Monday, March 30, 2009

The 2nd Half

It was my birthday yesterday; another one gone by, and I sit in a rocking chair (physically, not metaphorically) on a porch of the Virginia G. Piper Writers House, on the campus of Arizona State University. As I continue to explore the burning desire to write I find myself hunting for places to hike to and sit while I contemplate beautiful, amazing things to write and share with the world. This place feels good. I can sit in the sunshine or pick a spot in the shade under the roof-covered porch. I’ve glanced inside a couple of times and wonder how it would be to sit inside and write. Maybe the energy of many words written in this place can energize me to keep chasing the elusive words of my soul. For right now, sitting on the porch feels like the right place to be. I recall sitting on the porch with my grandparent’s years ago watching the world go by. Now I’m a grandparent and looking forward to many hours on the porch with my grandchildren waxing long about the affairs of life.
I write between upward glances to watch students walk by wondering what their stories are and will be. Their whole life sits before them and many will sit in quiet contemplation someday as I do almost 35 years after I was one of these wide-eyed students. Can they even imagine what their lives will bring? A brilliant career? Amazing relationships? A family to share life with? Life lessons to share with others? I could not imagine being 56 years old when I ran around campus in the early 70’s full of life and promise. Nothing seemed to matter then. Today, everything matters.
Today, as another milestone passes by I wonder what the rest of my life brings. I realize that the potential exists that I can be just slightly past half way through. I am still healthy, active and in generally good spirits. I still believe I have lots to offer the world with the time I have left. My good friend, Don Arnoudse, has a coaching company called – Praemia Group (he’s in the Boston area and one of the best, so look him up). He’s a brilliant coach and speaks often about the spirituality in the workplace. He realizes that people of our generation are vital, more energetic than any previous generation and that we can live long and healthy lives, leaving us capable of offering much to the world as we live the second half. These are the thoughts that leave me in a place of awe about what is left to accomplish as I whine about my grey hair (at least I still have some), my ever-softer belly and my aching knees. This is a place where wisdom is born and we can elect to share the wisdom or consider it as folly and keep it to ourselves.
I have another coaching friend named Rick Tamlyn. Rick has a company named - It’s All Made Up. What a brilliant way to look at life! It’s all made up anyhow. If it is, let us all see ourselves as the brilliant human beings we were meant to be. We have boundless wisdom and never ending opportunities to share with the world. As I contemplate these thoughts I consider this birthday to be one of many past and many to come – a halfway point. A wonderful place to be.
It must be between classes again. The campus is filled with students as they move from one class to the next. May all of their lives be full of joy and contentment as they pass from one phase of life to the next and may they all celebrate many birthdays and significant 2nd halves!

Friday, March 27, 2009

They No Longer Need Us But They Want Us

When my first child started to stumble around the house making her valiant attempts to walk I would hold my hands close to protect her from any potential pitfalls that might harm her.  Fear for her safety kept me close by as she worked her way through this new stage of life.
Imagine if I still did that as a parent. At 30 years old she would still be stumbling around the house trying to walk on her own. My daughter and her husband have recently created a new stage of life for me – grandparenthood. I love how they choose to include us in their lives and share their hopes and dreams as well as our granddaughter. It gives me peace to understand that our children no longer need us but they want us.  I consider this a true testament to love and successful parenting.
Leaders can learn wonderful lessons from parenting. Leaders can measure their greatest success when their people no longer need them but they want them. Letting go continues to be the number one coaching challenge leaders face. I find fear tends to be the prominent reason for not letting go and entrusting others to successfully do the work. Can they do it as well as I can? Can I trust they can do it successfully if I don’t stand over them and watch?  Maybe most importantly, what if they don’t need me anymore?
The greatest measure of a leaders success is when they don’t need you anymore. It’s not how many followers you develop; it’s how many leaders you develop that carries the trophy for successful leadership. Without ‘Letting Go’ a leader will sit in the over laden heap of people occupying the throne of leadership strictly by position only.
When we coach leaders to be more coach-like we ask them to consider the great leaders that impacted them over the years and the qualities these leaders possessed. We continually hear about how they trusted, challenged, coached and offered insights that motivated them to excel, many times beyond their own expectations. We call this the Unseen Road. Great leaders will often see something in us that we can’t even see in ourselves. What are you doing to be one of the names that quickly surfaces when others think of great leaders they have had the pleasure of knowing? If we were to conduct a survey of your people what would they’re honest view be about you?
We once worked with an exciting oil and gas company coaching most of their top leaders. Developing future leadership capability was a key initiative for this client. With aging Baby Boomers occupying most of the top leadership spots they wanted to incent executive leaders to define and develop their eventual successors. The Chief Operating Officer created a program for each member of the executive team that allowed them to take a 60 day paid sabbatical. The only requirement for this option was they had to have identified and developed their successor to a point where the executive could leave and the business run successfully without them. And the COO was the first one to take advantage of the offer. Now that’s a great way to know if you have developed your people to the point that they no longer need you but they want you! A great testament to being a sage leader sits in our actions not our words.
Are your people ready? Are you?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Companies Still Investing In Their Leaders

On February 9th the Wall Street Journal posted an article titled – “Despite Cutbacks, Firms Invest in Developing Leaders”. The article suggests “Despite layoffs and recession-starved budgets, many employers are investing in leadership-development programs, hoping not to be caught short of strong managers when the economy recovers.”  Bret Furio from Philips Electronics North America said, “Identifying and grooming leaders is important in good times. In times of crisis when the economy is struggling, it's imperative."

We have witnessed an increase in the coaching side of our business since this economic downturn has gripped the world, particularly, the relationship coaching work that has become an integral part of our practice. It seems that the issues that were overlooked when we were running hard, making money and being successful, become critical when times get tougher. I spoke with a client just recently on this topic and he agreed with the scenario I painted. He summed it up well by using the metaphor that “a pimple has become a boil!”.
I have enough grey hair to have experienced a couple of recessions. A key learning from any of these previous experiences is that we learn more about ourselves, and those around us, when times become different, particularly, tougher times. The best tests of true leadership show up when our people get scared. And we’re not talking problem solving, doing or project managing skill sets. We’re talking about the ability to have the conversations that are necessary in order to build the relationships that produce the most effective productivity. The Journal article continued on to state “executives believe that without capable managers, their ability to come through the recession in a healthy fashion is diminished.”.
Sage leaders will look at this recession and define it as our new reality, our new economy and our economic reset.  A recent survey by a San Francisco marketing firm revealed some characteristics for these leaders and companies during this time of economic reset:
*They know and value their core strengths.
*They recognize new opportunities quickly.
*They demonstrate flexibility and persistence.
*They show speed in executing plans and strategies.
*They provide extreme customer service.
*They create powerful and vibrant teams.
There is not a better or more necessary time in a company lifecycle than now to lead effectively. Are you stepping up to the plate or are you one of the statistics that contribute to the #1 reason people leave organizations – their manager sucks? It is definitely a time to run with our winners and cut our losers. We need to be dynamic enough to manage this economic reset and come out the other side with a herd of running horses!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Kindergarten Lessons

I was visiting my parents back in January. I don’t see them enough as distance keeps us from regular visits. My father reminded me a few times about the song “Cats In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin and we both shyly commented about how little time I make to visit them in Florida. This is a truth I carry concern about as my parents continue to age.
One added bonus to the visit was I got to see my sister that I haven’t seen in years. She was in the process of moving to Florida from Virginia to be closer to Mom and Dad. And she gave to me a folder she had stored with her for many years. The mangled and discolored booklet contained report cards of mine starting with Kindergarten. I tossed it into my suitcase and forgot about it until I was on the airplane several days later. As I glanced at the first one – the Kindergarten report card – I recalled the book by Robert Fulghum titled “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”. Opening it I wondered if there would be any wisdom among the pages that gave me insight to the life lessons I might have learned there. Interestingly enough, there were comments in the very first Marking Period report that seemed life shaping.
The very first report Mrs. Eppler wrote to my parents contained some distinctive words. She said, “Robert has adjusted very nicely to kindergarten life. He is becoming a good listener. Once in a while he forgets and interrupts conversation to talk about something that doesn’t pertain to our discussion; this will improve with time.”
The second Marking Period report of course, faired much better. “Robert is always willing to share with the other children and works with them nicely. I have had to speak with him several times lately about his behavior at the table while eating.”
I smiled quietly to myself as I sat on the plane reading such telling behavior stories that appeared at the tender age of five. It felt like we could take a Report Card from a 1958-1959 school year and place a present day date stamp over the original blue ink on the front page. “Bob is still a very good listener with skills that have been honed over many years since Kindergarten. This has transformed him into a premier executive coach. And yet he stills needs to be reminded when he interrupts coaching conversations with something that doesn’t pertain to the topic at hand. Maybe we can still hope this will improve with time!” Also, “Bob shares well with others and his value around Shared Abundance has proven to be a great gift to himself and others. Now if we could just do something about his table manners!”
It would be a wonderful opportunity to sit with Mrs. Eppler all this many years later and show her what she wrote in my Report Card and the grand example of human behavior that would stand in front of her today. Maybe I would even buy her dinner!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sage Conversations With Clients & Friends

Gary became a client way back in the mid 90’s. He brought us in to help him as the oil company he had started in his garage almost twenty years earlier was experiencing its greatest growth. We worked together as Gary grew his company until it was acquired a few years later. Gary retired only temporarily. After a bit of time to relax, build his new home and work on his golf game, Gary got together with a couple of other oil boys he’d known and started ‘playing’ with buying a small oil play and keeping himself involved in the craft that had defined who he had been his whole career. From these efforts sprouted another small oil company that went public and Gary once again found himself in the role of CEO.
We worked with the team Gary assembled in this new company and worked directly with Gary in an executive coach capacity. We spent many hours talking diligently about leadership. Gary faced both the successes and the challenges of executive leadership as he led his new company through the highs and lows of the oil industry. During this experience with a new start up organization Gary took a much deeper look at the impact leadership had on a system and how strongly the character of the individuals on a team impacted the climate of the system. He faced several challenges as he grew this little team of people into a viable going concern. The challenges were not just the technical challenges of finding viable plays to explore, even though this proved to be a key problem his company faced. More so, Gary realized how important, and seemingly challenging was the task of building a collegial team of professionals who passionately faced the ups and downs of the oil business. He had to make some changes on the team and regularly commiserated with me on the fickleness of the personalities that showed up to do the work they had been trained to perform.
I loved the conversations Gary and I had. We covered many miles of the leadership challenge ground that many have chosen not to explore. Gary found his passion of being a professional oil and gas executive based on historical technical expertise shift to a passion for understanding and leading people. With that shift I saw Gary move from a successful technical professional to a Sage Leader.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sage Leaders Sit Amongst Us

Lon is a non-visible Native American that was classified at our workshop as a white middle class, older male. The younger female manager described her perceptions of Lon as ‘being wise’ and she hoped to achieve his level of wisdom someday in order to have many of the answers she perceived his sage years had brought him.
Lon is a man that has come from a grass roots world of experience. A Vietnam Vet flying Marine jets over the jungles, an undercover motorcycle gang cop in southern California and a high tech entrepreneur that learned his technical craft from the direct lessons of people much younger than he was. His street smarts experience translated into an emotional intelligence that became apparent to all the participants.
When asked by Lon what gave the young female manager the impression that he was wise she described him as older, grayer and observant, somewhat like a father figure. She also said that he didn’t say much and the key body language signal she noticed was his smile. He would smile on occasion and she saw the smile as acknowledgement or agreement without the need to verbalize anything.
Lon does have a captivating smile. His nickname, given to him by the Mexican gangs when he was undercover, was Smiley. And Lon was middle aged, showing the signs of the wear and tear of life. Salt and pepper hair and moustache along with the wrinkles on his face and traditional expanding middle gave him an almost grandfatherly appearance. We discussed further the key characteristic that seemed to dominate all the others she had defined as sage. That appeared to be that Lon sat mostly as a quiet observer during much of the workshop, speaking sparingly, mostly relying on asking clarifying questions and the occasional wry smile of acknowledgement. Group discussion followed raising question to the concept of quiet observation as a key tool to the sage leader’s repertoire.
Lon shared that he has many of the same concerns as everyone else in the room. He said he is just as scared on the inside as they are. He feels that the wisdom of age has likely given him more questions to ponder than it has answers to the questions that he had as a young man. He finished by acknowledging to the younger leader that he saw all the gifts in her that she was hoping to gain with age. The sage wisdom of leadership was not confined to the gray hairs of his generation. He shared his gratitude to be in a room filled with leaders much younger than his obvious years that showed the promise for the future of leadership in their organization.
Are you recognizing the sage leaders that populate your organization irrespective of age, race, gender or any other judgment that may cross our radar screens? And are you putting their best assets to use? I often wonder why organizations spend so much money drafting new players from outside the team while a quality player may sit unnoticed on the bench.