders need to master is identifying precisely what type of recognition each person prefers.  For one person it might be praise in front of their peers, for another praise from the boss one-on-one, and for a third some type of professional or technical award.  It doesn’t matter what it is, but what does matter is that a leader knows which “recognition trigger” each person prefers, and which recognition trigger draws out the best in him.  So know each person’s trigger, and use it with integrity to draw out her strengths.

My second helpful insight from the article was the notion that people have different learning styles.  I’m a reader and I absorb information easily from books and magazines, so I tend to assume everyone learns that way.  Bad assumption.  Buckingham identifies three primary learning styles.  First, some people learn best through analyzing.  These people love information, love data, and best understand a task by taking it apart, analyzing its elements, and reconstructing it piece by piece.  The best way to work with an analyzer is to give them time to prepare, and then to role play with them.  Help them fully analyze and understand the task.  These people hate making mistakes, so giving them time to see the component parts of a task and master them sets them up for success.

The second learning style is the “doer”.  Unlike the analyzer, this person learns best by jumping in and trying something, learning by trial and error.  They could care less about failure or mistakes.  After all, that’s how you learn, isn’t it?  This person will laugh about the mistakes they make on their way to learning by doing.  The sooner they can start doing the better.

The final learning style is watching.  These people don’t want to analyze or role play, and they don’t want to “do” in order to learn either.  They learn best when they can watch the total performance in action.  This person best learns how to sell by watching the star salesman perform for two days.  He can watch the total task being performed, and internalize it just by observing.  So, in other words, get this person out of the classroom and let them ride shotgun!

Consistent with all of Buckingham’s material, learning a person’s triggers and identifying their learning style are not about changing people, but about recognizing people’s strengths, learning how they naturally perform best, and tailoring their environment to those strengths.  Each person has certain strengths, and they probably won’t change very much, so it’s our job as leaders and managers to identify those strengths, get the person in the right role and in the right environment, and then let them use their strengths to the fullest extent.  It sounds like a full time job, and in fact it is.

Wellbeing

I recently read the book Well Being:  Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath and Jim Harter.  It’s a quick read, focusing on five different aspects of our lives that the authors believe most significantly contribute to our wellbeing as people.  The five different aspects of wellbeing they identify are Career, Social, Financial, Physical and Community.    

When we think about our lives, most of us tend to emphasize one of these areas above the rest.  For one person, it might be Financial, for another Physical, and for a third Social.  However, the most interesting part of the book for me was how these five aspects of wellbeing interact and influence each other.  In this blog, I’d like to highlight a few of these interactions, and how they can help us become better leaders and managers.

Most bosses want what’s best for their people.  In that regard, I found two insights about Career Wellbeing particularly helpful.  First, people who rate high in Career Wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.  This probably isn’t surprising, but clearly Career Wellbeing influences every other part of our life.  So a boss who wants to improve an employee’s life overall need look no further than improving the employee’s job fulfillment.  Second, and probably more interesting, people with high Career Wellbeing view the same amount of pay much more favorably than those with low Career Wellbeing.  In other words, given the same salary, people that feel good about their job are significantly more content with their pay than those who make the same amount of money but are unhappy in their job.  Again, maybe not surprising, but helpful information for a leader who wants to retain good workers at a fair wage.

I also found helpful the authors’ comments about helping employees focus on and operate within their strengths.  The research showed that if a manager helps an employee focus on their strengths, the chance of them being “actively disengaged” in her work is just 1%.  In other words, an employee who is able to focus on their strengths almost always feels engaged with their work.  In addition, employees who get to focus on their strengths are six times more likely to feel engaged with their jobs, and three times more likely to report an excellent quality of life than those who don’t get to focus on their strengths.  So, if you want to help a person who works for you have more overall wellbeing, overwhelmingly the most important thing you can do for them is to help them function in an area of strength.

My final takeaway from this book may be the most important.  According to the authors’ research, the one factor that determines job satisfaction more than any other is whether the employee perceives that their immediate supervisor cares about them as a person.  If an employee’s direct supervisor cares about him as a person, he is more likely to be a top performer, more likely to produce high quality work, and less likely to change jobs.  Seems like a relatively simple way to improve performance in a business, while at the same time making employees happier.

So what’s the take-away from all of this?  If you want the best for both your company and for your employees, work hard at making your employees’ jobs rewarding and meaningful.  Don’t just throw money at them.  Of course people always like receiving more money. But, at the end of the day, feeling appreciated, feeling cared for, and operating in one’s strength zone makes the biggest difference in how people view their jobs, how well they perform and how much overall wellbeing they experience in their lives.

 

Work

This blog is a little different from other blogs I’ve written.  Typically, I try to draw a practical lesson from a business or leadership book I’m reading.  This blog follows that pattern (it is based on a book I’m reading), but it’s also more of an intersection between business and faith.

Back in my December blog post I mentioned the pastor of a New York City church named Tim Keller.  Keller has written several books, and his most recent book, Every Good Endeavor, focuses on the topic of “work.”  Specifically, Keller takes on the question of what was work designed for, and how can we find meaning and purpose in our work.  Both employers and employees face this question.  Employees want their work to be meaningful for obvious reasons.  Employers know that satisfied workers are better, more fulfilled workers, and therefore want their employees’ work to be meaningful.  Today’s millennial generation is asking the “meaning and purpose in work” question more than ever.  In this context, Keller draws on the book of Genesis, part of both the Christian and the Jewish sacred texts, in search of answers to the question of how our work can be about more than just drawing a paycheck.

Keller focuses on two passages from the book of Genesis (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15) in developing his thoughts about work.  These passages come directly after the creation account.  One contains the instruction to “fill the earth and subdue it” as well as to “rule over the fish … birds … and every living creature.”  The other exhorts Adam to “work and care for” the garden in which he was put.  Sometimes the words “till” or “cultivate” are used instead of “work and care.”  So what could these passages from a book written a few thousand years ago possibly have to do with us today in the 21st century, in the world of Apple, Google and Mixed Martial Arts?

Keller has a very interesting take on what it means to “work and care for” (or till and cultivate) the garden.  According to Keller, this text calls us to “rearrange” the raw material of creation in a way that helps people around us to thrive and flourish.  The materials we’re given to work with on this earth are good, but not complete.  Our job is to shape these raw materials into things that enhance people’s lives.  We’re tasked with serving others through building things that make their lives better.  Considered this way, we end up with a totally different perspective on our work, one that brings meaning and dignity to any type of work we do, particularly physical work.

Let me try to make this as practical as possible.  In Genesis we see God as a gardener; later in the scriptures we see him as a carpenter.  Both of these jobs involve physical as well as mental labor.  The fact that God engages in these physical jobs infuses them with meaning and dignity.  In the hardwood lumber industry, we can think of what we do as cutting logs and processing boards, or instead we can see our work as rearranging the raw material of creation (trees) into useful products (chairs, tables, cabinets, floors) that help people to live better and more productively.  For me, viewing our work as rearranging creation’s raw materials is more motivating and inspiring, and brings dignity and meaning to all kinds of work.

So do you think of your work as just a way to draw a paycheck?  If you’re an employer, do your employees think of it that way?  Regardless of your faith background, the first few chapters of Genesis provide a framework for making your work, and the work of your employees, meaningful and full of purpose.  This is eminently modern and practical for a generation that craves more meaning in their work.  Follow this blueprint and it will make your work, and the work of your employees, more meaningful and purposeful.

Meaning and Significance

The Small Big.  The title caught my interest a few months back as I was reading a business magazine.  So I read this book through the holidays, finishing it a few weeks ago.  It’s an easy read, focusing on small things we can do that will make a big difference in how effectively we persuade and motivate people.  I liked a couple things about the book.  First, it contains 52 really short (3-6 pages each) chapters, which makes it easy to read in “bite size” pieces.  Second, it is eminently practical, dealing with topics like how a company can make its sales people more effective, developing simple strategies for negotiating more successfully, making small changes in the work environment to encourage creative thinking, and how fundraisers can convince donors to give more to non-profits.

There was one chapter, however, that I found the most helpful by far.  It provided some fascinating advice from University of Pennsylvania economist Adam Grant on how to improve employee productivity.  Grant argues that if employees are reminded why their job is “significant,” why it has “meaning,” they become more highly motivated and ultimately more productive. To test this hypothesis, Grant conducted a study of employees whose job was to contact alumni of a university and persuade them to make donations to the school’s scholarship fund.  Prior to contacting the alumni, one group of employees read stories about the financial benefits of their job and the opportunity their job gave them to develop their personal skills.  The other group read stories from students who had received scholarships which described the hugely positive impact the scholarship had had on their lives.

The results were nothing short of amazing.  After hearing the stories, the employees who read about the financial benefits of their job raised the same amount of money as they had raised before hearing the stories.  In other words, no change.  However, the employees who heard stories about the impact the scholarships had on students’ lives raised more than twice as much money after hearing the stories!  The power of making sure employees understand and don’t lose sight of the significance of their job at work!  Understanding the meaning and significance of their work surely energized these employees, and elevated the results of their work to new heights.

For those of us in business, how can we follow this advice and get these results?  One way is to collect and prominently display stories of how customers have been helped by our products and services.  Maybe post them on a bulletin board.  Maybe read them aloud.  Or even have team members pick out their favorite stories and read them aloud to their colleagues.  Regardless of how you do it, not letting employees forget the real significance of what they do will lead to better results for your business.  I’m confident it will also result in more fulfilled employees.  This is just one example of how making a small change can have a big result.

Barely Getting a Leaf Out

Recently I read a Wall Street Journal article about a New York City Presbyterian minister named Tim Keller.  The article described the dramatic growth in Keller’s church (Redeemer Presbyterian) from a few families in 1989 to over 5,500 parishioners today.  Quite a success!  However, at the end of the article Keller makes a surprising admission.  Keller admits he often feels like he hasn’t accomplished as much as he should have, and that there is so much more to do.  He uses an image to describe his feelings that captured my imagination.  He says he feels like he has “barely gotten a leaf out.”  As we take time to reflect during this last week of 2014, I believe Keller’s image of the single leaf can provide us with comfort, solace, inspiration and encouragement as we look toward 2015.

“Barely getting a leaf out” is phrase used by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a short story he wrote about a painter who spent his whole life trying to paint a very beautiful tree with snowcapped mountains and forests behind it.  In spite of his continual and diligent efforts, when the painter dies he has finished painting only one leaf.  The painter is disappointed, but when he goes into the afterlife he sees something in the distance that quickens his heart.  As he approaches more closely, he realizes that there is the completed tree he was trying to paint all along!

Tolkien’s point in this story is that despite our best efforts to make a significant contribution to our societies, our workplaces, our families, our friends and our churches, we often accomplish a lot less than we hope for.  We have high expectations, and often find ourselves disappointed, discouraged, even disillusioned, at how little we’re able to accomplish.  We feel like there’s so much unfinished, so much still to be done.  We’ve failed to make a meaningful dent in the work to be done.  Like the painter, we feel like we’ve completed little more than a single leaf.

The story, however, provides us with encouragement.  In fact, the one leaf that we paint often goes together with leaves that others paint to create a beautiful tree.  The tree wouldn’t be complete unless we did our part.  As a person of faith, Tolkien believes that our vision of what we want to accomplish is often inspired by God, and that in the end God can weave our leaf together with the leaves of others to create the beautiful tree.  Tolkien’s story encourages us that, together with others and the help of God, we can in fact make a difference.

So this Christmas season take comfort and satisfaction in “barely getting a leaf out.”  It’s not so much the size of your contribution, but rather the fact that you’re making a contribution at all.  Make the best leaf that you can.  Continue to make your own small mark, and together with others you may be surprised at the beautiful tree that emerges.

Crisis Creates Opportunity

Crises create reputations that stick in customers’ minds.  Your response in a crisis can either cement in your customer’s mind that reputation you’ve worked so hard to develop, or it can flush it all down the drain.

Whether or not you live in Buffalo, you surely heard that parts of the Buffalo area were hit with unprecedented snowfall last week, paralyzing parts of the city for four days.  Last Saturday evening, just after the driving bans were lifted, I was checking in for my Southwest Airlines flight at the Buffalo airport and heard an interesting conversation at the counter next to me.  The ticket agent was talking to a couple who were clearly inexperienced travelers.  They had missed their flight and been forced to re-book (presumably because of the storm), and were nervous that doing so would result in a higher fare.  The ticket agent told them that in fact their new flight did have a higher fare, but for that day Southwest was waiving all charges for higher fares on new reservations people were making due to flights missed during the storm.

The couple was visibly relieved and very vocal in their thanks to the ticket agent.  As I witnessed this encounter, I said to myself “right answer.”  Southwest got it right.  I don’t know how much this couple will fly in the future, but I’m sure Southwest has a customer for life.  More importantly, I’m sure this couple will tell several of their friends what happened that day.  And beyond that, the person at the counter next to that couple (me!) happens to write a blog, and now all of you are hearing about it.  A clear display of the power of one good decision.

One of my business colleagues has a favorite saying, “crisis creates opportunity.”  This is never more true than when a business, or an individual, is faced with the “moment of truth” of how to respond in a crisis.  Make the right call and you have a customer (or friend) for life.  Make the wrong call and you may waste years of hard work.  Make the right call in the moment!

Networking

I recently read the book View from the Top by Dr. Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College.  Dr. Lindsay is one of the youngest college presidents in the nation, an award winning sociologist and frequent lecturer on the topic of leadership.  Lindsay interviewed 550 top national leaders as the basis for his book.  While View from the Top contains many thoughtful and helpful insights, his focus in the book’s opening chapter on “building your network” really caught my attention.

I’ve always had a gut reaction against “networking.”  Undoubtedly many of you will find that strange, and many of you probably network instinctively.  It’s a pretty typical thing for leaders to do.  However, networking conjured up images in my mind of talking to someone at a party and having them constantly looking over my shoulder checking out who they could talk to next.  Networking has always struck me as a “political” effort, a way of getting ahead based on who you know as opposed to what you do.  I’m not saying this view was right, just what I felt and thought.

Lindsay argues persuasively for leaders making networking a top priority.  There are many ways to succeed as a leader, according to Lindsay, but all require developing an effective network.  At first I resisted this and found the concept grubby.  However, as I read further, Lindsay opened my mind to see that one could develop a network without being selfish, arrogant or pushy, and that failing to develop an effective network ultimately limits one’s growth as a leader.

Lindsay speaks of “developing a wide ranging network of acquaintances.”  An effective network involves knowing people in a variety of different areas, people different than us, and even people we may not particularly like, not just people to whom we are naturally attracted or who can help us tomorrow.  Leadership involves serving others, and networks serve as “entry points,” or “introductions,” to people who can help us as we seek to serve others better.  In a time of unexpected crisis, they can make finding someone who can help much easier.  Using networks correctly are less a means of self-promotion and more a means of finding ways to serve and help others more quickly, efficiently and effectively.

One other perspective on networking.  I’ve written previously about John Maxwell, a speaker and author on leadership who has helped me tremendously.  As a younger leader, John would offer to pay people he wanted to meet $100, as well as buy them lunch, for two hours of their time.  Whether they needed the money or not, it was amazing how many of these people said yes.  These lunches allowed him to build his network effectively.  I think John would say that building his network at a young age was one of the primary keys to his success as a leader.

Finally, Lindsay makes an interesting point about how we can best form networks.  The most common and effective way, he argues, is to have a good mentor.  A  mentor can, and usually will, introduce you to other people who can help you.  A mentor can do this in a fraction of the time that it would take you to do it on your own.  In fact, having more than one mentor who can each help you in a different area is even better.

So, while I still need to fight my instinctive negative reaction to networking, Lindsay’s book certainly helped me develop a more balanced, positive view of how networking can help me in my leadership.  I encourage you to check it out.

 

Millennials

Last week, I experienced an interesting connection at my monthly Vistage meeting.  Vistage is a group of business leaders (about 15 in our group) that meet once per month to listen to an outside speaker and then discuss business issues that group members face.  This month’s speaker, Gustavo Grodnitzky, spoke on the topic of recruiting and retaining “Millennials”, or “Gen Y” folks (people born between 1982-2000, currently ages 14-32).  Gustavo presented an interesting summary of the four generations that are currently in the workforce, and then made a compelling case that the future success of businesses and other organizations will depend largely on their ability to recruit and retain Millennials.  At the end of his talk, Gustavo recommended two books, one of which was Drive by Daniel Pink.  As you may remember, in my last blog I wrote about Drive, focusing in particular on Pink’s theory of what motivates people.  Gustavo told us that while Pink’s theory of motivation applies to people of all ages, it applies especially to Gen Yers.  This captured my attention, and I thought you might find this connection between Drive and what motivates Gen Yers helpful.

In Drive, Pink argues that the three things that truly motivate people are “autonomy” (freedom to do your work when and the way you want), “mastery” (opportunity to master a skill or body of knowledge), and “purpose” (feeling like you’re doing something of broader significance, that you’re working for a cause).  In this blog, I’d like to focus on the importance of providing Millennials with a purpose, or cause, if you want to recruit and retain them.

At the Vistage meeting, Gustavo argued that Millennials need to feel that their work contributes to a worthwhile cause, to something more significant than just making money.  My wife and I have experienced this first hand over the last couple years.  As our now 23 year old son was exploring various career options a couple years ago, he mentioned frequently that he wanted to do something with more significance than just making money.  In other words, he wanted to pursue a worthwhile “cause”, something that makes a difference.  My wife and I reflected on how different his view was from our view 30 years earlier when we entered the workforce.  For us, it was all about getting a good job, working hard at something you liked, making some money, and then maybe at 45 or 50 having the opportunity to do something with more significance.  To be honest, we probably thought our son and his friends were looking for “too much too early”, and needed to be willing to pay their dues.  As it turns out, this was probably misguided thinking on our part.

As both a father and an employer, this wasn’t something I could ignore.  It’s a reality that’s much different than how baby boomers like me think about career and life.  At Baillie, over 20 years ago we identified the purpose of our hardwood lumber business as “To Help Others Succeed.”  The details of how we identified this purpose is a story for another day, but suffice it to say that I’m confident this purpose is more than just window dressing for us.  For the most part, our employees have bought into and connect well with it.  However, listening to Gustavo and reading Pink made me realize that we need to develop more concrete, down to earth ways for our entry level employees (most of them Gen Yers) to connect with and experience our purpose.  The morning after the Vistage meeting, I sat down with our HR Director and together we came up with a couple new strategies for doing this.  We’re actually pretty excited about them.  Hopefully they will work, but if they don’t, we will try others.

So what to do?  Maybe start by making sure your organization has a simple, clear statement of purpose.  Something a sixth grader can understand, that employees could recite easily at gunpoint.  Then, develop one or two strategies for making that purpose come alive for your entry level workers.  If Gustavo and Pink are right, if you can connect Millennials to a purpose it will be very hard for your competitors to lure them away with more money.  In fact, it will likely give your organization a competitive advantage.  I’m on this journey with you and certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’m convinced this is one of the keys to building the workforce that each of us will need to not only survive, but thrive, in the future.

Motivated?

Ever wonder what motivates people?  Really motivates them?  I’ve debated this question regularly with some of my colleagues in our hardwood lumber business.

Daniel Pink’s book Drive provides some surprising answers to this question.  Surprising because most experienced industry veterans think it comes down to one thing:  money.  Show me the money, they say.

While money does matter, Pink has a different view about what truly motivates people and drives results.  In fact, Pink argues that relying on money (or any external reward) can actually diminish performance, crush creativity, and foster short term thinking.  So what does motivate people?

Three things:  autonomy, mastery and purpose.  While money is not unimportant, according to Pink once people have a comfortable level of compensation these three things are what really matter.  Let’s unpack them one by one.

Pink says organizations tend to either “control” their people, or let them operate “autonomously.” Businesses that offer people autonomy have historically grown at a faster rate.  The dictionary defines “autonomy” as being independent, or self-governing.  In other words, giving people the freedom to decide what they should do, when they do it, how they’ll do it and with whom they will do it.  Sound scary?  Think it will lead to chaos?  Pink gives multiple examples where giving this kind of freedom to people led to intense engagement, and ultimately extraordinary business results (including the invention of Post-It Notes at 3M).

The second motivator Pink points to is “mastery”, or the desire to get better and better (even be one of the best!) at something that really matters.  When people are given the freedom to master a particular skill or field, they report getting into “the flow.”  I’m sure you’ve experienced being in “the flow” when you’re doing something you love, whether it’s skiing, hunting, baking, gardening, walking in nature, meditating or doing something else you really love.  When people are in “the flow”, they live deeply in the moment, they feel utterly in control, and their sense of time and place melts away.  Oh, and yes, they become more productive workers.  All this happens when a person feels they’re on the road to mastering something, becoming an expert in something that truly matters.

The final motivator comes from linking autonomy and mastery to a purpose people can see and buy into.  Pink provides a simple test to determine whether your people feel they’re working for a purpose.  Do they refer to the company as “we” or “they?”  If they refer to the company as “we”, they generally feel engaged by a purpose beyond a paycheck.  Pay attention for a week, and see how people refer to your organization or business.

I know you crusty, battle scared veterans are skeptical, probably even a bit cynical, about relying on anything other than money or external rewards to motivate.  But why not try it in a small part of your organization and see if it works.  It certainly worked for the several organizations Pink studied and describes in his book.

Welcome Your Critics

Last Saturday I read an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Tim Geithner. Geithner was Secretary of the Treasury during the 2009 financial crisis, and recently published a book describing his experience trying to lead the country through this difficult financial period. After discussing the financial crisis, the interviewer asked Geithner if he could point to any lessons he learned during the crisis that would apply to other walks of life.

His response really made me think, and I’d like to share it with you. Here’s what he said:

Make sure you surround yourself with people who will disagree with you. Make sure you have competition in diagnosis around you all the time. Make that an ongoing, relentless effort. If you do that, and put aside the concerns of how your actions will be perceived and how you will be criticized, you’ll be in a much better position to sort through all of the bad choices you face. It’s really important to make sure people feel they can disagree with you.

This statement made me think of the best-selling book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns. In this book, Kearns describes how Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with advisors who thought much differently than he did. In fact, the advisors he appointed were often from another political party, and in some cases had run against him for political office. They weren’t friends, and in fact they were often political enemies who at various times tried to sabotage him. However, Lincoln knew that he would make the best decisions, and be the best leader for the country, if he surrounded himself with people who thought differently than him, disagreed with him, and were even hostile toward him. He knew that the decisions that came from this body of advisors would be far superior to decisions that came from a body of advisors that all liked each other, got along with each other and thought like him. Although it led to numerous conflicts, this approach proved successful for Lincoln.

I’ve seen this work in our hardwood lumber business at Baillie. Over the last 25 years, we’ve had people in leadership positions who think differently and are not afraid to disagree with each other. Although it sometimes makes things less comfortable and leads to conflict and stress, there’s no doubt that we make better decisions, and ultimately have better strategies, when we have this diversity of approach and opinion. It’s not about being friendly and cordial, but about making the right decisions.

Even if you’re not in a leadership role in an organization, this principle can still help you. In your personal life, if you surround yourself with people that think like you, act like you, and are like you, you’ll probably have a stress-free, peaceful existence. The only problem is that you probably won’t grow, won’t be tested, and won’t increase your ability and capacity to do whatever you’re called to do in life. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who provoke you, who disagree with you, who challenge you and even make you mad, you’ll be on the path to growth and personal improvement.

So whether you’re leading a large organization or just thinking about cultivating a couple new friendships, think about surrounding yourself with people who think differently than you.