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Be A Realistic Optimist – Idea #30 for Better Serving Team Members

Man on moon

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist,”? Do you think those two things are mutually exclusive?

I certainly don’t. And I think it’s absolutely essential for leaders to be a perfect combination of both. Healthy optimism begins with being realistic about the current state of affairs.

One of the key jobs of leadership is to create – or co-create with team members – a compelling, optimistic vision of a future that is a significant improvement of the current situation. In many ways, there can be great advantages to creating a vision so optimistic that it doesn’t even seem possible. This can inspire team members to accomplish something truly great, and can often result in actually achieving what hadn’t seemed possible when the journey began.

One of example of this was the vision John F. Kennedy’s proclaimed to the nation at a Joint Session of Congress on 25 May, 1961, when he announced the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At the time, NASA had essentially no idea how they could possibly put a man on the moon, nor any of the technology that would eventually be used to do it. The US had lagged behind the Soviet Union in even getting a man into space.

But the vision was so compelling to so many people. As a result, the goal was achieved when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on 20 July, 1969.

Before we can chart a course for such a compelling vision, though, we must be absolutely clear about our starting point. In an oversimplified example, let’s imagine that we’d like to get to Paris, France. However, we’re not sure if we’re starting in Cape Town, South Africa or Sao Paolo, Brazil.

It would be quite a challenge to chart a course to Paris in that case, wouldn’t it?

Similarly, if we don’t have highly realistic, accurate knowledge of the emotional climate of our team, our strengths and weaknesses and those of team members, or other key elements of executing a strategy, even the best strategy is at risk of failing.

We must be able to see our current situation clearly: not how we feel it is – which can be very biased – or how we hope it is, but how it actually is. We need to be brutally honest about where we’re at in order to have the best chance of successfully planning and executing on a plan to get where we want to go.


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Connect Work to Dreams – Idea #29 for Better Serving Team Members


Image Credit

As leaders, one of our priorities should be to learn what’s important in the personal and professional lives of the people on our teams. We can learn these things through informal conversation, or we can learn them via a more systematic process like having regularly-scheduled, “How can I serve you?” meetings.

Once we learn what’s important to team members, another priority should be to help team members do the things that are most important to them.

I recently had a chat with Kristen Hadeed, the CEO of innovative commercial cleaning company called Student Maid. The company only hires college students with a GPA of 3.5 or better, which inspires confidence in clients.

Student Maid’s most disruptive innovation is their incredible workplace culture. The leaders at Student Maid invest a lot of resources in developing team members both personally and professionally, and building authentic relationships with team members.

The culture that Student Maid has built is probably its greatest competitive advantage.

Most cleaning companies experience incredibly high turnover, only able to retain employees for an average of a few months. Student Maid retains employees for an average of two-and-one-half years and, in most cases, the employees leave only because they have to, when they graduate. They cannot be a team member at Student Maid if they’re not students.

One of the most important elements of the culture at Student Maid, is the level of care the leaders demonstrate for team members. The leaders at Student Maid realize that a team member’s personal life is just as important as her life at work. If a team member isn’t happy at home, or in his relationships, or is struggling in school, he is certainly going to bring at least a portion of the problem to work, and that is going to affect his performance.

During my discussion with Kristen Hadeed, she mentioned the newest initiative at Student Maid, which is a wonderful, systematic way of helping team members in their personal lives. Inspired by Matthew Kelly’s book, The Dream Manager, a new position was recently created at Student Maid, called the DreamLeader.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, to continue reading, please click here.

Exercise Your Zygomaticus More Often – Idea #28 for Better Serving Team Members

smiling child

Image Credit

The zygomaticus muscle aids in lifting the corners of the mouth.  You could try exercising it right now if you like.  Now, you are probably smiling.

A very powerful tool for better serving and caring for team members – with a very large return on investment relative to the effort – is to exercise your smiling muscles more often.

The encouragement to smile more doesn’t mean that we should ignore or repress unpleasant emotions when they arise.  We should certainly acknowledge those emotions and investigate how they are manifesting in the body.

However, once we are objectively aware of an unpleasant emotion in this way, there is no reason why we can’t smile at the emotion, and smile at ourselves. We might smile with the thought, “Hello there anger. I see you. Here’s a smile for you.”

Smiling results in numerous benefits to you personally. When you smile, you:

  • Are likely less caught in an unpleasant emotion, and therefore more productive
  • Are likely to be more relaxed and think more clearly
  • Look more attractive (some research suggests this is quite quantifiable)
  • Probably project greater confidence
  • Can boost your immune system
  • Are likely to have reduced heart rate and blood pressure

There are three main reasons why smiling authentically (which includes smiling eyes along with a smiling mouth) more often helps us to lead more effectively:

1.  Smiling is highly contagious.  The more often we smile, the more often the people around us are likely to smile.  When other people smile, they are likely to receive all of the benefits mentioned above.

Imagine how productive an entire team of people would be if they spent significantly more time experiencing the benefits above.  Imagine the long-term effects of a culture that more consistently experiences the benefits listed above, such as attracting better team members, reducing turnover, and reducing sick days taken.

Even if you could improve those things just a little bit, without any investment of time or money, it would clearly be very helpful in terms of achieving better business outcomes.

As leaders, we can improve those things a little bit by simply smiling more.  We set the tone of the team culture.  Why not ensure that tone includes more smiling?

2.  People trust us more when we smile.  Trust is one of the core foundations of effective leadership.  The more trust we inspire in team members, the better able we are to influence behaviors in a positive way.

3.  People feel more cared for in our presence.  When people feel cared for in our presence, we further increase the influence that results in people going the extra mile for their team, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Here’s a simple idea for improving your ability to smile more often.  Find some ways to remind yourself to smile any time you change activities or posture.  For instance, any time you’re about to open another e-mail, switch websites, start working on a different task, stand up, sit down, etc., these changes can serve as reminders to take a breath, notice what’s happening in your body, and smile for a moment.  You might like to start with just a couple activities for the first week, and then add a couple more each week.

As a side effect of this practice, you’ll likely notice that in addition to the professional benefits, you’re significantly happier, too.  You’ll discover that smiling authentically can actually give rise to the emotion of joy.

Your joy is a gift to others.  It’s another lovely way to better serve and care for team members.


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Do Nothing – Idea #27 for Better Serving Team Members

doing nothing

If you’re like most people I know, your to-do list is pretty long.

I find it very helpful to reflect on which things are important enough that I need to be sure I’m doing them on a weekly basis, even if that means only taking a few small steps in the right direction. Otherwise, I’ve found it’s so easy to get distracted each day by the “urgent” issues that come up that I neglect what I’ve determined through analysis to be most important to my personal and professional success.

Have you taken time to reflect on which activities are so important to your personal and professional success that you should definitely commit to taking at least some action on them each week?

I’ve also made a list of things that are so important that I commit to doing them every day.

The list includes things like doing something to help at least three people, learning something new, and working to ensure that every interaction I have with other people is positive, and leaves others at least a little bit better off than I found them.

However, one of the items on the daily list of things that I have found are most important to my personal and professional success is very counter culture.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.  To continue reading, please click here.

Encourage Failure – Idea #26 for Better Serving Team Members


In the early 1900s, a metallurgist named Harry Brearly began working on a project to improve the barrels of rifles. The inside of rifle barrels are grooved to cause the round to spin, which improves accuracy. But the steel barrels of Brearly’s day seem to wear down quickly as a result of the friction between the round and the barrel.

Brearly believed that he could combine different metals with steel to create an alloy that would be more resilient to the friction. He experimented over and over again, until he ended up with a heap of scrap metal that hadn’t proven to be any more resilient to wear than the current barrels of the day.

Several months after experimenting with one particular combination that included 12% chromium mixed in with the steel, he noticed something a bit peculiar. While all the other samples of metal had rusted, the steel / chromium combination had not. One of his failures eventually become what we now call stainless steel.

It seems that we are conditioned by many elements of our society to hold on tightly to the notion that failure and mistakes are bad, and should be avoided. Thus, most people fear failure, especially in the workplace. They are worried that if they fail, they will never advance, or perhaps even be fired.

As leaders, a simple way to serve our team members is to give them permission to take risks and fail, and to even encourage failure.

By creating an environment where there is less fear of failure, we improve the well-being of the team members. In addition to simply being the right thing to do, this also improves the performance of teams in many ways, like reducing sick days, improving emotional intelligence, and improving decision making.

A Key to an Innovative Culture

Encouraging failure is also absolutely essential if we want to have an innovative culture. People tend to think of innovation as creative ideas that are immediately implemented as they were conceived, resulting in some breakthrough product, service, or internal solution.

This almost never happens. Most innovations began with one idea, which a person and/or team began turning into reality, which was then changed countless times before the actual winning solution was discovered. Or, the innovation was the result of a failed attempt to solve one problem that solved another, entirely different problem, as we saw above with the “invention” of stainless steel.

Thought experiments can be helpful, but nothing provides better learning than actually making something and trying it out. This is the core idea of essentially every highly innovative organization. As it’s stated at Google, “Launch early and iterate often.”

If we want to create a culture where people feel safe to work on projects that challenge the status quo, and are likely to fail, we need to let people know that we expect them to do that. Even more important, we need to back up that expectation by accepting people’s failures. The moment we punish failure – even with something as simple as our body language – is the moment innovation starts to die in our organization.

Of course, the suggestion is not to allow repeated mistakes in the performance of basic job requirements. That is a recipe for mediocrity. The suggestion is to encourage people to go beyond their minimum job requirements and try new things that challenge status quo.

We may initially think of the idea of providing time for experimentation of new ideas as an expense. I think this is a mistake. We should look at it as a great investment. Even if only one idea out of ten eventually becomes a product or service that adds greater value to our customers than our competitors can offer, the return on that investment would likely be tremendous.

Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motors, put it this way, “Many people dream of success. Success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. Success represents the one percent of your work that results from the 99 percent that is called failure.”


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Fire Evil Customers – Idea #25 for Better Serving Team Members

Evil customer

Does your organization ever deal with a customer or member who is just a royal pain in your backside?

The answer, of course, is most likely, “Yes!” We all encounter customers or members who make unreasonable demands, complain about everything, or perhaps even verbally attack our team members.

We can offer our team members a tremendous service by firing those types of customers. We just kindly inform the customer that we don’t feel we’re the best fit for them, and politely refer them to some other organizations that could help them meet their needs (perhaps to one of our competitors).

This can benefit the entire organization in big ways.

It can be a little scary to fire a customer that seems to be a significant source of revenue. However, in many cases, these customers who wreak emotional havoc for our team members aren’t as valuable as we may think.

These customers probably don’t generate any referrals for us. According to the Pareto principle, these customers probably account for the vast majority of time spent dealing with complaints, and they cost us productivity by emotionally draining our team members.

Compare that to our best customers. The customers who are well-aligned with our core values and who are so pleasant to work with that they likely energize our team members. These customers are also most likely referring new business to us. Thus, these customers are significantly more valuable to us than what we can measure just in terms of the revenue they provide us directly.

With whom would you rather spend more time and energy?

Clearly, our time is much better invested with the positive customers than with negative ones. A simple way to spend more time with the 20% of our customers who are likely producing 80% of our results (Pareto principle again) is to kindly fire the 20% of our customers who are producing 80% of the customer-related problems we deal with.

Another benefit of being open to some variation of this idea is that it can send a powerful message to team members about how much we care about them.

Imagine that we have verified that a customer has been terrorizing a couple of our team members with irrational, unreasonable demands, and emotional attacks. Instead of asking our team members to suck it up and appease that customer, imagine that we instead speak with the customer, apologize for any difficulties they encountered while working with our team members, and kindly and politely let them know that we’re not the best fit for them and refer them to someone else.

The message to our team members is clear: we value you more than we do the revenue from a customer who is unhealthy for you and our organization.

This can clearly be tied back to bottom-line results using the logic above. And, another bottom-line benefit is that we may just retain a talented, valuable team member who might have left if they had to keep working with a demoralizing customer. Reducing turnover can have a huge impact on the P&L.

Perhaps more important, though, we may be truly serving both the former customer and our team members. We may refer the customer to someone who is truly a better fit. And, we are certainly creating the conditions for greater happiness for all involved, and stronger personal relationships with team members, which makes coming to work each day much more fulfilling.

Is this something you have tried with your team?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this approach.

Please leave a comment if you’d like to share.


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Encourage People to Apply Elsewhere – Idea # 24 for Better Serving Team Members


In February, I wrote a blog post about an inspiring metric for leadership success: the growth of the people on our teams.  A simple, yet powerful way to demonstrate to our team members that we are completely committed to their growth is to encourage them to apply elsewhere once per year.

At first glance, this may seem like a terrible thing to do.  It may sound as though we’re sending a message to our team members that we are no longer satisfied with their work.

But this suggestion for encouraging people to apply elsewhere is offered in a completely different context.  That context is a commitment to what’s best for the people on our teams.

When we encourage a team member to apply elsewhere, we frame the suggestion by stating that we are completely satisfied with the work of that team member and that because we are so committed to her or his growth we think it would be a good idea for her or him to explore, once per year, positions that might provide new growth opportunities than we might not be able to provide.

Think about the message that this sends to a team member.  She knows that we truly care about her.

Think about how much trust is established with the team member.  He knows that he can be open and candid about anything, even applying for a new position, without fear of reprisal.

In addition to sending these extremely positive messages to team members – messages that boost innovation, engagement, and productivity – the outcomes of the endeavor are ultimately all positive.

The first possible outcome is that the team member discovers a new position that does in fact offer greater growth opportunities than we can provide.  Although this does create the short-term problem of losing a team member and having to replace her, the upside is much bigger.

The increased engagement we see from all of our team members while they are with us should far outweigh the cost of some occasional turnover.  Also, the goodwill that is created with the team member will likely lead to having some great potential team members referred to us in the future.  And, perhaps most important, it feels great to put people ahead of short-term numbers and it’s simply the right thing to do.

The second possible outcome is that the team member goes out and interviews at another organization or two and realizes that he’s actually got it very good right where is, with our organization.  With this outcome, we realize all of the benefits mentioned above and we get to keep our valued team member.  That team member will also likely be even more engaged and loyal than ever before.

Is this something you have tried with your team?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this approach.

Please leave a comment if you’d like to share.


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Why You Should Train for Empathy, and How to Do It – Idea # 23 for Better Serving Team Members


Empathy is a word that is being brought up in the context of business a lot these days.  In fact, I just did a Google search for “empathy and business” and noticed that there were almost 30 million results.

But doesn’t empathy fall into that “touchy feely” category that is more relevant to personal relationships than to business relationships?

Although many people still seem to feel that way, I believe empathy is one of the most crucial skills we can possess for professional success, especially as leaders.  I’m not alone.

Here are a few of the titles of articles that come up on the first page of the Google search for “empathy and business”:

Although there are many reasons why empathy is so important, the overarching reason is quite simple: ultimately, everything in business comes down to relationships.

An organization comprised of people who are ineffective at creating and sustaining healthy relationships with the end customer will eventually fail.  Conversely, an organization comprised of people who are highly effective at creating and sustaining healthy relationships – with both internal and external customers – has a tremendous competitive advantage.

Empathy is one of the core elements of those relationships so crucial for success.  In order to connect with people at the human level, we need to be able to understand the perspectives, emotions, and motivations of others.

Fortunately, we don’t need to be born with high levels of empathy to excel in this area.  Empathy is something we can train to develop.  By actually practicing empathetic skills, we can change our brains in ways that allow us to be more empathetic in the future.

Training for Empathy

Some of the tools we can employ to develop our empathy skills include the following:

  • Try to be really curious about other people, imagining what might be going in their lives
  • Take time to consider what we have in common with people and pay more attention to that, instead of focusing on what makes us different
  • During conversation, try to ask more questions and spend more time listening

Mindfulness training is also a powerful tool for developing empathy.  Research in neuroscience suggests that the insula is an area of the brain that is very important for empathy.  Some studies have also shown that intermediate level practitioners of mindfulness have thicker insula compared to matched controls, suggesting that mindfulness training significantly changes the brain in ways that improve empathy.

Behavioral studies have shown similar findings.  For example, in a study conducted by Paul Condon and Dave DeSteno of Northeastern University, and Gaelle Desbordes of Massachusetts General Hospital, the research team sent a group of people to an eight-week mindfulness training course.  Afterwards, they tested the people who received the mindfulness training versus people who had no mindfulness training.

Each subject was tested to see how they responded when a woman on crutches wearing a medical boot, who gave visible and audible signals of being in pain, entered a waiting room with only three chairs in it.  The test subject sat in one of the chairs, and the other two chairs were occupied by two members of the research team who were not going to give up their seat.

Only 16% of the members of the control group gave up their seats for the woman on crutches.  However, 50% of the members of the test group gave up their seats.  The study suggests that only eight weeks of mindfulness training is enough to significantly increase our ability to empathize with another person.

Because the insula is also associated with self-awareness, to exercise that part of the brain we should make the effort to be more aware of our bodies during daily activities and take some time each day to be still, making the effort to maintain awareness of the body without being distracted by thinking.  An excellent exercise for improving such body awareness is the body scan.

For those of us who would like to take our empathy training to an even higher level, we could practice a kindness mediation whenever we’re sitting still and waiting for a minutes, especially during any time dedicated to intentional sitting still practice.

I like to practice a variation of a kindness meditation in public places.  I take a moment to be aware of my own mind and body, allowing the mind to settle a bit.  Then, I take a look at person to remember her/his face, look away (so she/he doesn’t think I’m stalking her/him), and send her/him well wishes and the energy of kindness for a few breaths.  Depending on how much time I have between worldly tasks I need to accomplish, I may choose few people to practice with.

This is not only a way to develop the empathy that makes us more successful as leaders and in business, it is a wonderful way to experience a few moments of joy during what would normally be rather mundane, or even anxiety-producing moments.


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Be A “Don’t Knower”, Eileen Fisher Style – Idea # 22 for Better Serving Team Members

eileen fisher

After finishing college at the University of Iowa, Eileen Fisher moved to New York City and bounced around between a couple of jobs before working for a Japanese graphic designer.

She had many Japanese clients, and visited Japan frequently. While there, she noticed the simple and elegant beauty of the Kimono. This gave her a flash of inspiration.

She had always loathed getting dressed. As a woman, this was a rather arduous chore compared to how men get dressed. She had a vision of clothes that were made of simple shapes that were easy to coordinate, like men’s attire, but were also elegant and comfortable.

In 1984, at the age of 34, she decided that she was going to start a clothing business based on her vision. There were two significant obstacles, however. She didn’t know how to sew, nor did she know anything about business.

She believed in her vision, though, and soon discovered that her designs really appealed to people. The first four simple shapes she created generated $3,000 worth of orders at the Boutique Show she was encouraged to attend. Based on that success, she expanded her line a bit to eight pieces and generated $40,000 in orders at the second show she attended.

Although Fisher’s innovative designs clearly played a large role in the success of her company, she mentioned to me another key element of her success when we spoke recently in Washington, D.C. It turns out that her greatest obstacles were actually her greatest strengths.

“I’ve always been a ‘don’t knower’,” she said. “I’ve always been very comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know.’ As a result, there’s a sense of openness. When you don’t know and you’re really listening intently, people want to help you. They want to share.”

As the company was first getting started, Fisher’s “don’t know” approach allowed her to get great advice, for free, from many experts and successful business leaders. The help she received was instrumental in helping her get her business off of the ground.

Today, Eileen Fisher, Inc. employs over 1,100 people, has over 60 retail stores, and will likely generate over $300 million dollars in revenue in 2015.

This story was originally posted with the Huffington Post.  To continue reading, please click here.


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Image Credit – Matt Dunham – Shared unaltered per this license

Powerful Posture – Idea # 21 for Better Serving Team Members


As leaders, whether or not we have titles, we affect the emotional states of the people around us.  An important way to serve team members is to consistently project positive emotions and thereby help others consistently register more positive emotions.

A very easy way to help improve our emotional state is to have good posture.  Good posture has one of the highest returns on investment of any simple leadership hacks.  Compared to the effort required to make the change, the payoff is tremendous.

Good posture improves our energy levels, brain function, and personal image, while simultaneously reducing stress.

Although in the short term it seems a lot easier to slouch, it actually takes a lot more energy to slouch than it does to have good posture.  This is because when our spine is erect, we’re only using a few small muscles to keep it erect and the weight of our upper body is supported by the spine itself.  We’re using bone instead of muscle.

One of the effects of having good posture is deeper breathing.  Try slouching for a second and notice how you breathe.  It’s shallow and mostly in the chest, right?

Now try sitting with good posture.  Although the spine isn’t rigid, it should feel as though a string is pulling us up by the crown of our head, and there should be a natural curve in the lower back.  Notice how with good posture we naturally breathe more deeply.  The breath originates in the belly and we take in a lot more air.

Breathing more deeply results in many health benefits, but I’d like to focus on three.  First, breathing more deeply results in more energy as the body gets more oxygen.  Second, because the brain is getting more oxygen, we are able to think better.  Third, when we breathe into the belly, we stimulate the vagus nerve, which counteracts stress by helping to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Another effect of good posture is having shoulders that hang more naturally.  This helps us prevent tension in the neck and shoulders, which is where many of us hold a lot of tension, especially if we sit a lot during the day.

If you are practicing mindfulness (I hope you are), good posture has positive effects on that as well.  When we slouch, we are much more likely to be pulled into our thoughts and emotions.  It is much easier to be aware of our thinking and emotions when we have good posture.  Mindfulness also has a positive effect on posture, as we are much more likely to be aware of our posture if our practice of mindfulness in activity is solid.

Yet another effect of good posture is increased feelings of self confidence and appearing more confident and more attractive to the people around us (don’t team members deserve to have an attractive, confident leader?).  You can observe this quite readily both in yourself and others.  How do feel when you’re slouched?  How do you feel when you stand or sit up straight for 30 seconds or so?  How do you perceive others who are slouched versus those who walk, stand, and sit with good posture?

Stand Up!

If you spend a lot of time at a desk, the easiest way to immediately improve your posture during much of your day is to stand up.  It is almost impossible to stand for very long with bad posture, so this simple move essentially forces us to have good posture.

This doesn’t necessarily require an investment in a fancy standing desk or treadmill desk.  In my home office I simply put my laptop on top of a box that elevates the keyboard and mouse to about elbow level.  This is not only inexpensive and instant, it also made it easy to switch between standing and sitting when I first started standing while working. (Here are some other ways to make your own standing desk.)

Working at a standing desk helps us realize the benefits of good posture mentioned above and therefore better serve our teams.  Spending less time sitting also helps us in several others ways.

Prolonged sitting is now considered by many health experts to be as harmful as smoking.  Too much time sitting is linked to increased risk of certain types of cancer, increased risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, and even higher risk of depression.

As Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative, was quoted saying in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting.  We are sitting ourselves to death.”

Taking Action

In addition to committing to working at a standing desk and sitting, standing, and walking with good posture, you might find it helpful to set some reminders for yourself regarding having good posture, and/or to tell someone that you are working on having better posture so that person can help remind you when you’re slouching.

I’d also like to hear any creative ideas you may have for incorporating good posture into our daily lives.


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