Leadership Caffeine—Humility and the Effective Leader

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!

The most effective leaders I know are simultaneously courageous and humble in the face of ambiguity and adversity.

Courage as we all know is essential for facing and making the tough decisions demanded in difficult situations. I referenced this attribute in my recent post, Leading into the Fog.

A healthy grounding of humility serves as a powerful check and balance influence that helps effective leaders fight the pressure to make rash decisions in the drive to be perceived as omniscient.

There’s a very real…and very dangerous pressure in many organizations for those in charge to appear all-knowing and all-confident. This pressure is a catalyst to rash and poor decisions that exacerbate already difficult situations. After all, no CEO wants to appear weak in front of her board and no manager wants to appear as if he doesn’t know what to do in front of his team or boss. The pressure to avoid being perceived as weak or uncertain invites individuals to portray a false sense of confidence and to act around misguided quick-fix thinking.

There are no quick fixes in business. Not for a strategy problem, a revenue problem, a competitive problem, a quality problem or a talent problem. They are sticky, wicked, complicated issues where solutions emerge in iterative fashion of try, fail, learn, improve… . You have nothing to gain by suggesting you have all of the answers.

Please don’t confuse my use of the notion of humility as anything that suggests weakness. Rather, I view the trait of humility as an attribute of a strong leader. Humility allows the leader to clearly understand the situation and to have realistic context for the implications, risks and challenges. It also allows this leader to comfortably seek and accept help.

The effective leader is a realist who understands that he/she is responsible for the choices to move beyond the present circumstances. This leader draws upon the ideas, insights and approaches of the best minds on the team. It takes true inner strength to both acknowledge that you don’t have all of the answers and that you and the team will be better off if you seek and accept input from those around you.

Developing Your Own Leadership Style:

We all cultivate our own leadership styles and approaches over time and based on experience. With the benefit of age and experience, I’ve long concluded that I’m stronger and more effective by drawing upon and engaging others for the most vexing challenges. It’s difficult at times to resist asserting on an issue that seems straightforward or feels familiar. It’s easy to dictate..but it is most often right to hold back and support the discovery and learning of others. Often, the solution the team develops turns out to be superior to the one that worked historically.

At the end of the day, the art of leading and managing effectively is knowing which decisions you can outsource and which you and you alone must be accountable for. Don’t shirk your responsibility to make decisions that enable action. Just don’t confuse this with the need to make all of the decisions.

In situations where the pressure is on from above and below, it’s fine and necessary to portray a strong sense of confidence that you and your team will find the way forward. Those above you want to know that you’re moving forward and those around you want to be part of the work. Just resist the temptation to put it all on your shoulders. That’s not leading, it’s dumb.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Delusional leaders who have worked to convince everyone around them that they have all of the answers have a tendency to begin believing their own dogma. These individuals are dangerous to a firm’s health. Instead of feeling the pressure to act like a superman or superwoman in corporate clothing, try recognizing that the super people around you have the critical pieces to most business puzzles. All you need to do is invite them to get involved with developing the solution.

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

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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—Leading into the Fog

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 core capacity of leadership is the ability to make the right decisions while flying blind, basing them on knowledge, wisdom and the ability to stay wedded to an overriding goal.” –Warren Bennis as quoted in Onward by Howard Schultz

It’s the challenging times that build your leadership character.

Almost anyone and any team can prosper during rising tide situations…a hot economy, a regulatory change that acts as a boon to an industry or, even a hot product that for a moment catches competitors off guard. Certainly, it takes good management and leadership to exploit those opportunities, but the work of leading in these fortunate circumstances is different than the work of navigating the troubled waters of crisis.

During the rising tide situations, the game is simplified…the way forward is clear and the challenges defined. Exploit the opportunity; move fast to deliver more; execute, execute, execute.

It’s when conditions change that the view ahead becomes one giant fog bank and leading suddenly turns difficult. As mentioned in my recent Art of Managing post, “Steering Clear of Flail and Fail,” our tendency as times turn challenging is to overreact. We engage in the undisciplined pursuit of more (Jim Collins) in the naïve hope that something will work and return us to the bliss point of easy days and restful nights… those times where the planets align and all of the indicators point in the right direction and we can congratulate ourselves on our brilliance.

I love the quote from Bennis at the top of this article, because it so succinctly and powerfully captures the truth about the real job of a leader: guiding the firm and team through the fog and safely beyond peril.

Effective leaders understand that there’s no easy way out of a crisis. There are no silver bullets, no sure-fire strategy templates and no programs, courses or approaches that replace the hard work of navigating ambiguity. Someone has to stand up and point and say, “This way.”

The history of the world and the history of modern management are filled with examples to learn from. Facing extreme uncertainty and miserable weather that blew up most of the plans for supporting the troops in the invasion of Normandy in World War II, General Eisenhower sought the input of his best advisors. They were split on whether to go or not given the weather and the inherent risks to the entire operation and thousands of lives. We’ll go,” he uttered, after staring out the window into the fog and darkness, knowing that many would die and success was far from guaranteed. The moment had arrived.

While less fateful in terms of human lives, but incredibly impactful in terms of the business and livelihood of thousands, Howard Schultz, the newly returned CEO of struggling Starbucks made a series of decisions that were contrary to the advice of the critics, analysts and pundits during the 2008 downturn. Anchored with the conviction that he could not compromise when it came to serving his partners (employees), his customers and guided by his overarching belief in the good that his firm provided to millions, he did what he believed was right and he and the team persevered. He retained healthcare for part-time employees, shut down the chain for a day of much needed Barista training, took 10,000 of his store managers to New Orleans to rediscover their passion and help a struggling community and said “No!” to the cry to cut quality and take short-cuts in the name of profits.

Schultz effectively employed Eisenhower’s “We’ll go” which in his one word rallying cry, was “Onward.” The decisions rallied the firm and galvanized his top leaders to fight harder and the push to innovate when others said, “cut” paid off. Eventually. Results are never immediate and wise crisis leaders know that things get worse until they turn towards better.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While most of our own experiences in leading won’t make the history books or become the stuff of business legend, they are no less significant in our own lives and for the lives and welfare of those around us. The way forward is murkiest just at the point where we need to choose a path and then lead into the fog, uncertain of outcome or success. Focus on the bigger issues…the ability of you and your coworkers to continue working on fulfilling a noble mission or on preserving the welfare of those who depend upon you and your firm. And importantly, recognize that everything in your past as a leader and as a professional was simply practice for the journey ahead.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) 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 Critical Personal Performance Questions

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!

An early career mentor offered this comment and it has been with me in one form or another throughout my career: “If you’re sleeping through the night, you’re not thinking hard enough about your job and career and you’re definitely not asking yourself the tough questions.”

While I encourage a full night’s rest…we all need quality sleep to perform at our best, the second half of his advice on asking (and answering) the tough questions of ourselves is spot on. From CEOs to smart functional managers and senior leaders, we often get sucked into the operational vortex of our jobs and we forestall asking and answering the big questions on direction, people and about our own personal/professional well-being.

There are convenient excuses we use to keep from attacking all three of those categories.

  • People issues are sticky and they involve emotions, and when the emotions might be negative, we tend to move in the other direction.
  • Issues of direction…a change in strategy, investing in new offerings or changing long-standing processes, are by nature ambiguous and therefore perceived by us as risky. Too many managers are taught to avoid risk, and by habit, we move towards the status quo as a safe haven.
  • And issues of well-being…physical and mental health and career satisfaction are things we plan on getting to later. They take a backseat to the urgent daily activities.

Yet, no three topics are more important in helping create value (profits, market-share, efficiencies, engagement) for our firms than the decisions and actions we make and take on people, direction and on the development and maintenance of our own physical and mental well-being.

Here are just a few of the questions effective leaders hold themselves accountable to asking and answering.

At Least 11 Must Ask and Answer Questions for Leaders at All Levels:

Fair warning…compound questions ahead.

1. How am I truly doing as a leader? Am I getting the frank feedback I need from my team members and peers to help me strengthen my effectiveness? If not, how might I get this feedback?

2. Am I taking accountability for the team that I’ve put on the field? Is the best team with the right people in the right positions, or, are there clear gaps that only I can fix? Do I have a plan to fill those gaps? Do I have the courage to make the needed moves?

3. Am I a net supplier of level-up talent to the broader organization? If not, how can I strengthen my talent recruiting and development efforts?

4. How am I measuring performance and success of my team(s)? Do the measures promote the right behaviors? Do the measures promote continuous improvement? Do the measures connect to the bigger picture outcomes we are after?

5. Is the firm’s direction clear to everyone on my team? What can I do better or more of to constantly reinforce direction and ensure that our individual and team priorities support direction? Do I need to teach people about our business and how we make money and how we plan to grow?

6. Am I realistic about the need to embrace change? Are market dynamics signaling a needed change in direction and am I advocating for this change with my peers and by offering ideas?

7. Am I serving as a catalyst for productive change in my firm? Do I believe passionately in an issue that can benefit my firm and am I advocating hard for it, or, am I simply going along with consensus? If it’s the latter, how can I constructively break with the consensus and build understanding for my idea or approach?

8. Am I actively cultivating healthy relationships with my peers and colleagues in other functions? Do I recognize how dependent I truly am on the help and support of other leaders and other functional team members for my own success? Is there a rift that needs healing and am I taking the lead on making this happen?

9. Am I developing myself? What investments have I made in time, effort and money during the past year in strengthening my skills and gaining exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking?

10. How I am doing? Is my work (my firm, my vocation) in alignment with my passion, superpower(s) and values? If any of the three are out of whack, what must I do to fix the problem? Are the issues repairable in my current environment or, must I do the hard work of making a significant change?

11. Do I understand that my physical well-being directly impacts my mental well-being and professional performance? Am I taking care of myself physically? If not, how can I adjust my lifestyle to improve my physical health? Do I need to invest the outside help of a coach or trainer help me jump-start an improvement program?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

High personal performance is an outcome of clarity and balance. From ensuring clarity for the direction of your firm, your team and your team members to gaining objective insight on your own performance, clarity in the workplace is essential for your success. Balancing your passion, capabilities and values with your daily work and backing this balance with physical well-being is essential for your satisfaction and success. The pursuit of needed clarity and healthy balance is a journey with constantly shifting terrain. Get started by asking and answering the questions noted above. And if the answers are less than ideal for you, take action.

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—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.

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—What Frequency are You Broadcasting On?

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!

In a conversation with a good friend and highly respected retained search professional, the topic of a “leader’s frequency” was raised.

I like the metaphor, although my friend might describe it as much more real than metaphor. For my own interpretation however, I’ll describe the leader’s frequency as that invisible but palpable energy and unspoken message that he or she clearly broadcasts on about their work, their values, their team members and their confidence or positivity in succeeding at the mission. It’s not words…it’s that innate sense of energy and clarity for the work that we perceive when we work with these individuals.

No Static at All:

Jim Collins describes a Level 5 leader as someone whose profound humility and fierce sense of commitment enables them to pick up an organization on their shoulders and carry it through difficult times or from good to great. This leader’s frequency is particularly palpable and free from static. In my own experience, the leaders who stand out…the ones who moved the needle for teams, individuals and organizations all broadcast on a frequency that is easy for us to hear and to understand with minimal amounts of noise to distract us from the message.

Frequency isn’t about volume, it’s about clarity. Effective introverted leaders broadcast on their own, clear, powerful frequency without the noise of their extroverted colleagues. The signal-to-noise ratio is just right for easy interpretation by the rest of us.

For those leaders who are less effective, engaging with these individuals is like trying to tune your car’s AM radio around power lines or when that great song on the FM fades in and out as you move further and further away from the source. You get split seconds of clarity interrupted by static and crossover from other sources. The result is stressful and your reflex is to reach for the dial and change.

Attitude Drives Frequency and Clarity:

What you broadcast and how clearly you broadcast starts with your core attitude. And while we cannot control our DNA, I’m a firm believer that we all control our attitudes. Operate on a frequency with a message that says and shows failure or negativity, and you’ll likely encounter a good deal of both. The opposite holds true, in my opinion, when your core attitude is positive and reflects one of striving for success. The frequency is particularly perceptible when your core belief in success and in the abilities of others to achieve success is strong.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

With apologies to physicists and radio hobbyists for my abuse of the notion of frequency, I still like the metaphor. If one of the definitions frequency is, “the particular waveband at which a radio station or other system broadcasts or transmits signals,” I’m ascribing leaders to “other system.” We all broadcast on our own frequency and the clarity of what is perceived is a function of our own attitudes and of course our core beliefs in ourselves and our colleagues. Those who broadcast on a clear frequency with a message that supports building and growth are the ones who propel organizations and teams.

What are people hearing on your frequency?

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.