Advice, Management

I still remember the ‘old guys’, Bas and Hans, at my first corporate job. They were standing at the fax machine lamenting about how it had changed everything. No longer did they have the luxury of fielding a client request and mailing a quote or proposal to them. Now the client wanted it that day. Perhaps even that hour. Or God forbid – right away! Things were moving too fast they said.

I wonder what they would think of today’s business environment, where the luxury of time and connected thought have become unfortunate casualties of the ‘blackberry culture’. In the ‘blackberry culture’ the business leader of today is constantly available, and hence always on call. There is very little down time. At the same time, as a society, we have a deep yearning to create some semblance of work/life balance. I hear this yearning resonating in groups that we work with across all demographics and geographies. It reaches it’s height in the first and second levels of supervision, and starts to decline in the more senior levels of management as leaders become accustomed to the culture of connection and resign themselves to their fate. Some brave souls have found the way to strike the delicate balance between their personal and professional life, but more often than not there is a quiet resignation to the reality of corporate life.

So if work/life balance is at all possible, how do people strike the balance? We asked 15 senior leaders this question. In the discussion that followed we discovered 5 myths that they had to honestly uncover within themselves and address.

Myth#1: I have to be accessible all the time.

The unfortunate reality is that cell phones and blackberry type devices have created an ‘electronic tether’ for high achievers that is highly seductive in it’s allure. This tether serves to massage our egos while allowing our need for control and constant contact to run amuk. Here are 4 ways to recognize and counter the allure of the ‘electronic tether’:

1. Reconcile yourself to the fact that you are not indispensable.

While there is no doubt that leaders make a valuable and significant contribution to the success of the teams they lead, only the most egocentric amongst us would deem themselves to be truly indispensable. In fact, it is a sobering reality that no matter how talented a person is, everyone will be replaced one day. The only question is when that day will occur. Every city has a piece of real estate full of people who once considered themselves indispensable. In fact, we would argue that if you are indispensable, you are not performing adequately as a leader – but more on that later.

2. Check your ego at the door.

There is no doubt that successful leaders have a healthy self image and they draw on this belief in their own abilities to tackle challenges and obstacles that would seem daunting to others. The question that every leader must ask is this: What gives me my sense of self worth? Does it come from an inner sense of contribution to others and recognition that adding value is always recognized by others in any organization of value? Confident leaders can always afford to lavish well deserved praise on others. Jim Collins spoke to this issue with a concept he referred to as the window and the mirror. He related that his research of successful leaders showed that when things went well they went to the window and praised the people in the organization that had made it happen. When things did not go well, they would go the mirror and ask themselves what they could have done differently. In contrast, leaders who struggled would go the mirror when things went well and congratulate themselves. When things went badly, they would go to the window and chastise the culprits who, no doubt, had caused the poor results. Where do you go when things are going well – the mirror or the window? When was the last time you were at the window?

3. Recognize your addiction to being in control.

One of the disturbing trends that I see in many client groups is the growing addiction many leaders have for controlling every aspect of the business. The Blackberry Culture allows you to insert yourself in to aspects of the business that would have been impossible only a few years ago. Most leaders do not recognize this trend within themselves, but they do complain of one of the major symptoms of this trend – lack of engagement from their employee base. If you see this trend with your people it may be time for some self reflection as to it’s root cause.

4. Recognize your crisis orientation.

Leaders excel at problem solving. There is a sort of adrenaline rush that comes from being the one who is not stressed but energized by daunting tasks, by being the one person everyone knows will be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat at the last moment. In fact, most leaders (if they were honest) would admit to some degree of satisfaction from being the one who can handle the crises that others stress about. Leaders must learn to judge their success not by how many crises are addressed, but by how many are averted and/or handled by others.

Myth #2: I have to work the hours I do.

Do you? Think back 3-5 years, if you could go back in time, could you do that job in less time? Most leaders answer that question with an emphatic yes! Well, how did that change occur? For most leaders, it happened slowly as they gathered additional skill and knowledge. It happened in reaction to the demands of having to do more in less time.

Here is another question for you: Do you expect the demands on you to increase or decrease over the next year? That question usually evokes a chuckle from the audience. Of course, demands always increase. The problem is that we linearly increase our production capability in response to demand, rather than making a dramatic shift in the way we address our work.

What is required is a quantum shift in our thinking rather than a linear shift in our ability or, worse yet, more ‘effort’. Now, I am not peddling the ‘work smarter, not harder’ adage that is true, but not exactly helpful. Most people inwardly groan when a leader starts that pep rally speech. The problem is not that we want to work harder, but that we do not know how to work smarter. In fact, our thinking is limited by the challenges and problems we experience every day.

One of the best ways to make a quantum shift in your thinking is to make the status quo unacceptable. Here is one way to make this happen:

Sit down with at a quiet time and blank pad of paper, and answer the following question: If I had to double my group’s production in the next year, how would I make that happen? Now, I know what your immediate reaction will be – that’s impossible! Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. (I have seen it happen to many people who initially thought it so.) But, at the very least, looking for the answer to that question will take your thinking to a higher plane – to solutions that you would not have otherwise considered.

Once you have completed this exercise, determine one habit that you must change to move yourself in this new direction. Next, commit to making this habit change a reality – not tomorrow – today.

Oh, and one other thing: Give up on the idea that you have to work all those hours, and start asking yourself every day how you could do more in less time – unless, of course, you actually like the people at work more than the people at home.

Myth #3: My boss expects everything yesterday.

At VisionPoint, we have had the pleasure of working with thousands of leaders from all levels in many types of organizations. One of the key comments we hear from leaders is that everything is urgent and that their boss requires everything ‘yesterday’. Since we often work with different levels of the same organization concurrently, we decided to check this feedback out with the ‘boss’. What we have found is that the ‘boss’ was unaware of a problem and did not know that their demands were creating a culture of reactivity. To remedy this, leaders need to learn to push back more effectively on demands made by their boss, rather than just accepting all assignments without question. This is particularly hard for those of us that were raised with the belief that when the boss says jump – you ask “how high?” Although this is an admirable trait and will serve you well in many areas of life, it is not the response of a leader.

The truth of the matter is that the more competent a leader you are, the less your boss knows of what you have on your plate. In other words, your boss is NOT thinking of the other five projects you are working on when they assign the sixth. They are merely thinking of that project. The urgency they impart to their request may very well have more to do with the fact that it is the last thing they were working on than that it is of a higher priority than the other five projects. Their confidence in your ability allows them to focus on the matter at hand, because they know you will not only accomplish the other five, but in their mind they are already complete.

As a leader you must master the skills of saying no. In reality, you never say ‘no’ to your boss, however you must push back enough so that you can establish the true urgency and relative priority to the other projects/tasks you are working on.

Myth #4: I can’t take a vacation (without wishing I hadn’t when I get back).

One of the greatest joys of your life can be the time you take to pursue extended periods of relaxation or adventure away from work. The unfortunate reality for many leaders is that they neither relax while they are away, nor are they able to reenter work after a vacation without a tremendous amount of stress. In fact, I know of many leaders that deliberately go on a cruise for their vacation because there is no cell phone coverage at sea (read this – my job cannot reach me).

Contrary to what many people believe, the current state of their ‘vacations’ is not the problem.

It is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Here is the brutal truth about vacations: What you are experiencing during times of vacation is a logical extension of the way you conduct yourself on a day to day basis. If you wish to increase the quality of both your vacations (and the time after them when you return to work) you will have to restructure the way you lead long before you go on vacation.

And there is no quick fix.

You must make a decision about what you want to have your next vacation look like. Then, take deliberate steps to put in place the systems, processes and people to make that vacation a reality.

It can happen. And you will be a better leader for it.

Myth #5: My employees are not motivated

It is almost impossible to achieve work/life balance without a motivated support team. At the same time, recent research shows that 71% of the US workforce is either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”. It bears consideration then, what we as leaders can do to make sure we have “highly engaged” employees.

Take this quick quiz:

  • List all your team members and rate their current motivation level on a scale from “1” to “10”.
  • Estimate what the effect would be on the team’s productivity (and your quality of life) if all team members were at least an “8”.

This is the hard part: Recent research (Gallup) shows that leaders can significantly increase the motivation of employees. Here are some of the reasons employees are disengaged that have the strongest link to business performance:

    • Employees don’t know what is expected of them at work.
    • Employees do not have the material and equipment they need to do their job properly.
    • Employees are not utilizing their key talents – they are ‘misaligned’ in the organization.
    • They do not receive recognition for good work.
    • No one at work is interested in them beyond the work they do.
    • No one at work seems to care about their development.

As leaders, we need to long take a look in the mirror and ask how much of the problem we could be contributing to. Be honest with yourself – that’s what leaders do.

Once you have your answers you will need to commit to addressing the challenges you have identified.

Now, establish 3 actions you need to take to evaluate and improve the motivation level of your team.

As I think back on my experiences with Bas and Hans at my first corporate job, I realize that they were hoping to get to retirement before change caught up with them. These days, for those of us farther than a few years from retirement, that is a race we will lose. The good news is that the path to effective leadership is available to those who will make daily self improvement a habit.

The choice is yours.

September 6, 2011 / By