Leading by Example: Walking Your Talk … Under a Magnifying Glass

Why don’t my people just do what I say?

It’s a common refrain among my executive clients. Life at the top would be so much easier, if only “they” would “get it.”

In fact, your employees probably _are _doing what you say. You just may be saying things you don’t intend. It’s often not your broad proclamations that give direction; it’s the little things you do that have the biggest impact.

Your actions encourage and discourage behavior

Remember when you were a front-line employee. Executives’ actions were relentlessly scrutinized. A late arrival, a smile, or a nod could introduce chaos. A CEO I worked with was looking over his marketing department’s latest campaign. He frowned at a storyboard before strolling away.

Unknown to him, the team saw the frown, scrapped the campaign, and spent the weekend reworking everything from the ground up. When he found out, he was flabbergasted. He never thought a simple frown would change the team’s direction.

Your reactions to employees and their work will send signals. Remember this! If you notice yourself frowning or smiling, nodding or shaking your head when it may send the wrong message, stop. Think about the message you may have sent, and say or do whatever it takes to make sure your audience knows your intent.

Watch your words, too. A joke may not be a joke. A consulting firm’s Managing Director smiled and quipped “Remember, if you’re not here Sunday, don’t bother coming in Monday.” He was smiling. Everyone knew he was joking. And as one team member later told me, “I felt like I had to come in Sunday. Sure, he was joking. But he’s the Managing Director. Maybe it’s not 100% a joke.”

You lead by demonstration

Of course, the Managing Director was there Sunday, thus insuring everyone would know weekend appearances are mandatory. Your actions will, by demonstration, always be the most significant way you communicate standards of behavior and priorities to your company. The Managing Director cared deeply that his people have an outside life, and said so on many occasions. But his coming in on weekends spoke louder than his words in signaling acceptable behavior.

What you don’t do also matters

What you don’t say out loud, the actions you don’t acknowledge, and the signs you don’t show send powerful messages, as well. The messages sent by omission are harder to detect. After all, there‘s nothing there to examine! But there are things your employees might expect that aren’t forthcoming.

If you don’t acknowledge people, it can send a message that you don’t value their contribution. Different people need different acknowledgment. For some, it’s public recognition. For others, it may simply be mentioning “Hey, you did a really great job.”

If you don’t give feedback when someone does a poor job, you send the message that their performance is fine. If someone is screwing up, they deserve to know as early as possible. Otherwise, they’ll walk away with a message that does neither of you any good.

Common courtesy is increasingly rare, and its absence communicates a subtle lack of respect or lack of individual concern. A simple “Please,” or “Thank you” with a smile and direct eye contact takes only a couple of seconds. If you don’t have time even for that, then people will (rightly!) conclude they aren’t important enough to warrant your attention.

Making decisions in isolation quickly lets people know you don’t trust them. I have worked with companies in which the senior managers are very open with their big decisions, and other companies in which “we can’t tell them that” is a common refrain. As far as I can tell, involvement signals faith that your employees have something of value to contribute. When that involvement is missing, the message of distrust is loud and clear.

Not sharing bad news sends the message that everything is fine. It’s easy to keep bad news quiet, for fear of hurting morale. But framing bad news as a reason to rally builds a team instead of breaking it down. Shared challenge is the stuff of bonding. Use it!

A Great Business Leader Knows His Impact

Matsushita, one of history’s most successful businessmen, knew the impact he had on everyone around him. As this story shows1, he even appreciated the messages conveyed by what he didn’t do.

The father of $75 billion empire, Matsushita was revered in Japan with nearly as much respect and reverence as was the Emperor. And he was just as busy.

One day, Matsushita was to eat lunch with his executives at a local Osaka restaurant (Matsushita Leadership by John Kotter). Upon his entrance, people stopped to bow and acknowledge this great man. Matsushita honored the welcome and sat at a table selected by the manager.

Matsushita ate only half of his meal. He asked for the chef, who appeared in an instant, shaken and upset. The Great One nodded and spoke: “I felt that if you saw I had only eaten half of my meal, you would think I did not like the food or its preparation. Nothing could be less true. The food and your preparation of it were excellent. I am just old and can not eat as much as I used to. I wanted you to know that and to thank you personally.”

Concrete next steps

If you find yourself under the magnifying glass, here are ways of mastering the situation.

  1. Don’t get caught off guard. Schedule five minutes at the end of the day to review your day, note who you came in contact with, and simply ask yourself what messages you sent.

  2. Use the magnifying glass deliberately. At the start of the week, choose a message you want to communicate by example. Spend a moment or two identifying exactly where you can send the message, and how you have to behave to send it. Then do it.

  3. Check for messages of omission. During your daily review, ask yourself who you didn’t contact, but who might have expected it (you may not know who at first, but over time, you’ll learn). What message does the lack of contact send? What message will rumors of what you did do send to those who didn’t see/talk to you?

  4. Review company systems. To make sure you’re sending the same message as your company, review the systems once a year or so. Review your compensation plan: what does it communicate about company goals? What behavior does it encourage? Discourage? Review your decision making and feedback processes. Ask yourself if you’re omitting anyone or anything in those areas.

Communicate well!


  1. Matsushita story excerpted from Dr. Mark S. Albion’s Making-a-Life, Making-a-Living ML2 E-Newsletter #56. Free subscriptions and information on his New York Times Best Selling new book can be found at http://www.makingalife.com. ↩

More than one strategy is actually… no strategy at all.

Creating a strategy

My friend Carey’s business had stalled. Since I’m one of those people who loves to offer unasked-for advice (knowing the recipient will be eternally grateful), I offered some. “You need an overarching strategy,” I intoned, sagely. The unfathomable response, “Thanks, but no thanks. I already have lots of strategies.”

Lots of strategies? Hmm. You can’t have multiple overarching strategies at once. But Carey wouldn’t know that, because we’re never taught what a strategy is, or how to make sure you have a good one.

Do you have a strategy? For business? For life? Do you even need one? What is one?

Strategies Aren’t Tactics

People use “strategy” to mean a to-do item, but that’s not a strategy. That’s a tactic. Carey has 16 different products under development at once. Those aren’t 16 strategies; they’re 16 tactics.

A strategy is a directed plan you use to commit your time and action in a single direction. By aligning how you spend your time, your money, your resources, and your communication, you greatly increase your chances for success.

If Carey’s projects include designing a high-fashion clothing line for the Milan runway and opening a Veterinary Pet Grooming franchise, those will compete for time, attention, and dollars. When the clothing line needs another 5-gallon tub of sequins (I never said Carey had taste), that’s money that could have been spent on tick sponge-on. Neither business gets the full resources needed to insure success.

Set a Vision that Drives Your Work

Before you can create your strategy, you need to know where you want to end up. What’s the result the strategy is designed to produce? That’s the vision that drives your work.

Start your strategy by setting a compelling, substantive vision. A vision needs to be specific enough to use to make decisions. It needs to be general enough to allow flexibility in what you choose to do.

My friend Rowan’s vision is “to build a business.” That’s so vague that it could cover everything from fashion design to tick removal… and so it does.

But make it more specific, and it becomes a powerful guide. In an alternate universe where Rowan is capable of focus, the vision could become:

A business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy 365 days a year[1].

This vision can be used to decide which product lines to enter, and to allow a range of options: tick treatment and nutritional consultation both fit. It can also be used to decide which product lines notto enter: high fashion that features too many sequins[2]. It’s just specific enough to guide a good strategy.

Create a Strategy Linking Your Goal to Your Reality

Now you have a vision. But while visions are great, they’re still too abstract for action. If a new Puppies R Us (We Sell ‘Em, You Care For ‘Em™) opened down the street from Rowan’s storefront, concentrating the business on dog care could be Rowan’s ticket to mansions and private planes. But if the new store is Spiders Galore: Unusual Pets for Unusual People, concentrating on the care and grooming of Brachypelma emilia might make the most sense.

Begin crafting your strategy by linking the vision to your current reality. Assess your resources — what you have a lot of, and what you’re short on. Assess your situation — outside forces that might help or hinder different courses of action. Create a high-level plan that uses your resources to move towards some way to realize your vision, given your current environment.

Rowan can take the pet health business vision, and link it to the things in real life that will make it happen.

Point tactics towards a vision to get the job done right. Then link it to reality.

If Rowan has home office space, an email list of pet owners, and a vast network of veterinarians, Rowan’s strategy could be to form an online pet care referral network. There could be an app, and a website, and a huge campaign to sign up hundreds of veterinarians from around the world.

If Rowan has a retail storefront near Puppies R Us, but no mailing list, the strategy could be to create in-person care for dogs and dog-related issues. Rowan could even propose a collaboration with Puppies R Us where Puppies promotes Rowan’s business and gets a referral fee.

These are two different strategies. Both lead towards the vision of “a business that helps pet owners keep their pets healthy year-round.”

Being in possession of the retail storefront, Rowan chooses the strategy of providing in-person dog-related care.

Keep Your Strategy Clear

Lastly, keep your chosen strategy clear and singular. You might have many tactics that comprise the strategy. Rowan can get the word out in many different ways: online banner ads, leaflets in the local community, and a Puppies R Us partnership. These are pretty different activities, but make no mistake: these aren’t strategies, they’re separate tactics supporting a single strategy.

By having only this one strategy, Rowan can now concentrate all resources on the storefront. If the opportunity comes up to run a nationwide banner ad, the explicit strategy tells Rowan what to do: say “no” to the ad; advertising a Springfield puppy health service in Skokie makes no sense.

Think Strategically Throughout Your Life

A strategy helps you make decisions about where to put your time, money, and attention. We’ve been exploring strategy in business, but you can apply strategic thinking to other areas of your life.

What is your vision for your life? For your family? Your Career? Spend some time forming your vision. Then look at today’s reality, and choose a strategy that will realize that vision as possible in your life today. You’ll get a lot more of what you want in life, and a lot less of whatever random the world throws at you. Then you can put your efforts into tactics that support your strategy.

A scattershot approach to success is a recipe for staying stuck. Avoid this by organizing your tactics and resources using a well-chosen strategy. Align it all in pursuit of the vision that inspires and energizes you, and you’ll soon be enjoying plenty of success, while still having time to stop and pet the puppies.


  1. Closed on February 29th.  ↩
  2. Lack of fit with the vision is only one reason not to enter that particular business.  ↩
How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

In this episode of Business Explained, I interview Michael Bungay Stanier, author of “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More And Change The Way You Lead Forever.” We discuss how to use some truly powerful coaching questions to boost your ability to help others.

How would you know if you’re evil?

It’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to confront our fears…

The Evil Queen stood in the doorway. The terrifying thing wasn’t the smoke rising from her hair, the sinister red glow emanating from her fingertips, or the half-eaten apple rolling on the ground beside the body of Snow White in the background; it was the look of naked vulnerability on her normally regal face. The source? The crumpled paper clutched in her right hand: the results of her 360-degree evaluation.

The Evil Queen doesn’t think of herself as evil. Neither does the Tasteless In-Law. They may always show up with the best of intentions, but they just don’t seem to “get” that bringing fireworks for the kids’ birthdays is just awkward. Or how about that yearly impression at the Thanksgiving dinner table that, in the words of Avenue Q, is “just a little bit racist?” They can’t fathom that some things are just … inappropriate.

Unfortunately, there are times in our lives where we’re probably the ones with cringe-worthy conversation, only everyone’s too polite to tell us. After all, those fireworks seemed like a perfectly appropriate gift for little 7-year-old Sydney. There’s one way to know if we’re That Inappropriate Person, however, and it’s the scariest thing we can do: ask.

Approach a friend, family member, or colleague. Simple ask, “I want to be the best friend possible. Can you tell me how I’m doing? Please be honest. What can I do better?” If they have hard feedback to hear, it’s probably just as hard for them to say, so take it well! Write it down, smile, and say “Thank you.”

Realize that other people see us differently than we see ourselves. You may think you’re a Superhero fighting for Good, but the people around you find you a bit more of a Monarch of Evil. By finding and closing the gap, you can bring yourself closer to making the outside you match the Superhero You.

So get moving! Use the answers! Read over the list of feedback. Choose one thing to change, and for 90 days, change that one thing. Then when you’ve mastered it, go on to the next thing (trying to accomplish all the goals on the list at once is just too much). Then ask again, to find out if you’ve made the change.

This even works for the Evil Queen. She’s learning. She’s decided to lay off the poison apples and put her efforts into doing good deeds, like finding homes for orphans. She says there’s a gingerbread house just beyond the stream that is happy to take as many orphans as she can send over. It isn’t perfect, but it’s progress.

The Right Conversation will Get You What You Want

If you want to change your life, how do you do it? I used to think it was hard. Then I realized that most of the opportunities in life have come through one simple activity: talking to people…about stuff. Who you talk to, and what you talk about, ends up building your reputation, and gets people thinking of you in ways that lead to new opportunities.

You don’t always have the power to talk to the right people, but you always have the power to talk about the stuff you think is important. Once you start talking about what you care about, you quickly find the other people who care, too.

People Will Self-Select

Start by changing the conversation with your current group of friends and colleagues. They’ll make it clear really quickly if they’re the wrong audience.

A mid-50s postal clerk called for career coaching. She’s close to retirement. In her spare time, she’s designed a low-cost, easy-to-assemble housing unit she believes could revolutionize third world housing. Her co-workers all pooh-pooh her idea: “You should realize you’re just a postal clerk with delusions of grandeur. At your age, you should just be thinking about retirement.”

Those weren’t the people to talk to. Talking to me was a good next step. I don’t have third-world housing connections, but I know people who do and can refer her. She changed her conversation and is already getting closer to people who can help realize her dream.

Jump on Opportunities

Be on the looking during the conversation, and pounce on opportunities as they arise. Last year, I was going through career angst. The only things that seemed exciting: theater and saving the world. Sadly, theater is tough to make pay, and there weren’t any save-the-world job openings on Craigslist.

I was talking with my friend Jason about my desire to save the world. Lo and behold, he had just been tasked with the job of … creating a conference to save the world! Hosted by MIT, the SOLVE conference would convene movers and shakers, technologists and policy makers, and be about initiating real action to solve world problems.

I immediately asked to get involved. I presented my ideas to the SOLVE team, and was given an invitation as an attendee to SOLVE 1.0. Will SOLVE be the right vehicle for me? Who knows. But one way or another, it introduces me to a new community to talk to, who share my concerns and aspirations. And therein lies opportunity.

Change Your Life

Now it’s your turn to change your life by talking to people … about stuff:

  1. What change do you want to make in your life?
  2. When you’ve made the change, who will you be talking to? About what?
  3. If you can reach those people directly, pick up the phone.
  4. Otherwise, start having the right conversations, and let people guide you to the right audience.
  5. If you run out of people and still haven’t found your tribe, try Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, etc.