What can you learn watching Cub Scouts sell popcorn? Marty Brej, my friend and former boss at Thomson Reuters, recently helped his son sell pop corn for his scout troop. As he explained it to me over dinner:
- Actively Engage: Briefly & confidently explain to passers-by who you are and what you are doing
- Wear The Uniform: Be official…YOU are really the product people are buying!
- Exemplary Behavior: Behave in a way that show respect for the uniform
- Always Say “Thanks”: Especially when someone declines to buy; you never know who will come back
- Market Your Best: Display your best selling products prominently and effectively
- Up-sell: …but have a fallback plan if people can’t afford it
- “The Cub Scout Gives Good Will”: Support what others ask of you as you are asking them to support you
It struck me that these are all essential lessons in business and leadership. These are also key concepts in networking, self-marketing and building your professional brand. I thought about breaking each out of these down further, but I think the message is pretty straight forward: be genuine and exemplary in your conduct, providing value for value. Also, buy some popcorn.
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
Try this test to gauge the strength of your brand and influence at work. Assuming your firm has Caller ID, call a few people that you know are in the office:
- THEY PICK UP: A good sign; they know it’s you and they answered
- YOU GO TO VOICE MAIL: Assuming they’re not on another call or stepped away, you may be suffering from “bad branding”
- YOU GO DIRECTLY TO VOICE MAIL: You may have been diverted altogether; this is not a good sign
While this test isn’t fool-proof, it may give an indication as to how you are perceived, which has a direct impact on your effectiveness. Any comments?
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
Maintaining a firm grasp of the basics is an essential element of being an effective leader. This is especially true in developing a technology roadmap with your partners in business operations. There are three basic questions to ask and answer:
- What do you HOPE will happen?: Leveraging technology to move the firm forward requires that your business partner have a vision of where to take the firm and how this vision impacts revenue, expenses, profits, etc. As a leader, it is essential that you understand what your business partner “hopes will happen” so you can translate this vision into meaningful information and activities for your teams. This way, your teams can apply the vision to their day to day work and become an active partner in the firm’s success. Make sure you know the answer to this question and make it a part of your thinking, speaking and writing so that you and your teams remain focused.
- What are you AFRAID will happen?: Learn what your business partners fear and what those fears may cost. Are the costs operational? Financial? Personal (reputation or career risk)? Understanding the risk to business operations will help you avoid real costs and unnecessary expenditures. Understanding personal risks will help you understand otherwise-mysterious behaviors on the part of your business partners. Overall, you must ensure that you and your teams are aligned with the business in avoiding risk. Your teams can further identify obstacles within their own ‘field of vision’ as technology specialists that may not be readily apparent to the business operations teams.
- What are you DOING about it?: Understanding how your business plans to achieve its goals and avoid risk is where you add value a solution provider and business partner. This is where the collaboration between business and technology can pay real dividends in terms of cost avoidance, customer retention and revenue generation. Active engagement between business operations and technology also provides opportunities to build a more collaborative culture within the firm. Getting your teams to understand the business they support, the goals of that business and the risks that the business seeks to avoid can transform your technology team into a business technology team. This means working to support the business’ plans but also leveraging the unique brain power of your teams to propose other opportunities to move the ball forward, all with a shared understanding of the firm’s goals and obstacles to success. One team – one goal.
Knowing where the business is going, identifying obstacles on that journey and being aligned with business operations are the keys to developing strategies and tactics to remove barriers and achieve the firm’s vision. Leaders must ensure that this knowledge drives innovation in three key operational areas for the technology teams:
- Successful execution of one-time initiatives and projects
- Implementing effective changes to day-to-day operational processes
- Developing and implementing sound policy and procedures.
Ensuring that the activities in these three operational work streams are focused on achieving the ends of the technology strategy will significantly improve your teams’ focus and increase your effectiveness as a business partner. Ask the questions – know the answers and make these answers meaningful in your teams’ day to day lives.
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
To get movement in resolving a problem, you’re probably going to have to write to someone. Whether you’re trying to get justice from the airline or hotel who wronged you on your last business trip or if you need to reach out to a peer to clear a log jam that’s blocking your team, written communication is sometimes the best path forward. Here’s a simple framework that I’ve found effective over the years for resolving personal and business issues:
- What’s Wrong: Clearly and concisely state the problem. Keep it factual – not editorial. No emotions and no speculating on someone else’s frame of mind. Just the facts.
- Impact to YOU: Be very specific and unemotional about how the problem impacts (or will impact) you or your team. Again, be concise and factual with no editorial comments.
- Impact to the READER: Make it clear that you realize you may not be the only one impacted and that this isn’t 100% about you. How might the reader also be impacted? Beware of sounding threatening; you probably won’t need to connect all the dots for the reader. An overview of the “dots” is enough.
- Propose a Solution: Never dump the problem on the reader, as he may well “solve” your problem but not in the way you’d hoped. This can leave you negotiating your way out of a solution that you asked for. Instead, give the reader a quick and graceful exit by proposing a solution that can be accepted or countered. Clarify how your proposal benefits all parties. This way, you stand a better chance of getting the result that you want or at least negotiating something close enough.
- Follow Up: Let the reader know when you plan to follow up, proposing a reasonable amount of time and then do so.
- Respect: Be smart about cc’ing others if you’re trying to resolve a business issue. Ask yourself what impact this may have on the reader and on getting the results you want. Will cc’ing others truly help or will it “give the reader something to think about?” Don’t give them something to think about. Get the problem solved.
I like to say that it’s always better to give someone a printed sheet and a red pen than a blank sheet and a black pen. Applying this approach, along with some respect and common sense, should allow you to quickly solve your problem and move on.
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
Don’t say this. Ever. No, really. No one in a leadership position should be caught saying “I was told.” Such thinking can be indicative of a bad mindset and also sends a bad message to both your teams and your business partners. Nothing says “not me” like the phrase, “I was told.”
Once you assume an executive role, you take on the responsibility of leading even when you may not like where you must lead. You do have the right to respectfully and tactfully question your own leadership, but once the decision has been made, you have two choices – deal with it or quit. Part of dealing with it is getting behind the team you are on and leading the resources assigned to you in order to execute and support your firm’s mission.
The message you send to your team when you play the “I was told” card is that your first loyalty is to the team you lead. To be an effective leader within your firm, your first loyalty must be to the leadership team of which you are an integral part. The team that reports to you are your resources that you must effectively lead in order to add value to your team and to your firm by getting things done. If this paradigm is objectionable, you may be working for the wrong firm.
The message you send to your business partners is that you are not in control and that you lack confidence. Your business partners need an empowered, confident and effective collaborator – not a victim of circumstances beyond his control. It is imperative that your business partners view you as someone who can execute and deliver. If they question this ability, you’ll only be adding to their stress rather than solving their problems.
Own your leadership role and set the right tone for both your teams and your business partners. You may well have “been told,” but as a leader, you need to either respectfully work behind the scenes to effect change to what you were told or publicly get behind the decision and move forward.
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
As a leader, you can be friendly with your team but you can’t be friends. This is one of the hardest transitions to make as you move into a leadership role. In the early part of your career, you’re “one of the guys” and that works when you’re a member of a team. But you can’t be one of the guys once you are responsible for leading people.
First off, it’s awkward. You’re no longer “one of the guys” and acting as though you are will only make people uncomfortable. One of the guys can’t fire you or request that the project sponsor have you removed from the team. Luckily, your best people probably don’t want you to be their friend – at least not while they work for you. Strong teams want strong leaders – not best buddies. A strong leader focuses on making smart decisions on the team’s behalf and not on making friends. Unfortunately, your weaker players probably do want a best buddy, assuming that “friends won’t fire friends.”
Not being friends doesn’t mean you have to be a cold, calculating automaton. Leadership is about influence, which is earned by everything you do, say or write. Being friendly is a leadership style and while it doesn’t mean kissing up to your team, it does mean being a decent human being and maintaining a positive, open attitude. It’s easier to earn influence if you’re friendly and approachable.
Being friendly is a good way to put your team at ease and to foster open and regular communication – the lifeblood of any good functioning team. This also sets a positive example for your team on how to relate to other people. A team that regularly earns influence within an organization will strengthen their ability to execute and get things done. This is a key cultural goal for any leader in building an effective team.
Being friends with people on your team gives the appearance of favoritism and may alienate some of your more effective resources. Instead, seek to earn your team’s respect by setting a good example and by being friendly and open to their ideas. You’ll be surprised how forgoing friendship while working with your team will often result in true friendships after your professional relationship has changed….and I’m speaking from personal experience.
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
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So you’ve decided to make an enemy of your project manager. You’ll be surprised at how little effort will be required on your part to achieve your goal. Here are four easy steps to quickly reduce your value to your team and your PM:
- Silence: Never let your project manager know if you see any risk in making a deliverable date (particularly if your deliverable is on the critical or one of the controlling paths). Things might clear up on their own and let’s face it, the project manager will just get mad if you tell her. Also, don’t bother yourself with informing the owners of any predecessor or successor tasks of the risk as this will only make you look bad. The less you say, the better.
- Task Information: If you break radio silence, don’t let your project manager know which task or deliverables will be impacted. If you’re using a project plan, don’t provide task IDs or any other information that might help the project manager track the risk back to specific work-streams in the plan. Giving your PM this information will only result in his going off to model the potential impact of the delay and start taking mitigation actions. Better to be vague and maybe tell a few other team members and let things “trickle up” to the project manager on their own (PMs know everything, anyway).
- Estimates: If you go soft on providing task information, avoid providing estimates of how significant the delay might be. This will only allow the project manager to model the impact, set expectations with project sponsors and take mitigation steps to keep the project on track. And let’s face it, you’ll be held accountable for your estimates. This smacks of the injustice of team members getting blamed for everything they do.
- Thought Leadership: Ultimately, the key to making an enemy out of your project manager is to provide absolutely zero thought leadership on mitigating or avoiding any impact to the project plan. Don’t get creative and provide ideas. Try “thinking for management” by filtering out any idea that you are “absolutely certain will be rejected” or that might make you look bad by appearing to question management. As with estimates, your idea might be implemented and if it doesn’t work out, you could be held accountable. The smart move is to sit tight and wait for someone to tell you what to do. Remember – inaction is action when it comes to making enemies on your project.
By following these four easy steps, you will not only alienate your project manager but also position your team for failure. Communication, accountability and planning can be stressful and who knows – you may even prove to be an example for other who want to avoid this type of stress. Only by failing to lead can you ever hope to lead others to failure. Good luck!
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
Projects don’t fail due to lack of process – projects fail due to lack of leadership. That said, there are two approaches to project management; “present & reporting” and “driving & leading”:
Present & Reporting: Far too many project leaders take the ‘present & reporting’ approach. Geared more toward the administrative side of the discipline, this approach focuses on form and function. Minutes are carefully taken and the project plan is meticulously maintained. Risks are delineated, Issues documents and project artifacts are developed and socialized. While these elements of project control are critical to success, they are not the true calling of the effective leader.
It’s not enough for the project leader to know what’s going on and to report events. This is more the role of a project administrator or project coordinator – a supporting role in the overall endeavor. The elements of ‘present and reporting’ are solid risk management tools, ensuring that team performance never falls below an established minimum but they do little to ensure the team attains maximum performance levels.
Driving and Leading: Motivating and influencing your team to achieve its maximum potential requires the ‘driving & leading’ approach. This demands that the project leader live and breathe her project. You might think of this as the ‘project Geek approach’ and that’s not a bad way to think about it. The effective project leader is constantly thinking, talking and acting in the project’s best interests, looking ahead and seeking out opportunities for the team to succeed while also removing obstacles to that success.
An effective project leader must maintain a sense of urgency on the project, constantly seeking ways to communicate to the team and motivate them to action, while not bombarding them with emails, process and administrivia. This is not an easy balancing act and requires focus, clarity in communications, soliciting and heeding feedback, and evangelizing about the goals of the project. Most importantly, it requires the project leader to set the bar high by setting a good example for the entire team.
The effective project leader doesn’t need to know everything about the project; rather, the effective project leader needs to know everything about how to get things DONE on the project and how best to keep the team motivated, informed, focused and executing on a daily basis.
© 2014, Mark E. Calabrese
As an executive, being able to communicate effectively at all levels is important. Equally important is the ability to effectively listen. If you’re a Talker like me (and anyone who knows me will tell you that I am definitely a Talker!), you have to find a good technique to balance the two and be an effective “bi-directional” communicator.
I was talking about this very topic with Mark Hall, a friend and mentor of mine. Mark likens communication to the sport fencing, knowing when to lunge, parry, feint, attack, etc. I think it’s a good analogy. Depending on the type of communication, the various aspects of the analogy have merit. For example, in a negotiation there is a time to listen but there may well be a time to cut your “opponent” off with a lunge. On the other hand, in a coaching session, one is far more likely to “disengage.” Different techniques for different scenarios.
As a Talker, I want to share a few effective techniques that I’ve learned that help me keep my mouth shut and “off the attack” when attacking isn’t helpful. The goal of these techniques is to avoid cutting someone off when they’re talking, which sends the dual message that 1) you’re not listening; and 2) that you’re not interested:
- Smoke Detector: We talkers are intimately familiar with that overpowering urge to just cut off the other speaker and SAY SOMETHING!! I refer to this as the “Smoke Detector”. Use this urge as a signal NOT to talk. The few times when this may be the wrong approach will be far outweighed by those times where this technique will benefit you. Don’t overthink it – when you “hear the alarm” get out of the building!
- Count To Three: When the urge strikes you, first wait for the other person to STOP speaking and then deliberately and slowly count to three….and THEN speak. I learned this technique from a former boss/colleague of mine, Ann Weaver and it is extremely effective.
- Finger Tap: An alternative to ‘Count to Three’ is the Finger Tap. It’s basically the same approach but you make the physical effort of tapping your finger three times on your knee. This technique came from Mark Hall.
- Remember The Goal: Remember the goal of your conversation and ask yourself, “is what I am about to say REALLY going to help me get to my goal?” (and you have to ask it exactly like that, by the way).
- Reflect: If you’re not familiar with reflective listening techniques, Google and learn them. It’s standard “communications stuff” with which most of us are familiar but if applied diligently, these techniques work. It’s a good way to make sure you are RESPONDING to the other person and not just talking about their question or concern.
We Talkers need to be on a constant vigil to keep ourselves in check and strike a balance between effective speaking and listening. Only by doing so can we be the effective communicators that our executive roles require of us on both a personal and professional basis. Whether communicating up, down or laterally, the ability to “fence” with style and grace will allow you to not only be successful in your own right but to be a strong example to your teams and colleagues.
© 2013, Mark E. Calabrese
We’ve all had things go wrong at work and at home and the paradigm through which we interpret such situations says a lot about us as individuals. I think about it as ‘bad luck’ versus ‘bad choices’.
“Bad luck” is just that – a happenstance of fortune over which you, the innocent victim, had no part. Bad luck implies circumstances beyond your control – that it was “fate” that landed you in a predicament. It says less about your character and more about the general unfairness of life and the world in general. Or does it?
Most people view “bad luck” as another way of saying that it wasn’t your fault – that you had “no control”. Reflecting on my own experiences, my instances of “bad luck” seem to have had far less to do with fate and far more to do with my own choices. Take a few moments and reflect candidly on your own misfortunes and ask yourself what part you played in setting yourself up….then ask yourself how YOU interpreted the incident – was it bad luck or bad choices?
Personally, I’d prefer to be the victim of bad choices over bad luck. While it’s true that you are 100% responsible for your choices, you are also 100% in control of whether you make such choices again. With “luck” you don’t get those kind of numbers – it’s all random and it is all beyond your control. Thus, if you caused your own grief through your own choices, that means you can also AVOID said-grief in the future. When we are responsible for our own bad situations, the good news is that we are also in control and simply chose not to make the smarter choices.
As an executive, you can use this exercise to understand the level of accountability in your own teams. When things go wrong, do your managers suffer from bad luck or bad choices? A strong leadership team knows they are in control of their choices and will act accordingly, taking ownership of both their successes and failures.
Listen to your managers as they discuss (or lament!) their own bad situations and see how they interpret the incident. Seek to empower and promote those who “are the victim of bad choices”, especially if they own up to and LEARN from them. This way, you will promote accountability and leadership that learns from (and OWNS) their mistakes.
© 2013, Mark E. Calabrese