Archive for October, 2009

What is your leadership style? What is your boss’s style? I suggest you stop for a moment before going on reading my thoughts on the subject and do the following: close your eyes and think of three great leaders you admire most. Write down whom ever comes to mind first, we’ll come back to this later.

The other day I met a very interesting guy. By his own account he is a “hard-driving very outcome-oriented guy.”  I was indeed thoroughly impressed with his many diverse professional and personal achievements. Wow! He was very inquisitive, told me that he really “loves people” and to hear what they are doing, so he naturally asked about my achievements. Interestingly, although I am proud of them and I had thought about myself as a very strong, determined and outcome-oriented person (impression expressed by others about me many times), in that very moment wondered “did I have anything he could see even remotely matching his triumphs?” Not surprisingly he did not seem that impressed with my first shot at it. Upon further probing, he came back with a diagnostic for my “problem”: I am not good at presenting and demanding what he thought I “rightfully deserve,” and went on to tell me how I SHOULD demand it. I was impressed, he had great insights, the speed at which he diagnosed and solved my problem was dizzying, and his approach was likely to be very effective. The mirror he held almost instantly helped me learn something about myself. I realized I have been very good at proving myself over and over again achieving any of the seemingly impossible tasks I had chosen to tackle, but I had not been good at asking for upfront investments in my efforts before undertaking these challenges. I have always assumed that people will be able to appreciate the effort and proven success, and they will then be willing to further invest in me and my work. He told me that was not the way it usually works (yeah, I had noticed!) and that I needed to always announce “my price” up front. He even told me exactly what and how (“you need to lower your voice!”) I should say it.  Upon my spontaneous reaction to the style that does not come naturally to me, he went so far to say I was a “wimp”, and then added I needed to make it clear every time in the beginning of discussion that my proposition was a “take it or leave it” type. In fact, I realized then from his account that all his highlighted successes seemingly had been pre-ambled with this kind of offer to his prospective sponsors. He had been clearly successful in using it.

I walked away from our meeting convinced this method I had never tried was extremely efficient. It was not easy to hear his opinion about my deficiency, but being always on the lookout for learning new ways to solve problems and ways to better myself, I resolved to try it! I envisioned my next important conversation and me saying the words I was told to say… My brain confirmed it was a smart thing to do, but at the same time could not put back the various words indicated into sentences that sounded as elegantly incisive or convincing as when he had said them. I thought I must be dyslexic or maybe my somewhat limited command of the English language (as my fourth) kicked in… After trying again it dawned on me: I probably have had both problems, plus… it just wasn’t me! Some may love and some may hate my “style”, but this is what makes me, me. Yes, I could have probably obtained greater rewards or attained higher positions, but I can’t imagine becoming a different person altogether and still being able to communicate with and keep engaged the same dear friends, allies, and some “fans” I have had for years.  And with whom – or what – would I replace them? With people wowed by my achievements or subdued by my will, or maybe with well deserved ”rewards”… money, power??? And then I realized that even if I were successful in employing the ‘all or nothing’ dictatorial approach, the gained exchange would not appeal to me. So, I resolved that I needed to make sure I will never again completely forego the upfront discussion about ‘what’ would it take to have me take on a new challenge, but we are all different, so I’ll do it my way.

Now, back to you! I offered this preamble also to give you the time to come up with three names… Have you picked three leaders you admire most yet? Last chance! I promise it will help you a great deal with understanding yourself. This simple exercise asking me to focus on who I admired most has helped me discover what I value most and how I relate to people. Assuming that you have come up with three names, let’s think what they may reveal.

Here are what I think of as the three main categories of leadership styles: dictators, generals, and gurus.  I will succinctly try to define these categories to help you think ‘which leader type are you?’ and ‘what style do you prefer when led?’ I came up with the following summaries of the value proposition from their three perspectives and how they may relate to people they lead and with other leader types:

  • Dictator: “Take it or leave it! By the way: you WILL do it!” Dictators are sole decision-oriented leaders, they lead by “Fiat!” (“my way or the highway,” they can’t even imagine some else might have a better solution). They seek absolute power and rich material rewards. Dictators might fancy themselves as loved, but in fact they don’t care much about what ”troops” or “generals” think of them and, strangely, they seem to fear “gurus”…  So they send “troops” and generals to “war”, and “gurus” into exile (or worse).
  • General: “Take it, don’t leave it, I’ll lead you through”. Generals are action-oriented leaders, they lead by strategizing and charging in front of troops gathered behind them. Generals enjoy the power and material rewards, but what they seek most is glory, an interesting combination of delivering actual success and being perceived as a great leader. They have “skin in the game” and they know they can’t win without the help of others! So, good generals seek to earn the respect and love of their backing and seek the help and counsel of allies and advisors, including gurus.
  • Guru: “You don’t have to take it, but I’ll show you how it’s good for you.”  Gurus are thought leaders, they draw people to them by envisioning and by example, having the courage to dream, speak, and act before having the backing of any constituency…. Pure gurus are throwing their whole self and life into their truth or vision of the future and are willing to die for it, but expect no personal material or power rewards, rather seek enlightenment and the opportunity to help by sharing it with the “troops” and generals. Dictators are powerless in ordering gurus around or “buying” their support, and hence fear them. Gurus better stay away from dictators’ wrath… Interestingly, great gurus have attained eternal glory beyond that of most successful generals of their day. As they function best in the future, gurus’ glory usually grows with time and frequently only posthumously.

Do these ring any bells, do you recognize anybody: you, your CEO? We are all very complex, it would be amiss if I didn’t clarify that many leaders combine to some extent characteristics of the three “types”. There is no doubt in my mind that there are sophisticated or even charismatic dictators, visionary generals, as well as rather effective gurus… I propose that the best leaders are those who have the ability to flex their style to best match the circumstances, sensing and employing in each situation the most effective overall mix.  For instance, pure guru types will likely not be effective in the middle of a reorganization, but are essential in foreseeing the need for it and formulating its goals. Innovation requires a multifaceted leader or at least an enlightened one who will consult gurus (or be one themselves), be dictatorial when absolutely necessary, and overall lead like a great general for the implementation of a great strategy. Similarly, the “troops” vary in their preference of leaders: some prefer to be told what to do and how to do it, some perform at their best when inspired by leaders who only outline and/or allow possibilities. Besides knowing themselves, great leaders understand well their troops and their battles.

I feel that it’s only fair that I share with you the top three choices I made when given only two minutes during leadership training. I think this simple and very effective exercise has helped me a lot. The short time allowed seems important to me to reveal the “gut-reaction” type personal choices (information had been processed but yet unaltered by rationalization). Hearing from others what may sound as astonishing choices was also very telling. Suffice to say that after I had announced my three: Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi, a person, who had picked Alexander the Great, Napoleon and… Hitler (!!! “he was charismatic???”) said to me that I obviously did not understand our assignment: the people I had chosen were obviously “not actual leaders” (“whom did they ever lead ?!?” he asked me)

“Would you please tolerate me, dictator… can you imagine that I actually prefer the guru’s leadership style?”

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Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

This topic popped up as I was working on putting together my itinerary for the upcoming annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). Conferences are especially stimulating for me, as they represent a great intersection of people and ideas. Some may say planning should not be a big deal after years of attending conferences; yet, I can still easily become overwhelmed by rich content gatherings that bring together more than 20,000 people. My zest becomes my biggest problem: it may seem that during any of the long days, I would profit from and enjoy being able to attend more than a half a dozen… simultaneous presentations! So here are some thoughts:

Knowledge/Content: putting together an action plan!

1. Browse topics and speakers ahead of time. I know, I have trouble making proper time for this beforehand, but it always ends up being the best strategy to make the most of my conferences. Postponing until close to departure never works, somehow fires that will need to be put out will always occur just as I am about to take off…

2. Define your strategy, i.e. main goal(s). Ask yourself “what is the most important thing I could bring back after this year’s conference?” Will I want to be able to say: a) “I learned the latest details about a specific project I am working on” b) “I had the opportunity to meet/follow the work of… (specific people/groups)” c) “I was able to check on a specific technology” or d) “I got a good sense of the ‘hot topics’/ future trends?” When in doubt, dig deeper into who/what will be available at this year’s conference, e.g. read abstracts, quickly Google subject/presenters. Learned from experience: frequently the title is more interesting than the content itself! Maybe including in your schedule some of each works best. If on the other hand, the main purpose is to present your own stuff, make sure you alert/invite the people who should hear it. And don’t forget to plan time to check on the room, equipment, or to talk to potentially interested people after the presentation.

3. Use all available scheduling tools to make your life easier (e.g., online planners, personal calendars, alerts, etc.) Prioritize the content, produce a plan/schedule, and find information fast and easily (even when your brain might be half numb).

4. Check on feasibility of reaching presentation locations – can you actually make it from one event to the next on your schedule? If not, have a plan B, could be even just take a quick break and regroup rather than frantically missing half of the next event.

5. Be flexible and nimble, not only in terms of running from one session to another, but if you find that an unexpected topic is capturing your imagination, go for it! You may catch up with the previously planned speaker or topic another time or way.

6. Avoid the “burn!” After a couple of busy conference days, this is to be expected, plan even more purposefully, including breaks. “Spice it up”: mix various formats, contents. Don’t give up easily on your daily exercise routine, unless you really get a lot of mileage walking from session to session. There is also a benefit from using different muscles, maybe use the chance of having a hotel pool to swim instead?

Attendees – interacting with people at meetings is as important as absorbing the content – make time for them! I found that while this is engrained into the business culture (see my previous post on the professional benefits of social interactions at conferences), this may not come naturally to many science or technology-oriented people.

1. Attend interactive sessions, e.g. posters, they usually allow more quality interactions than the plenary sessions. Match your content priority with the format (or… strategy with tactics!), i.e., poster sessions are best for digging into technical details with the presenters, oral/plenary sessions are better to get a bird’s eye view of trends or hear what others might say/ask about a topic .

2. Listen and ask lots of questions, but, please, please, not as a series of excruciatingly detailed questions after an oral presentation… Avoid being one of those people! You will not be making any friends as you will be wasting everybody else’s Q&A great opportunity by insisting on some detail you only are interested in, and you might publicly demonstrate being the last one still in the dark… Asking the presenter technical details after the session always works best.

3. Best opportunity to make contact with people whose work you have followed. One of my greatest thrills when I started going to international conferences was to put a face on a name I only knew from their scientific reports, likely equivalent to that felt by people meeting their Hollywood favorite stars. Schedule time with these people ahead of time (authors’ contact info is mandatory for published reports, or you can Google any academic), or just plan to be where they are likely to be during the meeting to do some “star-gazing.” Take the opportunity to introduce yourself, be very brief, unless invited to elaborate.

4. Re-connect and stay in touch: Use conferences as an opportunity to touch base with previous colleagues, collaborators, mentors, who now work in different locations. Most people feel safer spending the whole time huddling with their current buddies, but you can do that without having to travel. Schedule meetings that do not interfere too much with the “flow”, e.g. go see them by their poster, after their presentation, attend alumni events, or purposefully schedule coffee, lunch, drink, etc. You can use social networks (e.g., LinkedInTwitterMy Lab Your Lab) to signal you will be attending or send invites. Use these after the meeting to re-connect and stay in touch.

5. Network! Go beyond the “known,” make an effort to strike up a conversation with people you don’t know, even if they do not work in an area directly related you current interests. It is often the best opportunity to learn something truly new and come back with great ideas for novel projects. For instance, ask people what are they working on, what is the most exciting angle/topic to them? By doing this, I became aware of a lot of great concepts that I was then able to connect with my own areas of interest and I also identified new collaborators to help me apply them, similarly, a lot of people found me! An easy recipe for innovation. Don’t forget to exchange contact information. You can also “solidify” new connections by inviting people to become part of your professional network.

Did you have some good tips to share with us?

I probably forgot many tips, but a very important one I have to make sure I don’t forget before going back to refining my overloaded itinerary (and packing)… Wear comfortable shoes!

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No, this is not about Ballmer’s latest marketing campaign, but about evolutionary innovations.

Yes, Steve Ballmer presented the current state of economy characterized by necessity as the cornerstone of the latest Microsoft strategy/marketing campaign on innovation. I did not hear his recent presentation, but I read his column yesterday; I think he refers to IT innovations that would increase efficiency (not innovation) in other sectors. We’ll see how their strategy plays out.

I’ll focus today on the outcome of a strategy apparently implemented… 4 million years ago! After 15 yrs of study, 47 different authors contributed to 11 papers recently published in the October 2009 issue of Science magazine all dedicated to Ardipithecus (“Ardi”) ramidus and her environment. Ardi turned out to be the skeleton of a female who lived in Ethiopia earlier – by more than a million years! – than the previously declared oldest human skeleton, named “Lucy.” A lot of interesting and some quite controversial information came out of these studies.

One of the stories that caught my attention was what I consider a story (yet to be fully proven) of innovation driving the human species to evolve: the new theory about how we became bipedal. Based on anthropological evidence scientists suggested that faced with the crushing competition from the super confident super- successful alpha male for the attention of females, the beta male had to come up with a way to overcome his obvious physical handicap. His innovation was figuring out that he could walk so that he could use his front legs (arms) to bring back food to the females. See a summary. The posting plays on the catchy (walk for) “sex” issue, but we all know that at the root of it all is our survival instinct (at least it was 4 million years ago!). Females also must have collaborated to the string of innovations by making a mental leap as they figured out the value for species survival of a nurturing provider as a desirable alternative to the pure gift of strong physique genes. In the process they together also invented the monogamous bond and the family unit…  I hope you’ll agree that figuring out what women want – 4 million years ago – deserves special recognition by itself!

Couldn’t stop a chuckle thinking of what might have happen if this innovative strategy had not been implemented? (any sci-fi writers out there?) Maybe super sized humans would be still chasing each other on all fours, defending territories and herds, or worse, this race might have become extinct because not enough to go arount to take care of its abundant selfish progeny….

This might look as an ode to “the” innovative beta-male, but let’s quickly recap some of what we seem to have gained from his survival instinct fighting to overcome his physical handicap:

  • We became bipedal
  • We invented the monogamous bond and the concept of the family unit
  • We achieved biological diversity
  • We forced the alpha to adapt to add other offerings to their gift of purely physical attributes

Now, we could extend this thinking about evolutionary pressure to look at the fate of alpha empires, companies, and dictatorial leaders, who based on their significant advantage are driven by arrogance and entitlement. History shows that all eventually crash and burn due to popular rage, or, if they get lucky, they will get subtly replaced by the more innovative new kid(s) on the block: new economies, responsive businesses, thoughtful leaders. The quintessential question “so… does size matter?” could apply here too. My answer: Not if you quit trying to provide value to your constituency: nations, employees, customers, or allies.

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