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Guest Post: Our Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

When I was five or six, every Saturday morning was the same. I’d strap on my trusty toy six-shooter over my pajamas, grab my cowboy hat, and mount the arm of my father’s armchair, which I thought of as my trusty steed. From that perch, I’d watch the Saturday morning cowboy shows on our black and white television. Like most of the rest of America, I loved my cowboy heroes. It took a while to understand how unrealistic they were.

The cowboys were all white guys, there wasn’t an African American, or a Mexican American, or a Mexican to be seen doing real work. In real life, about a quarter of working cowboys were African-Americans. And much of the dress, equipment, and the language of the working cowboy came from the Mexican vaqueros.

The cowboys I watched on television were all clean and wore fancy clothes. Real cowboys did a dirty job and wore clothes and used equipment to make it safer and easier.

Television cowboys had almost superhuman skills. They could ride a horse at a full gallop and shoot the pistol out of a bad guy’s hand at a couple of hundred yards. When the evildoer was trying to run away, they could whip out their trusty lasso and pull him off his horse. Every time. They never missed. They were heroes.

The cowboy heroes did super masculine things with grace. They knocked out bad guys with a single punch. The women in the shows were always attractive, but their primary role was to be rescued or protected.

You would think, if they had the usual set of masculine urges that there would be some chasing after the beautiful women who populated the television West. But no. When their work of rescuing and protecting was over, the cowboy heroes rode away, accompanied if at all, by their trusty sidekick. That’s weird.

Those heroes were great for me when I was five. Today, I’m not so sure they fit the world we want to create.

Let’s Broaden Our View of Heroes

There’s no reason we need to limit our definition of heroes to white men with superpowers. Women can be heroes, too. So, can people with every shade of skin tone imaginable. They have been throughout history.

Heroes don’t need superpowers, and they don’t need to be flashy. Some of our greatest heroes do quiet work that makes a difference in the world, like Dan Nigro on and after 9/11.

Cowboy Heroes in A Team-Centric World

Today, most of the world’s work gets done in teams, so you would think we would modify our idea of a hero. We haven’t. Instead, we’ve made the situation fit our fantasy rather than the facts.

We laud lone innovators like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, except they weren’t “lone” at all. Edison had the muckers and Jobs had hundreds of people at Apple. We laud the fighter pilot and forget the crew that keeps the jet flying and the pilot safe.

When US Airways flight 1549 was set down in the Hudson River, the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, became the hero of the day. No one except Sullenberger wanted to talk about the contributions of the copilot or the cabin crew to making the landing safe and getting the passengers off the plane. No one wanted to bring up the training in the cockpit resource management that prepared those people to react as a team.

The all-knowing physician is another variation of the lone hero. That may make great TV drama, but it just doesn’t fit what we need. Atul Gawande is an author, surgeon, and professor. He puts the situation this way.

“We have trained, hired, and awarded physicians to be cowboys, when what we want are pit crews for patients.”

We’ve done that with managers, too. Except we don’t call them managers anymore. We call them “leaders,” that’s today’s hero-word. We expect those leaders to do the business equivalent of shooting the gun out of the evil-doer’s hand while riding at a full gallop.

Our Challenge Today

The world of the future will not belong to the superheroes, like the cowboy heroes of my youth. Instead, the work will be much less romantic but much more effective. Team leaders will learn that their job is to accomplish the mission through the group, not to do it all themselves. They’ll also learn that their job involves helping the individual team members succeed, develop, and grow.

None of that makes for good television. I’m pretty sure that no six-year-old today is sitting in his father’s chair spellbound by a TV drama about a leader coaching a team member. But that’s what effective leadership looks like.

Our heroes have always been cowboys, but maybe it’s time for something different.

Originally posted July 27, 2017 on Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog.

The Three Most Important Things When Hiring

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

https://www.flickr.com/photos/mauropm/3436674445/

I’ve worked with and spoken to thousands of hiring managers over the course of my career.

They all want to hire the best people available and will go to great lengths to do it.

Sure, some work harder at hiring than others, but they all want a hire that succeeds.

Some look hardest at skills.

Some at accomplishments.

But the most successful managers focus on three character traits, before anything else.

Attitude, aptitude and initiative.

Attitude: Skills can grow and tech can be learned, but energy expended on changing someone’s attitude has the lowest ROI.

Aptitude: Things change. Not just tech, but rules, bosses, buildings, colleagues, and anything else you can think of; an aptitude for change can mean the difference between success and frustration.

Initiative: Going beyond the job description; doing more than expected; not for a reward or the glory, but because that’s who you are.

That’s how you build an organization that succeeds and makes you look great.

Attitude. Aptitude. Initiative.

Image credit: Mauro Parra-Miranda

Golden Oldies: Ducks in a Row: They Are Not You

Monday, January 30th, 2017

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a Decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

In case you might think this post contradicts the one about how to be a great boss by giving your people what you wanted from you boss, it doesn’t.

The difference happens if you provide what you wanted, but only the way that would satisfy you, with no consideration of how they want it.

For example, recognition. While most people crave it, they want it displayed in different ways. I’ve always liked mine loud, more or less public and without having to ask. (Asking is akin to reminding your person that it’s your anniversary/birthday/Valentine’s Day, because they obviously forgot.) Others don’t want a fuss; to them, recognition comes from nothing being said. For them, feedback happens when something is wrong, so silence means everything is fine.

The trick is to not only give people what they (and you) want, but to give it to them how they want — sincerely.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/hammer51012/3545163854Most of us crave acknowledgement when we do something well, I know I do.

Decades ago when I worked as a recruiter for MRI in San Francisco my boss, “Ray,” wasn’t big on that.

It’s not that he wouldn’t do it, he just never thought about it.

Acknowledgement wasn’t something Ray needed, so he was blind to its effect on others.

When he did give the kind of heady feedback that makes people hungry for more, you could see that he didn’t understand it.

Worse, more often than not, it came in response to what he was told — you literally had to walk into his office and say you closed the deal or got a new client to have it happen. 

But praise caught by fishing or out-and-out asking is not worth a whole lot when it comes to motivation.

Nor did he understand how to build a strong team; the kind that could put an ‘Office of the Year’ award on the wall.

I still remember his effort to create the same esprit de corps as “Jeff,” another MRI manager and good friend of his, enjoyed.

The effort failed, probably because Ray considered Jeff’s approach rah-rah stuff — the kind of stuff he was known to disparage.

Ray’s problem was similar to many managers I’ve worked with over the years, i.e., he assumed others wanted to be managed in the same way he liked to be managed.

When Ray did try doing it differently it felt like a con.

Which it was, because he didn’t really believe in what he was doing.

Image credit: Jim Hammer

Where’s the ‘I’ in Team?

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

KG’s schedule has gotten so bad that he sends no-words-needed images in lieu of written posts.

Either way he really nails the subject, as with today’s offering.

I in team

It’s not the first time we’ve addressed that issue; in 2010 I posted about what happens when that ‘I’ rears it’s ugly head.

Ducks in a Row: Psychological Safety

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

https://www.flickr.com/photos/28208534@N07/6129796947/Is your team psychologically safe?

As a boss, no matter the level, it’s your responsibility to foster a psychologically safe culture for your team.

First, you need to know that it’s a relatively simple concept.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.[1] In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.

But not that simple to implement.

It’s also something that is highly unlikely to happen by accident.

If you are interested in the concept why not learn from Google as they set out to build the perfect team.

Flickr image credit: JC

Talent, Talent, Too Much Talent

Monday, October 26th, 2015

https://www.flickr.com/photos/kyngpao/13770174084/

Stars. Everyone wants to hire stars.

Sports teams buy them for astronomical salaries.

Companies use salaries, stock, sign-on bonuses and anything else they can.

Beyond bragging rights, stars are supposed to goose innovation, boost productivity and all kinds of good stuff.

But do they?

In 2010 the Miami Heat bought LeBron James and Chris Bosh to add to the triple the star power of Dwayne Wade — and had a terrible season.

What happened?

Stars want to be stars.

When individual interests take precedence over what is best for the collective, group performance declines. It no longer functions as a cohesive whole. (…) For chickens [another example], businessmen, and basketball players alike, high-levels of performance comes with high-levels of competitive spirit. These status conflicts drive performance down.

Down, not up.

You can still hire brilliant individual contributors if you are willing to put in the time and effort to make them a team.

It takes work, because they won’t become one left to their own devices.

Just remember that all teams aren’t created equal, so be sure your team plays basketball and not baseball.

Bill Simmons referred to baseball as “an individual sport masquerading as a team sport.”

President Barack Obama referred to basketball as “the quintessential team sport

Flickr image credit: Kentucky National Guard

If the Shoe Fits: the Power of Working Alone

Friday, June 5th, 2015

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mMore and more research is showing that real creativity is a more solo function than a team effort.

Susan Cain spells this out in a thoughtful LinkedIn post that is well worth your time, especially if you are a young founder raised on social media, with a penchant for crowdsourcing and Yelp.

Consider the words of Steve Wozniak in his memoir iWoz.

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Then read, digest and tweak Cain’s ideas to fit your situation, then put the concepts to work in your company.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Culture Fit is Critical

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclehabitat/4749855117/Years ago, Neil Senturia, CEO of Black Bird Ventures posted his thoughts about CEOs, hiring and culture.

“Building a team is the key to creating a successful start up—picking the people who will fit into the culture. The CEO’s most important job is hiring well and being the visionary and model for the culture that you want in your company. There are great players but what wins Super Bowls are great teams.’

While everyone talks about building teams, the importance of teams, etc., bosses continue to hire skill sets without enough thought or rationalizing as to whether the candidates possessing them fit the culture.

It often takes the threat of a team revolt to force them to pass on candidates with great skills who obviously don’t fit.

Culture is high enough on the radar now that most entrepreneurs know that the wrong hire can derail their culture, but they still have a problem passing on badly needed skills.

It still takes guts to make the correct decision for the long-term in a world that runs on short-term.

It’s never an easy choice, but it is one that will pay off for years to come.

I wrote Don’t Hire Turkeys! Use Your Culture as an Attraction, Screening, and Retention Tool and Turkey-Proof Your Company 15 years ago and it’s just as true today as it was then.

Your culture is the sieve through which all people should pass—without contortions or rationalizations—preferably aligned with and passionate about it, but at the very least synergistic.

The keynotes of a culture are:

  • Consciously developed – Cultures happen with or without thought. Those that just happen are the easiest to twist and manipulate.
  • Flexible – Just as trees bend in strong winds and buildings are designed to sway in an earthquake, so you want to build your culture to withstand pivots, economic storms and the winds of change.
  • Scalable – To grow as the company grows requires a deep understanding of the values that are cultural bedrock vs. trim and accessories.
  • Sustainable – Although originally stemming from the CEO, at some point the culture must become the property of the employees if they’re going to support it.

None of this predicts what the culture will actually be, that’s a function of the CEO’s values and MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy)™.

The important point here is to hire with your eyes wide open, so you don’t end up with a round peg trashing your square hole.

If the Shoe Fits: Visualize Your Culture

Friday, February 27th, 2015

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mYesterday we talked about open communications and how powerful it is when part of cultural DNA.

Visual communication was recommended, with the caveat, “processes and information that can not be represented visually are probably too convoluted and bureaucratic.”

XPLANE’s Dave Gray seems to agree.

Every company has a culture, but it can take time to learn, and the stated culture can often differ significantly from what people actually experience.

At XPLANE we have created a visual map of our culture, to guide our teams in daily decision making and help them make choices that are consistent with what we stand for and who we want to be.

Smart; very smart.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/davegray/355002597What does your culture look like?

Image credit: HikingArtist

If the Shoe Fits: the Duplicitous Founder

Friday, February 20th, 2015

A Friday series exploring startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIf anything has changed in the 21st Century it’s the recognition that culture is everything — the true “make or break” for any company.

Knowing that, founders, of all people, should know better than to do anything that undermines their culture.

And yet they do it all the time.

One of the worst is also one of the commonest — having two teams

  • the one to which they pay lip-service and talk about in public; and
  • the one that has their ear, takes priority and stays front and center in all decisions.

Founders constantly refer to their “team” and it’s taken to mean all the company’s employees.

But, for those the shoe fits, it actually refers to their stars, their pets and all (most?) of their direct reports.

This was a common attitude in larger companies, but at least it was honest; bosses were ‘us’, workers were ‘them’ and everybody knew where they stood.

The changes started when Volvo focused the world on the power of teams, research showed that productivity increased when people were more invested and engaged in their work and terminology was introduced that is inclusive and empowering.

Fast forward to now and that language is in common use, but, as with most things, it can be distorted and perverted.

Founders, like other bosses, fall in two categories.

  • Those who buy it, own it, use it and mean it;
  • and those who use it to keep everyone in line who’s not on the ‘real’ team.

Which are you?

And before you claim the first bullet take a good look at your past actions.

In fact, get some feedback from someone you know will tell you the truth, as opposed to what you already “know” or want to hear.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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