No sales pitches and no fluff. Just a thought-provoking dialog with Karla that will help you solve a challenge you're having right now.

If you haven't watched Karla's introductory video, explaining her philosophy and techniques, you may watch it here:


First Follower: The Person Every Leader Needs To Build Engagement & Momentum

If you're like most leaders, you are facing the prospect of having to keep up with an economy and competitive landscape that's volatile, uncertain, complex and in motion. Not only that, you also are tasked with finding the right solutions and implementing them to keep your boss and/or shareholders happy, key talent in place and your career on track. Sometimes, you start to think it would take you doing something really whacky to make that ignite a fire underneath your people who seem frozen in place by learned helplessness. But you start to worry about putting yourself out there...and if you start to think about actually acting on that crazy idea you've been nurturing for the last 6 months, this voice begins to whisper a chilling possibility in your mind....

"What if no one follows you?" (Cue the primal scream)

Now stop reading and go to this link and listen to this 3 minute video. Then come on back...go on, I'll wait.

Okay, so what did you learn? Did you notice that the key is the first follower who turns someone who others think is two clicks left of center into someone worth following? Now, of course, the kinds of decisions you have to face as an executive will not be solved by doing a goofy dance in the middle of a park, (if only it were that simple and fun). However, if the situation, urgency and conditions are ripe to start a movement that will drive people toward a necessary goal or shift a culture, here are some thoughts about getting people moving in the direction you want:
(Psst! Some of this concept is spoken about in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. If you haven't read it yet, I encourage you to do so.)

1. You need to be or find a leader who has the courage to stand by an idea and a plan that may be, shall we say, "non-traditional" and put it out there even if it means you are alone for a while. That alone takes guts, commitment... and a Plan B if it doesn't work out. Only kidding about the Plan B...sort of.

2. You need a first follower or even followers. These people are key, as the speaker explains. The most critical piece of these first followers is how you treat them. Derek Sivers said, "You must embrace them as equals.", as our dancing leader in the video did. This is the person who says, "Hey, it's okay, come on and join us." This is the person who influences others to contribute actively. You can see how he waves them into the crowd. And you can see how it takes off from there. That's because the first followers do something critical to influence the thinking of the people on the sidelines: They lower the risk of loss and danger in standing out. First followers make it safer to take a shot at greatness, doing something never done before.

First followers are what can potentially turn you, who is at first seen as a "candidate for a long vacation", into a visionary worth following and helping to achieve their goal. It can help to talk to those who you believe will join you and step up quickly after you initiate or announce your idea or plan. You may also get some good ideas from them that will help get needed engagement and momentum.

3. You need to be or find a leader who is willing to let go... to turn over the leadership to the first followers because they will determine largely how subsequent followers behave. Did you hear this idea of treating the first followers as equals? Interesting. Did you notice how the leader "disappeared" but you can be sure he was still dancing. It didn't matter that others took over and did some new moves. The leader let the momentum keep going and building. Soon it was uncool to not be with the in-crowd contributing to the experience.

As Derek Sivers says, leadership can be given more credit than its due sometimes and this can be true. While leaders usually get the credit for making something positive happen (because they will get the blame when it doesn't) it is in fact the first followers and those who follow them who often get others' buy-in and tactical traction that turns a radical idea into an actual implemented solution.

This is not to minimize the necessity or value of leaders...this is a timeless cautionary tale however: Too much control can lead the best ideas onto the rocks where they splinter apart. Leadership has many layers and to be most masterful you need to know when to have your hands on the wheel directing the course and when to hand it over and to whom, always making sure you stay engaged to help the team weather the rough seas and stay on course...pull this off well and people will consider that joining you in your goofy dance was one of the best decisions they made.

Is there a movement you want to start?


I Can('t) See Clearly Now 

You know you've had this experience. You're asked by someone how to do something that you have done successfully yourself. You explain: Well first you have to do this, then follow it up with that, then just finish it up by doing this. It'll work like a charm. The person then thanks you and makes their attempt at the first step and then can't make it to step two. What happened? You told them how to do it didn't you? ....or did you merely tell them what to do?

In a great article written by Michael E. Raynor, who collaborated with Clayton Christensen on the book, "The Innovator's Dilemma", the fine but distinctive line that separates what from how is explored. Understanding the elements of each and how they are different is to hold in your hands the keys to unlocking the mystery of what keeps people from doing what you want them to do by transfering the how effectively.

Many times, we explain our version of how which only ends up sounding like a what to others because we are making our way through the steps as someone who already knows how to complete the task. We may also possess higher or different abilities than the recipient of the instruction which enables us to connect the dots of how to get the job done. Without consideration for the other person's experience and skills, your direction would be as helpful to them as trying to teach a trumpeter how to play a cello by explaining the nuances of bowing. The trumpeter is talented to be sure but not on the cello. He has no frame of skill reference for the basics let alone the nuance of bowing.

This is a mistake leaders (and most people) make over and over. We make assumptions that just because someone has been promoted to a very high position that they must get it, be a quick study, and can come up to speed with little instruciton. All they need is a cursory explanation when that is not always the case. And just imagine the anxiety it produces in that person when the "boss" has explained something and the receiver doesn't get it. I mean really, who can they ask? I can't tell you how many executives I've talked to that would rather drag their body over broken glass than ask their superior to explain it again or more clearly. There is so much that is assumed and left for interpretation or completely left out. Then, of course, the person tries to get it done and either spends so much time figuring it out, does it wrong or delays it that the superior gets angry. Same thing happens with teachers, parents, children and spouses...all the time.

As Mr. Raynor explained in his article, a way to look at this is, "when you have explained to people how to do something they are able to do it." Seems obvious doesn't it. If we watch a cooking show that says the chef is going to teach you how to fillet a fish, you should be able to do so after the show. But how morphs into what when your explanation runs headlong into the limits of the receiver's skill set to apply that direction to get the job done. 

A story from my disco dancing days (Don't hold that against me.) illustrates this point.  I had this idea back at the height of the Disco craze that my friend and I would teach people in the privacy of their own homes how to dance to the disco beat. So, we put together a routine and, with our vinyl LPs spinning on the turntable, taught it to all our clients. This one couple wanted to learn how to do a dip. So as they danced, we talked them through a few steps leading up to the dip and then said to them: "Okay John, now just support Janet as she bends backwards." Well, what happened next was quite the scene which resulted in Janet picking carpet fibers out of her hair and tending to a rug burn. See, we told them what to do not how to do it...(an actual demonstration of the maneuver would have helped too.)

My point is, everything is easy...when you know how to do it. 

I run into this all the time when I'm learning new technology and speaking to customer/tech support or reading instructions in the Help section of a site.  The conversation sounds something like this:

Me: "How do I get this audio file to do such and such.?" 
Tech: "Just convert it to downloadable file or an MP3." (He thinks he's just told me how...I only heard what I'm supposed to do because my knowledge is limited. I don't know how to convert things into a downloadable file or MP3. I don't have that skill.)
Me: Great! How do I do that? (See? I'm still asking me, it hasn't been answered yet.) 
Tech: <withering sigh followed by more tech speak and what direction.>
Me: (I am now shut down and ticked off due to his impatient response. Customer/ Tech support is perhaps a topic for another time...)

So, when answering the question as to how to do something, be aware of this phenomena and give your instruction in the context of the receiver and their abilities. Make it safe for them to ask you to clarify or for them to ask for more direction or detail. Remember that it takes courage for many people, especially those at the executive level, to ask for help or to admit they don't know. It leaves them a bit vulnerable. So if you are approached, understand that making someone feel "stupid" for not knowing or for needing more clarification will only backfire on you. What you teach them is that you are not approachable, trustworthy or reliable. You become a threat to them thus you teach them to hide things from you and appear to undersand what you want when they don't. That is a recipe for future disaster. Be the leader that invites curiosity, who teaches, mentors, and most of all builds better thinking in your team in a collaborative non-judgmental way. By doing so, you will truly be helping them (and yourself) and the path will be clear for people to deliver what you want more often than not. 

And as a bonus, you build a very important skill as a more masterful mentor and leader.

Post your comments at my Blog 



Put the FUN Back in FUNctional

Okay, so we know business can get serious but it doesn't have to be a solemn undertaking. As business leaders know, it's easier to get people in organizations to function well when all is right with world with only minor disturbances. When we're enduring the kind of times we've been in for the last 18 months or so, people's minds start to loop in a pattern of "why bother, it won't make a difference anyway." This is known as learned helplessness which I spoke about in my newsletter of July 2008. Additionally, the minds of some people start to knee-jerk and look to find quick fixes to emerging or mounting issues rather than engage in thoughtful introspection about root causes and possible solutions. Are you unflappable in the face of uncertainty and stress or do you notice a shift in the way you think and behave causing you to be, well, contributing to the feeling of helplessness?

Under stress, we can tend to spiral downward in our thinking and we don't bring our best selves forward. The internal tape runs a full gamut of gloom, doom and worry. The negative self-talk intensifies until it becomes the filter through which we see the world and through which we make decisions. Having a grip on reality is one thing. Begin choked by that grip? Not productive and definitely not fun.

It is when times are trying, when stress is at its highest, when coming to work is fraught with anxiety and insecurity that a leader needs to step up and be emotionally intelligent and least publicly. One skill that can break the unhealthy tension and refocus people is to learn how to bring an amount of fun back to the functioning of an organization. It brings things back into balance. Like the thermostat in your home, creating some fun at work brings the temperature back into check. There is a certain amount of homeostatic balance that needs to be present in order to give us some equilibrium to cope in the midst of stress. What that means is people need to be able to count on something or someone being stable and reliable so they can face the current turbulence and still perform.  Bringing appropriate humor, levity and, yes, a certain amount of fun can help bring about a homeostatic atmosphere for people to work within. There is a neurological reason for this.

People will tend to do what you want them to do with more ease and creativity when you introduce fun. The pleasure derived from fun triggers dopamine which washes over our brain and enters our system.  We are more relaxed. We just think and perform better over long periods of time when we do not have toxic hormones like cortisol coursing through our bodies. Triggered by stress, any number of things happen to us and if you pay attention, you can see it on the faces and in the actions and even in the thinking of people around you. Just pay attention. You might even find your own common sense and best self at the mercy of your stress response.

Introduce fun and then watch what happens. See how the energy changes and listen for the innovative ideas that may just start to emerge in meetings. People who swore they didn't have enough time to get a task done, somehow find ways to complete it and in a higher quality way than expected. You can change behaviors by making the task fun, by creating an atmosphere of levity and release an army of pleasurable dopamine instead of a sinister slew of destructive cortisol.

Just take a look at these brilliant, short videos...Look at how deciding to make something fun actually changes behaviors for the good. Here are more videos at a great site called, an initiative of Volkswagen.

Watch, learn, and think about how you see "work". Do work and play have to be mutally exclusive or is there a Venn diagram where the two combined can shift mere functioning into inspired achievement on a daily basis? Lest you think this is fluffy stuff make no mistake that having fun can drive seriously productive results.

How could you create a FUNctional foundation in your organization or team? It starts with how you choose to think about yourself and the culture you wish to develop and nurture. Ask yourself what else may be required of you now as an executive leader that hasn't been asked of you before? What motivated employees 15 years ago may not work today. Could adding some aspect of fun or "serious play" at work inject a needed lift? Sometimes the methods and thinking that got us where we are will not be enough to get us where we're going. Let me know what you think...


On The Shoulders of Giants 

by Karla Robertson, PCC

"If I can see farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."                    - Sir Isaac Newton

Are you providing the opportunity for emerging leaders to see farther and learn from other successful leaders?

A topic that is top of mind for many CEO's and other senior executives is succession planning. Who is going to take the reins and keep the momentum moving forward? Who can lead the executive team to the next level, making sure everyone is focused on  emerging trends as well as current deliverables to customers and shareholders while providing a culture that engages and retains the best talent?

A neurologist, VS Ramachandran, gave a very compelling TEDtalk in 2009 regarding "mirror neurons". It's fascinating and the reason I bring it up in this context is this: The brain has this subset of neurons that fire when we observe someone else doing something or touching something. Ramachandran asserts that this plays into the way cultures have evolved and people have learned, advanced civilization and passed down ways of doing things. We emulate what we see others do. This is why it's so important as a leader to realize that how you show up teaches others how to be as leaders as well. 

What are you teaching others as you engage during your day? Is it what you want to teach others about leadership? Listen to his 7:44 min talk. 

For a long time, leadership equaled command and control. Telling, directing, solely deciding and handing down orders to be carried out by the rest of the organization's employees. Today, and for some time now, there has been a shift to what is becoming known as "servant leadership". The key aspect of this kind of leadership is knowing when not to lead, not to speak louder, not to tell or direct. While great leaders tend to stand taller than others, the key is not to cast too long and dark of a shadow that snuffs out the light of others. Servant leaders offer a view to a higher line of sight to those under them by inviting them up to stand on their shoulders to see the landscape from that perspective and help them become better thinkers for themselves. 

This is not to say that today's leaders don't take command or make final decisions when needed. Direction and providing a compass for the company is critical for members of the C-suite to provide. If you want to ensure sustainability, growth and relevancy in your organization, raising up other leaders is key. Identifying and grooming emerging leaders will develop their executive thinking. This, in turn, will build their competency to drive results, progress, innovation and the continual evolution of an organization's growth and financial strength while holding everyone and themselves to a strong code of ethics.

For some current leaders this will be a challenge. There is a saying though, "The thinking that got you where you are may not be the thinking that will get you where you need to go."  If you are a leader who wants change, the first place to focus is not on how can you do things better or differently but how can you think better (or differently) about the things that need doing. Albert Einstein said, "The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking." This is so true. When we see the competition is gaining on us or when our stock is down, when expectations are up, when our budgets are squeezed we tend to want to take action..."We must DO something!" Instead of scrambling to take some action, try to step back and ask yourself, "How can we think about this differently?" "Is there another way to see this issue, challenge or opportunity?"

Remember that sometimes we get stuck in loops of thinking and get hemmed in by our deeply held beliefs and "sacred cows". It's good to revisit them and be aware of how the stories we tell ourselves and the assumptions that form the basis for our thinking influence our decisions and therefore our outcomes. Ask yourself if the basis for your thinking is still relevant? When was the last time you really dug deep and challenged your thinking in a particular area, like, say, your leadership? You may ask the same of your team as well. 

Have you invited others to stand on your shoulders? And on whose shoulders have you stood lately? Have you sought out others to whom you ascribe credibility and high achievement and from whom you could learn? Current leaders as well as emerging ones need to do this. Find your "wise one" on the mountain and go visit once in a while to see the view from there and listen to a different perspective. You may find you're on the right track or you may experience a spark of insight that tweaks your thinking in a way that makes a huge difference.

The shifting sands of today's world dynamics require us to regularly check in with our thinking to make sure the way we connect the dots is aligned with getting us where we need to go.



"It's not what you intend to do but what you actually do that counts."

That's something I came up with when I was with a group of folks and one person was trying to explain why he hadn't done what he promised to do for the other. The other person had that plastered-on smile that was trying to say "It's okay." when really the impact was, "Wow, I was counting on you and you let me down."

What's that other saying? "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

The reason I bring this up is because, we have "good intentions" as we begin a new year and then somehow they get sidetracked, derailed, lost in the shuffle, back-burnered, get the drift. I've been thinking that maybe it's because that word -intentions - is plural. Perhaps we should start out in the singular...intention . Just one. Make it happen. Not just part of the way; all the way. Then, move onto a new intention. Do that one. Repeat. People don't really want or need to hear about what you intended to do...they care about what you actually did.  Can you imagine talking about your intentions in an interview? "Yes, well, I intended to be the #1 producer however I ended up 15th." or "I intended to lead the company in an ethical way however..." So to avoid that, here are 4 tips as we face the first year of a new decade:
   1. (psst! It's Task Switching not Multitasking) We've gotten bitten by the multitasker bug and really folks, brain science tells us we are kidding ourselves and shortchanging those we serve and the results we are supposed to deliver not to mention the quality of our communications and relationships. We delude ourselves into thinking we can do this and do it well when in fact our brains just aren't built to function that way. Oh yes, we can do one task after another and switch between 2 or more but we really cannot and do not do more than one at a time. When we divide our attention, I spoke about this a bit in last month's newsletter, we tax our limited working memory and prefrontal cortex. We are capable of the mere act of task swtiching. However, this kind of cerebral acrobatics costs us and eventually accumulates and backs up on us. Something's gotta give and it is the quality of our performance and know, (ahem) the thing by which others will judge each of us.

   2. How to choose what to focus on.
One word. Prioritize. Ask yourself what would produce the biggest lift if you were to focus on it and get it done? What's the cost of not focusing on that thing? What action that you have yet to take has the most riding on it? What will only get worse the more you delay closure? This is not to say that you silo yourself and not work on or think about anything else in your life. "I'm sorry boss, I can't fly to D.C. and make a presentation to the board since I'm focused right now on creating my business plan." This also doesn't mean you can't delegate to others or renegotiate deadlines when you have multiple competing priorities. What it does mean is that when you decide you are going to tackle a priority, you must become deliberate in the steps and actions you take and fierce about protecting your time to get your chosen task done.  Ask yourself: Who else or what else could help you get this done sooner than later and in a way that will bring it to successful closure? Look, there will always be interruptions that cannot be avoided however you can move the ball on this one and get higher quality output and closure on more of your to-do list if you focus.

   3. Remove distractions. This means physical and mental. Physical: noise, phone, IM pings and pings associated with incoming email, kids, dogs, your hunger or other bodily demands, shall we say. Mental: Intruding thoughts about having to shop for your spouse's birthday gift, the sale going on at the mall, the fight you had last night with your friend, sibling, parent or spouse, or your upcoming review, speach, etc. You must develop a discipline around your mental focusing ability. create an environment in which you will not be disturbed either until a certain amount of time passes, you get to a certain point (milestone), you run into a roadblock that you can't get through, whatever. But you do have to set a timeframe to complete the entire task. Invest in getting this down and it will pay you dividends.

Let me say one thing about focus: it does not exclude being able to be creative, innovative or spontaneous. Let me tell you why from a personal standpoint and share something I learned as it relates to my operating style: I can be easily distracted by my thoughts. Oh, can I idea-generate and any time during the day while at my desk or on a plane, etc. People always wonder, "How do you come up with this stuff, Karla?" Well this is how. There can be a price though. There are always hundreds of thoughts coursing through the superhighway of my mind and that is not unique to me. All humans have thousands of synapses firing all the time. The difference is that people like me, give them air time when they pop up and get noisy, insisting on getting some attention. If it's a cool idea or information I've run across while surfing, I'm doomed...or I should say whatever I was working on is.

However, here's what's happened over the last several years. I realized that by focusing and bringing in a more disciplined approach to the way I operate, it actually allows me to be spontaneous, organic, innovative and creative and not lose my focus or my point. By preparing and being thorough in my research and staying on track, I end up with more free time to do the things I like to do like hang out at and imagine how I can use what I'm learning there to serve my clients and my network. It's deliberative on my part. I actually will catch myself disengaging from a task because something either came into my head or I saw something that interested me and I will say out loud, "Nope. Focus, Karla." and that will bring me back. I always have many things going on at any given moment like most people. By developing a discipline of mind I can finish more of them and free up  more time as well as deliver the quality I want to be known for. Like I've said in the past about the hardwiring in our brain...we can't erase the hardwiring that's there but we can build new wiring that will allow our thinking to disrupt the pathways that don't work for us. We can catch ourselves and redirect our thinking and therefore our actions that lead us in a better direction. It won't happen overnight but stick with it and it will become a new habit of mind.

   4. Learn how to say No. I can hear you now. "How can I say no to my boss?" and about 30 other How can I's. You have trouble saying no to the important requests because little by little we said Yes to requests that you really didn't have to and it filled up your available time. Now you're stuck. There are people who do this and have a very rough time distinguishing what to take on and what to defer or turn down. You can say, "I'd love to do that for you if you're willing to give me until...(name the date that gives you time...more than you need.)"  If the person can't wait that long, refer them to someone else who may have capacity. Or ask them to work on the task further and then come back so you don't have as much to do on it. (Note: By doing this you may find they end up doing the whole thing! While you may say that this is a bit sneaky,  I encourage you to think of it as helping them become better thinkers and able to solve their own challenges. Oftentimes, that is the actual outcome of saying No.) There's a quote: "No one has enough time; but everyone has all the time they're going to get." Think about what you say Yes to.

So I know all of you will say you have your process for getting things done and my response is to ask you, "How's it working for you?" More importantly, how is it working for the people you serve? The people who matter to you? And how would you know if it was? Really, this is about making highest and best use of what being disciplined and focused as well as what being open and go with the flow can do for us when we blend them or use them at the right times. Last month I spoke about what happens when we flip out on the extreme of one side or another of a given behavior. We are out of the action. So, yes, sometimes, the way to re-establish a fresh focus is to leave it and do something else. When you get back to whatever "it" is for you, though, focus and finish. This way, more often than not, you won't find yourself explaining why you didn't get something done ...even though you intended to.