Monday, August 20, 2012

Take a read break

I’ve been an avid reader forever probably because my mother is. As a young child, I couldn’t help notice she perpetually had her nose in books. To this day she is the same. For comfort and a break from the stresses of life, books were and are her escape. Is there something in this for any of us whether leaders, managers or members of the vital teams that power all organizations?

Various research sources indicate that vast and deep reading helps us to connect disparate ideas thereby adding to the creative journey. For example, I’ve been told that when I am in front of groups as a facilitator-teacher, I seem to effortlessly pull out stories and all manner of peripheral and supporting information on the fly, depending on the direction of the class discussion. I don't even know what I know until a trigger comment from someone. Then, I have to watch that I don't lose my audience by deviating too long from where we were on the agenda! At the least reading broadens my thinking and helps me “entertain”.

But there is a real benefit to reading that it often overlooked – its stress-reducing power. According to John Coleman’s August 15, 2012 HBR blog, “For those who want to lead, read”, six minutes of reading can reduce stress by 68%.

Now that’s an attractor in today’s far too fast-paced work environments! But it all depends on what one is reading, doesn’t it? Heavy duty reports don’t qualify.

So all you managers out there, take out your novel and set an example that reading breaks - fiction or non-fiction - contribute to productivity not the other way around. Water cooler gatherings have finally gained respectability as they help social cohesion, innovation, employee engagement and well-being. Now it's time to put read breaks of any kind in that same category.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Want to motivate your team? Build high performance? Don't skip one important detail.

Every time I read the latest statistics from Gallup and McKinsey or whomever on employee engagement my eyes glaze over. I used to write the information down for reference when doing talks or teaching. I don’t anymore because it’s the same old, same old. Lots of people in most organizations are not engaged. The further down the organization, the worse it gets. I always get an earful when working with front line employees (yes, I know, there is always another side to their stories). The beat goes on.

But, here and there, employees are inspired to do their best. Take the paramedics that attended to my husband this month when he had a dizzy spell, fell off a stool. In the moment, they did what they had to do and eventually took my husband to hospital emergency for further checking. In the end, it was a case of low blood pressure from his meds.

What I found most unusual was the extent to which the senior paramedic checked in with me between other ambulance trips on my husband’s status. It was then that we talked about his job. This was a motivated guy who had recently finished a year of advanced training. I still shake my head at his degree of interaction with our family. I’m not used to this caring customer service in general!

Annual surveys of the best organizations to work for show that there are many great companies young and old. Southwest Airlines is a perennial winner. Newer tech companies due to their start-up mentality often get the nod. Small is helpful as a rule because of the family-like atmosphere. The more complicated and big the tougher it is for leaders to keep the culture engaging and exciting.

If you are in a big, complex organization and want to motivate your team what can you do? Certainly “leading by values” is a good way. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s founder, makes a point of mentioning values such as “leaning toward the customer” (his insistence) as a must. Founders do set the tone. But when the organization is older with thousands of employees and the newness of a company’s reason for existence has long receded in memory, how do you keep the founder’s spirit going?

One factor always pops up by various authors on the subject – purpose (why am I here to do what?). That’s the first one mentioned by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in their new book “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations”.  People are motivated by what is rewarding not what is rewarded. Knowing why they come to work every day – purpose – speaks to the rewarding part.

The best place to re-engage is at the team level. That’s where the real work gets done. The paramedics know they want to save lives whenever possible. Every leader/manager has more control over a team than the whole organization. Motivate a team and the infectiousness begins to rub off elsewhere as peers talk. Southwest’s fundamental success is due to teamwork.

Yes, there is much more to great teamwork than being pumped up by its purpose. Every day, every hour relating matters as the journey unfolds. Infrastructure to support team success matters. However, without a clear team purpose, the tasks at hand have no context for action.  

Don’t skip purpose – having the team openly determine the why of being together.