“What Great Bosses Know”: Practical advice for managers & leaders from Jill Geisler.

When managers fumble, they need to work at repairing their reputations. (Depositphotos)

When managers fumble: 5 tips for repairing your reputation

We customarily think of managers as the men and women who pass judgment on the performance of others.

But managers are evaluated, too. It may come in the form of annual reviews, employee surveys or union grievances. They may get feedback from conversations with colleagues and staff. 

And from those interactions, even good managers learn that they have performance gaps. That’s a nice way of saying the boss has some flaws.

Because the managers in our Poynter programs get 360-degree feedback from colleagues, I get to see a lot of compliments, along with solid, constructive critiques of bosses. Among the more common concerns:

  • Delegate more, micromanage less
  • Listen more, interrupt less
  • Keep people better informed
  • Cool that temper
  • Disconnect from digital devices during conversations and meetings
  • Distribute work equitably
  • Set clear priorities
  • Follow up on conversations and emails
  • Provide better feedback
  • Post work schedules on time
  • Don’t let underperformers cause extra work for others

The real test of a manager’s character is how he or she responds to such feedback.

There’s often an immediate sense of defensiveness, the feeling that others don’t know how hard you work or how hard you try or how the complaints fail to take into account all the other good things you do.

That’s human.

But what really matters is your next step: how you move forward in the face of well-founded criticism.

The good news: you can make things right. I know this from the countless coaching sessions I’ve done with aspiring great bosses. Here’s my advice:

1. Take the critique to heart. It may sting. It may stink. But if people are asking you to change a behavior, do your best to see the world through their eyes, not yours. You may think that when you shout, you’re just letting off steam and mean no harm. To others, it’s a morale and confidence killer. You may think a delayed work schedule or email reply is merely a misdemeanor offense. To those who can’t plan their personal lives or get their work done because of your missing info, it may feel like a felony. You may think you’re being efficient by eyeballing your computer while talking with staffers. To them, it’s a signal of their unimportance. Give credence to their concerns.

2. Apologize to those affected by your bad habits. I’ve known managers who think apologies undermine their authority. Not so. When bosses express sincere regret for wrongs they’ve done, they can gain credibility. No need to grovel or blubber. Just take responsibility. If you say: “I’ve given a lot of thought to your feedback. I didn’t realize how often I shoot down your suggestions — with sarcasm. I thought it was just debate, just give-and-take. I was wrong. I apologize for humiliating you – and for stifling some creativity, too,” you are demonstrating strength.

 3. Chart your course of change. Start by informing people of your intentions. Go on the record. “I heard the concerns about the late posting of work schedules. That’s my fault and I apologize. Effective immediately, I’ll make sure they’re posted two weeks in advance. I’m arranging to have a backup scheduler as well, so there are two of us on the case.” Look for quick wins – things you can do immediately to demonstrate good faith, while you work on long-term, lasting improvements. Determine how you’ll measure your success, so you have a plan, not a wish.

4. Invite observation and feedback. Let’s say you’re going to do a better job of responding to emails. Seek out not only those who’ve complained, but also other respected colleagues. Tell them about your plan to improve your response time. Be specific. Then ask them if they’ll keep an eye on your progress and let you know how you’re doing. Not only will they keep you honest, they’re likely to spread the word about your improvement. That’s a win all around.

5. Be authentic in the process. You may be an introvert who’s asked to spend more face time with people or an extrovert who’s asked to be less dominant in meetings. When you respond, don’t overreact. Step up or pipe down a bit more, not radically. If you’ve committed to being less of a micromanager, don’t simply withdraw. Define what it means to be less involved in the work of others, make sure others share that definition, then use it as your guide.

Remember, when you choose to change, you are modifying your behavior. You’re not becoming a different person, just a better version of you. 

And much better boss, too.

* * *

Whenever you’re working on improvement, it’s important to have allies in the organization. I’ll list the most important ones in this column’s podcast:


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Monday, June 24, 2013

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How managers can improve the quality of feedback they offer

I know the answer even before I ask a group this question:

“Does anyone here get too much feedback at work?”

The reply, amid snickers and eye rolls, is “No.”

No matter who is in my audience, from employees to supervisors, there’s a shared belief that feedback is in short supply.

Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” report confirms that sentiment. In its surveys on workplace engagement, Gallup asked employees if they’ve received positive feedback for good work in the last seven days or had a conversation about their progress in the last six months. Again, the answer often comes up as “No.”

Gallup found that 70 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged. Many simply go through the motions, while others actively undermine the operation. That’s a huge problem.

Some workplace problems are expensive to fix — technology upgrades, understaffing, massive retraining. But providing feedback is FREE!

I don’t apologize for that all-caps shout. I’m a raving evangelist for feedback because I know the power it can have to improve the quality of work, the workplace and the lives of people on the job. Gallup even offers data that connects feedback to employee engagement and engagement to a better bottom line.

In my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I outline strategies for effective feedback of all kinds and help managers build a feedback tool kit. Feedback for effective performance management has become one of the most requested topics that I teach and write about. I take that as a very good sign that supervisors are aware they’re responsible for closing the feedback gap.

In fact, an organization I visited recently declared this the Year of Feedback and brought me in to help managers perfect the art. We had a great time building that toolkit of feedback and customizing it for individual people and situations. Then, one of the leaders in the room raised a question. If managers suddenly deliver copious doses of feedback, how will employees react?  Isn’t it possible they’ll be skeptical or scared?

It’s a darn good question. When it comes to feedback, three factors converge: the source, the content and the recipient.

That convergence has maximum impact when:

1. The source of feedback is credible and respected.

2. The content of the feedback is fair, understandable and useful.

3. The recipient of the feedback hears it as the speaker intends, then acts on it.

All of us, managers and co-workers alike, deliver and receive feedback, so it falls to all of us to work on each of those three dynamics.  Even as I teach, coach, and encourage managers to become great bosses and deliver first-class feedback, it won’t matter if people choose not to listen, or if they do, don’t take the information to heart.

It’s easy for any of us to miss or to misread the feedback we receive. We may view an interaction with the boss as just passing conversation while she’s presuming she’s delivered a memorable message.

We may wonder if the positive stuff we hear really matters, while the negative stuff may rock our world. Because we tend to remember situations that trigger our emotions, it’s possible that the pain we feel from criticism takes up much more space on our mental “feedback ledger” than the little lift we get from everyday praise. It can lead us to focus on the negative and forget the positive, as in, “The only time I hear anything around here is when something goes wrong.”

Perhaps that’s why a recent study found that the among members of high-performing teams, feedback had a positive to negative ratio of 5.6 to 1. People on those teams make sure the positive stuff is delivered early and often — and it sticks.

I also believe that if we consider it our responsibility as employees to seek out and be open to feedback, we’ll be better for it. New research about happiness underscores the point. In an experiment, employees at a number of Fortune 500 companies were sent a daily email inquiring about their level of happiness. Some received the question worded this way: “How happy were you today?” Others got this version: “Did you do your best to be happy today?” Over time, the latter group reported a significantly higher level of happiness, because they came to see it as a goal for which they were personally responsible.

What would happen if you ask yourself each day: “Did I make a point to give and receive some valuable feedback today?” You’d be upgrading all three facets of high impact feedback — the source, the content and the recipient.

Here’s my deal: I’ll keep nagging bosses about raising their leadership chops along with the quality and quantity of their feedback. At the same time, let’s all make it a goal to keep an open mind — and ears — to feedback from others. Recognize it, process it, and put it to good use.

We just might close some gaps.

High-impact feedback is on the agenda for the 2013 Poynter Leadership Academy, October 20-25. 

Join Jill Geisler, Butch Ward, a terrific faculty and leaders from around the world for a career-changing week. Information and applications here. Read more


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Words - Ideas

Don’t be an ‘idea killer’: 10 tips for cultivating creativity

Some of our best ideas come when we’re taking a break from concentration. At least, that’s what recent research says. Since the concept for this column coalesced while I was sweating my way through a Zumba class, I’m prepared to believe it.

I’d been doing a lot of reading about the cultivation of ideas — especially the leader’s role in brainstorming, creativity and innovation. I collected insights and advice from all sorts of experts to use in my teaching. I wanted to craft a column, too, but kept debating with myself about the framing.

Not surprisingly, my breakthrough came when I stopped fretting and shifted my focus to enjoying some music and keeping pace with the class leader.

Then, mid-merengue, I flashed on a memory from my newsroom. It was the term “story killer.” It was our description for a naysayer at planning meetings (“We covered that before.” “That’s so boring.”) or a journalist who gave up too soon when checking out a tip. We weren’t fond of story killers.

The next thought came easily. The broader leadership equivalent would be an idea killer, wouldn’t it? An idea killer may be a boss who actively shoots down proposals, or passively lets them languish. It may be be a manager who doesn’t know what it takes to build a culture of effective brainstorming, networking and innovation.

So that’s how I danced my way into crafting this list. It’s for leaders who never want to be known as idea killers:

1. Challenge conventional brainstorming. I hate to burst your bubble, team lovers, so I’ll let Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School do it. In her new book, “Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration,” she cites decades of research to conclude that groups are inferior to individuals when it comes to creativity. But don’t abandon team idea generation. Just make it more effective. Read on.

2. Give people time to think independently before an idea meeting. We often bring a group together to brainstorm, then encourage people to keep thinking about things on their own afterward. But Thompson says the data are clear that “…groups organized with alone-then-group hybrid structure generate more ideas, better ideas, and are better able to discern the quality of the ideas they generate.”

3. Ask for quantity and creativity, not perfection. There’s evidence that if you ask people to come up with a few great ideas, they self-censor, fearing their offerings aren’t good enough. Ask them to conjure up of lots of creative thoughts and the results are better.

4. Diversify your teams. Groups with the same membership fall into patterns and habits that can discourage creativity. Our comfort with one another can lead to complacency. Research suggests that adding new minds, people with different backgrounds, personalities and expertise can improve the quality of ideas in a team.

5. Banish the “Dragon’s Den.” William Duggan of the Columbia Business School has talked about the ineffectiveness of organizations that believe the best way to get good ideas is to make people fight to present and defend them. In his new book: “Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation,” Duggan says harsh critique processes (which some companies dub the “Dragon’s Den” or “Lion’s Den” method) favor those who can argue the best, not those who have top ideas. He adds:

Worse is when these harsh methods are actually an inquisition. Remember the purpose of the Spanish Inquisition: to root out heretics. Harsh criticism in companies does the same. It makes everyone conform to conventional wisdom…

6. Share the big picture to produce better pitchers. Often, managers reject an idea that’s pitched because of cost, because it might overlap into another unit’s turf, or because it doesn’t fit with overall business strategy. So, why not teach staffers about the bigger picture? Build business literacy about budgets and strategy, so they can be creative, collaborative and connected to priorities. Today, in networked organizations, that’s imperative.

7. Reward the “givers” on your team and beware the “takers.”  My favorite new business book is “Give and Take,” by Adam Grant of the Wharton School. His research on reciprocity styles identifies “givers” (those who instinctively help others), “takers” (who automatically put their own interests first) and “matchers” (middle-grounders who believe in fairness and balance of trade.) Givers are adept at building networks of support in organizations, matchers do fairly well, but takers? Grant cites research that says:

The takers were black holes. They sucked energy from those around them. The givers were suns; they injected light around the organization. Givers created opportunities for their colleagues to contribute, rather than imposing their ideas and hogging credit for achievements. When they disagreed with suggestions, givers showed respect for people who spoke up, rather than belittling them.

Grant says takers can seem smart and powerful, since they often champion their own ideas with great confidence. But in time, their colleagues, especially the matchers, punish them by withholding information and support. Givers, on the other hand, (whether managers or staff), create environments of psychological safety, where people feel free to offer ideas and take risks. Net effect: givers build better networks, encourage creativity and even cause others to change their reciprocity style, according to Grant.

8. Introduce your staff to the “Empty Chair.” In his latest book, “To Sell is Human,” Daniel Pink tells the story of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who often includes an empty chair at the table in important planning meetings. It represents the customer:

Seeing it encourages meeting attendees to take the perspective of the invisible but essential person. What’s going through her mind? What desires and concerns? What would she think of the ideas we are putting forward?

While you’re looking at that empty chair, remember to make sure you think of every possible customer that could occupy it — not just those who look and sound like the colleagues in the room with you.

9. Make it fun. Come on, what do you expect from someone who’s own book is titled “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know“? You know I’d be delighted that Thompson’s “Creative Conspiracy” cites research tying happiness at work to creativity.

Positive mood increased creative performance as well as the efficiency of implementation…Positive moods increased the task focus of the groups. People who are led to be in a positive mood generated more original ideas than people who are in a neutral mood. Similarly, people who have been offered more positive (as opposed to negative) feedback are more likely to give helpful hints to others.

But the positive mood and fun have to be genuine, not phony or forced.

10. Watch out for the four villains of decision-making. If you truly don’t want to be an idea killer, think about this good advice from idea gurus Dan and Chip Heath, authors of “Made to Stick” and “Switch.” In their latest book, “Decisive,” the Heath brothers cite four barriers to good decision-making. Before you embrace or extinguish an idea, beware of narrow framing, confirmation bias (gathering self-serving information), short-term emotion, and overconfidence about how the future will unfold. Skip the villains and you could be a hero.

One bonus tip: If you really want to help nurture great ideas, give people a break from multi-tasking, because it interferes with creativity and concentration.

I discovered that in Zumba class, too. I was doing just fine, following along with the instructor, smiling about my flash of insight about those story killers. But I didn’t stop there. I tried writing the first paragraph in my head.

Now, THAT was a bad idea.

In moments, I was hopelessly out of step with the class, demonstrating the folly of trying to execute competing cognitive processes (craft a paragraph, count your steps) simultaneously. I learned, to my embarrassment, that you just might kill a story AND a salsa at the same time.

Here’s the podcast version of today’s column:

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Friday, Mar. 15, 2013


How veteran leaders can adopt a ‘new manager mindset’

As I led a workshop this week for a group of experienced editors, I began with a wish for them: “May you think like a new manager.”

The concept was fresh in my mind, having spent the previous week leading a seminar for newbies. Make no mistake, the new managers had plenty of the time-honored anxieties: how to manage the shift from co-worker/buddy to boss, how to lead employees of all ages, personalities, experience levels and talent, and how to build credibility, trust and authority.

But here’s something that didn’t show up on their list of worries: the past.

Unlike tenured supervisors who wistfully recall leading in fatter times with richer resources, new managers think about the teams and tools they have today. They’ve always known some kind of technological disruption that requires new learning. Their souls aren’t scarred by the pain of presiding over past downsizings.

Their eyes are on focused on the future. They’ve been given the keys to the car and though it may be an economy model instead of the luxury beast of years gone by, it’s their ride and they’re all about the road ahead.

This isn’t a criticism of veteran managers. I believe their wisdom, born of experience, is needed more than ever. I just want them to remember how easy it is to filter today’s decisions through the prism of yesterday instead of tomorrow. Their conversations may be tinged with survivor’s guilt. They may hesitate to delegate, believing their doing-more-with-less staffers are at capacity and not noticing those who, in fact, are looking for new responsibilities. They may flinch at a promising new approach or idea, presuming people have chronic change fatigue.

That’s why I shared my wish with the veteran managers this week — that in addition to their priceless values, wisdom and experience, they enjoy the best of a new manager mindset. I want them to respect the best of the past and bring it forward, as though this were the day they were tapped to lead the team.

Sometimes, that new manager mindset comes when we move up or away to a new leadership role. That’s the case for the veteran editor who has helped me produce these leadership columns and podcasts and even the “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” book that sprung from it all.

This will be the last column of mine that Julie Moos edits (at least officially — you know how writers stalk their favorite editors). Julie is moving to McClatchy as senior digital editor of its Washington, D.C. bureau. When I ran this column idea past Julie and twisted her arm to let me finish it with a word about her, we talked about how she’ll approach being a leader who’s new to an organization.

The editor who’s never at a loss for ideas and innovation told me she plans to listen and learn — to get to know the people, processes, products, priorities and yes, the politics of her new environment. In doing so, she’ll ask the outsider’s questions about why things work as they do, which is the very thing insiders can become too steeped in their environment to do.

For all of her experience, she still plans to bring a new manager mindset to work. May you do the same.

Here’s a podcast to help persuade you:
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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013

10 ways we limit our success & how to overcome those artificial barriers

I believe there’s a bounty of buried treasure in organizations: ideas, solutions and talent that lie untapped. Among the reasons: management fails to recognize the potential in employees or even discourages their aspirations.

But let’s not pick on bosses today. Instead, let’s look at how good employees can actually get in the way of their own success. Remember, I’m talking about already valuable contributors who could be offering more.

I was inspired to write about this challenge by a participant in a recent workshop. She’s not a manager, but she has impressed her supervisors with her talent and positive influence on her team. So they nominated her for additional leadership learning. They’re investing in the future.

At the end of our workshop, when participants talked about things they’d do in the future (in leadership areas like innovation, collaboration, coaching, conflict resolution and communication), she made a statement that grabbed my attention.

She said she’d stop letting “artificial barriers” get in her way.

This smart young woman identified something important. Buried treasure in organizations can be obscured by artificial barriers of our own making. Any of us can get in our own way by letting fear, misinformation or assumptions cause us to self-censor or stand in place when we could be stepping up. We can talk ourselves out of leading.

Let me be more specific. I can name at least 10 artificial barriers we put in the way of our ideas and our aspirations:

1. Fear of overstepping our boundaries. We persuade ourselves that the response to our initiatives or outreach will be, “Mind your own business.” So, we don’t extend ourselves beyond our assigned roles or responsibilities.

2. Uncertainty as to how we’re evaluated by others. We’re not sure if colleagues and bosses see us as high performers or innovators or influential individuals — because we haven’t been told so directly or recently. Lacking good feedback, we wait to be anointed or invited before deciding to lead.

3. Memories of past missteps. If we’ve stepped on someone’s toes in the past, even inadvertently, or if we’ve been chastised by bosses or co-workers for an idea that flopped, we may feel those bruises long after they’ve healed and are ancient history. We become risk-averse.

4. Presumption of unimportance. Humility is a wonderful thing — but too much can shut down self-confidence. We can too easily presume that if we lack a title or an endorsement by powerful people, then what we have to offer mustn’t be all that valuable. We’ve yet to learn that informal influence can have as much impact as a formal, powerful title.

5. Bad advice and overdependence on the rumor mill. When we’re thinking of volunteering an idea, challenging the status quo or seeking more responsibility — to whom do we go for counsel? Are we reaching out to people who coach us toward success or who talk us out of trying? Do we give too much credence to malcontents and gossips in our midst, skewing our perspective about the organization and our chances for success?

6. Lack of connection to our bosses. We can hold ourselves back by ignoring the importance of “managing up” — learning about our organization’s strategic goals and our manager’s priorities, how our bosses want to hear about new ideas or solutions, and how to align our dreams with their realities.

7. Misplaced focus on tenure versus talent. We might think that we don’t have enough experience or haven’t spent enough time on the team — and therefore our ideas won’t get traction.  We make the mistake of thinking that “new” is defined solely in our workplace as “green” or “unproven” rather than “fresh” and “innovative.”

8. Immersion in our current work. This can be the downside to a great work ethic; our organization keeps assigning more of what we’re currently doing well to our workload. Our sense of duty and our overly-full plates keep us from looking at what else might be out there on the buffet of opportunities. While we’re doing what’s asked of us — and then some — we neglect to advocate for ourselves.

9. Waiting for formal training. When a new role involves additional knowledge or skill, we may presume we’re not qualified. I can’t tell you how many aspiring managers I’ve had to disabuse of the notion that if they haven’t been trained in budgeting, they’re unlikely candidates for promotion. (I tell them it’s among the easiest management skills to learn as you lead.) Or how many people I’ve encouraged to plunge ahead and learn the skills they covet, whether or not their organization offers formal training.  (It’s the reason I framed my own book on management, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” as a workshop, so people could train themselves, if need be.)

10. Fear of appearing ambitious. Finally, some of us just have a hard time saying, “Put me in, coach!” — for fear of appearing to lust for success at the expense of others. We don’t realize that one can be a first-class team player and at the same time, a terrific team leader.

It was easy to come up with this list of artificial barriers. All I had to do was think of the many sharp people at all levels of organizations that I’ve taught and coached about these issues — people I encouraged to:

  • Become better reporters about the realities of their organizations (strategy, systems, culture)
  • Build better relationships with their managers
  • Get clarity about their current roles and responsibilities and future opportunities
  • Find coaches and mentors who support and challenge them
  • Grab every opportunity for learning and development, formal or informal
  • Believe in themselves

After all, the best way for good people to deal with artificial barriers can be as simple as this: Get out of your own way.

* * *

In a future column, I WILL pick on bosses and organizations that build bona fide barriers to success, because it’s an important issue.  But for now, here’s the companion podcast about breaking through those “artificial barriers” we construct for ourselves.

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Monday, Dec. 31, 2012

Don’t wait to thank someone great

At this time in 2011, I was eagerly awaiting the New Year. My dream of publishing a book for managers would be realized in June. In that book, amid the advice and research, would be stories from my personal experience. Two of those stories involved bosses I worked for. They were two men who could not have been more different in their leadership styles, but both made an indelible impact on my life.

One of them, Andy Potos, knew he would be in the book. In fact, my editor insisted that I run the copy past him; she thought it might offend him that I revealed I almost quit rather than work for Andy when he became my boss. I described him in the book as a “brash and bottom-line fixated sales guy, and he saw me as a holier-than thou newsperson, bunkered in a silo with my team.” There was more:

He came from the Vince Lombardi school of leadership. Like the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, he was tough, demanding, competitive, and quick to anger. But we both believed in quality journalism and community service, so we built from there.

I learned that behind his intimidating persona was a quick mind that loved a robust debate with a respected sparring partner. As I earned Andy’s trust, I could also tease him about his interesting idiosyncrasies — like wearing a jogging suit to work or parking his luxury car on sidewalks when he felt like it, spouting unprintable invective about competitors or critics — and always, always, raising the bar. Whatever we accomplished was to be celebrated — and then immediately topped!

To placate my book editor, I called Andy and read him that section, along with everything I’d written about how our one-year trial period became a 15-year adventure. His response: “Aw, guy, you’re getting me choked up.” What I knew, that my editor didn’t, was that tough guys don’t mind at all being described as tough guys.

And that tough guy co-hosted the first launch party for “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” in Wisconsin in June, at which I happily read that passage about him to the crowd.

The second boss I wrote about didn’t know he’d be in the book. I wanted to surprise Jim Naughton, the former president of The Poynter Institute. The last chapter of the book focuses on leadership values I treasure: integrity, humanity, and levity. Jim embodied them all, with a special talent for levity in the workplace. I wrote that “he brought just the right mix of gravitas and ‘goofy-tas’ to his position as an academic leader.”

I described the pool table he installed in his office for all to use, his crazy hat collection, and his proclivity for practical jokes, “always wickedly creative but never cruel.” I noted:

Now in retirement, Jim Naughton still smiles, even as he deals with the deadly serious challenge of cancer. On the last day of a series of radiation treatments, just for laughs, he surprised the clinic staff by showing up in a sumo wrestler costume, saying, “Look what your radiation has done to me!”  In a book he’s just written about his life as a serial prankster, and his devotion to levity in good times and bad, he ends with these words:

“As long as I am able, I plan to laugh death in the face.”

To that, I added, “Keep laughing, Jim. For a long time.”

When the book came out, I sent a signed copy to Jim, directing him to the tribute to him in the closing pages. A scheduled cancer treatment kept Jim from attending a June book launch event at Poynter, but he emailed me with warm thanks and Naughton-esque wishes for best-sellerdom.

June was a good month.

Then came August.

Early that month, we lost Jim. The damn cancer found a way to outperform the many medical moves that had kept it at bay over the years. Later in August, the seemingly indestructible Andy suffered a traumatic brain injury, with all the challenges that such bodily insults bring, especially to people in their 80s.

Last year at this time, I didn’t envision this turn of events. Didn’t assume I’d be reading the passage about Jim at his memorial service. Didn’t expect to be sending cards to Andy at his care center, hoping they reach him on a good day, as I wait and hope for him to be well enough for a visit.

But here’s what I know this year: I’m comforted that I told two men, two leaders, why they mattered so much in my life. I did it very publicly, in a book, but there’s no reason I couldn’t have delivered those thoughts and feelings to them personally, much sooner.

And that’s my message for you as a new year approaches. You can’t imagine — much less predict — how life will play out. But you have one power that you can put to use right now: the ability to share all the good thoughts, the sincere gratitude, the great memories, with people who’ve earned it — whether in your professional or personal life. Don’t wait until it’s time to say goodbye. Say it at hello.

Write a note. Make a call. Look someone in the eye and reveal what’s in your heart.

Go ahead, say it.

I think it will increase the chances that you’ll truly have a Happy New Year.

Here’s the podcast version of this column:

Read more


Friday, Dec. 21, 2012


Take the ‘Threshold Test’ as you cross into the new year at work

As we cross the threshold from off-duty to on-the-clock when entering our workplaces, we ask ourselves, “How much do I matter here? Is my work respected? Am I growing and learning? Do my ideas make a difference?”

I call those questions the “Threshold Test.”

Even the most highly qualified contributors in an organization ask themselves those questions. It’s human nature to want to know where we stand.

Too often, the very people who could answer these unasked questions and enlighten us, don’t. Managers miss opportunities to engage because they fail to deliver feedback that is sincere, specific and ongoing. Many are more focused on products than people. They are quick to point out flaws because they know their job is to protect the organization and those it serves from mistakes and missteps. But they’re less adept at positive reinforcement for people who truly deserve it.

Here are some reasons.

Some bosses say, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you are doing a good job.”

While they may think they’ve put people at ease, I believe it really means,“Consider my neglect a compliment.” (And shudder when you see me coming your way!)

Some managers announce, “I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to do. I praise superior performance.”

In so doing, they miss reinforcing the good work employees deliver each day. Should people really have to astound us with brilliance or breakthroughs in order to earn applause from the boss? How about encouragement when they’re tired or challenged, acknowledgement of genuine effort, and pats on the back for being reliable and professional?

Too often, supervisors erase their own praise.

In my book, “Work Happy, What Great Bosses Know,” I devote several chapters to effective feedback and specifically warn against “Praise Erasers.”

  • They include praise that smacks of control:“See, you did it my way and it’s better.”
  • Or praise that’s condescending: “Gotta love my geek. Always there with the tech solution for me.” 
  • How about praise that’s self-involved: “Great job. Reminds me of a sale I closed two years ago.” 
  • Or praise that’s bait-and-switch: “Loved the way you handled that customer. Hey, I have three projects here for you.”

And then there’s the killer Praise Eraser I call “Big But Syndrome.”

We’ve all heard it. “Nice job, but…” I always remind the managers I teach and coach that the word “but” erases all the words that come before it. Consider de-coupling praise and criticism when possible. When you can’t…well, (shameless plug alert) check out the all options I share in my book or in my free iTunes U “What Great Bosses Know” podcasts.

Employees want feedback. Employers don’t necessarily give it – or give it well. Some are too nice to have a tough talk. Some praise ineffectively. Here’s the good news for employee engagement. Managers can improve their feedback skills. And feedback, as valuable as it is to engagement, is free. Tough economic times may take away the pay and perks we’d like to increase, but at no cost at all, feedback is priceless.

Think about that the next time you cross the threshold to work, leaders. Whose engagement have you fed today?

A version of this post was previously published on the “Switch & Shift” blog. Read more


Thursday, Dec. 06, 2012


10 key skills today’s leaders need to succeed in 2013

What sets the most successful managers apart from others? You might be an expert in your field, even the smartest person in the room — but that’s no guarantee of success. You need an array of skills that are particularly well-suited to times of change and challenge. Here are 10 I recommend.

1. Strategic Thinking
Don’t just immerse yourself in today’s tasks. Think big picture. Step back from the dance floor from time to time and take the balcony view (Hat tip for that great metaphor to the book, Leadership on the Line.”) Review systems. Set priorities aligned with major goals. Learn new and scary things. Encourage innovation by backing good people who take smart risks.

2. Collaboration
Overcome the four barriers to collaboration I’ve written about before.

  • Distance: Stay on the radar with people you don’t see regularly.
  • Dominance: Change assumptions about the importance/subservience of certain roles in your organization.
  • Discomfort: Educate yourself and your staff about the work of others.
  • Dissonance: Check your demands and systems to make certain they aren’t undercutting collaboration.

Be a role model for effectively networking by showing the value of spanning old boundaries and busting old silos.

3. Emotional Intelligence
Your IQ alone can’t fuel the group’s success. Emotional intelligence is critical. Build your self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Recognize that as a leader, you are contagious. Be a source of energy, empathy and earned trust, proving optimism and realism can co-exist. Understand that resilience is key to leadership, especially in stressful times. One of my favorites reads of the past year, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain,” lays out the neuroscience of resilience and underscores that we can consciously build our capacity.

4. Critical Thinking
Critical thinkers question conventional wisdom. They are vigilant about identifying and challenging assumptions that underlie actions or inaction. They are automatically wary of generalizations, inferences and unproven theories. Among their favorite questions is: “How do we know that?” They strive to independent thinkers, careful to check how their own biases might color their decisions. They do this automatically to speed up good decision-making, not to cause “paralysis by analysis.”

5. Communication
This one seems so simple, yet it comes up continually in my seminars as a deficit in organizations — and it’s managers who point out the problem! Bosses who don’t communicate effectively get in the way of their team’s effectiveness. Make it your goal to master every form of interpersonal communication and make it powerful: one-to-one, small group, full staff, email, social media, and of course, listening.

Become an expert on framing, storytelling and finding the master narrative in a situation. If you don’t, others will — and the others may be your internal critics or your external competitors.

6. Motivation
Telling people “You are lucky to have a job” in no way qualifies as motivation. Nor does fear, unless it is fear of letting a great boss down. Nor, interestingly, does throwing money at people. Pay them fairly, of course, but don’t stop there. Understand the key intrinsic motivators: competence, autonomy, purpose and growth. Determine the prescription for each of your employees.

7. Feedback
Commit to wearing what I call “feedback glasses” — new lenses through which you look at people and their work. Through these lenses, you are always on the alert for opportunities to deliver specific, helpful information to people about their performance and their value to the organization. Upgrade the quality of all of your interactions by using them as opportunities for customized, effective feedback. In my new book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I devote a chapter to feedback as the key to performance management, with a complete tool kit of options.

8. Tough Conversations
Don’t avoid tough talks. Learn to do them deftly, avoiding the many pitfalls they can present. Become an expert at addressing challenges and problems early and often. Don’t let problems fester or bullies prevail. Build trust as a leader so people recognize your good intentions even in the midst or wake of challenging conversations.

9. Coaching
Are you among the legions of managers who habitually fix the work of others? Are you the non-stop answer machine for people who are overly reliant on you for decisions? And at the end of the day, do you wonder why you’re frustrated and exhausted and employees aren’t getting better on your watch? You need to learn to coach their growth.

Coaching is an entirely different skill from fixing. It helps people learn to improve their work and make decisions for themselves. Don’t just take my word for it; a 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research says the most important tasks of effective managers are teaching skills that endure and fueling the motivation of employees.

10. Making Values Visible and Viral
Let people know what you stand for. Make those conversations a part of your daily work. Lose your fear of coming off as corny or holier than thou. Tap into the great reservoir of commitment and care that people bring to their work lives, but often fail to talk about unless they’re at some professional seminar (like ours), where it pours out. Why?  Because we make it safe to talk about values like integrity, diversity, community, and service. All we have to do is start those conversations, and they always take off organically. It should happen in the workplace, too. If you don’t inspire, who will?

Each of these is a skill you can learn. I know, because I teach them! And there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing careers improve as people grow from being okay managers to being great bosses who understand the key skills of leadership.

For an elaboration of this column, listen to this companion podcast:
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Monday, Oct. 15, 2012


10 secrets your Great Boss never told you

I have to confess. Were it not for a desk calendar that highlights various holidays,  I’d never know that Tuesday, October 16 is “Boss’s Day” in the United States. It’s an occasion that’s never been on my radar.

I also suspect that many employees think: Wait, What? Bosses get their say, their way, their pay — do they really need a day?

Frankly, the best bosses out there would probably agree. They didn’t sign on to management for the accolades — or to put it more bluntly, so that people might suck up to them on a daily or even once-a-year basis. As I write in my book “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” true leaders do what they do for the joy of helping other people succeed, while making products and services better at the same time.

But here’s something many employees don’t know. The best managers also keep  secrets from their employees — certain things they’ve strategically and wisely chosen NOT to share. It’s what makes them great bosses.

In honor of National Boss Day, I’m going to leak that classified data. It’s time to get it out in the open.

Here are 10 secrets your great boss never told you:

  1. I delegated an important task to you before you were completely ready for it.  But all I said was, “I know you can do it.”
  2. I bent an organizational rule for you at some risk to myself.
  3. I took the hit for a mistake you made.
  4. I changed someone’s negative perception of you.
  5. I didn’t show my frustration as you struggled a bit while picking up a new skill.
  6. I learned through the grapevine that you made a wisecrack or two about management. I shrugged it off, knowing good people deserve to vent.
  7. I set aside other tasks to give you full attention. I lugged a whole lot of work home because you needed my time.
  8. I coached you away from making a bad decision, leaving you confident you reached it on your own.
  9. I worked really hard to memorize the names of every person and pet in your family.
  10. I conducted a private and persistent campaign to get you that assignment, promotion or raise. When it happened, my message was simply, “You earned it.”

Why do great bosses keep these things to themselves? Simple. They do it to build the competence and confidence of their team members. In fact, the better you are as an employee, the greater the likelihood that your boss has kept you in the dark about these management mysteries.

So, should you mark the barely recognized National Boss Day by asking your leader if he or she has kept any of these secrets from you? And if you’re that boss, how should you respond? I share my opinion in this “What Great Bosses Know” podcast:

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Thursday, Aug. 09, 2012


The 10 powers of leadership and why they matter

Jill Geisler delivered the commencement address to this year’s graduates of Duquesne University’s School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, where she received her master’s degree in 2004. This is an adapted version of her speech.

Because I sat where you sit today, dressed as you are, I can truly say I know what you are thinking. I know that the men and women in this room are asking themselves one compelling question about the future:

What is my hair going to look like when I take off this mortarboard?

You will look fine. Trust me.

And you will BE fine going forward.

How do I know? Because I believe you have power. In fact, I want you to recognize that, fully and even ferociously. Here’s how:

Would you please turn to the people nearest you in your row and introduce yourself. Please say your name and include this simple phrase:  “I am a power hungry Duquesne leader.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Why do we laugh when we say those words? What is it about the term “power hungry” that makes it so uncomfortable, so negative? Especially for women, as I note in my book.

What’s wrong with craving power? Not a thing – provided you use that power in service of important values. Enduring values. If you use your power for good.

This is why I say today – more power to you. Go for it. Earn it. Multiply it. Share it.

But let me be specific. Let me cite 10 powers I wish for you, 10 powers that distinguish the finest of leaders, no matter where they live or work:

I wish you…

1. The Power of Appreciation: I often ask a class of managers, “Who in here gets too much feedback?” Hands rarely, if ever, go up. In fact, my experience is that employees at all levels are starving for feedback. They have bosses who say, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you’re doing a good job.” That’s asking people to accept neglect as a compliment. Or “I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to.” And we wonder why some organizations struggle with employee engagement.

Now ask that same class how many have saved a thank you note from a boss, a client or a customer. Hands go up. The handwritten note of thanks is treasured, often for years to come.

I wish you…

2. The Power of Encouragement: Somewhere, at this moment, there’s a 5K run under way. Runners are trying for a personal best, or showing support for a cause, or trying to stay healthy. They’re nearing a hill, some are winded and wondering about the wisdom of this adventure – and then there’s the band off to the side, playing the theme from “Rocky,” and the people poised to clap, LOUD, and the crazy signs like ones I’ve seen that say, “They’re running out of beer at the finish, hurry up,” or “You’re so smart and pretty.” And somehow, the power of encouragement provides a second wind. When life and work get challenging, for whom will you provide that second wind?

I wish you…

3. The Power of Critical Thinking: The most important thing my academic career taught me is how much I don’t know  and why continuous learning happens via critical thinking. That’s why questions are such important tools. It’s why assumptions are to be explored before they’re embraced. It’s why biases and blind spots can overtake our best selves, or what we think to be our best selves, unless we’re vigilant. Check sources and context, challenge generalizations and inferences, and never lose sight of the core values that guide you.

I wish you…

4. The Power of Optimism: Emotions, as you know, are contagious. When you are a person of influence, people look to you for cues and clues. We all know people who make the workplace better and brighter just by showing up. They combine realism and pragmatism with hope and a relentlessly positive outlook. And we want to be a part of that person’s team.

I wish you…

5. The Power of Resilience: Resilience is the space and time between disappointment and recommitment, between sorrow and healing, between offense and forgiveness, between setback and, “So what? I’ll try another way.”

May your space and time be a short and sturdy bridge that takes you and those you lead from darkness into light.

I wish you…

6. The Power of Laughter: I write in my book that my guiding values of leadership are humanity, integrity and levity. Levity, not cruel or crude jokes, just humor that brings genuine laughter and happiness into teams and relationships. May you have the power to bring smiles to the faces of others and to laugh at yourself.

I wish you…

7. The Power of Collaboration: Here’s my secret. It’s not all that complicated. Find out what makes a great day at work for someone who does a job you don’t do. Learn what their bosses expect from them, who people in their field mention when they talk about the all-time greats, find out what obstacles get in the way of their success, discover their personal hopes and dreams – and you’ll become a powerful collaborator. You’ll be known for inclusion, always listening for untold stories and unheard voices. You’ll span boundaries and break barriers.

I wish you…

8. The Power of Apology: When they make a mistake, true leaders put taking personal responsibility above saving face. They step up and fess up. Not with squishy passive voice: “Mistakes were made…” With bold active voice: “I let you down.” Not the weasly conditional: “If anyone was offended…” but with the bold and definitive: “I was wrong.” A sincere, specific apology can not only can heal injury, it can raise credibility and build trust. Apology is a hallmark of integrity.

I wish you…

Duquesne University graduates stand during Geisler’s speech.

9. The Power of Choice: You’ve been patient with me through eight powers now, as I took the liberty of imposing my list on you. But you have equally, if not better, thoughts about the power you’d most like to have. And everything we know about motivation says autonomy – the power to choose — is a potent intrinsic motivator. We are most likely to embrace solutions and ideas of our own creation.

So I pause now, before I get to number 10, to invite you to create your personal number nine. I’ll be quiet for a few moments as you choose your preferred power. When you’ve got it, please stand up and stay standing. I’ll wait.

And now as you stand proudly here today, I wish you number 10.

10. The Power of Love: I was tempted to make number 10 the power of inspiration. But on reflection, I chose the power of love. You see, at the root of all inspiration you find love. Love of country, or of faith or of nature or of one’s vocation, love of people who are dear to us. To inspire is simply to put a beautiful frame around that love so it is on display for all to share. And that’s how I want to leave you today – framed in love. There are people who would have treasured being with you today, but could not be. Pause again for a moment, close your eyes if you’d like, and see their faces. Feel their love.

And now, turn your attention to the loved ones who ARE here today. Can you see them? Loved ones, I know you have cameras with you, so get ready to use them. Graduates, please take this moment, to share the power of love – out loud, a true shout out, with whatever words are most meaningful to those who came here to cheer for you. Go for it.

That’s my bonus – Power number 11: The Power to Make a Memory.

Never miss the chance to make a memory.

* * *

Here’s the accompanying podcast to today’s column:
Read more