Just One Thing—The Impact of a Simple Gesture

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

I fly almost weekly, and for the most part, the experience is sterile, mildly uncomfortable and less than memorable. I typically occupy one of the seats in an exit row, and like everyone else in steerage, I buy my meal if I’m hungry, and I keep my nose in my reading and my ears plugged with music. Conversations, if any, are typically left to those traveling with family or friends.

My airline of necessity, United, does a good job of getting me from point to point mostly on-time. One flight blends into another with no distinguishing characteristics. The attendants are efficient, if not a bit harried, and I have nothing but words of appreciation for the professionals who pilot these flying buses with skill in all manner of conditions. Nonetheless, if given an alternative that offered a better experience with equal convenience, I suspect I would not care about the logo on the tail of the plane.

During my Friday afternoon return home flight last week, I engaged in the usual process of squeezing into a seat trying to make myself small because the person next to me wasn’t, and generally tuning out the experience in the hope that it would soon end. A simple announcement altered the experience.

In mid-flight, the attendant shared with the passengers that the gentleman in seat 20C was on his retirement flight, returning from headquarters to his home in Chicago. This was his final business flight after several decades of traveling with the airline.

Hearty applause followed the announcement and suddenly the flight changed. People emerged from their self-imposed digital cocoons and started conversing. The passengers in the vicinity of the retiree asked questions and offered their congratulations and more than a few of us shared our own flying and career experiences with our previously unknown seatmates.

As people deplaned, there were more congratulations and best wishes and encouragement for lowering his golf score, and then like always, everyone faded into the terminal in pursuit of connections, baggage or transportation. Nonetheless, the experience was different. It had been altered by that simple gesture.

The simple act of singling someone out and highlighting a milestone humanized the entire experience. It didn’t take much time…30 seconds or so for the announcement, and it didn’t cost the airline any money. All it took was an alert attendant who engaged with his customers and learned how important this single flight was to one person.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a lesson in this situation for any airline or business striving to differentiate in a world where almost everything seems to be some flavor of vanilla. The best marketing always has been and always will be relating to people as individuals and creating a warm, memorable experience.

There’s a lesson here for leaders as well. Imagine if you tried this today in your workplace with your own team members. People do their best work when they perceive they are being treated as individuals who matter. The cost is zero. The time investment is nominal. All you have to do is pay attention and then offer a small gesture. The payoff is priceless.

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.

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

 

Leadership Caffeine—Beware Becoming Part of the Drama

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!

Let’s face it, some people thrive on bringing their personal challenges into the workplace and baring them all for the world to see. These drama kings and queens seem to revel in sharing their own misery with us in a seemingly never-ending series of scenes from the worst tragic Broadway or faux-Shakesperian play ever.

As distracting and annoying as these people and their gray clouds of doom and dust become, it’s all too easy for the manager to get caught up in these serial soap operas, excusing poor performance or spotty attendance due to the nightmarish circumstances of the latest tragedy, illness, divorce, break-up, melt-down or (insert one you’ve heard before). In some cases, the unwitting manager gets sucked into this black hole of emotional turmoil and productivity loss and takes on the role of counselor. The outcome in this situation is almost always a bad one.

In the section entitled, “The Top Ten Challenges of New Leaders” in our book, Practical Lessons in Leadership, Rich Petro and I served up at number 3, “The personal problems of your associates will become your problems if you let them (and sometimes you can’t help it). It was #3, not #10 for a reason. Playing the role of counselor or headshrinker without a license is like driving blindfolded down the freeway on the way to work. You’re going to crash.

While I’m supportive of those in leadership roles cultivating strong working relationships that incorporate empathy and the right kind of support for the personal challenges of team members, beware crossing the line from empathy and support to becoming part of the dramatic play. Once you cross this line, you risk sacrificing your objectivity not only with the individual in question, but also in the eyes of your entire team.

4 Ideas to Help You Avoid Becoming Part of the Drama:

1. Get to know your team members. They aren’t automatons, human capital or pieces of equipment. They are human beings. Show interest in their work and their lives. Ask questions about the pictures on their desk. If hobbies or weekend activities come up in casual discussion, it’s nice to show interest. It’s better yet if you share interests and can easily share experiences or ideas. While some managers strive to avoid any connection or even understanding of people’s lives outside of work, it’s not necessary to put up false walls. Effective leaders understand that people feel respected and appreciated when the boss views them as humans with lives inside and outside of the workplace.

2. Know that empathy and appropriate support are always in style. If you learn of a challenging situation with one of your team members, it is better to acknowledge your concern and caring and offer the right kind of support rather than ignore the situation. The right kind of support includes extending schedule flexibility or, encouraging the individual to take time-off as needed to deal with the challenge. Life happens and people need a break. However, if someone requires a never-ending stream of breaks, you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands.

3. Resist the urge to play counselor. It’s often tempting for managers to play armchair counselor or psychiatrist, but almost all of us lack the requisite training for these roles. Additionally, our companies are paying us to lead, motivate, inspire and perform, however, no organization wants us serving as headshrinker to the personal challenges of our team members. When approached with the problem, display concern and encourage the individual to gain the right type of help and expertise for the situation outside of work. Resist being drawn into the drama.

4. Know that conscientious listening can quickly turn into active enabling for those workplace tragedians who would prey on our good intentions. In my case, I only had to play the part of the enabling manager once, investing what seemed likes hundreds of hours and countless performance exceptions for a talented but seemingly troubled employee before I learned my lesson. The problems and our counseling sessions became the focus of our workplace relationship, with me convinced that if I could help this talented but troubled individual, I would make the team and firm stronger. In reality, I simply funded a chronic problem and created a whole host of new challenges. Listen, show genuine interest, but don’t get sucked into the drama.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

You’re there to help, and yes, you’re there to develop others, however, your rights and obligations end at the line where personal problems begin. You are neither confessor or counselor, and you can’t allow yourself to be sucked into the drama that swirls like a storm around some people. The best thing you can do for yourself, your team and your firm is to offer empathy and flexibility within reason, however even this has a limit. Cross this limit at your own peril.

 

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: 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.

 

 

Art of Managing—When People Develop at Their Pace, Not Yours

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

I’ve encountered more than a few managers who have expressed frustration over the pace of development of someone they have marked for future advancement and increased contribution. For many of these managers, it’s a vexing dilemma with no clear solution.

One manager offered: Mary is a talented individual, and I believe she can do more for us. However, she seems to run in the opposite direction from new opportunities and challenges, preferring to stay closer to what she knows.

Another shared: Jason was great as a new employee, and we moved him along quickly by adding new responsibilities and more money. Recently however, it seems like he cannot get out of his own way. The mistakes are piling up and his colleagues are beginning to question his capabilities.

Everyone has a capacity to learn and grow, however, some individuals self-limit their pace based on insecurities and fears. While there are many reasons why otherwise talented individuals resist new opportunities, a few of the most common include: concern about sustaining a high level of performance in an unfamiliar role, discomfort over dealing with people outside of their core area of expertise or, reticence over changing a mission that they’ve long internalized. As a result, it’s possible for people with remarkable skills and potential to become stuck on a personal performance plateau, leaving otherwise conscientious managers flummoxed over what to do. There are no easy or magical answers, however, here are 4 ideas to help support you in this situation.

4 Ideas to Help People Move Beyond Personal Performance Plateaus:

1. First, assess whether your expectations for the individual are realistic. Get some objective input from an outside observer to help ask and answer some important questions. Are your expectations for this individual’s growth realistic? Are you imposing your belief in their abilities on the individual when he/she doesn’t share this same belief? Have you moved the person along too fast and not allowed appropriate acclimation or mastery time? Have you reached a point where additional growth must be supported by additional training, education or coaching?

2. Start a dialog rich in expectation setting and ripe with feedback. Talk openly with the individual about your belief in their potential and share examples. If your high potential is suddenly struggling in a new role, share specific and timely behavioral feedback and work together to find a way to strengthen performance. (It may be training and education, it may be clarification of objectives, and it may just be lack of confidence in tackling the new role.)

For many managers, it’s awkward to start a constructive dialog on performance challenges with someone who has been on the receiving end of nothing but gold stars and praise. It’s important to get beyond this discomfort. There’s never a substitute for honesty and transparency, and this honest and behavioral focused dialog is the foundation for future development efforts.

3. Change your approach to the individual’s development and advancement. Design assignments, not positions to help people acclimate to new challenges. The formality of a potential promotion to responsibilities outside the experience or comfort zones of an individual can trigger a fear and flight response. Mitigate this by exposing high potentials to informal experiences in the new areas. Ask them to contribute to a project team. Assign them to engage people in other functions on an improvement initiative. Create a scenario to shadow managers and other contributors in different areas. And don’t forget about lateral job rotation assignments as a means of exposing someone to new people and experiences before promoting them to the next level. (Note: it often seems like assignment rotation is a lost approach. We don’t practice it enough in most of our organizations, yet it is the best way I know to build well rounded team members. Give it a shot even if it is not widely practiced in your organization.)

4. Recognize that some people just want to perfect their craft, and refocus their development to support the pursuit of mastery in their current vocation. Your belief in a person’s ability to do more is secondary to their core interests. Accept that sometimes it’s not fear or insecurity that holds people in place, but rather a deep interest in what they are doing. At the end of the day, the individual always reserves the right to stay close to a vocation or role they identify with and want to master.

While I encourage you to pursue all of the above, have an honest debate yourself about whether you should reset your expectations. It’s OK to have narrow contributors who are high performers in their preferred domain. Not everyone is interested in leading or even in doing more. In this situation, shift your support to helping them become the best performer they can be in their chosen area and move your sights to someone else for broader leadership and management tasks.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Kudos on your concern for the development and growth of your team members. The worlds needs more of you. Nonetheless, people don’t always respond as you might expect and at the pace you might perceive is appropriate. Handled poorly, you risk derailing a high potential and damaging your management credibility. The best managers learn to adjust and adapt to suit the individual.

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: 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.

 

Just One Thing—How to Ace Your Next Executive Presentation

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

While some people view an invitation to present to executives as a prison sentence (or worse), this truly can be a career enhancing opportunity. However, like any challenging situation, preparation and attitude are keys to success.

I’ve worked with dozens of professionals faced with this opportunity for the first time, and every encounter reminds me of my own early emotions as I prepared for and dreaded my first senior management presentation.

It’s not worth the churn, dread and sleeplessness folks, especially if you prepare properly and thoroughly.

7 Ideas to Help You Prepare for and Nail Your Executive Presentation:

1. Start early and prepare your mind. Unless you are presiding over a disaster of monumental proportions and have been summoned to explain yourself in front of the firing squad, this is a positive invitation. It’s an honor to be invited and it is an opportunity to establish an impression with the people who can choose you to be successful. Prepare like it’s the next most important job interview of your career.

2. Know who invited you and why. Since someone had to champion getting your name placed on the agenda, it’s important for you to tune into why you were invited and precisely what they are expecting from your time on the agenda. Your inviting sponsor in this case has a stake in your success and typically will do whatever it takes to help you prepare for your presentation. Leverage this resource liberally.

3. Know your audience. This one can be difficult for individuals who have had very little or no prior contact with members of the senior management team. Your sponsor or your boss may have some insights, and of course, it’s reasonable to err on the side of assuming that the group is comprised of successful, smart people interested in facts, well-developed ideas, clear plans and how all of this will help the firm achieve its strategic and financial goals.

4. Plan your message. Whatever your topic is, you’re in front of the executive team for just a few brief moments. Use this time with the skill of an entrepreneur asking for an investment in an idea. Your message must be crisp, your key points or recommendations defensible and your defense supportable.

While most of us tend to launch powerpoint and think in serial fashion when preparing for a presentation, start by planning and tuning a message map before you build your first slide. (Note: it’s OK to skip the slides…see point #6.)  The message mapping process forces you to lock in a clear central theme and then defend this theme with key points and supporting evidence. A properly developed message map offers you the ultimate support for answering the expected difficult questions from your executives. Also, everyone will appreciate a crisp, well-developed message delivered with clarity and confidence. (For more on the technique, check out my post: The Career Enhancing Benefits of Message Mapping.)

5. Bring your confidence and back it with transparency. Executives smell “lack of confidence” immediately, and they know when someone is attempting to obfuscate the issues. Confidence and transparency are two critical components that must be present when you present to this group. A perceived lack of confidence will destroy your credibility in the moment and any attempt to mask risks with sunshine or offer visions of results that cannot be supported will result in you effectively inviting an air strike of questions that you will not recover from in this setting. Alternatively, clearly describing risks and highlighting assumptions while offering a way forward will earn you serious credibility stripes. It goes without saying that having your message down cold (thanks to your message map) and ample practice, will help you build confidence.

6. Focus on the message and keep the materials clean and simple. If you suck at building clear, crisp, bullet-light and text limited slides or handouts, get some help. Call in a favor from a colleague or go into favor debt, but ask for help. Leave the eye-charts, clip-art and complex animation builds for some other setting. The visuals and supporting materials must never fight the messaging and thanks to our mostly sloppy use of the presentation tools such as Powerpoint, they often do just that.

7. Admit it if you don’t know it. Said another way, never, ever make stuff up. While this piece of advice might seem preposterous, the pressure of the event has overwhelmed many an accomplished professional’s common sense, especially in the face of tough questioning.  You are much better off admitting you don’t know something than attempting to bluff your way through the answer. The best response in this situation: “That’s a great question and instead of hazarding a guess, I will get back to you today.” And then do it!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Last and not least, remember that the prevailing attitude of the executives before you open your mouth is one of interest and hope. You wouldn’t have made the agenda if they weren’t interested in hearing and learning from you, and you can bet that good executive members are always excited to have intelligent and confident new voices join the discussion in planning the way forward for the firm. Make a great impression and you will be back. Perhaps in a new and improved capacity!

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: 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—Your Job is to Clear the Path

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!

A promising early-career manager was struggling with his new team and I was invited to help him find opportunities to improve. After observing him at different times and in different settings, and after talking with his team members, it was apparent that he did not understand his priorities. Instead of focusing on removing obstacles in front of his team members, he was throwing out new obstacles at an alarming pace.

He had increased the administrative burden of his team members by requiring a series of time consuming new reports. He doubled the number of operating meetings, which to his team members felt a lot like even more time spent briefing the boss so that he could brief his boss. Last and not least, he assigned a number of his team members to two new high visibility projects, which would have been fine, had the team members not been over-assigned on a number of last quarter’s top priority projects.

“My boss promoted me to help improve the performance of this team,” he offered. “He wants more visibility into our productivity and he wants this group to play a lead role in some of the new strategic initiatives. I’m making that happen,” he added.

His team members supported his interests (improved productivity and more leadership on key projects) but not his actions. “If he thinks he’s motivating us to do our best, he’s got it all wrong,” offered one of the more outspoken team members.

This manager is not alone. Too many that I encounter in my travels fail to lead with the philosophy of, “How can I help?” While part of management is about deciding what’s important and determining priorities and establishing controls, including reporting, the leadership component (and yes, managers must lead!) emphasizes direction, motivation and importantly, knocking down obstacles.

The best gift you can provide to your team members is the gift of time. If you’ve got the right team members (with the right values), they’ll respond to your willingness to clear the path with enthusiasm, creativity and commitment.

5 Diagnostic Questions to Remind You of Your Need to Clear the Path:

1. Have I shared my priorities from my boss with the team and asked for their input on how to meet those priorities?

2. Am I avoiding the tendency to ask my team to more with less in the name of productivity?

3. Am I working with team members to identify and eliminate non-value-add activities, including excessive status reporting, unnecessary meetings and low-priority project commitments?

4. Am I genuine in my efforts to secure added resources where needed to meet our priorities?

5. Am I providing ample visibility and kudos to the team members helping move the needle on our key priorities?

The manager in the above example turned out to be a great student.  He quickly came to understand the error of his ways and dedicated himself to becoming a true enabler of success for his team members. He used the questions above to hold himself accountable to this charter, and after a level-setting meeting and a bit of time and reinforcement, his team members came to understand that he was genuine in his intent to help. The outcome was indeed a positive one for all involved.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whatever influence you are under…a misguided senior manager, some false sense of how to drive performance or just being over-eager to please the boss, stop and remind yourself daily that your core job is to help clear the path for those doing the heavy lifting. You’ll be amazed at the results.

 

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: 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.