Are You Listening?

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Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

Have you ever heard someone described as a really great listener? Being defined in this manner implies all sorts of positive attributes; Fairness. Maturity. Open to opinion.

There are so many reasons to emphasize the power of listening in the workplace. From developing future leaders to teaming skills – the art of listening is a much needed skill set. Many leadership experts feel you simply cannot excel in business today without this skill, and I agree fully. Listening can not only make you more likeable  — listining can change the face of your career.

Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, aptly calls this skill set “strategic listening”. No matter what your role or organizational purpose he is adamant that listening is critical. Listening is about respect. It is about making a commitment to others. It is about commitment to progress and change.

What you might gain from tweaking your listening skills:

  • You’ll grow as a contributor. Learning to put your own thoughts aside for just a moment, will help you process new ideas. Overall, you’ll be in a better position to absorb more of the knowledge that is around you.
  • You’ll be better positioned to handle problems. When challenge occurs – effective listening skills can help you to understand dissenting opinions and varying points of view. As a result, you’ll have a far greater chance of finding needed solutions.
  • You’ll discover hidden potential. In many situations, your most effective team members may not be the most highly vocal. Hang back and let them know you value their opinions – they’ll be more likely to come forward and contribute.

We can all improve our listening skills. For now, hold back and let others complete their thought. Then reflect on what you have learned. It’s a great place to start.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She also writes for Talent Zoo and Linkedin.

The Challenge of the “Turn Around” Leader

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Recently, the leadership skills of Yahoo’s “turn-around” CEO, Marissa Mayer have come into question for addressing what she deemed to be a symptom of a palpable organizational ailment. I was not surprised at the reaction to her decision concerning flexible work — which could only be described as visceral and sensational. However, in my mind, a broader leadership question looms.

At LinkedIn, editor Isabelle Roughol has recounted developments in the evolution of both Yahoo and Groupon. Reading her post, I was struck with the importance of that pivotal “second chance” for ailing organizations — and the unique challenges faced by those leading that charge. Whether we are discussing Yahoo, Groupon, or J.C. Penney, one element remains brazenly obvious. Diagnosing organizational ills and affecting change is a difficult road to travel. Leaders cast in this “savior” role stand the chance of losing the good fight. It is a high stakes, high risk business.

In the case of Ms. Mayer, the proverbial “CEO alarm” was pulled the moment she revoked flexible work options. But, as the days passed and more information emerged, another aspect of the story became evident: the leadership challenges she faces in an organization that is actively seeking change. Bit by bit, information surfaced that was vital to this tale; including how Ms. Mayer determined she really had a serious problem and what motivated her course of action.

Personally, I don’t fault her for addressing what she believes to be a “waning” collaborative environment at Yahoo. ( I don’t view this is an assault on flexible work.) Gathering key talent together, in the hopes of igniting change, makes perfect sense. This action at the very least, begins to set behavioral expectations going forward for Yahoo. Critics abound — but only time will tell if this action contributes to needed change.

Yahoo’s leadership story (and others like it) seem to be at least partially rooted in our level of confidence in leadership — or more specifically, our skepticism. This seems counter intuitive on a very basic level, as a leap of faith is required when any organization needs to evolve. We need to view leadership as the dynamic and risky business that it truly is.

There has long been keen interest in specific leader attributes and how they impact success. However, this may have distracted us from the need for a broader, more integrated definition. Leadership is often a complicated, layered role, where culture and context must meld to formulate strategy. Prescribing the skills required for these leadership roles is an even more complicated task.

At the very least, a leader’s right to develop the best possible “script” for their highly specific situation seems critical. Marissa Mayer is faced with the task of assessing what Yahoo’s culture really needs at this moment to become healthy and productive. (I would hope that a modified flexible work policy will be hammered out as time passes.) Ultimately, a leader’s willingness to implement unpopular organizational decisions in these “second chance” situations, is required.

What do you think? Should we extend more confidence to our high-level leaders?

Don’t Work with People Like You

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This may seem counter intuitive — but I don’t recommend that you work with people like you. In fact, you shouldn’t work with those that make you feel entirely comfortable. (You don’t even need to like the people you work with, every minute of every day. But, liking all of your co-workers is a bonus.)  What you really need are people to challenge you and help you contribute to the limits of your potential. If you surround yourself with those of the same perspective — or temperament – or even in the same field or function — you are missing out on options for career growth and eventual success.

Most of us have a tendency to drift towards what we know — a completely normal response to an often harried world. We’ll travel the same path to work, and order the same menu item at a restaurant. This process becomes second nature and we don’t often question it. However, if we apply this to the workplace, things become problematical. You require exposure to differing opinions, experiences and work styles to excel.

Let’s imagine that you have the responsibility of forming a team to take on a problem or company initiative. You choose a team of  individuals whom you know and trust. What follows, is that you have a group of individuals that may certainly be strong in certain areas — but there is the possibly that they hold the same perspective or skill set that you possess. Consider the worst case scenario: that your team is just not robust enough to tackle the task in front of them. You now have a very serious problem. If you have indeed formed a team with similar perspective or skills as yourself, your team is now officially limited.

The same premise can hold for your career. If you have contact with only individuals who share your specific perspective, you’ll likely never be challenged. This can handicap you in so many ways.

The next opportunity you have to network or build a team, pause and consider bringing at least one completely fresh perspective to the table. Build your “team” with a wide breadth of both skills, temperaments and perspectives — being sure to represent all related functions. Add a mentor to your life from a completely unexpected background. Find out how that new co-worker, that you don’t quite “get” ticks.

You simply never know. That “odd man” may be holding the piece of the puzzle that you’ve been searching for.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. Connect with her and continue the conversation on Twitter and Linkedin.

Why Business is Still Personal

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Workplace evolution is a constant – and accepting this fact is inevitable. Many of us have re-invented ourselves, redefined our roles (more than once), embraced the “would be” powers of social media and hopefully made some measure of peace with the on-going mobile revolution. But as time marches on, and our attention becomes infinitely divided – we must be careful not to overlook the core skills that are critical to business success. The recommendations posed years ago that will always remain uniquely relevant. We may have brushed them aside – or underestimated their importance for a moment. However, the expectation remains each time we  introduce ourselves to a new co-worker or pitch an idea to a client. Business is about people – and business is still personal.

It has been discussed, that the state of our economy has allowed some of us to become forgetful concerning the importance of “people skills”.  This is somewhat understandable, but not excusable. The resulting stress can cause us to skip the “people component” – even though we know on some level this is ill-advised. The reality remains that in the long-term, we really cannot hope to move forward individually or organizationally, without this skill set intact.

Business is not only about spreads sheets and IPO’s. It is essentially about connecting with your employees and the dreams of your customers. Business is about people – and if we forget this, we are likely to fail miserably somewhere down the line.

The business of understanding people
There is no need to re-invent the wheel to refresh our memories. There are resources out there to help us sharpen or re-connect with this skill set. The Dale Carnegie classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, (which should be required reading for all aspiring business students and entrepreneurs), is one example. The basic tenets of the book still make perfect business sense. Concepts such as showing appreciation, and leaving others with the feeling that they are worthy of your undivided attention, are certainly crucial leadership building blocks which have stood the test of time.

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, another people skills basic, takes a closer look at how the ability to understand others can impact all aspects of our lives. As we have all learned, possessing a spectacularly high IQ may not be enough to propel you forward in business. You also need to grasp how your behavior impacts others and how that ultimately affects your business future. (Find a review of studies on Emotional Intelligence here.)

A few other basics worth mentioning:

  • Face-to-face contact still works – Reading the Human Moment at Work can be a game changer for developing leaders. Written at the forefront of our now technologically nagged world – its posed premise will only become more important as time goes on.
  • Listen more,talk less – When considering the skill of strategic  listening – attitude and awareness are key. As described recently by Tom Peters, author of In Search Of Excellence, “My argument is skills such as listening are full-scale “professions” to be studied, practiced, and mastered as the cello would be”.
  • Manage technology – Don’t expect to develop business relationships if you are always tethered to an electronic device. If you think that your overall level of distraction isn’t noticed – you are wrong.
  • Eye contact, a smile and a handshake – I am not sure when these common courtesies were expunged from the game plan, because they are so accessible, yet so very powerful. Having someone feel welcome and comfortable, is a gift that will come back to you in so many ways.
  • Reward effort – Never underestimate the power of a thank you and a “job well done”. If you are unsure how to show gratitude, start with a simple note to let someone know you’ve notice, and appreciate their contribution.
  • Offer respect – I don’t know if you can teach “respect” –  but the belief that everyone has something to offer is a basic business tenant. Most everyone brings something to the table, and they deserve respect for that contribution.
  • Consider history –  Knowing and recognizing someone’s journey in life and work, is consummate to that person. Just as you need to know the history of an organization when doing business with them, know the history of the key players as well.

We’ve all witnessed uncomfortable moments when we realize that an individual has completely forgotten the skill set mentioned here. It is alarming to watch. We can only hope, that someone with influence and wisdom can set them straight and point them in the right direction.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist and career coach. Connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.

Tell the Story of Your Organization

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Photo by Ryan Graybill on Unsplash

Tell me a leadership story — one that embodies the very core of where you and your organization are headed. There may be spread sheets and profit margins. Metrics and shortfalls. But, stories paint an engaging  portrait of any organization or institution.

All businesses possess a rich history and leaders play a pivotal role in that developing story. Whether a start-up or established venture, leaders have a story to tell.

Leaders can provide a compass for change, can align vision with talent and have the power to exert a tremendous influence upon an organization (whether positive or negative). A leader can catapult an organization to the forefront of an industry or bring it to an early demise. Just as great presidents have helped shape our country — leaders help define an organization, for better or worse. Tell me a leadership story — especially those of the leaders that have failed. We can learn from that, as well.

Leaders that takes the helm of an organization at a given point in time, can reveal volumes about the state of that organization and where it might be headed. Each phase of an organization’s development required a very different type of leader — and that’s a lesson in itself. Tell me about that.

However, there is another story we need to hear.

Tell me your organizations leadership story.

We can all to this. So what is your story. What has been left untold?

Telling the tale of an organization’s leaders can serve as a powerful learning tool — one which can leave a lasting impression on an employee.

  • Onboard history. Speak of the leaders who were present in the early phases of the organization’s life cycle. Explain their vision and how it shaped the organization.
  • Failure 101. Reflect on leadership failures and what was learned in the process. How did these failures change the course of the organization?
  • Who is at he helm? Introduce current leaders and the expertise they bring to the organization. Explain how their current vision has been translated into strategy and action.
  • Strategy review. Discuss key inflection points that influenced the organization. How did leadership impact the outcomes? What did we learn, going forward?

With a look to the past,  we can improve the future  and possibly avoid costly mistakes that have already been made. Take the time to discuss the rich history of leadership in your place of business and offer your employees the advantage of perspective.

Tell the story of your organization. It’s a tale that needs to be told.


Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. You can find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

News of the World: When Organizational Culture Takes the Helm

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It’s not often that a crystal clear lesson concerning corporate culture and organizational failure makes headlines worldwide. Certainly, we have come to understand how an organization can fail because of overall mismanagement, poor or untimely decisions or even the occasional leader mismatch. But it is a rare case when the sum of the parts, so to speak – the culture itself – has evolved into such a beast that it actually does the dirty work by itself. In the case of the UK’s News of the World, it seems that the terminally ill corporate culture was indeed the culprit.

Can a sick culture be cured?
In a sense the culture of New of the World was so vile, that even the surrounding environment closed ranks and acted – similar to that of a lone mutated cancer cell within the human body. This was a catastrophic failure of culture, not unlike an insidious mental illness left unchecked and untreated. Apparently the lack of regulation surrounding the British press was all the prodding required to bring about an organizational break with reality, decency and control.

The question remains as to whether this organization could have been cured. Mr. Murdoch (its owner) decided that this was not to be – for various reasons related to a much bigger picture. At the very least, we can surmise that the illness permeated to the quick of the organization and that transforming it into a healthy state was most likely impossible. For Mr. Murdoch, the damage to his reputation and his future business dealings, were being weighed in the balance. In a deluge of public disgust and disappearing advertisers, he pulled the plug on a 168 year old tabloid.

More than a leadership issue: When the culture takes over
Personally, I have always held the belief that the culture of the organization was determined by the people at the helm – and could be saved by the helm as well. When asked as a young psychologist as to the quickest way to ignite a needed organizational culture change, I responded that it was to replace those at the top of the organization. But in a situation such as this, it appears that in the end, the culture operating as a rogue offender did the deed on its own.

As time goes on, it is certain that more News of the World employees will be brought to justice for their role in the specific crimes committed against innocent individuals. But, in the case of the organizational culture gone bad, many of the associated crimes (disrupted careers, financial ramifications) will most likely remain unpunished.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. You can also find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

Too Big to Fail: Are We Enabling Organizations?

 

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Corporate failure is a worthy topic to explore, as we can learn from the catastrophic mistakes of others.

HBO’s drama focusing on the events of the economic crisis, proves this point. The title — Too Big to Fail — of course refers to the nearly fatal infection of the financial services industry and the heroic measures taken to revive it. The film’s razor-sharp focus into the gut wrenching near collapse of an entire industry (and the eventual necessity of governmental intervention to avert demise), was an eye-opening look into the impact of organizational culture, its impact upon risk taking and failure.

Ripe for a Catastrophe
The movie attempts to probe the crux of the crisis — and offers a bit of explanation concerning the events which unfolded. It touches upon the inevitable contributions of sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps and unchecked greed.

We now know that the problems of the financial sector cascaded into other industries, including the automotive sector — another industry woefully vulnerable to the unfolding economic downturn. While the financial industry seemed vulnerable to issues concerning risk, chronic problems within auto also begun to resurface. Issues such as quality and unrelenting competition from the Japanese. Eventually, American auto also required their own set of life-sustaining measures to continue.

Historically, this was not the first time that governmental support had been necessary to save an organization within the auto sector — or in other industries for that matter. Think Chrysler in 1980 or Lockheed in 1971. (Interestingly, the financial outcomes of these interventions for government, are not as poor as you might expect.) Why specific industries such as banking and auto, have required help repeatedly, may point to chronic cultural issues left unaddressed.

Have Lessons Been Learned?
After all was said and done, HBO’s effort was fascinating (I was riveted by Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Ben Bernancke). However, a large part of the explanation seemed absent from the story. The movie did not delve into the cultural factors festering within these organizations — that undoubtedly provided the spark to ignite the entire tangled mess into a raging firestorm. Problems which lingered long before the crisis began — such as ineffective leadership, a culture of silence and the absence of longer-term strategic planning.

Which leads us into the heart of the dilemma. If these critical organizational problems are not been properly addressed within the organizations aided, have we essentially enabled them to make the same mistakes once again? After all, hadn’t both General Motors and Chrysler been down a similar path previously? What guarantees will we put in place to protect organizational health, 5 or 10 years from now?

It seems obvious that certain cultural issues have to be solved to ensure long-term organizational health. Here are a few topics to consider:

  • Teach leaders about the past. There seems to be a lack of a “collective unconscious” when the gavel of leadership is passed on within organizations. It seems that the completion of “Organizational History 101” should be required for all future leaders, in an attempt to avoid the re-occurrence of old problems.
  • Avoid “The Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario. A system of checks and balances should be in place when to ensure high quality decisions. Who will allowed to review or challenge the decisions of upper management? (Obviously a devil’s advocate was absent when auto execs took private jets to Washington seeking financial assistance.) Ask the question: Have we looked at all sides of this issue?
  • Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t get stuck in the moment – even if things are looking up. Thinking that a favorable environment (whether financial or product-based) will go on forever, will likely catch us off-guard and unprepared. Run through various “what if” scenarios to plan for the inevitable upward and downward turns in sales. Setting strategy for these challenges in the future is key.
  • Avoid making decisions solely from a ledger sheet perspective. Risky short-term financial gains may lead to long-term calamities. If making money just seems too easy, ensure an evaluation of the accompanying risks that may later affect your organization. How will the move affect exposure to other financial or customer-related challenges down the line? Will emphasis in one area leave you open to weakness in another?
  • Utilize innovation to stay ahead of the game. Establish metrics to monitor and encourage real innovation within your organization, and communicate progress regularly. Whether you track patents or customer service successes — innovation can serve as an insurance policy for your company, offering new direction and opportunity.

Moving forward will likely reveal a challenging road. Let’s hope that key lessons have been learned.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist practicing in East Lansing, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter.