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How Toastmasters Can Advance Your Career February 27, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership, Project Management.
1 comment so far

Sometimes it is difficult to find the next boost for your career. For a manager or project manager, Toastmasters is a great option. It provides opportunities to enhance oral communication, quick thinking, leadership, and evaluation skills. Skills which prove critical in every leadership profession.

Thanks to Kyle Nishioka @http://www.flickr.com/photos/madmarv/

Thanks to Kyle Nishioka @http://www.flickr.com/photos/madmarv/

The Toastmaster program is not well understood by the general public. Some see it as an elite group of speakers. Some see it as a place to learn to speak. While both of these statements are true, it misses the part of what Toastmasters is.

Toastmasters started as an organization dedicated to helping young men learn to speak publicly. Over time it also grew to develop general professional and leadership skills. The program is well structured to help an individual gradually become comfortable and proficient in at least 4 priceless skill sets:

  • Oral Communication

Communication is ultimately the key in most jobs. Poor communication results in increased costs, lost customers, and perhaps even on the job accidents. With the advent of the electronic revolution, more and more, we are relying on written communication. But written communication has many disadvantages. It is relatively slow. It hides para-verbal queues that humans have developed to help understand intent and meaning. It is difficult to achieve the emotional impact to drive change or get people excited.

Where written communication fails, oral communication excels. It’s rapid. When oral communication is occurring, upwards of 90% of what is being communicated is in para-verbal or non-verbal tones and actions. Emotion can be heard and easily absorbed by the listener.

Despite the advantages, most people have a dire fear of speaking publicly. When people do speak, they are often under trained and provide weak or less effective presentations. In the finance and software worlds, with a few notable exceptions (i.e. Steve Jobs) we often see presentation at its worst.

Toastmasters is a chance to gradually improve your speaking. Initially, they ask you to speak about yourself. Then they incrementally teach you about speech organization, speech writing, using the right words, physical motions, voice, research, visual aids, persuasion techniques, and inspirational speaking. Each skill builds on the previous skills. All the while you will learn to be succinct. Unlike many of the rambling presentations you may hear today, time is critical in Toastmasters. This is just in the first level of speaking, the Competent Communicator. Most people take about a year to two years to complete this program. The 10 speeches step you through each critical concept.

Once you’ve mastered the competent communicator, Toastmasters has numerous advanced programs to help you hone your craft such as technical presentations, speeches by management, or public relations.

  • Quick Thinking

Most Toastmasters meetings will have a “Table Topics” section. Table Topics is impromptu… preparing you for those occasional but unavoidable conversations where your opinion is sought on a moments notice. What will you say? Will you say it well and with conviction? Your opinion counts and you should be able to communicate it in a way that makes a difference.

The key here is practice. By occasionally getting up and talking for 1 to 2 minutes on a topic presented to you without preperation, you develop the skill of verbal agility, an understanding of how to speak “off the cuff” with conviction. Perhaps more important, you develop confidence. Verbal agility is a key skill in interviews, “elevator speeches”, and social banter.

  • Leadership

The second “track” in Toastmasters was a surprise to me. I believe it is also a surprise to many first timers. This program is known as the Competent Leader. It is designed to help people develop leadership skills including organization, mentoring, delegation, running a meeting, keeping meetings on time, and process improvement.

The Competent Leader (or CL) track is focused around the meetings themselves which are difficult to describe unless you’ve been to one. In each meeting, members take on a role such as the “Toastmaster” who acts both as meeting organizer and MC. These roles teach the members important skills, requiring them to be cognizant of time, or prepare certain parts of the meeting.

One of the stops on the CL track requires you to help organize a special event. Another item, as you gain more experience, allows you to mentor a new member. As with the Competent Communicator, each goal is described in detail to help you specifically focus on what you are trying to develop.

Finally, once you complete your CL, there are advanced leadership programs which focus on developing your skills in broader environments and helping the club succeed. Becoming a club, or higher level officer is encouraged. I once read that the best way to develop leadership skills is to lead a volunteer organization. I think this is true, but mostly because it strips away the lie that work isn’t a volunteer organization. Ultimately, all organizations are volunteer organizations, it is just sometimes people at work leave mentally or spiritually instead of physically.

  • Evaluation

Toastmasters is about improving yourself, so we evaluate everything. How did a speech go? How did the meeting go? How is the club doing? This might sound intimidating, but Toastmasters has developed the art of gentle evaluation to a science. Concepts like the “Toastmaster Sandwich” (wrapping areas of improvement with positives on either side) help keep things light. Ultimately all this evaluation results in 2 things: 1. You become a better speaker and leader. 2. You become an excellent evaluator.

In corporate America, I would personally say that evaluations range between mediocre and poor. Developing evaluation skills and providing helpful evaluation can enhance your relationship with your employees and your boss. Perhaps equally important, evaluation done right can make change happen.

If you want to enhance your career, toastmasters is an excellent option. If nothing else, stop in and watch a meeting, it’s entertaining, and will surprise you. Toastmasters love visitors.

Let me know what you think about toastmasters.

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How to escape the Dilbert Zone February 19, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Leadership, Project Management.
1 comment so far

When someone attempts to apply a good idea into the vast reaches of a large corporation, strange pockets of policy tend to emerge. The Dilbert comics are largely about these misfit policies. Try as we might, none of us is immune to this effect. What do you do when you find yourself in the “Dilbert Zone”?

Dilbert Zone

As my leaders and I tried to apply a new corporate policy to our organization, one of them remarked, “I feel like I’m in a Dilbert comic.” The problem was the policy we were trying to implement had been corporately mandated, but it just didn’t fit our group well.

When you discover that you are in the “Dilbert Zone” I see five possible options:

1. Fight the Power

Refuse to follow the policy or ignore it.
This technique can work in some circumstances. If you have a powerful executive on your side who either disagrees with the policy or is willing to fight it for you, you have a shot. If the executive leadership doesn’t care about the policy, there may be no teeth in it. If you personally are willing to spend massive political capital, you might stave it off.
I don’t recommend this approach. All three situations have weaknesses: your friendly executive leaves or is fired; the executive leadership changes their mind and decides they do care; a single person with more influence than you decides to put their two cents in. The only gain in this approach is slowing the policy’s advance. Short of policy change, you will have to fight this battle over and over again till you lose or become CEO.
I took this stance for a time on a financial policy I felt had questionable ethics. I fought the battle a half dozen times before I was given a clear explanation of the corporate decision by those who were in a better position to understand it.

2. Sneak around the Power

Pretend to follow the policy, but don’t. Do the minimal.
Sometimes this is an approach to take, but only when you can maintain your integrity. Some policies are written with large holes in them intentionally, so that those parts of the organization which should slip through the cracks do. Be careful here though, you are putting your integrity on the line. If there is any ethical question, it’s not worth it. Leaders and project managers can only be effective if they are trustworthy. I wouldn’t generally recommend this approach except in special cases.
I have used this as well. For years our organization had a very strict “use it or lose it” policy on days off. This created problems for employees who were prevented from taking days off due to corporate needs. We “worked around” the policy by allowing employees to keep a couple days off the books to be used early the next year, if company needs prevented them from taking their time.

3. Bow to the Power

Don’t ask me why, just do it!
Sometimes you just don’t have an option. . The problem with this approach is that the manager comes off looking either stupid or powerless. It tends to have a temporary negative impact on employee or team morale. The advantage of this approach is it is often where we end up anyway. The team can confront the emotional impact and move past it.
I’ve used this several times. The problem is that Dilbert Zone policies tend to have a cumulative effect, slowly desensitizing the employee to what is worthwhile. I have seen organizations where the project managers have been so tied up in mindless red tape that their ability to actually shepherd  projects successfully was deadened. Even after the red tape was removed, the PMs retained their lack of project focus.

4. Attempt a Compromise with the Power

If you have access to the decision maker who required the policy or the person who is implementing the policy, you may be able to find an agreeable compromise.
This can be a great solution. Often the difference between good policy and bad is in the implementation. The problem is, of course, that if the contact you have changes, or changes their mind, you may find yourself right back where you started.
A good example of this was a recent EPMO Audit we went through. In our audits, project documents  are generally deposited in a sub folder labeled for the stage of the project. (Initiating, Planning, ect…) We talked to the EPMO because for our smallest projects we only had 4 documents required. They went into 3 different folders. The folder structure which helps auditors find a document when they are looking through dozens of docs, was excessive in our case. Our compromise here was a single folder, where all 4 docs would go.

5. Find a way to make the policy benefit your group

I think this is the best option. The corporation’s job is  not to make policy fit into your projects. In a way, they don’t care about your projects. They don’t know enough or have the right perspective to make the policy help you. Generally the policies have broad goals such as consistency or quality. It is up to us as managers and project managers to find ways to make corporate policy benefit us.
I have 2 examples. In the first example, the organization had essentially Bowed to the Power. Policy was treated as check boxes required to get to the other end of projects. Executives saw EMPO policy as an annoyance and regarded project managers primarily as those who kept that annoyance away. What we did was find ways to have EPMO policy benefit the projects, the project managers, and the executives. This helped morale and made the policies something more than they were.
The second example is with the organization I lead now. EPMO has delivered more requirements. We have so far leveraged this change into giving us greater visibility into activities across the base. We are hoping to find ways to leverage the new documents to improve our customer facing activities and leadership visibility. That is much better than another useless requirement.
What do you think is the best way to deal with the Dilbert Zone?

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How to Manage the Zombie Apocalypse February 11, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Leadership, Project Management.
1 comment so far

I’ve always said that Project Management can be applied to nearly any problem. What about something unique, say the zombie apocalypse.

Thanks to Britt Selvitelle@http://www.flickr.com/photos/bs/

Thanks to Britt Selvitelle
@http://www.flickr.com/photos/bs/

No, I am not decrying the evils of TV and what it does to your brain. I am asking you to prepare for the inevitable. Whether it comes from a mad cow like bacterial infection, or some strange umbrella corporation experiment, or even aliens, it is coming. Don’t believe me? Did you know that the CDC has a site dedicated to zombie apocalypse preparedness? Whether you believe or not it, is a very interesting project management problem. How do you put together a project to maximize your chances of survival in the case of the end of the world.

As project managers, we seem to be at a strong disadvantage for survival in Zombieland. Project Managers are not (most of us) Navy Seals or survival experts. What we are, however, are trained, expert strategists who specialize in moving people safely through change. What could be a bigger change than the walking dead in the streets. We just need to approach this as a standard project with ramp up time, execution, and closing.

1. Scope
Like any project we need to understand the scope. Is survival the goal? How long will we need to survive? Is it part of our plan to try to rebuild society?

Let’s say that our goal is to survive 3-4 years. This should be enough time for defacto governments of at least a feudal type to reemerge. We also should consider that members of our team need to have sufficient skills to be highly valued in that society.

2. Tasks

Now that we have our target, probably our second most critical question is what sub tasks need to occur to achieve the goal. Essentially this is our work breakdown structure or task list. Here are some ideas:

  • During ramp up get healthy. 
    Medical services will be defunct during a zombie invasion and may not recover for decades or centuries after the zombies are gone. Get your team as healthy as possible pre-event. If possible also develop high levels of cardio and strength fitness to better cope with the strain of the collapse itself. After all the old adage applies, I don’t have to outrun the zombie, I just have to outrun you. (See rule number 1.)
  • Secure Physical Resources during ramp up.
    Stockpile some food, weapons, and medical supplies. Batteries, gas supplies, and other power sources can be critical as well. Water is a must. You can’t go overboard here because you don’t know the commencement date of the disaster and do not have infinite money. Do so quietly as you don’t want it widely known that you have supplies when everyone else is scavenging.
  • Secure personnel resources.
    Pick a team that you can trust. Ideally the team would have diverse skills: medical, combat, logistics, cooking, engineering, and sanitation. The team has to be small enough to feed for an extended length of time but large enough to provide some degree of security.
  • Secure knowledge resources.
    Books on mechanics, first aid, weapon maintenance, gardening/farming, chemistry, and other documentable skills could be useful during and post collapse.

3. Create a Plan
Put it all together. Who are the resources? What are they to do pre-rampup, during the collapse, and post collapse. Document it, print it, and put it somewhere safe. Post z-day there is likely to be no electricity to pull that document off your laptop.

4. Train/Prepare your resources
In any project, other than creating the plan, I think this is most important. Given decent moral and a good plan, resources generally perform as well as they are trained. Look at your skills and close gaps with training. First Aid and basic boy-scouting skills are invaluable. Combat and hunting skills will keep you alive and fed. Every resources needs to know how to handle a firearm. I’m sure you can think of other things. Remember, as project mangers, our skills will not suffice to DO the project work. We need to augment them to make us effective (and survive).

5. Execute the plan.
When the collapse occurs it will need to be recognized and reacted to. Will you hole up in your home? Travel to some secure location?

Have a first, second and third preferred options. Plan the work, then work the plan. This gives you the opportunity to focus on flexibility in the moment, not planning.

6. Closing the plan
What’s your endgame? Sustainable living somewhere? Joining up with a large enough local government that recovery is possible? Have a target in mind. You may have to adjust this as things play out, but having a target will help you make quick decisions.

Project Management can be used to help manage any change, even the end of the world. The key is thoughtfulness and preparation followed by strong leadership.

What have I’ve missed that you would do to execute this most important of all projects?

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