Art of Managing—Steering Clear of Flail and Fail

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

Businesses of all sizes, shapes and ages run into rough patches. Rapid growth, disruptive competitors or technologies, regulatory changes or the end of the road for well-worn strategies are all potential culprits in the move from success to struggle. It’s critical at this point for a firm’s leaders and managers to react carefully and appropriately in this unfamiliar terrain or they risk moving quickly from flail to fail.

The “Flailure” Effect:

Whether the stimuli are positive promoting rapid growth or negative and threatening financial well-being, firms and management teams accustomed to a consistent rhythm and cycle to their business are often caught off-guard and unprepared to process and respond to sudden change. The initial symptoms include a rash of problems as conventional approaches and systems are stressed and teams are challenged to respond in ways they’re not accustomed to around issues that feel foreign.

It’s this point where the new stressors invite widespread anxiety to the corporate party. Tempers flare, fingers point and if left unchecked, dysfunctional conflict sets up camp. In response, well-intended managers scurry around settling disputes and putting out fires…often feeling like they are steadily losing ground against the onslaught of issues.

Obviously, these circumstances call for strong leadership, and it’s often the wrong kind of strong leadership (and decisions) on organization structure, strategy and key leadership roles that finally amplifies flail and moves the firm steadily towards fail. It becomes Flailure.

5 Starter Ideas to Help You Steer Clear of Flailure:

1. Share the Real Situation With the Organization. Your instinct is to mask the problems. That’s wrong. Everyone senses when things are going katty-wampus and the problem is magnified many times over when no one at the top is sharing the straight story. Context is King…and good people long accustomed to success, want to be part of the solution…not kept in the dark. But first, they need to understand the scale and scope of the challenges before they can contribute their energy and gray matter.

2. Get the Middle Involved. Your mid-level managers are involved in all of the work of the business and they are the source of most daily decisions. Additionally, they deal with every headache and they see the stressors clearly…in contrast to a firm’s senior leaders who are by the nature of their role removed from the daily heavy lifting. You need them on your side and active in seeking solutions. You need your mid-level managers engaged with each other and comfortable in translating front-line realities into unified ideas and actions. In addition to serving as the execution layer around fixes and changes, these people are the critical translation layer in helping a firm’s senior leaders gauge the progress and outcomes with new programs and strategies.  (For those of you who pillaged and eradicated your mid-level management layer in the name of efficiency, you’re exposed here.)

 3. Mind the Intersections. Our tendency is to hunker down in our functional silos, yet most issues in times of significant change involve hand-offs and collaboration and many of the problems and opportunities occur where processes and functions intersect. Building on the prior point, your mid-level managers are critical to gaining visibility into the issues and bringing the resources to bear to change processes and monitor results. Pay particular attention to gauging and improving the process work around the intersections. (Of course, the functional issues must be addressed as well.)

4. Build In Stress Relief. Yes, this one is lighter…and I know that I personally don’t do “light” very well, but I respect its power and importance. No one and no team does their best work under sustained periods of high stress. The stress becomes toxic to individuals (health, well-being) and relationships. The culture becomes sick. It helps to find ways to lighten the mood and shift the focus at least on a social level for moments in time during periods of tension. One leader I observed set up a bowling league and in spite of the behind the scenes laughs at a perceived trivial and unrelated activity at the wrong time, the people learned to relax, compete and have fun together every other week…taking the edge off just a bit. Howard Schultz famously took 10,000 managers to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to offer help rebuilding and then to meet and share frank talk on the downturn at Starbucks. He offered (I paraphrase): if we didn’t have New Orleans, we might not be here. Creating an opportunity to blow off steam and allow people to rediscover their human side is never a bad thing.

5. Senior Leaders… Avoid the Easy Temptations and Focus on Clarifying Direction. Our knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t working is to restructure…people, teams and the overall organization. We run around rearranging deck chairs and walls and we don’t have a set design or blueprint. Structural change won’t compensate for a failed or failing strategy and identifying a scapegoat for the problems and changing out functional leadership definitely won’t cure the disease. The same goes for unexpected growth. If it was accidental…this happy outcome is every bit as serious as the challenges of disruption. Get your arms around the strategy and then begin sorting through the best way to organize to leverage the opportunity. Remember, the directional decisions come first and this is where senior leadership must earn its keep.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This is a big hairy topic and it’s one that I’ve observed in clients or prior employers over time. If you’ve lived through this, you recognize the symptoms and too often as an employee or manager, you feel helpless to stem the tide or make a productive difference. Fight this attitude and resist the temptation for knee jerk reactions. Communicate with your peers…have the confidence to surface the problems and propose ideas. Find opportunities to let the teams blow off steam. Your ability to galvanize the collective gray matter of your team members, peers and colleagues is absolutely essential for avoiding flailure, and you need their hearts and minds in the process.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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Helping the Senior Management Team Find Its Voice

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementThis series at Management Excellence is intended to prompt ideas and promote healthy discussion around the big topic of strengthening the development and performance of senior management teams.

I’m convinced one of the key limiting factors of management team effectiveness is the discomfort these high-powered functional experts have in talking with each other.

While there are few quiet senior management team meetings, the words exchanged tend to be more about functional updates and carefully worded ideas or collegial debate over direction or investments than they are about the real issues confronting the firm.

Some suggest the CEO remind these individuals to leave their functional hats at the door, but this seemingly sound guidance is simply impossible. It’s the functional expertise and perspective that forms and frames senior managers and there’s no leaving the well-patterned thinking and experience anywhere. It’s foolish advice as well. The wisdom gained by experience is why you hired these people in the first place. Better to harness it than banish it from the scene.

Another reality of the communication dynamic between groups of senior managers is an exercise in political sensitivity. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t step over an invisible but very real line in challenging other senior managers, lest you embarrass someone in front of the CEO and/or invite an angry response and eventual reprisal.

Instead of tackling the tough issues, topics are politely floated with carefully selected words intended to soften the risk of a perceived slight, and less than complete answers serve as periods that punctuate the end-points of the topic.

The real challenge for CEOs and senior managers is to transcend the forces that keep these groups from talking openly and comfortably with each other about the tough issues or decisions standing in the way of progress. Depending upon the state of the management team, one or more of the following ideas might help take the dialog to a new level of effectiveness.

5 Blocking and Tackling Ideas for Helping the Senior Management Team Find Its Voice:

1. Bring in outside help. Most CEOs aren’t able to overcome the issues that impede senior management team communication effectiveness, try as they might…either by moral suasion or sheer force of personality. I’ve sat on both sides of this table…as the coach/facilitator and as one of the challenged senior executives, and in environments where the right help and coaching is present for the team, discussions flourish and real progress is built one topic at a time. A good facilitator will cut through double-speak, call out people who aren’t participating and cry foul when the topic steers off course. A small investment for a priceless return.

2. Create Nominal Group Opportunities. This under-utilized technique for eliciting ideas is no more complicated than framing up a single, focused question or approach and allowing senior executives to contribute in writing, anonymously. Yes, I know that sounds weak…senior executives forced to share ideas cloaked behind the veil of anonymity, however, the technique depersonalizes the discussion and allows people to focus on the issues…safely away from the real-time filters that suppress face to face communication. While there’s always some guessing on who submitted what ideas or critiques, the depersonalization of the input changes the communication dynamic for the better. The focus stays more on the issues and ideas and is less about perceived agendas. Appoint someone to organize and share the feedback and key points.

3. Keep it visible, but use a written discussion board format. I never cease to be amazed at how well my MBA students open up and share in discussion board forums and I’ve observed the same with management teams. This technique offers an opportunity for individuals to review and share ideas on their own time and at their own pace. Instead of fleeting words in a meeting, the opinions of others are captured and visible to read and reflect upon, while forming their own thoughts. The results are often rich, thoughtful perspectives that compare/contrast and build upon the opinions of others. One bonus…the perspectives are archived for easy reference or reminder.

4. Ensure that discussions have a way to turn into action. Again, odd sounding, but these talented professionals who often manage big budgets and big teams aren’t accustomed to taking on work as part of a team. That’s a muscle that for many at the senior level has long atrophied. Use project management techniques and a project approach for executive team assignments. Always appoint a sponsor…create a charter and write a good quality scope document that frames the expected outcomes/time-frames for the work. As needed, add in a professional project manager to guide the execs and politely but firmly hold them accountable to progress.

5. Write the rules. Most senior management teams don’t take the time to ensure clear, written rules for their discussions. Try establishing clear standards and values for communication, including: one topic at a time; everyone participates; divergent opinions are welcomed; there’s a time for assessing risks and identifying problems with ideas…and there’s a time for building solutions…don’t mix those time-frames. This is work that good project managers and team builders do in their sleep…but most CEOs aren’t wired to focus on the hard work of building team dynamics and team communication standards.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s nothing easy about building high performance teams, particularly when the group at hand is comprised of senior executives. The real value that accrues from these groups of high powered people working together comes from their ability to have the right conversations and move from issue to action quickly and effectively. While the topics of these groups…direction, strategy and investment are big and lofty and ambiguous, the use of one or more of the above ideas can help neutralize the political dynamics and help the group develop a more effective and open communication style and cadence.

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 Art’s latest book: 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.

Just One Thing—Practice Staying in the Moment

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!

“To be present is to listen without memory or desire.” Wilfred Bion as cited in John Baldoni’s excellent new book, Moxie—The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.

Our world of work is filled with quick sound-bite exchanges and constant interruptions. Many of us have learned to cope with competing stimuli and the pressure to move faster and faster in our daily transactions, yet there is a cost to working this way. We’ve sacrificed personal connection and clarity for the siren song of constant communication. It’s communication of sorts, but in no way complete.

Consider:

Most meetings are a competition for some unknown prize, where people talk and debate but don’t typically connect.

Too many leaders engage with half (or less) of their faculties with their team members as they chase the urgent or the urgent-unimportant.

Spend a day observing how people engage in the workplace and you might reasonably conclude that the signal-to-noise ratio in the workplace is mostly noise.

Exercise Your Power of Attention by Staying in the Moment:

Just for today, bend time to your will by slowing down and focusing on the people you come in contact with in the workplace.

Listen intently to what they have to say or what they are asking. Resist the urge to jump in and finish sentences or interject your own thoughts. Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand their perspective. Restate their points in your own words to confirm that you understand their points. And then and only then, share your ideas in response.

If you are approached in your own workspace, flip a mental switch and disconnect from your screen and turn your attention to the individual in front of you. One effective manager I know, blanks her screen and puts her mobile device on silent in her desk drawer to ensure her full attention.

Yes, the suggestions above are part of what we call active listening. I call it showing respect.

Do the same in meetings. Leave the device in your pocket or at your desk and serve as that clarifying influence. Pay attention to the speakers. And if needed, help people corral the communication chaos by actively facilitating in pursuit of common understanding.

And finally, there are some people we work with who are brilliant but struggle to communicate clearly using just spoken words. Some people are visual communicators…engage with them by drawing on a whiteboard. Others are fierce writers… find an opportunity for them to think on screen and then share their wisdom. Still others live and work in a world of numbers or logic. Be the better communicator and strive to find the medium that best supports their ability to share their message.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Few activities in your career offer a better return on investment than silencing the noise and paying full attention to everyone you encounter.

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.

 

A Leader’s Reasons to Be Thankful

Thank YouNote from Art: This is an annual post at Management Excellence, offered in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S. It’s a nice time for leaders to pause and recognize the many reasons they have to be thankful for the privilege of serving. 

A Leader’s Reasons to be Thankful: 

  • Be grateful for your unique chance to serve others. It is a privilege.
  • Be thankful for the patience and forbearance that your colleagues and team-members show as you learn over time and through trial and error what it truly means to lead.
  • Give thanks for your chance to learn everyday from others.
  • Be thankful for those that came before you and took the time to pass along their wisdom…even if you didn’t realize how valuable it was until much later.
  • Be grateful for the opportunity to positively impact lives in ways that few other jobs or professions provide. This is one job that impacts others for a lifetime.
  • Be thankful for the opportunity to motivate, coach and teach those who invest valuable time in their lives and careers with you.
  • Be grateful for those who choose to follow you. Without them, you’re not a leader.
  • Give thanks for the opportunity that you have to create value for your organization.  You might not engineer new products or services, but get this job right and you will enable many others to create, engineer, build and add value.
  • Be thankful for the headaches of daily leadership. Without the problems, your opportunity to lead doesn’t exist.
  • Give thanks for your chance to participate in the journey of a lifetime.
  • And most of all, just give thanks by speaking up and remembering that a well-placed, heartfelt “Thank you” is one of the most powerful and important of all leadership tools.

And yes, please accept my sincere Thank You for your readership and conversation.  I am truly grateful for you.

-Art

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.