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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10 tips for preventing staff burnout in spite of more work, fewer resources

Motivation. It’s a popular topic in leadership teaching. Keeping staff members engaged, positive and productive has always been a management responsibility.

But today, the questions about motivation are often more blunt, even raw. How do we handle the human impact of an shrinking workforce tasked with increasing workload? How much is too much to ask of people before they break faith with management, or just plain break down?

Look at the word cloud of Digital First editors’ recent responses to the question “What obstacles do you face in getting things done?”

Nearly half of the people who responded to our Twitter poll said “staff” is the biggest obstacle to getting things done.

The big fat images are a shout out for support: staff, equipment, time — positioned near that most telling word, “lack.” It’s a billboard display of what most newsroom managers think, talk about, and struggle with today.

Look at the headline for a recent chat: “How to Tell When It’s Time to Get Out of Journalism.” In the conversation, chat host Joe Grimm, who’s coached countless careers, brought up the B-word:

The out-and-out “let’s get out” decision often follows a series of disappointments or a period of burnout. That indicates the craft has changed too much to be fun anymore, or we have changed and are looking for new things…

Joe’s right, but there’s another cause of disappointment and burnout I need to address: flawed management.

Leading in times of change and challenge takes skills far beyond helping people to get over it and get back to work. Bosses whose approach to employee engagement begins and ends with “you should be happy to have a job” can’t help but contribute to burnout. They inspire people — to look for better bosses.

Since you read this column, I’m betting you’re among the better ones.  As you do your best to meet your business objectives, you also want to fight against destructive disappointment and burnout.

That’s why I’ve developed a checklist for you: 10 things that bosses can examine and perhaps improve in these demanding times. In the process, you can remove obstacles to your staff’s success instead of adding to their stress.

Your Checklist of Ten Antidotes to Burnout

  1. Strategy check: When you’re clear on your business strategy, you can establish priorities. You can tell that employee who’s head is swimming (or nearly exploding) because of multiple demands, which tasks they should tackle first, or with more resources, and which should take a back burner. If you’re not clear on your organization’s strategic vision, make it your business to get as much clarity as possible from your bosses. And yes, strategy may change on a dime these days. Businesses are being advised to innovate and “fail fast” or “fail forward” -- which means today’s hot initiative may be tomorrow’s cold corpse. It’s your job to keep informed on the status of your strategy.
  2. Systems check: Smart managers constantly review workflow and systems for inefficiencies and opportunities. Where do things get bogged down? Why do we still hand off the work from department to department or person to person in this pattern? Where are the choke points or areas of frustration? It’s easy to focus on small fixes in daily work instead of re-evaluating the why and how of old — or even new — systems. Enlist your staff to help you. You may find that what you’ve been writing off as their “whining” about roadblocks are actual pressure points that may provide insights for improvement. Let people know you are open to hearing about problems, especially from those people who also offer pragmatic, realistic solutions.
  3. Resource check: Even when capital and operating budgets are anemic, make a “wish list” of hardware, software, and yes, people you would add right now if you could. Managers often lower their expectations in tough times, censoring themselves so they don’t look greedy, grumbling or goofy to their bosses.  But every manager should be prepared to make a business case for resources, especially when the argument can be tied to strategy, innovation, or any result that rings of return-on-investment. Even with no budget, be a “window shopper,” who knows exactly what you’d buy or whom you’d hire with your next real spending money.
  4. Training check: Somebody on your staff, right now, is less effective than he could be because of lack of training. Somebody on your staff is less engaged than she could be because she doesn’t feel like she’s learned something new in a while. Training is the first casualty of tough economic times, but smart managers persevere — finding everything from peer coaching to scholarships to bake sales to offset training costs. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to release someone for training. Just pretend. Pretend that the person who is away today getting smarter is home sick. The business wouldn’t shut down because of that sick day, right?
  5. Hiring check: Become a hiring genius. On the rare occasion you have an opening, “hire up” — don’t settle. Look for someone who takes your team to the next level. Set your standards high for skills related to your strategy, values for which you won’t compromise, and people smarter than you. You’re not just filling a hole when you hire, you are staking your reputation on the person’s ability to improve your work and your workplace.  Scout for that talent, even when you have no openings. You never know when opportunity may present itself and you’ll be ready.
  6. Accountability check: Here’s how to drive already hard-working employees to Burnout City: Ask them to pick up the slack for others on the team who can’t or won’t do work to that’s up to standard. To avoid this, make certain you don’t have blind spots about underperformers, especially if they are people you hired or frankly, you simply like. You don’t have to be a jerk to hold people accountable. You can be both kind and clear about expectations. Care enough to have tough conversations about performance issues. You owe it to your staff.
  7. Bad boss habit check: This could be (and probably will become) a column all its own. What bad habits of yours are making work harder for your team? Are you late to your own meetings? Do you delay decisions? Do you micromanage? Are you disorganized? Do you fail to follow up on conversations, emails, agreements? Do you resort to silence, sarcasm or screaming when you’re under stress? Recognize that your emotions are contagious and your bad habits may be the one burden you could immediately lighten for your team. I hope you have the courage to ask people about this, because I know there are employees who pray their bosses would ask for such input  and then act on it.
  8. Communication check: Even if you’re not silent, sarcastic or a screamer, that doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator. In times of change, people crave information. Are you keeping people informed, and feeling included? Are you listening to them? When they feel they aren’t in the loop, employees can fill in the blanks with their worst fears. That creates constant anxiety, a key ingredient in the recipe for burnout.
  9. Feedback check: The most important communication is feedback. Let people know where they stand, how they are doing, what they can be doing better and what’s expected of them. Never, ever miss an opportunity to provide feedback. One of my favorite recent management books, “The Progress Principle,” talks about the surprising power of small wins to keep people energized. The authors’ research also shows that small losses overpower small wins in employees’ minds, which is why consistent, constructive feedback can be so powerful.
  10. Agent check: I’ve written about this before and teach it constantly. Today’s managers can’t promise people jobs for life or a smooth, fast path to their dream job in the company. The economy can too easily make liars of them. But what bosses can promise is to be an employee’s good agent. If you hired an agent to represent you, that agent would make certain you are building a portfolio of noteworthy work, a record that could serve you well in your current job or wherever the changing business world takes you. The agent would candidly tell you what skills you need to sharpen in order to succeed, what things you’ve produced are worth saving and showing off, what next steps are within your reach and which would be too big a stretch. The agent would even tell you when you’ve outgrown your current role, and when a better opportunity might lie elsewhere. A good agent would protect you from burnout.  Bosses, are you that kind of agent?

I’m certain there are more than ten checks to be done. In fact, I know one more that’s an antidote to burnout. Call it a “culture check, which I explore in the companion podcast to this column:

If you enjoy these columns and podcasts, just a reminder that my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know”, will be released on June 5. Read the early reviews. Read more


6 books for great bosses to give or get as holiday gifts

Leaders are continuous learners, always looking to explore fresh ideas. That’s why I’m often asked to recommend good books for bosses. Sometimes I suggest what I’d call “classics,” which I’ve written about in previous columns. But let’s look at some newer releases I’ve enjoyed that I think you’d also like.

Warning: I have a bias when it comes to management and leadership literature. The books must be engagingly written and be research-based. I want to be able to check the science behind a claim before I embrace an author’s advice.

So, as you shop for others or drop hints for yourself this holiday season, here are several books you might consider.

“The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

Who will like it: Bosses who want to build real motivation and engagement among employees, even in the midst of tough economic times.

Amabile is director of research for the Harvard Business School. Co-author Kramer is a psychologist (and her husband). They persuaded 238 employees in seven different companies, spanning multiple industries, to keep daily diaries about their work. Some 12,000 diary entries later, the researchers crunched the data and found out what set the most successful folks apart from others, and what their bosses did to influence those good outcomes. Their major finding: it was the motivational power of forward motion, or the feeling of progress — even small wins.

The book explains how small setbacks can easily negate small wins, and explores what bosses can do to serve as catalysts for progress. The voices of the employees, excerpted from the diaries, echo throughout the book’s findings and advice. The book is practical, thorough, and impressive. I’ve been quoting from it in my teaching because its lessons are so clear and compelling. I really like it.

“Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People” by Edward Hallowell.

Who will like it: Managers who want to raise the game of underperformers as well as overachievers.

Hallowell is a psychiatrist whose noted work in the field of Attention Deficit Disorder makes him acutely aware of how our brains are wired. His focus in this book is everyday employees. His book offers a five-step process for getting the best from people:

  • Select (match skills to jobs)
  • Connect (build collaborative teams)
  • Play (more important at work than you may think)
  • Grapple and grow (dealing with challenge and pressure)
  • Shine (what types of recognition and reinforcement matter)

“Shine” covers territory similar to “The Progress Principle,” which I liked slightly more. “Shine”‘s “Select” chapter may prove frustrating to budget-challenged bosses who lack opportunities to move underperformers to jobs that are a better fit.  But the chapter on “Play” and its connection to creativity and motivation makes up for that. It’s a good read.

“StandOut” by Marcus Buckingham

Who will like it: Managers looking for an interesting tool to assess their top skills or those of their employees, especially as they relate to  leadership, management, sales and client service.

Buckingham is best known for his work with the Gallup organization’s breakthrough book, “First, Break All the Rules.” It got bosses talking about playing to peoples’ strengths. He later helped people identify them through the Strengthsfinder online assessment, which Buckingham says more than 5 million people have taken.

“StandOut,” according to Buckingham, is better because people who take it don’t just describe what they prefer to do. Instead, its online exercises describe common workplace scenarios and offer multiple responses, all of them good possibilities. You have only 45 seconds to choose what you’d do. The pattern of your choices determines how you rank among 9 different “strengths roles“: Advisor, Connector, Creator, Equalizer, Influencer, Pioneer, Provider, Stimulator, and Teacher.

The book provides a code for taking the StandOut assessment online. The results come as a “strengths list” in your personalized rank order, with your top two as a key focus. You get advice on how to leverage your strengths and watch out for their downsides. (My report: I’m a Provider/Equalizer; someone others come to for guidance in doing the right thing, good at rewarding and recognizing, but also capable of tough feedback and prone to fight for the underdog.)

“Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It” by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel

Who will like it: People at any level of an organization who want to protect against bias and bad decisions.

Bazerman and Tenbrunsel are professors of business ethics at Harvard and Notre Dame, respectively. Their goal in this book is to sound a clear and urgent warning: we’re not as ethical as we think we are and the ethics training we receive in the workplace is insufficient. They back up their assertion with research from the field of behavioral ethics, which examines why we often act in direct conflict to our expressed values.

The book explores concepts like “bounded awareness,” “bounded ethicality,” “ethical fading” and our “want” and “need” selves to alert us that we can take a workplace ethics workshop, filled with the intention of doing the right thing, and still mess up. It tackles our personal decision-making and the way whole organizations can develop blind spots.

I enjoyed this book and think it is ideal for a team of managers to read together. Knowing how common it is for individuals to miss seeing a conflict or bias, colleagues could commit to challenging each other with candor and care. Even as I recommend “Blind Spots,” I wish were as good at offering a broad array of remedies as it is at describing and deconstructing dangers. Expanded tips for a variety of ethics traps would make this important book even stronger.

“The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Atul Gawande

Who will like it: Managers who want to improve systems, quality, communication and teamwork.

Gawande is a surgeon and one heck of a writer. Although “The Checklist Manifesto looks at how something as simple as a checklist saves lives in aviation and medicine, its lessons apply to organizations of all kinds. That’s because there’s an art to checklists, which he investigates. But more importantly, the simple introduction of lists often challenges organizational cultures and hierarchies. They also drive communication and shatter old assumptions.

It’s hard not to be drawn in to Gawande’s international adventures on behalf of the World Health Organization, as he cautiously and carefully works with medical professionals to examine which checklists might improve surgical outcomes country by country. He also takes readers into airplane simulators and high-rise buildings under construction to demonstrate how checklists support quality and safety.

If you want a sample of Gawande’s approach to storytelling for leaders, check out his recent piece in the New Yorker, “Personal Best.” He tells the story of his quest to improve his already sharp skills as a surgeon by working with a coach. It makes the solid case that even top performers benefit from feedback and coaching.

* * *

Those are my top five suggestions — but permit me to add a personal post script.

There’s another book I hope you’ll soon enjoy.  It’s coming out in June of 2012 but already available at Amazon and elsewhere for pre-orders.

“Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” by Jill Geisler

Who will like it: Everyone who has asked me for years to suggest one book, just one book that will help them become a better manager and leader in a variety of areas: communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, motivation, performance management, emotional intelligence, managing the boss — and having fun at work. I couldn’t pin down just one, so I wrote it!

People who’ve taken part in our Poynter leadership training at the Institute or my workshops on the road have asked for help in building on that learning and bringing it to others in their organizations. So, this is the workshop-in-a-book, designed to transform workplaces by helping managers become great bosses. It’s designed for leaders at any level of an organization, even aspiring managers.

I’ll share a little more in this podcast about “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” and the other books I’ve recommended:

And please add your favorite management titles in the comments section. I’d love to get a conversation going about helpful books for bosses. Read more


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