Colin Powell’s 4 Rules For Getting To The Point

Colin Powell's 4 Rules For Getting To The Point

Colin Powell: Lots of leadership lessons and tactics

In line with yesterday’s post about handling problems as a leader, I thought it appropriate to share how Colin Powell instructed his staff to bring him problems.  Being a retired four-star general in the United States Army, and having served as the 65th U.S. Secretary of State (under President George W. Bush) from 2001 to 2005, Mr. Powell definitely knows a thing or two about running organizations at scale and getting the best from those around you.

In his new book “It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership“, Colin shares some simple rules for getting to the point when raising a problem:

  • First, tell me what you know.  He advises asking your team to give you the facts of the situation, as objectively as possible.  He doesn’t want personal interpretation.  He’ll often probe to see how the facts were obtained to ensure that the data are as accurate as possible.
  • Second, tell me what you don’t know.  As important as communicating the known facts, Colin advises asking for clarity around what is unknown.  If you have the right people in the right positions, they’ll most likely realize what they don’t know.  Colin feels that getting people to articulate these things is as important as getting the facts.  The unknowns give way to follow-up actions to obtain that information (if possible).
  • Then, tell me what you think.  This is where the person is asked to add their interpretation of the data, provide insight based on experience, and/or anything else they think is relevant given the situation.  This is where he allows people to use the facts to build an argument, or offer an opinion.
  • And remember: Always distinguish one from the other.  Colin suggests that it is imperative to ensure that you are clear in asking that people provide you information and clearly distinguish which type of information they’re giving.  If they’re telling you what they think, don’t allow them to misconstrue that as a representation of the facts.

I think #4, while subtle, is brilliant and essential.  Especially when situations are stressful, I notice that people tend to add color to a situation by incorporating their personal perspectives, which in some cases is wrong or biased.  I know I do the same and wrestle with trying to keep these things separate in my own head; perhaps it is human nature to immediately draw conclusions (did I just jump to a conclusion there?).

What do you think of Colin Powell’s 4 Rules?  Do you think they are helpful in communicating information and getting to the point?

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How To Tell If You’re a Natural Leader

While problems come with being human, I have a theory that the number of problems you face is directly correlated with how you’re viewed as a leader.

Even if your title or rank don’t “officially” make you a leader, but you find that people come to you with problems, there’s a good chance you’re viewed as a natural leader.

I think solving problems is what leaders do.  It’s why they get paid the big bucks.  (I bet some of you are thinking, “I’ve got a buttload of problems, but no money!”)

So what?  If this theory is even remotely true, then the day you’re not solving problems (or up to your a** in fires) is probably the day you are no longer leading.

That’s the day you should be worried.  It means your people don’t think you can solve the problems they’re bringing your way, or you’re putting off signals that you don’t want to hear about them.

Or worse, they may think you don’t care.  Either way it means they’ve lost confidence in you and your status as a leader is in jeopardy.

It’s not easy hearing problem after problem, but it may come with the leadership territory.

What do you think of this theory?  Are the number of problems people bring you an indication of how you’re viewed as a leader?

What If You Gave Yourself Permission To Rest?

Like many of you, I’ve worked hard all my life. I expect those I work with to do the same.

As I’ve gotten older and the demands on my time have continued to increase, I actively ask myself whether (or not) I’m working on the right stuff.  Is what I’m doing right now going to make any difference?

Similarly, when asking others to do something, I try to ensure they are like-wise focused on things that matter.  I’d hate to contribute to someone else wasting portions of their life.

Another way to look at this is that I don’t like to generate make-work. Make-work is the crap we do that consumes our time, but doesn’t really move us forward. It may make us feel good, since we’re working and moving around, but it’s really unnecessary and doesn’t make a darn difference.

As the past 48 hours have once again reminded me, a complete life includes much (much) more than just work.  And certainly a lot more than make-work.

We need our families. We need time to rest. We need to cultivate outside interests and hobbies. We need time to learn something new. And we need the time and space to pursue these things. 

That’s why I believe it is important to cultivate a spirit and discipline of sabbath, both literally and figuratively.

Colin Powell puts it like this:

Don’t run if you can walk; don’t stand up if you can sit down; don’t sit down if you can lie down, and don’t stay awake if you can go to sleep.

Amen.

Where can you cultivate this spirit in your life?  What would happen if you gave yourself permission to rest?

Do You Measure Your We-We?

The next time you’re talking with someone in a position of authority or responsibility, try this: Count the number of times they say “we” or “us” — versus “me”, “my” or “I”.

For example, imagine you work at a company that makes gizmos. You’ve worked hard with a group of people to create the gizmo, and someone in a leadership position relates a story about meeting with a potential Client and says: “I want them to see the value of my product.

Oh really, it’s your product?

Or, are they more inclusive, and instead say something like: “We want to show them the value we can provide.

I would argue that in certain situations, leaders who use words that are inclusive (like “we” or “our”) resonate more strongly with the people around them than those who make things about themselves.

Personally, I am put off by a person who makes it all about them.  I’m sure this is much more about me and my issues than them and their words, but I often wonder how people would respond to their leaders if more inclusive words are used.  I’m sure there are studies that have looked at this.

So the next time you’re thinking about how to communicate to your team (or listening to someone in leadership), consider measuring your (or their) we-we factor (not wee-wee, come on kids!), and see if you notice any difference when inclusive words are used.

What do you think? Are you turned off by people who make things about themselves? Does it make any difference in how you feel?  Or, are people like me just too sensitive?

Attitude Check: Are You a Pig or Chicken?

Our chief software architect, Aref Memarian, recently shared “Essential Scrum” with me.  If you’re looking for a great review of scrum from someone who has obvious hands-on experience, I’d definitely recommend it.

While reviewing the various roles involved in agile development, the author describes two types of people: Pigs, and Chickens.  Imagine this scenario:

A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.  The Chicken says, “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”

Pig replies, “Well, perhaps, but what would we call it?”

The Chicken responds, “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”

The Pig thinks for a moment and says, “No thanks.  I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved!”

This analogy is based upon the Pig providing bacon, an act which requires total commitment to provide (i.e., death), in contrast to a Chicken who provides eggs — a task requiring participant but not his life.

In other words, in a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, the difference between a Pig and Chicken is that the Chicken is involved, but the Pig is fully committed!

In most organizations, you’ll probably need a combination of Pigs and Chickens involved on any particular project. You want your Pigs to be committed, which means they should have autonomy and freedom, in exchange for being held completely accountable and responsible for the project’s success. Your Chickens can provide input and support as required.

Now, what if you apply this concept beyond a particular project, and apply it to an organization as a whole?  For example:

  • If you’re a leader, what’s your mix of Pigs and Chickens?  Do you want more of one and less of another?  (And think: Which are you?)
  • If you’re in a non-leadership position, what’s your perspective? Are you a Pig, committed and accountable for your organization’s success, or a Chicken — involved, but only to a limit?

Is there anything wrong with being a Chicken?

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