Sunday, June 28, 2009

Corporate Guards

Alan M. Webber in his book, Rules of Thumb, shares in rule #49 "If you want to grow as a leader, you have to disarm your border guards." In the chapter he relates a story of a time when he and his brother were detained by border guards. They had traveled into Prague and were headed back into West Germany.

At the checkpoint two guards confiscated their passports and thus Webber and his brother were held up for several hours. Webber concludes the story,"Here's the punchline: forty years later the border guards are gone. East Germany is no more and the Chancellor of a united Germany grew up in a country that no longer exists."

The story sets the stage for what he goes on to write about in the chapter. The thesis being we all employ body guards. Webber states, "The higher you go in your career, the more successful you are in your work, the more guards you get and the higher the price you pay." Webber is tapping into what is becoming all too familiar. What Webber calls the guards is what I call the corporate guards.

The need for these corporate guards begins rather innocently. A leader starts down a path and gradually things change. Webber writes, "They start their careers as learners open and accessible. As they move up in the organization-usually because they were learners- they get overwhelmed by the demands and expectations others place on them. It's too much. They end up forming an invisible exoskeleton. It cuts down on the overwhelming pressure. But it comes at a price the leader can not grow outside the shell."

The danger Webber points to is how executives end up isolated from others, surrounded with their own border guards - real or metaphorical -to control access to what's inside. He gives three suggestions to keep yourself accessible that I would like to share with you. The main points are Webbers, the elaborations are mine.

First, keep people around you who are not afraid to speak the truth. When a leader is surrounded by a bunch of "yes men" the leader is out of touch and creativity within the organization is killed. The "yes men" have become the corporate guards and while professing loyalty are only destroying what they claim to serve. Ultimately corporate guards are cowards who only have their best interests at heart.

A wise leader is strong enough to listen to the truth and a strong leader is courageous enough to speak it. The wise executive will send the corporate guards away and foster an environment of truthfulness and open communication. In the absence of truthful communication what are the corporate guards protecting anyway?

Second, remember to rub shoulders with real people. One of the dangers of corporate guards is being cut off from the real world. Corporate guards inoculate the leader and thus prevent him from understanding things at the most critical levels-where the people are.

A secure leader will mix it up with those in the organization and by doing so keep pulse of what's going on. In doing so he builds confidence with his team and remains grounded with perspective.

Third, don't ignore the emotional side of business. Webber says, "Emotional intelligence plays just as important a role in business as raw IQ. Unfortunately, there's not much in business school that educates leaders in the use of the right side of the brain." Corporate guards tend to dampen intelligence in the workplace.

A strong leader will not allow himself to be surrounded by corporate guards and will always remember where he came from. Corporate guards are enablers of insecurity and fortified leaders are greatly diminished.

Be determined to foster a climate of trust and openness- get rid of the guards.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Boulders on Your Path to Recovery

While there is still a long way to go, we are slowly seeing signs that the economy is trying to make a comeback. Positioning yourself for the turnaround begins now so as not to be behind the curve when the recovery takes place. Think about it for a moment, what will your company look like in six months, a year from now? While it may be difficult to predict, the time is now to think strategically about your future.

I am reminded of a story about how a king in ancient times placed a boulder on a roadway. Then he hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king’s wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around it. Many blamed the king for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the boulder out of the way.

Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables. On approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. As the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the king indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant learned what many others never understand. Every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve one’s condition.

Every boulder you have faced on the road the past year or two with the economic downturn presents valuable lessons that you might not have considered. From under the boulder on the road contains a purse with a few nuggets of truth that are reminders for us today.

First, successful people move boulders. Many of the king’s merchants and courtiers walked around the boulder. Consequently, they did not receive the gold coins which are indicative of many today. Success comes to those who in the face of obstacles will work hard to remove the obstacles before them. Others prefer to walk around obstacles and pretend it is not there or blame someone for it.

Someone once said, “If Columbus had turned back, no one could have blamed him, but no one would have remembered him.” The successful person will roll up his sleeves and with determination move the obstacle. It may take a while and will certainly not be easy, but the reward will be worth it. What will you do with the boulder on your path?

Second, boulders are a barometer of your creative powers. For many, a boulder on their pathway is a nuisance, an irritation on the way to some place else. While the king’s men likely cursed the boulder the peasant chose a different approach. While no one wants a boulder on their path like a recession, how you choose to respond to it will make all the difference.

I read a story about fashion designer Sandra Garratt. As a student, Sandra Garratt was given a project to design clothing that would go against her natural inclinations--clothes that she didn't like. She came up with a line of economical, one-size-fits-all, modular clothing for women. Garratt moved on to a series of jobs in the fashion industry, but she kept thinking about those clothes she'd designed. They intrigued her enough that she eventually began producing them for a boutique in Dallas. Several business people saw promise in Garratt's clothes, and in 1986 they invested the money to help her start a nationwide chain of shops. The investment paid off. Within a few years, more than $100 million of Garratt's clothes had been sold, and she had made millions in royalties. All because she put her natural inclinations aside and investigated something different.

Garratt chose to design clothes that were not appealing to her and became quite wealthy in the process. Her creativity paid off. What will you do with the boulder on your path?

Finally, obstacles provide opportunity. For the peasant the obstacle was a boulder in the road. The reward came when he moved it only to discover the purse with the gold coin. For Sandra Garratt, the reward came in the form of designing clothes that she didn’t like. The truth is- opportunities often come in a disguise. Not every boulder is an obstacle. Sometimes it’s a reward waiting to be discovered.

In his famous poem, The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost writes, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” You are on your path for a reason.
The next time you stumble upon a boulder on your path, pause before you curse it or the one who put it there. Keep in mind that what lies underneath quite possibly could change your life.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dealing with Difficult People

Fredrick the Great once said, “The more I get to know people, the more I love my dog.” Dealing with difficult people in the office is nothing new. You know the ones I’m speaking of; the short- tempered gossips, perfectionist, slackers, clueless, and everything in between. Not everyone can be as pleasant to work with as you and I.

I am reminded of the story of a newlywed farmer and his wife who were visited by her mother, who immediately demanded an inspection of the place. The farmer genuinely tried to be friendly to his new mother-in-law, hoping that it could be a friendly, non-antagonistic relationship. All to no avail though, as she kept nagging them at every opportunity, demanding changes, offering unwanted advice, and generally making life unbearable for the farmer and his new bride.

While they were walking through the barn, during the forced inspection, the farmer’s mule suddenly reared up and kicked the mother-in-law in the head, killing her instantly. It was a shock to all no matter their feelings toward her demanding ways.

At the funeral service a few days later, the farmer stood near the casket and greeted folks as they walked by. The pastor noticed that whenever a woman would whisper something to the farmer, he would nod his head yes and say something. Whenever a man walked by and whispered to the farmer, however, he would shake his head no, and mumble a reply.

Very curious as to this bizarre behavior, the pastor later asked the farmer what that was all about. The farmer replied, “The women would say, ‘What a terrible tragedy,’ and I would nod my head and say ‘Yes it was.’ The men would ask, ‘Can I borrow that mule?’ and I would shake my head and say, ‘can’t, it’s all booked up for a year.’”

That humorous story reminds us that not only will difficult people be with us, but how we want to respond to them is a universal emotion. Learning how to relate to difficult people will vary according to the personality types you are dealing with. While the person you are irritated with may never change, understanding a few basic concepts will at least ease your frustration. Allow me to share a few simple guidelines when dealing with difficult people.

First, treat the difficult person the way you want to be treated. It’s a timeless principle, but timeless for a reason. It’s effective. You may never change the behavior patterns of the difficult people in your organization, but when you model courteous, professional behavior, hopefully somewhere down the line they will get a clue.

A difficult person, more times than not, is that way by choice. An advisor to President Lincoln suggested a certain candidate for Lincoln’s cabinet. But Lincoln refused, saying, “I don’t like the man’s face.” “But sir, he can’t be responsible for his face,” insisted the advisor. “Every man over forty is responsible for his face,” replied Lincoln, and the subject was dropped. Just as you are responsible for your face, so is that difficult person. It’s not your responsibility to change him, just treat him the way you want to be treated.

Second, take the high road. Lowering yourself to the level of that difficult person is never the answer. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn in to another’s bad behavior by behaving bad yourself. Keep your emothons and attitude in check. Don’t be like the man who was told by his physician, “Yes indeed, you do have rabies.” Upon hearing this, the patient immediately pulled out a pad and pencil and began to write. Thinking the man was making out his will, the doctor said, “Listen, this doesn’t mean you’re going to die. There is a cure for rabies.” “Oh, I know that,” the man said. “I’m just making a list of all the people I’m going to bite.”

John Maxwell said, “The disposition of a leader is important because it will influence the way the followers think and feel. Great leaders understand that the right attitude will set the right atmosphere, which enables the right responses from others.” When difficult people surround you, take the high road, perhaps others will follow you. But if not, then heed to advice of my next point.

Third, protect the morale and productivity of your organization. As a leader, it’s your duty to protect your team’s integrity and morale. Allowing a difficult person to continue on in his or her job, in the end, may cause more harm than good. As someone once said, “What you tolerate, you promote.”

Treating the difficult person the way you want to be treated, taking the high road, and protecting morale are key components of your leadership. When people in your office are walking on egg shells around a difficult person, it can be a messy situation. Do your team a favor- act with compassion, act with conviction, and act quickly.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Improbable Success during Impossible Times

The economic climate continues to present challenges to many. The recent bankruptcy of General Motors is but one more sign of challenging times ahead. Unemployment numbers remains high, and the toll of the recession is still being felt in many sectors.

That however, should not be a deterrent to new beginnings and defining a future full of promise. You see, out of adversity has been born many of the great inventions and marvels of our time. Allow me to share one such example with you.

His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to eke out a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow terrifying death.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the Boy Farmer Fleming had saved.

“I want to repay you,” said the nobleman. “You saved my son’s life.” “No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel.

”Is that your son?” the nobleman asked. “Yes,” the farmer replied proudly. “I’ll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll grow to a man you can be proud of.”

And that he did. In time, Father Fleming’s son graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin.

Years afterward, the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. The son’s name? Sir Winston Churchill.

The medical discovery made by Alexander Fleming was one that was years in the making. It was an improbable achievement. Yet today, we are the benefactors of a near disaster. Never underestimate the power of possibilities in the worst of times. Consider with me these timeless principles.

Success is born from adversity. Only moments from sure death, the young Churchill was plucked from the black muck just in time. Little did Farmer Fleming know how his actions that one fateful day would revolutionize the world of medicine and save countless lives.
In 1914 Thomas Edison watched in disbelief as much of his life’s work went up in flames. Standing among the ruins the next day, Edison said, “There is great value in disaster. All of our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to deliver his first phonograph.

What may look like disaster today may be nothing more than the springboard to your greatest achievement tomorrow.

Promise is born of kindness. The generous action of Lord Randolph to take the young Fleming and tend to his education exemplifies what can happen when one person believes in another. When we learn to give out of our abundance into the lives of others there is no telling what the returns will be. Just as in the case of Fleming, the next medical breakthrough could be just around the corner.

The story is told that one day a beggar by the roadside asked for alms from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The man was poor and wretched and had no claim upon the ruler, no right even to lift a solicitous hand. Yet the Emperor threw him several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at his generosity and commented, "Sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar's need. Why give him gold?" Alexander responded in royal fashion, "Copper coins would suit the beggar's need, but gold coins suit Alexander's giving.

While we still face uncertain days as we work through the pains of this recession, never underestimate the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity, sow seeds of success in others, and to make the world a better place tomorrow because of how we chose to act today.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson