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Best Practices of Successful Managers and Leaders

By Dr. Alan Zimmerman

Good leaders grow ideas rather than cut them down. They think of ideas as raw material rather than finished products.

When you ask someone about his job and how much experience he has, more often than not he'll tell you how many years he's been at the company. But that's NOT the question you asked.

Some people have been at a job for 24 years, but they only have 1 year of experience. They never LEARNED anything or gained any new experience after their first year on the job. What a pity!

It's kind of like asking when so-and-so died. You're told that she died on July 2nd, and she was buried on July 6th. Again, that's NOT the question you asked. July 2nd is when her body fell over, but in some cases the person "died" fifteen years before that. She never LEARNED anything or gained any new experience after a certain point in her life.

To stay fully ALIVE on and off the job, you've got to be in a continual state of LEARNING. That's why I wish people would add a section to the Christmas letters they send out each year. As much as I enjoy receiving them and reading them, I've noticed that most of the letters focus on what people have done or where they have gone in the previous year. Only a few of them ever talk about what they LEARNED in the previous year.

If you want to keep on learning, I highly recommend keeping a journal. Write down the things you learn in your personal life, or chances are you'll forget them and have to learn the lessons all over again.

If you want to keep on learning in your professional life, ask highly successful people the most important things they've learned in their careers. It's an easy way to fast track your own success.

So what did you learn in the last twelve months? Or the last twelve years? Or over the course of your entire lifetime? Maybe it's time to write them down.

One researcher did that a while ago, asking a variety of people in a variety of age groups what they had learned. Their answers ranged from the amusing to the deeply insightful. They included the following:

Again, it would be well worth your time to identify the things you've learned in your life and write them down. Re-read your journal once in a while and reflect on your learnings.

But on the professional side, when I asked highly successful managers and leaders to share some of the most important things they had learned over the course of their careers, not one of them mentioned a particular leadership model or an academic theory. They mentioned extremely simple, practical things. Again, it would be well worth your time to apply their learnings to your career. This is what they told me.

1. Pitch in. In other words, don't ever think that a particular task is beneath you. Don't ever think you are above anything what needs to be done. Be an example and pitch in -- especially if the job is one that nobody wants to do.

As writer Ken Kesey (1935-2001) put it, "You don't lead by pointing a finger and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case." You go to that place and pitch in. You lead by example.

Get out of your office. Mingle with your people. And work with your people. As retired nonprofit industry executive Phil Coltoff observed, "You have to get out there and get your face known, because only then will your staff and clients trust that you are doing everything you can to help them."

2. Ask for help. If you think you're in over your head, you probably are. So don't be afraid to ask for help before your situation gets out of hand. Most people enjoy giving a hand, and most people will become your friend and ally in the process.

3. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know" or "I was wrong." If you don't know the answer, don't try to bluff it. Instead, take Brian Amato's approach. As one of my "Tuesday Tip" subscribers, he said, "I may not have the answer, but I'll find it. I may not have the time, but I'll make it."

Likewise, if you make a mistake, apologize. If you're at fault, take the blame. Just tell the truth. As a wise person once said, "If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything."

Interesting enough, the least successful managers and leaders ... those who are the most insecure ... are the ones who have a hard time saying "I don't know" or "I was wrong." If that sounds a bit like you, remember what R.H. Grant had to say, "When you hire people who are smarter than you are, you prove you are smarter than they are."

On the reverse side...

4. Don't gloat when you're right. People never want to hear you say "I told you so." When you're right, you have the right to feel good inside, but you don't have the right to shame somebody else.

5. Share the credit. Great managers and leaders ... indeed, winners in general ... are much more inspiring and much more effective when they spread the credit around ... rather than take all the credit themselves. I never met anyone who said they left a company because they were recognized too much.

The least effective managers mistakenly think they have to portray an image as to how great and wonderful they are. But they're wrong. That only turns people off. As Merry Browne noted, "You know you're old when you've lost all your marvels." And I would add, you know you're wise when you learn it's not all about me, me, me, and my marvel-ous performance. You're wise when you realize that just about every one of your successes had the input of other people ... and you share the credit with those people whenever possible.

6. Keep your salary to yourself. Mentioning your salary is a no-win proposition. Most of the folks who hear you talk it about will either be jealous (because they make less) or feel superior (because they make more.) And neither one of those feelings ever helped build a team.

Besides that, effective leadership has more to do with how you spend your time and energy than the amount of money you make. As artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) said, "Living is more a question of what one spends than what one makes."

7. Don't let it show when you don't like someone. You never know where you're going to be in your career in five months or five years. So don't ever say something or do anything you might later regret. Don't burn your bridges or offend others if you hope to move ahead.

Keep your negative feelings and desires for revenge to yourself. Don't act like the elegantly dressed lady on the airplane who was wearing the largest, most stunning diamond her seat mate had ever seen. So the businessman asked her about it.

She said, "This is the Klopman diamond. It is beautiful, but there is a terrible curse that goes with it."

"What's the curse," the man asked.

"Mr. Klopman," she replied.

If you don't like someone at work, don't let it show. And if you don't like his or her ideas, don't immediately try to chop them down. Great managers and leaders grow ideas rather than cut them down. They think of ideas as raw material rather than finished products.

8. Refrain from gossip. The corporate adage rings true: When someone gossips, two careers are hurt -- the person being talked about and the person doing the talking.

And if someone wants to share gossip with you, do one of two things: 1) ask him if the other person has given him permission to share what he is about to share, or 2) politely say you're not interested.

9. Let it go. Life is not always fair. And you don't always get what you deserve. You may not have been given the project you wanted. You may have been passed over for the promotion you worked so hard to get.

There's not much you can do about that. So be gracious and diplomatic ... and move on. Harboring a grudge will never help you advance your career.

Finally, when I asked the very best managers and leaders the most important things they had learned, they said...

10. Help others succeed. They knew the difference between success and significance. They knew that success was all about their own personal victories, but significance was all about helping others experience more success. And the very best managers and leaders were more focused on significance than success.

Pericles, the 5th century BC statesman and military leader, knew that. He said, "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."

Arthur Ashe, who was ranked the #1 tennis player in the world in 1975, knew that. After he broke the racial barrier in the sport of tennis and after he achieved world renown in that sport, he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. He went on to become a spokesman for AIDS awareness, noting, "True heroism is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

And more recently, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, commented on that. He said, "My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better."

I'll never forget one of my audience members who said, "Managing tasks didn't give me an ulcer; managing people did." Well, the good news is ... you can apply these 10 learnings to yourself and your career and avoid the ulcer that manager got.

Action: Rank order these 10 learnings from 1 to 10. Give a "1" to the item you most need to apply to yourself and your managerial skills. Give a "10" to the lesson you least need to apply. Start to do something about items 1 through 5 as soon as possible.

As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success, Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site for more information.

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