Series: Q&A Leaders On Leadership


Q&A (unedited) On Leadership

Charles Michael Austin, Ed.D. (“Dr. Chaz”)  is President at Dr. Charles Michael Austin.  He is a Career Mentor, College Professor & Curriculum Designer at various colleges and universities in Southern California.

How important in the roster of leadership qualities are attitude, habit and discipline? What weight would you assign them?

I assume discipline is present – in any professional. And certainly in a leader.
Habit can – and usually does – have a downside. As in, “that’s the way we do things around here.”
Attitude is the key. Are you open to new ideas? Can you make course corrections as needed? Can you give credit to a subordinate for something you didn’t think of? Can you get your own ego out of the way? We’ve probably all had bosses who’ve said to us, “My door is always open.” Going for the bait, we’ve gone in to pitch a new idea, only to leave the office like a flat tire because of the boss/leader’s needed to dominate.

What others, in your opinion, are coveted qualities of business leaders?

A.  The ability to shut up and listen.
B.  Making the people that report to you feel valued for their contributions.
C.  Being crystal clear about what you want – and by when you want it.
D.  Perspective. Except for hospital emergency rooms, no one is going to die if a deadline is missed. But so many leaders behave as if it’s always a life and death situation. It’s not. If you can lighten up, it goes a long way towards making those who report to you feel safe. People are more likely to take risks if they feel safe.
E.  Allowing people to fail. If you’ve hired good people and let them do their jobs, they will occasionally screw up. There is no need to berate them. You’re not their mom/dad and they’re not your “bad” child. They’ll learn from their mistakes and probably not repeat them.

Do you think there is finally equality between men and women in the work place?

No. Things have improved, but we need to be continually vigilant. Sometimes it feels like the Womens’ Movement never happened. Look at the ongoing popularity of “laddie magazines.” We’ve reverted to objectifying women, and that sort of attitude no doubt spills over into the workplace. As Erma Bombeck said, “We’ve got a generation now who were born with semi-equality. They don’t know how it was before, so they think, this isn’t too bad. We’re working. We have our attache cases and our three piece suits. I get very disgusted with the younger generation of women. We had a torch to pass, and they are just sitting there. They don’t realize it can be taken away. Things are going to have to get worse before they join in fighting the battle.”

When most companies are tightening their belts and employees are not shaking things up, how much does risk taking (challenging the corporate orthodoxy) play a part in your advice for executives seeking to stand out in a corporation?

My advice is: don’t. Companies say they want “outside the box” thinking, but in practice they don’t. You want to take risks, start your own company.

Brevity is becoming a communications fact of life. When is brevity not such a good idea?
When it replaces genuine communication. Human beings are inclined to avoid confrontation. A quick tweet or text or email helps us dodge the uncomfortable face-to-face meeting where bad news needs to be conveyed. I think one of the things that has helped make me successful is that confrontation is one of my hobbies. I’ve always found that being direct with people deepens relationships. Not direct as in “you’re bad and wrong, and here’s why,” which is verbal vomiting that disempowers people. I’m talking about collaborative communication whose context is “what worked/what didn’t.” That takes it away from the personal attack, shifting the focus to problem solving.

You are a specialist in career development. What are the differences between setting a career path in your twenties and in your forties or even fifties?

Presumably, by the time you’ve hit forty, you’ve gained some wisdom and developed some sense of what your talents are and where and how you can make a contribution to others. My clients and students who are in their twenties very seldom have a career path. They may have a passion (or so they think), and my advice to them is to get to work in some capacity in their field of choice to learn where and how they fit.

The meta-conversation, though, is that most people do things in their careers that they never would have imagined in their twenties; that career choices are usually unplanned accidents or matters of serendipity. If someone would have told me in my twenties that I’d hold a Doctorate in Education and (among other things) be a college professor, I would have told them that they were crazy and that that would never, never happen. You need to be open to the unexpected.

What is one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?

Ego. “I’m the boss. I know best.”

Your Ed.D. dissertation discusses the inherent value of career coursework in higher education. What is your summary finding on planning for a career when college is often a place to “find ourselves”?

That’s both the subject of my dissertation and my book (to be published later this year).
Having some career direction by the time you graduate is part of finding ourselves. Unless you’re a trust fund baby, you’ll need to make money after you graduate (if only to start paying off your student loans). There’s enormous pressure on college students (from their parents, usually) to find “the perfect job,” and so many students have no clue what that might be – or even what they want to do.  So, just get to work. If it’s not what you (think you) love, then at least have it be something you’d like to do. Get started. Meet people. Learn things. Trust that you’ll find your way – and eventually discover you passion(s). That’s plural because most people in their twenties can expect to have five or six careers. So even if you do find “the perfect job,” there will most likely be others during your lifetime.

What expectation is realistic when it comes to setting today’s career path?

Corporate loyalty is dead. Everyone is a freelancer, and their own brand. People need to be trained to determine, articulate and sell that brand – for as long as they work. The sooner they start doing that, the better their chances of continuing to find work that’s satisfying – both creatively and financially.

You’re Fired! By Text Message?


You're fired!

You're Fired! By Text?

Texting. The New Pink Slip?
Last week a friend of mine, let’s call her Sheila, had a small gig for a few days at a skin care salon. The business owner was looking desperately for someone to handle the phone and appointment book at the salon and Sheila was seeking full time employment.  It seemed like a marriage made in heaven.

Admittedly, front office work hasn’t been the focus of her career to date. Sheila, otherwise known as a “big idea” person, is heavy into strategy and business development. This salon job was a hyper-detail-multi-tasking balancing act a lot like the Chinese Jugglers on the Ed Sullivan Show back in the 1960’s. So, while the learning curve was fairly steep,  Sheila proceeded through the week thinking everyone wanted her to succeed after a long dry period of failure to find the “right person”. Ultimately, though, it didn’t work out and by the third day, Sheila would be asked to move along…for reasons we now refer to in the civilized world as “a bad fit”.  OK, well, these things happen.

Unfortunately, the surrounding details of this dismissal are the truly sad ones. As the story goes, at the end of the week, Sheila went to her boss, the business owner, and asked how the owner felt the few days went with Sheila at the front desk. She, herself, knew there were things to learn and some corrections to make. The boss confirmed that suspicion and added that these moments of uncertainty are part of a new job with a lot of moving parts. Seeking clarification, Sheila then asked the boss for specifics. Her job responsibilities, as first explained, were very different from what she was now told.  Leaving with this handful of helpful criticisms, Sheila expressed her appreciation for the feedback and promised to incorporate these changes from then on.

On her way home, Sheila suspected that there was more going on than may have been relayed by her boss. Her plans for the following week, made long before she knew she would be working from 10 to 7, Tuesday through Saturday, would have to be postponed or canceled. My friend was quick to text (the boss’s device of choice) her boss that this job was her most important priority.  She was prepared, she explained, to cancel these long-standing plans to show up as expected the following week.

What came back was a shock. “Don’t bother,” texted the boss. “I’ve already got someone to replace you.”

Sheila was dumbstruck. Sure, there were signs that adjustments were in order but “don’t come back,” was not what she expected. After all, isn’t it natural to take time to learn a new job? Even the boss, herself, proclaimed there was a lot to know and it all took time to learn. What was going on? Why? and Why by text message?

When I told this story to a  psychologist friend of mine, she explained the passive aggressive nature of the boss’s behavior. It turned out that money was missing from Sheila’s weekly check. When she caught it, the boss covered the omission telling Sheila that she hadn’t actually spent a full first day at the salon. Not true. Plus, Sheila’s salary was meant to be calculated weekly, not hourly. The way it was explained by my psychologist friend was that the boss was unsatisfied to a much greater extent than she was willing to say, so she shorted the paycheck instead.

Then, as the story goes, once the salon owner was asked for specifics, she simply dismissed Sheila. Apparently, something she couldn’t or wouldn’t do an hour earlier when Sheila was standing right in front of her.  Sheila was on borrowed time and would be replaced in a matter of days with someone new. True, she might have gotten a few more days pay out of the situation had Sheila said nothing, but that icky feeling everybody  knows something about you but YOU, isn’t conducive to a sense of comfort, let alone security, in any situation.

If You Are In A Similar Situation, What Can You do?
(1) Assume nothing and (2) preserve your integrity! The fact is that every boss is covering his or her own ass whether they are a business owner or not. We are all on probation and a need-to-know basis for at least two weeks (and sometimes even two months), unless the boss is your father, and even then…Regardless of the other person’s ineptness, you can still walk away knowing YOU did the next right thing. My psychologist friend advises that you want to leave every situation in a way that allows a future encounter to be civilized, at the very least. We never know when and how we may have to or want to see or speak to that person again. In a longer-term engagement that could end abruptly, we may still want a reference from the employer or business owner. We may have colleagues or friends in common who the story could get back to.

It’s important to be a lady or a gentleman no matter how off the hook bosses or anybody, for that matter, act. We, first and foremost, want to walk away from any situation with assurance that we handled it in the most civilized and courteous way. My psychologist friend suggested we go so far as to thank the boss for the time and energy he or she put into the test run. At first, this may sound outrageous but in life, lots of things seem ridiculous at first, but we’re glad we conducted ourselves with integrity when the new day dawns.

As for the text message element of this story, our human communications have, after all, been reduced to a tweet of 140 characters or less. Wedding announcements, births, deaths, divorces, child custody battles, TV show cancellations, even civil wars are now a matter of how many people are following you, not how honestly or well you handle yourself. So what do we expect when someone has bad news to deliver about a job? We are all hiding behind technology at this point. Either because we are multi-tasking and someone gets the short-shrift (remember the Seinfeld cell phone face off?) or we don’t feel like putting the time in to be cordial or politically correct. Or worst of all, we just don’t care anymore. What would The Donald say?

First in a Series: Q&A Leaders On Leadership 


Hank Fieger, President, HFA, Barcelona Spain

Hank Fieger, President of international management consulting, training and coaching firm, HFA, based in Barcelona, Spain, has worked with many Fortune 100 companies in over 20 countries. His expertise is in Behavioral Executive Coaching, Team Building, Executive Presentation Skills and Leadership Communication Skills. Using a model of open and honest communication, Hank combines his knowledge of business and psychology to help others embody “people management” skills in leadership roles. Hank’s first book, “Behavior Change…A View From The Inside Out”, a handbook on the art of change, is available on Amazon.

Q&A (unedited) On Leadership

If you had to name three characteristics of great leaders what would they be?

They have a clear vision for what’s possible.

They have the ability to communicate that vision to the hearts and minds of their followers.

They are in tune with what people are wanting.

As organizations get larger there’s often a tendency toward dampening inspiration. How do you encourage creative thinking within your or your clients’ organizations?

I encourage creative thinking by reconnecting people to their core values? By understanding what is most important to them, they begin to see what’s possible.

In order of importance or weight, what do you feel is most important: mission, vision or core values?

I think core values are most important, followed by a vision. The mission is the working statement that captures the values and the vision.

How do leaders ensure their organizations activities are aligned with their own core values?

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

What is corporate culture and how is it crafted?

Corporate culture is the unspoken, and sometimes spoken rules about how things are done here. It’s crafted usually from the key individuals at the top of the corporation.

What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

I think that every true leader has a bit of a revolutionary in them. Most people resist change, and yet what leaders need to do is to help people and organizations to change and adapt to what is needed in order to be sustainable.

What is one mistake you see leaders making more frequently than others?  In your opinion, is it different for women leaders?

The one mistake I see is that leaders sometimes make decisions that they think will keep them in the role and keep them having power. I think that women leaders also fall into this trap and sometimes to prove themselves in a “man’s game,” they may even try harder. They also revert back to managing the transactional day to day business, rather than staying focused on the big picture.

What advice would you give someone going into leadership position for the first time?

Is your advice different if that person is a woman?

Be true to yourself and to your values. It’s a privilege to be in a leadership role, so go for it. My advice for a woman is no different. Don’t give your true power away in the attempt to be more like a man, or to succeed in what you may believe to be a man’s world.

What is one behavior or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?

To sell out to what they believe people want from them, rather than being true to what is really needed.