Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Thanks for a great CIC TechForum!

Rex Wheeler II and I co-presented at CIC TechForum this year, discussing "Leadership lessons from unusual places." I sometimes notice leadership lessons hiding in odd places. They are around if you look for them. You can find leadership lessons from many unexpected places, such as these:

Disney's Mulan

Sure, Shan Yu may be the bad guy in that movie, but who says that movie villains can't also be good leaders? And it turns out that Shan Yu is pretty good at developing his team through coaching.

There's a key scene in the movie where Shan Yu decides to return a doll to a little girl in a nearby village. Shan Yu is present as a leader, and takes advantage of a coaching opportunity:

Note how Shan Yu uses this opportune moment to coach his staff. Before offering his own opinion, he asks his team leads for what they can learn by examining the doll. In turn, they each respond with an answer that offers new insight: the doll comes from a village high in the mountains, and the Imperial cannon brigade is there too.

The "coaching button" is something that sticks with your listener. Like the button on a shirt or coat, a "coaching button" doesn't do the whole job, but over time as you use more "coaching buttons" the whole picture comes together. They key is to make those "buttons" easily understood and memorable, able to stand on their own, but part of a larger story.

Shan Yu's comments are brief, memorable, but not overpowering. He is able to offer his own opinion (and decision to return the doll) without discounting the team leads. From what we see in the movie, it seems that Shan Yu has taken advantage of other coaching moments to help his future leaders develop.

"Coaching buttons" are wonderful conversational gifts. Take any available opportunity to do brief coaching conversation with your team. For example, you might find yourself early for a meeting, only one staff member is there, giving a short time for a "coaching button". Never waste an opportunity for coaching, however brief. The "coaching button" might only cover one question without an opportunity for follow-up questions to delve deeper - but if you can find frequent opportunities for several "buttons", I find it can be helpful.

Just like Shan Yu.

General Zod from Superman II

A while back, I found Superman II in my Netflix "Recommended" instant queue, and decided to watch the movie - but skipping past all the "boring" Superman and Lois story, focusing only on the bits with General Zod. Viewed from this angle, Superman II is the heartwarming tale of Zod's arrival on planet Houston to bring peace (notice how wherever he goes, people attack him for no reason - until he moves into the White House) only to be usurped by a smart-aleck orphan from his home planet. It is also a lot shorter.

There are some good leadership lessons in there, too. Just watch Zod. Turns out, he's not that bad, and has some sound advice to follow:

  1. Support your staff development. For example, when one of your senior leadership team develops the ability to set snakes on fire with her eyes, celebrate her achievement.
  2. Delegate tasks effectively. Don't feel you must take down every helicopter on your own.
  3. Communicate your vision in simple terms. And you have to admit "Vengeance on the son of Jor-El" is pretty straightforward.
  4. Be careful of subordinates who try to undermine your authority. They may double-cross you when you least expect it.
  5. Be clear in your desired results. "Kneel before Zod" sets a pretty clear expectation, and others will know when they have done it right.

Relationships and My Little Pony

An important part of leadership is building your relationship network. Relationships are currency—you sometimes need to use your relationships to make deals, smooth over conflicts, and generally just get things done. Do not overlook this part of your leadership development.

Think about your social network. I like to imagine it like a bullseye target, where the closer you are to the center, the "closer" your relationship to me. The center circle is the "circle of trust," the people you might go to for completely confidential advice. These are the people you might ask for help if you were looking for a new job. The next circle contains those people who would help you with a favor. Outside that is the "parking orbit," people who are not very close to you, but with whom you are friendly; you might see them in the hallway or by the elevator, but not interact with them very much. And if you aren't in any of those circles, I call them "potential new friends," people I haven't met yet.

You can arrange your social network even further. Think of who are your personal friends, versus your friends at work. Who are your mentors, the people you look to for inspiration? And who are your peers, people with whom you interact but who are neither "personal" nor "work" friends?

Take a few moments to map out your social network. How "close" would you rate your relationships at work? Consider who you look to if you had a problem, or needed a favor, or simply had a question. Do you have relationships that are so strong you could rely on confidential advice? Do have other relationships where you might only be able to ask for a favor? Who is in your personal "parking orbit," that need a stronger relationship to you? Is there anyone out there that you wish you knew better and who in your personal shares a relationship, and might introduce you to them?

Relationships are currency, and you can use them when you need help or advice. Making friends and building relationships is an important facet of leadership, but it is often a very difficult skill. Many of us in technology are introverts. My educational background is in physics, and a physicist friend of mine often shares this joke that applies here: "What's the difference between an introverted physicist and an extroverted one? The extrovert will look at your shoes."

Let me share leadership lessons on this topic, borrowed from an unexpected place. At the risk of doing yet another leadership post post from this source, I think it actually fits well here. Because what is the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic about, if it's not about how to make friends and build relationships. That's probably one reason that the show is so popular outside its target demographic—sometimes we all just need a refresher on how to introduce ourselves to others and form that initial relationship.

There are four steps to building a relationship with someone new. These are sometimes called the "4 I's" of relationships:
  1. Initiate
  2. Inquire
  3. Invest
  4. Inspire
Here's a brief clip showing a borderline-extroverted person meeting a definitely introverted person, overcoming an initial awkwardness to introduce herself and start a relationship. (They become great friends in the show.)

Initiate: "I'm Twilight Sparkle." 
Inquire: "What's your name?"
Twilight Sparkle also asks follow-up questions to get to know the other person. Despite Fluttershy's introverted tendencies, Twilight Sparkle reaches out to get to know the new pony, making sure she heard the name right, and commenting on Fluttershy's birds in the tree.

In this case, Twilight Sparkle only has time for the first two steps. The third step, Invest, will happen over time as Twilight Sparkle continues to renew her friendship with Fluttershy through activities, adventures … or even just a discussion on a sunny afternoon. Over time, Twilight Sparkle can rely on that relationship to inspire Fluttershy to do great things.

You can use the same method of Initiate, Inquire, Invest, Inspire to build your own relationship networks. The more people you know, the better you can navigate your organization and get things done. But don't let your relationships grow stale; fins opportunities to renew your friendships. If you call from someone in your relationship network, take a few moments to catch up before getting down to the task at hand. Or simply call or visit that other person, just to say hi and see what's up. These short moments help to build up your relationship currency.

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