Tag: leadership

Q&A with Paul Downs, Author of Boss Life (Part I)

Paul Downs started making custom furniture in 1986, shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in engineering. Downs has only one line on his résumé, but he has a wide variety of skills gained in twenty-five years of running his business. His clients range from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, all branches of the military, and foreign governments. A regular contributor to both Forbes and the New York Times, Downs lives with his wife and three sons outside of Philadelphia. His latest book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business, was a Forbes Best Book of the Year and Winner of 8CR Award.
I sincerely appreciate that Paul Downs pulled time away from his business and family to answer some questions for us. First-line supervisors have tough jobs and often little training. I expect that Paul’s comments will resonate with many and hopefully provide insight and new approaches. Paul also demonstrates a level of sharing and vulnerability that we can all strive to duplicate in our lives.
Axtell: Paul, you wrote: “You can’t understand a boss without knowing what he goes home to.” Please share more of your thinking about this.
Downs: You can evaluate a boss with objective metrics: growth, profit, whatever you can measure. And that may be enough. If you want to get a better sense of how someone operates and why they are the way they are, you need to look deeper. Who is that person? Why do they do what they do? Were they born that way or are they reacting to circumstances? And what are the circumstances? Are they only work events or is there more?
Ideally, the time spent away from work gives the boss an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next challenge. However, that’s not guaranteed. Personally, I found that having a special needs child led me to decide not to work long hours and to make sure I didn’t arrive home with my batteries completely discharged. That undoubtedly had an effect on the growth and success of my company.
Axtell: Paul, these three sentences struck me in one part of your book.

The day you have children, you enter a different world.
Every couple has a fight that just keeps coming back.
Keeping a barrier between work and home was a mistake.

How do you see these statements being related, and what did you learn from this?
Downs: There’s nothing unusual about these statements other than that they appeared in a business book. The first two are simply self-evident truth. If you are in a relationship and have had kids, you don’t need any further explanation. And if you aren’t and don’t, now you know what to look out for.
The last statement, that keeping the things that happened to me at work hidden from my wife and children, was a mistake for me. I’m not sure that this is the best approach for all people. If I had been capable of forgetting the stresses of work when I crossed my threshold each day, things might have worked out differently. As it happened, my family lived for years with a man who, on occasion, was upset, distant, and prone to sudden explosion for no apparent reason. Later they got a man who still exhibited those faults and was willing to share the reasons why, and assured his loved ones that they were not at fault. I found that providing a summary of my day, good or bad, allowed me to be a better father.
Axtell: Where does your best thinking occur…on your bike…elsewhere?
Downs: It can happen anywhere, really. My bike ride to work is especially nice because it’s a very low-traffic, flat, easy route. That’s a good time to let my mind wander. But I’m thinking of business problems all the time, and good ideas pop up in a variety of situations.
Axtell: What does a good boss do when an employee underperforms?
Downs: A good boss sets clear expectations from the beginning. When those aren’t met, I first ask myself what I did to contribute the problem. Have I provided the proper tools to do the job? The proper materials to work with? And does the employee have all of the information they need to succeed? Those things are my responsibility, and if an honest analysis reveals that I failed, I correct the situation.
When I’ve done what I should have, then I start with a discussion with the employee. They usually know that they have been underperforming, but sometimes they have no idea. I review the expectations with them and give them a chance to provide an explanation. I make it clear that excuses are interesting, but don’t absolve them of the need to do their job.
If a verbal warning doesn’t work, I have developed a procedure that serves as a formal warning to the employee. I write down what the problem is, examples of when and how it occurred, how this violates our company policies, what would constitute a correction of the behavior, and what the consequences are for failure to correct the problem. I get a witness and bring the employee into my office for a formal review of this document. This tends to be a very scary experience for the employee, which is what I want. Good workers straighten up. Bad workers either quit or have been given notice of the consequences of their actions. If they continue to underperform, I fire them. I make sure that the firing is done the same way: with a written description of the problem, with a chance to respond, but with the final consequence already determined.
Our employee manual has a list of behaviors that will lead to instant firing. When I’ve had to do that, I still go through the procedure: written description and meeting with witness. Sometimes I film the meeting.
None of this is fun, and describing it is a lot easier than doing it. Disciplinary meetings are the worst things I have to do as a boss. However, I believe that the procedure is fair to everyone: to the employee involved, to the company, and especially to the other workers. Bad colleagues make good employees feel bad. The boss owes it to those who are doing a good job to have the guts to discipline underperformers and get rid of people who aren’t working out.

Part 2

Q&A with Mindy Hall, PhD, author of Leading with Intention

There is much insight to gain from Mindy Hall and her answers below, but perhaps my favorite is her personal motto: “I want it to matter that we met.” It is obvious to see through her work as CEO of Peak Development Consulting and author of Leading with Intention: Every Moment Is a Choice that she truly believes every interaction is an opportunity, that every action has an impact, and that one person alone can make a difference.
Read on below, and you can also find Mindy at Peak Development Radio, the Growing Your Organization blog, and through her contributions to Entrepreneur.
Paul: I love the concept of intention and I often express it in my work as “this shall be.” Would you please explain the power of intention as you see it?
Mindy: Leading with intention is built on a foundation of awareness—of ourselves, our mindsets, our impact on others, and of the context in which we operate. It is about being mindful of how we “show up” in the world, what tone we set, and having both an understanding and ownership of the contribution we make to any dynamic.
Paul: You have over 25 years of experience in developing leaders and working with some of the country’s top companies – what are the signs of someone not working with intention?   
Mindy: Most leaders come to their leadership more from an intuitive place than an intentional place. Don’t get me wrong, there are many leaders who do quite well from an intuitive place, but time and time again I have seen the impact of leaders who don’t just rely on intuition and old patterns of how they lead but rather make a conscious choice of how they are going to lead. It can be small things like how present a leader is when someone is talking with them; or as large as shaping the whole culture of an organization. What leaders model is what companies become, and the tone they set has a direct correlation to the business outcomes that are achieved. When someone is not leading with intention, they are leaving tremendous potential on the table for their organization to be more.
Paul: What’s the first step to becoming more intentional?  
Mindy: The first step in becoming more intentional is in ratcheting up your self-awareness of how you “land”/how you “show up” in an interaction, how you are experienced. When I coach executive leaders, I focus my efforts around three layers of growth – you can think about it visually as three concentric circles: The innermost circle is Awareness, which is simply the cognitive aspects of understanding one’s behavior…having the awareness to see how you are impacting others. Integration is the next concentric circle, and it represents the behavioral element of turning that cognitive data into action – intentionally choosing how you want to impact others and then doing what you say you want to do. Embodiment is the outer-most circle, and it represents consistency over time. It’s like any new thing we are trying to do; it takes understanding how to do it, then doing it, then repeating it over and over again until it becomes a new way of operating. It’s like deciding you want to get physically fit; you have a cognitive understanding of what that will take (perhaps a couple more days at the gym per week or a few more runs in the park), and then you start to incorporate that behavior into you routine. As you do that consistently over time, it becomes a new way of operating.
Paul: Like most people, I worry a lot about technology and multi-tasking – and how they seem to be eroding our ability to be present. How can we get back to treating each moment with the attention it deserves?
Mindy: To me it’s simply about making the choice to do so. I think we have forgotten the simple truth that we are 100 percent responsible for how we behave in this world. Circumstances may dictate curves in the road sometimes, but how we show up in the face of those is entirely within our hands. How we choose to be present or not is entirely within our control.
Paul: Your philosophy is that “I want it to matter that we met.” This is a fantastic perspective for anyone, but I think it may be particularly helpful for young people starting off their careers and developing their networks. Can you share a bit more on this?
Mindy: Every interaction is an opportunity; every action has an impact; every moment is a choice.  I am a big believer that one person truly can make a difference in this world and that, although our challenges may seem large and overwhelming, if we focus on affecting the universe of people that we are in contact with on a daily basis, it is much like a pebble in a pond with ripples that emanate, impacting not only those we are in contact with but those they are in contact with as well.
Paul: Your blog post – Meet Your Heroes – reminds me of the notion of not settling for less than what might be possible. Please tell us about this concept.
Mindy: When I started my doctoral program, our university president stood up and said, “You are not getting a PhD; you are becoming one.” He encouraged us to put ourselves in the circle of people we admired – the authors, the theorists, the practitioners – to reach out and be in conversation with those individuals. The story I had about these people was that they would not make time for someone who did not have the same status; my story could not have been more wrong. It pushed me to move beyond my self-generated perception and opened up wonderful doors and opportunities for learning that otherwise would not have been possible. It boiled down to simply pushing beyond my comfort zone.
Paul: A big part of your expertise is learning. What are some of your best practices when it comes to learning?
Mindy: For my own learning, I am a big reader. Right now, I’m reading Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School by Idris Mootee. He describes design thinking as the “search for a magical balance between business and art; structure and chaos; intuition and logic; concept and execution; playfulness and formality; and control and empowerment.” It’s stretching my thinking in lots of good ways.

Who might you invite to coffee?

Building relationships is part of the job
With today’s hurry-up pace, it seems we’ve simply lost the notion of slowing down and taking time to be interested in other people. Front porches have been replaced with fenced-in backyards. Company softball teams have disappeared. Events designed to get employees together after work no longer hold the same interest. We’ve lost track of what is happening in other people’s lives. We eat at our desks, and there doesn’t seem to be time to go out for coffee.
Let’s make time. There is something about the invitation to have coffee that carries a genuine interest in the other person, in connecting. Sure, Facebook and LinkedIn are designed for keeping in touch with the people in your personal and work lives to some extent. But nothing beats face-to-face conversations for developing a sense of connection and understanding. And those connections forged over coffee, tea, or lunch can provide value beyond getting to know one another better—they affect your ability to get things done in the organization.

During a leadership seminar, Ashlee shared a couple of her favorite insights about being in a leadership role. I loved this one, which she called: “With whom do I need to have a cup of coffee?”
As we were in the beginning of a new product launch, Mary Pat and I were feeling the pressure: a lot to do, and a short time to do it. It was chaotic. During a rough moment, Mary Pat said, “I am failing. I feel as if I am failing.” 
“Why?” I asked her. “All launches are chaos, and we just need to get through it.”
She then said to me, “When Dave had this job, it wasn’t this chaotic. He would be having a cup of coffee with someone now instead of being out here on the factory floor.” 
I looked at her as if she were nuts and asked how a cup of coffee would make things less chaotic. She said, “Dave knew when and with whom he needed to be building relationships to avoid the chaos and indecision.” 
Her statement has stuck with me for years. I now evaluate situations and question where a cup of coffee could solve my problem, or at a minimum make it less painful.
For many reasons, projects stop moving or commitments are not kept. If you have a relationship in place with the folks involved, discussing the problem is much easier. It’s tough to bring up an issue with someone you don’t know. Over coffee might just be the best way to have difficult conversations.
There is something about disengaging from the hectic pace of work and life—stepping away, slowing down—that creates an environment of calm and safety and permission. It allows for conversations about things that matter. And I’m not talking about a huge time investment here. Thirty minutes, once a week, and you could make new connections or deepen your relationship with fifty colleagues in a year’s time.
Take Ashlee’s advice and begin your day by thinking of someone you might invite to coffee.

Excerpted from Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations by Paul Axtell.

Whose topic is it and who should lead the conversation?

Most organizations use one of two options for determining who will lead a meeting. It’s either the manager/supervisor of the group, or it’s an outside person hired to facilitate the meeting.
But there is a more powerful option available: Decide on a topic-by-topic basis.
The roles people play in a meeting can change from one agenda item to the next. The meeting roles outlined below show a significant distinction in the parts people play, whether they’re the owner of a topic, the leader, or a participant. The entire meeting doesn’t need to have a single leader; this role can shift depending on who needs to be free to participate more fully in the conversation.
The Owner of a conversation topic is the person who requested time for it on the agenda. This person will both set the stage for discussing the topic and wrap up the discussion at the end. It is preferable for the owner of the conversation to be free to listen to each contribution, add clarity when needed, and consider the most powerful way to close the topic.
The Leader directs the discussion, with a focus on both keeping the conversation on track and ensuring broad participation.
Meeting Roles
The Provost Council at a Land Grant University I’ve worked with developed a definition of meeting roles that breaks down something like this:
Typically, this is the person who asked to put a topic on the agenda. The Owner sets up this conversation for the group, which might include:

Framing the topic in a longer time frame or providing the context
Setting outcomes for the conversation in this meeting
Explaining is wanted and needed from meeting participants
Establishing time and process, if the discussion process is complex

With straightforward and short-duration discussions, the Owner can also be the person who manages/leads the group conversation.
Whether leading or not, the Owner is also responsible for looking for the value that occurs during the conversation and providing closure at the end of it.
On complex or longer conversations, it’s useful to have someone who can manage the group conversation without adding content. Responsibilities include working with the Owner to design the best way to introduce and conduct the conversation.
This person is also responsible for making sure that the process for working through the conversation is clear and then keeping the conversation on track. The Leader manages the levels of conversation so everyone feels heard and included.
The Leader either provides a charting of the conversation or asks someone else to do so and asks someone to keep track of the conversation so pertinent points can be captured in the meeting notes to be sent out to participants within twenty-four hours.
Meeting Participants
In addition to participating in the conversation, Participants look for ways to help the Owner and the Leader to both accomplish the work on each topic and ensure that everyone has a good experience of being in the meeting.
Participants with less content to provide on a topic have an obligation to pay more attention to process and provide guidance on where the conversation is and where it might go next.
At times, you should lead your own meetings. No problem—I’m just arguing hard for not making it an automatic decision. Varying these roles is a wonderful way to build the organization’s capacity for effective meetings by giving lots of people a chance to lead—one conversation at a time rather than handle an entire meeting.

Questions are powerful tools…what’s in your toolbox?

As supervisor and mangers, if you are interested in developing your employees, you may be struggling to shift from a telling or directing mode to a more listening and questioning mode.
In addition, you’ve may have had employees come to you with ideas or decisions that you either don’t have time to consider or you want them to rely on themselves to determine their next actions.
In both situations, it is useful to have a ready set of reliable and powerful questions that put the responsibility back on their shoulders—questions that are empowering rather than diminishing.
Here are my favorites:
Someone comes to you about a decision he or she wants to make and would like you to approve:
What is the worst that can happen if we do this, and can we live with that if it happens?
Someone comes to you with a complaint about Noah, a co-worker:
Sounds as if you need to have a conversation with Noah. How can I support you in doing that?
Someone comes to you about a problem he or she can’t solve:
Who knows the answer to this and how might you reach that person?
The key is to develop a set of questions that get to the heart of the matter.
Here are some others you might practice:

To nail down a commitment: When do you think you’ll be able to complete this?
To respond to a complaint: What is your request?
To check for alignment: Are you okay with this?
To push back on whining or griping: What might we do to change that situation?

In the next few weeks, listen for the questions used in meetings that add clarity, get alignment, elicit responsibility, or produce action. Pick out the ones you like and begin to use them.