Level-Up #3—Cultivating Grace or Fire Under Pressure

levelupThe Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting your professional development as an emerging executive.

There will be bad days, tough situations or pivotal debates on key issues with colleagues that will trip your trigger and stimulate your fight (as in argue) or flight reflex. For some of us who never met a good knock-down argument we didn’t love, the situation will tempt our fight or fight-harder reflexes. And for those who tend to operate on the quiet side of the equation, sometimes you just need to be heard.

Learning to match just the right level of emotion or passion to each situation is important in gaining support for your initiatives and gaining much needed credibility with team members and your firm’s senior leaders. Knowing how to temper your emotions in the heat of a business battle is equally important.

For those Predisposed to Engage Aggressively in the Debate, There’s a Line:

I managed to get away with stepping over what I would now perceive as a reasonable line in a number of challenging moments during the level-up phase of my career. In hindsight, I’m fortunate that I did not derail right out of a role or off into a position penalty box. While I cannot recall having a distinct strategy, I believed to my core that my passionate engagement was on the side of goodness for my firm. I came out fine and mostly unscathed. I’m certain luck helped in a few instances.

My mistakes and those that I see frequently involve miscalculations on whether to engage and debate passionately (fight) or withdraw and reassess options. For many of us, the idea of compromise feels a lot like defeat.

Never Engage in an Emotionally Turbocharged Issue Blind:

It’s likely I set the all-time record for mistakes and gaffes when as a rising product and marketing director, I managed to tick off one of the top senior executives of my very large Japanese employer. He was making a ceremonial visit that turned somehow into a very detailed business discussion over forthcoming products and the end-of-life management of our cash cow product in particular. The dialog moved tactical and I believed passionately in moving this system out of market with a bang…leveraging it to capture market share in its last year. He didn’t. I argued passionately (and with volume in my voice) for my case and the situation became uncomfortable. As I later learned when the meeting adjourned, the senior director offered to my boss, “He really ticked me off. I like him.”

I got lucky. I showed passion for a product that was very personal to those who had engineered and enhanced and supported it for many years. I respected their baby. I was a newbie, and I was willing to fight. While I violated almost every cultural norm in the situation, I had established my reputation for strength and the willingness to advocate for what I believed was right for the firm. My motives were perceived as pure.

Too Loud, Too Long or Too Quiet are All Problems:

I’ve observed many others stubbornly hang on to a position that seems to everyone else in the room to be mostly self-serving. In this case, the incessant arguing seems irrational and selfish, unleashing a credibility killing cloud of hot air that becomes suffocating to others.

Hang on too long to the wrong position for the wrong reasons and you’ll do yourself more harm than good.

I’ve also worked with professionals who erred by spending too much on the side of quiet reserve. While a strategic retreat when you are losing a firefight is a reasonable approach, the failure to know when to stand up for your position and ensure that you are heard communicates weakness and works against you with those responsible for your Level-Up opportunities.

7 Suggestions for Matching Your Response to the Moment:

1. Sometimes you have to jump through the walls. Overcoming the resistance of the status quo in many circumstances requires extraordinary energy. Your willingness to engage passionately for something you believe is in the best interest of the business will wear down resistance and even build enthusiasm. It’s appropriate to let the fire in your belly for an issue turn into passionate and constructive debate.

2. Not every situation demands that you jump through walls. Sometimes it’s appropriate to walk through the door. Save your passion for the big issues. This skill will become particularly important in senior management and boardroom settings.

3. Don’t cross the line and make the debate personal. Ever. When that happens, you’ve lost the debate and you’ve lost credibility with everyone in fallout range.

4. Do seek first to understand. Always. This is a recurring theme in my coaching and posts. Too many people focus on their position…their approach and far too few strive to find shared interests. Once the interests are uncovered for an issue, you can construct an approach that serves various constituencies. Again, this is a critical skill to cultivate that will set you apart from peers and help those who must select you for more opportunity to develop confidence in your approach.

5. Learn to self-regulate. If the battle has been lost, withdraw and offer your support. It’s better to be respected for advocating an idea and then accepting that it’s going in another direction than it is to be known as that pain in the a@@ who won’t let go.

6. Know your opponents. My example above with the senior director of a firm from a very different culture was extremely dangerous. He allowed my to violate his cultural standards because we were in our environment. He was enlightened. I wasn’t. Don’t expect to find someone quite as enlightened in most circumstances. I’m fortunate that I wasn’t put in the permanent penalty box in that environment after picking a fight blindfolded.

7. There’s a time to make noise even if you’re quiet by nature. Cultivating the courage to step into an important issue and assert your opinion will help build your level-up credibility. People recognize your quiet nature and heads will turn and resistance may melt when you shift your style momentarily and engage. The failure to engage is a limiting factor.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I appreciate professionals who debate constructively, passionately and intelligently for their points. In fact, I love working with these types. It shows me they are engaged and motivated to do what it takes to get beyond the sticky gravitational pull of the status quo. If the results are good and the passion is more than self-serving hot air, I look for reasons to promote these types. For those who simply like to argue, don’t expect much support in your quest to level-up.

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In Pursuit of Senior Management Team Cohesion

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

In the most recent post in this series, I emphasized the importance of carefully cultivating senior management team chemistry …particularly when it comes to neutralizing the impact of toxic participants. However, even with the positive situation of a ph-neutral group of senior leaders (including the CEO) at the management team roundtable, there’s still no guarantee of high performance.

It’s just not that simple.

As we shift away from the issue of toxicity (a deal-killer for team performance) and move towards cultivating high performance at the senior management group level, the ideas of team cohesion and team attraction come into play.

The Research View on the Ideas of Senior Team Cohesion and Attraction:

In my own (non-exhaustive) review of the somewhat limited research on the topic of top management team performance and cohesion, researchers serve up guidance that is difficult to describe, more difficult to measure and even more challenging to connect in a causal way to firm performance. Nonetheless, the few studies that tackle this topic suggest a positive correlation (but not causation) between senior management team cohesion and a firm’s performance.

Before tackling the practical implications of cultivating cohesion and attraction, let’s look at some of the terms (drawn from the study, Top Management Team Attraction as a Strategic Asset).

The classic definition of cohesion (Fetzinger) describes it as the “resultant of all forces acting on members to remain in the group. These forces include a range of factors such as member attraction, shared goals, network benefits and social identification”

The dimension of team member attraction references “the degree to which top management team members desire to identify with and be accepted members of the team.” And perhaps, the most telling statement on this dimension of cohesion reads, “top team member attraction is a socially complex phenomenon reflecting the unique personalities of team members.”

Like team cohesion, attraction is squishy and not easily manipulated, fostered or replicated in practice. However, the idea of attraction and the broader category of cohesion do provide us with some clues to work with in our pursuit of the high performance management team.

At Least 5 Ideas to Promote Team Cohesion and Attraction:

There’s some well-worn but worthwhile advice in the sources on team development that many of us read and talk about. Lencioni is perhaps the most practical with his 5 Dysfunctions, however, we need to flip those around and turn them into 5 high performance functions.

There’s ample research on team development (teams in general, project teams specifically), and in aggregate, the material offers content to build a framework for team success, but little in the way of practical, actionable ideas for strengthening senior management team performance. There are test instruments to help us assess team dynamics and no shortage of options to climb with, hike with or catch our colleagues in trust-falls. Nonetheless, for the typical team and CEO wondering where to go next, guidance is in short supply.

I’m a fan of starting simple with well-intended actions versus over-baking the complexity of this already complex issue. Here’s one reminder and a few thoughts for you to try on for size. Use them in great senior team health!

1. You Must Create the Fundamental Condition—A Neutral Team PH

This theme of my prior post in this series bears repeating. Nothing (good) happens on a team when a member is not trusted over questions of character, values or ethics. Just don’t confuse passion and commitment to debate vociferously with toxicity. This isn’t a “why can’t we all agree” issue, it’s a fundamental concern over the integrity of a team member. If the other team members don’t trust someone, cohesion won’t occur and attraction is diminished.

2. The Purpose Must Be Big and Personal! Note: Growth is Not Big and Personal.

Every college student learns in the first course on management that one of the core conditions for positive team performance is a clear and compelling purpose. And for much of their subsequent professional careers, they find themselves attached to teams where the purpose is neither clear nor compelling. That’s on us as managers.

At the top of organizations, senior managers have their own vacuum-of-purpose problem. As individuals, they have functional purpose and accountability, but at the roundtable of peers plus the CEO, they tend to act more like megaphones for their various areas instead of team members united around a common set of galvanizing goals.

I love Guy Kawasaki’s short clip from Stanford, entitled, Make Meaning. Kawasaki suggests (and I agree) that the pursuit of making money isn’t enough…and yet most top management groups focus on the chase for growth. Instead, he suggests three key focal points to make meaning…increase the quality of life of some audience, right a wrong in the world or prevent the end of something good. While Kawasaki is referencing the “make meaning” theme in the context of entrepreneurs, the theme holds in the senior management environment. Without a meaning or purpose beyond the numbers, cohesion won’t develop and attraction will be transactional.

This idea of making meaning begs bringing mission to life and focusing a vision around something bigger than today and galvanizing for not only the senior managers but for all employees. One of the drivers for senior leadership teams must be helping to ensure that employees feel that same sense of being part of something bigger than themselves or their functions. Building team cohesion starts with re-examining and clarifying the meaning for everyone and for the firm.

3. Change the Meeting Environment: Try Living Together for a Few Days!

The typical company or hotel conference room is an energy sink. There’s nothing stimulating about sitting in the same room with the same furniture and the same artwork meeting after meeting. The table is a barrier that we sit behind…and we’ve all long been conditioned to act and function with reserve in this setting. Instead, find an environment where the table doesn’t separate people and there’s freedom to move and engage comfortably and loudly for extended periods.

One senior management team I know moves its meetings a few times per year to a couple of luxury homes at a mountain resort 70 miles from headquarters. While this might shout boondoggle, it’s far from it. The rental cost off-season or during the week is less than the typical hotel room per person. The team divides into two homes (everyone has their own room) and each house takes turns preparing meals in an ad hoc competition around one of the great human bonding experiences…eating together for a few days. And yes, the house that cooks the meal also handles the cleaning!

The big common rooms of the homes are ideal meeting places that promote movement and engagement, and the dirty little secret of these settings is that living with co-workers for a few days promotes relationship development and a lot of long hours of business talk that would never take place in the death march meeting inside a conference room.

4. Divvy Up Work Assignments in Pairs…and Not By Functions.

The work of the senior management team should not be functional in nature. This team owns ensuring that the fundamentals for broad success are in place…a clear sense of organizational purpose; the right talent in the right seats; broad involvement and engagement in strategy and assuring the strategy execution systems are in place. If you have functional assignments for one or more of your executives, take this off-line from the senior management team environment.

Use the senior team meeting setting to identify the big topics that will enable the organization to better execute on strategy and work towards vision, and then assign the individuals best suited for the initiative to work together. While you will sometimes end up with counter-intuitive teaming arrangements…imagine, sales and engineering or marketing and IT working together, the approach supports both relationship development and creativity in pursuit of the tasks. A great deal of subsequent good can emerge from a relationship built on having tackled and succeeded with a tough topic that helped the organization move forward.

5. Victories and Defeats are Equally Valuable…Don’t Squander Them

Good senior management teams celebrate victories…with employees and as a group. Great senior leadership teams link arms around defeats and do the work necessary to come away stronger and smarter. The CEO who smiles when life is good and the tide is rising and then flails and rails when something goes wrong is a CEO who won’t create a high performance team. Same goes for the team members when one of the group comes up short. As long as there is no attempt at obfuscation or deflection, the point of the team is to be stronger than any one individual. Great teams pull together to make each other better. The “better” comes from hard times and failures, not the easy victories. Recognize that the next “Oh sh!t” situation is the next opportunity to improve team cohesion.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I respect the notion that this big topic of promoting high performance with senior management teams is not adequately addressed in a single post or even a series of these posts. It’s a journey here just like it’s a journey in your organization. At the end of the day, we’re trying to foster an environment where smart, successful subject matter experts learn (or remember) how to work in a team setting. The answers are both simple and complex. The only failure here is for you to not try. I believe to my core that a high performance top management team is a strategic asset not easily replicated by competitors. Sounds like a source of competitive advantage to me!

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

It’s Your Career—The Power of Displaying Passion for Your Work

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas and guidance on strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

There’s something infectious and likeable about someone who displays obvious passion for their work, particularly when the enthusiasm is anchored in fixing, improving or innovating around something meaningful to others and to the firm. For professionals climbing the rungs of the organizational ladder or navigating boundary crossing in highly siloed organizations, visible enthusiasm for your work will serve you well during your journey.

What you project about yourself, your attitude and your enthusiasm for your work are all important components of your professional presence…how people perceive you as a professional. Since others must choose you for more responsibility, it’s important to have your presence working hard for you and not against you. Putting your passion for your work on display is one way of projecting a stronger, more positive presence.

Managers appreciate employees who show how much they enjoy their work. (Perhaps more than you will know.) Executives are hard-wired to notice people who seem to thrive and enjoy their work and new challenges. And peers and other resources tend to rally around individuals they perceive as genuine in their interest to right a wrong, fix something that is broken or do something new for the greater good.

Your showcasing your personal passion for your work is an admission ticket to the early stages of that precious asset we seek from others, known as trust. Your enthusiasm excites a similar emotion in others, something that is sadly often dormant in your many un-engaged co-workers who have grown accustomed to accepting the status quo. Armed with the trust and support of others, you can move mountains.

Alternatively, a dour demeanor or one that seems to project a constant aura of boredom or worse, righteous indignation laced with I’m just here to do my job and by the way, I’m right and you’re wrong, has the opposite effect of the positively passionate individual. I’ve known, managed and coached plenty of both of these individuals over my career, and without a doubt, the individuals who showcased genuine interest in others and authentic enthusiasm for their work and their firm’s work have grossly out-distanced their often very intelligent but less excited peers.

While putting a smile on your face and ginning up some halfhearted enthusiasm won’t get you too far…people will see through your attempt at a façade. Those striving to grow and advance in their careers will be well served by discovering (or re-discovering) what they love about their work and putting it on display. And by the way, if there’s nothing left in the tank that resembles passion for your work, it’s time to consider a new direction.

5 Ideas to Strengthen Your Professional Presence and Put Your Passion on Display:

1. Start with shifting your attitude from “I’m here” to “You’re here!” One of the great role models of professional presence in my career was an incredibly successful business owner who was widely viewed as the patriarch of his industry. He was a marvel to watch as he arrived at a conference or entered a room. Some people project the aura of “I’m here and I’m important, please acknowledge it.” His approach projected “You’re here and I’m honored to see you and I acknowledge you.”

Whether you were a senior executive or someone fairly low on the ladder, he sought you out, engaged with you and left you feeling like he appreciated you. Needless to say, that approach earned him widespread respect and massive cooperation for a number of his industry initiatives. The “I’m here” attitude projection is a derailment factor and the “You’re here” showcases interest and enthusiasm for being in the presence of others. It is indeed a powerful approach to leverage.

2. Execute on social blocking and tackling. The basics count! Smile more, engage with people with the “You’re here” attitude suggested above and practice and employ active listening techniques. The latter emphasizes listening more than talking, striving to understand the views of others by asking questions and then working hard to offer supportive ideas or direct help.

3. Seek first to understand. While much about passion is you putting your enthusiasm for your project or work on display, it’s imperative that you understand how your ideas fit with the interests and initiatives of others. Too often in the workplace, people are at cross-purposes over approaches. They focus and argue on “The What.” They fail to understand that they completely agree on “The Why.” No one loves a pontificating blowhard who fails to listen to the views of others. Everyone appreciates someone who can listen and understand interests and blend or meld ideas.

4. Accept and project that you are there to solve problems. Too many professionals display a sense of righteous indignation over the problems they encounter…and of course these problems are always because others are too ignorant to get their part right. That’s bull. Your job is to enthusiastically seek out and engage with others to make things better (improved quality, reduced time or cost, improved effectiveness etc.). Stop thinking and projecting that you are the only smart one in a sea of idiots and start recognizing and displaying through your actions that you are here to help fix and strengthen.

5. Turn the volume up but remember, it’s not about you! Many good professionals struggle with articulating how important they perceive their work is and how excited they are to be engaged in it. And when they do find the courage to share their enthusiasm, the message comes out muddled or it seems self-serving to others.

Do find or create opportunities to share your genuine excitement. Project review meetings, executive updates and even workplace social situations are all appropriate venues to showcase your enthusiasm for your initiatives. Make certain however, to anchor your excitement in why the initiative is relevant/helpful/germane to creating something new, fixing something that needs fixing or doing something important more effectively. It’s not about you!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Showcasing your passion for your work sends a strong message to everyone around you. It screams, “I’m engaged, I’m here to help and to solve, and let’s do something great.” As an executive, and a coach, I love this attitude. I’ll move mountains to help these people. Sadly, this type of enthusiasm is either dormant in many or simply in short supply. Odd, because it costs absolutely nothing. Try it on for size, you might just like the results in your career and your life.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

The Sticky Topics of Senior Management Team Chemistry & Performance

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

The use of the word “team” to reference the collection of a firm’s senior leaders is generous at best and fallacious in many cases. Senior managers don’t necessarily gel as a team and perhaps a more accurate description of them in the context of a group might be that they are a collection of intelligent, successful functional leaders who occasionally come together and tolerate each other for a few hours of collegial discussion.

While my view may sound slightly or very cynical, I’m comfortable that it is closer to reality than the view that these groups naturally function as effective teams. Sad, but true for a variety of reasons, and this lack of cohesion and lack of commitment to working and functioning as a team leaves performance and potential on the table and CEOs everywhere wondering what to do to get more from the people they depend upon to run their businesses.

The list of reasons for the failure of most senior leadership groups to gel as a high performance team is long and many sounding and acting a great deal like Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I focused on a variety of these failure to gel causes, with emphasis on the critical lack of meeting the fundamental conditions of a team and a related lack of identity and purpose as a group.

There’s a certain not surprising reality that collections of highly successful, intelligent individuals who have long careers as functional leaders and experts won’t easily or immediately walk in a room and let down their guards and trust their peers or CEO enough to perform as a team. The operative words here are “easily” or “immediately.”

It’s difficult, but doable to help these groups develop as teams. However, it takes hard, deliberate work on the part of the CEO and it requires an eyes-wide-open view to a variety of issues, including the important and somewhat squishy topic of the chemistry between the team members.

The chemistry of any group of individuals is a compound comprised of a number of ingredients. From my frequently referenced compelling purpose to the ever-present issue of trust to different personality types and working/communicating/decision styles to the biases of each individual’s values and experiences, the senior group chemistry is less a recipe than a bubbling cauldron of issues and differences. The differences between team members make it challenging to align yet those differences are ultimately strengths that can make the group more effective as a team. At least two key areas that critically impact team chemistry, include team membership and the presence of toxicity.

Who’s On the Team?

Too often, CEOs err on the side of broadening inclusion in an attempt to stimulate performance at the senior leadership level, while ignoring the real team-forming issues of purpose, shared accountability and a limited agenda of actions (direction, strategy and strategy execution coordination). The broader inclusion seems like a good tool to develop new leaders and to stimulate communication and working activities, however, it masks the reality that the team does not have a clear reason for being. Instead of a team emerging, a bigger committee emerges with all of the attendant complexities of larger and unwieldy groups.

One approach is to consider the opposite of expansion and shrink the team to the core people accountable for strategy definition and execution coordination. Another is to split senior leaders into two different groups…an executive committee armed with a crystal clear charter with visible accountability for a limited set of issues around guiding and governing and a senior leadership group responsible for managing and monitoring and ensuring the operating cadence and daily health of the organization. This latter group also requires a crystal clear charter and a visible list of items they are accountable for delivering.

And Then There’s Toxicity:

We all know toxicity when we see it in action. From blatant political plays (turf protection, bigger budgets without purpose, deflecting responsibility) to the more subtle passive-aggressive behavior that has some individuals nodding their head in agreement in a group setting and ignoring or even countermanding the “agreed upon” direction in private, the presence of toxicity is a serious problem for the CEO and senior management group. And 100% of the time, the presence of toxicity indicates that the CEO has dropped the ball on a critical issue around team development and coaching that only they can own in the senior leadership setting. It’s up to the CEO to neutralize or extract the toxicity.

5 Ideas to Help Get the Toxicity Out and Performance Up:

1. Clarifying what it means to be a member of the team helps underscore expectations for performance and accountability as individuals and as a group.  Membership on the senior management team is an earned privilege not an inalienable right of someone with a title. Make the criteria clear and spell out the expectations for shared and individual  responsibilities.

2. Narrowing the agenda will focus energy and increase accountability. The lack of clear and compelling purpose for senior leaders as a team is a huge detractor to performance and an invitation to all forms of aberrant behaviors. The best senior leadership teams operate with a laser focus on setting direction, identifying core strategies and coordinating strategy execution. Beware of going much further than those key issues at this level.

3. Strengthening accountability for outcomes takes away the opportunity for the political animals or passive-aggressive types to hide in plain sight. Too often senior management gatherings are debating societies where issues are talked about but accountable actions nowhere to be found. There must be accountability for forward progress on the key issues from meeting to meeting. A simple follow-up list indicating the issue, ownership and timing can work wonders here.

4. Shared activities strengthen relationships and further reduce the opportunity for destructive behaviors. The meeting is simply a prelude to the value creating work of solving, fixing or innovating that must take place between meetings. Find natural groupings of senior leaders to attack key issues together and make their work visible.

5. Exorcising toxic or unproductive team members allows the healthy team to flourish. Again, membership is an earned privilege and not a right. When the CEO upholds this principle and removes unproductive or destructive participants, she is reinforcing the spirit of accountability so critical to team performance. In every instance where I’ve observed toxic member(s) being booted off the island, team dynamics and performance improved almost immediately. Everyone knows the toxicity is there, but only the CEO can excise it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Humans are challenging creatures and those who have climbed high in their professions are particularly resistant to being herded, even if the one doing the herding is the CEO. When it comes to promoting performance of senior professionals in a team setting, there’s no substitute for a crystal clear charter with a laser focus on the right issues. Beyond the clear reason for being and clear identification of tasks, it’s all about getting the right people in the seats and the wrong people out of the room and maybe out of the business. The laser focus on a limited set of tasks and clear, shared accountability for the right outcomes go a long way towards promoting good team chemistry and supporting the emergence of high performance.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—Is that Employee Not Right or Not Ready?

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

One of the recurring warnings in my writing for leaders is the very sobering encouragement to beware spending too much time with the wrong people. While the notion of giving up on someone sounds very un-leader like, this trap is one that I see well-intended professionals, from CEOs to front-line supervisors fall victim to with alarming regularity. The performance and environmental costs from this mistake are high to their teams and firms, and this message bears repeating.

We all know that getting the right people in the right seats is a prerequisite for success. The challenge comes when we find ourselves dealing with someone who isn’t quite right or isn’t quite ready and they’re occupying a critical seat.

Good leaders will do the right thing with those who aren’t quite ready. A combination of training, coaching and developmental assignments laced with ample feedback is often the right recipe to help someone gain experience and context for a bigger role. And when it works, it feels great for all parties involved.

The problem comes in assessing whether the individual is Not Ready or Not Right for the role. This happens frequently when a leader inherits a new team and lacks context to effectively assess each individual. Lacking specific evidence to support the Not Right conclusion, the leader opts for the same Not Ready treatment described above. It’s only after the passage of time and ample opportunity to observe that the dilemma becomes visible. This is where the trap opens wide and swallows the time, energy and treasure of too many otherwise well-intended leaders.

At Least 4 Reasons Why We Don’t Recognize the Not Right Employees:

1. We’re invested with time and treasure. We’ve given our time, treasure and trust and it is easier to keep investing than it is to cut our losses. This is the classic sunk-cost problem of decision-making, where we fail to realize that prior investments are sunk…they’re gone and that they should have no bearing on our decision to invest moving forward. Instead, we engage in our own game of, “With a bit more time and money… .”

2. We don’t love to admit mistakes. Giving up on someone is an admission that we were wrong. This fear of admitting a mistake feeds the sunk cost effect described above and is a reason why so many leaders just keep going with individuals who are less than ideal for the role. It’s easier to keep up the facade of progress than it is to admit to the boss that we screwed up and this person we’ve advocated for isn’t right for this role.

3. We like the person…we’re emotionally invested. Unless the individual has any particularly odious characteristics, we tend to like those we work around and those we invest in, and once you cross the chasm to viewing these people as friends, a decision to quit investing becomes significantly more difficult.

4. We misapply the “develop others” mantra in our values. It’s actually quite common for me to see someone in a leadership role perceiving that their job in support of their firm’s values is to not give up. Ever. This misinterpretation of an otherwise fine value tends to perpetuate situations where the leaders go so far beyond the call of reasonable that they become part of the problem.

5 Suggestions to Help with the Not Ready or Not Right Dilemma:

I’m an unabashed fan of erring on the side of the individual, particularly, if we perceive they have the basic character and intellect to be productive members of our team. However, the biggest mistakes of my career have been my own misapplication of this noble thinking by spending too much time with people who in the end were never going to be right for the role.

1. Move Quickly to Support Development. If you’ve inherited a new team and find yourself facing a Not Ready dilemma, opt in favor of the individual and offer developmental support early. From skills (training) to behaviors (coaching), your assessment and your quick support are essential to resolving this dilemma.

2. Truly Pay Attention to Performance. Too many leaders assume the training or coaching has taken care of the developmental issues and they fail to pay attention to the individual’s performance and behaviors in the workplace. You must look for evidence of development and you must offer feedback if you are or are not seeing it in the individual’s daily efforts.

3. Talk Often and Mostly Ask Questions. Questions are one of the leaders most powerful teaching tools and the right questions will allow you to gauge an individual’s developmental progress. Are they thinking through problems and solutions holistically? Are they framing decisions with multiple views? Are they applying critical thinking to the challenges they encounter on a daily basis? Your active questioning (and listening) promotes learning and helps you assess an individual’s readiness for the role.

4. Observe How Others Engage with this Individual. While a 360-degree assessment can be a powerful tool, the ad hoc approach is to observe this individual in many circumstances and watch how people react to and engage with him/her. The body language and behaviors of others around and towards the individual speak volumes.

5. Set Your Own Deadline, Study and Then Trust Your Gut. You’re in the leadership role because others trust your ability to make effective, timely decisions that help support goal achievement. The decisions you make on people are truly mission critical, and the longer you go without the right people in the right roles, the more you jeopardize your team’s and your firm’s success. Set a reasonable deadline on a decision and stick to it. If after a fair evaluation conducted by observing and engaging with the individual, you still have doubts about the individual’s ability to operate at the current or a higher level, trust your gut and make a change. You’ve done your part.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Fresh off my re-reading (and teaching) of the outstanding book, Management Lessons from the Mayo Clinic (applicable to leaders and managers in all industries), the authors offered two pertinent reminders on the people factor in this institution’s 100-plus year run of excellence: the people remain the conclusive explanatory variable, and, attracting great people is the first rule of execution.  They’re right. In all cases. If you fight this formula, you’ll be hurting yourself, your team and your firm. Don’t confuse Not Right with Not Ready.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.