Leadership Caffeine™—5 Signs You’re Heading for a Meltdown

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveMost senior leaders lack any form of an honest, effective and timely feedback loop, and when they succumb to the pressures of the role and begin to flail, things can go bad in a hurry. While I’m a huge fan of adapting the “Swim Buddy” technique used by Navy SEALS to ensure someone is always there to save your skin, you should be on the lookout for these five warning signs suggesting that it’s time to hit the pause button before you suffer a leadership meltdown.

5 Warning Signs that You’re Approaching a Leadership Meltdown:

1. When you’re feeling isolated. There are times when leading others is one of the loneliest jobs in the world, however, when you’re beginning to feel like it’s you against the world, you’re on the brink of some bad moves. You might be on the hook for the final call on tough decisions, but it’s essential to draw people in to the dialog and gain their help with the vexing issues in front of the firm. Resist succumbing to a siege mentality or withdrawing to your bunker.

2. When you quit trusting your team members. The sense that you can no longer trust your key people often contributes to the creeping sense of isolation referenced above. Poor numbers, some negative surprises or project disasters can make you question the people you’ve tapped for leadership roles. Your instinct says, “I can’t trust him (or them) anymore.” Reality is that unless something deeply unethical or offensive has happened to genuinely tear a hole in the trust you’ve established with others, a one-time surprise or even a major misfire are not reasons to suddenly distrust. Repeated misfires are another issue.

The proper question is: do you trust yourself to have put the right people in roles around you? Don’t let your sudden doubt poison the well of trust on your team.

3. When you keep changing your mind on key decisions. Decisions are the fuel for actions, and when the senior leader flails and frequently reverses course on major decisions—the firm is in danger of crashing. Your inability to stick to a decision broadcasts that you aren’t sure what to do, inviting frustration and fear into the broader environment.

4. When you feel compelled to mislead your employees. I’ve observed this one on multiple occasions and the only one being fooled when the senior leader pumps sunshine or denies troubles is the senior leader.

5. When your primary emotion is anger. Stress and frustration manifest in different ways for all of us, however, it’s common for senior leaders under fire to respond like tyrants, barking commands, shooting messengers and railing at the incompetence they see in front of them. If you find yourself navigating your days with a growing sense of anger and frustration with everyone and everything around you, watch out.

An Ounce of Self-Reflection is Worth a Pound of Cure:

If we ignore the symptoms that tell us something is wrong physically, we jeopardize our long-term health and even short-term survival. The same goes for a leader who ignores the warning signs outlined above.

It’s difficult to get honest feedback when you’re in charge. While I encourage you to ask and survey others about your performance, the person looking back at you in the mirror is the last line of defense against a meltdown.

I’ve coached a number of senior leaders and executives back from the brink by helping them introduce a daily period of personal reflection on their performance and their impact on others.

Armed with a journal (analog or digital), these leaders jot down notes about their daily interactions and the outcomes from those interactions. A few minutes at the end of the day to review the notes and roll-up one or two key “commitments to improve” tomorrow helps plant the seeds for near-future strengthening. Spending a few moments chronicling victories or what-worked serves to cap off the day on a positive note. A quick review of the positives and commitments the next morning helps the leader enter the day in the right frame of mind to navigate the challenges. Rinse and repeat.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It’s easy for stressful circumstances to send a leader’s attitude careening towards the rocks. While it’s great to believe you have people who will tell you you’re acting like a jerk, you cannot count on it. Instead, build in the discipline and presence of mind to review your own performance daily and identify those activities and behaviors that must be strengthened or eliminated. While you need feedback to grow, you’re your own last line of defense against disaster.

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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Just One Thing—Don’t Fall Victim to Doom and Gloom

Don't Fall Off the CliffSpend too much time reading the headlines, and you’re to be excused if you feel like climbing back into bed and pulling the covers over your head.

Certainly, there’s a lot to be unsettled about on this planet at the moment. The early 2016 economic, geo-political and weather indicators suggest that this lap around the sun will be interesting. And remember, “interesting” isn’t necessarily good.

While the glass might not be half-full, there’s always something left to be positive about. Instead of falling victim to the psychology of the herd and withdrawing or hunkering down in your business, seize upon the positives and make some of your own good news.

6 Tips to Help Your Firm Prosper in a Period of Doom and Gloom:

1. Grow closer to your customers: they need your help now more than ever. Customers still have needs and problems and will spend and invest to solve those problems. The question is how good are you and your team at identifying and solving those challenges. Strengthen your sales and marketing operations and challenge them to lead the way.

2. Use the force…or, the tools. We’re rich in powerful tools to help us work smarter. The tools, technology and data available to you to help your firm work smarter are truly remarkable. Leverage technology and data to pin-point audiences, assess performance, gain early insight to trends and out-maneuver your clunky competitors.

3. When everyone is playing defense, go on the offensive. Well-managed firms survive and even thrive in difficult circumstances by playing offense while others play defense. Look for opportunities and don’t become paralyzed by the specter of failure. Your tendency is to hunker down and wait out the storm. The right thing to do is put all hands on deck looking for the opportunities.

4. Your competitors will do stupid things. Guaranteed. Exploit these opportunities. As long as you avoid mimicking your competitors, you will find ample opportunities to move some of there business to your top and bottom lines. Be there to capitalize when they cut marketing budgets or eliminate entire teams of engineers. And when they back away from that early, promising market, it’s time for you to plant your flag and begin building.

5. Quit waiting for the spark of genius to ignite innovation in your firm. You don’t need the reincarnation of Steve Jobs to innovate. Innovation is as much (or more) a management challenge as it is an outcome of inspired genius. Put eyes and feet in your customer’s offices and focus your filters on identifying opportunities to remove burden from their operations. Burden relief must be your new mantra.

6. Hire the gray matter. Expect a buyer’s market in gray matter to emerge. As said competitors move down the stupid-decisions path, there will be an incredibly variety of talent available for the picking. Get strategic about your talent recruitment and internal top-grading.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Humans follow the herd, and when the herd runs toward doom and gloom, we make stupid decisions. While it never pays to have a Pollyannaish view in a time of challenge, there are ample reasons and opportunities to not race pell-mell off the cliff of despair with everyone else. Frame the economic and industry challenges as opportunities and fight like hell to exploit those opportunities while your competitors jump off the cliff.

Read more in the Just One Thing series

Read Art’s All-New Management and Leadership writing at About.com

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator/adviser. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

Leadership Caffeine™—It’s Time to Become Better Informed Leadership Consumers

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThere’s a lot of happy talk in books, on blogs and in articles about leaders and leading. From revisionist histories of yesterday’s great CEO warriors to the feel-good advice that is so eagerly consumed by the masses of workers yearning for liberation from the tyranny of lousy managers and cubicle kingdoms, there’s no shortage of opinions on how to get this act and role of leading right. I applaud the efforts, but I decry much of the advice—it lacks the critical connection to reality that we need to get leadership right in an era rightly characterized by “overload, ambiguity and conflict.”

Much of the writing and commentary on leadership and leading reads like a Made-for-TV script with much of the gory and dirty content left out and the outcome predictable—the good guys always win. It’s disconnected from reality. Other content offers quick fixes, dispensed in “Top Ten Ideas…” lists. And yes, in over 1,100 articles, I’m guilty of some of this scripting. I believe in the goodness of the words and ideas, much as I know the authors and speakers offering their guidance for the seemingly profound lack of leadership in our organizations and in our world, believe in their own words. But, we (myself included) must infuse this talk with clear, dispassionate clinical context of this damnably difficult world.

I do think that we the people—the consumers of leadership are waking up to the need for something real and substantive, much like Britain woke up to the naïve idealism of Neville Chamberlin spouting the achievement of, “Peace for our time,” with Germany in late, 1938. The resolve and work of Churchill (particularly in cultivating FDR as an ally) was needed to save Britain and perhaps the world from an unthinkable fate.

As consumers, we’re left in a quandary as to whether we trust a sitting president’s leadership in a world that grows more dangerous by the day. (We would have this issue with any leader, but there’s a creeping sense today of dissonance in the people about the situation and the perspective and subsequent actions.) The surge of a businessman and reality t.v. personality in the other party is in my opinion a commentary on people’s hunger for someone who they perceive will be both strong and protective. The rhetoric is powerful and it feeds the emotions, but it’s not entirely rational.

Interestingly, one of the top selling new books on leadership, Leadership B.S.—Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, takes a  stab at the pablum dispensed by the broader leadership complex of authors, consultants, bloggers, trainers and speakers. Pfeffer uses data and studies to debunk the prevailing myths of the leadership peddlers with the effectiveness of a prosecuting attorney building an air-tight case against the defendant. His premise is provocative and spot-on: we need to develop better b.s. detectors around leaders and leadership ideas.

So, how can all of us improve our abilities to evaluate and choose leaders wisely in our firms and in our elected officials? (Yes, this still sounds like a list, but I’ll reform one post at a time!)

Da Vinci suggested that everyone should look at issues from three perspectives: your own, an alternative and one other. In a world that is highly polarized, just taking the time to ask deep questions about your own gut views and those of others—striving to understand the core premises of ideas and approaches is a good starting point. Blind loyalty for loyalty’s sake yields mediocrity at best and invites evil to the table at worst.

Demand straight talk from those in leadership roles or from those who aspire to leadership. Turn up your b.s. detector and when it’s triggered, trust your gut and ask for clarity. A humbling moment for me in a leadership role occurred after describing a new strategic direction, a bold employee stood up and said, “I didn’t understand a single thing you just said.” Thank goodness he had the courage to speak up.

Quit expecting those in leadership roles to have all of the answers. They don’t, but they need to be remarkable at working with others to find the answers. We falsely expect our corporate and political leaders to operate on super-orbital plane where the answers are clear to them while foggy to us. Yes, on rare occasions, we run into a human operating on a seemingly elevated plane of thinking (Da Vinci, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, some of the great inventors), but mostly they are very human and very fallible individuals. They need our help. Give it. Constructively.

Enforce accountability. The failure to lead—the failure to solve the problems must be met with the cold hand of rejection. Solve problems and improve conditions and you are retained.

Choose leaders that fit the situation. In many workplaces today, teams select the individual best suited to lead in the particular situation. It’s neither birthright, seniority or title, but a fitness for use. The individual serves and then reverts to a contributor role. The team members understand they are consumers of leadership, and they match the skills and abilities to the challenges in front of them, offer their support and then move on. This temporary, fitness for use merits additional exploration in all walks of our lives and firms.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m envisioning a “Consumer Reports” style grading of leaders and leadership ideas, completed with ratings for categories such as: results, predicted reliability, willingness to buy again, effectiveness in tough circumstances, propensity to offer straight talk and the ever important, backs words with actions. Now, more than ever, we need to improve our ability to select and support and guide the right people. Whether we’re talking about the futures of our firms or the safety of our citizens, it’s time for a revolution in leadership consumerism.

See more posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

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.

Leadership Caffeine™—Resist the Urge to Shield Your Team from Bad News

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

In difficult situations, reality tinged with optimism and backed by encouragement serves as a more effective motivator than a saccharine-sweet message of false praise and manufactured positivity.

The fact is, we’re not always fine. Strategies don’t always work. Mistakes happen. Competitors confound our best attempts and deals delay or derail. Stuff happens, and your attempt to reinforce a false reality will confuse people who expect and need honesty and transparency from you.

I see this dissonant messaging in action when I’m called upon to work with struggling firms or teams. The leader…often the CEO, is concerned about demoralizing the group and instead of shooting straight, obfuscates the reality of the situation with an overdose of praise and ginned up optimism. Unfortunately, this approach generates confusion (people are adept at sensing reality) and fails to do the one thing most critical to navigating the problems…draw people into the good and hard work of finding the solutions.

The Positive Side of Shooting Straight:

I observed a manufacturer navigate a complex quality problem by shooting straight with employees and customers as soon as the problem surfaced, and then making heroic efforts to remedy the problems. This was a potential lawsuit inducing, firm-killing issue and while navigating it was expensive and uncomfortable, the clear, transparent communication galvanized employees to act and actually strengthened the firm’s relationship with a number of key customers.

Another firm was failing to gain traction with a new strategy. The approach would push this firm into new arenas and the gravitational pull of the past resulted in half-measures and  halfhearted enthusiasm for the new direction. The top management took this issue to the employee population by both explaining the strategic rationale and importantly, educating everyone on the declining number of opportunities in legacy markets. The presentation was supported by a company wide review of key financial indicators and trends and a lot of discussion on what it really meant to move to this new market. Armed with new knowledge and clear on the very real need to succeed, the firm’s employees pulled together and not only succeeded in the new market, they became more adept at managing costs and selectively pursuing profitable opportunities in legacy markets.

Both of these very real cases required senior leaders to get out in front of the message. Without broad employee awareness and support, there was no hope.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the need to remain positive in dire circumstances is understandable and indeed very human, keeping your employees in the dark will work against you. You’re not protecting them… you are keeping them from getting involved. Resist the urge to shield your employees from reality. Share the facts, offer your assessment and insure that everyone has the opportunity to ask questions and offer ideas. You want to get people in front of the real issues holding you back and give them a voice in finding and implementing solutions.


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