How Small-Company CEOs Can Build Management Teams that Work

Graphic displaying terms relevant to high performance managementOne of the worst uses of the term, “team,” is in relationship to the group of executives who report to the CEO. For many of the firms I work with ($20 million to $200 million in annual revenues), there’s little beyond the “report to” issue that binds these groups together as a team. This is often frustrating to CEOs who expect more from their highest paid lieutenants.

Countless hours and dollars are spent at offsite retreats and with expensive consultants and industrial psychologists exploring interesting dimensions of individual and group dynamics, often with no sustaining and positive “teaming” effects once the group returns to their day jobs.

What’s a CEO to do?

The answer for many is to simplify this situation by resetting expectations for teaming and laser focusing on the few issues that demand close coordination across this group of experienced and highly compensated individuals. While resetting expectations may sound like capitulation, it’s more of a case of choosing what not to do and focusing energies on the few combined activities that will move the performance meters in the right direction.

Resetting Expectations—Letting Go of Visions of Camelot

For many CEOs, there’s an idealized state of existence where the senior managers without prompting function as a single entity solving problems and making decisions and spreading confidence and good cheer across the firm. In this vision, the managers trust and even like each other and importantly, they protect each other. It’s a nice vision. Nice, but impractical.

In reality, senior managers are often at cross-purposes with each other over budgetary issues and the battle for resources for their teams. By nature of their functions, their time horizons are different. Poorly designed compensation systems fail to motivate integration and coordination, and key performance indicators reflect functional variables that are irrelevant beyond the specific department—interesting and perhaps important, but not meaningful to the group.

And the unspoken reality is that some senior managers view a seat at the table as a license to hunt for more power—whether it’s via an elevated title or favored status when it comes to gaining access to the CEO’s ear. The senior management environment is a ripe breeding ground for competition for individuals used to competing and succeeding in games of power and resources.

While many of the above variables are capable of being tuned and tweaked, a faster path to meaningful collaboration is to focus on the core issues that must bind this group in attitude and performance: direction, coordination and values. While I absolutely advocate creating meaningful, integrated measures, goals and compensation schemes, and eradicating destructive power-grabs, those should emerge from a focus on the issues.

Where Teamwork Matters at the Top:

1. Direction.The senior managers must coalesce around the next steps for the firm. Easy words, but a difficult objective to achieve in reality (and the subject of a dedicated forthcoming post).

Helping Teams and Individuals Find DirectionWhether it’s diversifying and strengthening offerings or making moves to extend within a current segment/customer group or, expanding to cover new segments, a unified front from this group is essential. In teams where this unified view and messaging is missing, the broader organization picks up on the dissonance and morale and execution suffer.

CEOs must facilitate the hard dialog about direction and bring the debates to a close with a clear, unassailable conclusion. Once direction is set, the team is accountable to owning this direction choice together—from messaging to execution, learning and adaptation. This doesn’t preclude amending or shifting in the future, but there’s a point in time when the debates stop, a choice is made and the needed senior manager collaboration begins.

2. Coordination around Strategy Execution. Management groups are capable of developing as teams around the critical and challenging work of bringing directional decisions to life. These are effectively programs or projects with a tremendous number of inter-dependencies between functions. From co-sponsoring cross-functional initiatives or key project pieces to defining meaningful measures that gauge organizational progress on strategies, teamwork at the top is critical. In my experience, the clear and galvanizing purpose of strategy implementation and the transparency required for gauging progress are critical variables for promoting senior manager teamwork.

3. Values. For high performing organizations, the values that define expected and accepted behaviors are visible and very much alive, and their reinforcement starts and stops with senior management behaviors. People mimic powerful leaders, and they are super-sensitive to behaviors that are dissonant from what’s been described as appropriate or ideal. There can be no exceptions at the senior manager level to living and supporting the values of the firm and the behaviors needed to ensure clarity of purpose, rules of engagement and collaboration and accountability for outcomes.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In three decades of attending, being a part of or facilitating senior management teams and meetings, I have no qualms suggesting that most of these groups sub-optimize. I’ve observed or have been a part of a couple of groups for points in time that looked and felt like real teams in all respects, but those are the exceptions. CEOs have a tough job deriving value beyond functional leadership from their senior managers, and instead of expecting them to spontaneously emerge as a great team, they are better served focusing on driving teamwork in the limited but important areas of direction, strategy execution and values reinforcement. Get these three right and the opportunity for the group to emerge as a real team improves considerably.

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.



Art of Managing—Bad Boss? Are You Sure it’s Not You?

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsJust about everyone I’ve encountered recently—or so it seems—has an ax or two to grind with their boss. From, “she just doesn’t understand me,” to, “he’s only in it for himself,” to, “he micromanages me,” the complaints sound like the story lines of bad (redundant?) relationship-gone-wrong episodes of the Dr. Phil Show.

I ran into an individual celebrating leaving an alleged miserable manager in the lurch by quitting. Another was busy scheming of ways to undercut her manager by sinking one of the manager’s pet projects. (Harsh and stupid!) And, the coldest cut came from someone genuinely positive that his manager was out on sick leave. I asked whether it was serious, and the guy laughed and said, “It’s not my problem.” (Harsh and cruel!)

I’ve experienced my own fair share of individuals in leadership roles who would have struggled to organize a pumpkin judging contest for 8-year-olds. And there are more than a few I’ve encountered, where it has  crossed my mind that karma will be a b@tch. However, newsflash: it’s not always the manager that’s the issue.

If you’re struggling with a challenging boss, a bit of mirror-gazing might just be the ticket. While never excusing or defending bosses who violate ethics, values, and common courtesy, there are a good number who work hard at this most difficult of all tasks of being responsible for the work of others, and still end up on the short-end of your judgment. However, I can assure you from long experience, that a good number of you are no day at the beach to work with. (And yes, I resemble that remark. I made life challenging for a number of my well-intended managers. Too brash, too zealous, too aggressive—guilty on all counts.)

Take a look at the list, and if the mirror isn’t clouded by a bit too much ego, perhaps you might just catch a glimpse of yourself.

The Boss’s Top 10 Challenging People:

1. The One Who Doesn’t Think for Himself. Your favorite question is, “How would you like me to handle this?” Your favorite complaint is, “She’s a micromanager.” Hmmm.

2. The Soap Opera Star. Yes, it’s unfortunate that you crashed your 23 year-old car while driving your child to his court-mandated counseling the same morning you accidentally fed your dog cat food and the cat ate the bird in protest. You could sell tickets to your weekly stories, and while I empathized 52 tragedies ago, you’re wearing thin. I’m not sorry that I’m holding you accountable to the same standards for timeliness and productivity as your colleagues.

3. The Us-v-Them Revolutionary. It’s great that you take your role in building our culture seriously, however, if you would start working and spend a little less time raising a militia to confront the evils of management, perhaps things would go better for you.

4. The Office Politician. You’re networking skills are excellent. In fact, it seems like you are perpetually running for an office that doesn’t exist. Now,  about your project, your deadlines, your team’s performance…

5. The Outraged One. Yes, I know you find it preposterous and outrageous and reprehensible that anyone might dare to offer you specific, behavioral, constructive feedback. If I’m a jerk for doing this important part of my job, so be it. Here’s some heartfelt advice: GET OVER YOURSELF!

6. The Harmonizer. I love your idealistic view to what the workplace should look like. In your mind, there’s a lot of hand-holding and harmony and peace and orderliness. In reality, we’re running flat out for survival, and the process is just a bit messy. Work with me and I’ll work with you.

7. The One with the Chip on the Shoulder. Seriously, not everything is an insult to your intelligence. Your propensity to start an argument for dominance with anyone who you think even looks at you funny is annoying. Much like the advice to the Outraged One, GET OVER YOURSELF!

8. The Knowledge Hoarder. OK, we know you’re smart. Your willingness to only dole out nuggets of wisdom on the second Tuesday of the month is just annoying. And, it’s definitely not a strategy for long-term growth and development. Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are…

9. The Conspiracy Theorist. There are no aliens or alien craft on the third floor; that executive meeting wasn’t about you, and the look that you think you got from your boss’s boss wasn’t the, “Remind me to fire him” look. You see conspiracies where there are none and you play games where no one else sees the playing field. It’s obvious and funny and sad at the same time.

10. The “What’s My Career-Path” One. OK, good managers love people who want to develop and grow. It’s the people who want the promotion before they develop and grow that we struggle with. Newsflash: your progress down any path requires hard work, great results and signs that you can take on increasing levels of responsibility and deliver. While I can explain possible paths and strive to understand your interests and skills, and I can give you new challenges, I cannot predict your future. You make your future one step at a time!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s no doubt your manager owns the majority of the heavy lifting for building an effective working environment and for building effective working relationships. However, you are a stakeholder in this situation with a significant investment—your time and energy and your future prospects. The relationship is a two-way street. If things aren’t going well with the boss in your mind, perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror at your own behaviors and make a few adjustments.

New Leader Tuesday—3 Questions to Bring Your Future into Focus

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsTuesday at the Management Excellence blog is for anyone getting started (or starting over) on their leadership journey.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I didn’t think about my own leadership legacy during the early part of my career. No one does. After all, who has time to worry about something so squishy and distant sounding when you’re focused on getting things done? And make no doubt about it, I was laser focused on translating the formula for success in corporate life into my own personal gain.The formula in my mind was preoccupied with driving great results by pushing others.

Yes, my style as a young manager was more muscle and not finesse. I was playing a short-game…minute to minute with little concern for the long-term. And for awhile, the scoreboard was in my favor. I grew my responsibilities, title and income at a rapid rate. And then the wheels began to wobble as people cycled through my teams and off to other areas and even my own satisfaction with what I was doing (and how I was doing it) began to decline.

Thanks to a great mentor, I began to understand that the good short-term results were coming at a high price in terms of morale, burn-out and my own professional reputation. I believe he described me as a “machine,” and it wasn’t intended to be flattering. The connotation was more about being demanding and soulless and less about efficiency. He made me think about my approach and my style and I didn’t have to look far to find evidence that supported his case.

The relationships with my team members were shallow…mostly transaction-based, and the environment was demanding. I was demanding. Perhaps a bit of a minor tyrant. I took pride in my “get it done at all costs” reputation. As it turned out, I was running things like a sports team interested in winning a championship now with little concern for the team members or building a culture of excellence that would sustain the test of time.

Over the months following the “machine” comment, he challenged me to think about and then act on the output from three provocative questions. The introspection prompted by these three questions changed the course of my work, my career and likely my life. How will you answer them?

3 Questions to Help You Build a Great Leadership Legacy:

1. At the end of your career at your retirement party, how do you want people to describe the impact you had on them?

I remember laughing at this one. Retirement seemed a long way off then, and today, it just feels like a foreign concept. Nonetheless, this good question challenged me to consider the impact I was having on each individual versus thinking solely about the numbers and achievements. With a few more years under my belt and many remarkable accomplishments from my teams and for my firms, I care very little about the glories of great numbers…those are outcomes we are accountable for to our stakeholders, but they’re never the purpose or the drivers. The great quarters and years are like dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement. What I’m most proud of are the many successes of the great people who got their start on my watch. This simple question caused me to pause and then pivot in my thinking about my purpose in leading others.

2. Who are the leaders from history or in your life (not just business) that you most admire? Why? What was/is it about their approaches or actions that you find inspirational and instructive?

I still love this question and I use variations of it in my different programs and classes. I became (and remain) a student of history and a passionate observer of the effective and ineffective leaders in my firms and in my life. In particular, I’ve developed a long-term obsession to better understand how leaders facing great adversity dealt with their circumstances. Thinking through this question in the context of great leaders of history (or perhaps your personal history…via family members) is humbling. You recognize how important it was to have vision and then overcome extreme uncertainty and hardship while striving to keep people inspired by the vision. Whether it was the survival of Britain or the retention of the entire Union, neither Churchill nor Lincoln knew how they were going to prevail, they just knew that they had to for the greater good.

3. What type of environment do people need to prosper and do their best work, AND what is your role in creating this environment?

This compound question in particular has served as the foundation for my exploration of and experimentation with teams and approaches in pursuit of high performance. Ultimately, the leader sets the environment and issues of respect, trust, credibility and accountability are all wrapped up in forming and framing the environment for high performance. Most of us intuitively understand this at some level, but the question is are you living it every day? The environment I had created as a young manager was anything but healthy.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The comment that I was functioning like a machine irked me. In hindsight, it was pivotal in my career. I’ve enjoyed myself more and I have a reasonable belief that I’ve helped people grow and have helped my firms and teams prosper because of my active cultivation of an approach based on my answers to the questions above. I use a question in my keynotes that challenges leaders to offer a pre-post-mortem on their impact on big initiatives. Extend this to your career, and ask: “At the end of your career, what will you want people to say that you did?

It’s time to start doing it.

Ideas for Professional and Performance Growth for the Week of August 2, 2015

How Would You Run the Play?Note from Art: Every week I offer ideas to encourage you to stretch and grow. Use them in great professional health!

Do: Ask an Objective Outsider to Observe and Offer Feedback on Your Team/Project Meetings

There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes to help assess group dynamics and team performance. One of the simplest and most powerful ways to improve project team effectiveness is to gain objective feedback on what’s working and what’s not. An outsider is able to observe interpersonal dynamics, assess whether everyone is engaged and look for destructive or toxic behaviors that are holding the team back from performing at their best. I’ve observed teams that were nothing more than debating societies, arguing everything and deciding nothing. I’ve also observed environments where a toxic team member was suppressing the input from others. The functional leader didn’t see this until I provided my unvarnished view as to what I had observed. Given that so much of our work takes place on teams and in groups, it makes great sense to ensure we’re doing everything we can to support the emergence of healthy behaviors. Find a qualified, objective outsider and ask them to sit-in on your sessions and then ask for input.

Experiment: Promote Managerial Skills Development by Establishing a Rotation for Leading Operations meetings.

Those regular events where you convene with your colleagues to review performance indicators and discuss challenges are ideal opportunities to help others cultivate their own managerial skills. Ask your team members to rotate through the role of meeting leader and give them a bit of flexibility to creatively adjust the agenda. In addition to serving as excellent practice for the team members, it will break the monotony and routine of most recurring operations meetings and add fresh voices and new energy. Consider a rotation that includes a tenure beyond a single meeting…perhaps serving for a month or a quarter. Encourage the meeting leader to both meet the objectives of the meeting (operations/indicators/issues review) and to add his/her own imprint.

Explore: What are your competitors doing that customers are paying attention to?

One of the constant themes in my writing and speaking is for professionals to shift their view and gain critical perspective from the outside. Chances are your competitors are doing something unique and/or particularly effective that has gained the attention of customers or prospects. Take the time to study your competitors and assess what’s working for them.

While never a fan of imitating competitors, it’s always critical to understand what’s working for them and what you might do to blunt their efforts. Tap into  any or all of win/loss interviews, input from salespeople, industry publications, in-person customer meetings, input from product management and support professionals and presentations at industry events to understand and assess where and how your competitor is winning. Strive to find the substantive activities that are working for them and then assess whether you can adapt or countermand these activities with your own moves. It’s good sport and productive to marginalize your competitor’s efforts while focusing on your own core strategy. Keep them distracted and dancing without distracting your own firm. Remember, it’s not the imitation game…you need to focus on your own strategy while blunting theirs.

That’s it for the early encouragement in our new week. Best of success as you do/experiment and explore! -Art

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—5 Big Lessons Learned from My Hiring Mistakes

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.

Over an extended career, you will make more than one hiring mistake. I guarantee it.

No hiring manager escapes unscathed in this process. While a misfire is inevitable, this painful mistake (for you, your firm and the hire) is packed with some powerful life and career lessons. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way.

While I’m incredibly proud of a track record hiring and cultivating talent during a career now entering its 4th decade, there have been some notable misfires. Each mistake offered a painful but much needed lesson in this most critical of managerial activities. While I regret the mistakes (they were controllable), the lessons learned helped me dramatically improve my batting average over time. Use these in good health and great hiring!

5 Big Lessons Learned From My Hiring Mistakes:

1. Haste always makes waste. My critical need for help drove at least two hires where I failed to properly assess character. Both individuals had seemingly great credentials and were excellent performers during the interview process. After the hire, excellent and performance weren’t used in the same sentence around them ever again.

I had failed to appropriately apply behavioral interviewing techniques and in one case, I violated my gut sense (more on this in the next example) that something just wasn’t right. I needed help to hit a critical product launch window and I let this pressure overrule the need for process and patience and thoroughness. One of the individuals put on a great public show for management while quietly asserting as the evil dictator with his team. The other was unable to back her talk with action. After offering feedback and coaching to no avail, I had to fire them both.

2. If you have to talk yourself into hiring the person, you’re probably making a mistake. With the recognition that I must be a slow learner, much like the examples above, I made this mistake twice as well. In both cases, an initial very good interview was followed by a series of discussions where I began to doubt the accuracy of the positive first impression. Others involved in the process had similar positive first impressions, however, I was the only one to meet with the individuals on multiple occasions, and after each meeting, I recall struggling with the sense that I had been wrong with that first impression. Nonetheless, I went ahead with the hires. One lasted 48 days and the other 8 painful months.

While hindsight is of course 20:20, I know now that the creeping sense that something wasn’t right should have prompted additional diligence or simple disqualification. However, at the time, I fought this feeling and anchored on the positive first impression. Instead of my blink reaction being right, it took multiple exposures for me to begin to question the accuracy of that first impression.

One individual was a carefully veiled megalomaniac and the other a charter member of the 70-Percent Club. (The 70-Percent Club is an exclusive organization where membership requires that you start a lot of good things and finish none of them. You bring them to 70-percent completion and then let them die.) If you have nagging doubts, they’re probably real. Don’t make the hire.

3. Intelligence doesn’t always translate into actions. I enjoy talking and working with people who are great critical thinkers…who are well read and who do something other than soak up the latest reality television shows in their time away from work. I’m also guilty of imputing that intelligence equates to ability. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Don’t become enamored by how smart and well rounded someone seemingly is. Assess their track record and ability to turn great ideas and insights into meaningful actions. The talk may be interesting, but it’s not going to move the meter unless it can be backed by actions.

4. Misjudging the stretch. It’s my nature to believe in the ability of people to stretch and grow. Nonetheless, people develop mostly on their own timetables and not at the rate that you might desire. In several instances, I’ve opted for people who I believed had “the right stuff” for stretch positions. These were roles that exceeded their prior roles in terms of responsibility, decision-making and leadership, but I perceived the stretch to be within reason for them. While this has worked in many instances, there were a few where it was too much too fast and I had to step-in and simplify the challenge while their brains and their self-confidence grew to match the larger challenges. Noble mistakes…but mistakes nonetheless that came with real costs to the team and organization and psychic costs to the individuals.

5. Don’t ignore reality. Beware the natural inclination to hide from a hiring mistake. While this is one I’ve not stepped in before, I’ve observed it with other managers who viewed it as too costly to admit to a mistake, and therefore, they ignored reality and compounded the problem by letting the poor hire become a long-term poor employee.

Yes, it’s embarrassing to recognize that your judgment call on your hire was wrong and yes, your boss won’t be happy with your mistake. However, no one will be happy with a lousy hire that turns into a long-term problem employee. Admit the mistake to yourself up front and plan on approaching your boss with the message and a plan. Just don’t hide from reality.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No one gets out of the work of managing and leading with a perfect hiring score. Some managers are outstanding judges of talent. Others bolster their batting averages with external resources that assess fitand that purport to improve predictability. But every manager at some point slips and lets one through the net.

It’s what you do at that moment of truth and what you learn from this experience that either exacerbates the damage or stops the bleeding. Adding the right resources to your team is a sacred responsibility and owning up to and learning from your mistakes is a critical part of your growth as an effective manager.

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.