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Mon 5 October 2020
My company has been helping executives learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and there was one number that really stood out to me when I was checking out the data. Seven out of every ten executives in an Executive Mentor Program gave worse ratings to their own leadership ability than the ratings given by their colleagues on leadership as part of their 360-degree assessments.

This statistic fascinates me because it forces me to start questioning what these executives are seeing in themselves that their colleagues apparently miss.   

Is it an act of humility to acknowledge that there is room to grow even though one’s colleagues are satisfied with their leadership?

Is it a perceived lack of ability compared to other leaders they aspire to emulate (something which apparently is missed by their colleagues)?

Or is it a lack of self-confidence, and that more executives feel like they are “faking it” until the one day that they are actually “making it” (while their colleagues don’t know any better)?

To properly answer this, leadership should be defined. By leadership, the study focused on two areas: general perceptions of leadership (e.g. I feel this person is a good leader) and one’s ability to provide clear expectations for those that work with them.

As a society, we seemingly look to the most prominent business leaders as if they have it all together, brimming with confidence, and are unshakable.

We condition ourselves to believe that to be a leader, we must be ever confident and we must have all the answers. For some people, this is an attractive endeavor because our vision of ourselves is the person at the top making the decisions and having the answers – that almost by being at the top of an org chart that we will inherently have the answers (or an alternative solution) because we have control. For others, however, leadership is not an attractive endeavor because of the perceived responsibilities and eyeballs looking to you for what the next step should be; be open to criticism and all the while constantly nervous about whether or not you are choosing the correct path.

While we aren’t sure exactly why 70% of executives underestimate their leadership ability compared to their colleagues’ ratings, we do know that this mismatch in perception exists.

Therefore, there is good news and bad news implied by these findings. The bad news: for those people who are attracted to leadership because they believe that once they are a leader they will have the answers and the confidence; that seems to be an unlikely, though not unheard-of, outcome. Instead, this seems to show that leadership is a never-ending pursuit of improvement. This becomes exacerbated when team members and the people they work with don’t understand their expectations of themselves and the metrics they would like to achieve to be considered a success.

The good news: for those people that avoid leadership because of the perceived responsibility of knowing every next step, being criticized, and nervous about whether or not they are choosing the correct path; most leaders feel this way and the feeling doesn’t stop! Instead, it seems like they just get better at dealing with those feelings.

The reason this is good news is because it shouldn’t hold you back from pursuing opportunities to improve your leadership abilities. This feeling of nervousness when leading a group of people is normal (the data shows it!) and it probably won’t be going away anytime soon. If you lean into the opportunities that present themselves (or seek them out), you can ensure that you are constantly growing and learning.

Speaking of leaning in, Sheryl Sandberg’s story of joining Google embodies the lessons learned from somebody jumping into leadership despite the uncertainty.

Sheryl accepted a role at Google during Google’s infancy. Her prior work experience was in government and she had minimal experience working in technology or startups.

It had taken her almost a year of living in San Francisco to get her first job offer. But persistence paid off and eventually she was receiving multiple offers, one of which was with Google. The other offers were very similar with what she had done in the past and paid her more, but the opportunity for leadership and growth with those other companies wasn’t nearly as high as with Google.

She was torn about what to do. As she was about to reject the Google offer, she met with Eric Schmidt the then CEO of Google who was still part of the interview process (which also gives you an idea of how early this was with Google). She laid out all the offers she had on her spreadsheet and the pros and cons of each offer. The only substantial positive for Google compared to the other offers was the opportunity for growth and leadership.

So why did she choose Google?

It was Eric’s response that convinced her. Eric put his hand over her spreadsheet and said “Don’t be stupid. If somebody offers you a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask ‘which seat?’ you just get on.”

She accepted this new challenge of working in a different industry than she was accustomed to, learned to thrive in it, and transitioned that experience into what she is doing now: the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

If you are currently a leader, this executive data should hopefully be the inspiration to pursue new experiences and expand your horizons with the hope that it improves your leadership abilities. You don’t need to follow what you think is a “tried and true” method to leadership because there is no “tried and true” method to leadership. Leadership is constantly evolving and 70% of executives feel they are worse leaders compared to their colleagues’ perception of them. 

This is not a guarantee that trying new activities will have some magical power that directly improves your leadership. You might not even realize your strengths and growth as a leader until much later. But, doing nothing new and avoiding challenges is a sure-fire way to stagnate. 

Thu 20 August 2020
As a business leader, you are expected to be many things, but being a mind reader is not in your job description. You are not expected to know what is going on with your people at all times of the day and what’s going on in their heads from day-to-day.

But you are expected to have at least some sense of what your people are going through and how they are generally feeling about it. When you are out of touch and out of sync with your team, you risk losing your best people and not having any clue as to why or how you could have fixed things.

You may think to yourself “I know what is going on with my team and don’t need any help with this.”

The data suggests that this is most likely not true.

My team and I at Ambition In Motion facilitate mentor programs for companies and organizations to help improve their team’s communication. One of the key findings we have discovered is that 68% of engaged employees believe that there are communication barriers between themselves and other employees or departments at work – this issue affects everyone, including senior leaders and managers, and there are even greater reports of communication barriers from disengaged employees.

The point is this: if you are a senior leader at a company or a business owner, look around at the people you work with. Which of them do you think are engaged versus disengaged? The answer may surprise you.

If you think everyone is engaged, the chances are that you are mistaken (unless it is a one-person business). If you know people are disengaged and do nothing about increasing engagement, why risk letting those disengaged feelings grow stronger?

The data from Gallup clearly shows that disengaged employees are half as productive compared to engaged employees. That’s doubling your losses on lost time. Shoot, even if you increase engagement by a small amount, that could lead to a 20% increase in productivity from those that are disengaged.

This article is not meant to point out how blind you are in terms of your people. But it is meant to open your eyes a little bit and showcase one low-cost high-reward action you can begin doing today that will help you avoid your best people leaving.

And by the way, I am not immune to these mistakes either. I had to learn these lessons the hard way.

To showcase this, I will share the story of the first full-time hire I made. The first full-time hire I made was a brilliant developer who was getting his PhD in complex systems. He was the president of the technology entrepreneurship club at his university, and he and I had a prior relationship before I hired him. He also came highly recommended by multiple professors and previous employers. In short, he was a fantastic addition to the team. 

He also told me that he was leaving his PhD program because he didn’t like his advisor and wanted to join a startup (like Ambition In Motion).

The hire seemed like a perfect fit and when we first started, we made some incredible progress on our technology.  

Things were going smoothly until about 6 months in. I was noticing that he was getting less work done, so I asked him about it. He acknowledged my request and said that he would improve and so I took his word at face value instead of digging deeper. 

What he didn’t tell me was that he didn’t actually end up leaving his PhD program. He had a change of heart and didn’t want to let me down by telling me. So he held it back thinking that he could manage both at the same time.  

Eventually, we had a discussion and he told me. Fortunately, he recommended a friend that was helping with the code and we brought him on to pick up my original developer’s lost production.

My issue was that I had no idea what was going on with my lead developer. I initially felt betrayed; it just hurt a bit knowing that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing this big decision with me. If you are a seasoned executive, you might think that it was naive of me to not require a formal letter indicating he had left his PhD program. That might have alleviated that issue, but it also would have completely warped the trust we were developing at the beginning of the relationship. And more likely than not, another issue would have come up down the line and a similar result would have occurred.

I eventually realized it was my fault. Not that I didn’t ask my original developer for a formal letter declaring he was fully on-board, but that I never asked about him and what was going on with his world. And because I didn’t ask about him, we had fewer opportunities for him to dig deeper with me. We can point fingers and try to allocate responsibility all we want, but we can only control our own actions here and I should have done more.

After facilitating thousands of mentoring relationships, I have learned that the key to building trust is vulnerability and I believe that this holds true in work relationships as well.

When I was onboarding this new developer, I decided to do something different. At the end of all of our weekly one-on-one meetings, I schedule 10 minutes for vulnerability where both of us share something that is making us feel vulnerable that week. 

The result: we have been working together for over 2.5 years and have an incredible relationship. As a startup, we have made huge pivots, performed massive rewrites on our code, adapted our business model, and overall have really gone through some stressful situations. But, in the end, I still feel extremely in-tune with what is going on with his world and I think he feels extremely in-tune with what is going on with mine. Oh, and on a quick final note, we’ve never met in-person. 

I schedule these vulnerability exercises with everyone on my team during our one on one meetings, and so far, I haven’t had anyone quit since I started doing them (knock on wood!). However, I have had many hard conversations with people on my team and helped brainstorm solutions for tough problems so my team can live the life they want to live while also getting the work they need to get done accomplished. 

Prior to scheduling these vulnerability exercises, I rarely had these kinds of hard conversations. And that led to everyone on my team pretty much just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. That works right up until they quit and I was left questioning what went wrong.

I am not saying I know everything about managing people, but I can definitely say that scheduling time for vulnerability in one on one meetings has had a massive impact on retention and productivity of my team. 

You may think to yourself that this can’t scale. And for you, it can’t. But if you integrate this technique across your whole team during their own meetings, it absolutely can. You can facilitate horizontal mentoring relationships between your employees and they can practice this technique in their one on one meetings. However, for this to happen, you must set the tone at the top and be willing to be vulnerable yourself.

Overall, if you want to avoid your best people leaving, be vulnerable with them and encourage them to be vulnerable with you. If you don’t know what’s going on with your team, you are missing opportunities to build deep, meaningful, and productive relationships.

Mon 17 August 2020
I am in a mentoring relationship with another CEO who has been having some people issues at this company. The focus of our most recent conversation was how to handle these types of situations without harming company culture and morale.

The issue he is focused on right now is with his controller (or lead accountant). His controller is a really nice guy, everybody loves him, and from a company culture perspective, he brings positivity to the workplace. But, he just isn’t getting his work done on time, and he is often a bottle-neck for the entire company. 

My CEO mentor recognizes this and doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to fire him because people genuinely like him and he has positive attributes that make the work environment rewarding. But he can’t let the whole company be hamstrung because of one person’s delayed work.

3 weeks earlier, this CEO mentor of mine had a similar issue with a couple of his salespeople. They were nice employees and people liked them, but they also weren’t getting the job done. In that situation, the CEO essentially gave his salespeople an ultimatum: “If you don’t increase your performance, we are going to have to move in a different direction.”

The result…both salespeople took his suggestion, moved in a different direction, and left with a sour taste in their mouth of their working experience.

It didn’t stop there either. Additional costs for the company and my CEO mentor were significant because he now needed to recruit, hire, and train 2 new salespeople, all the while losing out on the sales from the 2 former employees. This all set him back on accomplishing other business goals that he set his company.

The CEO decided that he wanted a different outcome with his controller. My mentor realized that the ideal outcome would be to transition him to a different role without the employee taking this as a personal affront.

Neither he nor I knew if that could be possible, but my CEO mentor knew there had to be a different, and better, strategy than the “my way or the highway” approach.

One thing that he brought up to me in our conversation was Marshall Rosenberg’s idea of Nonviolent Communication.

Nonviolent Communication is a series of steps that help de-escalate a potentially contentious situation by stating the facts, removing emotional generalizations (e.g. because I hate when you do that, or because it wasn’t fair for me), and provides a clear, tangible next step that is ideally reasonable and accepted.

The steps to nonviolent communication are: observation, feeling, need, and request.

Observation is an unequivocal fact that can’t be disagreed with. When conveying the observation, there shouldn’t be a positive or negative tone in the voice of the person stating the observation. It is merely a statement of fact.

Feeling is the feeling that the person initiating Nonviolent Communication is feeling. This is ONLY THE FEELING. Anything else that comes with the feeling is irrelevant. Feelings include: mad, sad, angry, frustrated, and anxious. Avoid insults and anything that starts with “I think”. Also, it can be easy to fall into the trap of mistaking insults for feelings (e.g., “You do this on purpose to be a jerk”). 

Need is a need that everyone can agree to. A need is not “I need you to do xyz things”. A need is a higher level notion that is aspirational and is something that EVERYONE can work towards. It holds the person conveying Nonviolent Communication, the person receiving it, and anyone else involved accountable to this need. An example could include “my need is a work environment where people are respected, they get their work done, and they can find joy in the workplace.” Most people can agree that they would consider this a need for their work environment. 

Request is a specific, tangible, ideally measurable request that is reasonably achievable. If it is vague, it will be difficult to know if it was achieved and if it is unreasonable, it will create resentment. A bad example of a request would be “my request is that you never interrupt me again.” This is a bad example because it requests for somebody to change actions instantaneously and without margin for error. An employee might develop some minor habit of inadvertently interrupting you but not realize it frustrates you so much. So, when you finally decide to bring it up to them and ask (order!) them to never do it again, you are presenting an unrealistic request and not seeking to understand the person. A better request would be:

“My request is that when we have a conversation, you try practicing reflective listening, meaning that when we have a conversation, you take a pause after I am done speaking to reflect on what I just said before jumping in with what you are going to say. I recognize that this might take time to practice and implement, but my request is that you give it a chance and are intentional about practicing it in conversations.”

You could potentially add in a specific number of times that would be acceptable for that person to interrupt you to be measurable, but that may sound condescending for this situation. The key difference is that the request is much more likely to be adopted than the original bad example. By practicing Nonviolent Communication and working with the person, you are working together to find the best solution for all parties.

So, my CEO mentor decided to apply Nonviolent Communication to his situation with his controller to see if it might be able to achieve his desired goal of getting him to work on a different task while showing him respect and maintaining his dignity.

His observation: The accounting work that was due on June 20th came in on July 1st. This has happened each of the past 3 months, and we have had several conversations about the importance of timely accounting work over the past 3 months.

His feelings: He feels frustrated and anxious. 

His need: A work environment where people are respected, they get their work done, and they can find joy in the workplace.

His request: “Would you be open to helping onboard a new controller over the next 3 weeks, and then transitioning your work to the marketing department afterwards?”

The result…his controller was open to it! The CEO mentor of mine may not have perfectly implemented the keys to Nonviolent Communication, but he did them well enough to achieve his desired goal. This part is important: you won’t get it perfect on your first try. But practice makes perfect, and even imperfect execution can help you solve your people problems. 

His controller, now marketing assistant, helped onboard the new controller, and because he was so well-liked by others at the company, his transition to marketing was smooth. So far, he is getting his work done on time and finding a greater passion for his work in marketing compared to accounting.

As business leaders, we may scoff at the idea of showing emotion at work and sharing our feelings. And if we do, they may come out as massive generalizations that can be hurtful and negative to culture. In this example, this CEO mentor of mine showed emotion, vulnerability, and subsequently leadership and was able to accomplish his goals and his company goals. 

Mon 3 August 2020
As a business, you must be constantly setting new goals and working towards accomplishing your current goals. The goals you aim for need to be big enough to ensure consistent growth while remaining tangible, realistic, and achievable.  

But goals also need to be flexible. Managing how your team goes about accomplishing those goals requires you to be open to suggestions and improvements or else risk falling behind the pack. 

Oftentimes, there will be an aspirational quantifiable goal that your team is working towards accomplishing. For example, reaching $1 million in annual revenue. While there are many different ways you can accomplish this goal, the conventional wisdom is usually to follow the same methods that lead you here and keep progressing along the same path towards that goal.

Sometimes, the plans that got you here are not the plans that will lead you to your ultimate goal. Let’s continue with the quantity goal of achieving $1 million in revenue. Now let’s say you are collecting monthly payments on your product or service, and your sales team is growing sales at 10% month-over-month: it looks like you are well on your way! But you might be missing crucial factors. You might not notice until it’s too late that your product isn’t high enough quality to retain those clients and now you are losing 20% of clients after three months. Now you are stuck in a situation that is essentially just pouring water to a leaky bucket.

The cost to make the quality adjustments might be really expensive…but the cost of consistently losing business is usually going to be worse. If there aren’t quality controls in place, it’s going to make achieving your $1 million in revenue goal harder and make the next important milestone even more difficult to achieve if you don’t change your things up. 

Word spreads quickly and first impressions are incredibly important! If word spreads that your quality is inconsistent, you will saturate the market with a negative reputation and eventually find it very difficult to garner new customers.

Essentially, the cost of consistently putting out a bad product becomes more and more expensive as word spreads. This cost to reputation quickly grows to be significantly greater than the cost of doing nothing.

A story that does a great job of conveying this is the story of Pixar Animation Studios and the story of Toy Story 2. In the 1980’s, Steve Jobs (after getting let go by the board of Apple) bought Pixar from Lucas Film, and in the early 1990’s the Walt Disney Company hired Pixar to make 1 full-length, completely computer-animated movie.

At the time, there had never been a full-length completely computer animated movie. It had never been done. Pixar had done shorts before (and actually won an Oscar in 1988 for Tin Toy), but they had never made a full-length movie before. The agreement was that the Walt Disney Company would pay for the entire cost of producing the film but would receive 100% of the royalties. 

Steve Jobs and the Pixar management team knew that this was not necessarily the greatest deal for them. They knew that if the movie was a hit and Disney kept all of the royalties, they would have Pixar hamstrung and forced into this type of deal for the future because their profit on this deal was minimal.

Therefore, right before Pixar’s first movie with Disney went live to theaters, they made a bold move. They decided to have an Initial Public Offering (IPO). This was risky because if their first movie flopped, the company would be out of business. But, if it was a success, they knew Disney would come back to them to make more films and the additional funds from IPO would allow them to cover their half of the production cost and take a half of the royalties. 

Their first movie: Toy Story. 

What else needs to be said? But just in case you need a refresher: Toy Story was a smash success and won an Oscar in 1995.

The Walt Disney Company agreed to a deal to cover half of the production cost for two more movies and split the royalties with Pixar. This was still a relatively risky spot for Pixar because if any of these movies flopped, they would be on the hook for it. 

Pixar’s next movie was A Bug’s Life. Not only was it another great box office success and instant classic, but the production of the film went off without a hitch. 

Their second movie was Toy Story 2, and the production of the much-anticipated sequel was not nearly as smooth as A Bug’s Life or even the original Toy Story. In fact, Toy Story 2 almost ended up never being released…twice! 

Because Pixar was a young and quickly growing company, they hadn’t really established the type of quality protocol and procedures necessary when making films. Like most startups, they were flying by the seat of their pants. 

Since they were making A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2 at the same time, they had to split their teams to focus on each respective movie and hired an outside film director to direct Toy Story 2. 

The Pixar team was so focused on releasing A Bug’s Life that they gave essentially free reign to this new director to direct Toy Story 2. By the time Toy Story 2 was “ready” for a final review, Pixar encountered a huge problem: the movie just wasn’t very good. It simply wasn’t emotionally gripping or well-put together. 

The Pixar team had to make a choice: keep this sub-par film that they invested millions of dollars into, or scrap the entire film and start over (and risk upsetting everyone that worked on the original Toy Story 2).

The short-term risk was losing the millions of dollars they spent producing the film. The long-term risk was losing the Walt Disney Company as a financial and commercial partner, leaving them having to go off on their own and figure out distribution channels, promotion, and everything else that Disney brought to the table that made their involvement so valuable.

So, Pixar decided to pivot. They scrapped the entire first draft of the movie (losing millions of dollars) and started over. 

Production was going well: great story, great characters, great emotion. But, right before Toy Story 2 (the second version) was ready to be released, something happened. The developers at Pixar were working on improving some small visual features and that involved writing over the code in some folder. But, they used the wrong command: ask a programmer and they will let you know that this is easy to do! So, when they went to delete and replace the folder, the command instead started deleting every file it encountered. And…a developer accidentally entered that command. After a moment, they started seeing files disappearing and realized what was happening.

Everything was deleted. Woody, Buzz, Mr. Potatohead, everything! They scrapped millions of dollars on the first movie and then accidentally deleted the entire second go-around of this movie. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue. Everyone knows to backup important work, right? Except the backups were untested, and failed when they tried to retrieve their work. All seemed lost. 

However, they had a lifeline. One of their employees who was pregnant was granted the opportunity to work from home (back when working from home wasn’t the norm). Every week, she would back up the entire movie on her home hard drive. After they realized this, they dashed to her house to find out whether or not their entire project was truly gone. 

The Pixar team drove to her house, picked up her hard drive and…it was all there! 

The movie released and was a total success and laid the groundwork for Pixar to create: Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and so many other movies that became instant classics.

Pixar had an original goal: to make 2 movies with Disney. They could have stuck to the original version of Toy Story 2, but that could have led to lost business and opportunities down the line (the equivalent of a leaky bucket). 

Pixar chose to pivot in the face of adversity for the opportunity to set themselves up in the long-term.

They created the Brain Trust which is a quality control team that meets with directors weekly to ensure that the movies they are directing are on track and quality.

They also implemented technical systems that prevented employees from losing everything in their system, and ensuring that their work is backed up, that their backups are backed up, and that those are backed up too! 

Technically, Pixar didn’t need to make either of those pivots to make 2 movies. But to make 2 high quality movies that would sustain the success of their business for years to come, these pivots were absolutely necessary.

The point: having goals is a great first step. But to maintain your success, you are going to need to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that what you are doing now isn’t perfect and will be improved. There are some activities that may not directly drive your outcome in the short-term, but will absolutely lead you to success over the long term. Knowing when, how, and just being open to pivoting is critical to your success as a leader and as a company.

Mon 20 July 2020
Change in your business is inevitable.

Whether impetus for change is internal like a new business insight that causes you to move in a new direction, or external like a global pandemic that forces you to rethink the way you do business, change always happens.

As a leader for your business, you may find that adapting to change seems easier for you than it is for your people. This could be due to you having a higher risk tolerance than your staff or that you were part of the decision for the change while your people are asked to follow along after hearing about it from you or somebody else second-hand.

Regardless, the key point is that change happens and some people will handle it better than others. While this process can be tough, what is important is that the people that are able to change with you, will also be able to grow with you.

According to ClearRock Inc, 70% of change initiatives fail to achieve their basic goals. 

However, if you can get the right people around you, people that are willing and able to change with you and be happy about it, you are significantly more likely to successfully navigate this change.

This article sheds light on an effective way to enact change in your company while maintaining culture.

In 2003, Evan Williams sold blogger.com to Google. Blogger was one of the first dedicated websites for what we know as the blog today.

By 2004, Evan was already cooking up new plans and finding ways to change the game. He asked, “What if we could implement blogs, but with audio?” and began working. He called this new company Odeo. 

This was a brand new medium for media consumption and Evan thought he had another big opportunity on his hands. But in 2005, something big happened that would change his world forever.

In 2005, Apple decided that they were going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into a new form of media that was strikingly similar to audio blogs. This surprised Evan Williams because at this moment, these “audio blogs” as Evan referred to them barely had any traction.

Apple called this component of their business “podcasts”. 

While Odeo started garnering some traction, it was definitely not a market leader and when Apple flooded the market with podcasts, Odeo was left to fend for the scraps.

Suddenly time was running out for Evan. He was backed into a corner, hemorrhaging funds and rapidly approaching a decision he was loath to consider: closing the company. That’s when he made the bold decision to do something interesting.

Evan decided to be vulnerable.

As opposed to telling his team that everything would be okay and to keep pushing in the direction he knew was a losing battle, Evan was open and honest.

As opposed to just him and his executive team determining what to do next, he involved his entire team to be a part of the solution. 

Their initial idea was to have a hackathon where all of their employees could work individually or in small groups to come up with ideas about how they could pivot and transition. The hackathon was a success and they were able to scrape some good ideas from the event (alongside some team-building for good measure). 

Two of Evan’s employees, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, came up with this idea leveraging their prior experience with Evan at Blogger. As opposed to long, free-form blogs meant for longer reads, what about a blogging site built around short text snippets that people could skim? 

As they began testing the idea, it took off in popularity. They were able to get famous celebrities on the site by providing a way for these celebrities to get their message out to a wide audience without the barriers of traditional media. 

This hackathon idea became what we know today as Twitter.

Evan Williams was able to transition the majority of his Odeo team to fully focus on Twitter. He successfully accomplished this because he was vulnerable with his team and allowed them to be a part of the decision-making process, thus ensuring that every member of his team had buy-in for the tough work ahead. 

To recap: 

·        Change is inevitable
·        Effectively implementing change is hard
·        Some people handle change better than others
·        To maintain your culture through the change, be vulnerable with your team
·        And include your people in the decision-making process

Coming to this conclusion isn’t easy. As a leader, it requires admitting that you may have made a mistake and that you may not know the best path forward. Having a fellow executive mentor can help unlock your vulnerability and improve your performance as a leader. Executive Mentorship isn’t a group of executives meeting afterhours to discuss work and it’s not coaching either. An executive mentoring relationship is a 1-on-1 relationship with another executive who can relate to your situation, help you understand your weaknesses, and provide a safe space for you to be vulnerable.

Mon 13 July 2020
As a leader, your goal is to empower your people to operate optimally and enjoy the work they are doing. One key skill for achieving that goal is the ability to promote active listening and communication among your team

In the past, managers tried to get their teams to listen by micromanaging, providing constant reminders, and having frequent check-ins. All of these nit-picky activities cost time and energy for everyone involved.

As it turns out, it really doesn’t pay off. Instead, they ended up with a culture of mindless rule-following and stymied innovation. Those cultures are predicated on “what has always been done in the past.”

In these scenarios, leaders stress out because they perceive their teams’ lack of performance as a lack of listening, both to leadership and to each other. However, what happens, in reality, is that the culture of “do what I say” creates employees that are trained to not speak openly about problems and solutions with the team when the boss doesn’t allow it. It’s not that they can’t think on their own; they choose not to for fear of rejection or repercussions. 

How can you tell if you are building this type of repressive team culture?

Ask yourself, how often do your people challenge your ideas? Do they ever question you face-to-face?

If the answer is minimally or never, you are building a culture that stymies listening and communication, and subsequently, leads to loss of innovative thinking on your team. 

If this sounds like your team, fear not! You are not stuck in this position forever! You can start making progress today on improving your team’s cohesion, listening skills, and innovation. 

Humans are social animals by nature. That makes us perceptive, and we react to what we are sensing from the people we are around, even if we don’t consciously acknowledge it. 

We can learn from other highly social animals as well. For example, a few weeks ago my dog Sunni was recently attacked by another dog. 

After getting attacked, my fiancé, understandably, was nervous taking Sunni to the dog park. While my fiancé wanted Sunni to play and exercise at the park, Sunni seemed too anxious and refused to get more than a few feet away from her. Sunni could sense her nerves and blatantly disobeyed her requests for Sunni to go and play. Even though Sunni could probably tell my fiancé was saying to go play, she picked up on her owner’s anxiety and chose to ignore the commands and stay close.

The point is that just like Sunni picks up on her owner’s feelings and responds accordingly, your people will pick up on your feelings and respond to those, even if what you are saying is different.

Unfortunately, you can’t just order your people to “come up with innovative ideas” or ask them to start questioning your decisions. Feelings and body language are much more powerful than words. If your people don’t sense you are being authentic when you ask to have a more open, inclusive, innovative, and attentive culture, the message will fall on deaf ears.

Your people can tell when you are stressed out, and your stress doesn’t make them work any faster or better. In fact, it is likely to make them worse because, as a leader, your stress is shared with the team. Your people may not respond or act the way you want them to because their fear of stressing you out even more, all of which creates a feedback loop chock full of stressed-out bosses, unproductive employees, communication barriers…which unsurprisingly makes you more stressed.

The best remedy for this is vulnerability

Share with them what is on your mind and what concerns you may have. Nine times out of ten, fear of the unknown outweighs the fear of the known. When you keep it to yourself, and your people sense you are stressed, they will come up with their own thoughts on what might be stressing you out, which is its own novel source of stress.  

When you make your concerns and stressors known, you invite others to empathize with you and help you rally around the problem at hand. 

If you are vulnerable with your people, they are much more likely to reciprocate and be open with you. Your understanding of their challenges will help you build empathy for their work. 

Eventually, your people will build a greater understanding of why you are saying what you are saying and more willing to ask you questions if they are confused. Empathetic, effective communication is the key to building a strong team, and vulnerability will help you build trust and listening skills all across your team.

Mon 29 June 2020
When I first started Ambition In Motion, I held this belief that I always needed to present myself as the paradigm of answers and solutions for the people on my team. My logic was that if I don’t know the answers, how can they feel confident working for a company with a leader who is unsure of themselves? 

Beyond my team, I noticed that I was putting on this face that everything was awesome to everyone: my fiancé, my family, my friends, and especially people I networked with. 

I eventually became really stressed out. I was holding all of these things inside and internally preparing excuses for questions like: Why isn’t the business where you thought it would be a few months ago? Why aren’t you still pursuing that plan? How come you are still working a bartending/serving job on nights and weekends to pay for your bills if the business is doing great?

I wasn’t always this bottled up. My brand was predicated on this underdog approach I took to building the business where I embraced showing vulnerability. But after a few years of running the business, my perception of how I should present myself to everyone else changed. I thought I had to be more like this archetypal “business executive” that we see all the time in pop culture (or real life!).

I fortunately had a mentor. He is also the leader of his company and he went through something very similar. He had a tough period where he needed to raise his sales growth and decrease his operational costs or else his company wouldn’t survive. Instead of keeping these issues to himself, he took a different path and shared freely what he needed to do and what the stakes were with the people around him. The stakes weren’t on specific people but rather the entire company: the company might not be able to exist if they can’t pull together to hit these goals. 

His vulnerability became a rallying cry. As opposed to jumping ship or having doubts about his leadership (which I truly thought would happen), they rallied around him and felt empowered because he gave them ownership of the problem at hand. This helped them feel like a team working together. 

Hearing this story from my mentor realigned my perspective, and it shapes my view on leadership and vulnerability to this day.

But as the notion goes: “the teacher appears when the student is ready.”

I am involved in entrepreneurial meet-up groups, have a coach, and read books that guide me, but it wasn’t until I had an executive mentor that it finally clicked for me.

Selfishly, my issue with entrepreneurial meet-up groups was that I didn’t get to talk about me enough and learn enough insights on my situation. For fairness, we split the time focusing on our respective businesses evenly, but I found myself only having the mental and emotional capacity to resonate with one other executive’s situation beyond my own. 

Having a coach is great for their guidance, leading me to think about different factors, but they aren’t necessarily able to relate to the current problems I am facing with managing a team and expectations in my own way. 

Books are excellent as well but they have to hit me at the right time. If I am not ready to accept and embrace that knowledge, I may not know how to fully take advantage of what I am learning.

As the leader of my company, I am not the paradigm of what a vulnerable leader looks like. However, I have gained a deeper and more intentional focus on being vulnerable with everyone and I can thank my mentor for that. Whether it’s personal life or business, I can already feel the improvements from taking this perspective to vulnerability. The connection between me and my team already feels closer. They have a better pulse on what I am thinking and feeling, and I feel like I have a better understanding of what my team is thinking and feeling as they have felt comfortable reciprocating my vulnerability. It can be tough to break through our shell and show vulnerability, but the initial investment pays dividends. 

Mon 22 June 2020
Executive Horizontal Mentoring means pairing two executives together for a mutually beneficial relationship. In contrast to traditional mentorship, there isn’t a “mentee” and a “mentor”, but two executives that are open to learning from each other.  


After operating Executive Horizontal Mentoring programs, one of the biggest things I have learned is the benefit of being able to relate to another leader and how powerful connection can be.


In a recent discussion, a CEO of a software company compared it to a therapist going to another therapist for therapy.


The Chief Financial Officer of an insurance company found it relieving to know that even somebody in a different industry and size of company as him faced very similar issues.


The Chief People Officer for a financial firm felt that he could be significantly more vulnerable in a mentor relationship with an HR executive outside of his company than with somebody from within the company.


As an executive, being able to relate to somebody else has immense benefits. This article sheds light on 3 major benefits of executive mentoring and the benefit of being able to relate.


Affirmation


A person doesn’t become an executive by accident. It takes hard work, persistence, and patience waiting for the proper circumstances and the right opportunity to align itself. Once you have earned your way to this position, you might feel like you need to have all of the answers. As an executive for my own company, I personally felt this. It felt like because I had worked up to this role for so long, I needed to be the bedrock of answers that I thought my team needed, even when I had no clue what the best move should be. 


Having an executive mentor can help reinforce and affirm your decisions. You may have a team that is reluctant to challenge you. Because of this, their words of affirmation probably won’t mean as much to you since they may have additional reasons to agree with you (even if they don’t realize it!). 


Hearing honest feedback from another executive who has been through similar things is powerful. You know they don’t feel the pressure to simply affirm your beliefs. Instead, they choose to agree because they truly believe that you made the right decision and this feels incredible!


That feeling of affirmation from a peer can be exalting. It gives you the confidence to continue taking strong steps in the direction you have chosen because an unbiased, but experienced, party is backing you up.


To give an example of this, I will share the story of my business partner, Dave Criswell, who is incredible at affirming people. Dave and I met on the tennis court (we both play in a doubles tennis group). Dave is in his mid-50’s, doesn’t move particularly fast, and doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard. But he rarely loses in doubles. Why? Because he is incredible at affirming his partner. Dave has played tennis long enough that he knows what good strategy is. He never gets mad at his partner for mistakes but is great at conveying the positives and negatives based on certain strategies deployed during a rally (e.g. hit down the line, lob over the net player, hit cross-court, etc.). When you are his partner in tennis, even if you take an action that he doesn’t agree with, he is great at affirming your move by understanding the potential upside if your action works, while also doing a great job of conveying the alternative options that are available that might have been an easier method to achieving the ultimate outcome (e.g. winning the point). Dave brings out the best in me (and anybody he plays tennis with) because I know that the feedback he is giving me is authentic, that he trusts me to make whatever decision I believe is best at that moment, and that he could easily get angry when I make a mistake but he instead chooses to teach me. Individually, Dave and I aren’t necessarily the best tennis players. Together, however, we have (occasionally!) beaten guys who played tennis in college. No small feat! 


In an executive mentoring relationship, having somebody to affirm you and believe in you feels incredible.


Vulnerability


Having somebody outside of your company to be vulnerable with can be life-changing. As an executive, I have friends that I grab drinks with and share business updates with, but those conversations are inconsistent and usually unfocused. They have their own business to focus on and we aren’t truly intentionally listening, reflecting, and empathizing with each other. 


In an executive mentoring relationship, there are two executives who have committed to building a deep relationship with another executive who can relate. This is another person who is in a similar position as you, maybe not the same industry or size of company, but that cares about listening, learning, and understanding your situation just as much as you are of theirs. 


Once rapport is built, it is significantly easier to be vulnerable with each other which then leads to trust and legitimate business outcomes.


To put it into context, how often do you share your business goals with your executive friends? If you do, how often are they intentionally listening to what you are saying, willing to challenge you based on inconsistencies you have mentioned in the past, and follow up with you monthly to see if you are on track for these goals? 


The answer is probably no for the first question, but if it is yes, it is probably no for the second question. Why? Because executives are busy! If you haven’t set an intentional agenda and consistent meetings committed to you working on these goals, you are probably not achieving the outcomes you would like from your executive peer network. 


An executive mentoring relationship creates an environment conducive for two busy executives to spend their time effectively and meaningfully so then they can achieve maximum business results in the least amount of time. 


Those results multiply when both executives feel comfortable being vulnerable with each other.


Growth


Growth incorporates both business and personal outcomes. If your business is growing but your personal life is falling apart, eventually your personal life will creep into your work life and those effects could be irreversible. 


An executive mentor can help you find a balance between work and personal life. The benefit of being able to relate is that your excuses for why you can’t spend time with your family, spouse, and friends, are no different from theirs: they are in the same position as you. If they have discovered ways to find balance, you can too. And they will probably pick up a tip or two from you at the same time. 


You may not be comfortable sharing these personal issues with just anyone. Whether it’s your colleagues at work, multiple people in your executive peer network, or a coach, they may not know or be able to relate to exactly what you are going through. 


An executive mentor solves this by providing a safe place for you to share. Just by being able to acknowledge the challenges you are going through, you are already on a trajectory towards growth. Holding it all in doesn’t help you or anyone that you live or work with. 


The ability to relate to another executive in a mentoring relationship can not only drive professional growth but personal growth as well.


Overall, executive horizontal mentoring can have a massive benefit on the impact of leaders. The ability to relate to another executive provides a lens into what could be for an executive and an opportunity to drive personal and professional growth. Executive mentors help executives avoid wasted time and mistakes by being able to build a bond with another executive who can relate.
Mon 8 June 2020
A shift is taking place in management. Today, more people are working remotely than ever before. Managers that are (usually) staunchly opposed to letting employees work remotely are being forced to let down their guard and take the chance. But once people are allowed back into the office, will these managers still be open letting their employees work remotely?

 

As we all adjust to these changes in work, this article will help by sharing some tips that professionals can leverage with their supervisors to continue to work remotely, even after things start going back to normal (a term used loosely).

 

The biggest hurdle most managers face when it comes to allowing remote work is trust. Managers may be hesitant to admit it, but they convey this information in their word choice and explanations.

 

For example, I interviewed a professional who commutes 3 hours every day to work. 3 hours every single day! He knows he can be just as productive at home as in the office. But when he brought this up, his manager dismissed the idea, responding, “we allowed one person to work remotely one time and it completely backfired.”

 

Managers that don’t fully trust their employees often cite one-off events they’ve heard from other colleagues to ‘inform’ their decisions for managing their employees. 

 

These divisive, stubborn decisions are based on a limited sample set with a completely different set of people! Why do they do this? Their answer often boils down to fear of “getting burned again”. The simple fact is that people are inherently resistant to change. Until the pain or pressure overcomes this resistance to change, they will continue to choose the familiar path (i.e. inaction) over uncertain outcomes that require action. Their risk-averse approach can lead their direct reports to think that their manager is prioritizing their own comfort over taking a chance to give their employees flexibility. 

 

This is human nature! 

 

The best managers override this natural tendency. Unfortunately for many people, their manager may not share this open-minded approach to work.

 

Here are some tips for building trust with your manager so you can eventually stake a claim that you deserve to work remotely.

 

Be open about your obstacles

 

Vulnerability is a powerful way to build trust with your manager. If your goal is to work remotely full-time (except when necessary) but your manager opposes it, be open about the obstacles you will face working from home. Let’s be fair: these choices do have potential downsides. An honest assessment is a powerful tool for tempering your manager’s fears. If your pitch pretends there are zero downsides to remote work, you will be leaving the manager forced to come up with their own assessment of downsides because we all know that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  

 

They will begin making assumptions about your capabilities and how working remotely will affect your productivity. And if they started out skeptical, their assumptions are going to draw from this pessimistic outlook and distort reality, thus dashing your hopes of remote work.

 

By being open about the obstacles you face working remotely, you build trust. You work together with your manager to brainstorm what the obstacles are and how you can overcome those obstacles. You empower your manager to be on your team and empathize with you. You flip the script and the manager becomes a teammate instead of the barrier between you and your goal.

 

Pro tip: Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book Pre-suasion discusses the best way to deliver obstacles. He mentions that if you are going to deliver an obstacle or a weakness, that you should follow it with the terms “but”, “yet”, or “however” followed by reasons you can overcome that obstacle or weakness. From a psychological perspective, it forces the listener to focus on the last thing you said, not the obstacle itself. For example, “Working at home will definitely have distractions like the television, but I have turned my second bedroom into an office strictly for work and that will help me separate me from the rest of the distractions in my house.”

 

Share your motivations

 

Why are you interested in working remotely? If you don’t share this, they may assume that you are up to no good. I learned some insight from a body language expert that I believe is relevant to this situation: you build trust with your hands. If somebody can’t see your hands (e.g. one was behind your back), the biological and instinctual assumption is that the hand is hidden for nefarious purposes. 

 

When you don’t show your hands, or in this case, the motivations behind why you want to work remotely, the natural assumption a manager may have is that you hid them for a reason. 

 

Everyone has reasons for the actions they take, even if they aren’t immediately apparent. Showing that your motivations are reasonable and sensible is critical to your manager being open to supporting your goal of working from home. 

 

A quick note on this, your motivations should be mutually related. If we look at the example earlier in the article about the guy commuting 3 hours every day for work, that reason alone will probably not move the needle for a manager. The reason is that it only provides benefits to you and not to your manager. Instead, if you can say that you could work more effectively and be even more productive, but that the 3-hour commute can drain your energy. This provides a clear, mutual benefit to the manager – greater productivity from their employees.   

 

 Create fail-safes 

 

Fail-safes are self-imposed regulatory guidelines for you to follow while working remotely. These provide indicators showing how productivity has changed compared to working at the office. Fail-safes provide your manager a clear metric they can use to decide whether to pull you back in. The manager’s fear is that if she allows you to work from home and your productivity falls then it will be difficult to have that conversation with you. This difficulty could lead to you getting fired or quitting, which your manager definitely does not want to have happen. 

 

Fail-safes allow your manager to look at the data, consider your output and self-imposed guidelines, and make a case for whether remote work is effective without letting their emotions or biases influence the decision. It is just data; either you hit your goals, or you didn’t.

 

Part of these fail-safes should incorporate the communal component of being physically present at the office. Some managers may not be concerned about your productivity but instead are concerned by the impact it may have on the team dynamic and company culture. One of your fail-safes should address how you will schedule regular, frequent conversations with colleagues, both in and outside of your department. These conversations should be about the obstacles that you and your colleagues are facing without being explicitly work-related. These types of conversations are the foundation of horizontal mentorship, and you would be creating your own network of horizontal mentor relationships within your company.

 

Ultimately, you may find out that working remotely doesn’t work for you. But for some people, it makes a massive difference on their productivity and their emotional health. If you follow these 3 steps, you should be able to make a strong case for why you should be allowed to work remotely.

Mon 1 June 2020
Employee engagement is an extremely valuable metric for understanding your team. Engagement is strongly correlated with productivity, so if you are not measuring your team’s engagement, now is a good time to start. This data can tell you how your team feels about their work, offer potential insight on what you can do to make them more happy and productive, and give you some idea of whether or not your employees are likely to leave the job in the near future.


But, the issue with measuring engagement is that it is a lagging metric. By the time you identify that a certain department or team in your company is becoming disengaged, it is likely far too late. Re-engagement is very difficult; they may already be working on their way out and are unlikely to be willing to give management the benefit of the doubt by putting aside their frustrations. 


The first step towards avoiding fully disengaged employees is determining when they are most susceptible to becoming disengaged.  


We call this measure Engagement Volatility, and we use this to understand when employees are likely to be most significantly affected by a negative event at work.   


Many employees fully support and enjoy the company culture and really do enjoy their jobs. For these employees, it takes a lot to shake their confidence in the company.


There are also other people who may respond favorably to an engagement assessment today, but their beliefs in their work or company aren’t nearly as firm.


High-volatility employees can become disengaged in an instant. Whether from reading an email that seems passive-aggressive, realizing the bonus structure or compensation plan seems unfair or being forced to switch their work project or style, employees with high volatility can quickly become disenchanted with their company when dealing with frustrating events at work. 


My team and I at Ambition In Motion identified two key metrics for determining engagement volatility: communication barriers and dysfunctional turnover intentions.


Communication Barriers


Communication barriers represent the lack of understanding among employees about what other employees do for their work. For example, let’s say that John in accounting frequently must interact with Jane in sales to handle some customer accounts. How well does John actually understand what Jane does? If these two employees don’t understand each other’s work, there are communication barriers that can impact their work relationship, productivity, and engagement volatility.  


Communication barriers don’t necessarily tell us that the two people don’t like each other. It just means that they don’t understand what the other person does for their work and the obstacles they face.


How does this lead to engagement volatility?


Communication barriers force people to formulate assumptions about what other people do. These assumptions then lead to a lack of empathy and understanding, especially during frustrating work events. When a small miscommunication about some work task blows up, this creates an opening for people to become disengaged. It creates an opportunity to feel like they are getting taken advantage of or that the grass could be greener on the other side.


For example, let’s go back to John (accounting) and Jane (sales). John sees that Jane spent $200 on a lunch with a client and thinks to himself, “who spends $200 on a lunch?!?!” He is certain that he could have made that same sale and only spent $100 on lunch, but instead, he has to adjust budgets to fit this extra expense and his frustration grows. By discounting all of the work and skills necessary to be a great salesperson, he begins to assume (likely incorrectly) that he could do her job. This subtle frustration can grow, leading John to bring up Jane’s work ethic in casual conversations with people at the office to learn their thoughts. Once he finds somebody that happens to agree with him, it confirms his belief that he could do her job, and now he feels frustrated that she is getting bonuses and commissions on sales he is certain could have easily made. When Jane, unknowing of John’s frustrations with her, emails John, he responds passive-aggressively. He assumes that Jane knows he is frustrated and considers her lazy and inefficient. Meanwhile, Jane has no clue why his emails have become so strange, and her frustration with her work environment begin to simmer.


And the domino effect goes on and on from there…


Our team identified that 68% of engaged employees still feel communication barriers between themselves and other employees at work (e.g. they feel they don’t understand what other people do for their work). Even engaged, productive employees encounter these frustrating events, and these can lead directly to high engagement volatility. 


Dysfunctional Turnover Intentions


There are 4 types of turnover for employees at work: variable, invariable, functional and dysfunctional. Variable, invariable, and functional turnover are types of uncontrollable turnover. They are based on factors outside of a company’s control – e.g. a spouse getting a job in a different city and the employee moving with their spouse, the employee being bad at their job and getting fired, or an employee receiving an offer for significantly more money from another company and the current employer being unwilling or unable to match the salary. 


Dysfunctional turnover is the type of turnover a company can control. Dysfunctional turnover is based on two key factors: the clarity of their job responsibilities and purpose within the company, and their perceived respect level from their colleagues and supervisor(s).


When employees are unclear about what they are doing or why they are doing it, they are highly susceptible to becoming disengaged because the work becomes purposeless. They have no idea if what they are doing is correct, and they have no idea about how their work plays into the larger picture of the company. Lack of purpose and value at work drags down engagement and productivity.


70% of employees avoid difficult conversations (like asking for clarity on their role or task) with their boss, colleagues, or direct reports, according to a Bravely study. Essentially, people fear or feel uncomfortable asking for clarity. This contributes to their engagement volatility and if the “what” and “why” of their work isn’t clarified quickly, they could become disengaged.


The perception of respect is the other critical factor to dysfunctional turnover intentions. When employees don’t feel respected by their colleagues or supervisor, they will have high engagement volatility. 


The perception of respect is the key. 


To be clear, respect is important, but the effects are not directly based on whether or not colleagues or supervisors actually respect the employee’s work. It is based on whether the employee perceives that their work is respected. If they don’t feel like they are appreciated for their contribution or that the feedback they receive is sincere, they quickly become disengaged.


Solution


One way to better understand your team’s engagement volatility is by sending your team Ambition In Motion Engagement Volatility Assessment. It takes roughly 5 minutes to complete and can provide great insight into your team’s likelihood of becoming disengaged. You can break it down by department so you can better understand if there are some departments that have higher/lower engagement volatility than others.


Once you understand your team’s engagement volatility, you can work towards identifying what steps you should take to ease your team’s volatility and stabilize your employee engagement.


One great way to accomplish this is by implementing a Horizontal Mentorship Program. Horizontal mentorship helps your team break through employee communication barriers, improve clarity of your employees’ roles and responsibilities, and build empathy and respect across your team.

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