How to Lead a Good Meeting

 

I’m beginning to wonder if boring meetings are bad for your physical & emotional health. Really. Think about it for just a second. When we’re bored, we tend to have bad posture and if the meeting is long, then we’re in that pose for a good while. So that can’t be good for your body. Even worse, boring meetings tend to be stressful for everyone present. We’ve all got other things we could be doing. And then there’s the fact that boring meetings usually mean we aren’t paying attention, which means we might miss something or not get proper buy-in for an upcoming new venture. And that leads to less than great results, which also leads to stress. Stress isn’t good for the body . . . you get the idea.

A while back I wrote a post about “16 Ways to Lead a Bad Meeting” that you might find mildly humorous (I hope.)

Nobody wants to lead a bad meeting. So I’d like to share some pointers I’ve learned over the years on how to lead, well, a ‘good’ meeting instead. I hope you find them helpful.

Begin the meeting on-time.

People can be notorious for being late and we hate to start without them. Here are a couple of suggestions for doing this effectively. At your next meeting, let the whole team know that you have personally been irresponsible to the team for not honoring all of their time by starting the meeting late. Inform them that, beginning today, you will be starting all future meetings on time.  If someone comes in late, you will give them the benefit of the doubt the first time. After that you will be addressing them following the meeting regarding their lateness to the meeting. 

Prepare.

I can personally attest to the great difficulty in properly preparing for team meetings. We are all so busy and hold so many meetings throughout our day and week that it’s so easy to just jump from one meeting to the next without more than a passing thought to what will be happening when you get there. However, ANY preparation you give prior to the meeting will reap great rewards during the meeting. The more you give, the greater impact the meeting will have. Your meetings will have more depth during conversations, be much more interesting, and may possibly even finish early.

Create a Realistic Agenda.

It is very demotivating to team members when there are more agenda items than you could actually ever address. You don’t want demotivated people in your meeting. It ruins momentum. When you don’t address an item on the agenda that is important to a team member, it can seem to them like it isn’t really important to you, especially if you don’t get to it several weeks in a row.

Hold Others and Yourself Accountable.

You should regularly review action items (to do’s) that have been assigned to members of the team to ensure they are getting done. If and when they are not, there should be accountability with the team regarding the breach in fulfilling an agreed upon commitment. If this is an issue for you and your team, then for now, I recommend you read both of the following books: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Crucial Confrontations.

Avoid Rabbit Trails.

You get the analogy of that little phrase, ‘rabbit trail’, right? It jumps off quickly and captures everyone’s attention without them even knowing it. This is particularly true if the topic at hand is boring or getting drawn out or is a difficult topic of discussion. “Let’s talk about something more interesting!” The effective team leader will work very hard at minimizing this activity. Every once in a while you may decide the rabbit trail is important to entertain for a while. However, it should rarely happen and should almost always come back to the original topic. One idea when people seem to want to go down a rabbit trail is to say something like, “Let’s add this conversation to the February 8th meeting agenda.” or some such thing.

Set Expectations First.

It’s important at the beginning of certain discussions that you clarify your expectation of the discussion. Is this discussion meant to stimulate creative thinking? Is it to discuss tactical options? Will there be a vote? Or is the direction already decided and you want people to express their opinions and concerns? Are we brainstorming or are we evaluating? What do you want the end of this conversation to look like and sound like?

Ask Lots of Questions.

The point of most meetings is discussion and feedback. This usually doesn’t happen by itself. Many (though not all) people need to be encouraged to speak up and their opinions/ideas drawn out. This will happen by asking both general and specific questions about the topic at hand. Sometimes it is good to put one or more team members on the spot for their input. If the team member has been tracking with the conversation she will have something to say, even if it’s just, “everything we’ve said so far makes total sense to me.”

Ask for Clarification.

If you are not sure what a person means during a discussion . . . even a little bit, ask for them to clarify their point or re-ask their question. When necessary, repeat it back to them in your own words and ask for confirmation that this is, in fact, what they are saying. If not, keep exploring until you are all on the same page. 

Confirm Your Team’s Understanding.

It is often very good to ask the team if everyone understands what is being discussed or what has just been said or decided. Just because you understand what’s going on, doesn’t mean others do. Watch out for glassy eyes which could indicate, “I have no idea what was just said but am embarrassed to say so.” When in doubt, ask someone else in the room to repeat back what has been said or decided.

Confirm Buy-In.

It’s important you don’t assume everyone agrees with what has been said. Sometimes, when it SEEMS like everyone agrees there are individuals who don’t but are afraid to say so because they don’t want to rock the boat. Ask a few probing questions to give people a chance to ask an additional question or raise a concern. Two really great follow-up questions to consider which will help with this is: “What do you like best about this idea?” and “What do you think we might do to improve on this idea?”

Embrace Silence.

Learn to embrace silence. People need time to think and respond. An insecure leader will ask, “Does anyone have anything to add?” or “Does anyone have questions about this idea?” and will allow a scant 5 seconds for responses before moving on. Wait 30 seconds (an eternity). Halfway through you can say, “I’m not afraid of a little silence here. I just want to make sure we are all on the same page.”

Openly Expose Elephants in the Room.

I don’t know how else to say this. If there’s an elephant in the room you need to stop everything and talk about the elephant. You also need to give your team members permission to expose elephants too. It’s very possible (probable) it’s standing right behind you and you don’t even know it. Just be honest and say, “Listen, I could be wrong, but is there something going on right now that we are all not talking about and should? Specifically, . . . . ?” Check out this post entitled, “Exposing the Elephant in the Room

Say What You Think & Feel.

Similar to the elephant exposure idea, you need to be free to honestly express something you think or feel as the meeting facilitator. Of course, your team members should have permission to do that too. If you feel like the meeting is getting boring, why don’t you say so? If it seems like people are falling asleep on you – ask if they are. If it seems like everyone seems confused about what you are talking about, say so. It’s always possible you are wrong, but what if you aren’t? 

Listen.

Listening is really hard to do, especially for the leader of the meeting. Often, the leader has the most at stake in the discussion and wants to make sure the conversation is going where they want it. A good meeting facilitator will force himself to listen, ask for clarification, and ensure everyone has had their say before the discussion ends. He needs to be able to express his viewpoint as well, of course. Often that should happen near the end of the discussion or at the very beginning. Sometimes the meeting leader will need to make comments or reorient the discussion because it’s getting off-track, but the primary job of the facilitator is to lead the DISCUSSION, not the DECISION. This is especially important if the meeting leader is the leader of the organization. Usually, people want to just go with the leader and will not express viewpoints if the leader has already said everything he (or she) thinks.

Think Before You Speak.

Important. Very important. Did I say important? If you want to say something, go ahead. But make sure you have gathered your thoughts and whenever possible select your words carefully. As the team leader, everyone is taking their cues from you. As the organizational leader they are also deciding if it’s safe to talk because of you. Learn catch phrases that will facilitate conversations like, “I wonder if . . .”, “Is it possible we are forgetting . . .”, “I could be wrong, but . . .”.

End On Time or Early.

Your team will thank you. Work hard at being the hero and finish early, or at the very minimum, on time. If you’re meeting seems like it might end up going late, let everyone know a good 10-15 minutes beforehand, if possible – and release anyone who has other appointments coming up right away so they can rearrange them or leave your meeting on time.

 

Don’t Hit ‘Send’ When It’s Personal

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I made a leadership mistake last week. I sent an email prematurely. I actually remember pretty vividly having my finger over the ‘Send’ button on my Kindle. I paused a minute and the thought flitted through my mind, “Should I really send this email?”; then I pushed it aside and hit ‘Send’.

It felt good too. I was able to communicate my frustration and disappointment about something someone did that I disagreed with. I set them straight. Told it like it was. That sort of thing. 

It’s not that sending the email, in and of itself, was wrong – and being a writer, it’s not that it wasn’t written well. In fact, in other scenarios I could probably have written something very similar to what I wrote and it would have been totally appropriate. In this case, I messed up. Why?

I shouldn’t have done it because it was personal.

It’s Leadership 101, but it’s also easier said than done. When you’re reacting (via email) to something someone has done or said that is personal, don’t hit ‘Send’ on that email. At least, don’t hit it right away. In my case, I realized after the fact that I was rude and defensive. Ugh.

I’ve often quoted Ambrose Bierce who once said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” This is even more true in emails. Once you hit ‘Send’ it’s gone for good and there’s no taking it back. The problem for many of us leaders is, we don’t always know when we’re angry. We confuse anger with our desire to ‘fix’ or ‘help’ others. That’s what I did.

Here are a few pointers I was reminded of while backpedaling and revisiting this experience.

When you should wait to hit ‘Send’.

  • If it hurts you.
    If it hurt you, in any way, you should wait. None of us are immune to pain, and none of us are at our best when dealing with pain. That means we’re probably not saying what we really should say, if we should say anything at all.
  • If you’re mad.
    Similarly, when you are in a state of anger, your brain is quite naturally on the defense. Whatever you communicate in your email (or verbally for that matter) will very likely be defensive. People, in general respond to defensive behavior from others by defending themselves. Now everybody has got their dukes up. Not helpful.
  • If it hurts them.
    It goes without saying that, as leaders and believers, we are above hurting others. It’s the antithesis of what it means to be a Christ-follower and following His great command to love others.
  • If you don’t know them.
    If you have never met, or spoken with, the other party, you need to pause when sending that email. As leaders, we have a certain degree of ‘permission’ to influence and correct those who have given us permission to do so. But if you’re trying to correct someone else on their words or behaviors, and they haven’t given you permission to do so, you’re very likely overstepping your bounds.
  • If it’s long.
    Some of us can be real wordy and get preachy in our emails. Uh, like me at times. If it’s a corrective email and it’s really long, forget it. Don’t hit send. Pick up the phone or schedule a meeting instead.
  • If it’s a big deal.
    If the content of the email is a big deal to someone – either you or them – you need to pause over the ‘Send’ button. The likelihood is real high that if what’s being discussed in the email has a personal bearing on either party or is potentially wrought with emotion, it shouldn’t be said over email.
  • If it’s complicated.
    By complicated, I’m not referring to the issue, I’m referring to the relationship. If the relationship has a history of confusion, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, etc. it’s not really good to do a lot of email communication – at least regarding personal issues.

What to do while you wait.

  • Pray.
    There’s nothing better than asking the All-Knowing God for wisdom and discernment. It goes without saying that He can and likely will shed light on how you should respond and if you should send that email.
  • Get A Second Opinion.
    I’m not talking about counselling. I’m just talking about another opinion, preferably from someone you trust and shares the same values you do about loving others in leadership.
  • Wait.
    This seems redundant to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. Wait for a while. I’m not talking about waiting for an hour or a couple of hours. Usually, it’s good to wait 2 or 3 days minimum. Give yourself time to get some perspective and cool down, if necessary. I wouldn’t be surprised if 3/4 of those emails never get sent simply because you waited long enough to realize it’s not worth it.
  • Ask For Time & To Talk Live
    Sometimes it’s not appropriate to leave people hanging. So ask for permission to wait a while, and maybe meet to talk it out live. Keep it down to about 4 sentences that might sound something like this: “I’m going to need some time to think this through first and I’m wondering if email is, perhaps, not the best means of communication for us to use on this topic. Is it possible we could schedule a time to meet over coffee, on Skype or over the phone later this week?”
  • Send A Different Email
    Once you’ve exhausted the above ideas, you may discover that starting from scratch and sending another email will work just fine. Now that you’ve had time to clear your head, you can keep the communication simple and leave out the defensive tone that was in your first email.
  • Drop It
    Sometimes the right thing to do is to just drop it. There are many reasons why this may be the best solution. It could be that the issue is relatively small in the bigger picture and not worth making a big deal about. Often, we may realize that the person wasn’t trying to be mean or hurtful, and we can just let it go. Sometimes it’s plain that there are much bigger issues connected with the situation that should really be addressed before this issue can properly be dealt with. 

What to do if you hit ‘Send’ prematurely.

I think there’s really only one thing to do when you realize you’ve said things that were best left unsaid. Find a way to apologize and ask for forgiveness. This means you:

  • Humbly confess what you did.
    “I sent that email when I was still processing what was said, and I wasn’t really thinking straight.”
  • Acknowledge what you said that was inappropriate.
    “I said some things in that email that were inappropriate, defensive and disrespectful.” 
  • Sometimes you might even point out specific things said as well.
    “…like when I told you ‘That was stupid.'”
  • Ask for forgiveness.
    Would you be willing to forgive me for my hasty words and bad attitude?

And of course, when you are asking forgiveness of the other party, it’s usually not wise to begin defending or explaining yourself – and certainly you shouldn’t start expounding on what the other person(s) did wrong. That should be left for another time.

Check out my other posts regarding confrontation. I particularly recommend: “Four Steps in Healthy Confrontations

Thoughts on Interviewing For a New Hire

interviewingOne of the biggest mistakes churches make when they are looking to hire is in not taking the interviewing process seriously. Often, it’s never done or just brushed over. The reasons church leaders miss this step range far and wide. It may be that they already feel they know the candidate. Or perhaps they think they will get a ‘sense’ of the person from a casual conversation over coffee. I know some leaders who would simply say, “I’m going to let the Lord lead me.”

Whatever the reason, I’ve come to the conclusion that leaders will likely never regret doing an interview – but they will often regret NOT doing one.

Just recently I was coaching a pastor who was getting ready to hire a new youth pastor. His team was sure they already knew who the ‘right’ hire would be – and were thinking of skipping this step altogether. I urged them to collect other applications and do a few interviews anyway. They were pleasantly surprised and shocked when a totally different candidate rose to the top during the interview process – becoming their ultimate hire.

In today’s post, I thought I’d share just a few random thoughts when getting ready for an upcoming job interview. I hope you find them helpful.

  • Ask yourself, “Am I hiring a leader or a manager?”
    There is an important distinction, and it means you’re looking for different qualities/competencies. Leaders lead change. Managers guide systems.
  • Investigate Them.
    Even if you already know the candidate, take the time to get acquainted with them before you meet. Study their resume. Call and speak with their references, check out their facebook, twitter, or blog, speak with their previous employer.
  • Get a Personality Test in Advance.
    As part of your investigation, have them complete a thorough Personality Test in advance (not the day of the interview). This will help you generate questions during the interview regarding how they might handle potential challenges they may face which their personality doesn’t match very well. For example, let’s say you’re hiring for an analytical bookkeeper type job and the person happens to have a laid-back people oriented personality. That could be a problem. My favorite Personality Tool is found at ministryinsights.com and is called the “Leading From Your Strengths Profile“.
  • Begin with Prayer.
    Invite the Holy Spirit to be part of the interview right up front. This reminds everyone in the room that we’re trusting God rather than man to ultimately lead the process of finding the best hire for the position.
  • Create a Safe Place for the Interview.
    I’ve already talked about the idea of ‘Creating Safety’ right here. Establish a place where the interview can take place in a non-threatening & comfortable environment. Try to stay away from the ‘leader behind the desk’ approach. If possible, move to eye level with them and remember to smile a lot.
  • Ask Them to Tell You About Themselves
    It’s important to get them talking right away. Ask a few questions about their life, family, hobbies, plans for the summer or vacation. Keep it light and informal at first. Don’t begin with potentially loaded questions like, “How did you like where you worked in your last job?” I find almost everyone likes talking about their kids or grandkids, so usually that’s a great place to begin.
  • Share the Agenda of the Meeting Up Front
    I think it’s important that the candidate knows what to expect at the meeting. This will help them feel safer too. For instance, I might say something like, “Here’s what the interview is going to look like. We’re going to ask you a series of questions and will also be asking you to do a little typing test for us on the computer over there. We use four ‘C’s’ to guide us in the decision-making process, let me tell you what those are right now…. After that, you will have a chance to ask us any questions you may have. When the interview is over, we will give no indication as to whether we plan to hire you or not. At some point in the next couple of weeks, we will contact you to let you know our decision and, if appropriate, ask you in for a second interview.” 
  • Watch for Nonverbal Communication.
    It’s important that you, or someone with you, can read some non-verbals during the interview. Many times, it’s their nonverbal communication that is answering the question, not their verbal one. For instance, if you ask, “How are you when it comes to dealing with conflict?” and the person says, “Good” while they fidget or won’t look you in the eye, it’s possible they aren’t being completely honest with you or themselves. It’s normal for most people being interviewed to be a little nervous, so you do need to take that into account. However, if you’re interviewing for a leader role, hopefully they are able to handle the relatively minor stress of an interview – after all, they’ll eventually be facing a lot more stress than that someday!
  • Create Mock Scenarios to Use During the Interview.
    Plan in advance and describe two or three circumstances that you would expect your new hire to one day face. Ask them to describe how they think they would handle the situation.
  • If Possible, Give Them a Real Test.
    If you’re hiring someone to do a lot of typing, ask them to take a typing test online during the interview. If they will be writing articles or creating graphics or pulling together a bulletin, ask them to do so as part of the interview. The best way to ascertain their competency is to test it live, when possible.
  • Start With the Interviewee, Not the Position.
    It can be very tempting to begin the interview by trying to ‘sell’ the interviewee on the job. We do this by talking about the job and what we are looking for in the best candidate. Don’t do this. All you’re doing is feeding the information you want them to give you in advance of the interview. Rather, start by interviewing the candidate and end with giving information about the position.
  • Include Two Interviewers In The Room.
    I think it’s wisdom to include at least two interviewers in the room during the interview. There are a lot of great reasons for this. I have always found it super helpful to be able to debrief with the other interviewer and get insights as to what they thought and noticed during the session. Often, they will have picked up on things I didn’t because I was busy talking or focused on the conversation. Additionally, it is a lot easier to communicate to others why the candidate is a good fit – or not so good of a fit – when you had two people present who agree together.
  • Refrain From Making False Promises.
    Again, sometimes we can get carried away after a great interview and say things at the end, like, “I think you’re a great candidate. We’ll probably end up hiring you.” OR “Yeah, I think you’re the one we want.” Don’t do that. I falsely leads them on and only increases their emotional letdown if you change your mind later. Just let them know you enjoyed spending time with them and that you’ll get back with them later.
  • Use Four C’s As Your Guide.
    Whenever I do an interview, I explain and use four words to guide my questions. I talk more about The Four C’s in this article. Here they are in a nutshell:

     

    CHARACTER: The fruit of the Spirit are your benchmarks, but I usually like to also have a few other qualities I’m looking for as well, like ‘teamwork’, ‘committed to the local church’, ‘giver’, ‘submitted to leadership’, etc. This might be a great place to ask about their spiritual walk as well. Often I will ask if the candidate has a ‘life verse’ or what the Lord has recently been speaking to them in their quiet times. I will also listen throughout the interview for areas where they struggle with bitterness or anger towards previous employers or people.

    COMPETENCE: This is where we confirm they have the right skill-set to do the job. Do they have enough leadership experience? Do they know how to host an event? Have they ever created a decent website before? These are going to be the standard interview questions you will ask to ensure they can do the job.

    CHEMISTRY: It’s real important the candidate will work well in the culture you have established in your ministry. This means they will be OK with the work environment you will be offering them, that they will ‘fit’ with the other team members and that both you and the candidate will be able to work comfortably together. This is a hard one to interview for, but it’s still important to evaluate. If I seem to have a hard time ‘connecting’ with the candidate during the interview or just feel uncomfortable about them, it’s possible it has something to do with chemistry. The fact is, some people ‘fit’ in certain cultures better than others. 

    CALLING: I make it real clear to the candidates that they need to feel a calling to the position we are offering and we need to feel called to hire them. This is not meant to be an excuse to not hire them. It’s meant to be an honest indicator that we’re trusting God to lead us (and them) in making the right choice. Simply put, the candidate could be perfect for the job, but either they, or we, don’t feel a release from God to bring them onto the team at this time. One time I was interviewing for a secretarial position and a young man applied. He seemed fit for the job. When I asked him what he wanted to do with his life, though, I discovered he wanted to work outside and stay away from administrative things. It was easy for me to see that he wasn’t called to do what I was looking for, even though he was qualified.

What other things do you like to remember during an interview?

Image compliments of Knape at istockphoto.com

Leaders Are Readers (Part 2)

This updated article was originally posted on Transforming Leader January, 2011. Being both a popular and a particularly long post – we decided to split it into two parts and re-post. Haven’t read part 1 yet? No problem – click here to read it right now! Enjoy!

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HOW TO INCREASE YOUR READING SKILLS (part 2)

Go digital.
If you already own a smart phone, Kindle or iPad and have regular internet access with them, then I urge you to begin taking advantage of the digital options available to you. For example, you already have the basic tool needed to begin reading blogs (see next point). Additionally, Amazon will let you download the kindle apps for free on your device, which can then be used to purchase and read audio books. This year alone I have read about 5 books on my phone/Kindle using the kindle app. In fact, I read the entire book, Crucial Confrontations, on my phone each night during a 15 minute slot in my day when I was doing nothing else, but didn’t have a book handy nearby.

Discover the power of blogs.
I know many pastors and leaders who are afraid of the word “blog”. It’s an unknown so it’s intimidating. It’s something for the younger generation, right? Not true. I’ve discovered that reading blogs is one of the best ways to stay fresh on just about any topic or issue without stealing too much time. In fact I read an average of 10-12 blogs a day if possible, all within chunks of time when I wasn’t going to be doing anything else important anyway. Here’s a couple ideas to get you started:

  • Use an rss (blog) reader.
    Nowadays, there are several free apps/services you can use to keep track of blogs you’d like to read. Among the most popular is feedly.com (check it out – just go to the website and type in ‘transforming leader’ to find my blog.) This is a great place to keep track of any blogs you come across that you would like to read. Feedly will keep track of the articles you haven’t read so you can catch up later. It also allows you to search for new blogs that might interest you. You can search either by author, blog title or your subject of interest and then save what interests you to your account. Feedly offers you a free account that enables you to keep track of what you’ve read, are reading or hope to someday read. I’m currently following more than 500 blogs including some great and popular ones like: michaelhyatt.com, thomrainer.com, ronedmondson.com, churchm.ag, tonymorganlive.com and more.
  • Afraid of rss? Just subscribe via email instead!
    If you aren’t interested in learning how to use an rss reader like feedly.com. No worries. You can still subscribe to most blogs via email to get their posts in your email inbox. If you’re like me, you won’t want to clutter up your inbox with more emails though. One suggestion you might consider is to create an email with a popular email service like gmail.com that is dedicated just to your blogs. That way, you can just receive email updates for your blogs in that email without gumming up your main email address. Just a thought.

Here’s the main thing you should understand about blogs if you are new to them. Don’t read every one. That’s right, unless you’re only subscribed to mine (joke) you’ll want to look through the list of blog titles that pop up in your reader or email each day or week and decide which ones sound or look interesting to you. You’ll then skim or read those as you see fit and mark the rest read. Every once in a while (almost daily for me) you’ll find one you really like and want to either forward or keep for future reference. If that happens, I recommend you take care of it right then, or it will likely not happen at all

Take advantage of dead time.
This may seem obvious, but it actually takes diligence, preparation, and intentionality to take advantage of the dead time in your life (time that you aren’t really doing anything valuable). One of the best ‘dead time’ tools is, as I already mentioned, a phone with reading materials available on it like e-books or blogs. If that’s not available to you, I recommend you try to keep one or two books with you at all times that you can pull out to read whenever you have a few minutes. If I stay focused, I can read a whole book in one month just by taking advantage of the white space in my life.

Become a bathroom reader.
Uh, well I just covered this above, but thought perhaps it was worth mentioning specifically. Most of us can often spend anywhere from 4 to 24 minutes alone in the bathroom. Other than the obvious, there’s not much else to do in there. It’s a great place to get some reading done. Even the four minute sessions can be valuable if you pick the right kind of book – one with short chapters. For instance, I read Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Axiom from start to finish in the bathroom. Find a good book that will work, or some magazines that are relevant to your life or ministry, and just leave them in the bathroom. Don’t read them except when you’re umm, you know, busy in there.

Kill your guilt.
I used to get so frustrated with myself if I didn’t finish a book or if it took forever to read. I’d even feel guilty if I was reading the book (which someone else told me was awesome) but thought it was real boring. My suggestion . . . don’t be so hard on yourself. Some books are going to hit you as amazing, relevant, and inspirational, others won’t. Don’t worry about it.

Read a whole book in 8 pages (or listen in 20 minutes.)
OK, I guess you won’t actually read the whole book, but there is an awesome way to get all of the relevant highlights and major points of hundreds of popular books on leadership, management, marketing, etc. A while back I stumbled across www.summary.com and www.studyleadership.com. These have been awesome resources to me and my team. Basically, you pay the fees you feel are appropriate for your situation and find yourself with access to all sorts of great book reviews. You can download them as pdf’s – each one being 8 pages long or you can listen to someone read the summary in a 20 minute period by downloading the mp3 version. You can even subscribe to them in a blog if you want. For me, I occasionally walk to work. It takes me almost exactly 20 minutes. I can listen to one book review in that one walk. It’s awesome.

Read while exercising or commuting (audio-books).
You already know about audio-books. I actually don’t utilize them myself too often, but have several friends who do very successfully. Audio-books are perfect for your 15 – 45 minute commute, for when you exercise, or when everyone else is watching that program that you just aren’t interested in. I also know that the national literacy rate is about 14%, which means some people just don’t read very much. Additionally, I have friends who can read fine, but hate doing it. Audio-books are a great alternative.

How about you? What other ideas might you suggest on how we can stay sharp as readers and leaders?

Leaders are Readers

This updated article was originally posted on Transforming Leader January, 2011. Being both a popular and a particularly long post – we decided to split it into two parts and re-post. Enjoy!

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There was a time when I absolutely dreaded reading anything besides fiction (including the Bible, I am embarrassed to say.) I would be assigned to read some book on leadership by my boss. It would sit on my desk at work or my nightstand at home unread for weeks at a time. Every once in a while I would open it up and give it a token effort, perhaps getting through the first 2 or 3 chapters. Then my boss would kindly but firmly give me some extra incentive, like remind me that quarterly reviews were coming up soon. Ugh. So I would finally plot the appropriate hours and plow through.

As is often the case, the book usually ended up being a great help to my life and ministry; but it was a bear to get through! Perhaps you relate. Maybe it’s not a motivation issue so much as a life management issue. When are you supposed to find time to read in the midst of everything else going on in your life?

You’ve probably heard people quote Harry Truman, “Not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader.” I would qualify that statement by adding, “every growing leader is a reader.” I am so glad to say that I’ve finally figured out ways to incorporate reading into my life and ministry. I’d like to share some pointers with you; perhaps one or more of these ideas will help you as well. You may be interested to know that I don’t always set time aside specifically  to read each day or week, yet I get a lot of reading done each month.

HOW TO INCREASE YOUR READING SKILLS (part 1)

Learn how to skim.
This is a skill I have developed over the years that has served me very well. For some books, blogs, or articles, I will simply skim over them. I have successfully “skimmed” 300-400 page books in just a couple of hours and sometimes less than that. I can still tell you today what I learned from some of those books. Sometimes I will skim a book first, and then read it word for word later. Skimming is a lot easier than you think (as opposed to speed reading, which is an acquired skill.) Here are two articles I would recommend that will give you the basics:

 

Determine when to read and when to skim.
I evaluate every book I read to determine if it’s a “really read this book” or a “skim and get the meat book”. Sometimes I will decide to skim a book and realize within the first chapter or two that this is a “really read this book.” At other times I will “try” giving a book a solid word for word and find I am just not interested or motivated, so I switch to the skim method. Here are a few of the criteria I use to make this determination:

  • A leader I highly admire/respect requests or recommends the book: READ.
    (My pastor once suggested I read the book, Next Generation Leader, by Andy Stanley. I read it and now highly recommend it myself.)
  • The content is very engaging and interesting to me: READ.
    (I started to skim the book, Crucial Confrontations and found it so engaging that I ended up reading through it word for word.)
  • The content is important to me (though not necessarily engaging)READ.
    (I found the book Getting Things Done sort of hard to read, but I knew the information was important and would help me, so I read it all the way through.)
  • I want the information, but don’t have time for a full blown read: SKIM.
    (Sometimes if I’m preaching or teaching in a few days I may skim to get some extra info on a topic. If I found the book really engaging, I’ll set it aside to read through more in-depth later.)
  • The author hasn’t impressed me in the past, but I know he/she has something good to say: SKIM.
    (For whatever reason, I’ve never been able to get into Max Lucado’s books, though he’s a best selling author, so I’ll often skim his books for the good stuff instead.
  • I have already read the material before, but want to remember what it was about or get some quotes/illustrations: SKIM.
    (I recently skimmed the book, Thinking for a Change, by John Maxwell which I read last year in order to prepare for a lesson I was about to teach.)
  • The topic is something I am already very knowledgeable in or the material is stuff I already know: SKIM.
    (I read a blog a while back that was talking about a key principle I’ve already learned and implement from the book Eat That Frog, I skimmed through that article.)
  • The topic is not something I need to be well-versed in or I already know the gist of the book: SKIM.
    (I have the book Drive, by Daniel Pink on my reading list. I’ve already watched him present the content from this book, so I’ll likely just skim it.)
  • The book has been sitting on my bookshelf forever and I’m dreading reading it: SKIM.
    (I purchased the book, Brain Rules more than two years ago. If I actually get to it, I’ll likely skim it. If I don’t read this book within the next year I’ll likely just give it a 15 minute leaf through and either sell, give away, or throw away.)

Notice that I have more criteria for skimming than reading. You’ll also realize that not only do I skim quite a few books, but I also read more than just books every week. See below.

Strategically mark up books when you can.
I have used many methods for tracking information in books, or marking them up for future use. I’m still not sure which methods are the best. I have taken notes from books and created my own “cliff notes” on some books. For others I’ve highlighted/underlined and placed a number next to sections with notes on the back inside cover telling me what that particular section/highlight was about for future reference. I am a big believer in underlining key sentences, highlighting headings or sections I want to stand out, and writing in the margins several words that summarize the selected text for easy retrieval. The point is, find a method for marking up books so that you can quickly get the meat out of it when you need to.

How about you? What other ideas might you suggest on how we can stay sharp as readers and leaders?

Check out Part 2 of this article by clicking this link now!

 

Excellence Inspires People

team-hoytPeople really inspire me. In particular, I’m inspired by people’s dedication, commitment, attention to detail, tenacity and passion to succeed. A quality that all of these people share is excellence. I believe excellence inspires people.

I’ve already shared several posts on the topic of excellence, you’re welcome to find them at the bottom of this post. In this post, I just want to make one final point. When we choose to give all we’ve got to accomplish our goals (that is, our own resources, efforts and energies) we will very likely be an inspiration to those around us, to excel, to live well, and to do more than they thought they could.

Let me share some examples of how I’ve been inspired by people:

  • I’m inspired when I see a great movie. 
    I’m not talking about movies with inspiring plots – don’t get me wrong, those are cool. What I’m inspired by is the dedication it takes for people to accomplish the making of those inspiring, funny or just plain fun movies. If you’ve ever watched how some of the scenes were made in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’ll be dumbfounded behind the effort, expense and attention to detail the team put in to create such realistic scenes. When you have a free hour to chill and be amazed, watch this documentary on how they designed ‘Middle Earth’ – one small part of the whole movie effort.

    Can’t see this video? Try clicking this link.
  • I’m inspired when I hear great music.
    My coworkers know about this. I tend to listen to a lot of movie & game theme music. If you want a totally different listening experience, try creating a Hans Zimmer radio station in Pandora. I’m also amazed when I see someone play an instrument like it’s part of their body. The thousands of hours of practice time these people put in to become ‘the best’ is truly incredible. Consider this video of Luka Sulic & Stejepan Hauser (2Cellos) playing ‘Welcome to the Jungle’.

    Can’t see this video? Try clicking this link.
  • I’m inspired when I see people rise above the status quo.
    I want to live my life with excellence. I suspect you do too. But sometimes we can get stuck in a mindset that says we can’t do it. We’ll blame our circumstances or our past or our lack of resources. But when we see people rise up, despite incredible odds, there’s something that wants to rise up inside us as well. Consider this inspiring story of a blind teenager who wouldn’t let his blindness dictate what he could or could not do.

    BRAVE from EYEFORCE on Vimeo.
  • I’m inspired when people care enough to sacrifice for others.
    It goes without saying that Jesus Christ was our example when it comes to loving others. He has set the tone for what it really means to be a Christ-follower. It’s about caring for others, even when it means giving up something for ourselves. Check out this inspiring story of a father who helped his handicapped son live a dream.

    Can’t see this video? Try clicking this link.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Let’s be an inspiration to those God has placed around us. 

Excellence Honors God

24-eldersSometimes you hear a message that you will never, ever forget. It’s a defining message. Early in my walk with Christ I heard one such message by Pastor Jack Hayford about the holiness of God. It changed how I think about God. If I had known how important that message was to me at the time, I would have saved it. But it’s not a great loss – I remember it like I just heard it yesterday. Among other things, the message helped birth in me an intense desire to do things with excellence, specifically to honor and worship God.

Pastor Jack spoke from Revelation where it says:

Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “ ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Revelation 4:8-11

The picture that has been etched into my mind is of these twenty-four elders who were each sitting on their individual thrones around the throne of God. These are real individuals who have a will. They are not puppets. And yet they are so overwhelmed by the Presence of God that they fall to their faces to shout out their praise to God. When they are finished, they find their seats in perhaps one of the most honoring of all places to sit – only to find themselves in awe of God’s Presence yet again and compelled to proclaim it to one another and God Himself as they bow before Him. They do this over and over, never tiring, in rapt worship to our heavenly Father.

There is nothing half-hearted about these elders. Every fiber of their being is given to honoring God. 

Compare these people with those God Himself rebuked in Malachi, who were bringing mediocre offerings before God:

“But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’ By offering defiled food on my altar. But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible. When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your Governor! Would he be pleased with you?” . . . “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.” Malachi 1:6-8a, 10

The only thing I can think to say to that reference is, “Ouch!”

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the best ways that I can honor God, is by giving him the best of what I have to give. That means my best resources. My best time. My best work.

Excellence Honors God!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not arrived. I still fall short, and I’m so thankful for His grace when I do. But I aspire to give God my best. I aspire to excel. Excellence is one of my core values. It’s something that drives and marks me. It’s not on some legalistic ‘to do’ list. It’s an act of worship and honor to God.

I think excellence should mark the ministry of every believer, in some way. It defines who they are and what kind of relationship they have with God. That’s a bold statement for me to make. It’s actually a little scary for me to say. Perhaps presumptuous? I don’t know, but it seems right to me.

How about you? Where does excellence stand out in your life and ministry?

Image by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1982, 1992 (revelationillustrated.com).

Look Up From Your Phone

My wife sent me the below video this past weekend. It was so powerful (and convicting) I thought I’d share it with my readers. Christian leaders are not immune to the pull of social media, tv, internet and more. ‘Screen time’ as we call it at home is slowly taking over. I’m getting sucked in as easily as many others. I fear what this habit might be doing to my family, my ministry and, most importantly, my walk with God. I so appreciate this reminder to look up and be with those I care about most.

How about you? 

(disclaimer: There is one word in the video some may find offensive. Although the video may not be filmed with the christian audience in mind, the message still stands for all who will hear it. Enjoy.)

 

Can’t see this video? Try clicking here.

 

Reading Between the Lines of Excellence

excellence
Very few believers I know would question this statement, “God wants us to do our best.” I believe it’s true. Our best is a valued currency in God’s kingdom. He excels at bridging the gap between our best and His best. All it takes is a few moments of reflection to realize how God has given His best for us. From creation to the cross and beyond, we see God’s character shine. He has never once given less than His all for us. That would be contrary to His very nature. His call to the believer is nothing less. Jesus even went so far as to tell us that we should deny ourselves, and take up our cross, like Him, daily.
 

Years ago I remember walking by a local pizza shop. There was a promotional sign in the window that boldly proclaimed their pizza was, “Good Enough”. Not very inspiring. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for us to slide into a ‘good enough’ mentality in our ministries. ‘Good Enough’ sneaks up on us. It begins with one small task or event and slowly creeps into more and more of what we do until we, one day, discover that our ministry is defined by those words: good enough.

Between the Lines
For anyone willing to think it through, there are some unspoken things we are saying when we choose to set ‘good enough’ aside and settle for nothing less than our best. Your excellence (or your mediocrity) is communicating several things, between the lines. Here are a few.

  • Our best says we trust God.
    I believe it takes a lot of faith to give our best. The fact is, often we know in our hearts our best won’t be good enough. Most of us are our own worst critic. It can be simpler to give in to the reality that we just don’t always measure up. But when I give my best for Christ, against all the odds and even when I know I fall short, I’m committing my work to God, and trusting Him to do what He does best – breathe His transformative power into it.
  • Our best says we value others.
    Jesus simplified the Christian walk and the whole Bible by declaring that everything hinges on the two greatest commandments, to love God and love others. When we give our best we are fulfilling that high call, not only to serve God, but to serve those He gave His one and only Son for. When we serve with excellence, we are communicating to those who will benefit from our work that they are of great value both to us and to God.
  • Our best says we value our calling.
    Great leaders are secure leaders. They are humbly and intimately aware of their strengths and weaknesses and have become reconciled to their limitations while they lead and serve others. When we choose to give our all, whether for the most menial of tasks or for the big public event, we are accepting God’s calling on our life to be His hands and feet in the world.
  • Our best says it’s important.
    Practically speaking, excellence communicates volumes to those around us about whether what we are doing is truly important or not. Not just whether it’s important to us, but whether it should be important to them as well. If people walk into an event that is only half-baked, there is a nonverbal message saying, “This wasn’t important enough to us to do it right, so you don’t need to treat it as important either.” Similarly, when we bend over backwards to produce excellence at every turn (remember, that means our best, not perfection), then we are letting the world know, “This is important to me, and we want it to be important to you too!”

What other things do you think excellence communicates to those around us?

photo credit: Josh Liba via photopin cc

God’s Standard of Excellence

excellence-paintbrushWhatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:23-24

Years ago I found myself painting the walls in the master bathroom of our home. I’m a decent painter, but it’s not my trade nor is it something I enjoy. That said, I have pretty high standards, so I was very focused on doing a good job. At one point, I found myself laying on my back and reaching way back to the wall under a bottom shelf that was perhaps 18″ inches from the floor. As I was gently brushing the trim under that shelf, I realized I was overdoing it. Nobody in their right mind would ever be looking under this shelf to see if I painted the trim and that back wall properly. They’d need a flashlight to do so, and that was with the lights on in the bathroom.

That’s when the Holy Spirit spoke to me, “Do it for me.”

It was the most meticulously painted wall in the whole room. I found myself in tears while I did it too. It became a love offering to God. It was one of the most powerful worship experiences of my life.

Working for the Lord

According to Colossians, we’re to maintain that standard of excellence in everything we do. That’s not to say that we should spend hours painting the backside of the drywall before we put it up, or check every sentence we write in our emails with the grammar dictionary to ensure it’s perfect, or even to keep our homes or offices meticulously clean at all times. I don’t believe that’s the point.

God isn’t looking for perfection. He is sorely aware of how imperfect we all can be, which of course is why He offered His perfect solution for our imperfection in Jesus Christ.

Rather, I believe God’s standard for excellence is simply our very best with what matters. Of course, we’re talking about ‘what matters’ to God, not ourselves or our earthly masters.

The last sentence of this Scripture states, “It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” It may be my wife who asked me to paint the walls, my boss who is requesting the report, or my pastor asking me to make a few phone calls; but it’s the Lord Christ who I am always serving. His high calling is to serve those around me as if the request came out of His own mouth.

My best is going to look different than yours too. You might be a much better painter than me. God is simply looking for me to give the best I can, with what I have. That includes my skills, my strengths & weaknesses, my experience, my time and my resources. Excellence is less about what others see or think, than it is about what God knows.

After all, nobody would have ever thought the widow gave her best when she put two cents in the offering (Luke 21:1-4). In comparison to others, it wouldn’t have counted as excellent service. Yet, that’s what Jesus Christ said about her. That offering was the one that represented what Colossians is calling each of us to do. To give our best.

I have a confession. I’m not there. I’d love to say I raise my children, help others in need, do my weekly chores and carry out my work responsibilities like I did when I painted that bathroom wall. But I can say that I aspire to that kind of service to and for Christ.

How about you? Do you maintain God’s standard for excellence in your life and ministry?

photo credit: Guillaume Brialon via photopin cc

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