Skip to content

Archive for

Interesting blog posts on Leadership (November 27, 2009)

The seven levels of authority or how to empower people

Every topic requires its own level of authority, and the further you go the better it is. But in some cases, it is best to start by telling or selling, and then gradually increase the authority of team members as their experience grows. [Choosing Authority Levels for Team Members – NOOP.NL].

Using Humility to Improve Performance

When people act humbly, they are acknowledging their limitations and accepting that they cannot go it alone. This mindset is valuable to a team because it serves as an invitation for others to help. [Use Humility to Improve Performance – John Baldoni –].

Listening, Humility, and Accountability as part of Leadership Training

GE has revised the curriculum at Crotonville, its famed management development center, to learn from mistakes it made in the current recession. There is an emphasis on teaching executives to focus on humility and listening as well as encouraging them “to challenge assumptions, think more globally,” and be “more accountable.” Listening, humility, and accountability are good first steps to inspiration; and assumption busting and global thinking may help with setting better direction. [What It Takes to Lead Now – John Baldoni –].

Self-Organizing Team versus Anarchy

First, I’d like to get away from the idea that agile teams are leaderless and that leadership only revolves around the team depending on the situation (this type of situational leadership does occur, and often, it just does not replace a good leader). There is just too much experience and management literature that shows that good leaders make a big difference. The anarchist wants to eliminate leaders and merely go with situational leadership. However, there is also a large contingent in the agile community that think the right approach is to change the style of leadership, not to eliminate leaders. It’s easy to rail against poor managers or leaders and advocate eliminating them. It’s much harder to work with organizations to change their leadership style to one that supports an agile environment. [The Cutter Blog » Blog Archive » No More Self-Organizing Teams].

Leadership and Agile Teams

As for leadership, it’s like mom-and-apple-pie. Everyone seems to agree that leadership is a good thing, don’t they? Though how that leadership is appointed, sanctioned or manifested is the subject of debate, I think we all agree that leadership is a good thing on Agile teams. My own position is that, if we can find ways to reduce non-value added management work caused by the reality of organizational silos (via Lean Kanban systems, etc), we can then all — managers and non-managers alike — get down to the important business of figuring how to lead our Agile teams. Until then, having a role that addresses the management work is simply a necessity. [LitheSpeed’s LitheBlog: Exploring Lean and Agile: Is it Groundhog Day? Thoughts on Self Organization, Self-Discipline & Light Touch Leadership].

Comments from the peanut gallery…

Let me start by affirming I am in favor of democratic structures in “for-profit” organizations. I believe people should have a say in decisions, no doubts about that. In my opinion, the concept of democracy is closely related to the wisdom of crowds where diverse opinions from a larger group of people systematically leads to better decisions and solutions.

Comments from the peanut gallery

Comments from the peanut gallery

Now that’s established, I want to make a distinction between democracy (participating in the selection of the decision) and the discussions leading to decisions – which I will call the debates.

The debate is not a democratic process. Let me use an example to explain why I have an issue with opening debates to crowds.

Following another disappointing loss of our local hockey team, a few colleagues gathered in the cafeteria were loudly debating their opinion on the cause of the team’s poor performance…

  • Paul: “Price [the goal tender] doesn’t deserve to play with the team, he lacks consistency…”
  • Mario: “What do you mean? Price did what he could but he can’t do everything. With Markov’s and Gill’s injury our defensive line is weak and Price is too often left to himself…”
  • Richard: “Did you guys watch the same game I did? We have no offensive line. We gave a lot of talent to bring Cammalleri to Montreal but he is just not the scorer we need and nobody actually has the right skills…”
  • Mary: “No, no. It’s the referee who influenced the game…”

I’ll stop here but that is enough to show my point. How many of these people do you believed played in the NHL? None.

How many of these people took coaching training or even played junior hockey? None.

How many of these opinions are actually useful to make the right decision? None. That’s right!

This is what my wife calls the “comments from the peanut gallery“.

Let me use another brief example to prove my point further.

Assume a skilled people manager joins his highly technical team for a brain storming session. The team is looking to improve performance of their Java application and the tension in the room is high.  The manager – for sake of clarity, doesn’t have a clue about computer programming except maybe for a 3 hours introduction to Microsoft Excel taken 5 years ago – suggests to replace the framework and maybe the sorting method. What are the chances that his suggestion will be accepted? None.

The same situation applies when people with no management experience or training jump into a discussion about people management or organizational strategies. To take part of the discussion there needs to be a few pre-requisites. It is not enough to want to participate in the discussion, to really contribute people need: knowledge of the topic being discussed, experience, and a willingness to move the debate forward.

What is not needed is a personal opinion without facts, knowledge or experience but this is exactly what happens when a debate is open to the general public. When these conditions are met (knowledge, experience, and willingness), people should be welcomed to join the discussion so to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds. When these conditions aren’t met, people should stay on the sideline waiting for the debate to end and propositions to be open for selection.

Just like in the Canadian Parliament, a selected (elected) number of people were selected to represent others in the discussion. Once options are selected, the democratic process can allow people to vote.

Using silence as a communication tool


Using silence as a communication tool

Using silence as a communication tool

Have you ever heard the expression “You have two ears and only one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak”? What about “Silence is gold”? It doesn’t matter if you have never heard these expressions, you will still be able to take advantage of this under-utilized ability.

Chances are, you have participated in meetings or conversations where people talked, and talked, and talked for no apparent reason only to show-off in front of colleagues or their boss. When you sit back and listen, you often notice that despite the noise, the conversation isn’t moving forward. In these instances, people are concerned with demonstrating something (their knowledge, their communication ability, their decision-making power, etc.) rather than really communicating. Most of the time people talk too much. Way too much.

Over the years I have found that using silence is very useful. Contrary to what a former boss told me, being reserved in a meeting and participating when necessary is much better than talking all the time in order to get noticed. If the only way for you  to get noticed in your organization is by talking a lot during meetings, you are in trouble. I would think that conversations are probably as shallow as the level of competence of the management team – but I digress.

Many people assume that communicating is simply talking nonstop. They are not aware of how they are being received and perceived by others. Using silence on the other hand is very useful. As a communication tool, silence provides a few interesting benefits:

  • it allows you to actually listen to other people’s perspective;
  • it lets your colleagues complete their thoughts without rushing;
  • it provides space for people to express their opinions or feelings;
  • it makes people feel their perspective is valued;
  • it allows you to organize your thoughts and emphasize one point or another;
  • it builds anticipation in your audience and allows them to follow your message;
  • it leaves room in the conversation to allow people to share something they might want to tell you but weren’t quite ready to do so;
  • during negotiation, it adds a little pressure on the other person to possibly offer a better deal;
  • and as a bonus, it improves people perception of you – you no longer appear self-centered and in need of visibility.

When your ego and your need for power drive your conversation, you are certainly missing out on critical pieces of information. Humility and serenity will increase your communication ability. If you are able to develop the ability to remain silent for a certain amount of time in a conversation, you will quickly discover the benefits.

I didn’t have time to do this

I don't have time to do this

I didn't have time to do this

“I didn’t have time to do this” is by far the lamest excuse I hear and we hear it all the time. Why is that?

You know the scenario. Someone committed to delivering something to you by a certain date and once the time comes, you ask the individual to honor their commitment only to hear these words – “I didn’t have time…”.

Although I could go into time management, this is not the point I want to make. Let’s call a spade, a spade and stop pretending that work doesn’t get done because people didn’t have time to do it. Think about it, when was the last time you heard someone tell you, “I have too much time”?

Life is as such as we accept more work and activities than we have time for, so claiming we didn’t have time for something seems like an understatement. In reality, what really happens is:

  1. the individual didn’t want to do the work in the first place;
  2. the person is procrastinating;
  3. the person has difficulties in prioritizing their activities and cannot make a decision to determine which piece of work is more critical and should be completed first.

As you can see, none of these options would be a popular answer, so people use the same lame excuse over and over again.

Now that you know there is no such thing as having too much time, you may want to ask the person using the lack-of-time excuse to provide the real reason why the commitment has been broken. That should make for an interesting conversation.

What does “I have an open door policy” really mean?

Have you ever heard a people manager demonstrate his openness and receptivity toward his employees bragging “I have an open door policy“?

Open door policy

Open door policy

In theory, having an open door policy means that anyone can walk into their manager’s office to ask for advice, to request help, to bounce an idea, to propose a suggestion or simply to shoot the breeze.

In reality, I have rarely seen managers actually keep their door open – figuratively speaking. Once a people manager gets the opportunity to have his own office, he will implement obstacles along the way – close the door, hire an administrative assistant or pretend someone is about to come in for a meeting – to reduce to a minimum the number of disruptions.

Many managers with an open door policy would rather have their employees limit their number of visits and are certainly not interested in hearing suggestions that could increase their workload.

That behavior might be explained by the fact that people don’t realize the benefits of keep their door open. The importance of maintaining open, constant, and reliable channels of communication is a solid asset for any people manager.

Let’s push the open communication channel further and imagine what would happen if the manager was actually sitting with the employees. I’m not talking about a closed-office near the employees but a cubicle or a desk right there where the action is. If you wonder why someone would want to try this, you are probably working for an archaic organization and you are certainly not an agile manager.

Closed offices have become such a status symbol that most people couldn’t imagine moving up the rank without an appropriate office. Managers then start preferring their status symbol to obtaining reliable information quickly from their team members. Once the ego takes over, managers lose their strong information channels and then need to rely on other mechanism to remain efficient.

I personally believe that sitting with employees has some substantial benefits:

  • It brings the manager closer to the action – the manager will know quickly when something bad is happening or something good that needs to be recognized;
  • It brings the employees closer to the manager – information is more likely to move up and down the chain of command;
  • It includes the manager within the team – the perception of “the boss” versus “the employees” is lessened since the manager is physically part of the team;
  • It removes the psychological barrier of approaching the boss – there are no hurdles to cross, the boss is right there;
  • It immediately breaks the perception of classes – there are no evidence that some people are more important than others since nobody has obvious status symbols.

Granted, the manager’s attitude has a lot to do with the benefits obtained by this change but all things being equal, a manager that sits with his people is more likely to build a stronger team and implement strong communication channels.

A colleague of mine has actually pushed the concept further. Mathieu has come up with a more cleaver way of obtaining and disseminating information – he permanently sits in the company cafeteria. He uses an enclosed room for private conversations but most of the time he works in the cafeteria with his laptop where everyone can approach him.

Do you know how much valuable information Mathieu is getting?

Hierarchies aren’t evil… but people can be!

Hierarchies aren't evil... People are!

Hierarchies aren't evil... People are!

Do you ever say to yourself “I wish there was no hierarchy in our company“?

Wouldn’t it be a perfect world if there were no hierarchy in organizations? Everyone working in harmony, collaborating to achieve their goals with no annoying boss telling anyone what to do. In this hierarchy-free world there would be no supreme ruler over the teams, only happy people delivering their work with birds chirping in the background…

OK, I realize I’m pushing it a little but people who systematically oppose to specific organizational structures often have an idealistic perspective of the world. Fortunately, the world isn’t black or white, there are many nuances.

I have had discussions about hierarchy-free organizations with many people over the last few months. Repeatedly, people bring up the same reasons why they don’t like hierarchies. From their perspective, hierarchies are bad because:

  • they don’t let employees perform their work as they wish;
  • they allow authority over people;
  • they break communication channels;
  • they create a distinction between the boss and the employees;
  • they don’t treat people equitably;
  • they offer more benefits to people at the top;
  • etc.

What if hierarchies weren’t the problem? What if the cause of these issues was somewhere else? What if the organizational structure wasn’t the real problem? Not that I am a huge fan of hierarchies, but I do not believe the organizational structure is the real problem – people are!

Let me explain my perspective.

I feel that blaming hierarchies as the reason people hate their job and feel under-appreciated is short-sighted. Organizational structures have much less to do with how people feel than the management style and attitude of the leaders.

Let me repeat that statement. I believe that the attitude and behavior of the leader has greater impact on the team members’ performance and happiness in the workplace than the organizational structure under which they operate.

You are not convinced? You might want to try this exercise.

Can you think back of a time when you felt empowered to do your job and were happy to be at work? Can you recall a time when you would invest long hours working on a project and your energy level was going though the roof? If you answered yes to these questions, ask yourself this other question “was it because of the hierarchy-free structure or the leader’s attitude”?

If you have had the opportunity to work for a great leader – someone who gives you freedom to do your work, holds you accountable for the results, is always supportive and available for mentoring, and gives you credit for your work – you will immediately realize that the leader’s behavior and attitude were the underlying causes of your satisfaction. A bad leader in a hierarchy-free organization will make everyone’s life miserable while a good manager – even in a position of authority – will get amazing commitment from his people.

It might be that the people against hierarchies are ones that never had the opportunity to work for a great leader and so, assume that the organizational structure is the issue. I wish them to find a great leader to work with because in the end, the leader’s attitude has much more to do with a happy and productive work environment than the actual structure of the organization.

Interesting blog posts (November 13/2009)

In Build Your Self Confidence Like a Leader, Marshall Goldsmith talks about self-confidence in a leader and the associated 5 key attributes:

  1. Don’t worry about being perfect,
  2. Learn to live with failure,
  3. After you make the final decision — commit!,
  4. Show courage on the outside — even if you don’t always feel it on the inside, and
  5. Find happiness and contentment in your work.

Tony Morgan published 10 reasons why you’re going to fail! – he shares his thoughts on common reasons why failure happens.

Dan MacCarthy shares his Leadership Development Carnival and inline with my series of posts on “Communities“, Jurgen Appelo published Self-Organization vs. Emergence while Eric D. Brown published his links for November 1st.

Finally, George Ambler referred to Forbes’ list of The Most Influential Business Thinkers. Although the names on the list are debatable, it is an interesting list nonetheless.

FAQ: Communities in the context of business

Since my first post on this topic, a few people asked me why I thought communities were a new way to organize and what complexity there was in applying communities to a business setting (i.e. for-profit organizations). I have defined what is a community in a business context and some of the rules they follow. Below are some of the recurring questions and their associated answer.

In a business context, what is a community?

In a business context, communities are similar to functional departments with some fundamental distinctions. In traditional setting, members of a functional department or of a project team work together to achieve a goal. With some exceptions, team members share nothing but their common goal and a common boss. By comparison, in addition to sharing a common goal members within a community also share common values and culture and they operate within agreed upon self-defined norms. I provided a few examples here.

Why are communities in the context of business different from other communities?

Communities that come together to carry out a goal are common but communities that aim to generate revenue to autonomously support themselves are no frequent. In traditional for-profit organizations, shareholders through board members select the management team for the organization. The management team (President, CEO, COO, etc.) become accountable to the board for their performance and as such almost always use a top-down (command-and-control) approach.

By contrast, communities rely on a bottom-up approach to decide their goals and those are seldom oriented toward profit.

Aren’t communities completely disorganized and as such, couldn’t work in a business context?

Communities could be disorganized but they wouldn’t be effective. Communities typically set up rules that will allow them to work efficiently. What may seem like disorganized entities within traditional organizations may actually bring better results.

In certain situation, a larger community may ask sub-communities to run within certain guideline and as such, would cut disorganization.

Why use communities as organizational structure?

Because communities are living cells, they are components of a living organism and are able to adapt to their environment.

A community can be born, live and die. A community arises when 2 people come together around a common goal, and decide to form a community.

A community dies when less than 2 people deploy energy to sustain it.

What rules govern a community?

I already provided an answer in this post but typically, communities work by the rules defined by their members. Some rules are implicit while others are explicit and clearly adapted to the needs of the community. The community may decide to create a space for expression and revision of its rules.

In his blog (English translation by google) Tremeur talked about the notion of rules and how they are relevant to the functioning of communities.

How can someone join a community?

Individuals can join a community by expressing their interest in the community, ensuring they are motivated by the goals the community has set, and by adhering to the rules of that community. Further information on this topic can be found in this post.

Can a community expel a member?

According to the rules under which it operates, the community may choose to expel one of its members. It is important to establish that the decision to evacuate a member is serious and can not be done without the approval of the majority (or unanimity) of group members.

An individual is part of a community if he is active in this community. Being active in the community means to actively and positively contribute to achieving the goals set by the community by working with other members of this community. If an individual is not active in a community, it is not part of that community (even if his name appears in the list of members).

How many communities can an individual belong to?

People can belong to as many communities as they wish. Individuals alone are responsible for setting their limit.

What is the largest number of members in a community?

There is no set limit.

If the number of members is jeopardizing the operational effectiveness of the community (9 members in a team would be a reasonable number), then it is likely that the community will divide itself into 2 communities, each pursuing different sub-objectives.

What is the role of leader of the community?

A leader is appointed only if the community decides to appoint one, and its role is defined by the community. Typically,

  • the leader ensures the respect of the common rules that the community has given itself;
  • the leader ensures that the community is visible and transparent;
  • the leader is the one who will link with other communities.

Who chooses the leader of a community?

Unlike traditional businesses where leaders (managers) are selected or appointed by their supervisor, the leader of a community is chosen democratically by the members of the community. Similar to the concept of holacracy, the leader emerges from the group because of its expertise and its commitment to advancing the community towards achieving the goals it has set.

Are all communities are connected?

Maybe, maybe not.

The link between 2 communities may be at least 2 kinds:

  • members belonging to more than 1 community;
  • a need expressed by a community for the services provided by another.

A community that needs support or resources from another community therefore becomes automatically linked to another community.

Can a community exist independently?

If it apart from other communities, the answer is “yes”: For example, communities of practice are primarily in service to their members, and this is enough.

Is that all communities have financial goals?

No. Basically, communities set their own goals.

As a commercial enterprise, some communities have financial goals to make sure growth and sustainability of the organization.

By contrast, other communities will be directly or indirectly serving communities with financial goals but will not themselves financial targets.

Other communities are communities of interest and have no link with strict financial targets.

Have you heard of “The Fun Theory”?

Volkswagen has launched a competition to demonstrate that FUN is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. The competition ends December 15th and the winner will receive 2500 Euros (US$ 3700).

“Take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator and feel better” is something we often hear or read in the Sunday papers. Few people actually follow that advice. Can we get more people to take the stairs over the escalator by making it fun to do? See the results here.

To throw rubbish in the bin instead of onto the floor shouldn’t really be so hard. Many people still fail to do so. Can we get more people to throw rubbish into the bin, rather than onto the ground, by making it fun to do? See the results here.

Using a 360-degree feedback form to assess your leadership

Most organizations use a top-down approach to assess their employee’s performance. The assumption is that the individual’s manager is the best person to perform an un-biased, quality performance review. As I already pointed out, only archaic organizations still rely on this type of performance assessment (see #6). Not only are traditional performance review not representative but they focus on the skills and competencies the manager wants his employee to develop.

On the other hand, if you prefer a more comprehensive review, you may be interested in 360-degree feedback. This type of feedback mechanism covers various sources – boss, colleagues, employees, customers, suppliers, etc and as such provides better coverage for the evaluation of an employee’s strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, the employee may even decide which specific skills to assess.

360-degree feedback form

After working on the competencies required by my bosses for most of my career, I have decided to build my own 360-degree feedback form to assess my leadership abilities. You may download and use the Excel version of this form – a pdf version is also available. *

The form presents Weaknesses – skills to improve (in column C) and Strengths – skills to maintain (in column I). The evaluator must rate each statement or competency, using a scale from 0 to -4 (for the weaknesses) and from 0 to 4 (for the strengths). The evaluation scale is presented below.

Although there are 50 competencies, the evaluator is given a maximum of 25 points to allocate forcing them to choose which competencies to recognize as strengths or weaknesses.

Evaluation scale

  • 0: This competency is average.
  • +1: This competency is above the 50th percentile compared to the population.
  • +2: This competency is above the 75th percentile compared to the population.
  • +3: This competency is above the 10th percentile compared to the population.
  • +4: This competency is above the 1st percentile compared to the population.

Creative Commons License

360-degree feedback form by Martin Proulx is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.

* Under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License, you are entitled to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon my work, even commercially, as long as you credit me for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with the works licensed under Attribution.