Know Thyself… And Fill Up That Cup!

IMG_20131215_210140I was reading a very simple but spot on article on leadership this past weekend. In it, the author discusses some basic elements of leadership. One of the key elements really revolves around understanding oneself (Langhorne, 2013). How simple I thought. But, how true.

This is the well know old adage: know thyself. I think of a reference question I pose to individuals I am interviewing to assess potential new hires. I ask quite a few questions, but one in particular that strikes many as kind of unusual at first. I ask the interviewee if the applicant handles stress well. I then explain that my definition of stress is unique. It means to really understand self, one’s weaknesses and strengths, and to be able to own mistakes and manage one’s environment accordingly in a state of awareness around said understanding of self.  I usually get very honest answers when I ask this question because I think people pause and really think about it. You see, a person who knows himself and manages his environment around that can manage stress well. Explained another way, I think of the pep talks I have with my teenage son. He (like his mother) is naturally just a wee bit absent minded and forgetful. Head in the clouds. Conjuring up cool ideas (or perhaps new blog ideas!) while meanwhile forgetting about regular time and space, and things like deadlines and to do lists. I coach him to understand this personal management weakness and arrange systems (organizers, alarm reminders for appointments, etc) to manage himself. This is all about knowing thyself and setting self up for success by applying said knowledge.

Another part of knowing yourself as relates to being successful in the workplace is setting up a structure that keeps you in balance as a human being.  This means that you don’t let the corporate urgent crowd out what will make you a balanced and grounded person.  Again this is very simple stuff.  Certainly a person whose cup is empty cannot be prepared to overflow and serve and lead others.  Good leaders tend to their inner self first, and set up boundaries to protect the sacred things in their life.  This is certainly about knowing not only yourself but the human condition.  So carve out uninterrupted time for things like your faith activities, family, non-profit volunteer work or projects that are meaningful to you, and even just quiet time for self and refreshment. I guess this is not rocket science, but it’s so critical. You see, if your cup isn’t full, it cannot overflow to others. So, fill it up!


Langhorne, J (2013). Leadership and leading a meaningful life. Corridor Business Journal 10 (11), 18-21


The Top 24 Attributes


I just spent a portion of my weekend finishing up a final term paper for a class. Topic – leaders we love. The exercise proved intriguing and this was my favorite paper to write in recent years. My study included a look at a few past and present corporate and political leaders. As I studied these leaders I began to dissect the attributes I noted about them that made them the kind of leader that others follow and strive to emulate. I came up with my “Top Twenty-Four,” a list I intend to hang onto and hold myself accountable to follow. I love this list so much that I decided it’s worth a blog entry. So, here you go, the Top Twenty-Four from my recent research paper:

Leaders We Consider Worth Following …

  • Are accessible to employees
  • Possess a familiar and warm style of leadership
  • Get results!
  • Have absolute resolve in the face of adversity
  • Promote trust between people
  • Promote caring between people
  • Engage people
  • Are transformational
  • Inspire their audience
  • Are altruistic
  • Build people up
  • Can be trusted
  • Are honorable
  • Create a sense of fulfillment
  • Create a sense of fun
  • Are passionate
  • Create a cause worth fighting for
  • Display humility
  • Show wisdom & balance in response (the right thing at the right time)
  • Create a special culture
  • Are down to earth
  • Are approachable
  • Are real
  • Promote social responsibility


When You Lead, Do You Transact or Do You Transform?

starstwoI’ll start today’s blog out by saying most of us are transactional leaders. Perhaps the word leader doesn’t belong in that sentence, but, the point is not that word. The point is the word transaction. According to, the word transact means “to carry out or conduct” as in business or any other matter in life. It’s as simple as setting out to the store with a shopping list, and proceeding to shop, return home, and prepare a meal. A task at hand. A job to do. When a leader is a transactional leader, he or she may be a decent manager. Day to day tasks get done. Assignments are given to subordinates and business life carries on. When purely transactional, leaders are typically going to be a little bit controlling and expect subordinates to carry out activities without push back or opinion. The concept of buy in may be foreign, and if understood probably not embraced.

So, what do I mean when I speak of a transformational leader? Well, let’s consult again. In this definition we see things like “to change in form” and “to change in condition” and “metamorphose.” For the linear thinker this is weird stuff. For the run of the mill manager who has an action plan and daily tasks, this may even be frightening. Right off the bat let me say this. Transformational leaders are abstract thinkers. Linear thinkers cannot wrap their minds around this concept. This stuff is not for the wedding planners and accountants of the world. This stuff is not for people who like tidy arrangements and things according to plan. Rather, those who transform run to and embrace the chaos of life. They then begin to work their magic and mold and make the chaos take shape. They are closer to the artist Vincent Van Gogh who said “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.” They embrace the human condition and form it and so their world is rarely boring.

When we look at transformational leaders in life, the greats come to mind. Abe Lincoln. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Mother Teresa. And so forth. These are people who ignite passion in others.

So, what on earth does this have to do with business, or with human resources, you ask? Well this is where it gets fun. My favorite boss is a guy who in my interview laid it all out for me in our round two meeting. We were at Starbucks discussing terms of employment and he said, “Cari, have you ever read a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni?” To which I replied yes I had, and in fact Patrick was my favorite speaker at a recent SHRM conference (due to his high energy and humorous wit and brilliant ideas!). He then bluntly told me that’s what I was walking into and we had our work cut out for us. In any event, this boss of mine was a transformer. He was a truth teller. He invited me into the chaos and laid it out. You’ll work hard. You’ll challenge people. You’ll learn that HR is a little bit compliance and management and a whole lot of mess and working with people to help make them better over time. But if you follow me, you’re in for the adventure of your business life. And, really, this is field neutral. As long as you work with people it counts in sales, finance, nursing, engineering, accounting, and so on. If you work with people you will be helped if you learn to be a transformational leader. Follow me and we’ll have fun together doing this thing called work. Cool stuff.

So, let’s dive in a little further and turn to what the Organizational Psychologists of the world have to say about transformational leaders. Below are some attributes of transformational leaders (Hellriegel and Slocum, 2011):

  • Stimulates follower identification
  • Creates intellectual stimulation
  • Provides inspirational motivation
  • Fosters idealized influence

These are the folks who have faced the human nature within that is self protective and controlling. They have chosen to believe that by being something greater than transactional, they can be better. And so they tap into others to seek to do what they alone could never do. Tapping into others is what the list above is all about. It is about creating group identify and knowing your people. It is about stimulating and challenging people and drawing out their good. It is about making life, work, whatever, exciting. It is about taking all the different souls in the world and merging the group in a way for the better – where one person’s weakness is covered by the other person’s strength, and vice versa. United we stand as the saying going, and divided we fall. Transforming is about uniting.

Doing this, if I go back to my original proposition above, requires one to abandon the linear and transactional ways. Transformational leaders are complex thinkers and can wrap their understanding around the abstract. The emotional IQ of transformational leaders is quite high as the transformer is able to draw out strengths in others and inspire others to action. Note I did not use the word manipulate others. If you are interested in that, you cannot authentically transform. Transformers have good in mind.

This transformational type of leader is like the teacher, the general, the coach, the preacher or the president. They inspire others to act because people believe in them.

The thing about the above is it is all couched in relationship. This leader gets to truly understand his or her employees. He or she meets their needs, challenges and inspires and really creates a loyal following. They create identification and belonging. They challenge the mind and stretch people and for it we all feel better. They inspire – right up at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy chart! They draw on the differences to make the group stronger.

So the challenge for today is this. Look around and ask – what can I transform in my domain? How can I make life better? Happy abstract reasoning to you all on this great 4th of July holiday!


Hellriegel, D and Slocum, J. (2011). Organizational Behavior 13th Edition. South-Western College Pub Hardcover.

Have You Looked Back Recently To Make Sure They Are Following?

Nine box models. Four box models.  Forced ranking.  Up or out campaigns.  Mentoring and coaching.  Training and development.  Engagement surveys.  Action plans of every shape and size to retain talent.  Having led Human Resources in three different types of industries for thirteen years now I can say I’ve done them all. Well, maybe not every one of the nine boxes.  But close.  And  truth be told it is critical to have a solid succession plan. I’ve developed succession plans for executive management and line level roles.  And, it’s critical to have solid individual development plans with rich content for every single employee.  I’ve developed hourly wage housekeepers and corporate directors alike with clear cut programs combining LMS and coaching and kinesthetic hands on training.   Point being, tools matter.  Tools like strong performance management systems, content rich training programs, formal leadership development programs, a firm and communicated pay-for-performance culture, and all that goes into the HR formula are a must to have a shot at developing and retaining your human capital.

I would assert, however, that all of the above activities will be entirely in vain if one critical ingredient is missing.

No system to retain and develop talent, leading to strong performance output, will work without the right leader at the helm. Bad leaders corrupt good systems. I’ve seen engagement scores skyrocket on the heels of removing a bad leader.  I’ve seen productivity more than double when a superior leader was instituted.  In my profession I have the chance to interview individuals when they leave.  I think the number one reason I’ve seen people leave, other than a rock star job they just couldn’t decline, is that they didn’t respect the leadership.  Top reasons cited have been inauthentic ways, autocratic ways, hypocrisy, love of power and greed, punitive and not positive ways, control and micro management, poor communication, not caring and ignoring the staff, failure to coach and develop staff, failure to solve problems and remove bottlenecks, and simply lack of intelligence in leading the department/team in the right direction.

Conversely I’ve seen people flock to follow good leaders, leaving jobs to accompany the boss they like to a new corporate home.  I can think of one leader I know who merely has to post a job opening and suddenly employees from a prior company start popping out of the wood work.  Truth be told, if it weren’t for my deep roots in Chicago, I’d have followed my “work dad” who used to be a director over me but now as the CHRO over a small university is blessing many others.  Funny thing is that I only worked for him for four months.  I grew more in those four months than all my corporate years working. That’s because he led well and took keen interest in me and all those working for him.  He grew us with tough love.  But he grew us.

So, the message of today’s blog is pretty simple.  Pay attention to who is allowed to lead.  Take warning signs seriously when the followers stop following.  And, when you find a person with leadership talents, develop them.  I don’t care if it’s a new college grad that  is ten years away from that VP job.  If they have inspiration genes and a good mind, invest, invest, invest.

Check this out too.  It’s a Forbes article about the top seven things great leaders do, which range from igniting enthusiam in others to encouraging their potential.  It’s a simple list but a good one:

“Every leader needs to look back once in a while to make sure he has followers.” – Anonymous

“A leader is not an administrator who loves to run others, but someone who carries water for his people so that they can get on with their jobs.” — Robert Townsend

Management Breakthrough: Respect and Harmony

doveMy husband was out chatting with our neighbor the other day about some car issues we’ve been having with our newest vehicle.  He pondered how unusual it is that this vehicle is acting up while our older Honda vehicles with lots of miles on them keep plugging along, with hardly a hiccup on the maintenance Richter scale.  Our neighbor suggested this isn’t so odd.  He started talking about the way that Honda vehicles are made.  He said, in their factories, it’s a lot different from the standard American factory.  In their factories, the managers and the workers talk to each other.  They go out after work and discuss ways to improve and apply those changes at work.  They through this exchange of ideas, and working together, make a different kind of product.  That’s what we are seeing reflected in the performance of our cars.

This simple conversation got the wheels really spinning in my head.  How sad, I first thought, that my neighbor thinks so lowly of our American corporate way. I’ve been working in Corporate America for over fifteen years now and I am proud to be part of it.  But is there truth in some of the lessons he suggest we learn?  How is it that we’ve come to have such a “us and them” mentality between the leadership and the workers in America?  I think of a PBS documentary on Henry Ford I recently watched. The documentary recounted the rise and later decline of this great automobile manufacturing leader.  The rise included his absolutely world changing invention that led to the creation of automobiles accessible to the entire population.  The eventual decline, however, came on the heels of power and pride.  Henry hired a very militant and aggressive man to run his factories and there were horrible stories that followed about abuses and battles between worker and manager.  As the documentary puts it this regime ruled with “terror and fear.” Henry refused to listen to his son Edsel’s  council to broaden his mind to think beyond the “Model T Days” and to embrace new market demands. These power and pride based struggles were later in Mr. Ford’s life. Eventually, age and politics of the era led to him succumbing to the modern day and more progressive way to a certain extent.  All said, however, the story of the struggle is worth pondering.   If this great man, the author and inventor of the modern car, could succomb, couldn’t we all?  Perhaps the lesson to glean is that we should be intentionally on the watch out for letting bad practices seep into how we as leaders lead.

Now, back to my husband’s discourse with our neighbor. What my neighbor was reflecting on in fact is the Japanese methodology of Lean.  Toyota is probably the most famous auto manufacturer that is an emblem of this way of thinking.  Honda too has adopted similar approaches.  The philosophy at the core is one wrapped around the notion of having harmony in all things.  Harmony would propose that managers and workers can work together, without disputes and infighting.  All can, if their internal philosophy is aligned, work their hardest for the betterment of the entire organization.  The “us and them” mentality is a choice that does not have to be embraced. This leads to team wide brainstorming (in the lean world known as “Kaizen”), a culture of continous improvement and all hands on deck, and methods of order and excellence in all work standards.  Some people say that the measure of whether this system is working is to visit the bathrooms of the workers and the executives.  If both bathrooms are equally clean and equally nice, the system is likely in place.   This is because even the little things matter.  If I as your leader care about the environment where you go to use the bathroom facility, I probably care about other things too. If you as my employee care enough about the facility to keep it clean and orderly, you probably care about the overall well being of the company. Point being, boundaries are broken down and all work together, in harmony.

Automobile manufacturing aside, I think these stories and neighborhood conversation all speak to a simple human principle. Respect.  If you lead with care for all, intrigue for the opinions of all, and truly believe all are equal, you are likely to have more engaged teams.  Corporate powerhouses aside, I think this is at its core a very American tenet. All men and women are created equal.   Period.

So, keep yourself in check.  Don’t lead with power.  Lead with heart. Listen, engage and apply because multiple minds are always better than one. There is no team in one leader! There is a mighty team when hearts and minds, across the teams, are all engaged and marching in one common direction.

How to Turn a Problem into a Prize


The difference between a true leader and a misfit manager is this.  The former knows how to take a troubled producer and coach them up or out; nothing in between. The latter fears this confrontation and either lets the pseudo performer coast; or, if challenged in their leadership, they may quickly show the struggling employee the door.

Good leaders are good leaders because they can take talented but problem employees and quite often coach the employee to success.  The little “up or out” box on the four box grid is the bottom right.  This is the employee’s who has got potential but either has to attitudinally change, or leave.  Sometimes leave is the only option, and good leaders recognize when this sadly is the case.  Good leaders, however, more often than not can work to turn the ship around.  There are a few key steps I’ve seen that can lead to this success.

Speak the truth. Not too long ago I had a very, very tough phone conversation with my child’s basketball coach.  It went something like this.  “Ms. Desiderio, your son is not very social.  He’s not very athletic.  But he really has a big heart and I see leadership potential in him.”  My mind was so fixated on the first two statements that I didn’t linger very long on the latter until later in the conversation.  I didn’t know whether to hang up at the rude introduction the first two statements presented, or to stay on the phone and listen.  I chose to stay on.  After some time on the phone I decided that this coach was just the thing my son needed.  Fast forward a few weeks past that dialogue and this man is my son’s favorite coach. He’s also the toughest coach my son has ever had.  But still the favorite, and the best.  I believe that my son is in a place where he’s going to grow.  I believe my son’s weak points will be refined and improve, and his strengths nurtured and grown. What the coach did was be blunt with me about what he saw as the challenge.  But then he was very detailed and encouraging about what he saw as the potential, and the solutions.  He continued into the areas I mention below.  But it began with one critical ingredient in the coaching formula.  Truth.

It’s no different in the workplace. We need to be just as frank with our employees.  We can’t sit around and pretend the rainbow colored elephant doing cartwheels on our desk isn’t there.  It is.  Whether it’s hearing, “Cari, you talk over me and need to stop doing that.” Or, “Cari, you need to slow down and think things through more.” Or any other insult to my pride that a good coach told me.  They all stuck.  They all changed me. They all challenged me to step up and conquer my weaknesses.

Show them the way. If you stop at the above you leave a hurt puppy to sulk in the corner and, probably, fail.  You can’t just toss insults out there to dangle and walk away thinking this may invoke change.  No way.  Good leaders only introduce truth when it is followed next by offering up guidance and the right path.  I can think of various times I’ve sat with managers who had employees failing to perform.  We didn’t just say – start performing!  Rather, we said, you need to follow work instructions, partner with a person a step ahead, attend training, start showing up on time to get back proper attendance patterns, and so forth.  There was a formula.  There was a suggested path of rectifying the shortfall. This is showing the employee the way.

Have frequent touch points and hold them accountable. Taking things a step further, a good leader (who is in fact a good coach) needs follow up to insure follow through.  I’ve seen way too many managers let fear of confrontation and also just sheer laziness in follow-up create an environment that invites and nearly guarantee the employee’s failure.  If your employee is on a learning and behavior path to improvement, set targets, meet weekly, check how they are doing and hold them accountable.  Don’t expect change if communication and real management like this is not happening.

Care. This is probably the most critical part of the formula if you want to really see the drive from problem employee to prize employee happen. This is the secret sauce that gets intensive engagement.  The reason why my son has grown so fond of his coach is really simple.  He knows the coach is tough, super tough.  He knows the coach is going to work him hard and it won’t always be fun.  But, in my son’s own words, this coach really cares more than the other coaches.  Not that the other’s don’t care.  But this guy is special.  He’s led his teams to win state and compete nationally year after year.  He’s got alumni that come back to visit decades later.  He has bonds with the very boys he grilled out there on the court.  And, it’s the same for us as leaders.  If we lead with heart and really, truly, care, we can inspire greatness in others.  When a person feels cared for, a spark inside ignites.  This is the secret sauce of engagement and performance. Plain, simple, old fashioned interest and compassion for the hard working employees on our team.

So, step up and lead.

Then, step out of the way and let them shine!

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell