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 or take a look at The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson.

Core Values and Business Leadership

Why make a fuss about values in business leadership?  Don’t business leaders have enough of a challenge just trying to get the job done?  A recent blog post from our friend and colleague, Dan Wallace, a Partner at Tailwind Discovery Group, eloquently addressed this issue.  Dan cited a post from Michael Wheeler, a behavioral economist.  Wheeler was reflecting on the recent case of a British marine who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing a wounded, helpless enemy fighter in Afghanistan. Wheeler suggested that only a clear statement of the core belief, “Marines don’t do that,” might have stopped the soldier from committing this crime.

Dan proposed that, whether or not Wheeler is right about this particular incident, there’s an important underlying message.  As Dan wrote, “Being exceptionally clear about what you believe at your core – the small handful of behavior-guiding beliefs and values that are most important to you – can be exceptionally helpful when you least expect it.”

Dan cited three other examples of leaders who successfully navigated crises by relying on a core value to guide their judgment:

  • Sully Sullenberger, airline pilot: Sullenberger had decided years earlier that if he ever found himself flying a stricken plane, he would consider the plane lost and would concentrate only on saving the people on board.  As a result, when the crisis happened to his plane, he spent zero time considering whether he should attempt to get the plane to the closest airport, which might have saved the plane but would have put the passengers at much greater risk. This certainty saved him precious seconds, which he used to make the miracle water landing that saved the lives of his passenger and crew.
  • Kim Clark, Dean of the Harvard Business School: An applicant hacked the website that many business schools use to manage admissions, posted the hacking instructions online, and many other applicants hacked the site to check their admission status.  While most of the Deans of other business schools did nothing, Clark announced immediately that no applicant who hacked the site would be admitted to HBS that year.  They would be welcome to reapply, but the admissions committee would look closely at what they had learned from the experience.  Clark had a deeply held code of ethics that placed exceptionally high value on integrity, respect, and accountability, and he saw all three as having been violated by the hackers.  He said later that the correct course of action was so obvious to him that he did not have to give it conscious thought, and he never second-guessed himself.
  • James Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson: Burke made the decision to pull all Tylenol off store shelves, at the cost of millions of dollars, after seven people had died from poisoned Tylenol.  Six years earlier, as a brand-new CEO, Burke had challenged the company to either recommit to or discard its core value of putting the well-being of its customers first, regardless of the cost.  He had so deeply ingrained that value in himself that when the crisis occurred, he felt that the decision to pull the product had already been made.

As Dan wrote, “What these stories have in common is the link between values and identity.   These leaders were so completely clear about what they held most dear, about who they would want to be in a moment of crisis, that when that moment occurred, each took the action he’d have wanted to take had there been time for deliberation.  That’s what clarity about your core beliefs and values can do for you – guide you to the right action when you least expect to need the help, yet need it the most.  So take a clarity break and figure out what your handful of core beliefs or values are.  It will help you.  Do it soon.”

At the start of the new year, many people will take time to reflect on the past year and focus themselves for the new year.  Dan’s advice to include reflection on our core values is a powerful way to set ourselves up for a good new year.

Here Come the Millennials!

Tut-tut, what is the world coming to? This younger generation – pampered, entitled, irresponsible! So many of the baby-boomers are wringing their hands, forgetting that exactly the same complaints were leveled against us by our parents’ generation.

What is the real story on the Millennials, generally defined as people currently age 18-37? A recent article in Barron’s (4/29/2013) provides some interesting data.

First of all, there are a whole bunch of them – 86 million, the largest generation the US has ever seen. They have come of age at a difficult time: wars, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, the financial crisis and its aftermath. Many Millennials have had difficulty launching their careers, which contributes to their reputation of being overgrown adolescents. But in fact they are proving to be a remarkably resilient generation. They are reaching some milestones later than previous generations – first job, marriage, childbearing. But once they get going, their impact on the US economy will be profound.

After being hit hard by the recession, Millennials have recovered 75% of the jobs they lost. Contrary to popular horror stories, most Millennials are not crippled by student debt; the median debt is $14K. Forecasters predict that as their economic situation improves they will move out of their parents’ homes, establish households, have more babies, and buy homes and cars.

Many Millennials do not expect that the government is going to take care of them, so they are saving and investing. Retailers and financial institutions would do well to pay attention to this burgeoning market.

In many ways, the Millennials look increasingly like their parents. But there are three noteworthy differences. They are more politically liberal than previous generations. They are more inter-connected to each other and technology. And in a startling turnaround, Millennial women are more highly educated than their male peers and earn a higher income than their husbands in 1/3 of their marriages.

It’s going to be interesting to watch what happens as they take over the world.

Finding Meaning at Work

Unhappy at your job?  Looking for meaning in your work?  This is one of the most common themes I hear from business leaders and managers.  If you’re struggling, it may be that you are just in the wrong job.  But often, there are simple changes you can make to significantly increase your joy at work.

In Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick Lencioni identified three keys to misery – or fulfillment if they’re turned the other way – on the job.  Benchmark yourself and your job against his three criteria to see how you and your job measure up.

1. My boss knows who I am as a person.

Are you the person the boss wants to see coming down the hall, or will she duck into the first available conference room?  Your goal is to be “high visibility, low maintenance.”  You want to give your boss a clear line of sight to your achievements and contributions, which will help her to do her job.  That’s high visibility.  High maintenance, on the other hand, means you are bringing problems but not solutions, rubbing people the wrong way, or creating drama in the workplace.  In other words, you’re creating problems, which is not how you want your boss to see you.

How do you become “high visibility?”  You tell your boss about your successes, you bring solutions to problems, and you do this on the channel she is most likely to listen to.  By all means, share personal information, too, but do it in a measured and thoughtful manner.

And if you are the boss?  Make it a point to know your employees.  What drives them?  What brings out their best?  What is important to them outside of the workplace?

2. I have a way to measure how I’m doing at my job.

Many bosses are not good at giving feedback, especially positive feedback.  If you work for a boss who is stingy with the compliments, my advice is, “Don’t look for water in the desert.”  Go to others – peers, friends, etc. – for your warm fuzzies.  The most valuable feedback is intelligent, honest, and kind.  Look for the people who will give it to you.

If there are no formal reviews in your workplace, talk to your manager about how you can get more regular feedback.  Use that process to hear what the boss has to say and also to share how you add value to the company.  Create your own benchmarks for success.

If you are the boss, giving your employees meaningful feedback is one of your most important responsibilities.  Don’t shirk it.  If you’re not good at it giving feedback, get yourself some training.  An annual review process is not nearly enough.  Meeting with your employees to set measurable short-term goals and talking regularly about their progress will improve their productivity, their engagement, and your brand within the company.

3. I understand how my work contributes to the organization as a whole.

If you’re in sales, you are lucky in this regard.  If you don’t sell, the company goes out of business.  But for some jobs, the connection to the big picture is not so obvious.  Take time to figure out how your job matters – and why it makes a difference to do it well.  I recently watched an interesting presentation, “Sprinkling Fairy Dust.”  A former “custodial engineer” at Disneyworld talked about how he learned that mopping up “protein spills” was a critically important task for the success of the enterprise.  If you really cannot figure out how or why your work makes a difference, that’s probably a sign you need to look for another job.

If you are the boss, make sure that every employee understands how his job contributes to the company’s success.  Build employees’ emotional connection to the company by sharing information about how the company is doing and how their work makes a difference.

If you are unhappy in your job and looking for ways to make it more meaningful, give us a shout.  If you are a boss looking for ways to build passion and engagement among your employees, we have ideas for you.

Playing the Race Card

Business leaders who are committed to diversity and inclusion must be vigilant about subtle forms of discrimination in the workplace.  A recent example of disguised racial animosity is the newly popular phrase, “playing the race card.”  The term implies using one’s race in a manipulative and inappropriate manner to gain advantage or make excuses.

Without a doubt, there are times when unscrupulous people use their race – or gender,  religion, nationality, or disability – to gain unfair advantage.  Given the fact that race often puts people at an unfair disadvantage, it is not surprising that people sometimes want to turn the tables.

But the bigger problem is that we are using the “race card” label to undermine the legitimacy of important conversations about how race affects the ways leaders make decisions in the workplace.  It is naïve to think that racial attitudes and perceptions no longer play a part in how leaders are selected and promoted.  By labeling thoughtful and engaged conversations about race as “playing the race card,” we are delaying our progress toward a truly equal, merit-based work environment.