More thoughts on what a great leader is: A backup vocalist

Last week I posted on how Great leadership is a rare gift. It was one of those posts on which the comments make it so much better. I love and value what everyone said, but a few really get to the heart of what I think is a core issue for many leaders.

I love what Bob Fichtner said: Great leaders know when to get out of the way…they give their team the freedom to achieve the goal in their own way.

I love what Cindi Thomas said: Leadership requires a lack of ego.

I love what Tony Meister said: Some (leaders) had too much ego to admit they were wrong. This created a subtle backlash behind the scenes as the negative chatter slowly depleted their reputation and heart following among the team.

Heart following? What a concept! If you are a leader, ask yourself, do you have anything remotely resembling heart following among your team? This comes back to empathy, which is what I believe breeds true loyalty. Do you show that you care about them as people? Or do you treat them like mere “employees”? Big difference.

This morning, I tweeted about how I am looking for another rock star to join my rock star team. I followed up with clarification that by “rock star team, ” I truly do mean that THEY are the rock stars, not I. Jim Raffel, who is a great blogger and a good friend replied asking (with sarcasm noted) if I am just a roadie. Check out Jim’s blog – lots of great advice from a small biz CEO who tells it like it is.

Jim’s question was fantastic; it really made me think in a different way about what role, as a leader, I do play on my team. And, as someone who spent the better part of her teenage years running around Alpine Valley, an outdoor music theater, amidst musical mayhem (and sometimes adding to it), it is a metaphor to which I can deeply relate.

Sometimes I am, in fact, a roadie. I’m not much for climbing up into the rafters, but I have been known to go get my team Alterra soy honey lattes when I think they need it. I’m not above that at all. Whatever it takes to keep the show going.

Sometimes I am a tour manager and an agent. In other words, a facilitator. I arrange meetings and get the team gigs where they can demonstrate their greatness.

Most of the time, though, I am on backup vocals. I am in the meeting to support the work that we have put together as a team. Not to be the loudest voice in the room.

Being a leader doesn’t mean that you have always vocalize the fact that I AM THE LEADER. More often than not, you are there guiding, coaching, supporting with a firm direction but a soft hand. One that lets the team feel a sense of pride and ownership. Shared leadership. At the end of the day, being a leader requires being one of the team.

At least that’s my way. What’s yours?

Dear grownups, please make less carbon

Yesterday, I watched IMAX Under the Sea on DVD with my son Griffin, who is turning five years old in two weeks, and it was a beautifully heartbreaking experience. The film documents the incredible beauty of undersea life surround Papua New Guinea and the islands of Micronesia. And then proceeds to show and discuss coral reefs bleaching and dying and marine life species like sea lions struggling to survive due to global warming and ocean acidification. Let me tell you, those sea lions have some big, sad, powerful eyes.

Griffin has a few things he’d like to say to us grownups, so I’m turning this blog over to him, Q&A style.

Q: Griffin, what did you learn about what’s happening in the ocean from Under the Sea?

A: Carbon dioxide is making the sea lions and the sea rays be dying.

Q: What things do we need to do at home to help the planet?

A: Don’t turn on lights. Don’t go so far downtown. Recycle.

Q: What one thing would you say to all the grownups who read this?

A: Make less carbon.

Do you worry about what kind of planet we are leaving our kids? I do. Sometimes, I even wonder if I should have brought my beautiful child into it. Frequently, I honestly wish that the car would never have been invented.

After seeing this movie, my husband was going to drive downtown to pick up some burgers and we told him not to. And today, I was going to drive downtown and pick up a book, and decided not to. We’ve all got to start getting serious about emissions reduction. I’ll be the first to point out that I’m being a bit of a hypocrite by even writing this: our family has three SUVs. I’d love to trade those in on three hybrids, but that’s just not practical. Hopefully at least one hybrid in the very near future.

We are keeping it top of mind. Talking about it. Taking small steps, like fewer unnecessary trips. And asking you to do the same. Please. For the sake of the kids. The coral. The sea lions. And everything else that lives Under the Sea, and above sea level.

The film ends on the assertion that we finally seem ready to take responsibility for our actions. Are we? Any response to the five-year-old boy asking you to act on it? Or can you share things you are doing?

Great leadership is a rare gift

I have been thinking about leadership quite a bit lately. After 20+ years in marketing, observing the collective experiences of me, my colleagues and friends, I am struck by how truly great leaders seem to be few and far between. I could easily count the ones I have known on one hand. If I had three fingers.

I have been accused from time to time of being a decent leader. Yet, believe me, I know I have a lot of room for improvement. Truly outstanding, inspiring leadership is DAMN HARD.

The hardest part, in my opinion, is finding it in yourself to rise above all of the myriad obstacles to optimism and inspiration, and somehow pass inspiration to those around you — even when you may not be overflowing with it yourself at a particular moment in time. Now THAT, if you can do it, is a skill worth talking about. If you can do that, you have my utmost respect. Period. Tell me who you are and how you do it. I would like to take you to lunch. Seriously.

But if, like me, you are working on this skill very hard, here, are just a few thoughts on truly great, inspiring leadership.

First and foremost, people will do as you do, no matter what you say. I am a huge believer in leading by example. If you work 9-5 like clockwork, don’t expect your team to burn the midnight oil in search of greatness, no matter how many times you tell them to. Like it or not, culture rolls downhill. And it rolls from the very top, not from the middle.

Listen to what your team tells you is going on. Not halfway — ALL IN. Really listen. They are closer to most situations than you are. Not listening and responding to their concerns is the fastest way to communicate to them that you a) don’t get it b) don’t care or c) do not appreciate what they are trying to accomplish or how hard they are working. Empathy is critical. And I don’t care if you are Mars or Venus; if you plan to lead a team, you need to genuinely give a damn about what your people are saying. If your team has no empathy with you, you have no team.

Do you understand and practice the simple power of “thank you”? For highly self-motivated people, a little bit of sincere appreciation for what they do for you day in and day out means a great deal and provides more fuel for their fire than any amount of making demands ever will. When was the last time you told your team “thank you”, like you REALLY mean it? I have had a couple of leaders who did this really well, and it was a gift. You know who you are – THANK YOU.

Great leadership, like social media, is mostly stuff we learned in kindergarten, but forget to do. Behave well. Listen. Show you care. So why is it so often overlooked? There is more to it, obviously: Vision. Strategy. Being tough when you need to be tough. But I believe that the basics of quality human interaction are just as important.

When @deziner and I were road tripping to Madison last week to speak on social media strategy, we talked about more than our impending visit to the Lazy Oaf Lounge (and the attached Urgent Care). We talked about what makes great leadership. And she has a fantastic metaphor in her video post: Leadership in times of trouble or tornadoes.

What would you add? How can leaders can go from good (or not so good) to great?

Photo credit: Dunechaser; Flickr Creative Commons

When life trumps social media life


Yay, insomnia! The only time I can find to blog. I’m hoping this post will accomplish a couple of things: 1) Explaining to you, my small-but-super-loyal blog following where I’ve been and 2) applying a little balm to my chafed ego which is longing to spend more time blogging, but just can’t get there from here right now.

I started a new gig two-and-a-half months ago, as many of you know. I’m now VP of Account Management and Digital Strategy at Meyer and Wallis, a 42-years-young agency with offices in Milwaukee and Indianapolis. In a nutshell, this means I bear ultimate responsibility for all of our agency’s Milwaukee-office accounts, research, strategy, planning, and digital projects, in addition to a major role in new business efforts. Until now, I’ve had little or no empathy for people who use the “I just don’t have time to blog, tweet, insert other social media verb here.” excuse. Now, I totally get it. I still work in as much social as I can, but I recognize that I am barely scratching the surface of what I could, should, would like to be doing.

I should be blogging here at least three times a week, doing the same on our agency blog, tweeting for both a heck of a lot more than I am, and so on. I should be reading and commenting on more blogs. I should be a lot more active on Facebook and LinkedIn than I have been. I should be playing with Posterous, and a whole bunch of other tools. I finally managed to prioritize playing with FourSquare just this week. That Google Wave invite? Been sitting in my inbox for months. I feel like I could take a week off just to catch up on social media and digital experience reading at this point. And I definitely should be using/editing video (hence the new flip video camera that Santa will be bringing me this year).

But here’s the rub, folks. Social media is really fun, really educational, and really good for your ego, but…it’s still not real life. It’s sorta like real life, and obviously you can interact with people that are in your real life. But, the bigger question is: how many of you manage your life around your social media life, instead of the other way around?

I may permanently eliminate my chances of ever sitting at the cool kids table in the cafeteria for saying this, but if I have to make a choice at times between an hour with my kid or an hour blogging, there is no freaking contest. Go to yoga class three times a week to take halfway decent care of myself, or spend three more hours online? No contest. Take my son sledding not once, but twice, on Sunday, or catch up on reading? No contest.

Believe me, I am all about passion for what you do and going above and beyond to make it happen and all. I truly do admire the much-more-high-profile-than-I social media folks who seem to manage to find the time to do it all. But the ones I know well are also pretty exhausted and asking themselves: when is it enough?

When does life trump social media life? In my world, the answer is “Always“. Do what you can do. Push yourself, within reasonable boundaries. Find what works around your life, rather than making yourself crazy trying to cram tiny bits of life in around your demanding social media calendar.

What say you?

Happy #Tweetsgiving


Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, a few quiet days to pause and reflect. It’s so easy to get caught up day-to-day in the things that are “wrong” in our lives – or the things we want that we don’t have; and such a relief to find the perspective that Thanksgiving brings, of the absolute abundance we have for which to be grateful. Especially when so many others around the world are struggling just to put food in their bellies at all.

I am thankful for my very stressful new job that keeps me challenged and provides well for my family. And I am thankful for the amazing yoga teachers that help me breathe my way through it and occasionally sleep at night.

I am thankful for a black dog that cries like a baby when my two stepdaughters come home from college for the holiday. And I am thankful that they come home for the holiday, and that they are the wonderful people they are.

I am thankful for the love of my husband, who has the patience of a saint and a heart of pure gold.

I am overwhelmingly thankful for my beautiful, curly-haired little boy, Griffin, who loves me a million-trillion-gabillion (which is a lot), and reminds me every day to laugh more.

I am thankful for my 85-year-old father, and the fact that he is still with us on Earth. Even though he is far away (Florida), his spirit comforts and encourages me. I am thankful for my mom, who is no longer with us on Earth, but gave me the gift of being here to enjoy all of this.

I am thankful for the rest of my family: my two deeply sarcastic-and-entertaining brothers, with whom I wish I was closer. My two sisters-in-law whom I love and wish were really my sisters. My awesome niece and nephew, who grew up way too fast.

Right now, I am thankful for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, the barking dog next door, the dog hair tumbleweeds on the floor, the heaping pile of toys in the living room, and all of the things that so often annoy me, because they are all abundance.

On a lighter note, I am thankful for good coffee, dark chocolate, J. Crew, guacamole, Mexico, finally trying kayaking this year, and looking forward to trying kiteboarding next year, come hell or high water.

I’m thankful for new friends and colleagues, like you, from whom I learn so much and who make life so much richer.

People like Danny Brown, from whom I heard about #tweetsgiving. Check out his great post,  Gratitude is Simply Attitude. Most important, please visit the Epic Change Tweetsgiving site and donate what you can to help some kids in Tanzania get a new school. It’s one thing to be grateful, and it’s another thing altogether to do what you can, however small, to help others who need something for which to be thankful. Epic Change is doing great work, and I am thankful that people like them exist to make the world an even more joyous place. Happy #Tweetsgiving to you and yours.

How about you? Have you stopped to think about it lately? What are you thankful for?

Zappos handles even astroturfing with style


Yeah, I know. Like Zappos needs any more social love, right? But, I have to tell you how well they handled this whole astroturfing thing. This post could also be titled “three simple steps for how to handle a mistake flawlessly.”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about Zappos’ social storytelling and how sometimes, I think it goes too far. An employee at Zappos posted a comment on the blog about how great the service is, not disclosing that he or she is an employee, and then failed to respond to my three e-mail inquiries on the topic. So, I wrote this post about brands behaving badly and pretending to be happy customers, without disclosing that it was a Zappos thing, because I wanted to see how they handled it first.

After consulting with yet another person much smarter than I, @edwardboches, I decided to message @zappos about this, not really expecting much, given the less-than-rockstar ranking of my blog. But lo and behold, Tony Hsieh, the uber-CEO himself, responded within a day or two asking me to e-mail him the details, which I did. He looked into it right away and confirmed that the comment came from behind the Zappos firewall. He apologized, and promised to remind everyone that astroturfing is decidedly uncool. I was satisfied. Then day or two later, I got this comment on the blog:

Dear Sue,

My name is Rob Siefker and I’m the Sr. Manager for the Customer Loyalty Team (CLT) at Zappos. Thanks for writing your post, although I’m sorry someone from our team wouldn’t be transparent or forthcoming with their response to your original blog. I doubt the intent of our employee was to be misleading, but unfortunately it came across that way. I wouldn’t claim that we’re perfect, but it’s part of our culture to strive for customer service excellence. In this case, we didn’t put our best foot forward.

I’m thankful for your blog because it is a learning opportunity for us. We certainly don’t condone “astroturfing”. It’s the opposite of what we want to accomplish as a company. We’re going to remind everyone at Zappos about how important our interactions with people are to our service culture and brand. We’ll use this as an example, and hopefully it will resonate.

Thanks for your temperance and transparency. Your experience will help us be better in the future, and we appreciate that.

All the best,

This is instructive in many ways. 1) Rob says those magic little words: “I’m sorry.” right out of the gate, and admits that it was a mistake. 2) He tells us what corrective action he is going to take. 3) He comes across as very sincere, authentic, whatever you want to call it. He’s very human, not corporate. In my book, Rob could be the master of blogger relations with these three simple steps.

So, at this point, I am ultra-impressed, and ready to head to, even before two more very cool Zappos employees chimed in.

Nicely played, Zappos. I have come to believe that you really are “Powered by Service.”

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