Mar 21, 2009

Is Obama "special?"

This week on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno Obama acted like "one of the boys." During an exchange with Jay Leno, he commented on his performance as a bowler and the conversation went like this:

LENO: Now, are they going to put a basketball -- I imagine the bowling alley has been just burned and closed down.

OBAMA: No, no. I have been practicing all -- (laughter.)

LENO: Really? Really?

OBAMA: I bowled a 129. (Laughter and applause.)

LENO: No, that's very good. Yes. That's very good, Mr. President.

OBAMA: It's like -- it was like Special Olympics, or something. (Laughter.)

LENO: No, that's very good.

OBAMA: No, listen, I'm making progress on the bowling, yes.

Ouch! For a man who is perceived as an excellent communicator, that is a major faux pas. Yet he made amends. On his way back to the White House, his team made him realize that what he had say was pretty stupid and insensitive. Obama agreed, and proceeded to call Timothy Shriver, the chairman of  the Special Olympics committee and apologized. That is more than most people would be willing to do, president or not.

Apologizing is a key part of building and maintaining healthy relationships. Yet, most of use refuse to do so because we feel that it diminishes us. Quite the contrary: it takes a healthy and confident person to apologize.

Shriver said it was a teachable moment, and indeed it was. But rather than dwell on the negative aspects of Obama's mistake, let's look at what he did right:
  • He apologized. Obama did the right thing. He made a mistake, he realized it and he made amends. There isn't much more to say on this.
  • He listened. Members of his team told him he made a mistake. Yet, he listened and accepted their judgement. Too many times, I see leaders who hire people to help them, but refuse to listen. They have made up their minds and are only looking for people to validate their opinions. It doesn't always work like that. In this instance, Obama listened to what others said, and acted accordingly.
  • He gives people power. In a business setting, how often are employees able to go to the boss and tell him or her: "Yo! You messed up, big time!" Evidently, Obama gave enough power to his employees, which enabled them to set him right. Let's not forget that we are dealing with one of the most powerful men in the world, here. What employees find annoying is when they are given a certain responsibility, but no authority to act, or even worse, they are yelled at and criticized when they do the work they were hired to do. It seems as though Obama hasn't fallen for that trap.
  • He acted immediately. Let's face it, Obama could have easily said "Whatever, if these people can't take a joke, that's their problem." But he didn't. When he realized that he had done something stupid, he acted immediately. He could just as easily have dismissed the whole thing as a "minor peccadillo" and went about his business. Instead, he chose to do the right thing.
If anything, Obama proved that he is just as human and stupid as the next guy. Which is a relief, when you consider his robotic demeanour when he reads the teleprompter.

Many cynics might say: "Yeah, well, he just did what his cronies told him to do." Maybe. But the fact remains that an insensitive and boorish individual would have dismissed his team's comments by saying something like: "C'mon, it's just a joke. They can take it." Obama realized that what he did was dumb and insensitive and acted accordingly.

Now, let's see what he does about the American economy.

Mar 13, 2009

Bridging the gap between business and IT

This post was inspired by a recent blog entry.

Many executives feel that IT has no clue about the business. Conversely, many IT professionals feel executives and management don't understand, or care about IT. Unless the systems don't perform as expected.

There is misconception on both sides, which causes frustration, delays, and eventually affects the bottom line. IT objectives and the business objectives need to be aligned in order to narrow that gap, increase productivity, satisfaction, and ultimately, the financials.

Some things to consider:
  • IT does not function in a vacuum: A clear understanding of IT's impact on the client and on the company's bottom line is key. It is management's job to clearly articulate and deliver this message to IT.
  • Clear up communication issues: it takes time and requires openness on the side of IT and management. In particular, being able to formulate dissent or incomprehension (sometimes more than once) without being castigated is key.
  • Eliminate personal agendas: Managers can build such a culture by effectively and regularly conveying the vision of the business to the employees, and showing them how they contribute to that vision.
  • Focus on client satisfaction: the systems, the network, and the processes are not the clients. Is everyone clear on who the clients are, and what it takes to satisfy them?
  • From CYA to teamwork: is the corporate culture one that encourages each person to cover his/her behind, for fear of reprisals? Or is it one which accepts that errors occur, and focuses on providing solutions that prevent such errors from repeating?
Bridging the gap has to focus on individuals as much as procedures and processes. You can put as many processes in place as you want, but if the people who are supposed to use them decide not to, you've invested your time and energy in the wrong place.

Mar 11, 2009

Using web conference software to present

One of my clients uses web conferencing software to present their solutions to potential clients. Some of the things I have noted in their presentations that can help your next webinar or conference:
  • Have many slides that change often. Sameness is your enemy. If people get bored, they will quickly go to their iPhones or their Blackberrys.
  • If you can, use two computers when you present: one as the host, the other to monitor what the audience is seeing. Sometimes there is a lag between what you see and what the audience sees. It's useful to know what your audience is seeing.
  • Practice, practice, practice, to feel at ease with the technology. Nothing feels as amateurish as someone bumbling around, trying to figure out the technology during the delivery.
  • If you are trying to convince someone at the other end, get them emotionally involved and if it is a small group, get them to say something out loud. Limit the number of time you incite them to say no (for example, "Do you have a question?")

Mar 10, 2009

Social networking and business

Many of the social networking sites will eventually become part of the standard work environment. Already, you can see some businesses taking advantage of the instant nature of Twitter. Dell, for example, is using it to expand ins customer service offerings. I have dealt with companies who have used instant messaging as a way to keep people updated on the status of various projects and troubleshooting situations.

I remember when email and the Internet were also a fad that would never take hold. Today in the Globe and Mail, there was an article showing that social media had passed email in overall Internet activity (

I think most businesses are afraid of these tools because the leaders do not use them nor understand them. As younger generations take over, or launch their new companies, these tools will become more entrenched in the overall business processes.

Social networking tools can be seen as a competitive advantage to prospective employees. Sure, in the current economic climate, that may not mean much, but once things improve (and they will) it can be enough to make your best new recruits bolt to another employer offering more bells and whistles.

So how can they be useful, and not become time wasters? The same way the Web managed to be come a useful tool: minimal control processes, accompanied by lots of education.

Mar 8, 2009

Finding fault or getting the best out?

The school system is based on a fault-finding approach, and that typically finds its way in our dealings with other people in business situations. The problem with fault-finding is that it is inherently disheartening.

Nobody's perfect and most people seek to improve their results by improving what they currently do. Fault-finding is focused on the past, and rarely looks to the future. But you can't fix the past, so sticking to fault-finding does not help anything.

Many managers, unfortunately, know how to criticize but aren't necessarily sure how to follow that criticism with steps toward an improved situation. To reach that improved situation, well, you need to know what that situation is!

I remember hearing a speaker ask a crowd of sales people: "Are you ready to bring your business to the next level?" and the crowd roared its approval. He followed that question with this one: "How many of you know what the next level looks like?" Not many hands went up. This is typical of fault-finding; we know what we don't want, but not necessarily what we DO want.

Instead of finding fault and criticizing, it's better to provide feedback. How is feedback different? Feedback is a loop. It's not a monologue but a dialogue. It gives the other person a chance to reply, to push back, to provide his or her opinion when needed. Doing so brings up another issue: ego.

People in leadership positions, but with fragile egos, will not accept pushback. They have difficulty accepting another person's opinion or objections. They won't accept that they could be wrong, so instead of giving someone else the opportunity to debate, they simply close the door to that option. This is the typical attitude of "I'm the boss, just do as I say."

Changing one's away of dealing with subordinates and moving from a coercive model to a cooperative model requires much work on oneself. In order to succeed, you need to have healthy self-esteem, you need to learn not to take things personally, and you need to learn to listen.

Furthermore, you need to focus more on the employee's needs and wants, and finding a way of aligning them with your objectives, instead of forcing the employee to adopt your point of view. You need to demonstrate more empathy. In short, you need to care more about the employee as a person, and not just as another body helping you to attain your goals.

That change is much more difficult to achieve than it seems. So rather than going through the challenges required to change ourselves, we prefer to try and change others... using the same old, ineffective methods.