Leadership Moments
Weekly Leadership Insights

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. - Winston Churchill

So … it happened.

You were just blindsided by some constructive criticism. To make things more uncomfortable, it stung a bit. Perhaps the person who delivered it didn’t use tact, or maybe even the feedback you received wasn’t relevant. Nonetheless, you now have to deal with the information you just received.

Believe it or not, how you handle this moment will have a lasting impact on your relationship with who delivered the criticism. Research has shown that if you do nothing and say nothing about the criticism, your relationship won’t improve. But if you can respond with a leadership response, engage in follow-up, and show that you’ve taken the feedback to heart, your manager/ boss/ friend/ spouse/ customer/ client’s perception of you and your performance will become increasingly more favorable.

Here’s how to LEED when you receive criticism:

  • Listen. Even though your instincts are to get upset or become defensive, calm them down so you can truly hear the information that you’re receiving.
  • Express Appreciation. Thank the person for sharing this information with you. When you express appreciation, you’re not agreeing with the person – you’re acknowledging that you know how hard it was for them to share it with you and you’re grateful that you have the type of relationship where they can bring this to your attention.
  • Evaluate it. After you receive it, consider how the feedback relates to your performance in the role. Also evaluate the relevancy of the information you are receiving. Sometimes evaluation can take time; after receiving feedback, it’s okay to share, “Wow. You’ve given me something to think about. Can I spend a few minutes considering this before I give you a reply?”
  • Decide. Not every piece of criticism is a mandate. Sometimes you’ll choose to do nothing with it. Sometimes, though, you’ll discover a small action you can take that will make you better.

When you receive criticism well, you’re not only expanding your communication abilities, but you’re showcasing to others that you can be trusted with information and that you value candor and honesty.

Even though I’m the person who went to law school because there was no math in the curriculum, I do appreciate the value metrics add to business operations. But, what if the comfort we can find in the numbers is only part of the picture?

I was just talking to a client who is a C-Suite executive in a robust organization. When you look at the numbers, her company is thriving. Yet she’s convinced there are some icebergs on the horizon as she looks at the human dynamics of her business. Senior managers aren’t getting along well, there are competing agendas within the management team, and a willingness for peers to hold each other accountable to results is fleeting. Her strength as a leader comes across in her ability not to get caught up in the hubris of success. She knows that success won’t last if the people challenges are left unaddressed. That’s why we were talking. I’ll be working with her team in the coming months.

Sometimes we buy into the numbers too much. Perhaps it’s because they bring some sense of order to the often chaotic world of achieving success with and through other people. Numbers are neat and clean, while working relationships can be messy. The best leaders recognize this and consistently invest time, resources and effort into continuous improvement of what is often the most unpredictable, but most powerful aspect of our organizations – the human factor.

Have you ever felt micromanaged? You knew what you were doing, but someone was giving you too much direction? Or, have you felt like you were asked to do the impossible without being given enough support? During times like these, it’s easy to get upset with your manager. Often, it’s their inexperience with leading others that puts them in a position of applying the wrong approach to leading you.

As leaders, we need to be aware of the experience level of our team members, so we can adjust our leadership style accordingly to achieve the best results.

  • People who are new, or inexperienced, need more direction. Leaders should tell these folks how to do things, when to do things, what to think about, and what to keep an eye out for. Leaders should provide structure and clear guidelines to inexperienced team members.
  • As people learn and gain more ability, transition to providing support along with direction. People can become disillusioned and overwhelmed by new challenges. They need support as they continue to develop skills. More experienced performers may plateau and will require encouragement to continue building the ability to work on their own.
  • Our most experienced workers are confident, willing and able to do the job, and are self-directed. These are the people you can delegate to confidently. Challenge them with high standards and be available if and when they have questions.

We’d like to grow all of our team members into peak performers who can work independently. First, assess the developmental state of your team members with regard to the specific task they are performing. Reduce the amount of direction you provide as they become more skilled and confident. Watch for opportunities to provide support as you build everyone into that independent and self-directed superstar!

I get up early to read the paper (and by paper, I mean I surf the Internet and read from different news websites). I recently came across an article on RadioShack, and it made me mourn the loss of this iconic American store. It also made me pause, reflect, and feel sad about the lack of free time American professionals have and its broad impact. It’s impossible to imagine, but since the 1970s we’ve been working – time wise – the equivalent of an extra month more per year.

I think it’s fair to say that we’re not going to reverse this trend in the near future. But there is something that we can do to at least reclaim our precious minutes. It’s an idea that I’ve just started implementing and it’s called “One Less Thing to Do.”

You’ve heard the phrase “I’ve got one more thing to do.” Well, this obviously is the opposite. It starts by making purposeful decisions that protect your time. Here’s one I made last week: I’ve been flirting with the idea of joining a community group. It’s one I admire greatly. But to be a full participant, I have to make a huge time commitment. As a mother of two, a business owner, a wife, and a grad school student, spare time is just something that I don’t have. Last week I finally came to a conclusion: Since I can’t commit wholly to this organization, it’s best that I just don’t commit at all. After all, I’d rather be remembered for my exceptional contributions to the organization than my sub-par ones.

Another “One Less Thing to Do” is about oldest son’s bed (he’s 9). I’m not making it anymore. The Marine in me used to obsess about “hospital corners” and whether or not his Pottery Barn bedspread was displayed just like in the magazine. Even though it still pains me to walk by his bedroom in the morning and see his hurried job, I work hard to let it go. Making his bed is one less thing that I have to do each day.

I’ve also stopped obsessing about making perfect breakfasts, lunches and dinners. (My husband is probably going to wonder when I started?!) If it’s food and it’s healthy, then it’s just fine.

I’ve also stopped opening up my calendar so generously. It’s hard saying “no” sometimes to meetings and lunchtime engagements, but if the appointment doesn’t connect to a goal, then I take the time to weigh its value and whether or not I should attend.

The “One Less Thing to Do” campaign has a purpose. It’s so that I can be “more” to the things that matter most to me: my family, my friends and my career. There is a limit to my time and attention and when I try to spread it around, the quality and impact that I make starts to weaken. It’s not that I don’t want to do more – I’m ambitious, there’s so much that I want to do. But there’s a limit to how much I can do. And when I try to do too much, so much in my life suffers – especially those important leadership roles that are priorities for me.

There is also a secondary aim – and that is to help me carve free time back into my life. We all need margin in our lives, which is that quiet white space where we can go to reflect and tinker away at a project or hobby. Ah-ha moments don’t happen in our busy days. They occur in the moments when our mind is quiet, our thoughts are free, and our imagination is turned loose.

I recently delivered a keynote at Lincoln Financial Group’s annual sales conference – all I can say is “wow!” What an amazing group of professionals!

After the keynote, one of leaders came up to me to share her story about how she’s led in her life. She talked about experiencing great adversity, but having a strong support network that encouraged her. She pointed out that when we’re struggling, it’s difficult to ask for help and how wonderful it was that her network didn’t make her have to ask for it. This not only inspired her during her darkest times, but it motivated her to take action because she knew she had a fan club cheering for her.

Every single one of us has had a bad day, discouraging week, or a dismal year. So when you see that dark cloud following someone around, this can be your call to action:

  • Invite them to coffee and focus the conversation on them. Express your concern and offer your support.
  • Write a note to them. Share what you have observed, remind them of their talents, and make an offer to be a resource to them as needed.
  • Invest in the relationship. Don’t just have a one-time conversation about their troubles, reach out to them routinely and give them constant encouragement.
  • Don’t enable the person – empower them! Also, don’t take on their troubles. They don’t need pity – they need support! Be empathetic, but also be strong. They need a leader right now!

A good leader helps others in need. A great leader anticipates the needs of others and initiates action. What are you waiting for? Be that person who can make a difference in someone’s life.

A couple of recent minor events have made me question if I am as comfortable with embracing the new or different as I think I am. Recently, my eight-year-old daughter asked me if she could rearrange the furniture in her room. My instinctual response was to say, “No.” Since I know being an effective leader is often about being better than your instincts, I bit my tongue and instead said, “Why?” Her response was detailed, amusing, and full of exciting reasons as to how moving most of her furniture would create more play space.

Her enthusiasm made me wonder why I was resistant to the change. What did it really have to do with me? She explained that I wouldn’t have to do a thing. She had the plan and Daddy was going to do the moving. This whole interaction would have been just a fun exchange with my daughter, except for the case that the very next week my office was set to undergo a complete renovation. I did not handle the change process well. In fact, I found it frustrating, annoying, and completely disruptive.

It wasn’t just the noise, or being displaced, it was something more. As humans, we have a fundamental need for things to stay the same. Some of us have found a way to push past this need and demonstrate adaptive capacity. For those of us that want to improve our ability to embrace change, here are some practical tips you can use to begin your own “Change Workout.” Just like with exercise, this workout requires consistent practice to add value to your leadership style:

  • The moment you sense your resistance to change, work to get to the heart of what’s driving it. Identify what you fear or dislike about the change. You might not be able to control the circumstances, but you can understand why you are unsettled. Often, just that clarity allows you to get a bit closer to accepting the new reality.
  • Embrace the big picture. Life can be hectic, and chaos can be constant. There’s so little we can control, but our ability to influence is limitless, as long as we are demonstrating leadership behaviors. Our issues with change can be more about the impact to us personally versus the bigger picture. Work to view the value of change objectively and not from a self-focused perspective. Seek to understand why the change will be valuable to others.
  • Get fully on board. Once you know the change is taking place, and you understand why it’s uncomfortable for you, transition to how you can best serve the process. That’s challenging to do, but as leaders, we don’t want to be the ones blocking the path to a possible better way.
  • Seek out more change. If change can be a challenge for you, recognize that handling change takes practice. Deliberately put yourself in low stakes circumstances that require you to embrace change: get a new phone earlier then you would, take a new route to work, offer to assist a colleague in a way that’s different from your typical support. Being proactive with small changes builds our adaptive capacity for more meaningful ones.

My daughter moved her furniture and expanded her play area, and my new office is fantastic. Change for the better is great; don’t let the process scare you.

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” Norman Vincent Peale

If we want to grow, we need to be open to accurate information about our performance. Usually, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to soliciting feedback that allows us to grow.

Sometimes, we don’t have the courage to ask for input on how to get better. Or, when we receive feedback – solicited or not – we are quick to become defensive because we hear things that we don’t want to hear (but need to).

To help you receive better feedback, here are some simple tips:

  • First, assume positive intentions. Regardless of the feedback and who delivered it, assume that it was meant to help you get better.
  • Say, “Thank you.” Feedback really is a gift.
  • Evaluate the feedback after you have had a chance to process it. Your immediate reaction might be to discard it, which won’t help you get better.
  • Finally, get in the habit of asking for feedback. Even if someone praises you, ask her for one thing that you could have done better.

It is easy and comfortable to avoid taking a hard look at how we can improve. However, in today’s competitive world, feedback is one of the most important insights we can receive to get better. Our ability to make an even greater contribution hinges on our ability to be proactive in getting real, accurate information on where we can improve.

Mysterious Letter

Dear Stranger:

When my family and I sat down for lunch at Boyne Mountain Ski Resort this weekend, we saw this bright aqua envelope on our table. My 9 year old son, Judge, picked it up and opened it. You can only imagine his surprise when he discovered $3 (a fortune!) plus an invitation to buy some hot cocoa. In an instant, you put a smile on all of our faces.

Throughout the day, we kept looking at skiers wondering if they were “the stranger” and then we had a great conversation over what inspired you to do something so kind. We then brainstormed ways that we could surprise other kids. We even made a commitment that we, too, were going to do something unexpected and kind for someone else.

While we may never end up meeting you, I just wanted to say “thank you” for inspiring such a wonderful dialogue between my son and I. We promise to pay your random act of kindness forward in many positive and unexpected ways.

You, dear stranger, remind me of the impact one person can make in this world. You rock.

My best, AngieMysterious Letter

Most of us have heard of the leadership philosophy, “leading by example.” It’s one that’s tough to argue with since we recognize that the behaviors we demonstrate speak far more directly, loudly and completely than any words we might choose. It’s always valuable for leaders to check in on the examples we’re projecting. Here are four simple questions to assist you in verifying if your personal example is contributing to the credibility you need to influence and inspire:

  1. Is your say-do gap narrow? Meaning, when you make small (or significant) commitments to others, do your actions match your promises? We can get captivated by the big moments of leadership effort, yet our credibility is most often earned or lost by meeting the simple standards we’ve set through our word to someone else.
  2. How’s your work/life example? Do you tell your team to seek balance and then routinely email your colleagues on evenings and weekends? Sending a batch of emails while traveling, or over the weekend before you are planning to be away from the office, can be a necessary exception now and then. However, if you are always highlighting an example of nontraditional or extreme work hours, your talk of balance might come across as empty. If balance is something you value, make sure your employees see you having a life outside of work.
  3. Is your stress response effective? In times of challenge, change, chaos or stress, others seek leadership from those who can remain composed. Leaders work hard to have the emotional resolve necessary to maintain an approachable demeanor and consistent response to stressful news, events or circumstances. Practice thinking before you act, especially before you overreact, during moments when leadership is needed.
  4. Do you think of others often? Instinctually, we can all be self-focused. As leaders, we learn to understand and meet the needs of others. Service-based leadership can be as simple as taking 10 minutes a day to do something of value for someone else.

Leading by example is an extremely effective leadership style. Some would say it’s the only one that works. Demonstrating it requires the self-awareness to recognize any potential mismatch between your intentions and actions. The most successful leaders model consistent, respect earning behaviors.

Many of us have painful, embarrassing memories of times when we were wrong. Maybe it was:

  • In school, where the Socratic method was alive and well! You were asked a question, gave a good guess, and then were told – publicly – how wrong you were in your thinking.
  • At work, when you spent hours pouring over a proposal only to discover – after you submitted it – that you spelled your prospective client’s name wrong.
  • When you arrived for an important meeting two hours late because you made an error in your scheduling.

Chances are that you’ve been wrong not just once or twice. Throughout your life, you’ve been wrong countless times.

Being wrong is okay. In fact, if we all were to be honest with ourselves, we’re wrong quite a bit. Our goal in life shouldn’t be to avoid making mistakes and strive for perfection. Our goal in life should be to focus on how we respond to those situations in which we either miss the mark or experience complete failure. These are the moments when we need to rise to the occasion and demonstrate accountability the best way we know how: By being absolutely, 100% accountable to our actions (or inactions).

One of my favorite quotes is from the Maya Angelou:

“When I know better, I do better.”

When we’re wrong, rather than berate ourselves, we need to learn from our experiences. Learning is where real growth happens.

So don’t put pressure on yourself to be right. Put pressure on yourself to be your best when life throws you those never-ending curveballs.

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