Capitalizing on Strengths

Do you feel “stuck” in a job? Even before the workday is done, can you hardly wait to get out of the office? If so, you may be in the wrong job. 

Feeling stuck may be a sign that you are not using your strengths on the job. If you aren’t using your strengths, resentment builds and frustration ensues. Not only that, you are not being productive on the job – think “deadwood” and you’ll get the idea! Let me explain.  

Let’s say that you’re a decision-maker by nature. But you find yourself in a job where you neither contribute nor make organization-wide decisions. As a result, you second-guess the organization’s decisions and you start resenting its decision-makers. On top of this, you start to dislike your boss and co-workers because you see them as part of the problem.  

You might say that you can’t help it – you need to work somewhere. Fair enough – most of us end up in temporary jobs that are nothing more than a way to pay the bills. But for long-term career happiness and productivity, you need to understand your strengths.  

In addition to identifying our strengths, we need to understand how we work best. And how we work best depends on our personality.  

Our personality determines how we perform, no matter what it is that we do – from how we organize our breakfast in the morning to how we process our daily tasks to how we relate to people. Each of us has an inherent capability of how we manage our “to-do’s.” 

But consider this fact:  While our habits can be modified, few (if any) people can outright change either their strengths or habits. Instead, what we can do is identify our strengths and habits and then choose to improve both in a way that moves us further in our careers. 

Here are five ways that you can improve your strengths and use them to catapult your career to the next level. 

  1. Pay attention to feedback. What do others say about your strengths? What do they notice about you? Sometimes, we instinctively know what we’re good at, but for whatever reason, we become blind to our strengths. It may take several people to point out your strengths before you start to pay attention.
  2. Tune in to your performance. How do you produce your best work? Is it by working alone or in teams? Do you prefer to learn through reading, listening, or viewing? What time of day are you most productive and why at that time? By understanding “how” we work, we will be able to understand the unique characteristics of what comprises an ideal work day for us and when we are most productive.
  3. Notice what gives you energy. When working on a task, does it make you feel tired, bored, overwhelmed, interested, or is the work challenging? Does the task motivate you to work even harder to get the job done? Do you feel alive? If the work makes you feel so energized (even if you’re physically tired), then that’s the type of work you need to be doing.
  4. Do not comprise your values. The place where you work must reflect your own values. The organization’s policies should be in line with their practices. In other words, the organization should practice what it preaches. If your beliefs are in line with the organization’s culture, then you have a match made in heaven.
  5. Contribute like there’s no tomorrow. Based on your strengths, work on improving the organization’s systems, processes, methods, policies, and other practices. This will serve to not only make a positive difference to the organization, but also to help you feel a sense of accomplishment. If you can feel as if you have accomplished something, you know your strengths are serving you well.

Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Substitute “career” for the word “luck” and you can see how our strengths can be used to build happy and productive careers.

 

 

 

Before You Buy That New iGadget

Recent promos for the latest new technology gave me pause. And it should give you pause, too.

There is no doubt that we are a society of “must-have-the-latest-new-toy,” but have you thought about what happens to your old technology – those smartphones, laptops, printers, and other energy-emitting devices that you no longer wish to use? What is your old technology doing to Mother Earth?

You might say that you are responsible and recycle your old electronics. Good for you. And I bet many recycling depots do a decent job of ensuring safe recycling practices. But some old electronics may fall through the cracks.

In August 2009, CBS revealed some startling evidence (as only 60 Minutes can!) about old electronics being shipped illegally to countries like China where the dismantling of the equipment is hurting (understatement) the people and the environment. You can see the show here: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-wasteland-50076351/.

If the 60 Minutes investigation does not give you pause, perhaps the following might.  

A report by Liam Young and Kate Davies of the Unknown Fields Division traces the supply chain of the global economy in reverse. Their research brings the point home (literally).

After the 60 Minutes expose aired, the Chinese government tried to clean-up Guiyu’s booming e-waste operation. However, Young and Davies state “that what really happened is that it went underground – or more specifically, inside.”

“Actually what happened is that the industry has moved from the street and into peoples’ houses,” he says. “So now this new form of mining is now a domestic industry, where a circuit board bubbles away to refine the copper next to a pot of noodles in someone’s kitchen.”

“It’s too easy for people to sit in an air conditioned flat in New York or London, tweeting on laptops and talking on their phones about the horrors of the rare earth mining industry or cheap production and exploitative labor in China,” Young says.

The reality is much worse.

Young and Davies collected some of the toxic mud created from recycled technology and created “lovely” toxic sludge vases. These vases are part of an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which opened on April 22, 2015.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan summarizes the journey of the vases in a report titled “These Vases are Actually Made From Liquefied Smartphone ByProducts.” Here’s an excerpt:

“The mud that makes up each of these vessels was carefully drawn from a toxic lake in Inner Mongolia, where the sludge from the world’s most prolific Rare Earth Element refineries ends up. It was brought to London, where a ceramicist in a hazmat suit worked to turn it into actual pottery, representing the waste created by a smartphone, a featherweight laptop, and a car battery. Starting today at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibit What Is Luxury?, you’ll be able to see each vase in person—a stark visualization of exactly what’s involved in building your electronics.”

After reading Campbell-Dollaghan’s report, I learned that our smartphones each have about 380 grams of toxic and radioactive waste. Think about that the next time you go to answer or make a call on your smartphone.

The questions before us are simple: 

  1. How much newer-better-luxury stuff do we really need?
  2. At what point will manufacturers take responsibility for killing the planet?
  3. What can be done now to reverse the damage?

The answers to the questions are probably not as simple.

Leveraging the Power of Stakeholders

Do you know that excitement that goes along with your great idea for improving your organization’s processes? From great idea to project charter, the momentum you have is at a peak when you present your project charter to the project champion for approval.

At this point, your project can go one of two ways: it gets approved by the champion or it gets denied. If it gets approved, great! You’re on your way to making change. If it gets denied, there is a strong likelihood that you did not engage and secure the support of all stakeholders.

We often talk about engaging and getting “buy-in” from stakeholders. But what, exactly, does this mean? And who are these stakeholders? And what is their interest in your project?

To answer this question, consider these key steps for determining and evaluating your stakeholders:

  1. Brainstorm to identify your stakeholders.
  2. Prioritize stakeholders based on their power and interest in your project.
  3. Understand what motivates your stakeholders and what actions you need to take to persuade them to support your project.

Stakeholders include all people who have an interest in your project and are affected by your work. They can include, for example: senior managers, your colleagues, customers, suppliers, banks, government(s), unions, community groups, and others. As you brainstorm with your team, you may come up with other unique categories.

Once you know who your stakeholders are, you need to determine their power. That is, what is their desire and ability to exert influence over your project? Stakeholders can disrupt your plans, cause uncertainty in plans, or be your staunchest advocate. In short, businesses both need and rely on their stakeholders.

It is important to understand stakeholder power and interest. Leveraging stakeholder power and interest is key to getting support for your project. The matrix included at the end of this blog provides an overview of power and interest. It illustrates the following:

  • If a stakeholder has high power and high interest, they are a key player. Take notice of them and collaborate with them to achieve project success. You must fully engage them and make the greatest efforts to satisfy their needs.
  • If a stakeholder has high power and low interest, involve them in the project by regularly communicating with them or asking them how they wish to be kept involved/informed.
  • If a stakeholder has low power and high interest, communicate frequently with them. These people can be helpful with project details.
  • If a stakeholder has low power and low interest, monitor their input, as necessary to the success of the project.

With the above in mind, you need to identify your stakeholders and how they fit on the Power-Interest matrix. The best way to determine this is to meet with your stakeholders and ask them directly – this is a great first step to building a successful relationship.

Knowing all of the above – your stakeholders, their power and interest over your project, and their motivation – you can now use an appropriate method of engagement to win their support for your project and its success.

And don’t forget to review your Power-Interest grid to ensure that stakeholder influence has not changed. If it has, get in touch with your stakeholder and determine how you can maintain their support for the project.

Facilitating through the Storm

Let’s face it. Anyone with any amount of facilitation skill can lead a group that is performing well. That’s the good part.

But what about groups perpetually stuck in storming? These groups pose bad and ugly scenarios that must be resolved before the group can perform. In fact, a group stuck in storming can be a facilitator’s worst nightmare (no matter how skilled he or she happens to be).

So what can you, as facilitator do to break through the storm? First, consider the things that you must never do such as: ignoring the problems being put forward by the team, avoiding arguments that are occurring, and telling people what to do.

None of the above will solve any problems. In fact, they will make the situation even uglier and create even a less manageable team.

To help move teams from storming to norming and then performing, employ these actions:

  1. Get the team to raise all problems/issues and solve them. Note that the team must work on solving them; the facilitator only facilitates.
  2. Encourage members to debate ideas in a non-personal way. Set up a safe environment for discussing issues and coming up with solutions.
  3. Offer clear options for resolving the problems and encourage the team to take control of implementing the solutions.
  4. Help the team identify strategies and action plans, but don’t tell them what to do.
  5. Help members identify their problems and work to resolve them. Don’t solve the problems for them.

Working with a team through its storming stage is the most difficult to manage for any facilitator. In storming, feelings are typically running high and conflicts (old or new) can affect the team’s overall morale. And if not already present, this stage can surface clearly dysfunctional behaviours.

Facilitators navigating the storming stage must remain absolutely neutral and have a high degree of assertiveness. Here are some suggestions for successfully maneuvering through storming:

  • Tension in groups is normal. Accept it.
  • Maintain your neutrality in the situation. Stay calm.
  • Create an environment that encourages expression of feelings. Think Vegas!
  • Admit that there’s conflict – no sense hiding from it.
  • Invite the team to give their input about the situation. Write solutions on a flipchart for all to see.
  • Intervene to correct dysfunctional behaviours. If you have to, quietly dismiss “unmanageable” individuals from the group.
  • Be assertive when refereeing heated discussions. Don’t be afraid to be assertive.
  • Facilitate open and honest communication. Silent disagreement can kill team morale and any good works coming from the group.

In addition to the above, teams deadlocked in storming need an opportunity to vent and resolve their issues. If this does not occur, there is little chance that the team will ever perform well as a group.

The Problem with Problems

Have you ever had one of those days when everything seems to be a problem? Your children are late for school, you miss the bus, and as you arrive at work, you realize that you forgot your meeting notes at home.

On top of that, two of your employees call in sick and before you get a chance to browse your e-mail inbox, your spouse calls asking if you can pick up your son from school because he’s sick. OMG, right?

If you determine that the above scenario qualifies as a problem(s) (i.e., one of “those” days!), you are using what experts call “deficit thinking.” That is, by focusing on problems, our plans of action will be concerned with fixing the problem or correcting the “deficit.” This kind of thinking can be seen not only in our personal lives, but in our organizations, as well.

Consider this: If we spend the majority of our time focusing on what is wrong with our organization, we can overlook what is right. And every organization has a mix of right and wrong. But organizations that look at what is right or what is working well, are able to shift their concerns to create more opportunities for success.

This “appreciative inquiry” approach energizes, motivates, and helps organizations emphasize its strengths rather than its weaknesses. In contrast, deficit thinking zaps our energy, de-motivates, and when one is only focusing on problems, all that can be seen are weaknesses.

This is not to say that organizations should ignore the problems or that problems will go away through appreciative inquiry. Problems must be resolved as they arise. If not, they can multiply like viruses. There is a time and place for both appreciative inquiry and deficit thinking, with the latter being extremely useful for immediate resolutions.

There are several things that organizations can do to fix problems. The most important thing, however, is to distinguish problems from symptoms. If one works on correcting symptoms, then the problem never goes away. For example, kids being late for school, you missing the bus and forgetting your meeting notes are the symptoms—the problem is that you didn’t give yourself enough time to manage your morning.

Flipping the symptoms and problems on their heads, the fact that you were running late all morning gave you more time to spend with your children. Now that’s an opportunity worth cherishing.

In addition to the appreciative inquiry versus deficit thinking approaches to problems, another way to frame our “problems” is to use Stephen Covey’s 90-10 Principle. This principle says that we are in control of 90 percent of what happens in our lives because of the choices we make. We can choose to rush through life or take a leisurely pace. We can choose to react in anger when something goes wrong or look on the bright side.

The problem with problems isn’t a problem at all. It’s an opportunity to grow personally and to improve organizational effectiveness that, in turn, helps us learn innovative ways of handling problems. And in so doing, you might discover that you will have fewer problems to solve in the long term.

The Key to Productivity

Do you remember the last time you were faced with a task that you didn’t particularly enjoy? Do you remember what you did? If you completed the task, it’s because you started working on it and didn’t stop until the job was done.

“Starting” is the key to productivity.

When you have difficulty starting, the task waits. If the wait is excessive, you may end up working under pressure to finish the job. This is not a good way to work, since working under pressure creates more stress for you and for those around you.

It also increases chances for mistakes, since the tight timeline leaves little room to correct things that may go wrong. In fact, when you work under pressure like this, you almost always produce an inferior product.

There are many reasons why people have difficulty getting started with tasks, but here are some considerations to help you push yourself to start.

  • If you are resisting starting on that project because you feel your outcome may not be what you expect, remember that risk is inherent in everything we do. And even if you do fail in achieving your outcome, you will have come away with a valuable learning experience.
  • Is overwhelm your enemy? Break up the overwhelming task into small manageable tasks. Then start working on the small pieces, one at a time, until completion. By breaking the task into small parts, it helps alleviate overwhelm.
  • “Paralysis by analysis” applies to those who need to have everything be perfect all the time and because of that, may never get started. To help you overcome this perfectionist approach, just start! Just starting will create the momentum needed to follow-through on the task.
  • When boredom creeps into your work, you will avoid doing it. This only creates more work because we tend to work on our “waiting” pile when our energy is lowest. To overcome boredom, just start on the task. The sooner you finish, the sooner you can return to more interesting work.
  • Do you enjoy working under pressure? If so, you probably put things off until the last minute. This creates more stress not only for you, but for others, as well. And this also increases the chances for mistakes, leaving no time for their correction. In fact, working under pressure almost always results in an inferior product. Give yourself lots of time for the task and start working on it on time, not at the last minute.

Use good time management techniques such as the above to push yourself to be more productive. And when you do, you will notice a considerable gain in free time in your days. That’s definitely something worth starting, isn’t it?

Brainstorming—Not for Everyone

Many of us have participated in a brainstorming exercise at some point in our business careers. In fact, brainstorming seems to be the preferred technique by which organizations generate creative ideas and solutions for problems. However, it may surprise you to learn that brainstorming is no more effective for developing creative ideas than having individuals work on their own.

Alex Osborn, author of the 1948 book, “Your Creative Power,” popularized brainstorming. But a study in 1958 at Yale University refuted Osborn’s claim the many of us work more creatively when we are teamed up. The study found that those who worked on their own came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups and their solutions were more “effective.”

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis states that “decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In other words, brainstorming does not unleash the potential of the group, but, rather, makes each individual less creative.

While rules are important when working with groups, perhaps the most inhibiting rule to creativity is to not criticize other’s ideas. The rules for brainstorming (as originated by Osborn) are:

  1. Come up with as many ideas as you can.
  2. Do not criticize one another’s ideas.
  3. Free-wheel and share wild ideas.
  4. Expand and elaborate on existing ideas.

If group members are not allowed to provide criticism to ideas, how is creativity expected to flourish? Certainly reviewing ideas later is an option (and this is what typically happens after a brainstorming session), but it is far more creative to dispel bad ideas from the onset.

Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley has repeatedly shown that groups engaging in “debate and dissent” come up with approximately 25 percent more ideas than those engaging in brainstorming. In addition, these ideas are typically rated as more original and useful.

However, using criticism depends on the make-up of the brainstorming group. Members that are comfortable and well-known to each other may benefit from a bout of criticism to ideas, while engaging in lively idea generation. But allowing criticism when there are new members or where members are highly introverted may do more harm than good.

From my perspective, there are only two ways in which brainstorming can be effective:

  1. Creative brainstorming can only occur with members that are comfortable with accepting and giving criticism.
  2. An effective facilitator must guide the group to allow an invigorating debate of ideas and allow participants to be honest about what ideas are good and what ideas do not merit further consideration.

There is no need to suffer through rubbish ideas during brainstorming. And if you happen to be on the receiving end of the “thumbs down” for your idea, do not become offended. Remember that the “thumbs down” is not for you, but for your idea. And we all occasionally have both good and bad ideas.

Effective Leaders Enable Productive Organizations

As an effective leader, you know that certain competencies are necessary to your success on the job. Things like building yourself as a whole person (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, creatively), building winning teams, being respectful of others to earn their respect, communicating effectively, inspiring others to build trust … just to name a few. You may also know that proven leadership methods aren’t always the answer in every situation.

Enabling others to be as efficient, effective, and productive as possible is a key tenet of leadership. What is your staff working on? What systems, processes, and tools are they using to accomplish organizational goals? Are these systems, processes, and tools as efficient and effective as possible? These are questions that every leader should be asking, since the leaders’ accountability is (first of all) to their staff to enable organizational productivity.

In addition to looking at overall organizational productivity, leaders need to talk to their staff and customers to understand the big picture. Talking to other leaders or mentors is not going to get you information about what your customers are thinking. And, sometimes, neither will talking with your staff.

Instead of talking with your staff, why not experience what your staff experiences? The show “Undercover Boss” sets a great example for leaders. Putting yourself in your staff’s shoes will teach you more about your organization’s operations than you could ever learn from the company’s policies and procedures manuals or strategic planning sessions.

And what about mentors? Every leader needs two mentors–one mentor half their age and the other twice their age. Currently, a huge number of baby boomers are retiring or semi-retiring. Those that semi-retire continue to stay in the job market in a part-time or entrepreneurial capacity. At the same time, Generation Y (those born between the late 1970s to the early 2000s) is entering the job market for the first-time. The collision of these two generations in the workplace is already seeing a shift in the way information sharing is executed. A decade ago, leaders didn’t need to think about tweets or texts;  now they do. Seek mentors to help you bridge the gap between these two generations.

The bottom line is that leaders must continually evolve and practice their knowledge, values, skills, and behaviours. Taking elements of the tried and true methods such as those discussed above, and modifying them to fit current situations enables good leaders to become effective leaders in productive organizations.

 

Whenever I Have a Problem, I’m Around

(My thanks to Patrick Davidson for the idea for the blog title.)

Are you a player? Or are you a victim?

If you’re a player, you choose to resolve problems. If you’re a victim, you act as if there is no choice and accept everything that is thrown your way. Whether one can say they have a problem is based solely on their perception of the situation.

Problems are not things. They cannot be held. Rather, they are perceptions of things. They can be seen as situations to avoid or as opportunities to embrace. Victims see problems as obstacles that cannot be overcome and use language such as “should” or “not fair.” Players, on the other hand, embrace problems as opportunities for change.

Every organization needs players. Why? Players are the change agents without whom organizations die. Players help others in your organization interact in a way that leads to shared beliefs and values which in turn leads to shared organizational goals and behaviours. Beliefs and values drive behaviour.

For example, organizations with shared beliefs of consistency, fairness, communication, and team involvement will display those beliefs through improved productivity, improved quality, increased group morale, and increased individual satisfaction across the organization. In organizations that do not have these behaviours, players are needed to help organizations change their beliefs.

If you’re not a player in your organization, here are ten things you can do right now to move toward becoming a player. In turn, you will be helping yourself and your organization change for the better.

  1. Buy part of the problem to be part of the solution. That is, see the problem for what it is – an opportunity to improve. Get involved in creating the solution.
  2. Grow through adversity. It takes a lot of emotional strength to grow into a player. Get rid of negative language (e.g., should, must, unfair, unjust, etc.). Use positive language (e.g., could, might, fair, just, etc.).
  3. Use pain and frustration to build strength. Ask “what challenges am I facing?” rather than “what happened to me?”
  4. Do not blame. Do not judge. Take responsibility for the process in your organization. It doesn’t matter who created the process.
  5. For each solution, ask “what worked well?” and “what could have been improved?”
  6. Learn from your experiences. The only failure is the one where you do not learn from your mistakes.
  7. Share information before it is needed. Openness and transparency create a trusting and proactive environment.
  8. Take initiative. Don’t wait to be asked to do something.
  9. Give credit where credit is due. Praising others for their contribution, no matter how small, will go a long way to building trust. As Patrick Davidson points out, a kind word and a thoughtful gesture are the two most powerful things in existence. Use them and use them often.
  10. Use common sense to build common practice. That is, build upon all of the above points to implement effective and efficient practices in your organization.

Implementing the above will help you build space, safety, and comfort in the organization so that others become players. In essence, you’re changing the beliefs and values of the organization one person at a time until all behaviours align to create a quality culture of efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity. This is how one changes organizational culture.

Next time you encounter a problem, stick around. It’s a perfect opportunity to grow, learn, and improve your player skills.

Dealing With Decreasing Budgets

Mary shares how to deal with decreasing budgets while still nuturing relationships with employees, customers, and vendors.