The Elephant In the Room

The other day, I asked for feedback from a team I was working with about the program’s value. One of the members came up to me afterward and said, “please don’t take this personally,” and gave me some additional feedback. My response was,” the elephant is in the room whether we talk about him or not. For me, I would prefer to know what you are thinking and feeling so that I can modify the program to give you results that meet your needs.”

Yes, the elephant is in the room whether we talk about him or not. There he is, clomping around, banging into things.

And yet, we often refuse to talk about him. Why is that? Here are the reasons I hear:

  • I don’t want confrontation
  • I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings
  • We can’t do anything about it anyway

My experience is that our reluctance to confront causes the elephant to cause more damage than if we just talked about him and got him out of the room.

It is our role as leaders to invite and initiate the conversation. With the elephant out of the room, we can get on to business. As long as he is there, we are focused internally instead of externally.

Labor Day in a Pandemic – Year 2

When the first nationally recognized Labor Day was celebrated in 1894, the day consisted of a street parade sending up a message of “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” (in the words of the AFL). 

We have come a long way since then. Today, especially in this war for talent, most employers focus on offering opportunities and benefits to attract and retain talent.

Yet, the disruption from the pandemic continues. Help wanted signs everywhere, a labor shortage stretching from unskilled workers to high-level professionals and executives. 

Pundits of all types are offering commentary on this topic. Some say it’s a permanent shift only to be resolved by wage and price inflation. Others say we have a move away from work and that automation will resolve the issue.  

The Economist recently published a report entitled Will the Rich World’s Worker Deficit Last?  The authors estimate the current employment deficit to be 3% below the pre-pandemic level. While acknowledging demand shortages, their research shows that supply shortages are more significant. They describe three causes of the reduced supply: disruption owing to the spread of covid-19, primarily as a result of disruption to migration; the impact of welfare policy and pensions, recent research by Goldman Sachs, finds that “excess retirees” account for about a quarter of the decline in the country’s participation rate; and finally “changes to longer-term attitudes” wrought by the pandemic. 

They conclude by saying that “it seems that the extent to which the worker deficit endures will depend in part on how long the disruption and the fear caused by the pandemic last. Rising wages might lure some of those who left the workforce back into jobs. But the longer the pandemic goes on, the harder it becomes for those who left to return, and the more likely it is that new habits stick.”

Time will tell. And, as always, within every challenge lies opportunity.  

In the United States, we live in a world full of innovators. I am looking forward to seeing the solutions entrepreneurs come up with to address this latest labor challenge.

 

Better, Better, Maybe Not?

The notion that we can constantly make ourselves and our companies better, in theory, is a great idea. But when does it become too much?

For me, the best way to answer this question is to notice our strengths and work to enhance them. As an executive life coach, I refer to this as discovering and working in our genius.

Sometimes we become so focused on achieving that we cannot appreciate who we are or what we have already accomplished. When we are constantly reaching, it’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. 

What? Wasn’t I just quoting Florence Nightingale a few weeks ago, who said discontent leads to innovation? Yup. It is indeed a delicate balance, isn’t it?

For me, the subtle difference between striving to make the world a better place and pausing to celebrate accomplishment comes with self-awareness. The stoics said it well. We must be careful not to become reactionary or to accept, without question, the status quo. We must know ourselves, know our geniuses, and recognize where and when we can make a difference and where and when we cannot.  

Once we understand and act within our genius consistently, we become more effective, more satisfied, and ultimately better leaders. 

What Is Vulnerability?

I find that the topic of vulnerability comes up frequently in discussions amongst leaders with varying descriptions of what it means to “show vulnerability.”

Here are some questions to expand the dialogue:

  • Does vulnerability have to mean showing emotion?
  • It’s OK for a woman to have tears and talk about feelings, but still not OK for men?
  • What’s the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness?
  • How do we, as leaders, coach the leaders we work with on how to show up both confident and vulnerable?

And here are some stories from leaders I’ve worked with:

“I was a relatively new leader of a high growth business. We missed our numbers one year, and up in the front of the room, I teared up when I shared the news with my team. I felt shame that I didn’t control my emotions. Yet, the team rallied, each leader coming up to me to commit to what they would do to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

“First at age 18, and then at age 22, I entered the two most emotionless organizations there are, West Point at age 18 and Marines at age 22. In some way, these experiences hardened me to outward emotional signs. Then as a small unit infantry combat commander in Vietnam, we had to suppress and not show any emotions despite what we may have felt inside. To show emotions to the 18 & 19-year-old Marines that we led wasn’t viewed as something commanders did, and we worried that emotions might enter into the brutal things we had to do in the infantry. In our generation, it wasn’t considered ‘Marine like’ to show emotion—which of course led many of us to suppress PTSD feelings.”

“I have been working on culture in my company. Frustrated with the lack of progress, I stood up in front of the entire leadership team, all levels, and told my personal story, my values, my expectations of myself as a leader. Wow, what an impact it had; people began to ‘get it.’ And yet, I discovered that my two senior leaders, both women, struggled with this. They said they work hard to be “professional,” and to them showing or talking about feelings was weak and unprofessional.”

For all leaders, it is important to have followers trust our message. As such, there is a fine line between appearing vulnerable yet confident and appearing weak. These stories speak to different ways to address this challenge.

For me, it’s something like this,

  • Vulnerable is I am human. I make mistakes, admit them, learn from them, and move on.
  • Weak is I am uncertain. I don’t trust myself, I don’t know what to do.

 

The Gift of Feedback

Feedback is a gift. It is an opportunity for personal development and, ultimately, leadership development. And, it is hard; Very hard.

I am not sure which is harder, giving feedback or accepting it. Recently I was with a small group of fellow coaches, several of us long-tenured, and we were discussing this very topic. We spent a couple of hours working with each other to improve our skills at both. I mention long-tenured, as a reminder to myself, that no matter how skilled we think we are at this, it is hard, and requires constant practice. Following are the reminders I heard.

When giving feedback:

  • Start from a place of care, ask yourself what outcome you want to achieve from the feedback, and get clear that you really believe that outcome is possible, i.e., is the person capable of the behavior change you want to see?
  • You can earn trust with truthful, specific, positive feedback (TSP as speaker, Michael Allosso, calls it).
  • When giving constructive feedback, ask first if the receiver is open to feedback.
  • Even better, wait until the feedback is asked for.
  • Own your experience, share feelings and observations; be specific.
  • Use neutral language, e.g., my experience of you… or When you do…, I feel…
  • Remember, the purpose of feedback is to share your experience of another person, not to “fix” the other person.

When receiving feedback, remember it is a gift:

  • Ask for feedback, and be specific about the purpose, e.g., I want to become more effective at…
  • Listen and digest.
  • Try not to defend or respond, simply say, thank you.

Let’s work together. If you are looking to grow or get unstuck and cut the time to action to six months or less, there is no better time than now to contact me. 

© EKS LTD Please feel free to forward this blog in full with attribution, including the copyright notation.

It’s Not About Color, Or Is it?

I’ve spent a lot of time this past week talking about racism. The conversations began with wondering why, the murder of George Floyd last week sparked protests nationwide when the killing of Eric Garner, in 2014 did not. Then when the looting began, the conversation turned to one about fear.

As a teenager in 1968, when protestors were attacked by the police during the democratic convention and later at universities, I felt solidarity. Friends tell me their teenage and young adult children feel similarly now.  

For me, today, it is more complicated. It’s a conversation about the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a conversation about violence. And, as I have come to realize, most importantly, it is a conversation about racism. 

As a country, we are reluctant to talk about race and even more unwilling to talk about racism. And yet we must if we are ever to understand our fellow Americans. When the “enemy” is nameless and faceless, it is easy to hate. On the other hand, when we talk to one another and begin to understand that the “other” is not the enemy, rather s/he is just different from me, we can learn from and understand one another.

As a Jew, when I watched the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA in August of 2017, I heard my mother’s words to me as a child, telling me that anyone who isn’t Jewish is deep down anti-Semitic, and wondered if she were right?

Today, I hear, “all white people are deep down racist, and police officers, in particular, are racist,” and I wonder if this is true?  

And, as one who believes in the general good of humanity, I don’t want to believe any of this is so. And yet, something is clearly wrong. 

Some say this is a seminal moment and that Mr. Floyd’s murder is a catalyst for change that is long overdue. I hope so. 

And because we humans relate to stories, here are two I heard this week that will always stay with me.

Dr. Julius Few, an intensely private man and a prominent Plastic Surgeon practicing in Chicago and Los Angeles, decided to share his story on Instagram. Dr. Few grew up in a wealthy white suburb of Detroit. While his parents weren’t wealthy, they worked hard to live in this community to provide him and his brother what they believed was an opportunity. Instead, unbeknownst to his parents, he was a victim of racism every day. Dr. Few’s video story appears in two parts:

Part I – https://www.instagram.com/p/CA6uBDQjxZF/ Part II – https://www.instagram.com/p/CA6vlEjjhUg/

A dear friend of mine, an accomplished, highly educated business person, told me that when he was a teenager growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, he was walking down the street one day, and several police officers suddenly came upon him, guns pointed. They told him he “looked like” a man that had just held up a liquor store. While they were holding him down, they got a call on the radio, and then abruptly left.

My friend told me he had forgotten about this until the current situation reminded him. “Forgot or buried it,” he wondered out loud. Of course, as you probably guessed, my friend is black. The saddest irony of this story is that my friend’s father was a police officer who died in the line of duty, not so many years later. 

For me, these two stories remind us that we must take time to follow the guidance from Steven Covey and seek first to understand

Here are a couple of resources I found this week to begin my learning:

Introvert or Extrovert: Who Makes the Better Leader?

Extroversion is the dominant style in the United States. As a result, we sometimes confuse leadership with charisma. Yet, research shows that not only are 40%-50% of CEO’s introverts, some of the more “famous” CEOs are also introverts, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Charles Schwab and Steve Spielberg. 

Amongst entrepreneurs, the numbers are higher. Why? Because entrepreneurs frequently are the expert at their chosen business and experts most often are introverts.

So what does this mean?

First, recognize that extroversion/introversion isn’t binary. Most leaders tend toward one style or the other. Leadership, by its very nature, doesn’t attract people who live in extremes.

As with all style differences, start by celebrating and leveraging the differences in style. While other factors come into play in style differences, the key difference between introverts and extroverts is where they draw their energy. 

Both introverts and extroverts seek input. Introverts tend to ask for feedback and then “go within” to think things over and make a decision. One thing to keep in mind about introverts – they aren’t necessarily shy, frequently just quiet – taking it all in.

Extroverts tend to think out loud, drawing their energy from the interaction with others. 

Introverted leaders are frequently your “back of the room” leaders – they are calm, unemotional, and perceived as wise. 

They are the ones that speak infrequently, but when they do, everyone listens.

Extroverted leaders are typically the “charismatic leader” – they are engaging, inspiring, and draw people to them.

If you are an introverted leader, leverage your natural strengths:

  • allow yourself to pause and reflect before making a decision and let others know this is your style
  • leverage your ability to build relationships with small groups inside and outside your company
  • And, take note when it is time to access your extroversion to rally the troops inside your company or externally show up as an ambassador

If you are an extrovert leading introverted leaders, you can help by:

  • giving the introvert time to think
  • asking them what they think rather than assuming by being quiet they are not in agreement
  • inspiring the introvert to step out of their comfort zone when it is time for them to be inspiring to the team

If you are interested in learning more about this subject, one of my favorite books on the topic is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Let’s work together. You can learn more about my leadership coaching and peer advisory boards here. 

With Diversity, Comes Diversity

What does this statement even mean?

  • Homogeneous groups have similar backgrounds, preferences and personality styles. Often homogeneous groups are homegrown with few additions from “outside.”
  • Diverse groups, on the other hand, may differ in traditional ways, i.e., gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual preference. Members may also differ in terms of their personality styles and backgrounds. Finally, a group’s diversity may come from changes in membership as outsiders join and integrate into the existing culture.

Diverse leadership teams are hard…they are harder to build, unlikely to come to a consensus, and are more likely to have conflict.

So, why bother? Because… they are harder to build, are unlikely to come to a consensus and are more likely to have conflict, they make better decisions. Research studies prove this out. And, diverse groups only work when they can come together as an integrated team.

The word integration is rarely used today in the context of a diversity conversation. It harkens back to the 1970s when schools were being “integrated.” Fights broke out, and education became challenging. This period, in retrospect, was viewed as an experiment that failed. And, this “experiment” provides insight for leaders who want to diversify and integrate their organizations.

Integration- Merriam Webster “to form, coordinate, or blend into a functioning or unified whole.”

Some organizations handle integration well, and some don’t. Why? For me, the answer lies in how intentional the leader is about their culture.

What to do? As with any critical decision, start by asking yourself, what outcome do I want?

Diversity is not always the best approach. 

Homogeneous groups are easier. Because of their similar backgrounds, preferences, and styles, they are likely to agree and move forward quickly.

If the goal is getting more of what you already have, then a homogeneous group may be the way to go. If the goal is innovation and critical thinking, you are more likely to get there with a diverse group.

If you decide you want to build a diverse team, begin by defining what you are looking to accomplish with the diversity. Then ask yourself the following questions as you start to form, coordinate, or blend into a functioning or unified whole:

  • Do I know the backgrounds, preferences, and styles of current team members?
  • Have we defined our culture? And do we acknowledge the unspoken characteristics of our culture?
  • What are our gaps, and are we willing to fill them with outsiders who bring a different perspective?
  • What on-boarding actions do I need to take to achieve integration?

Let’s work together. You can learn more about my leadership coaching and peer advisory boards here. http://elisaspain.com

Gratitude for Clean Toilets that Flush

I spent most of December in Vietnam and Cambodia, an experience that had a profound impact I am still processing. We were fortunate to find a Hanoi based travel agent who created a truly local experience. While we stayed in fine hotels, most of which had all the features of western hotels, the rest of our experience was local. And local included local “WCs,” as they called them in Vietnam.

While I’ve traveled to places before where I had to buy toilet paper on the way in and follow unfamiliar toilet customs, this is the first time these experiences were daily and throughout the day. Except for our hotel and one or two tourist restaurants, our guides took us to local places. We sometimes visited people’s homes and were graciously allowed to use their facilities.

We loved Vietnam; it’s a colorful, dynamic, high energy place. The growth is palpable. Hanoi maintains the charm of its history while becoming more modern. It was interesting to see the perspective of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Both were in favor of unity; the south isn’t happy about being part of a communist country, yet they accept it. And truthfully, with all of what they term “enterprise” in Vietnam (I guess they can’t call it capitalism), you don’t feel the communism or dictatorship at all.

We met a vet in Hanoi, an elite pilot who, together with three elite American pilots, wrote a book about the war. He has become friends with these Americans (they shot each other down), and they visit each other once or twice a year. I captured a quote on the back of the book that describes their feelings “We weren’t really enemies, just soldiers doing the best we could for our country.” In short, Vietnam has moved on from what they call “The American War,” and is a vibrant place.

Cambodia, on the other hand, is a very different place. This country has been under the same dictator since its civil war. After the war, nearly 50 years ago, the central government moved the people from the city to the country to become collective farmers, and that is how it remains. People farm so they can eat. They live on the land owned by the government, in “houses” made mostly of bamboo. A few shopkeepers are wealthy enough to have homes built of concrete. Most people don’t have electricity and the places where there is electricity, e.g., our hotel, it is unreliable (there are no electrical plants in Cambodia, they buy it from either Laos or Vietnam). Most people have water, but it is well water that is not necessarily safe to drink. Half the year, it is hot and arid and so dusty it is hard to breathe, and the other half it is hotter and flooded most of the time.

We don’t see news about Cambodia the way we do about Africa, e.g.Sudan and Rwanda, and yet Cambodia is similar. Although the Cambodian atrocities happened over 50 years ago during their 20-year civil war, they are still dealing with it today. Between 1.2 million and 2.8 million — estimated between 13 percent 30 percent of the country’s population at the time, was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Not to mention the nearly 4 million mines they told us still maim people regularly when they accidentally step on them.

During the trip, my husband and I just took it all in; we didn’t discuss what we saw and experienced until we were on our way home. I am still processing what I saw and how I feel about it all.

For me, toilets are a metaphor for the contrast between the industrialized world and the undeveloped in the case of Cambodia, and even the developing world of Vietnam. When we arrived at the airport in Tokyo, I was struck by how grateful I was to go to a clean bathroom with a clean toilet that flushed. I am still noticing this benefit in my life that I previously took for granted. I hope I continue to notice.

Let’s work together. You can learn more about my leadership coaching and peer advisory boards here.

Consensus Gives You Beige

When a leader asks for input and then makes a decision, the result is vivid color, i.e. a better decision. It is a better decision for several reasons.

First and foremost, your team feels valued when they are asked to participate in the decision process.

Second, there is value in the wisdom of crowds; many times the group will surface ideas that the leader hasn’t thought about. As a leadership coach and Vistage Master Chair, I see this happen each month during the executive sessions I lead with CEOs. This, of course, is why 23,000+ people around the world are members – we understand the value of seeking input.

Where it all goes awry, is when we seek consensus instead of input. With consensus, all the colors get mixed resulting in a dull beige, i.e. a mediocre, watered-down decision.

Sometimes this may be okay when the goal is more about participation that it is about making decisions. The key is being mindful of your goal.

So, the next time you are asking for input, ask yourself, “is it vivid color I want or is beige okay?” And, if it is color you want, don’t settle for beige. Make the final decision yourself.

Let’s work together. You can learn more about my leadership coaching and peer advisory boards here.