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Conference Perk … Seminar Investment

Who doesn’t enjoy getting out of the office for a couple of days at the company’s expense to a previously unvisited city -- usually in a warm climate -- for a conference where you’re promised big-name speakers and networking opportunities?

Count me in.

But also count the cost – travel, lost productivity, possible loss of the employee to a competitor she networked with.

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Mistakes are Just Mistakes

Mistakes at work are not what they used to be. They once were black and white, intimidating, and your fault. Now a mistake is more oops than ouch, encouraged as leadership development, touted as a growth opportunity, and not completely your fault. Errors do not have to be painful experiences, we’re told, but rather passages to understanding.

So, step right up, own your mistake and get credit. Well … maybe not.

Why not? The mistakes-as-learning argument sounds upbeat but here’s the reality.

Examples of good mistakes are few

  • You won’t find the word mistake in the annual report.
  • Lessons learned from mistakes are not factored into bonuses.
  • Most organizations are structured to prevent any mistakes.
  • Risk-taking that includes mistakes is talked about but not encouraged or believed.

Mistakes are viral
Err, and everyone knows about it.

  • Some colleagues will be sympathetic
  • Some will be empathetic
  • Some will laugh it off with you
  • Others will not say but will think it
  • One or two will use it against you.

Mistakes are memorable
We all know that mistakes can be forgiven (sort of), but rarely are they forgotten. Most of us relive our mistakes regularly. Some parade them out of guilt or anger. And, while your mistake may not be recorded in your personnel record, decision-makers file it in their minds.

Now we’ve circled back to the truth: mistakes are not achievement badges.

So, let’s bundle up our mistakes, learn from them all at once, and move on. Here’s how.

Face it. Know that a mistake is just a mistake. Unless you repeat it consistently, a mistake is not necessarily an indictment of your abilities, your intelligence, your personality, or your upbringing. Get on with your life.
Feel it. Most of the self-flagellation following a mistake is caused by embarrassment, which vaporizes quickly into a fog of confusion but which will lift after awhile to let you see and feel clearly again.
Contextualize it. A mistake is rarely made in isolation. Lack of information, misinterpretation, unexpected resistance – these and other factors and people can coalesce and cause you to make a hasty judgment, an erratic decision, or a wild guess – in other words, a mistake.
Zip it. Avoid compounding a mistake by overreacting or counteracting. Joking about your error regularly or beating up on yourself from time to time will keep the mistake visible. And going after those who judge your weak moment will only confirm your weakness.
Own it. A mistake that you made is your mistake. Make sure you have a good ethical compass handy to prevent you from blaming, weasel-wording, lying, suggesting, or gossiping and to keep you away from arrogance, anger, ennui, pride, or impulsiveness — all of which can trigger more serious mistakes.

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Afraid to Decide

When was the last time you waffled on making a decision and, by default or design, let someone else make it for you?  Maybe last night?  (“What restaurant do you want to go to,” she asked? “I don’t care, he replied. “Wherever you want to go.” “I don’t care either,” she responded. “You decide.”)

Decisions are risky, especially in organizations where consensus overshadows individual accountability.

Consider these three scenarios where decisions can get deflected to others without much notice or guilt.

  • You’ve thoroughly prepared a presentation to your boss, laying out the options for her decision on some new corporate initiative. But what if she asks which option you want? You would probably repeat the merits of each option and then timidly show slight favoritism towards one. My advice: If you want your boss’ job someday, make the decisions now that you’re upward-delegating to her.
  • Tomorrow you must explain to your staff how an unpopular corporate reorganization will change the department. You bring in your top direct reports and ask them, “If you were me, what would you do and say?” Sounds participatory, but are you really hoping that one of them will give you the decision you should be making?
  • You must decide about moving forward with an innovative program for employees. You want department heads to give you their perspectives and buy-in. You decide to form a committee, although you know that committees are notoriously poor at making decisions and taking risks.

Here are some examples of don’ts and do’s.

    Don’t say this: You start a bad-news meeting by saying, “Tom, Kaitlyn, and I had a long session yesterday about an important issue and here’s what we came up with.”
    Say this: “Several of us got together yesterday to explore how to address some tough new challenges. Let me tell you about those challenges and what I have decided we need to do about them.” That’s flexibility backed by resolve.

    Don’t say this: You are put in charge of a committee and begin by asking, “What does each of you think our purpose is for this committee?”
    Say this: “The purpose of this group is to provide data-supported solutions to a specific issue, offer perspectives from each member’s expertise, and recommend clear-cut recommendations for decision-makers.” That’s decisiveness.

One more tip. On your to-do list, insert “Decide” as the first word for each task. If you can’t, insert “Drop.” That may be your best decision.

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Build an A-team from (presumably) B-players

Exceeding the expected used to be exceptional; now it seems commonplace. Do the job well and, at some companies, the annual performance review could rate the individual as “exceeds expectations.”

Perhaps expectations are too low, or do you simply not have enough A-players in your department? They are not difficult to find, but do you have the courage to experiment?

Three thoughts.

    1. Choose the unlikely. Assume that just about anyone on your staff is an undiscovered A-player. The next time you have an job opening in your department, pick someone in your group who might not meet the required experience but who thinks differently and seems a bit bored. That’s your first courageous act. The second is teaching yourself how to manage unpredictability that just might produce amazing results in unusual ways.
    2. Be a “half-sentence” manager. What I call a “full-sentence manager” is a department head who starts a meeting, for instance, with her ideas and ends with instructions for implementation, such as, “We need to implement a social media strategy, and here’s how we can pull it off.”
      By contrast, “half-sentence managers” start with possibilities and let the staff decide on implementation. For example, she might start a meeting with, “Does anyone agree with me that implementing a social media strategy for our type of company could be dumb?” B-players will jump in immediately with pros and cons and recommend benchmarking. Be patient and wait until the understated A-player emerges – though you may have to do some prompting -- and says, “It’s dumb if we clone another company’s program and even dumber if we don’t know for whom and why we’re even launching a social media program.”

      And here is where you get very courageous. Tell that person he’s in charge of coming up with the answers and he can pick two people to help – and they can do it any way they want. That’s right, “anyway they want.”

    3. Decrease headcount. Choosing the unlikely and letting them go will create a work environment of possibilities and efficiencies. Consequently, you will eventually need fewer people. Your A-players will set a standard and style that converts ordinary to extraordinary and encourages the true B-players to select themselves out.

Finally, here are five tip-offs for recognizing an A-player.

  1. The word “ingenious” regularly pops into your head when you hear about something she has done.
  2. You learn that recruiters are contacting that staff member.
  3. HR questions your decision about promoting a seemingly unqualified individual.
  4. You talk so much about him that other department heads want to meet him.
  5. The individual gets you thinking about whether your long-held assumptions about managing people are effective.
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