Whose Story Is It?

I got a win the other day. I started last week’s post with an epic fail so I decided to start this week off with a win. Also, it’s newsworthy for me to get a win on this topic because I struggle with this one as much as I do with last week’s. After a meeting, an older gentleman came up and began to tell me his life story. It was very interesting. He had wanted to design and built boats but wound up in law enforcement for 35 years. After that, he ran a homeless shelter for 15 years during which time he went to seminary and became an ordained minister. He currently serves as an associate pastor and often sings on the worship team.

Where’s the win? The win is that I got to hear his story because I kept mine out of the conversation. Most people love to talk about themselves. I have a friend who likes to joke, “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” That line is funny because it’s true. We want to talk about ourselves. I started this post with a story about me. Yikes! I didn’t even think about that correlation until now.

Other people’s stories enrich us. In her TED Talk on how to have a good conversation, NPR radio host, Celeste Headlee says, “Be interested in other people. I grew up assuming everyone has some hidden amazing thing about them. I’m a better host because I keep my mouth shut as often as possible, I keep my mind open, and I’m constantly prepared to be amazed. And I’m never disappointed.”

Be Proportional

We have two ears and one mouth. When we interact with people, we should listen at least twice as much as we talk. I’m as guilty as the next person of jumping into someone else’s story to share part of mine. Our minds process what we hear by searching our memory files for similar information or experiences to help us understand and relate. When we find such an experience our tendency, or at least my tendency, is to share it. My intention is to relate with the other person. But, it doesn’t come across that way usually. Usually, it derails the other person. The story isn’t about me, it’s about them and when I jump in with my story it’s more of an interruption than an aid to the conversation.

We relate better by listening than by talking. Listening says, “I’m interested in you.” Talking says, “you should be interested in me.” Next time you’re in a conversation, try holding back, resisting the urge to share your story, and see how it goes. You might get a win like I did.

Be Inquisitive

I’m not suggesting we don’t speak at all during a conversation. In fact, someone has described a good conversation as being like a game of catch. It goes back and forth. The purpose of the conversation will determine how much back and forth is best. Right now I’m talking about a specific kind of conversation, one where you want to hear the details of what the other person is saying. It may be an interview or an investigation. It could be a get-to-know-you conversation of any kind or it may simply be an honorable way to ask, “how was your weekend?”

I wrote a post almost exactly a year ago called “Listen with your mouth.” The most effective use of our mouth in this kind of conversation is to ask questions. Good questions show you’re interested in what the other person is saying. They also help you guide the conversation into what interests you most or what you most need to know. In the conversation I started this post with, I asked that gentleman a couple of probing questions about what he learned from his work with homeless families. It was very enlightening. He eagerly offered his observations and it was information I was interested in. It was also a conscious choice I made when the urge to interject my story came up.

I was recently asked to be part of a mediation conversation between an employee and a manager. On several occasions during that conversation, I asked one or the other, “A moment ago you said … this. Would you explain a little more for me what you meant by that?” Those questions helped guide the conversation to a favorable resolution.

I’m interested in people. I like to hear their stories. When someone is sharing their story with me I’m going to remember whose story it is and be proportional and inquisitive rather than constantly interjecting my story.

“Hello? Are You There?”

I heard a version of that question from Suzi just the other night. We were watching the news on TV. She had her tablet. I had my laptop open and two cellphones (personal and work) on the arm of the sofa next to me. She had said something to me right when the anchor was making an important point in his story and my personal phone signaled I had received an email. Here’s the thing, I couldn’t tell you right now the important point the anchor made (or even what the story was about), the email turned out to be junk that I deleted, and, worst of all, I didn’t get what Suzi had said. “Hello, are you there?” I was 0 for 3.

How To Multitask Effectively

You Can’t. (vocalize that punctuation mark, “period”) I know you disagree with me because multitasking one of your special skills. But, the truth of the matter is that “multitasking” is about computers running multiple programs at the same time. We are not wired like that. We can only give our attention to one thing at a time. We can switch back and forth rather quickly, but one thing at a time. Rapid switching actually produces a kind of brain chemical high that can become addictive. That brain chemical high makes it understandable that people like to believe they are multitasking.

The sad truth is that the same brain chemical high also reduces cognitive function, attention, clarity of thinking, and decision-making proficiency. That means we miss more when we’re “multitasking.” We miss important details that can lead to mistakes of all kinds. What’s possibly even worse, we miss what people are saying to us.

How To Converse Effectively

Be Present. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the car alone with one of my children (all over 20) sitting next to me and they’re on their phone. The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “Where are you?”
My child: (pause)  “Huh?”
Me: “Where are you?”
My child: “I’m right here” in a what-do-you-mean? tone of voice.
Me: “We’re here together in the car but, your mind is wherever that person you’re texting or that video you’re watching is .”
My child: “But dad, it was important. OK. I’m done.”
Me: “Hello, nice to see you.”

Yes. I’ve really had that conversation. The point is, you can be present physically and literally a thousand miles away in your mind. That does not make for good conversation. What opportunities are we wasting when we are not present?

Jim Elliot (if you don’t know who he was, Google him and the movie “End of the Spear”) said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” I want to do a better job of taking that advice. That means I’ll have to put down (and probably silence) my phone(s), physically turn my body toward what- or who-ever I’m being present for, and consciously travel back in my mind to where my body is.

Be Focused. Getting present is one thing. Staying present is a matter of focus. When you adjust the focus on your camera, the image you see through your lens comes into clear view. Our phone cameras have autofocus, our brains don’t. We have to consciously, intentionally put our sustained attention on what we’re doing. Studies show that our attention spans are shrinking because of all the information available to us. I’m so bad. In many conversations, someone will bring up a question or something we don’t know and I’m quick to grab my phone and say, “Hey Google, What’s …?” The answer is right there. Maybe it’s better to live in the question for a while.

Let me recommend an exercise that has proven to increase presence and improve our ability to focus. Call it whatever you want but try it. Set aside 2 – 5 minutes every day, step away from all the distractions. Leave your phone on silent in another room. Don’t be near your computer or TV or radio. Close your eyes and be silent. Practice paying attention. You can focus on your breathing, or the thoughts that come to your mind (just notice them, don’t follow them), or the sounds you hear around you. You can even mull over a meaningful quote.

Like physical exercise, repeating that exercise daily will strengthen our ability to make ourselves present and to focus. Let’s find out what we’ve been missing!

Six “Cs” of Company Communication – Part 3

This is the final installment of a 3-part series on company communication. So far we’ve discussed four “Cs” that make communication more effective. We said communication should be Clear and Concrete, Concise and Complete. I didn’t realize until I finished the last post that those rhyme. That may help you remember the first four. Sorry to say, though, the rhyme ends there. Though the next two don’t rhyme, they are equally as important as the last four in conducting effective company communication.

Collaborative

Collaboration literally means “co-laboring,” working together. We’ve all heard the saying “Teamwork makes the Dream Work.” On the other hand, have you heard the saying, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee?” Both can be true and often the difference is communication. The team that realized the dream most likely had much better collaboration than the committee that somehow put a hump on the back of a horse!

Celeste Headlee, NPR radio host and author, listed the following 10 pieces of advice in her TEDx talk on how to have a good conversation. Good conversations is how collaboration happens.

  1. Don’t multitask – be present in that moment, all in
  2. Don’t pontificate – enter every conversation assuming you have something to learn. Bill Nigh said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t”
  3. Use open-ended questions – Who? What? Etc. not yes or no questions
  4. Go with the flow – thoughts and stories will come to mind while someone is talking. Let them flow right out. Let the conversation be about the other person.
  5. If you don’t know, say you don’t know
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs. Conversations are not promotional opportunities
  7. Do not repeat yourself – It’s condescending and boring
  8. Stay out of the weeds – no one cares about the names and dates you’re trying to recall.
  9. Listen – the most important skill you can develop. Buddha said, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning? Calvin Coolidge said, “No man ever listened his way out of a job.”
  10. Be Brief – “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, long enough to cover the subject.”

I think we would agree that most great work is accomplished in teams. Following Celeste’s advice on good conversations will help your team avoid the hump and achieve the dream.

Contributive

My late father-in-law had a way of telling the truth about food he didn’t like without hurting the feelings of the person who had prepared it and asked, “How do you like it?” He would say it was “tasty.” That was true. It definitely had taste. Everything we say should be true, but not everything true should be said.

Effective communication should help in some way. It should add value to the person or to the conversation. Some people speak seemingly just to hear the sound of their voice. Their comments are irrelevant or counterproductive. Don’t be that person. The value you add may indeed be constructive criticism but the key word there is “constructive.” Our communication should aim to build up the other person or the group. In the wise words of one ancient ambassador, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” He was saying you will be prepared to respond to anyone appropriately if your words are always gracious and salty.

Gracious Words – our words should be courteous, kind, and pleasant. The “grace” in gracious implies we behave this way especially if the other person isn’t or doesn’t seem to deserve kindness. Some people refer to this as being professional.

Salty Words – (not the cussing-like-a-sailor kind of salty) Salt does several things. First, salt preserves food. Second, it enhances the flavor of food. Third, salt makes you thirsty. Salty words preserve relationships regardless of the content of the communication. Salty words are delicious, people desire them.  I remember a man coming out of my Dad’s office and saying to me, “Man, that’s the first time I’ve ever been reprimanded where I actually enjoyed the conversation.” I’m sure he was ready to hear whatever my Dad had to say to him after that. Finally, have you ever heard someone say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? The follow-up to that saying is, “No, but you can feed him salt!” Our words can and should invite people to ask questions, explore, grow and contribute. Our words should make people thirsty for more.

The Six “Cs” of Company Communication are Clear, Concrete, Concise, Complete, Collaborative, and Contributive. If you master those, you may be on your way to the “C-Suite.”

Six “Cs” of Company Communication – Part 2

Last week I started this series on company communication with some definitions (imagine that!). I shared the definitions of the words “company,” “communicate,” and “Inform(ation).” I also pointed out that the “company” for which these “Cs” are relevant is any group of people. These are just principles of good communication.

When I arrived at my last job I interviewed each of the leaders on my team with the same questions. One of those questions was “what one thing could we improve that would make the biggest difference.” People gave several answers to that question, but the number one answer was “communication.” That would be the answer in many organizations.

Research shows that time spent on calls, emails, and meetings has increased by 25 percent to 50 percent in the last two decades. It also reveals that while companies host an average of 61 meetings per month, an estimated $37 billion is wasted annually due to employee misunderstanding (including actions or errors of omission by employees who have misunderstood or were misinformed about company policies, business processes, job function or a combination of the three) in … corporations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Last week we talked about good communication is clear and concrete. This week we look at two more Cs of good communication.

Concise

The definition of “Concise” is – “giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words.” In fact “Clear and Concise” are often used together. Clear speaks to how understandable the communication is while concise is about how long it is.

Summarize your point. Provide background or additional information upon request.  One communication technique I learned in healthcare is the SBAR. That stands for

  • Situation – a brief statement of the problem
  • Background – pertinent information about the development of the problem
  • Assessment – analysis and consideration of options (what you found or think)
  • Recommendation/Request – action you want taken

That’s one guide to help you organize your thoughts. Organized thinking is easier to make concise. I found a writing guide put out by Stanford University that offers great tips for writing clearly and concisely. It’s geared toward technical writing which is often the most unclear so it’s helpful for those of us trying to communicate non-technical information. Some of their tips, to whet your appetite, include:

  1. Avoid unnecessary fancy words; use straight-forward words
  2. Replace vague words with specific ones
  3. Eliminate unnecessary words
  4. Replace multiple negatives with affirmatives
  5. Use active voice construction when appropriate

There are more tips and they all have examples. I downloaded the paper and plan to use it as a reference in the future. You’ll have to let me know if my writing improves!

Complete

This might sound like a contradiction. I just suggested using as few words as possible to be concise. Now I’m suggesting you leave nothing out. Which is it? Well, it’s both.  the definition of “Concise” was “to give a lot of information . . . in a few words.” Complete communication is about what you choose to include.

We sometimes skew information by leaving parts out. When we do that our communication is biased in favor of our point of view or of what we want. Biased communication is often detectable and diminishes trust. You may have heard the term “fake news.” That’s what people will think of you if your communication is found to be incomplete, especially if your omissions tend to alter the hearer’s perception of reality.

Concise is about sharing as much as you can in as few words as possible. Complete is about making your communication as real as possible. The more accurately your communication reflects reality, especially if it doesn’t put you in the best light, the more people will trust what you say.

Be clear. Be Concrete. Be Concise. Be Complete. Next week we’ll finish out this series with the final two Cs of Company Communication.

Six “Cs” of Company Communication – Part 1

This post is the first in a 3-part series on “Company Communication.” If you’ve read my blog or know me, you know I’m a word nerd. I like to look up the definitions of specific words to help me grasp larger concepts. Well, I’m going full-on word nerd right now. To frame this series I want to define three terms.

The first is “company.” Here’s the definition right from the web.

  1. a commercial business.
    “a shipping company”
  2. the fact or condition of being with another or others, especially in a way that provides friendship and enjoyment.
    “I could do with some company”

I chose to call this series “Company Communication” because of the larger meaning of the word Company. The “Cs” I want to talk about apply to all communication, not just corporate or organizational communication. They apply in whatever company we keep.

The next definition is of “Communicate.” Here’s the web definition summarized;

to convey, share, transmit, impart, pass on information. It comes from the Latin Communis meaning common or shared. Communication has happened when two or more people share a common mind about a subject.

Finally, I find the definition of “Inform” fascinating which, in turn, makes the noun form “information” equally interesting:

“Inform” comes from two Latin words in – into and forma – shape and means “to form or shape the mind.” “Information” is that which shapes or forms the mind. 

So, this series is about how a company of people can arrive at a shared understanding of something. It’s about how one person’s or group’s understanding, needs, point of view, expectation, etc. can be duplicated in the mind of another person or group. This could be fun!

Here are two of the six “Cs” of Company Communication:

Clear

Why would anyone want to let you form their mind? When put like that it sounds ominous. Be clear about your purpose. Are you reporting facts? Are you wanting to ask for something? Are you preparing  to set an expectation?  People are much more willing to respond to your “what” when they understand your “why.”  Good communication begins with understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with it.

Being clear also means being direct.  I mean direct in the sense of the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Some people use “direct” to mean blunt or as an excuse for being discourteous. I just mean don’t meander about when you’re communicating.  Trying to cover too much or going on tangents is confusing.

My wife, Suzi,  has accused me of going to Genesis to provide the context for anything. She means I talk too much. I try to provide too much information and it can become confusing. So this is a lesson I’m learning. For me it requires a little planning. When I want to communicate, I need to think through the clearest way to do it.

Concrete

Concrete is solid and hard and holds up under weight. Concrete communication is not soft or fluffy or vague. It avoids words like “always” and “never.”  Concrete communication doesn’t talk about “everyone” or “nobody.” It is specific and factual. Concrete communication is based on observations and understanding, not hunches and feelings. When you use vague generalizations like “always” and “never” you are usually automatically wrong because someone will be able to point out an exception.

Which of these statements is more concrete? “You never take out the garbage.” Or, “I’ve noticed that you didn’t take the garbage out three times this month.” Well, if I took the garbage out once then “never” is wrong. It’s only an emotional accusation. But, three times out of four weeks is a 75% failure rate. The first statement feels more like an insult and I may become defensive and argumentative in response to it. The second is a statement of fact with actionable data. It provides a baseline for measuring improvement and I’m less likely to argue with facts. (NOTE: this story is fictional. Any similarity to actual situations is purely coincidental.)

Company Communication that is clear and concrete is far more useful than meandering or vague communication. Next week we’ll talk about two more “Cs” of Company Communication.

Course Launch!

After three years of blogging and over 30 years of leadership in various organizations, I’ve decided to offer some of what I’ve learned in an online course. You may have seen my Facebook video last week. If not, here’s a link to that.

 

I’ve learned a lot about leadership over the years. I’ve learned from mentors and from my experience with success and failure. It has been my privilege to serve clients in multiple industries including healthcare, airlines, sports and entertainment, food manufacturing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, education, and several non-profit organizations.

When I transitioned from full-time ministry to the business world almost 25 years ago, I wrote the following personal mission statement: “to build relationships within my sphere of influence through which I can help people discover and achieve their capacity for excellence.” That has been my purpose. Now I want to expand that sphere of influence by offering this online course.

I know that the skills contained in this course will help people lead better. Whether they are new in a leadership role or a CEO or business owner, these skills will make them better because they will help leaders connect with and engage their people. In fact, these skills are transferrable to all of life, not just business or non-profit leadership.

Here’s a link to my new web page. There you will find a link to the free webinar called “Engager Dynamics Bookends.” Take 40 minutes to view the webinar. It might just be the best time investment you make all month.

Connecting Requires Credibility

This morning I got up to do my regular weekday morning routine.  I made coffee, took the dog out, read for half an hour, then grabbed my laptop to start writing. I had plugged it in yesterday because the battery was low so I unplugged the charger from the laptop and pushed the button to turn it on … nothing. “What in the world,” I wondered. I looked at the charger and followed the cord to the wall socket. It was not plugged in at the wall.  No wonder. By all appearances my laptop should have been charged up and ready to go. But, the reality was there was no juice going to it to charge it up. There it is. The difference between appearances and reality is what we call credibility. When appearances and reality align there is credibility. When they are different there is a credibility gap. Connecting with people requires credibility. Here are several questions to help measure our credibility.

Have I connected with myself?

Integrity means, in its second definition, the state of being whole and undivided. It comes from the Latin word integer meaning “In tact.” The English word “Integer” means a whole number that is not a fraction. One way I think of integrity is being the same on the outside as you are on the inside. Whether you are or you’re not, people know it.

Have I made right my wrongs?

Imagine yourself talking to a group of people about the importance of collaboration and teamwork. Now imagine seeing, in the group, the face of a person you had wronged in some way and never corrected the wrong. That uncomfortable feeling is the gap between the words you are saying (appearance) and what you had done (reality). That feeling is your credibility gap. Often when we right our wrongs it not only repairs our credibility, it improves our credibility.

Am I accountable?

I like to ask the question, “What does accountability mean to you?” when I’m interviewing someone for a job. I am looking for people who answer that question first by talking about being accountable, not about how they hold others accountable. When you make a commitment you create hope. When you keep a commitment you create trust. Being accountable is how you create trust.

Do I lead like I live?

This is the outflow of integrity. If I’m the same on the inside as I am on the outside then I will lead like I live. I cannot give to others what I do not have.

Do I tell the truth?

This seems like a no-brainer. How can you have credibility if you lie? Notice, I did not ask, “Do I not lie?” I asked, “Do I tell the truth?” There is an ancient proverb that says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” I once attended a meeting of division presidents held by the company’s CEO. I was amazed as I watched everyone around the table nod at everything the CEO said like bobble-heads, except one guy. He spoke up and voiced disagreement when he didn’t like what he heard. Later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that guy had become a close adviser to the CEO. Because he had credibility the others lacked. He told the truth.

Am I vulnerable?

This is just another way of telling the truth. Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, says, “We all know that perfection is a mask. So we don’t trust the people behind know-it-all masks. They’re not being honest with us. The people with whom we have deepest connection are those who acknowledge their weaknesses.”

Do I follow the “Golden Rule?”

This is not the version that says, “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” This is the true version that says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What would happen to families, to communities, to countries, to the world if everyone treated others the way they wanted to be treated? Imagine! The interesting thing about the Golden Rule is that it’s not something you wait for others to do.

Do I deliver Results?

Am I a charger plugged into a device but not plugged into the wall or do I really bring the juice? People usually want to learn from someone who has something to show for their efforts. Here’s another way of looking at it. When we interview someone for a leadership position we ask them questions to determine whether or not they will be a good fit. We are better off asking questions about what they’ve done rather than what they would do. For example, “Could you tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer?” is a better question than, “What would you do if you discovered your customer was angry?” The reason it’s better is that it asks for results the candidate can point to as a way of demonstrating how they might bring the juice in the future.

No one wants to connect with a fake, a blow-hard, a know-it-all, or someone who appears hollow. These are all the opposite of credibility. Connection requires credibility. Credibility means “the quality of being trusted and believed in.” Let’s work toward being credible.

Connect On Common Ground

Last week we talked about the fact that connecting is more skill than natural talent. I shared with you 5 factors that will help you make connections with people.  The bottom line in each of those and any other connection factor is common ground. Finding common ground is what connects you with others. It’s usually pretty easy to spot what makes us all different from each other. But we connect when we find what we share in common.

In his book called Am I Making Myself Clear?  Terry Felber says that people have different representational systems based on the five senses that provide the primary basis for their thoughts and feelings. For example, if several people walked down the beach together, their recollections of the experience would be very different based on their representational system. One might remember how the sun felt on his skin and sand on his feet. Another might remember the look of the water and the vivid colors of the sunset. The third might be able to describe the sounds of the ocean and birds, and another, the smell of the salty air and the tanning lotion of nearby sunbathers. Each of us creates a framework for the way we process information. Felber says, “If you can learn to pinpoint how those around you experience the world, and really try to experience the same world they do, you’ll be amazed at how effective your communication will become.” That’s basically the same thing as saying find common ground.

Four Barriers to Finding Common Ground

What might prevent us from finding common ground with people? John Maxwell, in his book Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, identifies these four barriers to finding common ground:

Assumption– “I already know what others know, feel, and want.” “All miscommunications are a result of differing assumptions.” —Jerry Ballard.

Arrogance– “I don’t need to know what others know, feel, or want.” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis observed, “Nine-tenths of the serious controversies that arise in life result from misunderstanding, from one man not knowing the facts which to the other man seem important, or otherwise failing to appreciate his point of view.”

Indifference– “I don’t care to know what others know, feel, or want.” Comedian George Carlin joked, “Scientists announced today that they had found a cure for apathy. However, they claim no one has shown the slightest bit of interest in it.”

Control– “I don’t want others to know what I know, feel, or think.”

Four Choices That Will Help You Find Common Ground

Be Present – Spend time with people. How will you ever get to know someone or find common ground if you don’t spend time together? Two subpoints to this one:

  • Be Present Informally – allow yourself to “waste time” with people. The time spent in casual or fun conversation and activity reveals more potential common ground than when it’s all about the work.
  • Be Present Mentally – Connection doesn’t happen by osmosis due to physical proximity alone. You have to get out of your own head (or device) and engage in the moment.

Listen – If you’re on the beach with someone, to use the example from Felber, listen to how they’re describing the experience. Are they seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling? Is that the same experience you’re having? If so, common ground! If not, could you adjust your way of experiencing it to see what it’s like to be them? You have to listen to the other person first in order to find common ground.

Ask Questions – This is another form of listening. In fact, in another post, I call this “listening with your mouth.” Asking questions shows the other person that you’re engaged in the conversation, that you’re interested in what they have to say (in other words, in them), and it helps you find out more about them by inviting them to expand on what they’re saying.

Be Humble – Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less. That frees up your mind to think of others more. Humility begins with awareness. Who am I thinking about in this moment? What is my motive for this action? Then it involves a choice. What is the other person thinking about? What are they experiencing? When you make that choice enough times, it becomes a habit. When you habitually think of others first, it becomes your character, how others know you. I put Be Humble last on the list for emphasis because it is really the first step in connecting with people.

Developing Leaders – Release Them

Could you imagine investing the money to buy a thoroughbred racehorse, investing the time and energy into training the racehorse but never letting them out of the gate, never letting them race? Why would you do that? Why would anyone do that? They wouldn’t. But, that’s what leaders sometimes do with the people they lead and are working to develop. They hesitate to let them race.

Last week I wrote that Experience is the 70% component of Leadership Development.  If you’ve got some thoroughbreds in your stable then take the following as advice from an article called, “The Process of Training a Racehorse for the Kentucky Derby.

“Besides conditioning and timing, it is important to get horses used to racing against each other. It is not uncommon for a farm to train their horses together on the track in the morning. This allows the horses to get used to getting bumped by other horses and the dirt flying up in their face, and allows them to learn to be guided to the rail by their jockey.

On Jan. 1, when horses turn three, they are eligible for the Kentucky Derby®. In order for an owner or trainer to get their horse admitted into the “Run for the Roses,” they must enter in a series of qualifying races called the Road to the Kentucky Derby®.

If the colt is then one of the top qualifiers in the series for the Kentucky Derby®, you’ll see them at the starting gate!”

Getting bumped by others, getting used to dirt flying up in their face, and learning to get to the rail is what experience is all about. It’s how leaders learn to win.

Why We Don’t

Some leaders hesitate to release their people into experience. What might cause such hesitation?

  • Lack of Time – leaders focus on getting things done and may not see time available to guide their protégés through the experience they need to grow. So shortsighted – investing the time now will save immeasurable time in the future.
  • “I do it best” – you may be more skilled at a certain task than the people you’re developing. However, if the task is not one you must do and your people can do it 80% as well as you, let them do it. It’s the only way they will get better.
  •  Past Failures – You’ve invested in someone before and they failed. No one I know likes the feelings associated with failure. But, like with anything else, we learn from our mistakes and do better next time.

How We Can

Here are some thoughts to help overcome the specific reasons we hesitate I just mentioned.

  • Use your Calendar – make coaching a recurring entry on your calendar. That is when you will invest focused time and effort into the people you are developing. This is a Covey quadrant 2 activity. It’s important but not urgent. these are often the things that we overlook but could bring the greatest return.
  • Set a Threshold – establish prerequisites for delegating certain tasks. What knowledge or skill must a person demonstrate before you will assign them certain tasks?
  • Use the “Scientific Method” – Thomas Edison said, “I’ve not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Now we have the electric lightbulb. Evaluated experience is the best teacher. When we fail, we should evaluate what went wrong, learn not to do that again, and construct another experiment using what we learned from the last one.

Racehorses have to race. You’ve walked them around the track and let them stand inside the starting gate (Exposure). You’ve provided them with proper nutrition, guided them in their gate, and taught them when to move to the rail (Education). Now you have to let them race. Release them to do their thing so they can gain the Experience that will make them a champion.

Developing Leaders – Experience

Several years ago the CEO of a large facilities services company, two other top executives of that company, and I did a sales presentation for a large potential client at their headquarters in Pittsburgh. On our way to the presentation, the CEO asked each member of the team, “How long have you been doing this kind of work?” He wanted to (and did) tell the client the number of combined years of industry experience our team represented. The client seemed impressed which pleased the CEO. Notice, that CEO didn’t ask about our education. He asked about experience.

Exposure to new things is valuable. It inspires the desire to learn. It’s worth 20% of an overall leadership development program. Education is necessary for instilling the knowledge and skills for leadership. It’s worth 10% of an overall leadership development program. The remaining 70% of an effective leadership development program should be devoted to experience, giving people real-life opportunities to use their new-found skills/knowledge.

“In the end, the only way for a person to learn leadership is to lead.” –John Maxwell (The Leader’s Greatest Return)

A Case In Point

In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed wrote about the power of practice over talent. He cited a study performed in 1991 by psychologist Anders Ericsson and two colleagues. they studied violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin. They divided the boys and girls into three groups based on their perceived level of ability:

  • Students capable of careers as international star soloists
  • Students capable of careers in the world’s best orchestras
  • Students capable of careers teaching music

These ratings were based on the opinions of the school professors and the student’s performances in open competition.

What Ericsson discovered was that the biographies of the students in all three groups were remarkably similar. Most began practice at age eight, decided to become musicians right before they turned fifteen, and studied under about four teachers, and had on average studied 1.8 other instruments in addition to the violin. There was no remarkable difference in talent between them when they started. So, what was the difference? Practice time! By age twenty, the bottom group had practiced four thousand fewer hours than the middle group and the middle group had practiced two thousand fewer hours than the top group, which had practiced ten thousand hours. “There were no exceptions to this pattern,” said Syed of Ericsson’s findings. “Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest.”

Helpful Experience

That story could be misleading. It’s not just the number of hours spent doing something that determines one’s level of expertise. The conclusion was that “purposeful practice made the difference. That sounds a lot like what Green Bay Packers legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Perfect practice or purposeful practice is practice that is guided and coached. If I practice bad habits, they will become a permanent part of how I do things. But, if I practice under the coaching of an expert, they can guide me into getting better.

In the program I helped develop for the healthcare system, we made experience 70 percent of the overall approach. One example is leading a morning huddle. Many healthcare departments begin the day with a brief meeting called a huddle. Huddles usually consist of a standard agenda and last about 10 minutes. It takes some skill to lead a successful huddle.

Our approach was to have new managers sit in on a few huddles to observe and listen to the information and questions. Then we gave them a few lessons on public speaking. Finally, we had them lead huddles with a mentor in the room to provide feedback. The feedback often included the questions, “What went well?” and “What would you do differently next time?” After hearing the answers to those questions, the mentor would then offer their observations in support or redirection of the new manager’s own thoughts.

Repeating that experience several times led to the development of expert skills. The ultimate goal in all this is to develop people to the place where they can develop other people.