The Executives Network

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In the book still often credited as being responsible for creating more millionaires than any other, Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937, Napoleon Hill advises readers to assemble a group of masterminds.  He defines the purpose of this group as, “Coordination of knowledge and effort, in a spirit of harmony, between two or more people, for attainment of a purpose.”

Building that network is a lifelong undertaking, yet for most of us, the only time we have energy or make time to invest in building our network is when we’re looking for our next job or client.

Even with the availability of social media, making the time to keep up with people we’ve worked with can be a challenge, particularly when there aren’t enough hours in the day as it is.   I know I’m not alone in admitting that when I’m fully engaged with my work I have little mindshare left to invest in keeping up with my previous clients and colleagues.

However, networking is like exercise … an investment in our future selves.  The more we stay connected to the people with whom we worked, learned from, and with whom we share a common set of experiences, the better we get at what we do.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Finding Balance and Focus: Matching Our Lifestyle Choices to Our Goals

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The congruence of our lifestyle choices with our goals is as much a predictor of whether we’ll meet those goals as it is whether or not we’ll enjoy the journey.

When I was young I could dance the night away, grab a couple hours of sleep, take a shower, drink a cup of coffee, and still show up for work on time and never miss a beat.  It rarely occurred to me how much more effective I could have been on the job with a healthier lifestyle, and when it did, that thought only lasted as long as the next party.

Fortunately, for most of us, the lifestyle choices we make change over time as our careers and families become more important than being the life of the party.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have fun, it’s just what we find fun changes as we mature.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for us to replace the time we spent having fun with time spent working.  Sixteen hour days, fueled by energy drinks, and then a large evening meal, might work in the short term, but not over time.

In our culture, as medical practice has started to shift from “heal your illness” to “keep you well”,  opinions are changing regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle.   In our parents time almost everyone smoked and stopped off for a drink, or several, after work and few people exercised.   Today it’s rare to meet a senior executive who smokes, drinks excessively, and who doesn’t get some form of exercise.

Our culture is also finally beginning to reclaim the need for balance in our sleeping habits.  It wasn’t long ago that someone who claimed he didn’t require more than four or five hours of sleep a night was admired.   We can all get by on four or five hours sleep in the short term, but it doesn’t take long for our judgment and motor skills to become impaired.

Regardless of the responsibilities of our current position we have to adjust our daily activities to insure we have balance.   An executive for an international company can expect conference calls during hours she would typically be asleep as well as some overseas travel so she must figure out how to adjust her sleep pattern.  An executive at a manufacturing company can often expect to be at work before the first shift starts and to be there until that shift ends and the next shift is well underway might take time in the middle of the day for lunch with his spouse or a workout at the gym.

Understanding how to match our lifestyle choices to the requirements of our personal and professional lives gives us the mental and physical energy to perform successfully at work and the fuel we need to enjoy our personal lives.

Isn’t that what it’s really all about?

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Finding Balance and Focus: Being in the Moment

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Meeting the commitments we make to our families or companies is tough enough, but the real challenge is being present in the moment and focused on what’s occurring.

When my son was a toddler and wanted my attention he would walk over to me, reach up, place a little hand on each side of my face, and turn my head so I was looking directly at him.  He’d look directly at me while nodding his head to emphasize each word and say, “I talking to you Mommy.”  He knew how to get my attention when I was distracted – usually thinking about something from work.

I’d like to say that was all it took to bring me back and keep me in the moment.  What I would give now to relive those precious moments, and take back the time I squandered thinking about one thing while trying to do another.

It’s even tougher today with the use of our personal electronic devices.  It’s become acceptable for someone to respond to a text while they’re in the middle of a conversation.   It’s disconcerting enough when we’re the speaker when this occurs and realize the person has no idea what we just said.  It borders on cheap entertainment when they are the speaker and pauses to return a text, then looks up having clearly lost track of what they were talking about in the first place.

I can remember the first time it struck me how few of us are actually present and engaged in what we’re doing.  I was working with a new client and had been asked to attend the weekly executive meeting.

The CEO opened the meeting by reviewing upcoming commitments and inviting each team member to provide a brief update on significant events in his department.  As each executive provided an update, I observed the behavior of the rest of the team.  It didn’t take long to notice that after a team member provided his update he tuned out and begin texting or responding to EMAIL.  As a result  most of the team was tuned out and missed information that could affect their departments and the company as a whole.

I wonder how much more effective we could be and how much less regret we might have if we worked harder on being present in the moment.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Finding Balance and Focus – Negotiating Change to Our Personal and Professional Commitments

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The proportion of time and focus needed by our professional and personal lives changes over time, whether it is due to a sentinel event, such as a promotion, the season, an addition to our family, or something unexpected such as an illness.

Often we try to continue to meet the commitments they made, while trying to cope with a monumental change, and set ourselves up to fail on both the personal and professional front.

When a change in our professional or personal lives occurs, assessing the requirements of the situation is the first step.  Recognizing what we can reliably accomplish is next.  Admitting to ourselves what we can’t do and what we need help to do and communicating that to those depending on us is absolutely necessary.

Recently the project manager of an intense software development effort that had to be completed by the end of the year found himself in just this type of situation.  He was working out of town four days a week when his father’s dementia spiraled out of control.  He made everyone aware of the issue and went home to deal with the problem; however, he continued to try to lead the project.  Since he was not only the project manager, but also a contributor, the project was soon behind, much to the chagrin of the client who was depending upon him, to the detriment of the company he was working for, and the team that was depending on him.

Lest we think poorly of him, this is the rule rather than the exception.  More often than not, we either believe they we’re irreplaceable or that we’ll lose our position if we’re honest about what we can reasonably achieve while we’re dealing with the situation.  What’s unfortunate is by waiting to ask for help we not only lose the opportunity to get the help they need, we fail to achieve the required results. 

This type of situation can also occur in our professional lives.  The President of a company I was working with wisely sat down with his family and discussed with them the project his company was undertaking and the fact that it would mean long hours and periods of intense focus for the next year.  That year stretched to almost two; however, he kept his family up to date with the progress.  Because his family knew what the goal was, and how important it was to the success of the company, they supported him and he was able to focus on achieving the results.    

When we find ourselves in the situation when – regardless of where we are and what we’re doing – we feel guilty about where we aren’t and what we’re not doing, it’s time to renegotiate our commitments.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Finding Balance and Focus – Contingency Planning

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When we have other people dependent upon us in our personal lives, such as children, a significant other, or aging parents, it’s essential we develop contingency plans in case we’re not available, whether it’s for an afternoon or permanently.   

This includes planning for every type of contingency that can occur, thinking through and writing down how it can be mitigated, then using the plan as a back drop for the critical conversations that need to take place and as input to whatever documents are required.  

The issues that require this type planning aren’t limited to our personal lives, they occur in our professional lives and run the gamut from being double booked for two important meetings, taking a needed vacation, earning a well-deserved promotion, or being diagnosed with a long-term illness. 

We’ve all worked at more than one company where everything stops when the owner or CEO is not there. either because no one is empowered or has knowledge of the details necessary to proceed.

Contingency planning requires more than just developing a succession plan – it requires we take the time to develop our team and communicate with our team that we’re doing this on purpose.  

If we find ourselves in the position where we have to cancel a dentist appointment to go to a meeting, or if we forego a planned vacation because we have to be at work, we haven’t been successful in developing the necessary contingency plans.  Additionally, if we have a talented team member who we can’t promote because there’s no one on her team who can serve in her current position, we haven’t emphasized to our team the necessity of them putting the same type of plans in place.

Contingency planning is a responsibility we have to everyone in our personal and professional lives who’s counting on us – let’s not let them down.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Finding Balance and Focus – Dependability Planning

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When asked to describe a colleague or friend have you noticed how often “dependable” is an attribute you mention?  I don’t think I’m alone in saying, if someone is not dependable there’s a low probability they are still a close friend or colleague.

Dependability isn’t an inherent trait.  It’s one we learn, often through paying the price when we haven’t anticipated what could happen if we didn’t develop a dependability plan.

We all know people who charge down the path of life without this type of planning. Unfortunately, when one unexpected event occurs it snowballs, picking up steam as one issue after another piles on until there are consequences.  After a while these folks seem as if they’re going through life with a cloud over their heads and before long they’ve earned a reputation for not being dependable.

Every one of us has had to be away from work or home unexpectedly, or been delayed for one reason or another.  We prevent this from becoming the rule, rather than the exception, when we take the time to develop dependability plans.

The standards for professional dependability is based upon our position and the commitments we make.  For example, in my line of work, I’m required to be where I’m supposed to be, when I’m supposed to be there – which is often at a client site in another city – the first thing Monday morning.

My planning considers the events that are beyond my control for each step of the journey.  Therefore I:

  • Arrange transportation to the airport early enough to compensate for a traffic delay.
  • Arrive at the airport early enough to be able to mitigate the situation if there’s a long security line or a last minute gate change.
  • Reduce the risk of a flight cancellation by not booking a flight that is the last flight of the night.

Although this might seem overkill, I’ve found that mitigating the risks not only reduces my stress level, it’s essential to my professional reputation that I am dependable.

The same holds true for our personal lives.  The proverbial “had to work late and missed the important family event”, over time erodes the trust those of who depend upon us when we’ve made a commitment to be there.  After many years of disappointing those who were important to me I might have finally learned that in my personal life it’s so much better to under-commit and over-deliver … a concept we’re all familiar with professionally, but seldom seem to use professionally.

In my family on birthday’s we honor each person with a gift, selected from a wish list we each keep of something that would delight us, or a special dinner or event.  My oldest son had a show he wanted to see and mentioned what a wonderful birthday event it would be.  I gently reminded him I was working in a city whose weather pattern made my arriving home each weekend, unpredictable.  He understood immediately.

The beauty of this is the weekend the show is in town if I make it in on time, and there are still tickets available, and he has no other plans, I can surprise him at the last minute.  This would make the experience much more exciting, and I’ve eliminated the possibility that I’ll disappoint him.   By promising less, I might be able to give him more.

Dependability is more than just showing up, however, it’s showing up prepared and doing what you say you’ll do when you say you’re going to do it.   It’s having your part of the annual report drafted ahead of time so you can continue to improve upon it, making certain your monthly status report is prepared and proofed before it’s due, it’s checking the connection before the important conference call, and not needing to be constantly reminded.

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of watching more than one talented executive miss a promotion or sabotage his career by missing a deadline.  These problems could have easily been prevented by not procrastinating until the last minute.

Procrastinating affects our personal lives as well.  Calling our friend the day after his birthday, not picking up our significant other’s suit from the cleaners, not keeping up with our mail or our budget … all of these have consequences, none of them favorable.

Working to become dependable when we’ve let things get out of control is tough.  It’s the proverbial, “One step at a time.”   If you’re in this situation stop right now and make a list of the things you can get done today to get out of this cycle.  Now do those things, but keep the list. At the end of the day review the list and separate those things that are one-time and those things that are recurring.

Our goal should be to make routine those tasks that are recurring to ensure we get them done and find ways to significantly reduce the time it takes to complete them.  For example if every week you need to go to the grocery store, ATM, cleaners, and get gas for your car, find places that are on the way home from work, select the day you’ll do those things on your way home from work and knock them out.

Sometimes slowing down the lag time and frequency when we respond slows down the amount of input we receive that requires a response.  EMAIL, Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, etc. all react to the cadence of our responses.  By slowing down our responses, but being consistent about when we’ll respond, we can buy back some valuable time.  We aren’t obligated to comment on yet another funny cat video, although it’s fun to, but not at the expense of what we really care about.

Being reliable involves a dozen little choices every day..  The payoff comes when we have an emergency that prevents us from meeting a commitment.  When we’ve been consistent in being dependable we’re got enough stock of goodwill to weather the proverbial storm.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Finding Balance and Focus

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A colleague of mind recently shared an article on LinkedIn.  Written by John Eades the article, The People You Should Lead For, includes the Dale Partridge quote, “Success at work without success at home, isn’t success at all.”

As executives, we’re the leaders who have the ability insure the corporate culture we create in our organization promotes that concept.  We have to “walk the walk” in order to demonstrate what that means and to insure our own lives reflect those expectations.

Over the next six weeks this blog will explore methods for finding balance and focus between our personal and professional lives.

Setting Expectations. 

At each stage of our careers, our personal lives and the lives of our families, we have different requirements for how we spend our time.  Understanding those requirements to determine how to manage our time so we can be successful is a first step.  Discussing this with our significant other and family, then listening to what they need, is the next.

Setting expectations with those we work with is also essential because unless we develop a shared definition of success, both at home and at work, we run the risk of our best never being good enough.

Wisdom in developing those agreements goes a long way toward supporting our good intentions.  Negotiating for one night a week to work late or bring work home can help insure success and demonstrates a level of commitment at work.  Committing to being home in time to help prepare and enjoy a family dinner, or participate in family activities on the remaining nights, goes a long way to promoting family harmony.

Once we broker agreements, both at work and at home, we need to honor those commitments.  Scoring a home run at work and missing dinner, if that was the commitment, sets up the potential for hurt feelings and resentment.  Conversely, missing an important deadline at work while going out to lunch and leaving on time every day sets a poor example that can cause the people we work with to see us as undependable.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Achieving the Stated Purpose and Driving Results

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We all know the tools and practices that, when used, make meetings effective; however, when we’re meeting with the same people day after day and year after year, the overhead associated with preparing for and following up on every meeting can feel like wasted time.

However, as someone who’s made a living coaching executive teams to meet stretch goals – I observed that every executive team who consistently used the following tools and practices (either before or after a consulting engagement) achieved, if not exceeded their goals.

Agenda:  Every meeting should have an agenda –even if it’s a recurring meeting and the agenda is written on a white board.  The agenda should include the purpose for the meeting, what topics will be covered, who’s responsible for each, a review of action items, and a brief time at the end of the meeting to assess the meeting’s efficacy.

The act of preparing an agenda allows the leader or facilitator the opportunity to organize the material prior to the meeting and think through the specifics.  Distributing the agenda prior to the meeting allows and implies that each attendee know the purpose of the meeting and what they’re responsible for presenting or discussing.

Time:  Meetings that start and end at the top of the hour typically insure that those attendees who have a meeting in the next time slot are late.  A simple remedy is scheduling meetings to start at the top of the hour but limiting meetings to 50 minutes instead of an hour.

Because meetings can consume so much time, many companies have implemented a block of time each day that’s meeting free to allow their employees a full block of time each day to focus on their particular task at hand.   Other companies have gone even further and designated a day each week and made it meeting free.

Intuitively, either of these practices should improve productivity as they reduce the need for employees to multitask.  Most of what’s been written, however, focuses on a resultant improvement in employee morale – in many companies a desired outcome.

Metrics:  There should be a metric or set of metrics that drives the focus of every meeting.

This is the practice that, when implemented in a company where it previously hadn’t been used, gets the most pushback but also gets the most dramatic results.

Often the pushback comes from a previous experience when the metrics used didn’t directly tie activities to results.  Many companies get so enamored with metrics that they take on a life of their own.  What started out as a great idea can result in page after page of metrics that are expensive and time consuming to produce.

The Goal,  (Eli Goldratt, Green River Press, 1984)  written in 1984 about the principles of manufacturing the basic premise is that the goal of every business is to make money.

Using Eli’s premise, any meeting whose purpose is to ensure the business makes money can be measured.  The weekly Chief Operating Officer’s staff meeting can review cost of goods sold, on-time deliveries, and cost of poor quality.  The Vice President of Sales staff meeting reports year to date sales against plan.  Even the Planning Committee for the Christmas party can review employee attendance to turnover, year over year, against venues and types of parties.

Action Items:  Every action item, to whom it’s assigned and a commitment date for completion should be captured at each meeting.  Each meeting should also include a review of the open action items.  When an action item is closed, a brief description of the resolution should be entered either in the minutes or in an actions complete register.

Score:  At the end of each meeting, each attendee (except the facilitator) should be asked to provide a score.  That score should be published in the meeting minutes for that meeting.

The responsibility of scoring a meeting forces each of us to weigh in on what we’re doing well and where we can improve as a team.  When we’re not asked our opinion we can leave a meeting with an idea for improving a lingering annoyance unspoken.

The leader or facilitator of the team should consider those comments and look for opportunities to incorporate the suggestions into future meetings.

One of the most telling comments that demonstrates this phenomenon is one that’s sometimes used as a criticism of consultants: “You haven’t told me anything I didn’t know.”

What’s so telling about that comment is that, many times a consultant is telling you what you already knew because, for some reason, the leader of the team didn’t address a known issue or a team member didn’t speak up and ask that the issue be addressed.

Minutes:  Minutes should be published for every meeting by the end of the day the meeting takes place.  Minutes don’t need to be elaborate or time consuming to prepare.  All that’s really necessary is who attended, what decisions were made, the meeting score and comments.  The updated action item list should be included with the minutes.

Taking a few extra minutes to draft an agenda for the next meeting and including it with the distribution of the minutes allows team members to review the proposed agenda and provide input setting up a cycle of improvement for subsequent meetings.

There are other tools and practices in place in most organizations that help insure meetings are effective and organizational goals are met but this is the set that seems to be the predictor for accomplishing stretch goals.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in early 2017.

Establishing the Right Meeting Order and Times

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The order and times of our recurring meetings is as important as the content of our meetings.

A client I was working with had a meeting every morning with the senior people responsible for completing a complex software project.  The workday began at 7:00 AM so the meeting was scheduled for 8:00 to give the people attending “The Breakfast Club” time to clear EMAILS and check in with their teams to complete what had been done the day before.

At this meeting each morning the team reviewed progress against plan and often made decisions to temporarily move engineers from one team to another or to give a team priority on the testing system.

Meanwhile the engineers were heads down working on the direction that had come out of the meeting the day before.  When “The Breakfast Club” adjourned, typically about 9:30, the new direction would be provided, often negating the work that had been done by several hundred people in the first several hours of each day.

By changing that meeting to occur only once a week and at the end of the workday, they immediately increased the velocity of their progress and reduced rework significantly.   It also reduced the amount of time first level managers, a critical success factor in software development, were in meetings.

This is by no means an uncommon phenomenon.  In most organizations at least 10% of the recurring meetings are held at a time that’s suboptimal.

Fortunately, this is easily remedied – at least when reviewing just our meetings.  It takes little effort to plot them out, define the inputs and outputs and ensure the information flows in a coherent manner through all of our meetings.

It takes a synchronized effort when completing this exercise for an executive team or for a department, but the benefits far exceed the effort required, particularly when the meetings of multiple levels of an organization are synchronized.

If you’ve ever been sitting in a meeting wishing the information you’ve just been provided had been available in your last meeting or before you’d made a decision that you might have reconsidered if this information had been available you can identify with the need to establish the right meeting order and times.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in early 2017.

 

Reduce Your Time in Meetings by Establishing the Right Set of Meetings

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For more than twenty years I’ve been a road warrior.  You can find me most Sunday afternoons boarding a plane to ensure I can be at my client’s site first thing Monday morning.  Friday afternoons I fly home for a fast paced weekend, largely focused on doing the basic chores and errands necessary to keep my life running smoothly and carving out time to spend with my family.

Between engagements I catch up with my friends, take a class, go to the gym, write, and reengage with the professional, civic, and charitable organizations I support.  Since my calendar is completely open when I come off the road, I quickly make commitments with my family for regular dinners each week.  I sign up for a yoga and a Zumba class.  I make plans every Wednesday with a networking group.  Not surprisingly, it typically takes me less than six weeks to find I have over committed, leaving absolutely no time for myself.

This is the same phenomena that happens to most executives.  When we start a new position we have an open calendar.  As we settle into the role we start adding recurring meetings to our calendar.  Just like our personal lives, soon we find our calendars so full we have no time to work on what’s important.

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002) puts meetings into four categories and offers sound advice about each:

  1. Daily Check-In: This is a 5 – 15 minute stand-up meeting with our direct reports or with project teams.   Each person takes a minute or two to tell their colleagues what they accomplished since they met the previous day and what they intend to accomplish today.           

This process, also called short-interval management, or short interval scheduling, was long the “secret sauce” of management consultants.  They learned that if they had each individual in a team report out what they intended to accomplish each day, there was a higher probability they’d make their commitment.

  1. Staff Meeting: This is a 30-45 minute weekly meeting with our direct reports.  He recommends holding it around a conference table and starting the meeting by going around the room, giving each person 30 seconds to tell what they’re working on or what they’re thinking about.  

He goes on to say, this should be followed by a review of where the team is against their goals and the tactics to ensure those goals are achieved.  I’ve found that developing and reviewing a weekly dashboard to be the most effective method of objectively reviewing progress against goals.

  1. Big Topics/Strategic Topics: These are ad hoc meetings scheduled to work on specific projects or topics.

These are the meetings that drive he cadence of a company’s “grow” or “improve” the business initiatives.  Because these meetings are usually attended by project teams representing multiple functional areas who may have not previously worked together it’s essential that the leader or facilitator be experienced in leading this type of meeting. 

  1. Quarterly Review: This meeting, held quarterly, is a full review of the business performance, strategy, and major initiatives. 

5.  I would add to his set a Weekly Meeting with each direct report.  This meeting should be held at the same time each week.  The agenda should be flexible as the purpose of this meeting is to allow each of your direct reports “face” time with the boss.

Each type of meeting has a different set of requirements and norms   For example, the agenda for a Daily Check-In meeting is usually written on a white board or piece of butcher block paper, agendas for weekly meetings are typically the same week over week, and agendas for Big Topics/Strategic Topics are based upon where the team is in the process.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in early 2017.