It’s Not Just The Words

Written by: Stephen Caldwell, SVI, Director of Learning Experiences

Words are powerful. They are used to empower people and to strip power from people. Words are used to clarify vision, communicate mission and shape culture.

However, words … well, they’re just words.

Many organizations use the same types of words in team meetings, onboarding programs and companywide emails, but those organizations can look drastically different when compared. Sure, they’re all saying things like servant leader, empower, influence, collaborate, communicate, trust, integrity, etc. You know, the buzzwords. Their reality, however, can look very different.

Some of those organizations might show organizational hierarchy by the size of a chair or height of a cubicle wall. Some might show transparency by taking the doors off of offices. Similar language doesn’t equate to identical operations.

Take Southwest Airlines, for example. On a day that Americans will never forget, a few employees made decisions the passengers will always remember. The attacks on 9/11 made the airwaves and all planes were grounded. A Southwest plane landed at the nearest airport in Michigan, which didn’t service Southwest.
There was not a ticket counter, management team, let alone a gate to park at or even a crew to take care of baggage.

The pilots and flight attendants took action instead of waiting for direction. They exited from the back of the plane and gathered the necessary equipment to get nervous passengers on the ground. The crew provided personal cell phones so passengers could communicate to their families, paid for alternative ways to get them home, and handed out the luggage. The crew was “empowered.”

The mission of Southwest Airlines is “dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.”

The team forced to land in Michigan was empowered to live out their organization’s mission without asking permission.

Our organizations are full of buzzwords these days. Words like leverage, strategic, maximize, optimize and utilize. We use these words with the best of intentions. But at the end of the day, it’s not the words that make the difference – it’s the people. It’s the daily decisions.

Oh, and by the way, Southwest Airlines was the only American airline to post a profit that year. It’s amazing what can happen when words aren’t just words.

Friday, September 12th, 2014 Leadership No Comments

Hats on Fire: Burning with empathy

Written by: Stephen Caldwell, SVI, Director of Learning Experiences

Arriving Late

A leader arrived late to a meeting, apologized to the group as he took a seat and then sat silently for a few minutes before joining the conversation. His first question was about something we’d already covered. His next one was about a topic the agenda showed we would visit later.

After a little good-natured ribbing about being off track, the leader smiled and apologized again for being late. And without making it sound like an excuse, he said, “I’m a man with many hats, and some of them are on fire.”

We all chuckled and the meeting went on, but that comment stuck with me. Two things kept coming to mind, and both involved empathy – the ability to identify with and understand other people’s feelings and difficulties.

1. I must empathize with others.

It’s important for me to remember that my work isn’t the only thing happening in the work lives of others. Co-workers, clients and vendors all wear many hats, and some of those hats are on fire. Those might be work hats or nonwork hats. They may have a project that’s in danger of imploding or a child who is direly ill. Either way, remembering that my work isn’t always the center of the other person’s universe provides some perspective that allows me to better solve the problems I face. When I empathize with them, I’m more likely to listen and to try to find a solution that works for them and me. When I don’t empathize, I assume the worse, view them unfairly, and unwisely (and sometimes subconsciously) undermine my work as well as theirs.

2. I must allow others to empathize with me.

I, too, wear many hats, and some of them are on fire. I need to remember that the rest of the world typically doesn’t know, and often doesn’t care, about my burning hats. They do care about how I’m responding to my responsibilities. If I’m being defensive or cranky or moody for no apparent reason, it casts me and my company in a poor light. Or, like the leader at the meeting, I can be appropriately transparent and demonstrate a great attitude. There are times when others need to know about my burning hats and times when they don’t. It’s challenging to know which times call for which action, but I have to figure it out.

Be Empathetic

Regardless of our hats and which ones are burning, we aren’t relieved of our responsibilities. We are held accountable and we need to hold others accountable, too. Empathy, however, results when we understand each other, and that allows us to provide feedback and solve problems so that fewer hats catch fire and those that are burning are more quickly doused.

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Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 Human Resources No Comments

Humility vs. Ambition: 3 ways to be both humble and ambitious

Written by: Michael Brown, Writer/Facilitator, SVI

Most of us have worked with people who are always “on” during working hours. You know the type –  perpetually energetic about the task at hand, answering questions, solving problems, driving forward and getting it done. Work is about them and what they need done. Humility has given way to ambition.

All too often, however, these people have sacrificed their identity. It’s like they have multiple personalities –they are a blast at home and downright dull at work.

The extreme flip side is that when someone is all personality. They are fun and authentic but never prepared, engaged or doing quality work.

Is there a happy medium? How can we be both humble and ambitious?

1) Be Selfless: Put others first.

I love this quote from The Organizational Champion by Mike Thompson.

“What matters to champions is not their impact on the history of the universe, but rather, their impact on the people they know and love.”

Focus more on the success of those around you than your own success.

2) Be Driven: Focus on the mission.

There is nothing wrong with being “on.” It’s great to prepare, work hard and succeed. Be self-motivated and you won’t be looking for validation from others. If you are focused on the mission, you won’t be concerned with what people are thinking about you.

3) Be Authentic: Just be you.

You can be successful and honest at the same time. Don’t put up a wall in the name of “getting it done” and rob your colleagues of actually getting to know you.

Champions don’t earn that status by trying to be someone they are not. They become champions by being selfless, driven and authentic. They are content in their own skin, and they work hard to get better.

It’s not easy, but neither is winning a championship.

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Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 Human Resources, Leadership, Org Champs Book No Comments

Oscar’s Organizational Champ

At the beginning of the Academy Awards telecast the other night, Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame paid a visit to the show’s host, Seth MacFarlane. Because Captain Kirk comes from a time in the future, he was privy to the results of the show – including the reviews of MacFarlane’s performance. And, having read the reviews, he had come back in time to offer MacFarlane some advice: Stop screwing this up.

Captain Kirk showed the host the next morning’s headlines, and they read something like this: “MacFarlane Worst Oscars Host Ever.” To prove the point, he showed a clip of something MacFarlane was going to do that would make the show a disaster. MacFarlane, having learned from the peek into the future, then came up with and performed a different skit that was less controversial and more satisfying to the critics. This went on for three or four skits until MacFarlane improved to “mediocre” in the reviews.

MacFarlane, the creator of the show Family Guy, is known for pushing the envelope when it comes to what’s tasteful, and he used the Captain Kirk bit to bring some of his more edgy humor into the show and make fun of the Hollywood establishment.

As champions within our organizations, we aren’t tasked with pushing the edges of humor. But we are tasked with pushing the organization beyond its comfort zones in the name of progress. We need to come up with and champion fresh ideas, ideas that some might resist. And that means we have to test the boundaries from time to time. So while MacFarlane might not be our gold standard for establishing what’s tasteful and what’s crossing the line, we can learn a few things from his approach.

One, get ahead of your critics and don’t let them define you. When you need to push things beyond the conventional, think about the resistance that might come and find ways to outsmart it. Don’t run from it or change what you fundamentally believe in order to conform to what someone else thinks.

Two, push yourself, and others, to the edge – and sometimes go too far. If you don’t fail from time to time, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. Be willing to admit your mistakes and to change course when you’ve gone too far, but don’t spend your life playing it safe.

Three, find creative ways to challenge established thinking. You can attack, attack, attack, and sometimes that will produce a victory. But you also can approach challenges in fresh ways and, by demonstrating innovation, make your case.

In comedy, the mavericks often go too far by making their jokes too personal. They offend people – or groups of people. As an organizational champion, we have to learn to push the limits when coming up with new ideas, but we want to do so in ways that respect the people around us. That’s the challenge as we blast into the future.

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Thursday, February 28th, 2013 Leadership No Comments

Kicking Around Commitment

It’s the time of year when college football fanatics focus their attention on the game that drives the game: Recruiting.

As a leader, you probably can relate to this game. Recruiting the right talent is the lifeblood of every team, be it the University of Alabama or Walmart (which offers a different type of “rolls” and “Tide”).

But let’s focus on a different challenge we face that relates to college football recruiting: Commitment.

College football is a dog-eat-dog world, and that’s not to mention the Tigers, Bears, Gators and, yes, Razorbacks. But so is business. There is competition and a struggle to survive. If you’re at the top, you want to stay there. If you’re not, you’re trying to get there.

Commitment to success – to the goals, strategies and tactics – is huge for football programs and businesses. But what about commitment to each other? You know, to the people?

In college football, commitment, frankly, means almost nothing. High school stars “commit” to the college of their choice and, in the same breath, say, “but I’m still open.” The reporters and bloggers who follow this game use terms like “a soft commit” for someone who is committed but, you know, not really. Then there’s the “de-commit” for someone who officially changes his mind.

College coaches set the tone because their commitment to the program extends as far as the next offer from a bigger, better school. Ask them if they’re entertaining an offer from another school, and they will dart and dodge the question like a mouse trapped in a room full of cats.

What’s at stake here isn’t our right to change our minds or to pursue opportunities (new, better, different). It’s more about devaluing a word and, in doing so, devaluing an important ideal: That our word matters.

If you’re a champion within your organization, you have to live with high integrity and a commitment – not a soft commitment – to your word. When you mess up, own your mistake. But don’t de-commit on your team. Otherwise, you’ll lose their trust and all your great recruiting will get you nowhere.

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Thursday, January 24th, 2013 Leadership No Comments

Chipping in on Integrity

Every profession out there has a culture that’s created over time, and that culture always includes integrity. That doesn’t mean ever profession operates with high integrity; it means every profession sets its own bar on integrity – it’s what those in the profession expect and are willing to accept from each other.

Even the criminal world operates by a “code.” In fact, one of the barriers to rehabilitation for ex-convicts is their unwillingness to hold each other accountable to society’s rules because they think doing so would break their rules against “ratting” on each other.

The bar for integrity in any profession changes over time, and it’s up to organizational champions to move that bar higher and higher within their ranks. You do that by demonstrating integrity, and one way you do that is by self-policing your actions.

Consider golf. Few professions self-police better then golf. Several years ago during an amateur state championship, a golfer arrived at the final green with victory in his sights. All he needed for the win was a chip and a putt, and it appeared that he nailed both shots to make par on the hole. But when his playing partner congratulated him, the golfer pointed out he hadn’t made par. When he chipped the ball onto the green, he said, he accidently hit the ball twice. No one knew this but him, but he counted the extra stroke and lost the championship.

Recently, Blayne Barber made a similar admission when he called the PGA Tour to let them know that he had signed an incorrect scorecard during a “Q-school” tournament. These are the tournaments aspiring pros play to earn a coveted spot on the PGA Tour. Barber had given himself a one-stroke penalty when his club moved a leaf on a bunker shot. After the tournament, however, he learned that the offense came with a two-stroke penalty.

One stroke wasn’t going to change Barber’s finish in the tournament, but signing an incorrect scorecard came with its own penalty – disqualification from the tournament. Barber knew the significance of his phone call – he’d be disqualified, meaning he wouldn’t advance to the next tournament.

“I continued to pray about it and think about it, and I just did not have any peace about it,” Barber told Golfweek magazine. “I knew I needed to do the right thing. I knew it was going to be disqualification. … Doing the right thing and doing what I know is right in my heart and in my conscience is more important than short-term success.”

Barber’s personal integrity contributed to golf’s long history of self-reporting indiscretions. And that’s our call as organizational champions – to create a history of high integrity that compels others to follow.

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Thursday, January 3rd, 2013 Leadership No Comments

An Organizational Champion in a Big Box

When you think of a technologically innovative company, Walmart might not immediately spring to mind. You probably gravitate toward the Apples and the Googles and the YouTubes of the world. You might not remember that Walmart set the pace for innovations in retail technology by helping develop everything from systems that manage the supply chain to some of the first high-tech cash registers in its stores.

If you did remember that, of course, you might point out that many of Walmart’s innovations came a decade or more ago. But as Farhad Manjoo pointed out this week in an online article for Fast Company, Walmart is at it again, this time by pushing to become a leader in social, mobile and other e-commerce technologies to drive its business.

The progress didn’t happen accidentally. It took an organizational champion in Walmart CEO Mike Duke to cast and carry out a vision. Duke was opportunity minded because he wouldn’t settle for the ordinary and comfortable. And he was a change maker because he persevered to make something new a reality.

Manjoo illustrates this by telling the story of how Walmart hired Jeremy King, an engineer who built key parts of eBay’s infrastructure, as Chief Technology Officer for King was ignoring Walmart’s recruiting efforts until the day he dismissively told the retailer he might listen if the CEO called. The next thing he knew, Duke was personally giving him a sales pitch about Walmart’s commitment to e-commerce.

“We’ve hired hundreds of incredibly talented people, in Silicon Valley and around the world,” Duke told Manjoo. “We are playing to win.”

Walmart isn’t going to win in e-commerce without organizational champions, and clearly it has one at the top. Not only that, but by modeling the passion, enthusiasm and commitment for his vision, Duke no doubt created an organizational champion in King. That’s how you spread leadership throughout an organization – by living it.

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Thursday, November 29th, 2012 Leadership No Comments

You Can’t Boil the Ocean

Every great initiative faces a similar challenge: The very things that make it worthwhile also create a temptation to rush the strategies that will make it successful. Plans can become big and complex and, ultimately, overwhelming and impractical. It’s like trying to boil the ocean. You just can’t do it. And the same goes for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives. There’s a tremendous desire to see the big-vision outcomes, so we can rush the strategies and end up defeating our own agenda.

A good strategy begins with the right first steps, so it’s important to focus on striking the right balance between long-term vision and short-term results. Here are the guiding principles we’re using to build the strategies of our D&I initiative:

  1. Connect to the business strategy. D&I initiatives shouldn’t operate independently or be made in a vacuum. The best D&I strategies play a part in the overall organizational strategy.
  2. Present expected and tangible business results. Determine metrics during the planning stage so it’s clear which initiatives are successful.
  3. Be customized to YOUR organizational needs. Best practices are helpful, but D&I initiatives can fall short when you simply carbon copy others. Your organization is unique, and your D&I strategy should be, too.
  4. Be executable within your organization. It’s important to present a compelling vision, but your objectives should be attainable within your organization’s capabilities.
While guiding principles are helpful, we’re also getting down to brass tacks. So, we discussed what should go in the strategy document. While this should be tailored to each organization, your strategic plan should:

  1. Effectively communicate the strategic plan to key stakeholders to gain their buy-in.
  2. Feature an overall objective and/or compelling vision.
  3. Identify target audiences that will be involved in or impacted by the implementation of the plan.
  4. Present the Who, What, Why, Where, and How elements of the plan (i.e., the more tactical components).
  5. Determine the measures that can be tracked to capture results.
The thing to remember with all of these guidelines is to keep it simple, especially in the beginning. Allow yourself, your team and the initiative a chance for some easy wins, and then allow the initiative to grow at a pace that fits your organization. That’s how you avoid trying to boil the ocean and that’s how you begin realizing real business results.

Unplug and join the conversation. What are the first 3 steps you will take to ensure “wins”?

Take the lead and share with some of your friends!

This post was originally written by Mike Thompson for ALPFA Institute.

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Tuesday, May 8th, 2012 Leadership No Comments

Flavor-filled Leadership

As our business grows, I’m often evaluating myself as a leader of SVI. That process involves looking at examples of other leaders: Should I be more authoritative like Lou Gerstner, IBM’s past CEO? Should I be more like Indra Nooyi, the very compassionate CEO of PepsiCo? Should I be more like authors Mark Sanborn, who is a great analytical thinker and teacher, or Tommy Spaulding, who has such a strong passion for relationships? Or should I be a creative thought leader like Seth Godin?

I also look at leaders I admire in my local area such as David Roth, the president of Work Matters; John Roberts, the CEO of J.B. Hunt; and Donnie Smith, the CEO of Tyson Foods.

But what I’ve come to realize over the years is that I can never be those leaders. I can only be me. So I borrow something (or multiple things) from every one of them and apply it in my leadership at SVI. For me to be most effective, I’ve got to lead in my own skin even if I lead with the “flavor” of others.

Someone who really inspires me here is Richard Branson, founder of the mega brand Virgin and its 300 companies. I’ve read several of his books and I’m now reading his latest one. He’s a brilliant knucklehead who takes things too far … and it works for him. He leads in his own skin. I relate to his sense of adventure and to his eclectic style.

Join me in learning to lead in your own skin this year. To begin, consider these things:

  1. Look to the example of others for leadership flavor, not for your leadership foundation.
  2. Don’t be apologetic for your unique style if it doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter leadership models – brilliance comes from uniqueness.
  3. Maintain the right motives – don’t be irresponsible or self-absorbed with your leadership style. Google “Chainsaw Al” to see an example of someone’s style operating under the wrong motives.

Finally, there is one behavior we can all share in our leadership for 2012. Be optimistic. I believe 2012 is going to be an amazing year and you should be a champion of it.


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Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 Leadership No Comments

Dealing with Tyche

When the ancient Greeks faced calamities that had no identifiable cause, they attributed them to Tyche, the goddess of luck. That flood? Blame it on Tyche. The drought? Tyche. As one scholar put it, “the blind mistress of Fortune governed mankind with an inconstancy which explained the vicissitudes of the time.” Sounds like the goddess of misfortune, but she also occasionally saved a city or pushed fate in some other positive direction.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of luck – or fortune or fate or whatever word you personally prefer to describe positive or negative events that seem like they happened by chance. Blame it on my theological world view. If something is really out of my control, why wish for it or worry over it? When good things happen that are out of my control, I’m thankful. When they don’t, I’m not bitter.

Regardless of their worldviews, champions are the same way – they don’t bank on luck. They are thankful for their good fortune. But when things go bad, they don’t lash out. They take responsibility for their bad position or challenging circumstances, and they try to learn from them. They might pray for relief, but they also work toward that relief. Hope and faith strengthen their resolve and their outlook, but they realize the results are often out of their control. And that run of adversity that feels like the bad breath of Tyche might actually be the crucible that leads to a greater blessing.

Are you banking on luck, thereby giving little or no effort? I hope not. Do you have faith and hope? I hope so. Luck requires no action. Hope and faith require extensive action. The actions of a champion are necessary to push through life’s challenges, even when good outcomes aren’t entirely visible. Champions develop the necessary perseverance and resiliency to push forward despite the setbacks seemingly brought about by “bad luck.”

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Tuesday, December 13th, 2011 Leadership No Comments



About the Author

Mike Thompson BlogMike Thompson is the CEO of SVI, a leading organizational development company that provides leadership development services to companies such as Walmart, PepsiCo, Tyson Foods, University of Phoenix and many more. Mike is also the author of McGraw Hill's new leadership book The Organizational Champion.

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