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Play to Strengths (#92)

One of the worst pieces of leadership advice I ever received was when I was 24. Someone with a military background told me that his approach to management involved identifying his teams’ weakness and focusing intensely on improving them.

While this may seem logical to some, I have come to realize over the years that this approach is very misguided. Sure, it’s important to know our weakness and mitigate them by becoming more self-aware, but focusing on them instead of what we do well doesn’t help accelerate our growth path.

High-achievers and great leaders focus on their strengths. We all have areas of superior skill sets, something that Dan Sullivan, founder and president of Strategic Coach, coined Unique Ability®.

When we are working within our Unique Ability, time flies by and money isn’t the motivation. Studies of success have found that those who have tapped into their Unique Ability are happier, wealthier and contribute more to the world.  A few years ago, I heard Lewis Schiff, executive director of the Inc. Business Owners Council, speak about his findings from his own wealth research. Here are a few that stood out:

  • 58% of those in the middle class put effort into getting better at things they are not good at.
  • 0% of high net worth millionaires put effort into getting better at things they are not good at. Instead, they outsource those skills and tasks to people who naturally are.
  • In response to the statement, “Failures have taught me what I am good at” 17% of middle class respondents said yes whereas 95% of those in the high net worth category said yes.

Gaining clarity about your Unique Ability is a key component of high achievement.  However, tapping into it is often challenging for most. It can take time, patience and even involve a few dead ends. Whether you want to uncover yours, or help others discover theirs, here are a few tips:

For Individuals: If you don’t know what your strengths are, consider taking a few personality tests such as DISC or Strength Finders. These can help you better understand your natural talents, passions and even what types of environments you work best in. Another tip is to look back at the comments on your report cards from elementary school to see if any trends emerge. I recently did this and found the process to be both insightful and a bit eerie.

Here are a few comments my preschool teacher wrote about my strengths and weaknesses when I was five:

“He continually impresses me with his creative inventions and his zealousness toward new projects.”

“He is not afraid to say what is on his mind, but often does so without realizing the impact that his words might have on others”

These comments could have been from my most recent 360 Review.

As you take stock in your own strengths, it’s also important to be self-aware about your “weaknesses” and for your awareness of them to match what others would say about you. In this process, keep in mind that, when known, these are just areas of your personality that you can better manage and, in some cases, neutralize. If unknown, they are areas of weakness.

For Managers and Leaders. Great leaders recognize their weaknesses and use that knowledge to build teams with complementary skills. They also understand the strengths and weakness of their team and play to individuals’ strengths. For example, if your top sales person struggles to fill out paperwork, don’t berate them about it. Get them an assistant so they can focus on selling more. In addition, having your team complete the Delegate & Elevate tool can shed light on what people on your team want and don’t want to be doing and where you can better support them.

I would describe my role today at Acceleration Partners as “Head of Creative Inventions and New Projects.” I have also put a lot of effort into a candid feedback system I call “Respectful Authenticity.” Turns out, my preschool teacher had me pegged.

Quote of the Week

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

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Preventative Maintenance (#89)

Despite there being over 40 million flights per year, it’s rare for an airplane to crash or fall out of the sky. A main reason for this is this is that the airline industry is focused on preventative maintenance.

There is an understanding that the costs associated with being reactive is likely to be catastrophic, both in terms of loss of life and money. Therefore, planes and parts are routinely inspected and replaced before they go bad.

This concept of preventative maintenance and being proactive is something we teach our account managers here at Acceleration Partners. Instead of just waiting for a client to bring up an issue or comment on a trend, we encourage them to proactively address it before the client does.

It’s understood that waiting until the client brings it up is too late. The cost of inaction is always more expensive than addressing a problem proactively, whether that’s a financial cost or damage to the relationship or reputation.

With hurricanes Harvey and Irma dominating the news and compelling millions to evacuate, this topic of preventative maintenance comes squarely into focus. While there are heated debates about the causes of such devastating storms, its undeniable that the world is warming and the seas are rising. Yet, the increased likelihood of more catastrophic natural disasters is often ignored or overlooked, despite repeated warnings from experts.

A perfect example is the White House making a statement on Wednesday that, “This is not the time to talk about climate change.” Then when is?

It’s almost impossible to get state or federal governments to act on preventative measures. Politics, budgets and special interests all come into play; debates happen yet nothing gets done. Sadly, no one gets elected or becomes a hero by protecting us from the future. The glory is gained from the firefighting.

Then, a disaster like Irma or Harvey strikes. Suddenly everyone bands together. Budgets open up and unlimited funds are made available to clean up the mess. Heated discussions over the debt ceiling subside. This nonsensical cycle of focusing on the problem after it occurs—at an extraordinary expense—simply continues.

Contrast this approach with how the Dutch have managed to keep Amsterdam, a city that sits several feet below sea level, from flooding year after year. As this well written article outlines, the Dutch have developed a world-class flood prevention model with the goal to be able to survive a 4,000-year storm. They’ve also done an incredible job of getting everyone on the same page about the cost of inaction.

In other words, they are maintaining the planes before there is a crash.

This all circles back to the concept of Urgent versus Important. If we don’t take care of the important, we will be forced to deal with the urgent. Shouldn’t it be most important to protect against the realities of global climate change and rising sea levels?

Our inability to act in a preventative way keeps forcing us to deal with urgent situations and devastating consequences. It leaves us all hoping and praying that the worst-case scenarios don’t come true.

Today, we are in desperate need of leaders who can make decisions proactively around important issues as opposed to just reacting with urgency.

I never thought I would say this, but we need to learn from the airline industry.

Quote of the Week

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Benjamin Franklin

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Calm is Contagious (#79)

Last week, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at my third Tugboat Institute Summit, promoting the Evergreen business movement of market-leading businesses looking to make a dent in the universe.

One of my favorite speakers at Tugboat is Commander Rorke T. Denver. Rorke has run every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs and led special-forces missions all around the world. His lessons on leadership, such as last year’s takeaway on “playing without a safety net,” are incredibly insightful and valuable.

This year, while leading a segment on the “warrior mindset,” Rorke was asked about the biggest lesson he learned from his time in the Navy SEALs; the answer was surprising.

To graduate from SEAL basic training (BUD/S), something approximately only 25 percent of those who start will do, there is a final exercise that requires rehearsing a mission and then executing it on time. About midway through the mission, his group realized they could not complete it on time. In response, the class leader was frenetically running around screaming at people, which only served to make effective decisions impossible.

Having witnessed this erratic behavior, a Master Chief Petty Officer, the most senior enlisted member of the U.S. Navy, gave Rorke’s group an invaluable piece of advice that he’d learned from another Master Chief during the Vietnam War. The advice he gave was simple: “Calm is Contagious.” He explained that their team members would mimic or amplify their behavior, whether that be calm, chaos or panic.

There are definitely a few times in life when we need to fully engage our fight or flight response with an appropriate level of panic, adrenaline and even stress. However, when a leader of one of the most elite and deadly military units in the world counts his biggest learning as “Calm is Contagious,” it should give us pause to how we approach many of our everyday situations.

We all want to be around people who are calm and in control. But we also have an opportunity to be that person for our colleagues, our families and even ourselves. Our ability to calm ourselves and reduce stress fundamentally changes how we react and how we make decisions.

Given that others are likely to mimic or amplify your behavior, think closely about what you want that behavior to be.

To watch Rorke tell this story himself, check out this YouTube video.


Quote of the Week

“Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.”

Walter Isaacson

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Acting on Feedback (#70)

Giving and taking feedback is a popular topic these days. Companies are going to great lengths to solicit more feedback from employees and customers – especially those regularly turning to social media.

In my many discussions with high-achieving individuals and companies, one thing that consistently sets them apart is their willingness to not only receive candid feedback, but to then act on it.

Acting on feedback is harder than it seems. It means that we need to first accept what people are telling us about how we can improve and overcome our inherent cognitive dissonance. It also means admitting that we don’t always have the best ideas and be comfortable giving credit to others. These are hallmark signs of a great leader. Individuals who want to do and be better don’t care where the best ideas or suggestions come from.

Here are two examples of CEO’s who have recently accepted and acted upon customer feedback:

If you want to be an effective leader, it’s vital that you demonstrate a willingness to act on feedback. Doing so conveys that you are approachable, solution-oriented, and are looking for the best ideas—regardless of where they came from and irrespective of credit.

When people see and experience this positive feedback loop, they will be even more open and honest with you or your company; it’s that open, honest communication that leads to major breakthroughs within an organization, and it costs you nothing.

To do for next week: Act on someone else’s suggestion, let them know, and see what happens.

Quote of The Week

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

Elon Musk

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Showing Some Love (#67)

It’s hard to turn on the news these days. Between partisan politics, random acts of violence, and company scandals, we’re inundated with stories about people and businesses treating each other poorly.

Nowhere was this more evident than when United Airlines visibly dragged a passenger off an airplane this week because he refused to be bumped from an overbooked flight. The man was a doctor and had surgeries scheduled for the next morning. Apparently, United couldn’t get anyone to accept their final offer to give up their seat, so front-line employees decided it would be better to resort to brute force and physically remove a paying passenger from the plane.

Companies spend millions of dollars a year on advertising to attract customers, yet, when they have the chance to embrace relationships with their current customers, they repeatedly fail.

Contrast the actions of these United employees with those of Southwest Airlines. In 2015, they forever changed the lives of Peggy Uhle and her son. Peggy’s Southwest flight from Raleigh-Durham to Chicago was getting ready to take off when the pilot suddenly turned around and headed back to the gate. Peggy was asked to get off the plane, which led her to assume that she had boarded the wrong flight. What she discovered, however, was that her son had been in a terrible accident in Denver and was in a coma.

Not only had the gate attendant re-booked her on the next direct flight to Denver, Southwest employees offered her a private waiting area, rerouted her luggage, let her board first, and gave her a boxed lunch when she got off the plane. They also delivered her luggage to where she was staying, never asked for payment, and an employee even called to ask how her son was doing.

While the press and goodwill Southwest Airlines received from this incident was significant, it was not the driving force behind their actions. The employees were simply demonstrating Southwest’s core purpose to “Connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.”

These values empowered key stakeholders (the employees) to do what was right for the customer, without question or hesitation. Contrast this with United who, very generically, aspires to be the “airline of choice.” In fact, the only other reference to core values I could find online was a very legally worded “code of ethics and conduct overview

There are a few key takeaways from these contrasting stories. The first is that the culture and values we create in our business and homes will lead to specific behaviors by our employees and family – for better or for worse. Therefore, it’s imperative that we be very clear and explicit about what we stand for in terms of each.

The other major lesson is that we need to focus more on seeing people as human beings, not simply as a client, partner, or competitor. If we treat them with respect and/or help them selflessly in a time of need, we will create more positive outcomes all around. United employees decided it was better to drag a passenger off a plane than to up their $800 offer and own their mistake. Southwest just decided to do the right thing. Karma took care of the rest.

Quote of The Week

“A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”

Herb Kelleher (founder of Southwest)

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Management Principle: True Leaders

What are the beliefs and the behaviors of true leaders? With so many people articulating different views, it’s hard to decipher a universal model upon which everyone would agree.

Some people believe in the “end-justifies-the-means” approach suggested by the likes of Niccolo Machiavelli, author of “The Prince,” while others relate to the more servant-leader approach articulated by Jim Collins’ in his book, “Good to Great.” We could easily move to a debate about what’s ethical versus effective, and totally miss the fact that all leaders work with human beings who possess the facilities of mind, will and emotions, rather than the hoped-for robots that respond to commands with precise execution and blind obedience.

The bottom line is this: those leaders who focus on winning the active support of those they lead, utilizing wholesome influence skills, historically have better results than those who use the coercive, stern discipline approach, supported by shame and humiliation, to get people to act. Anyone I know, if asked to choose between William Wallace and Adolph Hitler to be their leader, would align with William Wallace based on his ability to lead from the front and inspire his people, and, whose dedication and love for his men were clearly known and demonstrated. So what guidance does this provide for us in our quest to become true leaders?

True and good leaders are those who have the ability and energy to sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves, while focusing on the welfare of those under their charge, leaving their own personal concerns and desires for last. This choice and lifestyle is professional behavior, and not something one arrives at easily–anything less than this is something other than true leadership. If our motive for becoming a leader is rooted in a desire for power and/or money (cast as “career growth”), we will likely harm our people and the overall cause, doing ourselves no good in the end. The proper motivation for leadership is rooted in the discipline of service. And, while we may fool ourselves regarding our true motives and desires, they will be crystal clear to everyone else.

Here is a good prescription to follow, to make sure we are walking down the right path.

1- Do justice. Do right by the company and its clients, as well as your staff. When there are tensions between any of these constituencies, ask yourself the question: What creates a fair, win-win for all concerned? Don’t be satisfied with anything less. If someone is misbehaving in some way, violating the principle of justice, move toward them in a spirit of wholesome conflict and stand strong. Follow the principles of justice and fairness.True Leaders

2- Love mercy. The way to get people to act as a volunteers, and serve with a whole heart, is to adopt a development mindset and avoid being accusational or judgmental. Being judgmental harms people, regardless of your intention. Most people are eager to learn when given a true opportunity in a safe environment. Just because someone can’t read your mind doesn’t mean they are intentionally trying to make your life hard.

3- Walk humbly. The egotistical leader is a total turnoff to almost all followers. For those who embrace the narcissistic model, people will bemoan their leadership. Don’t assume that you are exempt from this pitfall. We can’t see pride in the mirror. If you’ve made it about you (put yourself in the center) and fail to truly serve your people with whatever degree of power you have, you’ll never have the respect and therefore the sacrificial volunteerism of your people. If you make it about them, versus making it about you, they’ll follow you forever.

Coaching questions: Where might you need to grow in your own motivations and therefore in your leadership skill? Who can help you to manage that growth and provide accountabilities for your success? Write your answers in your journal.

Read more coaching principles from Dean Harbry on the Internal Innovations website.