Leadership Caffeine™—Don’t Let a Bad Employee Experience Define You

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveEvery person who has spent any significant amount of time in a management role has encountered at least one employee from that warm place, and I am not talking about Phoenix. The best of the worst are master manipulators who work within the system confounding attempts to discipline or dismiss them with vexing, nose-thumbing ease. Along the way, these walking toxic waste dumps destroy group morale and drain the life energy for leading from their bosses.

While it would be nice to believe you could avoid these close encounters of the evil kind, life is never that easy. A bad apple slips through the hiring cracks. An employee passed over for a promotion feels slighted and seemingly devotes her free time to thinking of ways to torture you. The brilliant but mercurial employee you support because of her brilliance turns out to be the epicenter of dysfunction on your team. And those are just three I dealt with at various points in my career. I hear new examples regularly from my coaching clients.

These are often bitter, crushing situations filled with regrets and second-guesses and creeping self-doubt. “If only I had…” is the refrain I hear most often as managers describe their own painful situations. And while some readers might wonder why the managers failed to exorcise these people from the workplace, the reality is that the system is typically set-up to minimize litigation and not maximize speed of resolution. Due process in some firms becomes dead-slow process, where the manager is forced to survive and teammates suffer while the individual in question skates along on the thin line between survival and elimination.

In most instances, these situations eventually come to an inglorious ending and the manager and team are left to clean up the mess and cope with the post-traumatic stress fallout that follows in the wake of these bad apples. I know a few managers who lost their love for their work of guiding and developing others and made radical changes in their careers. Others have become suspicious and cynical about everyone they encounter and hesitant ever again to extend their trust, lest it be trampled upon. And some managers use these experiences to come back stronger and more committed to their work than ever before. It is the behaviors of this latter group that most inspire me.

Four Lessons in Constructive Recovery from Dealing with a Toxic Employee:

1. Press the restart button. Use the immediate post toxic employee period to build stronger relationships with your team members as individuals and as a group. One manager met with her employees and without revisiting the entire painful experience, took full responsibility for her missteps and the past pain. She apologized and committed to doing everything in her power to avoiding a repeat scenario. She met personally with each team member to let them vent and she redoubled her efforts to insure accountability for respect and results in daily activities.

2. Roll up the lessons learned and apply them moving forward. One of my personal favorite examples of constructive recovery involved a manager who engaged a mentor to review what had transpired and to identify situations where she failed to act or to act properly to drive a speedy resolution. She summarized the lessons learned, shared them with her boss and her boss’s boss and identified how she would improve her handling of a difficult employee situation in the future. From faster, most specific feedback and follow-up on the feedback to immediate engagement of human resources to ensure that the proper processes were followed from the start, she was well prepared for her next difficult situation.

3. Reset on your group’s or firm’s values. Another manager recognized that he had failed to live up to the values of the firm in his handling of a challenging employee. He admitted as such to his group and asked for their help in creating an internal initiative to review the values and identify opportunities to translate them into daily activities. The group’s effort was appreciated by senior management and soon became a company-wide initiative.

4. Take a break. I actually did this. It turns out that after a few months of being responsible for no one but myself, I realized how important it was for me to be supporting the efforts of others. The break allowed me to reset and rethink how I practiced leadership. I came back ferociously committed to helping others develop while helping my business succeed.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The common threads in the “survivor” lessons above include the recognition and admission of responsibility and the resolve to turn the negative situation into a set of strong, positive behaviors in the future. Those who give up miss out on the opportunity for growth created by a tough experience. They allow themselves to be defined by this one situation and the world loses someone who now has the context and experience to truly help others in the future. My counsel: lick your wounds; admit your responsibility; rethink your approach to leading and turn this one lousy experience into a set of behaviors that help others succeed on their career journeys. And remember, no one said this would be easy.

Get the latest e-book (free) from Art: “A Bold Cup of Leadership Caffeine: Ideas to Stimulate High Performance.” 

See posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Read More of Art’s Motivational Writing on Leadership and Management at About.com!

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular speaker and workshop presenter 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.

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

Leadership Caffeine™—Quit Hacking Your Way Through Your Days

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveA coaching client—the CEO of a successful software firm—was struggling to help his firm navigate a critical transition to a new strategy. He was forcing his actions, leading by command, and generating stress and strife in his wake. After listening to the comments of his colleagues and then sharing this input with him, he went quiet for a few minutes and then sighed, and offered: “This situation is critical for our firm. I fear that if we fail, the lights will dim on what should be a bright future. I feel like it is my responsibility to bring this new strategy to life, and I am failing.”

He made my job as a coach easy, because internally, he understood that he was the cause of the problem. Like an athlete on a bad day, he was off his game—his actions were disjointed and his mental game was a wreck. After challenging him to reassess his role and ask his team members how he could best help and support them with the strategic transition, he relaxed, focused on purpose and regained his leadership flow.

Too often in the world of leadership development and coaching, we preoccupy on the visible manifestation of leadership—the gestures, actions, styles and habits—when the real work of leadership is forged in our minds, invisible to all but the lone individual waging war against self-doubt or other insidious dark forces.

I call this the “Inner Game of Leading,” in tribute to Timothy Gallwey’s fabulous 1970’s era book: “The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance.” (While tennis is a vehicle, the book is an extraordinary guide to succeeding with the challenges found between your ears.) This book was an early influence on me as I worked to overcome my mediocre—on a good day—serve and my spotty, temperamental backhand. Later on, it served as a guide for keeping my ego in check and learning not to defeat myself on the leadership court.

Yes, in our training courses and programs and books and blogs, we spend most of our time focusing on the motor skills of leadership and not enough—and in many cases, not at all—on the inner game so essential to leading effectively. That’s too bad, because success goes to those who get the inner game working—creating flow and eliminating spotty behaviors and unforced errors.

If you’ve not asked and answered some variation of the following questions recently, it is likely your inner game is out of sync with your leadership actions.

  • Why do I lead?
  • What is my real purpose?
  • What do my team members need from me to help them succeed?
  • At the end of this project (relationship), what will my team members say that I did?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The questions above are simple, yet your answers have a profound impact on how you play the game. Answering them honestly every day and at every encounter and you will mostly avoid hacking your way through your days.

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Get the latest e-book (free) from Art: “A Bold Cup of Leadership Caffeine: Ideas to Stimulate High Performance.” 

See posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Read More of Art’s Motivational Writing on Leadership and Management at About.com!

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.

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

The Best Of: The Difference Between Finishers and 70-Percenters

Note from Art: I’m traveling with my wife for our 30th anniversary celebration. (Hey, you only live once!) In light of that, I wanted to leave you with some great content from the archives while I’m away.


There’s a class of professionals in the world one of my former bosses labeled as “70-Percenters.” They’re the people who are great at making noise, and even getting things started, but they don’t know how to close.
They’re not finishers.

startAre you a Finisher or a 70-Percenter? Are you cultivating Finishers on your team?

5 Key Behaviors of Finishers:

1. Finishers walk into the heat. The 70-Percenter runs away from messy situations, while the Finisher understands that she owns a problem or difficult team situation until it’s solved. She recognizes that one of her jobs is to lead the cleanup on organizational spills, and she relishes the opportunity to help a team move from disaster to success.

2. Finishers understand that commitment IS commitment. The 70-Percenters are masters of excuses. Finishers eat accountability for breakfast, exude responsibility all day long and display fortitude in the most difficult of circumstances. Projects are completed, issues are resolved, problems are fixed and opportunities are pursued with a vengeance.

3. Finishers want the ball with time running out. 70-Percenters fear the implications of blowing the final shot. They look to pass the ball. Finishers are the sales representatives who engineer game-winning drives to bring home the orders at the end of the quarter and the engineers and developers who understand what it takes to go from whiteboard to finished product.

4. Finishers aren’t glory hounds, they are results fiends. 70-Percenters love the limelight, and live to find it. Finishers value the results and lessons learned. They climb mountains because they’re there and they complete their work, because anything else is tantamount to giving up. Finishers don’t know the words, “I give up.”

5. Finishers look around corners for answers. 70-Percenters run from vexing dilemmas and situations where the answers might involve a blend of experimentation and hard work. Finishers understand the iterative nature of most solution development activities and live to experiment and to gain insights from non-traditional sources in untraditional ways.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Finishers make the world go. 70-Percenters are along for a fun ride, but they don’t provide much locomotive power. As a leader, strive to cultivate Finishers on your team. Reinforce accountability and importantly display the behaviors that teach by example. As an individual contributor, adopt the behaviors above. They need to be part of your professional DNA.

While a team filled with Finishers offers its own challenges, it certainly beats the painful monotony of coping with the chronic under-performance of 70-Percenters.

Get the latest e-book (free) from Art: “A Bold Cup of Leadership Caffeine: Ideas to Stimulate High Performance.” 

See posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Read More of Art’s Motivational Writing on Leadership and Management at About.com!

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.

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

Leadership Caffeine™—Successful In Spite of Yourself

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveIn relative terms, you have been successful. You have the title, the salary and the perks that say, “success,” but how much of a performance penalty have your leadership tics and bad habits imposed on your teams, your firm and on your career? 

Some context: most senior and successful leaders have a strong view of their strengths. Ask a senior leader what has helped him/her  succeed over time and you will likely hear a listing of behaviors or attributes they are particularly proud of.

Alternatively, ask about the factors, gaps or weaknesses that have caused them to stumble or leave performance on the table and most will not have much to offer beyond some token, cliché answers.

We are all mostly card-carrying members of the “fundamental attribution error” society, where we attribute our successes to our skills and our failures and stumbles to factors beyond our direct control.

What most/many/all fail to see are the behaviors and leadership tics they have developed over time that leave opportunities for additional performance on the table. This Leadership Performance Overhead (LPO) is costly to firms, teams and of course, to the individuals who have been successful in spite of themselves.

Leadership Performance Overhead in Action:

  • The CEO regularly changes her mind on fully vetted decisions, frustrating her team members and promoting a period of post-decision paralysis as everyone waits to see if she is going to stay the course.
  • The General Manager draws upon his roots as a successful sales executive and frequently inserts himself in the larger sales. Instead of supporting the responsible sales team, he takes over the dealmaking, remaining involved long enough to stir things up only to require the team to regain control once he is off chasing after the responsibilities of his day job.
  • The brilliant product manager regularly bypasses the project team to interact directly with the head engineer—a longtime friend. They make critical product design decisions on their own, leaving team members to discover this news significantly after-the-fact.
  • The COO takes pride in his short-attention span. “If you want to make a point with me, make it fast and clear, or, go back and rethink it. I am busy running this place.”

The examples above and the many more I can cite from coaching work are drawn from individuals who have long lists of accomplishments in their careers. Yet, in each case, the individuals are their own worst enemies, striving to produce positive results, yet imposing a considerable LPO penalty on their activities and interactions.

On a personal note, I have no doubt my own LPO Penalty was much higher than it should have been. I was supremely confident in my abilities to lead in all circumstances. I took great pride in my ability to solve complex strategic problems and I had no hesitancy on tinkering with how I orchestrated my resources in search of the right results. And yes, I liked the power.

In other words, I was a mildly narcissistic pain in the ass approaching benevolent dictator of a leader at one point in my career. Not surprisingly, real success didn’t arrive until I understood the LPO penalty I was imposing on everyone.

It took a strong mentor to kick me in the butt and force me to focus on this part of my performance—because it was in my best interest. While I did not change my nature, I absolutely reined in some of the penalty inducing behaviors. I can assure you, it was both humbling and difficult. Of course, meaningful change is never easy.

Getting Started on Reducing Your Leadership Performance Overhead Penalty:

1. Embrace the reality that your performance can improve. Ultimately, my coach helped me realize that it was in my best interest to tackle the hardest professional development project of all: myself. I had to accept that in spite of my visible success, I could achieve more for myself, my family, my firm and my team by strengthening my own performance.

2. Get help orchestrating a meaningful, actionable 360-degree feedback process. We almost never have enough insight into how we confound and stress our team members with our behaviors. Asking is good, but often, we don’t get the full or real story. And many of our h.r. administered feedback processes are flawed. Work with an experienced coach or better yet, take advantage of a high quality leadership development program where the feedback work is a core part of the development experience. My personal favorite: the Center for Creative Leadership.

3. Tell everyone around you about the feedback findings and tell them you are striving to improve. Seriously. The entire feedback process only works if people understand where you are striving to improve, and IF they are comfortable calling you out on missteps.

4. Ask people to keep you honest on your behavioral improvements. This one only works if you reward honesty and don’t bite off the heads of the people you’ve asked to help you. Shoot one messenger and your program for improvement is in serious danger. Instead, thank people and then strive to adjust the noted behavioral tic.

5. In parallel to the feedback process, take a cue from Clayton Christensen (“How Will You Measure Your Life”) and work on defining how you will measure your impact on those you encounter at work and in life. While this sounds deeply philosophical—it is—it is also a healthy part of the process of evolving as a person and professional. Decide how people will describe what you did for them during their careers and then live it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The answer to most performance problems in our workplaces is staring back at us in the mirror. It takes a bit of courage to recognize that the best gains might just come from you getting better at the job of leading. Changing your behaviors for the better takes grit.

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Get the latest e-book (free) from Art: “A Bold Cup of Leadership Caffeine: Ideas to Stimulate High Performance.” 

See posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Read More of Art’s Motivational Writing on Leadership and Management at About.com!

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.

The Best Of: How to Thrive in High Pressure Conversations

Note from Art: I’m traveling with my wife for our 30th anniversary celebration. (Hey, you only live once!) In light of that, I wanted to leave you with some great content from the archives while I’m away.

image of a coffee cupEvery professional faces important “moments of truth” as they navigate through their work days. Whether it’s the invitation to speak at the board meeting, the opportunity to connect one-on-one with the CEO or, a tough feedback conversation with a team member, you need to be ready to succeed in these High Value/High Risk (HV/HR) situations.

Some HV/HR situations unfold in real-time and others afford ample time to prepare your mind and message. While the prep time varies, the process for dealing with these important situations is very similar.  The mnemonic L.A.S.E.R. is a useful tool to help you remember 5 critical actions required for success in every critical conversation.

Using L.A.S.E.R. Focus to Succeed in High Value/High Risk Situations:

1. L= Look for Cues and Employ Active Listening.

The last thing most of us are doing in a high-stress situation is focusing on the speaker and looking for social cues. We’re conditioned as humans for fight or flight, or, we are planning our response instead of focusing on the other party. It takes extraordinary effort and discipline to concentrate completely on the communication exchange. Deliberate effort to focus and listen is critical for success.

2. A=Assess by Asking.

Once you’ve tamed fight or flight, you need information to process and form a response. Active listening combined with the power of a few good clarifying questions are your best tools for survival. If the situation affords a break until a response is required (think: upcoming board presentation or sit-down with the boss tomorrow), ask questions until you’ve gained context for the situation, expectations and positions.

3 S=Strategy (and Message)

We all create and think differently however, in working with many different professionals, a simple message mapping process can help you think through a situation nd formulate a strategy and message for dealing with it.

Your core point goes in the center…supporting points (no more than 4) hang off the core point and each supporting point includes one or more points of evidence. When it’s time for that HV/HR meeting with the boss or board your Message Map is your best friend for delivering your narrative and answering questions. Public Relations pros will tell you that all issues and questions lead back through the message map.

While the process may seem labor intensive, after practicing and using it a few times, clients report that the process is so simple and effective that they are able to rapidly construct these helpful tools on the fly.

4. E=Engage with Confidence

Showing confidence (not hubris or arrogance) is critical to success in almost every HV/HR situation. And yes, it takes incredible self-confidence to admit a mistake or to genuinely be empathetic to others. Having and knowing your message map is an important confidence booster. Practicing your delivery and gaining feedback to strengthen your non-verbal effectiveness is another. Gaining feedback on your verbal and non-verbal performance from trusted advisors is priceless

5. R=Review Outcomes

Not all HV/HR situations go the way you planned. Always loop back and review with those involved on what worked and what didn’t work. I advise clients who are going to be in front of boards to find a boardroom buddy who will observe, take notes and provide frank feedback. My own boardroom observer noticed that when under pressure and heavy questioning, I would drink water incessantly. That nervous tic certainly showed anything but confidence and was getting in the way of my message. While trivial sounding, the feedback was priceless.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Others choose us for success. Your performance in High Value and High Risk situations goes a long way towards establishing the perception people carry around of you. And yes, perception is reality. Make sure it’s a good one. It’s time to get to work.

Get the latest e-book (free) from Art: “A Bold Cup of Leadership Caffeine: Ideas to Stimulate High Performance.” 

See posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Read More of Art’s Motivational Writing on Leadership and Management at About.com!

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.

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