Make each day the best day at work

My manager caught me in the hall, beaming. “Hey Alan, really great job on that training today. Let’s have you do more of that.” I smiled back, “sign me up!”

That was a long time ago and the first notably positive feedback I can remember getting from a boss. It was a big deal because immediately after college I had a hard time hitting my stride in my chosen field of HR, and rather than hearty praise I was often on the receiving end of a “critical feedback session.” It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort. I simply kept attempting jobs in which I could not thrive.

I got a boost when this manager, who was paying close attention, took a chance and asked me to help facilitate the new employee orientation. Suddenly I was reveling in the work and performing well. It was like sprinting out of quicksand.

For the first time, I was ending the workday feeling energized. As the years progressed and I advanced from facilitating employee orientation to creating leadership development programs the days kept getting better.

Looking back on that experience I see how my manager served as a source of inspiration for me to find my path. She was a great developer and leader. She drew an arrow sign over something I was good at, which ultimately evolved into a passion for training and, now, leadership coaching.

A central responsibility of a great leader is to help their team members do what they do best every day. Gallup knows from their research that, “people who focus on using their strengths are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs.”

And when teams are engaged they’re having their best days at work:

On those days, we are different: We are passionate, proactive, and productive. We are energized, efficient, and better able to deal with challenges that pop up without missing a step. We look forward to coming to work and have stronger relationships with coworkers and the people we serve.

Gallup’s research illustrates how engagement is good for business: “The greater the percentage of engaged employees and teams a company has, the more likely it is to meet and potentially exceed business goals.” 

So, how does a leader cultivate an environment where everyone gets to do their best work and feels engaged?

Not surprisingly, it involves the leader being engaged themself. As Gallup puts it, “When managers are categorically engaged, the teams they lead are 59% more likely to be engaged.”

This adds up to one big idea: If engaged teams are better for business if leaders who use their strengths are more engaged, and if engaged leaders inspire engaged teams, then leaders have a noble purpose to start using their talents on purpose. 

What stops leaders from fulfilling this purpose?

  • They haven’t discovered their strengths.
  • They know their strengths but aren’t deploying them.
  • They are distracted.  

What can leaders do?

  1. Find your talents. Take an assessment like CliftonStrengths by Gallup. Or carve out quiet time to self-reflect with questions like: What do I do well, without even thinking about it? What activities was I drawn to as a child? On my best days at work, what am I doing?
  2. Give your talents a job. If you think your current job isn’t a match for your abilities, invent ways to intentionally use your strengths at work or somewhere else. Get busy crafting the job you want.
  3. Get help. Distractions, in many forms, will always be present. Whatever that looks like, sometimes the best way around or through those obstacles is a coach.

My leader was engaged. Using her strengths as a developer of people she helped me harness my talents. Thanks to her, driven by a passionate purpose, I can be intentional about self-generating my best days at work. I hope my own engagement will pay-forward and inspire my team and the leaders I coach.

Aiming to always have a “best day at work” is truly aspirational thinking. But, when a leader activates their strengths on purpose it can lead to the kind of inspirational spark that lights everyone’s fire. And pretty soon it’s everyone’s best day at work. Every day.

Your Leadership Origin Story

comic-superhero-standing-silhouette_23-2147501843I love superheroes. Because, face it, they can do super-human things like leap tall buildings with a single bound, run faster than a speeding bullet, bend metal, sense danger from miles away, shoot laser beams from their eyes, fly, and the list goes on.

That’s just awesome!

But sometimes what’s even cooler than their superhuman skills is how they became superheroes in the first place.

My favorite part of the superhero story is the origin because it tells us who the hero was before he or she was super. It explains what inspired an ordinary person to become something extra-ordinary.

The superhero origin story makes me think about the real-life leaders and heroes who surround and inspire us to do extra-ordinary things every single day. These are our parents, teachers, coaches, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, pastors, athletes, government leaders, civil rights activists, and many others.

Ever wonder what first inspired them to step up and say “follow me?” If we did, imagine what we could learn from their origin stories.

And what about your own story? Have you ever thought back on that first time when you chose to lead? Why you did it? What inspired you? We all have a story. What’s yours?

For me, my story is pretty simple. But it reminds me of the basic lessons of leadership that I was taught at a young age. Also, it makes me smile because the first time I stepped up to lead was simply motivated by my selfish desire to have a little fun. And, boy, did I.

It was the sixth grade and I was taking a class on Texas History. My teacher assigned us a project to tell a story about the Battle of the Alamo. She said “be creative.” That was it. Those two words made up her singular instructions.

At that point in my childhood I had already decided I would be a movie director when I grew up. So, my teacher had just handed me a reason to make my very first movie. I was inspired.

The Alamo
Battle of the Alamo

First thing I did was hire my dad and his video camera for the weekend. Second, I scouted locations all around the neighborhood that I thought could authentically pass for “1836 Texas.” Then, with camera crew and locations at the ready, I cast my closest friends and together we scraped up every costume and prop we could find in our parents’ closets. Turns out I owned a coonskin cap, so it was decided I would play the part of Davy Crockett.

We spent the next weekend reenacting the famous Battle of the Alamo with the camera always rolling. We improvised the script as we went along, made the sounds of gunfire and cannons with our mouths, edited in the camera with the rewind and fast-forward buttons, and had an all around blast. When it was over we gathered on the carpet around my living room television set and watched our masterpiece unfold as we ate pizza and rolled on the floor laughing.

I look back on that experience fondly. Now, peering through adult eyes I can admit the final product was just terrible. But at the time we thought it was amazing. We were proud of what we created and the teacher appreciated it enough that I actually got an “A.”

A few months later we even did a follow-up film on the Texas Rangers with a cast double the size and a final product that was even worse than the first. Like a proper sequel, it was bigger and badder. But again, we loved it. We rallied around a common purpose and felt a passion for the work.

I never became a movie director, but that’s okay. My path took me in a different direction, but what I learned from that first leadership experience was how to set a vision, get others excited to join my project, and execute on an idea. It shaped me into the person that would continue to seek opportunities to lead and learn throughout the rest of my school years and now my career.

That’s my origin story. What’s yours?


Follow-Worthy Leaders Do This

Much has been written and talked about on the importance of leading others. But what about leading ourselves? Our ability to self-lead has clear links to our ability to lead others and ultimately achieve success in whatever endeavor we undertake – whether at the gym, on the court or field, at work, home, play or study.

As the age-old saying goes, sometimes we are our “own worst enemy.” This is because we forget to take care of ourselves in the daily grind to lead our teams and our organizations.

It seems obvious to say that if we don’t eat, drink, or breathe, we don’t live. But I introduce this idea to lead us to two more obvious points:

  1. If we don’t learn, we can’t grow.
  2. If we don’t grow, we can’t grow others.  

It was Marshall Goldsmith, popular leadership coach and author of What Got you Here Won’t Get You There, who said:

To help others develop, start with yourself.

I once heard John Maxwell, another popular leadership coach, author, and pastor offer this idea about the importance of taking care of ourselves:

If you’ve ever flown, you’ve heard a flight attendant say, ‘If you are traveling with children or seated next to someone who needs assistance, place the mask on yourself first, and then offer assistance.’

This is a simple metaphor for our lives reminding us that in order to help others we must first take care of ourselves. As I reflect on this idea, I find there are three things we must do:

  1. Eat well and exercise
    • Self-focus on the body. What we consume and how we exercise affects our health, which in turn impacts our ability to put forth our best every day. When we are called to lead, and tested to our very limits, we must be ready and able to endure. Being ready requires eating and drinking right, avoiding anything harmful, and routinely doing something physically active that keeps us moving. Successful leaders are healthy individuals. 
  2. Study and hone your craft
    • Self-focus on the mind. Whatever field or industry we select, we must build a strong foundation of knowledge and skills in order to compete. But if we want to do more than just compete – that is, win – and help others do the same, we must recognize that our expertise is only as sharp as the last time it was sharpened. Our responsibility is to never stop learning. We should set aside time weekly for purposeful self-improvement, whether through independent study, participating in experiences outside of our comfort zones, or actively learning from peers and mentors. Leaders who can learn are leaders who can teach.
  3. Reflect quietly
    • Self-focus on the spirit. Quiet reflection can take many forms: prayer, meditation, sleep, a conversation with a loved one, a walk in the park, and others. However we do it, the key is to pause and let the world around us settle. This allows us to regroup and settle ourselves. And it is in these quiet times when we can hear our inner-voices, see the impacts of our choices, and when clarity engulfs us and we suddenly feel able – once again – to take on the world. A leader who is lost can find their way in a mirror.

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour. ~ Old Zen adage

When I think back on situations when I was least effective as a leader I recognize those as times when I wasn’t taking care of myself. I know it is easy to lose self-focus in the hustle and bustle of daily life. I also know that’s a mistake.

The harsh reality is that, despite hierarchy and formal authority, people choose whether or not to follow someone. Therefore, in order to lead others, we must offer something worthy of following. And to be follow-worthy we take care of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. Doing so allows us to offer our very best while leading ourselves, and others, to success.