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.

 

 

 

Mastering Productivity

Productive organizations share a common trait—highly productive leaders.

Highly productive leaders create a climate in which people go the extra mile to perform at remarkably high levels. This is because when leaders set the example, staff willingly put extraordinary discretionary effort into their work.

It’s true that not everyone is born a great or productive leader. But it’s also true that everyone can grow their leadership skills to those of greatness and productivity.

The following well-researched traits paint a picture of productive leadership.

  1. Accountability. Productive leaders hold staff accountable for outcomes. The Best Buy organization, for example, reported a 35% increase in productivity when they factored accountability for results into their staff’s work.
  2. Clear objectives. Staff is empowered to reach the organization’s goals when they understand the goals. Leaders that can explain clearly the objectives of each and every project are facilitating the organization’s attainment of goals.
  3. Continuous improvement. By proactively engaging their organization in continuous improvement, leaders also proactively encourage higher productivity. Ensuring systems and processes are up-to-date and continuously looking for ways to improve both enables higher productivity.
  4. Enthusiasm. Emotions are highly contagious. By expressing enthusiasm for a project, for the organization, and for work (in general), leaders inspire staff to radiate the same enthusiasm. The result is that enthusiastic people are more energized and willing to put in the necessary effort to achieve goals.
  5. Respect. Proactively soliciting staff’s advice not only engages staff, but also encourages respect. And where there is respect, there is also higher productivity.
  6. Recognition. Nothing creates a positive work environment like a display of sincere appreciation for a job well done. Studies show a direct link between a positive working environment and greater productivity.

Productivity is essential to organizational (and individual) success. It is the core factor that dictates not only an organization’s standard of living, but each individual’s standard of living, as well. And organizations that master the art of productivity are ahead of their competition and can, therefore, boast a healthy standard of living.

As evident in the above list of productive leadership traits, being productive does not require complexity. A culture of straightforward, common sense behaviours that are within the grasp of every leader is the key to enhancing organizational productivity.

The Truth About Happiness

What makes you happy? I mean, really happy? You may be surprised to learn that the happiest people are those that continuously seek risk rather than reward.

According to recent studies, activities that make us feel uncertain, uncomfortable, or even guilty are the most enjoyable experiences. In fact, engaging in activities that seem counterintuitive to happiness are activities that provide us with the most happiness. How can this be?

Psychological studies reveal the following five traits of happy people (source: Psychology Today, August 2013):

  1. Curiosity. While being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not easy, curiosity enables people to be stronger and wiser. Studies suggest that individuals who frequently feel curious on a given day also experience the most satisfaction with their life—engaging in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others.
  2. Imperfection. The devil is not in the details when it comes to happiness. Those that are less conscientious about their performance seem to be happier than those who focus on minutiae. It turns out that striving for perfection is a “loser’s bet” when it comes to happiness.
  3. Celebrating success. Listening to others’ stories of accomplishments strengthens our own feelings of positivity. We are more satisfied and committed to our relationships when we actively listen and encourage positive outcomes for others. The parallel here is that we feel much happier for longer when we spend money on gifts or charities rather than spending it on ourselves. Sharing in another’s joy without envy boosts our happiness.
  4. Psychological flexibility. Those who are able to express or conceal emotions when necessary are able to adapt more quickly to prevailing circumstances and enjoy greater psychological and physical health. For instance, confiding your greatest fear to a good friend who is supportive and non-judgmental, while concealing this fear from your family because you feel they wouldn’t understand bodes well for your overall happiness. This ability to switch mindsets depending on our audience and the situation allows us to build an increasing tolerance to our emotional discomfort.
  5. Purpose. The ability to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term reward allows us to tolerate negative feelings that arise during our path to fulfillment. Being honest with yourself about what does and does not energize you will help you define your own sense of purpose as you strive for its achievement.

And if the above whets your appetite for happiness, consider that happy people are more efficient and productive overall. According to University of California Riverside researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, 40 percent of our capacity for happiness is within our power to change. But balance is paramount.

The good life is a matrix of ups and downs—learning how to balance this mix to help you be at your best most of the time will make the difference between living a happy or unhappy life. Choose happy.

Interpersonal Communication and Productivity

Stephen Covey got it right—Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Many of us forget the importance of truly trying to understand the speaker before offering up our comments. Without this understanding, we set ourselves up for ineffective interpersonal communication.

What happens when we don’t understand the message? We jump to conclusions and we misdiagnose. This is like diagnosing symptoms as problems, rather than getting to the root of the symptoms to find the problems. Our tendency to rush to fix what’s on the surface can get us into trouble. This is why communication is so important.

Reading, writing, speaking, and listening—these are the basic ways in which we communicate. If we do not understand, really understand the message; then we are in danger of losing our work effectiveness and productivity. In fact, one of the top reasons that employees leave companies is due to their relationships with their supervisors. Employees who feel heard and understood have more productive relationships.

To improve your productivity and, as a result, the organization’s productivity, you need to listen to the speaker first. This is counter to what we normally expect; i.e., to be understood. But it’s an iterative process. If we make the effort first to understand, it follows that the speaker will also make the effort to understand our point of view.

To help you improve your listening-for-understanding skills, here are ten suggestions (adapted from Business Communication Today by Bovee, Courtland, & Thill):

  1. Minimize both internal and external distractions. Close windows, doors, turn your chair, and adjust the environment as much as possible to really focus on the speaker.
  2. Adjust your listening to the situation. If you’re listening to instructions from your boss, you will want to pay closer attention than if you’re listening to the local sports or news cast.
  3. Use nonverbal communication to enforce listening. To show the speaker that you are listening and understanding, nod or shake your head, use facial expressions, and adjust your posture. Making eye contact is also important.
  4. Selectively remember the most important points. Use mental imagery or write down the important points, so that you don’t forget them.
  5. Demonstrate empathy. If a friend or colleague is discussing their problem with you, show them that you understand and empathize with what they’re experiencing.
  6. Do not provide advice unless asked. Not everyone wants advice when they tell you something. Only give advice if asked to do so.
  7. Don’t interrupt. Allow the speaker to finish before providing your point of view or asking questions.
  8. Don’t prejudge the message or the messenger. You can learn something from everyone. Keep an open mind.
  9. Focus on the subject. Train yourself to concentrate even when the topic is not very interesting.
  10. Do not overreact. If someone is presenting a topic that you’re passionate about, curb your emotions and present your points calmly. You will gain credibility if you keep your emotions in check.

Communication is the most important skill in life. If you truly understand the speaker and the speaker feels you have made a connection, then a trusting relationship is established and communication becomes freer. This allows you to cultivate better relationships at work; leading to more effective and productive results for all.

Rating Records Management Program Maturity

A records and information management (“RIM”) program that is effective and efficient allows you to do the following:

  • Create only the records needed to satisfy legal, fiscal, administrative, and operational requirements.
  • Retain essential records and destroy obsolete records.
  • Store records safely and securely in a cost-effective manner.
  • Retrieve information quickly through efficient access and retrieval systems.
  • Use the right information technology for the right reasons.
  • Promote and support the use of archival records as a community resource.
  • Recognize through policy and procedures that records management is everyone’s job.

If your organization is struggling in any of these areas, tools like the Records Management Maturity Model (“RM3”) can be helpful.

The RM3 is adapted from the National Archives of Canada’s Information Management Model and includes six areas for evaluation—organizational context, organizational capabilities, management of records and information management, compliance and quality, records life cycle, and user perspective.

A five-point scale in RM3, ranging from one (undeveloped RIM program or in the beginning stages) to five (industry best practices program), allows organizations to see how they compare to industry best practices.

The criteria for each element are summarized below:

  1. Organizational context. This includes an organization’s capacity to support, sustain, and strengthen its records management capabilities. It also includes a review of the organization’s culture, change management capability, and impact of the external environment on its RIM practices.
  2. Organizational capabilities. Included here is an organization’s capacity to develop its people, processes and technology resources for a sound RIM program. It also includes an evaluation of the organization’s availability of internal specialists to manage the program. In addition to RIM tools and their enabling technologies, other areas reviewed include project management capabilities and relationship management in support of RIM.
  3. Management of records and information. An organization’s capacity to effectively manage activities in support of records management as it relates to the effective delivery of programs and services is the theme of this element. Included is an evaluation of leadership and executive awareness, quality of strategic plans, principles, policies and standards, roles and responsibilities, program integration, mechanisms for risk management, and the performance management framework for RIM.
  4. Compliance and quality. High maturity in this area means that the organization has controls in place to ensure that its records holdings are not compromised. This includes the extent to which the organization’s processes ensure records are authentic, reliable, usable, and have integrity (i.e., records quality), information security, privacy, business continuity, and compliance.
  5. Records life cycle. Ensuring that the organization has capacity to support each phase of the records life cycle is part of this element. This includes incorporating records life cycle requirements in policies, programs, services and systems, and assessing records collections, their sharing and re-use. The organization of records for optimized retrieval as well as maintenance and preservation of records for long-term usability, and records disposition plans are also included here.
  6. User perspective. People are an important aspect of any program. The organization must have the capacity to meet the information needs of all users. This element includes an evaluation of user awareness, user training and support, and user satisfaction.

While the above elements and criteria are highly effective for evaluating RIM programs, they can also be used for other areas. But before embarking on any program evaluation, discern whether the program is required in the first place.

Letting Go

When was the last time you tried something new? How did it make you feel? If you’re adventurous, you probably felt thrilled. If you’re fearful, you are probably still wondering if the experience was worth the risk. So it is with organizations. Adventurous (or proactive) organizations thrive; the fearful (or reactive) survive—just barely.

Organizations (and individuals) that cannot let go of “dead ideas” are doomed to failure. Think about how many processes your organization manages every day. How many of these processes are preventing you and your staff from being maximally productive? Why aren’t the processes updated? Is it because everyone is so overworked that there is no time to address the issue?

If there is no time now to address the issue, then when? Constantly relegating issues to the backburner is like clinging to the old ways in the hope that the old ways will somehow magically reinvent themselves. These old ways are nothing more than dead ideas. And there is no place for dead ideas in productive organizations.

The sad news is that this way of thinking is not confined to individuals or the executive boardroom. Governments also think this way. This inability to let go of tired thinking is decaying everyone and everything.

Much has been written about change management because change is difficult to accomplish (think about changing just one of your habits—it takes at least three months of solid effort to build a new habit). But what seems to be coming through in organizations is that for change to occur, all employees need to be onboard. This requires changing old ways of thinking.

So how do we let go of old ways of thinking, of dead ideas? According to Matt Miller, there are three steps.

  1. Identify the ideas that matter. Since we can’t boil the ocean, pick the projects or ideas that will really make a profoundly positive impact on your organization or your life. These ideas will typically be strategic—those “sacred cow” ideas that no one has dared question until now.
  2. Understand each dead idea’s “story.” This comes down to identifying the root cause. How did this process become so entrenched with sub-processes? Why did this process seem to make sense in the first place? By understanding the root of the idea, it’s much easier to discern an action for change.
  3. Reach for new ways of thinking. Don’t dismiss ideas because they seem counterintuitive. If they seem counterintuitive, this may be a sign of how skewed our thinking has become; entrenched with only one way of doing things. Brainstorm. Look at possibilities. By reaching for new ways of thinking, we expand our minds.

In the end, we owe it to ourselves and our organizations to continuously improve and grow. By shedding old ways of doing things and inventing and implementing new concepts, we all thrive. Don’t get stuck in an outdated paradigm just because it’s been there all along.

What Keeps Leaders Awake?

In a recent risk management survey by Aon Global Risk Consulting, organizations cited 50 concerns that are “keeping them awake at night.” The top three are: the economy, regulations, and competition.

While risk is something for which many organizations prepare; in today’s interconnected world, it is hard to only focus on individual organizational risk. This is because risks affecting one organization are not always isolated to that organization. Corporations (and countries) can no longer function as islands or enjoy immunity from risks affecting others. Look at the economy, for instance.

In 2009, the problems in the small country of Greece were not confined to its borders. It disrupted markets worldwide; its problems spilling to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, and others.

And even before the Greece crisis, the United States was dealing with its own economic woes in 2008—its mortgage issues were felt by many organizations around the country and around the globe.

On top of economic struggles and perhaps because of them, governments have taken on more power in terms of regulating both government and business. This includes not only the financial sector, but all industries. New and changing regulations are a risk for corporations—the need is to adapt processes quickly to ensure regulators are happy.

The third risk, competition, is forcing big players to innovate and differentiate to survive the competitive onslaught. While survival is the stopgap; thriving is the goal.

Do you remember the “Super Size Me” documentaries? They forced McDonald’s to offer healthier meal choices on its menu. It was a matter of brand reputation (which ranks number 4 on the list of 50 risks). As McDonald’s was dragged through the documentaries, other fast food chains took note and followed quickly to update their menus. None of them wanted to be linked with obesity and poor health.

While most risks can be managed efficiently by organizations that proactively practice continuous improvement, those that scramble to react to crises are doomed to fall further behind. Think about business interruption, for example.

Major and natural disasters may impact whole communities, but smaller disasters can also wreak havoc. And we rarely hear about the smaller disasters. What happens if your library’s basement gets flooded? Do you have a contingency plan to salvage your information? Have you practiced the plan? What about if your computer system crashes? How will this impact your business?

Business interruption, if it occurs, does not need to occur for prolonged periods of time if the organization is ready to deal with anything. Lean organizations that practice efficiency in all processes are more agile to address small or large disasters. Bloated organizations can never be as ready to handle the problems nor are they able to quickly recover from disasters.

To be highly efficient and effective, here are four considerations:

  1. Implement and maintain a continuous improvement strategy so that your organization is ready to handle any risk at any time.
  2. Ensure that organizational policies and procedures are current. Test them to make sure they make sense and that they will enable productivity, especially in the face of risk.
  3. Train and re-train all staff, so that they understand policies, procedures, and their individual roles and responsibilities in the organization.
  4. Develop an organization-wide culture that includes efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity. This starts with leaders championing the culture shift and then practicing the change. Lead by example.

Organizations that plan for the future by incorporating a continuous cycle of efficient and effective practices will thrive even when faced with adversity. Those that do not have a healthy risk management strategy may not survive.

Time and Money—An Organizational Focus

Poorly run organizations waste time (and time is money). This inhibits the company’s ability to hit markets at optimum times. Allow me to give you an example

Several years ago, I worked with a company in the wastewater treatment industry that consistently put in long hours to meet deadlines. Why all the long hours? The owners relied on one individual to make all of the decisions. This was far from a wise use of corporate time and resources. The result was burn-out, missed deadlines, and in the end, the company went out of business.

An inaccurate assessment of the time needed to conduct a project, write a report, develop a product, etc. is critical to organizational success. If the estimate of time is over or under, money is wasted. And if your company is in the business of bringing products to market, the window of opportunity is open only for so long.

Another huge time and money guzzler that takes away from strategic organizational focus is technology. If an organization is “wedded” to its technology and refuses to alter its approach, it often consumes more cash before realizing too late that it must change direction. Don’t keep throwing good money into bad software under the assumption that it costs less to “update” what you already have. It usually doesn’t.

A recent client was sometimes spending upwards of seven or more hours trying to print a 15-page report. If software is causing so wasted time, why spend time and money trying to fix a problem that in all likelihood cannot be fixed? Stop, scrap, and start over to save money. Knowing when to let go of technology is a management skill that cannot be underestimated.

Mismanaged organizations consume budgets without ever hitting milestones necessary to achieve success. In the process, they produce frustrated and burned-out staff along with the possibility of business shut-down.

Don’t be afraid to let go of products and processes that no longer work effectively or efficiently, regardless of the cost to replace them. In the long-term, replacement will yield far greater productivity results.

Benchmark studies over the past 15 years have shown that organizations can reap tremendous rewards with modest or no capital investments. Some of these gains have resulted in, for example:

  • Doubled outputs and profits with the same staff allocation
  • Doubled productivity across all levels of the organization
  • Reduced throughput time and defects by 90%
  • Reduced supply chain inventory by 75%
  • Reduced space and unit costs by 50%

What’s your organization doing? Is it surviving or thriving? If it’s not thriving, take a look at how your staff’s time is being used. You may be surprised at the potential savings that can be had through simple changes.

Fueling Productivity through Employee Engagement

Sarah Van Allen of Gallup, Inc. says, “To win customers—and a bigger share of the marketplace—companies must first win the hearts and minds of their employees.” Sarah is correct.

Long gone (or should be) the days when employees were treated as “things”—useful only for specific tasks and considered to be easily replaced. This “assembly line” mentality is no longer the norm. Employees demand more from their employers and must get more to stay engaged.

A 2012 Gallup survey of over 49,000 business or work units including 1.4 million employees in 192 organizations, across 49 industries, and in 34 countries—makes it clear that employee engagement is an important competitive differentiator for organizations. If you don’t like your employees or they don’t like you, you’ve got a serious problem that will impact your bottom line.

And if employers think their internal issues are kept inside the company, think again. Today, social media quickly exposes both good and bad employers. With a tweet, blog, Facebook or LinkedIn update, YouTube, and you name it—bad employers can “burn” more quickly than an ignited match.

According to Gallup research, employee engagement affects nine performance outcomes. They found that the top performing 25 percent of organizations share these qualities:

  • 37% lower absenteeism
  • 25% lower turnover (in high-turnover organizations)
  • 65% lower turnover (in low-turnover organizations)
  • 28% less shrinkage
  • 498% fewer safety incidents
  • 41% fewer patient safety incidents
  • 41% fewer quality incidents (defects)
  • 10% higher customer metrics
  • 21% higher productivity
  • 22% higher profitability

If your organization is not a top performer, here are some suggestions on how to engage your employees for maximum performance and productivity:

  • Managers must develop a strong relationship with their employees.
  • Managers must communicate clearly with their staff.
  • Managers must provide employees with work that matches their skill set.
  • Employees that have strong co-worker relationships are more engaged.
  • Employees that collaborate with their co-workers to take risks and achieve stretch goals are more engaged.
  • Managers must provide their staff with opportunities to learn and grow.

In other words, managers are the key to whether employees are engaged or disengaged. Great managers engage their employees’ by encouraging them to use their talents instead of trying to change them. If an employee is not a good fit in one area, great managers don’t automatically dismiss them; they find them work that is a good fit.

Great managers need to ask their employees what they want and what they need to be effective in their roles. Great managers develop their employees around their strengths.

Whether a company thrives, survives, or suffers is directly affected by how it engages its employees. Surveys have consistently shown that employee engagement affects key performance outcomes, regardless of the organization, industry, or country.

What will you do today to engage your employees for maximum performance?

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.