Friday, January 07, 2011

Conquering Fear & Self Doubt

In Walden, the great writer / philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In all my years on this planet, Thoreau’s observation stands as the most poignant and revealing naked truth about humanity.
Now, Thoreau had to live in an isolated log cabin by a pond for two years to get to that truth. But surprisingly, we’re only now, more than 150 years later, beginning to understand that his method of self-discovery hints at a fascinating way of understanding and ultimately conquering the fear that grips so many of us.
You see, whether you suffer from an irrational fear of public speaking, are plagued by enormous stress at work, live in mortal terror of screwing up or getting fired, or, more to the point, are a highly competent and accomplished professional who, deep inside, suffers from debilitating doubts and fears, there are three things you all have in common:
1.What goes on in your head is of your own creation and, while it’s not necessarily consistent with reality, it can have real, self-fulfilling consequences.
2.You create these “stories” because, at a level you’re not even consciously aware of, you believe that who you are, what you say, and what you do is far more consequential than it really is.
3.As Thoreau stated quite accurately, you’re not as alone as you think you are and, more importantly, there are techniques and therapy for dealing with this stuff that actually work.
What got me thinking about this - yet again - is an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal called Conquering Fear that discusses three types of cognitive-behavioral therapy, including a relatively new movement among psychologists and psychiatrists called “mindfulness.”
In the article, Steven C. Hayes, professor of psychology at the University of Nevada-Reno, captures the problem succinctly:
Most people are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. But the show we put on for others says “I’ve got it handled.” In reality, however, there’s a big difference between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside.
Left unresolved, this gap between self-image and reality can be self-reinforcing, meaning it can widen over time. Then, crises like death in the family, divorce, or job loss can act like triggers that lead to severe anxiety, panic, or depression.
Mindfulness, with which I actually have personal experience, emphasizes paying attention to the present moment and becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings without judging them. By facing your fears and self-doubt in this manner, you can see how overblown they are with respect to reality and, over time, they lose their emotional power.
Mindfulness requires commitment, time, and most of all, isolation from all the distractions that keep us from getting even a little beneath the surface of our conscious minds. That’s what mindfulness has in common with Thoreau’s method of self-discovery.
This is all well and good. But, unfortunately, most people aren’t even aware of the root causes of the issues they’ve been hopelessly trying to deal with their entire lives. They only know that they manifest as stress, anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, anger, phobias, depression, panic, or self-destructive behavior.
So, like it or not, the best place to start is to seek professional help. Hell, you go to the doctor when you’re sick. What can be more important than your mental health and well-being, right? A professional will help you peel this complex onion and determine the best course of therapy to help resolve your issues.
Bottom line: If you think you’re all alone, there’s no help for your suffering, or you can “handle” it, then I’m here to tell you that …
1.Thoreau was right and you’re wrong - we’re all in the same boat;
2.Denial and thinking you can and should deal with it alone are all symptomatic; and
3.You’re the only person who’s holding you back from conquering your fear, anxiety, and self-doubt because you’re the only person who can do something about it. So do it

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

When Leaders Sabotage Accountability

1.Executive compensation. I’ve seen hundreds of executive compensation structures and only a handful actually did a good job of rewarding behavior consistent with the company’s business goals and shareholder interests. In other words, the primary tool for driving accountability, well, doesn’t. It’s sad, really.
2.Strategy du jour. Besides spreading corporate-wide chaos, the biggest negative impact of strategy du jour - constant changes of direction based on limited data - is that there’s no way to hold anyone accountable because too many variables are changing at once.
3.Meeting ARs with no owners, dates, or next steps. It took a few decades but finally, most managers know to assign ARs (Action Required) at meetings. And yet, they haven’t learned that those ARs also need to have owners, dates for completion or next steps, etc. More often than not, there’s no follow up whatsoever.
4.Project metrics. Executives say they want accountability, but when it comes to coughing up a few bucks to measure the success of a project, more often than not, they baulk. Even if they do fund metrics, they’re often an afterthought, poorly executed, and nobody follows up.
5.Global or international operations. All-too-often, international operations are not held accountable for expense and revenue lines. When the numbers are good, everyone - including the regional execs and those with functional or business responsibility at corporate - claim responsibility. But when the numbers are in the tank, everyone points at the other guy. In reality, nobody’s accountable.
6.Matrix organizations. While matrix organizational structures have proven to be highly effective in big companies with broad product lines, accountability is still a huge challenge. Somehow, when you make two managers accountable for the same goal, even when they’re perfectly aligned, they can end up pointing fingers at each other.
7.Overlapping responsibilities. As I described in the intro, CEOs are often unwilling to clearly identify staff responsibilities, although I’m at a complete loss to understand why. Whether it’s revenue, P&L, market share, or even marketing, you’ll often get two executives claiming responsibility for the same function or metric and that makes accountability very tricky.
8.Dysfunctional board oversight. The reason why our government has three branches is to provide checks and balances. And even then, the system allows for a shocking lack of accountability. It’s the same in the corporate world. So when board directors rubberstamp everything put in front of them, that means no checks and balances and zero accountability.
9.Annual performance reviews. For mid-level managers, annual performance reviews often do more harm than good by sending mixed messages, reinforcing CYA behavior, or even downright promoting sugarcoating and BS.
10.Sacred cows and pet projects. There are plenty of ways to break every accountability model, but when all else fails, some execs will resort to the sacred cow, aka pet project. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, how it performs, or even if it performs at all, it’s invulnerable to all attempts at accountability.