Play to your strengths

When someone feels compelled to tell you about Areas In Which Improvement Is Needed, smile, say thanks and then forget about it.

Stick to playing to your strengths and what you do best. Here’s why:

  • You likely do it better than pretty much everyone else in your organization.
  • Your reputation will be built on what you do best.
  • What you do best is likely what you enjoy most. And you’ll be at low risk of burning out.

Focus on trying to shore up your weaknesses and:

  • You won’t have nearly as much fun and you’ll wind up feeling depleted rather than recharged.
  • Folks will compare you to others who do it better.
  • At best, you’ll go from bad to mediocre. Far better to invest your time in going from great to spectacular.

If your organization can’t find a way to leverage your strengths, chances are someone else can. And your reputation will precede you.

Book review: 30 reasons to hate your boss

30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers: What Your People May Be Thinking And What You Can Do About It

By Bruce Katcher

Amacom, $27.95

Let me guess.

You’re thinking why only 30 reasons? Did the author run out of time or pages in his book? Is he holding back for a sequel?

Why, you could rattle off at least 100 reasons to hate your boss without pausing for a breath. In a typical work week, your fearsome leader hits the 30 reason mark by around 10 a.m. on Monday.

Everyone has their horror stories about bosses behaving badly. The ones who are selective or indiscriminate in their lack of respect and social graces. The managers who’ve perfected the shameless art of kissing up and kicking down. Who believe all the world’s a stage and they’re playing the lead role. Who can’t understand why they’re the only ones working at 11:30 p.m. on Canada Day. Who think that if you have nothing nice to say you should definitely say it at staff meetings, in memos and e-mails with blind carbon copies to mystery audiences within the senior leadership ranks.

They leave us wishing that rogue scientists would stop cloning sheep and start replicating the DNA of bosses who do good and get it right. And if some of the experiments went awry and created half-baked clones, would we really be any worse off than we are today?

Author and organizational psychologist Bruce Katcher feels your pain.

He runs a consulting firm that’s done staff satisfaction and engagement surveys since 1993. And the results aren’t pretty.

"More than 50,000 employees can’t be wrong," says Katcher. "Employees hate management. Hate is a strong word but in this case it’s appropriate.

"Katcher research has found that 46 per cent of employees believe management treats them with disrespect, 63 per cent say that decisions in their company are usually not made at the appropriate level, 52 per cent do not feel free to voice their opinions openly, 43 per cent say their good work goes unrecognized and 53 per cent say their boss doesn’t personally motivate them. There’s a whack more facts and stats but you get the general idea.

So why are good supervisors so hard to find? Katcher gives six reasons.

  1. Difficulty of supervision. Motivating employees and solving job and people-related problems isn’t easy.
  2. The Peter Principle. Some organizations promote folks who are good at managing things and not so good at leading people.
  3. Poor hiring practices. In our age of specialization, employers are hiring for technical skills and not leadership potential.
  4. Lack of recognition for good supervision.
  5. Lack of training because professional development is considered an expense instead of an investment.
  6. Lack of good role models. It’s worth remembering that every boss has a boss too.

"Does management care? Are they listening to the cries of employees? In most cases, the answer is ‘no,’ and that’s self-defeating," says Katcher.

Here’s why it’s a bad idea to do nothing. Folks don’t quit companies. They quit working for lousy bosses. Some walk out the door. Others keep showing up and going through the motions, hoping their lacklustre performance goes unnoticed. On the other hand, employees will forgo more pay, perks and promotions to work alongside great leaders. And they’ll freely and enthusiastically give discretionary effort.

As the war for talent heats up, organizations need to smarten up.

Investing in leadership development is far cheaper than continually replacing high performers and dealing with the diminishing productivity of demoralized teams. And then your organization can come up with the ultimate recruitment tool by writing the book on 30 reasons why employees love their mangers.

Jay Robb, a Hamilton freelance writer, can be reached at jayrobb.typepad.com

Ti(RED) of Bono

Bono’s the guest editor in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Whole mag is focused on Africa.

The U2 frontman says that an African mother doesn’t care if the drugs keeping her child alive are thanks to an iPod or a church plate.

So when will these drugs be bought and paid for with royalty cheques from U2’s greatest hits?

As a self-professed student and fan of the United States, Bono should read up on Irving Berlin. Back in 1940, Berlin established the God Bless America Foundation and dedicated all royalties from his song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.

So how about it Bono? I’m thinking that Pride: In the Name of Love Foundation for Africa sounds pretty damn good.

Kids in Africa don’t need more celebrity photo-ops, special editions of Vanity Fair or marketing campaigns hawking cellphones, MP3 players and t-shirts. They need cold hard cash and lots of it. The kind of cash that three or four U2 songs could generate month after month after month — a perpetual ATM for Africa.

Good days. Bad days.

Great article in the May edition of Harvard Business Review.

"Inner work life: understanding the subtext of business performance" by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

What makes for a great day or a lousy day at the office? "We found that the single most important differentiator was a sense of being able to make progess in their work," the authors say about the employees they studied in their research project. "Achieving a goal, accomplishing a task, or solving a problem often evoked great pleasure and sometimes elation. Even making good progress toward such goals could elicit the same reaction."

Not surprisingly, managers contribute to good days when they enable progress and manage with a human touch. Say thanks. Celebrate a job well done. Remind employees that the organization is lucky ot have them.

"Far and away, the best boosts to inner work life were episodes in which people knew they had done good work and managers appropriately recognized that work."

Marching to your own drummer

Great article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail Careers section on mavericks at work.

"Organizations love them and hire them because they are self-starting, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, productive and passionate. Organizations also hate them and fire them because they get restless or don’t toe the line."

Sound familiar?

Career mavericks are typically rule-breakers, free spirits and are only happy doing work that interests them or fits with their personal goals. Job descriptions are a starting point. And when the work no longer fits, mavericks are quick to move on to new opportunities.

Key piece of advice — don’t lose sleep over HR types who will look at your resume and see someone who can’t hold a job. Do what excites you and the opportunities will always be there.

Motivation is a DIY

I’m in the persuasion / engagement business and I hear this over and over again.

We need to get people motivated. Fired up. On side and on board. Rowing in the same direction. Singing from the same song sheet.

Well, you can’t motivate other people. Not going to happen. Not with carrots. Not with sticks. Forget rational arguments or emotional appeals.

Folks motivate themselves to start, stop or continue doing whatever you need done. Create the right conditions and people will pursue what’s in their own best interests. Which hopefully is also in your best interests. Shared interests.

Same holds true with communications. People just aren’t getting it, you say. The message isn’t getting through. We need to turn up the volume.

Well, odds are good that folks are getting the message. Maybe they just don’t like what you’re saying. And maybe you’re not listening.

Book review: Fun at Work

Fun Works. Creating Places Where People Love to Work

By Leslie Yerkes

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc

$23.95

A stranger stops me in the frozen food aisle.

"You know who you look like," says the stranger. "That golfer Phil Mickelson."

I hear that a lot. And some folks ask if I’m really Phil, apparently taking a break from the PGA Tour to buy milk and diapers in Hamilton. Yes, I’ve been tempted to play along. Have my photo taken. Sign autographs. Ink endorsement deals and maybe talk my way into a free lunch. But that would be illegal and get me in trouble with the real Phil and his legal team.

Other times, I’m stopped and told I look like the guy who writes book reviews for the newspaper. That’s me, I say. So far no one’s been interested in photos, autographs, endorsement deals or comped lunches. Although I can always count on meeting that stranger who’s just self-published a business book featuring an eclectic cast of fictional characters who meet at a coffee shop and discover the 12 secrets of power selling courtesy of a wise old waitress who has a hugely successful direct mail business on the side.

The first question I get asked is always, "So how can you read all those books?" Which is a polite way of asking, how could anyone in their right mind read so many boring books week after week and year after year? Do you have a life?

The short answer? Because it’s fun. Reading and reviewing business books is a great gig. You get a mountain of free books, a steady diet of big ideas and a cool way to prevent the creative juices from congealing like day-old KFC gravy. Not once has reviewing books seemed remotely like work. And not once have I complained, which to my patient and long-suffering wife qualifies as a miracle equal to seeing the image of the Virgin Mary on a burnt piece of toast. While I’ve had very good jobs the past eight years, nothing’s yet compared to the fun of reviewing business books.

So how much fun are you having with your work? Life is short and most of us spend it at the office. You owe it to yourself and your family to have a good time, says author and consultant Leslie Yerkes. Somehow we’ve managed to pry apart work and fun. If we’re lucky, we get to sit through the decidedly fun-free nanosecond of celebration routine at management and all-staff meetings.

Which is too bad because fusing work and fun has proven bottom-line benefits. "When fun is integrated with work instead of segmented from work, the resultant fusion creates energy, it cements relationships between co-workers and between workers and the company," says Yerkes. "When fun is integrated into work, it fosters creativity and results in improved performance."

Yerkes has come up with 11 principles for achieving that elusive fun/work fusion.

* Give your staff permission to perform by following guidelines rather than consulting the hierarchy before taking any action.

* Challenge your Type A biases, especially the "when the work gets done is when we’ll have some fun" belief.

* Capitalize on the spontaneous because fun doesn’t happen on schedule, by management decree or committee.

* Switch from a task orientation that’s all about control to a process orientation that’s built on trust.

* Value a diversity of fun styles and realize that not everyone is going to laugh at your jokes.

* Expand the boundaries to let in more fun.

* Be authentic.

* Be choiceful and give yourself permission to be your full fun self.

* Hire good people and then get out of the way.

* Embrace expansive thinking and risk-taking.

* And finally, celebrate. Nothing is more fun than celebrating a success or shared win and nothing spins off more energy.

To back up her principles, Yerkes profiles profitable and growing businesses that integrate fun into their day-to-day operations. You’ll find yourself wanting to work at each and every company or at least do business with them.

"No longer is success determined simply by our ability to be smart and strategic," says Yerkes. "We need to create environments which resonate with the workforce, places that are fun to work, situations that fuel deep relationships. To me, the answer is simple: fun works. And it works over and over again."

Jay Robb, a Hamilton freelance writer who’s now having fun blogging, can be reached at jayrobb.typepad.com.

Disney’s MVPs

I was comparing notes with a colleague on our family vacations to the Magic Kingdom (two thumbs up). We then started talking about the Disney Institute. At one of Institute’s stop-overs in Toronto, a Disney HR type asked the crowd to guess who was Disney’s most important employee.

The brave souls who played Mickey and Minney got most of the votes.

The company’s MVPs are actually the cleaning staff. Not only do they keep the parks litter free (try finding a wad of gum on any road or sidewalk). Cleaning staff help visitors find their way and answer endless questions. And they’re Disney’s eyes and ears on the frontlines. So the company invests heavily in training and does a good job treating their cleaning staff with respect.

How valued are the cleaning staff in your organization? Chances are, they were outsourced years ago and they’re pretty much invisible. Yet these are the folks who may well have the greatest impact on  face-to-face customer service.

So the next time you’re walking down the hall, don’t ignore them. Stop and say thanks for being an MVP.

Kicking the tires

Got the chance to be on a six-member selection committee last week.

We interviewed six candidates in four-a-half hours. 10-minute presentations and a lightning round of Q and As.

Great learning experience. Biggest lesson learned?  If you’ve landed on the shortlist for interviews, your prospective future employer is really doing one thing and one thing only. They’re testing for fit.

Can they see you fitting in? With the organization? With your team? With the folks you’d work with and report to? Will you be a no-risk, low-maintenance hire? Will the organizaton be a better place with you as an employee?

So, along with getting all the background info on the organization and the folks you’d be reporting to (God bless Google), get a handle on the organization’s culture and values. And make sure there’s a genuine match between you and Those Who Could Sign Your Paycheque.

You might be able to fake a good fit in the interview (yes, I’m very much a details-oriented, analytical process person). It’ll be tough to sustain for a month, much less a couple of years.

Book review: Make that speech brief, and give it passion

Public speaking is one of those skills that can make or break a career — so keep it simple

The Elements of Great Public Speaking. How to be Calm, Confident and Compelling

By J. Lyman MacInnis

Ten Speed Press, $14.95

I wrote the worst speech I ever heard.

I penned the remarks for the incoming president of a provincial association. The president was giving his inaugural address to 500 well-fed and watered members at the association’s annual general meeting.

The speech itself wasn’t too badly written. It was about what you’d expect from a freshly minted university grad eager to impress with his first stab at speech writing.

The disaster came in the delivery. The president butchered the first and last sentences and everything in between. He skipped over verbs. Forgot nouns. Combined sentences in creative ways. Ignored entire paragraphs. Made up new words. And may well have spoken in tongues once all hope of salvaging the speech was lost.

It wasn’t long before the banquet hall was buzzing and everyone was staring intently at their desserts. Some folks wondered if their fearless leader was potted and sotted. Others were genuinely concerned about a stroke or brain aneurysm. In hindsight, it’s possible the president was dyslexic or functionally illiterate. Or maybe he just had a crippling case of stage fright. Whatever the reason, five minutes of floundering was not the first impression the president wanted to make. Which was too bad because he was actually a stand-up guy who was engaging and reasonably coherent one-on-one.

Public speaking is one of those skills that can help, hurt or haunt your career. "Communicate well and do well," says Toronto Star columnist and public speaker J. Lyman MacInnis. "Communicate best and flourish."

Anyone who’s watched American Idol knows Paula, Randy and Simon go on and on and on about the importance of song selection. The same holds true with effective public speaking. It’s all about picking the right topic. About a century ago, Dale Carnegie set out three criteria for successful speaking engagements. Have significant knowledge about the topic. Sincerely care. And have a strong desire to share that knowledge and passion with your audience.

"Think back to every really effective speech you’ve ever heard and you’ll discover that all the speakers knew their topics inside out, they all felt strongly about what they were talking about, and they all clearly wanted to get their messages across," says MacInnis.

"If you meet all three of the formula’s criteria, success is guaranteed."

Still overcome with fear and trepidation?

Your two greatest weapons are preparation and practice. Focus on what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. Rehearse your speech as often as you can. Say it while driving to work. Walking at night. While having a shower. And pay extra attention to your opening. If you’re flawless in the first minute or two of your speech, you’ll quickly calm down and hit your stride.

"Most people’s concerns about giving a speech stem from their own expectations, not those of the audience," says MacInnis. "The audience’s expectations are usually a lot lower than your own. Learning anything well takes time and effort. No one would expect to play like Oscar Peterson the first time they sit down at a piano, yet many people think they should be able to speak like Winston Churchill the first time they stand up in front of an audience."

And one final piece of advice. Be brief.

The Gettysburg Address is all of 268 words. The author once heard a speech by actor John Wayne that lasted less than two minutes. "The impact of the Gettysburg Address is still being felt today, and I doubt that any of the 2,000 people who heard John Wayne that day have forgotten his message." Always leave your audience wanting more.

Jay Robb is a Hamilton freelance writer who’s learned to enjoy public speaking.