Leadership Caffeine™—Role Models from Dangerous Situations

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

I had the great honor of delivering two leadership workshops at the Alabama Jail Association Annual Conference recently, and the experience was for me, fascinating, humbling and incredibly educational. (Yes, teachers do learn from students and instructors from participants!)

I wasn’t certain what to expect from this audience heading into the program. I didn’t know this crowd. In fact, as I remarked to the group, I had successfully managed to avoid meeting them my entire life. Also, beyond a few corporate settings that felt like war zones, I had not spent a great deal of time with individuals immersed daily in dangerous settings.

As it turned out, the audiences in the two programs were fantastic! They were hungry for ideas and insights on strengthening as leaders and they were more active and engaged than most corporate groups I’ve worked with over the years. They worked hard on the cases and activities and they generously shared the challenges of their environment as we discussed ideas and approaches to strengthening leadership effectiveness.

Early in the program, we ran a breakout activity where I asked the participants to share stories in small groups about the individual they point to as the leadership role models in their lives. Digging deeper, I asked them to discuss what it was their role model did that had such a profound influence on them and others. I requested they pick one story from their small group to share with the larger audience. And to a group, they shared stories with identical themes.

The role models were either current or former senior officers from the corrections environment. They inspired by leading by example, living and working by a clear code of values, holding themselves and others accountable for fairness and excellence and to a person, caring deeply about their team members.

One example of a number of the officers turned out to be the mother of another participant in the workshop. To listen to others describe the impact she had as a leader on so many present was visibly humbling for the son.

I listened and soaked up the great stories, and as the participants described the realities of their difficult working environment, it was clear to me that the great skill of effective leaders in dangerous settings was the ability to create a leadership and performance environment that transcended the physical setting and dangerous circumstances.

As part of my preparation for the program, I spent a good deal of time catching up on the leadership studies and stories from dangerous settings. Sadly, we have all too much recent data on this topic, mostly beginning with the reporting of the heroics of the law and fire officials during 9/11 and certainly from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The studies showcase consistent behaviors that define effective leadership in dangerous settings, including:

  • Caring at a personal level
  • Credibility earned by backing words with actions
  • Competence displayed…physically and cognitively, particularly via decision-making
  • Trust given
  • Purpose front and center
  • Accountability uniformly and fairly enforced

The consistent display of these behaviors contributes to forming a working environment that transcends the physical setting. While the audience was quick to highlight the flaws and challenges in their workplaces, they were visibly proud of their membership and of their team members. For all of us operating in the relative safety of corporate walls, there’s more than a few powerful lessons on leading we can gain from those operating in harm’s way. The first lesson is humility.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Effective leaders create the environment for success regardless of physical surroundings. Their behaviors transcend the dangers, and the tough circumstances create the bonds that build trust and loyalty and promote performance. And yet again, we hear that the impact of an effective leader has a ripple effect that transcends the years and generations. If you’re looking for a leadership example to model your own behaviors, perhaps it’s time to look to those leading in harm’s way for a meaningful example.

Leadership Caffeine™—Don’t Back Off Leadership Development in a Crisis

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

When things break bad (even momentarily) in an organization, a number of predictable reflexes kick-in. Expenses are cut. Operations reviews evolve into extended, public proctology exams with everyone taking a long look searching for answers and blame. Time horizons shrink, the collective field of vision narrows to a pinhole and the lofty, noble ideals of developing leaders and teams that top management so passionately espoused during good times are reduced to echoes from a different era…when things were good.

Some of the responses are reasonable and expected. Expenses and forecasts merit exploration. Others are destructive. Suspending the work of developing your leaders and managers is destructive. Instead of letting your training budget dictate your team and leadership development efforts, try a return to the powerful and much needed full-contact work of coaching and teaching. Frankly, we should be doing this all of the time but too often we let external training substitute for our own heavy lifting around leadership development. Tight budgets are no excuse to back off. Instead, try these low-cost, high contact ideas to help support your efforts.

5 Ideas to Double Down on People Development when Things Break Bad

1-Get the Right Conversations Started. Encourage the managers and leaders to form their own reading/discussion groups. You buy the pizza, drinks and occasional reading materials and they talk and then act on making things better. Caution, no need to make this a corporate mandate or H.R. driven program. Sew the seeds…and support the efforts but don’t make it feel like work. You’re lighting or stoking the collective fire for individuals to find a new performance gear and you have to inspire not command involvement. My suggested starter book: the latest edition of The Leadership Advantage by Kouzes and Posner. The discussion and potential for idea generation present in Chapter 1 alone will make this one of your best professional development investments ever!

2-Increase Your Coaching Efforts. Because the time horizon is now perceived as short and the field of vision narrowed to a laser focus on the revenue and cost numbers, the soft but hard discussions are often left for some future date to be determined. They just don’t happen, which is counter-intuitive. Effective leaders redouble their efforts to remain attuned to their own managers and senior team leads and both offer coaching to support strengthening and to shore up morale. While there’s always an opportunity cost to your time investments, this one pays significant dividends. Focus on observing, coaching and supporting your people If your calendar doesn’t have the equivalent of 20% of your time on this per week, you’re not taking it seriously.

3-Mind the Gap on Big Decisions. While closely related to the coaching efforts, any process of recovery invites big decisions on people, projects, structure and investment priorities to the table. Big decisions are often decisions that end up stalling out while everyone’s rushing around putting out fires or simply avoiding the discomfort. Hold your key leaders accountable to moving forward on the decisions and commensurate action items. Coach them through the decision-process and ensure that they’re prepared for the critical next steps on people, structure and programs following the decisions. Nothing supports professional development like the ownership of a big decision and accountability for the actions and outcomes.

4-Pick, Prioritize and Projectize the Recovery Efforts. Develop the discipline to identify and prioritize the limited number of critical recovery priorities and then get teams working on them. In a crisis, there’s a tendency to drive a lot of activity with no vector. Instead, help the employees narrow their own efforts to the critical few activities and then provide support for these project teams. Be deliberate selecting team leaders. These recovery priorities are remarkable developmental opportunities for people you perceive are ready for a new and bigger challenge. Again, nothing supports leadership and professional development like team leadership, particularly when the stakes are high. Ensure that each team is aligned with a good sponsor who understands his/her role to support building an effective team environment, and then let the teams and leaders run hard.

5-Bring Your Firm’s Values to Life. Sometimes the best development tools and opportunities are right in front of you in the form of your firm’s values. All too often the values get lost in the noise…they’re present on the wall and in the employee handbook, but mostly invisible in the daily work of the organization. Home grow a program focusing on exploring the meaning and application of the values in the day-to-day work environment. Let your managers grow a grass roots program to recruit these powerful (and aspirational) behavior statements into the hard work of helping the firm navigate the storm. This work can be a game changer for strengthening your firm’s culture.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The best professional development always takes place with live fire activities. While budget cuts might kill the external training activities for a period of time, a crisis shouldn’t mean the end to the good work of leadership development. A crisis is a horrible thing to waste. Use it wisely and you’ll come out of it with a stronger team prepared to take your firm to new levels of success.

Leadership Caffeine™—When It Comes to Toxic Employees, Don’t Hesitate

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

A few of the most contentious (and job threatening) moments in my career have come when I’ve gone to the mat on dealing with toxic employees. For a number of reasons…none of which are worth much, too many leaders hesitate when it comes to purging these radioactive waste products from their teams. If you’ve been rationalizing retaining one of those characters that creates fallout with every encounter, it’s important to recognize what you’re doing to everyone else and then to take action.

The toxic employee has a “special” knack of destabilizing groups, destroying trust between coworkers and stifling conversation and creativity in nearly every situation. This person is offensive…with the double-entendre intended, in their approach and with their presence. They attempt to manipulate the agenda to suit their own needs and they strive to suppress voices contrary to theirs.

Everyone knows this toxic worker. They dread sitting in meetings with him and they’ll do anything to avoid having to call upon this person for input. The toxic worker sucks the oxygen out of a room and ensures that brains and jaws snap-shut.

From an exaggerated fear of reprisal (typically unfounded legal reprisal) to the lame excuse of specialized knowledge or the equally lame fear of what competition will learn if they glom on to your “special” employee, the excuses to not act are consistent and weak. If you allow your business to be held hostage by a toxic person, well, I’m not optimistic about your chances for future success. You destroy your credibility as a leader and you most definitely will struggle retaining talent and inspiring people to do their best work. Oh, and I can think of nothing more enjoyable than this person spreading her radioactivity at my competitor!

If this questionable character is under your direct responsibility, your biggest challenge is avoiding falling into the “rationalize” trap described above. Recognize the character of this person for what it is and take all legal and procedural actions necessary to purge your team of this person. A well-run H.R. department will guide your actions to ensure compliance and accelerate outcomes. A poorly run H.R. department will be a giant block on this issue and you’ll need help from others with the power to help.

My own noteworthy battles on this topic have come when the toxic co-worker is under another executive’s charge. Without hire/fire authority, it’s an issue of moral suasion and/or negotiation. It gets sticky when the toxic worker’s executive suggests, “I kind of like having a bulldog in my group. It keeps everyone else on edge.” That executive was and is an ass, and I moved the issue upstream to the broader executive group. At the end of the day, this group voiced all the fears described above and a few more, but agreed that the individual in question displayed behaviors so far out of a reasonable interpretation of the firm’s values, that she had to go.

As outlined in my post on my own hiring mistakes, I’ve misread a few people and their characters. They did an excellent job projecting the persona I and we wanted to see. Once we discovered the real character of the individual, I had no qualms about admitting my mistake and taking fast action.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In every circumstance where I’ve had to remove the toxic employee I used up valuable political capital. In hindsight, I cannot think of a better way to have put this capital to work. It’s an investment that paid back principal and interest many times over from the hearts and minds of my high-character colleagues. When it comes to the toxic person on your team, don’t hesitate. The costs of waiting are unacceptably high.

Subscribe to the Leadership Caffeine Newsletter with 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.



Leadership Caffeine™ Are You Making Time for the Big Topics?

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

When it comes to the forward-looking issues around talent, team and strategy development, the uncomfortable answer to the question in the post headline for just about all of us (myself included) is, “Not enough.”

From CEOs to front-line supervisors, there’s a gravitational pull to the daily urgent and urgent-unimportant that keeps us from the meaty and meaningful work of leading and planning.

Ask someone to shadow you for a day and then report on what they saw, and I suspect their description will focus on you flitting from one issue and brief encounter and meeting to another.

While there’s no doubt that the best leaders teach on-the-fly as they engage with team members, there are components of the role that require concentration and deeper thinking and dialog than the daily transactions. Coaching, feedback and professional development are the items most frequently sacrificed on the altar of time-pressures and they’re typically reserved for the annual performance evaluation…a poor substitute for regular, quality discussions. Taking time to work on strategy is also compartmentalized to a limited number of discussions, typically around the horrid annual offsite that tends to serve as the time for strategy.

In most of our days, there’s little time for us to think deeply about our work, our people or our business, and there’s little time for us to engage with individuals or teams in meaningful dialog about performance, growth and direction. And while we all get a strong vote in how we spend our time, there’s an almost addiction like quality to the pursuit of our more transactional activities.

A few years ago, I was engaged to coach a senior sales executive. His CEO was concerned about the lack of forward-planning for team, talent and strategy, and he asked me to shadow him for a few days.

After observing the sales executive in action, I asked him when he found time to focus on strategy and talent development for his team. His thoughtful and honest answer was, “I don’t. I enjoy the thrill of the daily hunt for business.”

I appreciated his honesty however, with that type of focus, it was clear he was the wrong person to be in a senior sales executive role. His priorities better fit the regional sales leader. We moved him to a role where he excelled in guiding the hunt for a smaller group and replaced him with someone focused on developing talent and refining and driving strategy execution at an organizational level.

My biggest gripe on the short-term preoccupation is reserved for the CEOs who are supposed to but mostly fail to model the right leadership behaviors as part of building their firm’s culture and future. We’re prone to mimicking the behaviors of those with power and influence and if the top boss doesn’t place a premium on either the developmental or forward looking strategy issues, than neither will her direct reports. It cascades downhill.

It’s Time to Make a Change:

Whether the deficit in your quality time with team members around development or planning is one of omission or commission, you can make changes in your approach and activities and move towards a better balance for everyone involved. Here are 4 ideas to support your effort to regain the high ground on the critical leadership and planning issues.

4 Ideas to Help You Increase Your Time Focused on the Big Topics of Developing Talent and Strategy:

1. Build the Time In to Your Calendar. While this is a bit of the “Captain Obvious,” it amazes me how few people actually block time in their calendars to allow for development and strategy work. The worst offenders are those who allow their calendars to be managed by others…either directly or indirectly through the endless scheduling of status meetings. Time is YOUR most valuable asset…act like you own your own schedule and set your priorities.

2. Measure Your Time Investment in Development and Planning Discussions. We all know that what gets measured gets done. One senior team established a time-target for development and strategy work and we’re evaluated on their performance versus the time targets. While there was no effective way to measure the quality of the time invested, the genuine accountability to report back on time and activities kept the issues front and center. To an executive, they did the same for their direct reports. It cascades downhill.

3. Let Your Team Members Own the Developmental Discussions. While slightly in contrast with my plea in #1 above to take control of your time, I observed a senior manager who shifted the accountability for regular scheduling of development discussions to her direct reports. In this case, it worked brilliantly. The direct reports developed a heightened sense of their own need to do the heavy lifting for their own professional development and would schedule time with the senior manager that turned out to be more mentoring than performance feedback. In this case, it worked.

4. Introduce “Future View” Discussions into Your Regular Meeting Routine. One CEO economized on his operations meeting agenda and added a “Future View” discussion to each monthly session. Participants were required to report back at the monthly session on issues, trends or ideas stimulated by customer input or observation or study of the broader bigger business landscape and market forces. She required every participant to come armed with one observation and to address it in the form of three questions:

  1. How might this issue/observation change everything for us, our industry and customers?
  2. Specifically, what does it mean for us?
  3. What if anything should we do about it.

The rich discussions blossomed into a separate quarterly strategy review where the firm’s strategy was vetted against the key trends and observations. They broke the back of talking about external factors once per year by introducing a simple, but not simplistic technique.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It takes effort to move beyond the issues immediately in front of us and focus on important, albeit more abstract topics like talent development and strategy. The mistake too many of us make is never pulling ourselves away from the urgent. The daily work is never done. However, the time invested in helping people grow and challenging and checking your assumptions about the external world is the time investment that pays real dividends for your efforts. Manufacture the time to talk about the big issues. You’ll be glad you did.

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.


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

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

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

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

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

The Positive Side of Shooting Straight:

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

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

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

The Bottom-Line for Now:

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


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.