Monthly Archives: November 2011

Mandela’s 7th rule and “thinking gray”

Recently I wrote a blog entry about a Time article that outlined 8 lessons on leadership from Nelson Mandela.  Besides the 3rd lesson, “Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front,” another key lesson was his 7th, “Nothing is black or white.”  The author astutely explains, “life is never either/or.”  He continued, “Mandela is comfortable with contradiction… Every problem has many causes.” There is rarely one cause to a problem and only one way to look at things.

This reminds me of a principle that Steven Samples, former President of University of Southern California, in his book “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.” Samples coins a mantra he calls, thinking gray.  To summarize, he professes that people spend a great deal of energy classifying things and determining their opinion on various matters, figuring out what the “right” answer is in their mind.  What is your favorite color? How do you feel about abortion? What is the best way to complete a certain task? Endless questions… As Samples states, there is no need to come up with all of these opinions until it is absolutely necessary. This can (1) free up energy to do other things and (2) keeps you more open to different possibilities.

Tying this in to Mandela’s leadership principle, you don’t have to rush into simplifying decisions and classify something as the one root cause.  A problem, like almost any decision is “not as straightforward as it appears.” All this said, we are forced at different times (in our careers and otherwise) to determine the cause of problems. But we must remember that it is important to remember that there are often numerous (and conflicting) answers to the question at hand. When we view things this way, we are less likely to alienate someone and make them feel like they are wrong. On the contrary, when there are multiple people with multiple ideas on the cause to a problem there is a possibility everyone is right. Recognizing this expands the pie and brings the group together.

So be like Mandela, be comfortable with ambiguity, complexity and contradiction. Be open to the fact that there may be more than one answer. In return you will be a better leader, and will most likely have more people that will follow.

Mr. Biz, OUT.

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The 9 Rules of Improv That Will Help Your Career

Most of us have heard of (if not seen) improvisational acting before.  While many would just consider it a theatrical art, its rules and techniques have a much broader application.  It may not always be theatrical, but it is definitely an art.

The following 10 rules, when properly used, can help give your career the edge it needs to get to the next level:

  1. Say “Yes, And…”: This is typical the first rule of improvisation. Saying yes to something someone in your work team wants to do (even when you don’t 100% love the idea)  builds trust and support.  The “And” is where you can add your input and leave your mark on the project.  Doing both together builds group cohesion and gets others to buy-in to your ideas later
  2. You can look good if your make your partner look good: In a scene, the better you make your partner look, highlighting the their skills, but better the scene will go.  The same is true in business. The better a team project is, the better the whole team is going to look.
  3. Tell a Story: It’s a fact that everyone loves storytelling in some shape or form. It helps ideas stick and before written language was the original way to pass along lessons and history.  When you are communicating an idea, tell a story, relate it to your audience and the message will stick.
  4. Make the Active Choice: Your career is about “doing” not “talking” or “planning.” Audiences inside and outside of work are drawn to doers.  Even if you are not successful 100% of the time, taking more action will ultimately lead to more positive results than staying stagnant
  5. Everyone is a Supporting Actor: This is an important lesson I learned early in my career.  Whenever I made things all about me and how good I could look, it left me open for office politicking and criticism but when I made it about the team and the vision we were all working toward then (almost magically) I got more support from people and the results were better.  It’s about playing off of each other, not competing against each other.
  6. Move Forward: When you are playing off of our co-workers and making active choices together, an almost outside force takes over to bring things along. Either way, the focus should be on going to the next level. In your career you shouldn’t allow yourself to get too comfortable. If you do that too often then you will miss out on opportunity and your will get behind. Don’t just argue and create conflict (see Rule #1), this stops the scene.  When disagreements at work arise (and they always will) focus on what is at the core of the conflict and make sure to move the conversation toward everyone’s common goal instead of making it personal.
  7. Listen: This is a simple but often forgotten rule.  Improv actors needs to actively listen to their fellow actors in a scene to find ways to move it forward. The way listening can give an actor ideas for what to say next, listening in a work setting can help you uncover important trends and find support of the ideas that you have.
  8. Change, Change, Change: I have said that change is really a “business as usual” state in the corporate world.  We all need to be comfortable and adapt with change to be successful. If our idea that everyone once loved now is put on the back burner for another area of focus, go with it (and do so following all the other roles listed).
  9. Know when to end the scene: This rule is more my own than one you would find as part of typical improv rule lists, but it is really key. It is important that we learn when it is time to move on to the next thing (the next project, position, company, stage in our lives).  This is also one of the most difficult things to do. We must remember to be patient and not move on to the next thing too early.  End at the right moment, end on a high note.  There is a reason why many athletes retire after winning the Super Bowl or World Series- it marks being at the apex of the mountain, and is an indicator of when to go climb another mountain.

For those who are interested, here are a few more rules… look at them in the context of work, you can see a great deal of crossover:

Remember of art of improv in how you approach your day-to-day work and career as a whole.

Mr. Biz, OUT!

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What NOT to do after an interview

Recently I spoke to a friend of mine who has been applying for various jobs. She was very excited about one in particular that she had reached the 2nd round of interviews for.  She mentioned that the interview went well and that she was hoping to get to the next round.

She also showed me the email she sent to the interviewer… I wish I had seen her note before she hit “send”…

Her “Thank You” email read as follows:

Subject: Thank You!


It was a great pleasure speaking with you yesterday. Once again, thank you for your time.

I am glad we had an opportunity to connect regarding my strong interest in [my company’s name] and the [Name of the program]. I am confident that my professional and leadership experiences, as well as my solid interpersonal, strategic thinking, and analytical skills would make me an invaluable asset to your company. Throughout the course of my interview process, I’ve only grown more enthusiastic about [my company’s name] and the [Name of the program].

It was great to learn about your experiences and the unique opportunities that the program has provided your career thus far. This reaffirms [my company]’s commitment to developing aspiring leaders, and providing its employees the flexibility to apply and hone their skill set in diverse business areas, to support the professional and personal growth of its most important assets, its people.

I look forward to hearing from your team within the next week.  Additionally, please look for an email from Starbucks with a $5 gift card in appreciation for your time. Enjoy!

Kind Regards,

While yes, this is a nice gesture, the message behind it could be totally taken wrong. And actually was taken wrong by the interviewer. When my friend received a response she was horrified…


Subject: RE: Thank You!


Thank you for your email below.

If I may, I wanted to provide you with a little feedback.  Please note that I am passing along this message after having already submitted my decision to the recruitment team.  That said, my reaction has no positive or negative effect on your candidacy (as I saw this after submitting things).

Your note was fine. It had some detail to it and both mentioned your strong points and referenced me as an interviewer.  However, in these notes you may want to be more specific, not generic like it appears below. Reference something specific that we spoke about (a job I had or something we talked about so it makes it appear that you were engaged in what I was saying about my background and experience), any job would have “unique opportunities” and anyone who interviews you will have had “experiences” at their company.  Be specific.  This point is only a side note to my main thought, though.

The gift of a Starbucks card is thoughtful however can come across as inappropriate, which is how it came off to me. While I am sure that your intention was to thank me, if you take a step back I think you can see that the gift comes across like you want to influence my decision. Therefore, I cannot accept this gift. I would urge you not to do this in the future.  A thank you note should be fine on its own.  And actually getting my address to send a handwritten note is a much better idea since most people do not do that anymore- a handwritten note makes you seem unique and has a good touch to it.  It is much easier to shoot off an email to someone than to actually write something out by hand.

If you are set on giving a gift, here are a couple thoughts: (1) Give the gift AFTER the decision on your candidacy has been made.  You are currently still amidst the interview process.  If it was really about your appreciation of my time (like you said) you would want to give the gift if even if you did not get the job. Sending it before makes it seem like a bribe.  (2) Give a gift that is personalized to the person. If we had talked about coffee during our interview that is great, but I strongly dislike coffee and have actually never really had a cup of coffee in my life. This specific gift seems impersonal for me.

When I was promoted earlier this year I owed a great deal to one of the human resource managers.  What I did was investigate what she liked, and I gave a gift accordingly (with a handwritten note). This was also done after I signed the offer letter, not before.




Luckily my friend took this experience as an important lesson: recognizing and thanking someone is a key part of the interview process. In fact I know some people that would not hire someone who did not send a follow-up note or thank you.  That said, be careful of the message a gift sends. Gifts are great, but they need to be done at the right time and in the right way.

Mr. Biz, OUT!


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The keys to leadership, from one of the best sources

Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspirational leaders of our time.  Besides enduring 27 years in prison, he brought his country into a new era of democracy through savvy tactics (including leveraging his country’s rugby team to unite all people, ala the movie Invictus). In a recent article by the author of Mandela’s biography from a few years ago (Richard Stengel) reflected on some lessons in leadership he had gleaned through his interactions with South Africa’s ex-president.  In reading the 8 rules outlined, I was struck by their simplicity but also their effectiveness.

One of Mandela’s rules on leadership that stuck out was number 3, “Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”  This quality was rooted in Mandela’s youth herding cattle and having to control a large group of livestock while the wavered in front of you, wanting to roam off in every direction.  It has been said that true influence is when you get someone to agree with your thinking or act in a way you want them to with the other person thinking it was his idea.  The same is true for leadership. It is not about standing in front of everyone and telling them how to think. It is about inspiring them to think for themselves and to think for the betterment of everyone.  When you get someone to believe in what you believe and you motivate them to act in support of the common goal, you are truly exhibiting effective leadership.  The other core to this lesson was in building consensus. It isn’t just about you getting your way. It is about finding ways to “expand the pie” so that everyone wins and feels like their voice is heard.  The idea of not coming into a debate too early, also referenced, is an interesting thought as well.  Mandela was able to extract everyone’s viewpoints and then look for a mutually beneficial solution (negotiation at its best).

Stengel mentioned that, “Mandela would simply listen. When he finally did speak at those meetings, he slowly and methodically summarized everyone’s points of view and then unfurled his own thoughts, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted without imposing it.” This is where the artistic portion of leadership seeps through. Injecting his own ideas and influencing others to buy into his slant on things/additions, genius. The more I learn the move I am inspired and in awe of this leader who just celebrated his 90th birthday. This leadership lesson also builds on a core concept that I teach to others. Just because you are not the president of a group does not mean you cannot be a leader within.  You can be a leader no matter what role you take on.  Being a leader is understanding where your talents are needed and helping the team reach the common goals at hand. Being a leader is letting others take the lead where necessary and influencing thoughts on what you are most passionate about. Being a leader is standing up for the things you believe in. And when you have the “head role” in the group it is about letting others contribute and bringing out the best in others, from the back of the herd.

I challenge all of us to remember this third rule. Lead from behind and let others take a major role in achieving your goals.

Check out the rest of the Time article:,9171,1821659,00.html?xid=tweetbut

Mr. Biz, OUT.


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