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GET SMART: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT H. THOMPSON (PART 3)

Posted by on June 21st, 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 or Part2: Step Up

Part 3: Speak Up

Glenn: Hi Robert. We’ve covered ‘Show Up’ and ‘Step Up’. What does it mean to ‘Speak Up’?

Robert: Speaking Up is about offering a vision story that creates possibilities for aligned action to take place.

Glenn: A ‘vision story’ sounds pretty touchy-feely, almost implying a God delusion. Is that really necessary? What’s wrong with just doing your job?

Robert: I don’t think of the vision story as touchy-feely at all. That is such a derogatory put-down. I think that the touchy-feely term should be shown the path to the garbage heap to rest along-side “soft-skills,” which is the term usually associated with leadership. And there is nothing “soft” about leadership.  Organizations as well as individuals have been doing “vision statements” for decades now. Unfortunately, most, if not all, vision statements in organizations are laminated, pasted to pastel walls, boring and ineffective pap.

Glenn: That might be why leadership gets the reputation as a “soft-skill”?

Robert: Sure, but a true vision story is an evolved version of that process that is far more effective. Everyone tells stories. From birth to death, life is a living story. All I, and others like me, have done is given the story framework a life within our corporate halls. People respond to stories more than facts and figures simply because a story talks to their emotional side, and everyone has one, even the most hardened engineer. We don’t have room here to go into the what and whys of neuroscience, but let’s just leave it at… if you want to connect with people and inspire them, there is nothing more motivational than a story of how the world will be different at the end of our shared struggle.

Every great book, film and, yes, remarkable company shares that same vibrant thread. I like to think that The Offsite is another fine example as well. Perhaps we can enlarge upon that theme in another session down the road? I can see it now…

Glenn: And does it matter what kind of action the vision promotes?

Robert: Of course. The action must be aligned. That’s the purpose of an overarching story framework. Everyone should be able to see themselves in the story. Their work should fold up into the end result. If what they are working on doesn’t connect, they should fold up their tent and move on or re-calibrate what they are doing until they are in alignment. Alignment clarification is the task of the titled or formal leader.

Glenn: That corresponds with my message that, in an organization, goals are an alignment engine. So what is the relationship between speaking up and leadership?

Robert: My view is that those leaders who have found their voice (Show Up) need a way to allow that voice to ripple out and motivate others to join in the effort of change. Their vision story needs to be uplifting and shared from the heart in an open, honest and authentic way. The vision story also should be inclusive, inviting others to share in the dream and offer intrinsic and extrinsic benefits for their service.

Glenn: In The Offsite, Abby delivers a powerful talk about Passion. What is the role of passion in business?

Robert: Without passion, nothing moves forward. Without passion, it’s hard to get going in the morning. Even the folks I’ve worked with who are responsible for the maintenance of our highways are passionate. It’s hard for some people to understand, but they can really share their love of their piece of the road in a very energetic, authentic way. Listening to them can give you a new perspective on what it means to be inspired by what most people would consider pedestrian at best. On the other hand, I just had a conversation with a neighbor of mine who just retired. He asked me when I was going to do the same. My response was “probably never.” He said, “but what about doing what you love and taking the time to travel and see the world.” I told him I already do that. So, I asked him about his work and his response mortified me. He shared that he had worked at the same boring job for 39 years and hated every moment of it. Can you imagine? I have a hard time connecting with that. How can you spend your very quick life doing things you hate? I certainly don’t love being stuck in an airport or riding a tram to the rental car lot. But, really…doing something for 39 years and hating it. Ughhh! He needed someone early on in his career to shake him up. He needed a Sam, Charlie or an Abby.

Glenn: Wow. Last week you talked about how people were surprised by your passion for improving yourself. You also mentioned that you created your own ‘vision story’ – picturing your successes before they occurred. So, it sounds like a vision story can be something personal or even private. Is that right?

Robert: Yes. I’m a big believer in creating your own future. When I’m working on a new presentation, it is basically created as a story. The slides, if used, enhance the story. Most presentations I do share a simple story of a problem the audience is experiencing to options for solution and a motivational challenge or happy ending, if they take the steps necessary. Nancy Duarte also talks about this framework in her work.

I also understand that thoughts are powerful things. Your thoughts create. If you’re happy with where you are, what you do and what you have in life, then that success is from focused thinking. If you are not happy with the above, you need to change your thinking patterns. It’s not an easy thing to understand and harder to do. But it is important to understand the power of thoughts.

In my work, I’m constantly with people; whether in large or small groups. I don’t walk into a room randomly. I always pre-picture – even if I have not seen the room beforehand – how the session will go. This is great for normal business meetings as well, especially if there are to be any negotiations. Once I have a picture of the audience in mind, I create the atmosphere I wish to engage in before I am in the room. So, as an example, if I know that the room is going to be full of folks who need a serious talk, I don’t create an atmosphere that is in opposition to that. The reverse is true for those needing a more relaxed or humorous tone. It’s all about congruence. This is just another example of how I use techniques from NLP that I spoke about earlier.

Glenn: And, in The Offsite, passion seems to be a requirement for any leader looking to build their ‘masterpiece’? Can you explain this ‘masterpiece’ concept?

Robert: As I mentioned before, real leaders are never satisfied. They have a strong desire to change things up. They are disruptive. When I’m with folks, I bring up this notion of “legacy.” How you will be remembered when you’ve left this Earth. Now, we shouldn’t obsess with that every moment of the day…that would make you crazy. But, I think we need to reflect on this question from time to time and take steps to ensure that it’s more positive than negative. Right? My masterpiece phrase comes from one of my favorite books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball by my late colleague, Gordon MacKenzie. The sub-title is “A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.” Fun stuff. At the end of many of my sessions, I read the last quick chapter. It’s fun and makes a solid point that when all is said and done, we should not just paint inside the lines in our life, but break out of the boundaries with a passionate flair that is all our own. Just talking about it, makes me want to run out and disrupt something.

Glenn: How is the masterpiece different or similar to goal-setting?

Robert: There’s no way you can work towards your masterpiece without goals to get there. A great masterpiece is created in short strokes, not pouring a can of paint over the canvas and walking away. However, I guess Picasso could have gotten away with the latter.

Glenn:  And I would argue that Picasso could get away with it because he would have had a very clear goal in mind when he ‘poured’ that can of paint. He would have already seen the final image in his ‘minds-eye’. That’s really what goals and visions are about, isn’t it? They serve as a dress rehearsal for the real thing.

Robert: That’s exactly my point above. Goals become the steps to create the vision. However, seeing the form inside the marble – as Michelangelo is purported to have done before he created The David – is key. Once you can see the outcome, creating the steps or goals to get there is much easier. And once I can see and feel the room as well as the audience, the easier it is to create an engaging atmosphere.

Glenn: Michelangelo’s “David” is an excellent example of a vision. I’m stealing that one from you! You also refer to vision as a never-ending story. Why?

Robert: Because it never ends! If Steve Jobs became content with the first iPod we’d still be dealing with that funky wheel, no video, and worst of all, no iPhone. With a strong vision and a let’s break the rules attitude, everything evolves. Our technology today is a great example. The Vision Story process helps you frame and work towards your masterpiece. It’s a goal-setting framework of sorts since it helps you write your vision story in logical steps. First, you must really get up-close and personal with what you’re passionate about. Without that, everything stops. Next, it’s important to get clear about what the present situation looks like and begin to think about the end result you wish to create.

Glenn: This is where a lot of vision exercises stop short. And, consequently, so do many people. They create the vision of their future but don’t take any first steps.

Robert: Right. The next critical step is to clear out of your head whatever limiting thought might hold you back. Once those limits are erased, it’s time to don your cape and take action. If appropriate, be sure to invite others to serve with you and allow them to help finish the story. Once you have manifested the vision, it’s time to start over and do it again. That’s where the “never-ending” comes in to play.

Glenn: One topic that you and I have discussed a lot is the question of “running from or running to”. Late in the book, Gordon challenges Gwen on this very question. Talk about that for a moment.

Robert: Yes, in The Offsite, Gwen learns that struggling is part of the growth process and that fear can hold one back from accomplishing your masterpiece. Of course, it’s sometimes hard to know when staying with something that is a struggle is futile and moving on is the appropriate response. However, in order to truly move forward in our roles and responsibilities, it’s important to know what we should let go of and what we hope to move toward.

Glenn: So much of what passes for leadership seems to consist of creating a ‘boogie-man’ and getting people to flee. I’ve often said that shouting ‘fire’ isn’t the same as having a vision. It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But 500 people running away from something just creates 500 scattered people. At some point, the leader has to get people to stop running away from something and start running towards a shared destination.

Robert: Exactly, that’s where a goal setting process allows us to gain perspective on what we really want from life.

Glenn: So, how do we gain that new perspective?

Robert: Well, our own experience is the best teacher. It can help us peer into the future to achieve success or it can be a mirror to reflect on how to avoid previous pitfalls. When you look back, were you running from something with fear and dread or toward something with love? What themes or patterns emerge? What choices did you make to rise or fall? What events or circumstances worked in your favor? I routinely ask people to think of a time when they broke through barriers of rigidity to overcome a personal or professional challenge. How did they feel before and after? What did they learn?

Glenn: It seems that one of the reasons that coaching works – when it does work – is that a coaching environment allows people to ask and answer those tough questions. Most people just don’t take the time.

Robert: Right. From that, they can clearly see what needs to change. The tough stuff is next. You know, the ‘taking action’ part. But as Sam says in The Offsite, “every truly great leader struggles with the question of whether or not they are up to the task. It’s their passion and their struggle that helps them create their legacy…their masterpiece. And you know, Glenn, most of the folks I work with these days all come to a similar conclusion. Their masterpiece, in some way, shape or form, offers or offered them the chance to be of service to their colleagues, friends, neighbors or family. And being of service or being a servant leader is what my idea of what real leadership is all about. Without the service element, I think all leadership efforts or models fall apart at the seams.

Glenn: Well that’s a perfect set-up for next week’s conversation, “Serve Up”. It’s almost like you planned it…

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

 

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