How Leadership Turning Points Can Change Your Direction

Fork In The Road

Make the Most of Leadership Moments

Turning points. Leadership moments. Whatever you call them, all of us have experiences that change us.

Bernie Swain has had a backstage pass into the lives of numerous public figures ranging from US presidents to business leaders to sports legends. As the founder of Washington Speakers Bureau, he has interacted with, listened to, and learned from many celebrities and leaders.

 

“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.” –Richard Bach

 

His new book, What Made Me Who I Am, takes us behind the scenes of these incredible lives to ask them about their turning points.

As we listen to their stories, what can we learn about our own lives?

What lessons of our own potential can be gleaned from these experiences?

 

Control Your Destiny

You open your book discussing turning points, those moments in life when everything changes. Your book is about these moments. Tell me about that moment in your life.

Funny thing about the turning points, they can be obscure and go unnoticed if we don’t pay attention. That happened to me. It is the lesson I learned.

Bernie SwainAs a graduate student, I’d worked as assistant director of a local community swimming pool. It was a good job, and the summer income was important to pay for graduate school. About once a week, usually a Friday or Saturday, we would keep the staff after closing and have a few beers. It wasn’t exactly allowed, but the director of the pool, who I had known since I was twelve, saw it as a morale booster and looked the other way. One night we decided to invite more friends than usual. About an hour into the party, a member of the board who lived nearby noticed the overhead pool lights and called the pool director. When he arrived, he closed down the party. I was fired the next day and replaced by the daughter of the board member, who had arrived home from college the day before.

Although I routinely dismissed the incident and had my share of laughs about it over the years, my wife Paula understood I was troubled by it. She knew I’d never really be happy unless my success or failure was in my own hands. “You will never be truly happy or confident in your future if you can’t make your own decisions and control your own destiny,” she told me.

That was all it took to undo a 15-year career on the verge of being a success; the power of passion.

 

“Follow your dreams. They know the way.” –Yohi Yamada

 

Imagine your life if you had lived your childhood dream and become a baseball player. What wisdom would that Bernie Swain be sharing? Do you think your life would have been as fulfilling?

I was happy with my career in athletics. Would I have loved being a baseball player? Yes, of course. But then what? Maybe I would have transferred my passion to doing something else, but maybe not. Life has a way of taking us to many forks in the road. Our lives are full of influences and defining moments, turning points. A mentor in high school put me on my career path, and one seemingly unimportant event at a summer swimming pool changed everything. All things considered, I found a passion that made me wake up every morning excited about a new day. And nothing is more important than that.

 

“All dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” –Walt Disney

 

Combine Passion with Honesty

Your incredible business had humble beginnings. Go back to that closet for a moment. Why was it that your agency took off and endured when so many competitors disappeared? What can other entrepreneurs learn from your experience?

Agencies like ours, even Hollywood agencies, don’t stay on top for long. In the lecture business, it is about 10 years. Why did we become No. 1 and remain there for the last 27 years? Honesty and trust! Whether it was because we mistakenly agreed to a handshake deal with our first speaker and then with all speakers, or we had a built-in desire to do things the right way, we were honest, hardworking and trustworthy. The lesson for other entrepreneurs? Find your passion and always do what, in your heart, you know is the right thing to do. Passion and honesty, it is a great combination.

 

Learn a Powerful Lesson from Robert Reich

You’ve interacted with some of the most successful people in the world for over 25 years—presidents, sports heroes, actors and authors, on and on. The book is full of their stories, a peek behind the curtain. Off the top of your head, is there one story that you consider a ‘must-read’? Why?What Made Me Who I Am

There are a number that I love, but probably the story of Robert Reich. 4”11” tall, he was bullied through his school years. Uninterested in current events and politics entering college, he devoted a life to equality and justice for others to honor the life of another boy who protected him and who was killed during the civil rights movement in the south.

“When I was a vulnerable child, Mickey protected me from harm. I, in turn, feel a responsibility to protect others. I was honored to know him, and I hope, in some small way, that my life’s work honors his idealism, his courage, and his sacrifice.”

It is an amazing story of a life dramatically changed.

 

Use Failures to Win

Failing is a turning point for many. When I talk about failure, who comes to mind? What did you take away from that?

In my book, I write this about Lou Holtz: “I’m not special, and I’m not particularly smart. I haven’t found any magical formula for success. But what I do know is, adversity is part of life, no matter who you are, what your age, and what you do. You will never outgrow or outlive it, but you can be motivated by it. As I have learned along the way, you have two choices in life: you either stay down or pick yourself up. In life and football, you can’t count on anyone else picking you up. Georgia or Michigan State isn’t going to call and say, ‘Coach, you don’t have a quarterback, let me send you one.’

Rarely can you find a truer statement. Almost every day in our first year could be described as a failure. We could have given up at any point. If you can find your true passion in life, and that takes some soul searching, you develop a never-give-up attitude. I never thought once about quitting. But that will not be true for entrepreneurs who lack real passion.

 

“Failure is good as long as it doesn’t become a habit.” –Michael Eisner

 

5 Common Traits of Successful People

Embrace Your Natural Leadership Strengths

Eagle

Embrace Your Strengths

If you want to be a successful leader, don’t focus too much time and attention on weaknesses. Whether as an individual or as a team, it’s more productive to leverage strengths.

Leadership coach Bill Munn helps us do that with his innovative assessment tools and management training. For over 25 years, he has helped leaders uncover their natural characteristics to influence others. I recently spoke with him about his new book, Why Make Eagles Swim? Embracing Natural Strengths in Leadership & Life.

 

“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.” –Napoleon Hill

 

The Difference Between Skills and Attributes

I’m a big believer in managing to strengths, and your book provides a set of tools for doing this effectively. What’s a quick definition of an attribute? How is that different from a skill?

An attribute is an inherent, instinctive trait. Think of it like the wiring of a person’s internal microchip. Attributes determine our perceptions of the world and the way we behave toward it.

It’s not surprising that people can sometimes confuse attributes with skills. Here’s the key: skills are learned and practiced rather than instinctive.

For example, a person with a high Relational attribute exhibits an innate sensitivity to other people and their feelings. This person can’t help but feel sad when others are sad, happy when others are happy, etc. That’s not a skill; it’s a natural attribute.

Now let’s say that this same person wants to really leverage her Relational attribute, so she decides to practice some related skills. She might choose to hone her effective listening skills, to help her tune into other people for even more profound insight.

In this way, skills can enhance our strongest attributes. But they’ll never replace those innate characteristics.

 

“Skills enhance our strongest attributes.” – Bill Munn

The Myth of Well-Roundedness

You talk about 3 forces that fuel some negative biases. Let’s focus on #1: the myth of well-roundedness. It seems that this appears everywhere. Why is this one damaging to professional growth?

The myth of well-roundedness pervades our world today—this idea that we’re somehow supposed to be good at everything. What a damaging theory! That’s not how we’re built.

Just look at the most successful people—those you know, those in the public eye, those who have defined history. They’re full of flaws and failures, and they’re full of greatness. Do they become successful by trying to become well rounded? No. They focus on what they’re great at, so they are great.

 

“Successful living requires prioritizing.” –Bill Munn

 

The fact is, successful living requires prioritizing. If we were immortal, we could waste years trying to get a little better at our challenge attributes. But we have limited time. And if we focus on optimizing our power-alley attributes, we’ll see a much higher return on investment for the effort expended. Our teams and companies benefit much more from this approach—not to mention our own careers (and personal lives).

Think of it this way: An eagle could probably improve its swim stroke a bit, to become a more “well rounded” creature. But with that same effort, think what it could do for its flight speed and soaring height. So when was the last time you saw an eagle working on its backstroke?

 

“Don’t become a wandering generality. Be a meaningful specific.” –Zig Ziglar

 

Never! I love that example. Would you share an example or two of an attribute from the inventory?

Developer is our term for one who naturally encourages, teaches, and prioritizes other people’s growth and development. This person prefers working behind the scenes, rather than getting the spotlight for himself. Actually, Skip, Developers make great leadership bloggers—or coaches, teachers, mentors, etc. They’re also great leaders, because when people care about your growth, you want to follow them.

A Logician perceives the world in terms of cause, effect, and logic. She assumes that events flow rationally and that people do things for logical reasons. (As you can imagine, she’s an opposing attribute to the Relational we talked about earlier, who is so tuned into emotion and other “illogical” factors.) The Logician looks for data and analytics to describe situations and assumes that solutions lie in the facts.

  

How do I find out my own high and low attributes, my profile?

We actually use an array of tools to do this, including a questionnaire, assessment, and analysis exercises that you can do on your own or with a partner.  The goal of all these tools is to help you define your own profile, which will consist of a few different categories:

  • Power-alley attributes: Your most natural traits, the attributes you basically exhibit no matter what – in fact, it would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) for you to avoid demonstrating these traits.
  • Functional attributes: These attributes (which we break down further into 3 functional levels) are like tools you keep in the garage rather than on your tool belt – they’re available to you, but it takes a bit of extra effort to access them.
  • Challenge attributes: These are the 1 or 2 attributes at the bottom of your list – the things that you just don’t do really well, no matter how hard you work at it. 

Why Make Eagles SwimWhen I’m working with others, knowing their attributes is as important as knowing my own. What’s the best way to do this (if I can’t have them take a test)?

This is where our tools for listening (and watching) for revelation become so valuable. Since our attributes are inherent and ingrained, we reveal them constantly in the things we do and say.

It’s analogous to a radio station constantly broadcasting. But to hear it, we have to tune in. Same with people. We constantly “broadcast” our attributes through our descriptions of events, our stories about people we liked or disliked, our reactions to outside stimuli – in short, through our response to life events.

Effective listening focuses on accurately tuning into the content of what the speaker says. That’s essential and always important. Listening for revelation, however, is an additional step that goes beyond content and unearths the speaker’s attributes.

It’s impossible to overstate how powerful this type of listening is.

 

“Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” –Alan Alda

 

Create More A More Effective Team

How do I use this to create more effective teams? 

First, you teach your team that the attributes they find so irritating in others are actually the very traits (and people) best positioned to help them better perform, grow, and develop.

Second, you emphasize that there are no “good” or “bad” attributes. Each attribute brings something important and valuable to the table. This perspective helps people become intrigued by others’ behaviors. Team members soon stop thinking in terms of who they “like” and start supporting one another in incredible ways.

That’s the big picture. There are also many nuts-and-bolts tools for applying this concept in building, balancing, and growing your teams—team attribute matrices, team-building ideas, hiring practices, etc.

 

3 Times to Pair Opposites Together

5 Communication Mistakes Too Many Leaders Make

Audience Applauding Speaker At Business Conference
This is a guest post by Alison Davis, CEO of Davis and Company, an employee communication firm helping companies improve employee engagement. You can also follow her on Twitter.

 

5 Communication Mistakes

Congratulations! You’ve been promoted or successfully built your business, and now you’re a leader.

But now the hard work is ahead, especially when it comes to communicating with your employees. That’s because almost everything you learned as a manager doesn’t apply any more.

While manager communication focuses on the task at hand, leaders have a broader role: to articulate where the organization is heading, clarify what employees need to do to help the organization succeed, and share progress and accomplishments.

The good news is that when you fulfill your communication role, employees become motivated to do their best work. Employees want to connect with their senior leaders and feel engaged in the company’s strategic direction. Hearing from the boss is a key driver of satisfaction.

But leaders often lack the clarity, time and skills they need to communicate effectively. As a result, they make these 5 communication mistakes:

 

“Communication is the real work of leadership.” -Nitin Nohria

 

Mistake #1: Disappear.

You feel like you spend the whole day in meetings: one-on-one sessions, team meetings, large-group conferences. So it seems you’re always in front of the people who work for you. But if you analyze who you spend time with, you’d realize that you’re visible to only a small percentage of employees. And the larger and more spread out your organization is, the greater the likelihood that many employees rarely see you.

What to do differently: You need a communication plan designed to provide maximum visibility, given your time available. The best practice is to schedule a mix of:

  • An all-hands or town hall meeting at least once a quarter
  • Briefings with managers several times a year
  • Informal sessions (you can call them “coffee chats”) with small groups of employees at least six times a year. These chats are more about hearing from staff members than delivering a message.
  • Presence on electronic channels. For example, if you’ve got an internal social networking platform, participate in online conversations. Or create written or video messages on an intranet site.
  • Showing up and walking around. These informal “sightings”—having lunch with a few people in the cafeteria, touring a new facility—are very valuable for demonstrating that you’re in touch with what’s happening.

 

“Presence is more than just being there.” –Malcolm Forbes

 

Mistake #2: Use “CEO Speak”

One of your key functions as a leader is to think about the long-term strategy. But because you focus so much on the big picture, it’s easy to forget that although employees are smart, they’re also overloaded with information. And employees don’t see issues from the same 35,000-foot perspective leaders do—they’re standing at ground level, trying to focus on what they need to do right now. So when you share information that’s strictly high-level, it doesn’t resonate.

What to do differently: Make your messages simple, tangible and relatable. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing we need employees to know this month, this quarter or this year? To understand? To do differently?” Then focus on providing employees with the core information they need most.

 

Communication Tip: Focus on providing only the core information people need.

 

Mistake #3: Get the timing wrong

One of leaders’ toughest communication challenges is managing timing. If you wait too long to share information, you run the risk that employees already know what you’re now revealing—which affects credibility. But communicating too soon can also be a problem. For example, when leaders have been working behind the scenes on a big change like a reorganization, they start to become impatient, feeling they should tell employees something. So they announce that the company will reorganize soon and more will be shared later. The result? You create anxiety because employees don’t know exactly how they will be affected. It’s better to sit tight until all the details are set.

What to do differently: Focus on how and when employees will be affected, and time communication to meet employees’ need to know, not your need to tell.

 

“Life is about timing.” –Carl Lewis

 

Mistake #4: Do all the talking

Many leaders associate “communicating” with sharing information. As a result, they plan town hall meetings that have 50 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of Q&A. But when my firm asks employees what they need from leaders, here’s what they say:

  • “More open dialogue with top management.”
  • “I obviously want to hear from leaders, but it’s also important that leaders listen to us.”

What to do differently: One of the most effective ways to create more employee engagement is to communicate in a way that encourages employees to participate. And a key ingredient is the ability of leaders to engage employees in two-way communication.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the least effective way to begin a Q&A session is by saying, “Does anyone have any questions?” This question sets the expectation that only people who don’t understand something that has been shared will speak up.

Instead, try saying this: “Based on what I’ve just told you, what will be the hardest aspects to accomplish?” This approach creates two-way communication in a way that makes people more comfortable about participating.

 

Leadership Tip: Don’t ask for questions. Instead, encourage an immediate two-way communication.

How to Capture Attention, Build Trust and Close the Sale

Tell me a story

The Power of Story

All of us love a good story. We are swept into the latest book or blockbuster film or we are enthralled by a particularly talented storyteller in our office. Those who tell a story well have our attention.

Leaders should strive to be good storytellers, painting a vivid scene and picture of what’s ahead. That’s the art of persuasion and influence. It’s also the skill of most sales leaders, who use narratives to explain a difficult concept. We are creatures who love a good story.

 

“At the end of the day, people follow those who know where they’re going.” -Jack Trout

 

I know that I may review spreadsheets and be dizzied with statistics, but one emotionally connecting story can have more immediate impact.

Former Procter & Gamble executive Paul Smith is now a speaker and trainer on storytelling techniques. His latest book, Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale, attracted my attention. Because I’m a big believer in the power of story, I wanted to connect with him to talk about his work.

 

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

 

Stories Influence and Persuade

You witnessed, first-hand, the power of a sales story when you purchased some art. Would you briefly share that with us?9780814437117

Sure. Last summer my wife, Lisa, and I were at an art show in Cincinnati. She was on a mission to find a piece for our boys’ bathroom wall at home.

At one point we found ourselves at the booth of an underwater photographer named Chris Gug. Looking through his work, Lisa got attached to a picture that, to me, looked about as out of place as a pig in the ocean. It was a picture of a pig in the ocean! Literally. A cute little baby piglet, up to its nostrils in salt water, snout covered with sand, dog-paddling its way straight into the camera lens.

When I got my chance, I asked the seller (named Gug) what on Earth that pig was doing in the ocean. And that’s when the magic started.

He said, “Yeah, it was the craziest thing. That picture was taken in the Caribbean, just off the beach of an uninhabited Bahamian island named Big Major Cay.” He told us that years ago, a local entrepreneur brought a drove of pigs to the island to raise for bacon.

Then he said, “But, as you can see in the picture, there’s not much more than cactus on the island for them to eat. And pigs don’t much like cactus. So the pigs weren’t doing very well. But at some point, a restaurant owner on a nearby island started bringing his kitchen refuse by boat over to Big Major Cay and dumping it a few dozen yards off shore. The hungry pigs eventually learned to swim to get to the food. Each generation of pigs followed suit, and now all the pigs on the island can swim. As a result, today the island is more commonly known as Pig Island.”

Gug went on to describe how the pigs learned that approaching boats meant food, so they eagerly swim up to anyone arriving by boat. And that’s what allowed him to more easily get the close-up shot of the dog-paddling piglet. He probably didn’t even have to get out of his boat.

I handed him my credit card and said, “We’ll take it!”

Why my change of heart? The moment before he shared his story (to me at least), the photo was just a picture of a pig in the ocean, worth little more than the paper it was printed on. But two minutes later, it was no longer just a picture. It was a story—a story I would be reminded of every time I looked at it. The story turned the picture into a conversation piece—a unique combination of geography lesson, history lesson, and animal psychology lesson all in one.

In the two minutes it took Gug to tell us that story, the value of that picture increased immensely. It’s the kind of story that I now refer to as a “value-adding” story because it literally makes what you’re selling more valuable to the buyer.

 

“Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” –John Barth

 

5 Reasons Stories Matter

Why is story telling so important?

I could probably give you dozens of reasons, but here are my favorite 5.

  1. Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made– Human beings make subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational decisions in one place in the brain and then justify those decisions rationally and logically in another place. So if you’re trying to influence buyers’ decisions, using facts and rational arguments alone isn’t enough. You need to influence them emotionally, and stories are your best vehicle to do that.
  2. Stories are more memorable– Lots of studies show that facts are easier to remember if they’re embedded in a story than if they’re just given to you in a list. And you can prove that to yourself right now. All of you reading this know that by this time tomorrow you won’t remember this list of 5 things. But you will remember the story of Pig Island. And next week, next month, or next year, you’ll be able to tell the Pig Island story and get most of the facts right. But you won’t remember any of the 5 things in this list.
  3. Stories can increase the value of the product you’re selling– as you saw in the Pig Island story.
  4. Stories are contagious– When’s the last time you heard someone say, “Wow! You’ll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw!” Never. But they do say that about a great story.
  5. Storytelling gives you a chance to be original– Most buyers have seen every pitch, tactic, and closing line in the book. They’ve heard them from you, your competitors, and the last three people who had your job. Storytelling gives you a chance to go “off script” and say something they won’t hear from anyone else.

 

Many people may think, “Oh sure, a sales person should be a good story teller.” But you turn that around and say it’s more important to have a buyer tell their story. I love that. Tell us more about that.

I figure if you don’t hear their stories first, how will you know which of your stories to tell?

A colleague of ours, Mike Weinberg, says it this way: “You wouldn’t trust a physician who walked into the examining room, spent an hour telling you how great he was, and then wrote a prescription, would you?” Of course not. Then why would a buyer accept the recommendation of a salesperson who did the same thing?

 

How to Get Others to Tell Their Stories