How Do You Know What Advice To Take?

This morning I’m thinking about harmony. Not harmony among different people, but the degree of harmony among the statements, decisions and actions of one person. For me, this goes beyond mere consistency, but as always I’m not interested in semantic disputes, so I’ll get to the substance of the topic.

When a leader makes a decision or takes some action, that action is perceived by others against the background of everything else they’ve seen the leader do. And people’s reactions to that behavior are influenced by how well it harmonizes with that background.

For example, years ago we were (appropriately!) excited about the book, “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters. Based on observations of successful managers, Peters described a practice known as “management by walking around”. Many managers changed their behavior by adopting this practice. For some, it harmonized with their management style and really improved their effectiveness. For others, however, it did not harmonize with their character or style. Their visits to people’s work spaces made people uncomfortable and confused.

As part of our quest to grow and improve, we seek advice from a variety of sources, including mentors, teachers, coaches and experts. It’s important to distinguish between two types of advice: 1) individualized advice, and 2) generic, one-size-fits-all advice.

If a coach or mentor has invested the time to get to know you, he or she is much more likely to make recommendations suited to your character and your natural proclivities. Their advice might push you outside your comfort zone, but it will harmonize with your style. Their individualized recommendations make sense for you, but might not make sense for someone else.

You must be more thoughtful about generic advice, such as the advice in this blog. You must decide whether it’s suitable for you. In some cases the answer might be readily apparent. But there will be some cases where the answer is not clear. In those cases I recommend you experiment. You’re in your leadership laboratory every day. If a piece of advice makes sense to you, give it a try. If it works for you keep doing it, and reflect on what you’ve learned. If it doesn’t work for you, quit doing it and reflect on what you’ve learned.

A final thought. One common way we grow involves identifying role models, and doing our best to emulate their behavior. It’s likely you have someone in your life you look up to. You observe their behaviors and you say to yourself, “That’s how a successful person acts, so that’s what I’ll do.” I hope you continue that approach, but don’t mindlessly assume that everything that works for them will work for you. Ask yourself whether a particular behavior harmonizes with your individual style. If you’re not sure, give it a try. Whether it works for you or not, you’re sure to grow.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Do You Individualize Your Coaching Practices?

Many leaders used to do the job of the people they’re coaching. And those leaders often were very successful in that job, and they’ve developed the belief that they know THE way to achieve success. Many sales training programs are based on this sort of belief. The limitation of this belief is that trainer or coach is unaware of her own talent. It doesn’t occur to her that others might not be capable of demonstrating the behaviors she’s recommending.

If you’re coaching someone, in any position, remember this: just because you were (or are) capable of doing something, that doesn’t mean that the person you’re coaching possesses those same capabilities. Of course there are some behaviors you can teach. But leaders routinely overestimate their ability to help others demonstrate behaviors that are not aligned with their aptitudes or character traits. Here are some examples. Maybe you’re comfortable with confrontation and he (the coachee) simply is not. Maybe you’re extroverted and he’s introverted. Maybe you have an eye for detail and he simply doesn’t. Or maybe you’re remarkably well organized and he’s not.

Great coaches begin by understanding the individual strengths of each person, and they implement the following principle, which is attributed to Peter Drucker: Build the strengths and make the weaknesses irrelevant.

Don’t worry so much about how you did it. Each person creates success by using his or her unique configuration of strengths. As a coach, you must understand that there are many paths to success. If you want to be a great coach, you must grow beyond helping others understand how you achieved success. You must help them figure out how they are going to achieve success.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Is Giving Up Ever The Best Choice?

I watch a lot of boxing. It’s a dangerous sport. The primary job of the referee is to ensure the safety of two guys who are aggressively trying to hurt each other so badly their opponent can’t continue. Stepping in the ring takes a considerable amount of courage. Also, it’s a “sudden death” sport. Even if a boxer is losing decisively, one good punch can win the fight for him.

Last night I watched a fight in which the two boxers were not equally matched. One guy was getting the living daylights beat out of him. But he was a professional boxer — full of courage, determination and heart. He would not give up. Therefore, you cannot leave that decision up to the boxer. The trainer and the referee know that they must make that decision.

Often, our direct reports are full of determination. They’re not the kind of people who give up, even when they’re not succeeding, even when they’re in a bad fit, even when they’re miserable. That’s an admirable trait. I want people like that on my team. But sometimes, like a trainer, you have to throw in the towel. Sometimes you have to recognize when it’s not in the best interest of the employee or the business to fight on.

There’s no formula for knowing when it’s time. But ask yourself these questions. Does the situation require behaviors that are not in the employee’s repertoire? Have you taught, coached and given the employee ample time to learn? Has the employee tried his or her best? Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that additional effort will turn the situation around?

On the day you realize that additional efforts will not lead to success, then you know it’s time.

Is someone who reports to you in this situation? If you care about them, do the right thing. It’s what trainers do when they care deeply about their fighter. It’s what you should do if you truly care about this employee.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and even if you aren’t American I invite you to participate. It’s not about religion, it’s not about patriotism and it’s not about gifts. It’s about thankfulness, appreciation and gratitude.

As leaders, we’re trying to make things better. So we spend most of our time focusing on problems, on what’s wrong, on what we’re dissatisfied with, and what needs to be improved. Our brains are wired to see what’s wrong and this wiring has great survival value. Furthermore, dissatisfaction is intensely motivational. People who are satisfied with the status quo are not motivated to pursue improvements. So there’s a very healthy sense in which leaders are never satisfied, and that’s a good thing. But we can overdo the focus on what’s wrong. We can become hyper critical.

Because of our brain’s wiring, we have to work to focus on what’s right. It requires intention. Think about the people you truly care about. Everyone else is focusing on what’s wrong with them. When it comes to people, you can make a decision to focus on what’s right about them.

And during this season of Thanksgiving, you can write them notes about what you like about them, why you appreciate them, and why you’re grateful to have them in your life. Think about it. When was the last time someone wrote you this kind of note? How did it make you feel? Doesn’t happen very often does it?

You probably think you don’t have time to do this, with all the time you’re spending on what’s wrong. But you know the truth. You make time for things that are important to you.

My mother used to say, “Larry, tell me you love me.” I’d reply, “Mom, you know I love you.” And she’d say, “Yeah, but I like to hear you say it.”

I’m sure there are people who’d like to hear you say it. This is an important part of leadership. So I invite you to participate in Thanksgiving. It only takes a few minutes. Write a couple of notes of appreciation and affirmation. I promise it’ll be richly rewarding.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

Larry Sternberg

How Can You Become A Better Mentee?

Yesterday I realized I spend a good deal of time thinking about how to be a better mentor, and how to help others be better mentors. But I don’t invest much time thinking about how to help people become better mentees. So I’m going to give it a stab. For conceptual clarity my thoughts here apply to any sort of relationship in which you’re being coached, advised, mentored or taught by an individual outside a classroom on an ongoing basis. What a mouthful. I’ll use the word “mentor” to stand for any of those types of relationships.

To begin, we must recognize that this is similar to asking, “How can I become a better spouse?” or “How can I become a better friend?” It’s individualized. It depends on the unique needs of each person in the relationship. All this is MUCH easier if the two of you are a good natural fit in the first place. When the fit is good, you’ll have to make fewer changes to become a better mentee for that person.

First principle: ask your mentor what he or she wants from you in this relationship. This might seem more formal than necessary, but it’ll serve you both. Too often, in all sorts of relationships, expectations are not clarified, which leads to problems. If your mentor has important expectations that you can’t or don’t want to fulfill, best to find out as soon as possible. I have a close friend who’s a high-powered attorney, dedicated to her career. When she married, she didn’t know that her husband expected her to cook dinner for him every night, and to otherwise perform as would a non-working spouse. Tragically, it was a deal breaker for both of them.

Next, you actually have to take your mentor’s advice. As my wife says, “Why buy a dog and bark yourself?” Sometimes the advice won’t intuitively seem like a good idea. “Really? You want me to do that?” When you have misgivings discuss them. But do it anyway. Do it despite your doubts. A good mentor will occasionally push you out of your comfort zone. If you reject your mentor’s advice too frequently, you should probably look for another mentor.

Next, don’t act on advice from every well-meaning person. Suppose you hire a wellness coach. After learning about your goals and challenges, this coach will almost certainly recommend a program for you to follow. As you do this, you’ll be bombarded — by well-meaning friends — with diverging and conflicting advice about the elements of your program. If you act on all this advice, you won’t be following a program whose elements have either internal consistency or harmony. You won’t make progress.

I’ve noticed in my career that a particular leader’s decisions and actions create a certain internal harmony (harmony is different from consistency). As a consequence, there are behaviors or tactics that will work effectively for leader A but not for leader B. Acting on advice from too many different sources can easily destroy that harmony, preventing you from progressing.

This is not to discourage you from seeking different opinions, just as you might for a medical problem. My advice is to discuss with your mentor differing advice you’re receiving before you act. That way your decisions and actions will maintain both internal harmony and consistency.

Finally, express some appreciation. Appreciation from a mentee is among the most meaningful forms of recognition a mentor receives.

Thank for reading. I’m sure there’s much more to be said on this topic. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

As A Mentor, Are You Asking The Right Questions?

An associate recently brought to my attention a worthwhile article entitled, “The Art of Asking Questions”, by Marshall Goldsmith, the world-renowned authority on mentoring, leadership and executive coaching. Dr. Goldsmith makes a distinction between information-seeking questions and understanding-seeking questions, and he points out that in a mentoring relationship understanding-seeking questions almost always contribute to a mentee’s growth. He then gives a list of elements that produce insight and a list of techniques that enhance the value of the dialogue. In this post I suggest some high-value questions that you can ask your mentees.

First of all, I LOVE Dr. Goldsmith’s title. Asking high-value questions is indeed an art. Asking the right question is supremely important for almost any professional, including scientists, physicians, social workers, police, journalists, attorneys, accountants, sales professionals — the list can go on and on. That underscores the importance of this topic.

Here are two statements that are particularly meaningful to me:

  • The kind of question you ask determines the kind of answer you’ll get.
  • Asking the right question is more important than finding the answer easily. Often, the struggle to find an answer results in substantial growth.

I’m going to share some questions that have served me well in mentoring relationships. But first, please know that I believe that the intent of the question is more important than the question itself. If the intent is to seek the mentee’s greatest good, that will be evident, and you’ll be able to ask more challenging questions. Also, let’s understand that all questions are asked within the context of an existing relationship. Part of the art here is understanding what questions are appropriate between the you and your mentee at a given point in your evolving relationship. With that understanding, here are some questions to consider if you’re the mentor.

In many instances you’ll be reviewing a mentee’s performance in a particular situation. So you might experiment with these questions:

  1. How do you think you did? (This is just to get a mental review going.)
  2. Did anything surprise you?
  3. What went well? And why? (People always want to focus on what did not go well. There is often more to be learned in thinking about what went well and how to repeat that in the future.)
  4. What did not go so well? And why?
  5. What lessons did you learn from this experience?
  6. What will you do differently in the future to improve your performance? And why?

In some instances, you’ll be discussing an upcoming situation. Consider these questions:

  1. What are your desired outcomes from this event? And why?
  2. How likely is it that your plan of action will achieve your desired outcomes? And why?
  3. What concerns you? And why?

Let’s understand that part of the art of asking high-value questions is actively listening and asking great follow-up questions. This is a talent. Great art requires great talent. That being said, here’s one follow-up that often comes in handy:

Tell me more. (OK, I realize it’s not technically a question.)

And I want to highlight one question that, asked sincerely, works in almost all cases:

How can I help? (If you ask only that one question, you and your mentee will be well served.)

Thanks to my friend, Tiatana Costello, for suggesting this topic.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear some questions that have served you well in mentoring relationships.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Find A Mentor?

Oh my goodness. This is a really tough question. It’s a question about relationships. How do you find a best friend? How do you find a life partner? How do you find a mentor? I wish I had an easy answer, or frankly any answer that would work consistently. A mentor is someone for whom you’re significant, who believes in you, who likes you as a person, who enjoys spending time with you, who enjoys helping you grow, both personally and professionally, who is loyal, and who will extend herself to help you succeed. Many more descriptors can be added to that list. But the topic of this post is not, “What is a mentor?” The topic is, “How the heck do you find one?”

Even though we’re not going to find the answer, it’s important to struggle with the question. So here are my thoughts. First, it’s important to know who you are, what kind of person you think your ideal mentor would be, and what you want to get out of a mentoring relationship. You can readily see that the answers to these questions will be different for every person, and therefore the descriptors of your ideal mentor are unique to you. It’s much easier to find something if you know what you’re looking for. Answering those questions will give you a start.

Next, I encourage you to think about how you formed relationships with other important people in your life. How did you meet your best friends? Your significant other? What were you doing at the time? What were your initial attractions? Why did you both decide you wanted to spend more time with each other?  Answering those questions might well provide some valuable insight.

Next, I encourage you to participate in professional associations where you increase the odds of meeting people who share your professional interests and who might also be willing to share their knowledge, experience and wisdom. Community service groups also provide worthwhile opportunities.

Next, understand that your mentor might not initiate. You might have to ask the person on a first date. If you have (or have had) a significant other, think about how you started the relationship. Whether you hooked up or just had a beer, you probably didn’t jump into a discussion about a long-term relationship. You probably just decided whether you wanted to see each other again.

If you meet someone you think might be mentor material, don’t immediately discuss a mentoring relationship. Just ask them out. Have a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a corn dog. Get to know each other. See where it goes. Maybe a mentoring relationship will develop over time. But remember, this really is very much like dating. If you don’t ask, you’re done. The possibility will pass you by.

Thanks to Matt Ream for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg