Choose to Work in a Culture that Brings Out the Best in You

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.

I’ve worked in cultures like those ascribed to Amazon.com in the recent and controversial New York Times article, “Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”  These battle-zone firms exist and they can be very successful. And for the adrenaline junkie career climber, these cultures are perfect.

For the rest of us who like our excitement and adrenaline rushes to come from something other than eviscerating our co-workers over stupid ideas and stepping on heads and necks and hands on our way to the promised land of more restricted stock grants, these environments aren’t so great. They’re toxic to our souls.

I don’t find Amazon’s alleged “bruising” battle-zone culture either bad or good, it just is. It’s no longer my cup of tea, but it might have been at one point in my career.

I’m a recovering suffer-no-fools, take-no-prisoners and follow me-or-leave professional who managed to gain control of this personal Jekyll and Hyde battle a long time ago. I remember the game however, and I remember liking it. Ideas flowed, action was the order of the day and strength decided what got done. As long is it worked, your power grew.

While I don’t recall that the work as playground environments so often written about today, existed back then…think nerf gun fights, zip-lines in the office and tree house conference rooms, if they did, I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of these ideas. I cared about stomping my competitors, serving my customers and clearing the dumb-asses and bumbling bureaucrats out of my way so that I could execute. (My heart is racing a bit as I type this. It was work as an adventure.) The idea of work as mere playtime would have been preposterous.

My conversion of sorts to the kinder, gentler side of work occurred after I misread the culture of a new employer and found myself immersed in a genteel environment engaged in a form of internecine war. It was a corporate Game of Thones and it was the wrong kind of war game for me. I was looking for something different…something that would win in the market while positively transforming people’s lives. I was looking for a culture that built people up, without having to break them down first.

It took me eighteen months to unwind that mistake, yet it was an important step on my path. While I didn’t find the promised land of great cultures, I found one where we worked hard to build a culture that brought out the best in people. We appreciated warriors on the front-lines but warfare in the workplace wasn’t how we got things done.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There is no perfect culture. Even the kinder, gentler kinds have some serious downsides. Think: passive-aggressive behavior, complacency born of comfort or widespread naivete on the realities of winning in the marketplace. Nonetheless, we are well served to match the cultures where we choose to invest our time with our own values and aspirations for ourselves as citizens of these organizations. Choose to go to work in a culture that brings out the best in you.

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Just One Thing—Hug a Project Manager

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!

My wife informed me that June 4 was officially, “Hug Your Cat Day.” (Who decides this?) While dog lovers everywhere were likely nauseous over this seeming waste of energy, it was a nice sentiment, albeit, one wasted on a creature that would clearly let you know if and when he/she required you to extend a hug. When it was darned well ready of course.

Perhaps a better use of this date and gesture might be to encourage those of us in our jobs and firms dependent upon big things getting done to seek out and either genuinely or metaphorically hug a project manager.

One of the core takeaways my MBA students express after investing 10 weeks immersed in the art and science of this discipline is new found appreciation for the role project managers play in our organizations. Few come into the course understanding the importance of the role; the complexity of the people and process challenges and the nature of the leadership and execution challenges faced by these individuals.

They leave understanding that innovation occurs in the form of projects…as does strategy execution, new product development…new infrastructure implementation…and the reality that almost everything we depend upon to do our jobs originated in the form of one or more projects. They develop an appreciation for the tools of project management…not as magical answers to our problems…but literally as tools to help us get work done.

They also leave the course understanding that project managers are the consummate integrator leaders…working across boundaries, often with little authority but much of the accountability. It’s a role that is perpetually on the hot seat…often with little support.

Firms that get project management use it as a tool to pursue competitive advantage…to spearhead innovation efforts they can commercialize and to ensure they are able to deploy the latest and best technologies to serve their customers and optimize their efficiencies.

In my travels across firms large and small, it’s common for me to encounter situations where the role is poorly defined…the practices loose with little leveraging of the tools and methodologies available to support project success.

And all too often, I find over-worked, under-compensated and under-developed but well-intended people fighting an uphill battle for resources while navigating too many initiatives. Sponsorship and career or skills development are often absent. This is wrong. A great project manager is a difference maker and project competency is critical to organizational success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

So instead of waiting for your cat to decide it needs a hug, find a way to support your project manager. Work on serving as a better team member. If you’re an executive, figure out what it means to be a sponsor for projects and invest your energy in getting it right. If you’re a manager or someone responsible for project managers, ensure that you are investing in and supporting the development of these critical resources. If you’re firm is operating in an ad hoc mode on initiatives, you are leaving money on the table. Fix this.

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—Push Beyond “M” for Mediocrity

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!

Why do we fail with our initiatives (projects, strategy, leadership) in the workplace so regularly when the causes of failure are well documented and the practices to minimize the chances of failure so well identified?

A student exploring project risk management was perplexed when she compared the data on project failures to the literature on risk management, only to see that the causes of failure and ideas for reducing risk were clearly identified over and over again in a nearly endless stream of articles.

I see this same situation play out repeatedly in leadership and strategy work.

The formula for leading effectively isn’t a secret kept locked in a vault with the combination known only to two people. In fact, the principles have been understood for a few millennia. And for us today in our firms, the behaviors of miserable managers and lousy leader are well understood and at last count, there were seemingly 4 quintillion resources offering input, training and help on how to lead effectively.

For strategy, too many of these programs fail not just because they were poor ideas (usually not the case), but rather because the process of execution broke down. People fail to coordinate the work necessary to properly and effectively bridge ideas to execution. While not to minimize the complexity of executing on strategy, the issues of communication, coordination, feedback, adaptation and so forth are fairly easy to grok.

Finally, when I work with people and teams in troubled organizations, I always figuratively scratch my head over the juxtaposition of relatively smart people who understand what is going wrong with the reality that few are doing anything about it.

It’s as if we have a default gear labeled “M” for mediocrity in our organizations and in ourselves. It’s the acceptance of this gear inside organizations along with the perpetuation of practices that reinforce “M” that governs our consistent and repeated sub-par performance.

However, not everyone or every team is held back by the tractor-beam pull of mediocrity.

In troubled organizations, I look for the individuals who fight back and rail against the tyranny of something that screams less than excellent. These people fight mediocrity with all of their energy and while they are often laboring in relative isolation, I strive to place them in positions of power for getting things done. From leading change initiatives to managing projects to owning big chunks of the coordination of strategy execution, these individuals have an extra gear or two beyond “M” that allows them to move people and teams faster and more effectively than the norm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For all of us, we have a choice to make. We can either be part of the problem or we can push ourselves to shift out of “M” and fix what’s broken and quit perpetuating the mistakes that give rise to the same advice over and over and over again. The choice is yours on what gear governs your performance. But be careful, once you shift away from mediocrity, the side effects are quite rewarding. You feel great about yourself and your work and someone somewhere who chooses people to be successful will want to create a whole new set of opportunities for you.

Is it time for you to shift out of “M” and fix what you know is broken?

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—Quit Playing Down to Their Level

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!

Good competition raises the level of performance for all involved.

Whether in athletic endeavors or business, a skilled, aggressive competitor forces us to raise the quality of our own game. Strenuous competition with aggressive, skilled performers tests us physically and mentally and helps us find that extra gear needed to perform at our best.

Annoyingly, the opposite also seems to hold true. When the level of competition is low, we typically back off of our own best game.

In business, lack of aggressive competition or the lack of highly skilled performers results in a fat, dumb and happy cadence in the workplace. We lose our edge and we settle into a gear that minimizes stress and conserves fuel. Hunger disappears. The drive to innovate or to pursue excellence abates. Effectively, we play down to the level of the competition.

Great performers love to be around other great performers…whether on the same team or on opposing sides. Just the presence of highly skilled performers is enough to help us raise our performance expectations and levels. When confronted with the opposite, it’s awkward…less interesting and less motivating for them.

I see the negative form of this situation play out in the workplace in a number of different ways.

Good people with fresh ideas and new ways of approaching old problems find themselves swimming in a sea of toxic politics or suppressed by a crowd of collegial passive-aggressive types. Eventually, they grow tired of swimming against the tide and jump out in search of fresh challenges.

The brilliant individual contributor is hired to help lead the firm in a new direction and after the welcome messages fade, she finds herself in some form of alternate reality where heads nod in the right direction and people focus their energy in another. Some recognize this situation early in their tenure, and when solid efforts at coalition building yield little in the way of support, they leave…with most people failing to recognize the future of the business walking out the door.

The worst of all of these situations is a team of hard-working, capable people who are hungry to promote change but held back by poor leadership. In my experience, many of these people refuse to give in to the reality that the big changes they believe in and need to help the firm level-up are not forthcoming. They continue to raise the issues to little or no response and meanwhile, they execute their day jobs in good fashion, settling for any morsels of improvement they can drive. And slowly, over time, their expectations and their cry for “new” or “improved” reduces to an occasional whisper and they begin to accept the current state. This is when they’ve let the other players reduce the level of their game.

The gravitational pull of the status quo is strong. Moving from mediocrity towards excellence takes remarkable energy and great leadership. In the absence of great leadership, the acceptance of mediocrity across the culture wins.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No business can thrive when key individuals or teams are playing down to a level that resembles mediocrity. No one can survive and thrive in their career by playing down a level. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Either refuse to give up…find a way forward…or find a better team to play on.

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—New Leadership Role? Try Warmth Over Strength

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!

Let’s face it, the new leadership role is a great testament to your prior success and the faith that your firm’s senior leaders place in your abilities to help build the future. You’ve gained their confidence and trust, but the hard work is still in front of you. You’ve got to earn the trust of your new team members.

The group of Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger writing in the July/August 2013 Influence themed issue of Harvard Business Review with their article, “Connect, Then Lead,” suggest that you choose your approach to engaging your new team members very carefully to optimize your start-up effectiveness. In particular, they suggest that you should fight your natural instinct to initially project your strength and competence and instead, focus on displaying warmth to support building trust.

For some of this, warmth approach is no easy task!

Focus on the Goal:

Remind yourself as you plan your start-up with your new team, that to be effective, you’ve got to be trusted. Trust breeds openness, engagement, support, creativity, communion and a host of other good environmental factors on a team and between a leader and a new team. The challenge for the new leader is how to earn trust as quickly as possible.

The authors in the HBR article cite evidence from behavioral scientists who suggest that when we judge others (in this case, the new boss), we look first at two characteristics: “how lovable they are” and “how fearsome they are.” While I doubt you think in terms of “lovable” or “fearsome” you are internally processing on your reaction to their verbal presentation and non-verbal cues and your perspective on their warmth impacts your perception of their trustworthiness. The over-emphasis on competence factors and an approach that suggests,  “I’m the new sheriff in town,” may raise the defenses and keep people from engaging with the new boss in a way that they need to begin creating an effective working environment.

The judgment on lovable or fearsome becomes important as we process on two key questions: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Is he/she capable of acting on these intentions?”  Any answer that breeds caution or tentativeness fights the early establishment of trust and delays the ability of the new leader to truly tap into the true perspectives and best creativity of her team members.

Adding a bit of data to the mix, the authors cite a study of 51,836 leaders where only 27 of them were rated in the bottom quartile in terms of likability and the top quartile in terms of overall leadership effectiveness. By my math, that’s a poor outcome for those of us who take pride in our competence and effectiveness and prefer a no-nonsense approach to getting started.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

As always, Mom was right. The behavioral science is just getting around to concluding what she was telling us years ago. You get more cooperation with honey than vinegar.

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.