Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

How often have you heard someone pay tribute to a business, or to any other organization, by calling it "a well-oiled machine"? 

Fairly often, I'm guessing. As metaphors go, it's an oldie but goodie.

You hear it whenever costs come in under budget, whenever something is finished ahead of deadline, whenever a widget's quality clears a standard.

Little wonder. We all appreciate reliability and predictability. We want to depend on things. So we're happy when a promise becomes its own reality. When that happens consistently, we reach for the metaphors. Yes, it sure does look like a well-oiled machine. 

But should that apply to all companies and all organizations? Should every enterprise be run like a machine?

Color me skeptical. Maybe I am making too much of a few words, but hear me out.

Machines—even well-oiled machines—are just things. Things can do only what they are intended, built, and programmed to do. Their limits are thus the limits of their design, their technology, their maintenance, and their energy.

Mere machines cannot imagine anything else, anything different. They cannot develop anything new. They cannot notice and wonder. Apart from the most sophisticated diagnostic machines in hospitals and laboratories and the like, few can even identify and solve a problem.

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Why Are So Many Leaders Such Poor Listeners?

Readers of this blog have little in common with one another. You live all around the world. You're young and old. You're rich and poor, man and woman, black and white.

But you do have a couple of things in common. One, you are interested in leadership and in the communication that enables and energizes it. Two, on the whole, you're a fairly bright bunch of people.

But that last thing, that can be a problem.

It's certainly a problem for anyone who aspires to lead people on a journey of change. Why? Simply because intelligence can get in the way of leading. Some of the worst listeners anywhere are really smart people. And because so many leaders are smart, they tend to be worse listeners.

That's right. It may come as a shock, so I will repeat it for emphasis. Leaders, because they are so often smart, have particular difficulty listening to other people.

Why are smart people in general, and smart leaders in particular, poor listeners?

Well, by definition, intelligent people absorb information fast. Researchers have found that intelligent people think at the rate of 500 to 700 words per minute. Even fast talkers speak at only 175 to 200 words per minute.

That's a lot of time—at least 36 of every 60 seconds—for smart people to be mentally doing other things while someone else leisurely finishes her own sentence.

What are you doing for those 36-plus seconds of every minute? Lots of things.

You're thinking about the agenda for tomorrow's meeting. You're sorting through candidates for the staff vacancy. You're remembering to get arugula at the fresh market. You're debating which movie to see tonight. You're wondering why this person is taking forever to make a simple point.

Most of all, you're deciding what to say in response. You're thinking, thinking, thinking. Smart people love to think. You do, don't you?

Bright people also tend to make judgments—lots of them, in rapid fire. So as another person is talking, you are making judgments about her intelligence, her knowledge, her diction, and maybe a few other things we won't go into here.

Finally, smart people are typically busy people. You probably have a lot of issues and decisions you need to address. It is tempting to think about these things whenever you have a few seconds.

Given the ubiquity of smart phones, you are also likely to be sending a text message or scrolling down your email or checking the progress of Frosty the Snowstorm on weather.com. You may even think you can multitask successfully. Hey, we're all a little delusional.

The big problem with all this is that people do notice it. At this very moment some of them are silently complaining to themselves that you don't listen. They may even be complaining aloud to one another. From that, they easily conclude that you don't care about their ideas.

Now if you're as smart as you think you are, you'll identify listening skills as an opportunity for self-improvement, and you will do something about it. There are lots of resources out there: books, tapes, videos, coaching. Our Master Class is one of many; we describe four levels of good listening, and we set forth an eight-step process for what we term affirmative listening.

The important thing is to do something. Otherwise people will get the sense that you think you already know everything, and you and I already know that isn't the case. We do, don't we?

The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

On any given day, the people you seek to lead may or may not hear, understand, believe, remember, or appreciate what you have to say. Nevertheless, you must speak your truth, and you must speak it often.

On any given day, the people you seek to lead will always notice, observe and remember what you do and how you do it. Never forget that people are always watching you. They are constantly comparing what you do and what you neglect or decline to do with what you say and what you said. That's accountability, and you like accountability.

Finally, on any given day, the people you seek to lead are determining for themselves whether to follow your lead. The decision is theirs and theirs alone. It is not yours. It will rest largely on whether they regard you as a person of noble purpose and integrity, as a person of principle, intellect, competence, high standards, and wisdom, and as a person who has their own best interests in mind and at heart.

So speak up, and speak up often, about what matters most, and then be your own first follower. To show the way, you must first go the way, for leading is all about following first.

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Leadership and the Proverbial Dessert Cart

Leadership and the Proverbial Dessert Cart

Think back to the last time you took the family out for a casual dinner. When it came to dessert, chances are the waiters didn't just bring you a simple printed menu.

More likely, they either described the choices in colorful language or, even more likely, brought a dessert cart to show you (and especially your kids) what you could order.

That wasn't by whim or accident. It was deliberate and carefully planned. By describing or illustrating the selections, the restaurant was expanding your possible options and, in the process, making it much more likely you would order that $9 slice of double-chocolate fudge cake.

The same goes for buying a new car. The salesperson is likely to put you behind the wheel and let you take it for a spin. In a few minutes you will have felt what it would be like to own and drive it.

The late Steve Jobs used to tell anyone who would listen, "You have to show people what's possible." 

Jobs, a masterful marketer, knew that, unless they saw what it could do, people would never buy an iPad. It wasn't something they could even think about, because it was unlike anything they had ever used.

Further, he knew you had to talk to people in terms they could understand. It was one thing to tell people an iPod had so-many megabytes. It was something else entirely to tell them they could have 1,000 songs in their pocket.

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A Leadership Lesson on Vulnerability — from the Oscars

A Leadership Lesson on Vulnerability — from the Oscars

Anyone who watched the Academy Awards the other night — and 36 million people did — had to be struck by the courageous candor of Graham Moore, the 33-year-old writer who won an Oscar for The Imitation Game screenplay.

The movie starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who is remembered today as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing did as much as anyone to win World War II for the Allies by cracking Enigma, the Third Reich's complex, mechanized process of encoding messages.

In spite of his intellectual heroics, Turing was prosecuted for the crime of homosexuality in the early 1950s. He accepted chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment and died a year or two later of cyanide poisoning, apparently by his own hand.

Moore, the young screenwriter, has something in common with Turing, and it isn't, as many people assumed, his sexual orientation. Rather it is a history of depression over self-perceived, felt differences from mainstream society, and an accompanying inclination toward suicide.

After the envelope was opened and his name was read Sunday night, Moore acted on an impulse. He told himself he would rarely have such an opportunity. Staring into the bright lights and the little black circles of the television cameras, he decided to use his 45 seconds of airtime to "say something meaningful." That, he did.

“When I was 16 years old," he declared, "I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong.

"And now I am standing here, and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or or she doesn’t fit in anywhere.

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