Tag Archives: Jeff Meyer

Leaders and Solitude

When thinking about what makes a leader effective, words like energetic, decisive, fast paced, charismatic, and “able to multitask” come to mind.  While all of these traits are commonly found in leaders, one practice that leaders consistently neglect to their peril is carving out time for solitary reflection, argue Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in their new book Lead Yourself First.  “If I was to sum up the single biggest problem with leadership in the information age,” says retired General and current Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, “it’s a lack of reflection.  Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting.”  In Lead Yourself First, the authors reveal how some of history’s most courageous and dynamic leaders gained clarity before making crucial decisions through regularly withdrawing into solitude.

Solitude played a critical role for Dwight Eisenhower in his decision making leading up to the D-Day invasion.  Deciding when and whether to launch the D-Day invasion provoked lengthy discussion and debate between Eisenhower and his closest advisors.  Meeting after meeting generated myriad perspectives as to how and when to act.  Although Eisenhower was best known as a man of action, after particularly frustrating meetings he would often retreat to his office and write.  Eisenhower believed that the single most rigorous way to think about a situation was to be alone and write about it.  He would take whatever time was necessary, in solitude, to distill his thoughts into a succinct, clearly reasoned memo.  Writing in solitude helped him clarify his thoughts, as well as stabilize himself emotionally.  According to biographer Stephen Ambrose, “One of Eisenhower’s characteristics was his desire to simplify.  Faced with a complex situation, he usually tried to separate it into essentials, extract a principal point, and then make that point his guiding star for all decisions.”   And for Eisenhower, this was best done through writing in solitude.

Other examples of leaders who regularly engaged in times of solitude include Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant.  During the darkest days of the Nazi bombing of London during World War II, Churchill regularly retreated to his office to collect his thoughts and write.  Albert Einstein once described his typical day at Princeton as teaching class 20% of the time and staring out the window 80% of the time.  Abraham Lincoln would use private time in his bedroom for emotional release (sometimes breaking into tears), or to write emotional letters, most of which he never sent.  Ulysses Grant sat on a stump whittling, in deep thought, while some of the fiercest Civil War battles raged around him.

Time spent in solitude can also help us tap into our “intuitive” brain when making tough decisions.  We often think of our intuition as something that comes to us in the moment, something that allows us to make snap judgements.  Not so, according to the authors.  Rather, our intuition works best when quiet and solitude allow us to draw upon all of our past and present experiences, and then make subconscious connections that lead to the best decisions.  Contrary to popular perception, intuition is based on a far broader range of information and experiences than analytical thinking. It is accessed most effectively through time in solitude, and requires mental quiet to break through the surface of conscious thought.

The authors of Lead Yourself First argue that leaders have a responsibility to their followers to seek out periods of solitude.  Quite simply, it makes them better leaders.  They outline several concrete, practical strategies that help leaders do this.  Block out a certain number of days per month as “no meeting” days.  Make it clear that there are times you won’t access texts and emails immediately.  Take time for physical exercise.  Take time to sit alone in your study.  And finally, prepare for solitude.  Identify the issue you will think about in solitude in advance, and then review relevant material before going into your time of solitude.

Busy isn’t always better.  Multitasking isn’t necessarily a sign of a great leader.  Take time for solitude.

Learning From Failure

Losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly is one of life’s most traumatic experiences.  Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had that experience almost three years ago.  Her husband died suddenly while working out in the resort gym where he and Sheryl were vacationing.  Some of you may know Sheryl from her first book, Lean In.  Several months ago she released a second book titled Option B in which she describes coming to grips with, and attempting to recover from, her husband’s death.  Major themes of the book include the power of resilience in the face of adversity and the capacity of the human spirit to persevere.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has gone through a life changing tragedy, or to anyone who would like to help a friend who has.

Beyond Sandberg’s personal story, the book also contains a remarkable chapter titled “Failing and Learning at Work.”  I’d like to devote the rest of this blog to that chapter.  Just as people need resilience, Sandberg says, organizations need to develop resilience as well.  How an organization responds to failure is typically a great indicator of its level of resilience.  In this chapter, Sandberg recounts some totally counter-intuitive research regarding predictors of success in space launches (she got interested in space launches after visiting Elan Musk’s Space-X headquarters in Los Angeles and watching rockets being launched).  While most people would expect the success of an organization’s previous space launches to be the best predictor of success in its future launches, exactly the opposite is true!  Surprisingly, the data shows that the more times an organization has failed at a rocket launch, the more likely it is to successfully put a rocket into orbit on its next try.  Furthermore, chances of a successful launch increase even more after a spectacular failure (such as a rocket exploding) compared to after a smaller failure.  So not only should we embrace and learn from failure, but that we actually can learn the most from our biggest failures.

Unfortunately, our natural instincts generally push us in exactly the opposite direction.  We are often too insecure or too proud to admit mistakes, or we get defensive and shut down.  A resilient organization helps its people resist the temptation to react this way, and creates a culture where owning and learning from mistakes is embraced.  Organizations that embrace, study and learn from their failures outperform their counterparts that don’t.

One organization that does this particularly well is the Marines.  A visit to the Marine Corps Base Quantico drove this point home to Sheryl.  As she tells the story, she was surprised to discover that after every mission (and even every training session) the Marines do a complete debrief.  What went wrong, what went right, and what can we learn.  The results of the debrief are recorded so that everyone can access them and learn from them.  The Marines clearly have a culture where failure is seen as a learning opportunity.  Organizations like the Marines that focus on learning from failure consistently outperform those that don’t.

At Baillie, one of our values is “To Encourage Risk Taking.”  We do pretty well at that.  But along with taking risks inevitably comes failure.  We probably don’t do as well at embracing and learning from our failures and then going out and risking again.  Our pride gets in the way.  We may even want to hide our mistakes. We need to get better at embracing learning from failure.  It’s hard, but shining the light on and learning from failure is one of the characteristics that makes already successful organizations continually improve and thrive.  Risk, fail, learn, risk again, fail, but eventually succeed.  That’s the formula for sustained success

Purpose

There are only two ways to influence peoples’ behavior:  manipulate them or inspire them.  Simon Sinek begins his book Start With Why with this bold declaration.  Not surprisingly, Sinek argues that inspiring people is the preferred option, and proceeds to sketch out a strategy for doing so.  In short, inspiring people begins with knowing your “Purpose”, and discovering your “Why”.

According to Sinek, every organization has a “what”, a “how” and a “why”.  The “what” is usually easy, and that’s what we spend most of our time on.  For example, at Baillie Lumber our “what” is selling hardwood lumber.  Next comes the “how”.  Organizations typically also spend a good amount of time working on their “how”.  The “how” normally has to do with things like organizational structure, methods of going to market or developing products, and various other processes.  That leaves the “why”.  An organization’s “why” is often not so obvious, and as a result often receives less attention.  But, according to Sinek, an organization’s “why” is where the real action is.  It’s the holy grail!  Put simply, your “why” is the ultimate purpose or reason you do what you do.  It’s the cause or belief that really drives the organization, that motivates you to spend so much time on the what and how.  And ultimately, it’s what inspires people.

Now here comes the interesting part.  Sinek argues that people don’t actually buy “what” you do; they buy “why” you do it.  And people don’t work for you because of what you do, but because of why you do it.  According to Sinek, this all happens at the emotional level, at the “gut” or “heart” level, not at the rational, or thinking, level.  Rational arguments come later, simply justifying what our gut or heart tells us to do.

All humans have a non-rational need to belong, to connect to something bigger than themselves.  They want to connect with people and organizations that believe the same things that they do, that share the same cause they do.  Organizations that can articulate their “why”, their core belief or cause, their reason for being, will inevitably attract as customers and employees people who share that “why”.

Sinek offers Apple and Southwest as examples of companies defined by their “why”, not their “what.”  Apple is not fundamentally a computer company, he argues, but a company that challenges the status quo and that offers individuals simple alternatives.  That’s their “why”.  People connect and want to be part of this “why” before they are sold on the various features of Apple’s products (the “what”).  Similarly, Southwest Airlines was not built primarily to be an airline, but to champion the cause of the common man.  Southwest makes air travel cheap, fun and simple for the person who previously drove or took a bus.  Note their tag line, “You Are Free To Move About The Country.”  Championing the cause of the common man.  That’s Southwest’s “why”.

At Baillie, we went through a process of determining our “Purpose”, or our “Why,” over 20 years ago.  Holed up in a condo in South Carolina, we asked ourselves why we exist, and came up with the wrong answer multiple times.  Do we exist to make money?  Yes, but why?  Do we exist to create beautiful things?  Yes, but why do we want to do that?  Well, after many false starts and much soul searching, we finally discovered the purpose that had been driving our company all along:  To Help Others Succeed.  Sounds simple, maybe even trite, but it’s powerful for us.  We strive to run every decision through the grid of does it help our customer succeed?  Our supplier succeed?  Our employee succeed?  Our community succeed?  Our shareholders succeed?  We get it wrong as often as we get it right, but I believe people understand our intentions, and they connect to that.  They want to be part of that at a gut level, whether as an employee, a customer or a supplier.

Take an hour (or a day or a week) and reflect on the “Why,” or the “Purpose”, of your organization.  I believe Simon Sinek is onto something.  If you want to inspire people rather than manipulate them, it’s more important than you think.

Driving Change

I recently finished the book A Passion for Leadership by Robert Gates.  Mr. Gates served as Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, one of the few cabinet secretaries in history to serve under both a Republican and a Democratic President.  Gates also ran the CIA and was president of Texas A&M University at different points in his career.  A pretty accomplished and versatile leader, to say the least.  Although this book covers a broad array of leadership topics (and includes some really fascinating stories!), it focuses most poignantly on “driving change.”  In my opinion, government and academia are two of the hardest arenas in which to drive change.  He was successful in both, so I think he’s worth listening to.

 

One method that Gates used repeatedly to drive change was the establishment of special “task forces.” His task forces were not committees with unending lives, nor were they just loose groups of people working sporadically on an issue, but rather carefully selected, dedicated groups of people that came together for a season, pursued a mission on a tight time line, made specific recommendations, and then disbanded.  He describes task forces as “silo busters,” populated from all different functional areas of an organization.  He strove for the broadest possible inclusiveness on his task forces, insisting upon complete transparency and wide open internal debate.

 

All this is pretty standard, but Gates had one particular insight that I found new and refreshing.  “Be wary of consensus!”, he says.  Now wait a minute.  I thought consensus was a good thing.  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?  Build consensus?  “No!”, says Gates, and here’s why.  Gates quotes an ex Israeli foreign minister as saying consensus means “everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.”  When the task force keeps massaging an idea or proposal to get it to the point where everyone can sign on, the idea ultimately gets to the point where it’s not objectionable to anyone, but no one is really happy with it, it’s lukewarm, and frankly it’s probably not very good.  We’ve dumbed it down to the point where it has no edge, no punch.  Rather, Gates says, a task force should have robust, passionate, energetic dialogue, and then ultimately have a method (probably the leader decides) of choosing the best idea without watering it down in an effort to get buy-in from others.  Listen to the options, then make the hard call even though someone will be disappointed.  And once the decision is made, everyone supports it, whether or not they were for it during the discussion time.  A little different than the conventional wisdom about building consensus, but as I thought about it, an idea that really makes sense to me.

 

Depending on the circumstances, Gates does offer one other option for task forces.  If it fits the situation, the tasks force can present two or more distinct options, together with supporting data.  This gives the ultimate decision maker a deeper understanding of the issues with which the task force wrestled.

 

As uncomfortable as it is, change is necessary for every organization.  There are many ways to pursue change, but I believe the use of task forces is one of the best.  Try it next time your organization needs to make a change, and listen to the wisdom of Robert Gates.

Grit

“Talent is common.  What you invest to develop that talent is the critical final measure of greatness.” In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth shares this quote from Anson Dorrance, coach of the hugely successful University of North Carolina soccer team, as she tells the story of how Dorrance won 22 national championships in 31 years through relentlessly recruiting the grittiest young women he could find.  Grit is a remarkable book that challenged many of my beliefs about achievement and success.

In Grit, Duckworth argues that what people accomplish in life depends more on grit than on innate talent or ability.  At first this gave me pause.  As I’ve shared in earlier blogs, I’m a big believer in the “Strength Finder” school of thought, that the key to success, for an individual or an organization, is to identify innate talent and make sure we function in that “strength zone” as much as possible.  In other words, talent is most important, so find it and deploy it.  But Duckworth suggests otherwise.  As much as talent counts, she says, effort counts more. This focus on effort led to the central finding of her decades of research:  “Grit” is more important than anything in predicting human achievement.

According to Duckworth, grit has two components:  passion and perseverance.  First, passion.  For Duckworth, passion equals “commitment over time.”  Sustained, enduring devotion to a clear goal.  Having passion for something is caring about it in a loyal, steady, enduring way.  It means having the same ultimate goal over a long period of time, and not wavering in pursuit of it.  It means “going after it” every day.  Discovering our passion comes from a trial and error process of discovering what interests us and how that interest can best contribute to the well-being of others.

Perseverance is a little more straightforward.  It’s about practice.  You may have heard about the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that you become an expert by practicing something for 10,000 hours.  Not just any kind of practice, but deliberate, focused practice.  The type of practice that focuses on one narrow aspect of overall performance, and then develops the habit of practicing it with full concentration and effort every day.  Together with passion, this type of perseverance makes people “gritty.”

In her research, Duckworth sets out to determine what difference grit makes in people’s lives.  She developed a “Grit Grid” which she used to measure the level of grit in 1200 high school students.  She asked these students to identify their extracurricular activities in high school, how long they stuck with those activities, and their overall achievement level in these activities.  Through this process, she developed the grit score for each student.  After two years, only 34% of the students studied were still enrolled in college.  But 69% of the students who scored 6 of 6 on the Grit Grid were still in college, while only 16% of the students who scored 0 of 6 on the Grit Grid were still enrolled.  The predictive power of grit was striking.

Anson Dorrance administers the Grit Grid to every recruit for his UNC soccer team.  Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, uses grit principles when he selects players.  The admission staff at Harvard College uses similar grit principles when they decide which of their many talented applicants to admit.  Grit clearly makes a difference.

The best news about grit is that we can each “grow our grit.”  Unlike talent, it’s something we can improve.  Duckworth identifies two ways to accomplish that.  First, from the “inside out”.  Find something you’re interested and passionate about, and develop the habit of deliberately practicing it every day.  Second, from the “outside in.”  Get yourself in a gritty culture and hang around gritty people.  It will wear off on you and shape who you are.

As I thought about Duckworth’s work, a few practical implications occurred to me.  First, if you’re in a leadership role, pay more attention to identifying and hiring people with high levels of grit.  They will usually outperform their more talented peers who lack grit.  Second, if you’re a parent, work hard to develop habits of grit in your kids.  It may be the most important gift you give them.  And finally, if you run an organization, work hard to develop a gritty culture.  It will wear off on everyone who joins your organization.

So I still believe in talent.  There’s no sense in trying to develop a person in an area where they have limited talent.  But once you’ve identified an area of talent, “grit” makes all the difference in whether or not a person will develop that talent, and ultimately achieve great things in their life.

Asking Questions

I’ve written at least one other blog on a book by John Maxwell.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with John, he has probably written and sold more books on leadership than anyone alive.  He founded, and still provides direction for, multiple organizations.  When I have a leadership question, John’s books or CDs are still my first visit.

I recently read a book that he wrote in 2014 titled Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.  This book got me thinking about the value of spending less time telling people things and more time asking them questions.  The whole book is great, but the third chapter (“What Questions Do I Ask My Team Members?”) really caught my attention.  I’d like to highlight just a few of the questions that John recommends asking people on your team regularly.  Here they are:

  • “What do you think?” This is probably the most powerful question you can ask another person.  Sometimes it just helps you gather information, or get another person’s perspective (often different from your own).  That alone is incredibly valuable.  But, in my experience, the greatest value from this question comes from the way it affirms and builds up the other person.  You’re asking their opinion!  Their opinion is valuable, and that makes them feel valuable.  When I’ve asked people this question, I’ve literally seen their eyes brighten and their self-confidence grow.  No other question is quite as helpful to both me and the people with whom I work as this one.
  • “What do I need to communicate?” Effective leadership is often about understanding “context.”  Understanding the context you’re in and what other people expect or need from you.  Many times another person can see that better than you, so asking them what you need to communicate to your team (or any group of people with whom you’re involved) can be a lifesaver.  Ask the question “What’s the most important thing others need to know right now?”  You may be surprised how often it’s something you didn’t expect, and you’ll be surprised at how much this question helps you.
  • “What did you learn?” This question makes people evaluate their experiences and reflect on what they can learn from those experiences.  As John says, this question “keeps my staff sharp and growing.  It prompts people to evaluate their experience and make an assessment.”  We all want our team members to be growing.  We can help them develop a plan for personal growth.  That’s great as far as it goes.  But the only way to make sure growth happens day in and day out is to ask them a question like this one.   It forces a person to reflect on their experience, and come up with a “take away” from that experience.  We can all learn something every day, but sometimes we need to be prompted to do so.
  • “How are the numbers?” This question cuts to the heart of the matter.  It’s easy to give opinions or paint a picture.  But, as John says, “Numbers count.  They tell a story.  They let you know what the score is.  They show you where you’re winning and where you’re failing so you can make adjustments.  They show trends.  They reveal weaknesses.  They are tangible evidence of how well you’re doing.”  The numbers show the bottom line.  Enough said.
  • “What am I missing?” I love this question.  First, it shows humility.  It shows you don’t think you know everything.  In general, people love it when you ask them for help.  And this question does just that.  But beyond that, it recognizes that we all have blind spots.  We may see 70- 80% of the landscape, but often it’s the 20-30% that we miss that causes us problems.  This question invites others to help us see the whole picture.  Usually they can and they will.  And sometimes it prevents a catastrophic mistake.

I have to confess that I have not made asking these questions a personal discipline yet.  However, it’s on my list of habits to form, and writing this blog gives me some incentive!  I’d encourage you to experiment with asking these five questions to 2 or 3 of your team members at least once a month for the next several months.  See what happens.  Experience the power of asking good questions!

Purpose

“A Leader of a 21st century organization is, in part, a cheerleader-in-chief.”  This statement by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, caught my attention as I began reading his new book The Open Organization.  Jim spent most of his career in fairly traditional business cultures before joining Red Hat, the largest open source software company in the world, in 2007.  In The Open Organization, Jim describes the unique culture he found at Red Hat, and how that resulted in him leading the organization in a much different way. 

Whitehurst’s “cheerleader-in-chief” statement shows up early in the book in a chapter titled “Igniting Passion.”  In this chapter, Whitehurst argues that “people are most fulfilled and happiest when their work is aligned with their own internal passions.”  Well, that may be true, but how in the world can leaders create this alignment and activate their people’s passion?  Sounds like a daunting task.  The key, according to Whitehurst, is having a clearly stated “purpose” for the organization that engages people and sparks their passion.  A purpose that people can relate to, that they can “own.”  A purpose beyond simply making money.  Having a purpose that really sparks people’s passion, according to Whitehurst, is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Things really start happening!  People stop checking their emotions at the door and instead bring them to their everyday tasks.  And generally people end up working harder and better results follow. 

This is particularly true with the Millennial generation.  While everyone can be inspired by a thoughtful, well-developed purpose, Millennials in particular want to connect to something more meaningful than simply completing a task and collecting a paycheck.  They want to connect to a purpose that has meaning and significance beyond money.

At Baillie Lumber, we developed a purpose statement over 20 years ago.  It’s simple:  “To Help Others Succeed.”  Although we (I!) don’t talk about it nearly enough, and it would be an overstatement to suggest that it drives and motivates our people every moment of every day, I believe that our purpose has created significant traction for our people in helping them step out of the day to day fray and realize they are involved in something bigger.  Clearly we want to help our customers and suppliers succeed.  And clearly we want to make more money to make the company stronger for all of its stakeholders.  Everyone knows that.  But it goes beyond that.

Let me give one example.  I’ve watched with deep satisfaction as our people at Baillie have applied our purpose to their co-workers.  Multiple times in the last year, when one of our team members (or one of their family) has experienced a significant financial, health, or other need, their co-workers have banded together to provide help for the person in need in very significant, life changing ways.  Usually this involves a financial component, but it often goes beyond that.  It’s gratifying to me when a customer or supplier lets me know that we’ve helped them succeed in some way.  But truly, this example of our people putting our purpose into practice, embodying our purpose, and helping each other succeed, is the example of living out our purpose of which I am most proud.

We’re far from perfect at Baillie, and we have a long way to go in making our purpose real and relevant to all of our stakeholders.  But we’re on the journey, trying to do better each day.  If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to identify a purpose that resonates with and inspires the people in your organization.  I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

Thank You

I’m currently reading a book named What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.  Goldsmith is a world renowned executive coach who has worked with some of the most prominent leaders of Fortune 500 companies.  He commands a six figure price tag for his one-on-one coaching sessions.  Lots of great stuff in this book, but his “20 habits (or behaviors) that most frequently sabotage leaders” grabbed my attention.  Of these 20 troublesome behaviors, one in particular jumped out at me: “Failing to Express Gratitude.”  Goldsmith argues that the two sweetest words to people’s ears are “Thank You.”  They are magic.  People love to hear these words whatever the context.  So use them broadly and liberally.

Goldsmith identifies one specific area where saying “thank you” can make a difference in your leadership, and I’d like to drill down on that a bit.  If your co-workers (or people you lead) feel brave, they may offer you a suggestion about how your organization could be improved.  If they’re really feeling brave, they may even bring you some bad news.  And if they’re feeling super brave, they just might be willing to give you some personal feedback on how you could improve as a leader.  Well, if you’re anything like me, in each of these cases the natural tendency is to immediately begin evaluating the feedback the person gives, and then start telling them what you agree with and what you don’t agree with.  According to Goldsmith, this is a big mistake.

When given any of these types of feedback, two simple words are the correct answer:  “Thank you.”  Is this just about being friendly and nice, about creating a pleasant environment?  Not at all.  In reality, it’s mostly about the impact saying “thank you” has on people’s willingness to bring you feedback in the future.  As Goldsmith says, “… saying ‘thank you’ keeps people talking to you.  Failing to say ‘thank you’ shuts them down.”  Sure, it cuts against our natural desire to be right, to win.  But biting your lip, resisting the temptation to immediately begin debating, and just saying “thank you” opens the floodgates to future information.  People understand that just because you say “thank you” doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them, but they appreciate the fact that you’re considering their point of view.

Goldsmith tells the story of golfer Mark O’Meara playing in a made-for-TV Skins Game with Tiger Woods.  All the golfers wore microphones, so the audience could hear everything they said.  Every time one of his partners said “Nice shot,” O’Meara said “thank you.”  Like 50 times.  Not only was O’Meara being polite, but he was setting the stage for his partners to feel open to giving him additional feedback in the future, some of which might be very helpful to him.

So next time someone gives you feedback about yourself or your organization, smile and say “thank you.”  You can circle back later that day, or several days later, and discuss the feedback in more depth.  But in the moment, let your response be simply “Thank You.”