Articles & Blogs

What Big Brothers Can Learn From Their Little Brother

Written by Steve Leslie

My big brother used to beat me up from the time I was eight until fifteen. He claimed then, and still claims now, that he was trying to toughen me up, and prepare me for the world. But one day, the weekly beat ups changed, physics had caught up for me. My big brother learned a lesson that day; he learned that little brothers could get big!

We see the same thing in the business world. In this world of start-ups and scale-ups, the “small guys” often dominate markets by changing the rules of businesses. They are starting to have a significant impact on the innovation that is taking place in the robotics, artificial intelligence, and software automation industry. These once small companies are now getting big and beating the big guys at their own game. 

During my coaching and leadership career, I’ve taken the lessons learned from the insides of both large multinational companies and scale-up businesses and helped combine that knowledge to bring it to my clients. My career has been dedicated to helping shape company culture, align leaders, and develop people in this most effective ways possible. 

Because of my unique position, I have seen the difference between the big company and the scale-up. As industry disruption and innovation runs rampant, I’ve taken note of what those organizations should apply to their culture and approach to business. Here are the lessons I’ve learned. 

Don’t Be So Functionally Aligned

Functional alignment and expertise drive efficiency, but often it leads to silo thinking. By this, it means that you are splitting up the work and arranging by the function of the process. A silo mentality is when people are reluctant to share information with employees within their own company. As silo thinking begins to take over a company, it can lead to increased efficiency; however, it hurts innovation. And can even damage culture. 

Most businesses would all agree that they want to have a more collaborative vision and be able to communicate better. You don’t need to have an MBA to realize that with better communication and collaboration, the more financial returns your company will see. However, stepping away from those historical structures can be hard because the loss of control and departure from the familiar is painful for some. 

Start-ups and scale-ups can reach across the functions to generate and solutions. Instead of sitting on the ideas, waiting for approval, or pieces of the puzzle from other divisions, they can act quickly. If you are a large organization, you should do everything you can to remove functional silos. Try to encourage cross-functional teams and state a clear understanding of the ultimate goal of the company, to drive innovation.

The Best Idea Can Come From Anywhere 

Unfortunately, large organizations will rely solely on the vacuum of communication within a specific group of leaders and levels in the company. Ideas might be coming from just a few people instead of the whole organization. When a lower-level employee does have an idea, it might not even make it up to the decision-makers or is not encouraged. 

Small companies are different from these giants because they are often not biased towards ideas. They will encourage any employee to come up with ideas that drive innovation and lead to success. Start-ups that do find success will often have tried and failed many times. They use that failure to build something better than they had before. Big organizations are usually the exact opposite and reward their employees for taking the limited risk, rather than take a chance on something that has the potential to fail, but a higher reward if it doesn’t. Instead, they should start listening to every voice, regardless of level. 

Be Agile With Your Culture & Values

No matter how many new people you hire, it can’t change the culture of the workplace if the company doesn’t focus on keeping them long-term. Large organizations find it very tough to evolve their work environment or modify values in the face of market changes. 

Businesses that encourage an open exchange of ideas are in the best situation to attract new and talented individuals. Large companies should focus on creating educational opportunities for their employees to help them learn and foster a positive workplace environment. Showing that they care about their employees and are willing to invest in them, can go a long way. 

Being able to talk about values, and in some cases, changing values, to reflect the current realities of the business is a healthy way always to ensure you have a culture that is young, fresh, evolving, and performing at a high level.

Innovate At All Costs

Small companies excel at having a can-do attitude. They tend to be inspired by new ideas, markets, and opportunities. However, too often, big companies get into this mode of killing ideas, playing devil’s advocate, and never letting any different type of thinking get momentum. Instead, they should embrace new ideas by creating an environment that welcomes them. 

Large companies should have parts of their businesses that work like start-ups and allow their employees to fail. Try new things, and in team meetings, these employees can then share what worked and didn’t work for them. Creating agile parts of the business can start to fuel innovation. 

Most importantly, big companies must put a process in place to ensure that new ideas are allowed to be heard by the right people. Create chances for your workers to fail without penalty so that the learnings transition to the new business opportunity.

By remembering these four tips, maybe you can stop your little brother from one day teaching you a lesson to toughen you up. 

Embracing Those Dreaded Tough Conversations

By Steve Leslie

All leaders have to have a tough conversation at least once (but likely more!) in their career. Regardless of whether it is disciplining poor performance, firing someone, or telling an employee that they won’t be getting a raise, it is never easy to have these conversations. It might be more comfortable to put off these talks, or avoid the person, hoping that the issue will resolve itself.

Why do we run from conflict? In one word, safety.

As a leadership development coach, I’ve had the opportunity to help my clients overcome their areas of frustration. Two of the biggest areas they tend to struggle with is building a culture of accountability and having tough conversations. Both of these issues have to do with the same thing: conflict! Having those tough talks and then establishing responsibility all are necessary for a productive and healthy workplace. One cannot exist without the other.

While very few of us enjoy conflict in the workplace, we seem to avoid having them as often as possible. Unfortunately, we often convince ourselves that the pain of not having that hard conversation will be less than the pain of actually having it. But what exactly is holding us back? It’s the fear of the unexpected. We don’t know how others will react when we do bring up something unpleasant but necessary. Will people dislike me? Will things escalate to a terrifying degree? Will it create an unbearable work environment? The fear of the unknown is what stops us from venturing into that uncertain environment of hard conversations.

Personally, managing conflict was nerve-wracking. Any sign of it, my heart would begin to race. I would stress the entire day about a discussion I would have to have later, and I would become nervous and vulnerable. That feeling of fight or flight mentality took over my primitive brain.

However, instead of just continuing to stutter through a hard meeting, I looked at my motivations for trying to avoid conflict and the effect that it was having on my team. I realized that accountability, or the willingness to accept full responsibility, was driven by three key things 1) alignment in values to build trust 2) my own personal leadership 3) embracing coaching and having tough conversations.

The good news is that with practice, you can master this skill. Embrace that fear of conflict! You should view it as a challenge or an opportunity for growth, instead of an obligation or something to dread. Here is how to prepare to engage in conflict in a way that keeps both parties accountable and the work environment positive.

1. Change Your Mindset

To truly turn conflict from an obligation to an opportunity, you need to switch up your mindset. Try to reframe the discussion into a more positive one. For instance, if you need to give negative feedback to an employee, redefine it as a constructive conversation about growth and development. If you have to turn down a promotion or project, instead, think of it as offering an alternative solution to your boss. Instead of labeling it as a difficult dialogue, think of it as a normal conversation to make it easier for you.

2. Plan What You Want To Say

Prepare questions in advance of what you want to say. Jot down a few notes, but don’t worry about writing down what you want to say word for word. Keep the key points that you want to mention, but be prepared if the conversation doesn’t go exactly as you plan. You should be flexible in the discussion, and be open to creating a dialogue. Creating a few questions beforehand can be a great way to do this. This can lead the way to a productive two-way dialogue that helps to move along the discussion. Having a loose plan of what you want to say can keep you from becoming flustered, while keeping your temper and helping you to deliver harsh feedback.

3. Remember The Power Of WE And US

During the discussion, avoid the word “YOU.” Instead, create a more collaborative and engaging environment with the words “WE” and “US.” For example, asking, “how can we improve performance in this area?”

Throughout the dialogue, you might gain insight into why something has occurred. Perhaps there is a technical issue that is holding an employee back, or extra training is needed. Or, perhaps there is a personal issue that is affecting their work. By building this environment of opening and accountability, it helps to fit the needs of the employees better.

4. Summarize And Agree On The Next Steps

Make sure that you and the employee are on the same page regarding expectations and consequences. That way, it is much easier for you to have tough conversations in the future because employees already know what it is expected of them to perform well and stay motivated. Take notes either during or after the meeting so things are clear and fresh in your mind.

If you are finding an employee struggling with a consistent lack of accountability at work, it might be time to create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) goals. It provides transparent communication between the two parties and leaves little to the imagination.

5. Follow Up

Once you’ve had that tough talk, it is important to keep the environment of accountability going. It can help solve any small issues before they become full-blown problems. Once the employee has had time to digest the conversation and incorporate any feedback you might have had, it can be helpful to see if they are performing as expected. Make sure to praise them as they are doing things right and focus on the positives. If appropriate put it in writing!

Having those tough conversations is just one element to building a highly accountable environment. We will discuss alignment in values and personal leadership in a future post.

Next time, when you face conflict in the workplace, you will be ready to embrace it. Plan for it to help build a safe and trusting environment for your team.

Want That Next Big Job? Get Really Good at These 6 Things

By Steve Leslie

In today’s fast-paced business world, professional development is about pushing your professional growth to the point of uncomfortableness. Creating growing pains as you push your mental capacity, and sometimes even your physical ability is the ultimate catalyst of growth.

Often, success is dependent on your personal growth and your ability to create your own development program. Too often, young leaders become frustrated at not advancing in the job at the rate and speed that keeps them challenged. However, if you want that next big job, you have to do more than just ask for it.

Ultimately, it is up to you to conduct yourself in a way that shows you are ready to take on the challenges of a new job position if it should open up. By demonstrating those abilities and work ethic to the right people, you can move up the career ladder more quickly. Here are six things you should do to position yourself for the next steps in your career.

1.Do a Great Job and Expand Your Strategic Thinking
I know this goes without saying, but your performance in your current role has a lot to do with how others will view you for that next promotion. Specifically, your ability to execute and think strategically. Demonstrate your ability to see the big picture while achieving targets. Ensure you understand your objectives, and you are getting feedback on your progress. Be open to new challenges and new projects. This is often a great sign that the organization has faith in you and sees the significant runway in your potential.

2. Be A Team Player
Employers tend not to like the workers who have an “I” mentality over a “we” mentality. Future leaders need to bring people together and create intellectual leverage through high emotional intelligence skills. To position yourself for a promotion, you should be the one who volunteers yourself before being asked because it shows you will put in the extra effort. Meanwhile, your ability to get along with others and work together as a team builds invaluable skills and helps you and others to innovate at a higher level.

3. Ask for Feedback and Communicate
First, you should figure out what you want from your future career. Is there a specific position you want, or do you want to create your own role? Do you want more managerial responsibility? Once you decide what you want, ask for a specific meeting with your boss to talk about career development. Tell your boss what your long-term career goals are and ask for advice on how to best reach them. Keeping your plans to yourself helps no one. By communicating your goals, your boss can help prepare you for new roles in the future.

As you speak with your manager, don’t be shy about telling her that you are eager to take on any unique opportunities that allow you to grow professionally. If you are willing to move or ready to take on a new project, communicate this as well. If leadership knows this, they will keep it in mind in their people planning sessions as well as considering you for that next promotion.

Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to solicit advice and feedback from your manager. Figure out what your strengths and weakness are and then work that information to your advantage. Your boss will appreciate that you are taking the feedback and constructively growing as an employee.

4. Don’t Be A Suck Up
Researchers at Oregon State University’s College of Business found that brown nosing might improve your relationship with management, but it can also lead to detrimental behavior and decreased relationships with colleagues. Because of the increased time you might spend getting on your bosses’ good side, you might end up slacking off at your job. When you spend too much energy kissing up to your boss, you tend to lose your authenticity and it harms your productivity.

5. Don’t Play Politics
This tip goes hand in hand with don’t be a suck-up, but it should be a strategy that you use very carefully. However, backbiting, currying favor, misstating other’s positions, and making accusations based on faulty information is not the type of office politics you should engage in at the workplace. Almost every office has some form of politics in play, and it is nearly impossible to avoid them.

Instead, you should practice workplace diplomacy. This type of strategy can help you to navigate tricky situations at work and stay true to your morals and values. To position yourself for the next big job, you should establish yourself as a team player and try to support your coworkers.

6. Be Patient And Have Fun
The cycles of business can sometimes have intense peaks and valleys. However, your ability to demonstrate that you can survive and thrive during tough times shows everyone you have the resilience and fortitude to handle more responsibilities. After all, it is often said that when things are going well, you don’t learn as much, but when things are going poorly, sometimes you learned more than you ever anticipated. When the times are good, have fun, enjoy it, and remember that the next bump, or learning experience, is just down the road.

Until that day comes, enjoy the ride! Focus on the long-term and build strong, productive relationships with your colleagues. Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint. By asking for feedback, being a team player, and thinking strategically, you can position yourself well for future success.

Why Personal Leadership Matters Most……

By Steve Leslie

During a recent discussion with a business friend of mine, we were discussing what makes a leader. We debated if it was confidence, ability to organize and mobilize, or thinking strategically?

After 25 years of working with executive and leadership development, I knew that those qualities were important, but I believe that there might be one that rises to the top: personal leadership. 

Life can sometimes be like the movies, with an angel on one shoulder and the devil trying to sway you on the other shoulder. When you are a child, the voice of the angel or the devil guides you through right and wrong and helps you form your morals and character. As you grow up, those voices seem to begin to fade, but your principles continue to have a lasting impact. Those traits affect your ability to lead.

In a world that seems filled with questionable ethics and behaviors, following a higher moral code has a big impact. According to a 2015 study from HBR, CEOs who got a high character mark had a significantly average return on assets as compared to CEOs who ranked lower.

Business people who put more focus on human progress and improving their community or world tend to be more willing to speak on what is right and wrong.  Moral leaders end up being highly effective and trusted, and they will enjoy a greater sense of personal well-being.

Employees aren’t as likely to follow passionate leaders who have a questionable character. The business system often fails if the leaders lack a strong ethical character. 83% of employees believe that the company would make better decisions if they follow that “Golden Rule,” meaning they treat others, the way they would want to be treated.

The leader’s core values and principles are always visible, in every action. As a leader, what guides your decisions and dictates whom you associate within the industry? When you’re a child, your character might have been tested when you were faced with pressure, but as you grow older, the decisions become tougher. You might have to face difficult ethical questions like what to do if your values don’t align with the organizational values.

Leading yourself can be incredibly challenging, especially when no one is watching or questioning all your decisions. It’s similar to how we create a different persona when we are online. The controversial things many people tweet or post on Facebook are a prime example of what we might do when no one we know in real life is watching. Having a higher moral code helps us online, and as leaders, we should hold ourselves to higher standards and continue to behave as if the world was watching.

We all need a strong personal compass

Personal leadership tends to present itself in the following ways: high standard of ethics, transparency, and compassion. Take Princess Diana for example, who was one of the most influential women and leaders before her untimely death. In the 1980s, AIDS, a terrible disease, was misunderstood by doctors and the general public alike, including how it could be transmitted. People who were affected by AIDS were often shunned by society for fear of catching the disease through casual contact. However, Princess Diana made headlines when she shook the hand of an AIDs patient. This simple display of compassion and personal leadership helped to change the misperception of this disease.

Constant evolution

The question of where a leader is born or made has no easy answer because it is a bit of both. Some people are natural leaders have the confidence to make those difficult decisions, whereas other leaders are nurtured and continued to learn. No matter what type of leader you are, to be an effective one you must continuously learn and evolve. Being able to model personal growth is one of the core competencies of leadership.

In current times leaders have to be prepared for a turbulent and unforeseeable business climate, through their ability to adapt and evolve. Taking the time to move forward, reinvent yourself is more important today than ever before. What drove success in the past, often will not always drive it in the future.

Bring energy to everything.

Throughout my career as an executive coach in leadership sessions, I have come to recognize the importance of energy. Some people bring energy regardless of the situation. In workshops, meetings or helping a colleague. This display of personal energy and leadership, even when the stakes were not high, has a significant impact. It can help to uplift the performance of everyone around them, and encourage and motivate others to do better. Energy, passion, engagement makes everyone around you better, people notice, and they follow, no matter what position you hold.   

While being a leader has many essential components, what it comes down to is character, integrity, learning, and passion. All are the foundation of taking that big step forward. So, if your looking for a strong leader, start by looking at yourself, remember when no one is watching, everything else will fall into place.