Tuesday Aug 25, 2015

And What, Exactly, Is an Informational Interview?

Quite a few years back, I decided I wanted to know more about some areas of the company I was working in (it was a large company). I asked my mentor and my manager for some advice on who I might talk to, and they gave me five names. I contacted each person and asked if they might have 30 minutes to talk with me about their area of the business and how it integrated with my own. All five said yes.

So I moved forward with all five interviews. My great-grandfather used to tell me that God gave me two ears and one mouth..and why do you think that is?...so I went into each interview planning to listen more than I talked. Great-grandpa knew what he was talking about – I met some great people and learned a lot about different areas of the business. I hit it off with a couple of my interviewees, and we exchanged information periodically. Two years later, both of them helped me out when I needed to accomplish a difficult project in a short time.

All because of that initial informational interview.

In essence, an informational interview is an opportunity to learn more about someone else and what they do. It is NOT, NOT, NOT a job interview…nor is it a plea for a job…nor an opportunity to provide your resume. It is an investment of your time to learn about someone. That’s it.

So why would you ever do an informational interview? Because you think someone is interesting; or something they do is interesting; they might be a future member of your network; they might become a mentor; they might put you in touch with another person who sparks your future.

Let's assume you’re on board with the concept of an informational interview. “How do I do it?” Glad you asked. Here are my tips for conducting an informational interview.

  1. Know what you want to learn. You should identify the topics that you want to learn about. This will also help you determine the appropriate people to contact.

  2. Find the right people. If you know what you want to learn, ask your manager, mentor or someone else who they would recommend you talk to and why. This will give you the information you need to initiate contact.

  3. Schedule a conversation not to exceed 30 minutes. The person you’re talking with is probably busy, so let them know that you will limit your conversation to 30 minutes. If your interviewees want to spend more time with you, they will.

  4. Have a great starting question.  Your first question will get the entire conversation underway.  You may want to start with something like “What was your career path that brought you to your current position?” or “What kind of knowledge does someone in your position need?” Have 3-5 good questions ready, but know that might only need your first great question.

  5. Listen. This is kind of a “duh,” but to actively listen takes a lot of work. You need to concentrate, respond appropriately and build upon the conversation – this is called active listening. If you think your listening skills could use work, check out this MindTools article or Fast Company article for some tips.

  6. Don’t take notes. This might seem counter-intuitive, but taking notes means that you are concentrating on writing something down rather than concentrating on the person talking. Definitely jot down a question that comes up or any major ideas that you want to remember or follow up on. Just remember that your primary purpose is to focus on the person in front of you.

  7. Use the ultimate final question. At the end of every interview, ask “Who else would you recommend that I talk to about <insert your topic>?” This opens up additional opportunities for you to talk to others as you can start with “X said that I should contact you to talk about <insert your topic>.” Not only is it an easy way to initiate contact, but you’ll learn even more about others in your company.

  8. Send a thank-you note or email. This is super important. Someone just gave you 30 minutes out of their very busy schedule - the least you can do is say thanks. Additionally, make sure you send the thank-you no later than 48 hours after the interview.

So that’s it – eight easy steps to an informational interview. Once back at your desk, feel free to write down notes about your interview. As you reflect on your notes and your experiences from the interviews, you’ll realize that every interview is a development opportunity – it gives you the chance to make yourself known, to develop your knowledge of the company, to expand your network, and to increase your knowledge in a topic. Informational interviews are a great tool for your professional development, but it’s up to you to use them.

Happy interviewing!

Tuesday Jun 16, 2015

Feedback: What They Want, Or What They Need?

This weekend, my husband and I drove four hours into the mountains to take our kids to church camp.  After getting my "almost 8" year old registered, he hugged me and said, "I'm going to miss you, Mommy."

"Really buddy," I asked, feeling a little "aawww" in my heart for such a rare show of emotion.

"No," he giggled.  "I just know you want me to say that."

Bammo!!  Reality hits hard when it hits!

His comment, though, made me think about something all leaders are responsible for, and some of them don't do very well - feedback.  Often, people in leadership positions will tell people what they want to hear (like my son) - a true leader, however, tells people what they need to hear.

Providing feedback to people is tough - you don't want to hurt their feelings; they might perceive it as negative; you're not sure if you're getting through; the feedback might not be specific enough; the conversation will likely be uncomfortable; and your employee might not like you very much at the end of it.  Great picture, huh?

Here's a different picture.  You start with positive intent - feedback is designed to help a person perform better.  You gather specific actions and results related to your feedback; you talk with your employee about these actions and results and what needs to be different; you ask them how, together, you can help others from making the same mistake in the future; and you both leave the conversation feeling like something was accomplished.

In their book Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others, authors Tacy Byham and Richard Wellins explain the concept of using STARs for feedback (Oracle employees can access the book via Safari).  STAR stands for:

  • Situation/Task (ST): basically, what was being handled or addressed
  • Action (A): what a person did that was effective
  • Result (R): the positive impact of the action

The book further explains the concept of STAR/AR for providing developmental feedback, where the /AR stands for:

  • Alternative Action (A): what a person might have said or done instead
  • Enhanced Result (R): what might have been more effective as a result of the alternative action

A Zenger/Folkman study written about in Harvard Business Review indicates that people actually want corrective feedback, even more so than they want praise (or positive feedback).  What employees do not want is "constructive criticism" because, let's face it, any criticism is not really constructive.  Additionally, employees don't want feedback that is focused on them, as a person.  For example, if you started the conversation with "I can't believe how inept you were in that discussion," the conversation will undoubtedly go downhill from there.

Instead, experts suggest that the feedback you provide focuses on specific actions (like in the STAR/AR model), and when providing feedback, you:

  • are timely - you don't wait until performance reviews at the end of the year to address an issue from 8 months prior
  • are explicit - you explain exactly what you saw and what you would like to see differently so your employee doesn't have to read your mind
  • ask questions - you ask your employee to consider alternativse by asking them how they perceived the situation and what might have worked better
  • follow through - the first conversation isn't the end.  You need to follow up with your employee to find out how changes are going and how you can continue to support him or her.

Yes, feedback can be uncomfortable, but if you approach it as an opportunity to improve one's performance, it can be well received...much more so than just telling your employees what they want to hear.

Monday May 18, 2015

What's Your Leadership Lesson Plan?

In my former life, I was a high school English teacher, and I was expected to have a lesson plan for every class. I was even given 50 minutes each day to ‘plan’ lessons for my five different classes (about 10 minutes per class). Because I was starting out in my teacher role, I actually spent substantially more than 10 minutes planning for each class.

What was included in my lesson plan? Glad you asked. I had an overall plan for each unit, including the learning objectives for the unit. For each daily lesson, I had an introduction to the lesson, learning objectives, notes on what I would say, how long it would take, discussion questions, vocabulary that might be new, quizzes, handouts, and potential essay questions, etc. I was very prepared for each day. And I knew what I wanted my students to learn and how I was going to build upon each day throughout the semester.

And that made me think about graduation and the fact that companies have a host of graduating college students joining their ranks. If you are going to be leading a team of new college hires, how much time have you spent identifying what you want those new hires to know? Think about what skills you want your new hires to learn – how are they going to learn those skills, who is going to help them, how are you going to provide feedback, and how is your new hire going to show he or she has learned the skill? And do the skills you’ve identified align with the goals of your business unit?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Millenials in the workplace, including research that indicates Millenials aren’t all that different from other generations. That group of college hires that you have coming in probably want the same thing that the rest of your team wants – consistent communication from you, knowledge of how their work fits in the bigger picture, feedback on how they’re doing (beyond once a year performance reviews), and they want to feel valued as an employee and as a person. Research indicates that Millenials want these things, but - no surprise - so does the rest of your team.

A teacher creates lesson plans not to be completely rigid about each day, but to ensure that they are providing the greatest amount of learning opportunity for their students. Likewise, as a leader, you should create a lesson plan for you team that provides the greatest learning opportunity possible for all of your team members. This might mean that those new hires mentor older workers on new technologies; older workers provide business context around the ‘college learning’, and you, as a leader, provide the structure that makes it all work. Creating a lesson plan is hard work, but the payoff is tremendous. You have 50 minutes – go!

Wednesday Apr 01, 2015

1 Easy Rule for Being a Great Leader

I've been reading a lot of blogs and articles that talk about how you should treat your employees in order to motivate them, help them achieve peak performance, engage them, etc.  The advice is generally really good, but I admit that I'm one of the people who is going to forget to:
Smile at people every day; Talk to my team to really get to know them; Remember to marry employee desires to corporate strategy; Know the top three things that motivate each employee; Help tie personal goals to corporate goals; Have 1:1 meetings; Have career conversations with each employee; Avoid blame; Bring others along on a change journey; Build trust; Maintain integrity; Build meaningful relationships and networks; Conduct an annual performance review; Be vulnerable...be strong; Communicate often...don't over-communicate.

I'm sure you get the picture.  So, I've boiled it down to just one single rule for being a great leader:  Treat everyone on your team the way you would like to be treated. 

This is a rule that was drilled into us in kindergarten, but somewhere along the way, we forgot about it.  It's the "Golden Rule" in many religions, but somewhere along the way, we forgot about it.  It's the rule of the philosopher Plato when he said "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle."  But we forget about it.

Instead, we rush to work in a traffic jam that is being created just to piss us off and start our day off wrong.  The person in front of you saw you coming up to the door and slammed it in your face instead.  The one employee that you really needed to perform today should know that you need more from them.  And why did your whole team decide to slack off when you needed them working hard.  By golly, you have a right to be mad as hell and take it out on everyone!

But we forget.

Take a deep breath.

That traffic jam occurred because there was an accident on the highway, and someone was killed.  The person going through the door in front of you happened to be blind and didn't even know you were there.  The distracted employee just learned yesterday that her parent had a stroke.  And that team that wasn't working...they were working to support their co-worker who was just diagnosed with cancer.

Treat everyone on your team the way you would like to be treated.

Instead of being mad that a traffic jam exists, use the time to think about how you're going to approach a specific problem.  Instead of assuming ill-intent from your employee, ask her "I notice that you're attention isn't really here today.  Is something going on?"  Instead of being mad that someone in front of you didn't hold the door, hold the door for the person behind you.  And instead of assuming that your team isn't working, ask them what is top of their mind.

Most people don't wake up and plan how they are going to make everyone around them miserable.  They don't plan how badly they can screw up at work.  They don't plan how they're going to make everyone else look bad. 

So the next time you are interacting with your employees, think about how you would like to be treated.  Ask instead of assuming.  Listen with respect.  Show compassion.  Act like a human being.  Remember Plato's advice to "Be kind."  Chances are pretty good that you'll learn something about your employees, and they'll learn that you are, indeed, a great leader.

Monday Mar 30, 2015

3 Characteristics of Poetry That Can Help You Communicate Better

My fifth grade daughter has a new assignment in school - she has to read 100 poems by the end of May, with specifics about the types of poems to be covered and what information is to be recorded for each poem.  Almost immediately, I pulled out all sorts of poems that she could read, running the gamut from Christopher Marlow to John Donne to Emily Dickinson (I was an English major, so I have a fairly large selection of poetry on my bookshelves).

As I started reading through different poems, I was reminded once more of how incredible poems are because they teach us how to communicate more effectively than we might imagine possible.  I might have lost you at the mention of reading 100 poems, but if you're still with me, let me explain the characteristics that I'm talking about:
  • Word choice:   Poets carefully choose their words to paint a picture of what they want you to see.  Instead of "it was cloudy," a poet might say "the wisps of white were like puffs of dandelion floating in a gentle blue breeze."  The poet has selected words that create the image of puffy clouds slowly moving in the breeze.  It is this kind of careful selection of words that we should strive for in our own messaging - using powerful words to tell our story. 
  • Brevity:  With the exception of epic poems (apologies to Homer, Milton, Vyasa and others), poems don't spew forth every word known to man.  Poets manager to get their points across in as few words as possible.  Think about this - the human brain can store 5-7 'chunks' of information in short term memory.  If you want to get your point across and be memorable, you should aim for 'short and sweet' in your message.
  • Reflection:  A great poem gives you something to think about, and the message of that poem may stay with you long after you read it.  Likewise, if you are presenting a message, you should think about what you want your audience to continue thinking about long after the presentation.  This can help define the words that you use when you communicate.

You may think word choice and brevity conflict with each other, but they really don't.  A poet might choose very precise words to create the imagery that is necessary for the meaning of the poem, but the overall poem may be very short.  Check out the following:

Risk - Anais Nin

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Hans Christian Anderson

To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.

Nin tells us that at some point we have to step up and take a risk; Dickinson tells us that what we do actually matters to others; and Anderson makes us want to get on the next plane to some unknown destiny.  And they do this with beautifully painted imagery and a minimum number of words.

Long after you read this post, you'll probably be wondering 'What risk should I be taking?'  Or 'Who's life might I have impacted by my actions?'  Or 'Where should I go on my next journey?' And therein lies the reflective nature of poetry and its message.

Poetry may not speak to the masses (at least that's what my husband tells me), but if you consider the word choice, brevity and reflective qualities of poems and and how they relate to your own messaging, poetry may just help you become a more effective communicator.

Monday Mar 16, 2015

Are You Leading With a Growth Mindset?

Growing up, my mom would tell me "You can achieve anything if you set your mind to it."  Mom was also a big believer in PMA, or Positive Mental Attitude.  If I was having a bad day...PMA.  If I was having a bad gymnastics meet...PMA.  If I didn't achieve to the level I expected of myself...PMA.  My mom wasn't going to let me feel sorry for myself or dwell in negative thought; instead, she insisted that I figure out what went wrong and move forward with a positive mental attitude.  I heard PMA from Mom so often that when I left home for college and then moved away to start a career, I would tell myself "PMA" whenever I was having issues with something (I think that was my mom's goal).

Little did I know, my mom was teaching me to have a growth mindset.  The term 'growth mindset' refers to the belief that abilities can be developed and honed through dedication and hard work.  In contrast a 'fixed mindset' is the belief that you are born with a level of talent and intelligence that really can't be changed.  These concepts are the basis for Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  Dweck maintains that how we feel about things like risk, learning, intelligence, tests, failure , effort (and other things) form our beliefs, and those beliefs can ultimately impact our performance and success.  This is a great picture differentiating growth/fixed mindset:

(Click here for a larger image of this picture)

Fortunately, as Dweck explains, mindsets are simply our beliefs, and we have the power to change our beliefs and our mind.  In Dweck's TED Talk The Power of Believing That You Can Improve, she describes the power of "not yet."  The phrase "not yet" implies a learning path into the future and provides a person the confidence to persevere.  Think about it like this - you are coaching an employee on a particular issue, and they come to you with an idea on how they will solve the issue.  Do you say No, that won't work or do you say You're not there yet.  Think about what else you might do?

"That won't work" closes down the conversation and forces the employee to give up.  On the other hand, the "not yet" phrase gives the employee permission to grapple with the problem, learn from what he or she has already tried and come up with a better solution.  And, an additional benefit is that the employe has learned to persevere and think outside his or her comfort zone - this causes neurons in the brain to form new connections, which helps with future problem solving.  You are, in essence, setting up the employee for success.

If you tend to have a fixed mindset, you can change it!  First, learn to "hear" your fixed mindset when it occurs.  Second, recognize that you have a choice on how you interpret what is happening.  Third, talk back to your fixed mindset with a growth mindset voice.  And finally, take the growth mindset actions.  Details of each of these steps can be found on MindSetOnline

New research tells us that leaders with a growth mindset tend to be better coaches to their employees; they are more likely to notice improvement in their employees; they make better negotiators; they seek more feedback so they can improve.  And - I think this is a biggie - they are modeling a growth mindset for their employees.  Even Harvard Business Review has written about "How Companies Can Profit from a 'Growth Mindset"  (Hint: words like trustworthy, commitment and innovation are used).

Leadership is all about the willingness to grow and change and to help your people do the same...this is the embodiment of the growth mindset.  You may not have my mom whispering "PMA" inside your head whenever you're facing a challenge, but you do have Carol Dweck telling you that the only thing standing between you and your goals is the story you tell yourself about why you can't achieve them.  And the beauty is, you have the power to change that story!

Monday Mar 09, 2015

Leadership Lessons from the Hallway

A couple of weeks ago, I was at my kids’ school, and I was sitting in the hall working while the high school students had lunch. Since I’m curious about kids today and their leadership skills tomorrow, I decided to ask them a few questions (this is where my husband would cringe and say “Do you have to?”). Despite the fact that I was a “mom,’ the kids were really receptive to the conversation.

I started with “What does leadership mean to you guys?” They proceeded to tell me that “leadership” means putting others before yourself; helping others do something while you’re doing it as well; not being judgmental; equality; being able to direct people without having a superiority complex. One boy even offered the comparison that good leaders direct and help while bad leaders sit on the sidelines and point fingers. All of these kids understood that leadership was about helping others be better.

Then I asked what they felt leaders needed to learn, and I was blown away by the answers. Be personal – tell me you need my help, and I’ll want to help you. Let me know how things relate back to me and what I’m supposed to be doing. And then there was this – leaders need to teach people how to think for themselves and teach those people how to teach others. Too often, we’re taught how to think in one way, and that can stifle our creativity and ability to solve problems. Wow!

The question around social media was quick as all the kids said they don’t really pay attention to social media as they would rather talk to someone; employees shouldn’t be consumed by social media and should have a life outside of work; and it’s a good tool to post those things that college recruiters and potential employees would like to know about.

I also asked the kids what they thought would be the biggest issues in the next 15-20 years as they started moving into leadership positions. One response was that we need to keep in mind that the world is shrinking and will only get smaller, and we need to be able to make hard decisions without groups feeling left out of the decision. Another student said that we need to focus – he went on to explain that we don’t focus as much as we used to because there are too many different things competing for attention. All of the kids felt that the conversation we have need to be “bigger” and more inclusive.

My final question was “How many of you see yourself working in an office 8-5?” They all laughed.

Lunch was over, and when I apologized for taking their whole lunch period, all of the kids responded with something along the lines of “No, this was great. It gives us a chance to really think about what we might do in the future.”

Why am I sharing this? Because I thought it was interesting that we complain about “kids these days” and “those millennial” who are entering the workforce; and, even these kids are any indication, I don’t think we have that much to worry about. I learned that these kids have it right – leadership is about helping others become better; it’s about becoming better yourself; and it’s about remembering we’re all human and that we should focus on the important things. If the high school students can get it right in the hallway, we should be able to get it right in the cubicle!

Thank you to the high school kids at Cornerstone Christian Academy who spent their lunch with me that day!

Monday Mar 02, 2015

Mentoring: It's Not For Wimps

My family spent three days last weekend skiing in the Colorado mountains.  It was a great deal of fun because my daughter skied with some of our friends, and they took her down moguls, terrain parks, jumps and a variety of other things that my husband and I were not going to do.  My son, on the other hand, took two days of lessons, and then I had to ski faster to keep up with him.  We all learned new things over the weekend thanks to people who knew more than we did.  And that got me thinking...

As part of my day job, I've been doing some work on mentoring programs and best practices around mentoring.  A disturbing theme that I'm seeing in my research is that mentoring is viewed as something for those people on their way out - that is, if you have a mentor, you're obviously not doing very well in your current position.  I'd like to take that idea and throw it out the window!!

Think back to 7th Century BC...Thales, one of the 7 ancient sages, founded a school of philosophy to share knowledge.  Every philosopher that came after Thales learned from the ones who came before.  Fast forward 1500 years to the Middle Ages, and you have apprentices who are learning and perfecting skills taught by master craftsmen.  Fast forward to today - we have apprentices who work under a master in a skilled trade; we have Masters students who study for a Doctorate under the supervision of an "expert;" we even have television programs where musicians are being mentored by current stars.  In all sorts of fields throughout history, people learn from those with more knowledge.  But we're suppose to look down on that in the business world?  Inconceivable!!  (to steal a line from The Princess Bride)

If you are a mentor, you have one of the most important jobs around.  You need to have a wealth of self-awareness and understanding about what makes you successful, and then you have to be able to share that with your mentee in a way that they can internalize and apply to their own development.  You have to dig in and push someone beyond their comfort zone because you are the person who is helping someone else define their future and take appropriate steps to reach those goals.  That is no small task!

If you are being mentored, you know that learning from someone who has been in your position or is in a position you would like one day is the best way to explore that experience...without actually going through the experience.  A person being mentored has basically stood up and said "I want to be the best that I can be" and has found people to help him or her achieve that best and is willing to take on the difficult work of self-reflection and achieving goals to become their best.  This is not not the behavior of a person headed out the door - this is the awareness and actions of someone that you want on your teams! 

You may not ever follow someone down moguls or terrain parks while skiing, but if you have the drive to help others as a mentor and/or the desire to achieve your best by being mentored, the resulting relationship will set both of you up for success no matter what path you choose.

Wednesday Feb 11, 2015

Stay Interviews: A Great Tool for Great Leaders (Including You)

I’ve been a fan of stay interviews for a long time, but in the last couple of weeks I’ve seen questions from people about what a stay interview is and comments that they’ve never heard of stay interviews. Since I’m a fan, I figured I would share a little bit of information about stay interviews and why I think it’s a great leadership tool that you should be using regularly.

What Is a Stay Interview?

At its core, a stay interview is a conversation with your employees to learn why they stay at Oracle and with you. That is, what are the specific things that contribute to an employee’s decision to remain in their current position rather than move to a different position or company? These factors might be things like salary, ability to work from home, free soda, fitness centers on location, FMLA access, great insurance, ability to try new things, going to OpenWorld, etc.

The point is, you want to understand what motivates each employee so you can do more of that for each unique person.

How Do I Initiate a Stay Interview?

This is an easy one! You simply make an appointment with one of your employees and say “You’re a key contributor on the team, and I’d like to know more about what you like about your job and why you choose to stay at Oracle.”

Honestly, if you’re not in the habit of talking to your employees (and there are books written on that topic!), your employees will probably hesitate and wonder what kind of trick you’re playing. Your best option is to be honest and simply tell them “I read about something called a stay interview, and it got me thinking about what makes our team members stay here.”

Your employees may be a bit jaded from previous managers who simply didn’t care, but if you keep trying, they will respect your effort and open up to you.

What do I say during a Stay Interview?

If you google stay interview questions, you will receive 271 million hits. Since looking through 271M hits isn't really feasible for most people, I've identified a dozen common questions that you might consider:

  1. What about your job makes you excited to come to work?
  2. If you changed your role completely, what are the things that you would miss most?
  3. What job from your past would you go back to if you had to stay in it for an extended period of time? Why did you choose that job?
  4. What skills do you have that you are not using but would like to?
  5. What have you felt good about accomplishing in your current position?
  6. What bothers you the most about your work?
  7. What kind of feedback would you like about your performance that you are not currently receiving?
  8. What development opportunities would you like that can push you past your current role?
  9. If you could spend 10-20% of your time exploring something related to your job, what would that be and why?
  10. What do you like to do outside of work? What are you passionate about?
  11. What is one thing that you would change about your current position, team or company if you could?
  12. What can I do more of less of as your manager?

Keep in mind that you primary job is to listen…and maybe take some notes. Whatever you do, do NOT rebut anything your employee is telling you. Nothing will shut down the conversation faster than you saying “But that’s not true. We really do (fill in the blank).” Your goal is simply to understand what motivates and engages your employees and to let your employees know that you recognize and appreciate their contributions.

Also be aware, that this is not the time to promise anything to your employees. You are simply gathering information to help you understand your employees and identify what keeps them satisfied.

What do I do with the information I get?

Your first step is to simply review your notes and ensure you understand what you heard. From there, determine what you can do to support those things that motivate your employees. Perhaps you have an employee who is motivated by the opportunities for professional development. Maybe you can approve their attending a conference, working with an extended team on a cross-functional project, or securing a presentation at a local User’s Group conference. The point is, you don’t know that you should be doing these things if you don’t know that your employee is motivated by development opportunities.

You should also be sure that your Stay Interview isn’t a one-time event. Your employees have given you great information. You need to have continued conversations with them to make sure that both of you are on the right track. As you have these conversations with your employees, you will be building trust in those relationships, which can open even more dialogue about the team and its achievements.


Stay Interviews are not difficult – you are simply having a conversation to learn more about your employees and why they continue to work for you. There are no judgments, no promises, no pressures – just an effort to understand what motivates your employees.

One thing to consider – conduct Stay Interviews with all your employees within a set timeframe (within a couple of weeks). This allows you to see any trends across all employees and implement any changes right away rather than letting something negative sit within your team for an extended period of time.

If you’re concerned that a Stay Interview might be difficult, think about the best performer on your team. Do you know what keeps him or her in their position? What might you do if you knew that information? Start with this one employee. My guess is that your conversation will inspire you to do the same for all of your employees – and your employee will talk about what a great leader they have!

Tuesday Feb 10, 2015

Do You Have a Learning Habit?

Habit (hab'it)

  1. An act or practice so frequently repeated as to become almost automatic.
  2. A tendency or disposition to act consistently or to repeat.

We all have habits, and most of the conversation around habits consists of talking about how bad the habit is and how difficult it is to stop the habit. I’m going to switch the conversation on you and tell you that for 2015 you should have a habit – a learning habit!

I was on a call a couple of weeks ago, and the topic of learning habits came up. The question was “What learning habit do you have or will you build for this year? Using the definition above, a learning habit is something that you do repeatedly or consistently in order to develop your knowledge. It’s really nothing more than making a commitment that you are going to do something to stretch your knowledge.

On my phone call, people shared what they already do or are planning to do, including:

  • Read one news article each day in my professional area.
  • Watch 2 or 3 TED talks each week that look interesting.
  • Read one business related book each quarter.
  • Read one Business Book Summary each week. (Oracle employees have access to Business Book Summaries through the Virtual Library).
  • Interview one leader each month that you feel is a great leader and find out what they do differently.
  • Have one-on-one meetings with your team members each month to learn more about them and what they want to achieve.
  • Finish my degree (whatever level it may be).

Any advice we read on leadership tells us that great leaders are continual learners – without constantly assessing where you are, where you want to go and what you need to get there, you will never improve.

So here’s my challenge to you – figure out what you are going to do in the next 7 days to start your learning habit. Write it down in your learning journal. At the end of seven days, check in with yourself and see how you did. Repeat this process for the next month (or quarter) until your habit is established. If you’re feeling up to it, share a comment about what your new habit will be.

By incorporating a learning habit into your leadership actions, you will be modeling continual learning for your employees and taking a great opportunity to develop yourself.

Thursday Jan 15, 2015

Want to Be a Better Leader? Answer One Question.

They’ve actually done studies that indicate January 16 (or January 23, depending upon the research) is the most depressing day of the year. Why? Because that’s the day most people realize they’ve failed to maintain their New Year’s resolutions. Seriously – 16 days in to the new year and it’s over?? What on Earth should you do for the next 349 days? How about set some new goals!

Everyone talks about the fact that the beginning of the new year is a great time to set personal goals, but what about goals for you as a leader? I think the best question that I’ve heard for leaders is “What are you going to do today/this week/this month/this quarter to make yourself a better leader a year from now?

What I like about this question is that it gives you an opportunity to re-examine and refresh your goals whenever you need to. Maybe you want to become conversant in a particular subject. That could be your “do this week” goal. Maybe you want to work on having 1-on-1 conversations with your employees each week – that’s more of a monthly/quarterly goal. What matters is that you’re spending time thinking about you as a leader and what you want people to see when they look at you, the leader.

How do you know if your goals are right? Don’t be concerned with “right” – be concerned with “right for now.” I firmly believe that goals should be a bit fluid as you never know what will happen. You could face a health crisis, there may be a collapse of your marketspace, you could get re-org’ed or acquired. As long as you have a direction, however, you always have the opportunity to change that direction.

Whatever goals you create, grab your learning journal and write them down!! Why? Because research indicates that you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goals simply by writing them down. Michael Hyatt suggests five reasons that writing down goals will help you achieve them:

  • It forces you to clarify what you want.
  • It motivates you to take action.
  • It provides a filter when additional opportunities come up.
  • It helps you overcome resistance by focusing on the goal.
  • It enables you to see – and celebrate – your progress.

I’d go one step further – write down your goals and then tape them to your wall, by your computer – anywhere where you can see them on a daily basis. That way, they’ll stay in front of you and help drive your behavior and decisions. Additionally, make a habit of reviewing your goals, reflecting on what you’ve learned, and recording your successes. If you do this, at the end of 2015, you’ll be able to say “This is what I’ve accomplished to make myself a better leader.”

Thursday Sep 25, 2014

Leadership, Reflection, and 34GB a Day

Information is flying at us throughout the day. A few years back, a report from University of California, San Diego estimated that an individual consumes 34 gigabytes of information each day. Further, human knowledge tends to double about every 13 months, with IBM estimating that the build out of the ‘internet of things’ will cause human knowledge to double every 12 hours. It’s no wonder that we feel stressed!

Last week I read an article titled “Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Love to Write.” The article stated that writing allows a person to focus on moving forward rather than “obsessing unhealthily” over something that has happened.

Writing allows a person to pull together disparate pieces of information and make sense of them. With writing, you have the time to connect information, see patterns, and notice those things that get lost in the daily bustle. As you do this, you’re creating more complex mental models that allow you to make more connections, and, ultimately, potentially better decisions – about yourself, your work, your team, your leadership.

So what does this have to do with leadership?

Research tells us that a leader’s health and a leader’s ability to reflect are crucial to his or her success. Too often, however, leaders don’t take time for either. We don’t have time to get to the gym. We need to make just one more critical decision. It will hold until tomorrow. But, it won’t hold until tomorrow. As a leader, you owe it to yourself and your team to invest in your health and in the practice of reflection.

One line in the article I read stood out for me – “even blogging or journaling is enough to see results.” Think about it. If you spend 5-10 minutes a day simply writing about your leadership practice, you are exploring higher levels of cognitive thinking; you are opening yourself up to more innovative ideas; you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn new things about yourself and how you learn; and you are potentially lowering your level of stress and your blood pressure.

Right now, you might be thinking “Yea, I buy into it. But I don’t know where to start.” Guess what? I have five simple steps that will help you start a practice of reflection:

  1. Pick your tool. Use a blog (published or not), a journaling app on your tablet (there are some good ones for free), or even a cool notebook that you picked up when shopping back-to-school supplies with your kids. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as it works for you.
  2. Select your time. Maybe first thing in the morning at your desk, or in the evening before you go home. Perhaps it’s on the weekend when you’re the only person awake at your house. Aim for twice a week (or more if you want), but figure out your best times and stick to it.
  3. Add it to your calendar. Yes, you are busy, but adding it to your calendar makes it a commitment that you’re more likely to honor.
  4. Write. You might be telling yourself that you don’t know what to write about. Try some of these ideas:
    • What went incredibly well last week? Which of your leadership skills contributed to this success?
    • What was the worst thing that happened last week? What leadership skills could you cultivate to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
    • Thinking about a particular approach to a problem? Write about the opposing view to your approach. It might open up new ideas.
    • As a leader, what risks have you taken lately? How did they turn out? What did you learn about yourself by taking the risk?
    • What are the specific gifts and talents that you bring to a leadership role? How do you show or share those gifts and talents with your team and/or colleagues?
    • If you were the hero in your own action movie, what would happen in your movie? Do you the skills and/or knowledge to make that happen? Where might you improve?
    • What have you learned in the past 48 hours that you can apply to your leadership role? Why would it be important to do so?
    • What will your leadership role look like in 10 years? Why do you think this?
    • What leadership advice would your future self give to your current self? What leadership advice would your current self give your past self?
    • Try drawing out your problem. Create a visual representation to see if there are pieces of the problem that you’re not really seeing.
  5. Read what you wrote. You don’t have to share what you wrote with anyone, but you should periodically review what you wrote. Look for any new ideas, overarching themes or consistent issues. This will give you additional ideas to explore in future reflections.

Remember that this is purely for you and your development. Try to commit to a three-month trial, and I guarantee that you’ll be smarter at the end of those three months. How can I be sure? Because at the end of three months, you’ll have three months of accumulated intelligence in the form of your insights, connections and ideas – things that you wouldn’t have without reflecting and writing.

Socrates boldly said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Take the time for examination…reflect on your leadership…make those mental models that provide clearer thinking…gain perspective. Doing so might lower your stress level and blood pressure; it will likely let you better handle those 34 gigabytes of information that you intake each day; and it will definitely make you a better leader.

Tuesday Sep 09, 2014

Boredom, Stupidity and Planning Your Journey

One summer when I was grade school age, I told my mom I was bored. “Oh, really?” she said with an incredulity that I was too young to recognize as dripping sarcasm. “Then you must be stupid.”

“What?” For a kid who was used to straight A’s in school, my mom had just hurled the ultimate insult at me.

“You have games to play, books to read, [school] workbooks to work on and a brain that God planted in your head. If you can’t find something to do, then you must just be stupid.”

Needless to say, I never again told my mom I was bored. Her lesson stuck with me, and I became a planner. I started planning what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and what I was going to do differently if my first plan didn’t work.

When I started working in corporate education and leadership development, I found that not everyone had learned my mom’s lesson. Some leaders were ‘bored’ and just plodding along each day. Too often, they hadn’t even given a thought to what they wanted to achieve or what they wanted to learn.

Enter the concept of a leadership learning journey.

An exercise commonly used in leadership development is to figure out what your legacy will be – that is, when you’re promoted into your next job, how will people talk about your accomplishments and the way that you worked with others? Or when you retire, what will people say about the kind of leader you were? Jot down a few ideas about how you want to be known or remembered as a leader. Got it?

Now, how will you get there?

In his book The Pathfinder, Nicholas Lore provides a great exercise called Lifeline. In it, you draw a concentric circle and mark The Beginning (your birth), NOW and The End (your death). Then you tick off 10 year increments and document the highlights of each decade up to NOW and then document what you want to accomplish in each decade before The End. (Notice my optimism with my lifeline ending at 100!)

If you buy into the fact that ‘Leadership’ is not an event but, instead, a journey, you can apply this same concept to your leadership journey. Instead of focusing on your life events as in the Lifeline exercise, focus on your leadership events. That is – what do you want to be recognized for as you go through your leadership life? What do you want to accomplish as a leader? For those things in the future, identify what you need to do to achieve that goal - identify the knowledge gaps that need to be filled; identify sub-goals; identify topics areas in which you need more expertise; identify people that you need to know.

As you document this, you are creating the skeleton of your leadership learning journey. You can flesh out each of these to come up with a complete leadership learning journey that will help you achieve your end goals. A word of caution – don’t do this and file it away. Look at it every week or every month to see if you’re doing the things you need to be doing. At a bare minimum, re-evaluate your documented journey each year to ensure that your goals are still valid and modify accordingly.

As Seneca said “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”

If you take the time to map out your learning journey, you’ll identify the ports into which you want to sail, and you’ll become the leader that you want to be.

Monday Aug 25, 2014

Coachable Employees Require a Good Coach

Quite a few years ago, I experienced one of those stand-out moments of my life – I sat next to Nadia Comaneci for almost three hours as we flew from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. I competed in, coached, and judged gymnastics, and Nadia’s picture was in my locker all through high school to serve as inspiration for my endless hours in the gym. To say that I was thrilled is a complete understatement.

On a USA gymnastics tour, Nadia had visited the gym I worked at, so I re-introduced myself, and we started talking. She had just talked to Bela (Karolyi) that morning about the upcoming Olympic Trials, so we talked about who we thought would make the team, how gymnastics had changed since we both competed, and all those things that older gymnasts talk about. When I asked about what it took to earn perfect 10s, Nadia simply explained that she did what Bela told her to do. Quite simply, Nadia was coachable.

Interestingly, both Webster and Dictionary.com provide a definition for ‘Coach’ but no definition for ‘Coachable.’ I’m going to change that. I would define coachable as having the capacity to receive constructive feedback, trust in what a coach is telling you, and modify performance based upon that feedback. It is mandatory in the sports world, and I believe it is mandatory in the business world as well.

So, how do you build coachable employees? I’m not sure you can. If you look at my definition, ‘coachable’ is a mindset that is actually the responsibility of the individual, not of the coach. However, I think there are four pillars of a coaching relationship that can impact your ability as a coach and your employee’s ability to be coachable. These four pillars are outlined in the table below:

You’ll notice that the first pillar I identified is Infer Positive Intent. I think this is quite possibly the most important pillar. As a coach, I need to trust that my employee really wants to improve, and I need to provide advice that will make him or her a stronger member of the team. If I want to be coachable, I need to believe that my coach has my best interests at heart and will ask me to do things that will have a positive impact on me and my career. Positive Intent forms the basis for trust in the coaching relationship and helps all the other pillars fall into place.

If you’re still reading, it’s obvious that you want to help employees be coachable. But why should they be interested? You might want to fill them in on the benefits of being coachable, including:

  • Increased responsibility. If you prove that you can willingly take advice, learn from others and apply what you are learning, you will build the trust of your manager and likely receive larger assignments with more responsibility. This, in turn, builds your capabilities even further.
  • Accelerated development. Nobody likes to be stagnant. If you willingly accept feedback, you are more likely to receive feedback. The only thing this can do is give you more, broader ideas and increase your potential for professional development.
  • Internal well-being. If you’re coachable, constructive criticism becomes information for change rather than a personal attack. This viewpoint allows you to have a more positive view of yourself and your work.
  • Better relationships. If you are willing to accept and thoughtfully consider feedback, you will be able to build a trusting relationships with your coach and stronger relationships with your team members as they see your willingness to improve.

A willingness to be coached is a critical skill for the success of any individual, and coachable employees contribute to the success of a company. If you want coachable employees, start by modeling coachable behavior yourself, and share with employees why you think being coachable is important. If you’re struggling with where to start, simply ask “Can you tell me more?” the next time you receive feedback and then really listen so that you can better understand that feedback and how you might apply it.

You might not end up on the inside of my locker like Nadia did, but your ability to be coachable or to be a good coach will definitely be admired by others and make it easier for you to succeed at being your best.

Tuesday Jul 29, 2014

Yes, You Can Use My Light Bulb Moments

I’ve talked with quite a few managers in the last couple of weeks, and one of the questions that has come up in every conversations is “How do I go about sharing some of the interesting things I’m learning?”

Sharing can be difficult sometimes because you’re excited about the new stuff you’re learning, but the rest of your staff…well..they’re not that excited about it.

Enter the light bulb moment.

In a previous job, I was in a director role for a very diverse team (everything from learning to black ops), and most of the team was not that engaged because they had been through a number of directors and managers due to acquisitions, team member changes and so on. Being in a team meeting with me was not high on their list of things to do.

At one of our first meetings, I shared something I had read about that week that made stop and think about the work we were doing. I told my team that it was “an a-ha moment” for me – the light bulb went on in my head. I saw heads nodding, and I asked if they had ever come across information that made the light bulb turn on for them. Every person nodded their head yes.

So I challenged them. At our next meeting, I want each of you to come to the meeting with a light bulb moment. That is, something you came across during the week that made you say “a-ha” and made you want to share it with the team.

I had 12 direct reports, and every one of them came into the next meeting talking about their light bulb moment. A few weeks after I took over the director role, I had one person tell me that he was leaving. He explained that he had applied for a new job before I became his director, and he was really sad to be leaving because none of his prior managers really cared about anything he was learning. And then he asked me if he could borrow my light bulb moments to share with his new team. Of course, I said yes.

When managers ask me how they can share something they’re learning, I share the light bulb story. In turn, I’m always asked “Would it be okay if I use that?”

And my answer is always “Yes, you can use my light bulb moments.”

Hope it works for you, also!


Sandy's ideas about learning, organizational & personal improvement and other stuff.

I work on Oracle's Leadership Development team, but all thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely my own!


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