Strategies to develop your top talent

Archive for October, 2008

Insights on Leadership

I have taken part in two annual meetings for boards I belong to in the past week.  It has given me a sharper sense of what counts in terms of leadership in organizations. 

First, a lot of what goes into “leadership” arises from a person simply being willing to take action, to be used for a specific purpose.  Leaders are NOT born for greatness; most are simply willing to step forward when many others are not.  As I look at those who assume leadership roles in groups, a large part of leadership is simply being willing to lead and following that up with action.

Second, good leadership makes a lot of difference in setting a particular tone for a group that they lead.  Whether people are energized, depressed, confused, enthusiastic–a lot of it has to do with the quality of leadership that is being exercised in the group.  

Third, from what I’ve observed a board’s effectiveness is directly related to two things:  how much time they spend reacting to what has already happened or is imminent, and planning what they want to happen or anticipating changes that are yet to come.   The most effective boards focus their energies on proactively planning for the future.

One of those board meetings I was part of required preparatory work and we met three long hours, but we focused on strategic planning and everyone afterwards acknowledged this was one of our best meetings in recent memory.  The other meeting was fairly short, reactive in focus and unfocused.  What a difference leadership makes in helping people focus strategically!

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Get an instrument

If you want to create change, one of the better strategies you can adopt is to get an accurate instrument and place it (along with some training on how to use it) in a prominent location where you (and other people) can’t miss it.  Real-time feedback allows you to make small changes and fine-tune your results.

MPG Instrument

I recently bought a new car and it has a sensitive gauge that tells you how many miles-per-gallon you are getting at the present time.  I’m already paying more attention to this gauge and it has helped me in changing my driving habits for the better (to be more fuel-efficient).

Apply this to people in an organization–even a small one–and it becomes obvious that equipping people with a new tool is much more likely to yield change than talking about change, management lectures or internal communication initiatiaves.  These other activities are useful too, but I’ve seen too many leaders and companies rely on them and end up with very little meaningful change.

Like any new tool, you have to learn to use it properly.  When I took training to be a pilot, I initially spent too much time looking at the instruments-I assumed that’s how you fly the plane.  My instructor had to emphasize to get my head up and look outside the airplane.  The great majority of pilots of small planes fly visually by looking out the window 90% of the time.  Only instrument-rated pilots and airline captains fly solely by reference to the instruments, which is a much more mentally taxing activity that requires extra training, practice and licensing.  So here’s my caveat: when you get an instrument for measuring real-time performance, beware the tendency to stare at it and miss the other information and contextual clues about what is going on around you.  If you can learn to do that (and it is possible), you will be much better positioned to build a high-performing organization and drive results and accountability further down to the individuals that actually do the work.

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With respect to Robert Hartman

I’ve been in Cuernavaca the last few days.  Today I went to the gravesite of Robert S. Hartman.

Bob Hartman split his time in the 1960′s between his villa in Cuernavaca and his academic home at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  When he passed away unexpectedly in September 1973, he was buried here in Cuernavaca.  He used to consult with other thinkers like Abraham Maslow, Erich Fromm and others in summer seminars down here.

I only learned about Hartman five years ago, but I have grown a lot in my esteem and admiration for what he was about during those years.  In Mexico they remember those we admire or love who have passed on Dia de Muertos (Nov 1-2).  I’m a few weeks early, but I’m writing this in honor of Robert S. Hartman, father of formal axiology and value science as a larger movement.

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  • Filed under: Axiology
  • Get away from the familiar

    I’m writing this from Mexico City.  It’s been 21 years since my last trip here when I was a university student. 



     It seems that a lot has changed (and some things have), but I also know that I have changed.  The pollution is not bad today–I can actually see the mountains surrounding the Valley of Mexico from downtown.  The city doesn’t seem so dirty (I’ve seen worse in Bangkok and Jakarta).

    When I came as a student, I was leading a group of friends to do some community service and also some sightseeing on our spring break.  This time, I’m sharing the experience with my wife and two young boys, and I’m enjoying seeing the city through their fresh young eyes.



    It helps to get out of my familiar place and routine; I notice more and see things with a new perspective.  I notice talent around me and I’m more appreciative of people who try extra hard.  Just today I’ve had three experiences of top notch service.  I attribute this to two elements:  there has been good training on how to deliver great service, and there is a supporting culture that reinforces this standard.  I’m not talking about the Mexican national culture, but the specific sub-cultures that the individuals I’ve encountered are a part of.  I can see the contrast, because today I also experienced some horrendous service by someone of the same national culture.  In fact, the individual himself tried hard and did a fairly good job, but the environment he works in is definitely not a culture that trains and delivers top talent service, and I was one of many unhappy customers.

    I recommend you get away from the familiar if you haven’t seen many examples of top talent lately.  You don’t have to travel out of the country or go on vacation.  Just go someplace that is different or out of the ordinary for you, and take time to notice the talent of the people you are interacting with.  What do you see?  What can you learn from this?

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  • Filed under: Culture, Top Talent
  • Shushing your thoughts

    Okay, shush may not be a word, but the alternatives like “silencing” or “ignoring” or others don’t cut it either. 

    I joined my wife Angela on a walk this morning and she asked me a question about meditating.  Did I find it easy to quiet my thoughts and focus on my breathing?

    My answer:  Sometimes it seems easy, and other times it’s impossible.  But keep sitting and return to what is basic–your breathing. 

    Meditating is not a spiritual practice for the mystics or a nice extra for those with the luxury of time and afreedom from everyday concerns.  Quite the opposite.  I consider it an essential life skill and a powerful tool on the path of development and mastery.  The more you think you don’t need it or can’t practice it, the more likely that you do.

    So, let’s just assume that you are sitting while reading this (perhaps a reasonable assumption).  Take a moment to pay attention to your breathing.  Once you notice your breathing, it’s bound to happen–you’ll also notice your first thought.  All you need to do is to shush  the thought.  Do it gently, while you breathe a little fuller or longer (but still keep your breathing natural).  The shush is more like how you would calm a baby rather than reprimanding an unruly child or someone being loud inappropriately.  And whether you pay attention to your breathing for less than a minute or much longer, you’re meditating.  It’s simple, uncomplicated and it can be a powerful practice in anyone’s ongoing development.

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    You read the title right–I found a surprising and incongruous agreement between Friedrick Nietzche, the 19th century philosopher who rejected Christianity, and a lesser-known contemporary Christian author named Eugene Peterson.  Peterson is known today for his contemporary translation of the Bible called The Message, but back in 1980 he came out with a book called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

    The title comes from a quotation by Nietzche which is quite remarkable:

    The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is…that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

    Friedrich Nietzche,  Beyond Good and Evil

    Peterson uses Nietzche’s quote and the sentiment behind it as inspiration for his writings about discipleship in an instant society.  The consumer mindset militates against sacrifice, postponing gratification, and long dedication to a single practice without evidence of an immediate payoff.  I would echo this and say the same thing applies to the practice of self development and talent management in business.  There are precious few genuine shortcuts to developing top talent.

    The third point of agreement in this triad is George Leonard, the American aikido teacher and an early leader in the human potential movement.  Notice what he has to say:

    How do you best move toward mastery?  To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself.  Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy it just as much as you do the upward surges.

    George Leonard, Mastery, 1991

    There you  have it–three different teachers from very different worldviews who find agreement and articulate a rare wisdom that few will champion today.  Real development and growth is found in a consistent, patient obedience, a rigorous dedication to mastery and excellence in a larger society that settles for shallow half-measures and ineffective quick fixes.

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