Judy Dobles, General Management Consulting

YOUR TOUGHEST BUSINESS CHALLENGES SOLVED.

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  • “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”

    - Harvey S. Firestone

    In the day-to-day rush of meetings, e-mails and unexpected requests, it is easy to postpone coaching.  You promise yourself you will get to it tomorrow but it never happens.   I overcame the same problem by following the “keep it simple” principle.

    As leaders we are given multitudes of opportunities during the day to interact and observe staff.  It could be in group meetings, one-on-ones or through e-mail.  Each of us has thoughts during those times about something an individual could have improved upon.

    By following a simple approach to identifying and utilizing teachable moments, you greatly increase your ability to find the time to provide frequent coaching.

    STEP ONE:  Crystallize your thought into a positive one or two sentence observation.  Think about it in terms of what one thing could have made the work even better than it was.  Do not forget that this can also include how individuals interact with each other.

    STEP TWO:  Find a quick way to engage with the individual within twenty-four hours.  It can be a phone call, a brief discussion walking out of a meeting or an e-mail.

    Lastly, commit to providing one piece of simple feedback every day to one person.  By doing so, you will develop the habit.  Remember the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”   With practice you will get better.  Staff will appreciate the fact that you are giving them actionable feedback.  In the end, the best part is that your team will be absolutely fantastic.

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  • A very dear colleague, David Pollock, gave me a wooden sign for my desk that said, “No Whining”. It became a great conversation starter for individuals that walked into my office. The purpose of the sign was to encourage folks to think about what and how they described issues they were facing before they began the discussion.

    It is very easy and sometimes cathartic to whine or whinge about problems or people. However, it is never productive. As a supervisor hearing people whine, it sends the message that you do not know how to solve a problem on your own. In essence you are dumping the problem into the lap of your supervisor.

    The key coaching points of my “no whining” philosophy are:
    [1] Be able to succinctly describe the situation or problem in one or two sentences.
    [2] Briefly describe the impact if not remedied. This helps prioritize the agreed upon next steps.
    [3] Talk about alternative approaches. At this stage you are not presenting a formal path forward or asking for a decision to be made, so keep it simple and at a high-level.
    [4] Describe what actions you personally need to take.
    [5] Describe what actions you want your supervisor or another individual to take.
    [6] Discuss other groups or individuals that should be informed about the situation.
    [7] Anticipate questions that your supervisor may have. Either have the answer or acknowledge that additional information may be required.
    [8] Jointly agree on a path forward.

    Overall the message is, “Be prepared and keep it simple”. I told people that roughly every 10th time a problem was brought to me, they were allowed to whine. However, the rule was, they needed to tell me before the discussion started. I would listen but we would not spend time on figuring out to do. This allows an individual to vent in a safe environment, since we all need that once in a while.

    As an individual, you have to understand that your supervisor has a bias for action. As a result, listening to whining can be dangerous, because your supervisor may take action relative to a problem that was not well thought out. No one wants to find themselves tilting at windmills, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It destroys your credibility and that of your supervisor.

    Supervisors want and need to hear about potential problems in the workplace.  Before bringing one forward, take a few minutes to gather your thoughts relative to points one through seven above.  Your supervisor will appreciate your organizational discipline and the problem will be addressed effectively.

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  • Through-out my career I have been a mentor, coach and supervisor to many people. The most common piece of advice people seek goes like this: “I am on the senior leadership team of my company, and I have really, really good ideas, but no one listens to me. Why are the other people on the team not smart enough to see the value of my ideas? It is my biggest frustration.”

    When you are young and in school, the main focus is on you the individual and how you specifically did on the project or test. In the working world the emphasis moves to the team. There are several fundamental points which can help individuals facing this dilemma. Here are the 5 main concepts discussed in my mentoring and coaching sessions:

    [1] See the issue from the other person’s point of view. The world of business is gray, not black and white. It is critical to ask others for their perspective. When following this guidance myself, I have always uncovered something I did not know, which allowed me to improve on the idea.
    [2] Understand the team will always outperform an individual when facing complex and interdependent issues. To develop a lasting solution, the knowledge of everyone on the team is essential. You must never believe you are smarter that everyone else. That will only set you up to be unhappy time and time again.
    [3] Be conscious and purposeful in choosing the actual words used to convey an idea. You must believe in your heart that everyone on the team adds value. When you share your idea, you cannot brag about yourself. The idea must be described in a way that shows how it addresses a problem facing the company or team.
    [4] Be able to clearly articulate the priorities for the team. Ask yourself how your idea fits in. Your idea may be great but if it is addressing priority 10 rather than 2 or 3, people are not going to pursue it. It is never possible to do everything on the priority list at the same time. The team has to pick and choose carefully.
    [5] Be humble and sincere. To be effective and get things done, people must want to work with you. People will pick up on the fact that you feel you are “smarter” than they are. In the end that destroys trust. Bring your idea to the team and ask them how it can be improved or if there are obstacles in the way of implementation. Only with that information will you be able to move forward.

    In summary, although you may have a really good idea, you need to involve others in helping you to create solutions. The focus must be on the critical issues facing the team, rather than who had the best idea. Remember the line in the poem, Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Each of us brings a unique talent to the table. Take time to discover everyone’s gift.

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  • As leaders we are a model of inspiration for our staff. How do we find constant renewal to keep us fresh when it is so very easy to fall into the rut of comfortableness? How do we push ourselves to remain on the steep part of the learning-curve.

    For me it has always been about reading books. While I do have all-time favorite leaders, bloggers and courses, books can be savored at my pace. They also allow me time for personal reflection. As I read concepts, I ask myself how I measure up. By being brutally honest with myself, I discover opportunities to improve. Books are the best way for me to keep my knowledge fresh.

    While I think most of the books I read are good, every once in a while you discover an absolute gem. In those cases, I have purchased copies for my leadership team and we have discussed the chapters together during staff meetings. The biggest lesson we learn is that we are in charge; we need use our knowledge and judgment to determine the best path forward. We hold the answers within ourselves and do not need to turn to the “experts” or “teachers”.

    Another huge benefit is engaging with the team and individuals. Sharing the key points and concepts with others brings them into the decision making loop and demonstrates that you value their opinions. It also role models the critical behavior and responsibility of “keeping yourself current” and up-to-date. A leader’s role is not to tell people what to do, but rather help them discover the right path on their own. Or as Galileo said, “You cannot teach a man or woman anything; you can only help them to find it within themselves.”

    In the end, my dilemma is not finding a book to read, but choosing a book; there are so many great ones to choose from. Here are some of my recent favorites:
    Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence, by John Wooden, Steve Jamison
    Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, by Don Tapscott
    Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change, by Erika Andersen
    Unleashing Excellence: The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service, by Dennis Snow, Teri Yanovitch
    Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization, by Leonardo Inghilleri, Micah Solomon, Horst Schulze

    Share one of your favorites.

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  • I love to read books and always have two or three in progress. The last one, “Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success”, was filled to the brim with leadership lessons. It reminded me why coaching is the vital element of success for leaders. You cannot do the work alone. You need the hearts and minds of everyone on your team. Coaching becomes the method for providing continuous learning and growth for all staff.

    My favorite quote from the book is, “Never be satisfied. Work constantly to improve. Perfection is a goal that can never be reached, but it must be the objective. The uphill climb is slow, but the downhill road is fast” (Jamison, Wooden 53). It illustrates wonderfully the work of a coach.

    As leaders, we have the power to provide the best learning experiences for our staff each and every day. They are not classes and seminars, but rather the time that a supervisor or colleague takes to show you how to improve a task you have been working on. It is also the opportunity you take personally to ask for feedback. Constant learning, woven into the fabric of your daily work, makes it exciting. You are personally growing and can take on increasingly complex challenges.

    Doing an excellent job and being satisfied are two different things. My staff was highly capable and delivered exceptional work. We all know, however, that the business environment and competitive landscape are constantly changing. In order to adapt, every day must be seen as an opportunity to learn something new about our processes, outputs and our client expectations. This is the work of continual improvement. It means having confidence in the quality of your work but never being satisfied. It means knowing improvements can be made and constantly searching for them. The staff took advantage of all conversations to ask what would have made the output even better, the process easier or made it possible to further reduce defects.

    Improvement is a daily habit. It is the sum of paying attention to the details and little things discovered every day that point to improvement opportunities. The end result was a team that was enthusiastic and delivered outstanding performance. They enjoyed learning and expanding their horizons every day. They knew they would make a significant difference.

    If you are looking for an inspiring leadership book, pick this one up. I’d love to have you share your favorite leadership book.

    Works cited:
    Jamison, S., Wooden, J., Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success. San Francisco, California: McGraw-Hill., 2009. Print.

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  • As a leader, I believe it is imperative that you ask people to bring the data. I am sure that you have experienced a situation where something has “gone wrong” and everyone has an opinion. Everyone knows who or what to blame. And certainly, everyone thinks their opinion is correct.

    In situations such as these, I ask people to state crisply and clearly what they believe the situation is. They also know that I expect to have data that supports the issue or the cause for concern. Without that, there will be no discussion. I will gently turn them out of my office until they get the data.

    Why do I feel so strongly about being data-based? From my quality training, one statement is etched in my brain: “A point does not a trend make”. It is human nature to take one event, and draw conclusions. Those conclusions invariably are wrong. The result is time and effort wasted. Let me illustrate with an example.

    I was helping an organization with their call center operations. Initially, I received a few phone calls from corporate stating “no one is answering the phones”. This conjures up an image of 15 – 20 people sitting around with their feet on their desks doing nothing, while all around you hear the cacophony of phones but no one answering. Sitting on the floor with the team, I can assure you that never happened. I asked how they knew no one was answering calls. Did they have data? Oh, no data, a customer just called and told me.

    The beauty of the situation was the company had great telephony that captured the incoming calls, call times, wait times and dropped calls. They also had a daily staffing chart. The call center manager and I defined the situation as follows: in some cases a customer calls and cannot get through to customer service. Definitely, it is an issue that must be solved. However, it cannot be solved by just “telling people” – be sure to answer the phone. We needed to understand what was happening; we needed to see the data.

    A group of us huddled together, and determined to create the following:
    • Histogram of calls, in 15 minute increments for the last 4 weeks.
    • Chart of people working in 15 minute increments for an entire week. [This did not change by week.]
    • Chart of the number of dropped calls in 15 minute increments.
    • Histogram of the length of calls, and the average length of a call.
    • List of all one-off actions during this time, such as the launch of a new product or the mailing of a brochure.

    Once the data was assembled, we reviewed the data. The graphs made the issues easy to see visually. We found both daily and weekly patterns in the timing of the incoming calls. Not surprisingly, call volume was not a straight-line. There were peaks and valleys. However, in general, staffing was a straight-line. It was also apparent that when a significant communication touched the customers, call volume also increased.

    So, with the help of the staff, we created a weekly staffing document that more closely matched the call volume. We continued to monitor dropped calls, and found that they significantly decreased. The team agreed to chart the data on an on-going basis to ensure the customers were getting the service they deserved.

    The benefit of listening to the data to it is twofold:
    [1] It builds trust between teams and individuals. It takes the emotion out of conversations when something goes wrong. No longer are two teams pointing fingers at each other. Rather, they are working together to figure out what is going on and fix it.
    [2] It allows the team to see what is happening in the process. It pin-points the real issue and allows them to develop a workable solution.

    Without the data, the team would never have figured out what was going on. They could never have developed a solution. The lesson of the story is: find the data, it will always help you discover the root cause and develop a lasting solution.

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  • As leaders and supervisors you have seen average work output and you have seen absolutely excellent work output. Why is there such a difference? I believe it has to do with how a supervisor sets expectations. Many times a person may know what the end point is but they do not always know how to accomplish it. For example – a business case. An individual may know the basics but has not heard clear overarching expectations that would result in excellence. I call these behavioral or operational expectations. They address how to go about doing the work.

    I developed these expectations as guiding principles for my staff. We talked as a group about what they meant and, in turn, they appreciated the fact that I made my expectations crystal clear. This conjures up the mental picture of bowling. Imagine a piece of black cloth suspended just in front of the pins. As you bowl, you do not know what the target is and you do not know how well you did.

    Whether you are a supervisor or individual contributor, my hope is several of these expectations will resonate with you and you can incorporate them into your daily work.
    Behavioral Expectations for Excellence
    (1) Does the question pass the logic test? Sometimes urgent questions or issues come up but they have not really been thought out. If it is the wrong question to be asking and investigating, stop the work quickly. Use judgment to decide if your supervisor should know about the work. In some cases, no matter how close the economics are, the decision may still rest with the manager of the organization.

    (2) Passes the logic test so on to the next step. Determine what you do not know. What other departments might be interested in the topic or have information that could be useful? Detailed information outside of your department or expertise may be required in order to make a decision or gain approval for an action. (Some examples of departments: insurance, compensation, internal audit, external audit, corporate communications, legal, tax, corporate financial reporting, business unit or manufacturing unit.)

    (3) Calculate the numbers. Go “crazy” on the analytics. Be data driven. Everything should be looked at with cash flow in mind. An economic analysis must include the impact on all financial statements – balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement.

    (4) Assess against the “red face” test. This is all about considering the unexpected and preventing unintended consequences. What could happen that would make this a bad decision? In what other way could people interpret the decision or action? How will we answer their questions? Three years from now will I still be proud of this work?

    (5) Volunteer for leadership. When you hear an issue come up that you want to take responsibility for, just say so. I am looking for people that step up to the plate even when it seems that their plate is full.

    (6) When you get a project or topic area to be in charge of you get the whole thing. You will have to coordinate the work of all groups and individuals that interface with the given topic. Personal power and networks are a must. I cannot stress enough the importance of continually thinking about all things that should be considered so that all contingencies are covered. The bigger the project the bigger the impact if something does not go as planned.

    (7) Exhibit calmness – be a duck. Above the surface of the water a duck always looks serene and in control. Underneath the water the duck is paddling intensely. People around you need to see you are confident and in control of the situation even though inside you may be thinking intensely about many things.

    (8) Written, oral and visual communication skills are essential. The ability to quickly use Excel, PowerPoint and Word, in a crisp, concise and artistic way, will make your job easier. Help each other out. Have someone else look at the work. Listen to their suggestions. Many times we only get one chance with our audiences. We want to spend it explaining content rather than format.

    (9) Figure out what issues are facing the department and company. Your ability to anticipate and be proactive will help you do this. Solving these issues and problems accomplishes two things: improves internal processes and makes your boss look good. Both will help you in achieving your career goals.

    (10) The quicker the better. Go talk to your supervisor early on with concepts and ideas. It is much better to have shorter and more frequent meetings. Avoid waiting for perfection. If you wait too long you may find yourself starting over. Exhibit high energy and urgency.

    (11) Pretend you are the CEO or CFO. What else would you want to know? Get the answer to that question.

    (12) It is better to actively decide not to do something than it is to never consider it in the first place. A passive decision is a lost opportunity.

    (13) Strive to reduce cycle time and eliminate defects in everything you do. Set ambitious goals. Learn from the past and apply it to the future. You can always improve.

    (14) A supervisor needs great breadth in their position. Therefore, approach your projects with great depth. If a supervisor feels they have to get into the details, then you need to improve. Ask for feedback.

    In today’s business environment we must strive for excellence. What was great a year ago is average today. Discussing these behavioral expectations with your team will allow you to achieve superlative results.

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  • During the middle of my career, I had the good fortune to work with Harry Kavetas, a capable and insightful CFO. One of our conversations focused on career planning. The insights I gained are timeless. So, I would like to share with you in the hope these insights might be beneficial to you and your team.

    (1) Have FUN. Fun is fundamental, universal and necessary. If your job is not fun, it is probably time for a move.
    (2) The distinction between your professional and personal life is not always clear. Know the tradeoffs that accompany your aspirations. Write them down on a piece of paper. (Unless you can clearly articulate them in prose, you probably have not thought them out thoroughly.) Share them with the significant others in your life. The career choices you make will impact people near and dear to you.
    (3) A core set of required capabilities are table-stakes for every job. However, two intangible criteria, reputation and credibility, are critical. Your personal credibility is built over time by doing what you say what you are going to do. To obtain jobs of increasing responsibility, you must have the confidence of the people in power. No matter how good you are, if they do not have this confidence in you, you will not be put into positions of increasing responsibility.
    (4) Never let your manager be surprised.
    (5) Dive into problems. Wade into the middle of thorny issues. Your job is to search for opportunities, economic value and “the truth”. Never pull back from an issue because it is difficult. You must share the “brutal, crystal clear truth” at all times. Remember, this is never anything personal…. just the truth and only the truth. Also, sometimes the truth is not self-evident. You will hear two sides to each story, and the answer is usually somewhere in the middle. Always listen to both sides.
    (6) Know if you are in the game or out of the game. Know if you have made it into the qualifying round. Know the competition – both internal and external. Be brutally honest with yourself about your shortcomings. Know how you can improve and work on it.
    (7) Get meetings with key clients. Ask them how they think you are doing. Know that every time you have a meeting with a senior person, not only are they listening to the specific job content, but they are also forming judgments about your broader capabilities. (Everything is a test.) Take every opportunity you can to seek performance feedback, especially when something does not go well. Always do a post-mortem. Ask what could you, personally, have done differently to change the outcome. Always have one idea and assimilate it into your future behavior.
    (8) No one will tell you, “You won’t get the job”. Ask. Know that as the number of jobs gets smaller, the odds of getting a particular job also get smaller. (Example: there is only one CFO position at a company.)
    (9) The most important criteria for determing your ability to assume and achieve greater responsibility are past outcomes. What tangible things have you accomplished?
    (10) Keep your options open. At some point, decisions become mutually exclusive. At that point, to take one path means that others close behind you. Once you are on a new path, other options open up that you may not have known ever existed.
    (11) What do you have a burning desire to do? You must have a passion about what you want to accomplish. It shows if you don’t.

    In the final analysis, your hopes, dreams and aspirations are personal. They are different for each of us; hence, there is no right answer. Follow the saying, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” — Shakespeare. Know what you want, let your supervisor know, and work together to achieve it.

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  • A while ago, at a family gathering, one of my nieces or nephews was expressing disappointment with something that happened at school. It certainly sounded familiar to me – the growing pains of a teenager in high school. My brother-in-law, John, quipped in reply, “You are over it.”

    My mind immediately shifted to the workplace and the many people in the organization I led. This time, instead of a teenager, it was employees who would express disappointment or concern over various issues. Many times the disappointment or concern was the same one, over and over again.

    I decided to adopt my brother-in-laws comment, “You are over it”, as a way to respond and start a meaningful dialogue. My intention was not to be flippant, but rather to create a coaching opportunity. Over my career, I have found if you dwell on things you cannot change or you complain without taking action, your energy can be depleted quite quickly.

    The coaching lesson for everyone was simple. Here is what I would say, “I understand you are frustrated. Is there any action you can take to resolve the situation?” If the answer was yes, then we would discuss how to actually go about it.

    If the answer was no, we would talk about how nothing in life is 100% perfect or happy. It is also helpful to remember that in baseball a good average is 300 not 1000. When you are doing hard work and driving change, you cannot expect agreement every step of the way. My personal rule of thumb is 75%, intuitively not mathematically derived. Together, we would talk about where the individual felt they were. Were there a lot of good things they just were not recognizing or did they feel thwarted at every turn? Regardless of where they were personally, each conversation ended with a positive path forward. Each conversation was a start of a dialogue and got everyone understanding that when faced with an obstacle you either figure a way to get over it or get around it. It does no good to stand there, powerless, and complain about it.

    I tell my brother-in-law that I quote him frequently at work and it generates positive energy and direction for the team. He laughs, stating he did not realize he was famous. I continue to look for life lessons no matter what I am doing, because great advice can come from anywhere.

    What is the best advice you have every received?

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