Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Asking the Right Questions

I am a proponent of a leadership style that involves a great deal of teaching or coaching versus a style that requires telling or directing work.  I have even written about this belief of Teach Don't Tell before.  One of the most effective ways to coach or lead is through the use of questions.

People generally try to provide a response to the questions that you ask.  The validity and reliability of the responses may be subject to question though.  How do you as a leader move people and the organization forward?  It will not be done on

There are many different questioning strategies that leaders can employ.   The easiest strategy is to change the first word in your question.  Most people by nature ask "What" questions.  These questions elicit responses that do not require much critical thinking.  The best shift in questioning will occur when you stop asking "What" and begin asking "Why".  The answers to "Why" questions are often more complex and get to the root of the issue.

Try asking three consecutive "Why" questions to seek a better understanding of a decision or a situation. By the end of the third "Why" you typically reach the core belief or root cause.

"Why" not try it and see if you get different results.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rules to Break: That's How We Have Always Done It

"You are remembered for the rules you break." -Douglas MacArthur  

The MacArthur quote is especially true when you consider leadership.  If you don't break any rules you will continue to do the same things every day.  I thought I'd start a new series about the rules that leaders should be breaking.

The first rule in the series is more of a habit many leaders fall into.  It involves using the phrase "That's how we have always done it."  This is the cornerstone for answers about initiatives, procedures, etc. that do not make any sense.  If you are not convinced, try the following exercise.

  • Pick something in your organization that doesn't make any sense, drives your crazy or gets in the way of the real work.
  • Ask someone who has been in the organization for an extended period of time the following question: Why do we do that anyway?
  • What answer are you likely to get?  The answer will be some variation of, "I'm not sure. That's the way we have always done it."

This is unfortunately also the answer to the most important question (WHY?) we can ask as leaders. These "that is how we have always done it" moments are also the things that are preventing change or improvement in organizations.  As a leader take inventory of all of your "that's how we have always done it" moments.  

  • Can you answer the WHY question about your decisions, initiatives, and changes? 
  • Does the answer to the WHY question actually match up with your stated values and beliefs?

Effective leaders move from "That's How We Have Always Done It" to "This is WHY we are doing it." The WHY must have a strong foundation in order to build an outstanding organization.

There are many other rules that leaders should break.  I'll try to capture more in the coming weeks. In the meantime...

What rules do you think leaders should break?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No One Has the Right To Waste a Minute of A Child's Life

The title of this post is actually a line in an Education Leadership article from ASCD.  I often come back to it as I work in and with schools.  

What would schools be like if we all embodied this concept?  
What if every moment was spent with this mindset?  

In the words of the great Dr.Seuss, "Oh, the places you'll go!"

Monday, March 12, 2012

Million Dollar Meetings and Minimal Results

"Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything."
- John Galbraith

Meetings are looked at as a sign that work is getting done in organizations.  You likely spend a lot of time in "event" meetings where it is scheduled on your calendar as a weekly, biweekly, or monthly event.  Calculate the total salary that is tied up in these meetings.  Now look at the results of these meetings.  Does the investment in time and resources match the outcome or results?  

Sometimes the best decision a leader can make is not to meet.  Take a closer look at your meetings through the lens of the following questions:

  1. Why are we having this meeting?
  2. How will everyone be smarter as a result of this meeting?
  3. What would happen if this meeting did not occur?
  4. Is there a more effective/efficient way to gather and disseminate the information?
  5. Is there an expectation that work occurs outside of these meetings?
  6. How could the time set aside for "event" meetings be better utilized to accomplish organizational goals?

How did you do with your answers?  Are you utilizing your time in a way that matches your stated priorities?  Challenge yourself to rethink and revolutionize your leadership practices by asking questions about everything.  Always start with WHY... Otherwise, you will be going through the motions with little movement to show for it.  

The way we have always done it is probably not the way we need to do it today and is certainly not the way we need to do it tomorrow.

A great resource for revamping your approach to meetings in "Read This Before Our Next Meeting".  It is a quick, insightful read about the modern meeting standard.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Secret Formula to Excellence and Expertise

"Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours."
- Malcolm Gladwell

I was rereading the book Outliers recently and came across the quote above.  There really is no easy road to expertise and excellence.  Many people give up before they can realistically see improvement.   The other scenario is that people get good enough and settle.  Good is often the enemy of great in this scenario.  This is true with piano lessons, diets, and in the workplace.  People are often looking for the secret to greatness.  The secret all starts with your personal passion.  Once you understand that ingredient...the rest of the formula is as follows:

Understanding the formula is not difficult.  Putting the formula into practice is what ultimately separates good from great.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Excellence is Never an Accident

"Excellence is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, skillful execution and the vision to see obstacles as opportunities."

I was one of the world's biggest Michael Jordan fans growing up.  I even had a life size cut out of him in my classroom when I began my teaching career.  The greatest lesson I learned from following Michael Jordan's career is his pursuit of excellence.  His story is a great example of the quote above.  

Take a moment to think about someone that you feel is the best at what they do.  
Now consider the following questions:

  • What does excellence look like at this person's level?
  • How long has that person been practicing the skills necessary to be excellent?
  • Was that person always great at what they do?
  • What obstacles did they have to overcome to get where they are today?

People do not wake up as a master of their craft.  It was no accident that they became the top person in their respective field.  Thousands of hours of hard work is behind every expert in every field.  This type of deliberate practice is what separates mediocre from magnificent in every arena.  

Now consider the following questions as it relates to what you want to be excellent in:

  • How are you being intentional in both your words and actions?
  • What obstacles are currently keeping you from making progress?
  • How can you turn those obstacles into opportunities?
  • Who is in your starting five and how are they going to push you to be a better version of yourself?

Everyone has an opportunity to be excellent but it will never happen accidentally.  That journey begins today.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What If?

"Promise to yourself to live your life as a revolution and not just a process of evolution."
Anthony J. D'Angelo

There is always a great deal of debate around educational reform issues.  The rationale behind a lot of what we do in education is decades and even centuries old.  We continue to settle for evolving when much of what we do goes against what we believe.

For example:
  • We believe learning can occur anytime/anywhere yet we have bells that tell us when the learning starts/stops.  
  • We know that students develop at different rates yet we put all students on a 13 year track (K-12).
  • We judge student/teacher/principal/school success on the ability to answer multiple choice questions yet we know it does not tell the whole story.
  • We force unsuccessful students to repeat the same grade/course in largely the same way and expect different results.

We know that many of our students are entering the workforce without the requisite skills yet we still teach in many places to a standardized test.  In "Stop Stealing Dreams" Seth Godin writes that there are only two tools available to the educator.  The easy one is fear.  Fear is easy to awake, easy to maintain, but ultimately toxic.  The other tool is passion.

I have said before that "Nobody is Passionate about Bubbling in Answer Sheets".  What would happen if we began to operate from a place of passion instead of fear?  Imagine what school and ultimately the world could look like then...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Future-Proof Education

I am currently reading "Stop Stealing Dreams" by Seth Godin.  This free e book tackles the question "What is school for?" and is based on the premise that the economy has changed forever but school hasn't.  If you haven't downloaded it yet, you can find it here.

There are an abundance of points that resonate with me.  I thought I'd share my favorite quote so far below: 

"The two pillars of a future-proof education: 
# 1 Teach kids how to lead. 
# 2 Help them learn to solve interesting problems."

I couldn't agree more with those two pillars.  How do we build schools around those pillars?  That is a definitely a question to tackle in future posts.  

Download your copy and join the worldwide dialogue around "What is school for?".

5 Questions to Test Your Leadership Visibility

I believe that every person in this world has dreamed of having the power to be invisible.  It would be nice to have the power to strategically vanish (if only for a little while).  As nice as it would be…the power of invisibility does not translate well into the world of leadership.

Visibility is a key part of being an effective leader.  The visibility of a leader has been linked to overall organizational effectiveness, innovation, and to student achievement in schools.  Most people think of a single question when the notion of a leader's visibility comes up. 
  • Are you a visible leader?

I always find some fault with yes/no type questions because they do not require you to justify, prove or even think much.  You can easily answer yes and still not be effective.  This is often the case when we treat essential leadership traits as check marks.  Each skill falls on a continuum with a never-ending cycle of improvement.   

Instead, consider the following five questions:

  1. How would people know what you value?
  2. How does your calendar reflect what you find is important?
  3. Where are you the most visible?
  4. Where are you the least visible?
  5. Does this match your stated priorities, key initiatives, data points, etc.?

These are just a few questions to get you thinking about visibility and moving in the right direction on the continuum.  The world is in need of super leaders.  We just don't need one with powers of invisibility.  

Showing up and being visible is only the first step.  Now you have to do something!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Surviving a Leadership Undercurrent

My mother always scared me with stories of rip tides or undercurrents taking people out to sea.  I believe her purpose was to keep me safe but it was also to show me the power of something that you cannot see.  Undercurrents exist both in the ocean and in organizations of all sizes.  People who are not cognizant of the undercurrent can be taken further away from the shore without even realizing it.  Leaders who lack situational awareness can also be taken further away from the mission/vision of the organization by not understanding the signs around them.  This type of situational awareness is an essential leadership skill

It is not surprising that the concept of situational awareness has been linked to both organization effectiveness and even student achievement. The researchers at McREL identified 21 key leadership responsibilities that are significantly correlated with higher student achievement.  The leadership responsibility with the highest correlation to student achievement was situational awareness.    

Leaders must understand their staff and community members’ dispositions to the changes they are leading.  This does not mean that you have to wait until everyone is happy and on board with the change.  In truth, that moment will never occur because people naturally resist change.  The key for leaders is to tailor their practices in stakeholder accordance with disposition and changes that are occurring. 

Not every tool should be a hammer and not every problem is a nail.   Some changes are easier for people to implement while others may be in direct opposition to prevailing attitudes. Effective leaders understand how the changes they are leading will be received and understood by all stakeholders.   The most effective leaders take the understanding a step further and tailor their leadership styles to create a movement for these changes.

The following advice on undercurrents comes from

Undercurrents are real and you cannot always see them but you can sense and feel when they begin to take hold.  As a swimmer if you do get caught in an undercurrent, don't exhaust yourself trying to swim against it. The best method for combating undercurrent is to attempt to swim perpendicular to the direction of the undercurrent. These rip tides typically exist in patches, and if you can swim out of the patch you will be able to return to shore.

Now read the previous paragraph again and replace swimmer with leader and swim with lead.  

Does it still make sense?  This advice holds true for both leaders and swimmers.  Leaders will exhaust themselves by going directly against the undercurrent.  Think about the undercurrent during your next initiative.  Your situational awareness will be key to not only surviving but also effectively implementing a new initiative to move your organization forward.  

Friday, March 2, 2012

6 Leadership Lessons From Dr. Seuss

Today is the day that the legendary Dr. Seuss was born.  Many images enter you head when someone mentions Dr. Seuss.  You may think of your first book, green eggs and ham, or even that pesky Grinch who stole Christmas.  When I think about Dr. Seuss I envision leadership lessons.  Below you will find a series of quotes from the collective works of Dr. Seuss and a brief explanation of how each relates to leadership

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

Leaders should be bold, take risks, and move organizations forward.  One of my favorite sayings is that managers do things right and leaders do the right things.  That's the difference between fitting in and standing out.  Dr. Seuss did not fit in and neither should you.  

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”  

I believe that leaders have a responsibility to be the "Lead Learner".  You set the tone for the rest of the organization through your actions.  The best leaders are typically learners first.  The great news is that you do not have to attend a conference or pay for an expensive workshop to get smarter.  Technology allows leaders to leverage the wisdom of the world.  You can even become smarter in a box with a fox or on a train in the rain.

“With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.” 

The not-so-good street that many leaders end up on has to do with actions not matching words.  A leader can have the best ideas and intentions yet go nowhere when the actions don't match up.  A leader’s actions must always match even if your wardrobe does not match like many of the characters in Dr. Seuss’ imagination.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, 
because those who mind don't matter, 
and those who matter don't mind” 

If everyone is happy with the work you are doing then you probably aren't leading much of anything.   Leadership is about change and relentlessly seeking a better way.  Somebody, somewhere will not be excited about change and a better way.  Make sure you take inventory of those who mind and those who matter.  

“You have brains in your head. 
You have feet in your shoes 
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.” 

Do not be afraid to abandon an initiative that isn't working.  Leaders often ignore signs that an initiative or project should change direction.  Leaders can and should admit when a project has failed or an idea hasn't panned out.  This type of transparency builds trust within an organization.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

 Everyone has a responsibility to lead.  You are the only one that brings your combination of skills to the table.  Nothing will get better without your leadership and today is the only day you are guaranteed.

There were many more quotes that I could choose.  
So next time you are reading a Dr. Seuss Book 
Make sure not to snooze.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Impossible is Nothing

"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing." 
- Muhammad Ali

5 Free iPad Apps that Bring the News to You

I am a big believer in finding ways to be more efficient.  I love to Google and wander through endless resources online but I find myself utilizing apps that feed news, blogs, articles, etc. more and more.  Here are five apps that I am currently using to bring all of the smart information that is out there to me.

1. Zite is a free personalized magazine that automatically learns what you like and gets smarter every time you use it. I have expanded my interests and discovered new authors, topics, etc.  This app also allows you to share directly from the magazine.  I can even save into Evernote, ReaditLater, Instapaper, etc.  

2. SkyGrid is billed as a beautiful and captivating way to stay up to date on your news. You can follow sources, topics and receive updates on the interests you care about. The customized Photo Grid™ is also a nice feature.  

3. Flipboard also creates a personalized magazine out of everything being shared with you. I love that you can flip through your Facebook newsfeed, tweets from your Twitter timeline, photos from Instagram and much more. The interface is both beautiful and functional.

4. News360 is a new app for me.  It provides many of the same functions as the previous three.  News360 for iPad aggregates more than 7000 different news sources around the web to bring you news stories in a concise and useful stream.  I do like the way News360 can learn from your Facebook, Twitter, Evernote & Google Reader accounts to automatically create an interest graph that you use to get the stories that are most relevant to you.

5.  MobileRSS I'd be remiss if I didn't add a mobile RSS feeder to the list.  There are many different ones out there.  The one I currently utilize is very simple and straightforward.  You can move directly from the reader to email, Twitter, ReaditLater, etc.

I know that there are many more apps that you are utilizing to both become smarter and more efficient.  Feel free to share!