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GET SMART: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT H. THOMPSON (PART 2)

Posted by on June 14th, 2012 with 0 Comments

Robert Thompson is the author of The Offsite: A Leadership Challenge Fable (Jossey-Bass, 2008) and host of Robert Thompson’s Thought Grenades – a leadership podcast.  His website claims, “Robert’s fusion of real-life stories and conversational techniques connect with his audience at an intimate, intense and individual level” and I can assure you that the description is accurate.

Over four weeks, Robert and I will talk about how goals impact leadership and leadership impacts goals – particularly SMART goals (defined as Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound).

Read Part 1: Show Up

Part 2: Step Up

Glenn: Robert, What does it mean to ‘Step Up’?

Robert: Stepping up is about allowing curiosity to create disruption, which opens the doors and windows for innovation to flourish. When leaders Step Up, they need to become an action hero of sorts. Cape, telephone booth, and disguise glasses are – of course – sold separately.

Glenn: Allowing curiosity to create disruption. I like that. How much disruption is the right amount? And how much is too much?

Robert: What I’m speaking about here is creative disruption. Not sure you can have too much of that or that you can measure it in the “right amounts”. The music and publishing industries have been the victims of the creative disruption from the Internet. And there will be more to follow, I’m sure. The Apple iPod is a great specific example. I didn’t know I really needed one of those. Neither did millions of other people. Most companies would have just created a better Walkman, right?. Facebook is another prime example. Who the heck thought that was necessary? Zuckerberg saw something that was embryonic at best and was curious enough and smart enough to push it forward. His curiosity keeps him and the company growing and trying new things. Without creative disruption you wouldn’t have Amazon, Twitter or a host of other social media channels. However, creative disruption does not need to be in the category of putting a dent in the universe. Every company and every business team benefits from using curiosity to make both large and disruptive incremental changes that transform a service or product for the better. Creative disruption changes the marketplace and benefits the end-user. Now, I guess that an example of too much curiosity would be analysis-paralysis. If a business can’t get the product or service to the end-user that would fall into the category of too much…too much talk and not enough walk. (See Part One: Show Up).

Glenn: And what is the relationship between stepping up and leadership?

Robert: Glenn, if you recall from our earlier conversation about Showing Up, understanding who you are and what you’re passionate about is critical if you are going to lead others. But that’s just the start. Once you understand what drives you, you need something to drive. That’s where Stepping Up comes into play. It’s all about the goal or goals. Your curiosity needs to lead you and your team towards an innovation of some kind. So, that said, it follows that Stepping Up means leaders must question everything, even or especially systems, policies and procedures. Leaders who Step Up urge others to blow up their mental boundaries and see obstacles as opportunities. And Stepping Up means it’s okay to fail as long as you learn from the experience. Now this is not an excuse to go make huge errors and then plead that you were just trying to Step Up as a leader. That’s silly. However, creating a culture where failure is a learning tool should be the goal of every organization.

Glenn: When we talk about ‘Stepping Up’, I sometimes think that standing your ground, when everyone else is retreating can be a form of stepping up. Is that true?

Robert: Yes, as long as you’re not being recalcitrant or just saying no for the sake of being annoying. Moving a product or process forward sometimes does take compromise – emotional intelligence – to know the difference between being a creative disruptor and just an obnoxious barrier to progress. A good example of obnoxious barriers can be seen in our political parties especially over the last few years.

Glenn: One of my favorite phrases from The Offsite is ‘Wastebasket Revelry’. I’ve used it many times since I read the book. Describe what it means for us.

Robert: Wastebasket Revelry is when the culture of the organization encourages people to stop doing stupid things and to actually search for stupid stuff as well. I have a couple of anecdotes about what I’ve come to call Wastebasket Revelry. I think the one you connect with from The Offsite uses the BBQ, right? One of my clients once had a contest to find the most stupid thing of the week. Most of the candidates were items shared in the policy manual. So, one Friday afternoon, he brought everyone out to the parking lot for a BBQ lunch. He then proceeded to pour lighter fluid all over the policy manual and tossed it and a match into the Weber. As I share in The Offsite, the hot dogs and burgers never tasted so good.

Glenn: Are these types of events too dramatic? I’m wondering what is the ultimate goal of these actions? Won’t witnesses just roll their eyes?

Robert: No, no…they’re not too dramatic, if they’re done authentically. I think drama around making changes like this and letting everyone know you’re serious is extremely cool. It pokes fun at the stupid stuff and makes the point that change is a good thing. Some might roll their cynical eyes, but so what?

Glenn: So it depends on your intent, or goal, then. When you say ‘authentic’, I assume that you should use drama to highlight your seriousness about a topic or goal. If you’re using drama just for the purpose of creating drama, you probably will end up with a culture of aimless drama.

Robert: True. The drama should have a point. Drama can go awry, if it negatively impacts people in the group. For example, if the person who created the stupid thing is in the group when the stupid thing is tossed into the wastebasket or BBQ, you need to be extra sensitive. I’d suggest letting the creator know in advance. In the case of my client, the person who created some of the stupid stuff thought it was stupid all along. She was just doing what she was told. Stupid is as stupid does. And, you know, Glenn, doing a Wastebasket Revelry doesn’t have to include such a huge thing as a policy manual. Leaders who do a bit of Sherlock Holmes are almost always surprised what people are wasting time with each day. And the staff relishes the idea of getting rid of time-wasters. It changes morale almost instantaneously. In fact, most of the things people want to toss are the little things. More often than not it’s the pebbles in their shoes they would like to change, not the huge Mt. Everest that the leader thinks is causing the irritation.

Glenn: In SMART as Hell, this ‘pruning’ of stupid activities ties to Relevance. Questioning legacy activities – asking why – can cause massive discomfort, but if the best and only answer is ‘because…’, then it’s time to ‘step up’ and change things. How would you suggest that leaders step up more frequently?

Robert: Glenn, you know that I prefer my work to be considered simple, practical and results-oriented. Many of my colleagues in the leadership development field have wonderful theories, some even based on rigorous research. Well, they’ve laid the foundation. My hat’s off to them. But, me? My research and learning over the years informs me people just like simple things they can start doing immediately that will change everything for them and those around them. Big task, but doable. One of my all-time favorites is my The Four Commitment Questions. I’ve been sharing these for years now. I’ve now personally coached thousands of people and shared these questions at every opportunity. The feedback I get is phenomenal. Talk about rolling eyes and cynics…people always give me a hard time at the end of a session when I share these, because they think there is no way that just asking four questions can make that much of a difference. Well, I guess it’s about the questions and how you ask them. So, your readers are probably wondering “so what are the questions, anyway.” The Four Commitment Questions are: What can I do More Of, Less Of, Start doing or Stop doing. Pretty simple, huh? Here’s where the power comes in. The leader must begin by asking these questions with his/her team and then the team gets to ask those questions of the leader. As more and more folks get comfortable, the entire organization should be encouraged to ask these questions of everyone else. It changes the culture very quickly, and if supported correctly, permanently. When people begin this they’re, as I said, a bit cynical. But they will convert quickly as the results come pouring in.

Glenn: What happens when those questions are asked?

Robert: Well, of course, some folks are a bit intimidated, while others just apprehensive. No one really likes change, but once underway and encouraged by the leader doing this with them, these questions begin to open up relationships dramatically. People can get more work done that is specific to what is necessary to be done. Stupid stuff is uncovered. Teamwork shoots through the roof. And a bright light begins to shine on the shadowy world of those on the team who are not holding their own. It may even remove stubborn silos (sounds a bit like a laundry detergent, yes?). However, you can’t just go around all day asking everyone the questions every time you run into them. That would quickly ruin the impact. It needs a balanced approach, and there’s not one right method. You just have to give it a try and shift as necessary. Perhaps use them weekly with some, monthly with others. They certainly can become important in performance reviews. And I’ve even had a client or two use them in their recruiting. How? Well, they ask the candidate what would the company they just left needed to do More of, Less of, Started or Stopped to keep them? Interesting twist, I think. And the little devil in me also urges folks to try the questions at home with their spouse and kids. You might make sure to have an adult beverage nearby.

Glenn: This activity sounds interesting, Robert. Could you talk us through an example?

Robert: Sure. In my efforts to improve my speaking style over the years, I’ve used the Four Commitment Questions model to gather feedback from participants and colleagues. These hundreds of comments have helped me carve out my style of speaking and allowed me to be more myself when I take center stage.

  • Participants told me that I could “More Of”: facilitating conversations, providing experiential learning, encouraging individual interaction, and adding video examples, real-life stories, and my personal stories to the workshops.
  • They’ve told me I could do “Less Of”: Power Point, academic-style delivery, and focusing the workshop on the workbook instead of the discussion.
  • Things I could “Start Doing” included: moving around the room, as well as connecting with the participants before, after and during breaks.
  • And things I could “Stop Doing” included: being aloof, creating a kind of presentation paralysis, and talking at the participants instead of with them.

This feedback was critical to my development. Early on in my presentation career I was requested as a speaker, not as a facilitator. And, that was fine by me since I really didn’t have facilitation experience. Over time – based on the feedback – I learned to facilitate, and I quickly understood how to merge or switch between the lecture and facilitation.

Also early on, I was getting feedback that I was too smooth, or slick. I really didn’t know what that meant, so I began to specifically ask those who wrote comments like that and also signed their evaluation form. I even called some of them days later.

Glenn: That doesn’t happen very often…

Robert: Right. They were a bit shocked that I cared so much, but they shared their thoughts. That feedback led me to dress down a bit (no more pin stripes and ties). When possible, I also began moving around the room more and not just presenting from the front. One of my speaking mentors never worked the room before an event, which I always found strange. Unfortunately, I copied that early on and it turned out, for me, that it was not effective. So, I started connecting more and stopped being so aloof. Once I began connecting authentically, I found my participant responses improved dramatically and their engagement with the presentation was much more productive.

In this business, you’re always learning. I’m always brushing up on techniques and constantly trying to improve from feedback. You’ve introduced me to Nancy Duarte’s work. Her two books, slide:ology and resonate are now favorite references. I also am a big fan of Carmine Gallo’s work. He has been on our radio show several times now. His latest book, The Apple Experience is awesome.

Hopefully, you get the idea on how The Four Commitment Question model can be used and re-used. It can be effective in extended one-on-one relationships, and it can be effective with groups or short engagements.

We say leaders are never satisfied. If that is correct then I’m pleased to be considered as part of that group.

Glenn: It sounds like that feedback really helped you picture the speaker you wanted to become.

Robert: Exactly. In fact, there is one more thing I do before each session that didn’t specifically come from feedback; it sprang from the work itself. I visualize how the session is going to go in advance of being in the room.  I create and tell myself what I call a Vision Story. That story creates the possibilities for a successful interaction. I’m sure we’ll talk more about that in our next session about Speaking Up.

Glenn: I’m looking forward to it. Thanks, Robert.

Learn more about Robert and his work through the resources below:

 

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