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Leadership Lessons from Running a SQLSaturday Event


SQLSaturday Philippines

I’ve been involved with the SQL Server community ever since I can remember. I’ve been both a speaker and a volunteer and I know how it felt like to be on both sides of the fence. However, the one thing I haven’t been is an organizer myself. Until SQLSaturday218. This is the very first SQLSaturday event in the Philippines that was held last 9-Mar-2013.  Attendees, volunteers and speakers all claim that the event was a huge success and that they want it to be an annual event. But what they didn’t realize until the event was finally over was that SUCCESS always comes at a PRICE. The rewards of a champion only comes after the hard work and sacrifice, not before. SQLSaturday218 has reinforced a lot of leadership lessons that I have been practicing and teaching throughout the years.

  1. Find a higher purpose. I’ve blogged about this before and I’ve taught others about finding a higher purpose for things that we do.  SQLSaturday218 for me is more than just a SQL Server community event. It’s an attempt to express my patriotism in ways that I can do best. While most SQLSaturday organizers talk about technical education, I talk about loving my country. With the upcoming national elections in the Philippines, political candidates talk about bringing about change. I just made change happen thru SQLSaturday218. This wasn’t my original idea. Marlon Ribunal (blog | Twitter) and Justin Dearing (blog | Twitter) came up with the idea of running a SQLSaturday event in the Philippines. They included me in the conversation because they knew I was a die-hard FILIPINO. And the rest was history. My higher purpose helped me pursue even when the times are tough.
  2. Find allies, ignore detractors.  Every noble goal will have both. I always say that only fruitful trees get picked on. Nobody picks fruits on trees that don’t bear any. And, so be ready to have both allies and detractors. I heard a lot of folks tell me this is an insane idea. Nobody has ever organized a SQLSaturday event without physically being there. I was in Canada planning and organizing an event that was thousands of miles away from where I am, not to mention with a 12-hour time zone difference. I only knew (and have met) a handful of the volunteers. Regular SQLSaturday sponsors won’t fly to the Philippines just for this event. The odds are stacked up against me. I expected to have detractors. I was willing to take the stones that will get thrown at me. But I also did find allies. Niko Neugebauer  (blog | Twitter,) a fellow SQL Server MVP and PASS Community Evangelist was my greatest ally. He was the one who told me that it is possible and that I can make it happen because he was able to do it before. Allies will help you raise your shield when the detractors start throwing stones at you.
  3. Build a GREAT, UNITED team. People are what make things happen. That’s why you need to build a GREAT team. I’ve enlisted the help of people I knew who had the same passion for the community as I have. Culture is very important to me. That’s why I made sure that members of my team share the same values. They all went the extra mile to do things that I can’t because I wasn’t physically available. Some of my allies ended up being a part of the team.  And that’s why I brag about the people in my team who made SQLSaturday218 a huge success. But a great team will only go so far. A GREAT, UNITED team is unstoppable. In order to build a united team, they need to feel that they are a part of it in the first place. And building relationships is what makes that possible. Talk to team members. Understand what matters to them. Make them feel that they are special. Be willing to go the extra mile for them. If we are willing to do this for them now, imagine what they will be willing to do for you in the future.
  4. Over communicate.  It’s the leader’s job to keep the team informed. But sometimes, the same message has to be communicated several times in order for every one to get it. Over communication breeds clarity. It also addresses misunderstandings among those who receive the message. SQLSaturday has a website that organizers can use to do whatever they need to organize and run the event. While I maximized the use of the feature to send email communications to speakers, volunteers and registered attendees, I went the extra mile of sending personal emails. Every week for the past 6 weeks, I sent event updates to the registered attendees and those on the wait list. I also sent emails to the volunteers, giving them a picture of what to expect and what is expected of them. I also sent emails to my team about things that matter to us in order to make this event a success. I responded to emails, answered questions on instant messenger, did Skype calls, etc. in order to properly deliver the message.
  5. Ask for help but operate with a bootstrap mindset. My idea was to run SQLSaturday218 with very minimal to no sponsorship. That’s is because I wanted to create a mindset of creativity and resourcefulness. Plus, I also understand the challenges that most of the SQLSaturday sponsors have. It’s hard to spend money on sponsorships without the possibility of having immediate returns on their investments. I call myself the “self-proclaimed marketing guy” and I try to practice what I preach. I didn’t just go around asking for sponsorships. I only asked those who I believe will benefit from doing so. I even turned down several potential sponsors and explained why this would not benefit them. However, I didn’t just turn them down without offering them a long-term perspective of their marketing initiatives. And because we kept the bootstrap mindset, we operated as if we didn’t have resources. It’s amazing to see how people come up with creative ideas just because we don’t have the resources. So, when the resources became available, they were used to reward those who came up with creative ideas that got implemented.
  6. Have a detailed plan but be flexible enough when things don’t go as planned. I had a detailed project plan in place from start to finish. I shared it with my team and allowed them to make suggestions and modify it as necessary. But everyone knows that nobody can prepare and implement a perfect plan. Being flexible when things don’t go as planned is necessary for success.  We had delays with some of our deliverables. There were changes in the room assignments that affected the schedule and the signs that we printed out. But because everyone on the team understood what was expected, they all made things possible outside of the plan.
  7. Step back when necessary. Leaders have the tendency to do everything because they believe that success (and failure) lie in them. What they don’t realize is that not stepping back prevents potential rockstars to shine. At the day of the event, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Same thing with the volunteers. What’s really surprising is that I didn’t even have the chance to do a briefing session before we start doing the real work. All I did was shake their hands and introduced myself to them. Now, understand that these are people whom I haven’t personally met. But it’s as if they knew me very well and knew exactly what I expected of them. The volunteers were running on auto-pilot. That kept me focused on what I can do best. Had I not stepped back, I could have ruined the creative ideas that they were able to pull off and possibly discouraged them from trying again.
  8. Give as much A.I.R. as you possibly can. I blogged about giving appreciation, inspiration and recognition. As attendees were commenting on how great the event turned out to be, I took that opportunity to thank the sponsors, volunteers and speakers for making the event a huge success. At the volunteers’ and speakers’ dinner, I commented on the fact that I felt like having a great team from heaven. I sent emails to my contacts about how the event turned out to be, again, mentioning the fact that I had the best volunteers and speakers ever. I sent emails to the local sponsors, highlighting some of their staff who did a great job of volunteering at the event. I kept telling others, even sending personal emails and instant messages to the volunteers and speakers after the dinner, and constantly appreciating and recognizing their contributions. All of them wanted to be a part of next year’s SQLSaturday Philippines.

Leadership expert Dr. John C. Maxwell once said that “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been a student of leadership for the past decade.  The lessons I’ve learned help make me become a much better leader and also inspires others to do the same. With the outcome of SQLSaturday218, I think this will become an annual event with the help of the local SQL Server user group.

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Leadership By Conversation

January 22, 2013 1 comment

Connected by Conversation

Connected by Conversation by mikecogh

With all the travel that I’ve done for the past few years, I’ve learned how to pay attention to the people around me – how they talk,  act and even how they carry themselves. I’ve watched people talk to their kids, negotiate a seat on a plane, ask for favors, etc. I’ve learned a lot about people just by observing and watching them go about their life. One thing that caught my attention during my recent trip was how people like to engage in a conversation. I was on a flight from Charlotte to New York City getting ready to tighten my seat belt as I heard the flight attendant talk to one of the passengers aboard the plane (I was just a few feet away to hear their conversation.) The passenger happens to be another flight attendant who is on his way to Europe for a vacation. What’s very interesting is that their conversation evolved from the trip itinerary to the strategic approach that the airline can undertake to improve customer service and satisfaction. In a previous blog post, I’ve highlighted how merchandise staff who didn’t even go to college talked about strategic positioning of products for increased sales. This is the kind of information that leaders value. But why isn’t this kind of information making it’s way into the boardrooms? Let me tell you why. It’s because upper management have not taken that extra step of engaging their staff in conversations. Do you remember one of those conversations you’ve had with your close friends where you kept talking yet they weren’t paying any attention? I bet you stopped talking when you noticed (or maybe tried to do something to get their attention back.)

Leadership expert Dr.  John Maxwell said this in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Engaging people in conversations means more than just extracting information from individuals. It means paying attention to what matters to them. Even the small details matter. Sometimes, even as simple as listening could mean a lot. When we know that what we say matter to the listener, we’re more inclined to be open and speak more.

Leaders and managers have resorted to memos and emails to communicate their message to the organization. Unfortunately, this approach has created barriers in communication. As leaders, it is our responsibility to take that first step. Get out of your office, walk among the crowd and engage your staff in a conversation. Who knows, your next big product or service idea might come from the janitor.

How Do You Pick Your Leaders?


As your organization grows, you need more competent people placed in the right positions. This applies to both rank-and-file staff and managers. Nowadays, most organizations outsource their staff selection to recruitment and staffing firms. They provide a list of required skills and the recruitment firms run with it, using tools like software resume parser to make it easy to sift thru tons of submission. But if you want your organization to go to the next level of growth, strategic staff selection is key, more important when it comes to management and leadership positions. While studying the marketing secrets of Jesus, I was inspired by reading Matthew 4:12-25 to write a blog post about his staff selection process, noting that He wasn’t just selecting rank-and-file staff but leaders who will eventually take His cause to the next level. Here are key things to note about his selection process that organizations can use as a template when selecting leaders.

  1.  He walked among the crowd (Matt. 4:18). He found Simon and Andrew while walking by the Sea of Galilee. The fact of the matter is, Jesus was a native Galilean. This means He knows people within the community – their lifestyle, their jobs, where their kids go to school, etc. Sometimes I wonder if He just sat there during His leisure time to watch how people go about their day or talk to them at the end of their day. My dad, being a fishing hobbyist, usually spends time with the other fishing fanatics along the State Beach of Pacifica, CA. He can tell you everything there is to know about those people. The problem with most executives and managers nowadays is that they don’t even know what project their staff is working on unless some issue arises. Ken Blanchard, in his book with Don Shula entitled The Little Book Of Coaching,  calls this the “seagull management” (in a previous blog post, I talked about how positive reinforcement is a great management and leadership strategy.)   The challenge with large organizations nowadays is that having too many staff becomes a very good excuse not to know every one of them. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was known for visiting stores and asking employees how they feel about the store and asking for suggestions to improve operations. I bet Jesus knows the fishing techniques used by Simon and Andrew that He managed to strike a conversation with them. If you want to find the next leader within the organization, try “walking among the crowd.”
  2. He recruited them personally (Matt 4:19). James D. Jameson, Member of Global Advisory Board of Trilantic Capital Management LLC, writes that he “does a lot of the recruiting himself and often find that his picks are people already in the company.” Successful leaders know that they have to take responsibility for selecting their key staff. Culture is one indicator of how somebody will fit within the organization and, more often than not, is defined by the leader. A good case study for this is Nike’s former CEO Bill Perez who was let go because “he didn’t fit the culture.“Jesus knew how He wanted his top personnel to function because He defined the culture. That’s why He personally recruited them – Simon and Andrew first, then, James and John (Matt 4:21). Trying to fully understand an outsider during the hiring process is a challenging task and, most of the times, is an exercise in futility. Leaders need to have a hand in selecting key people who will run with them and grow the organization. And this is why walking among the crowd helps them know people who already fit the culture and have leadership potential – it’s easier to recruit them personally.
  3. He spoke their language (Matt 4:19). We are all guilty of communicating in a more complex way, and the same is true with leaders – the revenue targets for next year, the problem with customer retention and high turnover, etc. But if I’m the guy in-charge  of inventory, how will I understand the issues that the organization face if all the business jargons are wrapped around the key message? It makes me feel that the leader just wants to communicate how smart he or she is by using all of these buzzwords that only executives understand. Jesus knew how to communicate using our language. We know Him as a carpenter or, as some may say, a skilled craftsman. There’s a big difference between a fisherman and a craftsman. Both of them use different sets of tools, different jargons in their daily communication, different industry news,  different stories to tell. Yet He used words that Simon and Andrew understood – “I will make you fishers of men.” It’s a leader’s attempt to be one of his subordinates.  Great leaders know that they need to communicate about what people care about. And that means speaking their language.

You might think that Jesus was advocating leader selection from within the organization rather than bringing in an outsider. But that is mainly because He was preparing for the growth of His organization, not trying to revive a dying one. What about you? How do you or your organization select leaders and managers? I’d like to hear from you.

Work With, Not For


A typical response everytime you ask somebody where they work is this: “I work for…” Whether intentional or simply something we got used to, it somehow represents how our working relationships are with our employer or boss. In a boss-subordinate kind of relationship, there is not much to say about co-dependence. Maybe this is where we got the term “working for.” And maybe we need a new mindset where the boss-subordinate kind of relationship needs to be changed to something like “coach-team staff” where everybody in the team would realize the value each one brings into the team to become successful. Think about it. Imagine a basketball team where each player has a different goal or the star player wants to show off or the coach simply wants to finish the game. There’s no way they can make it to the championship with that kind of mindset. But with each member of the team focusing on a common goal, “working with” each other instead of working for the coach, the championship is just a matter of time. Co-dependency may not make a star player but it definitely makes a championship team. And a championship team makes every member a star player.