Leadership as Art

darknessI recently read an article, “Every Leader is an Artist” at the Harvard Business Review web site.  The article, written by Michael O’Malley, author of a book by the same name, makes the argument that great leaders are artists.  He compares the artist to the leader to show those similarities.

While I agree with O’Malley, it raises the question:   “How do we get leaders in business to see themselves as artists and, therefore, embrace art?”

It’s a big question.

Many in traditional leadership positions favor the “left-brained” way of thinking.  Spreadsheets filled with numbers certainly doesn’t feel like art.  On the surface most of the decision-making activities of a leader don’t feel like art.

But the interconnectedness of those numbers to real-world solutions is a form of art.  It takes not just analysis but the ability to see through the numbers to the bigger picture.  It isn’t just about one product or service but the implications of it’s existence in the marketplace.  It isn’t just about customer as consumer but customer as partner.

All those connections, some more abstract than others, reach far across both the left and right sides of our brains.  It is art.  It is analysis.  It is a combination of both.

So how do we get leaders to embrace art?

Is it in the ability of the artist to embrace analysis?

Is it in the joining of forces, the bringing together of both artist and business leader?

Where and how can we begin to create the threads that will bring them both together?

VisualsSpeak Improves Existing Leadership Programs

A few months back a large bank was looking to beef up the effectiveness of their leadership development program for new supervisors. At the same time, they wanted to get people up to speed more quickly. So they called on Doug to come onboard and rework the program.

Doug’s an experienced facilitator and developer, and after looking at the previous program, he decided to bring in the VisualsSpeak system. Now, one of the first things he does in the program is ask people to create images around “What is a leader?”

As the group discusses their images, they start thinking about everything that changes when you move from being an individual contributor to being a leader. Just tacking that on at the beginning was, well, just the beginning.

Now Doug has reported they used VisualsSpeak every session of the program, with great results. By incorporating these activities, people are understanding their new roles more quickly, and effectiveness has really grown. Well done, Doug!

Hidden Innovations

The most costly disruptions always happen when something we take completely for granted stops working for a minute.

Or so says Aaron Sorkin, writing for fictional president Jed Bartlet on TV’s The West Wing. And upon reflection, that’s probably true. If water service just stopped altogether, for instance, or (as in the case of the fictional TV episode) there’s a US outbreak of mad cow disease that threatens the nation’s beef supply.

But perhaps a corollary to that is that the most significant innovations are those that alter things we take completely for granted. Yet it seems like the pace of these innovations is pretty slow.

Open Wide

As an example, think of your teeth. Good practice in taking care of your teeth involves taking a stick, slathering some pasty substance on it, and jabbing it in and out of your mouth. Multiple times a day! And more or less, that hasn’t changed in 5000 years!

In an age where pills can unclog blood vessels, robots can clean our carpets, and lasers can polish surfaces, doesn’t it seem like there could be an innovation in this department, too? And if such an innovation came along, think of the worldwide ramifications!

What’s Next?

To come up with a new form of cleaning teeth takes some degree of knowledge and skill in dentistry, of course. But we each have our own areas of skill and experience, and surely we could apply those to the banalities and ubiquities of our lives.

The other prerequisite for such an innovation, though, is something we all can do — and something we all too rarely do. And that is observe. Really observe. As I sit here writing this, I am noticing the surface of my work table, the swivel mechanism of my chair, the hum of the lights and computer fans. I’m seeing how the curtains wrinkle at the bottom and how, if I listen hard, I can barely hear some birds chirping outside. Each of these sensory experiences (and there are many more) could be opportunities for innovation.

Observation is the foundation for innovation. So why not see what you can see?

Confusing Motion and Progress

ClockI usually lead a fairly busy life. Chances are, you’re pretty busy, too. So why doesn’t it always feel like we’re getting lots done?

Often, it can be the difference between motion and progress. But how do we get stuck in these ruts, and how do we get out again?


There’s overhead to almost everything we do. Hassles. Whether it’s something mundane like getting Girl Scout Cookies (where the overhead may include getting cash from an ATM or finding a checkbook — and certainly finding a Girl Scout) or something significant, like having a wedding (which is nearly overrun with administrivia — or Highly Important Decisions, depending on whom you ask).

Either way, there’s detail. Heaped on the details of everyday life. Like laundry. Groceries. And so on.

One way to avoid spending all your time on administrivia is to structure it. Contain the time you give over to it. So if you’re spending lots of time on personal administrivia, constrain it to one weekend day and two hours two weeknights a week. Or whatever works. But move from it being an ad hoc draw on your time to a structured one, and you can regain some bandwidth.

SImilarly, at work, there’s such minutiae everywhere. Most common is the siren call of e-mail. The same advice applies — set aside blocks of time to attend to it all, and when it’s not in that block, don’t do it. If you get distracted by the notification that new messages (whether they’re tweets, e-mails, or whatever) are coming in, then quit the program and come back once an hour for 5 minutes. Or whatever schedule works for you.

Spending Time on What’s Important

This has been covered in other blog posts, but an easy way to fall into the motion/progress trap is to spend too much time on what’s not really important. This can often be triggered by Shiny New Thing syndrome. SNT syndrome is where one gets overtaken with what’s new, whether or not it’s important.

For example, take a small crafts business that is just getting up and running. They’re relying on sites like 1stdibs and others to market their wares, and they enable people to pay with PayPal. Ahhh…but just last week, there was an announcement of a nifty new way for people to use their credit cards and you can swipe them with your smartphone. So why not spend some time looking into that and playing around with it? It might be useful sometime in the future.

Why not? Because it’s motion, not progress. Is is important now? Will it move the overall objectives ahead today? If not, move along; there’s nothing to see here. When it comes time to re-assess payment options, it won’t have gone anywhere.

A Time-Study Man

There’s a great song in the Adler and Ross musical, “The Pajama Game” called “Time-Study Man.” It’s a song of braggadocio where a key character talks about how he saves time all day long. (One of his methods includes shaving each morning in bed, an act of messy dedication to the clock.) And although the song is farcical, the underlying ethic isn’t such a bad one.

Think efficiency while you’re working. Train a small piece of your brain to consider how you could be doing your current task faster. Over time as you build that muscle, you’ll be able to increase the pace of what you’re doing, too.

Between compartmentalizing administrivia, focusing on what’s important, and always considering efficiencies, your level of progress may double or more — with as much (or even less) motion. Whatever will you do with your new free time!?

Prevention or Promotion?

Look before you leap. Better to be safe than sorry. Or maybe: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You never know until you try.

We have a lot of sayings about risk in our culture. And Americans in particular are reputed to be a pretty nervy bunch, taking big risks and reaping big rewards. But, as Heidi Grant Halvorson points out in a Harvard Business Review blog post last week, it seems we’ve become a more timid bunch lately.

Drawing on social science, Halvorson shows dichotomous ways of being motivated — the prevention focus and the promotion focus.

The prevention focus thinks, before a decision, “what are the potential downsides here?” This attention to the possible negative consequences of a risky decision can often lead to fewer risks being taken.

The promotion focus thinks, before a decision, “what are the potential upsides here?” By looking at the possible rewards of taking the risk, people tend to risk more often (and potentially garner more upside).

Which Is Better?

Well, like many things in the world of motivation and personality, it’s not really about ‘better’ — both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Prevention-focused people tend to execute strategies that are accurate, deliberate and thorough. Promotion-focused people tend to execute strategies that are fast, innovative, and, well, more risky.

Halvorson goes on in the article, though, to point out that in this American period where more decision-makers tend to be preventive, people with innovative ideas need to shift their approach. Not the approach to their ideas, but to selling their ideas.

Find the Frame

It’s a truism of presentations — whether sales, musical, or comedic — that one needs to know their audience. This certainly holds true here. If you’re trying to pitch a prevention-focused person on an innovative idea, frame it around the risks your idea will mitigate.

As the author points out, if you propose an innovation and frame it as being the thing to keep your rivals from catching up — “everyone else is starting to move this direction, and we don’t want to be left behind” — you’re more likely to appeal to a prevention-focused person.

Especially when VisualsSpeak began, lots of people find our tools to be “out there” — so innovative that they look weird. Now that we have corporations, governments, nonprofits, and individuals around the world using them to great success, we can hone that prevention-focused message. But in the beginning, it was tough.

Sometimes you have to leap before you look.

Lessons From The Bottom

Made by Great Stella Software. http://www.software3d.com/Stella.htmlAbout a decade ago, C.K. Pralahad wrote a book that focused on what he called the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (or BOP). Pralahad looked at the upsides of serving the very poorest, both from a financial and innovation perspective. Recently, his daughter, Deepa Pralahad wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review which distills some design lessons learned ten years later.

Whether or not you serve this population, the lessons are still instructive — and can be applied to our work everyday.

Pralahad points out first that economy is required, of course, but just as important is usability. Because BOP populations have been ignored for so long by designers and manufacturers, this is a big adjustment for the big companies.

But I’d argue that usability is something that we all gravitate toward — and something that we all miss in too many products. How long did we suffer through programming the VCR before we got something that was menu and content-driven? How many of us use bad consumer products every day?

Pralahad also talks about responding to customers’ income volatility — certainly something more pressing at the BOP, but just as present throughout the economy. Although we seem to be slowly recovering from the economic disasters of the last few years, people still look in the immediate rearview mirror and are worried. This hardly seems limited to those with small incomes.

Her third point, though, is the one that resonated the most: understanding customer pain points. If you don’t know where people are having trouble with your offering, then you aren’t in a good position to make it better. This is true whether you’re making widgets or delivering training.

In the moment of a training or coaching session, things can seem like they’re going well. The participant(s) interest level and enthusiasm is strong, and momentum is flying by. Yet some weeks later, there’s virtually no change in behavior. Why? If you don’t know, you’re in trouble.

At VisualsSpeak, we focused a lot on that last point as we were developing the system and the facilitation approach. We didn’t consider our initial tools “ready” until they had been tested for thousands of hours. Even with that, we continue to make refinements as we target specific outcomes, populations, or media.

So perhaps we can all draw some key lessons from service to the poorest populations — whether focused on design, on delivery, or on manufacturing.

Futurist or Visionary Leader?

Victoria WoodhullIt seems as though there are lots of futurists out there. You know, people who spend time envisioning life some ways down the road. Some of them even call themselves “thought leaders.”

Setting aside the pretension of that phrase, it’s still a far cry from being a Visionary Leader. An example will highlight the differences.

Picture It

It’s 1870 or so, and in post-Civil War America, the country is dealing with reconstruction and dealing with advancing the rights of all people. In the US, in fact, there’s a mini-boom of civil rights going on. The futurists of the time can even foresee a time when the women suffragists win and women can vote. They may even, one day, run for important offices.

This is the Thought Leadership of the day.

Then there’s Victoria Woodhull. Today happens to be her birthday, and her story is a markedly different one — much more of a leader.

Woodhull believed in women’s equality, too. But more than prophesizing it, she lived it. She and her sister were the first women to open and run a brokerage firm on Wall Street. (Today, we might think she just was in the family business, since her father was a huckster and snake oil salesman.)

She was among the first women to start a newspaper, which ran for six years and is perhaps most famous for being the first to print an English version of Marx’s Communist manifesto.

Leading By Example

But in 1871, Victoria Woodhull completed the move from speculative futurist to visionary leader. She announced that the federal government shouldn’t be all men. And, in the master stroke, she said that the following year, she would be running for President.

One year later, in 1872, the newly-formed Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria Woodhull for President of the United States, the first woman ever to be so nominated. Although she didn’t end up getting any electoral votes, she did get some popular vote. And she tried again to get on the ballot in a couple of future elections.

So Are You a Futurist or a Visionary Leader?

Given the popular sentiment of the time and prevailing attitudes toward women as well as non-whites (she was also associated with Frederick Douglass), Woodhull may be an extreme example of “walking the talk” or of getting off the sidelines and getting into the game.

But on a more contemporary note, consider our political, business, and societal leaders. Are they “exerting leadership” by commenting on the situation, pointing out flaws and describing a better future? Or are they actually engaging in moves to create that better future?

Which one is really the leader? I suspect Victoria Woodhull would have a clear answer. Happy birthday to her!

Leadership and Organizational Structure

Scaffold and StructureWhen we began working on our leadership development tools a year or so ago, we first had to confront a fairly basic question: what did we mean by leadership? The models are all over the map, after all.


At one extreme is the organization that depends on strong hierarchies and closely-defined spheres of influence. Military organizations are often cited as examples, although some pockets of the military are actually much more flexible than this end of the spectrum would lead you to believe.

At the other end is the organization where everyone has vague roles and job descriptions, other than to help move the group forward. It’s not that the organization is flat; there really isn’t a structure to flatten in the first place. Here, we often see high-tech startups as examples, although as with the military stereotype above, it’s rare to find them all the way at the extreme.

What About Leadership?

You’ll notice that in describing these leadership extremes, the explicit idea of leadership was never mentioned. But the implications of the organizational structures are profound for the definition of leadership.

In a group with rigid structures, the constraints that maintain order can also lead to a “truncation of leadership.” That is, leaders are those who have a structure beneath them. A minimum requirement for leadership is management, although it’s not always the only thing you need.

Conversely, in the unstructured group, there’s usually an implicit understanding (sometimes made overt) that everyone is a leader — a co-leader, really. In that setting, if you aren’t demonstrating leadership, you aren’t advancing the group as much as you could be, so you’re some form of drag.

So What?

Armed with these extremes, we dove into the research. What we found was mildly surprising. There are examples of effective organizations at most places along this structural spectrum. The key difference is the pervasiveness of the leadership, and its definition. Although in a structured group, they may define only a few leaders, successful organizations push some subset of the leadership skills and behaviors downward throughout.

So what does that mean for leadership development? Well, it turns out that the core set of leadership skills are practiced by the most people in the most successful organizations. In other words, the better the group, the more leaders there are — regardless of their title, span of control, or surrounding constraints.

It’s heartening to know that, after spending a year working on leadership development tools, they really do make a profound difference!

Microbiology, anyone?

Bacteria invading a cellOne of the key characteristics of most effective leaders is curiosity. How do things work? Why do they work? (Or not!) Great leaders are always learning. Of course, this has the positive side effects of keeping our minds healthier as we age, and also of being just a bit more interesting at cocktail parties.

It has been written that Peter Drucker, for instance — famed management/leadership author — takes up a new area of study every few years. So that got me to thinking. What areas would be fun to explore next?

Of course, the answers will be different for different people. For me, it has to be something that’s at least superficially interesting (or it’ll be a struggle just to get started), and it has to be something sufficiently different from my day-to-day work that it really is a diversion. Beyond that, it’s open season.

Which led me to, of all things, microbiology. You know, tiny living things. You take a drop of water from a pond or stream — just a drop. And there’s a metaphorical ton of stuff in there! How do these little creatures adapt to their conditions all the time? As such small beings in such a large world, how do they go about their life?

These are questions that come up in the context of teams, leadership, and group dynamics all the time. So it leads me to wonder about how those questions are answered in nature — especially very tiny nature.

Your answer to the “what new thing to learn” question may be very different from mine. But as we end 2010 and look toward 2011, I encourage you to at least ask the question. Immerse in something new for the new year!

Developing Leaders in Different Organizations

CoinsAs a part of our monthly series of free conference calls, Tuesday Topics, we sat down with the lead developer of our leadership development toolset, Aaron Munter, and talked about models of leadership development. In this excerpt, Munter talks about defining leadership and about how different organizational definitions can affect leadership development:

Int: It just seems that so often, people are thrown into these positions, and they don’t know what to do and so those kind of icons in the culture [like The Office and Dilbert] are what they fall back on, and it seems that they get into trouble before they even get started.

AM: Well, I think it’s because of the cycle that fulfills itself. Because if you don’t have a lot of great leaders “out in the wild”, so to speak, then you don’t have really good mentors or role models or people that are suddenly thrust into a leadership role can look at and say, “Oh, this is how I should comport myself, this is the way I should handle these kinds of situations, this is the way to go.”

And so I think by not having some of those figures in culture very clear to look at, it becomes much easier just to go with the mocking version and not really realize that you are doing yourself and your team and your group a disservice by being such a poor leader.

Int: So what do you think is a better way to go about it, or what do you think can be a model, a general overview of how to deal with these problems that we see out there with people being thrust into leadership roles, not being prepared?

AM: Well, I think it would probably be useful to stop and do a quick kind of definitional check. Because I think leadership looks and feels different in different kinds of organizations and in different kinds of contexts.

There are organizations that, I would suggest, are healthier organizations in which leadership is not a position, it’s a process. It’s a role. It’s a way of being. And as a result, people can be leaders—and are leaders—in all parts of the organization. So you visit their corporate offices or their team office or whatever, and the administrative assistant who greets you at the door is a leader in the organization. So is the person down the hall in accounting. Everyone takes on the leadership role.

That, I think, is a great model. And it’s a model that is difficult to achieve unless you have someone with positional authority who can really adopt that, and believe in that, and proselytize that in the organization.

At the other side, sort of the other extreme, leadership is really associated with positional authority. So a leader is the more traditional executive leader, the head of the team, the CEO, someone like that.

When we talk about leadership development, those kinds of skills and attitudes are similar in those two organizations, but the way you go about it is a bit different. So to answer your question of a different way to go, the first thing to think about is the kind of environment in which you are doing the leadership development. So a good model is one that takes into account some of those differences.

One of them is, as we’ve talked about, is what does leadership mean there? Another is, regardless of where you are on that continuum, the question becomes: Who is in the room?

Are the people who are being invested in—in terms of their development and leadership development—are they representative of different parts of the organization? Or are they the executive leadership team? Are they people who have been doing these kinds of roles for a long period of time? Things look and feel very different depending on who’s there and what their experience is, because the kind of skills and the kind of behaviors you need to successfully transition into a new leadership role are very different than someone who is a seasoned leader who may just need some nurturing in a few different areas of existing strength, or perhaps, of some weakness as well.

To hear the full interview, head to our audiocasts page. There, you will find free recordings of our past interviews. To sign up for future Tuesday Topics calls, head to the Tuesday Topics page.

Get Management Out of the Vacuum!

DDI results (courtesy: Brandon-Hall)A couple of months ago, DDI launched a survey of managers. They ended up getting data from 1100 managers, and asked them (among other things) about how they perceived their skills in a dozen or so areas.

The lowest rating? Delegation, with less than a third of respondents saying it was an area of strength. Also in the cellar was coaching and gaining commitment.

These aren’t anomalous results, either. For years, one of managers’ self-described woes has been ineffective delegation (leaving the manager feeling overwhelmed by tasks and projects they feel they shouldn’t have to deal with). Similarly, there are work environments where it wouldn’t even OCCUR to a manager that they should also be a coach, so it’s probably unsurprising that it’s down near the bottom.

A systemic problem underpins each of these findings, though: managers are frequently not given education about higher-level skills — those skills that we commonly associate with leadership. What kinds of focus are managers expected to have instead? Well, just look at what topped DDI’s survey…

Nearly 60% of respondents said that planning and organizing was a strength, with most all others saying they were proficient. Similarly, decision making and technical/professional skills netted half or more respondents calling it a strength. These are areas typically associated with a more limited definition of “management.”

Now I’m a big fan of defined boundaries. I like to know what the rules are and what’s in and out of “the box.” But this is one case where the boundaries are silly. Managers need to be leaders. (I’d argue that everybody can and should be a leader, but that’s a post for another time.)

If managers got regular training and development on sharing power and information, on delegation, on managing change, on developing and enlisting others in a vision — how might workplaces look? Certainly as we’ve watched the use of our leadership toolset, we’ve seen that cultures of innovation and productivity blossom in all kinds of ways. It’s pretty remarkable.

So maybe it’s time to blur the lines. Turn managers into leaders. It’s a win for the manager, for the team, and for the organization!

Leading in Troubled Times

LeadingI’ve often heard (in one variant or another) the idea that we should measure the strength of our friendships and relationships not when times are easy, but when they are hard. And having been through some pretty wondrous highs and some amazing nadirs, I tend to agree. Lots of people join you at one of life’s apexes (apices?), but it can get much lonelier when you’re in a deep hole.

A similar disparity happens in leadership. Almost every leader looks like a genius when their organization is on top. When it’s changing the world, or eating its competition for breakfast, or exceeding whatever the goal is — it’s tough to look bad. And it’s much tougher to make a bad decision. Or at least one that you can tell is bad.

But when the organization is struggling, the measure of a leader is much more on display. Suppose your organization is getting battered by the economy and taking on (metaphorical) water. Or your team just missed a critical set of deadlines and melted down, with hostility and recrimination all around. Or you are losing so many employees that you are tempted to ask the last one to turn the lights out on their way.

These are hardly a leader’s fantasies. In fact, all too often, they aren’t fantasies at all — they can be very real. So what’s a leader to do then?

Tempting options abound. Most of them are pretty bad:

Option one: Bolt. Maybe if you jump ship quickly enough, you won’t get the stink of disaster on you. This option may especially look good if you haven’t been there a long time. After all, who would miss you?

Option two: Dig a hole in the ground, and insert your head. Problem? What problem? Surely if you just ignore it, it will go away. That always seems to work — especially in cartoons, where Bugs Bunny can hover in midair, defying the law of gravity, because he “never studied law.”

Option three: Begin blamestorming. It’s a fun exercise: come up with a laundry list of all the possible people and/or conditions that you can blame for the troubles. Of course, you’ll want to leave yourself off that list, just in case other people are paying attention.

Option four: Radically change everything. You’ve hit a rough patch, so everything that was happening before must be wrong. Change it all. If you really want to take this to its limit, you’ll want to get rid of all the people on the team, too, and bring in all-new staff. This option is especially tempting when your troubles generate media attention, because it’s an easy-to-understand, measurable change that you can point to in response.

Option five: Change nothing. This is sort of like option two above, but more knowing. You know there are problems, that things aren’t really working the way you want, but surely with time, it’ll all work out on its own. This is like selling your products at a loss, but believing that you’ll make it up “on volume.”

So if these are a bunch of the options, and none of them are good (by the way, if you missed the tone up there, note: none of them are good), what to do? Well, if every situation was the same, then the advice could be universal — but unfortunately, it’s not. There are some strategies that can help, though.

First, do some situational analysis. How bad is it really? If you’re losing staff quickly, what does that mean? Is it seasonal? Is it because a group finished a big project? Sometimes, lots of unrelated stuff can look like a trend. It’s important to know how big the problem is, and whether or not it’s going to keep going.

Then think about causes. This isn’t the same as blamestorming, but rather focuses on a handful of the major contributing causes of the issues. The idea isn’t to find scapegoats, but instead to figure out what you can change externally, or what you need to respond to internally.

Then start to prioritize your response. What responses carry the least cost in terms of time and/or money, but have the biggest bang? It can help to make lists and then rate them on a 1-3 scale for speed (3 is fastest, 1 is slowest), for cost (3 is cheapest, 1 is most costly), and for size of “bang” (3 is biggest bang, 1 is littlest peep). Then add the three ratings together, and go from highest total to lowest total.

Finally, make sure that through all of these steps, you aren’t operating in a vacuum. If your group is in a tough spot, your group needs to help get out of it — so ensure that the whole group is up to speed on what’s going on and has input on how to fix it. The biggest insights often come from the most unexpected places.

The best way to lead in troubled times, of course, is to avoid them altogether. Since that’s not often possible, the next best thing is to make sure that your teams have leaders who know how to do it. That’s the whole idea behind Developing Great Leaders

Leadership in a Democracy

Portrait of Winston Churchill“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Or so said Winston Churchill.

On this election day in the United States, I’ve been thinking about leadership. Particularly leadership of the political kind.

Around our area — and in virtually every other corner of the country — there are tons of races going on. Here, we have races for soil & water commissioner, for regional government commissioner, for small-town mayor. Generally, these aren’t marquee races, and unlike some of the national races, aren’t just for the (sometimes only slightly) egomaniacal.

In fact, these positions are often pretty thankless. A soil/water commissioner, for instance, represents a geographic region on a county board. They have to do a ton of research and studying to prepare for meetings. They have a duty to proactively interact with the people of their region to make sure they know what the issues are. They meet monthly at the least — and often much more. And, oh yes, it’s an unpaid gig, so they have to maintain a full-time job to feed the family.

So who are these people? The people who throw their hat into the ring for a spot that no sane person would want? For the most part, they are knowledgeable, thoughtful, committed people who care about their community and want to work to make it better.

They’re leaders.

So why, when all of the big books are written and speaking tours are given, is there little or no mention of this cadre of “ordinary” people stepping up to leadership roles? Seems like a big omission.

After all, to hold this kind of local office effectively, you need to be able to communicate effectively. You need to be able to build consensus with a group of others on the board. You need to be able to chart a long-term course through a series of shorter-term initiatives. You need to be responsive to multiple groups of stakeholders. Sound familiar?

So on this election day, when the attention is so focused on the big races for US Senate and House of Representatives, a tip of the cap to those people who are running for the smaller, local positions.

Maybe democracy isn’t so bad after all.

A Problem with Fad Leadership Development

In our October Tuesday Topics call, we interviewed Aaron Munter, a co-developer of our Developing Great Leaders leadership development toolset. Among other topics, he talked about one of the problems with fad leadership development tools, and how his work attempts to get past that. Here’s an excerpt:

AM: Between these six [leadership development] focus areas of the transition [to leadership], inward leadership, project leadership , team leadership, organizational leadership, and interpersonal leadership, they kind of set up a framework to cover the waterfront of leadership development and I think that’s where we get to the comprehensive piece that we were talking about earlier [about needing a tool to take a more comprehensive approach].

Interviewer: So it sounds like you were looking to kind of create a map of the world of leadership development.

AM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we started, when we started looking at this, we started by really surveying what people are thinking about and writing on this topic, and what is the research showing at this moment, and we really looked broadly. We wanted to be as holistic as we could.

I think a lot of the fad kind of leadership development is very targeted: “Pick one of these things,” like leveraging strengths and weaknesses. So they’ll do a whole leadership development thing around strengths and weaknesses.

Well, that’s OK. That’s certainly a piece of the whole. But as we were talking about, that’s only a very small piece of a very large whole. So that, I think, can be dangerous to focus on to the exclusion of everything else.

Interviewer: Well, it just seems that leadership development is kind of a lifelong process and it’s not a one-time event. So some of these programs, they’re not necessarily bad; they’re just not everything. Sometimes I think they’re pitched as, “this is the answer for all of your leadership development woes,” and it’s really just “this is one more piece to help your leaders develop.” I know myself that I’ll never be finished with leadership development. What about you?

AM: Absolutely not, and I think that’s a great point.

For the whole interview, head to our audiocasts page. You’ll find this excerpt around 30 minutes into the call.

Data Ain't Information

Data Heat MapThese days, we’re barraged by factoids. The common terminology (we’re even sometimes guilty of using it ourselves) is “information overload.” But that’s really not it. It’s data overload, and that’s really quite different.

Data, by definition, are light on context. Smithtown High School had 10 student suspensions last year. There are 300 calories in a baked potato. The highest point in Florida is 345 feet above sea level. Without any basis of comparison, it’s hard to know if 10, 300, or 345 are average numbers, whether they represent something extraordinary, or have some value attached.

But even that’s not enough.

So let’s suppose we add in comparison figures — there are 300 calories in a baked potato, but only 100 in a stalk of cooked broccoli. Smithtown had 10 suspensions, and Millersville had 1 suspension. OK, now we have some context. Is it information yet?

Nope, although judging from some of our discourse these days, that’s where the analysis stops. But without knowing about the qualitative context, piling on the data still doesn’t magically turn it into information.

Let’s take an example — the calories. Sure, broccoli is lower-calorie than a baked potato, but what about other nutrients? What about taste? Which goes better with a certain protein? That’s all qualitative — tough to assign numbers to it — and it’s important.

Or, on a more serious note, what about our student discipline example? High School A has 10 suspensions and high school B had 1. Which would you send your kids to? Which is safer? Without any qualitative context, it sure looks like school B is the winner. But what if we learned that school A has higher suspensions because they monitor the environment more closely, and act more swiftly — while school B is more lax and just lets the students police themselves? The picture gets clearer. Aha! Information at last!

So What?

The whole topic of data vs. information may seem like a stretch for a blog that talks about individual and team performance, and visual tools. But it’s an issue that comes up all the time.

Take, for instance, performance appraisals. How do you evaluate staff? Is it a 360-degree-type assessment, where different people give numeric scores? Or perhaps a form where the manager assigns Likert-scale ratings to the staffer? Using that as a basis alone sure looks like data, not information.

Or perhaps you’re giving a training or doing a facilitation, and you are doing some Level 1 evaluation as a part of it. What did people think of the session? Relying solely on the quantitative to judge that? Will that really get you a clear and accurate picture? Seems doubtful.

Sure, as a company with tools that focus heavily on the qualitative, we may be biased in that direction. But foremost, we’re about balance — about using all of your brain. So why use less than half of the available inputs when making decisions?

Five Lessons from the Farmer's Market

Veggies at the Farmer's MarketThe seasons are finally beginning to change around here, as the heavy rain becomes drizzle and finally sun starts regularly peeking out from the clouds. Moods visibly lighten, and everybody is just friendlier to each other at the store, the park, and on the street.

It’s also the season for the farmer’s markets to hit their full stride. Only a ten-to-fifteen minute drive from our offices is the largest farmer’s market in the state, and actually, it’s one of a half-dozen such markets in that radius. It’s great stuff.

After spending some time over the last couple of weekends at the farmer’s markets in the area, it occurred to me that there are lessons to be drawn from how these things all work, and from my experiences there:

Specialization helps. Perhaps another way to say this is, “do what you know.” The stand where I get my fresh nuts isn’t the same one where I get herbs, which isn’t the same one where I get vegetables. That’s not because I’m overly-picky (well, not entirely because of that), but rather because the same farmers don’t specialize in all of those things. They pick what they know they do well, and they focus on that. Seems like good advice.

Good service makes good products better, but doesn’t save the duds. Many of the farmer’s at the market are wonderful–friendly, eager to help and answer questions. Some are, well, let’s just say gruff. I certainly start (and spend more time) at the places where the people are friendly and helpful, but if the gruff farmer’s got the best tubers in town, that won’t stop me from going there. Will I spend as much? Nope. But either way, if the “Pesticide-Rich, Flavor-Free” stand has the nicest people around, I’m still not going to stop there. Service matters, but quality matters more.

Coopetition is a virtue. If I’m at the vegetable stand and see some snow peas that look a little sad, I pause and look a bit forlornly at them. At that moment, I’m trying to decide if they’re just too far gone to buy. That’s when the farmer sees me and points out that another stand two aisles away has snow peas today, and they look great. Sure she lost that snow-pea sale. But that stand is my first stop when I’m looking for veggies, because I know she’ll be more than a seller, she’ll be a resource. Even if that means cooperating with the competition.

You can do plenty with little. Some of the farmer stands at the market are clearly pro-level. These are folks who have been doing the markets for years, and have well-honed their routine and equipment. Some of them, though, are little more than some stumps, a banner, and a table loaded with great stuff. The lines are just about as long for those places as the others. Spending extra money on niceties will certainly make the experience more comfortable, but in a pinch, you can do amazing things on a shoestring.

Do what you love. I’d never want to be a farmer. They surrender their livelihoods to the whims of nature, and work incredibly long and hard hours to boot. The uncertainty, the physical toll, the endlessness of it — why do they do it? Because they love it. They’ve got dirt in their veins, as one farmer told me. Because of that, their meats and produce taste better. They’re grown with love. It makes all the difference.

So the next time you’re at a farmer’s market, take another look around. You’re seeing some great principles for life, work, and entrepreneurship right before your very eyes. And probably some great food!