The art of self-awareness is absolutely key to being a successful leader. Why? Because we always judge ourselves on our intentions. And others judge us on our behaviour.
We might think we are being focused, empowering, direct, authoritative, in control and motivational but we might actually be being seen as too controlling, too direct, too over the top or even coming across as a bully. Leaders, you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and then build a team around you to make sure that if you have a particular weakness that you employ someone with strengths in this area. As a leader you must work with your hand-picked dream team so that you’ve got the whole picture of your business covered – by the right people.
For you as a leader, self awareness is particularly key ingredient in the recipe for success. There is increasing talk now about personal branding – you have one whether you realise it or not and it is the collection of perceptions of what people think about you. How do you want the people you work with to perceive you? You should be bothered.
When you leave the office what do you think people say about you? It’s important to identify your Blind Spots (the areas through feedback that you should know about) and work on improving them. You must understand your core values because your staff will also know what is important to you and you make decisions based on your values every single day.
Leaders are judged on their behaviour. How congruent are your personal values with your work-based values?
Do you know what’s really important to you? Do you know what you stand for? Do you know how you come across to others?
Perhaps it’s time you took some time out to determine who you really are on the inside between your ears. People are making decisions about each other all of the time. In a leadership role it is vital that you are a congruent and authentic leader in order to be successful at attracting followers. I’m not talking here ‘followers’ like in social media. A leader cannot be a leader without followers and followers (your staff) want to be led, and led well. It is important that everyone who works for you feels proud to do so.
Recently, I posted a list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe. Now I’m following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the ninth belief: “Innovation is crucial to every team and organization. So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas. But it is also my job to help them kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.”
An evidence-based mantra is that, to get a few good ideas, you and your colleagues need to generate a lot of bad ideas. I wrote about this notion in my last post on Forgive and Remember where we saw that, to yield a dozen or so commercially successful ideas for toys, a group at IDEO generated over 4,000 non-starters. It turns out, however, that the best managed enterprises don’t just recognize the flowers among the weeds; they mow down a lot of the flowers, too.
I first started thinking about this five years ago or so after a conversation with a Yahoo! executive participating in the Customer-Focused Innovation program that Huggy Rao and I run at Stanford. Yahoo! had just had Steve Jobs in to address their top 100 or so bosses. Jobs advised them that killing bad ideas isn’t that hard — lots of companies, even bad companies, are good at that. He insisted that what is really hard — and a hallmark of great companies — is killing good ideas. For any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time, and attention, and so only a few ideas can be developed fully. The challenge is to be tough enough to do the pruning so that the survivors have a chance of being implemented properly and reaching their full potential.
Since then it’s also become clear to me that good product and experience design depends on tossing out most good ideas. If too many of them are thrown in, then the result is a terrible and confusing Frankenstein of an offering. (This seems to be many people’s objection to Microsoft Word: It does everything, so therefore is annoying and confusing to use for many single things.)
The implication, then, is that the “innovation funnel” where a lot of ideas are whittled down to a precious few — should contain two major filtering stages: one where you get rid of the bad ideas and then another where you toss the good ideas that aren’t quite good enough to justify a thinner spread of resources, a greater diffusion of focus, and possibly a more complex customer experience.
If you take this argument to its logical conclusion, it means that a great boss — and let’s define that for the moment as a boss whose team delivers innovation — might track these two metrics:
How many good ideas are killed? If this number isn’t high enough, that is a bad sign. It means either that not enough ideas are being generated, or that important hard choices aren’t being made.
How many people are complaining — even leaving — because of good ideas being killed? This really is what makes the pruning so hard. It’s tough on the people who came up with ideas and are emotionally invested in them. Being the direct cause of their complaining, and even departure, is awful — and certainly doesn’t make you feel like a great boss. But if no one is complaining, that’s a worse sign. This kind of frustration is an unfortunate byproduct of an effective innovation process, and if your people don’t have enough pride and confidence to get upset when their innovative ideas are killed, then something is wrong with them — or your culture.
These are weird metrics, but they make sense given Jobs’ argument. His argument also resonates with our experience teaching in the Stanford d.school and my experience working with creative teams in industry: The groups that often do the worst work have too many pet ideas and can’t bring themselves to kill enough of them, so they don’t do a decent job on any of them.
Groups that can’t kill enough ideas often suffer from bad group dynamics, either because multiple members won’t allow the group to kill their pet ideas, or because the group avoids difficult conversations and decisions. As we advise the creative teams we coach at Stanford and elsewhere, we always stress that this “Sophie’s Choice” point in the process will come, and will have to be well managed. The team will have to be prepared to kill ideas it has nurtured and come to love.
To put this in a broader context, although the words “creativity” and “fun” are often used together, there is a lot about doing creative work that is no fun, Failure, confusion, and conflict are par for the course, and, even when you are doing things right, it involves killing good ideas and making people angry. That’s why, as I compiled my set of Good Boss, Bad Boss distinctions, this one made the cut. Enterprises depend on bosses to manage innovation as well as implementation. The very best bosses teach and inspire their people to accept defeat gracefully and move forward to implement the selected ideas, even if none of their pet ideas made the cut. Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. His new book isGood Boss, Bad Boss, from Business Plus.
My flight from New York to Paris was delayed — maybe it would be canceled — and the passengers at the gate were frustrated. Most were sitting quietly in their frustration, periodically looking up at the screen and mumbling the things that people mumble when they feel annoyed but powerless like, “we’re never gonna get out of here!” and “can you believe this?”
Then there was this French couple, for whom mumbling was not sufficient. They were having difficulty communicating in English, which I knew, as did everyone else in the airport, because they were in a loud argument with the gate agent. They had that Do you know who I am? posture, with some I’m not leaving until I get what I want thrown in for good measure.
I sidled in closer to hear what the commotion was about. As I understood it, they were angry because they had tickets but no seat assignment and were afraid they would be booted off the flight. The gate agent, who I later found out was able to give them a seat assignment, refused to. She assured them that they would be on the flight when — and if — it left but, she said, she had to focus on getting the flight off the ground and “Right now, no one has a seat because the flight isn’t going anywhere.”
Something was lost in translation; they heard “you don’t have a seat and you’re not going anywhere.” Which, of course, made them feel even more anxious and powerless. They reacted to this powerlessness by trying to exert power. By insisting, even louder, that they did, in fact, have a seat, just not a seat assignment, which is what they were asking for. And she had better give them that! To which she responded, and I’m quoting her: “No!”
It would be easy to give the gate agent advice on how to handle the situation more effectively. But it’s more interesting to figure out what the French couple should do. Because if you set aside who’s right in this situation and if you set aside the language barrier, what you have left is a situation we’re all in all the time: a power struggle. And the gate agent clearly had the power — she could choose to give the French couple a seat assignment or not.
Sometimes this struggle is departmental: Sales wants something from Marketing but Marketing isn’t giving it to them so Sales yells louder, maybe with a threat or two for effect. Other times, the power battle is more personal: one team member wants something from another team member and tries to use her power to get it. Sometimes, even, it works.
But more often than not, it fails. Grabbing power, especially when you don’t have it, is unpredictable, feels bad to both parties, and is bullying. The collateral damage to the relationship is almost always high. There’s got to be a better way to get what you want when you’re powerless in a situation.
Thankfully, there is, and discovering it won me a free upgrade to first class: let go of the illusion that you have any power at all. It’s getting in the way.
Instead of trying to use power you don’t have, appeal to the generosity of the person who actually has the power. People, when asked and respected, will often willingly do the exact thing they’re refusing to do when they feel like you’re pushing them.
As soon as I heard the gate agent say “No!” I stepped in. Literally. I stepped between the French couple and the agent and interrupted their conversation. I had a secret weapon: I speak French.
I asked the gate agent to give me a moment and spoke to the couple in French, explaining what the agent was saying. Then, I turned to the gate agent and explained what the couple thought she was saying.
Once everyone had calmed down, the French couple apologized and let the gate agent know that they recognized how hard the delayed flight must be on her. They said they knew she didn’t have to give them a seat assignment but explained how anxious they felt and asked whether, in this particular situation, even though she was clearly so busy trying to get the flight off the ground, she might be willing to give them seat assignments to help them. After a short conversation, she gave them new boarding passes with seat assignments.
Sometimes, it really does help to appeal to a powerful person’s generosity.
Here’s what’s interesting: in the business world, it often feels like everyone else is always the powerful person. At any moment, customers can take their business elsewhere, employees can change jobs, and colleagues can pursue their own, personal agendas.
No matter what our positional power, we’re better off appealing to people’s generosity. Even if we’re paying them, it’s useful to see those around us as volunteers. Which means issuing more requests than orders, and creating relationships built on trust and respect rather than hierarchy and politics.
If you notice other people in a power struggle, consider stepping in the middle — not to choose sides, but to bridge the gap. Sometimes people need a momentary disruption in their battle to see each other as people and reach into their own deep well of generosity. And usually, they’re too deeply enmeshed in their argument to see beyond their own stance. The interruption by a third party can help both sides get beyond themselves.
When the gate agent thanked me for intervening, I figured I’d give it a try too. I told her I was happy to help, and, followed with, “I know you have so many other people you’re trying to satisfy. And I don’t even know if it’s possible – it’s probably against the rules – but if there is some way you had the ability to upgrade me, some chance of an extra seat in first class, I would be so appreciative. It would make the flight an awesome treat. If there were any way…”
Well, as it turned out, because of the plane equipment problems, the airline had to put us on a different plane, one with larger first class cabin. When we did, she printed me out a new boarding pass, with a new seat assignment. One in first class.
The kitchen was a complete mess. I tried to clean the utensils and machines right after I used them but I couldn’t keep up with my own cooking frenzy.
I baked one loaf of carrot nut bread and two loaves of zucchini spice bread. I made a carrot-dill soup, a chilled yogurt-cucumber-dill soup, and a kale-swiss chard-carrot soup. I also shredded a beet-mint salad, cooked an eggplant-green pepper-tomato thing, and grilled peppers in the oven.
Just for the record, usually the only thing I ever bake is cookies, by squeezing batter from a store bought tube. If I make dinner, it consists of steamed veggies, rice and — my pièce de résistance for the kids — frozen pizza. Warmed, of course.
What’s even more curious is that it wasn’t a special occasion. We weren’t celebrating someone’s birthday. No guest was coming for dinner. It was just going to be me and my family.
So what possessed me? Why did I work so hard to create such a feast?
What makes a boss great? It’s a question I’ve been researching for a while now. In June 2009, I offered some analysis in HBR on the subject, and more recently I’ve been hard at work on a book called Good Boss, Bad Boss(forthcoming in September from Business Plus).
In both cases, my approach has been to be as evidence-based as possible. That is, I avoid giving any advice that isn’t rooted in real proof of efficacy; I want to pass along the techniques and behaviors that are grounded in sound research. It seems to me that, by adopting the habits of good bosses and shunning the sins of bad bosses, anyone can do a better job overseeing the work of others.
I lay back in the chair, closed my eyes, and almost immediately felt my body relax. An instant later a stream of warm water rinsed through my hair while strong, competent hands massaged my scalp. For that moment my stress disappeared, washed away with the water.
I might as well have been at some exotic spa on vacation in the Caribbean but I was in New York City, in the middle of a workday, still in my suit.
Believe it or not, the mere thought of you can make your employees do a lousy job.
In fact, if your employees consider you a controlling person, even an unconscious thought of you can have a negative effect on their performance. If, for example, they were to happen to subliminally see, out of the corner of their eyes, your name flash for 60 milliseconds, you could expect them to start working less hard. Even if they didn’t intend to slack off.