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Leadership as Learning

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I am, and hope to always be, a leader-in-learning.

I work hard every day to be open to new opportunities to grow and to remember that no matter how much I know, I could never possibly hope to know it all (despite my behaviour to the contrary sometimes :))

Some of the most charismatic and accomplished leaders I have worked with, continue to act like they are on their way up, rather than having made it. Some are CEOs of Global organizations and yet they remain humble and open to what they can learn from others. They are the first to admit when they don’t know something, and the first to invite others to offer suggestions. They don’t ask questions to demonstrate how clever they are or to catch people out for having missed something. They are genuinely curious about how other people think and in exploring alternatives to their own perspective.It is really important for true leaders to maintain this spirit of leadership as learning, creating an environment ripe for innovation and engagement.

But some people, once they have achieved a certain level of career success, start inadvertently closing themselves off to new ideas and fresh thinking.

They stop trying new things, stop investing in development, stop spending time on ‘trying’ things out, stop asking stupid questions…

This is an understandable and natural consequence of becoming better and more sophisticated in what you do. But it can also be a fast way to becoming obsolete.

Indicators that you may be resistant to learning:

  • You like the plug and go features of that new piece of software that IT just rolled out, but you don’t have time for the advanced training. As long as the old shortcuts work, it’s all good
  • The report that you created in 2009 continues to be an excellent template for your client work
  • You wish the business administration would stop coming up with new processes and procedures to follow
  • When new projects and ideas are discussed, you can easily recall when they have been tried before and you are sceptical that they will work this time
  • The networking events you attend are filled with people from a similar education and professional background
  • Your friends are the same friends you have known for the last 10 years
  • Your reading list is dominated by genres and publications that you know you like
  • You have largely ignored social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as not relevant for business life – after all, there’s no measureable ROI from social media right?
  • When new people join your organization, you patiently school them on the culture and how things are done, to help them integrate…

Why does this happen?

Early in our career, we knew there was a ton of stuff we didn’t know.

We were consciously incompetent, and there was absolutely no risk to admitting it.  Always ready to volunteer for a new project and not afraid to ask ‘dumb’ questions.

But as you progress further in your career, and you begin to get promoted to realms of ever increasing seniority, it is harder and harder to maintain that inquisitive edge. Right around the time your career hits the murky middle, you run the risk of being afraid to fail.

What you know can hold you back from being open to what you don’t know. Leadership and other senior roles carry a baggage load of expectations and beliefs – yours and other peoples – which can create a barrier to learning and change. Worse still, the things you did to become successful can start to edge towards complacency.

Image courtesy of suphakit73 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of suphakit73 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Think about driving for a moment. Something that many of us do on a daily basis while barely thinking about what we are doing and how we are doing it. When we are first learning to drive, our conscious incompetence is a good thing.  It teaches us patience and humility.  We are so focused on learning we may even have to have the window closed and the radio off to allow us to concentrate. Then gradually we become increasingly confident, until we no longer have to think about the collection of activities involved. That is when driving can become complacent and dangerous.

Similarly, becoming a leader in a state of unconscious competence can be career suicide.

How can you remain immune to this natural progression?

There are many examples where, in our private lives, we try new things and remain open to new experiences. We learn to play music, travel, try new foods. We need to remember to take this openness and willingness to experiment back into the workplace on a daily basis. Create immunity by purposefully placing yourself in situations where you are NOT the expert and where you are forced to rely on someone else for direction and insights. Force yourself back into a state of conscious incompetence.

A few years ago I decided to take up speed skating (or speed falling as my husband affectionately called my attempts to skate).

My son had been skating competitively for a couple of years and I decided it was time to get out of the stands and have a go. Bearing in mind that I grew up in England, where strapping on a pair of skates is at best an annual event, I was consciously placing myself in a very precarious position where I knew nothing about the technicalities of skating (finding my edges was a revelation !).  Being a typical A type personality, having the other beginners (who were mostly 20 years younger than me) literally skating rings around me was disconcerting but also liberating. I was not the best. I was not the fastest. Heck, I could barely stand upright for the first few weeks. But I was wide open to learning.

I have had similar experiences with learning to play the piano from scratch as an adult beginner, or taking up road-cycling (a new exploit). I consciously translate the essence of these situations to my work, where I freely admit the areas where I am less than comfortable. I ask members of my team for their ideas and their approaches to doing things I have sometimes been doing for years. I ask for additional ideas and methods even in areas where I feel confident. I never fail to be amazed by the ingenuity and proficiency of others.

  • What do you do to stay open to the ideas and different approaches presented by the people around you?
  • How does something you do in your personal life translate to making you a better leader at work?

I’d love to hear your experiences.

This post was inspired by an interview with Steve Cunningham – president and founder of curated learning tool Readitfor.me and CEO of Polar Unlimited Digital Marketing. Click here to listen to the interview on the Read it for me Blog. Thanks to Steve for a great conversation…

The new character witness – Social Media in the C-suite

Over the last several months I’ve been asked many times, and had cause to ponder, the pro’s and cons of jumping into social media in order to facilitate business growth.

If you’ve been anywhere near Twitter, Google or the blogosphere at any time in the last 12 months you will have heard many of the same questions – What’s the value? Where’s the return on investment? How do you measure effectiveness? How do you manage the risks? Who owns the social channel? etc. The list goes on. There are so many questions, and the answer for most of them is “it depends…” as in “it depends what your objectives are, who your customers are, what your business model is…”. Not that the use of social media is a temporary phenomenon. I truly believe that the socialization of business is here to stay. Its more that the choices of how to use these tools, who to have as the primary representatives of your organization and what sort of content to publish and share is dependent on your overall business goals.

So what role if any, should C-level executives, senior leaders and owners of businesses be taking in the adoption of these tools? Should they leave the discovery and leverage of communications technology to their marketing and PR professionals, or should they be leading by example?

One of the most interesting things I have witnessed in my own journey of discovery (revealing my bias that leaders should be wielding the machete when it comes to exploring new possibilities and models of doing business) is just how revealing a collection of 140 character statements can be, over time. Like watching the gradual build of an impressionistic painting, you can learn a lot from watching how people craft a quick tweet, reply to a follower, offer a point of view in a chat and generally interact.

One of the most delightful leaders I have had the pleasure to meet and chat with online and later offline (Sam Parrotto @qstreet) made the observation that she learns as much from how a tweeter interacts with others as she does from her own engagement with that same person. I’ve also seen how this same impression of someone’s intelligence, political persuasion, influence, and credibility translates to a real life setting, with offline meet-ups skipping easily over the mutual sniffing rituals and heading straight into the realm of warm reunions.

I’ve said before, social media doesn’t make you social, it amplifies personality traits and raises my awareness of those I want to interact with and those I admire. In that regard, social media IS the new character witness. The uncensored interactions that people have online, accelerate the opinions we form (the good, the bad and the ugly). Self-servitude, arrogance, deafness and egotistical behaviour can be amazingly evident if you watch, look and listen to how people approach their online community. While warmth, generosity, engagement and sincere responsiveness just exude from others. Just look at the amazing list of 60 men and 60 women on twitter that the wonderful Margie Clayman has put together and you’ll see exactly what I mean. While I most certainly agree with her choices, having the pleasure to ‘know’ many of these men and women from my own travels through the stream, Margie’s personal notes about why she admires each of the people on her lists and how she first met them is clear evidence of her world view. Margie is a maven extraordinaire. I love her authenticity and contribution to collaborative learning. A leader in her field, undoubtedly.

Just as I am forming impressions of individuals from the way they interact online, I am also forming impressions of businesses and their level of involvement with their communities. As the war for professional talent has heated up and continues to be a hot topic for 2011, I’m sure I’m not alone in weighing up judgements about an organization’s innovation culture by who it is heading up their social media efforts. If I see a company engaging in social media through their marketing or PR team, that’s okay, but it’s all too clearly a tactic. When I see real leaders engaging authentically through the social media channels, responding in a human way to the comments, questions and interests of others, and leading by example, I see them and the businesses they represent as more interesting and real. I know which I would rather do business with…

What do you think! Can you really get to ‘know’ someone by watching the way they behave online? Do you admire CEO’s and other execs who jump ‘naked’ into the fray? Does a social media presence manned by a C-level executive provide you with a different impression of a company? Maybe you think the CEO has better things to do than tweet. Would love your thoughts on this.

The End of the Visionary? Leadership in 21st Century

It wasn’t that long ago that being a leader meant being the most assertive, driven, autocratic and demanding person in the room. Exemplary leaders of the last few centuries have been innovators, thought leaders and icons with unshakably confidence in the direction they were leading their business. One can only imagine how intimidating and exhilarating it must have been to have the opportunity for an ‘audience’ with such a Chief. Indeed, who needed Klout, in a time when reportedly the likes of Jack Welch and Steve Jobs could cast their vote on your future success within seconds of meeting you, and watch lists of the Top 40 under 40 either made or broke your career aspirations.

In fact, many tomes still espouse the ideal scenario of the leader who sets a clear vision for the future and then works with his/her team to steer all efforts in that singular direction. Many discussions on change management continue to perpetuate the myth that all it takes to motivate people is to paint such a compelling and aspirational image of the future that people are eager to jump on board and do whatever it takes to get there.

Then Jim Collins set a ball rolling with the epic “Good to Great” suggestion that charismatic, celebrity leaders may not provide the greatest return on investment for their organizations. The humbler, more humanistic level 5 leader become an interesting dichotomy for those who aspired to the corner office enough to read Collin’s book. People started to question if unwavering (some might call dogmatic) determination to set a strategic direction and then continue to pursue the vision come hell or high water was the most appropriate model for business success.

Along with the shift introduced by Collins, has come a not-to-be-ignored groundswell of people looking for more purpose in their work.  Gen Y’s demands to be heard, the Linchpin’s drum beat of contribution, the Free-Agent and Drive nation stating that if their leaders wont recognize their talents they will up sticks and move elsewhere. All have crescendoed into the emergence of a new type of leader – The Leader as Facilitator.

The current batch of leaders to inspire a generation are clearly still assertive and confident in their own intellect and creativity. But there is space in their hearts and their egos for the contributions of others. They collaborate. They recognize and admit the areas where they are not strong and seek openly to complement their absence of strengths by working with others. They seek input, take direction and listen and support the ideas of others, sometimes in preference to their own. When they have a clear idea of what they’d like to do – they share it. When they are missing pieces of information, they state clearly what they know and where the gaps are and they ASK for help.

So, are you a 21st Century Leader?

  • When you are working with others, do you openly admit what you don’t know and seek help?
  • Do you appreciate and value the contributions of others, even when their views and approaches may be diametrically opposed to your own.
  • Do you welcome diversity of thinking and behaviour and see it as an opportunity to learn a new perspective?
  • Do you take accountability for your actions, and the impact you have on others around you? (intended or otherwise)
  • Do you promote and encourage others to think for themselves, try new things, experiment and even fail – without stepping in and trying to ‘correct’ them?
  • If people try, and stumble, do you support the learning they have accomplished?
  • Are you open to learning from those who are younger, less experienced or less educated than you are?
  • Are you willing to show your vulnerability, and your lack of knowledge, in order to open the door for new possibilities?

I know which kind of leader I aspire to be. And like the best role models I have had the pleasure to work with, I admit… I am a work in progress.  Long may I continue to learn and collaborate!

p.s. THANKS #UsGuys for the #UsBlogs challenge which inspires this post!  I look forward to reading the other posts & attaching their links as an update.

(Updated with the extended Roundup, Thanks Tom!)

I see dead people…

If you’re a fan of M.Night Shayamalan then you’ll recognize this memorable line from the Movie The Sixth Sense.  This is the moment when Haley Joel Osment provides Bruce Willis with a huge insight into what might be going on. He goes on to share that they are… “Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.”

At the time, Bruce’s character Malcolm puts this odd comment down to a young boy’s morbid imagination. It takes several more scenes for Bruce’s character Malcolm Crowe, and the audience watching, to realise what Cole really meant with these words.  The power of the movie comes from this slow realisation that a change in mindset and perspective is needed to truly see what is happening all around them.

I sometimes wonder if that’s what’s going on in the corporate world today. In amongst the change agents and innovators, the doers and decision makers, are a large number of ‘ghosts’ not realising that the conversations they are having and work they are doing are part of an old reality. People clinging to a sense of what used to work, the way things have always been done, and the comfortable tried and true… But the world of work has changed. As people are shouting from the rooftops all around us – lead, rise up, make a difference, bring value, build business based on trust, give away knowledge, attract followers, stop interrupting people, give people a reason to invest in you or your business (by providing deep value…)

Don’t wait for the splashes of red to learn you’re one of the dead people…

Are you really making a difference???

I am a huge fan of Seth Godin, and others of his cohort. They have taught us all so much about reaching for our full potential and making a difference in the world. They are clearly very insightful thinkers with a massive audience of followers and believers in their message.

Why then are so many who claim to be fans still failing to act differently!!!

In his recent post You’re already self employed, Seth makes a simple and elegant ‘call to action’ to shake people out of their sheepwalk. At the time of writing this some 450 people had retweeted the post and I’m sure by the end of the day many more will have done so.

However it reminds me of the saying

“when all is said and done, more is said than done”.

I have observed the reality that Seth speaks of, in companies where people bemoan the lack of empowerment and autonomy to change their role but do NOTHING to challenge the status quo and help establish better ways. They wait for the organisation to GIVE them the authority rather than claim their own role in leading the way. Even people who have leadership titles often wait to be shown the way….HUH???

And then there are others who clearly think their role is to keep on doing stuff without questioning whether that stuff is of ANY value to the organisation. How many countless hours are wasted on reports that gather dust, presentations that do not inspire change and meetings which put people to sleep?

When you are self-employed you have to demonstrate the value that you bring to the table EVERY day. You have to SHOW UP and be counted. Perhaps if more people did that, they would find themselves actively engaged instead of sucking a paycheque and waiting for the weekend.

So – people – show some respect for the man you claim to rever so much. Don’t just retweet his elegant words and succint messages. Go make a difference….