leadership dot #1733: the envelope please

By now, everyone has heard that the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was initially announced incorrectly, awarding the highest honor to the wrong film before the ensuing chaos and correction. Presenter Warren Beatty was handed the wrong card, and he knew it. But instead of calling a “time out” and asking for clarification, he just showed it to his co-presenter Faye Dunaway and she called out the film that was listed on the card, incorrectly referring to the film of the Best Actress winner instead of the Best Picture recipient.

Beatty is like so many people — who realize that something is amiss, but proceed anyway. The pressures of time, not “wanting to look stupid” or hesitation as you second guess yourself all work to allow mistakes to happen.

And so errors trickle down the line. Someone handed Beatty the wrong card and didn’t catch it. Beatty knew it seemed odd but passed it to Dunaway. Only after she publicly read the wrong name did the chain stop.

Think of how you can create a culture in your organization where people have the time — and the courage — to question things down the line. It’s one thing to speak up in a problem-solving meeting or brainstorming session, but another thing entirely to voice a problem discovered at a product launch or board gathering.

Reward your employees for following the TSA mantra: “If you see something, say something.” Even if it’s on international television while the drumroll is playing in the background.

leadership dot #1732: Pomodoro

There are a lot of time management gimmicks out there, but the Pomodoro Technique has proved to be amazingly effective for me. This strategy, developed by Francesco Cirillo (and shared by Chris Winfield in his newsletter), has four steps to help you maximize the use of your time.

The piece that has been most helpful to me is the core of the idea: you select one specific task, set a timer for 25 minutes and work on (only) your task until the timer rings. That’s it. The magic of the Pomodoro Technique is that it gets you started, and beginning is always the most difficult part. You may not finish your project within the allotted 25 minutes, so Cirillo recommends taking a short break and then starting another Pomodoro session to continue.

If you find yourself switching between email, phone calls, interruptions and busy work instead of going deep on the important tasks, give this method a try. You may find that short bursts of intense, focused activity is like having extra time in your day.

(You can receive a free copy of Chris Winfield’s white paper: “How to Save 23.3 Hours Each Week” by clicking here.)

leadership dot #1731: non-answer

Yesterday I wrote about good customer service. And then there is American Airlines.

After cancelling the last leg of my trip, I asked how much of a refund I would receive if I just rented a car and drove the three hours home. “About $120,” she said, so I made my decision based upon that.

A week later I received a refund for $87 — a third less than quoted — so I wrote American asking them to honor what the agent told me. Here is their reply:

From the comments in your recent email, it seems as if we need some improvement in the area of reservations. Our reservations agents should make every effort to provide our customers with correct information and I’m sorry we didn’t do so when you called us. The Reservationist does not have the capability to give you an estimate on a refund amount for a partially flown ticket. I’ve made a copy of your comments of your email available to the Managing Director of Reservations for follow-up with our reservations staff. Dr. Triplet, [note the misspelling] only our Refunds Department would have that kind of information available, thank you again for contacting us and letting us know about this.

It reminded me of what the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee called a non-denial denial from the White House during the Watergate era. It said nothing. This was not a response to my request for a refund. It was a non-answer answer.

Vagueness has its place in certain settings. Customer service is not one of them.

leadership dot #1730: human

I have been participating in free webinars with a particular consultant, and now she is offering a class for pay. I received the promotional emails and was considering signing up, but had some questions that the email did not answer.

The next day, I received another email from her as if she had read my mind. “If you still have questions about this program, click here to sign up for a 15 minute call and I’ll personally answer your questions for you.”

Suddenly, it became human instead of a distant, impersonal product.

Discover Card is playing off this fact by promoting their customer service as 24/7 in-person support. So many people are frustrated by the automated call menus that this seemingly small point of distinction is worthy of a major advertising focus.

While technology is wonderful, there is nothing like the connection with another person. That voice across a phone line can be reassuring in ways that no automation ever will. Your service will serve you better if a human delivers it.

leadership dot #1729: drawing conclusions

I read a fascinating story about the discovery that linked hand washing to the prevention of disease. In the 1840s, women were dying at alarming rates — not during child birth, but days afterward. No one knew the cause of the mysterious “child birth fever” that took the lives of the mothers.

During the same period, doctors were beginning to become more scientific in their work, thus began conducting autopsies with regularity. It was not uncommon for a doctor to do an autopsy as part of his day, then go directly to treat other patients — without washing hands or changing clothes.

Enter Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis who wondered why the ward with doctors had 5x the childbirth deaths as the ward with midwives. His answer came when a colleague pricked his finger during an autopsy and died. Dr. Semmelweis then realized the deaths were not linked to child birth, rather to the autopsies. He reasoned that some type of poison was seeping from the body, and ordered doctors to use chlorine after their procedures.

Happy ending, right? Wrong. The other doctors did not believe they were responsible for the deaths, and would not accept Semmelweis’ findings. Instead, they fired him and sent him to an asylum where he died. Twenty years later, the work of Louis Pasteur confirmed that Semmelweis was correct, and hand washing has become common practice.

The next time you have a problem to solve, think of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. Pay attention to the clues and draw conclusions on the facts, not on what people have believed. And if you know your conclusion is correct, stay with it, even if others won’t believe you until after you are gone.

Full story linked in Chelsea Clinton’s Tweet

leadership dot #1728: sound track

On the other side of the wall, someone was watching a movie on television. I obviously could not see it and could not even make out the dialogue, but I could hear the sound track clearly.

From listening to the music, I could tell when drama was occurring, when things were romantic, when the mood was light and when the end of the movie was nearing. As the music changed, I assume the plot and emotions corresponded to the tone.

Think about the sound track of your life. What songs are playing? And if you don’t like the mood that it is creating, what can you do to change the melody? You are in control of making your own music.

leadership dot #1727: crux

It is the crux of supervision:
supervisors achieve results through those they supervise
and employees need a good supervisor to be great.

And yet, we invest so little time in helping those new to supervision develop the skills necessary to become a great leader of their team. Most organizations assume that if you can do the work, you can also lead those who are doing the work.

Don’t confuse the two. Supervision requires a skill set on to itself. If you have responsibility for a staff, (and especially if you have leadership of staff who has their own staff), continually develop your knowledge in this area to make it a good experience for all of you.

leadership dot #1726: simplify

I recently facilitated a strategic planning process and worked hard to get the task force to end up with one goal. One total.

They wouldn’t do it.

Or maybe they couldn’t do it, because it involves making hard choices that as a task force they were unable to make.

I don’t disagree with anything that ended up in the final plan. It is all important. But having multiple goals means that it’s all equally important and I don’t think that is ever truly the case.

I wrote yesterday about managing complexity. Having a laser focus on one goal is a strategy to do just that. The more we can simplify, the more we reduce the complexity that distracts and dilutes.

If you ask your boss for one thing that you can do to improve, her feedback will be more helpful than a multi-page performance appraisal. If you ask your family what is their favorite thing to do on a vacation, it will guide your planning more than a travel agent could. If you make one promise to yourself of something to accomplish today, the odds are great it will get done.

Michael Bungay Stanier from Box of Crayons has a wonderful two-line planning tool that you can download here.  Follow his advice and simplify. Force yourself to get to the essence of what is important. If you weed out the fluff, you take what remains more seriously.


leadership dot #1725: complexity

“We have to figure out how to get ourselves out of the complexity of an inherently complex system.”

My colleague Mike Cyze shared this sentiment when discussing school districts, but it applies to a much broader content than that. People often find themselves with complexity paralysis, unable to determine a course of action because of the multitude of options and intertwined variables.

As my class studies systems thinking, we have used the Affordable Care Act as an example. People may not like it as it is, but no one seems to have another solution that doesn’t come with its own downside. For example, one small act of allowing people to opt out could destabilize the markets if healthy people discontinue coverage and costs rise for those needing care who remain. More comprehensive changes have broader implications — that some people will like, others won’t — but all of them are interdependent upon each other.

One way to maneuver in a complex system is to stay focused on the vision or end goal. By taking steps to achieve the “why”, a pathway to action can become more clear. In the school district, a defining principle is “what’s best for the kids.” It guides steps and strategies that may otherwise be buried in the complexity.

What is the beacon that will light your organization’s way amidst the many choices and options?

Thanks Mike!

leadership dot #1724: derailed

There recently was a train derailment just outside of town and several cars left the track. We were talking about what caused this, and learned that with the change of seasons the tracks expand or contract. If the tracks contract too much, a small gap can impact the smooth flow of the wheels and tilt the cars.

This hit home with me as I personally experienced the impact of a small heave in the sidewalk. While the height gap between one panel and another was only an inch, it was enough to send me off balance and “derailing” onto the cold concrete.

What is true for railroad cars and walkers also applies to organizational cultures. Train tracks and sidewalks remind us that a small misalignment can cause big consequences. Railways have inspectors that are continually checking the tracks for any gaps. Leaders should do the same and vigilantly take steps to keep small cracks from derailing their organization’s effectiveness or morale.