Have you become high-maintenance at work?

Have you become high-maintenance at work?  Has your rock star status gone to your head?  Perhaps one of the most common traps for high performers is the creeping desire for “special” treatment.  After all, haven’t you earned it?  Back in the 1980’s, the band Van Halen took this high maintenance trap to an extreme by stipulating in every contract that “there will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area.”  If they spotted a brown M&M, their temper tantrums were legendary.

But that kind of behavior doesn’t happen in the civilized world of “real” work does it?  Unfortunately, the “high maintenance” trap is an all too common occurrence.  We commonly see it with CEO’s.  One story shared with me over the past week involved a CEO that took the private company jet and then the private company helicopter so he could attend a NASCAR event.  This same CEO also had his own private elevator for just him.  No one else allowed.  O.k., but we aren’t CEO’s.  This wouldn’t happen to us, right?  Very simply, it can happen to anyone.  Have you ever done or do the following:

  • Demand that you will only fly on a certain airline / stay at certain hotels – For those of you who travel, this is one is all-too-common.  Heck, you probably do it.  Perhaps you’ll only fly a particular airline because you’ll get the miles or perhaps you will only stay at a particular hotel chain because of the level of service you receive.  I once had a colleague who refused to stay at a particular hotel chain because of the patterns on the bed spreads.  But you aren’t that bad, right?  You’ve got “real” reasons for your demands.  Sure you do.
  • Refuse to work with certain co-workers – Do you have a list of “incompetent” co-workers that you refuse to work with?  Do you refuse to attend meetings or work on projects with them?  Have you informed your boss of your demands?  Despite your standards for accepting “only the highest quality of work from yourself and others,” you may be more trouble than you are worth.
  • Complain frequently about… well, everything – Do you complain daily about the poor resources you have to work with, the working conditions you are in, and even the amount of time you are allotted to get something done.  If “complain, complain, complain” is how your co-workers might describe you, you may be topping the list of the next round of possible lay-offs.
  • Create a scene – Have you ever gotten so frustrated that you lost your cool?  Perhaps you yelled at your co-workers or you tossed innate objects around the room.  Or maybe you got up on your desk, yelled in pitches that only dogs could hear and caused everyone on your floor to hide under their desks like an elementary school fire drill.  This is not the story you want people to share about you, and believe me, it will be the first thing they tell the new guy.

My guess is that you may be more high maintenance than you think.  We all probably are.  The trick is to stop that slide before it gets out of control.  I have counseled too many “rock stars” that found themselves without a job and only themselves to blame – despite their efforts to blame the bed spreads and their “incompetent” co-workers.

Warning signs for the senior leader that you may be at risk of losing your job

In most cases, the warning signs that you are losing your rock star status at work are the same whether you are an up-and-coming high performer or a senior leader who has been “on top of the charts” for decades.

But there are some warning signs for the senior leader that are slightly different.   A good friend of mine, Randy Hain, Managing Partner of Bell Oaks Executive Search and I came up with following list:

  • You are no longer being included in strategy decisions – Have you noticed that you have much more time on your hands?  That you are no longer “required” to be present at some of the strategy meetings that you once dreaded?  Be careful.  While you think this means they value your time, this may really mean that they no longer value your opinion.
  • Head hunters aren’t calling – The “real” rock stars are known inside and outside of their industry and they are wooed regularly.  Even in this economy, there are plenty of jobs available to the rock star.  So, when was the last time your phone rang?
  • You are not included in informal social gatherings – Do members of the senior leadership team invite you over to their homes?  Do you and your spouse go out with other team members and their spouses?  Do your peers make an effort to get to know you?  If not, you need to ask yourself “why not?”
  • No one listens anymore – I recently attended a company-wide social event.  The senior leader stood up to speak to kick off festivities and set the tone for the evening.  The members of the organization looked up for a moment, saw who was speaking and then continued their conversations with each other.  Are you getting ignored when you speak?

To sum these up, if you are a senior leader and you are beginning to notice that you are frequently left alone at work, it is not a sign of others “respecting your time.”  It is more likely a sign that your opinion is no longer valued.  You are at risk of becoming no longer relevant.  You need to get your fans back… and fast.

Warning signs you are losing your fans – Part 2

In my last post I discussed some of the big warning signs that we may be losing our fans (see: Warning signs you are losing your fans).  I’ve gotten quite a response!  I received the following story:

“I work in retail and I see this all too often.  I’ll give you a great example.  I work for a chain of clothing stores.  One of our high-end flagship stores had a particularly strong ‘rock star.’  She was exceptional at making high-end sales and placing custom orders for clients.  Our corporate office issued a new policy requiring that we also begin to ‘sell’ our store credit card to customers.  This rock star refused. Corporate asked her, cajoled her, even wrote her up and requested that she get coaching / counseling to shift her behavior / attitude.  She continued to refuse stating it was ‘below (her).’  Last week she was fired.”

Sometimes the warning signs are very clear to everyone else, but not to us.  Here are some additional examples of warning signs that were shared with me over the past week:

  • You are formally written up – I’m sorry, this is a “no brainer.”  But all too often, the rock star just looks the other way as if this formal reprimand really doesn’t mean anything.  “I’m a rock star and they need me around here.”  Everyone’s replaceable.  If you are getting formally notified that you need to change, the process of replacing you has begun.
  • You receive an unusually low performance review – This one is tricky.  I promise to dedicate an entire month to the dysfunction known as “the performance review.”  Rarely are they conducted properly, nor are they helpful in improving one’s performance.  That said, if you receive an unusually low performance review despite your continued production, look closely.  It is possible that the message being sent is that your approach to how you are getting things done is rubbing people the wrong way.
  • You get this roundabout, vague feedback from your manager – Have you ever had a conversation from your boss and left the conversation uncertain as to what he or she was trying to say?  You remember that there was something in the conversation about comments from your co-workers or some concern about your attitude, but it was all quite vague.  Addressing someone’s attitude is typically one of those inferred “fuzzy” conversations that bosses deliver (poorly usually) and hope that one reads between the lines.  If you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these “what was he / she saying?” conversations, look again.  You may have just gotten an important warning that your star is dangerously close to burning out.
  • You’re asked to get coaching – This is not to be taken lightly.  If you hear this request, it is another way for your manager to say “I have no idea how to help you.  I’ve tried everything I can think of.  Let’s see if a professional can have any better success.”  This is a last resort.  I have seen countless rock stars get this request to seek coaching, dismiss it as “not urgent,” and find themselves playing in those dive bars we talked about shortly thereafter.

Watch for these so you can keep a good pulse on your fans and your rock star status.  In addition, I have had several comments that the warning signs for senior leaders are slightly different.  Look for that post coming soon!

Warning signs you are losing your fans

Remember VH1’s show “Behind the Music”? A fantastic and over-the-top show about the life of a rock star. Each show followed the same predictable formula: an aspiring rocker has a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, and then for various reasons (often self-induced), has an equally noteworthy fall to the bottom. The show would then conclude with a “where are they now” segment. Often our rocker would miraculously climb back to his or her previous fame and fortune. Other times he or she simply settled down to a comfortable life of frightening suburbanites at the neighborhood swimming pool. While we would all love to emulate these rockers’ meteoric rise in our own respective careers, I think you would agree with me that we would rather not partake in any catastrophic falls.

This brings us to a very important question: what are the signs that we are on the descent at work? How do we know when we begin to lose our fans and our fame is waning at the office? Here are a few warning signs:

  • No more applause – You used to get frequent kudos from your boss, but now – nothing. Nada. Just silence. Be very concerned with prolonged periods of silence. In the best cases, the boss may just be overwhelmed and can’t think of anything other than his or her own workload. However, in the worst cases it can be much worse. It could mean her or she is intentionally distancing him or herself from you in preparation for laying you off. This is a common self-protective practice with any boss prior to a lay-off in order to make the conversation less painful for him or her… but not necessarily lest painful for you.
  • No more gigs – You begin to notice that you are not getting asked to take on the big projects like you once were. At first, you are relieved because you were getting burnt out with the pace you were keeping at work (touring is tough, huh?). But, be wary. If being overlooked for projects becomes a trend, you could be in trouble – regardless of the reason you are given by your boss. Worse yet, if you begin to have work taken away and eventually find yourself with less work than your co-workers, you are losing relevance. Losing relevance means losing a job. Soon you’ll be playing in dive bars if you don’t watch out. Keep pace with everyone else’s workloads at a minimum.
  • You are no longer cool – There was a time when the organization couldn’t get enough of you and people like you. Be careful. In business, just like in music, there are trends, fashions and tastes that come in and out of favor. For example, there was a time in the mid-to-late 1990’s that if you had any knowledge of a computer and networking, you could name your price. Companies were throwing money and perks (even cars in some cases) to lure folks to their emerging I.T. departments. Today, the supply meets the demand. Graduates with degrees in information systems and computer engineering are running the show. Salaries are stable and being up to speed on the latest technology is no longer a differentiator – it is a requirement. Are you up to speed on the latest in your industry? Is your role and function still “cool?” Or are you suffering the fate of big hair bands of the ‘80’s? You may need to change your image before you are thrown out with last year’s fashions. Relevance is more important today than ever.

Any of these warning signs could mean danger so be on the lookout. On the flip side, what does it look like when you are on the rise in your organization? The opposite of all the warning signs above: you are regularly given kudos by your boss, you are given big problems to tackle in recognition of your superstar status and you have a unique skill set that is coveted by others inside and outside of your organization. If all of those positive aspects describe work for you today, your job is simple. Work your tail off to stay there. Being a rock star over time is no easy task. It involves hard work and constant vigilance for the warning signs of eventual decline, a responsibility that is solely yours. Don’t expect your manager to tell you, because they won’t (more on that in the next post).

Summing all of this up, looking for the warning signs that we may be losing our fans is critical to staying relevant and avoiding unwanted surprises (like a layoff) at work. Keep watch. If you aren’t careful, you may find yourself playing in local dive bars and hanging out by the neighborhood pool frightening the neighbors. Trust me, no one wants that.

“I thought I was a rock star”

I thought I was a rock star...until they let me go.This month’s dysfunction deals with an all too common problem: not being told where you stand at work often resulting in being blind-sided with bad news. Do you know where you stand at work today? Are you seen as a rock star? A loose cannon? A future leader? No longer relevant to the organization? Too often, our position changes and we aren’t even aware of it. For many of us, there was a time when we were rock stars. We had a loyal fan base and sold out venues. But, as it happens with most rock stars, over time people stop coming to our shows until one day, to our surprise, our fans are gone. The worst part – no one bothered to tell us along the way.

This month, we will tackle this dysfunction: not being told where you stand at work often resulting in being blind-sided with bad news. Throughout the month we’ll cover, amongst other things:

  • What are the warning signs that I’m losing my fans?
  • What are the land mines I need to avoid?
  • What can I do proactively to get a read on where I stand today?
  • How can I “sell more tickets” and keep myself relevant?

Every Monday, I’ll kick off our conversation for the week by addressing one of these big questions. Throughout the week I’ll share stories, examples and other opinions as we dig in. By the end of the month, if we haven’t cured this dysfunction, we’ll do a darn good job treating it!

So, write to me with your stories, examples or opinions on the subject. I promise to protect the innocent (and guilty!).

…And off we go!

Setting “no” goals

epicfailIf you looked at the title of this post for more than .5 seconds, than you might be thinking to yourself “wait a minute. I thought you said at the beginning of this month that you hated the ‘no goal’ philosophy.” If that thought entered your head, you would be correct. I absolutely despise the ‘no goal’ philosophy. I despise it like I despise waiting in long airport security lines with my shoes in one hand and holding up my pants with the other… like I despise sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway in the middle of summer dripping and it’s only 7:45am… like I despise abusive bosses, nasty coworkers and poor behaving relatives. So what am I talking about with this post? I’m talking about setting “no” goals, not “no goals.” In other words, what are you going to stop doing this year and / or say “no” to in order to achieve what you have set out to achieve?

Managing the noise

One of the most common themes I’ve heard over the last several years is the increase in all of the “noise” that surrounds us every day. From new initiatives and evolving strategies to increased workloads, the noise for all of us is intense. Simply put, if you are going to achieve the new goals you added to your plate, you have no choice but to remove something else (unless, of course, you have plenty of free time, but my guess is that your plate overfloweth).

What to say “No” to

As you are thinking about what you should say “no” to, consider the following thought-starter categories. They have helped me (and many of my clients) a time or two.

  • Not Part of Your Role / Responsibilities – There is nothing easier than to say “yes” when asked to do something. However, if you took an inventory of what’s on your plate, do you have things you are doing that are not part of your role or responsibilities? If so, consider removing some or all from your plate. For example, maybe you are doing one of your direct report’s jobs for him or her. Or perhaps you’ve gotten sucked into to doing your boss’ job for him / her. Either way, it’s all about knowing what is your stuff and what isn’t.
  • Less Than Your Hourly Rate – A slight offshoot of the “role / responsibilities” category, this category is about asking yourself the following question every time something is tossed your way “Given I make X per hour, should I be the one doing this?” My favorite example comes from a CEO and business owner several years ago. As he described to me all he did in a given week, my ears perked up when he described his Friday routine. Turns out he was driving to Costco, buying candy bars and stocking the vending machine. That is one expensive vending machine attendant that company has employed, let me tell ya.
  • Inconsistent with Your Brand – Perhaps you could argue that the thing(s) you are doing are within your job and you are adequately paid to be doing them, but are they consistent with the brand you are trying to promote? In other words, are you doing things that may point you down the wrong direction of your career because you are being labeled as the person that does that? PowerPoint is my version of this evil trap. I am pretty good at PowerPoint (I was once called a “PowerPoint princess” but that is another story). And while it might be necessary, I have found that when I have worked on teams, I would quickly become the PowerPoint “guy.” Accurate, but not how I wanted to be known. I had to reposition myself and so I would either not take on the role of driving PowerPoint or I would offer to do it as the lead presenter. How ‘bout you? Are you doing something that is branding you inaccurately?
  • resolutionsThings Slowly Killing YouAre you doing things that are killing you? Dramatic I know, but are you? Are you trying to squeeze in extra work in a day by sacrificing your exercise or your sleep (less than 7 hours consistently is dangerous)? Are you eating poorly in an effort to save more time? Are you smoking or drinking daily in an effort to manage stress or simply to relax? You’re not gonna get anywhere dead… unless of course, you become a workplace zombie.

Setting Your “No” Goal(s)

Hopefully you are feeling sufficiently uncomfortable (I’m all about uncomfortable) and ready to set your “no” goal(s). Remember, you don’t need to say “no” to everything I laid out above. Just pick one. Once you’ve got it, the challenge then is getting enough courage to do it. One final thought, great leaders set “no” goals. They are clear on what isn’t a good use of their time and they either delegate the activity, outsource the activity (as a geeky consultant friend of mine once told me… he “outsources” his lawn), or they flat out say “no” (for help saying “no”, here you go).

Get your “no” goals in hand and get started clearing your plate. You’re gonna need the space.

As Willy Wonka so eloquently put it, there is “so much time and so little to see. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.”  What a poet…



Setting the right relationship goals

fakepeopleEvery year I pick out one relationship that I want to improve. Sometimes it’s a work relationship. Other times it’s a relationship with a family member. Regardless, I set a specific relationship goal for the year. Some years I look back at the end of the year and say to myself, “Sweet. Things with X have definitely gotten better. Well done ‘B’ (that’s what I call myself. Feel free to call me that… or anything you like. I won’t be offended). ‘B,’ you are a rock star (I’m all about positive affirmation).” Other years, the conversation isn’t quite so positive “What was holding you back? All you had to do was ask out X to lunch / dinner a little more often, call them a little more frequently, etc… Suck it up. Get going you slacker…” The point isn’t my crazy self talk (although it is probably entertaining to hear… After all, I’m a big fan of “healthy delusional thinking”). The point is that I have a relationship goal every year. Without, there is no way to gauge progress with the relationships in my life I want to nurture and grow.

Do you have a relationship goal?

You are not escaping this post without defining the one relationship you want to improve this year. That simple. Take a deep breath, steel yourself and get thinking. To help you, consider the following categories:

The Grumpy Boss – Maybe you wish your relationship with your boss was a bit better… or perhaps a lot better. What I can tell you is sitting back and waiting for it to change “ain’t gonna happen.” I can also tell you that the strategy of hiding out waiting for it to get better also won’t do the trick, particularly if they have a bad misperception of your. Remember, in absence of communication, people will always assume the worst. It’s only going to get better if you do something about it.

The Nasty Coworker – If you’ve got a coworker that’s picking on you and making you the target of office politics, issues, and complaints, the burden is on you to turn that dynamic around. Think back to middle school. Trying to ignore it (as much this is professed as the right solution) rarely works. It only heightens their efforts. Ignoring people trying to get a reaction does NOT get them to go away. It simply invites them to turn up the volume. If you’ve got this dilemma, you’re gonna need to do something about it.

yelling bossThe Difficult Customer – Similar the nasty coworker, this person can throw wrenches and blame your way at a moment’s notice. Different from the difficult coworker, this person can make or break your success and reputation virtually overnight. There are few people leaders listen to more than key customers. If you’ve got a difficult one you want to nurture, make it a priority for this year.

The Wayward Relative / Friend – Here’s a little twist on the relationship goal. Perhaps as work and life have gone into hyperdrive, you’ve lost touch with a relative or friend from years gone by. You haven’t seen the cousin you used to build forts with for years. Do they still like to build forts? You haven’t talked to your college roommate in so long, you still remember him / her in Birkenstocks. Can you still buy Birkenstocks? Should someone from this category be on your list?

The Significant Other (or someone else living in your house) – This category doesn’t need much description. It’s self explanatory. If you’ve got someone who currently lives under the same roof as you (or you would like them to be) and things aren’t “rock solid,” I promise you that the only cure to that dilemma is investing time, energy and love. Hiding and hoping won’t cut it. Make this the top of your list (This category even trumps “The Boss.” After all, I don’t think you want your boss crashing on your couch).

What are you going to do and when are you gonna do it?

To take this on, write down 3 things you could be doing more of to improve the relationship. This could be things like:

  • More frequent proactive compliments of the other person
  • More frequent phone calls, voicemails and overall communication
  • Taking them to lunch and other forms of appreciation to recognize / thank them
  • Date nights (probably not a good idea if this is your boss…)
  • Surprising gifts and other efforts to show thoughtfulness and their importance to you
  • Etc…

Finally, ask yourself “so when am I gonna do this?” Put it on your calendar (yes, even schedule an Outlook reminder if you have to). Goals without a plan are dreams. I think I read that somewhere. Anywho, it’s true so wrap a plan around it to make it work.

Got your relationship? Got your plan? If the answers are “yes,” you are free to go. Get working and I look forward to you telling yourself that you are a “rock star” at the end of the year. Though I highly recommend that you wear your blue tooth when you say it so others think you are on the phone. Just sayin’…


Setting the right work goals

wonderingSetting the right work-related goals is critical for keeping you moving forward and avoiding getting “stuck” in the wrong role, company or occupation. The challenge is that one size does not fit all. There are a myriad of combinations that may work for you. To that end, I’m gonna tell you what works (and has worked) for me and for others.  Consider this your menu to sample from as you move into the next year.  You’ll see, I’ve definitely got my “specials of the day.”

The Forest

cannonAs it relates to work and career goals, most of us fall short when it comes to possessing a long-term vision of where we see ourselves professionally. We get caught up in the trees and lose sight of the forest. As a result, we end up wandering in the workplace woods for a very long-time. If we aren’t careful, we become pricing specialists for the tire industry. Consider the following exercise to overcome the forest dilemma:

Step 1: Gaze into my crystal ball and look out 5 years into the future (or 10 years if you are ambitious)

Step 2: My crystal ball only shows perfect. Describe what perfect looks like for you. What would your perfect life look like? Consider things like: where you would live, what your job would be, what your family situation would look like, etc…

Step 3: Forgive yourself. Inevitably, there will be questions you don’t have answers to. Don’t beat yourself up. Work with what you know. If you know you want to live next to the ocean but you don’t’ know what your job would be, no sweat. That little piece of information is still extremely valuable… particularly if you currently live in Omaha.

Step 4: Given where you see yourself down the road (5 or 10 years), track back to this year and ask yourself: what do I need to get done this year to set myself up well to move toward my long-term vision?

The Trees

You’ve stuck your head above the tree line and you’ve gazed at the big picture. Now consider the trees standing in your way. In other words, once you’ve got your longer-term goal and a related goal for this year, you can more adequately take on a more specific work-related goal.

For a helpful framing of your work-related goal(s)for this upcoming year, consider the following 3 big categories. In Harvey Coleman’s book Empowering Yourself, The Organizational Game Revealed, he offers a simple yet extremely helpful acronym: P. (performance), I. (image), E. (exposure). Consider these as helpful “tree” categories to get you moving down the path you’ve set.

Performance – Goals that have to do with how you do your job. This can include doing your job better, learning new skills or even removing tasks you are doing from your job that either you don’t do well or shouldn’t be doing at all (delegation). Naturally, while important, Coleman argues this category only makes up about 10% of one’s long-term success.

PIEImage – How others perceive you. Your brand. If you’ve had the fortune of getting 360 feedback this year, you might have noticed components in your feedback which are more about other’s perception of you than your performance (Ex: You always arrive late to meetings, people can always tell when you don’t like what they are saying by your eye-rolling, you cut others off, you don’t dress professionally, etc…). A critical category to be sure. Coleman weighs this category as contributing a meaty 30% to your long-term success.

Exposure – How much visibility you are getting with and from others. Do others talk about you in meetings when you aren’t there? Are you networking with the right people? Do the right people “know” you? Upon first glance, this category seems like non-essential. Oh contraire. Coleman argues exposure makes up a whopping 60% of your long-term success. Expose away… appropriately of course.

Your Compass

All that stands between you and that sandy white beach is you. Get moving. As a mentor of mine always says, “keep it simple.” Narrow your work-related goals down to one or two. No more. If you can do that and stay true to your compass, you’ll be working under an umbrella in no time.



“I don’t have any goals”

nogoals_graphic‘Tis the season of resolutions and goal-setting. First, let me come clean and tell you that I am a big fan of setting goals, both personally and professionally. And I’m not just your average fan. I’m one of those face-painting, rabid kinda fans. Goals keep us on track and focused. And to be frank, had I not set some ridiculously crazy goals in my life (some might argue delusional), I wouldn’t have accomplished half of what I’ve accomplished. While I may be a bit on the extreme side as comes to goal-setting, I would want for you the same satisfaction of setting a vision and realizing it. This month is about filling the “no goal” void with some aggressive and focused goals in order to get you closer to your picture of perfect.

The School of No Goals

Before we go too far down the path of goal-setting, I need to attend to the recent trend of anti-goals. Many of you might have encountered this school of thought. This doctrine posits that both individuals and organizations shouldn’t set goals because in this new fast-paced world, too much is out of one’s control and thus failure and frustration are inevitable. They argue that the real way to approach growth and progress is to focus on one’s behaviors and hope for the best. My opinion on this particular school of thought? Simply put it is wrong-headed “excuse-making” clap-trap. Garbage. Junk. Not much better than some cheap “feel good” fix you might buy off the street. Of course, I can clearly see the appeal of the “no goals” philosophy. It frees one from guilt and failure. Why? Because one never sets a bar(a goal) so naturally there’s no “falling short.” On the flip side, “accomplishment” never happens because “success” is never defined. Without goals, we are simply buying lottery tickets hoping “something good” happens. What that “something good” is we aren’t sure but we hope we’ll like it. I don’t need to remind us of the odds of winning the lottery.

The Tip of the Spear

As I alluded to earlier, goals serve a very important role. They give us a direction. They provide the tip of our spear as we move forward personally and professionally. They paint a picture of the world we are trying to create. Without goals we are just taking action without a clear expectation or vision of where we want to be and the life we want.

This month we are going to talk about goal setting. My job in this is twofold:

  1. Give you a menu of differing types of goals for your consideration (a rich menu of personal and professional)
  2. Get you to pick one (the fewer the goals, the easier it is to focus and to guarantee progress)

Packing for Next Year

One final perspective on goal-setting: it is not about achieving the goal you set in the timeframe you define (Ex: goals for 2013, etc…). The objective is to make as much progress as you can toward the goal in the time in which you allot. For example, if you set out that your goal is to make $1M next year and unfortunately, you fall short and only make $800K or perhaps you decide to lose 50lbs. and you only lose 40lbs., those are not failures simply because you didn’t hit your goal. Those are clear successes because you moved far down the path toward your desired end state. Contrary to popular belief, in reality most goals are realistic. It is the timeframe we define in which to achieve them that is arbitrary. Our “goal” for next year is to use goals to focus our actions and see how much we can get accomplished. So, as we get ready to pack our goals for the coming year, guilt and fear of failure are not allowed in your suitcase (nor are they permitted in your carry-on bag). They won’t get past any TSA check-points. Leave ‘em both at home… with the lottery tickets. We’ve got too much to do.


Are emotions contagious in the workplace?

Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day?  Maybe your stomach was always in knots.  Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night.  Or maybe your body physically hurt.  You just hurt, every day.  Simply put, you didn’t feel good.  Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy.  Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?

You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now.  For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?”  The bottom line is “yes” they are.  But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.”  Some workplaces are more contagious than others.  Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others.  And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?).  The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.

Curious?  I hope so.  I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end.  Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.

At the end of the day, work should not have to suck.  Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!



3 ways to strengthen your EQ

get-more-EQConversational déjà vu.  This has been my life over the last few months. I seem to keep having the same conversation over and over again.  It goes something like this:

Person: “You know, X is really great at what he or she does (dramatic pause)… but, there is something about the way they go about things that is not good. It is causing problems and upsetting people.”

Me: “Really? In what way (my therapist coming out)?”

Person: “I don’t know. It’s like they are going too fast, or don’t consider other’s thoughts or opinions. I don’t think it is an issue of them not caring. It’s like they don’t see the social impact they are having.”

Me: “It sounds like this could be an EQ issue and not a competency issue.”

Person: “Exactly! You’ve hit it on the head. It is definitely an EQ thing. (dramatic pause #2)… So, how can we fix that?”

How does someone raise his or her EQ?

I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought. We all know the benefits of high EQ in our careers and have seen the research that EQ is a better predictor of long-term career success than IQ. But heightened EQ can also minimize many toes from getting stepped on in life. Simply put, heightened EQ makes us better – better coworkers, better bosses, better associates, better partners, better spouses, better parents, better humans. Over the last few months, I’ve been looking for simple things each of us can do to raise our respective EQ. Consider the following:

1. Everyone had a 7th birthday.

Next time you are frustrated or angry with someone, look past the person you are currently “seeing” and try to imagine the other person as 7 years old. Picture the excitement on his or her face as they look at their birthday cake full of icing and bright burning candles. Imagine their happiness as they glance past the cake and see a mound of presents waiting to be opened. They are surrounded by all of their family and friends. They are happy, joyful and innocent.

Now imagine a different 7th birthday story. It is their 7th birthday but they are sitting at a table in a darkened room. They are alone. There are no friends. There is no cake. No presents to unwrap. The tears are streaming down their face. They sit there crying in silence – feeling unloved and forgotten. They are small, vulnerable, hurting and innocent.

Everyone had a 7th birthday. Imagine theirs to change how you view them today. Everyone has experienced intense joy as well as deep sorrow. It is hard to categorize and label others when we attempt to extend compassion and understanding towards them.

2. Look both ways.

I’ve made the argument that EQ is about peripheral vision (thanks to my dog, Ellie). Want to see how low EQ actually is in the world? Drive through a grocery store or shopping center parking lot sometime. You’ll see person after person march across the parking lot ignoring the moving cars that they are stepping in front of. Cars, people. Real moving automobiles. Maybe these pedestrians are saying to themselves, “I’m walking here and have the right of way so everyone better get out of my way.” Or perhaps they are simply oblivious to the other cars (and people) that are intersecting their world at that moment. Regardless, both are excellent examples of low EQ. This illustrates an important point about EQ. EQ is not about what is “technically correct.” I hear this inaccurate argument too often. Technically, pedestrians have the right of way and don’t need to acknowledge or pause for any vehicle or corresponding driver. However, without EQ as a complement, “technically correct” can run the risk of being perceived by others as disrespectful, ignorant, self-righteous and arrogant. Not that I’ve ever felt that way about a pedestrian in a parking lot… today at least.

Next time you are walking in a parking lot, stop. Look both ways and make eye contact with the drivers. Acknowledge him or her and mouth the words “thank you” when they motion for you to go. EQ allows us to build basic connections with others and keep us from getting run-over in life (figuratively and literally).

3. Practice the 24hour rule.

You know the one. You’ve just crafted the perfect response to something (an e-mail, blog post, comment, etc…) that stirred up your emotional pot. I had one of these moments a few weeks ago. I was about to hit “send” on my masterpiece and then thought to myself, “I should ask my wife about this.” Feeling pretty proud of myself, I expected her to say, “Oh, you nailed him. What a perfect answer. This is just one more example of why I married you.” To my surprise, that is not how the exchange went. My very wise wife said to me, “you know, maybe you should give it a day or so before you send that. You might think differently.” She was right. I did think differently and I never sent it. Just one more example of why I married her.

Strengthening and stretching your EQ is also about self-restraint. It is about listening to your emotions but not being driven by them. Next time you have something emotional that is prodding you, give yourself 24 hours to reflect on your next move.

There you have it. Three ways every one of us can begin to strengthen our EQ and make efforts to move through life with more emotional and relational intention and grace. It definitely beats getting run over.


What my dog taught me about EQ

dysfunction-eq-425Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is an interesting concept.  For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, it goes something like this…  We all have some level of baseline intelligence (IQ).  And IQ is a wonderful thing.  It is great for standardized tests and doing quantum physics in our head (if you like that sort of thing).  But at some point along the way, it became clear to many researchers and others alike that something was missing in the IQ story.  If IQ was so great, why didn’t folks with high IQs always and consistently ascend to the tops of societal ladders?  In fact, too many high IQ folks seemed unable to link their ideas to other’s needs or build the essential relationships necessary to mobilize a collective group.  They were intelligent but appeared isolated and awkward at times.  What was missing?  The notion of EQ was born.

EQ Defined

With countless definitions, emotional intelligence (EQ) is essentially one’s ability to effectively manage through the complexities of social interactions in order to not only survive but also to be productive.   Individuals with high EQ can read social cues well, have a degree of self awareness and have the ability to self-regulate so that they can achieve the optimal social outcome.  In addition, research has shown that EQ is a better predictor of long-term career success than IQ.  As one of my business school faculty colleagues likes to point out:

“If you continue to ascend in your career, at some point, you and all of your peers will have about the same levels of intelligence (IQ) – higher than average.  EQ will be the differentiator as to who continues to ascend and who doesn’t.”

So, to sum up, our brilliant physicist with bad body odor and is a poor tipper in restaurants could use a little more EQ if he or she wants to really change the world.  Got it.

emotionsBut I always felt like something was missing in the standard definitions of EQ.  Countless coaching clients of mine have had not only high IQ’s, but one could argue, they met the criteria of high EQ based on traditional definitions.  Put in a customer-facing situation, they were charming, asked the right questions and ultimately, met their customer’s needs strengthen both the relationship as well as getting results.  EQ alive and well.  But there was a problem.  When these same individuals were away from their customers and inside the four walls of their organizations, they weren’t so pleasant.  They might throw a temper tantrum during a meeting, roll their eyes at their boss or walk past the receptionist without even acknowledging his or her presence.  What was going on?


My Dog Ellie

Enter my dog, Ellie into our EQ story.  After years of pressuring their dad to get a dog, my kids finally won and we rescued this little brown puppy from the local Humane Society.  Nearly three years later, Ellie is an 80lb family favorite.  Out of curiosity, we did a mail away DNA test on Ellie.  The report came back that Ellie is pure boxer on one side of her family tree and on the other side is, well, a dog party.  An Australian cattle dog, a Rottweiler, a Chow Chow and an unknown party crasher were apparently invited to this DNA mixer.  Part guard dog and part herder, Ellie is wired to perform a particular job: know where her family is and keep the pack safely together at all times.

To add to the story, we recently moved into a new house.  The house and the yard is bigger.  This has made Ellie’s job harder.  Every day since the move she will patrol the house, looking for each of us.  One by one, she comes over to us, leans on us and nudges us with her nose to check that we are o.k.  Once we tell her we are good, she moves onto the next pack member.  And if we make eye contact during the exchange, she’ll lock eyes and wait for us to tell her what we want her to do.  Unlike other dogs I’ve had in the past, Ellie is not about her needs first.  Rather, she is about making sure we are o.k. and we don’t need her to do something for us.  When she is sure we are good, then she’ll play, but not a moment before.

The Missing EQ Ingredient

Why do I tell you this?  Because I believe Ellie possesses the missing ingredient to how we think about EQ.  Humor me for a moment.  Imagine a dot on a piece of paper and nothing else, just one lonely dot in the center of a blank piece of paper.  That dot represents a person with low EQ.  All that exists in that person’s mind is his or herself.  The universe revolves around him or her.  They wake up every day thinking about what they can do to make themselves happy.  They are the universe.   Now, draw a circle around the dot.  That represents someone with moderate EQ.  They see and care about the people in their immediate sphere of influence.  This could be just a handful of people, but there are people inside that circle nonetheless.  Maybe their list simply consists of their significant other, their best friend from college and their children and no one else (sorry mom and dad) or perhaps it is more extensive.  Regardless, there is a group of people that are “in” and everyone else is not.  Everyone else is of little consequence.  Now draw another circle around the first circle.  Make it big and wide.   That revised diagram represents a person with high EQ.  They not only consider their immediate sphere of influence (the people closest to him or her in the first circle), but they also consider all the people that they may have an impact on during the course of a given day, week month or even a year.  From the perspective of someone with high EQ, everyone inside both of their circles is a “customer.”  How do we know these people?  These people say hello
to the receptionist.  They hold doors open for the person coming behind them with heavy boxes.  They think to let others know where they are going to be when they aren’t in the office (or at home).  They consider other’s emotions, are self-aware and self-regulate in an exponential and systemic way.  We often call these people “considerate, thoughtful, team players, supportive, easy to work with, humble, etc…” The fact is, they possess and utilize high levels of EQ with everyone around them.  They see and hear the people around them.  Individuals with high EQ have a high degree of emotional peripheral vision.
My dog Ellie has emotional peripheral vision.  But, admittedly, her EQ circle is small.  It consists of her immediate pack, the five members of my family.  That’s about all she can handle.

We, however, are capable of much much more.

What about you?  How big are your circles?


Ellie hard at work

4 things parents can teach every leader

riding_bikeParenting is hard.  And hard things teach lessons.  Being a parent has taught me more about leadership than any leadership roles I’ve held or books that I’ve read.  But before I dive into some of those lessons, let me open with some parenting background on me.  Consider following nuggets straight out of my parenting resume:

  • I am a parent of three children (13 year old girl, 10 year old boy, 8 year old boy)
  • My wife and I have been married 16 years and do this parenting thing together as a team
  • During my time as a parent, I have experienced the following thoughts, feelings and emotions: exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger, determination, pride, joy, happiness and love
  • No one gave me a handbook on this stuff (my resume might read something like this: “Designed, developed and implemented custom parenting system resulting in no one getting killed or kicked out of school.”)

Given my unique (or not so unique) experiences, below are four things I’ve learned as a parent that I think every leader worth their salt should know and practice:

1. Be tough on the behaviors but not the person.

This is not a new concept.  Take any Management 1.0 class, and you’ll likely find this statement on page 1.  But what does this really mean?  To me as a parent, it means a thousand kisses, hugs and “I love you’s” spread throughout the day and week.  But affection alone is not enough if your goal is to raise fully formed adults.  It also means being tough on behaviors.  It is a rare day in my house that I’m not lecturing one of my kids on some behavioral misstep.  From remembering to bring home their homework, to being respectful to their mother, the list goes on.  Interestingly enough, if you want to have a narcissist for a child, do the opposite.  A recent study of narcissism in children found that parents who had narcissistic children, gave little affection.  Rather, they filled that void by telling the child how great he or she is all of the time.  In other words, they are soft on behaviors and tough on the person.  No thank you.

2. Clarity is king.

Ever tell a 4 year old to go clean his or her room?  In the infamous words of Dr. Phil, “How did that work for you?”  The story ends the same way every time.  The parent walks into the room a short time later only to discover the room still looks as if a bomb had gone off.  Standing in the middle of the seemingly-untouched chaos is a smiling 4 year old announcing proudly that they cleaned their room.  Clearly there was a miscommunication.  In the workplace, the number one dysfunction I see with leaders is something that I learned as a parent all-too-well.  If you aren’t clear in your expectations, there is no telling what you are going to get.  At home and at work, I try to practice a version of the military’s “Commander’s Intent.”  The goal is to clearly articulate the “What,” the “When,” the “Why,” and, in the case of a less-than-fully-competent report (or child), the “How” of every mission.  At my house, it would look like this:

Me: “Aaron (my 8 year old), you need to get your shoes on right now.  The bus comes in 10 minutes.  If you don’t have your shoes on when the bus comes, your mom will have to drive you to school.  That will cost you $5 for her services.  Do you want to pay mom $5?”

Me: (Pause)

Aaron: “No sir.”

Me: “Good.  Get your shoes on and let us know if you need any help.”

And when in doubt, I stop and ask whoever I am speaking to, to repeat what I just said.  In the workplace, I take the same approach with my coaching clients.  After all, in the case of my clients, if they are unclear on the “what,” “when,” “why” and “how,” it could cost them their job.  It’s all about clarity.

3. It is not a democracy.

In our house, we have the mantra “decision makers pay.”  My kids know that the “leadership team” is my wife and me. “And how does one join the leadership team?” my 13 year old daughter slyly asks.  “$1,000 a month is the on-going fee for membership,” I reply.  And only when one becomes a member of the leadership team are they allowed to make decisions that impact the family.  In other words, Noah (my 10 year old) can’t have whatever he wants for dinner just because he doesn’t like fish.  Or Abby can’t complain about riding the bus one morning because her mom didn’t have time to take her.  In addition, only members of the leadership team are allowed to “edit” others in the household.   Our children are not allowed to edit us.  Rather, my kids’ job is to author and our job is to edit.  Talk to any leader in any company and they’ll tell you that their best direct reports author and bring things to them to edit.  Their worst direct reports sit back and either complain or wait to be told what to do.  I have found that I can’t lead at home or at work if I’m trying to make everyone happy.  The goal is not happiness.  The goal is growth.

4. Failure is a great teacher. 

I was with an executive coaching client last week reviewing his feedback from his team.  One piece of feedback that he received stood out from all of the rest.  It went something like this, “Sam is the best leader I’ve ever had the privilege to work for.  I only have one thing I wish he would change.  I wish he would let us occasionally fail so we could learn on our own.”  In my life, failure has been a great teacher.  It has taught me resilience, self-confidence, initiative, resourcefulness and perseverance.  And yet, intentionally watching others that you care about fail and suffer all of the consequences of that failure is one of the most difficult gifts any parent (or leader for that matter) can give.

As a mentor of mine once said to me:

“All day long we work with adults.  But don’t be mistaken.  They aren’t really adults.  They are secretly children stuck at various stages of development in adult bodies.”

If you look at it that way, maybe the connection between parenting and leadership isn’t that tenuous after all.

Then again, what do I know.


Why leaders need to love

seeing_loveContrary to popular belief, LOVE is not a four-letter word in the workplace (I’m sure many of my HR friends are cringing right now, furiously composing a rebuttal).  And yet, it is a rare workplace in which I encounter a leader comfortable enough to embrace the power of love (shout out to Huey Lewis) in how he or she leads.  Emotional distance is safer.  As one leader recently shared with me, “I keep a safe distance with all of my direct reports because I may one day have to let them go.  It is much easier to have those conversations if I don’t know anything about them personally or don’t have a deeper connection with them.”  No doubt, arms-length leadership is the safe play, the legal play.  But arms-length leadership is neither inspiring nor compelling leadership.

For the purposes of this post, consider the notion that “leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.”  Love is a powerful form of positive energy, and simply put, leadership is all about pumping energy into a system in order to drive alignment and progress.  Whether we are talking about inspiration or instilling urgency, leadership is all about energy.

“leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.”

Consider the following leadership loves that I would argue great leaders possess:

Great leaders…

  • Love the mission and purpose of the organization. They feel an emotional connection to the “why” of the organization and are comfortable sharing that passion with others.
  • Love the customers they serve. They care about their customers enough to be curious about their customers’ needs and how the organization might be able to make their lives better.
  • Love their employees. They feel a deep commitment and care for the people they lead.
  • Love their jobs. They consider themselves blessed to have the privilege to touch so many lives and lead others to something better.  Their role brings them joy and a personal sense of purpose.

Leaders that have these four leadership loves inspire others.  They have the ability to lead others through difficult change.  Followers and customers alike give them the benefit of the doubt in times of uncertainty.

Leading with love is a long-term strategy.  It is rewarded with loyalty and commitment from others.  Arms-length leadership is a short-term strategy and is rewarded with temporary commitments until something better comes along (something better always does seem to come along).

So what are you waiting for?  Time to stop playing the field and time to get serious.  Take a chance and lead with your heart. 


What great leaders can teach parents about culture

peaceI’m a culture geek.  I’m not afraid to admit it.  I’m a pocket-protector-wearing culture nerd.  While others think about stuff like who’s going to win the Super Bowl or the latest round of celebrity gossip, I think about culture.  Disney parks, Ritz Carlton hotels, Google, SouthWest Airlines, NetFlix, Chick-fil-A, etc… if the company is associated with culture, I read up on them, spend my money with them and generally try to figure out what makes them tick.  And while I’m fascinated by the systems, processes and policies that these companies put in place to support their culture, don’t be mistaken.  I’ve come to realize that it is not the systems or policies that make culture.  It’s the leadership.  Culture begins and ends with leadership.

It is in this way that the topic of leadership and culture can extend beyond the board room table to the kitchen table.  Great leaders lead and set a clear culture.  I’ve found the same phenomenon to be true at home.  The most effective parents have a clear culture set inside the four walls of their home that contributes to the growth and development of their children and the family. 

What is Culture? 

You may be thinking, “Brandon, what do you mean by culture?”  Simply put, culture is what happens when you aren’t around.  It defines how stuff gets done.  In the business world we often link culture to execution.  If your team is getting stuff done while you are away at the conference, you’ve got an effective culture.

“Culture is what happens when you aren’t around.”

At home, we can make the same statement.  Are members of your “organization” doing what they are supposed to do when you aren’t around?

Whether we are talking about your team at work or your ankle-biters at home, the question for you is the same: “what culture do you want and how are you going to set it?”

How Leaders Set a Strong Culture at Work and at Home

To answer that question, we can turn our attention to leaders of companies with strong cultures.  Over the years, I’ve noticed some common behaviors amongst almost all of these leaders.  And along the way, I’ve also helped myself to their approaches and applied them at home with some interesting outcomes.  Consider the following leadership traits related to leading strong cultures:

  • They see their roles as “protectors of the culture.” Listen to any leader of an organization with a strong culture and they’ll tell you that their role is not to run the business.  Rather, they see their role as the “protector of the culture.”  Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A is a perfect example.  Protecting a culture is a full-time job and full time role whether we are at work or at home.  It means making decisions based on the values one is trying to reinforce.  Several years ago, my 10 year old was pushing us to let him quit karate.  He hated sparring class because it was hard.  My wife and I talked together about the importance of teaching him “resilience” and how important it was for us to protect the values of resilience and courage in our household.  We wouldn’t let him quit.  He’s scheduled to get his black belt next year.
  • They make their values clear and simple. The best cultures have simple, sticky and memorable sets of values that can be easily recited inside the organization.  At home it should be no different.  One of my personal favorites that all of my children in my home can recite in their sleep is the following values statement: “Decision-makers pay.”  When a child is complaining about the fantastic gourmet dinner that mom cooked, I announce to the table that this particular child is showing leadership and would like to decide what we will be having for dinner.  And as a result, this member of the family will also be buying dinner for the family.  After a brief pause to contemplate my statement, the child then makes the following statement to the table, “mom, dinner looks and smells wonderful.  Thank you for making it.”  Culture, baby.
  • They talk about the culture every day. We get this.  Jack Welch famously commented that as a leader of a large organization, you’ll find yourself talking about values and culture on a daily basis until you are blue in the face.  This is where I’m going to ruffle some feathers, folks.  Ready?  You can’t outsource this.  As parents and leaders, it requires a regular presence.  If you are not home more nights than not, you aren’t talking about culture.  You aren’t leading culture.  Just like if you were the CEO of a company, you’d never consider hiring a part-time worker to be the culture advocate at your company.  Hiring help at home and expecting them to carry the culture flag is unrealistic and unfair.
  • They punish swiftly and severely when culture is violated. I was talking to a senior HR leader just last week at a Best Places To Work organization and he shared with me this great story.  After searching for some time, he and the CEO hired an external candidate to serve as the President of a division.  After just three weeks on the job, they were hearing more and more complaints from the President’s team until eventually the whole team went to leadership and told repeated stories of arrogance, disrespect and condescending behavior.  Within 3 hours the President was pulled into HR and “invited to leave.”  Leaders of strong cultures punish violators swiftly and severely.  I got the pleasure of having one of these conversations with my 13 year old daughter this morning.  It was not pretty.  Dad probably came in a little too “hot.”  Hopefully she got the message, but time will tell.  Being a parent is hard.
  • They win with their culture. Culture is one of the few competitive advantages of any company that simply can’t be copied.  It is so specific to the people and, more importantly, the leadership that it can serve as a huge competitive advantage for companies that do it well.  Think Disney parks. They dominate the amusement park industry like no other.  In 2009 while the industry reported significant revenue losses as a result of the recession, Disney marched forward with nearly 5% topline growth and has continued the march forward since.  We get what “winning” means at work but what does winning mean at home?  Ultimately, winning as parents is the development of fully formed adults that make positive contributions to society.  But consider this short-term definition of a winning culture at home that I find to be particularly helpful.  It goes back to the statement that culture is what happens when you aren’t around.  My kids may behave poorly at home (not an uncommon experience for any parent, I would imagine) but frankly, it matters less to me than when we aren’t around.  When my children are at school, at a friend’s house or staying with the grandparents, they represent us.  They are Smith-Culture Ambassadors.  If I get glowing reports from teachers, parents, grandparents, strangers and even wait staff at restaurants, I know I’m doing my job.  However, a bad report is a failing grade for leadership and for the culture.  An overhaul is in order.

So there you have it.  One culture geek’s effort at taking best practices in the working world and bringing them home.  And if you doubt my geekiness, enjoy the following picture.  And yes, we wore those the whole day.


Who would have thought being a parent would be so itchy?