Monday, June 13, 2016

Break out the Books...and Sharpen the Pencils

No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.  —Confucius


Can I ask you to take just a few minutes to read a short article that might very well change your life, if not your entire organization? Please don’t for a second let the military audience of the article convince you this is not relevant for your team. These are the words of one CEO (here of the U.S. Navy) to his employees.  Read it (please!) and then come back to my challenge to each of you below!

How much are you and your team investing in reading & writing? I know I have mentioned this personally to many of you via our leadership programs. I truly believe these 2 action verbs are absolute requirements to be a professional. 

This was one of the first leadership lessons I learned at West Point. There I learned, not everyone can be part of a profession.  There is usually a barrier to entrance, whether education requirements, experience, etc. I am a professional engineer, for example.  To gain entry required a degree, studies in specific courses, passing the “Engineering Fundamentals” exam, apprenticeship as a young engineer, and then finally, passing the Professional Engineering (P.E.) exam. For those of you who went through similar “gates” to get to your status within your respective profession – congratulations. That is just the beginning!

Sustaining one’s membership in any profession is not guaranteed. One of the most important elements to do so is continuing education.  I believe that continuing education requirement is both for technical skills and leadership. The profession continues to evolve, requiring members who do the same. And, as I hope the article convinced you, that membership demands two important actions – reading and writing! 

So, I hope you will look at your investment in both of these areas. And not just for yourself, but for your organization. Admiral Richardson raises the bar for all of us in the article with 3 actions he has committed to do for his organization, and which I challenge all of you to consider: 

1.       Provide a list of books that have impacted your thinking and professional growth. Most of your leaders aspire to be like you when they grow up (it’s true!). Help them understand what has shaped your thoughts within the profession (again, both technically and as a leader).

2.       Help make those books available to your troops. What better investment can you make in your future leaders?

3.       Create a forum where your team can talk about what they are reading. Exciting, isn’t it? Talk to your IT guys. They’ll set up the framework. You can start some great discussions, one book at a time!

Finally, I always remind people of the second, and often more challenging, part -- writing. What do professionals read? Often, it is what other professionals have written. When was the last time you (or one of your team) contributed something meaningful for the profession? This is usually possible via trade association journals or magazines. But even if only published in your organization’s newsletter, think about what this does for the team. Create a forum where people can contribute lessons learned, collaborate on new ideas and initiatives. You all are doing cool stuff. Tell people about it! As the Admiral says, “As reading leads to broader thinking, writing leads to clearer thinking.” 

Writing is hard. Writing without jargon, passive voice, circular arguments, and meaningless catch-phrases is even more of a challenge – especially for those of us in organizations whose writing is all of that (try reading some of your policy memos!). I say this with confidence, and from a place of love, because I have read your writings (well, most of you…via your leadership philosophies)! But, I have the solution, and it is simple. Write! The more you do it, the better you will get. Writing will help you connect the dots in your head, making sense out of chaos, and providing the clarity of thought that the Admiral suggests, and your organization needs. Take his advice though, and ask someone you respect to give you feedback before you throw yourself into the arena! I’m happy to help!

So, I’m challenging all of you, no matter where you are in your respective organization. Make a commitment to “Break out the books and sharpen the pens!” It will make you a better professional and, perhaps more important, could be the forcing function for your entire team to raise the bar. As I mentioned up front, it might very well change your life. It did for me! Heck, if the NAVY can do it…we all can! (I had to say it!)

Have a great week. As always, don’t hesitate to let me know how I can help in this or any other areas of your professional journey.  Lead the Way! That's Leaders Business!

Tom Magness

P.S. Our next Leadership “Boot Camp” is scheduled for 30 August – 1 September (  Let me know if you have candidates.  All of them will get a heavy dose of both reading and writing, plus much more!

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