A full brain and charged batteries

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

OK, I’ll admit it – I’m bursting! Spending three intense days at the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) International Conference and Expo in Orlando has my brain full and batteries recharged. I haven’t felt this much excitement since my Dad brought home twin Shetland ponies for my sister and me. We hopped on and rode around the house in our pajamas!

The theme of the conference was “Learning to Lead,” and that we did. Thousands of participants from all over the world were able to hear from experts including Jim Kouzes, Jack Zenger, Marshall Goldsmith, Marcus Buckingham, and the CEO of Campbell’s Soup, Doug Conant. Leading practioners in the field offered insights into different workplace learning and performance strategies.

While I have pages of notes, I’ve selected a few of my favorite takeaways to share with you here. I continue to reflect on their message and trust you will do the same.

I’ll begin with this quote from Carl Jung. “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to learn things about ourselves.” Being a leader is about having a mutual learning mindset rather than a unilateral control outlook. It’s not about being right – it’s being real. Being transparent, open and demonstrating empathy helps to build bridges, not walls. It is good for all of us to develop a learner rather than a judger mindset.

A panel of thought leaders on the subject of leadership suggested that exemplary leaders have several profound strengths (integrity, visionary, servant leader, inspiring, competent, goal-oriented) and no fatal flaws (inability to learn from mistakes, poor interpersonal skills and lack of openness.)

Extraordinary leaders create employee-centric organizations, putting their people above customers and profit. They are vulnerable – admitting their mistakes and asking for help. Marshall Goldsmith introduced the term “feedforward” and suggested that we invite others to give us ideas and suggestions on how to be better managers, parents, spouses and friends. Of course, this implies that you will listen and follow up on their input.

Jim Kouzes, co-author of the bestselling book The Leadership Challenge, took us through two exercises I think you’ll enjoy. First, imagine that you walked into a room and announced to your direct reports, “Hi – I’m your new leader.”  What questions do you think would be running through their heads? Who are you? What do you care about? Why should I follow you? The lesson is that we need to be confident in who we are, understand our own core values and ensure they are aligned with the organization’s mission. Letting your people get to know you as a person and making connections builds trust.

Secondly, think about a leader who has been an exceptional role model for you. Next, indicate what category best describes this person: business, political, professional athlete, teacher, family member, or civic leader? In our exercise, more than 70 percent of the room said theirs was a teacher or family member. Our most impactful leaders come early in our lives and make a difference on how our values get shaped.

Mr. Conant with Campbell’s Soup and co-author of the book, Touch-Points: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, shared that our direct reports are not interruptions and that every interaction is an opportunity to touch someone and make a difference. Touchpoints are saying the right thing at the right time in the right way. “I’m here.” “You can do better.” “How can I help?” He is recognized as turning around his organization by focusing on the people.

I’ll end with the keynote speaker who ended our conference, John Foley. He is a former lead solo pilot with the Blue Angels of the United States Navy. If you can imagine piloting a fighter jet that flies 36 inches away from five colleagues for 45 minutes, you are getting a perfect picture of vision, execution, trust, communication, planning, discipline and focus.

Your vision must be liberating, not limiting. The Blue Angels’ mission is to be ambassadors of goodwill. Their tag line is “Glad to be here!” They are thankful every day for the opportunity to make a difference.

Planning is critical and before every show, 300 times a year, they sit together in a conference room and recite each of the commands that will be given during the demonstration. Pilots close their eyes, some placing their hands on the gear shift and model the actions. As Mr. Foley said, “the job is not dangerous but it is inherently unforgiving.”

They execute flawlessly with discipline and open communication. If you are behind, you say so and allow your team members to make the necessary adjustments. A one-second miscue is the equivalent of two football fields.

Lastly, they debrief every flight together, with the leader going first. They share what went well and also critique what didn’t saying, “I’ll fix that. It won’t happen again. Glad to be here.” This is genuine and team members never lose confidence in one another.

Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at galemote@galemoteassociates.com