Weak Leaders Deliver Drive-By Compliments

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As I prepared to write this article on leadership, I had an interesting personal experience on the power of compliments.  I was having a great conversation with a dear friend about how the best leaders take the time to compliment people, (which is the topic of my new book.)  My position was that it is so simple, so easy to send a compliment… it only requires a moment of time and thoughtfulness, and yet it can motivate people for days.

My friend said after a moment “It does matter that a leader pays a compliment.  But the value of the compliment is based on whether you care about the leader’s opinion.”  I asked her to explain.

“When I started working at my current company,” she confided, “I had done something in the first month that caught the attention of the CEO.  He sent me a quick email, really only a few words, that essentially said ‘I saw your work; well done!’  And I was really, really excited to get that message from this man.”

“But, as time went on, I got to watch this person in action, and I saw how abusive, selfish and arrogant this guy was.  I can’t stand the guy now.  Here’s the point: last week he sent me an email saying “Great job on that project,” and CJ… I couldn’t have cared less.  I suppose receiving a compliment was better than the brutal tongue-lashing everyone, including me, regularly receives from him.  But I don’t put any weight on his words; his praise is meaningless to me.”

I was a little taken aback by my friend, who is a resolutely positive and affirming person.  For her to speak negatively about anyone would require a special level of bad leadership.

When you are complimenting someone, if you’ve exhausted the emotional bank account, there is a good chance that your kind words will fall on deaf ears.  But don’t think that one moment of praise will make up for a year of animosity.  Imagine a guy sending his sweetheart flowers.  If he’s sending the flowers to say: “I adore you and I think you’re great,” she’s going to be singing his praises all day.  If, however, the guy is in the doghouse and he sends them to say “Sorry, I messed up and I’m a shmuck,” she’ll receive the flowers with a raised eyebrow, suspicion and disdain.  They may end up automatically tossed in the trash!  Same flowers, but the reaction is based on how the receiver feels about the giver.

You should continue to compliment and uplift people, even if your efforts are initially met with a cold shoulder, for each successive kind action will rebuild the goodwill between you.  However, if you have been tough on your staff, remember that it takes a hundred “atta-boys” to make up for one harsh criticism.  Now, it’s up to you to cheerfully offer 99 more comments of praise.

Could You State Your Goal At 3am?

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Imagine your boss, mentor, or business leader called you at 3am and woke you from a deep sleep.  They asked you “What is your goal?”  How would you respond?  Consider this the acid test of focus.  If you can answer in the dead of night, you might be accused of being very, very focused.

 

            On any given day, we could walk down the main street of any major city in Canada and ask “What is your goal?” to a hundred random strangers.  Imagine the response!  Mostly, people would look like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.  They’d have no idea how to answer!  Would you?  You might think that the people are the street won’t share that with a stranger.  Far enough; but even if we were colleagues or acquaintances, if I asked you what goal you are passionately pursuing in your life, would you have the answer on the tip of your tongue?  If I asked you “What did you do last week to move your life forward?” what answer would you offer up?

 

In contrast to most people, picture someone who is intently focused on a goal in their life.  It could be to lose 50lbs of weight, quit smoking, finish their MBA at night school, raise money to go on a missionary trip to Kenya, magnify the passion in their marriage, erase their mortgage in 5 years, launch a computer software firm, get a black belt in judo, reform the culture of their workplace, train for an upcoming marathon, write a book, eliminate drunk driving in their neighborhood, or any other worthwhile endeavor.  If you asked them “What is your goal?” they would answer immediately.  They would have the answer on the tip of their tongue.  In fact, you probably wouldn’t get the chance to ask, because it would come up in conversation within the first few minutes.  They are focused and dedicated.  They think about how to train, improve and move forward.  They juggle time, energy, money and attention to keep their goal a priority.  And they make it happen.

 

            I’d like to suggest that all of us can improve in this area.  Why?  Because, based on my anecdotal impression of the tens of thousands of audience members I address each year at business conferences, most people are going through the motions of life, rather than passionately pursuing their dreams.  Most people are living a “settle-for” life, telling themselves that they will accomplish their goals “one day”.  Today is that day!  We never know how many tomorrow’s we have!  Take action now!  Set a meeting with your boss today to discuss your career plan.  Go into a gym and sign up for a spinning class.  Take your child to the library and pick out books to read together.  Launch that entrepreneurial venture you’ve always dreamed!  And pursue your goal so passionately that if your spouse wakes you at 3am, you’d be able to answer what you are chasing with every breath.

The Best Leaders Are Slow To Lay Blame

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I had the pleasure of interviewing a tremendous leader this morning as I research for my upcoming book on Inspirational Leadership.  He shared with me a tremendous story that perfectly illustrates how the best leaders handle mistakes of their staff.  This leader, Jody, shares his story in his own words:

 

            “I was a brand-new counselor with a practice situated on the second-floor of a local mall amongst several other offices.  There was very little thought given to the physical security and safety of myself, my staff and our patients.  Some of the people who we treated were violent offenders, and the office should have electromagnetic locks and break-proof windows.

 

            The local police visited me one morning with a vagabond man they had picked up.  He had been wandering in the woods, muttering unintelligibly to himself.  When thy brought him in, I introduced myself and reassured him that he was not being arrested, but rather had been brought here out of concern for his safety. 

 

            As we sat down in my office, I realized I had left this mans intake form and folder on the receptionists desk.  I immediately felt embarrassed because I could not remember his name, despite being introduced to him only moments ago.  I decided to leave this man unattended for a moment to walk back down the hall to retrieve his file.  I assured him I would only be gone for 20 seconds.  I asked him if that would be ok, and he said yes.  I hurried down the hall and grabbed the file.           

 

            At that instant, I heard an explosion of sound come from my office, sounding like my pane-glass window had been shattered.  I sprinted down the hall to find that the window had indeed shattered and the homeless man was now missing!

 

            I looked out the exploded window to the parking lot one story below, and saw the police officers staring wide-eyed and open mouthed at me, my receptionist’s car directly below, its roof now crushed inwards, and the homeless man lying on the roof of her car!  He had jumped through the window to escape!

 

            I was so upset with myself… I knew better not to leave this man alone, and my embarrassment over forgetting him name caused me to violate an obvious principle.  As the police were sorting out the mess below, and my receptionist was reeling over the damage to her car, I gulped and picked the phone up to dial my supervisor. 

 

            I phoned my supervisor and relayed the entire story.  He listened intently, not interrupting.  At the end, I heard him sigh.  He said:

 

            “Jody, I am so very sorry.  This is my fault.  I should have had those windows replaced years ago with break-proof windows.  I haven’t done enough to protect the safety of you, your staff and our patients.  I apologize.  I’m going to fix this right away.”

 

            I was literally stunned.  Not only had he not chewed me out, he was literally accepting full responsibility for not doing more to serve me.  It was an amazing lesson to me in terms of leadership.  When high-performing staff make a mistake, always seek to understand first.  Always ask “What more could I have done as their leader to serve them?  Have I given them the tools and resources to do their jobs effectively?  What could I have done to prevent this?”  In the end, the best leaders are slow to lay blame, and quick to accept responsibility.”

Act Like The Job You Want

When I was just getting started as a salesman, I initiated a contest that would track and rank the progress of all of the salespeople in the department, and score everyone according to two criteria: 1. Total margin earned and 2. Total gross dollars sold. Whichever salesperson ranked the highest at either criteria at the end of each 2-week paycheque cycle would win a prize. The prizes were 2x $50 gift certificates to the store of their choice to buy something fun for themselves.

What was unique about the contest was that the prize money came out of MY paycheque. I was offering additional commission, above and beyond what the company paid, on my own dime. And I never told the other staff the entire time I worked at the company, and they never knew about it until after I’d left.

Why would I do this? Why would I reward the people who were literally my peers, who had the same job title as me and worked side-by-side with me? Because I believed that if you desire promotion, you must picture yourself as the leader and act accordingly. My belief was that if the team succeeded, then the company would succeed. I wasn’t looking at benefiting myself short-term. I wanted our sales team to dominate and was willing to do nearly anything legal and moral to motivate them to trounce our competition.

Imagine doing this in your own company. Go in to work tomorrow and take a good look at the person working beside you who has the same level of responsibility. Now imagine taking $100 off of each of your paycheques and giving it to them as a bonus, every two weeks, for a job well done. Sound crazy? That’s exactly what I was willing to do, and I did it for a long, long time.

If you want to get a promotion to Manager, act like a Manager. If you want a promotion to Director or VP, then act like a Director or a VP. Ask yourself “What does a leader do?” They look at their department and wonder aloud “What does my team need from me?” and they provide it. Your team needs obstacles removed, processes streamlined, career paths and learning plans developed, interpersonal conflicts resolved, a culture of excellence, resources made available, and tools that work. If your team is missing any of these things, volunteer to help your leader get it changed.

Do as the best leaders do. Generate ideas. Come early and stay late. Dress the part. When all the other staff wore t-shirts and jeans, I walked into work wearing a suit, silk tie, cufflinks, and a silk handkerchief folded neatly in my breast pocket. You want the leaders looking at you and thinking “This person has massive potential! They carry themselves like a leader! They are always serving their team so that the business can succeed… they are proactive and think strategically… by George, let’s get them into a more formal position of leadership!”

Eventually, it came time to find a new North American Manager of sales. Interestingly, they didn’t post the job publicly, and they didn’t post the job internally. They had decided they only wanted one person for the role, and wouldn’t even consider another candidate. I’ll give you three guesses as to who was offered the job. If you want a promotion, act like the job you want.

When You “Shoot the Messenger”, You Stop Getting Messages

What’s worse than having your team share bad news? Having them not share it. Don’t believe me? Consider the following example:

A plastic-pipe manufacturer in Toronto* decided to roll out a new software system for their facility. When the prospective implementation firm made their pitch, a keen engineer in the room asked what seemed like a fairly common-sense request:
“Can we see the software before we buy it?”

The slow turning of heads and glaring stares from the executive team left no room for misunderstanding: this engineer was, in the minds of the leadership team, completely out of line for having even spoken up. The leadership team was utterly enamoured with the gold-plated promises that the implementation consultants described. From the glossy brochures, it seemed like they had won the lottery.

The keen engineer, ever mindful of the impending disaster, tried valiantly to raise the “red flag” of warning, going so far as to draft a letter to the owner and President of the company, describing what he saw as the gaps in the promises made by the implementation consultants, and predicting that the company would surely be suing the software consultants within 12 months for breach of contract. The engineer was told by his boss that if they didn’t “get on board” with the program and stop “crying wolf”, he would be fired for insubordination. The engineer, against his better judgment but fearing for his paycheque, clammed up and grimly waited for the inevitable.

The engineer’s predictions were a little off: his company didn’t sue the software implementation firm for breach of contract in twelve months; they sued them in nine. The resulting chaos wrought by the disastrous implementation left them in disarray and they lost tremendous market share to their clients in the coming months, and undisclosed amounts of money.

My point? When you shoot the messenger, people are terrified of speaking up. By creating a culture of fear through abusive leadership, managers and executives guarantee that no one has the guts to speak up even if bad decisions might end the company. Abusive leaders inevitably develop an entourage of “Yes Men” who only whisper what they think the leader wants to hear. It’s like the guy on duty watching from the bridge of the Titanic who sees the iceberg coming; he’d rather let the boat crash than get reprimanded for speaking up.

If your people are terrified to give you bad news, or even contradict your viewpoint, you won’t get accurate battlefield data. The result? The strategic decisions you make will be based on the watered-down, sugar coated information that people have filtered for your “benefit”. Not a strong position to fight from.

The cure? Recognize and reward employees for having the guts to speak up, even when they diplomatically contradict your ideas. Thank them for their insights, point out in your response what part of what they’ve said may have merit, and breathe through your nose for five seconds. Even if have to shoot the idea down, kill’em with kindness when you do. People always respect the “Firm but fair” leader, and will feel safe to put their good ideas forward when they know you’ll take a moment to listen sincerely.

Close The Gap Between Knowing And Doing

Most people know they should do in every area of their lives; they know they should exercise more, quit smoking, save money for retirement, read a book to improve themselves, donate to charity, say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” to a friend or family member, and have the courage to ask for what they want in life. However, what I’ve discovered in my journey (as I’m sure you have as well) is that even though people know what they should do… they just aren’t doing it!

What are you putting off right now in your life that you KNOW you should do? My challenge to you this month is to select one thing that you know you should do, but aren’t, and get busy with making it happen. Benjamin Franklin famously noted that “Well done is better than well said.” Nothing changes in our lives until we do.

In the excellent book Switch, the authors discuss a common problem people face: keeping the home tidy. The main obstacle for most people is that there is so much to do that we get overwhelmed. The authors share an interesting technique called the “5 Minute Room Makeover”. The idea is simple: you resolve that for exactly five minutes, you will tidy as much as you can… and then you’re done with it! This way, you aren’t overwhelmed with how large the task is, and you end getting something done. You’ve shrunk the goal to a baby step that is easily manageable.

Try to diagnose what is holding you back. In attempting to write my book, “Living an Exceptional Life”, I was perplexed that I was procrastinating. Here I was, already having written two other books as a ghost author, and yet still unable to complete my own! I had started and stopped several times. By 2008, I had reached a threshold point of frustration with myself. I knew how to write, and I knew what to write… and yet I still wasn’t writing.

I soon realized that it was neither laziness nor feeling overwhelmed; I was suffering from “perfectionism paralysis”. I was erroneously expecting the quality of my first book to be a New York Times bestselling book, and when each draft didn’t measure up I discarded it and started again!

Once I realized my problem, I resolved that I would deliver the finished book as a Christmas present to my immediate friends and family on Christmas day, 2008. Now that was an immovable deadline! In order to hit the goal, I had to send the manuscript to the publisher on November 4th, 2008. Instantly, I was motivated to get writing. I had resolved that whatever condition the book was in, it was getting emailed on time! Whether it had spelling mistakes, run-on sentences or even entire sections missing, off it would go! My perfectionism now served to motivate me to get typing!

Make a decision to take action on the thing you’ve been putting off. I invite you to take a baby step and email me your goal at cj@cjcalvert.com. Sometimes, the smallest amount of public accountability is all it takes to close the gap between knowing and doing!

Action Conquers Fear

As a professional speaker, I am privileged to stand in front of audiences ranging in size from ten to one hundred to one thousand. Frequently I am introduced by the client host or the sponsor of the event, and am sadly surprised to see how many people tremble under the gaze of a few hundred other people. In fact, it’s been said that public speaking is the number one social phobia. Invariably I am approached by audience members at the end of all of my presentations asking “I’m scared of speaking in public; how do I overcome this fear?”

Most people forget where their fears originated. They likely stood in front of a class of snickering children when they were ten, delivering a speech in English class, and were laughed at. That embarrassment was filed away in their memory banks. Now, they are thirty-five, standing at the board room table and feeling themselves growing ill. And in response, most people want to run and hide, and avoid ever speaking in public again.

There is one time-tested antidote to any fear, and that is to take action and do the thing that you fear. I have a rule in my life: whatever I am scared to do, as long as it is legal, moral, safe and aligned with my goals… I MUST do it. I will not allow fear to take root in my brain.

Please don’t misunderstand; there are things that I fear. Just this week I had to make a series of very important sales calls, and I found that I was putting them off. Why? I realized I was afraid that the people would say “no” to my proposal. My fear was largely due to the fact that there were only three people in existence who could say “yes”, and if they turned my proposal down, I would be out of luck!

What did I do? I acknowledged that fear was holding me back. I set a written goal to contact these three critical people. I showed my written goal to my wife and friends. I announced on the morning of that I was going to make the calls. I wrote out a script for what I would say, and practiced it several times. I visualized the three people, each happy to hear from me, and each responding enthusiastically to my proposal. I dialed the numbers. And one said “maybe”, and two immediately said “yes”.

I make a habit of doing things that would scare other people: public speaking, skydiving, mountain climbing, white-water rafting, competing on stage in fitness contests… I have worked deliberately to build up a library of experiences in my mind where I have faced fearful situations and come through unscathed. By forcing myself into uncomfortable situations, I am toughening up my mental muscles for the moments when I must summon courage. This strategy has worked for me, and I am confident it will work for you. Do the things you fear and watch your fear wither away.

Winners Quit When they’ve WON

In 1952, a New Zealand mountaineer named Edmund Hillary was being awarded in a public event for his bravery and commitment in his courageous, but failed, attempt to scale Mt Everest. The awards hall was filled with news reporters, royalty and colleagues. A huge picture of Mt Everest adorned the wall. And Edmund Hillary sat trembling in his seat, seething with discontent and frustration, for he had not yet scaled the world’s tallest peak.

At the climax of the event, Hillary was invited to speak. He took to the podium, turned to the picture of Everest and shook his fist in defiance at the image. Shouting at the top of his lungs, he cried “Everest, you beat me this time, but I will return to conquer you, because you have grown all you can, and I’m still growing!” And on May 29th, 1953, he became the first man to summit Mt Everest.

There are tremendous lessons to be learned in such an epic battle of overcoming obstacles. The first and greatest lesson is that the person we are today may not be enough to conquer our own Everest. But if we resolve to learn, change and grow, we can become the person required to make our dreams come true.

Les Brown, a powerful American motivational speaker, shares this philosophy: “If anyone can do it, it’s possible that I can do it.” That philosophy carried me across the finish line in one of the greatest work challenges I ever faced: my first job ghost-authoring a book for a client. I was hired to write a motivational book in 42 days and the book was to be launched into every Chapters book store in Canada. The task may seem impossible, but I had a secret weapon: I knew that it had been done before. I knew the story of Tony Robbins, one of the world’s greatest self-help authors and speakers, and I knew that he had written the first draft of his first book, over 400 pages, in 30 days. I had 42 days to write only 250 pages, a less challenging project. And I truly believed that if ANYONE has done it, it’s POSSIBLE that I could do it.

Contrast this with the pessimistic outlook of most people wandering through life who focus on stories of defeat. They watch a friend quit a diet program, a university degree, or a relationship, and they think that their own fate has been sealed. They say “I know someone who tried that diet/business opportunity/university course/smoking cessation program, and they didn’t make it. Therefore, if someone HASN’T done it, it’s LIKELY that I can’t either.”

And therein lays the underlying philosophy that separates the also-rans from the world-changers. The phrase on my gym sweat shirt says “Quitters quit when they’re TIRED; winners quit when they’ve WON”. Colonel Sanders tried to sell his seasoned chicken recipe ONE THOUSAND and NINE times before someone said “yes”, and Kentucky Fried Chicken was born. Thomas Edison had failed over 10,000 times before finding the correct solution to creating a light bulb. Many people would scoff at such persistence, labeling it foolhardy and quitting on their dreams at the first sign of resistance. But Thomas Edison was a winner, not a quitter… and when Thomas Edison dreamed, the night disappeared. Don’t choose to quit; choose to win.

Become a Life-Long Learner

As you read this message, I trust and hope for you that you are just as passionate about your New Years Resolutions today as you were a few weeks ago when you wrote them!

Every day, I am hired by corporations to speak before their staff and help motivate, educate and transform them. Everyone in my audience says they want more out of life: more money, more opportunity, and are even willing to work hard to get it. But strangely, it seems that many of the people I meet were relieved to finish school, because they felt they would never have to read another book! The believed that learning stopped when school did… and sadly, their paycheque reflects it.

In fact, I was speaking in front of a sales group last week and asked them to consider “When was the last time you read a book on sales? Or customer service? Or positive attitude? Or time management?” Unfortunately for them, the question was a bit uncomfortable, because it had been far too long. It’s so easy to find people who want more out of life, and yet it is so hard to find people who are willing to learn; to buy a book on their career, attend a lecture or listen to positive educational CD’s while they drive.

The most successful people are life-long learners. One of my resolutions is to increase my reading. Beginning this year, my goal is to read (and study, and be transformed by) one book per week. (Bear in mind that I used to read only one business/self-improvement book a month). At the end of the year, I’ll have read an absorbed 52 business/self-improvement books. In ten years, I’ll have read over 500 books.

I subscribe to a business/motivational book club that delivers a book to my mailbox every month. This month, I was thrilled to receive a copy of Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin. I’ve been devouring this book, underlining multiple passages, making notes in the back cover, and quoting it to everyone who will listen. His basic premise is that incredibly successful people do not have God-given talent, are not “lucky”, and weren’t just given a lot of fortuitous breaks. They devoted three hours a day, every day for ten years, to master their craft. Only then did their magical “genius” become apparent.

Mark Twain laments “It takes twenty years to become an overnight success.” Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers, “Mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice.” There are no short-cuts to success, and there are really no accidents. Success is there for whomever is willing to pay the price. Whatever your calling, be it a social worker, computer scientist or paramedic, I challenge you to outlearn your competition. And in ten years, with hundreds of books and thousands of hours of learning under your belt, they will call you “lucky”.

Catch People Doing Things Right

Two years ago, I was racing to a major motivational convention. The presenter was a world-famous speaker and there was a chance that I would be able to get backstage and actually meet this person. However, I found that my digital camera had just died on me… I wouldn’t be able to capture the moment!

I raced into a camera store and explained I needed to buy a camera on the spot for this meeting. As we were concluding the sale, the salesman said “You’ll need to go home and charge the batteries for 3 hours before you can use the camera.”

I was speechless! I pointed to the demo model in the display case and asked “Could I please swap the battery I am buying now, with the fully-charged battery in the demo model we were just using?” He thought about it for a moment and said yes. Problem solved! I was very happy, and asked if I could please speak to his manager.

You should have seen the look of fear in his eyes! He asked if everything was ok, and I reassured him that I simply wanted to pay him a compliment in front of his manager. He got the manager, and the manager asked the same question! I told the manager that this person had really gone above and beyond to help me solve my problem. The manager breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t angry, thanked me, and said “Wow… we never get anyone complimenting us.”

As I left the store that day, it saddened and upset me to think that most people are told what they do WRONG, but rarely what they do RIGHT. When a clerk is summoned to the customer service desk, it is usually to get yelled at. When an employee is summoned to their boss’s office, it is to discuss how they screwed up. How often do employees get called into your boss’s office and told “I just wanted to say what a FANTASTIC job you’ve done on this report/presentation/project”?
One of my clients had a staff member I interact with daily win as “Employee of the Year”, and yet they barely mentioned it to me in passing a month after the fact. But that same wonderful employee would be run up the flag pole if she made an error. One VP I know was quoted as saying “I’m not good at giving people compliments.” In describing the owner of a business I know, the staff said “If he says nothing, it means you did a good job. He rarely compliments people.”

Charles Schwab said “I have never seen a man who could do real work except under the stimulus of encouragement and enthusiasm and the approval of the people for whom he is working.”

Poor leaders only point out errors; they only catch people doing things wrong. Exceptional leaders catch people doing things right. My challenge to you is to tell people exactly what they did right, why it helped, and that you appreciate them. Your example can shift the culture of your entire organization, and you’ll be a better people-leader because of it.