Category Archives: Leadership

How’s your leadership? The self audit

My inspiration for this article is a Twitter conversation with Dr. Deepak Malhotra‏ (@HeadHR_Deepak) after last week’s Power-of-Connection chat session. (#PoCChat takes place on Mondays at 15:00 GMT, and I’d love to have you join us.)

Dr. Malhotra encouraged us to perform self-audits to help us become more effective as leaders. He provided the following outline; I’ve filled in each step with my own thoughts.

Man looking at himself in a mirror

Image credit: What Shih Said (WordPress: whatshihsaid.com/)

What leaders do I admire?

Write down the names of four or five leaders you admire. They can be famous or obscure, historical, contemporary, or even fictional. They can be people in charge of large organizations or people who simply lead by example. They can be Abraham Lincoln or your first boss. Warren Buffet or Captain Kirk.

It’s best if at least a couple of your choices are people you know and who have influenced you directly. In any case, all of your choices should be people whose leadership styles you know well.

What attributes do I admire in those leaders?

Now that you know which leaders you admire, it’s time to figure out what it is about them that you admire. It’s like asking What makes these leaders effective? But it’s more personal. Leaders can be effective in ways you appreciate but don’t admire or even approve of.

You’re looking specifically for attributes you hold in high regard, and your list will be yours alone. Maybe you admire charisma, or compassion, or strength of character. You should be able to explain, in a sentence or two, why you admire each of the attributes you pick.

Which of those attributes do I want to emulate?

Narrow it down even further: out of the attributes you admire, which ones do you think you’re capable of pulling off?

I worked with an executive who had military-style self discipline: always dressed impeccably, shoes shined, every hair in place. It gave him an air of authority, and I admired him for it. But it was completely not my style.

Other attributes, no matter how admirable, come with a cost. For example, if you resolve to be honest at all times, no matter what, sooner or later you’ll make somebody mad. You might encounter resistance. Ask yourself if it’s worth the cost.

By now you should have a fairly short list of attributes, maybe three or four, that you admire and are willing to develop. If you’re list of attributes is longer, you’ll find it hard to stay focused as you seek to grow as a leader.

How am I doing?

Now that you have a list, measure your performance in each area. Don’t compare yourself to the leaders you admire — that’s an awfully high bar. Instead, decide what level you’re capable of reaching, and measure yourself against that standard.

If honesty is one of the attributes you chose to develop, think back over the last few weeks. Was there a time when honesty was called for, and you demurred? What happened? What thoughts and emotions led you to react the way you did?

If I’m falling short in any area, why? What can I do to improve?

You’ll probably find that you’re already strong in some of the areas you’ve decided to emulate. Many of us admire in others the same characteristics we see in ourselves.

There’ll be other areas, however, where you’re falling short. When you needed to be honest but you weren’t, how could you have handled the situation better? When a similar situation arises again, what might you try doing differently — or what can you say to yourself — to bring about a better result?

Going forward

I’m looking forward to diving more deeply into this. I think it’s going to be fun: recalling leaders who’ve changed my life for the better, and finding attributes in them that I can aspire to.

Dr. Malhotra, if you’re reading this, I hope I’ve faithfully captured the essence of what you meant when you described the self audit.

Everyone: Do you perform self audits of your leadership? If so, what techniques have you found helpful?

Lottie Applewhite: friend, colleague, exemplar

Some of the greatest leaders lead without having Manager or Executive in their job titles. We call them exemplars.

lottieaLottie Applewhite passed away on May 15, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC. She was a technical editor for many decades. She loved her work, she took it seriously, and she was very good at it.

But that tells only a small part of the story. Lottie set an example with her conscientious and diligent work. She advised and encouraged countless colleagues, from the most distinguished to the least. No matter who you were, Lottie greeted you with a welcoming smile and then gave you her undivided attention.

STC (the Society for Technical Communication) honored Lottie as a Fellow — the highest honor it bestows on a member. In the late ’90s STC chose to honor 10 of its most distinguished Fellows as exemplars — and, fittingly, Lottie was one of them. It was the perfect word to describe her.

Lottie lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area before moving to Chapel Hill around 1990. A few years later I attended an event hosted by the STC San Francisco chapter. When they found out where I was from, several of them clustered around and asked me to tell Lottie how much they missed her, how much they wished she were still there.

Shortly after coming to North Carolina, Lottie met Diane Feldman, a young editor, and took Diane under her wing. Diane, who went on to have her own exemplary career, always credited Lottie’s friendship and mentoring as big factors in her success.

Writing in Carolina Communiqué, the Carolina chapter newsletter, Diane described their relationship:

When I expressed an interest in her work as an author’s editor of medical manuscripts, she consented to share her extensive expertise with me. And so I joined the ranks of the hundreds of people who have been inspired and invigorated, amused and amazed, motivated and mentored by Lottie Applewhite. I’ll attempt to capture just a few of the qualities that secure her place as a most memorable character in the eyes of nearly everyone she meets.

Intellectual curiosity. When Lottie wraps her mind around something, whether it’s a medical manuscript, a recipe, or the personal problem of a friend, she probes to learn the “why” behind the “what.”

Rigorous professional standards. Lottie will always take the extra step — from making a special trip to the library to asking help from an expert — to ensure that the work she delivers is of the highest quality.

Genuine love and respect for others. If Lottie has a criticism to deliver, she does so in a way that makes you grateful for the attention. If you have done something that she appreciates, she will always let you know — often in the form of a note or a letter.

Generosity of spirit. Even when she has dozens of projects requiring her attention, Lottie will take the time to help and to teach. She does not hold close the expertise she has acquired, but shares it willingly with those who call upon her for information or assistance.

Joie de vivre. This is the most important secret of Lottie’s success. She embraces life fully, with energy and enthusiasm. Whatever the project, you know that if Lottie is involved there are going to be a lot of laughs. I have had the pleasure and privilege to learn much about my trade from Lottie Applewhite. Her professional expertise is uncommonly valuable, but the life lessons she teaches by her example are priceless.

The words are Diane’s, and I can attest to their veracity. Lottie leaves her imprint on hundreds of technical communicators who are better professionals, and better people, for having known her.

If I can leave even a tiny fraction of the legacy that Lottie has left, I’ll have been a success.

Farewell, Lottie. Thanks for brightening every room you were in. Thanks for affirming so many of us. Thanks for showing the way.

A parable for our time

Your periodic reminder that true leadership isn’t about exerting power and influence. It’s about having the heart and mind of a servant.

But he, a lawyer, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went on the road near Washington, D.C., and an old injury suddenly flared up, and he fell down half dead.

379px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

Rembrandt’s “The Good Samaritan” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by chance there came down a certain White House staffer that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Congressman, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But an immigrant, as she journeyed, came where he was: and when she saw him, she had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and helped him into her car, and brought him to a clinic, and took care of him.

And when she departed, she took out her Visa card, and gave it to the doctor, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend, I will repay you.

Now which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to him who was sick?

And he said, The one who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go, and do likewise.

– Luke 10:29-37 (paraphrase)

Getting the team to play together

Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.
– Casey Stengel, manager of 7 World Series winning teams

hands_unity.pngOur work group had gathered for a morning of team building: a role-playing game in which we’d need to work together to solve a series of puzzles. At precisely the appointed starting time, the facilitator burst in and announced that he’d locked the door from outside and the game would begin.

“But one of our people isn’t here,” someone said. (In fact, the missing member had been delayed by a work-related call and had let us know that she was about 5 minutes away.)

“It doesn’t matter,” the facilitator said dismissively. “The rules are clear. We begin on time.”

“No,” our manager replied. “We wait for her.”

No one else said a word. But it was clear that everyone in the room — except the badly outnumbered facilitator — stood in complete agreement.

If team building was what we’d come for, then mission accomplished.

The facilitator muttered something about deducting 5 minutes from the time of the game, which elicited a collective shrug, turned on his heel, and huffed out of the room.

Soon the last member arrived and the game proceeded. Each of us learned about our interaction styles and about how we function together. But for me the most meaningful team building occurred at the moment we all agreed, with no words passing between us, that we wouldn’t leave a member behind.

That shared experience affirmed what all of us, I think, already knew: we have a strong team. From long experience, I know that strong teams don’t just happen.

What can you, as a manager or as a team member, do to build strong teams? Continue reading

It’s time to vote, STC

In much of the world, including North America, the Society for Technical Communication (STC) is the leading professional society for technical communicators. It sets the pace for information and networking, providing a forum for exchanging news and information among practitioners and academics. Its body of knowledge contains a rich repository of research and best practices in the field of technical communication.

2017_election_header.pngSTC is also an association run by volunteer members. Today through March 10, STC members can elect the next slate of volunteer leaders: a Vice President, a Treasurer, 2 Directors at Large, and 2 Nominating Committee members.

The successful candidates will lead STC for the next 2 years – or, potentially, for 4 years, because the Treasurer and the Directors at Large will be eligible to run for reelection when their terms expire in 2019.

I’ve made the case before for voting in the STC election – and I’ve bewailed the traditionally low rate of participation. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

I myself have recited the mantra that every candidate is well qualified, and therefore STC stands to gain regardless of who’s elected. By expressing that view, perhaps I’ve unwittingly helped tamp down the voting percentages.

Why vote, if every candidate is equally good? Because every candidate is different. Each one comes to the election with their own set of priorities for STC, and their own set of experiences. Take time to learn which candidates’ views and experiences align most closely with your views about what’s best for STC. Then vote for those candidates.

You might never hold a leadership position in STC. Still, I urge you to exercise your right as a member – and as a participant in our profession – to help decide who’ll lead STC into the next decade. Learn about the candidates. Ask them questions in the candidates’ forum. Look for the email from STC containing instructions. Then vote.

This year I have one more favor to ask. I’m running for a spot on the Nominating Committee. I invite you to read my candidate statement, and I’d very much appreciate having your vote.

In praise of the ebullient worker

1985-ozzie-smith

Ozzie Smith doing his thing at the 1985 World Series (source: Sports Illustrated)

Have you ever worked with someone like Ozzie Smith?

Before really big games, the Hall of Fame shortstop delighted his fans and teammates by doing backflips on the field. In every game he played, his gestures and body language made it clear that he was enjoying himself. His joy spread to everyone who watched him — except, maybe, fans of the opposing team.

Have you ever worked with someone who delights in their work and spreads joy through the workplace? If so, you’re lucky. There are far too few people like that. I call them the ebullient workers.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about:

  • The clowns, who love jokes and pranks but never take anything seriously and can’t be counted on to pull their weight. A clown’s act might be appealing at first, but before long it becomes stale — no matter how good the jokes are.
  • The showoffs, who take delight in their work but at the expense of rival workers or even teammates. The showoff’s delight isn’t really in their work — it’s in proving that they’re better than everyone else. Instead of sowing unity, showoffs sow division.

If you’re an ebullient worker

Good for you. Keep it up. You might ask “Keep what up?” because your ebullience just comes naturally. You have a rare gift of bringing light and life to the workplace. Don’t let anybody or anything — frowning colleagues, disapproving bosses, a stifling corporate culture — extinguish it.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that means that you’ll need to find another place to work. That’s a steep price to pay, but it beats losing the passion you bring to your job every day. Continue reading

Living and learning: 2016

Merriam-Webster picked surreal as its 2016 word of the year, and…yeah. At times this year I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, and I’ll bet you have too.

One thing remains as true as ever, though: if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

Here are some things I learned this year:

The future is technical communication

screen-shot-2016-02-25-at-6-07-54-pmTechnology is moving forward at breakneck speed. People want technology. People have different learning styles.

Who can deliver the information people need to make use of, and enjoy, the technology that’s all around them? Technical communicators, that’s who.

That’s the gist of Sarah Maddox’s keynote speech at tcworld India 2016.

I think Sarah is saying that we need continuously to hone the technical part of our job title, while not neglecting the communicator part. And I think she’s absolutely right.

We care a lot about our professional society

STC logoSome of my most popular posts this year dealt with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its role in a changing world. How can STC remain relevant when the traditional roles of professional societies are changing? How can it serve a community that’s growing ever more diverse, in terms of the kinds of work we do?

As 2017 begins, STC is looking for a new CEO. Whoever gets the job, and whatever things they choose to prioritize, I hope they’ll appreciate the passion and dedication of STC’s members.

DITA isn’t cheap (but it’s still worth the cost)

DITA logoEven as more organizations embrace DITA for developing their content, we hear that DITA is complex and hard to learn. Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles was one of my most commented-on blog posts this year, as was my plea for greater sensitivity to the writers’ learning curve.

Yes, DITA is powerful. But it didn’t get that way by being simple. I’ve come to appreciate that writers need time to absorb the underlying principles, which happen to align closely with the principles of good technical writing, and they need time to learn the how-to aspects as well. It’s time well spent, I think.

A leader is a storyteller

monsterWe saw it in this year’s political news: for better or worse, people are drawn to the leaders who tell the best stories.

As technical communicators, we’re by nature good storytellers.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does.

Don’t take things too seriously

The year truly has been surreal. Many of our deeply held beliefs — about leaders, about governments, about the course of history — have been challenged if not overturned.

Yet my most-read post in 2016, by far, was a collection of jokes. That taught me not to take things too seriously, and especially not to take myself too seriously.

It reminded me that we’re all human beings. We all need to connect with each other and, sometimes, share a laugh.

I hope I’ve connected with you, at least a few times, in 2016. I hope we’ll continue to connect in 2017. And even share a laugh or two.

Related: Living and learning: 2015

Breaking protocol

The U.S. president-elect has been drawing fire for having conversations with foreign leaders in which he broke protocol. His critics have charged, for example, that he didn’t talk to the right person, or that he didn’t have the right people in the room.

king-and-i-2

Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in The King and I — a story about (among other things) breaking protocol

In fact, the criticism has focused much more on the president-elect’s alleged disregard for protocol than on the substance of his conversations.

I’m not here today to judge Mr. Trump’s actions or his words. I want to talk about protocol-breaking and how it touches all of us as professionals.

All of us — employees, contractors, consultants — work with organizations that have their own unique ways of doing things.

For example, in various places where I’ve worked I’ve found that:

  • A manager can never be transparent: they must defend every edict from higher up as if it were their own.
  • Email is used for almost all day-to-day communication. It’s considered impolite to pick up the phone and call someone to ask a question.

When you arrive in an organization like that, is it OK to break protocol? Under what circumstances? If you choose to break protocol should you do it quietly or openly?

Here are the guidelines I follow. Continue reading

Too much managing, just enough leadership

As you might’ve heard, they played a baseball game Wednesday night. The Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians, 8-7, to win their first World Series championship in over 100 years.

The game reminded us that leading is different from managing.

Business consultant Liane Davey says that when times are good and managing is easy (like when your team is ahead 8-0), leading — imparting a shared vision and guiding the team toward it — is still vital.

Then, when times are tough, when it’s the last game of the World Series and the score is tied in the ninth inning, it’s leading, not managing, that comes to the fore.

Managing and then some

maddon

A manager (Joe Maddon)

Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, the Cubs’ and Indians’ managers, are good leaders. Their players say so. Their success — they’ve both been to the World Series more than once — says so.

Both men are also known for their unorthodox managing styles. The tactical decisions they make during games can be bewildering. Sometimes they get carried away.

During the World Series Maddon and Francona seemed to be competing to see who could be the most hands-on manager. It was especially evident in the way they handled their pitchers.

On Wednesday night, the gamesmanship caught up with them: both teams reached the ninth inning with the score tied and their best relief pitchers either unavailable (because they’d pitched earlier in the game) or ineffective (because of overwork).

It was a classic case of overmanaging. Had Maddon and Francona stuck to more traditional methods, each one would’ve had a better hand to play in the late stages of the game.

Then, nature decided to play its hand. With the score still tied and the game about to enter extra innings, a brief but intense rain shower forced an interruption in play.

Leading at just the right moment

For most of the Cubs, emotionally down after blowing a 4-run lead, the rain delay probably compounded their gloom. They didn’t know it would turn out to be the best thing that could happen to them.

heyward

A leader (Jason Heyward)

As his Cubs teammates trudged into the locker room, outfielder Jason Heyward called to them. They knew Heyward, a 7-year major-league veteran, as someone who was quiet but grounded, a steadying influence in the clubhouse.

Now Heyward called the tired, discouraged players together for an impromptu meeting. We’re the best team in baseball, he told them. Let’s relax, play hard, and win this game. Then some of the others spoke up: We’re brothers. We’ve got each other’s backs. We’re not going to give up.

A half-hour later, the game was over and the Cubs were champions. Several of Heyward’s teammates credited the ten-minute meeting with settling their nerves, turning around the game, and saving the team’s season.

It was a little bit of leadership, delivered at just the right moment by someone with no formal job title — no “coach” or “manager” next to his name. Heyward had something better than a job title: he had the respect of his co-workers, his teammates. He also had the instinct and the courage to lead when it mattered most.

It’s not my intention to disparage either of the managers in that game. Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, especially deserves credit for creating a culture where his team is united, where they’ve got each other’s backs, and where a player feels empowered to speak up.

Where, when the guy with “manager” next to his name gets carried away managing, a leader can step forward and buoy the team.

Image sources: Associated Press (Maddon), Chicago Cubs (Heyward)

Your opportunity at last

Imagine this:

After years of toiling in obscurity you find yourself in a position of power and influence. After years of never being heard you’re now being sought out.

You waited a long time for your day in the sun. Now that it’s arrived, how do you handle your change in fortune?

Practice humility

spotlight

When the limelight shines on you, don’t let it blind you.

Even though the limelight is now shining on you, remember that only recently you were in darkness. When you were struggling, you probably worked hard to keep things in perspective and to maintain healthy self-respect. Lacking power and authority didn’t mean you were less valuable than other people.

Now you need to work just as hard to hold onto that sense of perspective. You’re still the same person. Having power and authority doesn’t make you better than everyone else. If you try to act like you are better, you’ll likely lose people’s respect — and with it, you’ll lose your power and authority.

Finally, it’s not for nothing that there are so many quotations and proverbs about the need for humility: For pryde goeth before and shame commeth after (John Heywood). Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:14).

Be a servant leader

Having been down in the trenches for so long, you have a unique perspective. What did you wish your managers had done for you? What did you wish they knew about you?

Now you can put into practice the things you wanted from your old managers. Now is your chance to become, in the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, a servant leader: a servant first, a leader second.

Say things that are worth hearing

At long last, people are listening to you. It wasn’t easy to get their attention; it’s even harder to hold onto it. Don’t waste your opportunity by saying things that are self-serving, manipulative, or deceptive.


These thoughts were prompted by two baseball teams — the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians — who’ve just qualified for the World Series and who’ve gone a very long time since winning their last championships (1908 and 1948, respectively).

Over the next few days the Cubs and the Indians will try to make the most of the opportunity they have. After decades in the darkness, they’re in the limelight. I can’t wait to see how they’ll respond.

What about you? Did you ever find yourself in the limelight after years in darkness? What did you do with your opportunity?