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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Thinking about writing a business book? Six questions to get you started (review of Tanya Hall’s Ideas, Influence and Income)

Rejection can be good for you. It was for me.

In the fall of 1999, I pitched an idea for column about public relations to the business editor at the Hamilton Spectator.

The editor nixed the idea, predicting there wouldn’t be enough interested readers or interesting topics to sustain it.

And in hindsight, posing as an expert in PR after just six years on the job would’ve been pretentious and potentially career-limiting.

Instead of writing a column, the editor asked if I’d review business books. I left the newsroom with the first of many, many books.

Thanks to my side hustle, I haven’t had to come up with an original idea at work for the past 20 years. I’ve shamelessly borrowed big ideas from more than 500 business books.

I’ve also met some really smart and experienced people over the years who should definitely share their expertise by writing their own book.

book ideasTanya Hall can help. Hall is CEO of Greenleaf Book Group and author of Ideas, Influence and Income.

“Whether you’re an established thought leader or you’re just starting out, a published book is the cornerstone of establishing yourself as an expert,” says Hall.

“Striving to establish yourself as a thought leader shows that you are fully committed to your area of expertise – so much so that you are driven to share your enthusiasm with others.”

Writing and then promoting a book requires a commitment of months, if not years. So here are six questions that Hall asks aspiring authors before they start the journey.

What do you want to write about? “Most authors start with a vague idea, like ‘marketing tactics’ and build from there. Focus on your experience and your successes to get the ball rolling.”

What do you want your book to accomplish? Will it be your calling card for more sales or speaking engagements? Will it raise your profile, reputation and credibility? “Publishing a book is a big investment of your time and money, and clarifying your goals will help ensure that you don’t waste either one.”

Who’s your audience? Are you already talking with them? “Visualize and describe your target reader. Try to get in their minds before you begin writing. What are their pain points? What are they hoping to learn? Where do they get stuck? How can you help them?”.

Why you? Hall recommends doing an honest evaluation of why you’re the best person to write a book on the topic at hand. “Have you worked in the industry for years? Did you pioneer something new? What would be missing if someone else wrote a book on this subject?”

Why now? Is there a demand and need for your expertise and insights? Can you anticipate future pain points and help your readers avoid problems or capitalize on opportunities?

Is a book the best outlet for your idea? Could you sum it up in a guest column, blog post, video, white paper or series of posts to social media? Don’t give readers 30 pages of valuable content and 150 pages of filler. “If you don’t have enough to say to fill a book, think through your audience’s needs and draft some short-form material. Get your work out there in other formats and your voice and content will come together with time.”

Don’t bank on getting rich from book sales alone. Think beyond the book, says Hall.

“A professionally produced book gives you nearly instant credibility and opens doors to other streams of income. For nonfiction authors, the book is an extension of your business or expertise and another tool in your business-marketing tool belt.”

Hall shows how to build your book, build an audience and build a business strategy that ties together ideas, influence and income. If you’ve ever dreamed of being an author, start by reading Hall’s book. And once you’re published, send a copy of your business book my way and I’ll give it a read, a review and shamelessly borrow and share your big idea.

4 WAYS TO IMPROVE THE ODDS OF MY REVIEWING YOUR BUSINESS BOOK:

No alt text provided for this image
  1. Stick to non-fiction. Please don’t write a business fable starring talking animals or an eclectic mix of characters who meet at a breakfast diner every Friday to soak up words of wisdom from an unassuming old-timer who’s secretly a billionaire ex-CEO. Mashing up business concepts with bedtime stories just creates something painfully unreadable.
  2. Been there. Done that. Wrote a book about it. Stick to writing about what you’ve actually done and give us an honest, unvarnished first person account. I’m starting to take a pass on books written by consultants, professional speakers and full-time authors who cherry-pick and string together stories we’ve all heard many times before, with a side of counterintuitive “who would’ve thought that?” research.
  3. Get yourself an editor and publisher. “Most self-published authors work in a vacuum and handle all aspects of the publishing process, from writing to editing, design, marketing, branding and sales,” says Tanya Hall. “It’s a rare person who can handle all of these areas with the professional quality expected by booksellers and readers.” Tanya’s being kind. I’ve yet to read a self-published book that didn’t need serious editing. And yes, we all judge a book by its cover so get yourself a graphic designer and pay accordingly. Cheap is expensive.
  4. Have just one big idea anchoring your book. Can you sum up your book in a single sentence?And format your book so the intro is the executive summary. The meat of the book fleshes out your big idea. And the last chapter sums everything up.

This review ran in the Aug. 17 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Revoiews are archived at jayrobb.me .

7 ways to be a more authentic leader (review of Executive Presence)

Looking for your organization’s next generation of great leaders?

They’re already working for you on the frontlines.

That homegrown talent has the potential to someday become your strongest leaders. That’s my hypothesis based on a quarter century of watching and working with senior executives at a hospital, steelmaker, college and university.

The best of the best – the ones who were the most connected, respected and effective – got their start delivering care at the bedside, working in the plant or teaching in classrooms.

They’d been with the same organization since day one or joined early in their careers. They didn’t have to convince anyone that they’d always harbored a passion for healthcare, manufacturing or education. And they didn’t have to fend off questions or suspicions about whether this was just a brief layover before their next move to a bigger paycheque at another organization.

These homegrown leaders stepped into senior positions with the advantage of already knowing the organization’s history, culture and values because they’d helped make it, define it and live it. They hadn’t just walked in the shoes of the people they were now leading; they’d worn out the heels of those same shoes.

They had built a loyal and large fan club while working their way up the leadership ranks. Promotions and appointments were met with more cheers than jeers because colleagues knew them to be genuine, decent and real people. After all, it’s all but impossible to be a jerk or sociopath for 20-plus years in the same organization without being called out and forced out.

exec presence (2)That authenticity is critical to your success as a leader, says Executive Presence author Harrison Monarth, who’s worked with more than 60 Fortune 500 CEOs and thousands of senior leaders over the past two decades. “For others to feel a connection and trust us, we must strive to be more authentic.”

You can’t fake it once you’ve made it. So if you’re looking to better connect with the people whose buy-in will ultimately decide whether you succeed or fail, Monarth has a seven-point authenticity checklist for aspiring and emerging leaders.

  1. “Have honest conversations with others about issues that matter to you deeply.” What keeps you awake at night? What gets you out of bed Monday morning?
  2. “Build real relationships and practice empathy by having honest and heartfelt conversations with others about issues that matter deeply to them.” We won’t care what you know until we know that you care about us.
  3. “Admit when you’re wrong and apologize when you should.” Passing the buck is not a good look for a leader nor is pretending everything’s coming up roses even while everything’s going off the rails.
  4. “Forgive others and move on for the sake of the relationship.” Be the grown-up in the room and stay on the high ground.
  5. “Ask for help and offer it to others who may be reluctant to ask.”
  6. “Take risks by showing your strengths – and weaknesses – in a public forum. Demonstrating vulnerability can prompt others to respect you.”
  7. “Show your unique sides to others and watch them become curious about you.”

Monarth has distilled his perspectives on executive presence into five categories with distinct and interdependent traits.

  1. Communication: mastering difficult conversations, engaging others, telling strategic stories, inspiring and persuading
  2. Competence: having intellect and expertise, delivering results, acting decisively
  3. Personal brand: having status and reputation, projecting calm under pressure, possessing a compelling physical appearance, projecting confidence, having interpersonal integrity
  4. Courage: holding people accountable, speaking truth to power
  5. Political savvy: networking and building alliances, managing up, generating buy-in and support

You can take Monarth’s free online Executive Presence Indicator self-assessment to identify how well you currently measure up on the five categories and where there’s room for improvement.

“Executive presence isn’t simply one characteristic that you’re either blessed with or lack in spades,” says Monarth. “It’s rather a mix of mindset, skills, and behaviors that you can learn, acquire and hone and then wield to boost your impact beyond any formal authority you may have.”

Monarth has revised and updated his book and added new chapters. He offers science-backed strategies and proven techniques to help you influence how you’re perceived by others. This is a book worth giving to anyone on the frontlines of your organization who’s showing early flashes of leadership potential.

Authentic product

This review first ran in the Aug. 3 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for the Faculty of Science at McMaster University, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

Don’t follow your passion and know when to call it quits (book review)

The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love and Meaning

By Scott Galloway

Penguin Random House

$28

This review first ran in the July 20 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

algebraA special public service announcement for all freshly minted grads who were told during their convocation ceremonies to pursue their passion and never quit.

It’s lousy advice that may not lead you to a life well lived, warns Scott Galloway.

“People who speak at universities, especially at commencement, who tell you to follow your passion – or my favourite, to ‘never give up’ – are already rich,” says Galloway, a professor at New York University’s business school and author of The Algebra of Happiness.

“And most got there by starting waste treatment plants after failing at five other ventures – that is, they knew when to give up.”

Instead of pursuing your passion, figure out what you’re good at and then spend years getting better at it, whether that’s building treatment plants, practicing tax law or installing kitchen cabinets.

“The emotional and economic rewards that accompany being great at something will make you passionate about whatever that something is.”

Scott also has a reality check for 20-somethings who intend to maintain perfect work-life balance while stepping onto the bottom rung on the ladder of success.

That balance comes at a cost, says Galloway. “If balance is your priority in your youth, then you need to accept that, unless you are a genius, you may not reach the upper rungs of economic security.

“The slope of the trajectory of your career is (unfairly) set in the first five years post-graduation. If you want the trajectory to be steep, you’ll need to burn a lot of fuel. The world is not yours for the taking, but for the trying. Try hard, really hard.”

To maintain a steep trajectory, you need to get the easy stuff right. For Galloway, that means showing up early, having good manners and always following up.

Galloway also has advice for those of us in the back half of our careers. “The number one piece of advice seniors would give to their younger selves is that they wish they’d been less hard on themselves. Your limited time here mandates that you hold yourself accountable. But also be ready to forgive yourself so you can get on with the important business of life.”

And our most important decision is not what credential to earn, what career to pursue or what investments to make but deciding who to spend our life with. Choose wisely, says Galloway.

“Who you marry is meaningful; who you have kids with is profound. Raising kids with someone who is kind and competent and who you enjoy being with is a series of joyous moments smothered in comfort and reward.

“Raising kids with someone you don’t like, or who isn’t competent, is moments of joy smothered in anxiety and disappointment. Sharing your life with someone who’s unstable or has contempt for you is never being able to catch your breath long enough to relax and enjoy your blessings.”

Galloway’s book expands on the final and most popular lecture in his brand strategy course. So, if like Galloway’s students, you’re wrestling with life strategies around what career to choose and how to set yourself up for success, reconcile ambition with personal growth and live without regrets, you’ll find some proven formulas in the Algebra of Happiness.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

Get on the bus when a mandate driven leader’s behind the wheel (review)

Who do you want driving your organization?

A leader who won’t start boarding the bus until everyone’s had their say on where to go and reached consensus on what route to take?

Or a leader who’s already behind the wheel, revving the engine, telling everyone to buckle up and vowing to toss anyone who tries to slow, stop or steer the bus in a different direction?

Hitch your career to the second leader. It won’t be an easy or smooth ride. But there’s no guarantee the first leader will ever pull the bus away from the curb or go take your organization anywhere other than mediocrity or into a ditch.

“While consensus-based decision making is very popular and does tend to make people feel good, it is not necessarily the best approach,” says Scott Stawski, a senior executive with DXC Technology and author of The Power of Mandate.

“Too many senior leaders practice consensus management in a business environment that demands a different approach. Companies using harmony of decision making can be on a fast track to failure for the simple reason that consensus is not necessarily about what is best for the company. Nor is it about establishing and moving toward a vision that lifts everyone’s performance. It is about finding the outcome that is least objectionable to everyone involved. Comfortable organizations rarely change the world.”

Scott Stawski's The Power of Mandate

Mandate driven leadership can be your organization’s best strategy for world-changing disruption and strongest defense against feel-good group think.

Mandate driven leaders do a masterful job of continually communicating a clear and compelling vision for a better future. You may not agree with that vision but at least you’ll know what it is so you can make an informed decision about whether to get on or off the bus.

Mandate driven leaders drive to the outcome instead of following established processes. “The outcome is survival and mandate driven leaders often break what many believe to be the established rules of business processes to get there. The ride may be bumpy but if you are on the bus the destination is phenomenal.”

Mandate driven leaders also possess an unrelenting focus and determination to reach their ultimate destination. They won’t take no for an answer. They don’t accept excuses and they hold everyone accountable and to a higher standard of performance. Under their watch, organizations stand a far better chance of not only surviving but thriving.

Mandate driven leaders don’t care if you agree with them or like them. They’re not out to win popularity contests. They also know that crowds aren’t always wise.

“We need leaders who can push organizations in directions they may not want to go, in part because they don’t realize they need to,” says Stawski.

“These leaders have a vision, and they command the organization to take a certain course of action to achieve that vision. These visionary leaders have a belief, idea, strategy or tactic that is so compelling that they do not accept no for an answer. Through mandate, they drive the vision from concept to implementation. Through this leadership willpower, organizations are propelled toward the vision.”

So how do you become a mandate driven leader? Take responsibility for your continual leadership development, says Stawski. Establish a network of formal and informal mentors and start reading everything you can find about leadership and what’s on the horizon for your organization and industry.

“I’ve known and studied quite a few leaders over the course of my career and the single most common denominator seems to be a voracious thirst for knowledge. Not just about leadership per say, but about any and every topic that they could apply to the teams they are trying to lead.”

Despite profiling only billionaire white guys from the world of tech, Stawski makes a strong case for why we should hand the keys over to mandate driven leaders and rethink the reflexive need for consensus management.

This review first ran in the July 6 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

What’s the worst that can happen? Imagine it & have a Plan B, C, D & E (review)

frankWhat To Do When Things Go Wrong

By Frank Supovitz

McGraw Hill

$34.78

This review first ran in the June 22 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

There are 80,000 souls in the stands.

More than a billion people are watching worldwide.

You’re doing a media interview.

And suddenly the lights go out.

This was the crisis facing Frank Supovitz just over a minute into the second half of the 2013 Superbowl in New Orleans. Supovitz was the senior vice president of events for the National Football League and ringleader of the planet’s biggest sporting event.

“It was not a time for guesswork,” says Armen Keteyian who was interviewing Supovitz for 60 Minutes Sports when the partial power failure hit. “What our crew witnessed (and captured on video) was a cool, collected leader assessing information. As the delay stretched into what would become 34 of the most surreal minutes in NFL history, Frank made one clear-eyed decision after another.”

Supovitz, an award-winning event producer, applied five principles during the “Blackout Bowl” that he’s outlined in his book What To Do When Things Go Wrong.

“I guarantee that if nothing has gone seriously wrong for you at least once so far, something is going to go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong sometime, somewhere and somehow despite your very best intentions, your painstaking and expert planning, and your unfailingly optimistic worldview,” says Supovitz.

“And when you get past the first thing that goes terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong, guess what? There’s another crisis coming, and when it arrives things will look dark all over again, and very possibly worse. And I’m an optimist.”

Here’s how Supovitz mitigated risk and expertly managed crises during his 30-plus years leading major sports and entertainment events.

blackout bowl1.     Imagine how your event or project will play out in a perfect world and then picture everything that can go wrong. “Apply a dark and fertile imagination to visualize as many potential threats to our success as possible. Then we can spend the time, money and energy to keep all those monsters securely under the bed.”

2.     Prepare by building solutions to potential crises into your work plan. Hope is not a strategy, says Supovitz. Instead, you need a plan b, c and d. “Effective project leaders invest time and talent developing contingency plans that they truly hope, like an insurance policy, will turn out to be a colossal waste of time. But, having these plans can prove invaluable if something goes wrong and you need to work quickly to activate one or more of the plans.”

3.     Execute your plan and stay vigilant for all contingencies.

4.     Respond effectively when things go off the rails. “Try to resist the temptation to act too quickly, without regard to how your response may affect the outcome in other areas. That doesn’t mean don’t act fact. Just act fast enough to keep things from getting worse, but not so fast you end up making things worse.”

5.     Evaluate what happened and how you responded. Postmortems are key, as Supovitz points out that we learn more from things that go wrong than from those that go right. Of course, it’s always preferable to learn from the mistakes of others.

So when things go terribly, horribly and spectacularly wrong with your next project or event, remember Frank Supovitz and the 2013 Superbowl. Together with a quick-thinking team of well-prepared professionals, Supovitz kept calm, carried on and saved the Superbowl from a premature end.

No one was injured when the Superdome went dark. Play resumed after a 34-minute delay. Oreo put out a dunk in the dark tweet that ranks among the all-time great real-time marketing moves and cost nowhere near a Superbowl ad. And the NFL set a Superbowl record for concession stand beer sales during the blackout.

Jay Robb serves as manager of communications for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Reviews are archived at jayrobb.me.

How to speak with more confidence and less fear (review)

public speakingThis review first ran in the June 15th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Your Guide to Public Speaking: Build Your Confidence, Find Your Voice and Inspire Your Audience

By Amanda Hennessey

Adams Media

$21.99

You have five minutes to prepare an impromptu talk on a topic you’ve just been assigned.

You’ll then give your talk without notes, a script or PowerPoint slides.

Welcome to the Christopher Leadership Course in Effective Speaking.

I wandered way outside my comfort zone to wrestle with my fear of public speaking. If this been our first assignment, I would’ve bolted for the door or sweated it out and seized up when I took the floor.

But this was week six and we’d received great coaching and votes of confidence from our volunteer instructors. We had a fool-proof four-step formula to structure our talks*. And we’d put in our reps thanks to lots of solo and group warm-ups and practice presentations.

You won’t find my impromptu talk in the annals of the world’s greatest speeches. But I survived and inflicted minimal pain and suffering on my classmates.

And then I was blown away. I was voluntold to go first so I heard everyone’s impromptu talk. I’ve worked with many senior leaders over the years. I can count on one hand the number of executives who could speak with the same authenticity, confidence and enthusiasm as my classmates. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it goes a long way in making us much more effective speakers.

Not enough of us get that opportunity, says Amanda Hennessey, founder of Boston Public Speaking and author of Your Guide to Public Speaking.

“No matter what you are asked to present or who’s asking you to speak, you want to be able to engage the task with confidence and enthusiasm,” says Hennessey. “If you’ve never received any kind of training on how to approach public speaking or how to dynamically share your message with an audience, you’re not alone.”

Public speaking is about conveying your thoughts to a group. “If the phrase public speaking freaks you out, then substitute the phrases sharing ideas or having a conversation or think of it like talking with people – authentically, from the heart, soul and brain – for a specific purpose.”

While you’re the one at the front of the room, it’s not actually about you. You aren’t the star of the show. It’s all about your audience. What’s at stake for them? What do they have to gain or lose based on what you have to say? Serving your audience, rather than receiving their praise and admiration, should be your sole focus. It’s the best way to keep your fear and anxiety in check, says Hennessey.

“When you step back and think deeply about why you are speaking to a group about a particular topic, you will be less stressed if you do not make it all about you, your status, your image, and your reputation. If you get fired up about the impact you can make, your passion will be your fuel.

“Rather than trying to get something from your audience, be concerned with creating a compelling experience for them. After all, you are there to give a talk or presentation, not to get one. Be generous as you give.”

To give a great and generous talk, think about who it’s for and why you’re giving it. Define the problem and the solution for your audience and figure out how best to explain both using stories, examples, ideas, facts and figures. And then decide what you want your audience to do. What’s your call to action?

Hennessey offers confidence-building tools to make you a more effective speaker. You’ll learn what to do with your hands, how to stand, breath, strip out vocal tics, prepare and rehearse and a whole lot more.

If you’re like the majority of us who’d rather receive than give a eulogy, read Hennessey’s book and then face your fears by registering for the Christopher Leadership Course in Effective Speaking. You’ll be in good hands and practicing before the most supportive audience you’ll ever get to talk with.

Here’s a four-step fool-proof structure for your next presentation:

  1. Lead off with an attention-grabbing opening statement.
  2. State the point of your talk and deliver your main message.
  3. Provide 3-4 examples and proof points that reinforce your main message.
  4. Close by reiterating your main message and leaving the audience with a call to action.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. 

The Great Dying – the business case for addressing climate change now (review of The Uninhabitable Earth)

uninhabitable earthThis review first ran in the June 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

By David Wallace-Wells

Tim Duggan Books

$36

If we’re slapping carbon tax stickers on gas pumps, let’s also put posters up in daycare centres and kindergarten classrooms.

We can use the posters to start apologizing in advance for saddling our kids and grandkids with the unholy mess of an increasingly uninhabitable home.

Sure, some of our kids may become the Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of the green economy. They’ll make a fortune scrubbing carbon from the skies, geoengineering oceans and moving whole coastal cities to higher and drier ground.

But whatever money they make, it won’t be nearly enough.

It’s estimated that 3.7 degrees of global warming will trigger more than $550 trillion in environmental damages. To put that repair and relocation bill in perspective, we currently have $280 trillion in worldwide wealth.

During the Great Recession, global gross domestic product fell two per cent. During the Great Depression, GDP dropped 15 per cent. By the close of the 21st century, economists warn that climate change could cut GDP anywhere from 20 to 50 per cent.

“We have gotten used to setbacks on our erratic march along the arc of economic history but we know them as setbacks and expect elastic recoveries,” says David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, national fellow at the New America foundation and columnist with New York magazine. “What climate change has in store is not that kind of thing – not a Great Recession or a Great Depression, but in economic terms, a Great Dying.

“The global halving of economic resources would be permanent. We would soon not even know it as deprivation, only as a brutally cruel normal against which we might measure tiny burps of decimal-point growth as the breath of a new prosperity.”

earth

Maybe you think we’ll ride out the storm because we’re far from a coast and nowhere near the equator. Our part of the world will be wetter but not underwater, scorching hot or uninhabitable. Yet the United Nations is conservatively projecting 200 million climate refugees by 2050. The actual number could be considerably higher, at over a billion vulnerable poor people with only two choices – fight or flee. Will we open our borders or build higher and thicker walls?

Future generations need today’s business leaders to lean hard on politicians and start doing it now. Wallace-Wells says we can stall disaster by introducing carbon and gas taxes, aggressively phasing out dirty energy and ending subsidies for fossil fuels, revolutionizing agricultural practices, shifting away from beef and dairy and making major public investments in green energy and carbon capture.

“Now we all share the responsibility to write the next act. We found a way to engineer devastation, and we can find a way to engineer our way out of it – or, rather, engineer our way toward a degraded muddle, but one that nevertheless extends forward the promise of new generations finding their own way forward, perhaps toward some brighter environmental future.”

Wallace-Wells opens his book by telling us “it is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all.”

He makes a convincing argument that we’re grossly underestimating the cascade of compounding ecological catastrophes headed our way and wildly overestimating our capacity to come up with innovative solutions that’ll sustain business as usual in a hothouse Earth.

While we talk about saving the planet, Earth will continue spinning around the sun. Whether we’re along for the ride is an open question.

“If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will because we have chosen that punishment – collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.”

And it’s worth remembering we’re choosing that path on behalf of our kids, their children and grandchildren.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

7 questions that’ll make you a better coach & leader (review of The Coaching Habit)

This review first ran in the May 18th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

coaching haibtThe Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

By Michael Bungay Stanier

Box of Crayons Press

$16.95

I’m a good advisor but a pretty lousy coach.

Confusing these roles is how I get myself into trouble and annoy the people I try to help.

It’s an occupational hazard. After working in public relations for 25 years, I’m very much in what author Michael Bungy Stainer calls the advice-giver / expert / answer-it / solve-it / fix-it mode.

This mode doesn’t translate well to coaching.

It’s why I give answers to questions you haven’t asked and have solutions to what you don’t see as a problem. I’ll preemptively offer to save the day even when you have the situation well in hand.

To become a better coach, I need to talk less and listen more. Instead of having answers and offering up unsolicited advice, I need to start asking smarter questions.

Bungay Stainer, the founder and CEO of a company known for teaching 10-minute coaching to leaders, knows what questions effective coaches should ask.

“The seemingly simple behavior change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult,” says Bungay Stainer. “You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it. You’re seen to be ‘adding value’ and you’ve the added bonus of staying in control of the situation.

“On the other hand, when you’re asking questions, you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. That’s called ‘empowering’).”

Bungay Stainer says the essence of coaching is helping others and unlocking their potential. It’s also the key to avoiding overdependence.  When you train people to become excessively reliant on you for answers, you disempower them and frustrate yourself. You become swamped with work, turning yourself into a bottleneck while everyone around you loses momentum and motivation.

“The more you help your people, the more they seem to need your help. The more they need your help, the more time you spend helping them.”

So instead of having all the answers, stick to asking one or more of the following seven questions:

What’s on your mind? Bungay Stainer calls this the kickstart question. It’s an almost fail-safe way to start any conversation with someone who’s asking for help. “It’s a question that says let’s talk about the thing that matters most.”

And what else? This is the AWE question and it’s the quickest and easiest way to uncover and create new possibilities. “With seemingly no effort, it creates more – more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities – out of thin air.”

What’s the real challenge here for you? Asking the focus question will save you from wasting too much time and effort solving the wrong problem. “When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual question.”

What do you want? This is foundation question. “Recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might best address the want.”

How can I help? This is the lazy question which forces your colleague to make a direct and clear request and prevents you from immediately leaping into action.

If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to? This is the strategic question. It’s been said that the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. “A ‘yes’ is nothing without the ‘no’ that gives it boundaries and form.”

What was most useful for you? This learning question should close out your conversations. “Not only do you help people to see and then embed the learning from the conversation, but by your finishing on a ‘this was useful’ note, people are going to remember the experience more favourably than they otherwise might.”

With each of his seven questions, Bungay Stainer also offers a master class in how to make effective coaching a habit. His book is a great resource for those of us looking to switch off our advisor mode, quit playing the all-knowing sage and superhero and do a far better job of helping the people around us find the answers to their questions and realize their full potential.

adice

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

 

 

Don’t ignore your job’s expiration date (Review of Whitney Johnson’s Build an ‘A’ Team

a teamThis review first ran in the April 20th edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Build An “A” Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve

By Whitney JohnsonWhitney Johnson

Harvard Business Review Press

$36.50

Every job has an expiration date.

We ignore it at our peril. Yes, the living is easy once we’ve scaled our learning curves and we’ve settled into our comfort zone.

We’re fully competent but at risk of becoming bored out of our minds and completely disengaged.

We can convince ourselves that mailing it in and coasting to retirement is doable. But the people we work with and for aren’t so easily fooled.

So if you’re wondering whether a change would do you good, the answer is an empathetic yes (and I speak from experience).

We need to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us.

According to Whitney Johnson, a CEO advisor and author of Build An ‘A’ Team, we should start looking for a new challenge around the four-year mark in our jobs.

For the first six months in a new role, we’re learning the ropes. It can be a steep, frustrating, exhausting and disorienting climb.

But then we hit a tipping point around the six-month mark. We reach peak productivity in what Johnson calls the sweet spot middle.

After four years in most jobs, we’ve reached the peak of our learning curves. We’ve mastered pretty much every task. We’re competent and confident. We can work on autopilot.

As a leader, it’s tempting to ignore expiration dates with highly skilled and experienced veterans who are well into their mastery phase. They require minimal adult supervision and there are few if any surprises.

You may also prefer to hire only new recruits who’ve already done whatever job you need doing and who’ll bring years or decades of experience to your team.

But your high performers will eventually turn into bored and restless low performers.  Some will be self-aware enough to pull themselves out of their comfort zones and look for new challenges.

“Nearly every human being is on the lookout for growth opportunities. If a person can’t grow with a company, they will grow away from it.”

Losing institutional memory when a veteran employee leaves an organization hurts. This is why it’s critical for managers to preemptively offer up new challenges or move high performers into new roles and onto new teams, where there’ll be new responsibilities and new learning curves.

Johnson says the most productive and innovative teams have an optimal mix of employees, with 15 per cent starting out on their learning curves, 70 per cent in the sweet spot middle and the remaining 15 per cent in the mastery phase and willing to take on a mentorship role.

“One of the most powerful ways that managers can foster innovation in their teams and engagement in their people is to keep them moving to new learning curves before they get bored,” says Johnson.

She recommends a three-step process for leaders who need a new game plan for anyone at the top of their learning curve. Applaud their achievements. Identify a new learning curve. And then deliver on helping them make a successful jump.

“Taking charge around the who, what, when, where and how of these leaps is critical. Should your people proactively lobby for a jump to a new curve when they reach the top? Yes. But remember, it’s a lot harder for them to come to you and say ‘I’m at the top of my curve, I need to try something new’ than you think it is. The boss holds most of the cards in this situation, and an employee may feel that asking to jump is tantamount to asking for a push into unemployment.”

As a leader, you hold the power and have a choice to make. “Is the top of the curve a place where people decide to leave because they know there’s nothing more? Is it a spot where they outlive their usefulness and become organizational deadweight? Or, is it the launching pad for even greater effectiveness?”

Don’t put off having conversations about what’s next for team members who’ve maxed out on their current learning curves. Pretending there isn’t an expiration date with their jobs is a failure of leadership. They’ll either start mailing it in or start sending out resumes.

“You can leave them in place and watch them suffer a gradual, even precipitous decline in productivity; you can watch them abruptly depart for a warmer professional climate. Or you can find a new learning curve for them to climb.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

Your meeting needs a bouncer and an unchill host (review of Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering)

priya parkerThis review first ran in the March 23 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

By Priya Parker

Riverhead Books

$37

We’re gathered here today for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

We’re in the dark because our host organized the event on autopilot, leaning hard on convention.

So while it’s neither meaningful or memorable, at least the event’s a familiar routine. And if we’re lucky, it’ll start on time and end ahead of schedule so we can get an early jump on heading home or back to work.

We shouldn’t be settling for just an efficient and uneventful event. Priya Parker shows what we’re missing and what we should aspire to whenever we bring people together, whether it’s an all-staff retreat, town hall, workshop, conference, fundraising dinner or awards night.

“The way we gather matters,” says Parker, author of The Art of Gathering and founder of Thrive Lab with a background in organizational design. “Gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world.

“Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in, in both our intimate and public realms. And we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another.”

The solution for fixing forgettable events starts by deciding why we want to bring people together, what we hope to achieve, who should be there, when it should happen and where. The bolder and sharper our purpose for an event, the better.

“When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative.”

So aim for specificity and uniqueness. Disputable is the other hallmark of a great event. A disputable purpose is a filter that forces you to make hard choices and decisions rather than compromises.

Think of purpose as the bouncer who decides what’s in and what’s out with your event. If you can’t find a purpose, don’t bring people together. Give them the gift of time instead.

If your event’s a go with a clear purpose, don’t be a chill host. “Chill is selfishness disguised as kindness,” says Parker. “Chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings.”

Resist the urge to be noninvasive, relaxed and low-key. When you leave your guests alone, you leave them alone to one another to recreate The Lord of the Flies in a conference room or banquet hall. They’ll be confused, anxious and at the mercy of someone who’ll fill the void in a way that could prove inconsistent with your event’s purpose or your values. What your guests wind up with may not be what they signed on for.

“If you are going to gather, gather. If you are going to host, host. If you are going to create a kingdom for an hour or day, rule it – and rule it with generosity.”

Generous authority means protecting, equalizing and connecting your guests. “One measure of a successful gathering is that it starts off with a higher number of host-guest connections than guest-guest connections and ends with those tallies reversed, far in the guest-guest favour.”

Parker also advocates creating a custom constitution and pop-up rules for your event. “Etiquette allows people to gather because they are the same. Pop-up rules allow people to gather because they are different – yet open to having the same experience.”

And work hard on having a stellar opening and close to your event. Avoid the mundane housekeeping chores and sponsor shout-outs that mark the start of far too many gatherings. We can figure out where the bathrooms are and we know to tell our server about any dietary restrictions. “However vital it may seem to start with this housekeeping, you are missing an opportunity to sear your gathering’s purpose into the minds of your guests.”

The same holds true for the end of your event. Remind your audience what they experienced together and what they can take with them back into their jobs, families and community.  “Too many of our gatherings don’t end. They simply stop.  A strong closing has two phases corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward.”

Everyone who plans, organizes and scripts events should read Parker’s guidebook. Along with practical advice are examples of meaningful and memorable events that foster a genuine sense of belonging.  Wow us at your next event and we’ll happily sign on for more.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.