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.

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.

Just One Thing—New Leadership Role? Try Warmth Over Strength

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

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

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

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

Focus on the Goal:

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

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

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

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

The Bottom-Line for Now:

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

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

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

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

 

New Leader Tuesday—Learning to Adapt Your Approach to Individuals

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsThe New Leader Tuesday series is dedicated to helping first-time, early career and even experienced professionals with a “beginner’s mind” progress on their journey towards effective leadership.

This job of being responsible for the work of others would be easy if it weren’t for the people!

As a first-time supervisor, I recall cloaking myself in a no-nonsense, my way or the highway persona. I suppose it was a style that I thought was appropriate given my newly anointed role responsible for the survival of western civilization and the timely delivery of answers on the support lines for our firm selling electronic cash registers. After all, the cash registers must ring…or roll…or calculate, and nothing was going to keep MY team from delivering the best service in the industry. So help me… .

I was taught quickly by the patient but perplexed team members who had no intent of responding positively to the new dictator in charge, that I had to change or perish in this role.

In reality, my approach reflected a lack of style…and awareness…and emotional intelligence…and social intelligence…all issues that many of us struggle with when thrust into first-time management role without background training or real-time coaching and feedback.

First-time supervisor burnout or flame-out is an all-too-frequent outcome that is costly and destructive to individuals and teams. Training, coaching and feedback are critical…with two out of three of these free. If you’re not getting the support and feedback you need in your new role, ask for it, find a mentor at work or find someone who has experience in your network of friends and family and ask questions and learn from their wisdom!

I learned several valuable lessons from this uncomfortable first-time supervisor’s boot camp experience: 

  • It’s critical to be clear and universal in reinforcing the firm’s values and in setting expectations and ensuring fair and timely accountability across the team.
  • It’s not only OK to adapt my style to the needs and approaches of the individuals, it’s essential to support relationship development and begin building leadership credibility. Again, no compromising on values, expectations and accountability…but definitely customization of my approach. While this seems intuitive, it wasn’t a reflex action for me. It was a learned approach. The hard way.
  • The wonderful thing about working with and guiding and supervising a team is the diversity of approaches and styles. They are in and of themselves the ingredients of creativity and innovation and learning, and the sooner you as a first-time supervisor or manager recognizes and adapts to this reality, the faster you will begin building credibility and forming productive working relationships.

Learn to Recognize the Preferences of Your Team Members:

While there are many and varied styles and communication or interaction preferences, a few examples include:

  • Individuals who thrive on regular care, feeding and attention. They thrive when their work is visible and they have an opportunity to engage, ask questions, showcase their progress and generally maintain a steady level of contact with you.
  • Others take pride in their independence and will let you know only when they need help. While it is reasonable for you to check in from time-to-time, make it as non-intrusive as possible…just enough to ensure your obligation for awareness and quality.
  • Some shine in group settings…and others…those filled with brilliant ideas struggle to engage and share in those environments. Others simply would rather walk on hot coals than be thrust into a group initiative.

A Public Service Notice: No Micromanaging Styles…Ever.

It is never acceptable to adopt a micro-managing approach. If you feel forced to adopt this style, you have a performance problem that must be dealt with as such. Sadly, too many first-time and experienced managers miss this memo on micro-managing. It’s toxic, ineffective and just plain bad form on the manager’s part. Fix or remove the problem, but don’t reduce yourself to standing over someone’s shoulder.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

You will cultivate a style over time…in large part by learning from trial and error. You can accelerate the learning process and improve your effectiveness by remembering to adapt your interaction style to the behaviors and preferences of others, while never compromising your commitment to fairness, your firm’s values or your obligation to drive results.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

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.

Order one or both books for your team. Contact Art.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

 

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.

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.

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.