Leadership Caffeine™—Don’t Back Off Leadership Development in a Crisis

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

When things break bad (even momentarily) in an organization, a number of predictable reflexes kick-in. Expenses are cut. Operations reviews evolve into extended, public proctology exams with everyone taking a long look searching for answers and blame. Time horizons shrink, the collective field of vision narrows to a pinhole and the lofty, noble ideals of developing leaders and teams that top management so passionately espoused during good times are reduced to echoes from a different era…when things were good.

Some of the responses are reasonable and expected. Expenses and forecasts merit exploration. Others are destructive. Suspending the work of developing your leaders and managers is destructive. Instead of letting your training budget dictate your team and leadership development efforts, try a return to the powerful and much needed full-contact work of coaching and teaching. Frankly, we should be doing this all of the time but too often we let external training substitute for our own heavy lifting around leadership development. Tight budgets are no excuse to back off. Instead, try these low-cost, high contact ideas to help support your efforts.

5 Ideas to Double Down on People Development when Things Break Bad

1-Get the Right Conversations Started. Encourage the managers and leaders to form their own reading/discussion groups. You buy the pizza, drinks and occasional reading materials and they talk and then act on making things better. Caution, no need to make this a corporate mandate or H.R. driven program. Sew the seeds…and support the efforts but don’t make it feel like work. You’re lighting or stoking the collective fire for individuals to find a new performance gear and you have to inspire not command involvement. My suggested starter book: the latest edition of The Leadership Advantage by Kouzes and Posner. The discussion and potential for idea generation present in Chapter 1 alone will make this one of your best professional development investments ever!

2-Increase Your Coaching Efforts. Because the time horizon is now perceived as short and the field of vision narrowed to a laser focus on the revenue and cost numbers, the soft but hard discussions are often left for some future date to be determined. They just don’t happen, which is counter-intuitive. Effective leaders redouble their efforts to remain attuned to their own managers and senior team leads and both offer coaching to support strengthening and to shore up morale. While there’s always an opportunity cost to your time investments, this one pays significant dividends. Focus on observing, coaching and supporting your people If your calendar doesn’t have the equivalent of 20% of your time on this per week, you’re not taking it seriously.

3-Mind the Gap on Big Decisions. While closely related to the coaching efforts, any process of recovery invites big decisions on people, projects, structure and investment priorities to the table. Big decisions are often decisions that end up stalling out while everyone’s rushing around putting out fires or simply avoiding the discomfort. Hold your key leaders accountable to moving forward on the decisions and commensurate action items. Coach them through the decision-process and ensure that they’re prepared for the critical next steps on people, structure and programs following the decisions. Nothing supports professional development like the ownership of a big decision and accountability for the actions and outcomes.

4-Pick, Prioritize and Projectize the Recovery Efforts. Develop the discipline to identify and prioritize the limited number of critical recovery priorities and then get teams working on them. In a crisis, there’s a tendency to drive a lot of activity with no vector. Instead, help the employees narrow their own efforts to the critical few activities and then provide support for these project teams. Be deliberate selecting team leaders. These recovery priorities are remarkable developmental opportunities for people you perceive are ready for a new and bigger challenge. Again, nothing supports leadership and professional development like team leadership, particularly when the stakes are high. Ensure that each team is aligned with a good sponsor who understands his/her role to support building an effective team environment, and then let the teams and leaders run hard.

5-Bring Your Firm’s Values to Life. Sometimes the best development tools and opportunities are right in front of you in the form of your firm’s values. All too often the values get lost in the noise…they’re present on the wall and in the employee handbook, but mostly invisible in the daily work of the organization. Home grow a program focusing on exploring the meaning and application of the values in the day-to-day work environment. Let your managers grow a grass roots program to recruit these powerful (and aspirational) behavior statements into the hard work of helping the firm navigate the storm. This work can be a game changer for strengthening your firm’s culture.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The best professional development always takes place with live fire activities. While budget cuts might kill the external training activities for a period of time, a crisis shouldn’t mean the end to the good work of leadership development. A crisis is a horrible thing to waste. Use it wisely and you’ll come out of it with a stronger team prepared to take your firm to new levels of success.

New Leader Tuesday—Quit Walking on Eggshells around Boss Bullies

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsEvery Tuesday at the Management Excellence blog I share ideas to help those just starting out on their leadership journeys.

Almost every person who’s ever held a managerial position has spent time walking on eggshells around a deliberately difficult employee to avoid inciting a confrontation. I describe these individuals as “Boss Bullies.” They’re particularly fond of first-time managers because their tactics tend to work on these often overwhelmed professionals for a period of time.

These difficult characters are almost all the same. They aggressively assert their disdain for you as the new manager. They do everything possible to show their disapproval of your presence and they expect you to show deference. They know just the right buttons to push to get their way and make your life miserable.

I encountered my first one when I was promoted to a supervisory role after just a few months at my first post-college job. This particular individual made it clear through his words and actions that he wasn’t going to be managed or bothered by some newbie. It worked for him for awhile.

I wasn’t physically frightened of this bully, but I definitely allowed his bullying approach to push me off balance. I either avoided dealing with him directly or, if it was essential, I couched my comments and questions in niceties. I went out of my way to let him know that I wasn’t there to manage him, but that we needed his help. He was smart enough to help, but he definitely let me know every time that I owed him one.

Aside from developing a daily stomachache over having to deal with this character, my approach was visible to everyone on my team. It was a formula for failure on all fronts and it had to change. It did.

While I didn’t have a handy list of the ideas below for dealing with the situation, I very clumsily applied the principles and managed to change the nature of the relationship. In this case, the bully respected my assertion of power and became an acceptable…not exemplary, but acceptable citizen.

Instead of walking on eggshells, stomp on them and solve this problem.

Six Ideas for Clearing Away the Eggshells and Dealing with Boss Bullies:

1. Engage. Your instinct is to avoid and ignore. Do the opposite. You need to cultivate a formal boss-to-employee relationship with the individual in question. Without engaging fairly and professionally with the Boss Bully in question, you have no behavioral basis for feedback, coaching or ultimately, some form of discipline, including termination.

2. Clarify Accountability. The Boss Bully understands that his/her approach results in different standards for accountability compared to the broader population. You need to eliminate any opportunity for a double standard by clarifying the individual’s responsibility for results and ensuring that the accountability is upheld. One manager I coached used post-project performance evaluations from team members and the project manager to facilitate discussions on this difficult individual’s interpersonal approach, attitude and other dysfunctional The Boss Bully must understand what they are accountable for in terms of both results and workplace behaviors.

3. Observe Often, Reinforce Positives and Tackle Negatives Immediately. The best way to manage this situation is to observe the individual’s work with others as much as possible and offer clear, specific behavioral feedback. If the bully is a mostly an individual contributor without much team involvement, it’s all on your shoulders to engage often enough to offer feedback. Tackle performance issues immediately and provide positive feedback as long as it is merited.

4. Warning! Don’t Apologize or Attempt to Praise Your Way Forward. It takes time for some managers to overcome their fear of Boss Bullies, and those initial steps to engage are awkward and even frightening for some. Beware the tendency to engage by apologizing for your intrusion, and resist the urge to offer positive praise for behaviors that simply meet the standards that everyone else is accountable for. You weaken your case with the Boss Bully when he observes your visible discomfort and extraordinary efforts to placate him.

5. Build on Progress. Your goal should always be for a positive outcome. I’ve observed more than a few Boss Bullies respond positively to appropriate attention and clear feedback. While I’m practicing without a license on this one, I suspect that some behaviors are cries for attention and for respect. Your willingness to pay attention to someone is a powerful motivator.  As you observe positive progress, offer appropriate feedback and importantly, strengthen the relationship by extending your trust on workplace responsibilities. Assuming that your trust is rewarded with results, keep it going.

6. Know When to Cut Your Losses. If the attention and feedback don’t work, it’s time for the Boss Bully to go. Work with your manager and H.R. team. Remember that they’ll be looking for clear documentation and proof that you’ve been constructively tackling this issue over a reasonable period of time. Don’t do what so many managers do and that is ignore the topic until you can’t take it anymore and then ask for help. Insure that your boss and H.R. are attuned to the situation immediately and document the process over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Too many managers spend too much time walking on eggshells. They either avoid the Boss Bullies or, they deal with them in a manner that reinforces aberrant behaviors. Your only mistake here is to perpetuate the problem. Spend too much time walking on eggshells and you’ll inevitably crush some of them. Fail to resolve this problem and you may be crushing your future prospects with your firm.

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.

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.

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.

 

New Leader Tuesday—Ideas to Help You Cure Feedback Fright

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesdays at the Management Excellence blog are dedicated to those just starting out on their leadership journeys.

While the act of delivering constructive feedback doesn’t rank up there with the fear of public speaking (stage fright) or facing an IRS audit (just pure fear), too many managers…especially newly promoted first-timers avoid this activity because it makes them uncomfortable. Others use crutches like sandwiching or sugarcoating to calm their own fears, creating muddled messages in the process.

A good number of managers carry feedback fright with them throughout their careers, leaving a wake of under-developed, under-supported team members wondering what they might do better to strengthen their own performance and further their careers. When polling participants in workshops, one of the top wishes I hear is, “I wish my boss would give me more feedback.” Seriously. No one wishes for another IRS audit, but they want more feedback. Even the constructive (“you need to improve this”) kind.

It’s essential for you to learn to tame your emotions and control your feedback fright. Failure to overcome this issue will prove debilitating to your effectiveness as a manager. And frankly, it’s not so hard to resolve.

9 Ideas to Help Cure Yourself of Feedback Fright:

1. Remember, your team members are waiting for it. Read these words and believe them…after all, you read them on the internet: good people are hungry for feedback. Seriously. They’re waiting for it. They want input to help them raise their game.

2. Quit hesitating because you’re worried about the reaction you’re going to elicit. If properly constructed, delivered and managed, constructive feedback most often will elicit a positive response. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually. I’ve lost count of the times someone has thanked me and offered some variation of, “I’ve never heard that before,” or “No one ever mentioned that to me.” And while not all of these discussions go swimmingly, if executed properly, the majority will. Hey, nothing’s perfect!

3. Deliver feedback on observed behaviors not hearsay. Don’t get caught up in the “he said/she said” traps. Get out with your team members and observe them in action and offer feedback in near real time. If someone is suggesting aberrant behavior outside of your eye-sight, redouble your efforts to observe.

4. Always link the behavior to the business. If you make it personal, you’ll lose. If you link the behavior to the business, you’re operating on the side of goodness.

5. Plan your feedback discussions. Nothing strengthens performance like proper planning. Take time to think about the behaviors and business impact and then jot down your opening sentence. Practice the opening sentence to yourself a few times and then put it to work.

6. Get it just right with time, tone and temperament. As you approach the discussion, spend a few moments focusing on your objectives: a clear, concise and unemotional discussion leading to an action plan to improve. Feedback is best served in Goldilocks fashion. If it’s too hot…too emotionally turbocharged, it will be destructive. If it’s too cold…too old, it will be ineffective.

7. Don’t inventory the issues. The closer to the observed behavior you address the situation, the better the outcome and the better you’ll feel about these discussions. The worst feedback habit is waiting for the annual performance review and then backing up the dump truck and unloading. This won’t go well for either party.

8. Create a discussion, don’t deliver a monologue. Know that your goal in the discussion is to engage the receiver in developing ideas that he/she can put into action to strengthen or change the behavior in question. You don’t have to have all of the answers…you simply have to create the situation to jointly develop the answers.

9. Remember how to get to Carnegie Hall. OK, old, lame joke with a point. Passenger: ”Cab driver, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” Cabbie: “Practice, practice, practice.”

The Bottom-line for Now:

While there are a number of different and very important managerial tools to support behavior development and change, feedback is fundamental. Your feedback fright is best resolved by employing a number of good habits, starting with the recognition that your people are hungry for clear, meaningful and timely input on improving. By the way, so are you. Remember to be a great feedback receiver when it’s your turn.

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™—When It Comes to Toxic Employees, Don’t Hesitate

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.

A few of the most contentious (and job threatening) moments in my career have come when I’ve gone to the mat on dealing with toxic employees. For a number of reasons…none of which are worth much, too many leaders hesitate when it comes to purging these radioactive waste products from their teams. If you’ve been rationalizing retaining one of those characters that creates fallout with every encounter, it’s important to recognize what you’re doing to everyone else and then to take action.

The toxic employee has a “special” knack of destabilizing groups, destroying trust between coworkers and stifling conversation and creativity in nearly every situation. This person is offensive…with the double-entendre intended, in their approach and with their presence. They attempt to manipulate the agenda to suit their own needs and they strive to suppress voices contrary to theirs.

Everyone knows this toxic worker. They dread sitting in meetings with him and they’ll do anything to avoid having to call upon this person for input. The toxic worker sucks the oxygen out of a room and ensures that brains and jaws snap-shut.

From an exaggerated fear of reprisal (typically unfounded legal reprisal) to the lame excuse of specialized knowledge or the equally lame fear of what competition will learn if they glom on to your “special” employee, the excuses to not act are consistent and weak. If you allow your business to be held hostage by a toxic person, well, I’m not optimistic about your chances for future success. You destroy your credibility as a leader and you most definitely will struggle retaining talent and inspiring people to do their best work. Oh, and I can think of nothing more enjoyable than this person spreading her radioactivity at my competitor!

If this questionable character is under your direct responsibility, your biggest challenge is avoiding falling into the “rationalize” trap described above. Recognize the character of this person for what it is and take all legal and procedural actions necessary to purge your team of this person. A well-run H.R. department will guide your actions to ensure compliance and accelerate outcomes. A poorly run H.R. department will be a giant block on this issue and you’ll need help from others with the power to help.

My own noteworthy battles on this topic have come when the toxic co-worker is under another executive’s charge. Without hire/fire authority, it’s an issue of moral suasion and/or negotiation. It gets sticky when the toxic worker’s executive suggests, “I kind of like having a bulldog in my group. It keeps everyone else on edge.” That executive was and is an ass, and I moved the issue upstream to the broader executive group. At the end of the day, this group voiced all the fears described above and a few more, but agreed that the individual in question displayed behaviors so far out of a reasonable interpretation of the firm’s values, that she had to go.

As outlined in my post on my own hiring mistakes, I’ve misread a few people and their characters. They did an excellent job projecting the persona I and we wanted to see. Once we discovered the real character of the individual, I had no qualms about admitting my mistake and taking fast action.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In every circumstance where I’ve had to remove the toxic employee I used up valuable political capital. In hindsight, I cannot think of a better way to have put this capital to work. It’s an investment that paid back principal and interest many times over from the hearts and minds of my high-character colleagues. When it comes to the toxic person on your team, don’t hesitate. The costs of waiting are unacceptably high.

Subscribe to the Leadership Caffeine Newsletter with 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.