Leadership Caffeine—In Challenging Times, Keep Fear and Failure Outside Looking In

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!

Every organization and every team runs into challenging spots. Life and business don’t always work as planned. “Man plans and God laughs,” as my former CEO would recite.

It’s the rough patches that teach you and require you to cultivate your leadership character, and part of this is keeping fear at bay and the specter of failure out of mind and out of the vocabulary of your team.

Every manager and senior leader looks like a genius when the tide is rising and business is good. All too often however, the rising tide masks the real issues of performance and the gaps in strategy and execution that become painfully visible as the rising tide slows and begins to recede.

The tendency at the initial sign of challenge….a missed quarter or two, or a blown forecast, losing ground to a competitor is to flail. While we don’t set out to flail, a series of knee jerk reactions around cutting costs and killing programs or adopting a series of “short-term” fixes, shout FLAIL to everyone around us.

Once the flailing starts, fear and failure sensing a weakness in the defenses, begin to insert and assert themselves in the minds of your team members. Needless to say, nothing good happens when a team or organization suddenly falls victim to fear.

Deming’s point #8 paraphrased: managers must strike fear out of the organization.

6 Ideas to Keep Fear and Failure On the Outside Looking In:

1. Be open and transparent with your team about the challenges. Nothing invites fear and failure to the party like keeping bad news from people. Everyone knows when things aren’t going right, but what they don’t know is whether it’s bad or really bad.

2. Invite your team to be part of the solution. More than a few leaders have fallen victim to the “I am in charge, I have to come up with the solution” trap. Effective leaders understand the power of harnessing the team’s collective gray matter around key problems.

3. Resist the urge to substitute a well-developed long-term strategy with temporary, short-term compromises. It takes leadership courage to stay the course in the face of short-term headaches…this courage is something that is all too lacking in many organizations.

4. Do recheck the core assumptions around your strategy. While I don’t want you to sacrifice the long-term for short-term, I don’t want you to blindly grasp to something that isn’t as well baked as you might have thought. It’s a good time to review your strategic thinking and then to assess whether the execution approach is serving you well.

5. Redouble your efforts to celebrate victories…even the small ones. Success begets success, and it does nothing but help when you single out the successes during a challenging period.

6. Don’t stop the talent machine. Keep supporting the development and growth of your team members and don’t stop working to get the right people on the bus and those who don’t fit, off the bus. No timeouts on talent allowed!

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your greatest successes will come from navigating challenging situations. It’s the hard times that require you to operate at your professional best and it’s during these times when you learn what it means to truly lead. Although it might seem odd to suggest it, enjoy the challenges, as you will not pass this way again and you will not find a better teacher.

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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Art of Managing—Don’t Set Artificial Limits on Employee Involvement

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.

A firm’s senior leaders and managers are supposed to feel the weight of responsibility for the health of their organization. It comes with the job. However, no one suggested they bear the weight of the worries or the burden of finding the solutions in silence and without ample support from the broader employee population.

Too often, groups of well-intended senior leaders and managers spend the lion’s share of their collective energy in discussion, debating and frankly, worrying over issues of direction and performance without drawing upon the considerable gray matter found somewhere outside the conference room doors.

Of course, failing to involve the employees in the business of your business is the mistake that keeps on giving…just in the wrong way. Instead of feeling involved and (here comes that pop management word) “engaged,” individuals are effectively placed on the outside looking in at the corporate walls and wondering what’s going on in there.

In my experience, people do their best work when they have context for “why it matters” and ample input into suggesting and implementing improvements. The “closed door” approach of self-proclaimed “open door” managers is a formula for failure. 

Sins of Omission or Commission? And Don’t Forget to Ask:

Oddly, when questioning a firm’s senior managers about my observation of the citadel like approach to working on a business, I frequently walk away concluding that involvement limitations are more sins of omission than commission. (Although, there are exceptions!)

In some instances, there’s a deep regard for how hard the employee base is working in the business and a hesitancy to ask for more. That’s noble, but short-sighted.

In other instances, I’ve found senior managers who are almost embarrassed to be asking for help on topics that they perceive are core to their jobs. Sounds like hubris getting in the way of common sense.

And for a few senior managers, my highly clinical observation is that it never occurred to them to involve more people to work on the business. Cue Homer Simpson and a loud, “Duh.”

If you are interested in increasing the flow of ideas, improving overall performance and having your employees treat their jobs like they are part owners of your business, it’s critical to get them involved in helping you work on the business. However, getting started can be awkward. Here are some ideas to help you pry open the citadel doors and let in some fresh air and fresh ideas.

6 Ideas to Jump-Start Improved Employee Involvement:

1. Share the targets and the results. The once per year vague recap, usually couched in percentages, doesn’t cut it. Share key revenue, profitability and efficiency targets AND results and explain what they mean to the firm’s situation. Get creative with this. I’ll still never forget the Town Hall Meeting where the CFO played guitar and sang the results. By the way, this is really working when the employees are active in setting the targets and pushing themselves harder to meet the targets than you ever would have.

2. Teach your employees about your business. Take a lesson from Jack Stack in The Great Game of Business. Don’t assume that employees understand terms like EBIT or the various financial metrics you use to report performance. Take the time to teach them what these numbers mean and importantly, how their work impacts the numbers.

3. Share (and ask about) market and competitor dynamics. While it might be tempting to roll out your strategy plan as a first step in getting employees more deeply involved in your business, a better place to start is to help everyone understand more about the markets that you are competing in and moving towards. Use tools like Porter’s Forces or a simple P.E.S.T.E.L. (political, economic, social, technology, environmental, legal) framework to get everyone on the same page. Do this iteratively by sharing the high level view and ask for input at the departmental or team level and roll it back up and make it the company’s view of the external environment.

4. Give your customers a voice. One of the most “engaging” activities you can do is ask for input from all customer-facing groups on what’s really happening in their businesses and with your offerings. Better yet, after asking your employees, bring some customers into the process (interviews, company visits, advisory boards). Ensure that everyone from the front door to the factory floor has access to the customer insights.

5. Begin involving the employee base in strategy. The above items…sharing targets and results, assessing the external environment and cultivating a fresh view from the perspective of the customer are fairly straightforward. Getting a broader employee base involved in strategy is a journey not an event. Explain the present view and then ask for questions and begin to solicit ideas. Involve all of your managers in understanding the firm’s strategy in detail and then work with them to define a mechanism for teaching and challenging assumptions, asking questions and suggesting ideas. I don’t mean to simplify this step…it’s challenging and requires on-going, deliberate work in creating and executing strategy. As needed, ask for outside help to build the right processes and programs to make this meaningful and actionable.

6. Leverage the collateral ideas. Often times, one of the benefits of driving a process with the actions above is a flood of new ideas…many operational and efficiency oriented. Ensure that people and teams have a means for implementing the ideas and then measuring and reporting on their impact over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This isn’t a program of the month, it’s a deliberate and on-going process to gain ideas and input, and importantly to capture more of the creativity, energy and overall gray matter of a team that in the right circumstances, wants to give more. But remember, if you fail to sustain or to leverage the good input you’ll simply exacerbate the problem you set out to solve.

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—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.

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—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.