business, innovation, Leadership

Your One Hurdle to Success

Many Hands raise high up

Starting a two day conference is a daunting task.

A room full of smiling faces with laptops and notepads, and me scanning their faces for signs of life as begin two days of rapid fire information.

Some of those faces are happy because they come with a two-day pass off of work, some of them came for the change of pace, and some, the ones I am looking for, came to learn something new and be inspired.

I work with the willing.

Never one to shy away from the front row of life, I have learned that passion and commitment to learning is a lifelong mission that pays huge rewards. Managing staff and teams of sales reps I saw that every person comes to work (and life) with their own agenda, and that agenda doesn’t always include a willingness to learn and grow. So I made a commitment, a long time ago, to work with the willing, and that is the only hurdle of success.

The willing are those on your team who are inspired by their work. They are creative and energetic in their daily routines. They reach out and rarely pull back. They are two steps ahead, and they are the ones who are probably sitting in the front row with pens already in their hands, ready to take notes.

Focus on these few and make them the focal point of your work. Keep them in your eyesight, and always clear your calendar when they ask for a moment of your time. For the willing are the superstars who will inspire your whole team because they are getting the attention of the leader, and that my friends, would be you!

Giving the willing your time and effort will set a tone in your organization that you value what they are giving: Energy, creativity, and results. Giving your attention to the willing will signal to every member on your team that you no longer are putting time and effort into drama and unnecessary complaints. Giving your attention to those who are present, engaged, and sitting in the front row, lets everyone know that you are engaged with the same passion and purpose, and together you will inspire and lead.

And when you focus on the willing, they stay engaged and grow. Their constant enthusiasm can, and should welcome others into the circle of energy and results, and the drama queens? They move on, feeling justified in their beliefs that everyone else is the source of their misery.

Over the course of my two day presentation, I saw the back feeders move back, but the middle seaters, pulled their seats more forward to engage with those of us in the front rows having a good time, learning and exchanging ideas. It was an exhilarating couple of days that assured me that the strategy of working with the willing does and can work in any environment. Those front two rows were exploding with engaged and energized people who didn’t want to leave when the clock chimed “seminar over.”

We hung together continuing the conversation, and making plans to network and grow. We left feeling like rock stars, and didn’t worry about those few in the back rows who snuck out at 5 minutes before the clock struck 5. They are not worth your time or effort. They are not the people who will give your organization the results you are looking for. Rethink your leadership strategy. Forget the old notion that everyone on your team deserves equal time. Are they giving you equal effort?

Do you think it’s hard to do—focusing on the willing? What challenges do you face when you keep spending all your time with the drama queens? Is it worth spending less time with your superstars? What are your thoughts?

business, Design, Leadership

Three Simple Steps to Finding Your Next Opportunity

growing light bulb standing out from the unlit incandescent bulb

I want you to think about something that happened last week.

You were in your office preparing to meet with a rising star on your team…when “you know who” knocked on your door.

You lifted up your head, your eyes locked, and in they walked.

“So-in-so,” you said politely. “I am heading off to a meeting is this urgent?”

“Yes,” So-in-so said.

“Five minutes,” you responded authoritatively.

Ten minutes later you are still listening to a laundry list of complaints and dissatisfaction about another member of your team who didn’t do this or that on the project. You nod and listen, interject a word of surprise now and then to show support, and then it escalates where you need to push your appointment off so you can go down to the floor and deal with squabbling between coworkers about schedules.

You just picked the burned out light bulb.

As a team leader there are many opportunities in the day to “Lead First and Manage Second.”  But what does that really mean?   What are the issues throughout the day that avoid conflicts and gain insight into your next opportunity for results and growth?

Here is your first step:  Leave the burnt out bulbs in the bin.

What I mean by that is: these are your team members who cannot get along well with others, always have issues and complaints, and are in your office daily looking for you to solve their problems.  You cannot slam the door, but you can redirect the person.  In the case of So-in-so who interrupted you, try this next time:

“So-in-so I am meeting with “rising star” in five minutes, what do you need?”  Now the problem member knows that you are playing favorites with a high performer.  They go on about the problems.  You cut them off at five minuets and say, “Good to know So-in-so, I have a meeting now with ‘rising star’ so let me know what you resolve to do about the (scheduling issues, workflow, etc.)  And then go to your rising star and give them attention.

It is not your job as a leader to jump in and solve everyone’s problems.  You need to develop that person who has a problem.  Give them authority to go and fix their problem and then, when you meet up for your weekly review (and this is key) you can discuss how they did and offer solutions for next time these issues come up.  Fixing problems will not recharge that burnt out light bulb.  They need to recharge themselves with proactive solutions that they do–not you!

Second step is to pick the brightest light bulb every time.

Yes, that it is playing favorites, but by patting the back of your motivated team member they will rise higher (i.e. give you more results) and hopefully the dud, will either take notice to your priority of performance over drama and rise to the occasion, or they will quit. And every leader has someone on their team they hope will quit.  You need to work with the willing.. that 20% that give you the results and enthusiasm that you need.  By constantly taking time in your day to solving problems for the bottom 20% you not only lose precious hours in your day for your own work, but you are showing your brightest stars that complaints–not passion–are valued.

Step three:  Meet with your team, one-on-one regularly–with an agenda.

This is going to explode your business.  Have a short agenda, say ten questions that you ask every week (ie. What challenges did you face this week?  What was most rewarding? What are your goals?  What actions will you take to accomplish them, etc.)  This process is going to give you insight into issues that are growing on your team. It is also going to open your eyes to opportunities for creativity and growth.  Whenever you make your team accountable to their actions you are creating opportunities.  And the critical part in meeting weekly is your feedback.  Offer quick responses to what you would find helpful to accomplish goals.  Explain what is hindering their results.  20 minutes a week because they come with the form already done!  You are already spending countless hours now solving problems, so why not schedule one-on-one meetings to direct opportunities and growth?

Opportunities are everywhere in the workplace.  These are the light-bulbs that are shining bright, but if you are constantly picking up the duds and trying to recharge them, the brightest ones on your team begin to lose their enthusiasm and will eventually jump ship. It is important to remember these three things:

1. Redirect your complainers to solve their own problems.
2. Focus on your performers.
3. Schedule regular weekly meetings for feedback and direction.

What actions are you going to take this week based on these insights?


Source: Photo IStock
             Reality-Based Leadership by Cy Wakeman

business, Leadership

Our Work Is Literally Killing Us

We have all watched the shows at one time or another. The heard of antelope is happily grazing on the grass. One thinks he hears something and lifts his head. Heart pounding, and alert to every movement around him. He doesn’t make a move, but still his closest herd member feels his distress and also stops and lifts his head on high alert. They are motionless. Soon the other members of the herd all stop grazing and lift their heads. “What was that rustle in the grass? A lion perhaps?” Soon they all hear a sound and run as fast as they can to escape danger. If one feels threatened, they all feel threatened.


It is a biological process that makes this all happen. The early warning system, called cortisol, is what filled the first antelope. Sense. Threat. Run. Every member of the herd lifted their heads and went off together because without the group they would surly get eaten. That feeling that something is not right protects the antelope and humans.

Now look across your office. Everyone is working, joking perhaps while they do their jobs. Rumors start about one guy in the office who might get fired. One by one the whole team begins to question his job. There is a heightened sense of awareness when doors open. “Is that the boss? There is a meeting in conference room? Why?” Nothing concrete, just an awareness that their job safety is in trouble. But the stress they feel, the cortisol coursing through their veins whenever they get called into the bosses’ office, will distract the whole team until they feel they are safe from danger—real or imagined.

The slow death of the workforce. Now suppose this office team works under this stress every day, every week? It’s not a huge danger, just silent rumors that permeate every cubicle. Cortisol doesn’t distinguish between what is reality or what is perceived in the mind, so it will continue to drip in the system at every moment to protect us from danger. The problem is that when it’s present it also has to turn off our immune system. Its an efficient biological process when everything goes as planned: Sense. Threat. Run. Once safety returns, the cortisol stops and the immune system boots back up. But long term stress doesn’t work that way. It can’t stop unless it feels safe. Without the stopping of the cortisol, we begin to suffer the long term effects of a downed immune system-heart disease, cancer, and constant colds and flu. It is a slow death.


Turn off the source of the problem. Look back at your workplace and really see what is going on. The water cooler gossip and chatter are your first clues. The blame starts among the group. Our manger lied, a colleague stabbed us in the back, the boss doesn’t like us. They begin to beat themselves up and worry about about what they said in the meeting, “did I speak out of turn?” They cycle through the things over and over because they sense a threat from within. Cortisol is doing its job to make them paranoid and everyone begins to prepare for the threat. The stress is real.

Every man for himself. It is the team leaders’ worst nightmare; every person senses the threat and begins to feel worried. There is no “good feeling” chemicals (oxytocin) coming from the brain, so we are less productive. It is harder to concentrate and that interferes with our creative ability. Without risk taking we don’t innovate. We are more selfish and less concerned for the others on our team. There is a greater lack of trust for management and colleagues. We show up, do our work, and adapt to our environment, but we are no longer safe and secure in our workplace. We are doing the best job possible.

Leaders Eat Last. Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, studied the U.S. Marines and how their leaders trained and cared for their troops. The goal is provide an environment where every soldier could trust each other with their lives, literally. More than the rigorous training, the marching in the rain, constant yelling by sergeants who teach that it is no longer “I, but we”, there is a balance in the environment through respect. The leaders of higher rank have clearly earned their positions and status and yet when everyone assembles in the mess hall,the leaders eat last. Like guards standing at the gate, they are watching over their teams, nourishing the first, and then they can sit down. Complete and total trust is created in the environment. No one fears that they will be left to fend for themselves. The team wins.

So what is a manager to do? It takes a strong leader to change the environment of fear. Layoffs or poor executives are a reality in the workplace, but your team? Your team has you to sit down and address concerns openly and without recourse. Filter out the rumors and the drama and deal only with the facts. Guide your team to an understanding that by working together for the company’s common goal, their mission statement, everyone benefits. Mentorteam members at risk. Show them what they need to do to work better so they look their best to upper management. Meet with higher ups and update them on the team efforts and how they are working together to meet the company mission. Herd everyone together on a regular basis so they do not fear the rustles in the grass. Post meeting schedules, give clearly defined goals, and interact with them daily so they feel protected. Ensure that you are doing everything possible to protect them, your team. Eat last.

The statistics on long term cortisol stress levels are staggering. But things can change. Small, simple changes in the workplace, something as simple as meeting with your team every day, can reduce that constant drip of fear that is felt. And have a lunch out. Laughter produces oxytocin; it makes us feel good and boosts our immune system. Makes us feels safe and that means more productive and creative team efforts. Small changes earn big rewards.

What is your workplace drama? What are a few of the little things that your boss or management does to reinforce the team mission?

business, innovation

The Myth of The Team

Anyone who has ever worked with a team, or managed one, knows that teams are an amazing way to success.  You probably have the poster hanging on your employee break room wall:


It is true, there is no “I” in Team, but in reality, without the “I” you have problems.

“I” stands for an Individual.  One person leading, creating, inspiring, and living the mission of the business. If you take a look at your “team” right now, you can probably pick out the individuals on that team who are fulfilling that promise (about 20%.)  They are the ones that not only get it done, but they are excited to do more!  The other 80%?  Those are your slackers, complainers, whiners, and mediocre paper pushers who are monopolizing most of your day with petty issues.

In theory when you put the two groups together you will have one cohesive team that will not only produce a higher level of results, but will incentivize the 80% to more productivity. In theory.

Cy Wakman, author of Reality-Based Leadership, points out that there is another, more real possibility when working with a team, that what you actually have is:

 “the worst of both worlds: maybe no one is ostentatiously taking credit, but behind the scenes, everyone is still allowed to think that he worked harder than others and can shirk responsibility for mediocre results.”

We have all either been on that team, or managed them. Outside of the “team” environment, everyone is talking about who is really doing the work and who isn’t.  Conflicts are internalized, complaints interrupt your day, and when the project they are working on fails you might have pushed a few of your superstars to start looking for another job. And what is left is the 80% who feel justified to complain at the water cooler about how much your business sucks.

And what happens when the team does succeed?  When you take the “I” out and don’t give attention to the people who really did the bulk of the work they might stay, for a while but eventually you will lose them to a company that will recognize their achievements.  Is that the goal of achieving more?

Teamwork does work.  But a key component is missing. Cy Wakeman points out:

The team either hit the mark or it didn’t, and it’s important for each individual to account for his actions, assumptions, behaviors and choices that contributed to the shortcomings of the team.”

This concept works in basketball, team after team, championship after championship. If corporate managers and small business owners operated their teams more like a basketball team the results would be astounding!

Think of your favorite basketball team.  One cohesive group of athletes supporting each other, but within that team is a set of clearly defined individual roles, led by a coach.  Each player has a designated position and expectations about what they are to do when on the court.  The goal is winning, for the team, but for the individual players they have a clearly defined set of objectives they must each achieve in order for the whole team to succeed.

Sure there are superstars on the team, why not?
Who wouldn’t want to play with the top people in their field?

Focus on the “I”.  It is not hard to organize a team around individual efforts and accolades. Management needs to give a clearly defined outcome and then, assess honestly the individuals involved so they can assign tasks according to their strengths. Once done there is a solid possibility that this team will not only succeed, but there will be a whole lot less water-cooler chit-chat.

One Final Step. Like your basketball team, there has to be accountability.  They get called back in the locker room, with replays that point out both the good and the bad.  In this setting, it is expected and required to win the championship.  So why can’t your team run that way?

Be clear in your goals, roles and expectations.  Assign tasks clearly.  And then, pull everyone together when the project is done to review the outcome.  Good or bad you can make the results of that final meeting a launching pad for the next big project.

What do you think of putting the “I” back in team?


A note about Reality-Based Leadership: Read it. Read it again.
Give it to all of your managers.
Reality-Based Leadership by Cy Wakeman.