How to Lead People Who Know More Than You

July 31st, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Leadership, Management No Comments »





These words all describe what happens when you manage people who know more about their profession than you do. This happens because most managers try to lead experts the same way they manage people who are more junior.

Let’s face it – every leader who climbs above a first-line manager role will be in this situation. Whether you’re leading seasoned experts in your own field or broadening your scope to include functions in which you’ve never worked, you suddenly have to figure out how to lead people – a lot of people – to whom you seemingly have no value whatsoever to add.

And trust me, because they tell me openly, that is their assumption upon learning someone with less experience or from a different professional background is the new boss. Until you prove otherwise, they’ll just quietly hope you get promoted again or moved to another function, so you’ll soon be out of their way.

So what’s a leader to do when those you manage know more than you? Start with these three guidelines to become the best boss they’ve ever had:

If the employees are in a different profession, learn the basics of their profession and business situation well enough to understand each team member’s needs and concerns — but never, ever kid yourself about your true level of knowledge.

Do your research. It’s your job to understand the gist of what they do so you can understand what they need to produce superior results. Don’t show up for your first round of 1:1’s entirely clueless. You will gain their respect (at least a little) by showing up for these discussions prepared with basic knowledge and lots of good questions.

However, don’t try to show off the fact that you did some homework by making bold statements. You’ll kill your credibility. Your knowledge is the tip of the iceberg compared to theirs.

Share what you understand to be the basics of their situation, goals, and challenges they face, and ask for their feedback, corrections, and additions. Be honest that you understand you’re of little use in personally developing their expertise, but that you are committed to advocating for the resources they need to do their jobs well and to develop their careers with the company.

The greatest general managers recognize that it’s not their job to know everything. It’s their job to set direction, mobilize resources to get results, build the strongest and most productive teams they possibly can, and build a resilient organization for the future. They recognize that they can’t be good at all of these things while also developing deep expertise in every part of the business, and their people respect them for that.

Don’t actively manage anyone over 25 years of age unless there’s evidence they can’t self-manage.

More often than not, the employee who knows more than you also has several more years of professional experience than you, and certainly more years handling the workload unique to his or her job.

The exception to this can be employees who are in their first or second job. You will likely need to be more actively involved in managing their work not only to hit goals and deadlines in high-stakes, complex, and ambiguous situations, but also to help them develop their professional skills in self-management and collaboration. It’s a lot different from school, and they don’t have a great deal of experience, yet.

Granted, the exact age of 25 is a bit arbitrary, since for some highly specialized professions, a 25-year-old still has 3 – 5 more years of education to complete, and for go-getters who are already working in their teens, the age of 25 feels more like 30. Use your best judgment here. Just don’t leave inexperienced employees feeling lost, even if they are super-smart in their areas of expertise.

Assume mid-career professionals are self-managing, unless you see evidence otherwise.

At this stage, they don’t need a boss to personally direct and develop them. What they need is an effective advocate in the organization: someone who builds bridges where needed, sets boundaries where needed, and secures resources needed to get the job done well. Find out what they want to accomplish and the barriers they see in the way, and then double down your efforts to remove the barriers.

Also assume that all late-stage and second-career employees are self-managing. Invest the time to learn their interests and motivations for working in this profession at this stage in their careers and lives. What you learn may surprise you.

Fill the mentor gap by someone better qualified.

Warning! You may have to shove your ego aside to do this. I certainly know I do in these situations, and it’s not always easy.

Find at least one top performer in their profession, inside the company or out, who knows even more than they do. If you share the same profession, but simply have fewer years of experience, the same advice applies. Connect the team with this person as a resource, for those who would like to take advantage of it.

Even if team members don’t want to talk with a mentor for some reason, you will benefit from getting the mentor’s advice, and you’ll gain priceless perspective on the profession or industry.

In short, the biggest complaint I hear from people who work for bosses who know less than they do is that the boss tries too hard to be a boss, and not hard enough to be a leader. If you focus on these three tips, they will be eager to keep you around, instead of quietly cheering when you move on.

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Five Keys to Managing Hyper-growth

November 13th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Hyper Growth, Management No Comments »

chartI am immersed in a world of hyper-growth. All hyper-growth companies struggle with the unrelenting demands of rapid scale. There is no smooth sailing when your company is doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in size each year.

However, some companies make it through hyper-growth and come out stronger, while others fall apart, unable to cross the chasm of such a massive and rapid change. While each company does have its own unique magic, there are at least five keys to success during the hyper-growth stage.

Stop holding back and start investing.

This is the time to buy or lease systems that do more than you need them to do, because they’ve been designed for the size you’ll be in two or more years. It’s time to take all of that grey-market equipment to the e-cycling bin and replace it with supportable, high quality products. It may seem like over-engineering, but you have to put in place today what you’ll need in the future, not just scramble to keep up with current demands.

And, no surprise coming from me, it’s time to stop throwing people into leadership roles hoping that they’ll just catch on, and instead, start investing in conscious, strategic development of leaders at all levels. Then expect these leaders to focus on developing their teams and supporting the career development of individuals.

All of the hacking, the improvising, the “just figure it out” approach to development, and extreme resourcefulness that made you successful so far will kill you if you try to keep it up as you rapidly scale. You have to make a shift in what you value and reward in order help your hardworking employees ride the tidal wave of hyper-growth.

Hire for the future.

Just building the leaders you already have isn’t enough, though. Successful hyper-growing companies also hire leaders at all levels who’ve already been very successful doing what they do at the scale you expect to reach in the coming years.

Hyper-growth is its own animal. Leaders who have never done it bring a lot of risk to your company. That risk is fine in the founders and employees who’ve brought you this far, and who will continue to add enormous value, but you need to add the experience of people who have led a much bigger team through the unrelenting challenges of hyper-growth.

Headcount is one way to look at it. If your engineering headcount is at 400, for example, look for leaders who’ve successfully grown their collective functions to 1200 or more.

You may be accustomed to valuing people who fit the classic entrepreneurial profile, but once you head toward and beyond four figures in headcount (regardless of valuation), you will need a more diverse and seasoned workforce and leadership.

Be very clear on your values, and task everyone with living the values day-to-day.

Your values drive your culture. Much of your culture can be retained despite the massive level of change you’re going through. Day-to-day processes will change, access to founders and popular leaders will change, level of individual involvement in decisions will change. A whole lot will be different.

However, despite all of this change, if you reward people for living and breathing the values, and hold yourself strictly accountable for doing the same, you will maintain a great deal of the cultural magic unique to your company. Values drive behavior and behavior drives culture. Don’t focus on your culture. Focus on the behaviors that embody your values, and the culture will be maintained without additional special programs or initiatives.

Ultimately, the senior leaders of the company are the only people who can own full responsibility for maintaining the culture. Consultants can all provide guidance on how to maintain it, but the ownership rests with the senior leaders. This includes the founders, but is not limited to them.

Massively ramp up the effort you put into strategic alignment.

It takes exponentially more effort to keep exponentially more people rowing in the same direction. Now is the time to begin a regular discipline of management off-sites to step back and ensure you’re making the same assumptions, planning for the future, working through your conflicts, and going back out to the organization with a shared message.

This is also a perfect time to consider alternate means of establishing multi-directional communication about strategy. For example, should you be crowdsourcing input on the strategy? How will you ensure robust participation from offices around the globe, if you’ve been accustomed to having nearly everyone in one city? I rarely see hyper-growth without simultaneous globalization, and it is too often treated as an afterthought in the strategic alignment process, to the great detriment of the company.

The need for organizational discipline in strategic alignment applies to all levels of management, not just the E-staff. Every team should be examining how closely their mission and strategy align with the vision, mission, and strategy of the company.

Intentionally have fun.

Many leaders find it fun to work, and work, and work. They really, truly do enjoy it. Is this you? If so, you’ll need to make an intentional and regular habit of encouraging fun, which may not feel very natural. Believe it or not, many people would find your unabashed love of work to be a little strange!

People work incredibly hard during hyper-growth, and often sacrifice time with loved ones to build the company that they believe in. Encouraging them to have fun, and being willing to have a little fun yourself, goes a long way toward avoiding the dreaded employee fear that “we’ll go totally corporate.”

Your people understand that without implementing better systems, tools, and processes, they will have chaos. They know that more structure is necessary. However, the implementation of discipline and repeatable processes does not require the implementation of a 24/7 serious face. Show them your humanity by joining them in having a little fun.

So, what constitutes fun? This varies considerably in different industries, countries, age groups, and even between companies that otherwise appear similar. My guidance is to start by asking your best HR business partner (or generalist, if you don’t have HRBP’s) for input and feedback. Contrary to the common stereotype, your best HR people are not trying to squelch all fun and self-expression. That’s what mediocre HR people do. The best HR pros nurture the fun that everyone enjoys, not just a select few, and have an excellent sense of what will work for your organization.

What have you done to manage hyper-growth? Please share your tips with others in the comments below.

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Excuse Me, Are You Bleeding?

March 5th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Management No Comments »

keyboard“How can I get the cynics on my team to be more positive?”

“How can I find more time to manage my growing business?”

“How can I get my very junior staff to understand important developments on a project so they make the right choices going forward?”

What do these three questions have in common? The problem was unwittingly caused by the leader through an unconscious choice I’ve dubbed “style bleed.” Style bleed happens when you let a style that works well in one setting to bleed over into other settings, where it contributes to the very problems you want to solve. The challenge with style bleed is seeing when it’s happening.

In the case of the leader whose team was filled with cynics, the style came from years of working with regulatory agencies for pharmaceuticals. For two decades she had anticipated and responded to their demands as the drugs slogged along through the regulatory process.

With regulatory agencies – to say the least – there’s not a whole lot of dialogue, debate, or negotiation. It’s not as if she could say, “Well, if we provide this document in the exact style you want, we’ll expect you to give a little on this other document.” After two decades, she had become a master at anticipating, thoroughly preparing, and responding to non-negotiable demands.

Guess what happened when she interacted with her direct reports? Sure enough, the style that made her so successful with agencies flopped in a setting in which her job was to develop a team. Her interactions with them involved no dialogue, no debate, and no negotiation, though to her it felt like they did. Her team had checked out in terms of making their own decisions, and even in terms of checking their own work, because her instructions weren’t clear, but she would always fix whatever didn’t meet the expectation she hadn’t clearly articulated.

It took a lot of effort on her part, but as she began to consciously choose a different style for internal interactions than she used in external interactions, the team began to open up, and performance began to improve.

In the case of the manager seeking more time to grow his business, the style bleed came not from work, but from a longtime passion. A gifted pianist, he had practiced daily and performed often for the past eighteen years – which was twelve years longer than he had been in the workforce! Musicians practice untold hours before performing, and sometimes perform a piece only once, after hundreds of hours of working on it. The idea that you must practice, hone, and perfect your work before putting it out there greatly influenced his style at work.

Once we uncovered this style bleed, he began to assess each task, large or small, by whether or not it was truly similar to a high-stakes performance, and to target a more realistic personal standard for tasks that were less high-stakes and simply needed to be dispatched quickly and efficiently. This saved him hours in each week, which he could apply to the most important demands of his growing business.

In the case of the junior staff members who never seemed to understand important developments on a project, the projects were massive lawsuits and the leaders were two legendary trial attorneys who led the teams through complex, multi-year cases. The style bleed in this case was easy to spot – with great enthusiasm and remarkable intellectual power, they would quickly and unconsciously turn an announcement about a case development into a debate between them, each turning to the staff to make his point, as if they were the jury.

It was certainly exciting compared to a more typical staff meeting, but their very inexperienced staff members couldn’t follow it. They needed simple and straightforward explanations, not stunning displays of debate worthy of Perry Mason. However, in the presence of these two powerful and imposing men, nobody was going to speak up to say, “I don’t understand. Can you explain it in very simple terms?”

Once we discussed this style bleed, they were able to resist the temptation to turn meetings into trials when sharing basic and important information, and other attorneys and managers were able to jump in from time to time with explanations for the staff.

Do you see how easy it was for you to spot the style bleed in each of these leaders? Do you see how difficult it is to spot it in yourself?

Are you having trouble achieving a goal? Is style bleed one of the reasons? Here’s how to find out, and what to do about it:

Ask yourself where your standards and assumptions about your behavior came from. Go way back – these assumptions can be shaped in childhood, and it’s not always as deep as family trauma. In the case of the musician, his assumptions were shaped by the demands of the performing arts, which influenced him from the age of twelve, and which were a very positive aspect of his childhood.

Ask yourself if that’s really, truly the standard for the task at hand, or the best assumptions to make in this particular context. A different context often calls for a different style.

Ask your coach, boss or colleagues (or all of them) for perspectives on the appropriateness and effectiveness of your style. Often we don’t see style bleed ourselves because it’s hard to see unconscious assumptions and standards. It’s dark in the unconscious, and another person can often help out with a flashlight.

Try something different! Several years of a tight job market made a lot of people habitually gun-shy about personal risk at work. However, if style bleed is contributing to your frustrations or concerns, the only way to address it is to try a different style.

What are your thoughts about style bleed? Let me know in the comments!

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Who’s Afraid of Power?

February 6th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Communication, Management 2 Comments »

switchI bet if I asked, you could rattle off dozens of examples of people who caused great harm from being drunk on power. It makes for great movies and it arguably was responsible for triggering the Great Recession.

But I see a different and equally destructive pattern at least as often: fear of power and ambivalence about power. Though it seems counterintuitive, these relationships with power can create as many problems as being drunk on power.

You may be thinking, “I’m an enlightened leader. I don’t think about petty things like power.” That might be true. However, if you aren’t attuned to power, it’s also possible that you are unaware of your own reaction to power and your relationship to it. Even if you are attuned to your feelings about power, and are at ease with it, are the managers who report to you as comfortable with their power as you are with yours?

How do you know there’s a fearful or ambivalent relationship with power in yourself or others? Let’s look at the some of the most common symptoms. Do any of the following statements describe you or any of the managers who report to you?

  • Tossing it away like a hot potato – Do you seek someone else to make a decision or broker decisions similar to those that your peers make for themselves or negotiate without a broker?
  • Schizophrenic leadership style – Do you swing back and forth from empowering your people to bringing down the hammer on them when they screw up, because you are not at ease with empowering them and holding them accountable in a constructive manner?
  • Acting like a friend – Do you talk with your employees as if you are peers and pals instead of recognizing that as their boss, you are more powerful and need to be more thoughtful about what you do and don’t share?
  • Accountability dumping – Do you delegate to your employees both the decision and the full accountability for the decision? Bosses who are at ease with power share accountability and know that their employee’s failure is also their own failure.
  • Excessive collaboration — Do you frequently seek collaboration and consensus on decisions that are relatively simple, straightforward, and noncontroversial? Simple, straightforward, and noncontroversial decisions should simply be made and executed, not turned into collaborative discussions.
  • Passive/Angry style with peers and your own boss – Do you not reach out and put effort into being included in key decisions, yet get angry when these decisions are made without you?

Unlike power hunger or power drunkenness, power fear and ambivalence are not obvious to others, so their destruction is quiet, passive, insidious, and pervasive. If any of these statements apply to you or to someone who reports to you, you need to understand the situation better and take action to improve it. There’s no easy answer and no one-fits-all solution, but here’s where to start:

  • If you see these behaviors in a manager who reports to you, share with that manager the behaviors that concern you and how you see these behaviors negatively impacting the team or the business results. Since this manager may have an ambivalent relationship with power, it’s particularly important you enter into this conversation in the mode of helping him or her be more successful and be certain that you’re not in the enforcer mode for this first conversation. Be ready to offer support for improvement in the form of mentoring, coaching, and/or training.
  • If you see this in yourself, the most important first step is accountability. You are solely responsible for the way you react to power in the workplace and for developing comfort and ease with power. Own this accountability.
  • Own your discomfort. Pretending you feel differently about power than you currently feel isn’t going to get you anywhere.
  • Once you have accepted your ambivalence or fear (or both), reframe power as merely something that is there, and that you are responsible to use wisely and ethically. You can’t make it go away. Managers hold more organizational power than individual contributors. Directors hold more organizational power than managers, and so on, up the chain. Hierarchy is part of the human condition. No matter how you are organized or what you call the different roles, some people will be more powerful than others. If you’re one of them, that simply is the situation. To pretend it’s not there is to deny the fundamental humanity of yourself and your coworkers.
  • Track situations in which you find yourself tempted to let your fear or ambivalence drive your actions, and note what triggers that temptation. Choose to respond differently to the trigger. You can’t change the trigger, which comes from outside of yourself, but you can change your internal response. A different internal response can lead to a different choice.

It’s by no means the whole solution, but it should be enough to get you or your direct report started on this important shift.

What are your thoughts about fear and ambivalence around power? Let me know in the comments below.

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Five Ways to be More Entrepreneurial

October 3rd, 2013 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Change Leadership, Management 1 Comment »

entrepreneurIn any given year, I spend 50 – 70% of my time working with entrepreneurs. This happens for several reasons. Sometimes their businesses were successful and were acquired by one of my mid-size or larger clients. At other times they hire me directly to help them address the challenges of rapid growth and scale. I also work with entrepreneurs in my role as a mentor in WebFWD, Mozilla’s start-up accelerator.

This frequent close-up interaction with entrepreneurs, many of whom have launched multiple businesses, has given me a unique perspective on who makes a successful entrepreneur and the cultures they create. The two are inseparable. If you lead a start-up, you can set the culture you want from scratch. If you lead an established business and want to create an entrepreneurial culture, you must become an entrepreneur in your heart, mind, and day-to-day habits.

If it doesn’t come naturally, there is no way to transform your culture without transforming yourself first. It’s true that some people are more naturally entrepreneurial in their thinking, but luckily, it’s mostly about choices. Any leadership team who is willing to make changes in attitudes and behaviors, and to keep it up until they themselves have transformed, can create a far more entrepreneurial culture. It takes effort, but it can be done.

I’ll skip the obvious things that successful entrepreneurs do right, like perfecting the pitch, hiring great intellectual property attorneys, and managing on a shoestring in the early days. Instead, I’d like to share the five more subtle leadership choices that successful entrepreneurs make day in and day out:

  • They create and emphasize a powerful vision and mission for their business, with relatively little emphasis on annual financial targets as compared to the leaders of most mid-sized to large companies. Financial goals are communicated and strived for, but are not the main emphasis in communication with employees. The successful entrepreneurs know they need to keep their own focus on the finances, but they understand that their people aren’t going to put in the extra hours because they’re excited about hitting a revenue target, so they communicate the financial targets in context and not nearly as often as they talk about progress toward the big vision.
  • They convey tremendous optimism and are not driven by fear. They have their moments of great fear, but fear is not their primary trigger. They have a lot of passion, heart, and drive, and they show it. That’s why people follow them.
  • They are massively empowering. With so much to do and so few resources, they don’t have the option to micromanage and solve their people’s problems for them, even if they wanted to. They manage by exception, focus only on doing what is appropriate to their role, and encourage employees to stretch and do many things that are unfamiliar to them.
  • They are not technical perfectionists and they are not at all in love with or attached to their technology. They focus on finding out what the customers want, quickly tinkering with their product to be what the customers want, seeing how customers like it, and quickly changing the product again. They can do this in part because they don’t have multiple product lines, yet, but it’s also because their people are so massively empowered at the individual contributor level that they can make decisions quickly, together, without escalations. Who would they escalate to, anyway? There aren’t too many layers in a small, fast-growing company, and the successful entrepreneurs find multiple escalations to be repulsive, a sign of something that needs to be fixed or improved.
  • They care a lot about their cultures. I cannot emphasize this enough. They dedicate time to maintaining the culture on a very frequent basis, through their everyday choices and through routine events that come to signify the culture, such as Google’s Friday afternoon all-hands with the founders, which began when it was a very small business. They view it as more important than spending that same time on managing the business functions. They trust that the people they hired can manage the business functions effectively. They know that if they don’t personally create a particular type of great place to work — the exact type of great place that attracts and retains the talent they want and repels the talent they don’t want – no manager or HR function can do it for them. They see the culture as a key intangible asset.

When you think about it, the successful entrepreneurs offer very little money, very little job security, long and unpredictable work hours, no obvious career paths, and very little that the best talent can get in an established company. Yet, they are massively dependent on the people they hire, each of whom carries massive responsibility due to their relatively small numbers. Entrepreneurs have to be able to attract and retain talent based on vision, mission, sometimes their actual technology (sometimes not), and culture. Established mid-sized and large competitors hold all of the other cards in their hands.

To those of you leading small and start-up companies, how do the daily choices you make compare to this list? Where could you stretch a bit to grow your leadership?

To those of you who lead more established companies, what would happen if you adopted more of the successful entrepreneurs’ choices in combination with the mid-sized or large company advantages you already hold?”

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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How to Handle an Ineffective Boss

March 6th, 2013 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Communication, Management 10 Comments »

It happens to nearly everyone at least once. You find yourself working for an ineffective boss whose issues impact you and your team. While it’s certainly disappointing, it doesn’t have to be an unstoppable force of destruction.

There are three mistakes I see talented professionals make time and again when they find themselves in this unfortunate situation:

1. Avoiding taking action by playing psychologist. “Passive-aggressive,” “Taking out his anger at the ex-wife on everyone on his team,” “Bad childhood,” “Hates women,” “Commitment-phobe.” These may or may not be real issues your boss is facing. Who knows? However, spending too much time hypothesizing about a psychological issue is a way to disempower yourself because it’s all about the other person which makes you nothing more than a helpless victim.
2. Losing perspective by getting attached to one — and only one – solution. “I must persevere and turn around this product line no matter how much my funding gets cut or how often my boss and her boss change direction.” “I must get a big win so he can see how wrong he is.” “I’m going to HR and I’m not giving up until they fight for what’s right.” There’s rarely one clear-cut superior solution to the problems caused by an ineffective boss. However, in the American workplace in particular, we are by habit goal-driven, and you can find yourself setting a firm goal based on one particular solution, when in fact, there are probably better solutions and there are certainly more options.
3. Creating an emotional sinkhole by making it personal or taking sides in political battles. Ineffective bosses lead to lower performance which often leads to stress which often leads to making it personal or taking sides in a backside-covering political battle. When you find yourself thinking of your boss in sweeping terms that belittle him or her as a human being, you feed the intensely negative energy that is already there, and this does nothing to help you or your team. Likewise, an ineffective boss is an easy target for snarky side conversations, but this can also deepen the emotional sinkhole because it’s all about the other person, and casts you and others as the victims of his or her ineffectiveness.

Instead, try one or more of these techniques to view the situation from a different perspective and address it in the way that’s right for you.

Step back from the situation and size up the degree to which his or her incompetence affects you. Sure, it’s disappointing when your boss routinely lets you down, but what is the actual impact? Slowing down your professional growth for a few months isn’t in the same league as your entire bonus being on the line or your personal reputation being put in jeopardy with people you respect. This reflective exercise looks very different for different people at different times in their lives. However, doing this exercise calibrates the situation to your unique needs. I’ve seen clients come to the realization that several years of minor ineffectiveness have added up to something much bigger than they realized, and that they needed to take stronger action. I’ve also had clients realize that their situation is short-term and that they just wanted to stop letting it bother them so much.

Assess if you are in a politically messy situation and if so, begin basic defensive action. Employees have lost their jobs due to ineffective managers who failed to protect them and in some cases, gave them the ax. If you sense any risk and it’s important to keep your job, document conversations, agreements, and open items in follow-up emails after conversations. Try to have fewer 1:1 conversations and more group conversations, if this is appropriate to the work. Maintain your composure no matter how absurd a conversation becomes. One of my clients found himself receiving the wrong performance review from a general manager who couldn’t keep her direct reports straight in her own mind. She launched into the review thinking he was another guy on the team. He maintained his composure and told her that the objectives she was covering were for the other guy’s projects. He also made sure that accurate data about his performance was in writing. You don’t have to become ultra-paranoid or stop trying to build a positive working relationship, but you do need to anticipate that trouble could come your way and take simple (though admittedly, tedious) steps to protect your team and yourself.

Consider multiple ways to deal with the situation. If the ineffectiveness is entrenched or the result of a bevy of bad bosses on up the line, you may need to simply go find yourself a better boss at a better company. However, if your ineffective boss is new to the role and having a bumpy transition, you could choose to ramp up your compassion and figure out how to help him or her be better at the job. Consider options like going out of your way to ensure that the team achieves its goals while the boss gets up to speed on new responsibilities, or offering to help out in an area which your boss doesn’t enjoy and doesn’t do well. This can be something as simple as initiating a team-building outing or helping to validate a project plan.

Honestly ask yourself if you are resisting adapting to a change. For example, it’s painful to admit that you might be overly critical of the boss because you applied for her job and were rejected, or that your expectations are too high because you’ve had three bad bosses in as many years, or that even if his strategy is sound, you just plain hate it. If you do recognize that you are resisting adapting to a change, you may decide that adapting is a better choice, or you may decide to voice your concerns about the change and commit to making it successful, or you may even decide that the change is not for you and go find another job. Whatever you decide, at least it will be an informed choice, made after self-reflection, rather than a choice driven by unexamined and unconscious feelings.

Look at the trend. Ask your spouse or a close friend what trend he or she sees. Have you been complaining about this incompetent boss for a long time? Frequently? Do you seem to complain about every boss, or is this a one-off? Is there any pattern he or she sees? I have lovingly and firmly told friends that they are no longer allowed to complain to me about their bosses because they needed to either get a new boss or get a new attitude. Have you asked your confidantes for their feedback? Their perspectives can help you gain insights impossible to gain on your own, and make better decisions about what to do.

Finally, many people have asked me the secret to avoiding an incompetent boss in the first place. The intent of the question is spot-on. However, the truth today is that you can’t do much to prevent it. Markets change quickly, and companies change structure and direction quickly in response.

For many of you, this means you will be hired by one boss and within a matter of months, teams will be restructured and you will be working for a different boss. Likewise, you may find that your terrific boss isn’t so terrific once promoted too quickly to a role he or she can’t handle and won’t master for quite some time. The same applies when your company announces that it’s been acquired and the next day you report to someone from the acquiring company.

I believe we are about to see much more mobility in the job market as well. For leaders and professionals, the job market of today is a far cry from just two years ago, and an alarmingly high percentage of these highly-skilled individuals are disengaged and eager to leave their companies. You are likely to change bosses this year simply due to better offers elsewhere.

Businesses have become far more dynamic and far less stable and structured. The opportunities in this environment will be amazing for those who can be more dynamic in how they view, assess, and deal with challenges.

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The #1 Change to Make in 2013

January 12th, 2013 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Communication, Listening Challenge, Management, Professional Development 3 Comments »

O.k., Everybody – Listen Up!

Actually, I mean it. It’s the #1 change you can make in 2013 to dramatically improve in any area of your life that involves other people.

Think about it. There are only four ways to communicate that involve language: writing, reading, speaking, and listening.

How much education did you receive on how to write? A lot.

How much education did you receive on how to read? A lot.

What about speaking? I bet you received least some education – the dreaded Speech Communication 101 class in college.

Now think back and remember how much education you received on listening. For most leaders, it’s a big goose egg and, not surprisingly, most of us are lousy listeners most of the time.

Yet it’s only through effective listening that we understand where another person is coming from, and stop our own assumptions from twisting and distorting what he or she is saying to fit our preconceived notions. In fact, I will go so far as to assert that you are incapable of maintaining a decent level of objectivity unless you listen. After all, how can you be objective if you’re not hearing data?

Think of your ears as being like flabby muscles. They’re fully capable of doing the job. They just need to get in better shape. Take it in baby steps, and you’ll become a fit and strong listener.

Here are my 12 favorite techniques to become a better listener, one for each month of 2013:

January: Minimize distractions. Turn off the phone, put the laptop in sleep mode, turn off the ringer on your phone, and put the tablet in a drawer if you can’t stop looking at it.

February: Welcome the other person. You don’t need to do this formally, though you can if it suits you. Smile (even if it’s a phone meeting), stop what you are doing, and if it’s an in-person meeting, ask him or her to sit down.

March: Focus. Look at the speaker, or imagine the speaker’s face if you are on the phone. Maintain eye contact. Concentrate on what he or she is saying.

April: Suspend judgment.Don’t think about whether you agree or disagree while the person is still talking. This leads to thinking about what you will say in response while the other person is talking, which is the opposite of listening.  If you feel your mind formulating a response while he or she is still talking, bring your attention back and say, “Could you repeat that?”

May: Ask questions to draw out observable data. Observable data is exactly as it sounds – data that is concrete and can be observed. This does not include interpretations or opinions.

June: Ask questions to understand his or her logic and reasoning. Two people often look at the same data and draw different conclusions. Poor listeners don’t bother to draw out the other person’s logic and reasoning. They just argue. Great listeners seek to understand the other person’s logic and reasoning as a means to constantly test and develop their own logic and reasoning.

July: Listen for the subjective elements. Subjective data includes interpretation, hunches, values, and even feelings. Don’t confuse the need to make data-driven decisions with refusing to hear subjective data. Leaders are often required make decisions for which you will never have all the objective data you need. The ability to combine the subjective with the objective to inform an excellent decision is called good judgment, and it’s what you’re getting paid for. Don’t turn the subjective into a villain. Invite it in to every conversation.

August: Remain silent for a few seconds longer than is comfortable.I confess that I’m working on this one myself! It’s probably a bigger challenge for Extraverts, but it’s worth doing, because silence often encourages the other person to continue sharing.

September: Repeat the last word or main point as a question. If the other person says, “The gross margin demands are unreasonable” then say, “Unreasonable?” and nothing more. It’s an easy technique to practice, and a simple way to invite the other person to share both subjective and objective data.

October: Use clean inquiries. Let’s say your team has made a strategic decision to end production of several custom products after the current contracts are honored, because the margins are too low and the products aren’t aligned with your long-term strategy. A month later, a team member furrows her brow and says, “We have a lot of idle machines this month. Do you think I should approach the buyer on this account to see if he wants to do one more run?” An unclean inquiry would be, “I THOUGHT we agreed to DISCONTINUE this custom product, didn’t we?” It’s an accusation thinly disguised as a question, which is a filthy dirty inquiry. A clean inquiry would be, “I’m concerned because that seems to me to go against our decision. What’s behind your thinking on this?” Clean inquiries are valuable beyond measure when you feel your emotions start to rise.

November: Confirm understanding. Also known as paraphrasing, this technique ensures that you really do understand what the other person has been trying to tell you. You can keep it simple by just paraphrasing. For example, “So you believe that we can accrue goodwill points by running one more low-margin order while we’re negotiating with them for the order that’s aligned with our long-term strategy. Is that correct?” Alternately, you can introduce your paraphrasing using phrases such as, “So the main point you’d like me to understand is…” Confirming understanding will save you hundreds of hours of wasted time due to hidden misalignments and misinterpretations.

December: Close the conversation. All of the effort to really hear what the other person is saying will not pay off if you forget to share your perspectives, confirm areas of agreement or disagreement, and decide on next steps.

Remember to take it in baby steps, adding one technique to your listening arsenal every month. By 2014, you’ll be one of the best listeners in your organization, and you’ll reap the rewards of better collaboration, higher trust, and improved teamwork.

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A Better Way to Plan for 2013

December 7th, 2012 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Business, Management, Professional Development No Comments »

It’s that time of year! I don’t mean the many holidays celebrated this month. I mean the annual personal planning process that gears up in December. It can be a real crunch to execute at year-end while also planning for the coming year. Still, it’s on your mind regardless of whether you’re using a structured process or just daydreaming about what you’ll achieve in 2013.  Would you like to try a relatively simple, rewarding, and productive approach?

Most advice for annual personal planning begins with getting out of the box to envision the incredible possibilities for the year, but that’s not how most lives work. By the time you’re doing your 2013 plan, you probably already have dozens of commitments for the year, yet it’s suggested that you ignore all of these to have your beautiful, glorious strategic visioning moment.

This tension between the greatest possibilities and managing reality is healthy and it occurs naturally in the psyche. In fact, if you didn’t feel this tension, it would be a sign that there’s something important you’re ignoring. It’s so important that it’s one of the topics I’m focusing on in my upcoming book, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: How to Remove the Invisible Barriers to Extraordinary Leadership.

Instead of assuming you must begin by visioning, try starting with the reality of your whole life (not just work), so you know how much time you will really have to pursue the more radical possibilities.

Here’s the process I personally use, step-by-step.

1. Begin with a large blank wall calendar. There is something grand about seeing the whole year laid out in one physical – not virtual – place. It will take very little time to transfer into Outlook when you are ready. Here’s the calendar I use.

2. Mark in any known critical dates in your job and/or business. For example, if you are a finance director in a publically-traded company, you’ll almost certainly be working long hours during the first and last two weeks of each quarter. If you’re in Sales, even if annual sales events haven’t been scheduled, you should know roughly when they are occurring, because they don’t change much from year to year. For consultants, write in every speech and webinar you’ve already committed to do, any face-to-face work that is committed or reasonably close to being committed, and any professional development you know you will do, particularly if it requires travel or real-time webinars.

3. Now for the fun part. Block out vacation time, including at least one long weekend each quarter and at least one vacation that lasts 10 calendar days, inclusive of weekends. If you don’t, you’ll miss the mental and emotional renewal that keeps you intellectually at your best. Your stakeholders need your best thinking and enthusiasm far more than they need whatever you would have personally produced in those days. Even if you’re not 100% sure of the exact dates, block them out on the calendar in a dotted line so you can at least get a visual image of how much time you’ve allocated.

4. Next, add in any family travel. Many of us live in a different city or country than our families, and while it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly when you will see them, you can hold some dates as a starting point. I list this separately from Step 3 because I believe it’s important to designate both time with your loved ones and vacations that focus on relaxation or new adventures.

5. Now – this may seem silly — block out time for the things you will need to do that nobody remembers to put in their calendar, such as dental and medical check-ups. Particularly for those of us with both N and P in our four-letter MBTI code, it can be easy to completely forget about this and then get annoyed later in the year when we “don’t have time for this annoying stuff.”

6. For small business owners, be sure to include a chunk of time each quarter to discuss your revenues, expenses, and tax situation with your accountant and bookkeeper. No business owner should ever be surprised by how much time their finances take quarterly and at year end. If you’ve allocated the time, you won’t be caught off guard. This is true whether you have a finance person or not. You are accountable for all of the finances of the business, and need to personally be on top of this.

7. What now remains is the time you have available for your personal goals, some of which will be work-related and some of which, I certainly hope, will not. Now you can begin the more familiar planning steps:

a) explore possibilities

b) narrow them to what you really want

c) identify how far you can get toward each goal with the time you have available

d) designate time for each of the activities that help you achieve the goal

I’ve honed this process over several years and it has made a world of difference in the accomplishment of my goals and in my personal satisfaction. It’s a hybrid containing the best of each process I’ve learned along the way, and it keeps both sides of the dynamic tension in balance. I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you a very happy and prosperous 2013!

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Tackling the Soft Metrics Challenge

November 2nd, 2012 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Communication, Management No Comments »

For as long as there have been people-related initiatives, there has been the vexing challenge of measuring their impact. It’s infinitely more complex and challenging than the day-to-day metrics of the business. No wonder I see clients wince almost every time I ask the question, “How will you measure progress?”

However, it’s not impossible to set meaningful metrics for soft initiatives, and in fact, an excellent set of metrics can give your initiative the boost it needs to keep going in the early, often unrewarding stages.

It helps to think of soft metrics in a three-level hierarchy:

  1. Activities
  2. Outcomes
  3. Business Improvement

Let’s look at each level, using the one of the broadest and most challenging initiatives to measure: employee empowerment with the intent to improve speed, agility, and engagement.


These metrics track the activities you believe will move the organization closer to the empowerment goals. In this example, the goals are “improve speed, agility, and engagement.”

Activities metrics do not, however, track achievement of the empowerment goal itself. It’s important to have activities metrics, because big, broad internal initiatives take time to bear fruit, and activities metrics provide a way to ensure that the project keeps moving forward during the more difficult early stages. What gets measured gets done, and in the early months, that’s often good enough.

Examples include:

  1. Every manager conducts developmental 1:1’s with each employee at least twice per quarter
  2. The empowerment guiding coalition achieves each of its 90-day plans over a one-year timeframe
  3. The roles &responsibilities matrix is reviewed and updated twice per year
  4. All directors complete two days of executive communication training
  5. All employees complete one day of empowerment training
  6. At least 10 examples of empowerment success are shared with the organization each quarter
  7. The empowerment SharePoint site is established and then updated in a timely manner throughout the year


These metrics track progress toward achieving the desired state of empowerment. Most soft initiative outcomes have a subjective nature to them, but they can still be measured. Some outcomes metrics require manual tracking, but it is usually not cumbersome if you are careful to choose no more five outcomes to track.

Examples include:

  1. Percentage of critical business decisions delegated at least one level down
  2. Reductions in escalations which employees attribute to their empowerment
  3. Dollar amount of resources controlled at least one level down
  4. Number of outdated, inefficient, and unnecessary processes abolished
  5. Percentage increase in suggestions for improvement from employees
  6. Percentage of employees who agree that they are confident, with a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities and equipped with the tools, skills, and resources to make timely and sound decisions, and have the trust and support of their peers, management and staff

Business Improvement

These are the most powerful metrics because they track the direct affect that the soft initiative has on the BU results. Sometimes they can be tracked in the first year of an initiative, sometimes not. They often require a level of manual tracking that can become cumbersome, so it’s important to focus your attention on no more than three.

Examples include:

  1. Reduction in machine downtime attributed to operators instead of engineers having control over a quality process
  2. Increased profit on a product line due to innovative solutions created by team without the manager’s involvement
  3. Acceleration of new product introduction attributed to directors being able to make gating decisions without VP-level sign-off
  4. Hard and soft dollar savings from elimination of outdated, inefficient, and unnecessary processes, plus business impact of how these savings were invested
  5. Improvement in net promoter score (a measure of how many customers would recommend your products or services) attributed to decisions made faster at a lower level in the BU

Too many large-scale changes perish on the rocky shores of metrics, because they stop at activities metrics only. If you have a large-scale change initiative underway or commencing soon, turn your guiding coalition loose on this challenge, and be sure to include an open space for at least one metric to be set by each team, function, or geographic area.

Then step back and let them run with it. The next time your consultant asks, “How will you measure progress?” you can answer, “We’re way ahead of you on that!”

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The Surprising Reasons People Resist Being Empowered

October 5th, 2012 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Communication, Management, MBTI, Professional Development No Comments »

It seems so obvious, like such a no-brainer: your business has reached the stage at which you’ve stabilized the core and you must scale. Meanwhile, your market demands that you grow while getting even more nimble and flexible. The answer is obvious, right? Drive decision-making down in the organization. Stop holding on to it. Empower people to act quickly in the customer’s and the company’s best interest.

When you announce that you’re going to do this, heads nod. Who could disagree with being more trusted? More empowered? Less oppressed? Philosophically, it all seems to line up, but when it comes to execution, it nearly always falls apart. Last month, we looked at three contributing factors to this failure: a poorly defined end state, no mid-level guiding coalition, and assuming that empowerment has to happen in a linear, top-down sequence ( Let’s say that over this month you’ve addressed all three, yet people still expect you to make decisions you’ve told them you want them to make.  Why?

There are several reasons that could apply to anyone, but often align with particular personality types. If you understand this, you can begin to address this reluctance through a more personal and compassionate lens. Compassion is frequently a bit of a  blind spot for leaders, but those who can open their minds to understanding why people act the way they do build far more engagement and alignment than those who look at these challenges only in terms of business systems and metrics.

Resistance to empowerment might be better described as reluctance rather than resistance. Your people have concerns – and fear is the emotion underlying concern. It may sometimes look like anger but think about it, when you have been angry, what drove the anger? It was fear of losing something, or that something would happen that would have a negative consequence.

Likewise, your people aren’t fools. They know there could be very negative consequences for them personally if they embrace empowerment.

Let’s look at how this can play out when viewed through the lens of personality type. There are many aspects of personality type that can influence how an employee feels about being empowered. Today I will divide the personality types according to those that share the same dominant cognitive process, or mental function.

Jung equated the dominant cognitive process to the captain of a ship. He believed that it is the most conscious process, and that your other cognitive processes act in support of the dominant process. We unconsciously see our dominant process as a hero, and feel most heroic when using it.

Apply this insight to understanding reluctance to become empowered, and what do you see?  Empowerment might mean that we won’t get to use our heroic mental function nearly as often, and that we’ll be demanded to spend much time using our less conscious functions. No wonder we hold back!

Put another way, each type often has concerns that, if expressed and taken seriously, will reveal gaps, flaws, inefficiencies, and other issues with the empowerment plan. By recognizing and discussing these, you can not only compassionately engage employees, you can also improve the power and effectiveness of your empowerment efforts.

There are no personality types that are inherently more or less threatened by empowerment. That’s a complete myth. Some aspect of empowerment is likely to be concerning for each type, as indicated below.


  • Most conscious function plans, organizes, and measures progress
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will force them to lose control over outcomes due to a less structured environment,  greater reliance on incompetent coworkers, or poorly defined criteria for performance


  • Most conscious function gains deep, long-term insights and realizations
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will force them to manage unfamiliar, complex, multiple details previously managed by the boss, or interact constantly with teammates doing group planning and decision-making (particularly concerning if they view their teammates as incompetent)


  • Most conscious function verifies and stabilizes
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will create too many unpredictable and unmanaged variables, making it more difficult to create repeatable success, or that working in an empowered way will be inefficient or ineffective compared with the current way of working


  • Most conscious function nurtures trust and demonstrates care
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will cause peer conflict to drag on and become toxic instead of being quickly discussed and resolved, or that the team will not be able to develop the deep level of trust required to make excellent decisions


  • Most conscious function envisions possibilities and emerging patterns
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will require them to reach closure too soon on too many decisions, choking off the creative process which produces their best ideas, or that they will have to deal with dense bureaucracies that the boss previously navigated on their behalf


  • Most conscious function experiences the tangible present
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will cause them to be pinned down by too many commitments, with all spontaneity choked off and too much structured, scheduled team activity


  • Most conscious function precisely defines within a framework, theory, or principle
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will require them to deal with the illogical or incompetent people that their bosses previously handled, or that they will have to constantly collaborate too closely with others and no longer have time to work alone


  • Most conscious function assigns a value or degree of importance and provides a moral compass
  • Most likely concern is that empowerment will force them to give up deeply valued work responsibilities in order to take on these new decision-making responsibilities, or that their most trusted relationships will be damaged by this new distribution of power

Warning! The worst thing you can do with this knowledge is play amateur psychologist, approaching each employee and saying, “I read a blog that tells me what you’re afraid of, and I just want to tell you that there’s nothing to worry about.” It’s a terrible idea for several reasons:

  • You may not actually know the employee’s type, even though you think you do.
  • The “most likely concern” is exactly that – likely, but not certain, and not comprehensive. Other factors may come into play.
  • It’s annoying! Your employees will want to smack you, not follow your lead to the land of empowerment.

A better approach is to explore these concerns first alone or with a trusted advisor, and then with your team.

Here are some questions to get the conversations going:

  • What are everyone’s individual concerns about being more empowered? How accurately does the Selby Group list reflect your concerns?
  • What has led to these concerns – is it truly about individual personal needs or is it something else?
  • Is the leader’s greatest concern about empowerment different from the greatest concerns of each of the employees on the team?
  • Are we so “type-alike” as a group that we have only addressed the concerns of one or two types?
  • If so, did that leave the valid concerns of “minority types” out of the equation? What did we miss? Was the quality of our solution compromised by these missing perspectives?
  • How can we address any concerns that were not previously surfaced?

See what insights you gain from the discussion that will help you all move forward toward your goal with greater confidence and ease.

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