Monday, May 27, 2013

US Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States.  It is a day set aside to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the US Armed Forces.  For those readers who do not live in the US, this tradition goes back to just after the US Civil War...nearly 150 years ago.  Some time ago a good friend of mine shared a letter he wrote to a family member seeking to understand more about the circumstances of his brother's death.  My friend has given me permission to print his letter.  I've redacted some of the names to protect the privacy of all involved.

Jerry: My name is ---- and I served as (your brother's) platoon leader in (Vietnam)from my arrival in early Nov 68 until his death on Jan 15, 1969. (Your brother) was my radio telephone operator (RTO) upon my arrival so we quickly became acquainted with each other. He was never more than one step from me, always prepared to hand me the handset. He walked behind me so in case of attack he could fall forward toward me with the radio in hand. He knew a great risk was his with that radio with whip lash antenna.(whip lash antennas extend several feet in the air revealing one's position )We spent hours talking to each other about our hopes and dreams and what was happening stateside. I was always encouraged by his spirit - when we stopped for a night lagger, I was required to move forward to be with our CO(commanding officer), usually taking my C rations with me. While the CO and platoon leaders met, (your brother) dug my fighting position, my sleeping position and was prepared to talk to me upon my return. I depended upon him for so much. One of my earliest decisions in the bush was that I pull guard duty with my RTO, my platoon sergeant, his RTO and our medic. Five made the guard duty easier since we started at 2100 and went to beginning morning twilight. Several times (your brother) would pull or split my hour at 0100 so I could get another hour of sleep. I would always tell him not to do that, but you know how he was, he would grin and say, sir you need that hour more than me. When we stopped for rest, he wanted to know if he could get me water, always from a running stream with sandy bottom, or a well. And when we needed a bio break, he guarded me while I relieved myself, and I then guarded him. We were always close by proximity and respected each other. Around Thanksgiving, he asked if I would consider appointing him as a fire team leader so he could be promoted. I did that, and promoted him. We spent Christmas day on LZ Cork, up in the mountains, our last day before our longest stretch in the field, 34 days. Leaving the mountains, we were sweeping the lowlands in early Jan looking for RVN movements. On January 15th, our company was stretched in a long line moving toward a village. We encountered heavy, heavy resistance. My new RTO was shot in the leg and it was a while until I could get to the radio. Our right flank entered the village but withdrew under heavy fire. As we fought thru the afternoon, the company was taking heavy casualties as our movement on the battlefield was not an option since there were RVN in the trees firing at everyone who moved. Even with the best artillery support and air support, we were badly outnumbered. When we withdrew that night to a cemetery, I realized I had two KIA, (your brother) and (another soldier), and five wounded. I can tell you that both KIA were head wounds so there was no pain and suffering. That day was the worst battle I encountered until I suffered near life ending injuries and was medevacked(sic) out on May 29, 1969. Toward the end of January, I received a letter from your father, the only response I ever received from a next of kin. I decided early in my tour that I would send a personal letter to each next of kin and the platoon would take up a collection for every KIA. I still have your father's letter and a prayer card from (your brother's) service. They are in a book, secure in storage. I have not looked at that book except for maybe 3-4 times in the last 40 years. In early Feb 1969, my sister wrote that she had delivered a baby boy on Jan 15th. I was reminded of the scripture that the Lord takes and gives. While Ricky, my nephew, in no way resembles (your brother), I always think of him when I see Ricky. Upon Ricky's 20th birthday, I wrote him a letter, explaining about (your brother's) death on his birth day and my expectations of him.
Jerry, I hope these memories of mine are helpful to you in wanting to know about your brother. Naive as a platoon leader, I never wanted to lose a soldier in my command. Your brother's death was a loss from which I really have never recovered either. I have traveled to DC to the RVN wall several times, rubbed my hand over your brother's name and thanked God for the privilege I had to know him, and call him friend, soldier, patriot. I am a better person because I knew (him). You had the greater privilege of calling him brother.

My friend's letter to the brother of a fallen comrade expresses the emotions of this day better than any I could write.

Tucked in a tiny corner of province of Limburg, near the village of Margraten, on the road between Maastricht and Aachen is the only American Military Cemetery in The Netherlands.  Buried there are 8301 Americans who gave their lives in WWII.  There are also 1722 names of those missing whose remains were never recovered.  The photo above shows what it looks like on US Memorial Day.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Excel and You Will Get a Mentor"

I've heard talk about the importance of mentorship(advice) and sponsorship(advocacy on one's behalf) to professional development and career progression for over 25 years.  Too often it takes the form of advice to new graduates or early career staff to "get yourself a mentor".    Well intentioned staff, following this seemingly sound advice then approach some senior person with the "Will you be my mentor?" question.  Few things are more uncomfortable to a senior person than to have this question posed from someone they don't know at all or have a superficial relationship with.  I've seldom seen these forced connections work.

As Sheryl Sandberg points out  Lean In "The strongest relationships spring from a real and often earned connection felt by both sides"...and later "Intuitively people invest in those who stand out for their talent and who can really benefit from help."   She devotes an entire chapter to this subject of mentoring and sponsorship in her book. Although there are special issues with women on this subject, like many other points in her book, there excellent insights  on this subject for all leaders. 

The point is, the relationship comes first, followed by mentoring and/or sponsorship.  When I reflect on my own successful mentoring relationships of the last fifteen years they have all fallen into the category of me choosing to "invest in those who stand out for their talent" or "who can really benefit from help".  One particularly satisfying case involved a young man who I believed was especially talented in a specialty field.  I was able to both mentor and sponsor to the degree he replaced me in a role nine years after we first met.  I obviously don't take credit for his success...his talent and hard work have driven his success.  I am pleased to have identified his talent early on and played a small role in his career progression.  More recently I heard from a former colleague who has been selected for a prestigious international assignment...a role he would not have sought without my encouragement more than two years ago.  In yet another case I was able to help a young woman reflect on some of her own behaviours...and her underlying improve her performance I got an email from her three years after our interactions thanking me for my guidance and stlling me how important it was to her current success.   More recently, I've been working with a disabled US serviceman who is striving to improve his leadership skills in the private sector.  In all four of these cases, which I consider to be successful mentoring relationships, they came from a pre-existing relationship that "morphed" into mentoring.  In a couple of other cases, I ended up with mentoring relationships as a result of my role doing assessments and coaching in formal leadership programs.  I also did a fair amount of "peer mentoring" for experienced hires entering our company from another company culture.  In fact, in none of those cases would any of us have necessarily classified it as was a natural progression of things we were already doing together.

On the other side of the ledger I accepted a request to be a mentor from someone with whom I only had a superficial relationship...and it was always difficult....despite the best intentions on both of our parts.  We were in different countries, but only one time zone apart and had infrequent face to face contact. Plus she was in a different career field.  I'm not sure either one of us got as much as hoped out of the interaction.  I also participated in formal mentoring matches with new graduates...they were sort of ok...I hope they helped staff make the transition to a specific company culture but the relationships didn't stick.

To summarize my own experiences as a leader, all of my strongest mentoring relationships reinforce the point Ms Sandberge makes in her book...they came "from  a real and often earned connection felt by both sides"  Yes, mentoring and sponsorship are important. Instead of encouraging young staff to "find a mentor and you will be successful" we should be telling them "Excel and you will get a mentor".   

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Three Great Questions Every Leader Should Ask

"How can I do better?  What am I doing I don't know?  What am I not doing I don't see?" 

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells a story of how one of her direct reports asked her those three questions.  I think they are great questions every leader should be asking.  Even more importantly, I believe leaders should ask them in three their own manager as in the case related by Sandberg, but also laterally to peers and to her own direct reports.

Most people will recognize what I'm suggesting as some sort of 360 degree feedback.  In my experience 360's are often done either as part of the assessment portion of a leader development experience, as part of annual employee surveys or to "fix" someone who clearly doesn't understand how their behavior is impacting others.  There is nothing wrong with any of those things as a practice....I just think it is far more effective when it is embedded in routine practice. 

It's even more important in global virtual teams where leaders and team members are separated by many time zones and have infrequent face to face interaction.  Carving time out for these 1:1 conversations, either telecon or through video technology is important.  At a minimum it should be done twice a year with the line manager...mid-year and year end....more optimally I'd suggest quarterly.

With regard to peers, I often picked out one or two trusted colleagues, shared what I was working on as a leader, and asked some version of those three questions.  I'd also at least annually ask for feedback on what I should do more of, do less of or what I should continue to do from everyone in my organizational unit.

Last, and Sandberg also makes this is not absolute, it's an opinion.  "It is an opinion grounded in observations and experiences which allows us to know what impressions we make on others".    Sometimes those opinions will differ depending on who we ask...and sometimes our actions have different impact on different people.  Effective leaders want and need to know the full range of those opinions and develop practices to insure they do.

Monday, May 13, 2013

"Opportunities are Rarely Offered: They are Seized"

This is one of the leadership lessons from Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" that applies to both men and women.  Clearly she makes the case this is more of a challenge for women than men.  In her experiences as a leader, men reached for opportunities much more quickly than the women.  When we opened a new office or the launch of a new project, the men were banging down my door to explain why they should lead the charge.  Men were also more likely to chase a growth opportunity even before a new opening was announced.....The women, however were more cautious about changing roles and seeking out new challenges.

The leadership lesson is taking initiative pays off.  As she says: "It's hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do."

She also cautions against waiting for the "perfect fit" when looking for the next big thing to do.  There never is a "perfect fit".  The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have. In this regard she prefers the metaphor of a Jungle Gym rather than climbing a ladder.  For my readers outside the USA, a Jungle Gym is a common playground apparatus where children can explore various ways of ascending it.  Here's an illustration.  

When climbing a ladder there is only one way to the top, but there are many ways of getting to the top of a Jungle Gym.  She uses this metaphor to make the case that just because an opportunity doesn't mean an immediate progression along a well defined path, taking risk with growth opportunities even if they seem like a lateral move at the time, may get one to the top of an organization even quicker. In her words: "When you are offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don't ask 'Which Seat?' just get on." 

While the data show that risk aversion and lack of self confidence are more common in women than men, her advice about career development applies equally.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Lean In"-Why Do Women Lean Back in the First Place?

Why do women lean back from the workplace so consistently?  Why does someone like Sheryl Sandberg have to encourage women to "lean in"?

One reason is they choose to do so. Some women have the option of working at home, raising children and providing a stable home life for a husband.  Some women have children with health problems that become the sole priority for a stay-at-home Mom. Several times in the book Sandberg expresses the utmost respect for those who have that choice and who choose to work at's difficult, important work.  Those women are not the target of her encouragement to lean in. 

Many other women don't have a choice.  "65% of married couple families with children in the United States have two parents in the workforce, with almost all relying on both incomes to support their household.   Being a single working parent can be even more difficult.  About 30% of families with children are led by a single parent,  with 85% of those led by a woman."   So there are two target populations of women she is talking to...those who have a choice and choose to work outside the home, and those with no choice.

So why do women who choose to be part of the workforce and those with no choices "lean back"?  One reason is the insecurity more common in women than men.  That insecurity causes women to consistently underestimate their abilities and gives rise to all kinds of fears..... fear of not fitting in, fear of not being liked because of her success, fear of not being seen as a team player, fear of seeming negative.....  Hence the recommendation to "sit at the table".

A second reason is that among those families with two parents in the workforce, the woman carries the overwhelming majority of the domestic duties.  Sheryl cites the most recent studies that "when a husband and wife both are employed full-time, the mother does 40% more child care and about 30% more housework than the father".  Women lean back because they are carrying more than their fair share of the load.   Hence the  recommendation to "make your partner a real partner."

A third reason is that in anticipation of the increased load that comes with children, women lean back before they need to and pass on promising career development opportunities. When they do choose to return to the workforce, they aren't presented with the challenging assignments that come with those passed up career development roles.  Hence the recommendation "Don't leave before you leave. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the last minute."

Friday, May 10, 2013

Lean In-"Women are Not Making It to the Top of Any Profession Anywhere in the World"

I realize in my haste to characterize "Lean In" as a leadership book I really short-changed her key messages for women.  Before I move on to the leadership issues that I think apply to everyone I want to be clear about those.  As I said in yesterday's blog the core theme is about achieving gender equality.  You can review a 15' video of Sheryl Sandberg speaking to those key messages at this link:

Youtube video of Sheryl Sandberg explaining her key messages for women.

It's worth a review to hear her views in her voice.  Her key issue is keeping women in the workforce and preventing them from dropping out.  The sub-themes in the video are:

1.  Sit at the table(women consistently under-estimate their abilities)
2.  Make your partner a real partner
3.  Don't leave before you leave.  Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the last minute.

I really encourage you to watch the video and read the book even if   especially if... you think you will disagree with her views.

If you are a member of my global audience and think this doesn't apply to you or your country I'm betting one of her opening quotes will get your attention.

"Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world".

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Lean In"- This is a Leadership Book

I recently finished reading "Lean In:  Women, Work and The Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg.  As the synopsis on the Kindle edition says "Sheryl Sandberg examines why women's progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling common sense solutions that can empower women to achieve full potential".  It's that....and much, much more.

I admit I wasn't easily drawn to the seemed like it was a book written by a woman, about women and for women.  However, there has been a lot of "fuss" about the book...some controversy and criticism from both men and women.  At one level I was curious what the fuss was all about.  At another level, I wanted to see what a senior successful woman had to say.  Sheryl Sandberg has two degrees from Harvard, been a McKinsey consultant, Chief of Staff of the US Treasury Department,  been a VP at Google and the COO of Facebook.  I had a hunch she had an important point of view.

To be clear, the core theme of the book is about achieving gender question about that.  She tackles gender inequality issues head on with data driven arguments.  An example is studies that show that "when a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. when a woman is successful people of of both genders like her less"....  and a study that "exclusive maternal care is not related to better outcomes for children"...and "a survey in 2012 showed that 80% of employed adults continue to work after leaving the office; 38% check email at the dinner table and 69% can't go to bed without checking their in-box" to name just a few.  She treats workplace gender issues in a provocative yet balanced way.

For me though, the book is about much broader themes of leadership. She tackles those straight on also....risk taking, the role of fear, feedback, mentoring and sponsorship, and choices.  Part of the beauty of this book is Sheryl Sandberg challenges us all. She challenges men to be better partners in the workplace and at home.  She challenges women to "Lean In", to take more risk, and "to scale back only when a  break is needed or a child arrives....not before."

Everyone needs to read this and women.  I've already recommended it to two mid-career couples who are friends and colleagues.  Although it's not a "leadership book" per is more about leadership than many books where that word appears in the title. 

I'm going to blog on this book for a few days but will close this one with a quote from the book:

  "We need to be able to talk about gender without people thinking (women) are crying for help, asking for special treatment or about to sue"