Monday, April 29, 2013

How Well Do You Know Your People?

I was reading a book this weekend (I'll share more on the book this Friday), that made me recall some things that I did with my troops while I was in the Army, but found that I don't do as often as I use to. I would surmise that my family/home life has caught up with me. Perhaps I should make more of the effort. Let me explain.

After a year deployed with my platoon in Iraq, we came home. Shortly after coming home, several of my soldiers tried out for a "Battle of the Bands" in Dallas, TX. They applied for leave, which I granted, they invited me, and then I did something totally unexpected...

I showed up for the contest. I didn't confirm with them that I was coming, I just showed up (with my wonderful, extremely attractive then girlfriend, now wife, in tow). We attended the entire contest, and I made sure they knew before the contest started that I was there to cheer them on. Afterwards, we went to a bar where I shot pool with them (so did my wife, who hustled some cash out of them), bought them a couple rounds of drinks, and then strategically retreated to the hotel room.

A couple of months later, a Sergeant in my unit asked me to be part of his wedding party, in Florida. I was honored to be asked, cleared my calendar, and attended a lovely wedding ceremony (in Spanish) and reception.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at

Why am I sharing these moments? The answer is that I treated my soldiers like people. I knew what was important to them, and tried to make efforts to be present at the big events in their life. I spent a year of my life with these men, and I knew that if we were going to work together as a team, I would need to make this effort. The reward was the invitation to their real life.

After leaving the Army, I fully intended to continue this trend, and in a manner I did. I try to spend time with each of my team members talking about non-work related things, to get to know them as a person. What is the purpose?

The purpose is to combat anonymity. I don't want my team to think that they are nameless automatons to me, and it increases their commitment if I treat them as "human." I even have blank thank you cards, and generic congratulations cards in case something happens that needs to be recognized.

What I haven't done lately, however, is attend events that are important to my team. A recent example would be the MS150, which is a two day bicycle ride from Houston to Austin. Several of my co-workers and teammates were riding that weekend, and I could have shown up at the start of the event to wish them luck. Looking back, it would have been a strong COMMAND move, as it would have shown commitment to my team and it would have only cost me some time on a Saturday morning.

Now, the action for you prospective leaders out there: How well do you know your team? What are their birthdays? Do they have kids? Hobbies? What about charity or volunteer work? These are the details that combat anonymity and humanize your team. They will work harder for you and may not leave for "greener pastures" if they feel they are understand and understood.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"Good to Great"

Good to Great is almost a business standard. Written in 2001 by Jim Colins, the book tries to explore the reasons why some firms make the jump to greatness while others do not. I thought it was a good read, and some of the concepts (i.e. the hedgehog principle) still apply today. In fact, I think Apple (when Steve Jobs returned) would be a good example of the hedgehog principle; although after reading his biography, I have my doubts about him as a leadership example (perhaps a future blog update).

However, looking back, what really caught my attention was that some of the companies identified in Good to Great are no longer with us (or not doing that well). The first two examples that come to mind are Circuit City,  and Fannie May. This caused me to do some research, and I found an article that briefly explores the "Good to Great" Conundrum as the author puts it. That article can be found here.

From my own limited background, I would say that the leaders of the companies failed to identify that the market was changing on them. They shifted from  their concept, thinking that status quo would remain.

Benjamin Franklin said, "The only things certain in life are death and taxes."I think he missed at least one thing on this list: Change. If you aren't paying attention, your competition will pass you by. You need to look for the opportunities, and assume that things will not always be the same. To do otherwise is to set you up for loss.

Okay, so do I recommend the book Good to Great? Yes, but the final lesson here is that if you don't change with the times, then the times will leave you by.

Good to Great can be found here:

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wacky Wednesday

This is an old video, but it describes for me the need for a good leader and the right team:

 Please sit through the entire video... worth it....


Maybe I should call this Work the Plan?

Monday, April 22, 2013

From Good to Great...


“Stop right there.”

I don’t even get my first word out before Darren LaCroix, International Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking (2001), stops me in front of a crowd of 100+ people at “Own the Stage” a District 56 Toastmasters sponsored event. Darren and Craig Valentine (the 1999 World Champion Speaker) were in Houston and offered their services to the District. For two hours these World Champion Speakers shared their knowledge and provided many techniques necessary to become a World Champion Speaker. In a word: Awesome.

I was one of the lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) few whose name was pulled at random to come on stage and present the beginning of a speech. These two World Champions would listen to the speech, stop you when they had enough material and provide improvements for you in front of the whole audience. One syllable was enough material for me.

Fortunately, after a quick correction, Darren let me restart my speech. I implemented his suggestion and continued on… taking advantage of the situation and learning an immense amount in less than 10 minutes.  It was a truly humbling, and rewarding experience for which I am very thankful. If ever there is another event with World Champion Speakers (like the upcoming Conference) occurring in Houston: Attend. It will be worth your time.  

I wrote the above short article for the District 56 Toastmasters Newsletter. That particular moment was an eye-opening experience, and I've started to dig deeper into the lessons provided at that session and through services/packages offered by Craig Valentine and Darren LaCroix. After starting to dig, I've realized one thing: I'm good. These guys are great.

Image courtesy of koratmember at

Good to great, what got you here can't get you there, whatever you want to call it, I've realized that I am the big fish in the little pond, and probably need to move to a bigger pond. Specifically I need to expand my public speaking skills. I probably will not be able to do that with the resources I've used to get where I am now. 

First, where I am now: I am a member of 2 Toastmaster clubs, and generally considered the strongest speaker in both clubs. I regularly win the contests at Club and Area level, if not at Division and even District. The evaluations I receive generally fall into the "Wow" category, usually with very little comments for improvement. I record my presentations and try to review them for areas to improve. Now I realize that without guidance from someone more knowledgeable, I will not reach a "great" level. 

Let me give you an example. I listened to a CD from Craig Valentine which discussed the power of using questions in your presentations. My reaction was originally "Ah-ha, I already do that!"

Then he dropped a bomb on me. Most speakers will address the entire room with the question, rather than the room as an individual. An example "How many of you..." rather than "Have you ever..." Since the "you" is both singular and plural, the deciding difference is "many of." This takes the audience into a question of numbers, rather than a question designed to encourage the audience to look at their own feelings and experiences.

I thought that this would be an easy tweak... until this past Wednesday, when I presented my Multitasking speech to a PMI meeting in Houston. I started the evening with a question: "Have you ever had a day where you felt worn down, didn't accomplish anything, and wondered why?"

Nailed it! Or so I thought. Unfortunately, as I entered my rhythm and progressed through the speech I found myself asking questions with "How many of you..." rather than the suggested "Have you ever..." or some modification thereof. I fell into my old bad habits.

Unfortunately, bad habits are hard to break. What got me to being a "good" speaker won't get me to becoming a "great" speaker. I've started digging into my presentations, looking for "old bad habits" and researching lessons from other world champion speakers. I will take it as far as I can, however, I have realized that I may actually need a mentor/coach.

Why am I sharing this? Because at some point the statement "What got you here won't get you there" is actually true. A leader has to be aware enough to realize when he/she has reached that point, and find ways to expand/change beyond the "here." I encourage you to look at your skills, your strengths, your talents, and determine if you are where you want to be with them. It is most likely that you can still grow. Now Conceive a plan to move forward!

For more details on Darren and Craig, please go to:

Darren LaCroix - World Champion of Public Speaking 2001

Craig Valentine - World Champion of Public Speaking 1999

The Lady and The Champs - An event I am contemplating attending.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Five Best "To Do" List Managers

Earlier this week I gave my presentation on Multitasking to a meeting of the Project Management Institute in Houston, Texas. During the presentation I mentioned an article over at which indicated the 5 Best "To Do" List Managers according to the readers of Lifehacker.  I didn't want to leave the audience hanging, so here is the link.

Image courtesy of Michal Marcol at

Now, complete honesty, I haven't tried most of these options. As I mention in my presentation, I tend to live by the Outlook Task list because my company email is managed in that software, and the task list is already there. I am looking at ways to merge the task list from Outlook with Android, but running into issues because I use .pst files for my storage of emails. It figures that Microsoft wouldn't want to play nice with Google (as I have an android phone). Perhaps one of the services listed on the link can remedy that. I may have to try them out, look back to see which ones I try (aside from pen and paper, which has, in my world been replaced by EverNote).

Unfortunately, it means that I am not as effective as I would like to be. One of the many points from my presentation is: If you don't schedule your time, someone else will. Please, look at how you spend your day. Are you accomplishing what you want to? Or are you running from meeting to meeting (scheduled by somebody else) an replying to emails, texts and IMs rather than focusing on tasks? My goal is to move more toward the former question, rather than the latter, and I hope that most of my readers agree with me.

Now, if you would like to know more, or would like to see the Multitasking presentation, I have a treat for you. Coming up in June, the Houston chapter of the Project Management Institute is hosting their annual conference, of which I will be providing two (count them 2!) sessions. On Wednesday I will be presenting much requested Multitasking Speech. But before that, I will be trotting out a whole new presentation/workshop: Murphy's Laws of Project Management!

I'm really excited for both presentations, and there will be other fabulous speakers there, including another fellow Toastmaster. If you want more details, please go here (more details coming soon).

Thank you all for reading, and if you have other tips/tricks that can make a person more effective, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Not So Wacky Wednesday

Considering the recent events in Boston, I didn't feel a Wacky Wednesday would be appropriate. Instead, I offer this quote from an American that many of us grew up with:

From Clean Eating Online
My thanks goes out to the helpers, and my thoughts to those whose lives are different this week.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Fix The Problem... NOT The Blame

I've been on a wide variety of different projects. During my career, I've managed large scale events, computer system and software installs, and large scale fabrication/installation projects. In most of these, I've seen a trend that is a reason for concern: The Blame Game.

Image courtesy of Ambro at
 Let me give you an example. We were in the middle of a very tight software installation, and I was working more as a project scheduler and expediter than a Project Manager (PM). As I was running down the task list I noticed that a particular task was overdue, and a large series of tasks were waiting on the completion in order to complete the preference settings of the new system. As I searched for the programmer responsible, I walked by a conference room with door open and heard his voice.

I walked into the room, said "excuse me" then pulled him aside and asked him what the problem was. Apparently the load file was corrupted. I asked if we had an older version and documentation to update the old file to the latest settings. His answer: "Yes, but..."

I cut him off: "No buts, get started, we can't move forward until the fix is done. Move!" and pushed him (gently) toward the door.

It was shortly after that moment, that I realized I just saved him from an ass chewing. The Project Manager wasn't in the conference room; however, the PM's boss was, as well as several members of the Project Board who weren't supposed to be in the office on a Saturday. When the boss found out about the corrupted file, he immediately called a meeting to determine who was at fault (placing the entire project schedule at risk).

As I stood there, I apologized for grabbing the programmer, but explained that if we were to remain on schedule, I needed his solution NOW. I was a little startled when the board looked at each other and nodded, letting me leave.

Now, to the lesson. When you are in Command, you need to set priorities. In this case, my boss' boss wanted to assign blame in case the project failed, rather than determine a solution. One of many problems with this is that he was effectively guaranteeing that the project would fail because he wasn't identifying a solution but assigning blame. The fix to the corrupted file wouldn't have happened fast enough to save the rest of the project schedule, and the whole project board (and PM) would have been scrambling.

Instead, the programmer updated the previous file, and it was loaded with only an hour lost to the project schedule. Since I was aware of the expected delay, I worked with the PM and the different groups to identify areas that were later in the project schedule that could be moved up to make-up the time. On Monday morning, the software package was installed and the facility was able to operate on the new system with only minor support. Overall a win that wouldn't have happened if the blame game continued.

After the project went live, I went back to the programmer to ask about the corrupted file. The best we could figure was that the file was moved from a thumb-drive that corrupted the file. It was nobody's fault and we instituted a new method of backing up setting packages in order to ensure we didn't have this issue again.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

The lesson I learned that day is that there is always time to fix the blame, but a limited window to fix the problem. When you are the leader of an event, project, team, whatever, look for solutions, rather than blame. Once the problem is solved, then you can determine who's responsible, and if necessary, what actions need to occur, either to prevent it from happening again, or to keep the person from happening again.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Great Project Manager...

I save a lot of links on my computer, with the intent to share them on this blog. This one dates back a little while, but I thought I had to start somewhere:

Image courtesy of basketman at

 While the writing is a little rough (i.e. "A Great Project Manager" at the beginning of each point) I do think that the points are valid. In addition, a Project Manager has to be a leader, there is no other way to perform the job.

I wish I could re-write this article, because the 10 things he lists are all too often missed by leaders, usually not all at once. However, as a person with Integrity (see item 3) I will let Chris have the credit. 

If I could add an 11th, it would be to effectively evaluate the situation and people. Now, you could argue that this goes into problem solving (true), however I find that this is often the least utilized "thing."

How often have you seen a leader focus on the symptom, or worse the blame, rather than on the root cause or a valid solution? Because the focus is in the wrong area, a  band aide is slapped on the problem, until the issue festers and appears again. Next week. I will share a moment I had where this actually happened, and how we worked to resolve it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Wacky Wednesday - If it's Stupid

This meme has started making rounds on the web. I had to pick it up:

While I never needed to do this, I actually know people who have. However, there is an ultierior motive to post this. I am working on a new personal project, and this will be one of the many notes in it. Once it gets closer to completion I will share with you. In the meantime, think about the last time you saw something that made you go "Well, that's pretty stupid" only to have to eat your words later. I am sure we've all had that moment at least once.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Simple Thank You Card

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
I travel for work, which really isn't a surprise since I am a Project Manager. I spend time where the project is being executed. In this case, I was in Morgan City, Louisiana; a thriving metropolis that is 45 minutes to the nearest movie theatre, mall, or chain restaurant that isn't fast food. Needless to say, there aren't a lot of options in town.

Except hotels. For some reason this place has a Holiday Inn (old school from the 80s), a Hampton, Inn, La Quinta, Comfort Inn, and I am sure at least 2 other chain hotels that I can't recall off the top of my head. The company I work for prefers the Holiday Inn. There is a special rate, free hot breakfast, a bar, and dining room.

The downside is that the rooms are old and dated, the Internet is wireless and barely works, and the amenities are about what you would expect for a college dorm. I decided to try somewhere new on my last trip: The Comfort Inn.

Cons: No bar/restaurant, and the hot breakfast is about what you get from every hotel offering a breakfast in the morning.

Pros: The rooms are newer, and the Internet is much more reliable.

One other pro. Upon my departure I received a request to fill out a survey about my stay. I stated the truth, that the rooms were nice, the Internet was great, and I commented on the breakfast (specifically, the high sodium content of the eggs). I then put the survey out of my mind.

About a week later, I sorted through my mail and found an envelope about the size of a card. Inside is a handwritten thank you card by the hotel manager, letting me that they appreciated my feedback, would address the eggs with the morning staff and looked forward to the next time I visited Morgan City. Now, boys and girls, THAT is the last C - COMPLETE.

This hotel manager actually read the survey, looked up my home address in her database and sent me a thank you for staying, as well as specifically mentioned the feedback I left. I've never had that experience before, and I am willing to be you haven't either. I was so amazed, that I had to dedicate an entire blog post to it. She went the extra mile, and deserves praise, and my return business.

What's the take-away? She went the extra mile for the customer, let them know she cared, and even "listened" to the improvements suggested by the customer. I ask you to think about that the next time you are interacting with your team and your customers. Have you gone that extra mile, or are you just going through the paces.

Thank you Comfort Inn Morgan City for this example. I really appreciate it.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Game of Thrones - A Business Leader's Guide

Tyrion Lannister played by Peter Dinklage
Game of Thrones (GOT) by HBO is based on a book series by George R. R. Martin. It's a series that I've read (and anxiously wait for the next installment), and now a show that is (almost) appointment television. The story is intricate and detailed, the dialogue superb, and the actors are fantastic. What more could I ask for?

How about some leadership lessons? Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so, because Fortune Magazine just published an article about it (entitled: Game of Thrones: A Business Leader's Guide, picture included). WARNING THE LINK  and BELOW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

While the article contains some leadership lessons (such as determining which promises you can break, cultivating middle management, and being right isn't always enough) there are many more lessons involved here.

An argument could be made for taking advantage of an opportunity (as the Greyjoys did by attacking the North)? How about obligations of family vs. work (the internal struggle of Rob Stark as he tries to keep his banner-man together even after his mother released a valued prisoner who killed some of the sons of these banner-man, solely to save her own children from being hostages)?

One of the ones that rings true for me is the Night's Watch and maintaining obligations. The Watch has fallen on hard times because the people protected by it don't see what it is the Watch really does for them. In a manner of speaking, I can see this happening with the military today, when only 1% of the population actually serves (the NY Times had an article about it) and more people seem to be concerned with American Idol than the post 9-11 wars that (although winding down) now stretch past a decade.

Needless to say, this is only the very tip of the iceberg. I am honestly considering discussing the leadership lessons of each episode of GOT. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wacky Wednesday - Easter

Because this is how the bunnies look at my house this week.

From George Takei's Facebook page

Monday, April 1, 2013

Leadership In Daily Occurences

I had an interesting weekend. Almost nothing went as planned, however many things were accomplished. Overall not a bad weekend, it just means planning out future events more carefully.

However, over the weekend I was witness to two leadership efforts that truly caught my attention. We had a work crew arrive at our house on Friday to do some preventive maintenance on our trees. We've used this guy almost annually for the last couple of years because we have 3 trees in our 1/8 acre that are all over 25 years old and we would like to keep them. He's educated at the State University of New York, Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) Campus, which happens to be on the Syracuse University Campus (btw, GO ORANGE, FINAL FOUR BABY!). From the time my wife and I have known him, he's kept largely the same crew of workers

Now, in Houston this is an accomplishment. The crew tends to be Latin American heritage workers, however crews tend to be very "flexible" in their work arrangements and will jump teams almost at the drop of a hat (I almost said "drop of a sombrero," but thought it would be too much). The main climber remembered our house and went straight to work. His assistant mostly stayed on the ground and cleaned-up, sharpened tools, and played "gopher." Our ESF friend left the crew to do their work while he went to check on another job.

Around lunch he came back and delivered lunch to his crew. He then spent a few minutes making sure we (my wife and I) were happy with the work. That's the two part leadership lesson. He cared enough for his crew to get them lunch and water (out of his own pocket) and then he took time to make sure the customer was happy with the work being done. He even answered questions regarding some work I am considering doing myself, rather than hiring  him for it.

The crew followed his directions without complaint and I am sure next year his main climber will remember our house again. But why do they stay with him when there are hundreds of landscape and tree service companies in Houston.

Well, I am sure that the boss pays well, but that's only part. He related to his crew and took care of them. He gave instructions in Spanish. He drove them to the site in his truck. He provided the tools, fuel, food, and water for the day. This means he minimized the out of pocket cost for his crew and ensured that they had what was needed to get through the day.  I'm pretty sure that most of his crew wouldn't want to leave.

Believe it or not, this is part of COMMAND. It isn't about telling people what to do, it also means being responsible for your people. So the lesson here is to ask what can you do to relate to your team? Have you talked with them to ensure they have what they need for the day? Do you related to your team in their own "language" (tech, programming, engineering, fabrication, Spanish)? Do you make them feel valued through your own actions (buying lunch ocassionally, covering a training event)? These are, overall, small things that can make a team stay together longer, even if there is the prospect for more money. As many studies continue to show, money isn't everything.

Image courtesy of Ambro at