man standing at middle of cornfield

Uncertainty is always around, but we manage to get through

I started writing my newsletter, The Cautious Optimist, in the spring of 2009. Like today, that was a dark and scary time. The financial world was collapsing around us, unemployment was skyrocketing, and everything was very uncertain. I chose the title deliberately because it captured the attitude I was trying to cultivate – not a rose-colored “Little Mary Sunshine” perspective, but a realistic confidence that things would get better. 

And here we are again. It’s a very different crisis from the 08-09 financial meltdown, but once again we are surrounded by collapse and uncertainty. It’s been 11 years, and I’m still writing The Cautious Optimist, and people are still reading and responding to it. No one knows what the future holds, but I’m confident that cautious optimism is still the best game in town. 

remote meeting

What crisis leadership looks like during Coronavirus and after

I don’t know about you, but my inbox has been deluged with well-meaning, useless Coronavirus advice. If one more person sends me information on how to wash my hands or socially distance myself or engage with my team, I’m going to say a bad word. As a result, I have been avoiding sending out advice of my own.

And then amid all the noise I got a PowerPoint deck from my colleague Nancy Picard, one of the smartest people I know. Her deck was full of useful guidance about how to lead right now — useful enough that I was moved to share it with you.

Interviewing Technical Talent

In the fiercely competitive world of hiring technical talent, what interview approach differentiates top technicians who will work well in your company? Surprisingly, assessing “soft skills” may be as important as evaluating the candidate’s technical skills.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle

You may not be able to play the guitar or scream out a song like a rock star, but if you’re a business leader, your lifestyle may be as unhealthy as a rock star’s: too much travel, dashing from one meeting to the next, working long hours, and eating on the run. A recent book, The Rockstar Remedy by Francis and Massand, has some good advice. Don’t expect yourself to make healthy choices all the time – aim for 90%. Then focus on five areas:
– Detox: get rid of the things that are poisoning you physically or emotionally
– Food: eat for beauty, stamina, and focus
– Body: find exercise you love
– Mind and Spirit: practice therapies and treatments that you bring you back into harmony
– Socialize: strengthen connections with those you love

Sounds like good advice, whether you are Beyonce, Tim Cook, or you.

The Sisterhood Code

The recent Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers was an energizing event. Thousands of women engineers gathered in downtown LA to learn, network, and celebrate. These are groundbreaking women who are using their intelligence and drive to carve out new roles and pave the way for others. I was honored to be an invited speaker for a Mega Session on “Finding and Using Your Power.” Among other aspects of mobilizing female power, I talked about the power of women working together. I shared “The Sisterhood Code,” a document I had written a couple of years ago after hearing about “The Bro Code.” Some audience members asked me to post The Sisterhood Code on my website, so here it is:

The Sisterhood Code

I will combat negative stereotypes of women.
I will cheer the successes of other women.
I will stick up for other women.
I will look for ways to promote other women’s careers.
I will trade favors with other women.
I will value other women’s work.
I will measure my success in part by how well I help other women to succeed.
I will be inclusive of women.
I will value myself, my talents, and my contributions.
I will guard against my own anti-woman thoughts and behaviors with vigilance.

Women won’t achieve equality without the help and support of our male colleagues. But we can start by ensuring that we are helping and supporting each other.

Fathers, Daughters, and Business Leadership

Does having a daughter change a man’s leadership style? Several recent research articles suggest that it does. Male judges with daughters are more likely to rule in favor of women’s rights. And companies led by men with daughters make more progress in closing the wage gap between men and women.

This is a beautiful example of how a leader’s personal life affects his or her leadership choices. Although we like to pretend that we are “all business,” in fact we bring our whole selves to work, like it or not. Having a daughter often changes a man in profound ways. Many fathers are fiercely protective of their daughters and deeply invested in their happiness and success. Through that personal connection, male leaders often become much more aware of the inequalities women face in the workplace. Gender discrimination is no longer an abstract concept – it is a threat to their daughters’ well-being.

This has implications for how women can successfully craft mentorship relationships with male leaders. Many successful mentorship relationships resemble father-daughter relationships. The male executive becomes emotionally invested in his female mentee’s success and helps her to develop her leadership skills and break through barriers.

For more of my thoughts on this topic, check out “Why Men with Daughters may be the Key to Closing the Gender Wage Gap” in Fast Company.

When to Fire a Client

Cramer-Krasselt, an ad agency, recently announced they would no longer work as lead creative agency for Panera Bread. While subsequent news stories made this a “he said/she said” story as to who fired whom, the conflict raises the interesting question of when a business should fire one of its customers or clients.

Most businesses place great emphasis on creating a great client experience and putting the client at the center of what they do. Attracting and retaining customers is the lifeblood of a business. In most cases, there are ways to improve a client relationship that is running into trouble. And yet – there are times when the prudent business decision is to terminate a client relationship.

At the heart of this decision is a cost-benefit analysis. How much is the client worth to your company? And what is the relationship costing you? This is in part a hard-nosed quantitative analysis. Some clients demand a great deal of service and are unwilling or unable to pay a fair price. Some customers are truly money-losers.

But what makes the calculation more complicated is that part of the cost/benefit analysis is qualitative. Consider the following scenarios:
• A not-for-profit organization has been a long-time user of your services or products. They cannot afford to pay your regular fee. But they are highly-regarded in your community and their work is highly congruent with your company values.
• A high paying client is difficult and demanding to work with. He is rude to your staff, inconsistent in his requirements, and never satisfied. Some of your staff members refuse to work with him.
• You learn that a highly regarded client is engaging in behavior you consider unethical.

In cases like these, the issue is not just financial. It has to do with your company’s culture and brand. What is it worth to you to protect your company’s people and values? Part of visionary business leadership is the ability to weigh the intangibles as well as the tangibles and to do what is in the best interests of your company.

Can female leaders be tough cookies and bring the cookies?

How can senior women executives wield power without being seen as monsters? The recent firing of Jill Abramson from her job as Editor of the New York Times has reopened questions about women and leadership. While women have made immense strides at lower levels of business and the professions, we continue to be a rare breed at the top of the house. And even when a woman makes it to the top, constant pitfalls await her.

The core of the problem is that our images of a good leader and our images of a good woman continue to be incompatible. Leadership is associated with traits like toughness, forcefulness, decisiveness, and a willingness to do what needs to be done without letting emotions get in the way. Womanhood is associated with gentleness, kindness, openness, and sensitivity to emotions. So what’s a woman to do?

Successful women typically craft a leadership style which includes elements of both images. This requires a very nuanced and difficult balancing act, and it’s very easy to lose that balance. Both men and women are very quick to criticize a woman’s leadership style, often for behaviors that would be admired and appreciated in a male leader.

When we evaluate the effectiveness of senior women leaders, both women and men need to use our heads, rather than responding emotionally to powerful women. We all had mothers – we all have feelings about those mothers – and our female boss is not our mother.

For more on this topic, check out my recent comments in Crain’s Chicago Business here.

crying employee

Crying 101

Almost every business leader has experienced it – an employee is crying in your office. It’s usually a very awkward moment for both people, and many leaders are at a loss about how to respond. Here are some pointers:

  • Stop talking for a few moments.
  • Silently offer the person a tissue. Smart business leaders always have some at hand.
  • Usually the person will start to apologize because he or she is humiliated to have lost control. Quietly reassure them it is ok.
  • Say something empathic, such as “This is tough.”
  • As soon as they have themselves under control, resume the conversation, talking quietly. Ask them if they are alright now.
  • Move the conversation forward.

These behaviors accomplish three goals: you are being kind, you are helping them to regain their self-control, and you are not allowing the conversation to become derailed. In addition, you are reducing your own discomfort with the situation. Tears are a normal human expression of a variety of feelings – sadness, fear, anger, and others. Having a script can help you respond in a helpful, business-like manner.

Parents in the Closet

A young woman partner in a law firm recently told me she had been advised never to mention her children at work.  Her mentor, an older woman partner, firmly announced that talking about their kids made women seem unprofessional and lacking the single-minded commitment and ambition that senior leadership demands.  As a result, the young woman never tells anyone that her standing weekly meeting on Monday afternoons is with her daughter.

I suddenly had a flash of memory to the bad old days when
gay people had to keep their personal lives a secret at work.  Being “in the closet,” whether as a parent or as a gay person, takes a tremendous amount of energy.  You have to come up with cover stories, guard your language, and be constantly vigilant so others won’t know your secret.

A senior executive recently told me that one of her mentors, who knew she was lesbian, advised her to quit hiding her identity at work.  When she followed that advice, within a year she had received two promotions.  Coming out of the closet freed up her energy so she could devote herself more fully and effectively to doing a superb job, resulting in her rapid ascent.

As corporations and professional services firms tackle the challenge of retaining and promoting top female talent, they need to take a look at the unwritten rules that keep parents, especially mothers, in the closet.  When both women and men can be open in the workplace about their parenting commitments and responsibilities, they will become more authentic and more productive leaders.

Agile Leadership Development

I never expected to learn a new approach to leadership development from software developers. I admit that I tend to think of most developers as socially isolated brainiacs with little interest in their own or others’ personal growth. But one of my favorite thought partners, Kate Garmey, recently introduced me to the “agile” approach to software development. Here are the basic steps of the agile approach:

  1. Take time to gather as much information as possible at the start of your project. Really get to know your clients and the full context in which they work.
  2. Start small. Build small pieces of the project quickly, try them out, tweak them, and try again.
  3. Test your product every step of the way. Expect to fail early and repeatedly.
  4. When the product is delivered to the client, do a retrospective on the process and get feedback.
  5. Commit to continuous improvement. The project is never done.

This approach is revolutionizing the way software is developed and delivered, and it seems to me it could also be very powerful in the world of leadership development. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t offer off-the-shelf approaches to leadership development. Don’t use the same assessment tools all the time, without regard to the nature of the problem. Take time to really understand the business context and the barriers to success.
  2. Do experiments. Try different ideas and approaches out and be ready to change and customize them quickly.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s the only way you will be bold enough to do really creative work.
  4. Take the time to reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t. In my experience, failing to reflect is one of the most common mistake business leaders make.
  5. Continuously look for ways to make a good program even better.

One note of warning – the agile approach is not a one-size-fits-all panacea. There are situations when it won’t work well, especially if the client is not interested or available to give the frequent feedback this process requires. Some clients may find this annoying or feel that it indicates a lack of expertise or confidence. But for many clients, it’s a highly collaborative and effective way to build something together. It seems to me that the agile approach could be useful in many endeavors besides software development. For more information, check out Kate’s blog at http://www.tablexi.com/blog/2013/11/an-agile-approach-to-developing-teams/business/ or take a look at The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson.