If You Build It, Will They Come?

I’m a planner. A list maker. An over-analyzer. Perhaps its because I’m the oldest of 3, or “achiever” is in my top 5 strengths, or that I’m a “high D”. Whatever the reason, it is who I am, and how I naturally want to lead others. I instinctively build a plan of action, create a list of what needs to be done, over-analyze that plan and list until it is finely tuned, and then pass “the plan” out to the team. The more time I spend leading and working with millenials, the more I have had to adjust my approach. The plan I build and hand out is my plan and millenials only want to move forward when it is their plan. Experience has taught me, that they (and the organization) are most effective and engaged when it is our plan. Here’s how to build it, so that they will come along.

1. Frame It – create a framework of the necessary steps that need to be taken. Write down the key tenants of what a successful plan will need to include without getting too specific. Then pick 2 or 3 team members and share your initial thoughts with them informally. Ask for their feedback, and if you’re on the right track. You’ll get some great insights to how the rest of the team might respond, and you will gain a few proponents of the plan, because you engaged them in the process. You might even get better ideas than what you first put forth.

2. Cast It – bring the whole team together, present the problem or task you’re facing, and share the now improved framework. Cast the vision, but don’t share the strategy or tactics. Sit back and ask questions about what they think, how they would proceed, what resources the team can leverage to achieve success, etc. Let them fill in the gaps. As ideas are presented that aren’t feasible or are guaranteed to fail, gently steer the conversation onto the right track. Use guided discovery to help the team arrive at the same general plan that you would have built and presented.

3. Give It – once the whole team has consensus on the plan, give it away. Make it their plan completely. Assign a couple of members to conduct a weekly checkpoint to make sure things are progressing. Create owners of individual elements around the plan and empower them to execute the associated actions. Make your role to check in with each team member on a daily basis to ask just two questions, “how do you think things are going?” and “what adjustments should we make?” Lead by stimulating their creative and analytical though processes.

Early engagement in planning and decision making is one of the things millenials need to feel valued and bought in to the direction of their organization. The days of top down management that dictates a course of action are no longer here. We must be willing to adapt to the people we have and develop them into the future leaders of our organizations. If we continue to build it for them, they will not come along with us. Instead, they will happily pack up and move on to another organization.

Constant Connection = Hazy Horizon

Newest movie release seconds away via on demand? Check. Piping hot pizza delivered in under 30? Done. Ability to remain tethered to friends, family, customers, and the latest celebrity gossip at all times? Yep. Sunday home delivery of anything I want (possibly by drone) thanks to my good Amazonian friends? Absolutely. All those amazing improvements have made life convenient and efficient. But what has it done to our thinking? If everything can be right now, how frequently do we take time to vision months and years ahead? This is an issue that I am daily confronted with in my professional life. Short term focus and thinking is starting to erode our dreams and cripple our morale. To stay focused on the big picture, I regularly remind myself of the following benefits of thinking long term:

1. Provides Perspective – taking the long view brings everything into focus. The unending emails, constant texts, overdue reports, spreadsheet updates, etc. all lose their “immediacy” in comparison with my overall goals and dreams. Our constantly connected culture makes us unnecessarily burdened and stressed. Routinely coming up for air and looking towards the horizon at where you or your organization are headed will help minimize overwhelming frustration.

2. Increases Innovation – being a slave to your phone, tablet, or other digital distraction keeps you looking down rather than up and ahead. What’s coming next? What could or should you be doing differently? Take time every day (yes – every day) to cut the cord and allow time for creative thinking about how you will get from where you are to where you want to be. You will be amazed at what 30-60 minutes of brainstorming will do for your productivity and future success.

3. Reduces Risk – most of us fear change and work hard to avoid it. We choose the path of least resistance because it is both easier and less frightening. Almost all of these fears are focused on the short term, and the impact change will have to us immediately. Looking at those same changes over 3, 10, or 25 year spans reduces the risk as you consider the growth and opportunities that will come through them.

You don’t have to be a visionary thinker to look into the future and forecast what lies ahead. All you need is some time and the courage to separate yourself from the magnetic pull of your information feeds. Take the long view and be prepared for what you see.

Alright Stop. Collaborate and Listen.

Perhaps the best advice one can glean from a Vanilla Ice song are the words of this article’s title… Leaders today, more than ever before, must be willing to regularly stop what they’re doing and be collaborative. Far too often leaders assume that the direction they set is the best (or only) path forward. The ever growing number of millennial team members at all levels of organizations requires a growing openness to listen to their feedback and collaborate on decision making. Though hard to admit for some, this approach will also yield the greatest results for growth of your business and your people.

Tips for Effective Collaboration:

1. Invert the pyramid – if you’re at the top of your organizational or departmental structure, turn the manpower chart upside down and give yourself the least amount of say. Go to the largest group (now at the top) and ask them how they would make the decision. Have an open and honest dialogue weighing out pros and cons. Chances are they will arrive at a similar direction to what you would have plotted. If not, their recommendation may very well be better.

2. Listen and remember – just taking the time to listen to your team’s thoughts will have an immediate positive effect. It increases how valued they feel by you and the organization, and expands their mindset about the problems and processes the organization is facing which grows their investment. If you can also remember the input they provide and circle back to them about it repeatedly in the future, you will truly have their buy in.

3. Retain the burden – collaboration is not the same as delegation. It’s important that as you seek input and ideas, you don’t dump responsibility on those who shouldn’t have it. Perhaps they can own a piece of the project, but as the leader you bear the burden. Get their feedback, weigh it out, and then make the best decision.

4. Lose the praise – as you find success, be quick to pass all the credit and praise to those you collaborated with. Even if they only had the idea and you did all the work, loudly inform all you can about whose concept you employed. Your team members will be thankful and give you their loyalty, and your manager will be impressed with your selflessness.

The more you collaborate effectively, the more your business and your team will grow. Seems like a positive approach that everyone would follow, but so many leaders just do not. Why? Ego, sense of self-importance, feeling of superiority, fear of admitting weakness, etc, etc… Don’t be your own worst enemy and by doing so limit your overall effectiveness. Individuals can go a long way, but teams always go further.

Making Change

I had a long conversation last week with a notable volunteer in my nonprofit organization about his past experiences across the country. There was a clear underlying theme to everything we discussed; change. No surprise there right? Change is constant (some say the only one) and all organizations experience it. What’s interesting about a large nonprofit organization is how much opposition and adversity there can be to change. The passion that people feel when they have given of themselves to build something is incredibly strong. When what they have helped to build is “threatened” in any way, that passion quickly turns into a fervent and ardent opposition. This reality forces change within in a nonprofit organization to be approached with a “bottom up” mentality rather than “top down”. What can we learn from that approach that is applicable in all seasons of change?

1. Do Ask, Don’t Tell – we know that change will happen constantly, so why not constantly anticipate it? The most effective way to do so is to ask your constituents how things are going all the time. Have a constant conversation with the people most affected by potential change. The trends in their feedback will indicate where change is needed. When we wait for issues to bubble up to the “top”, it causes the need for sweeping change, which in turns causes all stakeholders to react emotionally. Listening closely allows you to make subtle course corrections all the time.

2. Create Consensus – when change is implemented by a small group of “distant decision makers” the response from the subsequent layers in the organization is almost always negative. The content or reasons for change matter less than the way it was pushed down. Conversely, if you can illustrate the reasons change is needed and gain buy in from those who will be most affected first, you’re chance of success increases exponentially. Peoples’ defenses go down when the ideas are coming from the ground, and they will actually care about why change is needed.

3. Change Your Changes – because change is constant, it is often filled with mistakes. The changes your organization makes are not always going to work. In fact, if you have a culture that is open to change and make it easily, your changes will likely fail frequently. Change breeds innovation and growth, but always at the price of failing and falling. Recognizing this on the front end, and being open to quickly change the previous changes you’ve made will increase your odds greatly. Just as volunteers are sometimes overly passionate and adverse to change, organizational leaders can often be overly emotional about their own ideas. Stay focused on your mission and goals, not whether or not you’re always right.

Recently I caught a Reds baseball game at the impressively beautiful Great American Ball Park. Every time I walk in, I am reminded of my childhood memories of the old Riverfront stadium which stood on that same ground years ago. When it was torn down, I felt like my memories of game 2 of the 1990 World Series sitting beside my dad were being threatened as well. I was mad. But sitting in the far superior stadium, and looking at my own son sitting beside me, makes the need and importance for change clear.

Urgency in the Millennial Workforce – Possible!

One of the great struggles leaders face is creating urgency in their followers to strive towards organizational goals. A problem that becomes quickly compounded when those followers are millennials and new to their career field. They are dipping their feet into the waters of the “real world” and generally far more committed to finding a job rather than selecting one they’re fully invested in. This creates a unique set of challenges for the leader trying to build urgency in their team. Here are some suggested techniques to implement:

1. Be Chatty – have frequent, consistent conversation with your millennial team members. They have come up in an age and culture where communication never ceases, so become part of it. Utilize different mediums until you learn their patterns and preferences, and be sure to make your conversations about more than just work. Having open lines of communication will allow you to check in on their progress toward goal achievement frequently and will stimulate proactive conversation from them. Knowing they will be talking to you daily will naturally increase the urgency to achieve progress.

2. Be Sincere – show that you really care about your team members as individuals beyond the workplace. Millennials may never truly commit to the goals of the organization, but they will commit to their leader if they feel truly cared for. This type of personal connection is far stronger and will create both greater production and more satisfying relationships amongst your team. Loyalty to you will create urgency in them out of a desire to help make you successful.

3. Be Inclusive – give your team members a seat at the table as soon as possible. Involving people in real, meaningful decision making and goal setting instantly increases their buy in. Don’t ever dictate to millennials, it will only serve to widen the space in your relationship. Instead, educate them in the why and then let them formulate the how moving forward. Listen to their suggestions and help guide them onto the correct path. The level to which they’re included is directly correlated to their level of urgency.

4. Be Realistic – know that not everyone will come around. Urgency is something that certain personalities will never demonstrate, and you cannot change who people are. While that is okay, you have to determine how those individuals fit into your organization. Placing them in support roles rather than lead ones may be the most strategic solution. Spending time trying to instill urgency in folks who will never respond that way is counterproductive and will instead instill frustration in you.

Urgency is something needed in all organizations. A leader’s ability to foster it is crucial and valuable. While the above techniques have been proven successful with millennials, remember that all individuals are unique. Spend time learning the motivations and career-oriented desires of your team, and then experiment with how to leverage them. Urgency will build success, and through achievement, even more urgency over time.

5 Ways to Maximize Your Mentor

You need a mentor. Actually mentors. We all do! As you move through the various stages of your career and life, seeking out the folks who have been there before, and had the success you desire, can be extremely valuable. Having walked the path ahead of you, they can point out both the stepping stones and the pitfalls they identified along the way. Beyond that, they can be a sounding board for ideas, a reassuring voice in difficult times, and a key to your personal growth and development. You have to use them effectively however, if you want to achieve those goals. I’ve been blessed to have mentors who are leaders in my industry, successful CEOs in other professions, and people who are influential in areas of personal interest. Through these experiences, I’ve learned (sometimes by stumbling) some best practices to engage and enhance these relationships.

Here are 5 ways I’ve had success maximizing relationships with my mentors:

1. Be Official – to get the most out of your mentor, they should know that they are in fact a mentor to you. Seems simple, but its an often missed step that limits the heights these relationships can achieve. Once you’ve identified someone you would like to have as a mentor, take them to lunch and formally ask them to be one. Outline the goals you have in working with them, lay out a proposed regular meeting schedule, and a timeframe you’d like to initially set. They are more likely to agree to a defined plan, and this structure helps to set reasonable expectations for each party. The more established the individual is in the community/profession, the greater the need for this step.

2. Build Rapport – your relationship with your mentor is fundamentally just like any other relationship. It takes common experience, connection, communication, and trust to reach its fullest potential. Spend the time to find ways to relate and connect personally before diving into work related conversation. Then go back and hit on those touch points each time you meet. Caring for one another as individuals leads to caring for one another’s’ professional success.

3. Listen for Learning – you entered into this mentor-mentee relationship to learn from them so be sure you’re intentional about doing so. Come prepared for each session with thoughtful, specific questions about what you want to learn from their experiences. Then really listen to their answers. Make notes, ask clarifying questions, and pursue the topic until you have the full picture. After the meeting, review your notes and put the tips you gleaned into practice. When you have success based on their suggestions, send them a handwritten note detailing how they impacted you. They will be more open to sharing, and you’ll gain even more wisdom.

4. Branch Out – having a mentor or two within your industry or profession is smart and can serve you well for understanding the organization and perhaps advancement. But why limit yourself? Oftentimes, the greatest opportunity for growth comes through new experiences and education in other fields. The most innovative and successful ideas I’ve had for my business have all come during or after examining something outside of my scope. Having a mentor from another field will challenge you and grow you in ways that will surprise.

5. Win Together – be a giver, not just a taker. Yes, your mentor has more experience and likely more success than you’ve had. Yes, they probably took you on from a sense of giving back as someone once did for them. There is no reason that you can’t enhance and help them as well though. Ask what things they struggle with, how you could specifically help, or what people/businesses they are trying to connect with. Perhaps you can share perspective on why their younger employees are responding a certain way, help them network through a connection you have, or be a sounding board for them. It takes a while to get to this point in the relationship, but if you can deliver wins for them, it will only serve to make the experience richer for each of you.

Don’t have a mentor? Go find one by approaching someone you respect and asking them to spend an hour a month to help you grow. Be smart and selective, but be open about what your goals are and why you’re asking them. They will be flattered and will either say yes or refer you to someone they think might be better suited. If you really want to grow, be a mentor yourself! Look around your office and find someone who you think could benefit from your own experiences. Offer to take them under your wing. You’ll find it a tremendous way to grow personally and professionally.

HR – The New 4 Letter Word

The word “HR” has gained such a negative connotation that it’s nearly part of George Carlin’s list that can’t be said on television. And while HR is not a word, and George’s list isn’t as long as it once was, the fact remains that these days HR often stands for neither Human nor Resources. Too many managers spend the majority of their time wrapped up in rule-writing and rule-monitoring rather than who their rule-followers are.

People will always be the greatest asset of any organization. People, you know, the Humans referred to in Human Resources. We need to stop worrying so much about rules and controlling the actions and thoughts and schedule and browser history of our employees. Instead, let’s build giant sandboxes for them to play in. Lay out the parameters of what is expected and what is out of bounds, give them the tools, the buckets and shovels, and then cast a vision of what they could build.

Lists of rules are almost always lists of what someone is not allowed to do. This fosters an environment of what Stephen Covey calls “malicious obedience”, where employees do only exactly what they’re asked; nothing more. Over time a culture of compliance rather than commitment is created. Parameters of expectations on the other hand, lay out the framework of what needs to be accomplished. It’s a list of what “could be achieved” rather than a list of what “cannot be accepted”.

It takes courage to let go of the structures and spiral bound employee handbooks. And there are certainly many people that will take advantage of a less strict environment. But we must let go, especially with the millennial generation ascending to leadership roles. When granted the freedom to play, the freedom from having someone watch over their shoulders monitoring the “rules”, humans have some pretty great resources to offer.

Retaining (Not Revolving) Talent

Staff retention is a topic that is heavily on my mind most days in my role as a coach and mentor to young executives in the non-profit world. It seems that the talent pool grows thinner by the week and finding sharp, smart emerging leaders willing to work long hours for lesser pay is already challenging enough. Retaining those executives that are able to excel is a key strategy for any organization to accelerate growth. What tactics can be put in place to constantly and consistently develop young talent and develop critical mass?

Invest the time to teach and coach new staff on the fundamentals of your business and also about being a professional. The resumes you’re sifting through today are largely made up of individuals who have been in school for the last 18-20 years. The job you offer them may very well be the first that they have ever held. This requires a commitment to not only give them the basics, but also to take them under your wing and develop them as a professional and perhaps into adulthood. Replicating the type of “onboarding” that I, and many of you, received when we started out will only serve to feed the doom loop… and keep the doors revolving.

Be willing to extend trust and friendship from the very beginning. I have long disliked the clichés “they don’t have to like me, but they will respect me” and “trust has to be earned”. While there are elements of truth in those statements, they wholly miss the mark with the emerging millennial leaders in today’s talent pool. You will earn trust with them if you extend it first, and with that trust will come the deeply needed feelings of support and compassion that are musts for them to stay. While you may have some difficulty relating completely to them, finding common ground to connect and be friends will pay huge dividends over time. Please don’t connect on social media and call it good – in fact, you may want to avoid doing that altogether. Be compassionate, get to know them, ask how they’re doing, listen to the answers… Everyone, not just millennials, wants to feel valued by the company and the people they work for. Don’t just make them feel valued – actually value them.

Delivering early wins and quick advancement will make it hard for your team to ever walk away. The younger the talent, the greater the need they have to succeed and move up. Give them projects that are high impact, and have a high likelihood of success. Then support them fully through the process giving them all the credit for the win. Once they’ve tasted that success, they will go out and replicate it. Be prepared to advance them in your organization every two years. That’s a big departure in expectation for many of us, but it is the nature of the new workforce. It will require us to redesign our organization charts, create new positions, and give greater responsibility incrementally.

These ideas and tactics are not guaranteed to work – some people are going to move on from your organization no matter what you do. A willingness to adapt and be flexible in how you approach onboarding and supporting talent is guaranteed to slow the revolving door and increase retention of top talent.