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.

Leadership Caffeine—In Challenging Times, Keep Fear and Failure Outside Looking In

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!

Every organization and every team runs into challenging spots. Life and business don’t always work as planned. “Man plans and God laughs,” as my former CEO would recite.

It’s the rough patches that teach you and require you to cultivate your leadership character, and part of this is keeping fear at bay and the specter of failure out of mind and out of the vocabulary of your team.

Every manager and senior leader looks like a genius when the tide is rising and business is good. All too often however, the rising tide masks the real issues of performance and the gaps in strategy and execution that become painfully visible as the rising tide slows and begins to recede.

The tendency at the initial sign of challenge….a missed quarter or two, or a blown forecast, losing ground to a competitor is to flail. While we don’t set out to flail, a series of knee jerk reactions around cutting costs and killing programs or adopting a series of “short-term” fixes, shout FLAIL to everyone around us.

Once the flailing starts, fear and failure sensing a weakness in the defenses, begin to insert and assert themselves in the minds of your team members. Needless to say, nothing good happens when a team or organization suddenly falls victim to fear.

Deming’s point #8 paraphrased: managers must strike fear out of the organization.

6 Ideas to Keep Fear and Failure On the Outside Looking In:

1. Be open and transparent with your team about the challenges. Nothing invites fear and failure to the party like keeping bad news from people. Everyone knows when things aren’t going right, but what they don’t know is whether it’s bad or really bad.

2. Invite your team to be part of the solution. More than a few leaders have fallen victim to the “I am in charge, I have to come up with the solution” trap. Effective leaders understand the power of harnessing the team’s collective gray matter around key problems.

3. Resist the urge to substitute a well-developed long-term strategy with temporary, short-term compromises. It takes leadership courage to stay the course in the face of short-term headaches…this courage is something that is all too lacking in many organizations.

4. Do recheck the core assumptions around your strategy. While I don’t want you to sacrifice the long-term for short-term, I don’t want you to blindly grasp to something that isn’t as well baked as you might have thought. It’s a good time to review your strategic thinking and then to assess whether the execution approach is serving you well.

5. Redouble your efforts to celebrate victories…even the small ones. Success begets success, and it does nothing but help when you single out the successes during a challenging period.

6. Don’t stop the talent machine. Keep supporting the development and growth of your team members and don’t stop working to get the right people on the bus and those who don’t fit, off the bus. No timeouts on talent allowed!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your greatest successes will come from navigating challenging situations. It’s the hard times that require you to operate at your professional best and it’s during these times when you learn what it means to truly lead. Although it might seem odd to suggest it, enjoy the challenges, as you will not pass this way again and you will not find a better teacher.

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—The Struggles Really Do Make Us Stronger

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 world of leadership development lost a giant at the end of July this past summer, when Warren Bennis passed away. In tribute, I’m including his classic article, “Crucibles of Leadership” (HBR, fee required) with Robert Thomas in one of my leadership courses this year. Revisiting this article is always inspirational both for myself and for the students who share their own crucible experiences including: personal loss, business and career struggles, and being on the receiving end of discrimination, sexism and racism. I’m humbled not only at the hardships these good professionals have endured, but at their remarkable attitudes about surviving and leveraging the experience for good in their lives.

In case you’re not familiar with how Bennis and Thomas applied the term crucible to professional development, consider: “…the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, questions their assumptions, hone their judgment.”

Almost to a person, the students in my courses describing their own crucible experiences look back at them as transformational in their careers. The strength it took to endure the hardship translated into resolve and commitment to persevere, to make right a wrong for others and to do good in their own lives.

In my own hiring practices, I look and listen for the challenges and struggles, more than the successes. While this doesn’t crop up in many articles on best practices in hiring, I’ve used it to good success.

Consider this very real crucible scenario I encountered a few years ago:

I traveled from my home city across the country to interview two very different candidates for an important strategic leadership position on my team. The first candidate boasted a nearly spotless record of achievement and accomplishments and his career progression looked like he had been shot out of a cannon, gaining responsibility and altitude with each passing year. His life story read like a storybook…the one we all wish we might enjoy.  He was indeed a solid professional and almost a no-brainer of a hire.

The other candidate’s record was good, however, there were several points in time when things appeared to have gone wrong. A start-up failure was the first red flag, followed by a few years of seeming under-employment. Strikes one and two in many books. As I probed a bit more, it was clear the individual quickly had established herself as a leader in her under-employed role. A definite positive. Finally, upon closer review of her background, it was clear there was a gap of about 7 months followed by still more under-employment, albeit, once again moving quickly to a position of responsibility in a struggling not-for-profit. The roller-coaster was confusing to me. However, since that time she had rebounded nicely, recently passing the three year mark in a role of significant responsibility with a well-regarded firm. And while my position was likely a stretch role for her, she was in the game, but not nearly as attractive on paper as the other candidate.

I always like to do my own reference checking (I know, H.R. professional everywhere are shuddering) and during the course of the discussion with one of her bosses from the under-employed phase of her career, he volunteered how much he admired her for her ability to navigate life’s challenges. I probed a bit and it turned out that she had spent several years living through a litany of crucible moments, including serving as the care-giver for a terminally ill parent and then navigating the loss of her spouse and her new role as a single parent. I was told that her start-up had fallen victim to an unscrupulous financial advisor, although according to her former boss, she viewed herself as 100% accountable for that employee and in fact had repaid all of her friends and family investors over the years.

I reached back to her and asked very generally for her to talk about the challenges she had encountered and what they had taught her. What I uncovered was an attitude in the face of adversity that was truly remarkable and humbling. I doubt I would have conducted myself as well as she did.

The first candidate was compelling for all of the right reasons.

I hired the second candidate without hesitation. There was no charity case here. Both candidates were qualified, although one was stronger on paper. Nonetheless, I was (and am) committed to fielding the absolute best talent to help our organization grow and an individual who had fought through hardship and evidenced the ability to survive and ultimately prevail, would bring a level of personal and leadership depth and hunger to succeed far beyond that of my more traditional and well-heeled candidate.

She was a great hire and continues to prosper in her career.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your struggles and even your failures are important elements of who you are as a leader.  A track-record of chronic failures is different than having encountered and survived a profound setback in your life. It’s the setbacks, the unexpected crises and your approach to surviving and persevering through these crucible moments that forge your character as a person and as a leader. Learn, live and lead. And as a hiring manager responsible for building your team’s and your organization’s leadership future, open your eyes to people who understand what it means to struggle, survive and ultimately succeed.

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.