The Upside of Downtime

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

With Jackie Coleman

One of Jackie’s first jobs after graduate school necessitated that she be on call 24/7. That schedule tested her ability to leave work at the office and fully engage with the rest of her life. Similarly, John spent time in consulting where the sometimes hectic travel and work schedules forced him to think hard about how to guard personal time — to “punch out” from work and create downtime to recharge and rejuvenate.

Many modern workers find it hard to take downtime. The idea of leaving work so cleanly at the office seems quaint in a world of smartphones, laptops, and global companies that are always on to accommodate employees from Hoboken to Hong Kong. But drawing brighter lines between work and time off — family, friends, outside activities, and old-fashioned daydreaming — has clear benefits for productivity, creativity, and wellness. There’s an upside to downtime.

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The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Wallace Stevens was one of America’s greatest poets. The author of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”and “The Idea of Order at Key West” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955 and offered a prestigious faculty position at Harvard University. Stevens turned it down. He didn’t want to give up his position as Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

This lyrically inclined insurance executive was far from alone in occupying the intersect of business and poetry. Dana Gioia, a poet, Stanford Business School grad, and former General Foods executive, notes that T.S. Eliot spent a decade at Lloyd’s Bank of London; and many other poets including James DickeyA.R. Ammons, and Edmund Clarence Stedman navigated stints in business.

I’ve written in the past about how business leaders should be readers, but even those of us prone to read avidly often restrict ourselves to contemporary nonfiction or novels. By doing so, we overlook a genre that could be valuable to our personal and professional development: poetry. Here’s why we shouldn’t.

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11 Books Every Young Leader Must Read

November 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recently, I wrote that leaders should be readers. Reading has a host of benefits for those who wish to occupy positions of leadership and develop into more relaxed, empathetic, and well-rounded people. One of the most common follow-up questions was, “Ok, so what should I read?”

That’s a tough question. There are a number of wonderful reading lists out there. For those interested in engaging classic literature, Wikipedia has a list of “The 100 Best Books of All Time,”and Modern Library has picks for novels and nonfiction. Those interested in leadership might consult the syllabus for David Gergen’s leadership course (PDF) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government or the syllabus his colleague Ron Heifetz uses for his course on adaptive leadership (PDF).

But if I had to focus on a short list for young business leaders, I’d choose the 11 below. I’ve only included books I’ve actually read, and I tried to compile a list that includes history, literature, psychology, and how-to. Variety is important — novels can enhance empathy; social science and history can illuminate lessons from other times and fields that might be relevant to your own; and at the very least, reading broadly can make you a more interesting conversationalist. But I have tried to make all the choices directly relevant to young businesspeople interested in leadership.

Invariably, many people will think some of the choices are poor or that the list is incomplete, but I hope it can serve as a start for young business leaders looking for literature to help them chart their careers.

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Take Ownership of Your Actions by Taking Responsibility

September 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Are you stalled in a project at work, waiting on someone else to take initiative to get things moving? Are you in a broken professional relationship — with a manager, coworker, or employee — hoping the other person assumes blame and fixes the issue? Are you looking for an easy way to get focused or improve your productivity — a silver bullet from an unexpected source?

One of the most common momentum killers I’ve seen in my professional life is our propensity to wait for someone else to act, take initiative, assume blame, or take charge. But very often, no help comes.

One year ago, I heard Tal Ben-Shahar speak about this concept; he learned it from Nathaniel Branden, the father of the self-esteem movement. According to Ben-Shaher, Branden believed that taking responsibility was the first step to developing a healthy sense of self and that we internalize the idea of taking responsibility when we realize, “no one is coming.”

It’s a liberating concept. Help is not coming. The responsibility is yours, and it starts with developing a belief or habit of mind that you, as an individual, are accountable for the quality and timeliness of an outcome, even when you’re working with others. It doesn’t always mean you have authority over a project. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t involve others. But it does mean you own the obligation to take action and deliver results.

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For Those Who Want to Lead, Read

September 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

When David Petraeus visited the Harvard Kennedy School in 2009, one of the meetings he requested was with author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Petraeus, who holds a PhD in International Relations from Princeton, is a fan of Team of Rivals and wanted time to speak to the famed historian about her work. Apparently, the great general (and current CIA Director) is something of a bibliophile.

He’s increasingly an outlier. Even as global literacy rates are high (84%), people are reading less and less deeply. The National Endowment for the Arts (PDF) has found that “[r]eading has declined among every group of adult Americans,” and for the first time in American history, “less than half of the U.S. adult American population is reading literature.” Literacy has been improving in countries like India and China, but that literacy may not translate into more or deeper reading.

This is terrible for leadership, where my experience suggests those trends are even more pronounced. Business people seem to be reading less — particularly material unrelated to business. But deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of our greatest leaders and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.

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The Bad Habits You Learn in School

September 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

It can be tough to help new college graduates adjust to the real world. Joey, a 22-year-old, Ivy League graduate who joined one of my consulting teams, was a great example. He was bright, hardworking, and motivated. But he had bad habits that were hard to break. Joey would become so focused on the perfect answer to a problem, he wouldn’t consider implementation. He feared failure so much that he would hide his mistakes until they grew worse. He was only interested in getting his own work right — rarely helping the rest of the team proactively. And he saw the world in terms of hierarchy: I was his “boss,” and no one else’s opinion really mattered.

Joey isn’t real — more of a composite of many young people I’ve worked with. But his flaws are undeniable. The traits above are ones I’ve seen time and again out of many recent graduates ill-prepared to handle true leadership in an organization.

There is an ongoing debate about whether leadership can be taught, and whether business schools,in particular, are teaching it. There are fair arguments on both sides, but I would broaden the discussion. Our entire education system, from elementary school to graduate school, is poorly constructed to teach young people leadership. Schools do many things well, but they often cultivate habits that can be detrimental to future leaders. Given that most of us spend 13-20 years in educational institutions, those habits can be hard to break.

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How Two Career Couples Stay Happy

September 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Coauthored with Jackie Coleman

It’s more important than ever to know how to balance a marriage and a career. Between 1996 and 2006, the percentage of two-income married couples rose 31% in the US. Now, 47.5% of all American married couples are dual-career couples. In Canada, the percentage of husband-wife families that were dual earners is roughly 70%, and approximately two thirds of two-adult families have two incomes in the UK.

Many marriages fail for work-related reasons. And prominent articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent contribution in The Atlantic“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and rejoinders like Froma Harrop’s “News Flash: No One Can Have It All” have spurred critical conversations about what it means to practice work/life balance and how married people (or those in other long-term, committed relationships) can make their personal and professional lives work.

We’re part of that dual-career cohort, and we’ve had many discussions about what it means to manage a marriage and a career. As a former marriage counselor, Jackie has seen the problems couples face, and we’ve had challenges of our own, from living in different cities to managing trying travel schedules. But we think that with intentionality, it is possible to manage marriage and a career. While we’re still trying to figure things out, we wanted to offer a few thoughts based on research and our own experience.

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