Category Archives: Leadership

Outside-Inside

The news on January 15, 2009 were unbelievable. I recall watching passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 lined up on the wings of the plane in ankle-deep water, and thinking, “I hope this pilot is flying the next plane I am on” and also, “How did he do that?”

Temperance, confidence and strong decision-making skills helped Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger land a 150,000-pound plane on the Hudson River saving the lives of all 155 people on board. The story of the “Miracle on the Hudson” was recently made into the movie “Sully.” However what I find most inspiring about Captain Sullenberger is his determination to be the best pilot he can be and his love for flying, which is documented in his autobiographical “Highest Duty”.

There is a scene in the TLC documentary “Brace for Impact” (roughly at 23:30) where Captain Sullenberger is flying over the Hudson River and recounting how he landed the plane in one piece. Having “Situational Awareness” – i.e. a pilot’s ability “to create and maintain a very accurate real-time mental model of reality” – was key to his flawless execution of that emergency landing.

As the plane got closer to the water, Captain Sullenberger only kept two things on his mind: 1) the reality outside the plane and 2) the reality inside the cockpit. He kept repeating to himself “outside-inside, outside-inside” in order to have an accurate understanding of the situation. By balancing the reality in the cockpit and the reality outside the plane, Captain Sullenberger was able to keep the right speed, tilt and perfectly leveled wings.

Focusing on the plane’s descend while monitoring the plane’s speed helped Captain Sullenberger remain in control of the situation. “You either manage the situation or the situation manages you.” This was key to landing the plane safely.

The concept of Situational Awareness can also be applied to our own lives. Let’s say your boss is critical of a report you wrote. Instead of reacting defensively because you feel attacked, take a moment to analyze the entirety of the situation. What is the external reality (i.e. what are the facts)? Your boss did not like the report your wrote. Now looking inside yourself, how do you feel in this moment? You probably feel under appreciated (you worked hard the last couple of days to finish the report). You may even feel you are a bad worker (“I’ve been in this job for three years and I can’t even write a simple report”).

Instead of responding by saying something like, “Well, I didn’t have all the information I needed to write the report,” you can take stock of both realities (internal and external) and respond to the situation more productively. You could respond with, “I am sorry that my report did not meet your expectations. I also want you to know that I worked hard to write this report. What suggestions do you have so that I can improve the report?”

In the same way that a pilot can successfully land a commercial plane on a river, so can we remain in control of a situation and respond effectively to the challenges we face. Sometimes we let our emotions or our assumptions influence our decision making instead of relying on an objective view of reality to make the right landing.

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How to focus at work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal NewportEver wonder after a busy day at work if you actually accomplished something meaningful and valuable on that day?

In his latest book, Cal Newport argues that it is becoming increasingly difficult for knowledge workers to make meaningful contributions at work.  He says that there are two types of work: shallow work and deep work. Shallow work includes a lot of the things that take our time at work: multitasking, responding to email instantaneously, running from meeting to meeting, etc. Deep work on the other hand includes tasks such as forming a new business strategy, writing an important proposal or preparing a presentation on a key project.

Deep work requires a state of distraction-free concentration in order to be able to produce high-quality deliverables. However, as you know, focusing at work can be difficult when there are so many distractions vying for our attention (e.g. influx of emails, chat or text messages, Internet surfing, social media, etc.).

Since I finished reading “Deep Work” two weeks ago, I have been applying some of the strategies suggested in the book. The impact on my productivity has been significant. Just to give an example, I was able to complete an important proposal that was approved very quickly and I also completed a monthly report in half the time it used to take me before.

Being productive not only feels great but also helps you stand out in your career. Below I share a simple strategy to help you practice deep work on a daily basis.

1. Prepare

Deep work requires lots of mental energy. It is thus important to cultivate a ritual that transitions you from shallow work to deep work. For example, you could put up a “do not disturb” sign or restrict email and Internet temporarily (even better, assign specific times throughout the day to check and respond to email).

2. Clarify

Be specific about the goal you want to achieve. Having a clear picture of what success will look like at the end of your deep work session will help you sustain your focus. For example, for the proposal that I mention above, my goal was “to prepare a clear yet appealing case that addressed my manager’s feedback from my first draft.”

3. Stretch

Take your goal from the previous step and identify the next logical chunk of distraction-free work (1-3 hours). In this step you should slow down and advance deliberately. This chunk of work should include enough difficulty that you get stuck. This is important because a challenging task helps extract the most out of your current abilities and ensures that your abilities continue to improve.

4. Measure

Because you can’t manage what you don’t measure, it is important to track the number of hours you spend on deep work each day. You will be surprised by how little time you naturally spend doing this type of work. I’ve started writing on my calendar how many hours I spend each day in a state of deep work. Not surprisingly, the days I spend more time working free of distractions are the days I accomplish more meaningful work that adds value to our company.

Millennials This Millennials That

At a conference I was attending recently, someone at my table said with a baffling look, “I really don’t know how companies these days will be able to effectively target the millennial consumer.” Go on social media and you will see tweets and posts about millennials everywhere (I just read a tweet about millennials’ using watches as a status symbol). Countless articles talk about millennials in the workplace, how to raise millennial children, millennials and technology, and on and on and on.

Young people are different than older people, yes. But the difference is not as marked as it is portrayed in the countless conversations and articles that take place on social media and in meeting rooms everywhere.

This HBR article states that, opposite to most literature on millennials in the workplace, millennials and older workers actually have the same career aspirations. “The small differences that do appear are likely attributable to factors such as stage of life more than generational membership.”

Instead of trying to figure out “millennials”, companies should treat their customers and employees as humans first (and only), whether they are young, old or middle aged. I am sure companies would do better by focusing less on generational differences and more on who their stakeholders are right here right now, whether they are 17 or 62.

No Vision. No Leadership

At a leadership workshop I attended the facilitator asked which was the most important quality of a great leader. Hands went up and almost everyone in the room had something to say. I raised my hand and said, “Passion.”

I used to believe that passion was the key quality in a leader. But since that workshop, I have come to learn that vision is actually more important than passion. A passionate leader can rally employees for a while. But visionary leaders inspire employees to imagine a better version of the organization and of themselves and to work towards it.

While passionate leaders can inspire others, passion alone cannot sustain that inspiration for very long. Herminia Ibarra – whose controversial paper looks at men vs. women in leadership roles – summarized well my point regarding the main quality of a leader: “No vision, no leadership.”

In an ideal world all leaders would be passionate visionaries whose energy and ideas are seamlessly transferred to employees. But if I had to choose between passion and vision, I say the latter.

Having said that, Dancing Guy for sure has passion.