Advice from an Iraq Vet to KM Professionals

person-question-1158128-1280x1280Erik Booker could be a middle school student’s nightmare. In his current job, he is a seventh-grade teacher in South Carolina. Before becoming a teacher, however, he was a US Army intelligence officer in Iraq. That experience taught him to read body language and to know when someone it not being entirely truthful.

Now do you see his potential to scare a seventh-grade student?

In the course of a moving Storycorps interview conducted by his former student, Jenna Power, Booker offers the following advice to his student:

Be brave. Now let’s face it, there are some students who sit in my class and they do what I tell them to do. But you were never satisfied with that. You always said, ‘But wait…’ That was my favorite phrase from you: ‘But wait…’

I want you to ask those questions. ‘Why is it that way? Why do we do things that way?’ To me, that is what sets people apart — that desire to know more.

As I heard this interview, I mentally swapped out some of his words to fit another scenario we know too well:

Now let’s face it, there are some KM professionals who sit in a law firm and they do what the partners tell them to do. But you were never satisfied with that. You always said, ‘But wait…’ That was my favorite phrase from you: ‘But wait…’

I want you to ask those questions. ‘Why is it that way? Why do we do things that way?’ To me, that is what sets KM professionals apart — that desire to know more.

By changing just a handful of words, a seventh-grade phenomenon became a very familiar law firm KM phenomenon. While the partners of your firm may be well-intentioned, it is still your job to ask the follow-up questions. It is still your job to ensure that you have identified the root cause and are addressing it rather than the symptoms of a problem. After all, KM is your area of expertise, not theirs.

As you work this week to advance knowledge management inside a law firm, remember Erik Booker’s advice. Keep asking yourself and your colleagues: “Why is it that way? Why do we do things that way?” And don’t settle for the obvious answers.

If you are attending the Ark Conference on Knowledge Management in the Legal Profession this week, ask these questions of the presenters, vendors, and other attendees. And, once again, don’t settle for the obvious answers.

It is in asking and answering these questions that we open up a window on our hidebound practices and out-of-date thinking. It is in asking and answering these questions that we create the opportunity for insight and innovation.

So take the advice of this Iraq vet. It is how you will set yourself and your KM effort apart from the others.

[Photo Credit: Sigurd Decroos]


G100 CIO Recap – #ILTACON #ILTA061

ILTACON 2015 LogoSession Summary: Members of ILTA’s G100 CIO Advisory Board provide a recap of the G100 CIO event held on Monday, August 31st.


  • Don Jaycox, CIO for the Americas, DLA Piper
  • Andy Jurczyk, CIO of Seyfarth Shaw
  • Robert Marburger, CIO of Alston & Bird
  • Dean Leung, CIO of Holland & Knight

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s 2015 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Most of the attendees in the room are the senior leader for IT within their firms.
  • Challenges of working with a multi-generational workforce. Chris deSantis was the speaker at the G100 session.
    • There are 3 generations at work now: Boomers, Gen X and Millenials
    • We have to think about them, not only as employees in the IT team, but also as internal clients (both as lawyers and in other administrative departments.)
    • Why should we care about this? We are responsible for ensuring continuity and developing the leaders of tomorrow. This is more challenging when each generation has a different point of reference and different values.
    • Different aspirations:
      • In 1960, adulthood (the age of 30) meant completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. (This was true of 77% of women and 65% of men.)
      • In 2010, only 13% of women and 10% of men have achieved these “indicia of adulthood.”
    • Generational Split: about 2/3 of the G100 CIOs are boomers. Their senior staff also tend to be boomers as well.
      • Some of this is location-specific. There seemed to be more Gen Xers in senior roles in law firms outside the northeast.
      • See the Tattoo Index. For traditionalists and boomers, tattoos are a sign of rebelliousness. However, now tattoos are more about conformity than rebellion. (Millennials get at least six tattoos. For them, it is a matter of personal expression.)
      • See the Cellphone Index:  How many people sleep with their cellphones? Millennials and Gen X are much more likely to do so because it keeps them connected to their community.
    • Each generational group shares a common lens.  It has to do with the context when they were children, plus what their families talked about and were concerned about.  Gen Xers grew up with the oil crisis and war, so they tended to be more insecure and secretive. By comparison, Millenials grew up during one of the longest stretches of prosperity, so they tend more to optimism.
    • Each generation values different things:
      • Boomers: value training, picking a side or team (often led by a boomer), optimism, competition, conspicuous display, working, work ethic, upward mobility, the covenant of lifetime employment, permissive parenting, etc.
      • Gen X: self-reliant and independent, skeptical, informal, tech-savvy, etc. They seek work/life accommodation.
      • Millenials: digital natives and optimistic people who value diversity, social responsibility, collaboration and cohesion, constant contact (they look for praise frequently), transparency, the environment, being scheduled, being discerning consumers, etc.
        • They are the products of Gen X parents. Yet their Gen X don’t provide the same support that their Gen X parents do.  As Leung noted, “We inspire our kids, yet we admonish other people’s kids.”
    • Each generation needs different things from their managers.
    • A key difference among generations is how they handle telecommuting
      • Boomers grew up with face-to-face classrooms and socializing, so they assume that a work team needs to operate face-to-face as well.
      • Millennials much prefer to telecommute.
      • Seyfarth’s experience with telecommuting:
        • The Seyfarth Shaw team works remotely four days each week, but they do have one day when they gather to reinforce their sense of team and community. In addition, they have social events periodically to strengthen their ties.
        • Seyfarth will extend this model to other groups (including other departments and lawyers) in order to improve quality of life and reduce costs.
        • In Seyfarth’s experience, it has not been a technology challenge.  It requires leadership to do this successfully.
      • In most firms, the issue of telecommuting depends on the personality and experience of the head of a particular department.
    • There are two typical reactions to the generational differences:
      • Quit your whining and get back to work!
      • It is the obligation of the leader to help each person deliver their best work.
    • The generations tend to pivot. The Boomers were very rebellious (in the 1960s) and then pivoted to be incredibly hardworking. The same may happen to the Millenials.
  • Cybersecurity. Speakers were from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — Dr. Andy Ozment, Assistant Secretary, Office of Cybersecurity & Communications, and Daniel Sutherland, Associate General Counsel. Their presentation was What the DHS Can Do For You.
    • Cyber Risk Management:
      • 80% of time on best practices
      • 15% of time on sharing information
      • 5% of time on incident response
    • Most of the firms attending the G100 Summit were very focused on cybersecurity and implementing best practices.
    • Because of the frequent client-initiated security audits, the legal industry is no longer the “soft underbelly” and may in fact be ahead of most other industries in terms of cybersecurity.
    • The more we share information on security best practices (and events), the stronger the entire industry becomes.
    • The financial services industry struggled with the tension between data privacy and security. They were able to reach industry-wide guidelines on sharing security information within the industry to alert firms to security threats and enable all to achieve greater security. Ozment encouraged the legal industry to adopt guidelines that achieve a similar goal.
      • Once an industry knows more about security threats than the people doing the incursions, then the industry has the upper hand.
      • DHS is working to gather data regarding cybersecurity threats and incidents, and then distribute anonymized information to firms.
    • There are three types of security threats (vandals, spies and muggers). Each require a different response.
    • The DHS offer the legal industry 3 services (each service has its own website):
      • cybersecurity framework
      • critical infrastructure cyber community (C3) voluntary program
      • risk assessments
    • Take key (standard) measures and then do the risk assessment.  E.g., two-factor authentication, updated security patches, etc.
    • Jaycox: “We all had full-time jobs before cybersecurity became a major challenge.”
    • How to avoid incursions:
      • Implement all the recommended technical controls such as two-factor authentication, up-to-date security patches, upgrade your log aggregation services/methods so that you can understand what is happening on your network.
      • Understand that the vast majority of incursions (60-70%) occur via phishing.
      • Also be aware of DNS-related attacks. (This can be addressed by two-factor authentication.)
      • Make it a priority to educate users so they understand the risks of phishing.
    • Once there has been an incursion:
      • your first instinct is to shut them down and get them out as far as you can (unless they are in a super-critical area).
      • Instead, watch them for a short period of time to understand their pattern of operation so you can prevent the next incursion.
    • Lessons Learned for best security:
      • Two-factor authentication.
      • Least privilege.
      • Application whitelisting
      • Network segmentation.
      • Education.
  • Four Asks from the Department of Homeland Security. Each law firm should do the following:

Where is Your Failure Report?

Engineers Without Borders logoIf your organization is populated by perfect people with a perfect track record, feel free to ignore this post. For the rest of you, I’d urge you to spend a little time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. This nonprofit was founded in 2000 by two young engineers who had “a dream of an organization that would enable engineers to contribute something other than another bridge or another electrical grid.” Since then, the organization has built its fair share of wells in Africa, but it has also moved beyond those projects to tackle some really big ideas:

Some are social enterprises that bring affordable financing the rural entrepreneurs. Some improve African government service-delivery and decision-making. And some mobilize Canadians and engineers to create change in areas like ethical consumption. All challenge the status quo and provide radical alternatives to unjust systems.

One key to the organization’s growth and success has been failure. Or, more precisely, it’s gutsy approach to failure. These engineers understood early on that they couldn’t move forward if they did not learn from both their own experience and the experiences of others. A critical part of this was learning from failure. But how can one do this when few people own up to their failures? To address this, Engineers Without Borders Canada set out to create a new learning and innovation culture in which disclosing, discussing and even celebrating failure would not only be possible but, in fact, be expected. While a conversation behind closed doors might be tempting from a risk and reputation management perspective, Engineers Without Borders Canada puts its money where its mouth is: this organization discloses its failures publicly. Since 2008, the organization has published an annual Failure Report that contains “strong reflections on misaligned expectations, misplaced intentions, and incorrect assumptions.”  That’s right — they put it out there for the entire world to see.  They put it out there for their donors to see. Talk about transparency and accountability.

So why should any of this matter to someone working in a professional services firm or other for-profit business? If your organization is serious about innovation and improved performance, it has to confront the results of experiments gone wrong. And, it has to do so in a culture that supports learning rather than lynching. Engineers Without Borders Canada seeks to help all organizations build a supportive culture through storytelling. Their aim is to encourage as many organizations as possible to come clean about what’s really going on. Why?

The more stories that are shared, the easier it becomes to share your own. Slowly but surely, failure becomes less of the “F Word,” and a more commonplace, even celebrated vehicle for humility, learning, and innovation.

Striving for Humility is the title of the 2013 Annual Report of Engineers Without Borders Canada. While I don’t expect anyone in a law firm to draft a report with that title, consider what you might write if you told the truth about what’s happening on your watch. What would change if you successfully identified repeatable lessons that could be shared with your colleagues. What if those lessons were incorporated in your organization’s operating procedures? To be clear, this is not about paying lip service to transparency with an occasional after action review or, worse still, a database of lessons learned that no one ever consults. Rather, this is about encouraging attitudes and behaviors that enable us to share knowledge, learn and innovate. It’s about creating an organizational culture that is more honest and, perhaps, a tad more humble.

So in that spirit, I’ll ask again: Where is your failure report?


That Vision Thing

Tablica do badania wzroku z reklamy Vision ExpressA lack of vision has tripped up presidents and business leaders.  President George H.W. Bush famously dismissed “that vision thing” as something not worth investing in.  As he soon discovered, however, the electorate did not agree with him.  His official biography on the US Senate website contains the following sad commentary:

Bush also suffered from his lack of what he called “the vision thing,” a clarity of ideas and principles that could shape public opinion and influence Congress. “He does not say why he wants to be there,” complained columnist George Will, “so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way.”

In my post, The Purpose-Driven Organization, I discussed how important it was that an organization know WHY it exists and WHY it does what it does. Simon Sinek believes that it is the job of the leader of an organization to master that vision thing — to see a better world — and then to communicate it in such clear and compelling terms that others volunteer to work above and beyond the call of duty to make that shared vision a reality.  But all the goodwill in the world may not be sufficient to reach that goal.

In fact if you look carefully, you’ll undoubtedly find that there are examples in your life and in your organization of the proposition that good intentions often come to naught without supporting structures. Steve Denning wrote recently in a Forbes blog of the challenges of making changes in an organization without tackling its underlying corporate culture.  Using the World Bank as his case study, he noted frequent mistakes made by senior management in an attempt to change organizational culture:

  • Overuse of the power tools of coercion and underuse of leadership tools.
  • Beginning with a vision or story, but failing to put in place the management tools that will cement the behavioral changes in place.
  • Beginning with power tools even before a clear vision or story of the future is in place. [emphasis added]

The big exception he found was Robert McNamara, who had a profound and lasting impact on the mission and activities of the World Bank.  According to Denning, the key to McNamara’s success was to create a support structure to underpin the vision he had for the World Bank:

McNamara … arrived with a clear vision for the organization: it was to be a lending organization that was lending a great deal more money. He had a clear idea of the management he wanted introduced: hierarchical bureaucracy. He introduced systems and processes that focused everyone’s attention on his vision of the World Bank as a rapidly growing lending organization and the type of management required. Those systems are still largely in place today and still guide management action.

Now let’s move from the arena of large organizations to our personal lives.  Every New Year’s Day, people all over the world articulate a personal vision — usually in the form of a New Year’s resolution.  And, for many, those resolution are abandoned within the first few days of the new year.  Why?  In How to Stay Focused on the Important Things, Peter Bregman suggests that it’s because we fail to restructure our personal environments (our lives) in such a way as to improve our chances of accomplishing our new priorities:

In other words, it’s great to learn new habits, but if we want to sustain them, we need to change our environment, and then maintain that new environment, for as long as we want to maintain our change.

Coming back to knowledge management, as Denning so rightly points out, it’s not sufficient to launch a brilliant KM system or technology.  Rather, you’re going to have to tackle and change the underlying structure of the organization that makes knowledge sharing less likely.  Unfortunately this work is both necessary and hard.  And, it cannot be done overnight.  The good news, however, is that Robert McNamara has shown us that when you put the right supporting structures in place, the desired behaviors will continue — despite changes in leadership, fashion or vision.

So go ahead and dream your dreams — identify your compelling vision for your organization.  But don’t forget to do the hard work of creating an environment that makes it possible to achieve that vision.


[Photo Credit: Trochim]





The Purpose-Driven Organization

What’s the purpose of your organization? (No, that’s not a trick question.) Deb Lavoy and her colleagues at OpenText believe that answering that question is the first critical step every organization must take.

Putting their money where their mouth is, OpenText hosted on July 11 the first of what promises to be a thought-provoking series of conversations about the purpose-driven organization. The speaker at the event* was Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why. Drawing on examples as diverse as the civil rights movement, Navy SEALS, the Wright brothers, Apple and Disney, he explained that the primary role of a leader is to have a vision of the world as it can be, and then to articulate that purpose with enough clarity and energy so as to inspire others to work towards that purpose.

Granted it’s promotional material, but here’s a synopsis provided by his publishers:

In studying the leaders who’ve had the greatest influence in the world, Simon Sinek discovered that they all think, act, and communicate in the exact same way — and it’s the complete opposite of what everyone else does. Sinek calls this powerful idea The Golden Circle, and it provides a framework upon which organizations can be built, movements can be lead, and people can be inspired. And it all starts with WHY.

Any organization can explain what it does; some can explain how they do it; but very few can clearly articulate why. WHY is not money or profit– those are always results. WHY does your organization exist? WHY does it do the things it does? WHY do customers really buy from one company or another? WHY are people loyal to some leaders, but not others?

Starting with WHY works in big business and small business, in the nonprofit world and in politics. Those who start with WHY never manipulate, they inspire. And the people who follow them don’t do so because they have to; they follow because they want to.

Why does your organization need a well-articulated purpose? Simon Sinek believes that without a clear and compelling purpose, you cannot recruit, retain and inspire the highly motivated people who are so committed to a shared sense of purpose that they will move mountains to achieve it. It’s this willingness to go above and beyond that sets them, and ultimately their organization, apart.

For my readers in the legal industry, don’t assume that this conversation about purpose is only for our clients.  Bruce MacEwen writing at Adam Smith Esq covered some of this territory in Thoughts on IBM’s 100th: Idea or Product, where he attributes IBM’s nimbleness and longevity to its view of itself “not as an organization creating products but as an organization loyal to an idea.”  He then summarizes a list from The Economist of companies that are animated by ideas versus those focused on products:

  • IBM:  Package technology for use by business
  • Apple:  Package the latest technoology in simple, elegant form and sell it at a premium
  • Amazon:  Make it easy for people to buy stuff
  • Facebook:  Help people share things with friends easily
  • Dell:  Building PCs very very efficiently
  • Cisco:  Routers
  • Microsoft:  Windows

Taking this dichotomy straight to the door of law firms, he asks: “Are there firms premised on fealty to ideas and firms premised on selling products (practice areas)?” After naming a couple of firms that might be “idea” firms, and one sad example of a “product” firm, he reaches a sobering conclusion:

Alas, I suspect that law firms premised on a widely recognized idea are rare.   Many would insist they are idea-based, but dig under the surface and I bet you’ll find a mutating assemblage of practice areas and geographies without–in most cases–an overarching idea that all the partners could tell you in their sleep motivates the firm.

If he is right about this, how will firms recruit, retain and motivate excellent people? How can firms ensure their own longevity? Is it really just about paying market salaries?  I suspect it has a great deal more to do with the type of culture a firm nurtures, and the quality of the clients and work a firm attracts.

As we continue in this period of economic uncertainty, it’s worth considering whether your law firm, company, business unit, department, school or nonprofit has what it takes for the long haul.  You should start by asking WHY.


If you’d like to hear more about the importance of knowing your purpose, here’s Simon Sinek’s very popular TED Talk:


*Disclosure: This event was sponsored by OpenText and free to the public.

[Photo Credit: Godserv]


Think Big

Do you think small? Or, do you have a compelling vision that gives your work purpose? What gets you out of bed in the morning other than the knowledge that someone expects you to punch the clock at the office?

Some have reported that in their view the safest course through the economic downturn was to pursue tactical goals rather than grand visions.  They have taken comfort in the sense of forward motion generated by their incremental gains.  However, while achieving these goals can be satisfying (in the way that crossing something off a to do list can be satisfying), they too rarely provide the competitive advantage that our firms are looking for.

What works better?  Pursuing a BHAG: a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.  Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined this phrase to capture the kind of grand vision that a company articulates and then uses as an organizing principle and a spur to greater action.  Google doesn’t just want to be the go to search engine. Google’s BHAG is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  Amazon doesn’t just want to be a great bookstore.  Rather, Amazon’s BHAG is a little grander than that:  “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for three primary customer sets — consumer customers, seller customers and developer customers.”  That’s all?

What audacious, outrageous goal are you trying to achieve with knowledge management?  Is it big enough to keep you and your team energized and focused?  As we emerge from the economic downturn, bold ideas are going to help the surviving firms thrive.  What’s your bold idea?


Here are some additional resources on BHAGs:

[Photo Credit: jiruan]


Lighten Up!

We tell our children that work is serious business. And that’s right  — to a certain extent. However, research is reminding us that it takes more than just grim determination and single-minded focus for success at work (and in life).

Marion Chapsal recently reiterated this truth in her post, Play, laughter and creativity in coaching.  In it, she refers to recent studies in neuroscience that “show the correlation between the ability to make people feel good and the global productivity at work.”  Taking this one step further, she cites Daniel Goleman, who has done landmark research in the area of emotional intelligence.  According to Goleman and Richard Boyatzis (Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 1 Sept 2008):

Mirror neurons have particular importance in organisations, because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds.

Here’s an example of what does work. It turns out that there’s a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return. A boss who is self-controlled and humourless will rarely engage those neurons in his team member, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons at work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process. A colleague of Daniel Goleman, Fabio Sala, found that top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often , on average, as did mid performing leaders. Being in a good mood, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively.

In other words, laughter is a serious business.

As you start this new work week, consider if your leadership style is depressing your team and its success.  Perhaps it’s time for you to lighten up and create an environment that enhances both productivity and personal satisfaction.

[Photo Credit:  Allie Wojtaszek]


A Clean Sheet of Paper

The Harvard Business School recently held an executive education session on the global economic crisis.  Amid all the depressing news and analysis came the advice of Professor Robert Steven Kaplan regarding three practical steps business leaders can take now to move things forward in a positive direction:

Overcommunicate – Be visible, be vocal.  Remind all your colleagues what’s great about your organization and help them understand how they can help the organization.

Do the “Clean Sheet of Paper” Exercise – Starting with a blank piece of paper, ask yourself:  “How you would redesign the business if you were starting from scratch?”

Stay Calm – the leader sets the tone at the top and must model constructive behavior.  A leader who is freaked out or entirely focused on finger-pointing cannot effectively lead an organization through this crisis.  You can do better, and your organization deserves better.

While all of this is great advice at any time in the life of an organization, the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise seems particularly compelling given the carnage around us.  When things are going well, it’s hard to step off the hamster wheel long enough to imagine a different approach.  And, you hate to mess with anything that seems to be working.  Under current circumstances, however, nearly every organization has to think hard about what it could do to improve its situation.

If you’re going to tackle the “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise, I’d highly recommend that you adopt some of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry.  Rather than focusing on what doesn’t seem to be working, focus on your organization’s strengths.  Ask yourself, what are we doing right?  How can we do more of that?  How can we do it better?  Then, look at your mission.  Is it the right mission for your organization?  Does it line up with your organization’s core strengths?  Are your colleagues and their activities aligned with that mission?  Is all of this supported by your organizational culture?

In the midst of all this upheaval is a golden opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to create something new.  The “Clean Sheet of Paper” exercise is just a tool to help you get started.  Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

[Photo credit:  liquidx]


How Leadership Makes a Difference

If you’ve got a generous budget and an appropriately-sized, energetic, motivated and productive staff, you can stop reading now. Clearly you’ve got more assets than most knowledge managers and must, as a result, be achieving great things in the world of knowledge management. If, however, you aren’t so fortunate, you might want to read further.

In this political season (or as one of the presidential candidates called it, this “silly season“), there’s a lot of talk about leadership. Unsurprisingly, much of that discussion is superficial. When you look back at some great leaders in this country, you realize that some of the talents they brought to the table are innate and simply cannot be purchased or developed. For example, George Washington was universally known as a great leader and, undoubtedly, that reputation was due to more than the mere fact that he was often the tallest man in the room. However, while having an imposing physical size was not sufficient, it certainly was helpful. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sort of asset that is hard to purchase or develop. A different kind of asset is the moral compass Abraham Lincoln had or the personal courage Theodore Roosevelt had. While they may have been flawed men in many ways, they also had enormous strengths that ultimately made a huge difference in how they led and what they accomplished for this country.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, it’s useful to put Franklin Roosevelt front and center in your mind. The manner in which he led involved methods that can be developed in adult life. Furthermore, we are learning now that some of these methods are critical to good leadership in modern enterprises. Here are a few of these methods for your consideration:

How you deliver the message matters as much as the message itself

In day to day leadership, one of the most critical things you do is communicate what’s important and how it is to be accomplished. What isn’t always understood is that the way you communicate matters as much as (if not more, sometimes, than) the message itself. Looking back at FDR, he was very careful in his public appearances to project vitality, strength and optimism. But this was not just for show. Most of us, after all, have fairly good personal radar for detecting insincerity. Rather, he was able to project these things successfully because he believed them himself, truly embodied them, and had great faith in his overriding purpose.

Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq. reports on a study that compared the results of communicating a positive performance review accompanied by negative body language (e.g., frowns, narrowed eyes, flat voice, etc.) with communicating a negative performance review accompanied by positive body language (e.g., smiles, nods, good eye contact, open hand gestures, etc.) What the study found is striking: people who received positive reviews delivered with negative body language felt worse about their performance than people who received negative reviews delivered with positive body language. The latter felt encouraged and capable of making improvements. This study puts a premium on intentionality and clarity in leadership. You need to be sure that you are coherent and consistent in what you say AND how you say it.

Leadership is about more than achieving personal acclaim

By the time he became president, FDR had already been governor of a great state and had all the benefits of having grown up in one of the country’s leading families. He really didn’t need to burnish his résumé. Unfortunately, too many business “leaders” are in it for the glory and not as many have a cause truly worth fighting for. FDR had several Herculean tasks, including bringing the country out of the Great Depression and curtailing fascism. Are you working for anything more than your ego and your résumé?

Leadership means developing the best in others

One of the hallmarks of FDR’s leadership was that he understood that historic times required historic efforts. To that end, he called on the people of the United States to give more than the they thought they could give and be more than they thought they could be. History tells us that they answered that call.

FDR clearly understood that at the end of the day, leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you serve and lead. We now know that there are also some compelling business reasons for focusing on them rather than on yourself. An exhaustive study at Bell Laboratories followed the career trajectories of engineers in an attempt to identify the traits of star performers and determine how to recruit and retain the best engineers. In his paper, “Are We Selling Results or Résumés?: The Underexplored Linkage between Human Resource Strategies and Firm-Specific Capital,” William D. Henderson reports that what they found was striking:

– researchers found no relationship between performance and various social, psychological, and cognitive abilities, such as I.Q
– higher productivity among knowledge workers was attributable to several distinctive work strategies that were teachable
– controlled experiments showed large and persistent productivity gains for engineers who completed the training program, with women and minority workers posting the largest increases [emphasis added]

What this suggests is that building a great team depends less on recruiting stars, and more on how you develop the people who work with you. A great leader will take the time and make the effort to ensure their team learns the “distinctive work strategies” for success that the researchers at Bell Labs found were “teachable.”

In knowledge management, as in politics or any other discipline, good leadership is a rare asset. Those of us who have it will be ahead of the pack. The good news is that even members of that pack can develop some of the attributes of good leadership. And, when they do, we’ll all be much better off.


True Leaders Value Mistakes

It’s a natural human tendency to run from failure. In our understandable need to avoid pain, we try to put it behind us and move on. (The more cynical would say, we sweep it under the carpet, shrug, and move on.) While I’d be the last one to recommend that we should wallow in misery, it is useful to remember from time to time that the main point of experience is to learn and grow. And, it is hard to learn and grow without a little reflection and analysis. Reflecting on your successes may give your ego a brief boost, but that in and of itself doesn’t always equip you for the next challenge. Reflecting on your mistakes can, if you’re careful about how you uncover, analyze and handle the information.

Nancy White at Full Circle Associates makes this point in her post, Learning from our mistakes, in which she reports on the remarkable after action review undertaken at Amazon after an embarrassing technical failure. What comes through her report is the integrity and decency inherent in the way Amazon handled what could have been an opportunity for upset, abuse and unhappiness in the hands of less skillful managers and a less mature organization. Their object wasn’t to find fault, but to learn. As Nancy White observes:

“Pulling our mistakes out and looking with them, alone and with the aid of colleagues, is a simple and effective learning practice. But it takes both a personal commitment to productively looking at our warts (rather than simple self-flagellation or guilt) and an organizational culture that values learning along with success. And we all know it… we learn more from our failures than our successes.”

I can’t stress enough the importance of leadership in this exercise. Every child knows how to deflect blame and finger point. That isn’t an effective after action review. That’s an exercise in avoiding responsibility. In Amazon’s case, the participants appear to have assumed responsibility and then taken the next vital step: they understood that this responsibility required them to learn from the event sufficiently to avoid repeating their mistakes. Very few of us do this without the right leadership. I don’t know who at Amazon led this effort, but I do commend them.

Leaders help us rise above our natural tendencies and move us along the path to doing the right thing for ourselves and for our organizations. However, this isn’t a isolated action. Well before the mistake occurs, a good leader will have put in place an organizational culture that emphasizes the importance of innovating, going out of our comfort zone, and taking reasonable risks. Above all, a good leader understands that innovation inevitably involves mistakes. A great leader knows how to use those mistakes to yield the maximum advantage (in terms of lessons learned and growth) for their team and their enterprise.

When you’re dealing with an organization that faces liability if it doesn’t reach the right result every time in a predictable, controlled fashion, mistakes take on an even greater importance. Consequently, there can be a tendency to sacrifice innovation and growth for predictability and control. In that environment, mistakes are barely tolerated and rarely encouraged. The problem is that an organization without mistakes is an organization without innovation and growth.

In our drive to avoid mistakes, we don’t always spend enough time learning how to react to mistakes in a manner that is productive. Therefore, when we do respond, it is often in an ad hoc way that doesn’t take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for growth presented by mistakes. The good news is that response patterns to mistakes are learned responses and can be improved — provided participants know they won’t become scapegoats or pariahs. Looking to cases like the Amazon after action review can provide some guidance on a better way to learn from mistakes, grow, and achieve greater success.