Just One Thing—The Impact of a Simple Gesture

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!

I fly almost weekly, and for the most part, the experience is sterile, mildly uncomfortable and less than memorable. I typically occupy one of the seats in an exit row, and like everyone else in steerage, I buy my meal if I’m hungry, and I keep my nose in my reading and my ears plugged with music. Conversations, if any, are typically left to those traveling with family or friends.

My airline of necessity, United, does a good job of getting me from point to point mostly on-time. One flight blends into another with no distinguishing characteristics. The attendants are efficient, if not a bit harried, and I have nothing but words of appreciation for the professionals who pilot these flying buses with skill in all manner of conditions. Nonetheless, if given an alternative that offered a better experience with equal convenience, I suspect I would not care about the logo on the tail of the plane.

During my Friday afternoon return home flight last week, I engaged in the usual process of squeezing into a seat trying to make myself small because the person next to me wasn’t, and generally tuning out the experience in the hope that it would soon end. A simple announcement altered the experience.

In mid-flight, the attendant shared with the passengers that the gentleman in seat 20C was on his retirement flight, returning from headquarters to his home in Chicago. This was his final business flight after several decades of traveling with the airline.

Hearty applause followed the announcement and suddenly the flight changed. People emerged from their self-imposed digital cocoons and started conversing. The passengers in the vicinity of the retiree asked questions and offered their congratulations and more than a few of us shared our own flying and career experiences with our previously unknown seatmates.

As people deplaned, there were more congratulations and best wishes and encouragement for lowering his golf score, and then like always, everyone faded into the terminal in pursuit of connections, baggage or transportation. Nonetheless, the experience was different. It had been altered by that simple gesture.

The simple act of singling someone out and highlighting a milestone humanized the entire experience. It didn’t take much time…30 seconds or so for the announcement, and it didn’t cost the airline any money. All it took was an alert attendant who engaged with his customers and learned how important this single flight was to one person.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a lesson in this situation for any airline or business striving to differentiate in a world where almost everything seems to be some flavor of vanilla. The best marketing always has been and always will be relating to people as individuals and creating a warm, memorable experience.

There’s a lesson here for leaders as well. Imagine if you tried this today in your workplace with your own team members. People do their best work when they perceive they are being treated as individuals who matter. The cost is zero. The time investment is nominal. All you have to do is pay attention and then offer a small gesture. The payoff is priceless.

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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Leadership Caffeine—Your Job is to Clear the Path

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 promising early-career manager was struggling with his new team and I was invited to help him find opportunities to improve. After observing him at different times and in different settings, and after talking with his team members, it was apparent that he did not understand his priorities. Instead of focusing on removing obstacles in front of his team members, he was throwing out new obstacles at an alarming pace.

He had increased the administrative burden of his team members by requiring a series of time consuming new reports. He doubled the number of operating meetings, which to his team members felt a lot like even more time spent briefing the boss so that he could brief his boss. Last and not least, he assigned a number of his team members to two new high visibility projects, which would have been fine, had the team members not been over-assigned on a number of last quarter’s top priority projects.

“My boss promoted me to help improve the performance of this team,” he offered. “He wants more visibility into our productivity and he wants this group to play a lead role in some of the new strategic initiatives. I’m making that happen,” he added.

His team members supported his interests (improved productivity and more leadership on key projects) but not his actions. “If he thinks he’s motivating us to do our best, he’s got it all wrong,” offered one of the more outspoken team members.

This manager is not alone. Too many that I encounter in my travels fail to lead with the philosophy of, “How can I help?” While part of management is about deciding what’s important and determining priorities and establishing controls, including reporting, the leadership component (and yes, managers must lead!) emphasizes direction, motivation and importantly, knocking down obstacles.

The best gift you can provide to your team members is the gift of time. If you’ve got the right team members (with the right values), they’ll respond to your willingness to clear the path with enthusiasm, creativity and commitment.

5 Diagnostic Questions to Remind You of Your Need to Clear the Path:

1. Have I shared my priorities from my boss with the team and asked for their input on how to meet those priorities?

2. Am I avoiding the tendency to ask my team to more with less in the name of productivity?

3. Am I working with team members to identify and eliminate non-value-add activities, including excessive status reporting, unnecessary meetings and low-priority project commitments?

4. Am I genuine in my efforts to secure added resources where needed to meet our priorities?

5. Am I providing ample visibility and kudos to the team members helping move the needle on our key priorities?

The manager in the above example turned out to be a great student.  He quickly came to understand the error of his ways and dedicated himself to becoming a true enabler of success for his team members. He used the questions above to hold himself accountable to this charter, and after a level-setting meeting and a bit of time and reinforcement, his team members came to understand that he was genuine in his intent to help. The outcome was indeed a positive one for all involved.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whatever influence you are under…a misguided senior manager, some false sense of how to drive performance or just being over-eager to please the boss, stop and remind yourself daily that your core job is to help clear the path for those doing the heavy lifting. You’ll be amazed at the results.

 

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.

 

 

Leadership Caffeine—What to Do When the Mistakes Don’t Go Away

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!

Mistakes in the workplace are inevitable. After all, we’re human, and try as we might to operate error free, our own software is far from perfect and we occasionally let one slip through the filters.

For individuals or teams pursing something new…a new project, a new approach, a new program, mistakes offer powerful teaching lessons if you respond to them calmly and constructively. (Anger is your adversary as a manager, and while you might be seeing red at what you believe was an obvious and avoidable gaffe, your team needs to see calm concern, otherwise, you endanger the teaching opportunity.)

When otherwise capable and mostly error-free performers suddenly make a series of mistakes, something is typically wrong…too much work, too many fast-approaching deadlines or, potentially non-work,personal pressures. Constructive feedback and coaching are appropriate here.

If you gain a sense the sudden onset of mistakes have their roots in non-workplace issues for this otherwise solid performer, a dose of empathy and some much-needed momentary schedule relief might just help the individual regain his/her footing. In some circumstances, reminding the individual of outside counseling and support services is an important step for you to take. (Note: everything has a time limit, even your ability to tolerate a good performer who is checked out due to personal pressures. Use up your patience and then use it up again, however, set a limit for a return to normal and keep to the limit.)

A situation many managers mismanage involves the average, mistake-prone employee who fails to respond positively to feedback, coaching or training. When this well-intentioned, veteran individual continues to make what you deem are rookie mistakes, it’s time to assess the situation and plot a deliberate response. The on-going mistakes are symptoms of a bigger problem.

Assuming the feedback has been clear and constructive and you’ve provided ample training, support and an appropriate number of do-overs, no manager, team or firm can tolerate someone who cannot hold up their end of the quality standards. You either need to find a role more suitable for the individual…one that is less ambiguous and more programmed, or, you have to place the individual on a last-effort performance program that resolves with a cure or a timely and fairly managed exit.

Fair warning, many managers struggle to achieve the right blend of support, feedback, training and time with these situations. They either prolong the pain indefinitely, which to everyone around them looks like they tolerate poor quality, or, they pull the trigger too fast without reasonable due process. Both are mistakes.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m a fan of managing humans as humans, not treating them as automatons. People who run into personal roadblocks are grateful for a momentary break and will reward that break with high performance and loyalty. Others are thrust into jobs too early or without the requisite support and that’s a managerial crime that you must remedy. However, there’s a tolerance range on mistakes, and when the range is violated for too long, your best game-plan is swift 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—Prosper by Making Time Every Day to Just Think

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!

If your typical day resembles the one that most of us experience in the corporate environment, it’s a series of meetings interspersed with a series of transactional exchanges that might be better described as interruptions.

There’s little of that elusive and precious asset called “quality time” on our calendars or in our days. The steady drumbeat of deadlines is constantly playing in our minds and at times, it feels like there’s a fire to fight around every corner. When we’re given the opportunity to be creative, it’s often in forced marches through meetings with the labels of “planning” or “brainstorming.”

Our days are filled with what has been described as “unproductive busyness.” We sprint from meeting to meeting letting the Outlook calendar drive our days. And even when we’re supposed to be focusing, too many of us are obsessively checking our devices searching for something to stimulate our brains. After all, there must be something more important than this meeting going on in front of us.

Since when did meetings become excuses to catch up on email?

Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit priest turned Investment Banker (an interesting career path to say the least), writing in his book, “Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads,” describes what happens when we don’t create the time for daily reflection: “And so we turn ourselves into hamsters on hamster wheels: spinning, but not necessarily moving forward.”

I see the long-term impact of no down-time…no thinking time in the form of worn-out mid-career managers and exhausted senior leaders who struggle through their days. They’ll describe in private that they no longer feel the same passion for the work they once loved, and they worry that they’ve lost their edge and will be unable to get it back. They are worried and frightened of what this state portends for the balance of their careers.

What we fail to do in our workdays is find time to think deeply. From unstructured conversations to reflective time on our own roles and our performance in the workplace, the time spent thinking and talking without a deadline is valuable processing time.

This isn’t down time, it’s different time. Instead of unproductive busyness, it’s productive un-busyness. It’s the root source of ideas and connections between ideas. It’s the time when we see our way forward through complex problems and toward solutions that have been otherwise elusive.

Productive un-busyness cannot be mandated, but it can be prioritized. The most successful leaders and managers I know have cultivated a mechanism that helps them recharge by creating thinking time and/or pushing themselves so far from the activities of work that the brain gets a momentary and much appreciated holiday. Lowney offers the Jesuit practice of Examen: a daily technique of prayerful reflection, as one approach for leaders and professionals struggling to jump off the hamster wheel.

From meditation and prayer to the lunchtime walk-about or workout to quiet reading time, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you make the time to shift gears and let your brain focus somewhere other than e-mail or the noise coming from yet another status meeting.

Every day.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No program, no management fad, no short-list of the top ten things to do. Just a reminder that your brain and the brains of your team members will serve you best if you build in and/or encourage people to regularly tune out the drumbeat and turn off the updates. I’ve watched burned-out managers come back from the brink by recognizing the need to create time to think deeply, and then making it a habit. Whether it’s for your professional mental health or for the health of your team members, it’s important to find ways to momentarily reflect and place things in context.

 

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.

Why Workplace Teams Struggle—And What to Do About It

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.

Many workplace teams I observe are not much better than the typical nightmarish college class group project that most of us have lived through at one time or another. The goals are vague, roles are poorly defined, leadership is absent or misdirected and there are varying degrees of enthusiasm for participating, ranging from the loner’s cry of, “Get me out of here!” to the naïve whine of, “Why can’t we all get along?” Oh, and don’t forget that there’s always a few simply along for the ride while others practically kill themselves in an effort to prop up the rest of the team.

Too many of our workplace teams stumble along in search of performance and quality output, while we as managers look on with a mix of horror and disappointment at the slow-motion pile-ups occurring in front of us.

And while we would like to point to senior management teams as best practice examples, those groups are most often “teams” in name only, struggling to get out of the starting gate on anything more than showing up and sharing functional and operating status updates.

At Least 4 Big Reasons Why Our Workplace Teams Struggle:

1. We’re naïve. We ignore the reality that groups of otherwise competent professionals don’t necessarily and naturally combine and produce. 1+1+1+1 should = 5 or more according to the theory, yet without guidance, coaching and structure, breaking even on productivity is a long-shot in most cases.

2. We don’t teach people how to work in groups. And yes, working successfully in and with groups is a learned skill. Sure, all of your team members have been through leadership development programs, but helping individuals develop their own leadership skills doesn’t necessarily translate to performance in a group setting. The skills, practices and behaviors necessary for team success and success on a team are different than those required for leadership success.

3. We don’t coach our teams. This simplest of all steps…ensuring that our key project teams, our senior management teams and other related work groups have valid, objective coaching support is almost summarily ignored in the corporate world.

4. We don’t walk the talk when it comes to teaming. Our values might include the word “team” or “teamwork,” but we don’t teach and reward the behaviors that make teams work.

9 Ideas to Help Strengthen Team Performance in Your Workplace: 

1. Embrace the idea that cultivating high performance teams in the workplace is hard work. Too many of us ignore this reality. Acknowledge this publicly when forming a new group. Share ideas on the challenges and opportunities of group work and leverage the ideas and tools below liberally as part of the teaming process.

2. Extend professional development efforts in your organization beyond individual skills development. Add a “team” track to the work and provide widespread access to this content. From brainstorming to making decisions to learning to adapt based on momentary failures or risks, doing this in a group setting is difficult and merits investment in training.

3. Define behaviors critical for team success and openly discuss and debate those behaviors with any new team you are forming. Codify these behaviors and strive to keep them visible in the process of group work. Individual team members must understand they are accountable to supporting and exhibiting the behaviors spelled out in the values.

4. Encourage teams to examine primary contributors to project or group failure. While it’s fairly intuitive that vague goals, unclear roles and a lack of understanding of the customer are contributors to project stress or failure, many otherwise smart people contribute on groups who step all over those landmines. It’s healthy for people to be challenged to recognize the problems and press the stop button.

5. Challenge teams to define what success looks like in their own terms. This firm definition of success (perhaps shared via a custom scorecard) is priceless context that supports performance.

6. Make a religion out of choosing team leaders right for the situation. Seniority or title are almost never the right reasons to choose someone as a team leader. Choose the individual who offers each unique group the best chance of success.

7. Provide a coach for critical projects. Every team struggles to learn how to talk, debate, brainstorm, decide, provide feedback, learn and of course, execute. A coach is your best chance of helping a group learn how to navigate these challenges.

8. Recognize that teams cycle through phases of storming, norming and performing. Leadership and coaching are essential to help not only with the early-awkward phase of start-up, but also as projects progress and new or unanticipated challenges arise.

9. Get the executives involved. One of the critical contributors to project or group success is an informed, empowered executive serving as a sponsor and resource for a team. The ability of this individual to cut through corporate noise is priceless. A good executive sponsor is part advocate, part coach and part accountability guru, and is present and involved at the right level.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Great teams don’t happen by accident. They are products of very deliberate work to form the environment for success. While our natural tendency on groups is to bypass the squishy front-end of purpose and behaviors definition and get to work, the time spend defining what success looks like is the most valuable time of all. Teach, coach and support your teams for success. Anything less is a formula for individual and group stress and poor performance. It’s time to quit watching the group pile-ups and start building in the values, behaviors and programs that help these teams succeed!

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.