Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Leadership and Empathy

George Mason University and Arlington Economic Development presented a panel discussion on Empathy in Business. It focused on empathy as an asset and whether this is an element of what makes a leader great.

The panel composition: Jonathan Aberman, of Amplifier Ventures as moderator; Carly Florina, former CEO of HP; Dr. Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University; Julie Rogers, president & CEO of Meyer Foundation; and Bill Drayton, CEO and Founder of Ashoka.

Empathy to an individual is like great art...they may know it when they see it, but it is hard to put describe in a clear and concise statement. The panel's treatment of empathy as a leadership asset was not woo-woo, feel-good fluff; it was seen as a powerful tool for change and engagement both inside and outside of the organization.

Key points offered by the panel:

  • Everyone has capacity for empathy, except for schizophrenics, narcissists, and psychopaths – most of us can be empathetic
  • True leaders will discipline themselves to listen first and declare later
  • Example: a situation gone bad and the leader is poised to righteously 'instruct' the errant person chapter and verse about how they screwed up (no empathy); instead the leader pauses to hear the person's view of what happened – then takes appropriate action (empathy)...this can result in better understanding by all parties, but even if no new information is garnered, the person's views were heard and is more receptive to learning from the error
  • Empathy is a diminishing trait in segments of today's youth – as a society we must 'teach' and developed it in the children or face virtually unsolvable problems as the kids age into adults.

So, we can be it, can use it, and teach it...on an applied basis – but what is it?

For a leader, empathy is an ability to understand others - a willingness to listen and consider what the other person has to offer. It is not giving insincere feedback to make the person right in a 'wrong' situation, nor is it to puff up their self esteem just to win a smile or a brief sunny outlook.

Can a leader be both empathetic and strategic in running the organization to meet the mission and yield results and 'profit'? Carly Fiorina repurposed a concept from the 1700's – enlightened self interest – to explain how individual input and financial results can coexist for superior outcome. This captures both aspects of the spectrum.

Being open to understanding others, hearing their ideas and offers, and responding with consistency empowers employees and managers to contribute ideas and be innovative, while truly engaging them in the success of the organization. The path is doing the right things and developing internal resources to produce better results.

In an open source environment, a person is invited to improve on what's been created by someone and share the new version with them and the community. Leading with empathy is about modeling permission for employees to find and share innovation and improvement in your organization.

As business structures change, organizations rely more on task teams formed internally (probably not at the same location) and entrepreneurs collaborate with one another to create teams with needed skills and experience for the project. For both, the old silos which restricted sharing are replaced with creative approaches derived from varied backgrounds and experience.

Being open, listening, and adopting the best ideas truly supports an open and collaborative environment Eric Schmidt of Google summed this up nicely: No one is as smart as all of us.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Five Keys A Facilitator Brings

Solutions come from discussions. Strategic solutions develop from structured discussions.

For strategic planning, a facilitator is like the conductor of an orchestra – does not write the music or play the instruments, but does bring it all together for the desired result.

The facilitator is an asset to a critical planning session bringing their experience as a resource when wanted and keeping the session on track – here's the top five elements they contribute to the session:

  • Free up the Boss: No one can both participate and conduct the same event – this applies for the boss as well...with a facilitator, the leader of the organization is freed up to participate in the conversation, providing relevant information while hearing the views of others
  • Additional Experience: When asked, the facilitator can share their knowledge and experience about similar situations to stimulate discussion or clarify the concept or activity
  • Clarity of Contributions: The facilitator can probe the participants for more detail and expected outcome, aiding in the understanding of a concept without participants feeling they are being challenged or the contribution is being dismissed
  • Recording Intentions: By recording key points from the meeting on flip charts (or by comparable means) and reading these notes back later, the facilitator can engage the participants in focusing the important elements into goals and action statements as the outcome of the session
  • Managing Pace & Time: The facilitator must move the event along at an appropriate pace to remain on track and cover the material in the time allotted – like the clock-keeper in a basketball game.

A facilitator is responsible for running the meeting – executing it's operation and logistics – but the participants are responsible for results. A facilitator is not a direct participant in the content of the session, except when asked for information or outside experience.

Following a strategic planning session I recently facilitated – the CEO spoke about the day this way: Done well, a facilitator is a huge value-add to getting the best results from a critical planning session – including recording new goals and action items – and the participants feel their contributions are integral to the results.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Innovation – A Precious Asset

The Smith School of Business just held it's Annual Business Summit, a forum about the pressing topics of the time.

A thread throughout the sessions was the hodge-podge innovative change, rigorous adherence to the 'traditional' ways, rapid technological change, shifting global market advantage, and irrational attempts to maintain existing market conditions. This yields an unstable and confusing business environment.

Evolving are the vastly differing approaches of open source (share the code – use it & make it better) and enterprise (lock down the code - prohibit unauthorized modifications) – such as the Android and iPhone operating systems, or the Open Office and Microsoft Office application suites.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Rajshree Agarwal applied these radically different models to the 'care and feeding' of the innovative employee. In simple terms, innovation is finding a way to get better results for less cost.

The innovative employee is regarded as a valuable resource on one level, but organizations tend to adopt three different approaches to managing innovations: Bully; Ostrich; Empowering:

  • The Bully creates barriers and penalties around innovation – such as non-compete agreements and IP litigation for developed ideas and use of knowledge leading to the development of ideas – then pounds the trespassers;
  • The Ostrich has a laissez fare attitude about innovation until a situation develops, then it shifts to attack mode to protect the investment in the innovative product or service;
  • The Empowering approach encourages employees to come up with innovative approaches – even provides personal use of a portion of the workweek or access to company or department equipment to help development.

The unintended result for Bully and Ostrich organizations is less innovations and greater opportunistic turnover among innovative employees. Creativity is seen as not valued and a hassle, so even great ideas for innovative change or new development are not shared.

On the other hand, the Empowering approach produces innovation from simple changes to major new product/service lines, which are conceived, developed, and implemented to 'do it better'. Google's 20% Time has spawned G-mail, AdSense, and Google News among the Google products.

In an environment where computing power is doubling every 18 months or less, and technology is rapidly eliminating repetitive process 'paper-moving' tasks, innovation takes on a critical role of seeding the reinvention of operations and upgrading processes within the organization. How can the new be integrated with the old to improve the result at less cost. What can be eliminated completely and how can the newly freed time be spent for employees to master new skills and gain additional experience to help them remain a viable resource and contributor for the organization (and remain employed).

Instead of rusting-out or fighting for a piece of a shrinking pie, both the individual and the organization can morph as a viable provider of wanted/needed services and products. Creating and nurturing an atmosphere in which employees can create change which is welcomed by the organization or department is the modern version of the continuous improvement cycle and opens up the space for employees to get new experience and skills, thus remaining valuable in a changing world.

What's not to love about 'better for less' while developing the next new role?

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