Monthly Archives: July 2009

How to Successfully Transition into a New Role

When people ask you “So, what do you think?” they’re not really asking “So, what do you think?” That question is a euphemism for “So, we worked really hard on this and need validation. Please find a way to praise this.”

I was recently interviewed for an instructional designer role on a project. One of the interviewers pointed out that I would be joining a team of four that had been working together for three years. She asked me how, given the project’s 30-day deadline, I would handle becoming part of an existing team. My initial response was to make the point about the true meaning of “So, what do you think?”

I explained that this was a lesson I learned the hard way at the tender age of 23. On the first day at my first “corporate job,” I attended my first staff meeting. Because I had written and produced a newsletter for my previous employer, my boss asked me to take a few minutes and share my thoughts on the department’s newsletter. Now, what I thought she meant was that she wanted me to share my thoughts on the department’s newsletter. What I later learned was that she meant she was giving me an opportunity to make nice endearing comments that would help break the ice and encourage people to trust me.

I used to think “wet behind the ears” had something to do with residual birth fluids on a new born mammal. That night, I came to realize it refers to the tears that pool behind your own 23 year old ears as you cry yourself to sleep clutching your pillow like a security blanket. You see, after I gave my opinion of the newsletter which included pointing out the vast number of typos and poor layout, my boss called me into her office and informed that I had just alienated all of my co-workers. It was at that very moment that I learned the concept of “earning the right.”

Respecting the rule of “earning the right” means recognizing that every time we enter into humblepiea new situation, whether it is a job, a promotion, or a position on a team, we are instantly demoted to freshman status. The glorious achievements that earned us entry into the situation do not provide instant rapport, credibility, and trust with the group. We have to earn those through our actions within the current situation. We have to “earn the right” to provide constructive criticism, challenge existing decisions, and have our ideas considered and adopted. This transition process requires swallowing a big slice of humble pie. Despite my desire to quit, take a vow of silence, and join up with a cloister of monks, I returned to work the next day, apologized to my boss, and asked for her advice on how to mend the fences. It really wasn’t that difficult to humble myself. Although I had early wins in my first job out of school, my co-workers had far more corporate experience so it was easy to drop the arrogance and begin to learn from them.

The interesting thing about humble pie is that, like cotton candy, the older you get, the harder it is to choke downcottoncandy large quantities. Leaders with a track record of success typically find it harder to accept that humbling walk back to square one. Shedding the arrogance borne out of success and learning what you need to know about your new situation before trying to change it is a crucial first step.

Just three years later, I was managing a team at the same company. Our leadership group decided that it was more economical to outsource our department and sell our services back to the main company. In other words, we were going from cost center to profit center. A seasoned industry professional from a prestigious management consulting firm was brought in to spearhead the new organization.

We all sat around a conference room table; eyes anxiously darting back and forth awaiting his arrival. When he strode into the room (not wanting to dive into a trite metaphor, I’ll just put this image in your head, “foghorn leghorn”), he clearly had not considered the possibility that we might not trust or even like him. In an attempt to cast a vision of how much better things would be under the new arrangement, he began disparaging much of the work we had been doing. For example, he held up a black box containing a series of self-study booklets. He insulted the look of the packaging and the flimsiness of the contents. Little did he know, for the last 2 years we had poured our hearts into writing each booklet. He never bothered to find out that we spent months agonizing over packaging options, color schemes, and types of binding. In that instant, he demoralized the team, insulted us, and alienated everyone at that table.

I wondered how someone with so much experience and such a pedigree could make such a rookie mistake. How did he not know the “earn the right” rule? The man never recouped our trust. He walked into the room assuming that his past success and vast experience was enough to win us over. He made the mistake of thinking his resume bought him instant trust and credibility.

The team interviewing me wanted an outside resource for an objective point of view and fresh ideas. My response to the interviewer’s question about how I would handle coming into an existing team was simple. When asked, “So, what do you think?” my answer is tell me how we got to this point. What’s the history behind the decision and the cultural context? Chances are by answering my question; they’ll either validate their choice or recognize areas for improvement. Giving my opinion out of context is meaningless. Providing a sounding board for them to self-assess adds value and speeds me over my learning curve. Over time the deliverables I produce, my loyalty to the team and the value I add will earn me the right to proffer an opinion. As Michael Watkins states in his book The First 90 Days, “It is essential to figure out what you need to know about your new organization and then learn it as rapidly as you can.”

Remember, when you find yourself transitioning into a new role, bypass the hubris, no matter how tasty it looks, and go for a big whopping slice of humble pie.

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Create, Capitalize on, or Be Capsized by Change

bellcurve

A Leadership Bell Curve

I’d like you to imagine leadership performance as a bell curve. We’ll distribute managers along the curve relative to how well they navigate the sea of market changes. In this scenario, those at the top 10% of the curve are called Superstars and Visionaries. The former possess the lunar strength to control the tides, churning the waves of opportunity. The latter anticipate the big waves and position their organizations to ride the crests. Together, Superstars and Visionaries are a powerful source of competitive advantage for organizations that leverage their talents correctly. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.

Moving along, we come to the middle of the curve. The “bell” is populated by the 80% of leaders who spend their careers feeling the tides of change crashing down upon them. After each wave roars over them, they have to fight their way to the surface. After quickly regrouping, they move immediately to reviving their teams. These leaders work side by side with others to plan and execute sound strategies for capitalizing on the current industry challenge or opportunity. Fueled by the encouragement of their leaders, teams of people swim fast enough in the right direction to successfully catch up to and capitalize on the latest wave in the sea of market changes.

Comparing the Superstars and Visionaries to the other 80% of leaders illustrates the point that the degree of impact the majority of management professionals can expect to have within organizations has more to do with their ability to coach the team than it does with their strength as an individual contributor.

Though they don’t roil the oceans or anticipate the next wave, the leaders who can consistently position their organizations to capitalize on the changes in industry tides are valued and known for their ability to get results.

That leaves us with one more group to consider. The last 10% of the curve is made up of consultants who patiently wait for the 80%ers to reach the beach so they can tell them how to better handle the next wave.

All right, not really. The bottom 10% of the curve consists of managers who react quite differently from the other 90% of leaders. Unlike the picture of hope and triumph described above, the situation at this end of the curve is best described as “every man for himself.” When these managers are hit by a wave of marketplace change, they become focused on self preservation. Leaving their teams to fend for themselves, they tread water in a desperate attempt to keep afloat. Some are washed ashore. Others bob helplessly in the water watching colleagues and staff struggle to survive.

This could be a harsh indictment of individual character, or it could illustrate how people react when they fall victim to circumstance.

Maybe the “self-preservationists” are not naturally narcissistic but rather a product of organizational culture. Restrictive processes, antiquated systems, or a lack of decision-making authority could hinder their ability to lead effectively. It is also quite possible that the members of this group are merely mirroring the behavior of the managers positioned above them in their organizational hierarchy. If the leadership behavior at this end of the curve is largely determined by operating conditions, then it stands to reason that the same is true at all locations on the curve.

As was discussed in the Sources of Influence post last week, we have to be careful not to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. A person’s actions are not always dictated by character or personal qualities. The environment and conditions under which a person is expected to perform can have a profound impact on behavior and results. This means that someone struggling to survive at the lower end of the bell curve in one organization could actually be a Leader, Visionary, or even a Superstar under more conducive circumstances. Conversely, a change in circumstances could render a Superstar or Visionary in one organization a washed out “self-preservationist” in another.

Committing the FAE can have a drastic effect on an organization’s health. For example, hiring a Superstar or Visionary is not an immediate elixir for economic woes nor is it a guarantee of innovative dominance. The skills and talents of Superstars and Visionaries will only produce results if the people and their ideas are planted in a nurturing environment. On the other end of the spectrum, how many people are fired because their poor performance was attributed to inherent qualities without any assessment of external factors?boats

Whether an organization creates, capitalizes on, or is capsized by marketplace change rests less on the caliber of people at the helm and more on the conditions of the boat they’re given to steer.

How has this played out in your organization’s reaction to the Recession?

How will it impact your organization’s ability to drive or prepare for economic recovery?

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Sources of Influence

Nature vs. NurtureCompetition

As parents of two precocious little boys (is there any other kind?), we often wrestle with the nature vs. nurture debate. There are days I pray it’s nature because I cringe at the thought that we’ve nurtured some of their less desirable traits. Of course, on the good days, it’s all about the nurture factor! Apparently this nature vs. nurture discussion doesn’t end when we reach legal drinking age. Last week’s post sparked an interesting debate about the source of influence. Here is the conversation between Tom Gosche and Dawna Watson:

 Dawna: “It seems to me the people with the greatest influence are the ones who are born with those great leadership qualities. I have yet to see an individual “learn” not just to be a leader, but to also carry all of the qualities that make a leader great. You can even see it in children as young as kindergarten age. Some lead with love and compassion, while others lead with intimidation and greed. As they grow the dynamics are still there and you find the exact same kids leading in the exact same manner, which of course carries into adulthood. I’d love to see a true example of someone who became a leader with great influence who wasn’t already born with that ability.”

 Tom: “I don’t know about that, Dawna. I have seen some of my best Presidents in BNI start out without those qualities, learn them and excel. Maybe those qualities were there all along, and it took a task or specific job to bring them out.”

 Essentially, the question is whether the constructive qualities necessary to be an influential leader are innate or can be learned. Before you read on, take a moment to decide if you think a person’s level of influence depends on nature or nurture. OK, now continue.

Influential leaders make it seem so easy to get things done that they must be “born with it.”  Think about someone you know either directly, in the media, or from history that is highly influential. For example, the social media “rock star” who posts a url within a Tweet, and hundreds of followers click on the link (@ chrisbrogan); or someone at work who has a coalition of loyal co-workers ready and waiting to support his every agenda.  Another example is the charity board member who convinces twenty people to join her at a $2,000 per plate dinner (during an economic downturn no less). What do these people and the person you’re thinking of have in common that makes them influential? For starters, each of these leaders has made a conscious choice to be more influential with the intention of making valuable contributions toward the greater good of their respective organizations.  Beyond that foundational focus, were all of these people just born to lead or did they have to work at becoming influential?  Befchicken-eggore we answer this question, let’s ponder a chicken and the egg question.

Which of the following statements do you think is most likely?

 A.    A person earns his/her role in an organization because he/she is influential

                                                or

B.    A person is influential because of his/her role in the organization

Congratulations if you picked A! You’ve just made the Fundamental Attribution Error.  This is the psychological term for our tendency to overemphasize the casual importance of people and their characteristics and underemphasize the importance of situational factors. In other words, we tend to think it’s about the person and less about their situation. Returning to the nature vs. nurture debate, assuming a person’s “nature” is the root cause of his/her behaviors and attitudes is a form of the Fundamental Attribution Error. The good news is that influence, like life, is not so cut and dry.

The sources of influence are both innate AND learned.

Influence comes from three sources:  personal characteristics, the ability to take advantage of the situation, and a natural match between the situation and individual skills. Influence derived from personal characteristics is the one most tied to nature and the hardest to learn. Think back to the influential person you had in mind earlier. How would you describe him/her: Charismatic, trustworthy, humorous, kind, confident, respectable, and/or credible?  Charisma, for example, is a trait that is hard to develop. Some people are just more “magnetic” by nature.  Trustworthiness, on the other hand, is a trait that can be developed but it requires a serious commitment to a particular set of positive behaviors and attitudes and a general avoidance of negative actions. Doing what you say you’re going to do, holding private information in confidence, refraining from criticism, and being generous with genuine compliments are all ways to increase trustworthiness.

Like trust, the ability to capitalize on the advantages provided by a given situation is a source of influence that can be learned. Often, a leader’s success is attributed to “luck”; he or she stumbled upon the right place at the right time. Chances are luck had nothing to do with it. Influential leaders succeed because they actively seek out places and times to add value. When my husband, Gene, started as a sales manager for a local auto group, the company lacked a single point of contact for generating and responding to Internet-based prospects.  Instead of seeing more work and headaches, Gene saw an opportunity to help the business. He started taking responsibility for the auto group’s Internet marketing. Now, he is the Business Development Center Director. About a third to half of all sales can be tracked back to his marketing efforts. I share this story not to brag about my husband, of whom I am supremely proud, but rather as an example of how in our every day world’s we come across opportunities to improve our influence. When faced with these situations, we can either turn away because “our plates are full”, or we can embrace the chance to make a difference.

Possessing the skills required for a given situation is a source of influence that is a mixture of our innate abilities and our willingness to learn. Before taking on a leadership role, responsible professionals should honestly assess whether or not they have the capabilities required to be effective. If there is not enough of a match between personal skills and the setting to build credibility and earn trust, then the individual should have the humility to decline the role. A desire for personal gain, regardless of organizational consequences, is the most likely reason someone would take control of a situation without the skills required to succeed.  The ability to reduce people’s uncertainty regarding circumstances and broker relevant relationships increases a leader’s level of influence. This influence then enables the leader to garner resources, motivate key players, and secure stakeholder support.

 In order to ensure success, effective leaders tap into all three sources of influence. They leverage their natural attributes, remain alert for opportunities to add value, and step-up to the plate when their skills are well suited to the situation.

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How to Measure Influence

Influence is about motivating people to willingly work together toward the achievement of clearly defined results.

In most common business situations such as:

  • Leading cross functional teams
  • Managing projects
  • Starting in a new leadership role
  • Spear-heading change initiatives

Our likelihood of success is directly proportional to two key factors:

1. Our personal level of influence

2. The influence levels of our closest supporters.measuringcup

Given their importance to our success as leaders, it seems only natural that we would want to assess influence levels. Following is an easy process for incorporating routine assessments of influence into the major phases of strategic and/or project plans. This process is followed by a set of criteria to use in order to assess a person’s level of influence (including your own) relative to a situation.

From the Beginning

In the earliest phases of an initiative,  develop a list of people who possess the technical skills and knowledge required to get things done, the sponsors and/or stakeholders, and include the people you feel would be vital to have in your corner. For each person listed, determine the number of  characteristics  below he or she possesses or displays. Create a separate personal action plan with steps you can take to fill-in your knowledge gaps. Be sure to include specific ways to build trust and strengthen your relationships with these individuals. For each highly influential person, seek to gain a clear understanding of his/her business and personal objectives.  If you both agree that your initiative supports his/her goals, then you should ask the individual how  he/she can best support your initiative.

In The Midst of It All

Throughout the course of the initiative, compare  the actions of each person on your original list to the set of influence characteristics. Be on the look-out for people whose influence level is on the rise and, if appropriate, coach those whose influence level is diminishing. Be sure to assess each new person who becomes involved along the way. Set aside time with influential people to listen to their input, determine alignment with their objectives, and seek their support for your initiative. In addition to your personal action plan for getting to know and building relationships with influential people, start to include ideas for introducing people to each other when you feel a connection could be beneficial. You should be re-evaluating your own level of influence on a regular basis and taking appropriate action to repair set-backs or fortify progress. Depending on the initiative, this could even be a weekly “to-do.”

One practical tip is to read the list of influential characteristics before  meetings as a reminder of the actions and behaviors you want to exemplify. Afterwards, acknowledge participants who demonstrated integrity and were clearly focused on the “big picture” (not just their own agenda). Review your words and actions. Were you demonstrating influence-building best practices? If not, why not?

When the Dust Settles

Review your actions and behaviors throughout the course of the initiative against the list of influential characteristics. How well did you do? Were you improving your level of influence along the way? If not, why not? If yes, what can you do to make sure you maintain or continue to grow your personal influence?

Maintain relationships.

At the end of an initiative, be sure to reinforce the valuable relationships you’ve developed by taking the time to acknowledge each person’s contribution with a personalized show of appreciation. For the person who values recognition, this could be a letter to his/her manager thanking them for allowing the individual to work with you and highlighting his/her accomplishments. For the person who shies away from the limelight, consider writing a personal note on the inside flap of a meaningful book. Then, in your planner, schedule time to connect on a regular basis with each person by phone, via email, or in person. Remain in contact so that you can help these individuals when they need your support. Staying in touch lets people know that your interest and involvement with them during your initiative was genuine and that you are a person of integrity.

How to Measure Influence

Think about a person within the context of a specific situation or his/her potential sphere of influence. Take into account only what you know to be true about the person or have witnessed directly. Consider whether or not each of the characteristics or behaviors listed below apply to this person.   The more times you answer “yes,” the greater the individual’s level of influence.  

  • Reacts with integrity, dignity, fairness, and empathy for others in both positive and negative circumstances
  • Is unwilling to accomplish personal objectives at the expense of the company or others
  • Has relationships with people representing a variety of knowledge bases throughout the organization, industry, and/or community
  • Is asked to be involved in situations outside of his/her functional area or above his/her level in the organizational hierarchy
  • Shines the “spotlight” on others making sure they receive credit for accomplishments
  • Consistently produces results
  • Associates during work and personal time with others who are known to be powerful/influential in the company, industry and/or community
  • Willingly shares resources
  • Interacts well with all types of people at all levels in the organization
  • Does not blame others or make excuses when things go wrong
  • Is well suited to his/her role
  • Seems able to reduce the level of uncertainty for others in a given situation

What actions have you taken or behaviors have you displayed that have increased your level of influence with a group of people or in a given situation? 

For more information about the complete Gauging Influence tool and how to measure influence please contact Nicole De Falco at nicole@writeinfluence.com.

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