3 Steps to Depart your Comfort Zone

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A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” ― William G.T. Shedd

Near the end of the Cold War, I made seven patrols as a young Naval Officer on the nuclear submarine, USS Tennessee. One of those patrols was over the holidays. Being deployed over Christmas and New Year’s Eve was not a lot of fun. It was tough to be away the things that brought me comfort: my home, my friends, my family, my favorite foods, and the holiday traditions I love.

In fact, most of my time in the Navy was spent outside my comfort zone. The nature of the job demanded it. Months away from home, days without sleep, cramped quarters, tough technical issues, difficult leadership situations, and the stress of knowing a mistake could have deadly consequences was just part of the job. The funny thing is that I would do it again in a heartbeat. The reason is that being out of my comfort zone demanded that I be my absolute best at all times. The experience I gained in those tough years was critical to helping me develop as a leader. The truth is getting outside your comfort zone is the best way to grow as a leader.

I think the quote from William Shedd should be rewritten to say, “A leader is safe in his comfort zone, but that’s not what leaders are for.”

As we approach the time of year where we start to think about goals and resolutions for 2015, we should challenge ourselves to think about how we can depart our comfort zone in the new year. Here’s 3 simple steps to plan your escape from your comfort zone:

1. Define your comfort zone. Think about how you spent your time in 2014. You probably don’t realize how much time you actually spend in your comfort zone. Which employees or departments did you spend the most time with? Who did you go to lunch with regularly? Which customers or vendors did you visit the most? What strategies did deploy most often? Which peers were you most comfortable around? What technologies did you study the most? What management blogs or websites did you visit most often? What meetings do you regularly attend?

2. Define where you are uncomfortable. Think about potential blind spots, weaknesses, or areas where you are less comfortable. Which departments or employees are you less familiar with? Who are the peers that you have less in common with? Who are your toughest customers or vendors that you may have been avoiding? What are the big strategies you have been uncomfortable to implement? What technologies or industry trends are you the least familiar with? What’s happening in your business that scares you the most as a leader?

3. Develop a plan to spend more time outside your comfort zone in 2015. Getting outside your comfort zone means spending less time in familiar seas and spending more time in uncharted waters. The best way to make the shift is to write down what you are going to do differently. List the activities in your comfort zone that you will consciously spend less time on in the new year. List the uncomfortable areas where you will spend more time in. Make this combined list a part of your goals and resolutions for 2015.

Getting outside your comfort zone will challenge you and push you to be your absolute best. It will create new experiences where you will develop faster as a leader. It is important to make a conscious choice to escape the things that make you most comfortable if you want to continue to grow. The best way to depart the comfort zone is to create a plan and stick to it. It will be tough, but the personal and professional growth will be well worth the effort.

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Take Care of your Employees

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I met with the CEO of one of my large customers last year and he said something I will never forget.  When describing his business philosophy, he told me it was very simple, “We take care of our employees and our customers and the rest works itself out.”

How refreshing!

The Secret to Great Brainstorming

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Brainstorming is one the most effective methods of engaging employees in generating new ideas and solving tough problems. If done right, it is a fast-paced, interactive session where new ideas are generated. As a leader, the challenge is facilitating the discussion to ensure the absolute best ideas are surfaced.

Aaron Aders, co-founder and CSO of DigitalRelevance, suggests six steps to leading a productive brainstorming session. These include:

  1. Always go offsite
  2. Solidify your central focus
  3. Whiteboard your ideas in a Mind Map
  4. Create ideas, not plans
  5. Shut down “Blockers” and “Divers”
  6. Schedule next steps

While this is an excellent list, I think Aaron is missing out on the most important thing you must do as a leader. It is critical that you engage the quietest person in the room. After 25 years of leading sessions like this, I’ve found the best ideas have almost always come from this person.

Aaron mentions two personality types you will encounter in brainstorming sessions, Blocker and Divers. A Blocker is someone who quickly shuts down ideas by deeming them impossible to implement. A Diver is just the opposite. This person will take up the session time by diving deep into developing the idea further. Both can derail a brainstorming session if not dealt with.

I would suggest there is another personality type you need to look out for, Dominators. These are the people who will dominate the conversation with their ideas and their opinions. If left unchecked, Dominators can take up all your session time and possibly lead you to miss out on other important ideas.

In the session, it will become clear who are your Blockers, Divers, and Dominators. It will also be clear who the quietest person in the room is. It is important that you engage that person to get their thoughts. You will almost always be surprised at the insight they bring. There are 5 reasons why I believe these people have the most interesting ideas:

1. They let others fire the first shot. Don’t let their silence fool you. They have strong opinions but they are waiting to see some of the other ideas first. This lets them contrast their thoughts with the opinions of others.

2. They are listening. Their silence means they are listening to all the other compelling ideas. This allows them to better refine their own thoughts.

3. They are thinking deeply about the problem. Henry Louis Mencken once said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” The challenge is that complex problems require deep thinking and the quiet person is thinking while others are talking.

4. They are considering a combined solution. Often, in these sessions, there are two or three big ideas that are being discussed and debated. I have learned that quiet members of the team are listening to the discussion and are considering an alternative idea that combines the best of several ideas.

5. They are waiting to see the debate reach some level of consensus. I’ve noticed these people usually don’t get into the early debate and discussion of ideas. They are more likely to sit back, listen to the discussion, and wait until a consensus is reached. It is important to engage them at this point. Often times, especially when they don’t agree with the consensus opinion, their insight provides the necessary spark to move the discussion forward to find an optimum solution.

Brainstorming sessions are an important leadership tool to gain employee buy-in and to gather a diverse set of insights, opinions, and ideas. If done correctly, it will provide both a powerful learning session as well as a consensus opinion on the important next steps for your organization. As you lead these sessions, it is important to understand the personality types you will encounter to ensure they don’t dominate the discussion. It is also critical to engage the quietest person in the room. You will almost always be surprised at the important revelations and critical insight they bring.

Are You Truly a Leader?

Great article by Steve Keating. If you strip away your title, position, and authority, are you still a leader?

LeadToday

John Maxwell’s one word definition of leadership is this: Influence

I agree, sort of. Only sort of because what you do doesn’t make you a leader, why you do it does.

Dictionaries define influence as the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

Everyone has at least a little influence. We all have some effect the behavior of those around us, just as they have some effect on ours. We have that effect whether we intend to or not. So does that mean everyone is a leader whether they intend to be or not? I would say no.

That means we probably cannot define leadership with just one word. We need two.

Intentional influence. Okay, maybe we need three words…. Intentional directed influence.

Wandering around influencing others does not make you a leader. Being keenly aware of your…

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The Gifts Leaders Give

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This is the time of the year where we think about gifts. Whether it’s Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or Small Business Saturday, we are thinking about what we are giving to those who are closest to us. It’s also the time of year where we begin to reflect on the past year and plan for the next.

As you think back on the past year as a leader, what gifts did you give to the people who work for you? I’m not talking about physical gifts but the things you did that will leave a lasting impact on your employees. These actions, like physical gifts, can either be good or bad.

A study last year by Glassdoor found that 66% of employees believe their direct managers had an impact on their careers. 52% said the impact was positive while 20% said it was negative. The challenge as leaders is that, whether we like it or not, we are leaving a lasting legacy on the people who follow us.

When training to be a Naval Officer, I learned an important lesson on this that has always stayed with me. We were told to learn as much as we could from every leader we were assigned to. We should learn the good practices, to emulate in the future, and learn the bad practices, to avoid in our own leadership activities.

As I look back at all the leaders I have worked for, I can think of a number of good gifts and bad gifts that I have received. Some of the good gifts included:

The Gift of Trust – As a junior officer assigned to my first submarine, I had a commanding officer that regularly chose me for the toughest assignments. Even though I was filled with self-doubt, he told me he trusted me and that I would a good job. That trust gave me confidence.

The Gift of Appreciation – I once had a boss who sent a large basket of cookies and snacks to my home after he hired me. In it was a note that said, “I’m looking forward to all the great things I know you will do.” It was a simple gesture that said he appreciated me as a person even before I started work.

The Gift of Faith – The leader that selected me to run my first manufacturing plant chose me for the job, even though I had never run an operation before. His action told me that he had faith in my abilities and I worked hard to prove him right.

The Gift of Support – When I was going through a career transition, I had several former bosses who went out of their way to provide support and advice through the whole process. Their support during a stressful time was exactly what I needed to make a successful transition.

The Gift of Encouragement – As a young design engineer, I had a major failure of a new product at a test lab costing my company thousands of dollars. I had to call my boss to give him the bad news. Instead of a reprimand, he encouraged me to learn as much as I could about the failure, improve the product, and to get back to the lab.

The Gift of Recognition – I have had a number of bosses who have selected me to receive awards or have recognized me publicly for my actions. In most cases, it was a total surprise. Although I don’t work for the recognition, it is nice to get that type of positive feedback.

The Gift of a Challenge – I once had a boss challenge a business plan I developed. Even though I had created a solid plan, he asked one simple question which changed everything. He simply said, “This is great, but what haven’t you thought of that could create even more growth?” That challenge was the catalyst that changed our entire thinking and business model.

I won’t get into the details here but I have received many bad gifts as well. They include gifts of micromanagement, public reprimand, disengagement, discouragement, disrespect, disloyalty, and, like many others, I have been thrown under my share of buses.

So as we approach the end of the year and begin to reflect, I would challenge you to think of the gifts you have been giving. Have they been good gifts or bad gifts? What is the lasting legacy you are leaving for the people who work for you? What can you do differently in 2015 to give better gifts?